Wind is a Sleeping Colossus

windmills1[1]Since publishing my post on electrifying the Interstate Highway System I’ve been asked where the power to pull off such a sweeping change would come from.  One friend suggested that if the needed power came from coal fired power, there would be little point to such a move.  But I was convinced renewable sources can deliver the energy needed to electrify the interstate highways, and looked for evidence to support that view.  What I found was an environmental blog published by the New York Times in July 2009.  The piece, written by John Lorinc, was provocatively named Study Suggests Wind Power Potential Is Much Higher Than Current Estimates.

Lorinc’s blog refers to a remarkable study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  This study, Global Potential For Wind-Generated Electricity, was produced by Xi Lu, Michael B. McElroy, and Juha Kiviluoma at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University.  These researchers suggested that the potential wind energy in the lower 48 states is equivalent to 16 times the total electrical demand of the United States!!  By itself such a staggering amount of power would clearly be more than enough to realize the dream of electrifying the interstate highways.

But our sources of renewable energy don’t stop there.  Most of the wind energy in the lower 48 states comes from a huge area in the middle of the country stretching from North Dakota to Texas.  But there is an enormous expanse of land further west in states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico where the sun beats down with merciless regularity.  This area could contribute a huge amount of renewable energy in the form of large solar thermal installations designed to produce electricity by concentrating the sun’s rays.

In Canada, the province of Quebec also has enormous wind energy potential, one that may be even greater than the winds of the American Midwest.  Much of the electricity used in New England and New York already comes from hydroelectric sources in Quebec.  It would be perfectly logical to supply much of the electricity needed to power electric roads on our eastern seaboard from wind power sources based in Quebec.  Canada doesn’t need to disturb its toxic tar sands to become an energy superpower!

In recent years the United States has been called The Saudi Arabia of Wind Power.  When we add the huge solar potential of the American Southwest, and the vast untapped wind energy of Quebec we find three Saudi Arabia’s worth of renewable energy in our corner of the world.  Don’t let the naysayers tell you otherwise — there is more than enough renewable energy available to power the electric road of the future.  Much more!

The Most Important Task of Our Time

THE MOST IMPORTANT TASK OF OUR TIME is to electrify the Interstate Highway system.

The Interstate Highway system is a peerless resource.  It has been called the greatest public works project in history.  Let’s capitalize on this unique American treasure by creating an INTERSTATE 2.0 designed to support electric cars.  We want a network electric and hybrid cars can use to hop cross country 40 miles at a time, if need be.  Such a network will let even the early model electrics we have now go anywhere in the country, painstakingly at first to be sure, but with better and better success as time goes by.

Electricity is a unique form of energy.  It alone makes possible a market in which small players can coexist with large.  Electricity is therefore our most democratic form of energy.  No liquid fuel can compete in this regard.  They all tend to make the public dependent on fuel elites, leading to all sorts of mischief.  Look at how powerful the fossil fuel industry has become.  It has enmeshed the Republican party in a cloud of irrational climate denial, a cloud filled with folks who enjoy the fruits of science every day of the week, yet are somehow inspired to dismiss and disparage scientists when it comes to climate.

We can use the electric road to create a rational energy future for ourselves.  While early electric charging stations will be slow, a cascade of improvements will come in time.  Eventually, these improvements won’t just apply to a set of roads, but to the nation as a whole.  By insisting on the creation of the electric road we can launch our country in a new and fundamentally better direction.

The electric road is our best chance to put America back on her economic feet and help restore the middle class.  The Interstate highway may be the largest infrastructure investment EVER made.  It is a jewel at the heart of the nation’s workbench, a colossal archimedean lever mighty enough to give us a place to stand and move the world.  The electric road is an idea who’s time has come, an idea capable of turning heads around the globe in a new direction, toward a new horizon and a brighter tomorrow.

No one in this election cycle has proposed creating Interstate 2.0.  But it’s too important an idea to leave to politicians.  As citizens who care about the future of our country, we need to push this idea ourselves.  Hundreds of billions of dollars fly out of the pockets of ordinary Americans each year paying for gas, much of it bound overseas.  An electric road would re-route much of that money, keeping it in America in our pockets instead, strengthening both the nation’s and our personal economies.

Electrifying the Interstate will eventually drive down gas prices.  I see no reason the "electric gallon" won’t sell for a dollar someday, even less.  But the electric road is more than a path to cheap gas.  It’s a way to address global warming, which is far worse than most now think!  Over the past century fossil fuel combustion has been poisoning plants worldwide.  We’ve put the forests of the world on a pack-a-day habit, and it’s caused them to stop fixing carbon as they normally do.  We need trees to breathe deeply so they can suck CO2 out of the sky.  Instead here we are, gagging the forests with our exhaust, making things worse instead!  Not good!!

