Monday, August 29, 2005

How to have zero cost for utility bills

The average american homeowner spends $1,820 on their utility bills. What if you could erase those bills? Well, short of not paying them and eventually having a cold house, what do you do?

If Your Home Utility Bill Is Zero, Is It Still a Bill? (By BARRY REHFELD, Published: August 28, 2005,

Well, I suppose it helps to have a Ph.D. in engineering. The article above discusses Larry Schlussler, inventor of the Sun Frost refridgerator, who has been studying ways to live well on minimal amounts of energy. And, his utility bill is zero.

He has solar panels and a house full of highly efficient stuff that the house uses very little electricity.

Let's look at a few of the things discussed in the article. Overall the concept is ultra-highly efficient gizmos.

The Sun Frost refridgerator is an example. Rather than spend lots of energy cooling food, it spends very little. It probably involves super-insulation and efficient electronics. I once talked with a fella who lived offgrid and ran a modified refridgerator off a car battery and a single small solar panel. He wrapped a standard refridgerator with an extra layer of foam for better insulation, and used a 12v DC motor for the compressor rather than an AC. is mentioned, a company that sells a wide variety of light bulbs including LED lights. LED lighting is getting more affordable all the time. This uses the same high intensity LED's that are starting to be popular in flashlights and streetlights. When I first heard of this, each bulb cost $100. While that may seem pricey, the bulb lasts practically forever and uses a miniscule amount of electricity. Even at that price, it would more than pay for itself over the life of the bulb. - sells solar panel systems. - American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy


Monday, August 22, 2005

The picture that says it all about the oil crunch

The oil crunch is coming, and it's due to the western world refusing to abate the demand for oil. The demand for oil will eventually outstrip the supply of oil, the debate is "when".

The picture comes from this CNN article: Oil surges to $66 a barrel (Crude reaches another historic mark after demand agency forecast, refinery snags and Iran concerns; August 11, 2005: 4:11 PM EDT, CNN.COM)

All this year the price of oil has surged, and surged, and surged. It started out in the neighborhood of $30 per barrel, and has more than doubled this year as several considerations conspired to raise the price. Most of the cause is the continuing wars and tensions in the Middle East, and the news articles have also cited the various huricanes etc.

I think that beyond both of those is the simple fact that the western world, the U.S. primarily, has continued to demand more oil. Added on top of U.S. demand is the ramping up of industrialization in China, India and the other countries receiving outsourcing business. For example in China it used to be common to ride bicycles, and the populace is moving towards individual car ownership. They're doing so based on the American example, but perhaps not seeing the disastrous cost we are enduring because of individual car ownership. Not that America sees that cost, either.

In any case the picture speaks reams of information in such a simple graphic.

The first thing to notice is that demand is slightly outpacing supply. Hmmm, economics 101 says that's going to cause a rising price right there.

The second thing to notice is the imbalance between the suppliers, and the customers. The suppliers are all the OPEC countries, while the customers are the industrialized world, and the two sets of countries are disjoint. None of the industrialized countries are OPEC members.

Found at: Pictures are sometimes worth much more than a 1000 words...(or, "it's here")


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

An interesting twist on wind energy

The typical wind turbine is a propeller sitting atop a tall pole. It makes a fair amount of noise, apparently from vibrations that also require frequent maintanence of the turbine. It's difficult to get this kind of wind turbine installed in urban settings because of the noise. Yet, wind energy is inexpensive and becoming cost competitive with the major power systems.

Urban Wind Visionary University of Illinois professor says the answer to cities’ energy needs are blowin’ in the wind (Conscious Choice, August 2005)

Bil Becker, a University of Illinois professor, has invented a radically different sort of wind turbine. One that's ultra simple, ultra reliable, small enough to be installed anywhere, flexible in orientation, dead quiet, able to operate over a wide range of wind speeds, and rather safe for wildlife. Sounds great!

