Please Note: This project is not currently active. The content on this site is provided for reference and is not actively maintained.

A Billion Dollars Flowing Down the Mississippi Annually

by December 20, 2011

In a recent post, I did a bit of research to update the picture of nutrient flows down the Mississippi due to runoff and other sources in its watershed. There’s been an ongoing debate about the source of the nutrients in the river that are directly linked to low-oxygen conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.

For a taste of the debate, check out the controversy a year ago surrounding the premier of Troubled Waters, A Mississippi River Story (link to view on Twin Cities Public TV). Among other activity, there was a heated back-and-forth on the opinion pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (first piece arguing that research for film was dubious, counter piece by producers about the research behind the film). The flare up nearly squelched the premier, although it ultimately took place.

Personally, I experienced how difficult it can be to establish a “consensus view” of how to describe nitrogen flows for the report on ecosystem indicators described in my previous post. There was a constant tension throughout the report process to “tell readers what to do with the information” rather than just “giving them the facts.” I believe we ultimately struck a good balance, however, we nearly had resignations of participants when we unintentionally pushed the line on the indicator dealing with the movement of nitrogen and got too close to pointing fingers. (more…)

More »

Bringing the Global Carbon Cycle to Quora

by December 3, 2011

In a recent post about building a knowledge base for general consumption on the topic of ocean acidification, I suggested that it would be wise to step back and address questions-and-answers about the carbon cycle. This is a cross-posting of a post I just put up on Quora: The Carbon Cycle, Starting in.

And, the first question is also up on Quora: What are the compartments in which carbon is stored on Earth? Do you have the credentials to answer this, or do you know someone who does? Please help out—I believe it will be a rewarding way to bridge the gap between the science community and the rest of society. Also, keep in mind that “upvoting,” adding comments for the author, or suggesting edits,  as soon as there is one or more answers will be a really great way to participate.

For anyone new to Quora, I’d encourage you to take a look at a new infographic and video that helps explain how to have a winning strategy within the Quora community.

Any and all feedback is welcome!

carbon-cycle-01_lower_res More »

The Role of Storage with Variable Energy Sources Like Wind and Solar

by November 8, 2011

In a recent post, I asked What’s Going To Happen To Your Vehicle’s Lithium Battery At the End Of Its Life? One of the options discussed in the NY Times article about the fate of batteries that sparked my post was as a means for storing electricity generated by wind turbines. A couple of other recent articles about energy storage caught my eye—both related to wind energy.

Why might storage play a key role in a grid that has a lot of wind turbines?

In early October, Mark Ahlstrom, the CEO of WindLogics, gave an excellent presentation as part of Frontiers in the Environment series at the U of MN’s Institute on the Environment (view the video here). He explained how our variable demand for electricity over the course of a typical day is met by a range of generation sources, from base load to “peakers.” Base load is met by nuclear, coal, and hyrdo—depending on location. Base load plants are meant to run 24/7, and adjustments to their output need to be scheduled well in advance. On the other end of the spectrum are peakers, which are small electrical generators that can be turned on with little notice and do not need to run for a minimum period of, say, a day. The figure below is based on a slide from Ahlstrom’s slides.

ahlstrom-sys-load-combo

Ahlstrom went on to explain how things get interesting when a substantial amount of wind generators are added to the mix. In the figure below, the bright green line represents the reduced daily load that results by adding a number of wind turbines to this hypothetical typical energy demand. He goes on to explain how the rest of the electricity generators need to adapt to this new load curve, which can have more spikes and other challenges, such as a faster ramp-up in the early morning hours—challenges that the current energy system wasn’t set up to tackle.

ahlstrom-sys-load-combo-2

Here’s a good piece by the ClimateWire group that landed in the NY Times: Fickle Winds, Intermittent Sunshine Start to Stress U.S. Power System. It dives into detail about the policy challenges that blending intermittent energy sources with our traditional electrical generation system.

Back to storage. A recent piece in the NY Times described how Batteries at a Wind Farm Help Control Output. In the largest battery installation connected to the grid in the U.S., they’ll use over a million batteries to provide storage for a few minutes of generated electricity from a large wind farm in West Virginia. The idea is that this stored electricity can be fed into the grid to help smooth things out when output from the wind turbines drops off momentarily. It is not designed to even out longer periods when the wind is calm. Significant storage on the time scale of hours and possibly days would most likely require a solution such as pumping water uphill or compressing air when the wind blows, and then using this stored energy to run a generator when the wind is quiet (here’s a project underway to study pumped hydro in conjunction with wind farms in northern Minnesota). There may also be options to store electricity in electric vehicles integrated with a smart grid of the future.