Thus any plan to combat climate change MUST include the retirement of the internal combustion engine as a way of doing business.  The longer we wait to stop burning gas as a way to get around, the more hellish life on earth will become.  It’s that simple.  The Electric Road can not only help to heal our economic woes, but steer civilization onto a better climate path.  It’s a win-win.

The jury is more than “in” on the science of global warming.  Every year for a decade now, the predictions have only grown more dire.  If anything, things are worse than we think and the time to act is shorter than we suspect.  America is being attacked by evil weather NOW, not in some dim future.  We are already taking casualties!  If we want our kids to have a decent planet to live on, we need to act NOW.  We can start by recognizing that it’s late in the game, and we need to get on the stick.

America desperately needs to reinvent herself.  Here’s how the Electric Road can make that happen:

PROPOSED: AN ELECTRIC INTERSTATE HIGHWAY ACT
In order to speed market acceptance of electric cars the Federal Government should call for the creation of national standards designed to promote a network of electric-capable roads, meaning highways capable of supplying cars with the electric equivalent of gasoline.  These electric-road standards should include. . .

   LEGACY CHARGING STANDARD
The objective of the Legacy charging standard is to provide support for older and existing electric and hybrid cars.  At this stage we’re talking about stations using household or 220 volt current.  The worst case scenario would be to hop cross-country 40 miles at a time on a limited battery.  Building a network of legacy charging stations will make this modest beginning a reality.

When paying for electricity on the road we should try to automate the billing process, and make buying juice like anything else on the internet.  A wireless adapter for charging stations would also be welcome, especially a system older car owners can participate in by getting a retrofit kit for their cars.  A wireless approach should make it possible to juice up your vehicle simply by parking in a charger-equipped spot.

   FUTURE CHARGING STANDARDS
As the pace of market development and technological change progresses, opportunities will emerge for newer charging systems.  For example, rumor has it that domestic auto makers are working on a system which will charge a car in 15 minutes.  Sounds great!  Over time it’s likely several future charging standards will emerge as technology improves.

   NATIONAL ROAD BATTERY STANDARD
The purpose of a national road battery standard is to support a network of electric "filling stations" based on an interchangeable battery.  We know it’s possible to create the electric equivalent of a "filling station" because an Israeli entrepreneur named Shai Agassi  has already done it!  You can see it in action here:

Better Place Electric Car Switching Station
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8nTAjVaa7Y

A network of electric "filling stations" like the one shown in this video can only work if everyone uses an interchangeable battery–hence the need for a national standard!  Companies can still push competing technologies for how the electricity is created or stored, but the form factor must be standardized.  That’s the only way you can be sure a fresh battery will fit your car when you pull into an electric station.

But because vehicles vary so much by weight and load, a One-Size-Fits-All approach could be problematic.  So a modular system in which several battery sizes could be used interchangeably might be desirable.  For example a clever system which could juggle these three batteries might go a long way to keeping everyone happy:

1x Capacity  (Motorcycle),   4x Capacity  (Sedan),   8x Capacity  (Small Truck)

A national road battery standard would help create a market in moveable electricity.  America is blessed with abundant mix of renewable energy resources which could supply the electricity needed to power the electric road.  A large area stretching from southern California through much of the southwest holds major promise as a source of baseline solar power.  A huge area in the middle of the country stretching from Texas to Montana is also a major source of wind power.

A standard road battery would invite the formation of a power market in which small players can coexist with large companies.  People with land in the windy Midwest will enjoy the prospect of generating income by using a few windmills to charge standard road batteries.  The electric road will create a robust market for such batteries, one which ordinary Americans as well as large corporations will be able to profit from, if only because every dollar’s worth of energy from domestic renewable energy resources is one more dollar Americans get to keep.

   WIRELESS ELECTRIC HIGHWAY STANDARD
The ability to conduct wireless power transmission on the highway would solve a host of problems.  A few years ago researchers at MIT came up with a promising technique to transmit power wirelessly over short distances.  A company named WiTricity was spun off from this activity and they are now working with Audi to develop a wireless charging station for electric cars.  The system only transfers power to devices which use a matching operational  frequency.  Unless the frequency of the sender and receiver match on both ends, no power is transferred.  So it should be possible to build an electric road which will power vehicles wirelessly without creating a danger to people or animals who might walk across it.  For those interested in exploring how this technology works, WITRICITY’s home page can be found here:

WITRICITY
http://www.witricity.com/index.html

A working Wireless Highway Standard would go a long way to opening up the electric road.  It should be possible to implement a system which will allow automatic account verification and billing.  In the final analysis creating the electric road will also involve updating our old electric grid.  Most analysts recognize our need to move past the legacy patchwork our current grid is based on.  The development of the electric road will only increase our need to update to a smart grid.  We can’t hope to fully develop one system without addressing the need to upgrade the other.  So the need to reinvent the electric grid is really a plus, not a minus.  It’s an opportunity to address a problem we need to confront anyway, and yet another reason to build Interstate 2.0.

