Sustainable Design Archives

October 2, 2003

Cheap Solar

According to CNN, Europe's largest semiconductor manufacturer, STMicroelectronics, has developed a new form of solar cells which could cut the price of solar-generated electricity to half of the average price for fossil fuel-generated electrical power.

The French-Italian company expects cheaper organic materials such as plastics to bring down the price of producing energy. Over a typical 20-year life span of a solar cell, a single produced watt should cost as little as $0.20, compared with the current $4.

The new solar cells would even be able to compete with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which costs about $0.40 per watt, said Salvo Coffa, who heads ST's research group that is developing the technology.

Interestingly, the trick is to focus not on extremely efficient materials, but on relatively inefficient base materials which are also very inexpensive.

October 6, 2003

Bacterial Fuel Cells

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have figured out how to use a particular kind of bacteria to convert sugar (glucose) to electricity with 80% efficiency. Technology Review has the write-up.

This research is still in the early stages, but suggests (along with ongoing research in the use of pond scum to make hydrogen) that the next energy revolution could well have a strong biotech component.

November 26, 2003


With the rise of Tech Nouveau and the Viridian movement, the myth that green design is inherently clunky, crude, or unappealing to modern consumers is finally dead. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of transportation. The new Prius is one of the top-selling cars on the market, in part because of its swoopy design, and as an owner of a Honda Civic Hybrid, I can say from personal experience that very high gas mileage and near-zero emissions can definitely be found hand-in-hand with comfort, utility, and style.

As cool as those cars are, they remain fairly conventional in many respects. But just around the corner are some vehicles totally unlike anything that's ever hit the pavement before. Among the more unusual -- and, in my view, kickass -- designs is the Bombardier EMBRIO (image on the right), a fuel-cell-powered vehicle combining motorcycle, unicycle, and Segway. Fast, quiet, pollution-free, and stable on a single wheel because of its gyroscopes, the EMBRIO looks like something best ridden while wearing black leather and latex.

Sadly, it's not yet real. Bombardier is a Canadian transportation company best known in the U.S. for its "Ski-Doo" personal gas-consumption/noise-generation/water-sports device. The EMBRIO is a concept vehicle, one which will likely not see a showroom, intended by Bombardier as a way of showcasing its ability to think beyond the current market. I want one now.

December 2, 2003

Solar-Powered Hydrogen

Wired News reports that University of Massachusetts (Boston) chemists have figured out how to nearly double the efficiency of a solar-powered process used to make hydrogen fuel. Solar power is employed to crack water molecules into component hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The new technique is 30 percent efficient, significantly improving over the 18 percent efficiency of the previous solar water cracking process.

Moreover, this begins to put solar-process hydrogen production on a competitive footing to the current mainstream H2 process, which mixes steam and natural gas. This current method is not environmentally benign, nor will it move us away from fossil fuel usage. Ecological and resource sanity are two big selling points for hydrogen power.

How long will it take before this process is economically viable? The inventor says up to five years; a principal scientist at the government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory quoted in the article argues it will more likely be up to 20 years. I'm expecting the latter, but hoping for the former.

December 6, 2003

Geopolymeric Pseudo-Concrete

Paul Harrison wrote to inform us of an Australian process which uses aluminum and waste products such as fly ash, used glass, slag, and even waste paper to create an inorganic geopolymer analog to concrete, one that takes less energy to make than conventional cement-based concrete. A company called Siloxo developed and has commercialized the process. The resulting material is extremely heat-resistant (up to 950°C), resists most acids, and is supposedly ideal for encapsulating heavy metals, organic wastes, and other hazardous materials.

A greener replacement for concrete may not be the sexiest bit of future-friendly technology to pop up, but it certainly could be one of the more important. Tens of millions of tons of concrete are produced every year around the world. If that production could be made more energy-efficient (and make use of materials which would otherwise be considered hazardous waste), we all win. Or, as Paul put it in his email, "if we're building another world, this looks like the stuff to make it out of."

December 16, 2003

Altenergy in the UK

(Title with apologies to Mr. Lydon.)

Earth-Info-Net notes a couple of interesting resources regarding alternative energy in Great Britain.

Yes2Wind provides information about wind power in the UK. Assembled by the WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, Yes2Wind includes wind power-related news, a detailed FAQ, an occasionally-updated weblog, and a nifty Wind Farm Locator for those of you in Britain (or just visiting) who want to see wind power in person. Given that the UK claims to be the windiest nation in Europe, wind power is a clear winner in the realm of big system energy production.

For something a little bit closer to home, there's Microgen's home Stirling Engine. Microgen's CHP (Combined Heat+Power) co-generation units are designed to work in individual households, providing hot water, home heating, and electricity. Running on natural gas, the CHP units are supposed to cut 25% off an average energy bill, and produce far fewer emissions than standard home furnaces/water heaters (let alone traditional power plants). It's only available in Great Britain, though.

As you can see in the illustration for this post (from Microgen), a home CHP unit isn't exactly sexy on the outside, but cutting costs and emissions while using a modern variant of a 19th-century engine design (which just happens to be the most efficient engine possible) definitely has its own charm...

December 22, 2003

Alternative Energy in Pakistan

It's small, but it's a start. According to the UN's IRIN, about 100 homes near Islamabad are about to be converted over to solar power to test a new model for supplying electricity to outlying communities. Pakistan's goal is to have 10% of national electricity generation come from alternative sources by 2010.

The bulk of the article discusses the various ways in which the Pakistani government is supporting that move to alternatives -- with lots of "planned" and "soon" -- but the real key piece is the final paragraph:

Once electricity was supplied to villages and communities in areas outside the reach of grid-based power providers, a new social phenomenon would be witnessed, Hamid maintained. "Even attitudes would change once electricity reached a village or community in an area where there had been none previously," he said.

I suspect that we'll see more of this, over time. It may be easier to create a sustainable advanced energy (or information) infrastructure in areas without existing legacy/incumbent systems. Introducing new systems in areas with existing systems means having to pay the costs of converting on top of whatever the new system itself costs. Introducing new systems in regions without them can actually be less expensive than bringing them into "more advanced" markets. As a result, previously less-developed areas can "leapfrog" the established regions, a process noted most famously in 1962 by Alexander Gerschenkron in Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective.

This may be why Linux (for example) is taking off so profoundly in the developing world. There are fewer organizations grappling with the sunk costs of Windows, more new markets taking a fresh look at which solutions work best. In due time, Linux will be the standard approach for the South (the "BrInSA" trinity -- Brazil, India, South Africa), and any attempt to move off of that standard will face its own conversion costs.

December 25, 2003

Greenest Building in the World

It isn't in the U.S., Great Britain, or Japan. It isn't in Canada, Germany, or New Zealand. It isn't in the hyperdeveloped world at all. The greenest building in the world, as recognized by the United States Green Building Council, is in Hyderabad, India. It's the Confederation of Indian Industry's Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre.

InfoChangeIndia gives some details about the building's design:

Two 45-foot wind towers and screen walls provide air pre-cooled by 10 degrees to the air-conditioning system, thereby reducing the amount of energy required for cooling. Says [architect Karan] Grover: “This is called the ‘venturi effect’ in modern buildings. It helps pre-cool the air.” Pointing out the jali (lattice) work in a photograph of the Taj Mahal, he explains: “It’s not the first time for India. We have been doing it since ancient times.”

The Rs 6 crore structure also has photovoltaic panels built into it to generate solar energy that takes care of 20% of the building’s annual energy requirements. Likewise, the electrical fixtures have been automated to save power; 90% of the building does not require any artificial lighting during the day because its circular design allows sunlight to reach every part of it. The building also boasts variable speed motors for its blowers and pumps, and the elaborate use of sensors feeding back to the controls.

Thanks to its circular design, fewer materials were used in the building’s construction. Those that were, were recycled and eco-friendly -- broken mosaic tiles, steel, wood, glass, fly ash brick, oil-and CFC-free equipment and the locally-available bettum cherla stone. Inside, all the carpets and paint are non-toxic. The workers employed in the building’s construction were all local people.

Work on the building started in 2000, and it will be formally inaugurated in January 2004. The Centre serves as a showcase of sustainable design techniques as well as an information resource for Indian businesses.

December 28, 2003

Holland's Whispering Wheels

Buses are the dirty secret of the sustainability movement. While there is broad consensus that increased use of public transit is a Good Thing, self-powered buses -- the most flexible available form of public transportation -- are often noisy, pollution-spewing monstrosities. This is largely due to their diesel engines, a necessity due to the sheer power needed to push a massive vehicle along.

Now take a look at the current crop of hybrid-electric cars roaming the highways, such as the Prius or (the one I drive) the Honda Civic Hybrid. Quiet, efficient, clean... but they're no muscle cars. Surely there's no way to mix the two -- the power and utility of the urban bus and the quiet efficiency of the hybrid.

Au contraire.

The city of Apeldoorn, in Holland, is about to start testing a bus design which is at least 50 percent more efficient than previous models. The bus will rely on a standard engine charging batteries supplying power to direct-drive electric motors in the wheels. It still runs on diesel (but will produce only a fraction of current model emissions), and from the perspective of both drivers and passengers the only notable difference will be how quiet it is. It will be the first real hybrid-electric passenger bus.

The company producing the wheel-motor system, e-Traction, claims that their innovation comes from taking a new look at traditional motors. Rather than a static ring of electromagnets making a rotor turn, the center bar is held still while the ring spins. This produces enough torque to push a bus. While regenerative braking is used to help recharge the batteries, most of the battery power comes from the diesel engine. But because the engine doesn't need to change gears or rev up and down as the bus moves, it can be run at its most fuel-efficient speed at all times.

The result is a vehicle which uses less fuel (but doesn't require an entirely new fuel infrastructure to be useful), produces far fewer emissions (without simply displacing emissions to the central electric power generation grid), and makes the experience of using public transit less unpleasant. Works for me.

December 29, 2003

Earthquakes, Culture, and Design

With the ongoing revelations of the scale of the disaster in Bam, Iran, it's easy to forget that the magnitude of the earthquake in Iran -- 6.6 on the Richter scale -- was quite close to that of an earthquake just a few days earlier, the 6.5 quake in Paso Robles, California. In Iran, the quake killed as many as 40,000 people, and destroyed thousands of buildings; in California, the quake killed 3, and while early 100 buildings were damaged enough to require safety inspections, only one collapsed. The reason for the difference is not surprising: buildings in California were built according to strong earthquake codes, while the homes and businesses destroyed by earthquake in Iran were largely made of unreinforced mud and stone. As tragic as this is, we've become somewhat accustomed to seeing devastating results from earthquakes in the developing world, figuring that the building materials for quake-resistant designs must be financially out of reach.

But MIT architecture professor Jan Wampler doesn't think that way. Since the late 1980s, Wampler has been running the International Workshop, a multi-disciplinary program for both undergrads and grad students. Students visit a developing country, studying its culture, architectural history, available technology and resources in order to design buildings appropriate and useful for the area. After 1999's disastrous 7.4 earthquake in Turkey, Wampler -- along with two former students, Barbara Brady and Rukiye Devres Unver -- began a program focusing on how local villages could be rebuilt to better withstand earthquakaes... and, along the way, better withstand economic and social pressures leading to their cultural destruction, as well.

Wampler reasoned that, by bringing a workshop to Turkey after the quake, he and his students could help rebuild the devastated countryside, designing and constructing much needed and more stable shelters. After consulting with Brady and Unver, he chose to focus on the region surrounding the city of Adapazari, which lies directly on the fault and 75 percent of whose buildings had been leveled. He also intended to devote the workshop to planning an entire village, or as he puts it, a “microvillage.” Wampler invented the term, he says, to capture the sense of a small, technical community—something more than just homes grouped together. According to his definition, a microvillage incorporates design that recognizes local architectural traditions while exploring the newest technologies; fosters a sense of community (something that gets lost amid the high-rises of a big city); and provides economic self-sustainability (if inhabitants can create microindustries within the village, they won’t feel pressed to migrate to the cities).

The workshop concentrated on designing buildings which were affordable, survivable, and still fit into the architectural heritage of the region. Moreover, the "microvillage" was built with a community center incorporating a library with Internet access, allowing the residents to bring in information and sell locally-crafted products online. The goal of the microvillage project is sustainability -- both in the sense of the community surviving what nature throws at it and the community having an ongoing reason for its existence.

More than that, though, this project is part of a larger constellation of ideas and efforts bringing resources and tools for self-sustainability and self-development to individuals. Keep 'em coming.

January 5, 2004

Next Generation Wind Farm

Time to take a field trip!

The High Winds Energy Center is now open, 90 new wind turbines situated in the hills between San Francisco and Sacramento. This next generation model wind turbine can operate in slower winds, can rotate to meet changing wind directions, and can generate 20 times more electricity than earlier-generation systems. Because the turbine blades turn more slowly than previous models, fewer birds get caught and killed.

And these things are big -- really big. Over 300 feet tall, with 125-foot blades, which allow the turbines to operate efficiently in wind as slow as 8 miles per hour and still generate up to 1.8 megawatts. In wind power, size matters.

California intends to have 20 percent of its energy generated from renewable sources by 2010, and this is a good step along the way. (Via Futurismic)

January 17, 2004

Home as [an Irregular] Solid

If you have a spare ¥6 million -- about $60,000 -- you too can have a home shaped like a dodecahedron (the twelve-sided "perfect solid") soccer ball/football. It's the "Barrier," from the G-Wood company in Japan, and it's supposedly designed to float, remain standing in an earthquake, and even resist collapse in the event of a bombing. (I say "supposedly" because the company's website is entirely in Japanese; the folks at Dotcommu provide a summary.) The Barrier units are fairly small, running roughly 375 square feet for the current model and around 1100 square feet for the planned larger unit, but can be made to be quite liveable.

The presentation of the Barrier on the G-Wood site is ineffably Japanese, but the idea is serious. The notion of a structurally-stable, relatively inexpensive, floating home -- complete with cool, funky design -- is highly appealing. It's just the sort of dwelling one would want in regions prone to global-warming-induced flooding and hurricanes. I wouldn't be surprised to see one at the next Burning Man, too. (Via Futurismic)

(Thanks, marc, for pointing out the errors in Solids Analysis)

January 27, 2004

Land Mine Detecting Flowers

Reuters reports that the Danish company Aresa Biodetection has developed genetically-modified flowers which change color when their roots come in contact with Nitrogen Dioxide in the soil. Explosives used in mines produce NO2 as the chemicals gradually decay.

Aresa's invention, based on research at the Institute of Molecular Biology at Copenhagen University, uses a plant's normal reaction to turn red or brown when subjected to stressful conditions such as cold or drought, but has genetically coded it to react only to nitrogen-dioxide.

Carefully-restricted field tests begin this year, and actual use could happen within the next couple of years.

February 2, 2004

Art(ifice) Imitates Life

Wired has a fun survey of the use of biological properties as models for software and hardware engineering. The complexity underlying the living world, as it turns out, can be applied in useful ways to computer problems which would otherwise be challenging -- or even impossible -- to resolve using more traditional methods. The survey touches on evolvable hardware, genetic algorithms, immune systems for operating systems, and more. None of the topics are new for those of us who have been following the field of biological approaches to computing, but it's a good scan of the current state of the discipline, and an excellent introduction to the concept:

EMERGENCE describes the way unpredictable patterns arise from innumerable interactions between independent parts. An organism's behavior, for instance, is driven by the interplay of its cells. Similarly, weather develops from the mixing of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and other molecules.

SELF-ORGANIZATION is a basic emergent behavior. Plants and animals assemble and regulate themselves independent of any hierarchy for planning or management. Digital simulations made up of numerous software agents have demonstrated self-organization in systems ranging from computer networks to tornadoes.

REPRODUCTION was considered strictly the purview of organisms until recently. Now computer programs procreate, too. Genetic algorithms mimic biology's capacity for innovation through genetic recombination and replication, shuffling 1s and 0s the way nature does DNA's Gs, Ts, As, and Cs, then reproducing the best code for further recombination. This technique has been used to evolve everything from factory schedules to jet engines.

COEVOLUTION inevitably accompanies evolution. When an organism evolves in response to environmental change, it puts new pressures on that environment, which likewise evolves, prompting further evolution in the organism. This cycle occurs in many social systems - for instance, the interaction between behavioral norms and legal codes.

(Via Femtopizza)

February 16, 2004

Insulating with Tires

Christopher Palmer at Recursive Irony found a company called Cordova and Sons, in Cuba, New Mexico, which recycles used tires into building material. Not an entirely new idea, but one worth keeping in mind for your next construction project. It turns out that tires used in buildings can cut road sounds five times better than any other standard building material, and has a heat insulation value of R-240. The article (scroll down) about Cordova and Sons, in the High Country News, also links to an index of tire and rubber recyclers around the world.

February 23, 2004

Microbial Fuel Cells -- Make Power, Clean Water

Researchers at Penn State have developed a microbial fuel cell that generates power by cleaning domestic wastewater:

The single-chambered microbial fuel cell is essentially a Plexiglass cylinder about the size of a soda bottle. Inside are eight graphite anodes (or negative electrodes), upon which the bacteria attach, and a hollow central cathode (or positive electrode). Electrons flow along a circuit wired from the anode to the cathode.

A steady flow of wastewater pumped into the chamber feeds the bacteria. Bacterial digestion of the wastewater's organic matter unleashes electrons into the electrical circuit and positively charged hydrogen ions into the solution. Those ions reduce the solution's oxygen demand, a key goal of wastewater treatment. The hydrogen ions also pass through a proton-exchange membrane to reach the cathode. Meanwhile, a hollow tube within the cylinder contains the cathode, which is exposed to air. At the cathode, oxygen from the air, hydrogen ions coming through the membrane and the electrons coming down the circuit combine to create water.

In other microbial fuel cells, microbes have been fed glucose, ethanol and other fuels, but, according to Bruce Logan, the Penn State professor of environmental engineering who leads the project, "Nobody has ever tried this with domestic wastewater. We're using something thought to be completely useless."

The single-chamber design is important, he said, because it facilitates a "continuous flow-through system," a design consistent with existing treatment systems.

This is still in its early stages. The microbial fuel cell doesn't generate much power -- between 10 and 50 milliWatts -- but with time and further study, output could well be boosted to usable levels. It would be of particular value in the developing world, where water treatment can be too expensive for wide use. Wastewater treatment facilities that actually generate power while cleaning the water would be enormously attractive.

February 25, 2004

Land Mine Detecting Flowers Follow-Up

Last month, we posted a brief comment about the development of bioengineered flowers which react to the presence of chemicals in the soil typically given off by land mines. The Christian Science Monitor now has a longer report about the plants, giving more details about the ongoing testing of the flowers and plans for future variants:

Field tests, scheduled to start in Denmark this spring and in other countries soon after, will determine how sensitive the plant is to nitrogen dioxide and how much of the gas is required to make it turn red. So far, the plant has shown signs of being oversensitive. "It's better to have a red spot and check it and find there isn't a mine than miss one that's there," Dr. Meier says.

The plant is self-pollinating. Researchers also removed the gene for an important growth hormone, which eliminates the risk of spreading pollen to unmodified plants because the new weed neither germinates nor sets seeds unless a specific fertilizer is used.


A further genetic modification of Thales cress may enable the plant to detect and clean soil contaminated by heavy metals and other sources of pollution, but research is just beginning in this area.

Oestergaard says a prototype of the mine-clearing version could be ready to sell in a few years.

February 27, 2004


We just love it when a couple of our favorite memes hook up. Nanotech and biomimicry -- two cool ideas that are even cooler together. A February 25 UC Santa Barbara press release I found today doesn't report on a specific break-through, but does give a nice overview of the ways that nanofabrication techniques are beginning to echo natural methods, and the reasons why this is a Good Thing:

"We are now learning how to harness the biomolecular mechanism that directs the nanofabrication of silica in living organisms," says Morse. "This is to learn to direct the synthesis of photovoltaic and semiconductor nanocrystals of titanium dioxide, gallium oxide and other semiconductors – materials with which nature has never built structures before."

Most recently, Morse and his students have made advances in copying the way marine sponges construct skeletal glass needles at the nanoscale. The research group is using nature's example to produce semiconductors and photovoltaic materials in an environmentally benign way [...]

These discoveries are significant because they represent a low temperature, biotechnological, catalytic route to the nanostructural fabrication of valuable materials. The research group is now translating these discoveries into practical engineering.

Currently these materials are produced at very high temperatures in high vacuums, using caustic chemicals. With these latest discoveries, scientists have found that nanotechnology can copy nature and produce materials in a much more environmentally friendly way than the current state-of-the-art.

March 1, 2004

Ambient Technologies

KineticWorld links to a company called Ambient Devices, spun off from work done at MIT's Media Lab. Ambient Devices makes products able to respond in subtle, non-intrusive ways to particular kinds of information changes. The site shows pinwheels that spin faster the more email you have, pens that change color when certain voicemails arrive, the inevitable "watch my stock prices" glowing ball, etc. (Note to up-and-coming technology companies -- promoting your new system as providing easy access to stock prices and sports scores is shorthand for not really knowing what your technology can do. Fair warning.)

But if you set aside the glowing-stock-ticker and sports-dashboard toys, the underlying philosophy of ambient systems is quite compelling. Rather than information being something that you have to hunt down, or something that demands your attention RIGHT NOW, ambient design allows information to become part of the environment around us, easily accessible and clear but not overwhelming. It reminds me of something that WorldChanging ally Stefan Jones proposed years ago on Bruce Sterling's Viridian list: a art/utility display for home electricity use, giving you an immediate visual reference for how much power you're using, possible brownouts, even how much power you're feeding back into the grid if you have home solar.

Ambient technologies are a good way to "make the invisible visible." Let's start making it happen.

(Thanks, CTP)

March 5, 2004

Urban Solar

In 2001, voters in the city of San Francisco approved Propositions B and H, which directed the city to develop renewable energy resources for city-owned buildings. San Francisco now has its first results of that effort -- 30,000 square feet of photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Moscone Convention Center, across the street from the SF Museum of Modern Art. The 675 kilowatts of power the panels can produce at peak are not quite enough to meet the full electricity needs of the Moscone Center, but (coupled with efficiency improvements in the building) they're enough to help the facility save $210,000 annually.

According to Metropolis magazine, San Francisco is the first of what promises to be many cities pushing solar:

According to Adam Browning of Vote Solar, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, measures similar to San Francisco’s are appearing across the country: on January 29, New Mexico passed a solar bond for its government buildings; New Jersey has what Browning calls a "perfect storm" of legislation in the works; and last December, the city of Austin, Texas unveiled a $5/watt rebate for solar energy, as well as passed legislation mandating that the city produce 20% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

There's a popular enviro-meme that nearly all of America's electrical needs could be met by installing solar on city rooftops. It will be very interesting to see the real-world result of urban solar installations. As the cost of solar continues to drop, we'll see more and more locales eager to cut their power bills in this way.

March 6, 2004

Sea Power Ahoy!

I've been on something of an alternative energy kick lately, so it pleased me to find out about a real-world implementation of an ocean wave energy system. Ocean Power Technology, which has been promoting its system for harnassing the inherent energy of waves for a few years now, just signed a deal with Spanish power utility Iberdrola to install 10 power-generation buoys in the Bay of Biscay. This is apparently a pilot project, in preparation for a larger-scale deployment in 2006.

The buoys, anchored to the sea bed and floating beneath the surface, capture and convert wave energy into a controlled mechanical force that drives a generator, linked by an undersea cable to the shore.

A smart sensor optimizes power in differing wave conditions, and switches the generator off when the wave activity is too strong, to avoid damaging the equipment. Severe storms therefore mean downtime for the buoys, as do periods of flat calm.

However, OPT says the buoys still offer between 80 and 90 percent availability, comparable with conventional fossil fuel generators, and enjoy a key advantage over wind (30-45 percent) and solar (20-30 percent) power generation.

They take up less space per megawatt than either windfarms or conventional shore-based generators. Ocean Power believes the 100 megawatt plants will be able to produce at an operating cost of 3-4 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 5-6 cents for wind.

As with most other alternative energy systems we've mentioned here, wave power generation is not a silver bullet solution. Even if it works as well as hoped, without any problems, it will still be just a part of a larger set of technologies for getting us away from non-renewable energy sources. But that's how a better world will be built: in diverse pieces, mutually-reinforcing, connected together.

(Found via Mekka)

March 9, 2004

Ford to Use Toyota Hybrid Technology

The International Herald Tribute reports that Ford Motor company has agreed to license hybrid car technology from Toyota.

Ford will incorporate the Toyota technology into a hybrid system it plans to introduce this year in a gasoline-electric version of its Escape sport utility vehicle. The Ford vehicle will be the first hybrid offered by a U.S. carmaker and the first application of hybrid technology in a sport utility vehicle.

March 15, 2004

General Electric Goes Solar?

The New York Times reports that General Electric is going to buy the assets of AstroPower, the largest American-owned maker of solar power gear. The acquisition is possibly related to ongoing G.E. research into light-emitting polymers. As it happens, the process by which these plastics convert electricity to light seems to be reversible; flexible, plastic-based photovoltaics may be on the near horizon.

As they began to look more closely at developments in the photovoltaics market, G.E. researchers also realized that they had expertise to apply to silicon designs that could pay off even if the plastics project ultimately failed. And pursuing the technology supported the goal of Jeffrey R. Immelt, G.E.'s chairman and chief executive, to become a leader in markets based on renewable-energy technology and energy efficiency, including wind power, fuel cells, hydrogen storage and microturbines.

It will come as little surprise that the one strongly critical comment in the article comes from a spokesman for ExxonMobil, a company which seems truly devoted to the role of the environment's Snidely Whiplash.

March 18, 2004

Easy (and Green) Rider

Drivers of hybrid cars aren't the first people to regularly get 45+ miles per gallon on their daily commutes. Motorcycles can do even better than hybrid cars when it comes to sipping fuel, and are usually less expensive. Where they don't measure up is with emissions; the EPA limits on hydrocarbon emissions from motorcycles, for example, is 1.4 grams per kilometer, while the HC limit for cars is 0.25 g/km. Although motorcycles make up a relatively minor portion of the vehicles in use, what's a responsible green biker to do?

Traditionally, what you have to do is refit a motorcycle yourself, or pay someone to do it for you. Carl Vogel, for example, hand-builds fully-electric motorcycles with Harleyesque styling. Numerous other individuals and small companies can refit or rebuild two-wheel vehicles of all sorts with electric motors; the always-interesting site Neobike ("Motorcycle News From The Day After Tomorrow") keeps track of electric bike news on a subpage.

But if a hand rebuilt motorcycle just isn't in the plans, you may soon be in luck. Two different companies appear to be on the verge of releasing alternate-energy vehicles, each of very different design, from energy source to intended use. Both look very cool, at least to a poseur like me.

First up is eCycle's hybrid motorcycle, pictured above. It went into what the company called "beta testing" last year; the site doesn't yet have updated information. The performance tests at 180 miles per gallon -- from SF to LA and back on 4 gallons of gas -- and 0-60mph in about 6 seconds. eCycle is a manufacturer of various electric power components, so I wouldn't expect wide distribution for this model whenever it comes out. But if demand is there, don't be surprised to see a real bike maker buy up the design.

If a sport bike isn't your preference, how about a fuel cell scooter? Parker, a maker of fuel cell components, has teamed up with Vectrix to build just that; the website for the model is another "check back in April" tease, but in the meantime there are two different PDFs to download from Parker extolling the (future) virtues of the vehicle: the brochure (PDF) and a reprint of an August 2003 article (PDF) from Design News about the creation of the scooter.

I know that there are motorcycle riders who are regular readers of WorldChanging -- what do you think of these developments? Would you go green, if you could?

March 24, 2004

Lester Brown's Plan B

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and head of the Earth Policy Institute has something of a Cassandra reputation. His annual State of the World tomes for Worldwatch listed in excruciating detail just how we have been making the planet ever less liveable. That's why I was pleased to discover that his new book Plan B - Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble matches his ecological doomsaying with prescriptions for doing something about it. A worldchanging notion!

Mother Earth News magazine has adapted some of Plan B. "Turning on Renewable Energy" is Brown's look at the ways in which a multi-layered approach to moving away from fossil fuels can help. Alternative energy resources, shifting tax allocations and subsidies, changing political policies: all are necessary. While the arguments will be familiar to WorldChanging readers, Brown lays out the material in impressive detail.

Although some industry groups and governmental bodies complain that reducing carbon emissions is costly and a burden on the economy, study after study concludes it is possible to reduce carbon emissions while making money in the process. The experience of individual companies confirms this. DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, already has cut its greenhouse-gas emissions from its 1990 level by 65 percent. In an annual report, CEO Charles Holliday Jr. proudly reports savings of $1.5 billion in energy-efficiency gains from 1990 to 2002.

It has become clear that incorporating renewable energy is one of the most profitable investments many companies can make, and as the true costs of climate change — withering crops, rising sea levels and wildlife extinction — become apparent, companies that ignore the need to phase out fossil fuels will ultimately disappear. The companies that prosper will be the ones that adapt to a modern economy fueled by clean, renewable energy. 

March 25, 2004


Woah. According to, scientists in Japan have combined a bacteria with photovoltaics. Somehow. The report is brief, and doesn't have a link to a science journal, so take it as a "maybe" for now. But if it works...

Combining a living organism and a silicon chip, the new photosensor can convert light into electricity. Use of the photoelectric converting section of a blue-green bacterium, which can achieve "near perfect quantum yields in photoelectric conversion", enabling photoelectric conversion that produces a very low level of heat.

(Via Futurismic)

Driving on Air

Stu's Weblog points us to MDI, makers of the Air Car, an urban commute vehicle which runs on compressed air. Or, rather, is supposed to do so -- the first prototype only managed about 7 kilometers, rather than the couple hundred the final version is hoped to get. According to a recent article in Wired, the group is spending a lot of time trying to sell regional licenses for the vehicle as a means of funding its development. They're still looking for investors, so don't expect an Air Car on your block soon.

The Air Car concept seems worth looking at more closely, albeit with a full measure of skepticism in hand. Most of the attention the Air Car has received has been in Europe -- not surprising, given the designers seem to be in Spain, and the current model prototypes are much smaller than one would find on an American road. The Air Car site does a good job of describing the technology and exploring some of the possible applications beyond microcabs and mini-pickups. The tech, if it works, is interesting -- compressed air drives a two-stroke engine, generating a surprisingly decent amount of power. With a speed cap of 110 kmh -- about 60 mph -- I wouldn't take one on the freeway, but it's the kind of vehicle which would be perfect for point-to-point travel in dense urban settings.

