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Posts Tagged ‘alternative energy’

Soliciting Questions from the Crowd, Looking for the Crowd to Rank Questions

by April 2, 2012

process-sketch-v01 Over the past few weeks, we’ve been preparing to launch the EarthQ project. Modeled after Spot.us, which was recently acquired by American Public Media, we’re soliciting questions for which people would like to see high-quality, evergreen content developed (see some example answers here). In order for a question to move up the queue, or have its EarthQ rank increased, it needs to be shared a lot through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. We’re doing this because it will be a substantial research effort to develop the high-quality answers, and we want to ensure that the question is of interest broadly.

Then, just like Spot.us raises funds to support the reporting on a particular topic, we’ll be looking for donations to support our research team. We’ll be aiming to raise micro-donations in 99 cent increments.

Head over to the Questions page to share (rank) questions and feel free to click the Amazon donate button to throw your 99 cents behind a question.

Over the past few days, these questions have been submitted via the website:

We welcome your feedback and ideas on this new project.

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How Can Cars Run on Hydrogen?

by March 31, 2012

needs_rank As part of this answer, we’ll need to explain the role of batteries and/or fuel cells. The answer infographic will detail different ways that fruit trees are pollinated. If you would like to see a high-quality infographic developed for this question, please share it with your network using the sharing icons above—these actions will increase the question’s priority. Please look at the example answers here. Also, if you would value a high-quality answer being available on the Web, please consider a small donation ($0.99) to support our research team.

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Making Decisions About Purchasing Alternative Vehicles

by November 28, 2011

In a recent post, I discussed Why Hybrid Cars Are Tough To Justify On Fuel Savings Alone and how Gallons per Mile (GPM) would be a better metric than Miles per Gallon (MPG) to use to compare vehicles. The gist of it is that we save a lot more fuel replacing a 15 MPG vehicle with one that gets 20 MPG compared to replacing a 30 MPG vehicle with one that gets 35 MPG. The GPM metric makes this intuitively obvious, whereas MPG does not.

A few weeks back when I dipped my cup into the Twitter river, which I need to do more often, I happened upon a press release from the U of Minnesota Extension having to do with a new spreadsheet tool designed by energy economist Doug Tiffany to help those considering an alternative vehicle purchase.

Tiffany’s tool allows the user to customize the data input, adjusting things like purchase price, down payments, expected cost of fuel, one’s personal opportunity cost (the cost to me for tying up cash for down payment and monthly car payments). The tool then produces several graphs, the first of which is a 15-year cumulative cost projection comparing several vehicle types. For the graph below, I used the default values in the tool, which can be downloaded here.

cumulative-cost-curves

So, what this means, is that for the input parameters, the 15-year cumulative cost of ownership of the extended range vehicle, such as a Chevy Volt, comes out the highest, whereas the electric vehicle, like the Nissan Leaf, comes in with the lowest cost. The following graph shows the breakdown between car types at year 15.

year15costs

Cost may not be the only motivator, however, at a time when many are concerned about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Thus, it may be important for many to compare the estimated emissions of greenhouse gases from the different vehicle types. Tiffany’s tool produces this graph based on various inputs.

annualghgemissions

As would be expected, the conventional gasoline-powered vehicle has the highest emissions. There’s not as much difference between the other types, with the hybrid having somewhat higher GHG emissions than the all-electric, both of which do somewhat better than the extended range electric.

Tiffany’s tool reminded me of a widget available from my colleagues over at Climate Central, which is embedded below. It allows you to get a good sense of potential fuel and GHG emission savings between two different vehicles. It dynamically updates fuel costs for your state, which is a nice feature.

Together, these tools provide a great resource to anyone considering an alternative car purchase. Perhaps these groups could team up to create a tool that blends together both annual costs / savings and economics over the vehicle’s lifetime.

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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.

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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.

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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…)

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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.

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Which Energy Questions To Answer?

by July 28, 2011

2540266946_df7114d8fa The memory of our frustration during our last car purchase, more than 10 years ago, is still strong. Fuel economy was central to our decision, and we ended up opting for a turbo diesel Volkswagon. Soon after our purchase, I certainly engaged in some second guessing. This was the older generation turbo diesel, which means the dirtier version. We were in Washington, D.C., so we had to carry with us the reality that we were contributing to lowering the air quality. A more nuanced issue—and one that I’ve not fully researched—is that fuel mileage for a diesel is not directly comparable to that of a gasoline powered car, especially if one is interested in their transportation carbon foot print. I’d forgotten about this for a while, but it is very relevant now that we at Dialogue Earth are working on a project proposal to supply information to support consumer decisions that are connected to energy use.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be exploring how people get their information about energy use when they’re pondering a purchase, be it a new car or a clothes dryer. Is there the proverbial “low hanging fruit” in terms of information that would be relatively easy to provide, but is not readily accessible currently? No doubt consumers will span the spectrum from knowing very little about energy to having a deep knowledge. What do consumers with different energy knowledge want to know?

Have you thought about your personal energy use recently? Did you seek out new information? If so, was it easy to find? What sources did you tap? If not, why?

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Los Angeles Hosts First Pipeline-Fed Hydrogen Fueling Station In The US

by May 12, 2011

A Toyota Highlander hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle at the opening of the hydrogen filling station in Torrance, Calif. (NY Times)

A Toyota Highlander hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle at the opening of the hydrogen filling station in Torrance, Calif. (NY Times)

A recent post for TechCrunch by Lora Kolodny highlights the opening of the first US pipeline-fed hydrogen station last Tuesday.  The station is located in Southern California, just adjacent to the Toyota sales and marketing building in Torrance.