His company is Aerotecture, Ltd., and the turbine is this spinning sculpture (it's so beautiful and graceful, "sculpture" is the only word I have for it) inside a cylindrical cage. It can easily run in wind blowing from any angle. It is meant especially to capture the gusting winds that occur around tall buildings in urban settings.

Part of the story is distributed generation of electricity. This idea is being fought by the major power companies because, well, obviously it would render them somewhat obsolete. But it makes a lot of sense.

With distributed generation you create the electricity near where it is going to be used. For example a factory with a large rooftop could have these turbines or solar panels on the roof.

Among the advantages is that you avoid the power loss that comes when you transmit electricity long distances over wires. This loss is unnavoidable due to resistance in the wires, unless you come up with some kind of high temperature superconductor. The transmission power loss can be pretty dramatic, and if you stop to think about it, rather consternating. See, most ways of generating electricity involve some kind of environmental degradation like poisinous exhaust from burning fossil fuels, toxic waste from nuclear plants, or dammed up river valleys. To think that a large portion of that environmental degradation is attributable to transmission loss is, well, making me angry. You can avoid all that with local generation.

This turbine seems especially suited to local generation.


Idealab and a solar power concentrator

Solar ovens show a possibility for solar power. Namely, by using mirrors you can concentrate light so that it creates enough heat to cook food. So why not use this technique to make solar electricity production more efficient?

The Dotcom King & the Rooftop Solar Revolution Idealab impresario Bill Gross couldn't wait for the dawn of the sun age. So he built a high-energy, low-cost solar concentrator that will fit on your roof. And overthrow the powers that be. (By Spencer Reiss,

The story is of Bill Gross, serial entrepreneur made famous during the dot-com boom as the head honcho of IdeaLab. IdeaLab survived the fizzling of the dot-com era, and Bill has turned to a concept that's fantasized him since his high school years. Like me, he was in high school in the era between the two oil crises. Like me, he saw science as the solution to the problem facing the country at that time. Like me, that drew him to exploring solar energy. But he took it further than I ever thought of, specifically he developed some plans for solar cook ovens that he sold in through advertising in the back of science magazines.

IdeaLab is a startup incubator, meaning that it provides space and resources to help companies get off the ground. One of those companies is Energy innovations, and Bill Gross has stepped into this one to be the CEO.

The pitch is this:

For conspicuous consumers: "America's secret," he says, "is that each of us uses an average of 17 virtual horses' worth of electric power every day." He means that approvingly; no turn-the-lights-off Luddite, he.

For the no-blood-for-oil crowd: "The rest of the world needs cheap, reliable power too, if we're going to end the wars over energy and bring on a new age of global peace and toleration."

For investors: "Reinventing energy is a multitrillion-dollar opportunity. It's the next big disruption. It dwarfs any business opportunity in history."

Big dreams, eh? The reinvention of the whole energy industry.

They talk of the high cost of solar panels. The cost comes from the highly purified silicon, and the vast area of silicon wafers required in order to produce significant quantities of electricity. Bill Gross's idea was simple - if the silicon is the main price determiner, then use less of it.

The second strategic point around the cost is the choice of deployment location for the panels. If you approach the traditional power companies with solar panels, then for your price to be competitive it has to be less than the cost of a regular commercial power plant. But that's proving to be a very hard cost level to meet. However, solar panels offer an interesting flexibility. They can be installed on rooftops and be colocated with the user. This cuts out the middleman, and most importantly you are in price competition with retail power rates rather than wholesale power rates. It's a lot easier to get a competitive price at retail power rates.

Think about urban areas and their great expanses of building after building. Each one of those buildings has a rooftop which can become the home of solar panels. And it's not just the rooftops, as solar panels can be installed as shade to parking lots.

Using mirrors to increase solar power efficiency isn't new:

PG&E's 350-megawatt Solar Electric Generating Station, for instance, sits in the Mojave Desert a couple of hours' drive from Pasadena. Built in the 1980s, the installation uses parabolic dishes, mirrored troughs, and "power towers" surrounded by fields of reflectors, aided by complex mechanical gear that tracks the sun's path across the sky.