Until I actually see that production has started of vehicles meeting the design criteria, I wouldn't pin my hopes on the Air Car as a vanguard of tomorrow. But the idea is interesting, the technology looks like it has potential... and it would be pretty cool if it did work.

March 26, 2004

Edamame Airlines

If you take one of the various ecological footprint tests we've linked to over the months here at WorldChanging, you'll find that one of the nastier things you can do to your score is admit to frequent air travel. Airliners spew emissions in the upper troposphere, near the transition to the stratosphere; according to the UK's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (PDF), this is a particularly critical part of the atmosphere when it comes to trapping greenhouse gasses. Jet aircraft put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere; air travel could account for 75% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century.

But what if the carbon you put into the air had just been pulled out of it? The "carbon neutral" approach -- which doesn't make things cleaner, but doesn't make them worse, either -- underlies aggressive research into the use of biofuels for aircraft. And according to New Scientist, a breakthrough may well be at hand. The stumbling block for the use of biofuels has been their relatively high freezing temperature compared to petroleum, an issue at the ultra-low temperatures of the upper atmosphere. A Purdue University team has figured out how to greatly reduce the freezing temperature of fuel made from soy, and is now testing it in a mix with traditional jet fuel.

Not quite carbon neutral yet, but it's a start. Air travel has to be made cleaner. As a great proponent of interenational travel, I'm not eager to have to choose between the planet and the world.

(Image: CNN)

Material Issue

Mobile computers and alternative energy are nifty, but to really get a sense of what the future will look like, you have to think more concretely. Some of the most interesting, worldchanging developments under way are in the realms of material science and engineering. The materials out of which the world around us will be rebuilt and the techniques by which the work will be done are both in line for some profound changes.

We've noted before some of the new developments in making building materials more environmentally sound. But how about making them more aesthetically appealing, too? A German company called LitraCon has developed a method of embedding light-transmitting glass fibers in concrete. Without reducing the structural strength or insulative capacity, the glass fibers give the concrete the ability to conduct light -- not making the concrete transparent, but translucent. Although the article at and the LitraCon site don't discuss environmental effects, I would suspect the results to be, on balance, positive, as a greater amount of natural light transmission would lead to a somewhat reduced need for artificial (hence power-consuming) lighting.

One material science revolution which is well underway is the development of 3-D printing, often referred to as "fabbing" or "stereolithography." Most 3-D fabrication technologies focus on the smaller end of the scale, making machine components or (in the not-so-distant future) consumer products. But what if you wanted to make something big? Can you print out a house?

Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis at USC says yes. Using a process he calls "Contour Crafting," large-scale structures can be efficiently and inexpensively built layer-by-layer. The Contour Crafting page has links to a number of articles about the process, as well as some video; be sure to check out the animation of a complete homebuilding process (32MB WMV). While some of the press about the idea has emphasized the "built without human hands" element, the goal for Dr. Khoshnevis is a system which could quickly build stable, long-lasting buildings in less-than-ideal circumstances, such as in disaster areas or (a bit down the road) on Mars. Ultimately, the system should be able to construct a 2000-square-foot building in under one day.

Good articles about Contour Crafting can be found at New Scientist and The Age. The first tests of the system are scheduled for 2005.

(Thanks to both gmoke and Ming the Mechanic for heads-up on Dr. K.)

April 16, 2004

Green and White

If I were to post about an amazing new technology that would reduce urban heat island effects, cut ozone by 12% (thereby reducing urban smog), sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, and save the residents of a large city upwards of $500 million dollars annually in energy and medical costs, I'd expect you all to be both pretty excited and fairly skeptical. Those are impressive claims. What if the new methods don't work as planned? Okay, then. How about some very old methods?

Plant trees.
Use white-colored roofing.
Use lighter-colored pavement.

In the course of some web research this morning, I stumbled across a 1997 article at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs entitled Painting the Town White -- and Green, which argues that urban heat islands (the tendency for cities to be hotter than the surrounding environment) arise not due to autos and building heat leakage, but due to the prevalence of dark, horizontal surfaces like pavement and rooftops.

We are now paying dearly for this extra heat. One sixth of the electricity consumed in the United States goes to cool buildings, at an annual power cost of $40 billion. Moreover, a 5°F heat island greatly raises the rate at which pollutants-nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds emanating from cars and smokestacks -"cook" into ozone, a highly oxidizing and irritating gas that is the main ingredient of smog. In Los Angeles, for example, ozone rises from an acceptable concentration at 70°F to unacceptable at 90°F. The Los Angeles heat island raises ozone levels 10-15 percent and contributes to millions of dollars in medical expenses.

The steps required to counter this heat island effect are surprisingly simple, and pay for themselves in short order. Best of all, while government support and standards can play a role in bringing about these changes, individual homeowners can take direct action leading to both private and public benefit. Cooler roofs, abundant trees, and cooler pavement each can contribute to a major reduction in urban heat, and thereby to reduced energy use, reduced ozone/smog development, and (both directly and indirectly) to reduced atmospheric carbon. And while the color and type of pavement put down is controlled by local and regional authorities, the other two methods of reducing urban heat are in individual hands.

Planting more trees is a straightforward concept, and one with a significant payoff: the LBL group estimates that 10 million added trees across the entire Los Angeles basin would reduce energy use by 900 MW, and save LA residents $273 million dollars annually -- probably more now, as the paper was written well before the power cost spikes of the early 2000s. Because shade from trees reduces the need for lawns to be watered, and the trees themselves can subsist on typical rainfall levels without needing added water, planting trees actually would reduce water demand, an increasingly critical issue in cities like LA. The LA Department of Water and Power will actually give you trees to plant in your yard for shade and energy conservation.

Cooler roofs come from changing the color of the material used for roofing shingles. Most homes have to be re-roofed about every 20 years. Changing from a dark shingle (once traditional because it was more "wood like") to a light-colored (titanium-based white or terra cotta red) shingle can cut air conditioning costs by up to 40%. Georgia has been a leader in pushing cool roofs, passing a state law encouraging the shift. A few other states and regions also provide incentives, and the federal government is considering adding heat reflectivity requirements to housing regulations.

As a homeowner who needs to put a new roof on this year, I'm particularly happy to have discovered this information!

April 19, 2004

Urban Tree Recycling

The East Bay Conservation Corps is an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that works to "promote youth development through environmental stewardship and community service and to further education reform and social change." EBCC builds literacy, civic responsibility, and employable skills while teaching environmental awareness.

Among their various programs is a "micro-enterprise" called the Urban Tree Mill. The notion underlying the Mill is simple: every year, thousands of tons of urban trees -- usually those which have fallen, or were cut down due to disease -- are dumped into landfills; many of these trees can be recycled into usable wood, thereby simultaneously reducing the use of landfills and reducing the demand for wood from forest-grown trees. The Mill processes about 2,000 tons of urban wood each year -- not a huge amount, but a respectable effort.

The EBCC isn't the only group looking at recycling urban trees. This page at the USDA Forest Service site lists several different organizations recycling downed trees and even old telephone poles into wood suitable for construction, furniture, and art. This article at Interiors and Sources Design magazine, entitled "Sustainable Woods for the New Millennium," tells designers how they can use more sustainable wood sources for their projects. And "The Elements of Sustainability in Urban Forestry" (PDF), from 1993, looks at the ways in which communities and cities can move to more sustainable urban tree management.

(Thanks, CTP)

April 20, 2004

Malaysian Solar-Hydrogen House

It's one thing to imagine sustainable housing; it's quite another to go out and build it. The challenge of such a feat is multiplied when the location is Malaysia, not traditionally thought of as being at the forefront of sustainable development. But the "Solar-Hydrogen Eco-House" has the dual distinction of being aggressively forward-looking in its application of sustainable technology and design, as well as being designed and built entirely by Malay engineers and architects.

Combining a solar-hydrogen system (using hydrogen both as a fuel cell medium and as a utility gas for the water heater and stove) with rainwater recycling, low-energy architectural features, and traditional Malay design, the Eco-House is a proof-of-concept for sustainable dwellings in Southeast Asia and beyond. As a one-off test home, it was fairly expensive to build: RM250,000, or about $66,000, largely paid for by the Malaysian government's Science, Technology, and Environment Ministry. It's not likely to trigger an immediate burst of Eco-Home development across Malaysia, at least at first. Still, it's an extremely positive development.

I have to admit that I find projects like this emerging from smaller, developing/post-developing nations to be far more exciting than equivalent efforts in the United States, Europe or Japans. This comes partially from experience with the inertia of the American housing market, extrapolated to other hyperdeveloped nations. But it also derives from a growing belief that the real 21st century revolution in sustainability (and, potentially, politics and economics) will come from the so-called "Third World." These nations are going to be first to be hurt by the ravages of climate change, and won't have the resources to adopt -- or time to wait for -- Washington-approved technologies and practices.

This house design is yet another bit of evidence that the leapfrogging is already underway.

April 21, 2004

A Moore's Law of Efficiency?

Doing a bit of research on the authors of the white roofs article I referenced a few days ago, I found a very interesting essay by Richard Muller in a 2002 issue of Technology Review. In it, he cites an essay by Arthur Rosenfeld (along with TM Kaarsberg and JJ Romm) entitled "Efficiency of Energy Use," (unfortunately not available online, as far as I could find) in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Energy in which the authors argue that:

From 1845 to the present, the amount of energy required to produce the same amount of gross national product has steadily decreased at the rate of about 1 percent per year. This is not quite as spectacular as Moore’s Law of integrated circuits, but it has been tested over a longer period of time. One percent per year yields a factor of 2.7 when compounded over 100 years. It took 56 BTUs (59,000 joules) of energy consumption to produce one (1992) dollar of GNP in 1845. By 1998, the same dollar required only 12.5 BTUs (13,200 joules).

The one percent/year improvement fluctuates a bit, but has remained largely consistent except for during the early 1970s, when it jumped to 4 percent per year. Rosenfeld argues that, with a little bit of effort and government encouragement, we could easily sustain a 2 percent improvement in efficiency. This difference may sound small, but has staggering results when looked at over time.

With 1 percent annual improvement, population stablizing at around 10 billion, and overall increase in standards of living to US/EU levels, the globe would be using 40 percent more energy in 2100 than today. But by bumping up overall efficiency improvement to 2 percent averaged over the next century, Muller calculates that we'd actually end up using half our current levels of energy.

The good news is that, like Moore's Law, there is an observable, consistent improvement in energy efficiency over time. The better news is that this has happened largely without making a focused effort. Imagine if there was competition regarding efficiency as aggressive as that for processor improvements...

April 24, 2004

Boosting Solar Efficiency

The idea of generating electricity via the sun's power is wonderfully seductive, and we've discussed various efforts to mainstream solar technology. The problem is, traditional solar technology isn't terribly efficient, for reasons of material physics; silicon solar cells capture about 25 percent of the energy hitting them, and more advanced -- and more expensive -- combination cells (mixing germanium, gallium arsenide and gallium indium phosphide) still only hit 36 percent efficiency.

A new discovery by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be the critical breakthrough for making solar both more efficient and less expensive. According to Technology Research News, the scientists figured out (by accident!) how to engineer a single material able to respond to three different "bandgaps" of photon energy, giving solar cells using the material an efficiency of more than 50 percent. And because the process for making the material is less complex -- and the base materials more commonplace -- than previous multijunction cells, solar cells made using this new process should be significantly less expensive.

The usual caveats -- it's still early research, it will take a few years to work out the details, etc. -- apply. But doubled solar efficiency at reasonable costs would go a long way to making more widespread use of solar a reality.

May 3, 2004

Kill A Watt

If you're going to live in a more sustainable way, you have to be able to figure out what you're doing that is unsustainable in order to change it. Tools like ecological footprint tests are good for getting a general sense of your status, but sometimes you need more specific information. Take energy use, for example: how much power do you use? Your monthly electric bill gives you the total, but how can you figure out which of your various toys & appliances need to be replaced with something greener now?

Electric power consumption meters usually cost $80-$150 (according to a spot check at a local electronics superstore near here last week); while you'd eventually make that back from lower power bills, that still feels fairly expensive for non-professionals. I was pleased, therefore, to discover the "Kill A Watt" meter, intended specifically for consumers wanting to figure out how much power they're using at home. The price is definitely much better than professional units; you can find them for under $30. I bought one, and have found it quite easy to use and very informative.

Plug the appliance you want to check into the front, plug the Kill A Watt into the wall, and the system will show you how much power you're using. The kilowatt/hour + time readout makes it easy to figure out your annual draw for appliances, to see how your current units compare with Energy Star models; my refridgerator is now at the top of the "must replace" list, as it pulls nearly twice what the best Energy Star models of equivalent size draw. I've taken to checking pretty much every electric device in the house, out of a mix of diligence and curiosity.

It's a solidly-built device, and although it's really not meant as a pro tool, I can imagine it becoming part of the standard toolkit of greenpunks and sustainability geeks everywhere.

May 14, 2004

Electricity Ranching

We give a good deal of attention here to how individuals and communities can improve their energy efficiency and adopt a better environmental profile. Perhaps we don't give enough attention to how businesses can do so, too. Case in point: a dairy cattle ranch in Marin county has just added electricity to its line of products.

The Straus Farms' covered-lagoon methane generator, powered by methane billowing off a covered pool of decomposing bovine waste, is expected to save the operation between $5,000 and $6,000 per month in energy costs. With those savings, Straus estimates he will pay back his capital investment in two to three years.


In addition to the energy savings, Straus' new methane digester will eliminate tons of naturally occurring greenhouse gases and strip 80 to 99 percent of organic pollutants from the wastewater generated from his family's 63-year-old dairy farm. Heat from the generator warms thousands of gallons of water that may be used to clean farm facilities and to heat the manure lagoon. And wastewater left over after the methane is extracted, greatly deodorized, is used for fertilizing the farm's fields.


"These projects produce a relatively small amount of energy, maybe only 100 megawatts or so if all the dairies in the state were hooked into the grid"

The California dairy power program -- 14 so-called "methane digesters" coming online state-wide, and more planned -- has startling potential, both for reducing the demand on the state's still-shaky electricity supply, and for reducing the amount of atmospheric methane (a greenhouse gas with greater effects than CO2). As a method of shifting power production away from greenhouse gas generation, biofuel plants are nearly ideal. They make good economic sense, too; the $280,000 cost of each digester is partially borne by the state, and the remainder is quickly covered by the power savings for the farms.


May 19, 2004

A Mighty Wind

While solar power gets a lot of attention in the US as a possible alternative energy source, European countries are focusing a great deal of attention on wind power. Denmark gets 20% of its power from wind, a percentage that's set to rise to at least 25% by the end of the decade. Most the Danish wind farms use giant turbines; these can be efficient, but expensive. Another up-and-coming wind power nation, Scotland, has decided to take a different approach: rooftop turbines.

According to the Financial Times, the first five rooftop turbines in a pilot program have now been installed in Fife, using a new turbine technology from the Edinburgh-based firm Renewable Devices. Not designed to totally replace grid power, the turbines are intended to provide supplemental power. The Renewable Devices design is the first to be able to dampen the noise and vibration enough to allow rooftop installation.

For now, the turbines cost £10,000, but Renewable Devices believes that they can get the price down to £1,500 in short order. The buildings in Fife installing the turbines received government subsidies, part of Scotland's overall plan to generate 10% of the country's power from renewable resources by 2010, and 40% by 2020.

May 24, 2004

Cleaner Trucking

There are 1.3 million long-haul trucks, diesel-powered rigs with sleeper cabs, on the American roads right now. By law, long-haul truckers are only allowed to drive for10 hours before needing an 8 hour rest period. During the down time, few truckers stay in motels -- they're too expensive, and leaves the cargo at risk of theft. Instead, they usually stay in their cabs, with the engine idling to power their various appliances (TVs, etc.) and their air conditioning/heaters.

Extended idling is a problem, though. Communities hate the noise. It shortens the life of engines. It eats fuel (and at current fuel prices, that's a serious problem). And it puts out a lot of pollution:

A single, standard heavy-duty diesel truck with a 425 horsepower, operated the standard 306 days a year, idling during legally required rest breaks and stopping for other reasons for 30 minutes per day produces 55,833 lbs. of emissions annually-solely from idling. These emissions include: 54,240 lbs. of carbon dioxide, 1,047 lbs. of nitrogen oxides, 396 lbs. of carbon monoxide, 110 lbs. of volatile organic compounds and 40 lbs. of particulate matter.

A company called IdleAire has an interesting solution. They provide an umbilical with plug-in power, Internet, phone, and TV services at truck stops, letting truckers use their various appliances, get online, stay warm/cool, etc., without having to idle their engines. It saves fuel -- about 1.0 - 1.1 gallons of diesel an hour per truck -- and eliminates engine noise and pollution. The power comes from the grid, so it's not pollution-free, but IdleAire estimates that there's an average net emissions reduction of 83%.

(For those of us who pay close attention to how environmental issues are portrayed in modern society, the IdleAire website is a fascinating case study of the mix of serious ecological awareness (they have the numbers down about the impact of diesel emissions on local communities) and trucker culture.)

Although truckers were ambivalent when the service was introduced in 2002 (see here, scroll down a bit), the rise of anti-idling ordinances in many cities (to cut noise and pollution) and the rising price of fuel have changed some minds. IdleAire is now in 14 locations, with another 16 under construction. They're also building out wireless hotspots for truckers (and other travelers) who want wireless when they stop for fuel & food on the road.

May 29, 2004

Sustainable City Development in Portugal

The World Wildlife Fund and Bioregional have announced plans to develop a massive eco-tourism and sustainable community program in Portugal:

The development is part of an overall project that covers an area of 5,300 hectares and brings together sustainable housing, nature conservation, reforestation and ecofriendly transport. Work will begin over the next few months on the 6,000-house, €1billion scheme in Mata de Sesimbra, just south of Lisbon. 

The project sounds interesting, and builds off of the BedZED concept also developed by Bioregional. The "One Planet Living Programme" will demonstrate one model for living a comfortable, modern lifestyle within a "single planet" footprint. To that end, the project description at Bioregional includes the following guidelines:

One Planet Living Communities will adopt the following guiding principles:
  1. Zero carbon
  2. Zero waste
  3. Sustainable transport
  4. Sustainable and local materials
  5. Local food
  6. Water efficiency
  7. Conservation of flora and fauna
  8. Respect for Cultural heritage
  9. Equity and fair trade
  10. Happy and healthy lifestyles

This community will be one of five globally, each housing around 5,000 people.

June 9, 2004


Cyburbia calls itself an "urban planning portal," a resource for urban design students, professionals, and self-described "planning geeks." Since that last phrase definitely describes many of us here at WorldChanging, Cyburbia is a worthy addition to the worldchanger's bookmark list. I expect to be returning to it often.

Cyburbia is a classic web portal -- it indexes and links to thousands of planning and urbanism-related websites organized by subject matter and focus. The site also houses active web forums on urban planning, as well as photo galleries of both the best and the worst in city design. While sustainability and sustainable urban design are not the focus of Cyburbia, they are part of the bigger picture embraced by Cyburbia.

Cyburbia is a volunteer effort, built and maintained with no profit-making intent. It's been around, in various forms, for nearly a decade. While it's not the biggest planning-related site around, it's arguably the best. If you have the slightest interest in urban design, it's definitely worth adding to your bookmarks.

June 16, 2004

Fiat Lux

Farhad Manjoo at Salon has a great piece in today's issue (if you're not a subscriber, a brief ad will play) looking at the inefficiency-masked-in-familiarity of the modern light bulb, and what we can do about it. He talks about the origins of the modern version of the compact flourescent bulb, but focuses most of his attention on LEDs as an alternative -- something we were on top of that several months ago.

Why is getting rid of the incandescent bulb a good idea?

Replacing incandescents with more efficient lighting will undoubtedly be good for the planet. According to researchers at the Sandia Labs, one-fifth of all the electricity produced in the world is used for lighting. Doubling the average efficiency of white-light lamps -- through LEDs or fluorescents -- could reduce global electricity consumption by 10 percent and carbon emissions by 200 million tons a year.

One interesting point of comparison mentioned in the article is the lumens-per-watt rating for different lighting types. Incandescent bulbs rate about 12 lumens per watt. Halogen are somewhat more efficient, coming in at 15-17 lumens. A "warm white" LED, which produces light similar to incandescent bulbs, produces 22-25 lumens/watt; a "cool white" LED, which is a harsher white more akin to an old-style flourescent, rates about 35 lumens. Flourescent lights, though, remain the champions, putting out (depending upon type) 50-100 lumens for every watt consumed.

Since incandescents use 90% of their energy to put out heat, not light, adopting alternative light sources wherever possible is a pretty good idea.


The United States is not the only country with a petroleum consumption habit that needs to be kicked. Australia is pretty ravenous, as well, and only its relatively sparse population keeps it out of the headlines as a sustainability nightmare. Nonetheless, the students at the University of Western Australia's Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics department have decided to take an important step, and build Australia's first native-born renewable energy vehicle, one intended to take into account Australia's unique conditions, particularly the long distances between cities.

We have decided to do something about this dilemma by creating The University of Western Australia Renewable Energy Vehicle Project (UWA REV Project). The project aims to demonstrate the use of renewable energy for personal transport by researching, designing and constructing a lightweight vehicle from the ground up. It will be powered principally by hydrogen fuel cells, with additional energy to power electrical systems provided by solar cells mounted on the body of the vehicle. The vehicle will be a single or possibly 2-seater with some luggage space, and as a result of its renewable energy drivetrain, will produce nothing but harmless water vapour from its exhaust.


Solar panels have also been included in the design as this first vehicle will be a long-distance tourer which will cover vast distances in full sunlight, providing a useful additional supply of electricity to be stored in batteries to power electrical systems. Many other technologies, such as “memory” motors, regenerative braking, lightweight composite materials and LED lighting will be used to maximize energy efficiency. Such vehicles have sometimes been referred to as a “tribrid” (as opposed to a hybrid) in that it has three sources of power; hydrogen, electricity (collected by regenerative braking) and solar.

The energy/efficiency website Talk Energy has a feature article covering the key elements of the story. The UWA-REV team plans on taking its prototype vehicle on a 14,500 km test run around the circumference of Australia in February of 2006; this distance is roughly equivalent to a year's travel for the average Australian. While they intend to begin work next month, UWA-REV is looking for additional sponsors.

The eventual shift from petroleum/hydrocarbon to a direct hydrogen economy is almost pre-ordained; the big question is when. But just who will be positioned to take that leap first is another important question that isn't asked as often. There is something of an assumption that one of the big three US automakers, Honda or Toyota, or possibly Audi/VW, will be the first to come up with a commercially-attractive H2 vehicle. But that's not necessarily so; the big companies may be too tied into their existing markets, too attached to current designs, and too comfortable in the petro-world to take that big jump. A nation like Australia, conversely, with a small enough population that a hydrogen transition could be done relatively cheaply & quickly, may well be ideal early adopters, giving the local hydrogen vehicle manufacturers a leg up. I'd like to see that.

June 17, 2004

Cornell Lake Source Cooling

LSC diagram, from Cornell UniversityWhile this isn't new, I just learned about it today, and thought I'd pass it along. Cornell University, since 2000, has used a system called "Lake Source Cooling" to cool buildings during the warm Ithaca summers. The technique is fairly simple, and works extremely well. By no longer using traditional air conditioning, the university was able to reduce its cooling-related power consumption by 80-90%, and the campus' overall demand by 10%; in 2001, that meant a reduction in CO2 emissions of over 21 million tons.

Because the old air conditioning systems were falling apart (as well as environmentally hazardous due to the choloflorocarbons in the cooling system), in the mid-1990s Cornell needed to find a replacement. At around $60 million, the LSC project cost more than a direct upgrade to modern conventional cooling systems; since it is designed to have a 75-100 year lifespan, as opposed to the 30-40 years of a traditional cooling system, and results in such a dramatic reduction in energy consumption, the real cost difference was minimized.

The lake water heat-exchange system is fascinating. While it is obviously not universally appropriate, it's an excellent example of working with the environment instead of against it. For those of you concerned about the effects of returning warmed water to the lake, the environmental impact statement makes for good reading (in short, the warm water has a negligible effect on lake organisms, and has a heat effect the equivalent of 2-4 hours of additional sunlight per year). The primary negative effect of the LSC's operations appears to be a 3% increase in phosphorus during the summer months, which contributes to the growth of algae near the outflow pipes.

Do any of you have first-hand experience with this system at Cornell? How well does it work? Would you recommend the idea to other communities?

(Image from Cornell's LSC site)

June 23, 2004

Microbial Fuel Cells Update

Back in February, we reported on research at Penn State creating microbial fuel cells -- MFCs -- which produced power by cleaning domestic wastewater. As is typical for such posts, we made sure to mention that this was early stage stuff, not yet ready for deployment, but with updates sure to follow.

Well, follow they have. Last week, the Penn State engineers reported that they've managed to boost the electricity output by nearly six times while cutting the cost by two-thirds. They also demonstrated MFCs in action by connecting a unit to a three milliwatt fan (video here, 5.2mb mpeg). In principle, the MFC could power the fan using less than a teacup of wastewater.

Every now and then we hit upon a story which really feels like a glimpse into the desired future. The idea of using microbes to simultaneously clean the water supply and generate power is almost too good to be true. But it's in the labs now, and it's getting closer to the real world every day.

June 28, 2004

It Runs 'Til It's Finished When Powered By Spinach

Nature and Science News are reporting on research at the Laboratory of Organic Optics and Electronics at MIT using photosynthetic proteins derived from spinach to produce electricity. While the light->electricity conversion efficiency is only 12%, the researchers are confident that they'll be able to boost it to at least 20% in relatively short order. Even if they can't get it up past commercial silicon-based solar cells, protein-based cells would have some interesting advantages:

For example, many solar cell materials degrade over time, but a protein-based solar cell could be self-repairing, says [lead researcher Marc] Baldo. Just as living plants replenish their photosynthetic proteins by swapping out the old copies for new ones, it might become possible to flush a solution of fresh proteins through a solar cell to replace the photosynthetic molecules as they degrade...

While recent research has replicated some of the functions of photosynthesis, this would directly use plant proteins -- a more difficult scientific challenge, but potentially of much greater ultimate value.

(Via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends)

June 29, 2004

Roll Out the Solar

Wired reports on the US Army's tests of the flexible solar panels developed by Iowa Thin Film Technologies. The solar film can be embedded in soft building material, providing an ongoing source of electricity to allow soldiers in the field to recharge the ever-increasing number of batteries required for their hardware. This could provide a tactical advantage over the current system of either carrying extra batteries or diesel generators. A largish tent could produce up to 1 kilowatt, sufficient to power lights, laptops, and other gear.

Such technology would have clear civilian/commercial use, but so far, Iowa Thin Film is only making the tents available to the military. For consumer use, they sell the useful (but somewhat less innovative) rollup solar panels in various sizes. Intended to function as battery chargers, these flexible panels aren't really intended to let you bring your office into the wilderness. Nonetheless, the flexibility and relatively light weight -- the biggest one only weighs just under 2 lbs -- make them perfect for emergency and relief uses.

July 6, 2004


One of the key precepts of Viridian Design -- of which we are great fans, as should be pretty clear by now -- is that sustainable, environmentally-aware consumer goods won't become ubiquitous unless they have a caché beyond simply being good for you (and/or for the planet). They need to be, in a word, cool. That's why I'm always heartened to see designers who embrace the challenge of creating stuff that is both sustainable and compelling. The latest group of designers on this growing list is MioCultureLab, a Philadelphia-based group of designers who describe themselves as a studio for sustainable design, trying to build "a smarter, more beautiful and sustainable culture."

The two items shown here are the "V2" and "Tangent" 3D wallpapers, made of recycled materials. Other products they've designed include seating and lighting. I can't link directly to them, as the site suffers from "designers' syndrome" of putting everything in Flash and making it totally inaccessible to the deep linking (as well as to the disabled).

The designs are clearly not for everyone (truth be told, I'm not overly fond of most of them). But the underlying philosophy of the group is worth paying attention to, as they're not alone. Sustainability has become a powerful meme in the world of product design, and the design sense that initially shows up in the realm of the eclectic and expensive soon filters to the world of the more palatable and affordable. Expect to see more and more products touting their sustainable characteristics.

(Via Cool Hunting)

July 19, 2004

Power from Sewage

What with the microbial waste-water fuel cells, the London Science Museum using human waste as a power source, and spread of biogas plants, it seems more and more people are getting on the "turn sewage into power" bandwagon. Next up, a 1 megawatt fuel cell running on the methane from the King County, Washington, sewage treatment plant -- used to help power that very facility.

The largest project of its type in the world, the process goes like this: Biodegradable solid waste is sent to large tanks, called digesters, that provide a home for three to four weeks. There bacteria eat away at the waste, releasing methane gas and further reducing the amount of solid waste.

"We maintain a nice little environment for bacteria: warm and wet," says Bush, program manager for the project, which is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, FuelCell Energy and King County.

Most treatment plants flare off the methane, and a few burn it to get electricity for their sites. But the Renton plant captures the gas and sends it to a fuel cell system, where the methane is broken down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is recirculated to produce carbonate.  The carbonate then combines with the hydrogen to produce electricity, water, carbon dioxide and heat.

The King County plant is an experiment in converting waste into power via fuel cells instead of simple combustion: a cleaner, more sophisticated, but technically more challenging project. The $22 million cost would likely not have been feasible without EPA support, but the lessons learned from the pilot facility will help bring down the cost of future sewage-fuel cell power plants. It may not end up being the path to a sustainable future, but it's certainly one worth following for a bit.

August 13, 2004

Tidal Power, New York Style

Nature reports that a small farm of tidal-powered turbines in the East River will start providing power to New York City come September. Once operational, this will be the first power-producing tidal turbine farm in the world. The blades of the turbines will spin as the river's tides flow in and out, producing about 200 kilowatts total. While this is a relatively small amount of power, it will provide a proof-of-concept for a possible larger installation of tidal turbines later on.

