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Is Thorium Our Energy Answer?

nuclear-plant

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France – Photo by Stefan Kühn

Slowly but surely I’ve become a believer in thorium reactors as one potential energy source that is abundant, cheap and an element that is naturally present everywhere in the world. 

We will need it and Bill Gates is on board and investing in thorium so you know there has to be something world-changing about this element to get him involved.

To give you an idea of why we need more major energy sources — and we won’t be able to satisfy demand with solar, wind or other renewables since the demand is so great globally — let me share with you one sentence that starts off the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2013:

“The International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that
world energy consumption will grow by 56 percent between 2010 and 2040.”

Holy shit. A 56% increase in the next 37 years? Yep.

If you want to know more about thorium — and I’d hope you would at least ask your elected representatives about what the U.S. is doing with thorium research to make sure energy is top-of-mind for them — here is a link to a Wikipedia article on thorium and the video from that Bill Gates page here is about 28 minutes long, but is a great overview and I encourage you to watch it.

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Is the Prius a Polluter?

Just saw a cousin’s Facebook post about her new (actually slightly used) Toyota Prius. She had talked to me earlier about my Prius, how I liked it and so forth, so I was intrigued that she and her fiancee purchased one. She looks pretty happy in the photo, doesn’t she?

Then a friend of hers commented, “Yay the “green” that is the most damaging to the environment to build.” Someone then asked what he meant and he went on with, “Prius pollutes more is based on the production and transport of nickel for the on-board rechargeable battery pack. The nickel is actually mined and smelted in Sudbury, Ontario (Canada) by Inco. The nickel is then shipped to a refinery in Europe. From there, the nickel goes to China to produce nickel foam. Then, it goes to Japan. In Japan Panasonic manufactures the battery itself, then it’s off to the Toyota plant for final vehicle assembly. Lastly the cars are shipped to the United States, completing the world tour required for a Prius battery.

That was certainly a bit of cold water thrown on her excitement! I’ve had exactly the same reaction from many who pooh-pooh driving a hybrid or electric car, think those of us who do are “greenies” or goofballs,  all while they climb in to their car or truck that, on a good day, gets 18mpg and costs them $100 a week to drive.

So I took a moment to refute and minimize what this kid had said and also thought this entire discussion would make a great post:  [Read more...]

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Bachmann is Not the Brightest Bulb in the Sign

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, in a continuation of her tirades against the “nanny state” and “government takeover” of seemingly everything, reintroduced her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act which essentially demands proof of compact fluorescent light bulb safety (due to the mercury it contains) and the carbon emissions purported to be reduced if incandescent bulbs begin their current governmental mandated phase-out in January of 2012.

Even though her amended bill seems to include a focus on “the people” vs. her usual focus on business, I have my doubts but can’t figure out what her real motivation is in trying to kill this 2012 mandate. In part her bill states that proof is needed that compact fluorescent bulbs, “…will not pose any health risks, including risks associated with mercury containment in certain light bulbs, to consumers or the general public, including health risks with respect to hospitals, schools, day care centers, mental health facilities, and nursing homes.” Really? I highly doubt Bachmann cares at all about “consumers and the general public” since she’s not showing ANY leanings in that direction during her Congressional tenure.

I’m still trying to figure out who wins here. Is she in the pocket of “big light bulb”? Not likely. Is it just low-hanging fruit to get the non-thinking masses riled up? Probably. But even that isn’t clear and I highly doubt she’s just being her usual short-sighted, screamingly goofy on any anti-Obama issue so other GOP’ers don’t have to be, self.

For the last five years (see this post from 2006) I’ve been closely watching what’s going on in energy and, especially, the ONE, MOST WASTEFUL energy use WORLDWIDE: incandescent light bulbs. The US Department of Energy, the European Union energy ministers, and anyone with half-a-brain can do the 2nd grade arithmetic necessary to easily see the energy wasting nature of this lighting source.

This article (written in 2006!) from the Economist summed up the primary reason why we MUST get off incandescent lighting:

Worldwide about 20% of all electricity generated is used for lighting. Several studies reckon that LEDs could eventually cut that amount in half. That would not only save billions of dollars in electricity bills, but also significantly reduce energy demand, environmental pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.

