Category Archives: Energy

ford and microsoft partner for a better electric car

As auto producers continue to unveil plans for developing all-electric (EV) and plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEV) for the near-future market, there are still many questions regarding the broader implications of building a larger EV infrastructure.  Many of the use models for electric cars involve some form of recharging strategy relying on a direct interface with our current energy grid. This is no simple proposition.  Though it is improving, much of our energy grid is quite antiquated.  Just this week, as the summer temperatures started setting in here in New York, we had small scale brown outs and power shortages in several highly populated portions of north Brooklyn.

In order to prepare for the impeding influx of electric vehicles on US streets, solutions for managing their use of the power grid will need to be implemented.  We’ve already seen a lot of these “smart grid” technologies hit the market for home energy management.  Google among other companies have developed energy management tools that help users understand their home energy use and make changes to improve their efficiency.  Recharging a car would add an immense load to the average household energy needs making the need for such technologies that much more important.  To be successful, energy management tools will need to not only monitor the use of your appliances and heating and cooling systems but also your new electric car.

The Ford Motor Co. has already got a jump on this need by partnering with Microsoft to integrate energy management software into it’s future line of electric vehicles. Ford is planning on releasing a all-electric version of their popular Focus model as soon as 2011.  Microsoft’s Hohm software will assist owners in determining how to  to recharge their vehicle’s batteries in the most efficient, responsible, and affordable way.  The primary goal of the software will be to lessen the strain of car charging on the power grid during peak hours, and to help utilities better manage the rising need.  To accomplish this Ford and Microsoft will also be working directly with individual cities and utilities to bring them into the development process creating a true “systems” approach.

IT has been an increasingly important part of auto design, most recently in the form of integrating the myriad of mobile technologies we have come to rely on. Ford’s partnership with Microsoft takes this relationship a step further by involving the still emerging field of smart grid technology into the future automobile.  Regardless of weather  Electric vehicles represent the best long-term solution to the countries car-dependency, the EVs are certainly here and are going to be a influential part of the future energy needs.

Advertisements

New LED bulbs hit the market

A few months back I wrote about the new E-Core LED lightbulb developed by Toshiba.  At that time the E-Core had received a lot of fanfare coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show, and seemed poised to be the first LED bulb to be made widely available on the US market.  Well as it turns out the other big players in the light bulb industry where not far behind with their own LED bulbs.  GE, Panasonic, Philips and Osram Sylvania, amongst others have all jumped in the race to provided their own LED light bulb by the end of the year.  It seems all but decided that Light Emitting Diodes will shortly become the new standard of luminescence, however at a price of $30-$40 a piece, any mass transition may not occur for some time.

The reason these manufacturers are focused primarily on 60-watt equivalent bulbs is because the standard 60 watt incandescent bulb represents the highest proportion of replacement bulbs sold today.  By taking on the mainstream market bulb makers are actively seeking to rapidly distribute this new technology with the end goal of driving down the purchasing cost.  The price of a 60 watt equivalent LED bulb has already dropped considerably, from around $90 2 years ago, down to about $30 per bulb.  The problem is that standard incandescent bulbs are extremely inexpensive, around $0.50.

So here lies the challenge; how to convince a consumer to pay $30 when they can meet the same immediate need for just 50 cents.  The new LED bulbs are far and away more efficient than their Incandescent and compact florescent predecessors, using only 9 watts of electricity and lasting up to 12 times as long as standard bulbs.  As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s difficult to sell a consumer on a product with superior efficiency when over-time savings are reflected in decades rather than individual months or years.  Light bulbs are considered a disposable product, in some cases nothing more than a chore or a nuisance, something you HAVE to take time to replace every so often.  Can you really turn that into a $30 – $40 proposition to the average consumer? Well maybe…if you make it free!

Earlier this month, in an article posted on GreenTech:Media, it was mentioned that once these LED bulbs approach a $20 price point it is feasible that utility providers my begin providing them to their customers for free.  The rational for this argument is that once you get bellow a certain price per unit the efficiency savings in energy usage outweigh the cost.  If utilities can take measures to reduce energy usage (a counter-intuitive point, I agree) they inevitably reduce the need to bring new power plants online in the future.  Next to delivery infrastructure, new power plants are by far the highest costs facing most energy utilities.  Several years ago when Compact Florescent bulbs where flooding the market we saw several utilities implement similar strategies of providing vouchers for free CFL bulbs.  Though CFLs are far less expensive it remains a relevant precedent because it also reveals the marketing potential for such a program.  Energy utilities have spent millions in trying to make their brands appear more environmentally responsible, some have even set up entirely new subsidiary brands to cater to a rising eco-audience amongst consumers.  While actual supply and production metrics tell a strong story, marketing may add an even more compelling element to the future rise of LED bulbs. It would be very interesting to explore how this business logic could be applied to other energy efficient products.  In the mean time get ready for a new kid on the block when it comes to light bulbs.