The New York project signals a trend towards cheaper, free-standing turbines that can be dropped into oceans or estuaries. The first experimental tidal mills were installed last year: a 300-kilowatt turbine was sited off the north Devon coast in Britain and another of the same capacity was placed near Hammerfest, Norway. The two European companies behind them are planning to expand these individual mills into turbine fields.

Taylor believes he has an advantage over his competitors, because the design of his turbine blades means that they keep spinning even at slower water speeds.

Expanded to a full 200-300 unit farm, the tidal turbines would produce 6.5-10 megawatts, not nearly enough to power all of New York, but a good addition to a renewable mix. The unit cost is fairly high right now, but designers expect prices to come down as the technology matures.

August 16, 2004

Green(ish) Car Tech in Brazil

Green Car Congress -- rapidly becoming one of my favorite sites, and a daily must-read for anyone interested in energy technology, environmental technology, and/or cars -- tells us today about Fiat's plan to introduce a "four fuel" vehicle into the Brazilian market. The car will be designed to run on gasoline, diesel, ethanol, and natural gas. This will be a challenging develoment, but not without its rewards:

Delivering a single-fuel HCCI [Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition -- explained here] platform will be challenging enough on the engine management side. Adding in the capability to switch fuels will require much additional software intelligence and control over the engine and emissions mechanisms. If successful, though, the result would be greater fuel-efficiency and emissions control.

If oil continues its price climb, expect to see more of these sorts of announcements, particularly for vehicles in parts of the world not so tightly wedded to an existing gasoline infrastructure. While there are plenty of potential candidates, there isn't a single obvious replacement for the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine in current use. Over the next decade, we'll see a lot more experimentation and multi-fuel systems (including "plug-in" hybrids) as nations and corporations try to figure out what will provide the best combination of low cost, low emissions, and low disruption.

August 22, 2004

Former Soviet Weapon Designers Take On Wind Power

A team-up of engineers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Makeyev State Rocket Center in Miass, Russia has developed a new model of wind turbine for home use. The "Wind Sail" design is a vertical axis wind turbine (VAWT), designed to be used as a generator for off-the-grid and distributed-grid systems. The current production model, the WPU-2500, produces 2500 kilowatt hours over the course of a year in typical wind conditions.

VAWT systems have several advantages over more traditional horizontal axis wind turbines. They scale down more efficiently, are usually quieter, and have a much lower rate of bird kills -- predatory birds can even rest on the top of a VAWT without trouble. The Wind-Sail system adds another benefit: former weapon designers no longer on the global market.

August 23, 2004

Car and Driver on Hybrids

Car and Driver's latest issue has two separate articles about hybrids, and anyone with an interest in the real world performance of efficient vehicle technologies should check them out.

The first is their preview of the long-awaited Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. When Bill Ford took over the company a few years back, he promised major changes to the vehicles Ford produced in order to improve greenhouse gas emissions. He has yet to really live up to his promises, but the Escape Hybrid appears to be a move in the right direction. With mileage in the 30-40 mpg range -- low for a hybrid, but outstanding for a sport-utility vehicle -- the Escape Hybrid looks to be a decent if unspectacular first American hybrid on the market (even if it does use Toyota's hybrid technology -- I am told that both Ford and Toyota have stated that this is not the case, and that Ford's hybrid tech is entirely its own creation -- thanks, Mike!).

For WorldChangers more interested in maximum efficiency than maximum space in their green vehicles, Car and Driver also has an article entitled "The Frugalympics," which compares real-world results of four high-efficiency automobiles: the current-model Toyota Prius, the current-model Honda Civic Hybrid, the VW Jetta GLS TDI (Diesel), and the Toyota Echo (which is gasoline powered but both high-mileage and low price). They took the four vehicles on trips in an urban setting, on the highway, and in "suburban" driving -- few stops, but much lower than highway speeds -- in order to see which car gave the best results.

The article is definitely worth reading, as it spells out some of the current concerns with hybrids, turbo diesels, and high-efficiency gasoline vehicles. The issue of hybrids (like all cars) not meeting EPA estimates is confronted directly and fairly; even while making note of actual mileage in cities and highways, C&D also reports on the much-better-than EPA results from "suburban" conditions (this matches my own experience with my Honda Civic Hybrid, btw). Check out the article for full details, but if you simply must know now how the four vehicles rated, read the extended entry for the results.

Continue reading "Car and Driver on Hybrids" »

August 26, 2004

General Electric Getting Greener

We've mentioned the growing G.E. interest in alternative energy before, but "GE: Green and European," in the current Technology Review, makes it clear how big the firm's efforts actually are. G.E. is set to open up a $52 million renewable energy research lab near Munich. The lab will look at ways to advance wind turbine, fuel cell, biomass, and polymer-photovoltaic technologies, as well as developing the systems required to integrate less-steady alternative power sources into existing electrical grids.

It’s all part of GE’s strategy to dominate the market for renewable-energy technologies. Two years ago, GE bought Enron’s wind business and expanded aggressively into the wind power market. Today, GE Wind Energy is one of the company’s fastest-growing divisions and is heading for world market leadership, having picked up another 9 percent of market share from 2002 to 2003, according to BTM Consult in Denmark. And in March, the company acquired the U.S. photovoltaics manufacturer AstroPower and now sells complete photovoltaics systems for homes. “In ten years, we will rule the world,” predicts Vlatko Vlatkovic, GE global technology leader for electronic and photonic systems

Um, okay. I presume he means that metaphorically. The Technology Review article notes that G.E.'s move into Germany is the direct result of the decision by its main European rival, Siemens, not to make renewable energy a core part of its business. It's a result that both confirms and counfounds expectations. Here we have a major American corporation deciding that renewable power is a future market worth pursuing (surprise!), but also deciding that Europe is where it should focus its environmental research money and industrial-collaboration efforts (not a surprise).

September 7, 2004

Stop & Start

Hybrid cars are defined by having an electric motor as part of their propulsion system, either as an assist to the gasoline engine (as with the Honda design) or as a separate, lower-speed drivetrain (as with the Toyota and Ford designs). But the electric motor isn't the only element that makes a hybrid efficient. A feature which almost seems like an aside actually accounts for a decent amount of fuel (and emissions) savings: the engine is turned off whenever the vehicle comes to a stop, so there's no sitting and idling. Once the brake pedal is released, the engine comes right back on, with no noticeable delay.

(Although the engine of my Honda Civic Hybrid is quiet, the sudden silence when "auto-stop" kicks in is hard to miss. I've actually had pedestrians tell me that my "car died" while walking in front of me.)

It turns out that the technology for shutting off the engine while stopped does not require the rest of the hybrid system. What's more, alone it can still result in notable improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions reductions. PSA Peugeot Citroën has announced its "Stop & Start" technology, which reduces fuel consumption by 15% in heavy traffic, 10% in city driving, and 6% in "combined cycle" use (city and highway driving, where stopping is less common).

Green Car Congress, of course, has the write-up with details and useful (if simple) illustrations from Peugeot about how the system works, from Peugeot's press kit (PDF).

The auto-stop feature is one of two standard hybrid technologies which could result in significant fuel savings if used in non-hybrid vehicles. The other is the mileage readout. Having a real-time indicator of how one's driving affects one's fuel consumption is simultaneously a trigger for competitive, "got to get that number higher" urges and a beautiful example of making the invisible visible. Most people don't know what kind of mileage they get in their cars, or at best assume that the EPA estimates are right (they're not). I know that I've changed my driving habits because of the readout in my hybrid, and anecdotal evidence suggests I'm far from the only one.

September 10, 2004

Nanotechnology for a Bright Green Future

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley has called upon the nanotechnology research community to focus on ways to make renewable energy cheap and ubiquitous.

Scientists would need to use nanotechnology to create home storage systems for hydrogen as well as a new material to replace copper wiring and allow electricity to be sent great distances. Smalley and his fellow researchers at Rice are working on a new carbon "spinning" process that would create a polymer material that will be one-sixth the weight of copper with the same conductivity and have the same strength as steel. [...] Smalley described how nanotechnology can also be used to create "super batteries" for storing hydrogen at homes or businesses to avoid using the electricity grid at peak times of demand. [...] Smalley believes that finding a replacement for fossil fuels is essential to solving the world's top 10 problems, which he said include poverty, hunger, water, the environment and terrorism.

Smalley's call for action took many nanotech enthusiasts by surprise, not because they don't think that this is an important issue -- they do -- but because Smalley is well-known as a skeptic about nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology may not deliver on all of its promise, but advances are happening fast. It's one of the reasons I'm ultimately an optimist about our ability to build a sustainable world. Getting to a bright green future will take revolutionary innovation -- and nanotechnology looks like a good candidate for just that revolution.

September 17, 2004

What Do Upscale Hybrids Portend?

In coming weeks, Insights, Civic Hybrids, and Priuses (Prii?) won't be the only hybrid-electric vehicles on the road. The Ford Escape hybrid SUV -- which we talked about in August -- should be hitting the streets soon, and both Honda and Toyota (as Lexus) have new hybrid models coming out (while still "vaporwheels," Honda and Lexus are supposedly taking pre-orders). But what do they tell us about the direction carmakers are taking hybrid technology?

The Lexus RX 400h -- that's the vehicle shown to the right -- is billed as the first "luxury hybrid." Unsurprisingly, while it's a hybrid, it's not exactly a screamingly green vehicle. It's a version of Lexus' SUV, and is aimed at people who (in the words of Lexus general manager Denny Clements "want to do the right thing for the ecology, but [...] don't want to make the sacrifice."

The Lexus site is heavy on the Flash animated text and sales pitch, but very light on actual information. or even images. According to Canadian car site Auto123, where the picture came from, the RX 400h will put out 270 horsepower, and should get upwards of 27mpg "combined" mileage -- better than the 20 city/26 hwy/22 combined of the standard RX, but not by much.

There's a similar story with the Honda Accord Hybrid, due out at any moment. While not a "luxury" model, the Accord is the bigger, better-appointed cousin to the Civic sedan. Green Car Congress has a detailed post about the workings of the Accord Hybrid, including comparisons between the Accord, the Civic Hybrid, and the 2004 Prius. Like the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Accord Hybrid will use "engine assist" hybrid technology, so it never runs just on electricity. (This has become known as "mild hybrid," which -- given that the "engine assist" Insight remains the most fuel-efficient vehicle around -- doesn't really work for me. But I digress.) GCC notes that the hybrid technology and some advanced engine design allow the Accord Hybrid to achieve a combined 255 horsepower and vehicle mileage rated at 30 city/37 hwy/33 combined, comparable to the Ford Escape Hybrid.

While also better than the non-hybrid version, which gets (depending on version) anywhere between 20-26 city and 30-34 hwy (24-29 combined), the Accord Hybrid -- like the Lexus RX 400h and the Ford Escape Hybrid -- seems to trade on the marketing value of the term "hybrid" without actually having breakthrough performance. The problem comes, in part, from the more powerful engines. As GCC puts it:

There is no magic technology right now that will let drivers roar around in big, powerful cars and trucks while only sipping fuel. At this point, radical adjustment in consumption has to come from consumer behavior and buying patterns. The incremental benefits of hybrid technologies are important, and should be implemented. It’s just not enough on its own.

We can approach this situation in one of two ways: we can complain (quite legitimately) that manufacturers are trying to cater to consumer demand for green design and technologies with not-really-green products; or we can see this as a sign of the mainstreaming of green -- that rather than ignore green consumers, or offering them a choice between cars that look like they just drove off a college parking lot or cars that look like they just drove off the set of a scifi movie, producers are trying to integrate green technology into the vehicles more popular with "regular" consumers. Green can't win if it's niche.

This next year's crop of new model hybrids may not be up to the efficiency standards set by the first wave, but they may well be the beginning of a very welcome trend.

September 20, 2004

Sit Green

Many folks I know in the SF area managed to snag themselves a fancy desk chair at fire-sale prices during the dark days of the dot-com bust. If you weren't quite so lucky (that is, if you weren't able to plunder the grisly remains of shattered dreams) or you're just in need of a good new chair, Steelcase has something for you. You enviromental-types who want aggressive use of recycled material, maximum recyclability, and a chair manufacturer who knows when to mention LEED compliance in its brochure may be particularly interested in this chair, called the "Think" (PDF).

According to the Steelcase documentation:

  • 41% (by weight) of the chair comes from recycled materials.
  • 99% (by weight) of the chair can be recycled.
  • The chair contains no PVCs, CFCs, solvents, benzene, chrome, lead or mercury.
  • "The Think chair can contribute toward LEED credits because it contains a high percentage of recycled material and it is a low emitting product. Additionally, its ergonomic qualities, production processes and ease of disassembly may contribute towards LEED credits for employee health and for innovation. Because each project is unique, Steelcase will work with customers individually towards LEED application."
  • Denmark's Institute for Product Development performed a full Life Cycle Assessment on the chair; the results can be downloaded from Steelcase (PDF).

    Steelcase Think chairs aren't exactly cheap -- running around $600-$650 -- but that's not significantly more expensive than comparable non-green ergonomic chairs. For those of us who spend a good chunk of the day at a desk, ergonomically-friendly chairs are worth the investment. That the Think is also environmentally-friendly makes it all the more attractive.

    Beyond the particular value for those who need a new chair, the Think is also another example of a well-regarded industrial design group taking a green leap. It's great to see Steelcase do this -- but the challenge is to move beyond the specialty niche "green chair." When Steelcase starts making all of its chairs from recycled/easily-recyclable materials, then we'll really applaud.

    (Found via Treehugger)

  • September 24, 2004

    What Are Our Future Car Options?

    European automakers at the Paris Motor Show this week presented various designs for "green" cars of the (hopefully) near future. They ranged from technologies ready to roll out in next year's cars to systems which would trigger a transformation of our entire transportation infrastructure. The next decade will be a very interesting time for both car enthusiasts and green techies.

    French car companies seem to embracing (tentatively) hybrid-style technologies, with both Peugeot Citroen and Renault offering "Stop and Start" engine shut-off systems in upcoming vehicles. German companies, conversely, are looking towards the hydrogen future. At the Paris show, BMW displayed a H2-burner able to hit 300+ kph (185 mph), while DaimlerChrysler showed off a fuel cell Mercedes. All of them commented on the need to try a variety of approaches to figure out what will work best.

    But it's not just a question of "hybrid" or "hydrogen." When talking about hybrids, do we mean parallel or plug-in? Gasoline, diesel or hydrogen? Yes, hydrogen hybrids are on the drawing board, because hydrogen-fueled cars can be either fuel cells or hydrogen combustion. And it's not just a question of how clean a given fuel system is at the tailpipe. How much energy does it take to make the fuel? Where does the fuel come from?

    Green Car Congress dives deep into those questions, bringing together data from a variety of sources, including the California Air Resources Board emission cut proposal(PDF) and the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment study we mentioned back in June. It's hard to get precise numbers for the energy demands of production and transportation for all varieties of fuel, but it's clear from the data that the situation isn't as simple as "biodiesel good" or even "hydrogen good, petroleum bad" (depending on how the hydrogen is produced, advanced gasoline and diesel hybrids can have lower overall greenhouse emissions than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles -- but a hydrogen hybrid could be best of all).

    What is clear is that the era of the unmodified gasoline engine is drawing to a close. What will replace it is yet to be determined. For those of us who enjoy seeing technological experimentation and innovation in the name of making a better planet, the next decade is going to be a lot of fun.

    September 30, 2004

    What the Future Will Be Made Of

    If you're looking for a catalog of the cutting edge, I just found one.

    Transmaterialis a 186-page compendium of some of the most flat-out amazing design technologies I've ever seen. Based on Blaine Brownell's "product of the week" mailing from the design firm nbbj, Transmaterial covers "materials, products and processes that are redefining our physical environment" -- a definition broad enough to encompass "biosteel" (biotech version of spider silk) to "3D textile knitting machines" (able to produce fully-formed textile products for medical use) to rubber sidewalks, collapse-preventing structure designs, urban knowledge maps and much, much more. Some of the items mentioned have already appeared here in WorldChanging (such as translucent concrete and LED lighting), and nearly all of them would make excellent WorldChanging entries (I must admit that I was sorely tempted to keep this catalog to myself as a "cheat sheet" for the next half-year's worth of posts...).

    Each entry includes a brief (three paragraph or so) discussion, illustration, and link to manufacturer homepage where possible.

    Best of all, Transmaterial is available as a free PDF download. The complete text is 11MB, but you can also grab specific chapters. WorldChangers will find all of the book fascinating, but should definitely take a look at the "REPURPOSED -- Materials which act as surrogates replacing precious raw materials conventionally used in various applications," "INTELLIGENT -- Materials that are designed to improve their environment and which take inspiration from biological systems" and "INTERFACIAL -- Materials which facilitate the interaction between physical and virtual worlds" chapters.

    Transmaterial is a field guide to how today's design is building tomorrow.

    (Via Cool Hunting.)

    October 6, 2004

    Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Soon?

    One of the most widely-read WorldChanging articles we've ever done (at least based on ongoing Google hits) is Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!. Clean diesel engines in Europe get very good mileage; a clean diesel hybrid could easily get upwards of 70-80 miles per gallon, and probably more. But despite a few test vehicles shown back around 2000 and the growing use of diesel hybrid buses, nobody seems to be making diesel hybrids for the consumer market.

    That may soon change. Green Car Congress (of course) has had a couple of posts in the last few days about the "ECO TARGET" diesel hybrid powertrain shown at a recent "Engine & Environment" conference in Austria. It's a "mild hybrid" -- the electric motor is used for power assist, not as an alternative source of motive power -- but it is designed to be an "add on" to existing diesel engine designs. According to GCC, the designers claim a "30% improvement in fuel economy and reduced emissions against the baseline conventional 2-liter diesel."

    AVI, the primary design company, is explicit about the rationale for the diesel hybrid system:

    The main issues around which compliance with future mobility requirements revolve are of an ecological and economic nature: fuel consumption should be reduced through a variety of measures, in the interests both of the environment and people’s wallets. The constraints are already defined: in July 1998, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) committed to reducing fleet CO2 emissions for new vehicles to 140 g/km by 2008. By 2012, this parameter should be at the 120 g/km level. The Kyoto conference stipulated a fleet CO2 emission of 90 g/km for 2010.

    AVI claims that their diesel hybrid powertrain will have CO2 emissions in the 90-100 g/km range. GCC reports that the ECO-TARGET design still has a few kinks yet to work out, but could be available to automakers in another two years or so, just in time for European automakers to meet the Kyoto fleet emission deadline.

    October 20, 2004

    The New Baseline Scenario

    Oakland, California-based environmental research group Redefining Progress today released a report entitled Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger: Secure Jobs, a Clean Environment and Less Foreign Oil, laying out the economic benefits which would accrue to the United States by adopting energy policies focusing on clean energy technologies. The report itself -- a national overview (PDF) and reports for the states -- is deceptively slim, as it brings together the results of work done by organizations such as Oak Ridge National Labs, the Apollo Alliance (PDF), the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, and others. But what it lacks in original research, it makes up for in its synthesis of mainstream, careful arguments as to the economic results of a shift to cleaner energy. These are not radical, bright green visions; they're the outcome of largely continuing to do what we're already doing, but doing it better. In effect, Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger establishes the new baseline scenario for the next 20 years.

    A change to American energy and environmental policies is imminent, no matter who wins in two weeks. We're already seeing it happen in the reality-based world, despite federal intransigence. Insurance companies are increasingly scared about the effects of global warming, and are adjusting their holdings and rates accordingly; state governments in the US are increasingly responding to the call for stricter regulation of energy production and use; and global corporations now face increasingly tough environmental standards in Europe and elsewhere, with spin-off effects at home. We will see more efficient vehicles, greener buildings, and more use of renewable energy in the United States over the next twenty years. The question is not if it will happen, but whether it will happen smoothly.

    Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger spells out the result of twenty years of only mildly-discontinuous change: 1.4 million additional jobs; average household saving on energy bills of $1,275 per year; reduced oil imports; carbon emissions cut in half. Most of the steps required for this scenario rely on increased efficiency and smarter planning, not an energy revolution -- steps such as smart grids, more hybrid vehicles, and green buildings. Steps with such obvious and pervasie lifestyle and economic benefits, they are almost over-determined.

    We could do worse than in the Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger scenario -- but we'd really have to be pretty stupid to do so. We could also do much, much better -- but we'd have to be pretty daring. The Redefining Progress future is not one of paradigm-shifting molecular nanotechnologies, design biomimicry, or leaps ahead in smart machines, new tools which are quite plausible in the next twenty years. It's not a future of leapfrog nations, new urban visions, or collaborative creation, new systems and models which are already reshaping how the world works. Substantive transformation is possible, is within our grasp, if we have the willingness to reach for it.

    Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger is well-worth checking out, particularly the state-by-state data. But don't fool yourself into thinking that it's a radical vision of what's possible. It's not. The world it describes is possible, to be sure; with reasonably wise leadership, it's nearly inevitable. But we could do so much more.

    October 22, 2004

    Designing for the Long Term

    If you wanted to build something that would last for centuries, how would you do it?

    Legendary software developer Dan Bricklin recently wrote an essay entitled "Software That Lasts 200 Years," exploring what it would take to craft code that could reliably function for an extended period of time. It's a hard problem, one that would require a wholly different mindset from the traditional programming approach. But as I read the piece, it struck me that the general rules Bricklin presents for "Societal Infrastructure Software" could be applied to other systems and artifacts, as well.

    Bricklin's list of eleven "needs" for Societal Infrastructure Software make a good starting checklist for long-term design. It's not a "how to" so much as a "what to think about" list. As you read it over, think about the degree to which familiar social infrastructure systems -- voting systems, energy production, health care, governance -- fulfill these demands:

    Continue reading "Designing for the Long Term" »

    October 29, 2004

    What's the Best Path to CO2 Reduction?

    In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Duke University scientists Robert B. Jackson and William H. Schlesinger calculate what it would take to reduce American carbon dioxide output by 10%, comparing established carbon sequestration methods with efficiency improvements in transportation. They found that sequestration was less effective than anticipated, and vehicle efficiency increases proved a much better option. The article itself is behind a subscriber-only wall, but the abstract is available, as is a detailed news release from Duke and an article in Nature News. While their calculations are interesting, I think they're missing the bigger picture.

    Continue reading "What's the Best Path to CO2 Reduction?" »

    November 4, 2004

    Alternative Energy Megaprojects

    Although we at WorldChanging tend to trumpet the proliferation of distributed renewable energy systems, we do recognize that the big centralized systems can be green, too. Two different big green power projects showed up in my inbox this week, and they're both worth taking a look at.

    The first is the new "tidal lagoon" power system under construction at the mouth of the Yalu River in China. British company Tidal Electric is the lead engineering group on the project. At 300 MW, it will be the largest tidal power project in the world. Tidal lagoon power systems use large-scale enclosures which generate power as they are filled or emptied by the change in tides. Lagoon systems present less of a disruption to the local ecosystem than the "barrage" generators more often used in tidal power systems (such as the current largest tidal power generator, the Rance River project in Brittany, France). Although tidal power is not available at a constant rate, it is predictable, making it easy to integrate into existing power grids. Despite the size of this project, it looks like a winner.

    As ambitious as tidal lagoons may be, they pale in comparison to the Solar Thermal Tower scheduled for construction in Australia. At a kilometer in height, with a base collector five kilometers across, the tower would be potentially the largest construction project ever. The principle is simple: air beneath the collection area is heated by the sun, much as in a greenhouse, and rises up the tower, where the differential in pressure between the top and the bottom keeps the air moving fast enough to drive turbines -- in essence, it's a heat-pumped super-windmill system. The tower is supposed generate 200 MW, and should be able to do so fairly constantly, even at night. A test tower built in Spain in the late 80s demonstrated that the technology works, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Solar Tower has been approved by the Australian government, and construction is intended to begin next year (a 2002 New Scientist article about the idea suggested that work was supposed to begin in 2003, so this may be one of those perpetually-a-year-away endeavors).

    There are still many questions about the feasibility of the Solar Tower, ranging from keeping it stable in the winds at 1 km to whether a heat-trapping project of that size would alter the regional environment. There's also the question of cost -- can it be built inexpensively enough to make the power generated competitive with more conventional approaches? I'm skeptical, but I do think that it's a worthwhile project. It's hard to tell whether something so audacious can also be practical -- it's easy to be caught up in the spectacle of the kilometer-high tower and the roughly twenty square kilometers of greenhouse glass.

    November 11, 2004

    Redesigning Transportation

    The U.S. transportation system is arguably broken -- or, at least, in serious trouble. From traffic jams to gasoline prices, suburban sprawl to highway subsidies, the system we have at present is not the one we would have chosen, had we known what we were in for. WorldChanging readers know all too well the panoply of globally-devastating second-order effects arising from voracious oil consumption. The solutions at hand (hybrid cars, "hydrogen highways," smart road info, parking taxes, and the like) are more akin to spot fixes than real transformation. Is a greater transportation revolution possible? What would it look like?

    Bruce McHenry thinks he knows.

    Continue reading "Redesigning Transportation" »

    November 14, 2004

    Alternative Energy in Korea

    skalt.jpgAlternative Energy Blog points us to two big alt energy projects now underway in South Korea: a 254 megawatt tidal energy system, and a 15 megawatt solar power grid.

    Ground breaking for the Shihwa Lake tidal power project is set to begin in November, and is scheduled to be completed by 2009; this will likely get it up and running prior to the Yalu river tidal project I posted about last week. As a result, the Shihwa Lake project will (temporarily, at least) become the largest tidal power generator in operation. Alt Energy Blog notes that, at the current cost projections, the price-per-kilowatt from Shihwa Lake will be just under 9 cents, a fairly competitive price. (The linked article also gives some details about a planned experimental "current power" plant which uses both tidal flows and temperature differentials to generate electricity.)

    The South Korean solar power grid begins construction in February, with scheduled completion in October 2006. At 15 megawatts, this will be the largest single solar power installation in the world. It will be eventually be joined with other plants in the South Jeolla province to provide a total of 37 megawatts. No price estimate was given.

    November 21, 2004

    Integrated Solar Building

    PhysOrg points us to a press release from SunPower, a subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor, which just completed construction of a "building integrated photovoltaic" system using its high-efficiency A-300 solar cells. The A-300s are useful for architecture for a number of reasons: they look neutral/dark grey in color, as opposed to the shiny blue of most solar panels; the connection systems are designed not to be externally visible; and (most importantly) they produce nearly a third as much more power per square meter than most other cells (21.5 percent efficiency instead of 12 to 15 percent), and remain very sensitive under low light conditions. The system will produce up to 1.8 kilowatts.

    The building, which will house the headquarters of BioHaus (which makes solar power gear, unsurprisingly), is located in Paderborn, Germany.

    Set aside the PR-speak and think about the implications of building-integrated solar. The idea of covering hundreds of square miles with solar panels is a non-starter, for a variety of environmental and efficiency reasons. There are much better ways of using solar power as part of a changing energy strategy. But we don't want to have the power grid go away, and neither do we want to be dependent solely upon a small number of large centralized generators. The value of distributed renewable generation isn't to allow "off-the-grid" buildings, or even to replace bigger systems entirely; distributed renewables give the power system some flexibility and a "cushion" in case of problems.

    While bolt-on solar power systems have their place, distributed renewables will really come into their own when they are considered part of the building-as-a-system, not an optional add-on. Sustainable building design is really taking off all over the world. Buildings that combine efficient design and integrated solar could potentially be able to feed power back in to the grid consistently, only needing to pull grid power in unusual circumstances. Building-integrated renewables make it possible to start thinking of buildings as power sources for cities, part of the overall sustainability system of the urban environment.

    December 6, 2004

    Biodegradable Plastic

    flowerphone.jpgIt's been all over the blogosphere, but we've now been asked to say a little something about it: researchers at the University of Warwick, UK, and the Pvaxx Research & Development company have come up with a polymer that looks and feels like any other plastic, but which biodegrades to soil; researchers then embedded a sunflower seed in the plastic, so that when discarded, a plant will grow, feeding on the nitrates in the biodegraded polymer. Motorola initiated the research, but hasn't yet decided whether to actually use the material.

    While some of the coverage for the story has suggested (at least in the headlines) that this will lead to biodegradable mobile phones, the reality is at once less exciting and more practical. Although discarded cell phones are contributors to toxic metals in the waste stream, the likely initial use will be for the interchangeable cell phone covers, popular with the kids these days and more likely to be tossed out when no longer fashionable or "groovy." Moreover, biodegradable plastic could have much broader application than phone shells; the CNN report suggests that Pvaxx is already looking at uses in "electronics, horticulture, ammunition and household cleaning." I must admit to finding that particular combination of applications fascinating.

    December 8, 2004

    A Return to the Age of Sail?

    Wind power is not a new concept. Windmills have been around for centuries, and wind-powered sailboats have been around for even longer -- since 3200 bce, or even earlier. The advent of engine-powered shipping relegated wind-powered boats to hobbyists, tourists and adventurers. But if the German company SkySails is right, we may soon see a return to shipping powered by the wind.

    The notion is straightforward: a large parasail-type kite on a tow cable can add significant power to a standard diesel engine ship when lofted to 500 meters or so in the air. How much power? SkySails claims that a cargo ship can increase speed for a given fuel consumption by at least 10%, and often more; conversely, a sail-enabled ship can run at its standard speed but cut fuel consumption by as much as one-half. The technology is more efficient at capturing wind power than standard sails, takes up less shipboard space, and supposedly does not require additional crew. Navigational software linked to real-time weather data routes for optimal wind speed and travel time. The design has won a number of German innovation awards, but has not yet been field-tested in its full configuration (at least as far as I can tell); SkySails proposes that the design would work not just for commercial vessels, but for ships of all types.

    If SkySails works, the benefits are more than reduced fuel cost or shipping time. The SkySails site claims that "the toxic emission volume of the world trade fleet equals that of the United States." A system (such as SkySails) which can cut fuel consumption and reduce travel time would in turn reduce those emissions.

    While there is something superficially absurd about massive cargo ships being pulled along by kites, upon reflection the notion makes sense. It's a novel form of "hybrid" power, taking advantage of strengths of diverse propulsion systems: the consistency of diesel engines and the free availability and startling strength of wind power. While SkySails still needs to demonstrate that their system works as claimed, we will undoubtedly see more of these "situational hybrid" power generation systems in years to come.

