Inspired by energy: Get poetic and win a tour of the Wiess Energy Hall

In the time before TV or radio, people had to entertain themselves. Some of the quickest games to start were word games.  Either take a theme and pun away, or set up different rules like starting the next word with the letter that ended the previous word.  For more formal entertainment, you could create a poem using a variety of different structures. Maybe you gravitated toward the villanelle, a 19-line poem. Or a haiku, a non-rhyming poem of 5, 7, and 5 lines.

But for this poem inspired by energy (cable’s out) I’ve gone with the always-classic sonnet.

Wiess Energy Hall 3

Here is a short sonnet written about oil
And a couple of things you can do during the summer
So that your bills and budget aren’t foiled
Leading to your vacation being a bit of a bummer
When you’re driving around in your car
Make sure your tires are full of air
Tires without air don’t go far
Keeping up your car should take your care
And don’t forget about things in your trunk
The car’s gas mileage can be affected by that junk

But I could have just as easily gone with a limerick like:

There once was a man out on his luck
He couldn’t find a job, but wouldn’t give up on his pluck
He got a job harvesting bio mass
So that he could get some cash
So now he harvests algae muck

So here’s the deal — make a silly summer sonnet of your own, a lovingly lined limerick, a high-minded haughty haiku, or any other poem about saving energy this summer.  We’ll post it on the ECC website and a couple of other places. In two weeks we’ll have a drawing for a few different prizes, the grand prize being a free tour of the Wiess Energy Hall by moi.

Whats cooking Doc?

In 1944, Bugs Bunny made an impassioned appeal for an Oscar in What’s Cooking Doc? It is an entertaining show with clips of A Star is Born (a movie about actors winning awards which won the Academy Award for Best Story, very 4th wall) and the Bugs Bunny cartoon Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (an animated loony toon based on The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow and nominated for an Academy Award which has since become controversial).

So what does a Looney Toon that is a parody of itself have to do with ethanol?

If you follow me down the rabbit hole, I’ll show you what’s cooking, Doc.

Ethanol is a chain of hydrogen and carbon (with some oxygen added in for flavor) and it is one of the oldest known chemical reactions. To create most ethanol, a process of fermentation is used. As yeast consumes sugar it produces both ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process may sound familiar to some. In addition to creating ethanol to be used as fuel, it is used to create ethanol for consumption, or, as it is commonly known, alcohol. The cooking up of this substance is a long standing and noble profession (I even know a couple of brewers) that has its roots in the very origin of civilization.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Chuck “Caveman” Coker

There have been many times that ethanol has been brought to the forefront of the news.

One of those times was in 1919 with the Constitutional amendment on prohibition and again in 1933 with the Constitutional amendment repealing prohibition.

Ethanol has again been brought to the forefront because of its use as an alterative to gasoline. Ethanol burns when ignited. From the very beginning of its use people have know this. In the 1850’s it was a major fuel for lighting. During the American Civil War, a tax was placed on it to help raise money. The first mass produced car, the Model T, could run off of ethanol just as well as gasoline. Because of the decreasing cost of gasoline, and the outlawing of ethanol (see above), gasoline became the choice fuel for cars.

But now ethanol is back in the mix of things.

Ethanol is renewable. Because it is made from the fermentation of plants, such as corn and sugar (I’m sure you could make it from potatoes as well), we can always grow more plants. It could even be considered carbon neutral, meaning that the amount of carbon taken in by the plant is released when it is burned. Most gasoline in the United States has some ethanol mixed into it. Up till 2011 the maximum in gasoline was 10% ethanol. Now it can go up to 15% (called E15), but not all vehicles on the road can handle that much ethanol. If the car was made in 2001 or since, it can probably handle E15. If the car is older, you should probably not use E15. To be on the safe side check to make sure your car can handle it.

Ethanol based bio fuels have made some good headlines at the 49th Annual Air show in Paris. Other bio fuels are also being considered for airlines, such as a cooking oil based fuel.

Corn and Cornier
Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot

While ethanol has many great properties, it also has its detractors.

Ethanol is not as energy rich as gasoline. Gasoline contains about 34 Megajoules per liter (MJ/L) while ethanol has just 21 MJ/L. Megajoules has nothing to do with Bejeweled or with a great concert by a famous singer.

Joules is a measurement of energy (also referred to as “work”) that is mass times distance all over time. It can be expressed as Watts times seconds as well as Kilograms time meters squared all over seconds squared. A megajoules is one million (pinky to lips) joules. Therefore the fuel with more joules can get more work done.

