Friday, November 18, 2005

Friday Hope Blogging

I enjoyed Engineer-Poet's recent post on peak energy versus peak oil. He sees considerable grounds for optimism, and has some interesting numbers to back it up:

The plug-in hybrid is coming; electric propulsion is already good enough to be offering 85% reductions in motor-fuel needs. But that's not the end. Radically improved batteries have been announced by several different companies, offering huge increases in power/weight (5 kW/kg), charge/discharge rate (100 C), and lifespan. The inevitable outcome of these advances is an all-electric car which can go several hundred miles at highway speeds and recharges in 5 minutes. Long before that, the same batteries will make hybrids more muscular than all but the most exotic sports cars. The same advanced 5 kWH battery which could drive a Prius+ for 20 miles or so could also deliver enough power (500 kW!) to leave Corvettes in the dust. If you're imagining a Miata with the power of a NASCAR racer, you've got the right idea....

Humans use about 400 quadrillion BTU (quads) of energy per year from all sources; the Sun delivers this much energy to Earth in about 41 minutes. Developments in the pipeline might increase the efficiency of PV cells from 15% to 60%, roughly 30 times as great as the most efficient higher plants. Such cells would produce an explosion in energy availability and thus energy use, without pollution.
In other news, attempts to make ethanol cheaply from non-food agricultural wastes (i.e., straw and stalks) continue to seem promising. I remain lukewarm about biodiesel, but the worst of my misgivings evaporate when the feedstock is waste cellulose. I can't imagine anything more ghastly than dedicating millions of acres to food crops, and turning them into ethanol at a net energy loss. Cellulosic ethanol, however, is another matter, and a couple of companies claim that they're prepared to move into large-scale production, using fungi to break cellulose down for processing into ethanol. SunOpta is one; Iogen is another.

Treehugger discusses the progress being made towards building two huge new solar arrays in the Mojave Desert, which will use Stirling engines to generate power. Their combined output would be an unprecedented 800 megawatts.

Treehugger also reports on Sun Microsystems' new, more efficient microprocessor:
[T]he new processor...draws an average of about 70 watts, anywhere from half to a third of more traditional processors, which are typically between 150 and 200 watts. Since less energy means less heat, this also cuts down on the amount of cooling needed, which serves to further save energy. Sun claims that removing the world's Web servers and replacing them with half the number of UltraSparc T1-based systems would have the same effect on carbon dioxide emissions as planting 1 million trees. It expects to ship systems based on the processor by the end of the year.
Elsewhere, I've mentioned the use of satellites to monitor and protect endangered species. Now, it seems that satellite surveillance is doing a good deal to protect the severely overfished Chilean sea bass from poachers.
[A] radar satellite surveillance system based on Envisat and Radarsat-1 imagery has cut the number of illegal fishing incursions in the vicinity of Kerguelen Island by nine-tenths. Run for the benefit of the French maritime authorities by the firm CLS (Collecte, Localisation Satellites), a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES, the system is up and running at a time when overfishing has left the 40-million-year-old Patagonian toothfish species on the verge of extinction.


cabearie said...


thanks again for my weekly dose of hopeful news.


Phila said...


I almost didn't do it this week, 'cause I'm really busy today. But I thought of you - seriously! - and figured I was obliged.

Dacelo said...


I'm a recent browser of your fantastic blog. I especially am drawn to the nudibranch pics.

I really disagree with your embrace of the use of biomass (crop waste) for biofuel production. As a grower I recognise that there is no waste. The cellulose needs to be returned to the soil, or we are mining the soil. Cellulose is not solely a product of conversion of solar energy, water and CO2 into fiber. Our soils are so depleted from 250 years of abuse that we need to rebuild them with organic matter for the future with copious cover-cropping. I don't believe it is possible to convert crops into transportation fuel unless via horse-power. At least not to the order of magnitude that would be required to sustain "The American Way Of Life."

The sad fact, as I see it, is that cheap oil and gas have enabled the human population to explode beyond the planet's carrying capacity in the absence of continued oil-supported agricutural practices. And this doesn't even speak to the squandering of our topsoil via practices that have increased loss to erosion, by leaving the soil bare, a totally unnatural condition.

It is we, in the industrialized nations, who are most responsible for squandering the planet's largesse via our car-crazy lifestyle. I admit to being a stick-in-the-mud who rarely drives, but the Internet makes that even more attractive an option.

I hope that Americans will soon recognize the reality of the energy equation, in the face of the post-Katrina/Rita gas price surge, the debate over withdrawing troops from Iraq, and talk of Peak Oil, and accept responsibility for taking steps in their own lives to reduce their energy consumptiion.

That's my $.02. Not in your league, but informed by dirty fingernails!

Phila said...


I probably didn't make myself clear enough. My position is that biodiesel is not a very good idea at all, but that if it's going to be made anyway, cellulosic ethanol is the lesser of two evils. I wouldn't quite describe myself as embracing it!

However, I freely admit that I didn't know what you've just explained to me about crop waste and soil depletion, and I'm grateful to you for filling me in. Now that I know about this, I'm certainly less enthusiastic than before.

That said, my feeling is that the research is valuable, and may end up being useful in ways that we haven't anticipated. That's true of hydrogen power, too; on its face, it seems...well, like an utter goddamn fraud, to be quite honest. But the effort to make it work may be beneficial, just as even the smallest efforts towards deconsumption may be beneficial. I take heart less from the current status of specific, alleged solutions - none of which is sufficient to "save" us - than from the massive amount of effort and creativity going into alternative energy research, redesign, and so forth. There seems to be a willingness to change, and it seems to be picking up steam. I'd never suggest that biodiesel could - or should - sustain us in the style to which we've irrationally become accustomed, but I do feel it may as well be researched thoroughly, so that all the possibilities - and their pros and cons - are known. I really don't know what else we can do.

As far as carrying capacity...well, I don't disagree with you, necessarily. But we're obliged to make an effort all the same, if not for our own sake than for the sake of the rest of the world. I explained my feelings about this at great length in this's not quite as cogent as I'd like it to be, but it's far more detailed than I could hope to be here and now.

Anyway, thanks for the comment, and the kind words! I always appreciate learning new things from folks like you.

Kurt L. said...

In line with what dacelo said, you and your readers (may they be many!) may be interested in reading what William Kottke says about soil in his book, "The Final Empire" (free and available on-line from this URL, ). Soil depletion is only a part of his thesis, but he goes into some depth on it. An amazing book, written more than a dozen years ago.

Kurt L.
Portland, OR

opit said...

Better late than never ? Recharge times for batteries will be influenced by many criteria. One bottleneck has to be energy exchange limiting charge efficiency - you can't melt the powerline !

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