Economics Life Renewable Energy

I Have A Million Dollar Idea For Free Energy!

Ha, my title sounds like the beginning of a spam email. I’m actually even willing to have at least one FeedBlitz email that gets sent out to be caught in a spam filter, just to prove my point.

Either way, the title of this post looks ridiculous. And yet it is pervasive in headlines on the internet and in newsprint. Why? Because people are hungry for new ideas, new ways to try and make money and free energy (I guess those could all be classified under the money category). The reason these headlines are everywhere is because they work. They grab peoples’ attention, including my own.

But wait.

There are no breakthroughs, right?. There are, but they’re much more rare than the public is lead to believe. Even those breakthroughs aren’t even that big of a leap from the previous discovery. That’s just not how science works, people. Science is iterative. Science is boring. That’s the way science is designed to be. You think up a hypothesis, you test it, you repeat based on those results. Even if you do have some huge breakthrough, you really need to test it out rigorously to determine if it truly is a breakthrough.

Because of this realization, I’ve decided to create a simple guideline for the news media (who will ignore it, even if they ever saw it) and for aspiring pseudo-scientists, who are probably just people trying to sell the first “technology” they get their hands on.

Step 1: Ask yourself, “Has this been done before?”

I’m guessing that yes, you have asked yourself this; and no, it has not been done before. Why else would you be trying to report on it and/or sell it to people? If this has been done before, go back to the drawing board. No one wants to hear from you. (See, this is like science!)

Step 2: If this hasn’t been done before (and this technology you’re investigating seems like a breakthrough), ask yourself, WHY hasn’t this been done before?”

This is the step that people miss. Either when reporting on a technology or worse, trying to “create” a new technology, they ignore this step. For example, say you’ve figured out that you might be able to harness the motion of trees blowing in the wind. OK, why isn’t anyone doing it now? Have you considered the efficiency of the conversion process? Have you considered the economics of trying to harvest this energy? How long will the payback be for people that purchase such a system?

Step 3: If you believe you’ve overcome the 3 of the stumbling blocks of discovering new energy technologies (efficiency, money, ROI), what has changed?

Be specific. Saying that “it’s never been done before!” will be considered an incomplete answer and you will fail the test. If you are a reporter doing a story on an energy technology that will eventually be the next big thing, say exactly what has to happen and how soon it would have to happen in order for that technology to become viable. If you are “developing” that next big thing, tell us what you overcame and possibly how you overcame it; in the event you are not allowed to divulge that info because it is a trade secret, be prepared for future scrutiny and skepticism. Shrouding a problem does not solve it.

Step 4: Determine: Are you (or the people you’re reporting on) capable of delivering on a consistent basis all of the things that are promised?

Here are some examples of news stories or “inventions” I have heard about but that did not deliver:

  • A new chemical compound that can burn hotter and longer than fuel sources currently used but is extremely expensive to make (process). Since it was sold as a disruptive technology, this could not deliver because disruptive technologies must be economically feasible.
  • A new processing technique that is based upon ideal lab conditions and low volume manufacturing. Data was not based on a large sample size with many permutations of input variables so the promised (laboratory) conditions could not be delivered.
  • A microenergy harvester that was not capable of delivering because the efficiency of the converter was not calculated with realistin inputs and operating conditions. As such, the advertised output power could not be achieved.
  • A device based on permanent magnets that requires less energy put in than can be recovered. NOTE: This can never deliver as promised, see laws of conservation of energy and thermodynamics.

I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t attempt to develop new technologies nor should they only do research on things that are immediately economically viable. That is short sighted and many past inventions would have never been achieved with that mindset. The people I’m reaching out to are the so called “reporters” out there and the so called “inventors”. Basically what I’m saying is that I too am hungry to hear about the next big thing. I look often and I find the same story each time. There was either a miscalculation or a misquote or a fancy-pants marketer trying to sell his big dumb ultra-capacitor that no one has seen to this day (p.s. it’s 2010. We’re still waiting!).

I know I’ve been guilty of it too, getting overzealous about under-developed new technologies. I’m a far cry from mainstream media though and I’ve yet to start “Gammell Energy Industries” to sell a ghost product. So if you’re a reporter/marketer/inventor/whatever, please be gentle with my hope for technologies that will help solve problems in the world. When you lie about a new product or technologies’ capabilities, it only dashes the hopes of others and removes focus from solving the problem at hand.

Analog Electronics Renewable Energy Sustainability

The Sustainability/Renewable Energy Jumble

I get it. Some of you out there don’t give a hoot about sustainability. I figured that out when people started unsubscribing from email subscriptions to my post feed. Sure, it could have been people switching over to an RSS feed reader, but it coincided with my posts about the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit (I may have gotten carried away with the writing).

