November 22, 2015

Architectural solar cells

You know that photo of a parking lot where the rows and rows of cars are covered with a canopy of solar cells? "Share and Like if you think every parking lot should look like this!".

Umm no. I've always argued that the ideal parking lot, say, for a mall, should have several dozen parking spots close to the entrances, all for handicapped parking. Plus a bus stop.

As a sign that I've been living in small-town America for a long time, I had forgotten to advocate for bicycle parking. So here is my bit on that conversation: Share and Like if you think every parking lot should look like THIS:

This is a typical bike lot in the Netherlands. It can accomodate a dozen bikes in the space ordinarily taken up by a single car. A roof protects the bikes against frequent Dutch rains.

But this one has a novel catch: solar panels on the pleasingly curved surface. These are architectural thin-film solar cells that are bendable: so you don't need a flat surface to mount them on; they can be applied to buildings with visually interesting curved surfaces. Think of what an archtect like Zaha Hadid could do with that!



You may also like:
1. EV Unplugged: the TRULY zero emission electric car
2. Solar Energy From a Road Surface is Now a Reality
3. How to Slash Transportation Emissions


November 16, 2015

#BadDino vs Our Children

Imagine that, sixty-five million years ago, a comet did not hit the earth, and kick up a dust cloud. Nuclear-winter-like conditions did not follow. The planet remained balmy, and dinosaurs prospered. Further, imagine that even though dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was still enough biological space for mammals to develop, finally producing homo sapiens sapiens with all our ingenuity, our agriculture, our technology, and our addiction to such things as "Call of Duty" and "Candy Crush Saga".

Now suppose that there has been genetic cross-talk, and evolution, and that the dinosaurs that survive after all that time have taken on the shape of businesses. Some are small, some are large; some are behemoths. Some of the most successful ones do trade in those things that are even older than dinosaurs, fossilised carbon in all its forms: coal, oil and natural gas.

This carbon was largely deposited around 300 million years ago, in a geological era called, fittingly, the Carboniferous. So those carbon deposits were already ancient when dinosaurs came on the scene, 230 million years ago. The burning of that carbon yields the carbon dioxide that is now de-stabilising our planet's atmosphere.

Photo by Marcin Polak

Here's the thing about dinosaurs: They have - by definition - a reptile brain. This brain governs the quests for food and for mates. It is associated with such behaviours as aggression, dominance, and defense of territory. These properties are all manifest in the behaviour of today's dinosaurs surrounding their digging up, refining and selling of carbon-based fossil fuels, which they call business.

Think also of the Gary Larson cartoon of the crocodile in the witness box saying, "Well of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot! ... I'm a reptile!"

October 11, 2015

Why VW diesel fix comes later to American drivers

European drivers of VW diesel cars are, if anything, even more frustrated than their American counterparts. This is partly because VW is a fixture on European streets: world's largerst car manufacturers makes most of its cars for Europe. It has long been a popular brand known for making sensible and affordable cars, and people (like me!) have a soft spot for its iconic models like the beetle and the campervan.

So when my brother in law in Holland forwarded me a Q&A page on VW diesels, I glommed onto it the way I studied for my driver's test (yes, it's in Dutch; but Google translate does a decent job of turning it into other languages). The page is on the website of ANWB, the Dutch automobile association (even though it's still called a cyclists' association for historic reasons).

Photo by Art of Nature and Life

The questions sent in by its members are very much like those asked by American diesel owners: What will the fix do to my fuel efficiency? The horsepower and torque? The resale value of my car? Should I sue VW? Will I need to pay extra emissions tax on the car purchase retroactively? (the answer is no: the Dutch government intends to make VW responsible for those damages).

And the one big question: WHEN will my car get the fix?

October 4, 2015

Martian SUV

On Mars as in the USA, vehicles are getting larger with time. You can see why: payload is tough to get into orbit, and expensive. I don't actually know what the postage for, say, the Mars Rovers' communications devices, but I bet it's larger than the total annual revenue of the postal services of a small country.