Finally, another NY Times piece that gave me some pause had to do using water heaters and electrical space heaters to store excess electricity brought about in part from excessive winds in the Pacific Northwest. The idea is that automated, shorter-term storage of excess electricity in homes that already have electric hot water heaters and heat with electricity could bleed off excess electricity pouring into the grid during storms when wind generators are running at maximum output (note that the situation was further complicated because hydropower operators were unable to reduce output from their generators for fear of creating conditions that might kill fish).

At a gut level, this strikes me as a good way to avert disaster, but probably not a great strategy from an energy efficiency standpoint. My sense is that using electricity for water heating and space heating is not nearly as efficient as, say, natural gas. The standard reason for arguing this point is that the efficiency of traditional energy plants is much less than 50%, whereas a high-efficiency hot water tank can exceed 90%. However, maybe this standard reasoning needs to be updated in a situation where electricity comes from wind or solar. This is a topic that merits further consideration.

More »

So You’re On Quora, Now What?

by October 16, 2011

As we gear up to tackle some basic questions and answers on Quora about the carbon cycle as part of our EarthQ project, with a goal of soon being able to tackle issues like ocean acidification and global warming, it seemed that a roadmap to Quora would be key for collaborators who might never have hear of it. Hence, the idea of a Quora Infographic emerged late this past week. Here’s version 0.1 that I’m throwing out for feedback. What do you think? Helpful? Silly? Gaping holes?

infographic-sketch-v02_small

UPDATE: Now showing version 0.2, thanks to a comment from friend Mike Troiano to highlight the start arrow. Keep the comments coming!

Version 0.1
infographic-sketch-v01_small

See this also on my post on Quora. I’d appreciate you up-voting it there if you like the idea.

Creative Commons License
So you’re on Quora, now what? by Dialogue Earth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license should be submitted here.

More »

Building A Knowledge Base About Ocean Acidification on Quora

by October 13, 2011

Some months ago, we did a proof-of-concept video contest on the subject of ocean acidification. Here’s the winning video, about a snail that doesn’t have a shell, goes to learn why, and then forms a band to spread the word about this phenomenon.

Our overall vision is that we’d only initiate video, or other multimedia, projects once we’d nailed down the “science behind the story.” Furthermore, to us, nailing down the story means that we’ve ferreted out those key points for which we can get widespread agreement from experts drawn from across society–those from industry, NGOs, government, as well as academics.

To be blunt, we skipped this (huge) step for ocean acidification for two reasons. We were trying to proof out a crowd-based process for creating videos that conveyed science points fairly. Also, I had a good bit of background on the issue from my graduate work in oceanography.

102__0x0_quora-picture Now that we’re aiming to cultivate Q&As on Quora on topics related to the environment, it seems only logical to revisit the topic of ocean acidification. We’re dubbing this Quora-based project EarthQ (see also this post about putting candidates on the spot about global warming). For reference, see this post I did on the science behind the story of ocean acidification.

The goal of EarthQ will be to identify the top questions about various issues people are likely to ask about ocean acidification–assuming we can shepherd solid answers that are endorsed by a wide spectrum of experts. Taking this approach ties into Anticipating Questions People Will Ask About a Topic. Of course, if we’re successful, we will have created a great network of experts ready to jump to assistance as new questions emerge organically on Quora.

I’m a big advocate of working with building blocks on an issue. Having given this a good deal of thought recently, it is clear to me that step one will be to develop Q&A that fully explain the carbon cycle. Then, we can move on to the topic of ocean acidification. Then we should have worked out enough of the kinks to take on the topic of global warming. Onward!

More »

Could A Social Q&A Site Like Quora Serve As Home On the Web for Information About Global Warming?

by September 21, 2011

quora-picture Over the past few weeks, I have been giving a good bit of thought to this question. Quora, began as a vibrant Q&A site for the start-up community in Silicon Valley. Its creators, who were key technologists with Facebook, know how to build a good interface. Their goal is not modest:

“Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.”

