Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rating Cars: F is for Fuelish

Cars labeled A and B

Federal regulators are considering giving new cars letter grades for fuel efficiency starting with the 2012 model year:

"We are asking the American people to tell us what they need to make the best economic and environmental decisions when buying a new car," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "New fuel economy labels will keep pace with the new generation of fuel efficient cars and trucks rolling off the line, and provide simple, straightforward updates to inform consumers about their choices in a rapidly changing market. We want to help buyers find vehicles that meet their needs, keep the air clean and save them money at the pump."
Grades would range from A+ for a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) such as the Nissan Leaf through A or A- for most hybrids down to D for the gas guzzlers such as Ferraris and presumably such bloated excess as Hummers, Excursions and Escalades.

Oddly, no car would get an F, presumably because the mere existence of CAFE standards makes a true fail impossible... No van would rate better than a C+. A vehicle would need to exceed 14 mpg to avoid a D. Most sports cars would probably be mired in the C to D range, although presumably the Tesla Roadster would rate an A+, and the planned Porsche would be at A- or better. Some vehicles might be hard to rate.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Innovation: The Return of Ytivitaerc

Calvin & Hobbes on creativity
Some argue that we are experiencing a creativity crisis and that American creative ability is declining. According to one study of 1,500 CEOs, creativity the most important "leadership competency" so a decline would have ominous implications for long-term business competitiveness. But is it declining? Take a look at the Torrance test and judge for yourself--the Newsweek explication seems more like a measure of how much time one has previously squandered on doodling, although the full test may have broader scope.

So is creativity in decline? Perhaps not according to Michael Schrage, a research fellow in creativity at MIT's Sloan School:
America has a creativity glut. Over two decades, I've not heard a single venture capitalist suggest any perceptible decline in the creative quality and content of the business proposals they see. If anything, their innovation buffet has expanded. Aspiring pundits shouldn't confuse macroeconomic malaise with creative constipation.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ice to Eskimos

Benson Bubbler in downtown Portland Oregon
This is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, originally posted on 5/20/10.

In 2008 the average American consumed 30 gallons of bottled water, primarily from single-serving, single-use plastic bottles. That's 320 12-ounce bottles, or nearly one every day. It's obsessive.

There are many reasons not to drink bottled water.

Bottled water costs more than gasoline. It costs up to 10,000 times more than tap water. It uses 2,000 time as much energy. It has 100 times the life cycle costs.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Now That's a Traffic Jam

Stopped traffic in epic Chinese jam
There should be a stronger term for this than a mere "traffic jam":
Authorities in China are racing to unscramble the world's longest traffic jam, a 60-mile tailback stretching from the capital Beijing to the northern province of Inner Mongolia.

The jam on the main north-south motorway into Beijing has been blamed on a set of roadworks that is intended to alleviate congestion caused by thousands of trucks bring coal and perishable goods into the city.

At its farthest extent trucks joining the back of queue in Inner Mongolia were taking several days to reach their destination, crawling along at about 2mp/d – or miles per day, the measure of speed on the clogged section.
Little wonder the Chinese are so heavily committed to massively expanding their rail networks.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Waste to Energy: Urine

Row of urinals
Pee power:
By weight, urine contains roughly 2 per cent urea, and each urea molecule contains four hydrogen atoms, which, crucially, are less tightly bound to the molecule than the hydrogen in water. Splitting these bonds would require less energy, making hydrogen production more efficient.
The hydrogen of course can be truned to energy very easily. Chemically:
(NH₂)₂CO + H₂O → 3H₂ + CO₂ + N₂
It's intriguing to think of having a fuel cell in the field that can be fueled by pee, which in turn is mostly formed from water, which we drink. Urinate in a container and charge batteries. There are also large scale applications, particulalry from animal husbandry.

Bt what about the carbon emissions?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rachel & Jacob

We had a very enjoyable trip to Napa for the elegant and convivial wedding of the eldest daughter of our dear friends Amy and Paul. The ceremony and reception were held August 21 at the Culinary Institute of America at the north end of Napa Valley's scenic St. Helena.

Outside the Culinary Institute of America
At the Culinary Institute of America
Fortunately, the weather wasn't broiling as it can be in August, so sitting outside was both beautiful and pleasant. The reception was joyous, festive, and (as one might expect from the venue) had some of the most scrumptious and delectable food. Those Napa wines aren't too shabby either!