IBM takes on the devil in the details

image via ibm.com

One of the greatest challenges to businesses pursuit of sustainability is understanding the vast interconnected supply chains that all products inevitably relay upon.  In truth a company can only claim they are environmentally responsible if they’ve taken into consideration the broader impact of all the individual components, materials, and packaging that contribute to the overall business.  The complexity of trying to measure one’s impact in terms of things like energy use, emissions, and waste is that those metrics exist not only for the company whose name is on the product but also for the myriad of supporting companies whose own products and services go into the making of that final entity.

In the last few years many organizations have attempted to address this challenge through the creation of standardized assessment tools that apply a scorecard approach to each individual product.  These assessments are often based on applying generalized values to various aspects of a product; such as the materials used.  But the utility of such tools is often limited because the amount of information needed to populate the equations is simply unknown or unavailable.  To contend with this issue many of the larger consumer product companies have had to take it upon themselves to organize this information, which means demanding their suppliers provide more accountability.  This is an approach pioneered by Wal-mart which has been able to extract mountains of environmental data from their suppliers by establishing sustainability guidelines for many of the products they sell.  Nothing seems more typically American then a major corporation leveraging its size and dominance in a market to pressure it’s suppliers into meeting demands, But using that power for good, well that’s a new twist.

The New York Times recently reported that IBM has launched a new supply chain initiative requiring all of its suppliers to employ some form of environmental management system and to begin tracking environmental data like energy, water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  The initiative is a first step in cleaning up IBMs global operations which involve suppliers in 90 different countries worldwide.  IBM has thus recognized the fundamental roll that data plays in any sustainability measures.  Once they have a picture of their global impact across the entire supply chain they will be able to create a far more strategic plan for improving their efficiency and reducing waste and emissions.

IBM has taken things a step further by requiring it’s suppliers to publicly publish all their environmental findings and to forward the mandate on to their own subcontractors and suppliers.  The goal to capture any and all environmental data contributing to the massive IBM supply chain will be critical to the companies future decision making with regard to sustainability.  To encourage compliance form it’s suppliers IBM has played that ultimate power-card; If you don’t have a data monitoring system in place  by 2011, you know longer do business with IBM.

link to NYtimes


latest in LED tech: ECORE lightbulbs from toshiba

image via gizmag.com

One of the heroes from last months CES expo was the super efficient ECORE LED lightbulb developed by Toshiba.  The introduction of the bulbs to the US market are part of Toshiba’s “Vision 2050” initiative, a long-term sustainability plan aimed at increasing the companies overall eco-efficiency.  The performance lightbulbs produce a 265 lumen output (similar to a 40 watt incandescent) getting 50 lumen per watt and using only 5.3 total watts.  In other words, a bulb that will last 40 times longer than traditional incandescent lightbulb (about 40,000 hours), is compatible with existing commercial and residential uses, and reduces CO2 emissions by 85 percent.

Though off-the-shelf LED technology like ECORE has been available in other countries like Japan for several years they have only begun to pop-up state-side.  This has had a lot to do with cost, LED lighting remains a very expensive alternative to incandescent and fluorescent alternatives.  A cost-benefit analysis of LED lights may have to cover many years to show any kind of compelling advantage to the average consumer. This is why factors such as CO2 emissions are crucial to understanding the true impact of such efficiency products, and to the conversion of more consumers to accept them.  The advantages of energy efficient technologies have traditionally been expressed in terms of cost, which is certainly important.  However, growing awareness of the environmental issues and the acceptance of sustainability principles by many has opened the door to greater considerations when it comes to adopting new technologies.  By placing a greater value on long-term impacts such as CO2 emissions and potential maintenance/replacement liabilities, I think we will soon see a greater shift towards the advantages of  LED and other still emerging technologies.

turning garbage into green

Earlier this fall the Montgomery County Solid Waste Transfer Station in Derwood, Maryland was host to the first public performance of the Envion Oil Generator (EOG). What makes this new technology so intriguing is that the EOG can actually make usable oil product directly out of our own plastic garbage that would otherwise be buried it in a landfill or incinerated. Envion also claims that it can create this light to medium grade synthetic oil at an operational cost of around USD$10 per barrel. The concept of recapturing some of the energy that is trapped in the approximately 60 million tons of plastic waste produced each year could mean a whole new way of looking at the countries solid waste stream.

In my experience as a designer there has been hardly a single product or package I have dealt with that wasn’t composed of one or several types of plastic. Plastics have innumerable advantages in both manufacturing and performance which has led to their rise to become a truly ubiquitous aspect of our built environment and the objects that fill it.  It is therefore very frustrating that plastic also presents on of the greatest challenges to managing our solid waste reality.  Much of the problem has to do with plastic’s ability to far outlast the intended life of the products and packaging for which it is used. Not only does it degrade extremely slowly, but it can also release harmful chemicals in the process.  Even more troubling is the fact that most plastic is derived directly from the limited, costly, and non-renewable resource of oil and natural gas, two carbon-intensive fuels at the very core of the current fight for improved sustainability.