For a while I was writing only about analog stuff, electrical engineering stuff and workplace stuff. To be honest, when the recession hit it was difficult to think of much else; when our security feels threatened (job, personal or otherwise), we revert to more basic creatures. It’s funny that we care most about the environment (the population as a whole) only when there is nothing  wrong with the economy. That is, if you don’t include gas prices; it seemed like we definitely felt threatened at $4 a gallon for unleaded. Anyway, I focused a little more on the electrical side of things whereas this site started out more on the renewable energy side of things.

And then I had the opportunity to attend the summit and it was really great. I met some awesome people and really got to see a side of Cleveland I never thought I’d see. It renewed my interest in renewable energy applications/technology and got me excited about the prospects of working on it in Cleveland. But I wasn’t completely satisfied with the summit. I found my experiences a few weeks later at a wind energy talk with Larry Viterna of the Great Lakes Energy Institute to be much more satisfying. Sitting and discussing the technical issues involved in a renewable energy system is much more appealing to me than going out in the community and rallying support for the idea (though I definitely understand the importance of doing so). I always feel that I am getting more done when I discuss the technical aspects of a project than the logistical aspects; it is not realistic to ever ignore one or the other, I just feel that I can contribute more to the technical side, due to my interest.

As a result of all of those experiences, I think I figured something out: I am much more interested in renewable energy and the technology behind it than the sustainability movement and working on how best to implement the methodologies. I completely agree with the concept of sustainability and try to lessen my personal impact by improving the energy efficiency of my house and changing my personal habits. However, I view sustainability as a management field whereas I view renewable energy as a technological field (a simplification I’m sure); right now, I am much more interested in technical matters than management matters.

As for the jumble of sustainability and renewable energy talk on this site and others, it’s important to realize they are different topics, yet intertwined. One cannot exist without the other: sustainable businesses require low cost, non-polluting power and renewable energy has greater demand when sustainable companies want a renewable source of power. As such, I plan to write only about the renewable energy topics, unless there are implications with sustainable business/life practices.

So while I do not plan on going out and knocking on the doors of businesses and homes to start pushing them to adopt sustainability practices, I do want to relay why I think they are important. Moreover, I want to point out the concepts I would embrace when I start my company (someday in the future). And even if I was completely detached from the business world, I feel that the benefits of adopting sustainability are relevant in my personal life and can have some serious implications for the future.

  1. It saves you money — The zero-waste concept is a powerful one; it also can save a ridiculous amount of money for you or your business if you properly plan an execute a plan of action. If you don’t have to pay for waste removal, don’t have to pay extra for unused raw materials and possibly even get paid for recycling some of your spent resources, you can save or net a significant amount of cash.
  2. It makes you less of a burden on the planet — This point doesn’t have any immediate benefits, but makes sense. Look all around you at every living thing: they all give back to their environment in some way. Humans aren’t great at matching this performance, but there is a movement to begin consuming less and being less of a burden on the planet.
  3. It’s not hard — Yes, you will have to watch your production processes and make sure you aren’t unnecessarily creating waste. Yes, you might have to pay a little bit more for clean energy from the electric company or have renewable energy capability installed at your facility/home. Yes, you will have to recycle instead of sending it to a landfill. But once the mindset is in place it becomes second nature.
  4. It saves you money — I can’t stress idea enough. Sustainable business practices make money. That’s why you see corporate giants like Walmart joining the party and delivering added value to their shareholders.

I plan to continue to focus on renewable energy research and applications, as it is where my greatest interests lie in the whole scope of the sustainability movement. I know there are many many more components that I will not be able to contribute to as a leader but will be able to adhere to as an ecologically concious citizen. What do you enjoy more? The renewable energy side of things, the sustainability side of things or none of the above? Let me know in the comments!

Learning Renewable Energy Sustainability

Third and Final Day of Sustainable Cleveland 2019

The last day.

It was pretty simple, really. Just collect your brainstormed ideas, distill them down into very few realistic ideas and then focus the best of those ideas into a final product. Once that is done, simply go up on stage and present in front of the 600 or so people that were attending. Simple… right? Right.

As you may remember from my explanation of Day 2 at the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit, I was in a group that focused on Advanced Energy Research. We were a group that had a much more diverse makeup than I had anticipated…I had expected only engineers in my quite limited sight. Instead we got a few engineers, a PR person, a patent lawyer, a stay-at-home mom, the head of financing at a non-profit, a start-up executive, a college student, a PR-person-turned-entrepreneur and a solar array installer. I couldn’t have made up that mix if I tried! But it was really great, the perspectives were unique and very much appreciated. Looking back at the roughly 6 hours of word we did, it’s amazing just how wide a breadth of ideas we covered and how we were able to reduce it to a final product.

So…what did we come up with?