So is Michele Bachmann a terrorist who wants us to remain dependent on foreign oil? Is she concerned that big oil companies will have their revenues lowered if the U.S. moves toward efficient and energy saving lighting? Seriously, I can’t think of what the hell her motivation is here other than finding any reason to jump on an issue that gets people riled up one way or another.

What do you think?

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Will Google Experience Control Data’s Fate?

An early Control Data system with supercomputer genius Seymour Cray at the controls

Google’s recent announcements about their focus on wind energy and these five initiatives bring up the possibility that they’re following in the footsteps of Control Data, a Minnesota corporation that took its eye off the ball and lost their lead as one of the nine most influential computer companies and are now out of business.

Control Data Corporation (CDC) was a supercomputer firm. For most of the 1960s, it built the fastest computers in the world by far, only losing that crown in the 1970s after Seymour Cray left the company to found Cray Research, Inc. (CRI). CDC was one of the nine major United States computer companies through most of the 1960s; the others were IBM, Burroughs Corporation, DEC, NCR, General Electric, Honeywell, RCA, and UNIVAC. CDC was well known and highly regarded throughout the industry at one time. –from Wikipedia

William Norris, founder and CEO of CDC, was a computer visionary but also a social activist. One of his key initiatives was computer-based learning, an initiative that took an increasing amount of his time and made many people who worked there (and I know dozens and am related to many former CDC employees) continued to be befuddled over the lack of focus on core competitive moves and what seemed like an acceleration in “cause related” investments over the years. Yes, losing Seymour Cray was devastating but there was so much more to the core business than chasing the supercomputer end of it.

Sadly, those of us in Minnesota who looked up to CDC watched it slowly fade away and sell off bits and pieces of itself until it was non-existent.

The Google Self Driving Car

Google’s stated business mission? To, “…organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Beyond the mission they post items like this “Ten Things We Know to be True” manifesto which outlines core beliefs like, “Focus on the user and all else will follow” and when it comes to their primary business, search, that “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

So help me understand Google: How do windmills and self driving cars fit in to the focus of Google and everything you stand for and believe?  There’s a lot of buzz in the tech community about the “Google brain drain” as people bolt to go to Facebook and other startups and I’m not the only one that wants to see them focus, and I’d hate to see you haunted by the ghost of William Norris who’d hate to see another leading company lose its way.

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Your Mileage May Vary

Technologists, “greenies” and (hopefully) mainstream consumers are anticipating the release of many new hybrid and electric cars, none the least of which is the soon-to-be-shipped Chevrolet Volt. The issue I see coming is one of potentially profound disappointment by the general masses due to the current state of energy storage in batteries.

I am a somewhat disappointed owner of a Neuton rechargeable lawnmower with nickel metal hydride (NiMh) batteries (I bought an extra battery for $99). After the first season the batteries weren’t holding a charge so I couldn’t finish my relatively small lawn with both batteries. Neuton agreed I’d “conditioned” them properly over the winter by storing them inside and charging ‘em once per month, so they gave me two new ones. They’ve also have recognized the initial failings of these first batteries and have since done a deal with Duracell for newer technology they ship with the current generation of mowers, but reviews I’ve read show people still disappointed with the lower-than-gas-mower power and how as the stored energy drains, the mower’s power weakens right alongside it.

Since I have a Toyota Prius in the garage—a car I may still upgrade to a plugin hybrid (PHEV) using Minneapolis-based ReGo‘s technology for $5,000—I am trying to keep up on the current state of electric storage technology (i.e., batteries) and how far we have to go. No question I see that it’s closer to mainstream but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s yet commercially viable.

That’s what General Motors thinks too.

On page 154 in their most recent SEC Form S1 filing (PDF) they state, “On a fully charged battery and tank of gas, the Chevrolet Volt has a driving range of hundreds of miles. When powered only from electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery; the Chevrolet Volt has a typical range of 25-50 miles depending on terrain, driving technique, temperature and battery age. Advanced lithium-ion battery technology is the key enabling technology for the Chevrolet Volt, although this technology is new and has not been proven to be commercially viable.