In my past posts I have addressed some of the issues concerning plastics by examining stories of improved or expanded recycling.  The last few years have seen an absolute explosion in consumer products containing recycled content.  Riding a tide of consumer demand, or at least expectation of “green”,  the use of recycled content has become a standard strategy for boosting a products’ green credentials.  However, designing something that is recyclable or made from some portion of recycled material remains a somewhat limited solution to improving overall sustainability.  This is because each time something plastic is recycled the performance and appearance attributes of the resulting material is significantly diminished, limiting the amount of times a given type of material can be reused and what types of new products it can be used for.

This conundrum surrounding how we handle our mounting reliance on plastic illustrates just how exciting the new Envion Oil Generator technology is for the future of plastic waste handling.  What Envion has created is a way to reconstitute bulk, unsorted plastic waste back into a usable petroleum product from which commercial fuels or even new plastic can be derived. This suggest that what was previously considered garbage can actually be turned into a source of renewable energy.  This is the type of solution that could actually shift consumers and producers’ perspectives on how we look at waste in general – as a potential resource.

The EOG works by using a reactor that converts waste plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum, extracting the hydrocarbons embedded in petroleum-based plastic waste. Each EOG unit is assembled on 47ft x 13ft mobile platform and can process up to 10,000 tons of plastic waste annually. The system converts roughly 62 percent of the plastic (by weight) into usable oil – three to five barrels of refined oil per ton of plastic waste.  The remaining by-product consists of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ash.  Envion even re-uses some of these by-products in the conversion process, utilizing vent gas to provide electricity and recirculating excess oil residue back into the system to improve efficiency.

Envion has been working on this technology for almost 15 years, and is now confidently promoting what they claim is a fully scalable, carbon negative oil production system.  They have already begun work on similar reactors to handle other forms of petroleum based waste, such as used tires.  Time will tell weather this new technology will prove a sustainable new boom amongst the world of waste. Regardless, seeing someone bold enough to snatch new sources of energy right out of the garbage bin sure is exciting.

down the drain

how-it-works-illustrationLets face it, nothing beats a nice hot shower. After a long day, intense exercise, or just first thing in the morning, showers are awesome.  But to be fair it does take a good amount of energy to create that steaming hot bliss, all of which runs right down the drain mere seconds after it is dispensed.  This is actually a big waste because in America especially, the energy used to heat water represents a substantial portion of the daily household energy use.  Though I would take-on anyone who tried to deprive me of my shower, in this eco-conscious era nothing can be held as truly sacred…

That’s why someone has developed a great new product that captures that wasted heat energy before its lost forever to the sewer.  EcoDrain is quite simply a heat exchanger that is attached to the shower drain. As clean cold water circulates around the outside of the drain it absorbes the heat of the hot water running through it, becoming luke warm.  The water in the exchanger is then routed to the “cold” knob on your shower, and because it is already a little warm it requires less mixing of hot water to reach a preferred temperature.

In an optimal situation this could reduce your hot water heater use by up to 40%.  That’s no small savings for a relatively simple technology.  There is however somewhat of a catch.  Because plumbing is a highly regulated aspect of building technology, subject also to local codes and ordinances, The EcoDrain may not meet the requirements of many household jurisdictions.  However, this will continue to shift as antiquated building codes are brought up to speed, and consumer education about such technologies improves.  Eitherway it seems a long overdue little aparatus, that has a great potential for having a scalable impact on reducing home energy use.

electric avenue

dusk-interstate-trafficNew Energy Technologies, Inc. a company specializing in the the development of alternative energy solutions, recently announced the completion of a prototype device, designed to generate electricity form moving vehicles.  The technology, called MotionPower(tm), employs a mechanical system to capture energy created my moving vehicles and they come in contact with the device. While only in the prototype phase, the company reports that the final product, will be a portable, easy-to-install solution, suitable to a variety of roadway applications. Once in place it can produce enough electricity to power street lights, signals, adjacent buildings, or simply hold the energy in reserve for emergency use.  Sounds great!

I should mention however, that there is not a lot of details being released about MotionPower(tm), which more than warrants some degree of skepticism.  But I thought I’d include it on the blog anyways because I think the application of kinetic energy harvesting is kinda cool.  There has been a lot of attention in recent years to similar ‘kinetic’ concepts, most focusing on capturing energy from human motion.  Many of these concepts seem to prefer the use of piezoelectric technology for energy generation and have been proposed for everything from sidewalks, to dance floors, to baby rockers.

Regardless, the idea of high traffic areas generating a little extra juice has some merrit.  One could imagine that installing a bank of these devices at a large concentrations of toll booths, or extrmely busy intersections could have some actual impact, maybe even produce enough power to be self-sustaining.  But lets not get ahead of ourselves, I’ll reserve judgment for when some more facts on MotionPower(tm) become available.