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Getting to know Zoe

A quick internet search reveals that the name ZOE means “life” in Greek and is usually a girl’s name, although it can be used for boys as well. A website called “Behind the Name” tells us that the name ZOE was adopted by Hellenized Jews as a translation of EVE. Two early Christian saints of this name were martyred under Hadrian and Diocletian. A few weeks ago I bought the Zoe pictured below. This Zoe has nothing to with saints or martyrdom but it could be one of a tribe that will help a gasping planet to breathe a little easier.

When one lives in a city with well-designed public transport there is little need for a private car, but after hearing a few acquaintances talk about range anxiety and the impracticality of electric cars, I decided to buy one and rent it out on a daily basis. This is intended as a small step to allay common fears and misconceptions about electro mobility. Some of these misconceptions are due to society’s resistance to change; others are spread by petrol heads, addicted to imported oil and oblivious to environmental costs and the thousands of kilometers conventional fuel has to travel before it enters the tank. Contrast this with electricity that is generated much closer to home (or even at home with your own solar panels!), and potentially available at every city street corner. Then there are the car companies with their armies of highly qualified technicians and engineers whose skills will suddenly become obsolete. Instead of powertrains and cooling systems, they suddenly need software engineers to tweak more power out of lithium ion batteries, or optimise charging speeds at various levels of charge, or find ways to enhance the power density of the cells they use. For example currently, the batteries of the BMW i3 carry a charge of 170 Wh/kg compared to the 250 Wh/kg of a Tesla. That’s a 32% advantage in battery weight alone, which translates into range, efficiency and price. And a company like Tesla makes improvements all the time, continuously upgrading even its older cars with over the air software updates. So conventional car companies have a vested interest in maintaining the manufacturing status quo and will produce more affordable electric cars only when more customers demand them.

The Zoe pictured above has a maximum range of 150 km, which translates to somewhere around 120 km in the real world, depending on driving speeds, terrain and temperature. In my fossil-fuelled car-owning days, I usually drove around 50 km a day during the week. On weekends, a jaunt to the surrounding countryside might mean a trip of 200 kilometers. The big surprise driving the Zoe in 2019 was to find that a good network of charging stations already exists around the country and in most countries in Western Europe. The big problem is they are not well marked, even on highways. The various charging points are not necessarily shown on a common app. These are all deficiencies that have to be overcome in the coming months, and I will try and talk to companies about these points. But the bottom line is, if one is willing to do some homework before a journey and map out a choice of charging points along the way, one can cover most of Western Europe emission free. Of course, I hear someone say, but ah, what about the emissions caused by the production of electricity. Good point. All the more reason for Europe to phase out its remaining coal-fired and natural gas power plants and switch to PV, wind and hydro.

Oh, but wind and PV are intermittent! You’ll still need fossil fuelled power to provide a stable base load of energy. This used to be a valid argument, but no longer. Efficient software, smart meters and battery backup can do the job at much lower rates. Additionally, countries like Norway, Spain and Austria are geographically favoured and have enough sites where pumped hydro can do the job at competitive rates. While writing this article I came across an interesting site listing existing pumped hydro storage (PHS) and future potential for six countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Spain).

The above work shows that conditions in various EU countries differ widely due to varying geography, political will and regulatory systems. There are many choices we can make as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. The quickest three steps may be to lower thermostats in winter, switch to a plant-based diet and either walk or use a bicycle for errands within a 5 kilometer radius of the home. If we must drive, then an electric car is not only better for the planet, it costs less to run and maintain in the long-run. The good news is that by now there are used electric car models available for the price of a small used car like the Volkswagen Polo. If you’d like to rent the Zoe pictured above for a day, a week or more, look for it on the car-sharing website at drivy.at and take it out for a spin. You will enjoy the drive.

Breaking News – the news is broken

Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.

Floating solar photovoltaic facility outside Nagoya producing power for Apple supplier. Image: courtesy Clean Technica

All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.

But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.

Chart from NRDC: click to enlarge

Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.