This dream of Eisenhower, this crown of roads, this peerless jewel which keeps America moving is a critical asset in America’s economic future.  It’s a golden key we can decide to turn at any time.  Doing so will help us retire the God-awful No-Can-Do stench that rises from Washington these days like the fumes of a fetid swamp.  We must not be denied on this score.  We must insist on progress!

I urge all Americans who long for the health of the country to push for the electric road.  Let’s make petroleum compete openly with electricity on the open road!  Good things will come from it.  While I offer this advice to all Americans, I have little hope Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will welcome this development.  Romney, and Republicans in general, are firmly devoted to Big Oil and a history of global pollution we can no longer afford.  There’s little cause to think they’ll heed this call.

To President Obama I make the following plea:  LEAD OUR COUNTRY, MAN!  Get out in front of this issue and help us invent a future for ourselves!  The electric road is a specific proposal.  It’s a call for an act of concrete progress which awaits a moment of public clarity, a clarity which you, Mr. President, can do much to promote!

Your campaign is also at risk, Mr. President, due to the apathy of the youth who helped elect you in 2008.  Young people need leaders who will push a vision of the future they can understand and see their part in.  Who does that for them in Washington now?  No one!!  What better way for you to regain the attention of the young than to push for the electric road?  "Without vision, the people perish" the Bible tells us.  Most of all, I submit, it’s the young who suffer from a lack of public vision.  Who more than they have need of dreams?  Here is my dream for the future of our country, Mr. President.  Please make use of it!

I’d also like to address the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Throughout time the wealthy have found ways to rob us.  Today it’s happening on a colossal scale.  Without question terrible, indeed systemic, injustice is involved.  But here’s the thing: The wealthy have always been expert at protecting their booty, and we look back at a long history of frustration in which people waited for economic justice which never came.
 
So much time has been spent fighting to set things right to no avail, it sometimes seems like a subtle trap.  For one thing it tends to make the OWS movement dependent on the legal system for a judgment.  After the Supreme Court’s vote for Citizens United, it’s hard to have much faith in that strategy!  My advice is to focus on progress instead.  We must INSIST ON IT, in fact! 

Our first obligation to posterity is to MAKE A DIFFERENCE, to be effective in creating positive change.  Our chance to do that improves if we focus on the right objective and insist on progress achieving it.  I suggest that OWS adopt the electric road as this worthwhile objective, primarily because accomplishing it will reach into the lives of Americans in a profoundly positive way.  The electric road is the best difference we are in a position to make.  It is a nexus event in waiting, one with the potential to touch everyone’s life.  Accomplishing it will do more to improve the fortunes of ordinary Americans than any other initiative now proposed.  The electric road deserves our focus.  It is the road to a future worth having.

Finally I’d like to address the climate deniers:  Shame on you!  Your behavior is adolescent.  Adults don’t shy away from the problems life throws at them, they meet them head on.  Climate change is a fact of life, one which only grows more implacably evident with each passing year.  If anything scientist have under-reported the problem because it has become obvious to this group of largely apolitical people that the hot wind of public irrationality await anyone who dares point out that history’s biggest pollution party is coming to an end, one way or the other.

Denial is easy.  Kids do it all the time.  But by engaging in such behavior you have made yourself a burden to your fellow citizens and your children.  The hellish world produced by your inaction and denial will cause them to curse your name!  Please, no more blather about how global warming is a convoluted government conspiracy.  Children routinely find ways to blame others for facts they find inconvenient, just as you are doing now.

The time to grow up is running out for us all.  Either we must find a workable future we can embrace, or the sickening Earth will decide our future for us.  The Electric Road can be a key part of our workable future.  But the challenge is vast, the stakes unimaginably high.  We need all hands on deck.  Especially yours, Mr. President!

Money Monkey Trap

Noted climate change activist, Bill McKibben, recently published an article in Rolling Stone magazine titled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.  In this piece McKibben encourages us to focus on these three numbers:

1st Number  -  2° Celsius
2nd Number  -  565 gigatons
3rd Number  -  2,795 gigatons

The first number is the limit on temperature rise set as a goal at the international climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.  A two degrees Celsius rise has long been considered an upper limit on global warming which we must not transgress.  But recent thinking suggests this number may be too high.  Thus far the Earth has only warmed eight tenths of one degree Celsius.  But we’ve already been visited by numerous violent weather events which have created serious economic damage around the globe.  And this is only the beginning!

The second figure is the tons of CO2 scientists predict we can add to the Earth’s atmosphere before bypassing the two degree temperature increase just mentioned.