Some months back, I posed a still-unanswered question: Should Quora be used to gather and distill expert answers on polarizing topics? It is not at all clear if the answer should be “yes” or “no.” Perhaps, as a Quora admin put it in a response to another question of mine, the right strategy is to follow Wikipedia’s “be bold” policy, which is summed up in three words “Just do it.” In other words, it may be necessary just to start doing it and figure out a way to make it work. (more…)

More »

What’s Going To Happen To Your Vehicle’s Lithium Battery At the End Of Its Life?

by September 12, 2011

Energy consumed in transportation has been the focus of a number of recent posts here, including one contemplating the use of smiley faces to help drivers understand the impact of their behavioral choices, and one exploring why the cost-benefit balance is tipped against the purchase of a hybrid car based on fuel savings alone. Another big issue to consider with either a hybrid or an all-electric vehicle is the battery, which necessarily needs to pack a lot of charge, both by being large and, increasingly, by using metals like lithium.

5029455937_5ff2964379_b

How a lithium-ion battery works: This illustration shows the inner workings of a lithium-ion battery. When delivering energy to a device, the lithium ion moves from the anode to the cathode. The ion moves in reverse when recharging. Compared to other rechargeable batteries, lithium-ion batteries can store more energy in smaller, lighter packages. This unsurpassed energy-to-weight ratio make them the battery of choice for consumer electronics like cell phones and laptops, but also a great fit for electrified vehicles. Illustration and text courtesy Argonne National Laboratory and was accessed on Flickr.

A recent post about the prevalence of rare earth metals highlighted how much there is to know about the components used to make current vehicles based on new technologies, like hybrid drive trains. Massive supplies of elements like lithium are going to be key to permit scale-up of hybrid and all-electric vehicles requiring lithium batteries. Supply can come from mining operations, as well as recycling. An article a few days ago in the NY Times Business section highlighted the reality that there is no consensus on how electric car batteries should be recycled or reused. (more…)

More »

In Terms of Indoor Air Conditioning, How Cool is Too Cool?

by August 30, 2011

An article in Sunday’s New York Times by Elisabeth Rosenthal (Oh, to Be Warm in Summer’s Heat) reinforced the notion that some not-so-painful behavioral changes might lead to significant energy (and cost) savings. Yet, we may not be empowered with good information to help us connect the dots. Rosenthal zeros in on our exuberance to crank up the air conditioning in stores and other public spaces like airports. It does seem rather silly that we often need to grab a sweatshirt before heading out, knowing that we’re libel to run into chilly indoor environments.

I’m reminded of an NPR story from yesterday (Summer Sounds: Air Conditioning). It is a story by Teller (of the stage duo Penn & Teller) recounting his solution to the noisy air conditioning unit in his room. His parents had bestowed the unit to him because they knew that his upstairs room would be hotter than their downstairs bedroom. Even though his parents’ sleep was fitful, he solved the on-and-off noise of the A/C unit by turning on the “constant cool” feature, meaning that his room turned into the Arctic, and he needed to bundle up like on a winter’s night…

Back to Rosenthal’s story. She highlights an experience many have no doubt had: the rush of cool air that pours out the open front doors of many retailers. I often joke that they’re fighting a losing battle if their goal is to cool off outside. Of course, their goal is to lure us into the cool indoors, where we’ll want to stay and buy their merchandise.

I wonder if retailers have the information they need to weigh the benefit (extra business) against the cost (inefficient cooling system). Maybe they’d get a boost in consumer traffic if they kept the doors closed and used a marketing campaign advertising their responsible energy plan. Perhaps they could add some low-energy cooling fans near doorways to give pedestrians a sample of the coolness that awaits just inside the (closed) doors. This is clearly a ripe issue for attention, as a quick online search reveals considerable space devoted to this “open door policy” of retailers (here’s a Washington Post article about how the energy-conscious are upset by open doors, and another NY Times post about an informal survey of open doors after NY City banned the policy, albeit with plenty of loop holes for cool air to pour through!).

As discussed in a previous post, we do not do very well estimating the relative energy use of different appliances, such as window versus central A/C units. Similarly, we do not do a good job at predicting the energy savings from various behavioral changes, like adjusting our home thermostat to make it a bit cooler during the winter and a bit warmer during the summer. This blurb and accompanying graph of the typical energy usage in a home from the Energy Star website sums up why we should all pay attention in this time of ever-increasing energy costs:

As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling. So making smart decisions about your home’s heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system can have a big effect on your utility bills – and your comfort.

  energy_star_graph_1

A final note has to do with a statistic that Rosenthal cited in her article:

Many energy experts recommend setting thermostats at 78 degrees in summer, to conserve energy and to combat rising greenhouse gas emissions. The exact energy savings depends on numerous factors, including the type of air-conditioning and the temperature outside. But turning up the programmable thermostat of a central air-conditioning system 1 degree can yield a 6 percent savings in energy used for cooling, according to the United States Energy Star program.