In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.

English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.

The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.

 

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A Million Cars at Sea

Ever wanted to go on an ocean liner? Cruise ship advertisements idealise the high life to be had on the high seas. What they never say is how much ships pollute. The average ship runs on low grade oil, which can be likened to a sludge that emits more particulate matter than a million cars; more sulfur than seven million cars. And that’s just one cruise liner!

Several Scandinavian ferries now run on hybrid diesel-electric systems but, as in most advances in electric propulsion these days, China is taking the lead, as a cargo ship with a 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in Guangdong. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport dirty coal!

A new all-electric cargo ship with a massive 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in China

Car makers have a problem. They don’t admit it yet. Or maybe they do admit it to themselves, although not in public. Why should they, when enough people are buying bigger cars? Global car sales in 2017 were close to 90 million vehicles in all categories, including SUVs and light trucks. That’s roughly 1 car for every 77 people. Less than 1% of these were electric. How many more cars do we need? Car companies are powerful entities that are in the business of selling dreams; dreams of freedom, of the joy of the open road, dreams of independence. The irony is that as we buy into the dream, we destroy the very foundation on which our dreams are based.

 

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Life After IIASA 1975-2013: Five Years On

February 2018 will mark five years after my retirement from IIASA. These five years have been full of new experiences, travel and writing. My wife and I have also attempted during this time to modify our lifestyle to be as carbon neutral as possible. Measures include living without a car, using a bicycle for shopping and public transport for travel where possible. Trips by air are unavoidable in the lifestyle we’ve chosen, and we’ve attempted to offset this carbon by buying solar panels for a farm school in India and a solar farm in Austria, 8 KW in all. These panels will apparently offset around 8 tons annually, but there’s still more to be done.

I first heard about sea level rise in a talk by paleo-climatologist Herbert Flohn at IIASA sometime in the late 1970s. At that time, many of the information requests that the IIASA library received were about global effects of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of nuclear war. Research themes changed quickly; interest moving to carbon dioxide emissions from fossils fuels, global warming, acid rain and stratospheric ozone.

In the intervening years, the reality of human-induced global warming has been accepted by all but the most ideologically blinkered societies worldwide. Travelling through parts of rural India soon after retirement in 2013, I saw repeated instances of people taking actions to adapt to climate change; water harvesting to compensate for unprecedented droughts, reforestation efforts; introduction of organic farming methods and drought resistant crops. I’d like to think that much of the credit for these adaptation and mitigation actions goes to studies by IIASA and other research institutions worldwide; scientific studies whose results filtered down over decades through the media and drew attention to these problems early on. There’s no way to prove this, and some of the water harvesting systems I saw were really ancient structures brought back into use. See more about that here

Efforts in 2015 and 2016 to help establish a rural education and vocation center failed for a very positive reason. The five acres of land (2 hectares) that had been donated to us for school use by a well-wisher is worth approximately € 300,000 (€65,000 per acre at today’s prices). The donated property was fertile agricultural land and classified as such. The local administrative authorities refused permission to reclassify the plot for use as a school and insisted that the land remain in use for agriculture. This was a positive outcome, because one of our reasons for this choice of location of a school was to prevent displacement of the rural population by expensive housing projects that would only benefit urbanites.

However the effort was not wasted. Since then our local partners have decided to build an organic farm on the land and use the experience gained to encourage the farming practices of communities in neighbouring villages. One function of this farm would be to develop markets for organic produce. We discovered several small companies in the area that offer free midday meals to their workers. They were happy to find a local supply of good vegetables. One enterprising factory owner offered his workers three free meals a day, sourcing all the vegetables from his own backyard. The vegetables he showed us were grown in plastic tubs lined with mats made of nutrient-rich hemp fibers. In fact, the method is so successful that he gives away growing kits free to any of his workers who want one for their own families’ use.