    December 13, 2004

    Improvements in Organic Photovoltaics

    organicsolarcell.jpgOne of the drawbacks of traditional silicon-based photovoltaic cells is that they are hard. While it's possible to embed traditional solar cells in fabric, it's not an optimal situation -- the cells themselves remain solid, even if the fabric is flexible. The backing electronics required for silicon cells adds further complexity to using them as anything other than a standalone add-on for devices or buildings. But what if the photovoltaics were made of something other than silicon?

    Organic photovoltaics are flexible, lightweight, and potentially less expensive than traditional solar cells (they're "organic" because they're based on carbon). The main drawback is that organic PV cells are nowhere near as efficient at converting light into electricity as silicon cells. A recent development at Georgia Institute of Technology, however, is starting to close that performance gap. By adding a chemical called pentacene to the carbon "buckyballs" (Fullerenes again!) used in making the organic solar cells, the researchers were able to boost the efficiency to nearly 3.4 percent, with signs they could get to 5 percent in the near future. This compares to 25 percent for silicon cells (and up to 50 percent for experimental materials).

    Although organic solar cells aren't as efficient, their other characteristics -- flexibility, weight, ruggedness, cost -- still make them attractive. They can be more readily embedded in other materials, from fabrics to plastics to roofing, and are ideal for small, low-power projects such as remote sensors. If, a decade from now, you drive a car with solar cells on its roof to help recharge the hybrid batteries, these are mostly likely the cells you'll be using.

    December 16, 2004

    More Flexible Solar

    solarcells.jpgImprovements in solar cells are coming hot & heavy of late; interestingly, most seem to be improvements in usability, not efficiency. New Scientist reports on the latest story, a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar. They've come up with a light, extremely flexible (can be rolled up), thin solar cell material able to be sewn into fabric. The unsurprising downside is the low efficiency -- currently 7%, probably getting up to 10% before going into production. That's better than the possible 5% of the organic solar cells we mentioned the other day, but still not up to the 25+% of traditional cells. For many of the likely applications -- recharging mobile phones, MP3 players and so forth -- that's not a deal-breaker, but we're still hoping to see the flexible solar material efficient enough to run something truly interesting. The big advantage of this technique is the projected cost -- a panel the size of a sheet of paper, easily able to charge phones (and whatnot), could cost as low as about $10.

    While H-Alpha Solar doesn't seem to have a website (if any of you find one, I'll update this post), the EU research website has a PDF providing a few more details.

    (Via Régine's Near Near Future)

    December 17, 2004

    Hybrids and the Future

    The Economist has published a remarkably detailed analysis of the history and future of hybrid automobiles (while nominally only available for subscribers, has reprinted the article in its entirety; this may be a "read it while you can" situation). The piece is notable for several reasons: a clear explanation of the differences between different hybrid vehicle technologies; a digression into the history of Toyota's clean vehicle research leading to the Prius; and a discussion of the plausibility of diesel-based hybrid cars. I've been following the evolution of green vehicle technology for awhile, and I still learned a lot from this article.

    The article also describes a next generation hybrid technology referred to as a "plug-in hybrid:"

    The next step may be the "plug-in" hybrid, which is not the backwards step its name suggests. Unlike the electric cars of the 1990s, none of today's hybrids needs to be plugged in - but if plugging were an option it would be a good idea. Andrew Frank and his team at the University of California Davis' Hybrid Electric Vehicle Centre are working exclusively on plug-in hybrids, which can operate as pure-electric vehicles over short distances (up to 60 miles, with a large enough battery pack) but can switch to a hybrid system when needed. Since the average American driver travels about 30 miles a day, plug-in hybrids could be recharged overnight, when electricity is cheaper to produce, and need never use petrol at all, except on longer trips.

    According to studies carried out by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit organisation based in Palo Alto, California, plug-in hybrids could be one of the cleanest and most efficient kinds of car.

    The plug-in hybrid seems a good solution for the "usually drive less than 30, want to drive more than 300" problem -- drivers who regularly use their cars only for short trips, but don't want to be limited to only short trips.

    December 22, 2004

    Alternative Energy in Germany

    bavsol.jpgThe world's biggest solar power plant went online in Mulhausen, Germany this month, putting out 6.3 megawatts of power. The plant is part of a set of facilities in Bavaria which produce a total of 10 megawatts of power using 57,600 silicon solar panels, built by the Berkeley, California, PowerLight corporation. (PowerLight also built the solar array on top of San Francisco's Moscone Center.) Another 10 megawatts will be coming online soon in a four-location project funded by Michelin. Beyond solar, Germany is also the world's leading producer of wind power, with over 16,000 windmills; power generation capacity from wind amounted to 14,609 megawatts in 2003, up from 334 megawatts in 1993. Renewable power sources currently produce more than 10 percent of the nation's energy, a level which is supposed to double by 2020 and reach 50% by 2050. It will likely improve faster that that -- as of projections from 2000, the 10% point wasn't supposed to happen until 2010.

    This explosion in the use of renewable energy has been driven by the German Renewable Energy Law (EEG), passed in 2000 and updated earlier this year (PDF). The EEG guarantees that, for a limited time, the nation's electric utilities must buy all wind, solar and other renewable power at a price per kilowatt-hour higher than that of power generated from coal, nuclear or natural gas. Currently, the rate for solar is ten times that of traditional energy sources. Interestingly, the law stipulates that the utilities must buy the power whether generated by commercial, industrial or residential generators. This contrasts to the situation in places like California, where residences with solar connected to the grid can zero out their power bill, but don't receive payment for power fed into the grid.

    As noted, these higher prices aren't set in stone. Recognizing that improvements in technology will drive generation costs down, the tariff bonuses paid to solar, wind and biomass will decline gradually over time. For onshore wind, the bonus period is five years; for offshore, it's twelve. Solar, which isn't yet as close as wind to being fully-competitive, gets twenty years. In addition, the added tariff for solar will not apply to any facilities built after the national installed solar capacity gets to 350 megawatts; this tariff structure has the effect of encouraging solar power installation as early as possible in order to take advantage of the higher rates. The rate structure is also divided up by size, with higher rates generally going to smaller facilities, expressly to encourage the development of diverse, decentralized power production. (A detailed analysis of the 2000 version of the plan is available here.)

    Germany's economy is still shaky from the integration of East Germany, and while 80% of the German public supports Germany's active participation in the Kyoto regime, higher energy prices (which include an added 3 euro cents per liter gasoline tax) aren't very popular. This law is very much an investment in the future. Likely economic benefits of the EEG may take some time to come: carbon credits to sell to less-aggressive nations; expertise in renewable technology implementation; and possibly the most important, insulation against price shocks as oil becomes harder to find and the negative effect of fossil fuels becomes even more obvious.

    January 5, 2005


    The urban commuter is an elusive-yet-seductive market, it seems. Recognizing that, for now, electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles (other than hybrids) don't have the range as full-time replacements for gasoline autos, a number of designers have decided to go after the drivers who have a short daily ride to-and-from work, often at speeds well below 50 miles per hour. From electric two-seaters to cars that literally run on air to complete redesigns of the transportation grid, the local commute is widely seen as the best nut to crack to bring alternative transit to the mainstream. Unfortunately, so far there's been little outright success.

    The latest attempt to make commuting less environmentally harmful is the personal electric vehicle, or PEV. Often designed as an electric moped or scooter, PEVs are intentionally humble devices in no way seen as a broad-spectrum replacement for cars. Generally speaking, they max out at around 30 miles per hour (and that may require pedaling on top of the motor) and a range of about 10-20 miles on a charge. They're also relatively inexpensive -- as low as a couple hundred dollars for a low-end model, up to $1,500 for a serious electroscooter -- and some are light enough to carry on board a train. A recent New York Times profile is fairly informative about the new generation of electric bikes, their problems, and their potential.


    Continue reading "PEVs" »

    At Home on the Ice, and Beyond

    As Régine reported in November, the British Antarctic Survey is holding a competition, through the auspices of the Royal Institute of British Architects, for the design of their new "Halley 6" habitat. In early November, they narrowed the selection to six; they've now brought the choices down to the final three, and the architects are set to journey to the Antarctic site to begin the last phase of design.

    The requirements (PDF) for the habitat were fairly strict. The conditions at the Brunt Ice Shelf, the location of the Halley research station, are extreme, even for Antarctica. High winds are a constant problem, the winter temperature drops well below -50°C, and the "ground" itself is a thick layer of unstable ice. Halley stations 1-4 were crushed by moving ice; Halley 5 (PDF) survives still, but is reaching the end of its usable life, and is expected to float away on broken ice by 2010.

    Halley 6 is intended to come online in 2008/9, and must last 20 years. On top of being able to withstand Antarctic conditions, the design needed to be usable, and to meet a variety of treaty-required environmental regulations:

    Continue reading "At Home on the Ice, and Beyond" »

    January 13, 2005

    Ford and GM Play Catch-Up

    sequel.jpgUndoubtedly Mike Millikin will have more to say in his Sustainable Sunday transportation wrap-up, but this week's North American International Auto Show seems to have been the platform for at least two of the big three US carmakers to pretend that they haven't let Toyota and Honda get the better of them in terms of green cars.


    Continue reading "Ford and GM Play Catch-Up" »

    January 17, 2005

    Gitmo Goes Green (Sort Of)

    Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes, the saying goes. When one thinks of the American military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sustainability isn't what immediately comes to mind. Yet the LA Times reports that Guantanamo -- known colloquially as "Gitmo" -- is installing a new set of windmills and high-efficiency diesel generators to power the base:

    Two of the four windmills, each capable of generating 950 kilowatts of electricity, are operational, and the other two will be online by the end of the month, said the Naval Facilities Engineering Command's Mark Leighton, who is overseeing the project.

    Augmenting the wind power are two new diesel generators that operate more efficiently and cleanly than the Cold War-era units they are replacing, which will boost annual fuel savings to $2.3 million once all the new technology is activated in the next few weeks, Leighton said. The equipment also will cut carbon dioxide output at these pristine southern shores by 13 million pounds a year.

    The drivers behind this move are a more politics than environmentalism. Guantanamo must remain entirely separate from the rest of Cuba, so all water and power production must be handled on-base. But that doesn't mean that the site can't be a renewable energy role model. Windmills allow the base to overcome sporadic power shortages, handle peak use periods (which more-or-less coincide with peak wind production), and to compensate for problems in the diesel generators. In short, it's a classic example of the value of diverse interconnected generation systems.

    (Via Gristmill)

    January 21, 2005

    Why Upscale Hybrids Make Sense

    We've asked in the past whether upscale and SUV hybrids -- the Accord Hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h, Ford Escape Hybrid, etc. -- make real sense, given that the increased fuel efficiency still only brings them at best to what a non-hybrid Civic might get on a bad day. But Clark Williams-Derry, at the Northwest Environment Watch's Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, employs a bit of math to demonstrate that what seems intuitively true may not be so. As it turns out, shifting from a low-mileage to a moderate-mileage vehicle has a greater positive effect than switching from a moderate-mileage to a high-mileage car.

    All else being equal, switching from a 15-mpg SUV to a 30-mpg car is twice as beneficial as switching from a 30 mpg car to a gas-sipping, 60-mpg hybrid.


    Continue reading "Why Upscale Hybrids Make Sense" »

    February 2, 2005

    Urban Transport Concept: the Naro

    naro.jpgIt's not a motorcycle, but it plays one on the street.

    The Naro is a two-person vehicle which combines motorcycle and car design elements in order to provide a mix of comfort, maneuverability, and efficiency. Co-designed by Coventry University's Art and Design course and Prodrive, a British motorsport company which makes its money providing cars for racing teams, the Naro is intended to fill a transport role similar to the Smart and other lightweight, small-footprint, high-mileage vehicles. The Naro seats two in a jet fighter-style cockpit, providing enough room for a small bit of cargo; one of the first intended applications is as a single passenger taxi.

    Weighing only about 300kg, less than a third of most city cars, it is expected that the Naro will be powered by a small petrol or diesel engine giving up to 100mpg or by a new generation of fuel cell engines running on hydrogen. While designed primarily for the city, the aerodynamics of Naro means that it would be more than capable of motorway speeds.

    As long as there are no crosswinds, one presumes.

    The lead designer, Damian Harty, is the subject of a lengthy and fascinating article in Engineer Live, a journal for (you guessed it) engineers. The dilemmas involved in the design of a tall, slim vehicle amount to more than just how to keep it upright in a stiff breeze. The Naro will lean in turns, for example, just like a motorcycle but distinctly unlike a traditional passenger car. How will people accustomed to driving a car adjust? What's the best control mechanism -- a steering wheel, handlebars, or something entirely different, like a joystick?

    The design is reminiscent of never-to-be-brought-to-market vehicles from Toyota and MIT: the vehicle of the future, it seems, will look something like a moon buggy crossed with a Mac Mini. Despite its concept-car looks, the Naro is apparently on its way to production by the aptly-named Narrow Car Company. Sales will be to European markets at first.

    February 4, 2005

    German Wind Megaproject

    5M.jpgAs much as we love the distributed, diverse, smart-network energy systems, there's something viscerally appealing about the megaproject approach to alternative energy. Some of the megaprojects are a bit bizarre, but many are completely reasonable, once you get over the scale. The new 5M wind turbine project just inaugurated in Germany looks like it should be the latter.

    Standing nearly 400 feet (120 meters) in height, the 5M turbine, now in testing and connected to the grid, will eventually be moved offshore, putting out 5 MW at full output. The blades alone stretch over 200 feet (61.5 meters) apiece. It has a helicopter platform at top for maintenance (the image to the right is a computer graphics demo from RePower, the manufacturer, illustrating what a maintenance visit might look like). As Renewable Energy Access reports, this is only the first step:

    During prototype testing, [...] the 5M will remain on-shore.

    Offshore projects are in the making though. During the event, Talisman Energy, coordinator of the EU-supported "DOWNVInD" project confirmed their plans to propose to the European commission the use of two REpower 5M turbines as a demonstration project 25 km off the coast of Scotland.

    In addition, a cooperation agreement was concluded with BARD Engineering GmbH as part of the development of the BARD Offshore I project in the German part of the North Sea. Final planning permission is expected for this year.

    Megaturbines like 5M arguably are a better choice than farms of smaller (and smaller-output) windmills, as the massive turbine blades spin more slowly, and are therefore much less likely to result in bird kills.

    Germany is already a renewable energy leader, with renewable sources making up 10% of overall German production, and wind making up over 30% of electricity supplied to the German states of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The German Renewable Energy Law is widely considered responsible for triggering the explosion of alternative power production. Germany plans to meet half its overall power needs with renewables by 2050, but it looks to be on a path to get there much faster.

    February 5, 2005

    Grancrete and "Spray On Buildings"

    Lost in bigger news at the end of December was this story from World Science Net about "spray-on" buildings. Grancrete, a sprayable ceramic which hardens quickly into a solid form, is...

    ...stronger than concrete, is fire resistant and withstands both tropical and below-freezing temperatures, the developers said; it keeps homes in arid regions cool, and those in frigid regions warm. 

    To build a home, Grancrete is sprayed onto Styrofoam walls, to which it adheres and dries, according to the developers. The Styrofoam remains in place as an effective insulator, although Wagh suggests simpler walls, such as woven fiber mats, also would work well and further reduce the raw materials required.

    Grancrete is made from local materials, including sand or sandy soil, ash, magnesium oxide and postassium phosphate, found in fertilizer. It's still in testing, however, particularly for earthquake and hurricane resistance. The developer, Dr. Arun Wagh (at Argonne National Laboratory), is originally from India, and hopes to see Grancrete used as an inexpensive and quick building material for the poor. Grancrete was a 2004 winner of R&D Magazine's top 100 innovations. More details and a photos of a Grancrete building in production are available in this PDF from Argonne National Lab.

    February 7, 2005

    IDFuel on Hydrogen

    020105_bacteria.jpgA recent editorial in Business Week argued "When people talked about innovation in the '90s, they really meant technology. When people talk about innovation in this decade, they really mean design." It's fascinating to watch the ways in which design concepts and philosophies are beginning to take root outside fields traditionally thought of as "design." Similarly, it's wonderful to see designers begin to embrace more fully the broader social, technological and environmental context in which they work. WorldChanging ally IDFuel is an excellent example of this broader-context approach, as is IDFuel editor Dominic Muren's article from last week on hydrogen.

    The article is a summary of recent findings in the world of biohydrogen -- the use of naturally occurring microbes to generate hydrogen from raw foodstuffs. It's a good summary, filled with interesting links and useful tidbits of info. I encourage you to go read for these alone. But it was the concluding paragraph that caught my eye.

    These systems are still in their infancy, but this is the perfect time for designers and architects to begin thinking about how their introduction might alter the social and urban landscape. First of all, now that the fuel for cars no longer needs to be refined meticulously, or at least it's refinement will not require huge, ugly plants, what opportunities for integration into a city are there. [...] The possibilities are intriguing, as always. It's certainly a cool time to be designing.

    Exactly. Exactly. Climate change, smart mobs, the emergence of advanced bio and nanotechnologies, the evolution of energy, transportation and urban systems... these forces intersect and recombine, co-evolve and co-inspire, and will provide a wondrous and productive canvas for forward-thinking designers. This is why WorldChanging, in the end, has a clear-eyed optimism about the future. The tools for transforming the world are already here -- and, just as important, so are the desire and the talent.

    February 10, 2005

    Wave Energy

    wavepower.jpgThe great renewable energy myth is that it's more expensive than obsolete sources of power. While that's arguably true for solar -- although less so all the time -- it's definitely not the case for wind. And, as it turns out, it's not the case for wave power, either. Built in the right locations, wave power generation can be as inexpensive as wind -- that is, competitive with more traditional power technologies (and, I would argue, even cheaper when externalities are added in). This comes from EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, following a multi-year study of the economics of wave energy.

    Conceptual designs for 300,000 megawatt-hour (MWh) plants (nominally 120 MW plants operating at 40% capacity factor) were performed for five sites: Waimanalo Beach, Oahu, Hawaii; Old Orchard Beach, Cumberland County, Maine; WellFleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Gardiner, Douglas County, Oregon; and Ocean Beach, San Francisco County, California.The study determined that wave energy conversion may be economically feasible within the territorial waters of the United States as soon as investments are made to enable wave technology to reach a cumulative production volume of 10,000 - 20,000 MW. (Land-based wind turbines, in comparison, generate 40,000 MW.) [...]

    Continue reading "Wave Energy" »

    UK Green Car Ratings

    The UK's Department for Transport has unveiled a new set of vehicle ratings based on how much CO2 they emit per kilometer. The rating scheme, part of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, uses data from the UK's Vehicle Certification Agency, and is set up as a basic A-F, with "A" ratings going to vehicles putting out less than 100 g/km -- right now, only the Honda Insight and battery electric vehicles, although fuel cell (or even air-powered) cars would presumably also end up with this rating. WorldChanging favorites Prius and Smart are "B" cars, putting out 101-120 g/km; worst of the bunch are the Land Rovers and Lamborghinis and the like, getting an "F" for their greater than 185 g/km emissions. All 42 car brands available in the UK have agreed to participate in the ratings scheme, which is ostensibly voluntary.

    As much as the A-F ratings are easily understood, I'm still rather fond of the rating system found in the US for overall emissions. The labels are increasingly grand, and the acronyms sound right out of a science fiction story: LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle), ULEV (Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle), SULEV (Super-Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle), PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) and ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle). Can I say I'm glad they didn't go with Super-Duper-Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle?

    (Thanks, Lorenzo!)

    February 11, 2005

    Cradle to Cradle Home Competition Winners

    Cradle to Cradle design certainly sounds good in theory, but what does it look like in practice? The C2C Home Competition, which opened last summer in Roanoke, Virginia, sought to answer that very question. The results are now in -- and if this is what a future of "embracing renewable energy, recyclable materials, and nature as a model for design" will look like, the neighborhoods of post-oil, post-auto cities will be stunning places indeed. And, more to the point, the neighborhoods of Roanoke will start to look pretty stunning, too. The winning C2C designs will be built starting this summer.

    The competition received 625 submissions from 41 countries, and managed to narrow the selection down to four professional and four student designs. Jurors were Daniel Libeskind, Bill McDonough, Randall Stout and Sarah Susanka. Some of the contest rules were a bit abstract; the guiding principles included points such as "Restore: The home you design must stop the process of taking and begin the process of giving" and "Exert Intergenerational Responsibility: The World Belongs to the Living. Consider this as it relates to the objective of loving all children of all species for all time." The base design and space guidelines, however, were fairly straightforward.

    The results, however, were anything but.

    Continue reading "Cradle to Cradle Home Competition Winners" »

    Sustainable Electronics

    Electronics -- computers, stereos, mobile phones, etc. -- are rapidly becoming a big part of the waste stream. That's bad: not only are these devices often still functional (if no longer "useful"), they typically contain toxic metals which should not get into ground water; electronics make up 70 percent of all hazardous waste. Governments are waking up to the need for better electronics recycling, and so are manufacturers -- and designers. This week saw a good Los Angeles Times piece (here republished in the Seattle Times) about moves in the electronics industry to become less wasteful in their designs.

    The key driver in this is the increase in regulations, especially in Europe, demanding that manufacturers accept their products back for recycling. WorldChanging Ally #1 even gets quoted:

    "If companies know they're going to see these things again, will they design them differently? You bet they will," said Bruce Sterling, a lecturer at Pasadena's influential Art Center College of Design, which next year will include "sustainable design" classes in its curriculum.

    (I expect that he'll appreciate the academic attribution, not "science fiction writer/Viridian Pope-Emperor.")

    Continue reading "Sustainable Electronics" »

    February 16, 2005

    Styrofoam Homes

    The Federation of American Scientists has been working on the development of energy-efficient housing materials which can be assembled quickly, relatively inexpensively, and with local production. Their focus has been on the use of "Expanded PolyStyrene" (EPS) wall and roof boards with a "cementitious" coating. EPS has some real advantages -- it's easy to work with, long-lasting, and has excellent thermal properties (cutting heating/cooling costs by 50-70 percent in some tests). Last summer, they embarked on a pilot project for Afghanistan. They're also going to be building a model home in Houston. (For those concerned, EPS does not use chlorofluorocarbons in manufacturing.)

    Now comes word that a two-story test house (shown to the right) made of EPS clad with cement board (and fit together without wood framing or braces) has passed earthquake testing. But this wasn't just passing minimal structural requirements: the house remained fully intact after being shaken harder than the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. The FAS pages for the housing material includes some images of the EPS panels used, demonstrating both how easily it can be cut and shaped during construction (prior to cement cladding) and just how strong the clad boards are. Check the extended entry for a large image of a full-size pickup truck parked on a suspended EPS board without any significant bending or denting.

    A 2004 FAS article gives some cost estimates. Depending upon choices of materials in the construction, a 72 square meter EPS house in Afghanistan would run from just over $1,000 to just under $6,000 total, including labor and capital expenses; the cement-clad EPS design was estimated to run around $3,000. It may not be the least expensive home building material, but it's still fairly reasonable -- and the energy efficiency and structural integrity make a real difference.

    EPS panels are now available for construction projects in the US, having passed Uniform Building Code standards; a company called ThermaSAVE has more details.

    (Via Ken Novak)

    Continue reading "Styrofoam Homes" »

    February 18, 2005

    Woven PV

    It's time to move past the image of photovoltaic (PV) technology as being clunky, brittle and ugly black panels on rooftops. It is possible to create well-designed, interesting personal products using classic solar cells. Moreover, new forms of photovoltaic materials will allow for the integration of solar power into wide varieties of goods. One of the most intriguing is the idea of adding PV power to items we wear. Solar backpacks already exist -- but what about solar clothing? If the Massachusetts-based Konarka Technologies and the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) are right, we'll soon see not just solar cells sewn onto jackets, but solar power woven into fabric itself.

    Thin-film polymer PV makes this possible. While less efficient than traditional silicon panels (8% as compared to 25-35%), solar polymers are more flexible, better able to withstand damage, and potentially cheaper to make. Konarka has already demonstrated a functional polymer PV fiber; their work with EPFL will focus now on weaving a fabric from polymer PV threads with at least 4% efficiency.

    At that low level of power, you'll need a broad area to soak up enough energy to do anything really useful. Unsurprisingly, the initial application of the fabric will likely be in tents, probably for the military. The polymer PV fabric would be woven into the canvas or nylon, making the entire tent a power generator (at least during the day). Sails for sailboats might also be an early application.

    I say, still too clunky. I don't care that I can't charge my computer with a solar jacket -- I could at least trickle-charge my mobile phone. And what about solar curtains for the home -- they don't have to run my house, but they could still feed power back into the grid, passively, day after day. Ultimately, I'd like to see smart, power-generating fabric integrated throughout consumer products, replacing old, static, dead fabric. We don't need to power our society on solar cloth alone -- but that doesn't mean we can't get it to help.

    February 19, 2005

    Muji House

    Mention "Muji" to most Americans, and you'll get a blank look. Not from everyone, of course: a few will remember the brand from William Gibson's deliriously excellent Pattern Recognition, and those who have lived in Asia or Europe may nod wistfully, a look of dreamy longing in their eyes. Muji is a Japanese store which sells a variety of goods, from clothing to CD players to housewares, all under the philosophy of the company's full name: Mujirushi Ryhohin, "no brand, good product" (we posted about Muji back in December of 2003). While not explicitly a "sustainable design" outlet, Muji emphasizes simplicity, recycling and the avoidance of waste in its production and packaging. People who shop at Muji often become somewhat fanatical in their devotion.

    Muji is now applying its design philosophy to housing (Japanese page; rough English translation here). This strikes me as an interesting early indicator of something potentially big. What happens to the world of architecture when industrial designers, more accustomed to imagining new forms for coffee makers and laptops, turn their attention to the design of living spaces? After all, dwellings are just another kind of cultural artifact. What new insights might emerge?

    Calton Bolick, an American on a long-term stay in Japan, wrote about discovering the new Muji demo home on a trip to Yurakucho:

    Continue reading "Muji House" »

    February 21, 2005

    Getting Closer to a Fuel Cell Future

    It's something of an assumption of many bright green types that the personal transportation of the near future will run on hydrogen fuel cells. After all, hydrogen can be cracked from water using little more than electricity (from renewable sources, ideally), and the fuel cell process results in little more than water as waste (again, ideally). While the chemistry of hydrogen production and use has proven a bit more complex than hoped, the real stumbling blocks to a move to a hydrogen fuel cell world have been the capabilities of the hydrogen and fuel cell systems themselves. Hydrogen is tough to store in sufficient quantities for travel, making range a problem; furthermore, the fuel cells themselves are expensive and often quite delicate, unable to operate under moderately adverse environmental conditions.

    Two recent developments might bring the fuel cell future a bit closer, however.

    Continue reading "Getting Closer to a Fuel Cell Future" »

    February 24, 2005

    Renewables Across the Country

    It may seem like the west coast and the New England states are the only parts of the US paying any attention to the need to shift to renewable sources of electricity. It's an understandable assumption; after all, some of the country's most aggressive proposals to combat greenhouse gas emissions and move away from fossil fuels are coming from these regions. Fortunately, that perception, while understandable, is wrong. Renewable projects and proposals can be found across America. Some are small, some are big, but all move us in the right direction.

    Some examples, pulled from today's stories at Renewable Energy Access:

  • The governor of Illinois has proposed a new Sustainable Energy Plan (PDF) requiring that electric utilities generate at least 8 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2012, the equivalent of about 4,000 megawatts of power. Three-quarters of that would come from wind. The plan would also increase efficiency standards. Given that both environmental groups and the regional power utilities support the governor's proposal, it appears to have a good chance of implementation.

  • Continue reading "Renewables Across the Country" »

    March 1, 2005

    Big Energy, Public Ownership

    windturbine.jpgOne of the less-worldchanging aspects of many of the wind power projects underway is that most are being done by independent companies, which then sell the power to the appropriate electric utility or grid. Not that corporate involvement is a problem -- we're all for firms being a part of the bright green future. But it would be nice to see some of the public utilities get in on the action. That's what's so appealing about the Last Mile Electricity Co-op, and their new White Creek Project, which will open a 200 megawatt wind farm in southern Washington state, with over 80% ownership by public utilities (the remainder owned by participating non-profits).

    Last Mile Electric Co-op membership comprises eight public utility districts, a handful of non-profit organizations, and the city of Olympia, Washington. Most of their projects are small-scale, from farm-sized wind installations producing up to a few hundred kilowatts of power, to renewables research such as wind mapping and dairy waste-to-energy projects. White Creek is their first step into utility-scale projects.

    Other wind cooperative efforts exist, and many are doing quite well. The White Creek Project, however, will be orders of magnitude bigger than the vast majority of these other projects, and will serve 60,000 regional homes . Although smaller wind (and solar and, eventually, tidal/microhydro) power generation will be an increasingly important part of a smart grid future, it will take more big projects like White Creek for renewables to get the public's attention.

    White Creek is scheduled to come online in early 2006.

    March 3, 2005

    Fuel Cell Benz

    benzfc.jpgHydrogen fuel cell cars are getting closer and closer to usability. At the Geneva Motor Show, DaimlerChrysler introduced its Mercedes-Benz B-Class fuel cell car, which uses the same external frame as its popular-in-Europe B-Class compact car. Green Car Congress has some of the details -- the new model fuel cell (shown in blue in the cutaway image) puts out a respectable 134 horsepower (100 kW), and the vehicle can get about 400 km (250 miles) on a tank of hydrogen, both significant improvements over the previous DaimlerChrysler fuel cell design. (An aside: if we move to a hydrogen world, will we still refer to it as a "tank of gas?" I suspect we will, the same way many people still talk about "dialing" a phone or "turning" the channel on a TV. But I digress.)

    DaimlerChrysler says that over 100 of their fuel cell vehicles are currently in operation for everyday use, part of "the world’s most extensive series of practical tests for the fuel cell in cars, vans and regular service buses." Additional photos of the B-Class fuel cell car can be found here.

    Vehicle fuel cells are progressing nicely, and I would expect to see hydrogen-fueled cars with range and power roughly equivalent to current gasoline vehicles in the not-too-distant future. That solves one of the problems with a transition to a hydrogen world -- but not all of them. Some of the remaining dilemmas we need to work out include: (a) Where does the hydrogen come from? (b) How is it stored? (c) How long does it take to fill the tank? (d) Where can you find fueling stations? (e) Can we bring fuel cell prices down to acceptable levels?