All that said, I do believe in the brilliance of GM’s approach by leveraging battery storage along with a small internal combustion engine that will do nothing but charge the batteries when they fall below a threshold. It means that I could hop in the Volt and drive to Chicago…something I would never do in a purely electrical vehicle like the widely anticipated Nissan Leaf which this New York Times article states, “…has a range of about 100 miles before it needs recharging. But that range can vary a lot – to as little as 62 miles to as much as 138 – depending upon factors like weather, traffic, accessory use, load and driving style.” I’d be very nervous driving a Leaf for a full weekend day…let alone out of the Twin Cities metro area.

If you’d like to watch a video that gives a solid overview of the current state of the marketplace, this one from the recent World Energy Expo in Austin, TX will give you a good sense of what’s going on right now. When it comes to vehicle energy storage, I anticipate that consumers will become disillusioned unless they completely and totally understand the limitations and the variables that comprise the statement, “…and your mileage may vary.

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When We Run Out of Oil…

If you pay attention to any of the relevant facts about oil production (i.e., supply), oil consumption, and why it’s likely we’re in the Middle East fighting a “war” (e.g., to deploy a strategic military position to ensure a steady flow of oil), then you probably do like I do: waver between complacency and sheer terror over the prospect of running out of oil.

I’ve been following oil geeks at The Oil Drum for some time, and while they clearly give solid and deep analysis of all the current data and conjecture in the oil industry, it’s this “Crash Course 17A-Peak Oil” video by Chris Martenson (from his Crash Course on economics) that I’ve embedded below and is one that will give you a very concise snapshot of where we are in the world with respect to peak oil.

Having learned more than I ever wanted to know about the looming fate of us all in a world soon hungry for energy, I gave up a 34mpg Mercedes diesel in favor of a Toyota Prius — one I routinely get 48mpg in as an average — since I can see strategically that the world’s dependence on a finite resource is accelerating while that resource is dwindling and getting more expensive to deliver. Not a pretty combination. It’s also why I’ll be buying a plug-in hybrid in the next year or two when I find one that fits my strategic and tactical needs for transportation. Gas prices in the next two years will only go one way….up.

Bottom line? If you’re not thinking about your business and personal life in a world with shrinking energy reserves, then you’re not paying attention and need to be….now.

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GoodGuide: Holding Producers Accountable

When I wrote yesterday’s post Food, Inc.: I will never look at dinner the same way again I intended to point out some tools you can use to make informed decisions about what you eat and the companies that are producing your foods.

GoodGuide is both a website and a free iPhone/iPod Touch application which allows we mobile users to “simply scan the barcode of the product and immediately see detailed ratings for health, environment and social responsibility for more than 50,000 products and companies. GoodGuide provides this information about personal care, household chemical, toy and food products for free on your iPhone / iPod Touch and is adding thousands of products every month. By making information about consumer products transparent, GoodGuide’s goal is to help people shop smarter and motivate companies to offer even better products.

On their homepage you can learn about the issues, see food recalls and other related news, and my favorite thing to do, browse ratings of other products. If you signup you can create a “Favorites” list and begin amassing a database of your preferred products.

Besides the obvious power this is putting in the hands of consumers, what’s most interesting to me (and to our clients) is how empowered consumers will likely have applications that go far beyond food product and the food distribution companies. Imagine you’re a furniture manufacturer and consumers can make choices to buy products from companies that don’t use formaldehyde. What would you do if your sales started to drop? You bet….start making formaldehyde-free furniture. (For more see the Wall Street Journal on “New Bill Could Limit Formaldehyde in Furniture” and SFGate’s article “What’s in furniture? It’s enough to make you sick“).

So if you’re primarily interested in being an empowered consumer, download the free GoodGuide and apps like it. If you’re in the business of producing goods or selling services that rely on other’s products, you’d better understand the entire supply chain of those goods and get ready for heightened awareness and accelerated choices by consumers!

