Last week I was talking about how technological progress tends to be more incremental nowadays but that it still adds up to big change. Keeping track of all the new inventions, alternatives, and conservation strategies from week to week, we never see any really big breakthroughs, but before you know it, a couple years down the road, you end up looking back and wondering how did we move so far away from oil as our main energy source. Here are a couple stories from today that might go unnoticed by most people but are key incremental improvements. Solar Monkey has developed a more efficient solar tracking system (aside: what a funny name for a company). Solar tracking systems are the ones where the solar panels or reflectors follow the sun across the sky and thus maximize the amount energy that can be extracted. Of course, installing the motors and structural components to move the panels is more expensive than just putting a stationary system in place so anything cheaper way of doing it would be well received. The article does not say how much lower the Solar Monkey product is, but it has won awards for its design.
One area where there is a lot of energy to be saved is in computer data centers. Big chip makers (such as Intel) and data management companies (like IBM) are focusing a lot more on creating energy efficient chips and software strategies (maybe you have seen the "green" commercials). A company called Greenbytes has developed an add on storage device uses 80% less energy than normal. In 2006, data centers used 1.5% of retail electricity in the U.S and that number has grown dramatically since so big energy savings in data centers means big savings for the entire country.
Even something as simple as cutting thinner semiconductor wafers used in solar panels can add up to big savings in the long run.
So incremental progress is being made everyday yet I still hear calls for some sort of national government-led Manhattan style or Apollo style program to develop alternative energy – such as this article. The problem with alternative energy is that it is not anywhere near analogous to the Apollo program, nor is America anything like it was back in the 1950s and 1960s. The "moon shot" was well defined. Land a person on the moon by the end of the decade – the end of the 1960s. What definition would be considered a success for alternative energy? What is the time frame? All the people who are clamoring for a massive government-led program offer no metrics for success, no time frames. My feeling is that we are well on our way to using less fossil fuel. Investment in solar and wind is increasing dramatically every year with no signs of slowing down. Having the government get involved in a major way will just take money away from the inventors, the scientists, and entrepreneurs. Some might say the inventors will still get money, just that it will come from the government. The problem is that government "money" always comes with high overhead. Washington is like a giant money eating monster. If the money has to pass through there you end up losing a significant percentage to regulation and bureaucracy.
Some other interesting news today – GM has unveiled the production version of the Volt. Now that they have the final design and a working model on the test track, you would think it would make it into showrooms pretty soon, but most people say it won’t be available until the end of 2010. That is a LONG time. Maybe they are waiting for battery prices to come down.
I often talk about alternative energy because it is intertwined with the weather through the AGW story. I wouldn’t mind moving away from fossil fuels because that would mean less pollution, other people want the same move because they think the world is going to be destroyed (literally) by carbon dioxide. One point of observation making the news in the last couple of years is the arctic sea-ice. Once again today we find a couple articles with much hysteria (article 1 and article 2) about how the ice is melting and we are close to a record. This flies in the face of satellite observations indicating 500,000 square miles more ice this year (as of September 5th) than last year. That is an area the size of Spain! Unless there was some massive unprecedented meltdown in one week, then I am unsure what the new hysteria is all about. The real question is why is there more ice this year than last year, and will this create a feedback loop in the opposite direction then everyone thinks (more ice means more sun is reflected back into space means colder temps means more ice, and so on, year after year).
By the way, did anyone watch the Discovery channel special on space solar power and transmission last Friday night? From what I have read on the Internet this week I couldn’t get any real hard data, but apparently the transmission was very tiny – a slight proof of concept – more than anything else.
I have plenty of time to discuss topics in the wide world of science and space because our weather hear in Wisconsin is quite tranquil. At this point it doesn’t look like any significant chance of rain during the next week or two. Right now I am forecasting a slight chance of rain on Saturday, and that is it. Temps will go up and down a few degrees, but remain mainly above normal, in the 70 to 75 range. Tomorrow and Thursday will be the only days when the mercury might not hit 70 (but be very close).
Have a very good Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.