Our group conceived an incubator of sorts, but with many more bells and whistles. Our focus was on the commercialization of technology, as that is probably the most difficult part in making a research concept into a tangible, sell-able product. As a starter name, we decided on “The Laboratories for Advanced Energy Commercialization” (LAEC…pronounced “LAKE”). Catchy, eh? I liked the name a lot. Anyway, the concept would be that eventually LAEC would become the center for all things advanced energy in Cleveland. The pinnacle of achievement would come when we constructed or rehabbed a building (LEED certified, of course) to serve as the center of advanced energy activity in Cleveland. This would include an “Energy Village”, where new technologies could be tested and showcased on model homes, in addition to subjecting it to the Cleveland elements. You think you have a great idea for a new solar panel? Well let’s see how it stands up to Cleveland’s cloudy days and great northern winters. Additionally, there would be a “PowerMart”, where now-commercialized technologies in their final form could be previewed and sold to municipalities and power companies from around the globe; this would help to showcase the region and bring outside investment to the area. Up to and past the point where a brick and mortar location for LAEC exists, the center would also act as a research resource and knowledge hub for all local and non-local researchers. Want to know which companies and Universities are researching or commercializing that new wind turbine technology? Check the LAEC databases or talk to a staff member we would hope to be able to hire. There would be maximum focus on being an independent, yet well connected and informed group that helps to bring all of the research and development firms in the area together around a common goal of increasing advanced energy knowledge.

There were many unanswered questions.

First off, funding. We really didn’t know where funding would come from for such a center. It’s possible that there are foundations out there that would be interested in sponsoring a center such as LAEC but never any guarantees. Other funding concerns would come later, if LAEC was ever truly established; how would the center be able to help to bring in funding for commercialization efforts that have always been so scarce in Cleveland in the first place? These are questions I am not sure the answer to.

If we take a further step back, another question remains: Doesn’t something like this already exist? Yes and no. There are many institutions that are serving the entrepreneurial crowd, some that serve the advanced energy crowd and some that serve the university crowd. However, we felt that there was not a central, all inclusive resource or institution that would allow for independent research and assistance in getting more money into the area for the commercialization of technology. Let’s be honest: Cleveland has many fine institutions that are capable of attracting funding and delivering worthwhile research. But while this does exist, the jobs are still not flooding the area as a result of any research breakthroughs. That is what LAEC would hope to deliver.

The summit left us on an interesting note. Our diverse team is now expected to go out and take action on a plan we set forth, including checkpoints at 3 weeks, 3 months and (1 to) 3 years. We are supposed to begin on our own but with some eventual guidance from the Mayor’s office at some point. As to when we will hear from them, I don’t know. What I do know is that I hear more about this summit and the resulting initiatives, I will continue to write about them here. If nothing ever comes of our ideas, I think there are other things that I could take away from the summit that will be equally, if not more, valuable than the plan for the LAEC.

So what did I really gain from the summit?

  1. Connections
    • The people I met at the summit was the first real glimpse I’ve had of the Cleveland working community outside of my company…and these were mostly non-engineering types. If nothing else, I learned that it is my duty to get out and begin networking better. Not for a better job or a higher salary, but because there are a lot of people out there with great ideas.
  2. Perspective
    • Similar to above, I never realized the passion of the people that are in the sustainability movement in Cleveland. There are multiple organizations that meet on a regular basis to discuss issues that are important to them and can truly affect the entire community. See some of the links below that I had just found out were locally run. Who knew there was so much interest in sustainability in a city that had a burning river 40 years ago?
    • More info
  3. Hope
    • It’s hard to explain the feelings most people have about Cleveland. It’s like the quirky second cousin you never tell your friends about. You still like your cousin, especially certain things about them…but you have very mixed feelings towards that cousin when others ask you about them. I have always toted the benefits of Cleveland to friends when I could, but I have felt it drag on me too…the negativity of others can be infectious, especially in the winter. But this summit gave me hope; it made me realize there are other people out there that see the potential and the great things that can be done in Cleveland. And that always feels good, no matter where you’re from. It was refreshing to be around that kind of excitement and I really hope that I get to be around something like it again soon.

So that’s all I have to say about the Sustainable Cleveland summit for now. I think there will be a continuing dialogue among my group, with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, with others from the conference and with outsiders that are not yet participating. If you have any kind of interest in participating in something like LAEC, please let me know, either by email, phone or in the comments. I think we can really make a difference for Cleveland and for progressing Advanced Energy technologies, but we need to work on it together.

(LEED certified, of course)
Analog Electronics Learning Life Renewable Energy

Day 2 of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit

I must say, I’m impressed. My questions from day one have almost all been answered in one way or another. A few things really caught my attention today, some of which I didn’t really expect.

To start we had Ray Anderson of Interface. If you would have asked me what the company was just from the name I would have immediately jumped to technology. However, that’s not the case; Ray is in the business of carpets…and has been for 30 years or so. He also took a pledge, both for himself and for his company about 15 years back. A pledge to reduce environmental impact and do no harm. And they have succeeded so far (I didn’t get the feeling they were planning on quitting anytime soon). Here’s some of their broad stroke statistics on how they have progressed over the past 15 years:

  • 76% reduction in waste since 1996
  • 74% less water used to produce the carpet tiles
  • 44% less total energy used in production
  • 60% less fossil fuels in production
  • 27% use of renewable energy for production worldwide
  • 100% use of renewable energy for production in Europe
  • 24% recyclable or bio-based materials.
  • $405 million saved due to these reductions since 1994

Ray went on to explain the importance on reducing the overall impact of the technosphere on the biosphere (his words). He maintained that if we continue using technology in the wasteful, disposable ways we currently are, the future looks bleak. However, if we bring technology on as a reducer of waste instead of a primary contributor, great progress can be made towards a very low usage, need-driven (as opposed to want-driven) society. If I had to sum up the wonderful presentation by Ray Anderson, it would be this: do no harm in business and you will succeed. The results he has produced with his company Interface are a great example of renewable, sustainable practices producing a better shareholder solution and a better company for customers and the environment.

