The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'energy'
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been predictable calls for nuclear power to be phased out, now. (For example, the German government, which for all its strengths seems to be more amenable to woolly thinking than most in Europe (they also fund homeopathy, for example), has announced that it is cancelling plans to refurbish nuclear plants.) In contrast, George Monbiot (a journalist known for his solid leftist credentials and strident support of environmental causes) writes that the way the Fukushima disaster unfolded reconsider his opposition to nuclear power:
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.Once one gets over the innately human emotional bias of assigning greater weight to spectacular events (for example, people intuitively consider flying to be more dangerous than driving, because, despite the number of fatalities from road accidents being orders of magnitude higher than from air crashes, the latter are far more spectacular and newsworthy), Monbiot argues, nuclear (at least with modern, passively cooled reactors immune to the sorts of meltdowns that are possible with 1970s-vintage reactors like Fukushima) are the lesser evil compared to fossil fuels, in terms of the environmental impact of generating electricity. Meanwhile, renewables come with their own problems:
At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources. It's hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales, but it's not much use in Birmingham.
And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.And as for deep-green pipe-dreams of getting rid of electricity altogether and going back to a bucolic agrarian lifestyle, the problem with this is that the ecological footprint of going without electricity would be far more destructive than that of our current infrastructure:
The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.
Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25m tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today's, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.So, short of advocating human extinction for ecological reasons, the only option is technological progress; of improving the technologies of energy generation to make it more efficient. And, in the foreseeable future, this will include either nuclear power or fossil fuels.
As rising oil prices bite, people are talking about moving to a 4-day work week to reduce fuel consumption. The idea has been tried in Utah, but as befits a conservative Mormon state in the US whose emblem is the beehive, it didn't result in an extra day of leisure time, but rather four 10-hour workdays. Nonetheless, the results have been promising, and the experiment has proven popular, with 82% of participants preferring to stick with it:
"If employees are on the road 20 percent less, and office buildings are only powered four days a week," Langmaid says, "the energy savings and congestion savings would be enormous." Plus, the hour shift for the Monday through Thursday workers means fewer commuters during the traditional rush hours, speeding travel for all. It also means less time spent idling in traffic and therefore less spewing of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. The 9-to-5 crowd also gets the benefit of extended hours at the DMV and other state agencies that adopt the four-day schedule.
A few interesting engineering-related developments in the news today:
- There is a proposal to provide most or all of Europe's energy needs with solar collector farms in the Sahara, slashing the continent's carbon emissions dramatically.
- England's parliament has approved the Crossrail rail scheme; from 2017—in nine short years—London will have a fast east-west underground rail link, sort of like Paris's RER, going from Paddington, under Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon, and hitting Stratford and Canary Wharf.
A new technology promises to turn garbage into clean energy. Called "plasma gasification", the technique can consume anything other than radioactive isotopes, producing only a glass-like substance (which is allegedly usable for making tiles or asphalt) and a hydrogen-rich gas which can be converted to various fuels. What's more, the process is self-sustaining; after initially starting the process, all one has to do is keep up the flow of material, and it will power itself, and also produce surplus electricity which can be sold.
Inside a sealed vessel made of stainless steel and filled with a stable gas--either pure nitrogen or, as in this case, ordinary air--a 650-volt current passing between two electrodes rips electrons from the air, converting the gas into plasma. Current flows continuously through this newly formed plasma, creating a field of extremely intense energy very much like lightning. The radiant energy of the plasma arc is so powerful, it disintegrates trash into its constituent elements by tearing apart molecular bonds. The system is capable of breaking down pretty much anything except nuclear waste, the isotopes of which are indestructible.Though not everybody's convinced that the system is safe:
Of course, the technology, still unproven on a large scale, has its skeptics. "That obsidian-like slag contains toxic heavy metals and breaks down when exposed to water," claims Brad Van Guilder, a scientist at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which advocates for clean air and water. "Dump it in a landfill, and it could one day contaminate local groundwater." Others wonder about the cleanliness of the syngas. "In the cool-down phases, the components in the syngas could re-form into toxins," warns Monica Wilson, the international coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, in Berkeley, California.Perhaps if someone could adapt this technology to work on self-replicating nanobots, then we may have something...
The East Japan Railway Company is experimenting with making its stations more environmentally friendly by harnessing the energy-generating potential of passengers as they pass through ticket gates:
The ticket gate electricity generation system relies on a series of piezo elements embedded in the floor under the ticket gates, which generate electricity from the pressure and vibration they receive as people step on them. When combined with high-efficiency storage systems, the ticket gate generators can serve as a clean source of supplementary power for the train stations. Busy train stations (and those with large numbers of passengers willing to bounce heavily through the gates) will be able to accumulate a relatively large amount of electricity.The system is being tested at the company's offices in Shibuya, though is expected to be rolled out in actual stations if this is successful.
Though would such a system really be able to generate a non-negligible amount of electricity? And, given that the passenger gates don't involve the passenger actually pushing anything as crude as a turnstile, how long until someone starts fitting footpaths with something similar? If it takes more energy from the walker to traverse than otherwise, they could even market it as an integrated exercise facility.
Surprise of the day: large-screen TVs use more current than the smaller ones. Wal-Mart America's love affair with the jumbo plasma screen has resulted in massive increases in electricity consumption, calling on some to compare the TVs to that other emblem of the divinely-sanctioned and non-negotiable American lifestyle, the SUV. The fact that a lot of people leave the TV on 24 hours a day as a psychological security blanket probably doesn't help.
(Though is anybody really surprised that large TVs use a lot more current? Electricity consumption would, I imagine, be a function of the square of the screen size, meaning that even small increases in size result in large increases in power consumption. Which, also, is probably one of the reasons why small, wimpy-looking laptops have about twice the battery life of the larger, more-impressive-looking ones.)
Soon, batteries may be made of used coffee grounds; researchers at Sony have discovered a way of using the waste grounds as raw materials for battery manufacturing. This will help to reuse waste, and also cut the manufacturing cost of batteries by up to 10%.