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Combined-Source Energy Farms

March 10, 2010 1 comment

We see more wind and solar farms popping up every day. What we don’t see (or at least I haven’t seen) are the two being built in the same place. Think about it: the only times that solar panels don’t generate electricity are at night, and when it’s cloudy. Generally it gets cloudy as a result of weather systems, which usually cause it to be windy. So why is it that we see wind farms and solar farms as totally separate facilities?

If the goal of building a renewable generation facility is to power a certain area of the energy grid, it only makes sense to utilize every source that we can. The biggest problem with renewable energy plants is their downtime. The sun only shines, and the wind only blows, at certain times. Building solar collectors and wind farms together could greatly reduce downtime of the facility by taking advantage of the weather, and prominent energy source at a given time. A solar farm that generally loses 30% of it’s uptime due to weather could greatly benefit from a wind farm that would make use of most, if not all, of that downtime by taking advantage of the weather systems passing through. With this method the capacity factor of renewable energy generation facilities could be increased to compete with current coal, oil, and nuclear plants.

The amount of generation capacity per energy source could be adjusted to suit a given area. For example, a wind farm located in a natural air stream would not see much necessity for incorporating a large solar collector, however a small one may be added simply to increase the efficiency and capacity factor of the overall facility. Likewise, a solar array in a naturally dry and sunny location may increase it’s capacity factor with a few wind turbines.

The biggest advantage of this setup, however, is that renewable energy generation facilities can be built in areas that do not favor one form over the other. Many towns and cities that do not have major wind currents, nor an exceptional amount of sun, can get reliable renewable energy from a plant that balances wind and solar sources. This now creates the opportunity for many cities and villages to generate their own renewable energy. Benefits could also be seen by building combined-cycle plants, generating both electricity for power and heat for the town or parts of the city.

There is a lot of energy out there just waiting to be harvested, we just have to build the facilities to use it. I think that all energy farms, being built for the sole purpose of powering a certain area, should take advantage of the different sources of energy available. What do you think?


The Flaw With Fusion

Fusion target implosion on NOVA laser

Fusion power is currently the undisputed ideal form of energy production. It is similar to the current widespread nuclear fission power, but instead of using enriched radioactive fuel, it works by focusing intense energy on a single point, causing several atoms to fuse into a single, larger atom. This is the same kind of energy that powers the sun. The easiest fuels to use are the isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium (²H) and tritium (³H), because they react at the lowest temperatures.

But you didn’t come here for a chemistry lesson. The fact of the matter is that fusion power has been marketed to the public as being able to use water as fuel and produce helium as a byproduct, which is true. But even though this form of production is incredibly efficient, we are still turning water into helium. I know what you’re saying, there’s a LOT of water on this planet, right? How much can we afford to lose? There is only so much water on this planet at one time, and we will never get that water back unless we invest the energy to turn the helium back into water.

These power plants are said to only need to consume one liter of water to produce the power we get from 500 liters of petroleum. But how much water do you think it will take to power the whole planet? In 2008, total worldwide energy consumption occurred at a rate of roughly 15 terawatts (source). If I did my math right, it would take 22,000 lbs. of water to power the Earth for one day on fusion power, that’s over 4 thousand tons per year!

That may not be very much water in relation to the amount on the planet right now, but we’re talking about permanently upsetting the balance. Once fusion power becomes economically and technologically feasible, and energy becomes more cheap and abundant, we will most likely start using more of it. That will result in a decrease in the amount of water in our ecosystem and an increase in the amount of helium.

That being said, fusion power will most likely be able to safely power our planet for at least a few thousand years, probably long enough to find a more reliable energy source, or a more abundant source of nuclear fuel. But people need to know what fusion power is all about before endorsing it. It’s not an end-all solution to the world’s energy problems, nor is it completely safe. It’s not even considered a renewable energy. I think that when fusion power becomes a reality, it should only be used to supplement renewable energy sources, not as the primary energy source. When you break it all down, the only true sources of renewable energy that we know of right now come from the heat of the Earth, or from the sun.

Too Early To Retire The Shuttles?

It looks like the shuttle debate is back on. Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, has introduced a bill in congress to postpone retirement of the space shuttle program, as mentioned in an article in InformationWeek today. Bailey claims that ending the shuttle program would cause the U.S. to take a back seat to Russia and China in terms of space research and missions. The shuttle program has been due to end later this year without opposition, until now.

The problem with ending the shuttle program now is that we don’t have a vehicle to replace the 3 shuttles currently in operation. The Constellation program was intended to replace the shuttles with the Orion spacecraft after their retirement. However, president Obama proposed the cancellation of the Constellation program on February 1 of this year due to it’s being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”.