The first Mars rover, the 1997 Sojourner, was barely larger than a skateboard. The ones in the next mission in 2004, Spirit and Opportunity, were about the size of a bicycle, albeit one with six wheels and solar-panel wings. And Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, is the size of a car, crammed with cool instrumentation for exploring the Martian surface.

The next one will be the size of a large SUV - electric, of course. There's a great side-by-side comparison of how things happen in the movie The Martian and how NASA's engineers are designing things for the #JourneyToMars project; one of them shows an exploration vehicle designed to house and move two people.

October 1, 2015

In-Car Smoking Ban

Smokers take note: starting on October 1, 2015, you may no longer smoke in your own car (or anyone else's) if you're sharing the car with a child under 18. The ban covers England and Wales (and the Scottish parliament is considering a similar ban).

This is a Good Thing, especially for the chidren we love. Why expose them to the risks of second-hand smoke? The anger unleashed by the Volkswagen diesel scandal shows clearly that we value the health of our lungs, and there's no worse attach on a child's developing lungs than having them share a small confined space with a cigarette smoker.

September 27, 2015

What to do if you own a Volkswagen diesel car

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the emissions fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which installed software that enabled some VW models to behave like saints during the EPA emissions tests, while allowing devilish behaviour out on the road while you are at the wheel going about your daily business.

During the tests, the NOx emissions come in under the legal limit, while in real-life conditions it can be 10 to 40 times larger than that legal limit. NOx is a gas that contributes to small-particle pollution (better known as smog) that's bad for lung health.

Why did Volkswagen do this?
Why, to save money, why else?

This is not cool. I bought my diesel Golf because it offered decently high mpg without the environmental and maintenance problems of the battery in a hybrid, and without the range issues of most affordable EVs. I did know about the particulate emissions but made a conscious decision that the low carbon emissions was worth the added pollution, especially since I live in a small town where the dust from unpaved roads make a larger contribution to the particulate levels in the air.

But I didn't buy it so that I can spray egregious NOx emissions.

September 23, 2015

The Popemobile is a Fiat 500

Pope Francis, arriving in the United States, landed at the Andrews Air Force Base, was enthusiastically greeted by a welcoming committee headed by President Obama and Vice-President Biden, walked the red carpet, was cheered by the crowd inside the terminal building - and drove away in a Fiat 500.

To be precise, it's a Fiat 500L, the larger version with more space in the back. But it's a Fiat 500 nevertheless. And this is fitting for a pope who has chosen simplicity over pomp (just look at the saint whose name he has adopted). This is the man who, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, used to take the bus to work.

And now, Pope Francis has skipped over the Rolls Royces and the Cadillacs, and climbs into a Fiat 500.

September 21, 2015

"The butler - I mean the software - did it."

This is the 21st century where very few of us have butlers. That's nothing new: it has always been the case that very few people have butlers. But what is new is software, and most of us got that. Software still won't make you a cup of tea, but it sure can act as your personal assistant, your secretary, and your accountant.

And software now runs your car, which is said to be evolving into what's basically a large tablet on wheels. Software regulates the mixture of fuel and air injected into the cylinders of your car's engine, the timing of the ignition, and myriad other housekeeping tasks that used to be performed by mechanical devices.

Like butlers, software can, shall we say, embellish reality. Like a butler compliments his employer on his looks after the elaborate grooming for the dinner party (think Jeeves), so a car's software can be devious. But unlike butlers, who make their own decisions about whether and when to deliver a white lie, software has to be deliberately made deceitful by the people writing it.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Volkswagen is fully responsible (and has admitted as much) for installing less-than-honest software in some of its diesel models. The crooked code detects when the car is going through an emissions testing cycle, and adjusts various parameters to minimise emissions of NOx gas. These nitrogen oxides contribute to smog formation which is very bad for your lungs.

September 19, 2015

Wind Parks: Heavenly Vision or Eyesore?

Here is the vision for our zero-carbon future: Everybody will get around in electric cars. And all the electricity to run those cars will come from renewable sources, like solar and wind, both as good as zero carbon, once you start manufacturing them using energy from solar cells or windmills that you've already built.

