Environmental Innovation: The Good Kind of Salt

Solar energy, as an alternative energy source, has been making great strides in many areas of the country. Some particularly progressive states have promoted it by giving subsidies for solar construction, even though those states are not the most optimal location for solar collection. It is one of those energy technologies that can be used almost anywhere.

There are two methods of collecting solar energy: solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP).  PV systems, as are seen on roofs of houses, convert sunlight directly into energy;  CSP systems use mirrors to concentrate the sun's beams to a central point which heats water to drive turbines.  One major drawback for both types of solar power has been the unfortunate law of nature that the sun doesn't shine all day.  That problem has now been solved, at least for CSP systems.   

The Andasol Power plant, a CSP solar power plant in Spain, can now pump out electricity for up to 24 hours from solar collection. The trick is to melt salt.

The plant has 2,650 mirrors that are used to concentrate solar beams on a boiler located in the center of the array. The solar power is used to melt salt during the peak hours of production. The liquid salt can be stored while retaining 99% of its heat, which is then used to boil water for steam power. This occurs throughout the day and night. The Spanish plant is estimated to generate about 110GWh per year. This compares to about 40GWh per year for plants not having the storage capacity. That is an environmental innovation that's worth watching.

Awarness-Raising Blogs

The good folks at Online-Accredited-Colleges.org have compiled a list of climate change blogs that is very impressive.  Their introduction says:

Climate change is an issue that affects all of us as a collective.  With our 50 top climate change blogs, we endeavored to provide the best and most current information on climate change issues, effects, and legislation being passed.  Overall, the blog spots offer a wide range of information, some from PhD recipients, and others from young people just trying to make a difference in their world.  Videos, links, commentary, and news stories help to foster a group based platform for change.

The blogs are not just about making a point; they are a call to action for the rest of the world and an illustration that changes need to be implemented . . . and soon.  So without further delay, here are the 50 most informative blogs about climate change today.

It's an extremely diverse list and I'm proud to be included.  Give it a look if you want to  find current and thoughtful posts on climate change issues.  Somewhere down the line, the environment will likely be glad that you did. 

Environmental Innovation: Reflecting On Reflecting

A lot of people are drawn to far-fetched technological ideas:  cold fusion, floating cars, that sort of thing.  The crazy people (a/k/a future geniuses) who devote their lives to develop these kinds of marvels almost never succeed, but  they often come up with other innovations that push us forward.  For example, John Pemerton, looking for a cure for headaches, invented Coke  (well, not always forward).  So it is with climate change innovations.

One fairly simple idea to address global warming is to reflect the sun's rays back into the atmoshere, otherwise known as solar radiation management, one aspect of geoengineering.  As your third grade science teacher would tell you, this will help prevent the mass (the land, or ocean, or building) from heating up.  But to affect global warming, it needs to be done on a large scale, and  that presents risks

The extreme of this theory is a relector in space that could reduce the amount of sunlight getting to the earth -- great idea, impossible (at the present time) to execute.  So how do you reduce that concept to a more workable proposal that presents less risk?  There have been two recent attempts that are worth noting.


A Peruvian inventor, attempting to save a rapidly melting glacier, came up with a simple solution -- paint the rocks around the glacier white.  The white rocks will reflect more of the sun's rays and will reduce the temperature of the surounding land which will, in turn, reduce melting of the glacier.  The painting has begun and only time will tell if it will succeed.


Another example, based in the I-should-have-thought-of-that school, is being used  to slow the rate of snow melt in the mountains of Northern Italy.  A giant, white blanket is put on top of the snow to reflect the sun's rays.  If the sun's rays can't reach the snow, the snow won't melt.  It's simple, efficient and can be done by a handfull of dedicated people.

I point these out because these are the type of climate change solutions that should appeal to almost everyone.  A majority of people currently believe that climate change is ocurring.  The fight comes over whether the change is man-made or natural and whether the huge expense of finding a solution is necessary or appropriate.  These recent examples avoid these arguments.  The solutions don't attempt to trap or eliminate man-made CO2 or reduce green-house gas emissions.  They don't point the finger at man or nature. They don't even ask anyone to alter their life style or to save electricity.  They do their job quietly, apolitically and efficiently and ask nothing in return.  If they work (which should be easy to verify in fairly short order), they can be expanded upon.  It's one of those small steps that can lead to great things.  That, to me, is innovation.