The third number, 2795 gigatons, is the amount of carbon which will be released into the atmosphere by using the oil, coal, and gas reserves already on the books as assets for major fossil fuel companies and fuel-states, like Venezuela and Kuwait.  The key point is that this massive tonnage is almost five times more than we can afford to actually burn without sending Earth’s climate into a hellish spiral!

The logic of these numbers reminds me of the folklore of the Monkey Trap.  Monkeys are too smart to be caught by most traps.  But it has long been known that most monkeys can be trapped by putting a piece of food inside a coconut or jar.  The container has an opening which is only big enough for the monkey to get his hand in.  As soon as the monkey grabs the bait, the hole is no longer big enough for him to pull his hand out of the container, which has been chained to the ground to keep the monkey in place.

The monkey is free to release the bait at any time, in which case he will be able to extract his hand from the trap.  But in practice the vast majority of monkeys fail this intelligence test.  Greed drives them to desperately hang onto the bait, even though doing so will condemn the monkey to being caught.

The situation today is not so different for the lords of fossil fuel.  They too are trapped by the dire consequences which will flow from hanging onto the resources they have stuck their hands in the Earth to possess.  Like the monkeys, the lords of fossil fuel can escape the trap by letting go of the bait.  Will humans pass the intelligence test which has baffled so many of their fellow primates, or can they learn to let go of the poisoned prize in the trap?

This question concerns us all.  An individual monkey trapped by a refusal to release a handful of food affects only his own fate.  But the human monkeys who insist on exploiting the 2795 gigatons of carbon inside the fossil fuel trap will release a climate catastrophe which will devastate us all.

Have Battery, Will Travel

Moving the American road from gasoline to electricity will require radical common sense. Until now the range of electric cars has paled compared to the gas guzzlers we’re use to. But that’s in the process of changing. Recent developments in nanotechnology are leading to new types of batteries which will have far greater capacity and far quicker recharge cycles than current products. AltairNano of Reno Nevada has created technology capable of producing devices which hold three times the charge of current lithium ion batteries, and which recharge in a matter of minutes while operating safely in a wide range of temperatures. Researchers at Stanford recently announced a nanowire technique capable of holding ten times the charge of current generation lithium ion devices. With such power packs, electric cars could eventually surpass gas powered cars in range.

But it will be a few years before these technologies become widespread and cheap. Right now it’s the cost of fancy batteries which makes electric cars so expensive. For a public used to driving 300 miles on a tank of gas, the limited range provided by current electric technology isn’t attractive. How can we overcome the obstacles presented by these limitations? Shai Agassi’s Better Place is a company working to find answers to these questions. One of their more interesting concepts is to establish Battery Exchange Stations for travelers on long journeys. You would drive to a Battery Exchange Station as if it were any gas station. But instead of "filling up" the station would use an automated procedure to swap out your spent battery, and replace it with a charged one. According to Better Place, you’d be on your way with a fresh battery in less than three minutes.

Battery exchange stations are a great idea, one capable of letting electric car drivers go on long journeys. But we should take the concept a step further by establishing government standards for Universal Road Batteries, or URBs. Such standards would be designed to let owners of different electric cars share common battery types. The idea is to promote the interoperability we now take for granted when fueling our cars. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive today: a two seat sports car, a sedan, SUV, or pickup truck. You can go from coast to coast knowing that in every state you can pull into a gas station where the pump will work with your car, and what comes out will get you on your way. So the URB isn’t a radical concept, but a way to give electric cars the same freedom to operate over long distances that gasoline provides us with now.

URBs would also help us make sense of renewables. Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. In power company lingo this type of energy is known as non-dispatchable, meaning that when the energy is available, the grid either needs to accept it, or it will be lost. This differs from traditional forms of energy like coal or oil which stick around until we decide to use them. So a key factor in adopting renewable energy sources is the ability to store that energy when it’s available. URBs would fulfill this objective in spades, and in the process provide a huge incentive to develop renewable energy. Millions of interchangeable electric car batteries would represent an energy sink of formidable proportions, one which would provide instant justification to tap the sun and wind to make electricity.

Unlike traditional forms of energy, much of this activity could take place on a decentralized basis by ordinary people. Having a widely practiced Universal Road Battery standard will help every family with a wind machine or solar roof panel power their own car. People with spare acreage in windy states will have an incentive to start their own wind farms, knowing they can "sell gas" to cross country electric car drivers in the form of URBs. And unlike current day gas station owners, these people won’t be passing most of the profit on to a giant corporation. That’s the thing about an electric-renewable economy which won’t be true for other forms of energy. Both the big and the small will get to play. We’ll have the best competition of all, the kind that lets you make something for yourself when someone else decides to overcharge for it! That’s supposed to be what capitalism is all about. It won’t hurt our democracy one bit either!