Rachel & Jacob Saperstein's first dance
The couple's first dance
Congratulations to two wonderful people--Rachel and Jacob Saperstein--and to their families, especially their parents, Amy & Paul and Joan & Harry. Thanks for inviting us. Mazel tov!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

100 Cups of Coffee

100 kph least.

Since I started looking for my next position in the second week of July, and as of today, I've had 100 meetings with friends and colleagues, each of which featured at least one cup of coffee on average. It's a good thing I really like the stuff!

I've received tons of great feedback, suggestions, and no small number of introductions. Thanks everyone for so much great advice and stimulating conversation. You're all great, and I'm really looking forward to what comes next, and to working together with all of you on new projects, both yours and mine.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Peak Buffalo

This is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, originally posted on 12/18/09.

Peak Buffalo cartoon
Yep, we'll never run out of oil as long as we keep drilling.

There were alternatives to buffalo too, but just not so obvious or acceptable to those who lives were defined by hunting buffalo.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Running On Oil

Asphalt road paving
It's bad enough that so much of our transportation fleet runs on oil, but our infrastructure is literally built on oil as well--most of our roads are made of asphalt (asphaltic concrete) which is 5% petroleum by-products. So, it's good news that asphalt is routinely re-used in new road projects when torn up during road work. It's even better news when less is used in the first place. In Pennsylvania they're using a "cold" asphalt that increases re-use and costs a fraction of the traditional stuff.
The material is made from asphalt that is milled and collected during road construction projects. The millings are crushed, ground and injected with oil and water before being applied and rolled. The road is sealed with tar and chips or a thin layer of asphalt.

"It's softer than (traditional) asphalt, so you can't use it on busy roads," [Pennsylvania DOT executive Jeff] Karr said. "But it's perfect for back roads that have become deformed."

Karr said the district will use 45,000 to 60,000 tons of recycled asphalt this year to pave up to 27 miles of road. Using the recycled asphalt will cost $40,000 to $60,000 a mile, compared with $250,000 to $400,000 a mile for traditional asphalt, he said.
The approach has been used for almost 40 years, but resurges every time oil costs rise:
Although local PennDOT districts just recently started rebuilding roads with recycled asphalt, it's been done elsewhere since the 1970s, said Dave Newcomb, vice president for research and technology at the National Asphalt Pavement Association in Lanham, Md. About 100 million tons of asphalt are recycled each year, the association says.

The oil embargo drove its early use, Newcomb said. Asphalt is a by-product of oil refining. Interest was renewed in 2006 and 2007 when fuel prices soared, Newcomb said.

"It's a win-win for everyone," Newcomb said. "Departments of transportation are saving money, and it's definitely a good thing environmentally, in terms of there being less aggregate (used in asphalt) being taken out of quarries and the oil saved. The beauty is, you can continually recycle."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Is There a Drilling Moratorium Again?

Wile E. Coyote on rocket
Could it be because the oil companies drilling offshore still don't know how to do it safely?
Government tests uncovered serious problems with the blowout preventers aboard two deepwater rigs that were drilling relief wells to shut down BP PLC's broken well, regulatory documents show... The tests found problems with the rigs' blowout preventers, the safety device of last resort meant to stop the type of oil and gas surge from a well that doomed the Deepwater Horizon, the BP-leased rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20... Yet problems were found on this critical safety device on the only two rigs allowed to drill in deepwater during the Obama administration's temporary ban.
Unless and until the public has confidence that offshore drilling can be done without leading to another massive environmental disaster, a drilling ban is not just a good idea, but an essential one.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Napa Valley

Hurley's Restaurant, Yountville, CA
My wife and I are here in northern California for the wedding of the eldest daughter of close friends. The "rehearsal dinner" was this evening and it was a grand time, even though we were two of only a tiny contingent from the Pacific Northwest. The dinner was at Hurley's, in the heart of Yountville, up state highway 29 from Napa.

Proprietor Bob Hurley himself was carving the roast beast at the end of the buffet line. A very pleasant fellow with a delightful establishment serving outstanding food. We hope to be back to experience it afresh...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hybrid car: Electric & Human Power

Yabba dabba do!
The HumanCar Imagine PS, a four-seater vehicle that uses hand cranks, can take on hills at 30 miles per hour, exceed 60 mph on flat terrain and is expected to hit the market next year.
HumanCar Imagine PS

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Straddling Bus

Three-dimensional roadways.