So maybe the 6 people aboard the International Space Station can rely on China and Russia for their needs. But what’s going to happen when one of the 32 GPS satellites has a problem, or one of the 8 U.S. weather satellites goes down? Who is going to clean the lenses on the Chandra X-Ray and Hubble space telescopes?

I don’t have any problems working with other countries, but it’s bad enough that we’ve been losing our jobs oversees, let alone our space program, the bold symbol of friendly competition that is held by only a handful of elite countries on this planet. In the 1960’s we had a dream to go into space and to put a man on the moon, and after years of trial and error, after trillions of dollars invested, we’ve succeeded. Many of the luxuries that we have today came as a result of the space race: GPS, satellite TV, and weather information to name a few. And now we’re just going to give that up because it costs too much? Why does it seem like we keep spending money on other countries, and cutting the budgets at home?

Yes, cutting government funding for space operations will spur more business for private space companies. The problem, however, is that I can count on one hand the number of successful reusable spacecraft that have been developed by private companies. It is probably not a very good idea to cut funding to programs when we haven’t yet figured out how to make up for them.

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Sudden Acceleration Problem May Not Be Limited To Toyota Vehicles

8 million Toyota vehicles have been recalled due to issues relating to the gas pedal, as mentioned in CNNMoney today. Dr. David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University appeared on ABCNews demonstrating how, he claims, accelerator pedal units on certain Toyota vehicles are failing. Toyota mentioned in their Statement on Rebuttal of Professor Gilbert’s ‘Unintended Acceleration’ Demonstration

that he has reengineered and rewired the signals from the accelerator pedal. This rewired circuit is highly unlikely to occur naturally and can only be contrived in a laboratory. There is no evidence to suggest that this highly unlikely scenario has ever occurred in the real world. As shown in the Exponent and Toyota evaluations, with such artificial modifications, similar results can be obtained in other vehicles.

More popularly, however, are the problems with Toyota vehicles in which the accelerator pedal becomes trapped in the open-throttle position by an unnecessarily heavy floor mat. This seems to be the biggest cause for concern, as several documented cases of this happening have been recorded. Another issue, and reason for recall, has been caused by friction devices in the accelerator pedal unit wearing down and causing the pedal to stick, possibly in the partially open throttle position.

In Dr. Gilbert’s demonstration he basically “hacked” the throttle sending unit to make the powertrain control computer “think” that the pedal was being pressed to the floor. Previously, in mechanical throttle systems, a cable connected the pedal to the throttle plate, which was held closed by a spring. If the throttle cable broke, the plate would close due to the mechanical force of the spring. This demonstration would basically be the equivalent of cutting that cable, and pulling on the end that was still connected to the throttle plate. I guess if somebody decided to try and rewire their gas pedal, this type of event may occur. But naturally, I don’t think so.

Fully electronic throttle control units have been integrated in vehicles for some time now and are commonplace in almost all new vehicles produced today. This was something that we knew was eventually going to be an issue, and it’s certainly not limited to Toyota vehicles. This situation could occur in any vehicle utilizing an electronic throttle control unit. Now I’m not aware of any documented cases of these units failing in the manner that Dr. Gilbert demonstrated, and if anybody is, please reply to this post in the comments section with a link as proof. I have to admit that I am a little iffy about vehicles driving themselves, but as long as automakers continue to design the systems properly, and you keep any malicious electricians away from your gas pedal, I don’t think we really need to worry about it.

Clean Energy Finally Gaining Steam

March 5, 2010 7 comments

Finally, somebody said what I’ve been waiting to hear, “… no member of the public has ever been injured by a nuclear power plant in the United States, nor has any nuclear worker died of a radiation-related incident…”, a statement made by Patrick Moore today in the LA Times. This is exactly what I’ve been talking about. People got all hyped up with the accident at Chernobyl (which happened under extremely rare circumstances, by the way) and decided never again to trust nuclear power. There is your proof that nuclear power is clean and safe, despite what people want to think about it. How many people have been killed in coal mines, or in natural gas or oil rig explosions?

We do have renewable energy sources right now: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, etc. But they are not yet efficient or widespread enough that they can sustain our energy economy. Nuclear power is our next step to clean energy. People need to get over their preconceptions and accept that there is nothing wrong with nuclear power, it has been around for over 50 years now and the technology is well developed and widespread. They want to get rid of greenhouse gases, why not get rid of the big coal powerplants?

The extra money that we would save by getting rid of coal power could be put into research and development of nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies. I think that the big thing that people worry about is spent reactor fuel. Obviously, more reactors would mean more spent fuel. But it would also mean more funding for reprocessing research and storage facilities.

