Picture of mailbox

Main sections on these pages:

Solutions:

Recycling symbol

Recycling:

Long term future:

Latest eco-living news:

Getting involved:

Environment web sites and blogs:

Agencies:

Miscellaneous resources:

Tagged web pages and articles:

Environment and Technology

Skip the introduction >>

Blue Marble Earth pictureI still remember when this photograph was taken, back in 1972. It was the first time that a clear picture like this of the whole Earth had been taken, and its impact at the time might not be fully appreciated now.

This is where we all live. The photograph brought this home to us as nothing else could. We are all sailing in one fragile, beautiful craft in an unimaginably vast ocean of space - if this craft sinks, there is a very long way to paddle in order to reach somewhere else. >>

It's a scary thought. This is where we all live. The oceans and the atmosphere join us all together, being no respecters of Homeland Security. What happens somewhere affects us all. It affects those of us who love the sea for recreation, and those of us whose lives will disappear completely if the sea level rises by the height of one human being. It affects countries that use energy more than they need to, and countries that need to use more energy if they are to develop.

Here's another view of the Earth:

Picture of Earth at night

This is one of NASA's Astronomy Pictures of the Day (posted 27 November 2000). It is a composite of hundreds of pictures of the earth's surface at night, taken by orbiting DMSP satellites, showing millions of glowing lights from human habitations. It is also an indication of the energy usage distribution at that time. Click the picture for more information.

Global warming and the rapid and accelerating consumption of finite resources are huge problems for all of us. It's by no means all gloom and doom, though:

  • Technologies exist, and are being rapidly developed, to use energy more efficiently, and to generate power without generating greenhouse gases.
  • Electricity, clean at the point of use, will increasingly power our cars, while cleaner means of generating electricity are being introduced. >>
  • In the USA, a national "smart" electricity grid is being developed that will, among other things, allow "clean electricity" to be distributed more widely, efficiently and reliably. >>
  • New August 2014:
  • SmileyIn 2014, carbon emissions in the USA are actually falling, due to a number of factors including improved engine technology by the automotive industry, and Obama's 17% reduction target for 2020 may actually be met. >>
  • New August 2014:
  • SmileyAlso in the USA, one of the single most important engineering developments to emerge in recent years is Solar Roadways. It will potentially have a huge impact on transportation, clean energy generation and the adoption of Electric Vehicles (EVs), among other things. >>
  • Denmark is leading the way in the use of decentralized and green power generation, with many small and large Combined Heat & Power (CHP) plants and a huge number of wind turbines. >>
  • In China, which has plenty of environmental problems, there is massive investment (and investment opportunities) in cleaner use of coal generation, as well as other surprisingly vigorous environmental programmes. >>
  • Scientists in several countries are working on diet changes and other measures to reduce the methane produced by burping cows and sheep (over two billion of them), by anything up to 50%. It sounds funny - but methane is twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and this is one of the most serious global warming problems being actively addressed. >>
  • Bio-fuels reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% compared to petroleum-based fuels, but have had some negative environmental and human impacts. SmileyNewer bio-fuels are much more promising, in particular algae, and in 2014 a really significant breakthrough in algae-based biofuels has been made. >>
  • Urban farming and green communities are tackling many problems, including global warming, foreign-oil dependence, processed food, obesity and neighbourhood blight, while greatly improving our quality of life. >>
  • Transition Towns (and other Transition Communities) are springing up around the world from a grass roots movement that isn't waiting for "them" to do something. >>
  • Biochar is an ancient process that is making a comeback. It does many things at once: starting with most urban, agricultural or forestry biomass residues, it can generate energy, enrich soil, and actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. It is not merely carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative. >>
  • Recycling technology is evolving fast. For example, a closed-loop plastics recycling plant, located in Dagenham, England, uses awesome new technology (watch the video!) to turn plastic rubbish into tons of high quality polymer pellets, so that (for example) used plastic bottles can be turned back into new plastic bottles, saving half of the energy and all of the oil in oil-to-plastic manufacture. >>

What's more, we don't have to give up (for example) living in beautiful cities that glitter at night (if that's what we want to do), or driving fun, fast cars. The technology exists, or is being developed, to allow us to do such things without destroying our planet - quite the reverse - and with that technology comes job and investment opportunities for many people. Green, done right, saves money, makes money and helps everyone.

Whatever aspects of the environment you are interested in, hopefully you will find something of interest on this page.

  • Note
  • Picture of compassThe right-hand panel of this page contains links to the main sections of this page and a summary of the external links that I have found to be most useful.
  • Most of these links will also appear in the main text of this page.
  •    

Solutions, not problems...

Can one person make a difference? (Yes!)

There are at least five ways in which we can each change things for the better:

  1. We can do simple things to save energy, resources and greenhouse gases (and make ourselves wealthier and/or healthier at the same time). (See below).
  2. We can each do something, however small, to improve the environment around us. (A few suggestions here).
  3. We can stop waiting for "them" and instead start, or help to start, a Transition Town or other Transition Community. (For details, see here.)
  4. We can try "thinking outside the box" in coming up with new solutions to old problems. One good idea can change the world. (For examples, see here.)
  5. We can help to spread the environmental message - provided that we don't turn people off in the process. (Some thoughts here).