While here in the United States we wrangle endlessly about the relative merits of expanding public transportation, or expanding road capacity for cars, in China they are preparing to build a test system that accomodates both, using the same arterial footprint:
Proposed by Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Co., Ltd, the model looks like a subway or light-rail train bestriding the road. It is 4-4.5 m high with two levels: passengers board on the upper level while other vehicles lower than 2 m can go through under.
Straddle train concept
Powered by electricity and solar energy, the bus can speed up to 60 km/h carrying 1200-1400 passengers at a time without blocking other vehicles’ way. Also it costs about 500 million yuan to build the bus and a 40-km-long path for it, only 10% of building equivalent subway. It is said that the bus can reduce traffic jams by 20-30%.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hydrovolts Enters GE Ecomagination Challenge

Hydrovolts logo
Hydrovolts has entered the GE Ecomagination challenge in the renewable energy category. What is it?
GE’s Ecomagination Challenge is a $200 million call to action for businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, and students to share their best ideas and come together to take on one of the world’s toughest challenges – building the next-generation power grid to meet the needs of the 21st century.
The Challenge is a contest between ideas submitted by the public, which also votes for the best idea. Read the submission and vote for Hydrovolts.

There are some great awards for winning submissions:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Permitting Insanity

Cape Wind location
This is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, originally posted on 6/6/10.

Why does it take more than 9 years and endless anguish to allow wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, but deepwater oil drilling routinely has environmental impact studies waived, supposedly because massive oil spills are unlikely? The oil industry has received approvals with potentially severe environmental impacts in as little as 10 minutes. Contrast the (over-)abundance of caution for wind and the cozy practice of superficial scrutiny for oil. Recent events make the dissonance especially jarring.

The Cape Wind offshore wind farm is closer than ever to the start of construction. Just more than a week after the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon platform, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave formal approval, saying:
After careful consideration of all the concerns expressed during the lengthy review and consultation process and thorough analyses of the many factors involved, I find that the public benefits weigh in favor of approving the Cape Wind project at the Horseshoe Shoal location. With this decision we are beginning a new direction in our Nation’s energy future, ushering in America’s first offshore wind energy facility and opening a new chapter in the history of this region.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Massive robot elephant made of reclaimed materials
Robot Elephant made of reclaimed materials
Reduce, reuse, recycle.

We've heard this mantra for decades, but increasingly there's another that should be added to the list--reclaim. There are companies and organizations that reclaim electronics, building materials, cabinetry and denim for insulation, amongst many others. There are untold numbers of people that repurpose wine corks into bulletin boards, torn clothing into cleaning rags, incomplete jigsaw puzzles into picture frames, railroad ties into landscaping structure and and popsicle sticks into... whatever. There are sites dedicated to finding ways to reclaim materials for new purposes, often, but not always crafts and art. In Seattle, there's also Meyer Wells, a company that reclaims urban trees felled by disease or disaster and turns them into beautiful furniture, countertops and other products.

Founder John Wells speaks of the business opportunity in sustainability:
I really believe a designer can make better choices, and that can influence people and move us in a direction that’s more sustainable. That’s what I’ve chosen to do, and I think it’s what’s made us a successful business.
Founder Seth Meyer has more of an artist's sensibility, but both share a typically Northwest zeitgeist:
If there’s one rule in the shop, it’s this: Respect the tree’s narrative — including the chapters about its hard urban life. Mr. Meyer once found a steel snippet embedded in a beautiful cherry slab, perhaps a remnant of a nail used to hammer a “lost cat” sign to the tree. He left it in place, a piece of the story.
The cost of such loving labor isn't cheap. One pays for the character of the result, from transporting recovered trees from demolition or other sites, through processing the wood from raw material to finish. Prices of individual pieces can top $20,000. Does that make sense?

While it might be cheaper to turn such trees into firewood, such elaborate reclamations, made possible by the passion of the craftspeople and the patrons who commission them, set a standard. In the fashion industry, exotic runway shows in New York and Milan showcase absurdly expensive and often impractical clothing which nonetheless provides the direction of more practical togs to come. While Meyer Wells' beautiful work may be out of reach of most of us, the sterling example may lead to an industry that will bring this aesthetic more broadly to more people.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Living on Garbage