It also means that if I filled up a car with just ethanol, I would have to refill it more often than I would with a gasoline powered car. Also ethanol is currently made from plants that I could also eat. In the United States we get most of our fuel ethanol from corn. In Brazil they make ethanol from sugar. I enjoy both of these as food. If I burn them in my car I can’t eat them.

It would be better to use things I won’t eat such as switch grass or lawn clippings. Cellulose based ethanol is just that. It is made from the cellulose which is the main component of the plant’s cell wall. All plants have them. It surrounds them. It binds them all together. But that is bleeding edge technology. While there are some cellulose ethanol plants up and running, it’s still easier and cheaper to use food for fuel.

They are also looking at different algaes and fungi (or what we call Eumycota at a party) to produce ethanol and other hydrocarbons.

In June of 2011, Congress voted to end some of the subsidies to the ethanol industry. It will be interesting to see how this changes the game, if at all. The major driver for the ethanol fuel has been demand for ethanol based fuel and not the federal subsidy. It seems that the farmers will be ok.

All Along the Watch Tower: United States Military and Renewable Energy

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address 1961

Over sixty years ago our president warned us of not letting a group, no matter how good their intentions, have undue influence on our government and people. In specific he was warning about the military industrial complex, or the different defense contractors as an industry (Michael Crichton has since warned about the politico-legal-media complex that he argues has replaced them). He was worried that a coordinated effort by any group would give them power to incant changes that would be harmful to the government and its people. But just as it has the potential for harm, it has the potential to help. And that’s what the military will do with their new energy policy.

This is the first time the United States military has created an energy policy that focuses on efficiency. Before now, it has been a policy of using as much energy as needed to get the job done regardless of its efficiency.

What has changed?

The military has come to a public realization that its’ current reliance on conventional energy and fuels are unsustainable and therefore they should take an active hand in solving the problem.

USS Midway aircraft carrier
Creative Commons License photo credit: cybaea

The military has always been conscious of their energy needs and the need for a more efficient and usable energy source. The Navy first used wind, but as technology advanced they went with propulsion systems that could provide more reliable and efficient energy. While wind is free, it does not always blow in a given area. This would lead to ships lost because they did not have wind. The Navy changed to coal and established a series of bases around the world to hold coal for them. Then they switched to oil and were able to have fewer bases to hold supplies. After that some ships converted to nuclear power. This allowed them to stay at sea for years at a time.

While the military has been moving towards a more efficient model, they have not had a well defined plan. And now they do. Currently the military uses about 1% of the fuel used in the Unites States, or about 5 billion gallons annually. As we all know the cost of fuel goes up. The military spent around $13.5 billion on fuel in 2010. The price has increased by 255% since 1997, and they expect it to continue to increase.

The Department of Defense’s new energy policy calls for 3 specific goals:

More fight, less fuel.

More option, less risk.

More capability, less cost.

These are good goals for good reasons. In 2010 there were over 1,100 attacks on military convoys carrying fuel to forward units. Less use of conventional fuel would mean fewer attacks, and would free up more units to go to the front. Today’s soldier on the ground carries over 10 pounds of batteries to operate his equipment. By 2013 it will be up to over 20 pounds. They will need more efficient equipment to keep the weight constant or even reduce it.

The Department of Defense is also shrinking its budget.

The Army is planning to use $1.4 million to implement a program to monitor their energy usage. It’s important to know what goes where and how much. It can be a little bit more challenging if it’s spread across 4 continents. They have another $5 million earmarked to help develop solar and wind generators to be used on the front lines. While solar powered battery rechargers have already been used in Afghanistan, there is need for more and better use of solar and wind power generation. $20 million is going to help reduce the weight of batteries and expand the capability of the dismounted soldier.

The Navy has plans as well. They have set aside $133 million for science and technology research. $16 million will be used toward making hybrid electric drives for ships. What is that, you may ask. It’s a drive that while still using fuel, can also run on a battery. If you have ever seen a Toyota Pruis, you have seen a hybrid electric drive. Currently, most ships use steam power to turn a turbine, which powers and moves the ship. With a hybrid drive, like a Prius, the Navy would save fuel. Ships would work even better with a smart meter and a smart electrical system. A smart meter would keep track of which systems are using electricity. If the entire system was smart it would optimize the electrical usage by giving just the systems that currently (that pun again) need electricity just the right amount. The Navy’s fleet is also moving to more bio fuels. Imagine fleets of ships and planes that run off of a bio fuel.