    Nonetheless, for those of you pulling for the hydrogen version of the bright green transportation world, this new Benz should be an exciting development.

    March 4, 2005

    Scooters of Tomorrow

    vxe.jpgIt's surprising to me that scooters aren't more popular in the US. After all, scooters can handle the distance and hills of suburbia more easily than bicycles, and can wind through jammed city streets (and find parking) pretty effortlessly. They don't have the power and machismo of motorcycles, true; perhaps they'd be more popular if they were seen not as weak cousins of motorcycles, but as showing how future bikes might evolve.

    Honda seems to be taking that path, as it is exploring bringing both hybrid-electric and fuel cell technologies to its scooter line, and is promoting them on its motorcycle web page. The 50cc hybrid scooter gets 60% better mileage than the standard 50cc gas model; the fuel cell model is bigger (125cc), and runs on the same fuel cell stack used in their FCX car. Both are prototypes, naturally; if it turns out there's little interest in hybrid or fuel cell scooters, Honda never has to mention them again...

    But what if you do want an advanced technology scooter?

    Vectrix is now making the VXe, an all-electric scooter, and has plans to introduce a fuel cell model real soon now. The Honda scooters, while nicely styled, still look like scooters; the Vectrix VXe, conversely, looks like the offspring of a sport motorcycle. It's big -- almost 200 kg in weight -- and maxes out at 100 km/h, almost enough to take on the freeway, and certainly enough to scoot down city and suburban streets with confidence. At least until your battery runs out, that is. As with all currently-available electrics, range remains an issue. Even with regenerative braking adding charge back to the battery, the VXe only goes about 68 miles, less if you drive close to top speed.

    Still, it's good to see this kind of technology exploration. It's entirely possible that the limited range of an electric is a non-issue for most scooter riders. Abundant interest in the VXe could, in turn, prompt Honda (and other makers of scooters and motorcycles) to bring their prototypes to market. Scooters are wildly popular around the world: in Taiwan, for example, there are 10 million scooters for a population of 23 million people; Italy has 6 million; China bought 10 million and India bought 3 million in 2000 alone. It wouldn't be a bad idea to start to turn those numbers green.

    Green Homes

    Want to buy a solar-powered condo? Developer Clarum Homes has just completed the "Vista Montana" community in Watsonville, California (in central California, east of Monterey). Vista Montana has the nation's largest building-integrated solar electric system in an apartment complex, a 60 kW system projected to produce over 90 megawatt-hours annually. The units were constructed to use 40 percent less energy than would otherwise be typical.

    The program includes the installation of tightly sealed ductwork, a high-efficiency heating and ventilation system, and smart glass windows. Hydronic heating units were used to achieve energy efficiency through the combined function of heating both the water and the living space.

    Continue reading "Green Homes" »

    March 12, 2005

    Kinetic Energy Cell?

    This is one of those inventions that sounds too weird to be real. The Australian Centre for Energy and Greenhouse Technologies, a privately-run, government-sponsored investment group focusing on the development of sustainable energy tech, announced late last month that they are putting money into something called the Kinetic Energy Cell, a device which captures the energy of movement to produce electricity. The original design came from CRC for microTechnology, an organization founded in 1999 to jumpstart Australia's technology industries.

    The prototype designs are about the size of a 9 volt battery, and CEGT sees the possibility that the kinetic energy cell will replace batteries in some functions. Few details are available about precisely how this thing works, however, and I can't find any research material online talking about the idea. Anyone have a good link?

    March 14, 2005

    Hybrid Lighting

    Not only can you drive hybrids for green self-satisfaction, you can light your building with hybrids, too. Hybrid lighting, that is, a new technology from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The system pipes sunlight throughout a building, providing useful levels of light whenever the sun is out. But on cloudy days, or at night, the lighting fixtures turn on fluorescent tubes to supplement the output -- that's the "hybrid" part. The system can even capture light for power generation. World Science Net has some details, but ORNL has an entire section of their website devoted to Hybrid Solar Lighting.

    It's quite the clever bit of technology:

    The concept, originated by ORNL's Jeff Muhs, separates and uses different portions of sunlight for two applications, interior lighting and distributed power generation. The concept takes advantage of two facts. First, the luminous efficacy (or light output per unit of energy, expressed as lumens per Watt) of the visible part of the spectrum is more than double that of electric lamps. Second, photovoltaic cells, especially thermo-photovoltaic cells, are very efficient in converting the infrared portion of the spectrum to electricity.

    Continue reading "Hybrid Lighting" »

    March 17, 2005


    susbus_logo.jpgCan landfills be reimagined as a resource? The people behind the Susbus Project think so. They are working to take the methane coming from landfills -- garbage dumps being the largest human source of methane -- and turn it into fuel. It's a complex process, as methane is not the only constituent of landfill gas, but the project is making serious headway.

    Continue reading "Susbus" »

    March 21, 2005

    Gorlov's Helical Turbine

    Wind and solar power will certainly be part of the bright green future, but they may be overshadowed by hydrokinetic power -- electricity generated from the movement of water. Tides, waves, even the flow of rivers can be harnessed to produce electricity, and most such sources are far more consistent than the wind and sun. And while dams have a variety of environmental drawbacks, newer forms of hydropower -- so called "free flow" hydro -- don't block the flow of water (and its inhabitants), and don't require the inundation of acres of land.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth Magazine reports on a relatively new manifestation of free flow hydro: the Helical Turbine designed by Alexander Gorlov. While it's not the only free flow hydro technology trying to get investor attention, it has some unique properties, and an interesting history.

    For its design, Gorlov credits in part French engineer Georges Jean-Marie Darrieus, who in 1931 received a U.S. patent for a turbine whose blade would be shaped in a way that was "analogous to that of the wings of birds." This, he knew, would increase efficiency and make the turbine spin much faster than the wind or water hitting it. On paper, the Darrieus turbine had magnificent potential, but the real world was too much for it. The ruler-straight blades had a tendency to pulsate wildly, rip from the axle, or snap in two. Gorlov corrected Darrieus's engineering error: By twisting the blades slightly, a bit like a strand of DNA, he eliminated the vibrations. Gorlov received his first patent for the turbine in 1994.

    Continue reading "Gorlov's Helical Turbine" »

    March 23, 2005

    I-Unit in NYC

    iunit.jpgAlmost a year ago, we wrote a bit about Toyota's "Personal Mobility" concept vehicle, which combined a radical body design, battery power, and distributed computing to create a new model for individual car transportation. Typically, concept cars show up on computer screens or at trade shows, and disappear as the designers move on or shiny new technologies attract their attention. Imagine the surprise, then to see Green Car Congress note that Toyota will be bringing the "I-Unit" concept vehicle to the upcoming New York International Auto Show.

    The I-Unit is clearly evolved from the PM concept. Few details are currently available, but both GCC and WC will keep a watch for them to emerge. It will be interesting to compare the 2005 specs with the previous incarnation of the design; what Toyota keeps and what it drops could be a larger indicator of where the automaker is headed. Toyota is aggressively promoting itself as being the most forward-looking carmaker around; the current issue of Wired has an extended article about Toyota, going into some detail about the company's plans for broader use of hybrid technologies.

    March 24, 2005

    Phase-Changing Wax and the One Liter House

    German chemical company BASF has developed a new form of building insulation, and is testing it in a complex of employee houses. The insulation, along with high-efficiency windows and other energy-saving features, results in the buildings requiring only about one liter of oil per square meter for annual heating -- 5% of the average home requirement in Germany, and well below the nation's new efficiency mandate of 7 liters per square meter. The new form of insulation?


    Underneath the wallpaper is an innocuous looking plaster which is designed to ensure that the interior temperature of the house is always comfortable. The secret is millions of tiny wax capsules embedded within the plaster, which regulate the temperature. These microcapsules measure a hundredth of a millimetre or less, and work on the principle of latent heat. In other words, if it gets too hot outside, the wax melts and soaks up the excess heat, keeping it cooler for longer inside. However, if the weather gets too cold, the wax solidifies again and releases the stored heat. According to Dr Patrick Amrhein, head of the research team at BASF which pioneered these phase changing materials, or PCMs, the microcapsules are so effective at climate control that a mere inch of this plaster has the same heat absorption capability as a 10in thick timber-bricked wall.

    BASF is marketing the phase-changing materials specifically to "green building" architects, but the researchers also argue that PCMs will be useful in clothing and packaging. PCM wallboard is currently on sale in Italy and Germany, and soon in the UK. I've found nothing yet indicating that the material will be available to American homebuilders.

    March 25, 2005

    Hybrid Savings Calculator

    hybridcalc.jpgFootprint calculators are a good way to get a sense of how one's lifestyle affects the environment -- a way of making the invisible visible, as we say -- but they often suffer from being a bit too generic, making broad assumptions that may not necessarily fit how you live. Tools for measuring use are helpful, if sometimes awkward (a problem remedied by better ways of presenting information). What we need more of are ways of calculating the effect of specific activities.

    Mixed Power, one of the growing number of web sites for hybrid car enthusiasts, gives us a good start with its handy-dandy web calculator, designed to let you figure out just how much you would save by dumping that Canyonero XCM and moving to something without the godzilla-like carbon footprint. Enter the price of gas, the mileage of your current vehicle, how many miles you drive in a given timeframe, and which hybrid you're considering -- HCH, HAC, Insight, Prius, Escape or RX400h -- and your savings will be shown. The calculator tells you how many fewer gallons of gas you'll be consuming, and how much money you'll be saving -- an almost useless figure, since gasoline prices won't remain stable for the full 10 years to which the calculator projects. Fortunately, the calculator also reveals how many pounds of CO2 you will no longer be personally responsible for via your driving -- a number which is of mild interest to most people now, but will likely be a regular part of conversation a decade hence.

    We have a well-connected, well-informed network here -- what other environmental/lifestyle calculators have you run across?

    March 28, 2005

    Tethered Turbines

    Here's a fascinating bit of alt-energy technology: tethered wind turbines.

    Professor Bryan Roberts, an Australian engineer with sought after expertise in helicopter technology, has long realized the potential of high altitude wind energy and has refused to abandon pursuing it. [...] He has now designed a Flying Electric Generator, classified as a rotorcraft, using a single tether, designed to operate at an altitude of 15,000 feet and higher where only average winds are sufficient to generate power.

    And it is clear now that FEGs rated in the tens of megawatts may operate at higher altitudes with rotor diameters not exceeding those used today on the largest helicopters.

    Sky Wind Power imagines clusters of 600 units, each producing 20 megawatts, together putting out more power than a nuclear power plant, and taking up a 10x20 mile rectangle of airspace.

    Roberts claims to have built a prototype able to generate power at a lower altitude, and the website has an abundance of pages detailing available winds at different heights, global power consumption, the long-range economics of the design, even how the FEGs could be used to generate hydrogen. The intensity of the prose AND THE OVERUSE OF ALL-CAPS gives the site a distinctly "crank" feeling, as does the Gernsbackian vision of tethered autogyros supplying power to us all. But the engineering & science aren't outrageous; in principle, such a thing should be possible (if not necessarily feasible). Safety is the biggest concern -- tethered vehicles at 15,000 feet and higher can pose a bit of a problem for non-tethered aircraft, and there's the perennial "what happens if the line snaps?" problem. Perhaps the design should be altered to include a lighter-than-air element -- who can say no to autogyros and dirigibles?

    (Via Treehugger)

    March 29, 2005

    Toshiba Superfast Recharge Batteries

    toshbatt.jpgWe've posted in the past about rapid-recharge battery technologies using nanomaterials. NEC and Altair Nanotechnology have been making the most noise about the development, but it looks like Toshiba may end up being first to market. The Japanese tech giant announced today a new generation lithium-ion battery technology which can be recharged to 80% in one minute, with total recharge taking a few minutes more. That's not all:

    The excellent recharging characteristics of new battery are not its only performance advantages. The battery has a long life cycle, losing only 1% of capacity after 1,000 cycles of discharging and recharging, and can operate at very low temperatures. At minus 40 degrees centigrade, the battery can discharge 80% of its capacity, against 100% in an ambient temperature of 25 degree centigrade).

    The Register and Tech Japan have summaries, but the Toshiba press release actually has some interesting details, including this graphic:

    Continue reading "Toshiba Superfast Recharge Batteries" »

    March 30, 2005

    Garbage Futures

    bigbelly.jpgThe average garbage truck gets about three miles per gallon, mixing long-haul trips to and from dumps with short start-and-stop pickups, invariably with the diesel engine idling. Garbage is picked up on schedules, not necessarily when the cans are full -- which could be well before or well after the scheduled stop. Our whole system of material use and disuse is due for a revolution; in the meantime, we can look for piecemeal improvements.

    On the garbage collection side of things, there has been a step in the right direction. Wired reports on the BigBelly, a four foot tall solar-power trash compacting system able to crush 300 gallons of garbage into under 30 gallons of space. What's more, it signals a home base when it's getting full, so that pickups happen when needed, not according to a poorly-predicted schedule. Garbage truck use can be dramatically reduced with the BigBelly; the article cites a claim that four times/day pickups at commercial sites can be reduced to once every four days.

    Continue reading "Garbage Futures" »

    The Fuel Cell Timeline: 2010 Or Bust

    Will personal vehicles of the bright green future be battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell based? The most reasonable answer is probably "both," with battery and fuel cell vehicle power storage co-existing like gasoline and diesel today, used in ways which take advantage of unique strengths. Yesterday's fast-recharge battery news from Toshiba certainly gave new vigor to the idea of usable battery-powered cars, potentially solving the "it takes how long to refill?!?" problem. But while hydrogen fuel cells have their detractors (some of whom post in the comments here frequently), the technology has been improving quite steadily.

    Yesterday, Ballard Fuel Cells -- probably the best known dedicated fuel cell company around -- announced its technology "road map" for the next five years, staking its future on its ability to meet a series of key requirements by 2010.

    The "road map" covers four key areas: durability; freeze start; power density; and cost (each PDF). The goals are reasonable, but still a challenge:

    Continue reading "The Fuel Cell Timeline: 2010 Or Bust" »

    April 4, 2005

    Multi-Rotor Wind Power

    7rotor.jpgWind is one of the oldest sources of power, with evidence of use dating back to 3200 BCE. But this doesn't mean that there are no more opportunities to innovate. Selsam's new wind turbine system design, partially funded by a grant from the California Energy Commission, is proving able to deliver substantially more power at a given wind speed than equivalent-sized traditional models. The innovation? You can see it in the picture: multiple rotors on a single turbine unit, set an angle.

    The tests have been remarkably positive so far. A single seven-rotor unit was able to generate the equivalent of 6000 watts in winds of 32.5 miles per hour, six times the power generation of a single-rotor turbine of the same size (7' diameter) in a footprint not significantly larger than that required by a traditional turbine. This is the largest version they've built so far; an earlier four rotor/4' diameter turbine produced 1 kilowatt, and a 13 rotor/18" diameter system produced 400 watts of power. The angle prevents the rotors from "shadowing" each other in the wind, and the multi-rotor design actually reduces vibration.

    The FAQ page addresses some of the expected questions, including where they see the system headed. The string of rotors on a shaft lofted by a helium-filled lifting body notion is intriguing, and indeed Selsam claims that NASA has expressed interest in the design for use on Mars.

    Is this the future of wind turbines? Perhaps, but Selsam still has some work to do. Six kilowatts is good, but real-world use will need something substantially larger; just how far will this design scale? Unlike traditional turbine designs, the structure of the Selsam unit appears to provide more perching locations for birds; would bird strikes be a significantly greater issue? Finally, there's the look. As we've noted, wind power advocates often end up fighting a rear-guard action against local conservationist groups opposed to the "visual pollution" of traditional turbines -- systems which many people actually find quite attractive to look upon. The Selsam design, conversely, doesn't (at least in its current form) provide much in the way of visual appeal. Could a revolution in wind power design fail in the market because it's ugly?

    April 11, 2005


    gwiz.gifThe G-Wiz, an Indian-made small electric car now available in the UK, is a test of the idea that a low-speed, short-range, low-cost vehicle will work in an urban setting. With a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour and maximum range of 40 miles, the only real use of the G-Wiz will be as a short-commute intra-city personal vehicle; the exemption from the "congestion charge" and free central London parking make the G-Wiz ideal for use in London. The G-Wiz costs only £7,599 (£6,999 under current promotion), although a variety of styling features can bump the price up considerably. GoinGreen, the UK retailer, claims to "carbon balance" the manufacturing, shipping and first 16,000 miles of driving.

    In principle, a vehicle like this is well-suited for dense urban settings, functioning as a low-cost transport for goods too bulky to be readily carried on public transit. This is a niche occupied by small gasoline vehicles like the Smart; the G-Wiz trades reduced convenience for even lower cost. As of Spring 2005, about 200 G-Wiz cars are on the road in London, although a recent flurry of attention should push that number up.

    revanxg.jpgBeyond the green cred, the really interesting aspect of the G-Wiz is that it's a vehicle designed and built in Bangalore, India, and now being sold in the UK and Malta, and soon in Japan. REVA Electric Car has sold about a thousand vehicles in India, and has recently expanded its capacity to build upwards of 6,000 annually. The newly-unveiled next-generation REVA, which extends the electric car's range to 120 miles and its speed to over 70 miles per hour, should greatly expand the vehicle's potential utility.

    This is the inevitable next step for leapfrogging -- innovative designs and ideas from the leapfrog nations making their way to the developed world. As innovation increasingly becomes a driver for development, we'll see this happening more and more often. We're still trying to come up with a pithy expression to capture this leapfrog-back effect, though -- any ideas?

    April 18, 2005

    Green Rover, Green Rover...

    rover.jpgRichard Branson, founder of the Virgin companies (airlines, retail outlets, space tourism, etc.), clearly likes to think big. He's also starting to think green. In an article for the UK's Independent, Branson argues that MG Rover carmakers -- now bankrupt, and about to let go thousands of employees -- should be rescued by the UK and EU for a new purpose: to make hybrid cars.

    My solution is a radical one, but would help with what I see as Britain's pending energy crisis. We should steal the green mantle from the Japanese and Americans and become the first European manufacturer of hybrid cars.These highly efficient part-petrol, part-electric vehicles (which can do up to 120 miles to the gallon) are already big in Japan and are also taking off in the US. [...]But no one makes them in Europe. Meanwhile oil prices are soaring, our own North Sea reserves are running out and the evidence of global warming is overwhelming. [...]

    We can also not afford to ignore the fact that we are literally running out of gas; we need to reduce consumption. Fuel savings from the sale of hundreds of thousands of Rover hybrids would help to reduce Britain's overseas payments for oil (effectively paying for any subsidies). If we don't make this bold move, one of our neighbours will.

    European automakers make many high-mileage vehicles -- small, often running on diesel, and some approaching the kind of mileage one sees in hybrids like the Prius and the Civic Hybrid. Ironically, this has meant that European car manufacturers haven't felt the pressure to build even more efficient vehicles, and have allowed Toyota and Honda -- and now Ford -- to catch them napping. Of the various European auto companies, only Daimler-Chrysler is making any significant effort to get into the hybrid game; Peugeot-Citroën is taking baby steps with its Stop&Start technology, but the field is otherwise empty.

    Branson cites Airbus as a model for a pan-European technology production company competitive on a global scale. As Green Car Congress' Mike Milliken points out, the comparison is somewhat inapt. Nonetheless, the idea of Rover becoming a hybrid developer, perhaps partnering with European hybrid also-rans for technology collaboration, has quite a bit of merit.

    Who knows? If the UK and EU don't take Branson up on his idea, he might just consider it good enough to do himself. Virgin Green, anyone?

    April 20, 2005

    SMARTs in America -- Big Deal?

    ZAP, a niche motor vehicle company which made its mark building electric cars (hence its name -- Zero Air Pollution), announced this week that it had received final approval from the US Department of Transportation to start selling an Americanized version of the SMART "FourTwo" micro-coupe ("Americanized" means adding structural supports to meet safety standards and confirming that the emissions meet EPA regulations). ZAP claims to have pulled in over $750 million in pre-orders for the FourTwo. Sales are now contingent upon ZAP being able to set up a shipping and sales network to support that kind of demand. If all goes well, Americans will soon start seeing these two-seat cars zipping around their streets and highways.

    So what?

    Continue reading "SMARTs in America -- Big Deal?" »

    April 25, 2005

    "Zero-Energy Footprint" Homes in Central London

    yorklake.jpgIf I do end up moving to London, I now know where I'd like to live. Yorklake Homes, in cooperation with BedZED, have opened a set of flats in central London which can be entirely self-sufficient for power. This is a step up from similar developments elsewhere, which only promise a reduction in energy pulled from the grid.

    A wind turbine fitted to the roof of an apartment block [...] compliments other eco-friendly features such as solar panels to convert the sun's rays into electricity, a hot water boiler powered by wood pellets, produced from wood waste and riple-glazed and krypton-filled windows to provide thermal and noise insulation. Also the exterior walls are exceptionally well insulated with a 300mm cavity filled with rock wool, the ceilings and floors are concrete slab construction which acts like super large storage heaters, storing heat in winter and coolness in summer and roof-mounted wind cowls provide innovative high levels of ventilation and heat reclamation

    The stylish apartments are at the leading of carbon emission-saving building technology and are a fine example for other architects and builders to follow. [...] [The] Swift near-silent wind turbine on the roof is one of the first domestically available of its type that generates power at mains voltage. When combined with the solar panels it enables the development to generate as much electricity as it consumes.

    Of the four flats, three are already sold; the remaining ground floor apartment is available at £270K. The main downside of this development -- aside from the price -- is the limited number of units in the structure, making the flats more of a technology demonstration -- or even a "concept home" -- than a real high-efficiency development. Although Yorklake sees the development as the first of a series, for now, it's just a tiny step.

    April 27, 2005

    The Greening of the Creative Class?

    Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class made a bit of a splash last year. His argument -- that "cultural creatives" (an intentionally broad social-economic category) were most attracted to diverse, tolerant urban environments -- resonated with many, particularly those who were encompassed by his "creative class" definition. Florida asserted that the American locations driving the boom of the late 1990s, as well as what we here call the "Tech Bloom" of the 2000s, had particular social-cultural elements in common: relative population density; lively artistic communities; diverse cultures; an embrace of (or at least strong tolerance for) gay communities; and a multiplicity of universities. Urban centers that encouraged contact and connections across a wide array of cultures tended to stimulate the new ideas underlying the digital economy.

    Florida's argument is controversial, to say the least. His definition of cultural creatives includes professional categories other sociologists might otherwise omit, and it remains to be seen whether his assertions about the connection between creative workers and economic growth will hold true over the long run. Still, his basic argument -- that knowledge and media work represent key engines of economic growth, and environments supportive of cultural and intellectual diversity are attractive to these kinds of industries -- does seem to capture some of the underlying drivers of the current state of American society.

    In his research, Florida does not pay much attention to the environmental attitude of his creative class, other than lumping it into "lifestyle." But while reading an article in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor -- "In Portland, living the green American dream" -- it struck me that there seems to be significant overlap between the creative class professionals and the rapidly growing circle of people embracing green/sustainable design in their lives. People who seek out urban environments with a combination of diverse stimuli and dense connections increasingly also are the people looking for material surroundings with a combination of smart design and high efficiency. The creative class is taking on a distinctly Viridian shade of green.

    Continue reading "The Greening of the Creative Class?" »

    May 6, 2005

    Smart Energy Grids in the Real World

    Smart energy grids will be a critical part of a bright green future, making it possible to integrate a wide array of energy sources with varying production levels (from giant wind turbines to home solar to wave power arrays) along with sophisticated abilities to control levels of demand and consumption. Much of the discussion of smart grids has been somewhat theoretical, however, or focused on the back-end systems juggling the connections. What about the home components? reports on a couple of examples of smart grid components allowing what they refer to as "virtual peak capacity" -- smart consumption controls providing focused consumption throttling, giving energy providers additional capacity to avoid brownouts or blackouts during heavy loads. The value for the energy utilities is capacity when needed most; the value for the consumer (whether at home or in commercial sites) is lower cost:

    Depending on the climate control program consumers choose, they can get a monthly rebate or experience an overall reduction of around 15 percent to 25 percent.

    The utilities, meanwhile, benefit by not having to build extra power plants or buy energy at peak prices on the open market. In Salt Lake City, a utility is installing Comverge control units in 90,000 homes. Since each unit can throttle about a kilowatt of energy consumption, the units will effectively perform the same job as a 90-megawatt plant, which can cost a few hundred thousand dollars to build.

    EnerNOC focuses on commercial buildings; Comverge provides dynamic power management tools to consumers. These tools take advantage of cellular and Internet connections for real-time information about demand, load levels and prices. Since they require communication with the energy grid, these systems are only deployed in locations set up to use them -- but the number of such locations is growing.

    (Via Sustainability Zone)

    Green Building Performance

    whrc.jpgWe love green buildings and sustainable architecture. Since the cost of going green when building a new structure is not significantly greater than not doing so -- and whatever added expenses occur are quickly recovered by lower operating costs -- we can't see why designers wouldn't build green. And since there's a strong correlation between cities with more green architecture and cities with more of the "creative class" driving their economies, we're likely to see even more regions encouraging (or even requiring) green building standards.

    But as we all know, results don't always match design. How energy efficient and sustainable are these buildings, really?

    The Woods Hole Research Center, one of the United States' premier institutions of environmental study, decided to find out for themselves. WHRC moved into its Bill McDonough-designed Ordway Campus building last year, and has spent the last year testing its performance. The Ordway building includes photovoltaics, solar thermal collectors, ultra-efficient windows and more, and was designed to reduce energy consumption by over 25% from the previous Woods Hole building while nearly doubling available space. In order to gauge whether the building meets its design, Woods Hole has set up 75 different sensors throughout the structure, measuring flows of electricity, heat, air and water, as well as the site's overall environmental condition.

    The first year's results appear promising. From the Performance Overview:

    For the past year the WHRC Ordway facility has performed closely to our originally modeled expectations. Total energy usage was 96,389 kWhrs with 30,589 being generated onsite by our photovoltaic system. The remaining 65,800 kWhrs was pulled from the electric grid. The upshot of this is that 32% of our facility’s total energy requirement was provided by the PV system.Even with a facility that is nearly twice the size of our old combined offices and labs, we are using less total energy and spending less money on energy while reducing emissions attributable to our operations to 36% of our previous total (17% of the national office average for a building of same size). With the installation of a wind turbine this will probably drop to zero, or even to negative emissions, meaning that we will effectively be reducing the emissions attributable to our neighborhood.

    Real-time data from the sensors are available on the web. Building Energy Flow and HVAC System Results can be viewed with any browser; Performance Trends and Meteorological Trends are only available to Internet Explorer/Windows users.

    May 11, 2005

    Two to Tango

    tango.jpgLast February, we reported on the Naro, a two-seat tandem concept vehicle co-designed by Coventry University's Art & Design department and British motorsport company Prodrive. It turns out that Prodrive has been doing more than just imagining narrow vehicles, they've started making them. The Tango is a two-seat tandem electric vehicle moving from test car to production. It's small enough that it can perpendicular park in a parallel parking space, roomy enough for a driver over 6', and can go from 0 to 60 in four seconds.

    As that acceleration statistic suggests, the performance of the Tango is impressive for an electric. Its top speed is about 150 miles per hour, with a range of 60-80 miles. Auto enthusiasts will undoubtedly drool over the component specs -- Prodrive makes serious performance equipment as its main business -- and the rest of us will recoil at the price: $85,000. They do plan to make a couple of cheaper models, with appropriately lower performance; the lowest-cost one is targeted to be about $18,500.

    What justifies a price like that? Safety. Prodrive has designed the Tango to meet not just the standard vehicle safety requirements, but also the safety requirements of the SCCA and NHRA -- two of the big racing car associations. The Tango's passenger cage is designed to withstand an impact at 200 miles per hour. The racing car-level safety is one performance aspect Prodrive intends to include in all versions of the Tango.

    Safety is a big deal with small car designers right now. Green Car Congress has a detailed report on Pininfarina's efforts to design chassis for ultra-compact cars able to withstand full-speed impacts from trucks. The results have been impressive -- simulations suggest that the absorption and redirection of front impact energy could be enough to make airbags unnecessary.

    This isn't the approach Prodrive is using, but that's good -- the more ways designers come up with to make certain that small car passengers are secure, the more people will feel comfortable getting in one.

    (Tango via Hippyshopper)

    May 12, 2005

    Kicking the Mule

    crv.jpgIf China's going to clean up its environment, it's going to have to do something about the mules.

    Chinese Rural Vehicles (CRVs or "mules") are small, typically three-wheeled vehicles powered by a single-cylinder diesel engine. There are about 22 million of them in China, and according to a study done by Daniel Sperling at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, they account for a quarter of China's diesel consumption -- and put out as much pollution as all other Chinese conventional vehicles.

    The CRV dates back to a failed plan to industrialise China's rural areas in the 1960s. The surplus machinery was redirected to building a replacement for mules as the workhorse of rural transport, and so the cheap and basic CRV was born. The growth in the number of these vehicles over the past 25 years has been spectacular [...]. The most common model has three wheels, though there are also two and four-wheeled versions. They are simple enough for farmers to put them together themselves, although about half are assembled by three major companies.

    Continue reading "Kicking the Mule" »

    The Renewable Mix

    It's not hard to find people arguing against the greater use of renewable energy sources by making the following kind of argument:

    (Renewable Technology X) can't replace our current energy use because of (Insert Well-Known Reason), so it's pointless to pursue its development.

    The Well-Known Reasons often boil down to what the industry calls "intermittency" -- the inability of the given energy technology to provide reliable amounts of power. And, constructed as that straw man, it's true: photovoltaics are ineffective at night; wind turbines are non-productive in still air. But as we've said here time and again, nobody is talking about replacing the entire energy infrastructure with a single production source. What will allow renewable energy to succeed is a distributed mix of a variety of sources connected via a smart power grid.

    Now researchers at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University are arguing the same thing.