Great idea, right?

Another source of renewable energy, hydropower, already provides more than 6 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States in 2015. They were built in a gung-ho time: first their construction gave lots of jobs. Once they were finished, they supplied electricity to growing cities as well as water to both cities and agricultural users. Not to mention the opportunity for water sports, in all those places that would normally not have enough water for a row boat, never mind yachts and water skis.

People love dams. But oddly enough, people don't love wind parks.

That's too bad, because wind is actually one of the most promising sources of clean energy. Already, at 60,000 megawatt (MW) installed capacity, it supplies 4 percent of the electricity used in the nation, and it's growing by leaps and bounds.

Back in 2008 wind already generated 52,000 gigawatt-hours of energy. A gigawatt (GW) is a billion Watts. But those 52,000 GWh is a tiny fraction of how much energy could potentially be generated by wind in the US: That number is mind-bogglingly large: 37,000,000 GWh, or 30 times the nation's entire current electricity consumption. Conveniently, the wind potential is reasonably well-distributed, peaking over a broad swath of the midwestern states as well as at the coasts.


So why aren't we buliding wind parks like mad?

September 6, 2015

Coal Is Amazing

The coal industry just badly tore a nail while desperately scrabbling for a handhold, trying to keep itself from sliding down a slippery slope to oblivion. Okay, that "oblivion" bit was wishful thinking on my part, coal will be with us for a while yet, for while it yields the dirtiest form of energy in so many ways, it's also the most plentiful and the cheapest.

But it is, as the Guardian points out, a sign of the coal industry's desperation that it feels the need for a charm offensive. The most recent is the "Coal Is Amazing" ad from the Minerals Council of Australia.

The ad features suggestive landscapes in shades of charcoal grey, with a soft-spoken female voiceover whispering seductive things about coal.

In response, Australians have taken to Twitter and subverted the #CoalIsAmazing hashtag with their own take, peppered with plenty of black humour. Or should that be anthracite humour? All the sarcasm stops have been pulled out in this reaction, the outpouring of disgust completely eclipsing the original intent of the hashtag.

Here are a few samples:


In response to "aesthetic objections" to wind farms:

September 5, 2015

How to Slash Transportation Emissions

California (who else?) is leading the nation in reducing carbon emissions. The state is gripped in a devastating drought that is made worse by the effects of climate change, and Governor Jerry Brown is proposing a suite of bold mandates. By 2030, the energy efficiency of buildings must be doubled; half the state's electricity is to come from renewable energy, and California's transportation must run on half the oil that it uses today.

Of these, the first two are pretty straightforward. Energy efficiency in buildings is such a good investment that it should be a no-brainer, since many measures pay for themselves in a few years. The renewable energy sector is already providing 20 percent of California's electricity, and solar energy in particular is now growing in leaps and bounds, so it's quite possible for the renewables portion to reach 50 percent in 15 years.

Everybody can see that those two goals are within reach. But the third goal, to reduce transportation use of petroleum by half, is becoming a contentious issue. In large part it's the reality that, in California like everywhere else in the nation, almost everybody depends on their car to get them places. Places they really need to go, like work. There are pockets with great public transport, but by and large the car is it.

The oil industry, whose profits come in large part from our wallets, which we open every time we stop at the gas station, has entered the "discussion", casting the proposal as a disaster and painting a near future in which gasoline is rationed, leading to long lines like during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and even the banning of minivans.

Of course they would. It's their profits at stake here, after all, and in the long term we're talking about their very existence that's on the line, if this kind of legislation spreads beyond California the way sensible legislation tends to do.

August 28, 2015

What to Do About Our Choked Roads?

There is a poster, produced by the city of Muenster in Germany, for their 2001 campaign to push for better space management of their roads. It compares, side by side, the space required for sixty people to commute to work by car, by bus and by bike.

A picture is worth a thousand words! A composite picture like this poster is worth more than three thousand words, which is great for me, as I have a few other things to say.