The Marine Corp (OORAH) has an ambitious plan as well. Their first step is to instill an energy efficient conscience. They also plan to reduce their use of fuel by 50% over the next 15 years (with a 25% decrease in 4 years). This is so the modern day Spartans will be more self-sufficient. Instead of having to shepherd supplies to the front, the Marines can focus on the front. They will be deploying more solar and wind arrays and even doing the small things such as using LED lights.

Air power on display at Red Flag 10-4 [Image 3 of 3]
Creative Commons License photo credit: DVIDSHUB

The Air Force plans on reducing their fuel needs by 10% in the next 4 years. They are also doing research into new and lighter materials to reduce the weight of planes. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is ramping up its use of solar energy and trying to become 100% renewable.

So why does this matter to me?

While I enjoy a good military thriller, how can an energy efficient military help me? If the military uses less fuel, there is more on the market for me to buy. By reducing their costs, and therefore the amount of money my government spends, they have the potential (however small) of helping to lower the deficit.

But what will help the most is all the technology and procedures that they’ll develop. The military industrial complex is a large industry. Because of that they try to find multiple uses and markets for their products. They’ll repackage as much as they can for non-military use. Do I want a car that has a smart power system, so it can use less energy? Sure, I would even be OK if it did not have a combustion engine (as long as it still worked). Do I want smaller batteries that last longer? Of course, I would love for the charge in my iPod to last more than one chapter of a Patrick O’Brian novel.

Changing Energy Policies Across the Globe

Nuclear Power Plant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Intamin10

Japan will cut its electrical use by 15% this summer. After the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, their electrical production capability has been decreased. Nuclear power plants made up for a quarter of their electrical production. After the disaster at Fukushima, public opinion in Japan has shifted against using nuclear power. Because of this, some plant managers in Japan are postponing turning their reactors back on after scheduled maintenance. Not only are they concerned about making sure their reactors are safe, they don’t want to take the reactor down again once new government regulations come into effect.

Time for some 101 facts about Japan.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Japan is an island, or rather, a chain of islands. Japan is an energy power house. While it is only the 10th most populated country, it is 3rd in electrical generation. (America has double the population and is the largest electrical producer, China has the largest population and is second in electrical production.)

Japan does not have a lot of crude oil or natural gas. Most of what they use is imported. That’s one of the reasons they turned to nuclear power for electrical production. It takes fewer imports to run nuclear facilities than the coal, oil, and natural gas equivalents. There have also been fewer uranium crises than oil crises during the last 50 years.

In order to reduce electricity usage, the Japanese government has called for office thermostats to be turned up to 82 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire summer. This is an easy way to save electricity, however it would be very uncomfortable in a 3 piece suit and tie. The government is promoting a new “Super Cool Biz” look. They are encouraging people to wear shorts and polo shirts. The government is getting some resistance. While I would love to have to wear only polos and shorts (guess what I’m wearing now) at work, a nice suit and tie does bring off a certain professional air.

Upolu Point Wind Farm
Creative Commons License photo credit: footloosiety

With all that has gone on, some countries are rethinking their strategy for nuclear power.

Germany has decided to shut down all of its nuclear reactors over the next decade. Nuclear power generation currently (ha, a pun) accounts for nearly a quarter of their entire electrical generation (coal counts for about half, and renewables counts for about 16%). They plan to convert all the nuclear power generation into renewable. There may not be as much hot air in Germany as there is in the States, but Germany is the second largest producer of wind produced electricity (with the United States being first). In fact it makes up nearly 7% of their total electricity generation.

If the German government wants to bump wind up to over 30% of their electrical production, not only will they need to install more wind turbines, but they’ll also need to replace the older models with new and more efficient models. They will also need to bump up their solar energy. While Germany is one of the top installers of photovoltaic cells, solar only accounts for a few percent of their energy production. With more efficient cells, it should not be too hard to move that number up.

The Italians also voted to abandon nuclear power again.

They abandoned it after Chernobyl and do not have any actual nuclear plants. The vote was more a comment on their current Prime Minister who favors the use of nuclear power.

France is still a proponent for nuclear generated electricity to remain in the EU’s energy mix. France is one of the largest producers of nuclear generated electricity. It accounts for over 80% of their electrical power generation.

As with most exciting things in the world, we’ll have to watch and see what unfolds.