Environmental Innovation: Flower Power

I recently saw a speech given by Richard Sears, a visiting scientist at MIT who was formerly a geophysicist and executive at Shell Oil Company. He said something that is important to understand regarding the environment, environmental laws and sustainability. To paraphrase Mr. Sears:

We didn’t come out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stones: we didn’t come out of the Iron Age because we ran out of iron; and we’re not going to come out of the Oil Age because we’ll run out of oil. Rather, we’ve come out of each of the Ages because of ideas, innovation and technology.

Mr. Sears pointed out that we have plenty of oil and we will have plenty of oil for a long time to come but, as has occurred in the past, we will find a new way to create energy because the history of mankind is to come up with new ideas and innovations and to create new technology to solve our problems. 

I think he’s right and I think it’s worth watching. The trick will be to support the innovators and we can't do that unless we know about them.  For that reason, I am going to periodically post about new ideas and new technologies that affect the environment.  Some of the ideas will be simple and others a bit far out, but hopefully they will make you think about where we might be going.

Let me start with one that plays off of one of the great methods of motivating behavorial change: competition.  More particularly, if you make a game out of anything, people tend to want to play.  That is a large part of the reason for the success of the Prius effect.  Along that same line, welcome the Flower Lamp.

Many people have heard of smart meters, which monitor how much electricity the appliances in your home are using.  For example, you can keep track of how much you’re using (and therefore paying) for air conditioning, the refrigerator and the real energy hog, the digital picture frame

The Flower Lamp takes the smart meter one step further.  It visually represents the use of electricity in your home.  When you are being very good, it unfolds and the bulb shines bright. When your children have left every light on in the house and the air condition is running with most of the windows open, the Flower Lamp shuts as tight as a clam.

We all know that we should be shutting off lights and appliances that we aren't using.  We know that, but does it change us?  It doesn't appear to.  But when you add a visual element -- something you can actually look at and alter based on your actions -- it changes everything.  People start wanting to beat the game.  It's almost incidental that it saves money and energy.  It is behavior modification at its finest.

Is this a big innovation?  I don't know, but I think it (and other similar devices) could be.  Like so many great inventions, it's the multiplier effect that makes it worthwhile.  One or two Flower Lamps won't save the world, but put one in even 10% of the 115,000,000 U.S. homes, and it will make a dent.  And that is innovation.

Game Theory and the Environment: We All Want To Win

Bipartisan environmental legislation has long been an oxymoron.  This isn't surprising considering how the parties approach the issues.  However, I think it is safe to say that competition knows no political party. That is, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we all want to win. Since a competitive spirit is a bipartisan concept, why couldn’t Congress learn to use it to its advantage?

I put this question out there because of a recent post in the Wall Street Journal, “Vroom per Gallon: Toyota Prius vs. VW Clean Diesel.” It is an interesting piece about the relative merits of the Toyota Prius and the VW Jetta TDI Clean Diesel. When I finished the article, I was unimpressed with either car (no matter how you paint boring, it’s still boring), but one comment made by the author, Ana Campoy, did catch my attention. Ana said that the Prius has a monitor that tracks energy use and “makes a game out of getting the highest mileage.” She noted that she watches the diagram whenever she drives and that she and her husband have been “trying to beat our personal best for months: an average of 49 MPG.”  She called it the Prius Effect.

I got to thinking about those statements and I realized that she was right. Not too long ago I bought a car that has the ability to monitor the mileage, and now I do so on a constant basis.   Until I bought that car, the concept of miles per gallon was purely theoretical. Certainly I wanted to save gallons because it meant saving money. Did I really change my driving habits to do so? Not for a minute.  But put a gauge in front of me that can be manipulated to go to a higher number if I’m really “good” at driving, and suddenly I’m all about winning . . . uh, I mean, economy. I think you would be too. And more importantly, I think you would be whether you are a Democrat or a Republican.

I should note that, perhaps not surprisingly, my attention to the gauge has made a difference.  After six months, my average has gone up 2 mpg.  Obviously, if that had been a change from 46 to 48 mpg it would have been more impressive than, say, 17 to 19 mpg.  Still, as far as the environment is concerned, the relative change is significant. Multiply this by a few million cars and you've put a big dent in the air pollution problem. 

The age old maxim “out of sight, out of mind,” is one that our elected representatives should consider. If they want to increase car mileage, which depends to a significant degree on driving habits, then don’t hide the information where it is out of sight.  Maybe Congress could interfere a lot less, and still do a lot more, if it considered passing a law that required these kind of monitors.  Why not harness that competitive spirit that knows no party line?

I’ll let someone else crunch the numbers, but I would guess that a fairly modest expense could result in a substantial increase in actual miles per gallon without getting into the political mess of this trading caps thing.  I can just see the new slogan at General Motors -- GM: You Can Watch The Savings!