Sep 5, 2011

August Power News

I am still experimenting with formats for these monthly news stories. This time, instead of writing an entry for each story I wrote a brief summary with some thoughts. My goal is to have people read the stories for themselves so I don’t think having me basically re-write it is necessary. Assuming you saw through that thinly veiled excuse, it is indeed an easier way for me to get material out (aka the lazier way).

In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Japanese officials have accelerated a bill calling for the introduction of renewable energy sources into the consumer grid. The tsunami caused massive instability in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, the largest provider of nuclear power in the country. The bill was introduced before the March quake, but the aftermath has pushed the government to find alternatives to nuclear power. Under the current provisions of the bill, solar and wind energy would be set at a fixed price that the government can buy from utilities. They would then turn around and sell that electricity back to consumers in a way that is profitable for all parties. Japan’s officials believe that modifying the current energy system will facilitate economic growth and create more advances like digitizing the electrical grid.

The change Japan is attempting here really cannot be undervalued. I think it could give the United States a great benchmark for integrating renewable sources on a mass scale. An undertaking like this will surely bring out the naysayers – those who claim that solar and wind are unreliable. I am not going to try and say there is no uncertainty when dealing with renewable sources. The fact is that the sun is only out half the day at best, and on cloudy days the energy we can capture is severely limited. Likewise, the wind doesn’t always blow and blow hard enough to be useful.

Whether you have faith in renewable resources or not, we will eventually run out of fossil fuels. I have seen projections estimating we will be able to make them last for another 100 years, accounting for an increase in demand. I am not advocating a total switch to alternative energy right now because we just aren’t able to sustain something like that given today’s technology. However, if we can supplement the grid with renewable sources I don’t see a downside. Perhaps we can even get 120 years, or 150 years, or more out of our remaining fossil fuels with the additions. It will be interesting to see what sort of effect Japan’s plans have on the US, if any.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has officially awarded Philips the Bright Lighting Tomorrow Prize, nicknamed the “L” Prize. Phillips won for their 60W replacement bulb that uses LEDs to create a brightness and color equivalent to current incandescent lamps while consuming only 9.7 watts. Philips first submitted their entry back in 2009, but their L Prize design has not yet found its way into market. They do currently sell a 60W equivalent LED model (at a steep $40 per bulb), but the L Prize design is even more energy efficient. The new lamps can last up to 25,000 hours compared to 2,000 hours for today’s incandescent bulbs. A complete switch from incandescent bulbs to these LED models would save 35TWh of electricity every year, enough to power Washington D.C. for three years. Representatives from Philips say that getting the L Prize model to market for $10 a bulb is “absolutely achievable” in the next five or six years.
At this point you might be thinking, “Why is this in the frivolous category? It sounds important to me”. Well, it’s not hard to win a contest when you are the only one who enters. In the last 18 months, since Philips submitted their L Prize model, not a single other company, startup, or kid with a soldering iron have attempted to compete. I am not saying this is Philip’s fault, I just want to point out this is not really such a monumental achievement considering there are other contests and independent startups out there improving the designs of LED bulbs.

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the $10 million they got for winning is really going to push their stocks up after only putting up $36 billion in total revenue last year. Maybe this victory will make them bring the $10 bulb to market in two years instead of a lofty six. Look, if I am sure of anything in the electronics industry it is this: LED bulbs absolutely and totally will replace incandescent lights. Congrats to Philips on winning, but this is really just a blip on the LED radar.

Are you all sick of hearing about light bulbs yet? Too bad. Chicago is replacing the sodium-vapor streetlights that were first installed in the 70’s with more energy efficient metal-halides. The Chicago Department of Transportation got a $13.8 million grant from the Department of Energy for the overhaul. In addition, they are replacing 1,000 stoplights with LED versions to cut down on energy costs. The CDT estimates that with the replacements they will be able to save $1.8 million dollars and cut down on carbon emissions by 15,000 metric tons per year. The new lamps are also expected to last several years longer than the existing sodium-vapor models.

Chicago is my favorite place to visit in the United States, but at night the orange glow that envelops the city can be really disorienting (Sodium-vapor lamps give off a red-orange light, the new metal-halides give off a whitish-blue hue). The CDT is calling for this infrastructure upgrade for financial reasons, but the press they get for moving toward a greener technology isn’t exactly a downside. That being said, I have no problem with them taking that road because the end result is that they are improving their energy efficiency. My only world of caution would be to make sure the new LED streetlights dissipate the heat from the LEDs through the chassis. When cities in Minnesota switched to LED lights a few years back, the lights ran so cool that snow built up on the streetlights and blocked out the signal. Learn from their mistakes during your green initiative.

A Twenty-one year old was killed on August 16th when he tried to steal copper wire from a vacant building in Pennsylvania. He used bolt cutters to slice through the chains on the gate, walked past the “high voltage” sign, and attempted to cut out the copper wire from the generator. His female accomplice later told police that as soon as the cutters came in contact with the generator he began to convulse. She called 911, but by the time police arrived the man was dead.

Why is it that all the stories that make this category have to do with electrocuting people? Meh, I’ll get over it.

I am having a really hard time not speaking ill of the dead on this one. The sheer level of stupidity involved with trying to steal wire from a generator is beyond my understanding. Dude…it’s a generator….it GENERATES ELECTRICITY!! Experienced linemen are killed every year working on power lines and yet this schmuck wanders in there with a piece of metal and jams it into live wires.

As dumb as his actions were, they were almost understandable. Copper prices have gone up 500% in the last decade and aren’t slowing down any time soon. We are starting to tap the world’s reserves to keep up with the demand for electronics and integrated circuits. People have begun to strip the wiring out of publicly accessible electrical equipment because of the price increases. You want to make money during the recession? Follow the Simpsons motto: “It’s not about how much stock you have, it’s about how much copper wire you can get out of the building”.


So there you have it, four stories for August. Any thoughts on the new format? I am also struggling with what to call these monthly segments. If I go for an acronym I can get something like FINIS or IFINS, but is that good enough? Leave a comment if you have thoughts.


Joel Ryan said...

I like this format. These are posts that are easier to relate to, and having quick blurbs that are to-the-point makes it easier to read. No one wants to actually read much of anything on the web, especially long-winded comments on electronics blogs, and eve more-so not comments which features run-on sentences and self-referential humor. Especially.

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