We’ll need to get to the bottom of the potential savings, which undoubtedly vary regionally and across different types of home construction. The 6-percent-savings is higher than I’ve seen elsewhere, and it seems like a lot for adjusting the thermostat by only a single degree.

More »

GPM Sheds Light On Why Hybrid Cars Are Tough To Justify On Fuel Savings Alone

by August 23, 2011

Hybrid car parking only

Photo credit, Chris Bloke on Flickr

Have you ever considered buying a hybrid car and gone through the calculations to compare the fuel cost savings to the higher price over comparable non-hybrid models? Chances are good that the math is not on the side of purchasing a hybrid, as pointed out in this USA Today opinion piece questioning the recently-announced, aggressive fuel efficiency standards. Most likely, it is our choice of metrics for evaluating fuel efficiency that help to make such calculations turn out to be less intuitive than we might expect, as discussed in this previous post on fuel economy metrics.

Hybrid cars are those that combine a large battery with an engine that generally runs on gasoline, although diesel hybrids are possible. In city driving with lots of starts and stops, the energy normally lost through braking is used to incrementally charge the battery—through a technology known as regenerative braking. If you’re looking for a 2-minute diversion, check out this video below featuring Maxwell von Stein, whose video was featured on Science Friday last week. He created a bike that uses a flywheel to store energy from braking to provide a boost literally down-the-road. He sees this as a great test case for creating a new type of hybrid car…

Because we need to brake less on highways, hybrids lose much of their advantage during highway driving. You can check out the EPA city/highway ratings for hybrids and compare them to non-hybrids side-by-side at fueleconomy.gov.

Following up on the previous post on MPG v. GPM (that is, miles per gallon v. gallons per mile), here are some quick calculations showing the fuel savings for two models from Toyota (Camry) and Ford (Fusion) that are available as hybrids. As in the previous post, the orange bar shows the fuel savings in gallons for 5000 miles of city driving.

thought_experiment_hybrid

The Fusion Hybrid driver could anticipate saving about $1000 on fuel over three years if she/he drove 5000 city miles, and the Camry Hybrid driver could expect about $700 in savings for three years of 5000 city miles—these calculations assume a gas price of $3.50 per gallon.

Grabbing some rough prices from Motor Trend’s site, it would cost about $6800 more for a Fusion Hybrid and about $4400 for a Camry Hybrid (these comparisons are very rough and are based on models that are one step up from the base offering for the non-hybrids; they also do not include any applicable rebates, deals, etc.).

Baring any government subsidy to help offset the purchase price, we immediately see the quandary facing a potential purchaser of a hybrid car: it is very tough to imagine recovering the extra purchase price through fuel cost savings. Plus, as mentioned above, if the hybrid was to be used for a good bit of highway driving, the potential fuel savings would diminish considerably.

I argued in the aforementioned post that GPM is a better way to get an intuitive feel for fuel savings. Interestingly the fueleconomy.gov site offers vehicle stats in GPM rather than MPG. I have to wonder if many people click on that option. Here are the side-by-side comparisons of the hybrid and non-hybrid Fusion and Camry models. First, using MPG as the comparison point, then with gallons per hundred miles (GPM). The cost savings tables at the bottom provide the same type of thought experiment as described above, though it is a bit more complex blending highway and city mileage.

fueleconomy_gov_mpg fueleconomy_gov_gpm

It would be a little like getting a nation to think metric, but one gets a sense that the second comparison provides information that is more instructive about cost savings from fuel usage.

More »

Do Electric Cars and Nuclear Power Really Have Zero Carbon Emissions?

by August 8, 2011

The Nissan Leaf

Photo credit, Tom Raftery on Flickr

A piece about incentives to promote electric cars in Europe published in the Star Tribune a few days caught my eye. The author, who actually wrote the piece for the New York Times, discusses how the size of incentives are linked with reductions in carbon emissions and stated “Logically, electric cars with zero carbon emissions qualify for the largest incentives.”

Unless the electric vehicle (EV) was manufactured in world that uses no carbon-based fuels and the electricity that charges the EV’s batteries is devoid of carbon emissions, then this is not possible.

My guess is that the author confused direct and indirect emissions from EVs. Yes, there are no carbon emissions from EVs directly. However, electricity is needed to charge an EV’s battery, and even wind and solar have small carbon emissions. Electric vehicles also need to be manufactured and maintained, both of which will contribute to lifecycle emissions of carbon. Here’s one recent study that digs into the the energy use, cost, and carbon dioxide emissions of electric cars.