From there, we went on to explore the next stage of the AI process, the “Dream” stage. I believe this was an important component, trying to postively visualize where we believed the city could end up and finding a creative way of expressing it. There were many bold dreams of a Cleveland of tomorrow mixed in with a many themes that resonated throughout the presentations (more on those themes later). Some were sillier than others, which I have first-hand experience with: I was the captain of the Best Times 2019 boat.

Once the creative fervor was scaled back a bit, we smoothly transitioned into the design phase. This was by far the most exciting part and really what I had been waiting for. It is the meat of any AI gathering; when stuff really begins to come together and progress is finally made. We first were reminded about good brainstorming concepts. Personally, the concepts and ideas presented on how to brainstorm reminded me that this entire process was a great example of a crowd-sourced kind of activity. Key among the concepts was the notion having a multitude of ideas, so many that your head would spin. The concept is that among a large large group of ideas, a few winners would rise to the top, along with some accompanying themes. From there the groups would be able to identify the favorite ideas, group other thematic elements and begin to focus intensely on the top ideas. Hopefully, they can all be implemented into a single prototype that would later be presented as a final product, at least as a tangible result of the design/brainstorming process. Dr. Cooperrider used Ideo, the design firm and prior client of his, as an example of rapid prototyping and idea generation. I had heard about them previously but plan on finding out more about the world-renowned design firm.

Before going further, I think it’s important to list of the top-level themes that were identified from the “Dream” stage implemented earlier in the day:

  • Advanced Energy Research
  • Advanced Energy Generation
  • Advanced Materials and Manufacturing
  • Communication Campaign and Branding of the final ideas of the summit
  • Engaging 1.6 Million People
  • Fostering Social Capital
  • Green Buildings
  • Health
  • Vacant Land Use
  • Local Foods
  • Maintaining Post Summit Momentum
  • Metrics of Success (for the summit)
  • Public Compact (or Manifesto if you will)
  • Social Entrepreneurialship
  • Strategic Partnerships and Learning
  • Sustainable Business Innovation
  • Transportation
  • Waste to Profit
  • Water
  • World Class Sustainability Education

As new visitors to the site might guess (given the graphic at the top of my site) , I chose the very first topic. As an engineer really interested in renewable energy (and how it can be implemented), I felt it necessary to talk about the research aspect, as opposed to the generation, of the energy. I feel the latter can be left up to others for a time when the energy is cheap enough to be widespread; until it has reached the tipping point of being more economical to use renewables over other forms of energy, the research will never really be done. Past that, once commercial interests begin using renewables on a regular basis, investing in efficiencies will be a self-sustaining activity and one that only adds to the new benefit of renewable energy technologies. I plan on saving the results from today’s brainstorming session for a post tomorrow or the day after, simply because of the length of this post and in order to report on our finished idea, as opposed to an undeveloped seed of an idea.

While day 2 of Sustainable Cleveland 2019 was effective (OK, and a little bit fun, I’ll admit), I think tomorrow will really decide the final outcome of the entire summit. Without concrete action plans, the whole thing is for naught. The fears that the summit is actually just another run-of-the-mill convention will or will not come to fruition. If instead we take action on the plans we have in place tomorrow and the next day and the day after, then we will truly be able to say we have achieved something. I look forward to experiencing and writing about tomorrow.

Analog Electronics Economics Politics Renewable Energy

Sustainable Cleveland 2019

I will be attending Sustainable Cleveland 2019 later this week. It has given me a renewed interest in renewable energy and has really been great motivation to learn more about my city.

The summit will be a gathering of more that 600 people from different walks of life in Cleveland, all trying to figure out what we need to do in order to become a leader in various fields of sustainability. The 2019 part of the title refers to the Cleveland 30 year from now, when all of the areas of sustainability will hopefully have been achieved. These sustainability initiatives could include:

  • Renewable energy production
  • Advanced energy (infrastructure)
  • Advance material fabrication and advanced manufacturing operations
  • Sustainable, local food sources
  • Green buildings (LEED certifications)
  • Stringent environmental policies, especially to protect our water source, Lake Erie
  • Sustainable Business Practices

So what can we do as a group of non-policy makers to actually drive any change in this city? A question I’m not completely sure of the answer. At the most basic level, I think this summit will give the citizens and drivers of change in the city a chance to tell the administration what they think. In fact, the entire summit is being hosted by the mayor, Frank Jackson, so I am guessing that’s exactly what he’s looking for. Beyond the basics, there is a methodology being implemented known as Appreciative Inquiry; I’m not into organizational behavior, but from what I’ve read it’s a popular method. The leading researcher in this field, David Cooperrider, will also be present at the summit to lead and guide us. I was surprised to later learn that Dr. Cooperrider is a sitting professor at my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University. From what I have learned about the method so far (which in all honesty seems a bit touchy-feely to me), it is about bringing people together while they are still excited about a prospective idea, instead of after problems have developed and that same group is only trying to fix the problem. It has proven successful for many groups thus far so I am eager to learn more about it.

