Not the second-largest port for nothin': Join us for the Summer Energy Teacher Workshop

When most people think of a port city, they think of beaches and a lot of waterfront property. They think of palm trees and salty sea breezes. But not all port cities are on the coast. In the United States, there are numerous inland ports (ports on fresh waterways) such as those in Milwaukee and Chicago.

But when you think of ports, Houston is not one that readily comes to mind (especially to non-natives or out-of-towners). Given that we are the second-largest port in the United States, this seems a bit odd.

photo courtesy wikimedia

Houston had an odd way of coming to be. Before Texas won its independence from Mexico, there was no city of Houston. After independence, the Allen brothers, a couple of real-estate dealers from New York, convinced the new president of Texas, Sam Houston, to have the government buy the land that would become Houston and establish the seat of government there.

In the early days of the Republic, the streets of the city were dominated by a tents. Slowly, buildings went up. And after a few years, a port was established on the bayou to run trade to and from Galveston. For a while there was an overnight passenger steamboat from Galveston to Houston. In 1900, the big storm came to Galveston and destroyed a large number of the businesses and buildings on the island, and Houston promoted the idea of an inland port that would be protected from hurricanes.

The Houston Ship Channel was dug and opened in September of 1914. Since then the Channel has grown to be one of the largest ports in the United States. Now Houston ranks second in the United States for total tonnage (weight/mass of cargo) and first in international waterborne tonnage. As you can imagine, the port adds a lot to the city’s economy. In fact it brings about $200 million into the state each year.

As the energy capital of the world, a lot of crude oil, natural gas, and coal move through the Port of Houston. Several refineries are located on the waterfront, including the largest in the US, the ExxonMobil refinery. As in the energy industry, the majority of the maritime workforce will reach retirement age soon.

Join us for our week-long Summer Energy Teacher Workshop, where we will be going to energy destinations like the Port of Houston and learning about what kinds of opportunites exist in the energy industry.

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.

The road to self-sufficiency: How cities are transitioning to renewable energy — and how Houston can, too

What would it take to go all renewable?

What would it take to use exclusively renewable energy resources? What would you have to add to or take away from your home? How would your life change? For most of my energy entries, I’ve talked about conservation at the individual level. That’s because I know we can make changes in what we do and how we view the world. However, it is always heartening to see large groups take up the challenge. And while a nation should have a plan, unless its citizens are behind it, it will never work.

That’s why I’m glad to report on some cities and regions that have made a plan to go to 100-precent renewable energy or beyond.

The District of Rhein-Hunsrück in Germany has a population of about 100,000. It uses a combination of wind, solar, and bio mass to produce 100-percent renewable energy for its area.

For most, that would be a good place to stop. But it has plans to increase renewable energy production to 828 percent of their needs by 2050 so it can export the energy to its  neighbors. (Well done!)

In the 1990s, it decided that it would take the money it used to import energy and invest it locally to become energy exporters. Its first step was energy conservation. Just by doing some energy conservation in its buildings, it was able to cut heating needs by 25 percent (something that is very energy-intensive in places that have weather other than “hot”).

German wind power

The city of Dardesheim, also in Germany, uses solar panels, wind turbines, and biomass to produce 40 times as much energy as it uses. How did it do this? Back in the 1990s (it takes time) the community decided on a shared vision to create jobs and eliminate the importation of energy. While it only has a population of 1,000 (100 times smaller than  Rhein-Hunsrück), it created a vision and made a plan.

And it isn’t only cities in Germany that are coming up with a renewable and sustainable path for their energy future.

For example, it’s expensive to import oil to the Island of El Hierro, off the northern coast of Africa. To replace the oil it uses to generate electricity, it will move to a combination of wind, hydro, and solar power. With any excess wind energy, it’ll be able to pump water uphill into an inactive volcano crater. This gives it a little energy storage. This will let the 10,000 people who live on the island save 40,000 barrels of oil a year.

But what about a little closer to home?

In 2007 San José, Calif., pledged to become a renewable-powered city by 2022. It was the first large city in the United States (around 1 million in population) to make such a pledge. Its plan had 10 points (not 12). It also has a website where you can view its progress. While it has had the most progress in diverting trash from landfills to waste to energy plants, it has made the least progress is in planting new trees. Fortunately, that’s fairly easy to do.

But what about Houston? What is Houston doing?