An End To Fuelishness

There is a great deal of debate today about how we should power our cars. Most recognize by now that the petro-diet we’ve been on is unsustainable in the long run. It’s hazardous to the environment, and given America’s dependence on foreign oil, it’s also impoverishing our country. But while gasoline may have lost it’s luster in the eyes of social planners, there are many champions of liquid fuel champing at the bit to take its place. I am here to argue that a major key to our energy future lies in spurning them all, and moving straight to electricity. It’s time to put an end to fuelishness!

We should look to abandon liquid fuels in general. For one thing, they’re socially regressive. They make us dependent on the powerful minority that delivers the fuel. We will all pay extra at the pump for empowering a new generation of fuel masters. Liquid fuels also require distribution systems which are enormously expensive to build and maintain. In the case of hydrogen, the existing system of refineries and gas stations is largely useless. A new system would have to be built at huge expense. Who would ultimately be asked to foot that bill? Ordinary customers, that’s who! Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel pose fewer infrastructure problems. But all forms of liquid fuel require wasting huge amounts of energy simply to move the stuff around where people can use it. Then there’s the safety question. Is it really a good idea to mix fleets of gas trucks with normal passenger traffic? That’s an issue ethanol can only make worse, as it ignites more easily than gasoline.

Many who recognize the problems of hydrogen will argue for various biofuels. But biofuels have their own problems. Using corn to produce ethanol may be great for corn farmers, but it’s not going to solve our energy dilemma. Growing corn is itself a fossil fuel intensive process. So the net energy payback from ethanol isn’t good. According to Cornell University scientist David Pimentel, it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of Ethanol! Ethanol also diverts land from food production and is already driving up food prices. Switch grass is a better alternative than corn, but with the potential exception of algae, all methods of making biofuel will require huge tracts of land to supply a significant portion of current energy demand.

Changes in land use inspired by biofuel initiatives are increasingly raising alarm with climate change activists. Brazilians have cut down huge sections of the Amazon rain forest to cultivate sugar cane for ethanol. Similarly, large areas of Asian peat lands are being converted to Palm oil plantations to make biofuels. Scientist are warning that these activities may release many times more carbon into the atmosphere than will be saved by the modest greenhouse gas improvement ethanol provides. Fixing our energy problem at the price of losing the war on global warming isn’t a road we can afford to take. Replacing gasoline with biofuels is not the answer to our problems.

As if these reasons weren’t enough, engines powered by liquid fuels are incapable of running efficiently. Heat Engines, which is what combustion engines are, are doomed by basic thermodynamic laws to be inefficient at normal temperatures. The only environment in which heat engines can be truly efficient is far too cold for humans to survive. Gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas–it doesn’t matter. They are all doomed to be wasteful. In practice, combustion engine vehicles succeed in using less that a third of their fuel energy to produce motion. The rest goes out the radiator, tailpipe, or is bled off as waste heat. This is a matter of basic scientific law, and beyond debate. As a result no strategy aimed at achieving real energy efficiency can survive the widespread use of combustion engines. The same is true of any strategy which hopes to defeat global warming. If we are truly serious about fixing these problems, we need to end our reliance on the combustion engine. It’s that simple.

Electricity is the solution to our energy problem. The development of batteries capable of driving a generation of electric cars Americans can be happy with is well underway. Nanotechnology is in the process of radically extending the range of electric cars with batteries that can recharge in a few minutes. Unlike biofuels, electric cars don’t produce 80% of gasoline’s emissions: they have ZERO emissions! While heat engines are stuck well under 50% efficiency, a well maintained electric car can be 90% efficient. As Intel’s founder Andy Grove points out, electricity will also provide a unique flexibility in handling our energy problems. It can be produced from many sources, including solar and wind. It can be transmitted with virtually instant speed across the landscape. Unlike hydrogen or natural gas, we won’t have to completely rebuild our delivery system to accommodate electric cars. The national electric grid as it exists today is already capable of moving us in the right direction. Yes, the grid will need to be augmented as electric demand grows. But there’s no reason this can’t happen in an orderly fashion in the years to come. Current initiatives by the fledgling Obama administration are already beginning to lay the groundwork for the smart grid of the future.

To replace liquid fuels, the electric game plan will rely on a bridge technology called the hybrid car, a type of vehicle which combines a traditional gas engine with a rechargeable electric storage system. Hybrids have existed for some years, and are currently manufactured by several companies. Hybrids use several techniques to extend gas mileage, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The plug-in hybrid, which owners can recharge at home, represents the next step, leading eventually to the all electric car. Over the coming years, this progression will provide a clear path traditional car manufacturers can take to help us evolve an electric future.