Although this was the first time they decided to host such a summit, the organizers required an application for entry, to ensure people who were signing up were serious about their pledge to attend (the summit requires a 3 day commitment). I thought including some excerpts of my application would help illustrate why I think attending a summit like this is important (Warning: I was very interested in attending, so I felt it necessary to toot my own horn a bit. You’ve been warned) :

Describe what draws you to this summit.

I understand that a 10 year plan is only as good as the people that are writing and later following it. I want to be an integral part of the planning progress so I can help shape a future city that is sustainable and one that I can continue to be proud of. I am interested in meeting others that are passionate about moving Cleveland  towards a future that is sustainable, successful and forward-looking. The people at this summit will be the leaders of the next phase of Cleveland’s evolution and I would like to start working with them as soon as possible.

What unique aspects will you bring to the summit (education, life experience, etc.)?

I currently write a blog that discusses electrical engineering and renewable energy. I write on topics relating to my profession (analog electrical engineering), my generation (Gen Y) and I tie it into content about emerging renewable technologies. I also have a unique perspective, being a student that left the area for a job after college, thereby contributing to the “brain drain” that has affected much of Cleveland; I have since been one of the few that has returned (in 2008) so that I could help contribute to the city and pursue my passion at a company that is a leader in the measurement industry. My work at Keithley Instruments has given me insight into the needs of renewable energy producers and allowed me to work with some of the finest engineering minds in Cleveland.

I feel that I bring a fresh perspective on the technological aspect of building a sustainable Cleveland. As someone who works in an industry that serves renewable energy and as someone who aspires to work more directly in the renewable energy sector, I feel that I can help define where Cleveland will be able to best capitalize on new technologies and strong business opportunities. These will drive the future growth of Cleveland as both an economic hub and as a model for hosting sustainable and eco-conscious companies.

What do you think are Cleveland’s biggest strengths or best assets?

I believe that the students graduating from local Universities will be the foundation upon which the next phase of Cleveland will be built. Enticing them to stay in Cleveland and encouraging them to create new companies will generate revenue and jobs in Cleveland. The technology and companies that are created will drive local development and help bring in more residents and investment. Furthermore, I believe the Universities that are producing these students are an asset and that they should be assisted in post-graduate retention and building businesses out of commercialized research efforts.

A second more obvious but yet untapped resource is Lake Erie. In terms of energy, I believe Lake Erie can produce a great deal of clean and sustainable power for residents in Cleveland and surrounding areas. From a sustainability perspective, the availability of fresh water must be considered and protected, as this will become an increasingly scarce resource as the world warms. Additionally, the wildlife and food sources the lake provides must be taken into consideration when planning for a more sustainable city and region.

What do you envision for Cleveland in the year 2019?

I envision a vibrant job market based on renewable energy companies that have sprung up over the past 10 years. More importantly, I see educational and research hotbeds such as Case Western Reserve being used as a launch point for multiple new industries and technologies. I see renewable energies being harvested from Lake Erie in the form of wind turbines and wave harvesting. I see axillary industries such as test & measurements adding even more to local economies and highlighting what Cleveland has to offer the world. I see tight-knit communities encouraging conservation and recycling and teaching these concepts in schools. I see programs in place to help every city have affordable recycling. I imagine local and regional governments encouraging restructuring and consolidating existing infrastructure as opposed to creating new sprawl. I see those same governments encouraging outside investment in the newly reconstructed and consolidated areas and in the new companies that have helped revitalize it . And hopefully, I see my own renewable energy company creating products that change the way we consume energy or how we cleanly produce it for use in energy efficient devices.

I feel that if nothing else, I will get the opportunity to meet others interested in sustainability and renewable energy in Cleveland. That alone could provide a great foundation for forming companies and coalitions later to help advance the city towards a sustainable future. On the other hand, I am hopeful that our work using Appreciative Inquiry will help lay a groundwork for where the city needs to go and what we need to do as a community to achieve our goals. I know there will be many planned follow up activities and I plan on discussing them more on here later. I would hope that my albeit limited audience might help to publicize the actions the city will take in the future.