Floating sea of plastic
The North Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch contains an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic, and it's growing.
Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) was the first to find the huge, floating plastic dump in 1997. On the foundation's website, he described it as "just absolutely gross – a truly disgusting plastic cesspool. [It] has to be burned into the consciousness of humanity that the ocean is now a plastic wasteland".
Artist's conception of Recycled Island
It's like a floating island, so perhaps it could become one?
A floating city of half a million people on a vast plastic island. Does that sound like Waterworld? The vision could soon be a reality if Dutch conservationists have their way. Recycled Island is a plan to clean up 44 million kilos of plastic waste from the North Pacific Gyre, which stretches from California to Japan, and provide 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 square miles) of sustainable living space in the process. Solar and wave energy would provide power for islanders while sustainable fishing and agriculture could provide their food.
It's not Waterworld, and it certainly isn't Perelandra. Living on a sea of plastic doesn't seem very workable unless the disintegration of the plastic could be prevented. Solar radiation breaks it down into tiny pieces, which are then mistaken for food by sea life. How do you build a habitation on something falling apart and being eaten by fish?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who Backs Bureaucrats Over Superheroes?

We like the pound of cure. It's more thrilling, and makes better theater.

Exemptions form oil moratorium since BP Deepwater Horizon spill

Preventing a disaster garners little recognition or reward, especially compared to sashaying into an unfolding disaster or to rescue the mortally imperiled. In the popular mind, the latter is the stuff of superheroes, while the former is practiced perhaps by some kind of unglamorous plodder--perhaps a mousy accountant or a timid bureaucrat--an un-hero who can hope, at best, to be neglected and who, upon failure will be widely condemned. The receive asymmetrical accolades:
In our thinking we place a premium on the dramatic rescue, the last-minute escape, and the ingenious on-the-fly technical solution. They all make good copy for reporters, and they make good stories for television and movies.
Thus, many denigrate the value of putting a price on carbon, for it is too cautious and may even result in some measure of sacrifice today. No one will be praised for taking care to prevent a disaster some naively think will never arrive. It is so much more pleasing to place one's faith in the superhero salvation of some amazing technological breakthrough that will arrive just in time to save us all. And we can all look quite dashing while doing so!

In the same vein, BP and the amen chorus at the American Petroleum Institute miss no opportunity to assert that advances in technology will always allow domestic oil production for all our needs (if only the pettifogging regulators would abide!)

Of course, these were the same folks who assured us that they were prepared for any kind of spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Porsche to Offer Electric Sports Car

Electric Porsche concept car
They've got to do something about Tesla, so they are reportedly
already working on the ongoing development of hybrid concepts already in regular production and will use three research cars with an all-electric drive based on the Porsche Boxster to carry out further research.
Tests are to begin in early 2011 of an electric Boxster. Porsche CEO Michael Macht:
We will definitely be offering an electric sports car in future. But such a concept only makes sense if it offers product qualities typical of a Porsche.
I want one.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Climate Change Inaction: Crime of the Century

Drowned cities from climate change raising sea levels
Who amongst us has the right to destroy that
which belongs to others?
What is the worst ethical scandal in the US Congress? No, it's not about either Representative Charlie Rangel or Representative Maxine Waters. It's failing to act despite knowing that the inaction causes harm. It's like watching someone slowly bleeding to death but not calling 911 from your cell phone. It is
...ethically reprehensible because it is depriving tens of millions of people around the world of life itself or the natural resources necessary to sustain life. The failure in the US Senate to enact legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions is a moral lapse of epic proportions. Yet it is not discussed this way.
But it needs to be. There have been 30 years of reports of increasing levels of confidence from the world's most authoritative and prestigious scientific bodies and organizations that climate change is real and human-caused, is causing increasing damage to our habitat, and time to arrest or reverse the damage is rapidly running out. Yet our government refuses to take action to fulfill its ethical duties to others to prevent harm.
Republican Senators who oppose action on climate change in the US Senate do so because such legislation would "create a 'national energy tax", warning costs would be passed to consumers in the form of higher electricity bills and fuel costs that would lead manufacturers to take their factories overseas, putting jobs at risk.

For twenty-five years, many American politicians have opposed climate change legislation on similar grounds that such legislation would harm US economic interests.

Yet, if climate change raises ethical questions, then strong arguments can be made that nations have not only national interests but also duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. However, ethical arguments that could counter the national-interest based arguments are rarely heard in the climate change debate and are now virtually absent in the U.S. discussion of proposed domestic climate change legislation. We never hear, for instance in the United States that we should enact climate change legislation because our emissions are harming others. This is a catastrophic ethical failure.
While the US Senate and its so-called conservatives are certainly rebarbative, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Shi Shi Beach

Point of the Arches as seen from Shi Shi Beach
Point of the Arches as seen from Shi Shi Beach,
Olympic National Park
Despite having perhaps our wettest camping trip in 10 years or more this past week, we still had a good time. My kids and I have gone to the same place almost every year since 1996.