During this period there will be many temptations to extend our long reliance on liquid fuels. But it is critical that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from the goal of an electric future. In order to fend off catastrophic climate change, there can be no place for widespread use of liquid fuels. Either we stop dumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the sky, or we will pass on a sickened planet to our children. The electric car is the one way for us all to keep driving and avoid that outcome. The alternative is catastrophe.

Software Dogs

As my friends will attest, I’ve complained about software for years. As a User Group founder, tech writer, trainer and PC go-to guy, the software experience has long preoccupied me. Recently, while walking a small cocker spaniel named Lily, the perfect metaphor for my software disenchantment sprang to mind.

It’s all about walking the dog. I’m fond of Lily, but she can be something of a twit. Her only job, as her owner puts it, is to be spoiled. Left to her own devices, she’d as soon stay indoors. But put a leash on her and she’s all for taking a walk. Unfortunately she’s not interested in walking with me, or whoever is holding the other end of her leash. Trying to cross the yard with her is a field exercise in attention deficit disorder. Her nose takes over and she flits erratically across the terrain, darting off in all directions, routinely crossing behind my back. The idea of heeling, of paying attention and following my lead, is the furthest thing from her mind.

Most software today works like this. It doesn’t care what we want, and doesn’t follow our lead. It doesn’t pay attention to our behavior in order to anticipate it, and make our lives easier. In short, like Lily, most software doesn’t know how to heel! Instead, we are constantly required to "pull the dog" in the direction we take to accomplish our work. In Lily’s case, it’s a hyperactive nose that proves distracting. But for many software developers, intellectual vanity plays that role. Coders are in love with the "Next Big Thing," with creating the "innovation" that will "rewire our world." Many are cleverness junkies seeking to impress themselves and each other with their latest act of deftness.

In the process they’ve lost sight of the fact that true service is humble. They offer a surfeit of visionary zeal when what the world needs instead is devotion to the mind of ordinary users. It’s the collective input of ordinary people that make networks sing, and by which great things may be accomplished in the long run. Let us not be dazzled by the Internet in this regard, as impressive and innovative as it doubtless is. We do well to recall that while the mist may shimmer, it owes it’s existence to the warm waters below.

Ancient Soil Secret

Conventional wisdom had long held that the soils of the Amazon basin were poor in quality: loose in texture, burdened by too much aluminum, and depleted by torrential rainfall. But in 2001 scientists from several countries became aware of a mysterious substance the locals called Terra Preta, or Dark Earth. Extensive tracts of land in the heart of the Amazon were blessed with rich dark soil where logic suggested none should exist. This soil was not only remarkably fertile, but had endured despite centuries of human inactivity, the result of the local culture’s disruption by early European explorers. For the past eight years scientists have struggled to understand the Black Magic behind these apparent contradictions.

A consensus has emerged about the magic of Terra Preta focused on Biochar, an organic charcoal created with a low oxygen fire which merely chars vegetable matter, rather than burn it completely. While no one has been able to duplicate Terra Preta exactly, it now seems clear that adding biochar to the soil was the key ingredient in its formation. The good news is that we don’t need the precise formula for Terra Preta to get tremendous benefits from biochar. Properly applied, biochar is capable of doubling, even tripling, the fertility of most soils. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers by 75%, and reduces greenhouse gases emissions of the land it’s used on. Even better, biochar is the gift that keeps on giving. Unlike fertilizer, it persists in the soil for hundreds, even thousands of years. In the process it removes carbon from the atmosphere. As a result climate change activists are starting to embrace biochar as a potent way to fight global warming.

You too can use biochar to improve your garden this spring! The Gardening With Biochar FAQ web site is filled with helpful information, and is a great place to start. For simple ways to make biochar in the back yard with a steel barrel, check out the Official Biochar Tutorial Video or this Making Charcoal page. An overview of basic techniques to create biochar can also be found at Simple Technologies For Charcoal Making, an on-line document produced by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 02.05.09)

Greening The Desert

This is truly revolutionary stuff, in the original sense of the word. It’s a short video about a project led by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute, a project who’s objective seemed impossibly difficult: to make one of the most desolate places on earth, a salt encrusted piece of desert near the Dead Sea, bloom with new life. To grasp what these people have done is to understand that even “insurmountable” problems, like global warming or peace in the middle east, can be solved by working with nature to make the land come alive. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Senator Mitchell: Are you listening?

”We could regreen the middle east. We could regreen any desert, and desalt it at the same time. You can fix all the world’s problems in a garden. . . Most people today don’t actually know that, and that makes most people very insecure.”