Here are some suggestions for item 1 on the above list:

  • Check out the many good energy saving tips that are out there - and save yourself a lot of money.
  • If you haven't already done so, replace old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs with Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFBs) wherever this is practical, for light bulbs that are illuminated for more than a few minutes each day.
  • If you don't get the good light that you expect, avoid supermarket "own brands" and buy a reputable make such as Philips. A modern CFB is rated for up to 10 years (some now up to 15 years), and can generate up to 82 negawatts as part of a nationwide multi-gigawatt super-clean "virtual power station".
  • Is it time to use LEDs instead of CFBs? Is the mercury in CFBs really dangerous? See here and here.
  • More about low energy lighting in the next section.
  • Don't pour heat (and money) down the drain. If your central heating is on, and it has a thermostat controlling room temperatures, then leave bath water to get cold before you pull out the plug. This reclaims the energy it took to heat that water from room temperature to bathwater temperature - that's quite a lot! You can do the same with a shower if it has a drain plug.
  • When making yourself a hot drink, pour only the number of cups of water you need into your kettle. Electric kettles with flat heating elements are good if you only need to boil one cup of water. If you have to use a saucepan, please use a lid!
  • In some parts of the world they have really efficient ways of boiling water by burning wood, which is even better (burning wood doesn't add to greenhouse gases, since the wood took carbon out of the atmosphere in the first place).
  • Talk your local shopping mall, or your local supermarket, into adjusting the thermostat on the air conditioning to make it less cold by a degree or two - especially if you live in Florida or some other place where they seem to want to refrigerate the shoppers as well as the food! Seriously, this makes a huge difference from an energy saving point of view, and almost no difference to people's comfort. (And, of course, do the same thing at home.) And while you're at it...
  • If you are in a good position to influence a retail company (or any company), maybe because you work there, check out 27 Ways to Prevent Climate Change: a Guide for Independent Retailers. Any organization can save itself money, improve customer relations and help the environment, all at the same time, by taking this guide on board.
  • Turn off your car engine if you are stopped at a long light, or any other time you are going to be stationary for more than a few minutes (unless you really, really need it for the AirCon). Drivers in some parts of the world, e.g. the Netherlands, do this much more than we do, and many new cars are doing it automatically for you. It all adds up.
  • (And while we're talking about driving, there's a new word on the street: hypermiling. It captures the whole approach to eco-friendly driving. Check it out!)
  • You don't need to use an oven just to warm plates, if you are cooking something in a microwave that takes more than a minute or two and that can be heated in a suitable microwave-friendly container, like a Pyrex bowl. Just use the stacked (microwave-safe) plates as a lid for the container - the plates will soon be plenty hot! You can use a stack of plates as a lid on a saucepan, too.
  • Eat less red meat. The production of red meat has a very high carbon footprint. You don't have to become a vegetarian - just changing to chicken or fish (for example) will help to reduce the generation of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane (and is better for your health). Reducing your consumption of dairy products will help too, for the same reason.
  • The average carbon footprint of transporting food ("food miles") is important, but turns out to be relatively tiny compared to the reductions we can make by changing our eating habits.
  • There are many other issues involved in our choice of food, not least human and animal welfare. The fact is, though, that from a climate change point of view, becoming vegetarian (or close to it) has major benefits.
  • More on this story here.
  • Use eco-friendly products that use less resources (especially if they pollute less and/or save energy at the same time). These will often save you money, as well.
  • Here's a good example that I can personally recommend:
  • Picture of Ecoegg
  • Click the picture if you want to know more!

It may sometimes not feel like it, but the small things we do as individuals matter enormously. Why? Because there are so many of us. Any contribution - positive or negative - that each of is makes is multiplied by how many of us there are on this planet.

  • So how many of us are there, according to the latest figures?
  • Click here to find out.
  • That's a big multiplier, yes?
  • (And here's an amazing Real Time World Clock for even more
    population information.)

Back to Local Contents

The "Negawatt Revolution"

This is a low energy light bulb that we bought a long time ago at our local supermarket.

Picture of low energy light bulb

It gives out the bright, warm-colour light of a 100W ordinary bulb, but only consumes 18W. It's rated for a nominal 8 years of life. If you had bought two of these when we did, in January 2009, they would have cost you 74.5 pence (just over $1) each from Waitrose (not a cut-price store).

This thing is more than just a light bulb, though. It is an 82-negawatt generator. By replacing 100W with 18W, it subtracts 82W of power consumption from the grid.

Say that there are 10 million homes in the UK (actually there are about double this number), each of which might have 5 such bulbs illuminated at one time, each saving 82W (or an equivalent combination). A simple calculation shows that this collection of bulbs is effectively a 4,000,000,000+ negawatt power station - a 4-gigawatt power station that doesn't need building (its creation actually saves money for everyone) and which is super-clean: it removes pollution and CO2 rather than generating it.

Such a home-lighting "power station" runs mainly when it is dim or dark outside, a time of peak power demand. It generates slightly fewer negawatts when thermostat-controlled heating is on, since old-fashioned bulbs supply some useful heat to a room (if they aren't near the ceiling), but it generates even more negawatts when lights and air-conditioning are on at the same time, since you also save the power needed to cool the heat from hot light bulbs.

Picture of Amory Lovins

The concept of a negawatt was the brain-child of Amory Lovins. He delivered a Keynote Address in 1989 called The Negawatt Revolution.

The ideas in this speech go far beyond energy saving or light bulbs. The "negawatt" concept is set to revolutionize everything from the way in which buildings are constructed, to the way in which utilities are regulated and rewarded, to the setting up of "negawatt markets", to new jobs, new technologies, new investment opportunities, and the Smart Grid.

How? Read his speech here!