    [Dr. Graham] Sinden initially looked at just three generation technologies: wind, solar and dCHP [domestic combined heat and power] — in effect, hi-tech domestic boilers, which produce electricity as they heat water. He ran computer models of power output based on weather records going back up to 35 years, and found that electricity production could be optimised by creating a mixture of 65% wind, 25% dCHP, and 10% solar cells. The high proportion of wind is because the wind blows hardest in the winter, and in the evening — when demand is highest. The dCHP also produces more at peak times, when demand for hot water and heating is also strongest. Solar makes a smaller contribution, and produces nothing at night. But it is still important to have it in the mix as it kicks in when wind and dCHP production is lowest.

    Continue reading "The Renewable Mix" »


    moo.jpgConverting bovine waste into power is not new -- we've mentioned a Vermont project ("Providing renewable energy one cow at a time") and went into a bit more detail about a cattle ranch in California making electricity from manure. In both cases (and the undoubtedly countless others), the electricity is produced by letting the waste convert to methane, then burning the resulting gas in something called a "methane digester." Certainly a good use of cattle waste, but is it the best use?

    The Haubenschild Farm in Minnesota, already generating methane digester-electricity, decided to check out other options. In January, they became the location of the first cow manure-powered hydrogen fuel cell.

    Phil Goodrich, the University of Minnesota principal investigator in the hydrogen fuel cell project at the Haubenschild farm, last Friday backed the assertion that this was a world’s first. The project was to see if running methane gas produced from cow manure into a hydrogen fuel cell could make electricity.It was working, said Goodrich on Friday. He explained that electricity has been made from a fuel cell before but never from methane produced from “predigested, pre-collected, biomass.” [...]

    Continue reading "Moo." »

    May 13, 2005

    Smart Control for Home Solar

    solarmeter.jpgHot on the heels of thermostat-like controls for allocating "virtual peak capacity" to smart electricity grids comes Sharp's new system for monitoring and controlling home photovoltaics. The JH-G51X lets you watch real-time power consumption in the home, how much of a charge you're getting from solar panels and how much energy you're drawing from -- or sending to -- the grid at large.

    The system also calculates how much of credit you're building up with the local power company. It's unclear if in Japan -- unlike the US or (I'm told) Canada -- you can actually get a rebate from the electricity supplier should you send more power back to the grid than you use. Around here, the lowest you can go is a $0 bill, even if you're supplying enough power for the neighborhood.

    An English-language story can be found at Akihabara News. The Sharp page in Japanese is here. The Google Translation of the page is here and, although the translation is fairly funky, it's actually relatively comprehensible. In whatever language, however, the system won't be cheap -- the simplest version will run close to $3,000, and the heaviest-duty version will run nearly $4,500.

    Expect to see more of these kinds of smart energy meters and controls in the coming years. Knowing how much power you're using is the first step to using less. And while small readers like the Kill-A-Watt are definitely handy, an electricity monitor that can tell you the draw and overall consumption at each outlet would be much, much better.

    May 18, 2005

    The Numbers

    Here are some particularly pleasing numbers about the climate:


    37 (including a new set of 10).


    One billion.

    2004 and 23.

    Together, these numbers show that U.S. federal intransigence over climate disruption does not mean that change for the better isn't happening. We've noted time and again that reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States can come from the actions of concerned local, regional and commercial entities. The numbers above are examples from just this last week of how crucial said actions can be.

    Read on to learn just what these numbers mean -- and why they matter.

    Continue reading "The Numbers" »

    May 19, 2005

    Green(er) IT

    If you've ever worked in a data center or server room, you know that those places get hot. Many current microprocessors consume enormous amounts of power, and put out correspondingly enormous amounts of heat; as a result, most computer rooms require constant air conditioning. Furthermore, the back-up power supplies required to keep the servers from crashing during a brown-out or black-out are often power hogs themselves, sometimes consuming a third again as much power as they supplied to the computers. System administrators, focused appropriately on making certain that the computers functioned as needed, often only paid attention to power and heat issues when the infrastructure failed.

    One of the results of the green building trend has been a re-examination of the heat output and power demands of information technology offices. For desktop systems, this means simple recommendations to turn computers off at night or shutting off monitors, as well as increased reliance on "green computers." But server functions generally don't allow for the machines to be unavailable, and servers are often operated "headless" (without a monitor) anyway. Solutions need to be a bit more sophisticated than that -- but such solutions are, increasingly, available.

    Continue reading "Green(er) IT" »

    May 27, 2005

    Solid State Lighting

    nh-leds.jpgLEDs -- light emitting diodes -- have the potential to be profoundly worldchanging. From the "Light Up The World Foundation" to boosting LED efficiency to match or even beat fluorescents, the cool light from LEDs will be a big part of the bright green future. But researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have starting looking at some of the other applications of these solid-state lights (i.e., lighting that doesn't require filaments or funky gases, but instead is a solid electronic component) -- and what they found is pretty impressive.

    In an article published May 27, 2005 in the journal Science, the authors describe research currently under way to transform lighting into “smart” lighting, with benefits expected in such diverse fields as medicine, transportation, communications, imaging, and agriculture. The ability to control basic light properties — including spectral power distribution, polarization, and color temperature — will allow “smart” light sources to adjust to specific environments and requirements and to undertake entirely new functions that are not possible with incandescent or fluorescent lighting. [...]

    Continue reading "Solid State Lighting" »

    May 28, 2005

    Finding a Green Home

    greenwichmil.jpgYou've decided to take the plunge, bubbles be damned: you want to buy a house. But you also want it to be as green and sustainable as possible -- perhaps you count yourself among the "cultural creatives," or perhaps you're a big fan of home-makeover television shows. Or, just maybe, you recognize that a high-efficiency, low-consumption dwelling can be comfortable and stylish, as well as very much an investment in sustainable living. So how do you find a green home?

    If you're in the UK, you're in luck: not only are there sustainable building developers like BedZED and Yorklake Homes in operation, there's now Green Moves:

    Green Moves is a website dedicated to advertising homes for sale that are more energy efficient than conventional homes. These homes could also be called environmentally friendly homes or green homes.

    Green Moves is an ethical business initiative that has the support of two environmental charities: the Somerset Trust for Sustainable Development and the WWF (One Million Sustainable Homes Campaign). Green Moves also reinvests some of its income in tree planting to help offset the carbon emissions from housing.

    Green Moves encompasses a wide range of environmentally-friendly building practices, from rainwater harvesting to solar photovoltaic generation to "green roofs." Homes advertised on the site are checked and accredited prior to listing. Unsurprisingly, there aren't huge numbers of homes listed, but the site has only been in operation for a short time. As more people find the site -- and as more builders/remodelers recognize the value of improving efficiency and design -- the listings will undoubtedly grow. And, as we noted a couple of months ago, the UK also has a mortgage lender focusing specifically on green properties, the Ecology Building Society.

    Green homes certainly exist in the United States, too (and are popping up around the world), but I couldn't find equivalent home finding services in other locations. Where are they? If you're not interested in building your own green home, and don't live near an existing green development, what can you do?

    Do any of you know of green home locator services in the US or elsewhere?

    May 31, 2005

    Renewable Scotland

    altenergyscotland.jpgMicrogeneration in Scotland is getting increasing attention, with last Friday's announcement that British Gas had signed a deal with Glasgow-based company Windsave to sell 1kW roof-mounted wind turbines to consumers in Scotland. While insufficient to power a typical home completely, it is enough to "cut annual electricity bills by up to a third and reduce CO2 emissions by half a tonne per annum." Definitely welcome news, but it turns out that it's just the latest in a series of home and local generation options for residents of Scotland -- and there's been a 14-fold increase in the number of such projects over the last five years.

    The figures show that renewable devices are being installed in schools, businesses, ferry terminals and care homes across Scotland, although the majority are in the Highlands and Islands. The Highlands will have a total of 37 such projects by the end of this year, with biomass and wind the most popular sources of energy.

    In Orkney, where there are 33 projects, turbines and heat pumps make up the majority of renewable devices installed, while in the Western Isles, solar panels are the most popular, making up nearly 40% of the total number installed.

    Continue reading "Renewable Scotland" »

    June 2, 2005

    The 2000 Watt Society

    2000watt.jpgThe "2000 Watt Society" is a radical model of efficient, high-quality living being pushed by the Swiss Council of the Federal Institute of Technology. Worldwide average energy consumption per capita is about 17,500 kilowatt hours, working out to a continuous consumption of 2000 watts. But as we all know, that per capita consumption is not evenly distributed. Switzerland, efficient for Europe, uses around 5000 watts per capita; Europe as a whole, about 6000 watts per capita. Developing nations use substantially less -- the average for Africa as a whole is about 500 watts per capita. The US, conversely, runs about 12,000 watts per person. The Swiss Council wants to move the nation as a whole towards a 2000 watts per person goal, not by cutting back on the Swiss standard of living, but by dramatically improving the energy efficiency of all aspects of life.

    A document entitled "Smarter Living" (PDF) lays out the details of the agenda:

    Continue reading "The 2000 Watt Society" »

    June 7, 2005

    Building Integrated Solar

    gebipv.jpgLast August, we noted the California "Million Solar Homes" proposal; last week, the 2005 version of the proposal passed the California Senate by a wide margin, and will be considered -- and almost certainly passed -- by the state Assembly later this month. Perhaps as a result, manufacturers of solar photovoltaic systems for home use have been rolling out new designs meant to appeal to those homeowners who want the energy benefits of solar but don't want the ungainly (and, to quite a few people, unsightly) bolt-on photovoltaic panels adorning their rooftops. Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) -- sometimes called "solar shingles" -- are the growth market in home energy production.

    At the Pacific Coast Builders Conference last week, GE, PowerLight and Sharp all unveiled new or updated solar shingle designs meant for the residential market.

    Continue reading "Building Integrated Solar" »

    Biomimetic Concept Car

    dcxbionic.jpgConcept cars present futurephiles with a profound dilemma: they often portray some of the more interesting near-term possible changes to automotive design, but inevitably, the commercially-available cars that eventually come out usually bear little resemblance to the concept. Concept cars represent the potential for revolution, but commercial cars rarely represent more than timid evolution. This painful dichotomy will undoubtedly be seen yet again in whatever results from Daimler-Chrysler's DCX "Bionic" concept car.

    Daimler-Chrysler is one of the companies caught flat-footed by the rapid growth in consumer demand for hybrid cars. Much of their high-efficiency auto research has gone to fuel cell vehicle designs (years away at best) and to diesel cars for the European market. The four-passenger DCX is also a diesel, but exceeds the most restrictive EU emissions standards. It gets 70 miles per gallon (US method), better than the Prius or even the ultra-efficient (but tiny) Honda Insight -- and at a constant speed of 90 km/hr, it gets up to 84 mpg.

    But what stands out about the DCX is the look. The shape is, in a word, funky -- but that's because it's designed to mimic the super-streamlined shape of the boxfish.

    Continue reading "Biomimetic Concept Car" »

    June 10, 2005

    The Race to Beat Kyoto

    Over 160 cities have signed on to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickel's plan to get US municipalities to agree to meet the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse emission targets, calling on signatories to reduce emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Some cities have announced even more ambitious targets -- San Francisco claims that it will get to 20% below 1990 by 2012. But, of these potentially-green cities, which one is closest to meeting its goal?

    Let's give a big round of applause to Portland, Oregon.

    On Wednesday, Portland released a report (PDF) showing that the city's overall carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 were 0.1% below 1990. Nationwide, CO2 emissions have increased by 17% in the same time frame. Notably, the bulk of the reduction came from institutional sources:

    The report, prepared by [the Office of Sustainable Development] and the Multnomah County Department of Business & Community Services, says the largest drops came in the industrial, transportation and waste-management sectors. It cites an array of reasons, including: Creation of two more light-rail lines and a 75 percent growth in public transit since 1990. Portland's purchase of renewable energy for 10 percent of its electricity. Planting of more than 750,000 carbon-dioxide absorbing trees and shrubs since 1996. Weatherization of more than 10,000 multifamily units and 800 homes in two years.

    As with water, most of the effort on improving efficiency has been outside of domestic use. As getting Portland down to the Kyoto goal of 1990 -5% (or its own more ambitious goal of 1990 -10%) will require coming up with new ways of improving energy efficiency, the relative lack of movement in the domestic arena suggests an obvious pathway. Fortunately, the technologies and ideas for making homes more efficient just keep coming. Portland looks like it will be the first better-than-Kyoto city in the US, unless some other city makes a real effort to beat it.

    Is your city up to the challenge?

    June 14, 2005

    Gas-Optional & Green

    The bright green community of the future may be eminently walk-able and replete with useful public transit, but in the meantime, strong demand remains for personal mobility (i.e., cars). Although two broad technology categories are facing off for the title of Car of Tomorrow -- electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells -- a somewhat more humble development is sneaking in as the near-term technology of choice: gas-optional hybrids.

    We've posted about gas-optional hybrids before, generally under their previous label "plug-in hybrids." Unlike current hybrids, gas-optional hybrids would add the ability to plug them in when parked, drawing power from the grid. Gas-optional hybrids have much larger batteries than current hybrids, and can go quite a ways on electric power, only switching over to the gas engine if the batteries are drained or when going onto the highway. They have a far better range than electric cars, get better mileage than traditional hybrids, and are far cleaner than old-style gasoline-only cars. What's more, gas-optional hybrids can also serve as "mobile generators," putting power back in to the grid if the batteries are full when plugged in. Best of all, gas-optional hybrids are possible now, and some people are even retrofitting Priuses to gas-optional function.

    The obvious question that arises is whether a gas-optional hybrid, recharging from the grid when parked at home, is really better than a standard hybrid when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. After all, electricity generation using coal or natural gas puts out CO2. How does the power drawn from the grid compare to a comparable amount of gasoline used by a regular hybrid?

    Continue reading "Gas-Optional & Green" »

    June 16, 2005

    Solar Flight

    solong.jpgThe combination is irresistible: photovoltaic cells covering the long, wide wings of an airplane, making the electricity to drive the propellor. If the solar cells could also charge batteries to run the plane at night, it would be possible to keep the plane in the air as close to perpetually as the weather allows. But heavyweight batteries and inefficient solar cells made such an accomplishment difficult.

    Difficult -- but not impossible. Last week, AC Propulsion, an organization specializing in electric vehicle engineering, demonstrated a solar-battery unmanned air vehicle (PDF) that flew for just over 48 hours straight.

    Remaining aloft for two nights is the milestone for sustainable flight. One night is possible just by discharging the batteries, but two or more nights means that the plane has to fully recoup and store the energy used at night while flying in the sunlight the following day. Once that is achieved, the cycle can repeat continually, and keep the plane airborne indefinitely.

    Continue reading "Solar Flight" »

    June 20, 2005

    Finding A Green Home, Part 2

    When last we addressed the question of how one could find a green home, we found that there were resources for finding environmentally sustainable dwellings in the UK, but couldn't find any for the US. They do exist, of course -- we just needed to chum the water a bit to find them.

    But first, just to underscore why someone might want to consider a green home, a new report from the University of Toronto's Department of Civil Engineering lays out the financial benefit of building green. Professor Kim Pressnail compared the costs of building a home meeting bare minimum standards to that of one meeting the high-efficiency Canadian "R2000" standard:

    They found that the cost of upgrading a $160,000 home to the R2000 standard was $5,560--an increase of just 3.5 per cent. The upgrade translated into energy savings of $818 a year. If a homeowner paid for R2000 upgrades by increasing mortgage payments, she could generate $423 a year in annual cash flow on energy savings.

    Continue reading "Finding A Green Home, Part 2" »

    June 22, 2005

    Biomass Chemistry

    "Peak Oil" continues its march to memetic dominance, and a greater number of pundits and politicians not previously known for talking about the environment have started to ask what happens when oil runs out. For many who embrace the "Peak Oil Is Here" idea, the answer is simple: chaos, because petroleum is at the heart of much of industrial and agricultural production, not just transportation.

    But that's not the only scenario. There has been quite a bit of research into alternative means of producing the materials we now make using oil. Biomass is the top candidate for oil equivalents, and indeed biodiesel has been getting more attention of late as a renewable and low-net-carbon method of fueling vehicles, both by renewable energy advocates trying to move away from fossil fuels and by researchers trying to improve the efficiency of biodiesel production. Biomass is also being used as an experimental feedstock for chemicals now requiring petroleum. And by stretching the definition of biomass a bit, even fertilizer -- a favorite of the apocyphiles -- can be made without fossil fuels.

    Continue reading "Biomass Chemistry" »

    June 23, 2005

    Zero Waste, Perpetual Food

    In natural systems, "waste" is a nearly unknown concept. What may be waste products for one species is nearly always food for another. The interconnection between the various organisms in an ecosystem means that, absent external disruption, environmental cycles can continue more-or-less indefinitely. That's not the case with most agricultural or industrial methods, however; much of what we do makes waste, and waste is a sign of inefficiency.

    Environmental engineer Dr. George Chan thought we could do better, and has for the past two decades been working (along with the Zero Emissions Research Initiative) on something he calls the Integrated Food and Waste Management System (IF&WMS), a method of layering different types of production together such that the waste output from one component feeds another. IFWMS has a goal of zero waste -- and in its growing number of implementations, it comes pretty close. IF&WMS combines farming of livestock, aquaculture, horticulture, and agro-industries. The oneVillage Foundation sums it up in this way:

    Continue reading "Zero Waste, Perpetual Food" »

    June 24, 2005

    Making the Meters Smarter

    Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the main energy utility in California, has proposed to the regulatory commission that it be allowed to spend the next five years (and about $1.5 billion) installing upgraded meters for its customers. These meters would allow for variable rates based on peak/off-peak use, as well as remote reading (i.e., no more backyard visitors). Over time, the improved meters will mean reduced operating costs, as well as lower overall peak consumption as customers shift home activities to off-peak hours.

    It's a good start, but there are a couple more improvements I'd like to see: support for distributed energy connections; and support for Internet access to use history and real-time measurement by customers.

    Continue reading "Making the Meters Smarter" »

    July 4, 2005

    How Dense Can We Be?

    Yesterday's post on Density as Efficiency triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, and reader Laurence Aurbach provided some very useful links expanding upon the issue. One link in particular stood out: the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's online exploration of "Visualizing Density."

    While most WorldChanging readers probably recognize that dense development doesn't just mean massive concrete block apartments and congested neighborhoods, those remain typical representations of high-density urban life. The Visualizing Density project displays just how pleasing and appealing high-density neighborhoods can be, and helps to put a recognizable face on somewhat abstract concepts as "12 units per acre." The "Bird's Eye View" section takes a step-by-step approach to explaining different density levels, and steps that planners can take to ensure that the resulting neighborhoods are good places to live. It also explains some of the complexities underlying the measurement of density: where are the boundaries drawn for the representative acre? Do you include parks and waterfronts? How about scattered apartment complexes?

    And for those of us still fascinated by SimCity, the site offers an additional treat: a Flash-based neighborhood-design toy. Players can either work to meet specific density design goals, or just "free play" design residential neighborhoods. The layout of the toy is very similar to SimCity, in that you have a flat plane upon which you can put down roads, buildings of different sizes, and parklands; the plane can be spun to view the result from different directions. Surprisingly, it doesn't allow for buildings mixing ground-level commercial and upstairs residential units -- an omission also characteristic of SimCity -- even though the combination is discussed elsewhere in the Visualizing Density site.

    Regardless, for those of us wishing to better understand what real-world versions of Bright Green cities can look like, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy website is a welcome resource.

    July 5, 2005

    Micro-Wind for the Home

    swift-turbine.jpgThe elements of bright green home design are rapidly coming together, and it's looking increasingly clear that high-efficiency consumption and home microgeneration are an ideal combination. We've looked at residential efficiency quite a bit recently, so let's turn again to the home power generation side. Of the three main sources of clean renewable power -- solar, wind and ocean (tide/wave) -- two are reasonable options for the individual buildings (sadly, home ocean power appears to have limited application). For solar, we can go with building-integrated photovoltaic shingles or wall/window units; for wind, we have "rooftop" (but often wall-mounted) turbines.

    While most small wind turbine developers have focused on small towers for rural users, two UK-based manufacturers -- Windsave and Renewable Devices -- have been working on micro-turbines for the urban environment, and have been working with utilities and developers to get wind power into buildings. These efforts are starting to pay off, and in more than just number-of-roofs. Last week, the "Swift" micro-turbine from Renewable Devices won the "Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy" in the energy generation category.

    Continue reading "Micro-Wind for the Home" »

    Biodiesel Bad?

    New research from Cornell and UC Berkeley agriculture and engineering professors concludes that, when all of the elements required to produce biomass-based liquid fuels (such as ethanol and biodiesel) are added together, the energy requirements for production far exceed the energy produced.

    ...corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; [...] soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced [...]

    In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix.

    Although there are those who would dispute these calculations (update: and there are good reasons to believe that this is an overall poor piece of research) let's take them as given for the moment.

    Continue reading "Biodiesel Bad?" »

    July 11, 2005

    Scoping Out Sustainability

    chook.jpgSustainability means far more than hybrid cars and recycling; it even means more than LEED buildings and dense cities. Real, lasting sustainability will require a transformation of both supply and demand, both production and consumption, across every facet of our society and economy. This is not a minor feat, obviously; fortunately, smart people are thinking hard about how to carry it off.

    The UK Design Council is an organization of designers and academics looking to enhance the well-being of citizens through the proper application of design. They provide a variety of informational resources for both designers and non-specialists, covering everything from the nature of design and the design process through emerging issues such as corporate social responsibility and sustainability. The Design Council, through its information and outreach program RED, is working with government and business agencies to co-develop a new Sustainable Development Strategy for the UK. Last week, they unveiled Design & Sustainability: A Scoping Report, in an attempt to explore how to create demand for sustainable design and the best ways to spot and develop the resulting business opportunities.

    The scoping document (Word format) is much more than that, however. Running well over 100 pages, it's a comprehensive analysis of the origins of sustainable design, its applications in recent years, and how it can be more broadly applied. It's an ambitious project, to say the least, and not always successful. But here's the really good part: the Design Council is explicitly calling this an "open source" document, and are offering it for use and modification by anyone -- and are asking for good ideas to be sent to them to be added in.

    Continue reading "Scoping Out Sustainability" »

    July 12, 2005

    Green My Kitchen

    If, like most people, you're not in a position to build a high-efficiency, environmentally-friendly home of your own, you can still improve the green stats of your existing dwelling. It's a good thing, too: residential energy use puts a surprisingly large amount of overall greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to the US Department of Energy, non-vehicle residential energy use in the US is responsible for about two-thirds as much greenhouse gas output as transportation (residential energy use produced 1,215 million metric tons of CO2 in 2003, compared to 1,875 million metric tons of CO2 from transportation, according to the US Department of Energy). More importantly, residential CO2 emissions are growing faster than those from vehicles (up about 30% from 1990-2003, compared to about 20% over the same time period for transportation).

    Green Home Guide is a useful resource for figuring out what you can do to make one's home a more sustainable place. The site is just finishing up a month about kitchens, a particularly useful topic given that, for most people in the West, the kitchen is the most energy-intensive room in the house. The articles about building a new green dwelling on the cheap and doing a green kitchen remodel are interesting, but probably of more value to most are two articles on making one's existing kitchen greener: 10 Ways to Make Your Kitchen More Resource Efficient and Creating a Healthy, Environmentally Sound Kitchen.

    Continue reading "Green My Kitchen" »

    July 13, 2005

    The European Micro-Hybrid

    minimobil.jpgThe "MINIMOBIL" is a new vehicle designed by a joint Austrian-Czech team as low-cost, high-efficiency personal transport for the streets of European cities. As a hybrid, it has a longer range (and higher potential speed) than similarly-sized electric vehicles; it is capable of all-electric mode, too, for 30-50 kilometers, more than enough for typical city trips. As the image shows, it's tiny -- four can fit in a typical parking space -- and due to its size, it may be classified as a "four wheel motorcycle" in Europe. The MINIMOBIL is designed with flexibility in mind, with the rear section being able to hold various modules for additional seating, cargo, even lawn maintenance. The default set up allows for two people to ride, sitting tandem.

    The MINIMOBIL joins a growing list of microcars (which make the Smart look big) either on or soon-to-be on the streets of Europe: the G-Wiz all-electric (based on the India-made REVA); the Naro prototype design; the Tango, with safety specs meeting international racing car standards; even the MDI Air Car, which can go for about 50 miles on a single tank of compressed air. The MINIMOBIL is the first hybrid microcar; it's unclear from the limited English-language information whether the designers intend to sell the vehicle directly, or license the model to bigger carmakers.

    Continue reading "The European Micro-Hybrid" »

    July 15, 2005


    pvconcentrators.jpgWe're all familiar to some degree with traditional photovoltaics, the flat dark-gray panels that generate electricity from light. Improvements in photovoltaic technology keep popping up, and solar will undoubtedly be a big part of the bright green future. But less well-known are photovoltaic concentrators, systems that use lenses and/or mirrors to boost the amount of light hitting a given patch of photovoltaic material, with the goal of increasing the overall output. Photovoltaic concentrators are commonly used on satellites to maximize the power-to-weight ratio, but have had more limited success for Earthly energy production due to the cost.

    That may soon change.

    The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory just held a conference on photovoltaic concentration technology in Scottsdale, Arizona. Among the announcements: the availability of PV concentration systems with efficiencies close to 40% at concentrated sunlight levels.

    Continue reading "Concentration" »

    July 18, 2005

    REPRO and the Elimination of Waste

    repro.jpgA core principle of sustainability is the reduction -- even the elimination -- of waste, whether the waste is of materials or of energy. Waste is another way of saying "missed opportunity." Much of the material that gets discarded as waste can be used again in some way, often as feed stock for other goods and services. This process is commonplace for paper and many commercial metals and plastics -- but what about food?

    The REPRO project, a research effort with participation from numerous EU countries as well as Turkey and South Africa, aims to develop new methods: for making use of the waste by-products from the processing of foodstuffs. REPRO is currently focusing on two main food by-product areas:

    REPRO will develop cost-effective and safe integrated methods by targeting two high-volume waste co-products which have had relatively little research: Spent grain (barley residues from the brewing industry) and vegetable trimmings (such as leaf, stem and pod tissues). These co-product wastes are rich in plant biopolymers, phytochemicals, nutrients and micronutrients.

    Continue reading "REPRO and the Elimination of Waste" »

    Hybrid-Electric... Bicycle

    twike.jpgWhy is it that so many microcars have cutesy names? The two-seat Tango? The ultra-skinny Naro? The Smart? The G-Wiz?!?! Add the "Twike" to the list, albeit with a disclaimer: while it sounds like an all-too-precious version of "trike" (an impression supported by its three wheels), the word has not heard in the same way in Switzerland and Germany, its point of origin. Instead, Twike comes from "twin bike" -- and it's a much more intriguing concept than it might initially appear.

    The Twike is a lightweight (~500-800 lbs.) three-wheel, two seat vehicle. It comes in two models, and both feature electric motors able to take the car up to 130 kilometers at speeds up to 85 kilometers per hour -- not quite freeway speeds, but more than enough for major roads and thoroughares. Like most modern electrics, it has regenerative braking to help recharge the battery, but can be "refilled" from a standard outlet. What differentiates the two models -- the Active and the Easy -- is that the Active also has a pair of recumbent bicycle pedals for each passenger, allowing the driver to extend the range of the vehicle, and get a bit of exercise while at it.

    Few people have heard of the Twike and fewer still own one -- but they (and vehicles like them) may be the answer to a sticky transportation problem.

    Continue reading "Hybrid-Electric... Bicycle" »

    July 19, 2005

    Reinventing Concrete

    HySSIL.jpgConcrete is one of the lesser-known players in the world of greenhouse gas emission. As Jeremy noted last November, the manufacturing of concrete is responsible for up to 7-10% of all CO2 emissions worldwide, a combination of the sheer volume of concrete produced and the very high temperatures required to create the core "Portland cement" material used in the standard process. But the industry is starting to wake up to the need to become more energy efficient, and two recent developments give some hope that a much greener (and potentially more sustainable) model for concrete manufacturing will soon emerge. One is a new form of concrete; the other is a new set of guidelines for the industry.

    Jeremy's piece listed some of the alternatives to traditional concrete, including some which take less energy to make, have better thermal properties, or make use of materials which otherwise would have gone into landfills. Each has its drawbacks, as well, typically in cost -- one reason why traditional concrete remains so popular is that it's very cheap to make. In May of this year, however, CSIRO -- the Australian science and industrial research office -- announced the development of a form of concrete called HySSIL:

    Dr Swee Liang Mak, who leads the HySSIL development team at CSIRO says, 'HySSIL is a revolutionary aerated cementitious (cement-based) product that is as strong as normal concrete but is only half as heavy. It provides up to five times the thermal insulation of concrete and is also impact and fire resistant'.

    'HySSIL wall panels are also expected to offer significant cost advantages over existing products', says Dr Mak.

    Continue reading "Reinventing Concrete" »

    July 20, 2005

    Cheap Plastic Solar

    plasticsolardenmark.jpgResearchers at the Danish group Risø have developed a polymer photovoltaic technology that would cost about 2% of current silicon PV panels: Risø claims that their new polymer pv should run about $15/square meter, as opposed to the $800/square meter they list for silicon. Moreover, this plastic solar cell has a useful lifespan of about two and a half years, which Risø claims to be a record duration for plastic pv.

    So what's the downside? Efficiency. These cells have a conversion factor of 0.2% to 5%, as compared to common silicon pv at 12%-15%; photovoltaics in development have achieved up to 50% or so in the lab.

    What can you do with 0.2%-5% efficiency? At first blush, not much, which is with Risø is now devoting its efforts to increasing the power output of their plastic solar.

    But the tremendous price reduction changes the equation a bit. At $15/square meter, it becomes much more economically feasible to add a solar boost to otherwise unused external spaces. 50 watts for $15 (assuming the high end of the efficiency scale) isn't too bad; I could imagine homeowners wanting to put this material on south-facing walls, rooftops, even patio umbrellas. (As I think about it, it seems to me that this material as part of a beach umbrella would be great -- the power production from the typical 2m-diameter umbrella would be about 150-170 watts, enough to keep a phone or radio charged.) You're not going to power your entire house with this stuff, at least not at this level of efficiency, but even low-efficiency solar can be helpful.

    Get it to 10% or 20% and keep the same price and durability, though, and you have the makings of a revolution.