The statement about EVs reminded me of similar statements I’ve heard recently on the radio about nuclear energy. True, the plume that is characteristic of a nuclear plant’s cooling towers is water vapor. Yet, there are considerable lifecycle emissions of carbon connected to facility construction, uranium mining and processing, and waste disposal. Here’s a recent paper that evaluates the lifecycle emissions associated with nuclear energy, including estimates of how nuclear compares to other energy sources—on average about twice that of solar photovoltaic (PV) and about seven times less than natural gas.

More »

Using Miles Per Gallon Ratings To Reduce A Nation’s Oil Consumption Is An Indirect Approach

by August 2, 2011

ap_video

AP Video Coverage of President Obama's Announcement

The new agreement between President Obama and automakers, nearly doubling fuel efficiency for automobiles by 2025, will have a direct impact on oil consumption by the U.S. automobile fleet. Yet, if this aggressive goal is fueled by a desire to maximize reductions in oil consumption, then it would be more useful to measure our performance with a direct indicator of oil consumption: gallons per mile (GPM), the inverse of our standard metric, miles per gallon (MPG). (more…)

More »

The Periodic Table of Videos From University of Nottingham

by June 15, 2011

periodic-table

Periodic Table, with colors representing numbers of views for each element's videos. Red is more than 200K, blue less than 10K.

I have a chronic problem of letting my issues of Science and Nature pile up. Having picked up an issue essentially at random from the pile, I experienced that reminder that I’m missing a lot by not keeping the pile under control.

Video journalist Brady Haran and chemist Martyn Poliakoff authored an article in the 27 May 2011 issue about their amazingly successful project to create videos for each element on the periodic table.

Having just watched the video for hydrogen, I am really impressed. It is no wonder that they have amassed a loyal following and over 15 million views in total. Lots to learn from this impressive science communication endeavor!

More »

Tom Toles Weighs In on Explaining versus Persuading

by June 15, 2011

A few days ago I wrote a post on the importance of of nonpersuasive communication. Scanning the Washington Post site just now, I noticed that Tom Toles, my favorite political cartoonists, weighed in on the topic two days ago in a post entitled “Explaining and Persuading.” His statement that “[t]hese are two things that seem like they ought to go together, but somehow rarely do” illuminates the issue nicely within a different domain: inside the Beltway.

This reminds me of advice of a PR exec this week at the Google Science Communication workshop, which I had the honor of attending: scientists should “stay in their lane.” It can be a very tough pill to swallow when one feels that decisions do not line up with the latest understanding from the science community, but as Baruch Fischhoff stated in an ES&T piece discussed in my previous post:

Scientists faced with others’ advocacy may feel compelled to respond in kind. However, they can also try to become the trusted source for credible, relevant, comprehensible information by doing the best job possible of nonpersuasive communication. With long-term problems, like climate change, communication is a multiple-play game. Those who resort to advocacy might lose credibility that they will need in future rounds.

I sure wish Toles would pen a cartoon on this topic!

More »

To Persuade, or Not to Persuade? That’s A Key Question in Science Communication

by June 11, 2011

The philosophy behind Dialogue Earth is deeply rooted in a sense that our provision of information should be advocacy-free in order to maximize trustworthiness (see our history and strategy sections). That is, providing information about an issue while also urging the public to take a particular action based on this information has the real potential to erode trustworthiness, especially among those audience segments who are likely the most important: those people who are skeptical about the credibility of the information and the intentions of its source. This becomes all the more true for issues that are controversial, where I believe advocacy-driven information campaigns can deepen the societal polarization (here’s a short video I recorded explaining more about how I feel we can cut through the polarization, based on an op-ed that I penned for the Pioneer Press in April).

I recently discussed this issue in the context of an edgy hip-hop video featuring climate scientists that has become a YouTube phenomenon over the last month. In that piece, I referenced a 2010 letter to the editor in the journal Science by Bowman and colleagues that advocates for a new initiative to spread information about climate change, and that this initiative should be rooted in a nonpersuasive approach.

Digging into this issue further, it is clear that there is a debate centered on the goal of science communications. To boil things down into a few words: those calling for advocacy and persuasion by scientists cite growing disregard for science in public discourse and within policymaking, while those who urge caution suggest that mixing advocacy with the provision of science-based information jeopardizes the trust in the source of such information. By the way, a great book to read as background on the role of science in American society is “Unscientific America” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum. (more…)

More »