The alternative "hard" and "soft" paths that Amory Lovins envisaged in 1989 are shown here in his speech. Since then there have been eight years of environmental sleep-walking in the White House (but not in some individual states and companies), and the picture will look a little different now. But finally, in Barack Obama, we have a President who gets it!

Nowadays you will find many articles talking about "negawatts". But Amory Lovins' Keynote Address is where it began, and is even more relevant today than in 1989. Full of fascinating details, strategies, concepts and numbers, it is the "Real McCoy" - do read it!

Back to Local Contents

Thinking outside the box: the "Negawatt Revolution" in action

It is amazing how much difference one person can make to the whole environment, and to the welfare, prosperity and jobs of millions of people, just by thinking "outside the box".

Amory Lovins did this by focusing other people's minds, as described above.

Picture of new-design turbine blade

More and more engineers (a word relating to "ingenuity", BTW, not to "engines") are turning to nature for inspiration in carrying out Amory Lovins' principles - a practice known as biomimicry.

This example from WhalePower is a turbine blade borrowed from humpback whale flippers, for use in applications ranging from wind turbines to hydroelectric turbines, irrigation pumps to ventilation fans. Compared to smooth surface fins, the bumpy humpback ones have 32% less drag and an 8% increased lift in their movement through air or water, offering (for example) a 20% increase in wind power generation efficiency.

Click the picture above for the latest links about the WhalePower turbine blade.

One of the best round-ups of new wind turbine technology that I have found is this one from the Acoustic Ecology Institute. It is part of their excellent 2009 report on Wind Energy Noise Impacts.

In the case of turbines, noise reduction and efficiency come to much the same thing, and this report is a really in-depth analysis of the whole subject.

Motor winding

Now, take a look at this gizmo. It is a negawatt generator of potentially awesome power. It's part of an ingenious new design for an electric motor by John Petro of NovaTorque, Inc..

There are zillions of electric motors in use today, from those in appliances in your home to all kinds of pumps to motive power for all kinds of vehicles, including electric cars. Together, they account for half of all the electricity that we use.

Just by thinking "outside the box", John Petro realized that by changing the geometry of a motor's magnets and windings, you would save 40% of the steel and half of the copper winding in a typical motor, and be 10-30% more efficient. Applied to half of all the electric energy that we use, that's a potentially huge number of negawatts (and a corresponding reduction in the burning of coal to generate electricity, for example).

This isn't just a dream - the latest links about the NovaTorque Motor will be found here.

Animated picture of 4-stroke engine - if you can't see an animated picture here, it may be a recent Firefox browser problem

Here's another one. Conventional piston engines have always got their turning power via a crank shaft. Each piston moves up and down, turning a crank.

(In a 4-stroke engine, the strokes are 1 - intake, 2 - compression, 3 - power and 4 - exhaust).

Now, if you have ever changed the wheel on a car using a wheel brace, you will know that you get most turning force when you are pushing at right angles to the arm of the crank, and least turning force (none, in fact) if you were (stupidly) to push in line with the arm of the crank.

When a piston starts to descend, and when it nears the bottom of its descent, the crank is in the worst possible position to deliver turning force (torque) to the engine, and it only gets to a reasonable position for a small part of its vertical travel.

We have lived with this inefficiency for years - in millions and millions of piston engines, including the one you probably have in your car right now - until a man called Bradley Howell-Smith started thinking "outside the box".

Brad realized that you could replace the crank with two "trilobate cams" rotating in opposite directions, with each piston pushing a bearing that rides down into the "valleys" that open up, and is then pushed up again as the cams come back into line. The shape of the cams can be tweaked to give different performance characteristics.

The "spreading" action (like forcing open a pair of scissors) creates good torque for much more of the piston's descent than is the case for a conventional piston engine - for details, see here. This difference is the key to this engine's improved performance: it has about half of the size, weight, fuel consumption and emissions of a conventional internal combustion engine of the same horsepower, and is cheaper to manufacture.

This one isn't just a dream, either (latest news here).

Is there anyone else thinking "outside the box" when it comes to improving on internal combustion engines? You betcha - there's a whole amazing crowd of people at work. Just take a look here.

The possibilities go way beyond combustion engines. Here is Amory Lovins again, way back in 1989:

"For example, here is a Fresnel-prism-grooved acrylic sheet from 3M. A firm called TIR Systems in Vancouver engineers this. You roll it up in a tube, put it in a plastic pipe and it is now a total internal reflection light pipe. You feed concentrated sunlight in one end, from which you can remove useful heat for other purposes. You feed in the other end a supplementary artificial light from an efficient source, dimmed with a photocell to give you only as much light as you need at the time. You run this along the ceiling. Wherever you want light you stick in an extractor film to counteract the prisms, and the light shines out. You're now using the same distribution system for daylight and artificial light. You can therefore get daylight way into the middle of a big building. And daylight is what people are designed for. The Japanese do the same with fiber optics. There are many other tricks of this sort."

Today, there are indeed! See here for many examples of the kind of thing Amory was talking about - here is just one:

Picture of subway illuminated with piped sunlight

From this Inhabitat article:

"The Subway Light Project is the first we’ve seen that incorporates sunlight transfer in public urban art, to save the city money on energy, and infuse public space with a good mood boost. Parsons student Caroline Pham, who designed the Subway Light Project, won first place in the school’s 2007 Sustainable Design Review. Her concept uses sunlight capture devices and fiber optics cables to channel sunlight into the enclosed corridors of the subway.
"Caroline’s winning conceptual submission is a public art piece that encourages biophilia and, in effect, promotes energy-saving technology while providing sunlight to sun-deprived underground subways…The technology would be used to illuminate windows and sitting areas, which are graphically designed to illustrate elements of natural and urban landscape integration."