I believe that we are less than 50 years away from seeing reliable fusion power become a reality. When it does, we won’t need traditional nuclear fission reactors anymore, so you can do away with that waste. There is enough nuclear fuel on this planet to last us a long time, much longer than fossil fuels, which are running out fast. Our energy economy needs an overhaul, we’re not in the 1900’s anymore. Maybe coal and oil power was a bright future back then, but now, over 100 years down the road, supplies are running out and we’re seeing the repercussions of living this way. We can’t stay stuck in our ways just because we don’t want to change. The good times with fossil fuels are a thing of the past, now it’s time for us to grow up and move on to bigger and better things.

Nuclear Waste May End Up In Our Backyards

The Energy Department filed to withdraw an application for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain Wednesday in an attempt to reverse a policy set and invested in by the Bush administration (source: Wall Street Journal). A new panel was created by the Energy Department and the Obama administration hopes to develop a new plan for disposal of nuclear waste.

The Yucca Mountain facility, located in the Nellis Military Operations Area in Nevada, was intended to be the first national repository for spent nuclear waste, a one-of-a-kind facility designed for this sole purpose. The government has already rewarded at least $2.5 billion in contracts to maintain the facility.

If the Obama administration wants to go all-out on renewable energy sources, then by all means, let them. But taking away the infrastructure for our existing energy generation facilities is not the way to go about doing it. The fact of the matter is that we rely heavily on nuclear power at this point in time. As of November 2009, 20.2 percent of energy produced in the US was from Nuclear (source: USEIA), a 2.5 percent increase from 2008. Despite all of the skepticism and hype about nuclear energy, it is one of the cleanest non-renewable energy sources out there. There have been far fewer incidents and deaths related to nuclear energy in the US than there have with coal power plants. Coal power still accounts for almost 45 percent of our annual electricity production, would we rather have coal power or nuclear? I, for one, would rather live next-door to a nuclear reactor than a coal power plant. We can’t just jump right in to an absolute renewable energy economy and expect it to work, we first need to phase out the other forms of production: coal first, then natural gas and oil, then nuclear.

The nuclear reactors aren’t going to go away. It makes more sense for the waste from them to be stored in a dedicated facility than to rely on individual companies to do it their own way, because you know that they will cut corners. If the Obama administration has a better idea, they’d better get going, because it’s just a matter of time before there will be an accident involving spent nuclear fuel that was not disposed of properly.

2010 Geneva Motor Show

March 4, 2010 3 comments

Amidst the photographers and journalists, the 2010 Geneva Motor show opened up to display the usual hot rods and wildly designed concepts by high-end motor companies. Lamborghini, Bentley, Lotus, Jaguar, and Maserati were among the many to display their latest high-performance automotive artwork. Yet there was another breed of vehicles on display today: the average-Joe’s, the grocery-getters. Many of the major auto makers unveiled new models of highly reliable and fuel-efficient vehicles that the average middle-class person would take to the store. What was different, however, is the amount of emphasis being put on new and efficient power-trains for these working-class heroes.

What really got me is how many new models are being designed with hybrid and diesel engines. Diesel cars have been limited to just a handful of models available in the US, up until now. Among the new models to be featured with more efficient engine options was the 2011 Volvo S60, which has a number of different engine options. One of which includes a 2.4 liter, 5 cylinder, twin-turbo diesel. The neat thing about this setup is that the S60 accelerate from 0 to 62 MPH in just 7.8 seconds, while still getting a preliminary figure of 47.9 miles per gallon. This is a good indication that diesel cars are now being designed for performance while achieving the fuel economy of a hybrid. If, however, you would really like to squeeze more miles from your gallon, the S60 will be available later in the year with the 1.6 liter DRIVe 4 cylinder inline diesel, boasting an impressive preliminary 65.7 miles per gallon and lower CO2 emissions. If you like your gas engines, it will be available as well with a 3.0 liter petrol engine that gets 27.7 miles per gallon, which is a 10% improvement over the previous model… (I’d get the diesel).

Among the other models showing alternative engine options were the 2011 Kia Sportage, offering two gas and two diesel engines, and the 2012 Ford Focus Wagon, offering both types as well. The grocery-getters are not the only ones sporting alternative powertrains, however. Porch unveiled the 2011 Cayenne in both hybrid and turbo configurations, Porche’s first hybrid model featuring a full parallel hybrid-drive system. Of course when we talk about high-end performance with fuel-efficient technology, Tesla Motors had get their new model in there as well. Now partnered with TAG Heuer, Tesla showed their new roadster, including the limited edition TAG Heuer one-fifth second stopwatch. The Tesla Roadster “still accelerates faster than any other supercar, yet is twice as efficient as a hybrid” (Source: Tesla press release).

I sure hope that more diesel cars make their into the US. I just don’t understand why people are buying gas hybrids for more than they could buy a diesel that gets better mileage. We need more than two available models here if we want anybody to buy them, which I know that they would, I would. And where the heck is that hybrid diesel?

Photo courtesy of Autoblog