 

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.28.09)

Future Transit

We all know the reasons for action: Cities clogged by chronic traffic congestion; airborne pollutants which harm the health of millions; greenhouse gas exhaust which promotes ominous climate change. The need to develop new forms of mass transit to help transform our car-crazy world is clear. What’s not so clear is what form such action should take. Europe and Japan have made significant strides developing high speed rail systems. But to date not much has been done in the United States to bring mass transit into the 21st century. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, there is fresh cause to hope that long overdue action is coming. Clearly many have been nursing forward looking visions of what we might do, as this Comparison Matrix of Ready and Emerging Innovative Transportation Technologies developed at the University of Washington shows.

America’s transportation future should be based on phasing out internal combustion engines in favor of all electric cars, a subject I’ll deal with in greater length elsewhere. Going electric will make cars lighter in general, making passengers more vulnerable to collisions with heavy vehicles. For the sake of passenger safety, as well as overall energy efficiency, we should move most long haul trucking off our highways and back to trains. Accomplishing this goal should be the focus in updating our existing railroad system, not moving people around at high speeds. We need to update existing trains as a freight distribution system which will relieve highways of much of heavy freight they now carry. Doing so will not only make travel safer for passenger traffic, it will save energy and lower stress on our roadways.

Adopting the European approach to high speed trains would be a mistake for the United States. The expense required to install ground based high speed train service for a country as large as the US will be astronomical. People here also need to go faster than Europeans simply because the US is a much bigger place. But as the speed of ground based traffic rises, the potential for mayhem, mischief, and disaster rises with it. Moving people around on a national basis at speeds appropriate to the size of the US should cause us to move high speed transit off the ground, if only to reduce potential disasters.

ATI’s (Airtrain Inc.) Advance Guideway System is an approach with significant advantages over most high speed rail schemes. ATI’s current design uses a vehicle which carries 114 people hung from an overhead guide rail. Two modes of propulsions are used. At lower speeds drive wheels grasp the guide rail to push the vehicle along quietly. At higher speeds ducted thrust fans take over. Vehicles are reversible, so there is no need for two tracks. They can also be linked in groups to form multi car trains. Because the guide way is suspended from mounts, vehicles don’t interfere with local ground traffic and can use existing rights of ways. The system is also capable of climbing 15% grades, eliminating the need to tunnel through mountains. Both propulsion methods use electricity supplied by the guide rail. So no fossil fuel or combustion is involved.

The key to ATI’s system is dual propulsion. This is a system which acts as a subway or light commuter rail in town, and a like a propeller airplane when going cross country. Like airplanes, ATI’s vehicles pitch and roll when going around curves. The initial system is rated to operate at 150 miles per hour. But the company is already working on a 250 mph system, and is committed to providing 300. Since propeller airplanes can operate efficiently up to 350 mph, further headroom may be possible in the years ahead. These are speeds we are unlikely to see from ground based trains, and at which it would be inadvisable to operate ground traffic, even if it were possible.

A national network based on ATI’s system would be cheaper and faster to build than high speed ground trains. With enough time and development a grid built on this technology could displace national jet flights for all but the longest routes and most demanding travelers. Eventually express trains of this type could go coast to coast in ten hours. You would be able to take a sleeper car in New York, and wake up in Los Angeles. Advanced Guideway routes would also serve as superior form of urban commuter rail, allowing workers who live much greater distances from downtown retain the ability to commute into the city each day.

Of course one reason Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit services is the need to get around a distant town once they arrive. If someone feels they’ll need a car once they arrive in a city, they might as well just drive there to start with! This brings us to the other end of the national grid scale: the need locals and visitors alike have to simply get around town. Many schemes are being floated to solve this problem, but most will required extensive and expensive changes in how cities work. Rather than futuristic notions of fleets of small ownerless vehicles, or cars that can ride on rail lines, we might be better served by resurrecting an old Jazz Age phenomena called the Jitney, or Share Taxi.

IGT Taxibus is a British firm which presents a compelling scheme for what might be called Jitney service for the 21st century. The IGT system is composed of four elements: a fleet of minibuses to move people around, cell phone networks to order rides and coordinate payments, GPS to guide travel routes, and computer networking to coordinate fleets with maximum efficiency. Taxibuses provide door to door service, and IGT claims an average wait-time of only three minutes between ordering a ride, and being picked up. Fares would be automatically handled on cell phones, eliminating the token taking and exact change problems typical of city buses. IGT claims that Taxibus travel times will be much closer to a car or taxi than a city bus, especially as a Taxibus delivers riders directly to their destinations without the need to park a car on arrival.

IGT’s analysis suggests that the biggest benefit will be the elimination of six cars from city streets for every working Taxibus. For the scheme to work properly large fleets of Taxibuses are necessary to provide the quick response times IGT projects. But if IGT’s analysis is even close to being right, the benefit of deploying a large fleet of Taxibuses in big cities would be immense. A huge number of cars would be taken off the roads, resulting not only in big energy savings, but significant reductions in urban congestion and exhaust emissions. Furthermore, any city served by a large Taxibus fleet would give travelers added reason to ride high speed transit to town, rather than driving a car there. If you know cheap Taxibuses are available to ferry you door to door around town on short notice, there will be little reason to drive your car into the city to start with.