I am looking for follow-ups and realizations of this and similar projects, and may well post some more here in the future.

Meanwhile you will find recent posts (last 12 months) on this particular project if you go here.

The whole subject of Remote-Source Lighting is a fascinating one - you will find lots of links about it here.

After all this...

You may be getting a feeling (if you haven't already had it) that there are some amazing green investment opportunities out there.

It's easy to think that one person can't make a difference - but yes, we can.

Back to Local Contents

The "Smart Grid" - and why it matters

This article focuses on the USA's plans for a "Smart Grid", because the USA's existing electricity grid is antiquated, the scope for improvement is correspondingly huge, and its long-term plan is very ambitious.

The concept is by no means limited to the USA, though - the article finishes with references to interesting grid projects in other countries. Several countries already had technology in 2009 that was still a future option for the USA's "Smart Grid".

Picture of circuit card

What is the electricity grid (smart or otherwise)?

The electricity grid in many ways carries the life blood of the country. It delivers electricity from points of generation to consumers.

The existing electricity grid in the USA, although antiquated and suffering from a chronic past lack of investment, is still a highly complex man-made organism, a system built from many sub-systems of many different kinds.

Like a biological organism, it reacts in complex ways to changes in its environment, to demands placed upon it, and to failures within itself.

What is wrong with the USA's existing electricity grid?

Basically the following:

  1. The grid is not "joined up" across the country. Sources of "clean electricity" cannot feed all the consumers who need them.
  2. The existing grid will struggle to support the introduction of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). The increased load foreseen from such vehicles, and the need to supply them with "clean electricity", are big drivers for the introduction of the "Smart Grid".
  3. The transmission of electricity over long distances is inefficient, wasting energy.
  4. The grid caters very inefficiently to variations in demand. Excessive power has to be generated in order to cope with sudden peaks in demand. Excessive power costs everyone money (and for dirty power sources, it increases pollution and greenhouse gases unnecessarily).
  5. The grid can become unreliable when failures or peaks occur. Power outages, sometimes life-threatening ones, sometimes in isolated communities, can last for long periods of time. Power outages and interruptions cost Americans at least $150 billion each year.

Overall, the grid is suffering from "chronic underinvestment". For example, between 2000 and 2008 only 668 additional miles of interstate transmission were built.

How will the "Smart Grid" improve things?

Basically in the following ways:

  1. The grid will be "joined up" across the country, and will accommodate a much larger and more varied collection of clean power generators, both large and small. Power from renewables such as wind and sun is variable in nature, and the grid will have to accommodate this. Thermal storage may be increasingly used for temporarily storing surplus energy, and tapped when needed via the grid.
  2. Following the lead of Denmark (see below), the grid will accommodate a more decentralized system of local power generation. Local power generation is cheaper to get to the consumer, and is more reliable. A community isolated by a storm will be able to take advantage of the Smart Grid's "islanding" feature. Even cut off from a power utility, the community will be able to combine its various local power sources, including solar panels and even electric vehicles, to keep essential services up and running.
  3. The grid will need technology improvements for two-way grid communications, information gathering and presentation, control and power transmission (superconducting cables), with standards established for supplier and consumer devices across the entire grid.
  4. From the consumer's perspective, the smart grid will provide a financial incentive to schedule power demands at cheap times, allow such scheduling to be done automatically, and will deliver cheaper and cleaner electricity wherever the consumer lives. Consumers with their own local power generators will be able to sell any surplus power via the grid.
    "Smart Grid consumer mantra: Ask not what the grid can do for you. Ask what you can do for the grid - and prepare to get paid for it."

"Smart Meters", by the way, should not be confused with the "Smart Grid". "Smart Meters" are small but necessary components in achieving the Smart Grid.

When will all this happen?

The plan is for it to happen in stages, over at least the next 10 years. The first stage, the so-called "smarter grid", has started now.

Picture of book

Read all about it...

The US Department of Energy has produced a good introduction to the Smart Grid - what you have just been reading is basically my "introduction to the introduction".

You can download the book as a PDF file.

Among other things, the book includes (towards its end) descriptions of some initiatives that are already under way, all of which constitute good news for people concerned about the environment.

One of the most interesting of these projects is the Zero Energy District within the city of Fort Collins, Colorado (known as FortZED).

Picture of Fort Collins

Like the other projects, this one is a working prototype for what is planned in the future. It involves the integration of a mix of nearly 30 distributed resources, including photovoltaic, microturbines, dual-fuel combined power and heat (CHP) systems (utilizing the by-product methane generated from a water treatment plant operation), conventional engines, backup generators, wind, and PHEVs in an ancillary-services role.

FortZED's home page is here, and you will find many articles about FortZED here.

You will find much more information about the Smart Grid on the US DoE's Smart Grid Home Page.

"Smart Grid" developments in other countries

Denmark has been leading the world in the use of wind turbines and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) generation.

CHP can use (among others) natural gas, biomass and waste as fuels, generating both heat (for local use) and electricity (for local use, with any surplus potentially sold to the electricity grid - if the grid is smart enough to allow it).

Many articles on Denmark's use of CHP will be found here, and many articles on Denmark's use of wind turbines will be found here.

The rest of the world has learnt lessons from Denmark.

In the UK, as elsewhere, one of the first steps towards a "Smart Grid" is the introduction of "Smart Meters".