    (Via Sustainability Zone)

    July 22, 2005

    Further Concentration

    pyron.jpgWhen scanning for emerging technologies, there are a couple of useful rules-of-thumb: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is; if someone claims everyone is ignoring their brilliant idea, it's probably not as brilliant as they think. It stands to reason, then, that if the brilliant idea that everyone is ignoring happens to provide benefits that are too good to be true, it's time to nod, smile, and move along as swiftly as possible.

    I was prepared to do just that to this article about Pyron Solar, a San Diego-based company making a novel solar concentrator system (we talked about solar concentrators just last week). After all, the article spends its first third trying to draw an analogy between the Pyron Solar founders (John and Inge Laing) and Thomas Edison, particularly the early Edison that had to struggle to get people to recognize his brilliant ideas. The article then goes on to describe the Pyron system as being substantially better than anything yet produced in terms of solar: a device able to generate electricity at a cost-per-watt as low as oil or coal -- and possibly lower. But then I noticed something.

    They've actually built the thing. And it works.

    Continue reading "Further Concentration" »

    August 3, 2005

    Airplanes in Motion, on the Ground

    chorusmotor.gifAs I mentioned, I'm on a scenario project that has entailed a bit of travel. Upon my arrival at the airport yesterday evening, I couldn't help but be reminded of what can only be an incredibly inefficient use of the airplane's jet engines as a way of traveling around the tarmac. Effectively, it's a temporary transformation of a jetliner into a sluggish, ungainly, and utterly wasteful sort of bus. Not all airports rely on jets to move under their own power, though; in many, diesel "tow tugs" pull the jets to and fro. While undoubtedly more efficient than relying on the jet's own engines, these are still noisy, fuel-guzzling ways of moving around the runway.

    But Boeing, working with a technology group called Chorus Motors, has come up with an ingenious solution -- an onboard electric motor attached to the nose wheel of the plane. In tests on a 767 under conditions equivalent to real-world use, the electric motor performed very well, showing that replacing tugs and jets with electric motors could have real benefits:

    Continue reading "Airplanes in Motion, on the Ground" »

    August 11, 2005

    Steampunk Solar Power

    SES_dish.jpgA new agreement was just signed by Southern California Edison to guarantee 20 years' purchase of electricity from a new 4,500 acre solar farm to be built near Victorville, California. The farm will initially be designed to put out 500 megawatts, but can be expanded to 850 megawatts. This will represent the largest solar power facility in the world, and will put out more electricity than all other US solar projects combined. Funny thing, though -- it won't use a single photovoltaic cell.

    Instead, these solar power generators will use a nearly 200 year old bit of technology: the Stirling Engine.

    Pretty much every time we post something about solar concentrators or home cogeneration or somesuch, we get a series of comments about the neglected beauty of Stirling Engines. Admittedly, Stirling Engines -- first invented in 1816 by Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling -- are quite elegant. Here's the Wikipedia entry on how they work:

    Continue reading "Steampunk Solar Power" »

    August 17, 2005

    Dwell Green

    Michelle Kaufmann Designs
    Two very different approaches to more sustainable dwellings came across the WorldChanging transom today, and while both are orthogonal to the "one-off design on your own (preferably quite spacious) lot" concept underlying many of the homes in The Green House, these two models appeal to very different demographics.

    Those who wish to live in a less wasteful home don't always have the option of building something new. This Sunday's New York Times takes a look at a NYC loft renovated for a greener footprint -- but rather than tossing the wallboard and other detritus, the designer recycled it into new building material, dramatically reducing the amount of waste and cutting the cost. Interestingly, while the article notes that the loft owner's husband works in the environmental field (for the Carbon Trust in London), the story isn't spun as "look at what these crazy treehugging hippies did with their loft," but as "look at how this designer figured out how to save money and avoid creating more trash." If one wasn't careful, one could get the impression that the New York Times Home & Garden section was actually starting to consider sustainability-focused design to be... cool.

    Continue reading "Dwell Green" »

    August 18, 2005

    LEED @ Home

    USGBC_LEED.jpgThe US Green Building Council has released its long-awaited draft of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for homes. LEED-compliant commercial buildings are both remarkably energy-efficient and provide interior environments friendly to workers. With the release of the LEED for Homes draft, developers and homeowners can see what steps are the most critical for making a home a green house.

    Technically, what the USGBC has released is a set of guidelines for pilot projects meant to test the utility of the various elements on the LEED for Homes checklist. It's likely that, once the pilot projects are completed and analyzed, the LEED for Homes rules will be modified. These projects will be built in 12 different regions (PDF) in the United States; interestingly, while most locations (including big states like California, Florida and Texas) are covered by single providers, Colorado has three.

    Even if you aren't a developer, potential home buyer, or even in the United States, the LEED for Homes guidelines make interesting reading. The Pilot Rating System document (PDF) explains the goals of the LEED for Homes project in more detail, and discusses each item on the LEED for Homes checklist in full. The draft checklist (PDF) itself includes numerous references to issues that we've talked about frequently on WorldChanging, including: site density, permeable pavement, rainwater harvesting, high-efficiency lighting, and more.

    Continue reading "LEED @ Home" »

    August 30, 2005

    Blobject On Tour

    blobject.jpgBlobject is a Spanish company that exists in the intersection of several very worldchanging ideas: the use of electric micro-cars for in-town mobility; the use of free/libre/open-source software as a cornerstone of information technology; and the use of location-aware systems for deepening one's understanding of urban spaces. That the company name was inspired by a Bruce Sterling speech is just a wonderful extra.

    Blobject operates in Córdoba, Spain (and soon in Seville), renting small electric vehicles to tourists to let them roam the city. The vehicle used, the GEM e2 from Daimler-Chrysler, is a two-seat electric able to travel up to 50 miles in a single charge, at a speed up to 20-25 miles per hour (the speed, incidentally, is intentionally throttled to meet US Low-Speed Vehicle guidelines). While slow, open-sided cars are ill-suited for most practical uses, they are a good match for the needs of tourists, as they give access to the enjoyment of the sights, sounds and scents of the location.

    But the Blobject vehicles are more than swoopy-looking electric golf carts. These electric cars are outfitted with GPS and Linux-based computers:

    This service provides multimedia information on existing points of interest in the city of Córdoba. This service is pioneer in the world, as we combine an electric car with ICTs.

    Continue reading "Blobject On Tour" »

    September 1, 2005

    Smart Sprawl

    On balance, it's not too difficult to think up ways to make cities more sustainable if you're able to create something new. Figuring out the right combination of transportation, infrastructure, and services to promote livability, strengthen the economy, and keep efficiency up and resource use down is much easier when you can plan out the whole thing in advance. But such opportunities are rare -- and, as we see in New Orleans -- are themselves often fraught with tragedy. Building sustainable cities means working with what we've got; in most cases, that means working with sprawl.

    The effects of sprawl can be confronted at the local level and at the regional level, and demand not just rethinking the transit systems, but re-examining how we want our cities to operate. But what would such a process look like? Walter Siembab, Principal of Siembab Planning Associates, has one approach: he calls it "Smart Sprawl."

    Continue reading "Smart Sprawl" »

    September 9, 2005

    Danny's Reva

    dannysreva.jpgRemember the "G-Wiz," the electric micro-car being sold in the UK? It was notable for a few reasons: its relatively low up-front cost (around £7,000, or about $12,000); the waiver it receives on the London "Congestion Charge" and parking fees in multiple locations; and its origins. The G-Wiz is built in India by the REVA Electric Car company.

    The discussions here around the G-Wiz and other micro-cars often ended up around comfort and usability. Would most people fit in a car that small? Is a 40 mile range really sufficient for city driving? What kinds of sacrifices are made to vehicle features to keep the weight (and the cost) down?

    Danny Fleet could answer these questions. Danny is a proud new owner of a G-Wiz, and has decided to "vlog" (video log) his experiences.

    Continue reading "Danny's Reva" »

    September 12, 2005

    Rebuilding for Sustainability

    rebuildingfema.jpgI found a website with detailed plans describing how communities devastated by natural disasters can rebuild in a more sustainable way. The plans, all in PDF, cover matching sustainability concerns to hazard types, the role of the community, even ways to seek US Federal funding for sustainable rebuilding projects. Additional material includes a sustainability glossary, recommended readings, and "quotable materials" on sustainability, starting with "The Wingspread Principles: A Community Vision for Sustainability."

    The website for the plans introduces itself in this way:

    Repetitive disaster losses diminish our quality of life and divert resources that could be used to address other concerns. Recovery from natural disasters presents a unique opportunity to consider alternatives to the damage-rebuild-damage cycle. These alternatives can help communities rebuild stronger, safer and smarter and thereby become less vulnerable to disasters. Communities can also use this opportunity to become more sustainable by integrating hazard mitigation strategies with other community objectives related to economic health, environmental stability, and social well-being.

    The website where I found this treasure trove? The US Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

    Continue reading "Rebuilding for Sustainability" »

    September 13, 2005

    Green City China

    dongtan.jpgBritish design consultancy Arup has announced that it has been tapped by the Chinese government to lead the construction of an "eco-city" expansion to Shanghai. Dongtan, the expanded development near Shanghai's airport, will eventually cover about 8,800 hectares -- roughly the size of Manhattan island. Shanghai claims that the Dongtan project will be "the world's first genuinely eco-friendly city," using recycled water, cogeneration and biomass for energy, and striving to be as carbon-neutral as possible.

    The first phase, a 630 hectare development including a mix of transport facilities, schools, housing and high-tech industrial spaces, will begin construction late next year, and is expected to be completed by 2010.

    So what does it mean to be a "genuinely eco-friendly city?" Arup gives this overview:

    Continue reading "Green City China" »

    September 14, 2005

    Grass Power

    miscanthus.jpgWhen talking about biomass-based fuels, a few plant names keep popping up -- soy, jatropha and (to a lesser extent) corn. But what about Maiden Grass?

    Professor Steve Long, at the University of Illinois, argues that Maiden Grass, the common name for the various species of Miscanthus, has some pretty attractive qualities as a feedstock for bio-energy. Also called "elephant grass" (as it can reach four meters in height), It can be grown in a wide variety of soil types, requiring little or no fertilizer. It can be harvested off-season, so farmers can grow it along with food crops. Each ton of dried Miscanthus yields energy equivalent to three barrels of oil, and a single hectare can produce from 12 to 60 metric tons of dried plant. (The lower number is a typical current yield; the higher is from an experimental stand at U of I.)

    The grass appears to be hardy, but as it's not a native species, Long is taking no chances:

    The scientists used a sterile hybrid of the plant, which comes from high altitude areas in Japan and produces a silver, feather-like foliage, in the trials so it would not become invasive.

    "Currently, in those trials that have been carried out, there appears to be no real problem with pests or diseases," according to [Long's partner Dr. Mike] Jones.

    Long claims that converting about eight percent of the land area of Illinois to growing Miscanthus would produce sufficient fuel to generate the entire electricity load of the entire state, including Chicago. Eight percent is roughly equivalent to the entire developed area of Illinois, and about 1/8 of the current farmland. Such estimates are a bit silly, of course; real conversion of electricity production to renewable sources will need a mix of types, including wind and solar.

    (Thanks, Eric Townsend)

    September 23, 2005

    Zero Net Energy Habitat for Humanity

    1332_HabHumanDenver_final.jpgHabitat for Humanity is one of those organizations that doesn't make a lot of noise, but does a lot of good. Focusing on the construction of homes for the poor, Habitat for Humanity uses volunteer labor and (usually) simple designs. The homes built by Habitat are decent but utilitarian, tending to be typical wood-frame structures, meeting but rarely exceeding code guidelines. They're hardly places in which one would expect to find abundant green design.

    And yet we now have at least one. A number of sustainability blogs have pointed to an article at Renewable Energy Access, describing a home built by the Habitat for Humanity group in Denver, Colorado, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. The "Net Zero Energy Habitat for Humanity House" is meant as a model home for what comfortable and affordable green housing could look like. Not all of the components are cutting-edge, but they're an excellent example of how current green home technologies can be used:

    Continue reading "Zero Net Energy Habitat for Humanity" »

    September 26, 2005

    Toyota Gets It Partly Right

    toyotadhpfig3.jpgThe Toyota Dream House PAPI (Japanese site) is a concept home designed by Professor Ken Sakamura of the University of Tokyo. Building on the TRON intelligent home project, the Toyota Dream House PAPI (and I have no clue as to what PAPI stands for) integrates a prototype Toyota-designed plug-in Prius as a secondary power source.

    Toyota Dream House PAPI was designed to interface with other Toyota technologies. One of the most important of those other technologies is Toyota Motor Corporation's Prius hybrid sedan, which can also be used to supply electricity to the intelligent house for 36 hours in an emergency, such as an earthquake that cuts off normal electrical supplies.

    Conversely, the house can supply electricity to the battery packs of the vehicles via the stand in the middle of the garage. Some of that electrical energy can be obtained from solar cell panels that cover the roof, plus the sides of the structure. The house also uses solar heating and fuel cells, which makes it a kind of hybrid energy house.

    Green Car Congress has some added detail. Despite the building-integrated solar, the Toyota Dream House is not really a "green home" design. Most of the emphasis is on ubiquitous wireless networks and "smart home" controls, rather than on high-efficiency high-style construction and materials. Still, it's good to see Toyota doing more than just talking about the possibility of gas-optional hybrids with home power use; the combination of BIPV and plug-in Prius would go well with "microgrid" distributed power networks.

    September 27, 2005

    The Manchester Bobber

    ManchesterBobber.jpgPower generation based on the "motion of the ocean" offers significant long-term value, and arguably could eventually displace solar and wind generation for large-scale renewable energy projects. Hydrokinetic power (encompassing wave, current and tidal power) doesn't have the "intermittency" problems facing solar and wind, nor are there as many issues about ruined views and overrun landscape. Costs remain high, however. There are numerous ocean power projects in testing, and while most show promise, I don't believe we've yet seen the real breakout project putting ocean power at the front of the renewable energy race.

    The latest contender is the "Manchester Bobber," an ocean power platform design from the University of Manchester. The up-and-down motion of the water surface drives a generator; a full-size unit should be able to produce a mean power output of around 5 megawatts:

    Continue reading "The Manchester Bobber" »

    September 28, 2005


    scrapile.jpgInhabitat's Jill Fehrenbacher has a terrific interview up on her site, a conversation with Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt of Scrapile, the New York-based design group that manufactures stylish tables, benches, shelves and lamps out of scrap wood from lumber mills and building companies. Scrapile has now opened up a sustainable building materials company, Bettencourt Green Building Supplies, and is considering expanding into flooring. Jill's interview really gets into what drives Salgado and Bettencourt, and gives welcome insight into the mind of the green designer.

    JILL: Were you always interested in environmentalism?

    CARLOS: With my own stuff I’ve been involved in environmental concerns for a while now. I was really involved with solar power for a while, and that sort of led me into green building. But I can’t say I was always green. I mean at the time, even when I was interested in building green, a lot of materials just weren’t available, and when they were they were just so expensive it wasn’t feasible.

    BART: Philosophically, environmentalism is definitely the most important thing in this for me. When I started learning about furniture design and all the materials that go into it, I just started getting really turned off by the industry standard, what was available, and particularly what was available in New York.

    Carlos actually brought some “green” sample materials by the shop one day, and we immediately started researching the field. I sort of plugged him into the furniture that I was making, and we just started making a push to replace the environmentally damaging materials that were being used.

    If you don't already read Inhabitat, this is a good place to start. And remember the names Jill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich (Inhabitat's two main writers) -- they'll be popping up here again soon...

    September 29, 2005

    More Solar

    sprayonsolar.jpgOne of the ideas underlying the Bright Green Future is the greater use of radically distributed energy generation. Although this has the most visible manifestation in the development of (for example) micro-wind turbines and gas-optional hybrids as mobile power sources, one of the more intriguing applications will be the greater integration of energy generation materials into the construction of objects and buildings. Although there will undoubtedly be a variety of intrinsic power generation technologies (such as the suspended-load power backpack), the most commonplace form will be integrated photovoltaics.

    Widespread adoption of integrated solar power is still a few years off, but this last week saw a two developments bringing that day much closer.

    Continue reading "More Solar" »

    September 30, 2005

    Hydrokinetic Energy in Scotland

    scotwavepower.jpgAlthough hydrokinetic power -- energy generated from the tides, currents and waves -- has a great deal of potential as a primary source of power generation around much of the world, it doesn't have the visibility of technologies such as solar and wind power. This is due, in large part, to the relative scarcity of real-world implementations of marine energy. Many of the existing examples are test-beds, small-scale efforts to demonstrate that the concept is viable. But the demonstration efforts have been well-received, and Portugal will be opening the first commercial wave farm next year, and South Korea will be opening a tidal power project in 2009.

    But Scotland is also near the forefront of adoption of this potentially transformative technology. Last year, the first wave farm connected to the grid opened off Orkney, a demonstration system generating about 750kw. Ultimately, Scotland could get 10% of its energy production from ocean power -- and intends to do so, according to Renewable Energy Access.

    Continue reading "Hydrokinetic Energy in Scotland" »

    October 10, 2005

    More Energy or Smarter Use?

    The UK Design Council's RED group has been working on a variety of projects linking design and energy/climate issues, and the corresponding RED blog is paying attention to new developments in the field. Today, RED linked to an article in the UK's Guardian containing a particularly pithy observation: a call for more power generation -- whether desired by politicians or energy industry executives -- is the answer to the wrong problem.

    One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.

    "Somehow or other, we've got to find a commercial answer that makes us money and makes our customers' lives better by them consuming less energy," says [Simon] Skillings [director of strategy at the UK's second largest electricity generator].

    This is precisely why we keep pounding on the idea of efficiency. It is possible in nearly every system we touch that uses energy to reduce the system's level of power use while improving the system's utility. Sometimes this means improving the efficiency of a common type of technology -- improving wall insulation, for example. Sometimes, however, it means improving "service efficiency" by looking not at the technology, but at what we're trying to do with that technology.

    Continue reading "More Energy or Smarter Use?" »

    The $600 Solution

    Generally speaking, with solar power you can get a useful amount of power or an inexpensive system, but rarely both. Full-blown home photovoltaic systems typically run in the tens of thousands of dollars, while the much more affordable portable solar panels, backpacks and such are, for the most part, capable of charging your mobile phone or iPod but not much else. Where, you may well be asking, is the balance? Why can't we get a solar setup that puts out enough power to be useful, but won't require a second mortgage to acquire?

    According to the Off-Grid weblog, you can.

    Six hundred dollars -- not pocket change, but not hugely expensive for most folks in the West -- is enough to put together a solar photovoltaic system able to run a variety of useful appliances and electric/electronic devices for a usable amount of time on a week's worth of sunlight. The system encompasses a 32 watt photovoltaic panel, a couple of sealed gel batteries, and a few components to make sure that the pv and the batteries get along with whatever you're plugging in:

    Continue reading "The $600 Solution" »

    October 11, 2005

    "Power Glass" and the Plastic Solar Future

    solarglass.jpgWe've written frequently about building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), the concept of putting solar power generation capabilities into building materials, rather than as bolt-on additions. While we imagine the potential of "spray-on" photovoltaics to turn every sun-facing surface into a power source, the most common manifestation of BIPV has been "solar shingles" for home rooftops. Now comes word (via Inhabitat and Treehugger) of another BIPV concept, "Power Glass." Manufactured by San Diego-area company XsunX, Power Glass puts a transparent, thin-film polymer photovoltaic layer onto window glass.

    According to XsunX, the thin-film polymer pv is suitable for "window, display, roof, canopy, and exterior façade applications." At least, they think so -- they haven't yet started shipping or licensing products, although they expect to do so soon. And they do appear to be getting close; earlier this month, they announced a process for creating "large area" sheets of thin-film pv, a necessary step for coating glass cost-effectively.

    Continue reading ""Power Glass" and the Plastic Solar Future" »

    October 12, 2005

    The Near Future at the Motor Show

    tmsconceptcars.jpgAlthough hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles remain some years away from commercial availability (and, even if the market eventually moves towards entirely battery-based vehicles, we're still likely to see some fuel cell cars on showroom floors), it's interesting to watch the evolution of the experimental fuel cell vehicles that roll out at auto shows. In recent years, there has been a mix of very practical but arguably boring designs and stuff that is clearly meant to be more provocative than plausible. At the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show, however, we'll be seeing some designs that bridge the two categories: useful enough to potentially foreshadow what will eventually come out, while still unusual enough to both turn heads and challenge how we think about personal transportation. As usual, Green Car Congress has the goods, and has linked to the Tokyo Motor Show plans for DaimlerChrysler, Toyota and (in the purely motorcycle realm) Yamaha.

    Continue reading "The Near Future at the Motor Show" »

    October 14, 2005

    Cradle to Cradle Certified

    zodychair.jpgOne of the better ideas in the sustainability industry has to be LEED certification for commercial buildings, the checklist of environmental, health, and energy/efficiency features managed by the US Green Building Association. But even as LEED branches out overseas and to the world of home building, architectural design is only a part of what we need to think about when looking at sustainability. Fortunately, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), William McDonough's design firm, has come up with a "Cradle to Cradle Certification" model for industrial design; today, they announced the first six recipients of that label.

    The newly-certified products include the Haworth Zody Chair (sole C2C Gold product), the Steelcase Think chair (C2C Silver), and the Hycrete concrete additive, which received certification as a "Biological Nutrient" product, a category for less complex materials. No C2C Platinum items were certified.

    For those of you still a bit hazy on the concept, Cradle to Cradle Design is a biomimetic approach to the design of systems. From the MBDC site:

    Continue reading "Cradle to Cradle Certified" »

    October 19, 2005

    Error-Correcting Nanomaterials

    dnareplication.jpgGiven all the talk about mutations (particularly regarding a certain flu virus...), it's not altogether irrational to think that DNA replication is error-prone. It's not. One in 100,000 base pairs are mismatched during replication, but proofreading and error-correcting mechanisms in the DNA replication process reduce that error rate to one in one billion base pairs. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have figured out how to add DNA-based proofreading and error-correction to the production of nanoscale materials.

    “Instead of trying to avoid defects or work around them, it makes more sense to accept defects as part of the process and then correct them during and after the assembly process,” said Yi Lu, a chemistry professor at Illinois and a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “This procedure is analogous to how nature deals with defects, and can be applied to the assembly of nanomaterials using biomolecules or biomimetic compounds.”
    In protein synthesis, nature ensures accuracy by utilizing a proofreading unit that detects and corrects errors in translation, often through hydrolysis of incorrect amino acid building blocks. In a similar fashion, Lu and graduate students Juewen Liu and Daryl Wernette utilized catalytic DNA to locate and remove errors in a DNA-templated gold nanoparticle assembly process.

    This kind of biomimicry is a bit less attention-getting than biomimetic architecture or industrial design, but may in the long run be among the most important developments in the field.

    October 21, 2005

    Nanotech Solar Breakthrough

    nanocrystal-D.jpgBroadly speaking, there are two types of photovoltaic materials: traditional inorganic solar cells, which are stiff (sometimes to the point of being brittle) and often expensive to make, but have decent efficiency of around 25-35% (with the potential for up to 50-60% with current research); and organic polymer solar cells, which are flexible (sometimes to the point of being able to be sprayed or painted on a surface) and relatively inexpensive to produce, but tend to have relatively short lifespans (generally no more than a couple of years, and sometimes far worse) and very low efficiency of around 3-5%. Ilan Gur, working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, may well have found a best-of-both-worlds solution: nanocrystal solar cells.

    In the current Science magazine, Gur (a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate) and his research group report on the development of ultra-thin inorganic photovoltaic semiconductors using nano-scale crystals. The material can be cast from solution, like organic photovoltaics, meaning the nanocrystal solar cells are far less costly to make than traditional silicon cells. Unlike the organic pv materials, however, the nanocrystal solar cells respond to a wide range of light frequencies, and can last for years. In fact, aging seems to increase the performance of the nanocrystal cells, rather than degrade it:

    Continue reading "Nanotech Solar Breakthrough" »

    October 31, 2005


    sunball.jpgThe Sunball, a "solar appliance" due out in mid-2006, is an example of something I expect to see quite a bit more of in the coming months and years: a renewable energy system combining a novel design with promises of easy installation and use. I have no idea whether the Sunball will perform up to the claims made by the manufacturers, Australia's Green & Gold Energy, but in many respects that's secondary. What's important is that we're now seeing more kinds of renewable energy systems aimed not at hobbyists and those willing to fiddle with clumsy tech, but at people who want something relatively stylish (whether the Sunball meets that criteria is a matter of taste, of course) and something relatively "plug and play." Building-integrated photovoltaics are another example, albeit a less-radical departure.

    Continue reading "Sunball" »

    November 2, 2005

    Zero Footprint

    zerofootprint.jpgIt's interesting to watch the progress of the "environmental footprint" concept. We've been talking about the idea from early on, and we're hardly alone. The argument that the goal of modern environmentalism should be to reduce one's overall footprint nicely encompasses many of the core elements of new school greens, in particular a focus on systemic thinking and an emphasis on efficiency. The latest appearance of the footprint concept is at 0footprint (zero footprint), a new website combining magazine, information resource, and movement.

    Based in Toronto, 0footprint describes itself as "an organization that is creating a marketplace built around a common ground for people worldwide to engage in sustainable commerce," but the market elements are a small part of what they offer. zfp Magazine offers interviews, advice and feature stories; the Zeropages section is a fairly well-developed directory of sustainability, environmental awareness, and green business sites. The least-developed section -- but the one with the greatest potential -- is the Small Ideas project, an attempt to solicit and exhibit concrete, achievable ideas to encourage environmental sustainability:

    Continue reading "Zero Footprint" »

    November 3, 2005

    Solar Update

    diysolarelec.jpgLots of work happening at WorldChanging central on the book, but that doesn't mean we're not still paying attention to new developments. Here's an update on some recent news in the world of solar power.

    DIY Solar Electricity is a UK project to bring low-cost photovoltaic systems to poorer countries and regions. The small panels are intended to replace batteries, but more importantly to provide hands-on experience with photovoltaic systems for people who could adopt solar power technologies for agricultural or telecommunication systems (see below for more on solar telecom support), and to start local businesses.

    The organization has projects underway across the developing world, including Peru, Mongolia, Tanzania and Somalia. The group's work in Kenya was featured in a BBC article from last year:

    Continue reading "Solar Update" »

    November 7, 2005

    FreeCharge Weza

    freeplay-freecharge-weza-portable-energy-source.jpgFreeplay Energy rocks. They're the company that makes hand-crank radios and lights, including the Lifeline hand-charged/solar radio for humanitarian workers. We've mentioned their products a few times, but their new device, the FreeCharge Weza, really stands out.

    The FreeCharge is a portable power supply putting out 12V DC through a standard "cigarette lighter" style plug. It puts out enough power to jump-start a car or boat, but can also recharge most portable devices. But what's so cool about it is the way that you charge it:

    You step on it.

    More precisely, you use the "step treadle," meaning that you step up and down on it for a short while to bring the battery back up to full. If that doesn't sound fun, the Weza is designed to be charged with solar panels and small wind turbines (Freeplay recommends a 30 watt rating). You can even recharge it from a wall outlet, but that's cheating.

    Downsides: no direct AC output, so you'll need an inverter of some kind to use typical electric/electronic devices with it; it's not cheap -- few of Freeplay's distributors carry the Weza, and the one that does (C. Crane) lists it for just under US$300; it's also not going to be in stock until March of 2006.

    Even with these limits, Freeplay's first non-dedicated charger looks awfully attractive for well-off-the-grid use, and would be a good companion to a small photovoltaic system.

    (Via BookofJoe)

    November 14, 2005

    Catching Up with the Wind

    windturbinestva.jpgEverybody's talking about wind power right now, and it's easy to see why -- a combination of new developments, high energy prices and (in the northern hemisphere) the return of brisk fall breezes put us all in the wind turbine frame of mind.

    While we've all been busy getting WorldChanging: The Book completed (can WorldChanging: The Motion Picture be far behind?), a number of wind-related stories have piled up on my desktop. Rather than let them go to waste, I thought I'd give you an old-fashioned bullet point rundown of the developments.

  • Piezoelectric Wind Power
  • Do home turbines make economic sense?
  • Floating Wind Power
  • Vertical Turbine Design
  • Guandong's Wind Energy Potential
  • UK Wind Energy Potential

  • Continue reading "Catching Up with the Wind" »

    November 15, 2005

    One More on Wind

    This is a short entry, but it's notable enough to warrant a main column position.

    With the recent increase in natural gas prices, services using gas as a fuel have correspondingly become more costly. This is most visibly reflected in the cost of home-heating (customers in California have been warned that winter heating costs could double), but it affects electricity as well, used in many regions as fuel for power generation. Combine this with improvements in wind power technologies in recent years, and we get this somewhat startling (but very good to see) entry at the Green Power Markets page at the US Department of Energy:

    November 2005 - Utility customers participating in green pricing programs that offer some form of protection from fossil-fuel price changes are finding that their green power premiums are shrinking or even turning negative. For example, as of November 1, Colorado customers participating in Xcel Energy's Windsource program are paying 0.66¢/kWh less for wind energy than for "regular" electricity because of an increase in the utility's energy cost adjustment (ECA). Since the ECA announcement, Xcel has sold out of its remaining available wind energy supply and has established a waiting list for new program signups.
    In Oklahoma, OG&E Electric Services customers purchasing the OG&E Wind Power product now pay 0.13¢/kWh less for wind energy than for traditional electricity and customers of Edmond Electric's pure&simple wind power program now pay 0.33¢/kWh less.

    In a growing number of regions across the US, wind power is now officially cheaper than the baseline electricity rate. The state-by-state ranking of green power programs still shows the October data; it's the page to keep an eye on to see how the "negative premium" scenario spreads.

    (Thank you for the tip, Joseph Willemssen, who notes that Xcel Energy spokesmodels still reflexively claim that wind is more expensive.)

    November 17, 2005

    Green My House -- BedZED Style

    insidezedfactory.jpgIn my August post about the LEED Home proposal, I noted that what the US Green Building Council really ought to work on next was a LEED for "Neighborhood Development." Little did I know that a comparable plan already existed: the ZEDstandards checklist, from ZEDFactory, the architects behind the low-footprint housing development BedZED.