Are you attending the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit? If you are, please let me know! If not but you have ideas that you think I should try to talk about while I am there, please let me know in the comments. I am interested to share what ideas I already have and if I can bring more voices than my own to the summit, I think it could be beneficial for everyone.
Politics Renewable Energy

Thank You Steven Chu

I like it when I understand things. The universe feels like a little safer place, even if I realize feeling secure is only a state of mind. And when I watched Steven Chu talk on the Daily Show the other night, I felt safer. Not like a warm security blanket kind of safe. More like a “Hey, if stuff hits the fan, we’ll probably be able to figure it out” kind of safe.

How many times have you looked at a government official and said “Hey, they seem pretty bright!”? How about “What a great sense of humor and perspective for the situation we’re in.”? How many times have you honestly said in the past 8, 16, 20 or 28 years have you really looked at a government official and said “Hey, I bet he has science and the earth’s best interest ahead of a corporation that is whispering in his ear.”? Not too many at all.

I’m not saying that there have been scores of corrupt politicians in the past Presidents’ cabinets, because there haven’t; the people advising the President are often capable and well tempered in their decision making. I’m also not saying Steven Chu will be completely successful in the political arena, as it’s a very different world from what he’s used to. It’s just so damn refreshing to see such an accomplished scientist in a position to influence legislation, all the while weighing facts and data instead of political usefulness and opinion. Give me more politicians like him and I’ll start to feel that the government has turned a corner.

So thank you, Steven Chu. You’ve restored my hope that we can get some more renewable energy initiatives moving instead of just talked about in this country. You’ve restored my hope that renewables might be able to help pull our country out of a recession. And from what I know about you and your plans, you’ve only just begun.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Steven Chu
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

Also the requisite thank you to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart for interviewing him. Without you, I’d only get biased news from biased news sources 🙂

Economics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Cheaper than Coal?

My friend Cherish over at Faraday’s Cage is where you put your Schroedinger’s Cat sent me an article on solar power approaching the cost of coal (generated electricity). It’s a great article and it quotes Ray Kurzweil so I’m automatically a fan. However, I have no doubt in my mind that it WILL hit this price point (~$1/watt), it’s just a question of when.

The real thing I want to touch on and get responses to is: What happens when solar energy is cheaper than coal?

Coal is dumb

I think there will be gradual uptake by the large energy companies (most already have dipped a toe in the shallow end for solar power). Even large scale consumers will start to put renewable energy on their balance sheets, assuming it is cheaper. But then what? Business as usual? Am I allowed to keep my lights on all night, even if it is silly to do so? I’m confident that not only will solar be cheaper than coal, but over the long term, it will be MUCH cheaper because you get more lifetime out of a panel or a solar thermal system than you do with a lump of coal. So will prices go down from the power company? I’m not so sure about that one as I’m guessing they’ll want to pass their “investment costs” down to the consumers.

Another facet to this idea is whether or not consumers will start to take on the burden of their own energy generation. Will there be a deficit in the north and a surplus in the south? Will there be a grid efficient enough to transfer this energy transcontinentally? Will there ever be a storage mechanism that is feasible for all of the energy we could potentially harvest from the sun (I just heard about this idea and thought it was really cool)? Or is the individual power generation scheme doomed to fail because there is still an energy broker in the middle (the power company) for all those times when the sun isn’t shining (and the wind isn’t blowing if that becomes a more efficient source of power also).

If power consumption continues to get cheaper and everyone adopts a renewable stance on it, will the environment actually improve? Will there be as much focus on conservation, both in reducing power needed in devices and total consumption per capita (reducing our individual “carbon footprint”)? Will the cheap energy of the future fuel the next boom and pull us out of the doldrums of this dumb recession?

So many questions. So so many and we still haven’t even found out if we CAN make it cheaper than coal yet (cautiously optimistic here). Renewable energy will be translating to big money for some people over the next ten years and that means lots of conflict. What do you think will happen when/if solar becomes cheaper than coal?

Politics Renewable Energy

Frank Jackson Pushing For Renewable Energy In Europe

A quick note to share what I heard this morning on NPR and thought is relevant to…well…me really. But you too if you live in Cleveland and are interested in renewable energy.

Frank Jackson, mayor of Cleveland, is in Germany this week, drumming up business to move to the US, specifically Cleveland and most specifically, in renewable energy. This is great news for the region because it could help bring back some manufacturing jobs (especially skilled manufacturing, as required by solar). Aside from more reasonable wages the US can offer  to businesses thanks to the recession we’re currently in, Jackson is pushing the research capabilities at Case Western Reserve University and other local schools. He is also citing Cleveland’s strong infrastructure that could be critical to moving product within this country by rail, truck or plane. Add to that the cultural amenities of the region and it starts to look like many of the reasons I moved back here. The trip was financed by the Cleveland Foundation, a great local charity that pushes for more development in the region.

So far, I have seen news that IBC Solar is planning to move their US headquarters to Cleveland, after rejecting California and NJ.  However, a deciding factor will be if Ohio pushes for using renewables to provide some portion of power to utility customers, as many other states have started mandating. Remember, simple solar panels are not the only options here; solar concentrators and wind power are on the menu also, with wind being a very likely candidate due to great northern winters reducing the amount of total sunlight and the potential of strong winds on Lake Erie.