It seems that in the UK the energy regulator Ofgem is playing a central role in "Smart Grid" developments, although I haven't (yet) found anything like the same level of information as that provided by the US DoE.

Nevertheless, Ofgem is active. For example, see the excellent Guardian article "Ofgem plans 'smart grid cities' as it gears up to go green".

As a regulator of monopolies, Ofgem's involvement with the "Smart Grid" concept is dispersed among its various duties (many concerned with the environment), as a quick exploration of its web site will show.

The EU is struggling to meet its climate change and energy goals with existing renewables. The so-called (and perhaps badly named) SuperSmart Grid (SSG) is its highly ambitious proposal to fix this.

The SSG aims to utilise the enormous potential for solar and wind power in the deserts of North Africa. Renewable electricity from North Africa would be sufficient to satisfy the electricity needs of the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe many times over.

The transportation of electricity efficiently over vast distances is not possible with the current AC system (HVAC), but would be possible with High Voltage DC (HVDC) (technology that already exists).

An HVDC grid, or SuperSmart Grid (SSG), could integrate the European electricity market and connect it to neighbouring regions, such as North Africa, and their vast renewable energy resources. The SuperSmart Grid would operate “on top” of the current HVAC grid—only handling long-distance transmission—and existing AC grids would still distribute electricity over shorter domestic distances.

Plans for the SSG are being accelerated, with (as of June 2010) some generation now expected to start by 2015 - see here.

You will find many articles about the SSG here, and the most recent links here.

And finally...

There are obviously (and not so obviously) many complex and subtle issues involved in establishing "Smart Grids" and all the things that go with them.

Some of these issues have to do with changing the incentives for both consumers and producers of power. Amory Lovins foresaw and explained these issues in his keynote address "The Negawatt Revolution" all the way back in 1989, as I have described above. It is encouraging to see that there has been a real acceptance of his principles, which many U.S. states and cities took on board even during the environmentally-dead years of the Bush administration.

With the pace of development across the world picking up rapidly, it is not hard to see that the opportunities for new investment and new jobs is very large.

This is a huge topic, and there is much going on in places that I haven't mentioned. I will try to update and extend this section from time to time.

Back to Local Contents

Solar Roadways

Solar Roadways video

If you have seen this viral video, you will know that Julie and Scott Brusaw have grabbed the imagination of several million people, with an invention that could benefit the lives of hundreds of times that number.

If you haven't seen it, there's no time like the present!

August 2014: This is probably one of the single most important engineering developments for the environment to emerge in recent years. I have written a major post about it in my Categorian blog - click the Cat symbol or the video image or go here to play the video, and for an in-depth look at what is going on.

Back to Local Contents

Microgeneration

Microgeneration is the generation of zero or low-carbon heat and power by individuals, small businesses and communities to meet their own needs (as defined here in Wikipedia). It can also supply surplus energy to a smart grid, as described above.

Microgeneration can take many forms, including Combined Heat and Power (CHP) installations as pioneered by Denmark (see above).

One of the most interesting examples of microgeneration is the rapidly growing use of Archimedes Screw turbines in rivers, taking advantage of very modest falls in water levels without harming fish.

The restoration of Howsham Mill in Yorkshire, England is one such example, where power sold to the grid is helping to pay for the restoration work. Click the image below for links about this restoration.

Picture of Howsham water mill

Another example (August 2010) is the the auction market for green energy currently being set up in California. The idea is to build 1,000 megawatts of decentralized energy generation by allowing developers to bid on projects that would each produce between one and 20 megawatts of electricity. Projects could include small solar farms built on vacant suburban land, or photovoltaic arrays placed on top of wastewater treatment plants or on any other large structures with unused rooftop space.

Back to Local Contents

Local energy harvesting

Dampers used to soak up vibration anywhere can be changed to generate electrical current rather than wasted heat, via small transducers.

For example, people walking across the concourse of a railway station can generate enough electrical energy to power the ticket hall.

Another example: the vibrations of trains, which have to be damped, can power the local railway signalling system.

Picture of radio

Find out more about harvesting the energy of vibrations here. This is a page from the web site of The Material World, a weekly half-hour on-line radio programme from the BBC. It is entertaining and intelligent - click the radio to check it out!

For in-depth articles on the same subject, go here.

Another really interesting development in this area is the EU's Vibration Energy Scavenging ("VIBES") project.

A different method of local energy harvesting is to turn braking force into useful electricity rather than into wasted heat (regenerative braking). Electric motors can act in two ways: either you pump electricity in, and get turning motion out, or else you turn the motor yourself (which resists you) and you get electricity out - the motor has become a dynamo. The Swiss have done this for years, for example in their buses and (more spectacularly) in the Jungfrau Railway, where the descending trains pump electricity back into the network, while using the resistance of the dynamo to brake (only one of several independent braking systems, I hasten to add).

More recently, the same principle is being used in hybrid petrol/electric (gas/electric) vehicles, where the energy generated from braking is stored in batteries to provide driving power later. More on hybrid vehicles here.

And as from 2009, Formula 1 racing cars are adopting the same principle in their kinetic energy recovery systems. While this won't provide much direct help to the environment (there aren't enough F1 cars!), developments in the racing industry have a large influence elsewhere.

Picture of revolving doorA related example is a revolving door installed in a coffee-shop as part of the refurbishment of the Driebergen-Zeist railway station in the Netherlands. People walking through this one door are expected to generate over 4 megawatt-hours of energy per year.

For recent links on local energy harvesting, see here.