Such behemoths still can't generate electricity as cheaply as a coal or nuke plant, but the effort to bring down the cost has driven engineers to bring up the size. The latest solar megadish from Sandia National Laboratory and Stirling Energy Systems delivers impressive 30-percent efficiency, half again better than the best commercial PV. It's also four stories tall and weighs 8 tons. Forget about mounting it on anyone's roof.

But instead of huge solar collectors, Gross's team is looking at small scale systems that can fit on a rooftop.

They have a partner, - who is providing technology for the solar collector portion of the gizmo.


Monday, August 15, 2005

The oil in Venezuela

A couple years ago there was an attempted Coup in Venezuela. It appeared to be backed by the U.S. but that's not entirely clear (assumbably the U.S. secret agents did a decent job of covering their tracks).

More recently Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, has been repeatedly warning of U.S. aggression against Venezuela. He's been giving special military training to the populace, telling them the U.S. was planning to invade. He kicked out DEA agents working on Cocaine smuggling, saying they were spying on Venezuela preparing for the invasion. etc.

Chavez makes US oil export threat (August 15, 2005; BBC.CO.UK)

In this article he's threatening to cut off oil exports to the U.S.

At the same time I see this: Venezuela-Shell tax row heats up (August 15, 2005; BBC.CO.UK)

Current left-wing leader Hugo Chavez is seeking a greater hold over the oil industry, claiming that in the past, the country did not see enough benefit from its proceeds.

As a result, 22 oil companies - including Chevron, BP and Total - are now under investigation.

Venezuela, a member of the oil producers' cartel Opec, is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.


Friday, August 12, 2005

World's Largest Solar Array to use Stirling Engine

Solar energy doesn't have to mean solar panels. Solar energy is just the process of converting sunlight to electricity. Well, "just" doesn't do justice to it, since there are many ways to do the conversion.

Southern California Edison has agreed to make a huge purchase that underscores a particular technology, Stirling Engines.

The Stirling engine works by the repeated heating and cooling of a sealed amount of working gas, usually air or other gases such as hydrogen or helium. The gas follows the behaviour described by the gas laws which describe how a gas' pressure, temperature and volume are related. When the gas is heated, because it is in a sealed chamber, the pressure rises and this then acts on the power piston to produce a power stroke. When the gas is cooled the pressure drops and this means that less work needs to be done by the piston to recompress the gas on the return stroke, giving a net gain in power available on the shaft. The working gas flows cyclically between the hot and cold heat exchangers.

The working gas is sealed within the piston cylinders, so there is no exhaust gas, (other than that incidental to heat production if combustion is used as the heat source). No valves are required, unlike other types of piston engines.

The maker is Stirling Energy Systems.

World's largest solar installation to use Stirling engine technology: 20-year purchase agreement between Southern California Edison and Stirling Energy Systems, Inc. will result in 20,000+ dish array, covering 4,500 acres, and capable of generating 500 MW -- more electricity than all other U.S. solar projects combined.

UPDATE Aug 14, 2005

Start-up sees new dawn for old solar tech (Published: August 14, 2005, 6:00 AM PDT, By Claire Poole,

The CEO of the company is "David Slawson [who] is an unabashed granola-crunching, tree-hugging New Age apostle whose livelihood rests on matriculating massage therapists to his alternative health care college in Portland, Ore.". I suppose that Claire Poole, the author of the C|NET article, is suprised or shocked to find a new-ager who's also into technology. Speaking as one (ahem, I work for a silicon valley high tech company, I do massage therapy, and I build electric vehicles) I don't find it strange, but instead I find it exciting to see someone else on a similar path and make it big.

Fortunately the article says a lot more than that snippet, and goes into some intriguing details.

Unlike the internal combustion engine, the Stirling engine never burns any fuel and is consequently a thoroughly clean technology. Today it's used in extremely high-tech environments, such as within nuclear-powered submarines, but has never been deployed on a broader commercial basis.