An encounter in early 2017 with a conservationist who runs a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles on the sea coast near Chennai city led me to Tiruvannamalai, a town 200 km to the south-west. Here is an organic farm school where text-book sustainable living is practiced in the most lively and joyous manner possible. There are around 100 children in the school, ranging in age from 8 to 18. The links below will give an idea of activities at the school.

http://www.marudamfarmschool.org/

https://yourstory.com/2017/12/2-lakh-trees-ngo-regenerating-forest-tamil-nadu/

http://www.theforestway.org/greening/planting.html

In addition to organic farming, environmental conservation and education, the school also works with villagers in the surrounding countryside, reforesting the hill that dominates the temple town, planting around 15,000 trees a year. The school’s efforts inspired us (myself and a few friends in India) to help them become energy self-sufficient, adding 5 KW of solar panels to the three they already had. Together with battery backup, the school is now completely independent of the grid. (photo attached).

This activity led me to a thought. If IIASA’s work ultimately inspired these kinds of sustainability acts, what about IIASA’s own carbon footprint? IIASA’s alumni are scattered all over the world. What if we joined together, wherever we are, and worked to offset IIASA’s carbon emissions? Such actions would benefit our own communities, wherever we may happen to live. To kick-start this effort, I’ve decided to fund the planting of 1000 trees in 2018 through the farm school mentioned above. If each tree sequesters 25 kilos of carbon (as a rule of thumb, regardless of species), this would offset 25 tons of the Institute’s annual carbon emissions.

Should this be a formal organized effort? Readers’ suggestion welcomed here. All we would need is a virtual platform where one can document one’s own efforts and have a running tally. Ultimately the goal is to achieve carbon neutrality, not only for the Institute, but also for the communities in which each one of us lives. But, as for so many initiatives, IIASA could be a starting point.

On a personal note, the years since retirement have been very fulfilling. Thanks to my wife’s job, we were able to spend 2 idyllic years on an island paradise near Hong Kong. This provided background material for a work of fiction, Grace in the South China Sea. There are two sequels in the pipeline (The Trees of Ta Prohm, and Heartwood), to appear in 2018. Look for the earlier books and announcements on the Amazon author page here.

 

See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.

Advice to a Billionaire

Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.

And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.

As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.

Oceans of Lithium

Salar de Uyuni. Source: Wikipedia.en

Salar de Uyuni. Source: Wikipedia.en

Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia contains an estimated 43 % of the world’s easily recoverable lithium. Together with neighbors Chile and Argentina, the three countries contain 70% of the planet’s reserves. As most people are aware by now, the renewables revolution is gathering momentum, and the world needs lithium, lots of it. The people who follow these trends estimate that Tesla’s Gigafactory alone, when it comes into production, will double world demand for lithium, whose prices have shot up just in the last two months of 2015 (from US$ 6500 to 13,000 a ton in November/December). American, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean companies are already mining around 170,000 tons of lithium worldwide. The Argentinian salares, or salt flats, comprise thousands of square miles in the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta. The Salinas Grandes in the latter province is estimated to be the third largest in the world. But the grand-daddy of them all is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia that stretches over 10,000 sq.km. To paraphrase Exupéry, Salar de Uyuni is made up of salt, salt salt, and more salt, to a depth of one meter or more. In addition to common salt (sodium chloride), the salars contain other useful chlorides; potassium, magnesium and lithium chloride. The estimated 9 millions tons of lithium contained in this salar, conveniently concentrated by natural evaporation, should be enough to power a global energy revolution or two, but at what cost? Bolivia has suspended mining operations after the local residents opposed it, and Chile is granting no new concessions. These are understandable steps, in the light of what economists call ‘the resource curse.‘ In a nutshell, the resource curse or the resource paradox is that often countries with non-renewable natural resources (like minerals and oil) tend to have lower economic growth and less democracy than countries with fewer natural assets.