Another interesting example of energy harvesting is the reclamation of vehicle exhaust heat to generate electricity in the vehicle. It is estimated that 10 percent savings would amount to more than 100 million gallons of fuel per year in GM vehicles in the U.S. alone. For the latest links on this subject, see here.

Of course, wind farms and tidal barriers are other examples of energy harvesting, but unlike the previous examples they involve trade-offs to be made between the benefit of the energy generated and the environmental impact of the installations and power cables. Almost all environmental issues require trade-offs, which is why local energy harvesting (which has almost no trade-offs) is so interesting. Of course, it is only part of the solution.

Back to Local Contents

Hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles

They are coming in ever-increasing numbers, shapes and sizes - not just cars, but motorbikes, delivery vans, buses, trucks, you name it.

Models selling in 2014 (some shown below) are being offered by Arcimoto, Audi, Balgon, BMW, BYD, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, and a whole lot more in the long list of over 40 manufacturers, finishing up with Zero Motorcycles.

Click the picture below if you would like to see them all!

(BTW: you may not find the last one in the list - it's the latest ultra-modern London hybrid double-decker bus, manufactured by Volvo, and I can tell you that it's a great ride. I couldn't leave this one out!

Picture of hybrid and electric vehicles

plus a whole lot more that you can find at hybridCARS.com. This excellent site will tell you pretty much everything you want to know.

Even now (August 2014), if you have seen a hybrid car on the road, the chances are that it was a Toyota Prius (not surprisingly, since in the first quarter of 2012 it became the third best-selling car in the world, after the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus).

The main trick to the Prius, and similar cars, from an energy-saving point of view, is regenerative braking - using the electric motor as a dynamo (and brake) when you want the car to slow down (see the section on Local Energy Harvesting above). The dynamo action charges a battery which can later provide electric power, saving a modest but significant amount of petrol/gasoline or equivalent. The Prius (and I am sure other cars in future) also turns waste exhaust heat back into electricity, making another useful saving.

The real revolution, however, starts with plug-in electric cars:

  • The (non-plug-in) Prius, and its like, are basically powered by a petrol/gasoline/diesel/eco-fuel engine, supplemented by an electric motor which gets its "free" energy from a battery charged when the car brakes (and maybe also from exhaust heat turned into electricity).
  • Plug-in electric cars, on the other hand, usually have their wheels driven only from an electric motor, powered (via a large and expensive battery) from the electricity grid.
  • Some of these cars (called plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or PHEVs), like the ones you can see here, also have a petrol/gasoline/etc. engine as a backup when the battery range needs extending. This extra engine does not drive the wheels - it only cuts in on longer journeys in order to charge the battery.

And here's the thing. With a plug-in electric vehicle, many complete car journeys, and a significant part of all car journeys, will be powered from the electricity grid (being inside the range of the battery) instead of from petroleum or equivalent. The introduction of these cars will therefore have a major effect on the environment - and on the electricity grid (see the section above on the "Smart Grid").

Electricity is clean at the point of use, but is by no means always clean at the point of generation. Nevertheless improvements in clean electricity generation can be made independently of the vehicles that use electricity.

  • Aren't electric cars too expensive for most people?
  • As with most new technologies, the prices of plug-in electric cars are set to fall as early sales repay the up-front investment costs. You can check out current U.S. prices here.
  • Adoption of all-electric vehicles may also be constrained by the initial lack of charging points for longer journeys. However, as indicated above, this isn't a problem with PHEVs.
  • How much cheaper is it to run a car on electricity instead of petrol/gasoline?
  • Depending on actual prices, electricity might be 5 times cheaper than petrol/gasoline for the same journey. You will find many useful cost savings calculators here in the DriveClean Plug-in Electric Vehicle Resource Center.
  • What about recycling all those car batteries? Isn't this another environmental disaster waiting to happen?
  • The news here seems good. Firstly, batteries for electric cars are being designed to last for the full life of the car. Secondly, car battery recycling industries seems to have got "ahead of the game", so to speak. See this article, with many more links on the subject here.
  • Is an electric car about as exciting to drive as riding on a lawn-mower?
  • It depends on the car, of course, but the short answer is "No problem with oomph". Many of the popular models have plenty of horsepower, and electric motors develop excellent torque at low revs.
  • Can electric cars be too quiet for safety?
  • That's not quite such a silly question as it sounds - see here.
  • The solution, it appears, is to add artificial engine noise when silence would otherwise be dangerous...
  • What about hydrogen-powered cars?
  • I don't see the same uptake yet, although hydrogen has a lot going for it, environmentally speaking (and many practical problems). I may add another section on this page at some time in the future.

For the latest news on developments in hybrid and plug-in electric cars, a good place to look is here. It's also worth checking out EcoGeek's articles on this subject, which are regularly updated.

For a compact summary of EV technology with many useful links, go here.

For an excellent summary of the "state of play" with all kinds of hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles, go here.

I also highly recommend California's DriveClean Plug-in Electric Vehicle Resource Center.