Houston is becoming greener in leaps and bounds. Houston has been granted a number of awards and distinctions for its green programing, such as being named one of the top 25 solar cities by the Department of Energy, the Green Power Leadership award from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Best Workplace for Commuters award from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, with the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

Sure, while it’s good to toot our own horns, we should not rest on our laurels. There is an initiative (and funding) to help income-qualified Houstonians weatherize their homes. We have free, regular electronic recycling and paper shredding programs to reduce waste. While Houston is making strides, we should remember not to be too self-satisfied with what we’ve done.  Rather, we should dream bigger and dare more boldly.

What should Houston do next?

What do HMNS, Superman, Stargate and steampunk have in common? Find out on May 25 at Comicpalooza

If you’ve been to the Wiess Energy Hall recently, you’ll remember the energy music video that starts off with “Energy is all around us.” Energy is all around us. It’s in the news every day. It’s also a prominent feature in sci-fi, comics and steampunk.

For more than 45 years, we’ve had a certain Scottish engineer talk about the need to power his engines. The mighty Starship Enterprise was propelled across the galaxy by warping space around it using a matter-antimatter reaction. (Antimatter has the same mass as matter but is oppositely charged — positron to electron and antiproton to proton).

We currently use antimatter in Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans. While an antimatter reaction can give us 9×10^16 J/kg (note: dynamite is about 4.6×10^6 J/kg and a nuclear reactor is 5.6 x 10^9 J/kg ), it’s hard to bring into existence and even harder to keep around. In 2011, CERN was able to get about 300 anti-hydrogen atoms to hang around for about 17 minutes. While far less time than Dan Brown had it around for, it’s still a great achievement — especially since you can’t hold antimatter in a container made only of matter. You have to use a combination of electric and magnetic fields to make sure it does not go “boom.” NASA is looking into this as a propulsion system for interstellar transportation (possibly because rocket scientists grew up watching Star Trek), but it’s still far in the future.

Some of us have a fond memory of Rodney McKay yelling about the zero point module (ZPM) not having enough power to protect the city for long. (If you just got that reference, smile, because you are a nerd.) To get even more nerdy, there is such a thing as zero point energy. It is the least amount of energy a quantum system may have, or the energy produced when all is at rest. This is because of the wave-like properties of matter.  It’s also the reason that liquid helium will not freeze.

Is there a way to harvest all this background energy? Unfortunately, not yet. Because of the zero point in the minimum amount of energy the system can have, if you were able to take it away, the amount of energy would drop below its limits. In Stargate, they get around this by containing microuniverses in a handheld containment vessel and harvest the zero point energy from them (what happens when the ZPM runs out of energy? Is that universe dead?).

Sooper dpoper man

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a solar-powered man!

Superman, one of the most iconic and archetypal characters, receives his power from our yellow sun (and in Miller’s Batman Returns, he can take it from sunflowers as well). Because he uses green fuel, he can lift cars, leap buildings, be directed by Zack Snyder, and get Amy Adams. If only this were true for everyone who goes green. *Sigh.*

It is nice to have a superhero, even from the ’40s, that is looking toward the eventual infrastructure shift to renewables. Just as Superman’s war against falsehood and injustice has yet to be completed, we still have to wait for the switch. Unlike fighting against Doomsday and General Zod, we can do things to help speed the switch over to renewables.The easiest thing is to use less energy. If you’re more adventurous, you could look into the tax rebate programs for buying solar panels.

Steampunk is perhaps the most focused on energy. It’s in their very name. “Steampunk” is a sub genre that focuses on having mechanisms only powered by steam. While most steampunks look back either to Victorian times (call ‘em Vickies) or to the post-apocalypse, we are still in a steam age.

Almost all of our electricity is steam-powered. Coal, natural gas plants, and nuclear power plants all create electricity by turning water into steam and having that steam turn a piece of metal around a magnet (albeit on a large scale).

It can be exciting to see how you would come up with a steam driven alternative to a lot of modern technology. How would you construct a large airliner if it has no electronics and could only rely on hydraulics? Personally, I always hope for a dirigible-like air ship in which to battle sky pirates, but that may just be me.

An institution that you may readily associate with both a comic convention and energy is the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Museums may have a reputation of being dusty old cabinets of curiosities, but not us. So drop by our booth at Comicpalooza on May 25 and see what we’re up to.