Shi Shi Beach is located in the Olympic National Park on Washington State's beautiful Olympic peninsula ocean coast. By some accounts it is the last true wilderness beach in the lower 48 states. It's a bit more than 3 miles of sand fronting coastal forest, and looking out at the iconic Point of the Arches, a string of sea stacks cut into natural stone arches by the ocean's erosive power. Wildlife includes the usual deer, chipmunks, gulls, hawks, and tidepool residents, but I've also seen orcas just 50 yards off shore and peregrine falcons hunting the resident gulls, and bear scat (but no bears.) Like most national parks, there are enforced restrictions at Shi Shi that prohibit pack animals, dogs, weapons, and wheeled conveyances of any kind. If you stay more than a day or two, especially in summer, expect to be visited by park rangers who will check that you have both a permit and a hard-sided bear canister to keep your food away from the wildlife. They can and do issue citations if you're caught without.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gone Camping

I'll be at Shi Shi Beach and Point of the Arches with 2 of my kids through Sunday, and will return to posting on Monday.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Different Wind Turbine Design: The Aerogenerator

An innovative British design, allegedly based on a spinning sycamore seed, or perhaps a leaf, has joined the contest to achieve 10MW output from a single offshore turbine.

Artist depiction of Aerogenerator pffshore wind turbine
The Aerogenerator--the future of offshore wind energy?

The device measure 900 feet from tip to tip.
[It] has two enormous arms that extend from the base of the structure in a V-formation, each equipped with sails along their length that act like aerofoils to generate lift and cause the structure to turn at about three revolutions per minute.
One of its compelling advantages is that it does not require the monopoles or masts of current offshore designs:
The new [Aerogenerator] turbine is based on semi-submersible oil platform technology and does not have the same weight constraints as a normal wind turbine. The radical new design is half the height of an equivalent [conventional] turbine.
Offshore turbines cost 30-50% more than their land-based counterparts, primarily because of making the design withstand the harsher and more corrosive conditions. Installation is also more expensive since it requires highly specialized and expensive boats which are relatively few in number and in very high demand. The potentially simpler installation of the Aerogenerator may give it a cost advantage.

Engineers think the design could be expanded to produce turbines generating 20MW or more which may be larger than the mechanical limits of conventional designs.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Things I Learned from my Dad

Chris Leyerle and his Dad, John
Port Hope, Ontario

I've learned many things from my Dad.

He was my first employer, putting me to work in our yard for what seemed to an 8-year old boy a fine wage, 15 cents an hour. In Canadian dollars no less. I mowed the lawn, raked leaves, shoveled snow and stacked firewood. Rarely I got to help on some of his yard projects, which were generally a whole lot more fun (cutting down trees! building a deck!)

He gave me a small notebook and showed me how to track my hours worked. I would bring him the notebook every few weeks, which he would review and from which I would get paid. Like so many on payday, I would then hurry off to the store (on my bike) to buy myself a treat--in those days bubble gum and trading cards (Batman! Rat Patrol!) I saved anywhere from a quarter to a half of what I earned in a "passbook savings" account.

After a year or so, however, the 15 cents an hour income didn't seem nearly so handsome. I screwed up my courage (for my Dad could be a bit intimidating in the classic paterfamilias way) and went to ask for a raise.

"Why should I give you a raise?" he asked me.

I was not prepared for this question.

So I said the first thing I thought of: "Because I need more money?" I was unsure, so it sounded rather much like a question. I wanted more money, but naturally I wanted his approval as well.

"That might be a good reason for you, but what I asked you is why I should give you a raise. What is my good reason?"

Well, I had to think about that. Later that day I came back to him with a better answer: it took me less time to mow the lawn than I did when I started, so I was actually getting paid less for the job than I used to get. I was more efficient and did a better job in less time. I did more things, and there was more time to get more done. It was a big yard and there were always more things to do. My time was worth more--to him.

I got a raise to 25 cents.

As an entrepreneur I realize my Dad taught me many things that are part of who I am and how I work every day. Honesty. Clarity of purpose. How to develop a value proposition. How to think first about what the other guy wants, needs, and cares about. Continuous improvement. How to have confidence in asking for what I want, and to find and explain the way it benefits both my customer and me.

Thank you Dad.

John Frank Leyerle, 11/18/26 - 8/2/06, RIP