  • Other good things are happening...
  • Smiley In 2014, carbon emissions in the USA are actually falling (links), due to a number of factors including improved engine technology by the automotive industry, and Obama's 17% reduction target for 2020 may actually be met.
  • Ford EcoBoost engineOur small (and wonderful) Ford Fiesta has one of these amazing non-electric engines in it, the tiny turbocharged 1.0 litre EcoBoost, which has emissions so low that we don't have to pay UK Car Road Tax.
  • With only 3 cylinders and small enough to put the main part of it in a plane's overhead locker, it smoothly delivers more power than the 1.4 engine in our previous car, will climb uphill in 5th gear easily at 60 MPH (and much faster), and averages for us over 50MPG (UK gallons) - suprisingly, even more running around town.
  • I'm proud to say that it was a Brit who got even more power out of the EcoBoost engine!
  • Ford, and other manufacturers, are applying similar technology to engines for larger cars and other vehicles.
  • SmileyThe combination of improved technology for liquid-fueled engines, combined with the recent (2014) breakthrough in algae-produced biofuel, means that carbon emissions in the USA and elsewhere are set to fall in even lower.
  • Smileyin the USA, one of the single most important engineering developments to emerge in recent years is Solar Roadways. It will potentially have a huge impact on transportation, clean energy generation and the adoption of Electric Vehicles (EVs), among other things.

Back to Local Contents

Moving heat, instead of generating it

Picture of heat pump

Possibly the most untapped source of energy saving is the heat pump (familiar to most people in the form of an air conditioner or a refrigerator, but it applies to heating as well as to cooling).

Many people don't realize that in the right conditions it can be cheaper to move heat than to generate it.

Even "cold" water (by which I mean water we wouldn't want to swim in!) contains heat that can be moved (by refrigerating the ground water around or under a house, say - the ground water becomes slightly colder and the house becomes hotter).

The popularity of this concept has been steadily growing for domestic housing, as well as for large commercial buildings.

Read more on this topic here in my Categorian blog.

Back to Local Contents

Urban farming

There are an increasing number of urban farming initiatives that together tackle many problems, including global warming, foreign-oil dependence, processed food, obesity and neighbourhood blight.

Farm skyscrapers

Some of these initiatives are high tech, like the "farmscrapers" in the above picture, some are kids from the block happily getting down on hands and knees, but they all seem great to me.

Apart from anything else, my belief is that anything that changes a child's growing-up environment from concrete to greenery is going to benefit everyone's happiness in the future.

I have written a Categorian article on this subject, with many more examples and links to follow, which you can read here.

You could generalize many of the benefits of "Urban Farming" to "Community-Local Farming". It is interesting that many of the new "Eco-Communities" incorporate local farms (organic, naturally) - see here for a very nice example.

Back to Local Contents

Biochar: generates energy, enriches soil, and removes carbon from the atmosphere

Biochar is an ancient process that is making a comeback. It does many things at once: starting with most urban, agricultural or forestry biomass residues, it can generate energy, enrich soil, and actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. It is not merely carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

This is a really interesting development. Click the picture for more!

Back to Local Contents

Biofuels: two steps forward, one step back... and a big new step forward again

Algae-based crude oil

The good news is that biofuels reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% compared to petroleum-based fuels and offer freedom from dependency on oil. The bad news is that the extensive growing of biofuel crops has its own environmental and human impact, as described here.

Recently, however, the news seems better, as new biofuel crops with less human impact are also emerging. The most promising development so far (hugely promising) seems to be the derivation of petroleum from algae - see these links for details.

SmileyThe really good news is that in 2014 engineers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have learnt how to turn algae into crude oil in less than an hour. The impact of this discovery is very hard to overestimate.

This and other advances in biofuel technology are described here.

Back to Local Contents

Recycling

Recycling symbol

Recycling is a natural thing. Nature recycles energy and organic matter (via the food chain and decomposition) and recycles water (via the process of evaporation, condensation and precipitation).

One of our goals is simply not to mess this up (a simple goal that is often hard to achieve).

Humans (should) recycle stuff in order to save energy and conserve non-renewable resources (such as petroleum and products made from petroleum), as well as to lessen the problem of ever-increasing landfill sites.

Landfills also generate methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, as well as toxic gases and CO2. While gases from landfills can be burnt to generate heat and/or electricity, this is not a problem-free option - see here for more informatiion.

Recycling comes in various flavours: high-tech recycling (industries you can invest in), low-tech recycling (a wonderful example below) and stuff we can do at home. In practice, of course, the last two categories overlap.

High-tech recycling

Some awesome examples of this turn up in the field of closed loop recycling, which is different from reusing a discarded product (plastic bags, say) in a different form (park benches, say).

An example of true (closed loop) recycling is the ability to manufacture high quality plastic products such as drink bottles from recycled plastic rubbish that includes drink bottles. In several stages, fragments of the original bottles are extracted from the rubbish, purified, and turned back into plastic drink bottles (the closed loop). This process saves all the oil used to manufacture those drink bottles, and about half the energy that would otherwise be needed.

Movie camera icon You can watch a really interesting video explaining this process here, and you can go here to visit the company that really makes that process work (and whose site has many interesting recycling links). More videos on this subject can be found here.

  • Closed loops that aren't closed...
  • The term "closed loop recycling" has been swooped on as a good buzzphrase that often doesn't mean what it says - a good example of greenwashing.
  • The role of consumers...
  • As well as industries that provide high tech for recycling, other industries (the car and PC industries, for example) are being increasingly persuaded or forced by legislation to make their products out of recyclable components. We can help as consumers by taking such things into account when making a purchase.

Low-tech recycling

Here's a great example.

Scientists have found a way to turn banana waste into a sustainable fuel source that could be relevant to many countries across Africa.

Bananas and briquettes

Rotting banana skins are mashed into a pulp, then mixed with sawdust (in a process that requires no machinery).

This simple low-tech idea was developed by researchers at Nottingham University.

They used banana skins to create briquettes that can be burned for cooking, lighting and heating. The technique promises to alleviate the burden of gathering firewood, the dominant energy source in many parts of the continent, and hence help to reduce deforestation, which makes a significant contribution to global climate change.