Because of the inherent complexity of mobile energy, this topic is of interest to Dialogue Earth.  We are working to provide quality, non-advocacy information to help understand complicated issues related to the environment.  A discussion about hydrogen vehicles raises the issue of greenhouse gas, and indirectly, carbon footprints.  It is important to understand the energy inputs and emissions resulting from all energy sources, including those billed as green.

For a taste of the challenge, my research suggests that most industrial hydrogen, including the hydrogen produced at the plants in Wilmington and Carson, is made through the reformation of hydrocarbons — a process that is purported to increase the energy yield from hydrocarbons to a yield of 80%. Air products claims that this increase in yield is “equivalent to avoiding more than 10 new refineries between 1976 and 2006 along with related carbon footprint during Hydrogen production their construction and operation.”

But how do fuel cells stack up against battery electric vehicles? Or vehicles that use other alternative fuels, such as hybrids?  There are a lot of facts out there, disseminated from all sorts of voices.

This is one niche that Dialogue Earth works to fill. Not by providing people with what they should do, but rather providing people with trustworthy content packed with facts, devoid of special interests, that inform people and assist them in making their own decisions.

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Oil Companies’ Profits to Increase Greatly This Year; People’s Energy-Related Questions to Follow Suit.

by May 5, 2011

The rapid increase in oil prices should equate to the oil industry having its best year since 2008, as reported by Chris Kahn for AP (via ABC). Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhilips are expected to report a combined $18.2 billion in first quarter earnings — a 40% increase from last year and just shy of the $20.2 billion that they earned in the first three months of 2008.

An increase in consumption, the constriction of supply (e.g., Libya’s reserve access is currently limited), and also a weaker US dollar are all speculated to contribute to an increase in oil prices.

While some stand to benefit from the rise in oil prices (shareholders), businesses and consumers will feel the hurt as gasoline prices inflate. Increases in gas prices tend to have ripple effects, increasing the prices of transportation and any good or service that is reliant on transportation — bread, toiletries, DVD players, air plane tickets, etc.

The broad societal effect of an increase in oil prices is precisely what makes this issue of interest to Dialogue Earth.  This will undoubtedly augment expressed sentiment related to energy across social media platforms, such as Twitter. (more…)

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What Do We Need To Know About Rare Earth Metals?

by May 5, 2011

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Photo credit: Giles Douglas

The short answer is: lots. This recent piece on rare earth metals in the New York Times is eye opening. The fact that each Toyota Prius uses a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of neodymium—an element that I honestly had not known even existed—is worth understanding. This article highlights the challenges facing companies who have been planning to recycle rare earth metals from old electronics, as well as the reality that China controls the vast majority of the rare earth market.

For me, that there is a role of elements like neodymium in our energy system, underscores its complexity. Obviously, Marvin just nibbles away at the edges of that complexity in our recent video created by Robert Deutsch. This is exactly the type of issue that we plan to address in efforts like our planned Media Challenge focused on energy topics.

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A New Data Point for Homeowners Considering Installation of Solar Photovoltaic Panels

by April 25, 2011

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Photo credit: http://www.solardave.com

As discussed by a number of media outlets, including the NY Times’ Green blog, a report just released by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (link to download page here) provides one more data point for homeowners weighing the costs and benefits of installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on their home.

Making decisions about installing solar systems is very complex, and this type of information is sure to be helpful to the decision making of homeowners. As we tackle issues like solar energy as part of our forthcoming Media Challenge, we will work with a broad network of experts to distill information such as this study. We will then work with great storytellers to bring these points to life, like in our recently-released videos that discuss energy in general terms. (more…)

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Bringing Trustworthy Energy Information to the Table

by April 20, 2011

This opinion piece authored by Kent Cavender-Bares was published in the Pioneer Press on April 20, 2011.

‘We need all of our energy options on the table!’ So say those advocating for the removal of the legal barrier preventing new nuclear plants in Minnesota. I completely agree with the sentiment and would go a step further: We need to understand all of our energy options so we can make informed decisions about them.

Does this mean entering a cycle of unending study? No. Expert studies certainly have their important role. But they are not the weak link. Rather, what is missing is an adequate transfer of knowledge from the expert community to the rest of us regarding the multiple, unequal options available. We need translators to bring technical key points to life in a way that furthers our understanding while remaining faithful to the underlying science and technology.

The challenge in making that happen with complex, controversial topics such as nuclear energy is twofold.

First, it means traversing the gap between the language of those who understand a technology like nuclear energy and the rest of us. That is where great communicators come into the picture.

Second, it means separating trustworthy information from hyperbole. We need to be able to identify and then clearly communicate a knowledge base that is widely shared by experts drawn from across society — experts from corporations like GE and Xcel as well as academics and experts from various advocacy groups and government agencies. (more…)

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So, Why Energy?? — The Rationale Behind Choosing Energy For Our Media Challenge

by April 19, 2011

For our upcoming, yearlong Media Challenge, we at Dialogue Earth wanted to choose a topic that is both of importance to our collective future and that is consistently on people’s minds.

Energy was a topic that fit very well with these considerations.

Through its varying forms, energy is a topic that most people think about and must make important decisions about on a daily basis. Whether strategizing about what day of the week you should fill up your gas tank — and if you should fill up all the way, for that matter — or remembering to turn off your lights in an unoccupied room to save money on that monthly electric bill. (more…)

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