While I remain cautiously optimistic about the potential of more renewable energy moving to Cleveland, I think that it is wonderful that Frank Jackson is out pushing for better development of this industry in Cleveland; I hope these efforts will continue here and will be pushed as a national agenda by the new administration. Are you in Cleveland? Interested in renewable energy? Let me know in the comments section or shoot me an email.

Analog Electronics Learning Life Renewable Energy

Buying a House and Making It More Efficient

So usually I don’t like to write about my personal life on here too much, but I had an offer accepted on a house yesterday and I think it’s relevant to topics discussed on this site. Yes, I realize that the housing market is down and that it will likely only get worse. And yes, I realize I’m young and a house is a big responsibility. And yes, I know home ownership can be a daunting experience from upkeep to sales to everything else bad that can happen. But there are some great things about houses too, namely tax advantages and being able to do whatever I want with it (within reason). Plus, I feel that every home can take advantage of advances in conservation and renewable technology, even if they are already in good shape and the energy bills are low.

  1. Insulation — A no brainer, this is a great way to reduce the amount of energy leaving your home. A friend and I were talking about older houses and he made a good point that houses built in the 50s didn’t always worry about insulation. It was decently inexpensive to just crank up the heat. Now with gas prices rising (don’t worry, this temporary lull won’t last), it becomes a necessity to conserve the energy we burn. My friend also mentioned a possible tax break that exists; if not, I would hope the next administration includes something in their renewable energy plan. Remember, conservation is the cheapest method of energy savings right now.
  2. Windows — One of the most frustrating things in cold weather is walking up to a poorly insulated single pane window; it rattles, it frosts and it let’s chilling temperatures through. Windows are one of the best ways to lose heat and waste energy in the winter, especially in the great north. It feels like it literally is sucking the heat from your house. Sure, double pane and triple pane vinyl windows are a good start and will stop 90% of your heat loss. However, A great story on NPR about legacy technology from the 70s tells about how a simple coating can stop heat loss in the winter and block heat from coming in during the summer. The low emissivity (or “low e”)coating basically just blocks out infrared radiation from getting through (think of those waves you see rising from blacktop on a hot summer day). Windows were already proficient at blocking convective heat flow (think warm air), but the radiative piece was missing. Look for the low e rating when purchasing your windows and you could see some significant energy savings.
  3. Efficient Devices — Every time the compressor kicks on for my current refrigerator, I can’t help thinking about how much electricity is being wasted to keep my food cool. While it isn’t great to throw out the old clunker fridge just to buy a new shiny energy STAR certified fridge, it might be better in the long run to get something that will save energy (even at the cost of greater consumption). If you’re really crafty, you can always turn that old fridge into a meat smoker (think ribs), a bookshelf or even a planter. Remember, don’t just throw the old fridge in the basement and keep running it for frozen goods. If it’s truly an energy vampire, unplug it from the wall and find a different use for it.
  4. DC Power Outlets — Instead of plugging in cell chargers that are burning power no matter if you are charging something or not, why not have a few lines in your house that are set to a specific voltage, say 6V (most devices are running 3.3V these days). Then when the 6V comes to the wall, you could have a “tuner” based on a buck converter that would dial down that voltage to the one you need. Delivering power from a central source could be controlled remotely, so you could close a relay at the source and no power would be delivered to the converter unless “asked for”, and there would be very low losses in the system.
  5. Solar panels — I wrote last time about GreenField Solar and their new solar concentrator, which is very reasonably priced and could pay itself off in less than ten years if it works as advertised (1500 W output). However, in northern climates, it’s often better to get more total exposure by having a larger array of panels collecting the most light possible, even if at lower efficiency. This requires more space of course, but you might be able to get lower cost panels if they are older and assumed to be less efficient. A friend and and I are talking about trying this in the backyard (which is sizable) and doing some measurements on the power we could harvest even in the Cleveland winters. The eventual goal would be enough to power a shed or outhouse for a small music studio, but that will take some work. Wind might be a better candidate, but that would require more infrastructure (AC-DC conversion) and the turbines are still quite expensive (if not beautiful and artistic in some cases).
  6. Do an energy audit — Sometimes the places where you waste the most energy are the least expected. Have an electric water heater? You might be paying out the nose for your showers and washing dishes. Air conditioning unit more than 10 years old? Maybe that’s pulling hardest at your electricity usage. Do you own a programmable thermostat (the kind that shut off heat when you’re not usually home or asleep)? This simple device will save you hundreds in electricity and natural gas savings. Energy audits are usually offered for free by your energy companies. Look them up and take advantage.

So part of me is terrified at the prospect of owning a home but the other part is pretty excited about what I can do with it. I think using it as an example for simple home fixes and ways that analog electronics projects can help to save money and carbon emissions will be good for my conscience and for this site. If you have any ideas on home projects, please leave them or a link to them in the comments.