Click the image above, or go here, for the full story.

Stuff we can do at home

  • We can make full use of whatever recycling facilities our local council (or equivalent) provides.
  • We can avoid using one-trip plastic bags when we go shopping (the American tradition of the large paper grocery bag is much better). Plastics come from petroleum. There are many small businesses springing up making bags from natural materials such as jute.
  • We can keep bending the ear of our local supermarket's manager (and write to their head office) about the unnecessary use of plastic packaging for produce.
  • We can recycle organic waste ourselves very easily using green composting.

Have you ever wanted to get rid of something but didn't want to throw it away. . and yet not known what to do with it? Check out ReUse Connection and see what people around the world do with everything from old shoes to chemicals to anything you can imagine. They're here on Facebook, too.

Recycling technology

Lots of links here.

Back to Local Contents

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

CCS is a term usually used to describe non-biological ways of capturing carbon at the point of combustion, and storing it - usually undergound - instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture diagram

Since such storage is intended for the very long term, CCS has been seen as a "last-ditch" and still unproven solution to reducing CO2 emissions, particularly by environmentalists who have long fought against the excesses of large oil companies.

CCS has now moved well beyond that stage, and has become one of the many different established technologies that we need for tackling global warming.

New approaches to the problem are emerging all the time. Here's one from EcoGeek (a highly recommended source of eco-technology news):

Picture of rocket exhaust

Rocket nozzles are being studied as part of a new approach to capturing carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of coal power plants and other heavy emissions sites. The new approach could lead to significantly lower costs for carbon sequestration. (Click the image to read the article.)

For many examples of CCS projects, see here.

A large amount of information on CCS and its applications will be found here.

Back to Local Contents

Limitless clean energy from lasers, sea water and magnets - coming closer?

picture of super-nova

The good news is that if we can compress atoms that are found in sea water hard enough, then we can convert a small amount of mass to an enormous amount of energy, while producing no more radioactivity than is found in hospital waste - harnessing the potential of nuclear fusion.

The bad news is that this trick requires the kinds of pressures and temperatures found in the core of the Sun. Up until recently, the solutions being developed have been highly impressive feats of engineering, but the achievement of the final goal has still seemed very far away.

Now, however, a new approach using lasers is emerging that requires less "brute force", as it were, to achieve the objective - you can read about it (and other alternatives) in this news article, and there are many more interesting links to be found here.

Fusion power is not a solution for the near future - the most optimistic date for a real power reactor using the new approach is being quoted as 2030, and that date can probably be taken with a huge pinch of the salt found in the sea-water that it will use. If it ever comes to pass then it will only be part of the mix of available solutions - but an extraordinarily valuable part.

Back to Local Contents

5 Ways To Save The World

This was the title of a BBC TV programme, reporting on ideas discussed at a NASA conference held in 2007. Most of the scientists made the point that they hoped that their proposed use of technology could be made unnecessary by other measures - but if we need a life belt, maybe one or more of these ideas will do the job.

The first two options discussed (creating a sunshade in space using thousands of steerable glass deflectors, of soap-bubble thinness, and creating a very thin sunscreen of sulphur atoms in the stratosphere) are hugely expensive and somewhat risky, respectively, but are both from very respectable scientists (the second suggestion is from the guy who warned the world about the hole in the ozone layer, a problem that has substantially been fixed).

The last three options are really interesting, practical, and it seems not too risky:

  • Use a fleet of umanned wind-powered sailing craft to pump a fine mist of sea water into the air. The mist dries, leaving tiny salt crystals, which drift up into clouds and make them more reflective, so that the clouds bounce back more of the sun's radiation into space. The wind powers the pumps and everything, so these computer-controlled sailing craft are non-polluting. When the numbers are worked out, we would only need to build about 50 of these a year, and they would sail themselves only in certain parts of the ocean. The reduction in radiation is only small, but then it doesn't need to be big to be effective.
  • Set up artificial "trees" (they look more like large fan heaters) that blow air through a simple chemical solution, which captures carbon that can turned into an inert form that can be buried permanently under the sea bed. In a way this is similar to natural processes that result in vegetation capturing carbon and then rotting, and ultimately being buried in strata of rock. In this proposal, the weight of sea water in the ocean would be enough to ensure that the carbon stays permanently buried, for millions of years if necessary. And again, when the numbers are worked out, you need less of these trees than you expect, and it doesn't matter where on Earth you site them - they work for the benefit of all no matter where they are placed.
  • Feed plankton in "desert areas" of the sea with fertilizer. One promising approach would use urea, a naturally occurring chemical (we all produce it) which in a pure form makes a somewhat bitter but drinkable solution. Plankton absorb carbon, eventually die, and drift to the sea bed, taking the carbon with them. This has been tested and produces startling results for extraordinarily small amounts of fertilizer.
All of the above three solutions have the great advantage that they don't produce irreversible effects, and can be simply turned off if no longer required.

In October 2008 the highly prestigious Royal Society started to investigate these ideas seriously - see here for details.

In August 2009 members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers reported that it would be practical within 10-20 years to use the artificial trees concept, together with algae based photobioreactors on buildings, to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The simplest method that they identified to reflect sunlight back into space was to instal reflective roofs on buildings. Their report reiterated that these are short-term fixes to buy the world time, and included a 100-year roadmap to decarbonise the global economy. More on this story here.

 

  • Environment and Technology continues on...
  • Page 2