    Like LEED, the ZEDstandards presents a checklist of various sustainability criteria. These criteria are based on the group's experience with the BedZED project, and hit many of the important points about Bright Green cities we've identified here over the past two years, including product-service systems, sustainable transit, and high density development; the only real missing element is a recognition of the value of "smart" environments. The most recent version of the ZEDstandards checklist can be found here (PDF). Details on the process can be found in the 2004 introductory document "Operation Step Change" (PDF), and the "Roadmap to 2050" document (PDF). The rules have less to do with how the homes are built (although that's there, too) than with how the communities are built.

    Continue reading "Green My House -- BedZED Style" »

    November 21, 2005

    Waterless Washing Machine Design

    airwash.jpgTwo students from the National University of Singapore's school of industrial design have won the Electrolux Design Lab 2005 competition with a prototype unit that uses compressed air, negative ions and deodorizing agents to wash clothes.

    The award winning design of third year students Gabriel Tan and Wendy Chua, beat entries from 3,000 other students from over 88 countries. Called Airwash, the waterfall-inspired washing unit is waterless and does not use detergents. [...] By using atmospheric air and negative ions – a natural cleansing agent – it fights dirt and bacteria with nature's own weapon.

    Although in principle the Airwash could be used to clean any kind of clothing, the likely application is as a home dry cleaning unit or (in an industrial format) a chemical-free dry cleaning system.

    The Airwash remains a prototype/"concept washer" design, but it's nicely illustrative of an emerging focus on solutions to everyday problems that use fewer resources. The articles about the Airwash make no mention of its power requirements, but it could in principle both replace the washer and eliminate the need for a dryer. Depending upon load size, it may well have lower overall power needs than the obsolete combination. It also reduces the resource dependency from two or three (electricity, water and possibly gas) to just one (electricity).

    Product designs such as this exemplify the bright green scenario of devices that can do more with fewer resources -- what we sometimes call "economies of scope."

    (Thank you, Chris Albon)

    November 22, 2005

    Clean Power, Drinkable Water

    pkstill.jpgAustralian company Energetech is one of the growing number of companies building systems to turn the motion of the ocean into usable energy -- something we've taken to calling "hydrokinetic power." Waves, tides even undersea currents can, in principle, be tapped to generate electricity; the technology is in transition from real-world experiments to early adoption, and the preliminary signs are that the systems can indeed produce usable amounts of power at competitive prices.

    Energetech has taken their system a step beyond power generation, however. Working with a company called H2AU, Energetech added a small desalination system to a test deployment of a wave energy system at Port Kembla in Australia. Happily, the combination works splendidly:

    Most desalination installations use electricity to create the pressure needed to drive a reverse osmosis system but the two Sydney-based, privately owned companies' combined technologies use wave pressure directly to power a reverse osmosis desalination plant. This unusual project avoids the multiple energy losses in converting wave energy to electricity before using the electricity to drive pressure pumps. [...]

    Continue reading "Clean Power, Drinkable Water" »

    November 26, 2005

    The Biofuel Dilemma

    Biofuels such as biodiesel may prove to be a useful transition technology for the move away from fossil fuels and into the Bright Green world. While they currently cost more than fossil fuels, a new process from the Tokyo Institute of Technology may bring down production costs dramatically. But attractive as they are, biofuels pose some sticky problems. Fortunately, a solution may be at hand.

    There's much to like about biofuels. They can replace fossil fuel uses without requiring significant modification of machinery. Since they are generally derived from vegetation, they're close to carbon-neutral (as the next crop of plants will take up the carbon dioxide released from burning the previous biofuel crops). Biofuels like biodiesel produce significantly fewer particulates and carbon monoxide than regular diesel, and produce few of the sulfur emissions leading to acid rain. And while some regions hope to become biofuel powerhouses, the ability to make biofuels is not limited by geography, so cartels and "peak production" won't become problems.

    But biofuels have some notable drawbacks, too. Making biofuels from plants already in demand for food, such as soy, corn and canola/rapeseed, raises the prices of the food versions and reduces available supplies. And increased demand for biofuels is triggering the expansion of agricultural land, with devastating results in some areas. According to this week's New Scientist, the clearing of land in south-east Asia for palm oil production is the leading cause of rain forest destruction in the region; Brazil faces a similar problem with soya plants, already the primary cause of deforestation prior to the biofuel boom.

    The solution may be to stop looking at new crops for biofuels, and to start looking at waste biomass.

    Continue reading "The Biofuel Dilemma" »

    December 2, 2005

    Sustainable Neighborhood Design

    Back in August, while discussing the recent draft of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Home standards, we noted that the US Green Building Council was working on a LEED for neighborhoods, LEED-ND. This is a wonderful idea -- the application of green building concepts to communities.

    More recently the ZEDStandards checklist, put out by the designers behind the UK's breakthrough BedZED project. The ZEDStandards spell out what a sustainable community design should include, covering everything from access to local food to proximity to transportation.

    Finally, USGBC has released its first draft of LEED-ND, giving us an opportunity to compare different approaches to building environmentally sound and energy efficient neighborhoods.

    Let's see how they stack up:

    Continue reading "Sustainable Neighborhood Design" »

    December 9, 2005

    Geothermal Heat Pumps

    heatpump.jpgIt's a little odd to think about, but you're probably standing on one of the best possible resources for home heating and cooling.

    Although temperatures in the atmosphere can vary considerably over the course of a year (or even a day), the temperature underground remains fairly constant. At about six feet under, the soil measures from 45 degrees to 75 degrees fahrenheit, depending upon latitude. And this consistency, it turns out, can be a resource for keeping one's home warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

    Geothermal heat pumps move heat from one place to another via the circulation of a refrigerant fluid. They have a number of advantages over traditional heating and cooling systems, including low noise and essentially no maintenance. Most importantly, they use significantly less energy than traditional gas, electric or oil-based heating & cooling systems. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (PDF), geothermal heat pumps cost 30-40% less per month than traditional methods (and probably even less with current fuel prices). Moreover:

    Continue reading "Geothermal Heat Pumps" »

    December 12, 2005

    Regulations and Business Strategy

    generalelectricwind.jpgDo motivations matter? Last week's BusinessWeek looks at the growing trend of large companies moving to cut their carbon footprints, not out of any concern for the environment or the planet's future, but out of fear of being caught flat-footed by regulations that they see as inevitable. Financial analysts and (in particular) insurers drive this, making it clear to corporate leaders that the more they work now to cut down on greenhouse emissions, the better off they'll be when governments begin to act.

    We've covered this trend before, but it's clearly accelerating. And what's especially interesting is that some of the early-moving companies are beginning to find out that -- much as we've long contended -- working to reduce their carbon footprint doesn't hurt their bottom-line, but instead improves it.

    Because carbon is basically a proxy for fossil energy, cutting carbon equals cutting costs, argues energy guru Amory B. Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit energy and environment policy think tank: "Efficiency is cheaper than fuel."

    Continue reading "Regulations and Business Strategy" »

    December 13, 2005

    Understanding Green Consumption

    It's tempting to file this under Stating the Obvious, but research undertaken by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council on drivers for sustainable consumption is actually pretty interesting. In Towards a Social Psychology of Sustainable Consumption, Professor Tim Jackson looked at how consumers make choices regarding goods and services that could be considered "green." The conclusions are at once unsurprising yet fascinating:

    ...far from being able to exercise free choice about what to consume and what not to consume, people often find themselves locked in to unsustainable consumption patterns by factors outside their control. ‘Lock-in’ occurs in part through ‘perverse’ incentive structures – economic constraints, institutional barriers, or inequalities in access that actively encourage unsustainable behaviours.

    Continue reading "Understanding Green Consumption" »

    December 15, 2005

    We've Got SSSSSSSSSteam Heat

    steamheat.jpgWe've said it time and again: waste is a sign of inefficiency, especially when it's wasted energy. The principle behind the regeneration of hybrid vehicles is that waste energy -- from brakes, from downhill momentum, from the engine running when not moving -- should either be used or eliminated. But as good as they are at capturing this wasted energy, hybrid-electrics aren't perfect. There's still a lot of energy going to waste as heat. But BMW may be able to do something about that.

    BMW research has revealed its new "Turbosteamer" project, using the waste heat in the engine exhaust to drive a secondary steam engine, boosting vehicle performance by 14hp and reducing fuel consumption by 15%. You can find technical details in the usual locations: Autoblog has an English-language copy of the BMW press release, while Gizmag and Green Car Congress go over the specifics.

    This is still in the labs at BMW central, so there's no real word on how expensive the system is or how soon it could be in production vehicles (the press release says "within ten years"). Still, it's notable that the mechanism doesn't involve a total refit of a vehicle, so it could (in principle, at least) be added with little difficulty to existing car designs. More importantly, since traditional hybrid-electrics don't capture the exhaust heat, this could easily be a way to boost both the efficiency and the power of hybrids. I'm not certain how much exhaust heat comes from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, so the applicability there is unknown; of course, battery-only cars don't generate engine heat, so this system isn't likely to have much use in those models.

    The bigger picture here is that BMW reminds us that we haven't come anywhere close to maximizing the energy efficiency of much of material environment. The next time you see heat or friction or motion simply escaping into the air, ask yourself how we could eliminate that waste. In some cases, it will be by preventing the waste from being generated in the first place; in others, as with the Turbosteamer design, it will be by turning that waste into a resource.

    December 19, 2005

    Microgeneration Potential

    microgenreport.jpgHow plausible is a scenario of abundant use of distributed microgeneration for electricity and heating? Microgeneration -- the use of small-scale power generation sources like photovoltaics and wind micro-turbines -- has tremendous potential as a way of improving energy network reliability and increasing the use of clean, renewable power. Much of the discussion of the components necessary for both energy generation and a distributed network focuses on the plausibility and utility of the technology itself. But once we accept that these technologies are at least potentially viable, how then can we model market acceptance, uptake, and impact?

    The UK's Department of Trade and Industry authorized the Energy Savings Trust, a non-profit company set up by the UK government in the wake of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to promote energy efficiency and to combat climate change, to perform an in-depth examination of the potential of microgeneration, and to determine what would be required to make various technologies successful in terms of both consumer demand and climate/energy efficiency.

    The study's final report has now been published (PDF). Even if you don't live in the UK, if you have any interest in microgeneration or the role of distributed power in fighting climate disruption, you need to download and read through this paper. It's relatively lengthy -- running a bit over 200 pages -- but is presented as a slide deck, and is easily skimmed. Its findings are fascinating (at least to me).

    Continue reading "Microgeneration Potential" »

    December 22, 2005

    Going Solar in the Snow

    roof_snow.jpgWhen we talk about home solar, we regularly hear assertions that it's fine for people living in regions that are (mostly) sunny year-round, but not a good investment for people living in places that get a lot of snow in the winter and rain in the summer. Solar homes are fine in the desert southwest US, but certainly not in the northern midwest or northeast United States.

    Don't try to tell that to the Compaan family of Ohio, the Watson family of Massachusetts, or the Lord family of Maine. They all use solar power as their primary energy sources in their homes, and are quite happy with it. The Campaans have even converted a pickup truck to electric-only mode, so they drive solar, as well. And as verification that solar in the north works well, all three websites include photos of their homes covered in snow, photovoltaic panels clearly visible.

    All three are grid-connected, and enjoy "net metering," where surplus energy is sold to the power company. In the winter, they do pull from the grid more often than they supply, but the annual balance works in their favor. (The Watsons are considering adding a wind turbine for winter power, but haven't yet seen a need.) This is an important point about the Bright Green world of distributed energy: it's not about going "off-grid," it's about being on the supply side of the grid.

    Continue reading "Going Solar in the Snow" »

    December 24, 2005

    Renewable Jersey

    acuawindsolar.jpgOkay, folks, what's the number one message we preach about renewable power? Success comes from a mix of sources, not trying to rely on just solar or just wind. And I'm happy to say, we're finally starting to see that lesson demonstrated out in the world.

    The Atlantic County Utilities Authority in New Jersey has opened up a new power center for its wastewater treatment facility near Atlantic City. Wastewater treatment is an important job, but very energy-intensive. When ACUA decided to add on-site power to the plant, they had to pick something that could handle the job -- so they went with combined wind and solar. The system, when completed, will include a 504 kW solar power grid and five 1.5 MW wind turbines.

    The ACUA took a broad look at the entire campus of the large wastewater treatment facility and determined there were strong reasons to deploy both solar and wind. For wind, this area of New Jersey's coast has been identified as one offering some of the best wind resources in the U.S. The total 7.5 MW output of the wind turbines offer the bulk of the hybrid project's on-site power but solar proved a good fit as well since the facility is endowed with considerable open spaces suitable for solar. New Jersey's best-in-the-nation solar rebates, which pay for roughly half the cost of commercial solar installations, offered another push for solar. Lastly, the water treatment uses a vast amount of energy and they could use all the power they could get. And the combination of two renewable energy resources provides for a more consistent power delivery to the treatment plant since both the solar and wind resources fluctuate.

    The system doesn't cover the entire power requirement of the facility, but when completed, it could account for up to half of it (assuming peak production from wind and solar simultaneously). ACUA estimates that the system will provide 20 million kilowatt-hours annually to the facility and to nearby residences. The main drawback of the system is that, like most home solar and wind units, it simply feeds into the grid, and doesn't have on-site energy storage or the ability to supply power in a grid failure. The ACUA intends for future renewable power projects, already in the works, to include these features.

    January 5, 2006

    Sustainable Mosque for the London Olympics

    megamosque.jpgIslamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat and UK design firm Mangera Yvars Architects have proposed a massive new mosque for the London skyline to be built in time for the 2012 Olympics. The mosque is intended to hold 40,000 worshippers, with space for another 30,000 in the ancillary buildings; this is just 10,000 people shy of the total held by the planned Olympic stadium. But the mosque isn't just meant to be massive, it's designed to be as sustainable as possible.

    The wind turbines built into the minarets get the most attention, but the facilities include a closed system for recycling the water used for ritual washing, a tidal power plant to take advantage of the mosque's riverside location, and combined heat and power (CHP) units and solar panels to generate any needed additional energy. The plans have yet to receive final approval, but the depiction at the architect's site (warning: horrible awful Flash interface) is worth the effort to check out.

    The 180,000 m2 structure would look very little like a traditional mosque:

    The project has adopted the idea of ‘Dawat’ by physically and metaphorically reaching out to provide large urban connections which invite people into the building from West Ham station, The Greenway and beyond. ‘Dawat space’ is an interstitial public space between the sanctum of the Mosque and the World outside. It is a place for Muslims and Non Muslims to interact, debate and promote a greater understanding between ideology, faith and humanity.

    The project is controversial, however, and not just because of its £100 million price tag. The backing organization, Tablighi Jamaat, has been accused by the US government of links to more radical groups, something the organization denies. (It's worth noting that the UK has not sought to outlaw Tablighi, as it has done with other groups thought to have radical connections.) The Wikipedia entry on Tablighi provides a neutral discussion of the organization and its status, with links to both supportive and critical sites.

    January 9, 2006

    Ocean Energy Update

    oceantidalmap.jpgSolar and wind are the twin giants of the renewable energy world. Everybody knows about them, and power generation projects involving photovoltaic or turbine technologies are, relatively speaking, commonplace. But there are other forms of renewable power out there; one we've followed for awhile now is ocean/tidal generation, something we usually call "hydrokinetic power." It's fascinating to watch this technology move from idea to implementation, and today we can see the surest sign that hydrokinetic power is beginning to hit the mainstream: regulation.

    In the Ocean Energy Report for 2005 and Renewable Energy Access, Carolyn Elefant and Sean O'Neill of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition lay out the current state of the ocean power industry. What's notable is that the report says little about innovative new ideas -- instead, it's all about how the companies actually testing new technologies are dealing with government oversight. It's a pleasingly mundane report, filled with detailed looks at the complexities of compliance with federal energy regulations while trying to test out new technologies.

    For a better sense of what those new technologies are doing, we can hit the Ocean Energy Web Page at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). A year ago, EPRI released its final report on the potential for ocean and tidal power in the United States, spelling out the potential benefits of deployment of this technology. With its Ocean Energy project, EPRI is now following the evolution of this new power industry. The white paper on ocean energy (PDF) submitted last month to the Western Governors Assocation Clean and Diversified Energy Advisory Committee spells out the technology's benefits:

    Continue reading "Ocean Energy Update" »

    January 13, 2006


    gridwise.jpgThe US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in cooperation with Whirlpool and IBM, has embarked on a year-long experiment in smart power distribution called GridWise -- and it could prove to be the sign that a revolution is at hand.

    Smart grids and distributed energy are central to the bright green energy model. By decentralizing power generation and adding digital intelligence to the power network, we can build an energy infrastructure that's more flexible, better able to take advantage of renewable energy technologies, and more resilient in times of crisis. Groups as diverse as the Pacific Gas & Electric utility and Greenpeace UK support the concept, and an increasingly robust set of technologies make it possible to monitor and control how one uses -- and produces -- electricity.

    The GridWise project connects 300 homes in the cities of Yakima, Washington and Gresham, Oregon to a new intelligent power network combining real-time monitoring of consumption and pricing, Internet-based usage controls, and appliances able to respond to power grid signals indicating problems by temporarily reducing energy use; this smart grid will be coupled with a distributed generation microturbine network. If all goes as planned, the result will be decreased demand on the utility and lower cost for the consumers. This will increase both the stability and the efficiency of the power grid.

    Continue reading "GridWise" »

    January 16, 2006

    Turning Emissions Into Fuel With Algae

    206_algae_blue_green.jpgWhat we have now: power generation largely using coal and transportation almost exclusively using petroleum, both putting out gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Where we want to be: power generation and transportation almost exclusively using renewable energy methods, putting out very little CO2 into the atmosphere. The problem: we need to reduce CO2 faster than we can realistically shift from fossil fuels to renewable power. The (possible) solution: algae.

    Isaac Berzin has developed a method of capturing CO2 from smokestack emissions using algae, and turning the result into biofuels including biodiesel, ethanol, and even a bio-coal substitute. His process, based on technology he developed for NASA in the late 1990s, captures more than 40% of emitted CO2 (on sunny days, up to 80%) along with over 80% of NOx emissions; in turn, it produces biodiesel at rates-per-acre that could make a full conversion to biofuel for transportation readily achievable. Berzin's company, Greenfuel, has multiple test installations underway, and expects to have a full-scale plant up and running by 2008 or 2009.

    Continue reading "Turning Emissions Into Fuel With Algae" »

    January 18, 2006

    Diesel-Electric Hypercar

    aptera.jpgAccelerated Composites, a startup in Carlsbad, California, is now assembling a new diesel-electric hybrid of its own design, made of high-end composite materials and using supercapacitors instead of batteries. Like the Honda Insight, it will seat two. Accelerated Composites expects the vehicle, called the Aptera, to cost around $20,000.

    Estimate mileage: 330 miles per gallon at 65 miles per hour.

    That's not a typo. The combination of super-streamlined shape, ultra low-weight materials, and high-output supercapacitors gives the design incredible efficiency. And because the composite production process developed by Accelerated Composites is faster and more efficient than previous methods, the overall cost of the vehicle can be startlingly low.

    Continue reading "Diesel-Electric Hypercar" »

    January 24, 2006

    Energy System, Not Energy Supply

    The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is the UK's premier institution for the study and analysis of both the changing global climate and the steps needed to mitigate the problem. They do an excellent job of clarifying the key issues the UK and the world at large need to confront, and they make a point of questioning the conventional wisdom of how to respond. Dr. Kevin Anderson, a Tyndall analyst, has an editorial at BBC News arguing that the debate over energy sources, particularly over the need for more nuclear power plants, is misdirected. The real issue, he says, isn't energy supply, it's the energy system -- how the power we generate is used.

    The notion that we need to look at energy consumption instead of energy source is not a new one. Its most visible advocate has long been Amory Lovins, who once noted that most of us don't buy oil or coal, we buy what we can do with the oil and coal. Similarly, Anderson argues that debates over how much nuclear is needed or the right balance of "clean" coal and wind is far too narrow. He then lays out the conclusions of recent Tyndall research on "decarbonizing" the UK, demonstrating the kinds of improvements possible with a focus on efficiency.

    Continue reading "Energy System, Not Energy Supply" »

    Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity

    sustainableag.jpgIf you were designing a worldchanging agricultural system for the developing world, one less likely to generate the kinds of social, economic and environmental costs we see in the current dominant system, what would you want to include? How about: improved water use efficiency; reduced pesticide use; agroforestry, both to maintain nearby forest resources and to improve carbon sequestration; conservation tillage; even aquaculture, to incorporate fish, shrimp and the like as part of a larger integrated farm system. All wonderful ideas, but of course the reason that industrial agriculture remains dominant is that it's so much more productive, right?


    According to a new study in the Feb. 15 edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society, sustainable agriculture techniques like those mentioned above, introduced to developing world farms over the last decade, improved farm yields by an average of 79% in four years. And not just in a limited set of locations: the study covered 286 different projects in 57 developing countries. That's over 12 million farms, or 37 million hectares -- about 3% of the cultivated area in poor nations.

    In "Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries," Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in England, along with colleagues in Thailand, China, Sri Lanka and Mexico, concentrated on seven key sustainable agriculture methods:

    Continue reading "Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity" »

    January 26, 2006

    Chinese Car, Italian Design, Global Market

    mycar.jpgInnovech may sound more like a manufacturer of computer parts than automobiles, but its new MyCar design may presage a radical shift in both the European microcar market and how we think about global economic cooperation. The MyCar is a direct competitor to the Smart -- a microcar that trades power, room and speed for extraordinary mileage, low cost and ease-of-use. Built and distributed by Hong Kong-based Innovech, the MyCar was designed by highly-regarded Italian automotive design firm Italdesign-Giugiaro. The initial test market will be Italy, but the longer-term plan is for the MyCar to be available across Europe, and perhaps eventually globally.

    In many respects, the MyCar is just another microcar, albeit a particularly low-priced one. What makes it interesting, though, is the combination of Chinese manufacturing and distribution with Italian design. The European microcar market has largely been dominated by local designs (like Smart) and global brands. MyCar appears to be an attempt to build a local design via global manufacturing and ownership. But China isn't simply the source of cheap labor here; in essence, instead of an Italian company outsourcing its manufacturing to China, it's a Chinese company outsourcing its design to Italy.

    Continue reading "Chinese Car, Italian Design, Global Market" »

    January 30, 2006

    The Green Growth Engine

    greencalifornia.jpgThe argument we hear time and again against efforts to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions is simple: doing so is costly, will slow the economy, and will throw people out of work. Supporters of such efforts counter that the process would actually be beneficial to the economy, because of investments in new technologies and reductions of waste. Now a major study from the University of California, Berkeley, has come out in strong support of this latter argument, detailing precisely how the relatively aggressive California plan to cut greenhouse gases will boost the state's economy in surprisingly short order.

    The California Climate Change Center at UC Berkeley is a cross-disciplinary institute including researchers in areas as diverse as public policy, resource economics, city and regional planning, environmental engineering, and the environmental energy technologies division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In short, this is a group of researchers and analysts well-versed in both the policy and scientific issues around climate change. Their most recent report, Managing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in California, lays out the technological, economic and policy options involved in meeting the goals of returning California to 2000-level emissions by 2010, 1990-level emissions by 2020, and 80% below 1990 by 2050. The researchers determined that pursuing a subset of these policies could achieve at least half of the California plan's goals while increasing the gross state product by $5 billion and creating 8,300 new jobs by 2010, and upwards of $60 billion and 20,000 new jobs by 2020:

    Continue reading "The Green Growth Engine" »

    January 31, 2006

    Design Students: What Does the Car of 2030 Look Like?

    interiormotives.jpgAutomotive design magazine Interior Motives has announced its 2006 student design competition, and it's one that may be of particular interest for WorldChangers. The theme is "2030," and the goal is to present a scenario-based vehicle design able to meet the environmental, regional and social demands of the world of nearly 25 years from now.

    How will...
    ...future designers manage the myriad of technologies and innovations in areas such as drivetrain, construction, driving controls, electronics and communications in parallel with the rise of hybrid vehicles and fuel cell vehicles?
    ...designers create increasingly adaptable, personalised and connected interior environments in which occupants can sit and control vehicles in ever-increasing comfort and safety?
    ...this happen alongside the drive to diminish the car's negative social and environmental impact by improving its urban integration, and minimising its energy waste and pollution?

    Continue reading "Design Students: What Does the Car of 2030 Look Like?" »

    February 8, 2006

    On the Brink of the Fuel Cell Future?

    Honda_FCX_01.jpgThe hydrogen fuel cell vehicle concept, once the darling of the cybergreen/hypercar crowd, has diminished in luster over the past few years. Perhaps it was due to the sluggish pace of development. Perhaps it was due to the all-too-eager embrace of the technology by political and corporate figures well known to favor continued dominance of the petroleum economy. Perhaps it had just started to feel dated, like talking about freezing your head after you die -- a vaguely-embarrassing symbol of a particular era of futurism. That proponents of hydrogen cars kept talking about them being "just a decade away" even as the years progressed didn't help matters.

    Honda may change all that.

    Last month, Honda announced that it would begin production in Japan of its fuel cell FCX vehicle within the next three to four years. The FCX line has been Honda's fuel cell vehicle prototype for a few years now, and beyond a handful of experimental locations, the car seemed ill-suited to regular use. Tiny, somewhat underpowered, and saddled with a range about half of a typical gasoline-fueled car -- not that you could go long distances away from the one or two hydrogen fueling stations in the state anyway -- the FCX simply wasn't an attractive option. The new FCX design, however, changes all of that, and manages to induce something that previous hydrogen fuel cell vehicles couldn't: auto lust.

    Continue reading "On the Brink of the Fuel Cell Future?" »

    February 9, 2006

    The Wave Hub

    wavehub.jpgThe South West England Regional Development Agency has kicked off a smart new program: the Wave Hub Project. Wave Hub will be an offshore facility for the testing and operation of wave energy generation devices, giving manufacturers a "plug-and-play" system to demonstrate how well their hydrokinetic energy generators work. This combines a couple of trends we've been watching for awhile: the growth of wave/tidal/ocean power as a viable renewable energy technology; and the emergence of green technologies as a path for regional differentiation and growth.

    The Agency is explicit in its desire to make the region a leader in the development and deployment of renewable energy; they estimate that ocean power could be a £27 million a year industry for the region. Given that the UK's west coast has the potential to provide a significant portion of the nation's energy through ocean/wave power, it's a smart move for the South West RDA to emphasize this technology. The industry's clearly interested in the region's potential, too: three ocean power companies have signed on to do large-scale testing of their technologies, as well as to show how well they work to potential buyers, and another 13 companies have expressed interest in doing so.

    The Wave Hub aims to create the world's first wave energy farm off the coast of Cornwall by building an electrical 'socket' on the seabed around 10 miles out to sea and connected to the National Grid via an underwater cable. [...]
    The three companies shortlisted for Wave Hub are:

    Continue reading "The Wave Hub" »

    February 16, 2006

    Wattson, Come Here, I Need You

    wattson-high-power.jpgUK environmental and sustainability consultancy DIY Kyoto will soon release a very cool new product they call Wattson. A combination of energy meter and portable display, Wattson can provide real-time information about household energy consumption, displayed as both a text display of current power demand or accumulated "burn rate" of power in pounds sterling per year, and a "non-verbal" colored LED display indicating overall energy health of the house.

    DIY Kyoto -- which bills itself as providing products and services that "challenge & enable people to meet the Kyoto Protocol at a personal level" -- is explicit that the goal of Wattson is to make the invisible visible.

    [Wattson] is based on the understanding that producing energy efficient products is of no use without an understanding of why they are needed. Without knowing what actually happens when we use the appliances in our homes we have no reason to make changes to our behaviour or purchases. [...]

    Continue reading "Wattson, Come Here, I Need You" »

    March 1, 2006

    Fly Green

    sunplane_legault.jpgGreen cars are easy, at least in comparison to making air travel climate-friendly. In order to fly at the speeds, altitudes and distance to which global travelers have become accustomed, nothing now available works better than jet engines. And, for now, the best fuel for jet engines is kerosene, which comes from petroleum. But kerosene puts out a lot of carbon; a 5,000 mile flight -- roughly a round trip from LA to New York -- puts out a ton and a half of CO2 for every person on the plane. Serious environmentalists are starting to talk about a total ban on air travel as a possible result of carbon overload.

    A development by the University of North Dakota may change that. Researchers at UND's Energy and Environmental Research Center have come up with a biofuel that has the characteristics needed for aircraft use -- and in some respects, it's actually better than kerosene:

    Continue reading "Fly Green" »

    March 23, 2006

    California Clean-Tech Open

    calctopen.jpgThe idea of using a big cash prize as a catalyst for invention has become pretty popular, from the X-Prize for private space flight to the recent competition to get Windows up and running on an Intel Macintosh. Advocates for environmental technologies often suggest a prize as a way to generate interest in green innovations. With the new California Clean Tech Open, we're about to see if a "Green Prize" will be as successful as the X-Prize at bringing us to a new frontier.

    The premise of the Clean-Tech Open is simple: each participant comes up with an overview plan for a technology-enabled green business in one of five categories; finalists then must produce the full-fledged business plan. Winners in each category (Energy Efficiency, Smart Power, Renewable Energy, Transportation, and Water Management) receive $50,000, along with a variety of professional services and a year's worth of office space; the overall winner receives an additional $50,000.

    The folks running the competition seem to understand (PDF) the Bright Green big picture:

    Continue reading "California Clean-Tech Open" »

    March 24, 2006

    Oil Crisis-Ready

    lightrail.jpgWorldChanging friends SustainLane today announced the initial results of a study of the fifty largest cities in the United States, ranked on the basis of readiness to respond to an extended oil crisis. SustainLane revealed the top ten cities today, and will provide the full ranking next month. In June, they will present a longer study of overall sustainability rankings of the same set of cities (we covered their list of most sustainable cities last year).

    The top ten cities are: New York; Boston; San Francisco; Chicago; Philadelphia; Portland; Honolulu; Seattle; Baltimore; and Oakland. SustainLane relied on a mix of criteria, including some less-than-obvious elements:

    Ranking Criteria
    Greatest Weighting
  • City commute-to-work data
  • Continue reading "Oil Crisis-Ready" »

    About Sustainable Design

    This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Sustainable Design category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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