The combined strategies embodied by ATI’s Advanced Guideway System and IGT’s Taxibus can form a rich synergy capable of putting a major dent in America’s overwhelming traffic load. Who will want to drive a car 1000 miles when it’s possible to hop an Air train that moves at 300 miles per hour? Why would you need to drive your car to a distant city swarming with Taxibuses ready to provide quick door-to-door service? Yes, it will doubtless cost a great deal to create an Advanced Guideway network that covers the entire country, but not nearly as much, and to much better effect, than a ground based high speed rail system.

More importantly, it will cost us even more in the long run to do nothing. America needs to look up and embrace its future. It can do so by bringing the equivalent of flight down to the people. On the other hand, we need a way to unsnarl our complicated cities which won’t require the immense cost of retrofitting them with futuristic urban schemes. The indignity and inefficiency of city buses has soured most Americans on the prospect of mass transit. Taxibus fleets deployed in large numbers could remedy this, and in the process take huge numbers of cars off the roads where it matters most: from the heart of downtown.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.26.09)

Project Spotlight

Americans burn millions of barrels of oil to light up the sky each night. This represents a huge burden, not only in terms of energy outlay, but for the constant river of equipment, time, and effort needed to keep the process going. Street lighting also adds significantly to our national health care bill. Normal sleep behavior in humans is easily disturbed by artificial light, and there’s substantial cause to think it complicates our health by interfering with normal sleep patterns.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) is an emerging lighting technology which offers new ways to cope with these problems. In its early years LEDs were only capable of emitting specific colors, notably Red and Green. But blue LEDs have recently become available in large numbers, and with them comes the prospect of using LEDs to create light of any color. Since the 1960’s the efficiency and light output of LED technology has been doubling every thirty-six months. As a result LEDs have become an order of magnitude more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and are starting to eclipse fluorescents as well. Other key advantages of LEDs include a much longer life span, low heat emissions, and superior susceptibility to complex computer control. LEDs are virtually instant-on devices which can be cycled on/off many times more often than other forms of lighting. They are also much more directional than normal lights, a fact which can be used to both increase efficiency and lower light pollution. Last, but not least, LEDs fail gradually by slowly growing dim, in stark contrast to the abrupt failure of incandescent bulbs.

All these advantages add up to a tremendous opportunity for America to save energy and fight global warming. A 2008 white paper funded by the Ford Foundation found that if the our ten largest metropolitan areas convert to more efficient lighting, CO2 emissions will be cut by 1.2 million tons a year, the amount produced by 212,000 cars! The long life of LEDs would also save money by slowing the rate at which municipalities need to buy and install replacement lights.

But LEDs may make a radical new kind of economy possible, one based on not bothering to light empty streets where no one is stirring! It has been our habit to light millions of empty streets each night all across America, streets which for long stretches of time are completely devoid of traffic, where no one is even awake enough to know if lights are on! This is a colossal waste of energy which LEDs are ideally suited to put an end to. Equipping LED street lights with motion sensor detectors will let us turn lights on only when there are actually people there to see and use them. LEDs can accomplish this because unlike incandescent lights they can power up/down a huge number of times without breaking, and unlike florescent lights they turn on instantaneously.

Under this scenario a street would light up before you as you drove or walked down it, only to fade back into darkness when no traffic is present. Some might object this would lead to a “strobe light” effect all over town. But LEDs are ideally suited for sophisticated network control which could provide many options. One might be to simply dim lights slowly on streets with little or no traffic, instead of shutting them off completely. Programming for a new generation of street lights could be split between the local intelligence of individual lights designed to react to real-time traffic, and a central control center which could override their behavior with its own programming. Such systems might consist of street lights with flash memory software which could be updated from a central office. This would allow the programmed behavior of an entire municipal lighting system to be updated on the fly without needing to send workmen into the streets.

What’s needed at this point is a grand experiment, one designed to test these possibilities in the interest of arriving at an optimal solution, one which balances our desire to conserve energy while providing nighttime illumination people find useful and comfortable. Only by conducting such an experiment can we learn what will work best. I also suggest that this needs to be a national experiment sponsored by the federal government. If we are to move on this into the 21st century as a people, it won’t do for each town to have their own way of programming street lights. However inefficient our current way of lighting up the night may be, it has the advantage of being predictable. Regardless of the state or city we’re in, we know what to expect from street lights. But as with all systems which contain significant software, this new technology will be capable of surprising us with unexpected behavior. Such surprises can be good or bad. To make sure it’s the former, we need to coordinate our efforts to create a standard way to use this new potential, one tested by real experience.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette 01.10.09)