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…and people wonder why I drive a Prius

[click for larger view]

It is so obvious from even casual observation that consumption of oil for energy is continuing to accelerate. Too many people I know continue to choose gas guzzlers when they buy a new car, as if “someone out there” will take care of what’s happening to world oil supply.

From the Economist:

A Developing Thirst

GLOBAL demand for oil is set to rise from 84.7m barrels per day (bpd) in 2008 to 105m bpd in 2030, says the International Energy Agency in its latest annual energy report. Transport will account for 97% of this increase as rising numbers of cars hit the roads of the developing world. Demand from these countries will overtake that of the industrialised OECD nations by 2030. By then, America, Japan and Europe will be using less oil than in 1980. But the thirst for oil will balloon in Asia — and in India and China in particular — where demand is predicted to rise by as much as 400% compared with 2008.

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Entering the Age of Energy Scarcity

no-gasWhen former President George W. Bush indicated in several interviews that “history will be my judge” — referring to the reasons his administration went to war — a disturbing number of people still seem to believe that our invasion of Iraq has something to do with stopping terrorism in the Middle East, instead of “fighting them at home” and spreading freedom and democracy in that region.

If that were true it should’ve been a priority, and relatively easy, to convince our pals, the House of Saud, to give up their monarchy and become a democracy. But because our presence in that region is about protecting “our national interests” (that would be a steady flow of oil, especially from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and ensuring we get our fair share (though that share is larger than any other country receives), having a strategic position in the Middle East is what Bush was driving toward, and is now counting on, as historians review his focus on protecting a dwindling resource vs. an all out effort to find replacements for oil.

One of the sites I follow is called The Oil Drum, a site run by oil geeks who run article after article that are highly detailed and often over my head. That said, it’s one of the few places I can go to understand the incredible complexity of the energy marketplace and read opinions by those in-the-know and gain some insight.

It’s not hard, however, to ascertain one fact from all the prognostications and writings within this site: we’re either just past, now at, or damn close to peak oil production and that by 2020 we’ll begin to see a major dropoff in world oil production.

2020!?! That’s less than 11 years from now and with What happens when demand outstrips supply? If you paid attention in 7th grade you’ll know that prices increase in that scenario, if you can even get some. [Read more...]

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Is Chevron committing an act of treason?

fox-batterySaw this tweet this morning from tech visionary, pundit and publisher Tim O’Reilly, which brought me to this article on “NiMH Batteries, Chevron Patents and the Future of Plug-in Hybrid Cars” and a sudden onset of disbelief and dismay, though after eight years with the Bush/Cheney oil-centric administration, nothing energy related that has favored an oil company (or been allowed to continue unchallenged) should come as much of a surprise.

The next thought was that this country not only needs patent reform desperately, but in the case of a fox (an oil company) guarding the hen house (NiMH battery use which could easily accelerate the building of hybrid cars) we need to find ways to have some form of intellectual property eminent domain so the foxes (like Chevron) can’t control our metaphorical food supply in the form of stored electrical energy.

It says in part, “If NiMH batteries are being used so successfully, why are American manufacturers fixated on Li Ion batteries? Part of the reason is that petroleum company Chevron owns the patent for the Ovonics NiMH traction battery. Under the ruse of saying they have not had sufficiently convincing proposals brought to them, Chevron continues to deny licenses to any company proposing to manufacture new NiMH traction batteries.

As is usually the case in matters of intellectual property, markets and trade, there are undoubtedly complexities involved in this patent and the use of it. It’s altogether possible I’m not seeing some subtlety or nuance that goes beyond what seems obvious on the surface. But come on…can this restraint of NiMH battery use by Chevron be any more obvious?

Where would be be today, right now, with delivering robust and powerful hybrid cars if there weren’t barriers to manufacturing NiMH batteries? It’s one thing for a company to strategically leverage technologies that pose a threat to an incumbents business, and quite another to bury it or place too many obstacles and barriers in front of its use. But when all of us have so much at stake with climate change, national security with oil, and an economy so dependent upon that oil, a disloyal act like this — working at cross-purposes to the imperatives of our nation — can only be described with one word: treason.