Analog Electronics Economics Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy Investing

I’ve been writing a lot more lately about renewable energy than I have analog electronics, but I think with good reason. There has been added interest on the part of many because of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency and his promise to invest $15 billion per year for 10 years in order to create 5 million new “green collar” jobs. But where and how do we separate the promises and the politician from the reality? How do we know that renewable energy will help pull America out of our economic recession? And most importantly, once we are confident that this idea of a green economy could work, how do we know where to put our money and invest?

I think the most important thing to point out is that there are going to be a LOT of bad investments out there. My last entry about EEStor is a good example; a company that could potentially be doing great things, but more likely will look for lots of investments and then not deliver on their promises. Like any other engineering activity, renewable energy is an iterative process. On average, the solar technologies in 2 years will be better than the technologies we see today (especially because of the higher interest in renewables and the notion that eventually oil prices will return to extremely high prices). Further, there will be other companies “green washing” (basically talking the talk of being an energy friendly company, but not walking the walk). If you decide to invest in solar, wind, geothermal, etc, you should realize that beyond the usual risk of investing, there are risks associated with unknown, unproven technologies. Prices on renewable companies haven’t gone through the roof yet, but human nature tells us that there will be an overzealous buying of stocks at some point. Let’s look at what we should do when investing so we avoid any unnecessary losses:

  1. Are they forthcoming with details? — Companies like EEStor might try to be secretive because they have a breakthrough technology, but there are limits on how much a company should really withhold information. Mostly it comes down to whether or not you want to roll the dice on a company that keeps you in the dark. I would much rather see a proven technology (heck, a prototype would be nice) and then make my decision based on that. You might not get the 1000% returns that people expect (perhaps they’re nostalgic for the dot com days?), but you will go into an investment with facts you can hold companies to when things get tough.
  2. Do you understand everything about what they are doing? — This is important for two reasons. First, it is important because you should not invest in what you don’t understand. If you don’t get how a solar cell works, don’t get how it could benefit society and are only sure that it will somehow produce power, then it is not a good idea to dive headfirst into investing in that company.  Second, some of the best investing ideas are the simplest ideas; if you cannot explain to someone in 1 sentence what the company does, it is probably too complex to form a productive, sustainable company (a generalization, of course). Examples of this might be Apple (“They sell computers and music players”). Of course the internals of their products are more complex, but the products are simple to describe and sell. If you have a company that is producing a chemical that is required in the fabrication of GeAs solar cells for the 3rd implantation process…yeah, might not be such a great buy at first glance.
  3. Have they brought in good management? — The best ideas in the world are worthless if you can’t sell them. It’s not greedy; it’s business. Sure, the truly great ideas will always rise to the top (eventually), but since we’re talking about investing here, we need to concentrate on ideas that are likely to get to market quickly and ones that will be successful for the long term. Good management will include a proven track record at start ups (there are very specific skill sets) and some experience in the industry. Note that these people can sometimes be the founders, but unless the creators of the new idea or technology have significant soft skills, don’t expect it.
  4. Are they digging for the gold, selling the gold or selling the shovels? — This was always an analogy and investing idea that I liked: the ones who made the most in the California gold rush were not the ones digging the gold, but instead those selling shovels.  To give an example for each, the diggers here would be the solar companies (cell manufacturers), the sellers of the gold would be the energy companies and the sellers of shovels would be fabrication equipment manufacturers. The best case scenario is when you find a great company supplying the shovel with little competition. If the “shovel-maker” can continually sell their product to each new technology that pops up, then they will be well positioned to outperform the rest of the market.
  5. Do they have a simple product that can be produced quickly and efficiently? — Really, I’m thinking about GreenField Solar Corp, which I recently read about in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They have a simple solar concentrator that can mostly be built from off the shelf components. However, the best part of their implementation is that they would license and franchise the production facilities (making the start-up cost lower for the actual company) and they would only retain sales ownership of their proprietary software, control systems and solar cells (a very specific type). It is reminiscent of the lean manufacturing idea that Solar Automation eschews and Henry Ford pioneered. If you have TONS of money you want to invest, you could always try to start a solar factory.

For my part, I am staying put on renewable energy stocks for now. In reality, it’s always a very difficult climate when you try to guess what technology will come out on top. It happened with the biotech stocks in the early- to mid-2000s, it happened in the dot-com era (post-bust), it happened in the 90s with the PC and chip makers, it happened in the 80s with banks and so on back through time. If you are reading this post, you likely either found my site through searching or you were linked here; in either case, if you are not sure about renewable energy stocks, stick with what you know and continue to monitor the industry. Then when you see a disruptive technology that you think WILL revolutionize the industry, maybe buy a few shares to help support the company. However, do not expect to make money for a few years and continually research your target company. If you are REALLY looking to invest in your favorite solar or wind company, go buy a solar array or turbine and try powering your home. You will help the company and yourself.

If you have any questions about investing in renewables or if you have any favorites you would like to let others know about, please leave them in the comments.