They say that the Stirling Engine technology is 3x as efficient as regular photovoltaic solar panels.

I remember doing that kind of calculation in high school physics, so let me relate what I recall. First, you start with the energy produced by the Sun. It's light, and as it spreads out from the Sun the energy spreads out as well. At the Sun's surface the quantity of energy is great, but as you move outward the quantity of energy at any one spot diminishes. That's why the surface of Venus is 800 degrees whereas here it's nice. Taking the model further, there's a some loss as the light goes through the atmosphere, etc. Every step along the way is a calculation and the numbers are fairly well known.

What you end up with is a rule of thumb about the amount of energy that reaches the ground at any given spot. The amount varies based on cloud cover, distance from the equator, altitude, etc. Hence, deserts, especially high altitude ones, are valuable for solar energy projects.

Each square meter of ground receives X amount of solar energy (light and heat). That energy is equivalent to a certain amount of electrical energy. However, to make it into electricity requires conversion. Photovoltaic cells do it in silicon, plants do it using photosynthesis (except they don't make electricity), and a stirling engine does it with mirrors and a heated fluid.

What you have is solar energy coming in, and electrical energy going out. If you know the theoretical maximum electrical energy equivalent to the solar energy, then its easy to calculate the percentage based on the actual electrical energy coming out of the system.

Current photovoltaic cells have 8%-15% efficiencies. To have 3x the efficiency that's in the range of 25-50%, and this range has been a dream of solar energy researchers for quite a long time.

Some other salient points of the system ....

Unlike conventional power plant production, this system can be turned on one engine at a time. In a conventional power plant you have to build a large building, wire up all the turbines, etc, all before you can turn on the system and start selling power. In this stirling engine system each one is independent, and is fully operational once built and installed. Building each one takes a team of five people four hours to set up and get running, which is rather amazing if you ask me.

It also appears the Southern California Edison project referred to above is down the road a bit. If nothing else, the company requires funding to build a production plant. In any case the C|NET article describes a smaller project in Phoenix that's to be built first before this large one.


Sunday, August 7, 2005

An interesting opposition view to the U.S. nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

As I write this, the U.S. has invaded Iraq in a boondoggle of a war that supposedly was meant to remove "Weapons of Mass Destruction" from Iraqi hands. This weekend is also the 60th anniversary of the only use of nuclear weapons in wartime, done by U.S. hands supposedly to hasten the end of WWII.

I suppose the power of official propoganda is shown by: Why was the atomic bomb dropped in 1945? A Greenpeace background briefing summarising the American debate on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (by Bill Totten) For his blog posting, he is referencing the following Grean Peace report:

What Bill Totten reports is that the official story we were told concerning the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not quite truthful. If you recall, the justification we, the populace of the U.S., were given is that there were several choices to finish the defeat of Japan. One choice would be to invade the Japanese mainland to deliver the final blows which would cause the Japanese surrender. Such an invasion, you can expect, would cost many more lives.

The other choice was to use this new weapon. To demonstrate American might and cause the immediate surrender of the Japanese forces, that was the goal.

However, Bill Totten relates that many in the Truman administration openly opposed using this weapon. For example:

A few years after Hiroshima in 1950 Admiral William Leahy, US Chief of Staff under both Roosevelt and Truman, publicly declared his opposition to the dropping of the atomic bomb:

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarious weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender ...

"My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."

Further he tells of Trumans actual thinking, revealed in recently declassified documents. Namely, the global geopolitical position with Russia was in Trumans mind. He wanted a way to contain Russia's rise to superpower status. Of particular importance was the meeting at Potsdam, and Truman especially wanted to demonstrate to the Russians the nuclear weaponry developed by the U.S. to have the upper hand in the Potsdam negotiations.

It's very enlightening to think of the current lies we've been told about Iraq, and put them in light of the previous near-lies about Hiroshima.

As background material, he references these books:

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies

The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer

Living With the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age

Rethinking Cold War Culture

Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial

Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb

Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bombs Against Japan