Understanding the resource curse does not help the international battery industry or alleviate the world’s need for non-polluting sources of energy, however. The increasing price of lithium is driving research into methods of obtaining it from the most abundant source on the planet, the oceans. Industrial ecologist Robert Ayres confidently predicted to me more than a decade ago that we would get all the lithium we need from the ocean. “There’s billions of tons there,” he said. True, there is an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium in seawater, but at a concentration of 0.14 to 0.25 parts per million, I did not believe it possible to extract it in meaningful quantities at reasonable cost. Changed my tune this week.

Many companies worldwide have been experimenting with various reverse osmosis technologies (the same technology that’s most often used to desalinate seawater) to produce brine concentrates dense enough to make lithium extraction economical. Now there are reports of several companies in a dozen countries that envisage producing lithium from brine concentrates at prices ranging from $1,500 to 5,000 per ton. Here’s an article about one of them.

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It’s Raining Electrons in Small Spaces

Four recent reports on new breakthroughs in renewable energy generation and storage technology reinforce the promise that was once made for nuclear power: abundant energy for all, including the poorest in society, even though it may never be “too cheap to meter.”

High Performance Flow Batteries The promise of renewable energy technologies will be fully realized when battery storage becomes reliable enough and cheap enough to even out intermittent flows. Today the problem is partly solved by feeding energy from rooftop panels into the grid and then receiving compensation from the energy utility for the power supplied either in cash or in the form of reduced electricity bills. Looking at a typical electricity bill in Euroland (my own) I see the following charges. The unit price (per KWh) is between 6.5 and 7.3 Eurocents, but after grid charges, network costs and taxes are added, I pay 26 cents per KWh. Ironically, bulk consumers (factories, office blocks and large companies) pay lower rates, around 8 to 15 cents per KWh, depending on level of consumption. Now the whole picture is changed with the advent of low cost storage systems that make home batteries affordable and economical. Imagine home systems that can deliver electricity for all your needs at no cost for twenty to thirty years, once installed, barring the onetime cost of the system. Coming soon, to an affordable home near you.

Silicon cones inspired by the architecture of the human eye. The retina of the human eye contains photoreceptors in the form of rods and cones. Rods in the retina are the most sensitive to light, while cones enhance colour sensitivity. Modelling photovoltaic cells based on the makeup of the retina, researchers have been able to enhance the sensitivity of solar cells to different colours in the sunlight that falls on each cell and thereby increase electricity output by “milking the spectrum” closer to its theoretical maximum. Increasing efficiency of the average rooftop PV cells from the current 18-20 to 30% would make such systems cheaper by far than grid electricity mostly anywhere in the world, even in temperate countries. Coming soon, to a rooftop near you.

Modular biobattery plant that turns biowaste into energy. Biogas plants are old hat. They have undeniable benefits, turning plant, animal and human waste into energy (methane) while leaving behind a rich sludge that is excellent fertiliser. However, good designs are not common and they are sometimes cumbersome to feed and maintain. Now comes an efficient German design that promises to be modular and economically viable even at a small scale. In another development, the University of West England at Bristol has developed a toilet that turns human urine into electricity on the fly (pardon the pun) and the prototype is currently undergoing testing, appropriately enough, near the student union bar. Coming soon, to a poo-place or a pee-place near you.

New electrolyte for lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries using various electrolytes have already become the workhorse of the current crop of electric cars and for medium-sized storage requirements. New electrolyte chemistry discovered at PNNL Labs shows that reductions of upto ten times in size, cost and density are feasible and various electrolyte/electrode combinations are being further tested for production feasibility. Coming soon, to a battery storage terminal near you.

So what should you do, as a concerned global citizen, until you can lay your hands on one of these devices (or all of them) for your own use? Tread lightly on the earth, don’t buy bottled water, reduce energy use, walk when you can instead of driving your car (your arteries will love you for it), buy local produce, eat less meat (your grateful arteries again), think twice before flying off to that conference (think teleconferencing), buy an electric car if you need a new one, and remember that every liter or gallon of petrol you fill into your old one not only fuels your car but potentially also the conflicts in the Middle East and/or lines the deep pockets of Big Oil which definitely does not want your energy independence.