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Friday, March 27, 2009

Outgreening your neighbors

Photo:Wikipedia Commons

The competition for greenest car is really heating up. My favorite is the Bolloré Bluecar, which will be available as a lease option in several European countries next year. That's OK with me because I am not an early adapter. People who willingly act as guinea pigs by paying exorbitant prices to be the first to purchase gadgets do us all a favor by helping manufacturers flush out bugs in new technology.

This car has in addition to an advanced solid-state Lithium Metal Polymer battery, a large ultra capacitor to handle regenerative braking and acceleration. If I were the engineer in charge of designing an electric car, this is just what I would be shooting for. It has a 150-mile range on a 6-hour charge. Purchase of a fast charger will let you get fifteen miles on a five-minute charge.

You have probably already heard about the low cost Honda Insight that will hit the U.S. market this summer:

Honda has received more than triple the 5,000 orders a month it was expecting…[Japanese sales of Insight].

Toyota is responding by keeping a lower cost Prius in the lineup but more importantly:

Chief Designer Akihiko Otsuka said Toyota is planning a smaller, cheaper hybrid based on its Yaris platform to take on the Insight.

I called this shot in an article I wrote last summer titled:

"Converting a Yaris into a plug-in Hybrid--Toyota may have something up its sleeve."

The trick is to call a lot of shots but only highlight the ones that panned out.

My oldest daughter absconded with my Yaris when she decided to come back to Seattle to finish college. I have been working on a 91' Tercel instead. Results of that conversion will be discussed in a future article, but don't hold your breath. Progress is painfully slow.

Outgreen: To be more active with respect to environmental concerns, or to be more environmentally conscious, than another.

I created a Wiktionary entry for this word just before writing this piece, which has already been edited and improved upon. It will eventually be removed if someone decides that it doesn't meet the criteria for inclusion. In theory, it should, assuming Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded is considered a well-known work.

I'm not sure I like the definition as it stands. My first attempt at a definition was "To have a smaller environmental footprint or impact than a competitor." How would you define it?

The battery and capacitor of the blue car were developed by a French company called Bolloré. I have seen some wonderful stuff developed by French engineers. Boeing designed and analyzed the 777 in three dimensional Boolean solids using software developed by Dassault. It was an order of magnitude better than any other CAD software on the planet at the time (although it required a large complex of mainframes to run). It set the bar until it was eventually eclipsed by a competitor in the United States with even better software that ran on a PC platform, which Dassault immediately bought out.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Random bike advice and some helmet cam footage

I've been attaching a video camera to my bike helmet when I take longer rides (when it isn't raining). I just leave it running for the whole trip. You never know what you will run into on a bike ride, or get run into by. This is a nondescript clip of me returning a DVD up on 45th. The ride was only a few miles long but the errand took half the time it would have taken in a car. If cars are free to pass me on the left, I feel free to pass them on the right. Two things you must watch out for: People in parked cars who may open a door on you and people stuck in traffic who suddenly and without warning decide to get out of line at the next cross street just as you are going by. This happened to me last year. I left a dent just above the car's gas cap.

The other night I was riding with the camera on when another biker started drafting. People behind me can see what I see in the camera's screen, especially at night. This guy was strong. I've never had a rider stick with me like that. I moved from the bike trail into the street and cranked it up to about 30. He stuck right with me. I eventually got enough air between us on a hill that he lost the drag advantage and dropped back. I might just get a bigger front ring. I was pedaling like a hamster on a mouse wheel.

On occasion I wonder if it's worth getting on my hybrid electric bike but then I remember what it's like to drive in Seattle traffic and off I go. Bike riding isn't a religion. If it's raining, too cold, or you have a cold, just drive your car. The key is to minimize how much you drive without sacrifice. Sacrifice is for martyrs and as a solution does not scale. Riding my hybrid bike is usually more pleasant and faster than driving a car.

Remember to sit correctly on the bike seat. Your butt should be on the back part. If you sit on the front half of the seat you will eventually notice a tingling sensation, and not the good kind. Do that often enough and you will be visiting your urologist or a fertility clinic.

The back rim on my bike developed several metal fatigue cracks. I bought a heavy-duty rim at a local bike shop and asked them to string up my electric motor. A young bike mechanic wanted to give it a go, assuming he will eventually see a lot of electric bikes in the future. He did a great job and the wheel is working fine.

I will be posting video on occasion when I encounter something of interest, which is pretty often in this city.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Governors of West Coast States Nominated for Nobel Prize

Photo:Great Beyond via Flickr

I'm kidding! There is no Nobel Prize for ineptitude (although maybe there should be). Governors Rocket scientists, Gregoire, Kulongoski, and Swartzenegger are supporting a brilliant idea to grab some of the stimulus funds. From a Seattle Times article that garnered 140 comments :

The three governors envision a series of alternative fueling stations stretching from the Canadian border to Mexico, creating what has been dubbed a "green freeway." They also would be able to charge, or swap out, their electric-vehicle batteries or fill their tanks with biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen or compressed natural gas.

Here's what supporters are saying:

... the plan would fit with the nationwide push for green jobs and alternative-energy development, and put the states in line for some of the $15 billion in federal stimulus money dedicated to energy-related programs.

Somebody please send these people a copy of the following three lay press articles published last year by Time, the New York Times, and Newsweek:

Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

The Clean Energy Scam

Doing it wrong

And since you can't trust anything in the lay press, also send them a copy of this link which collects the actual studies that show today's agriculture-based biofuels are exacerbating global warming.

Include a link to this graphic showing that a third of global warming is caused by the direct destruction of carbon based lifeforms (exacerbated by biofuels) and a copy of this easy-to-comprehend graphic showing why tax payer money should not be spent propping up hydrogen for transport (300 percent more expensive than other options). Alright, so much for the ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen pumps.

That leaves natural gas and electric. I'm a big proponent of further electrification of transport. But I have to say that building charging stations along an interstate is the ultimate case of putting the cart before the horse (and one of the stupidest ideas I have ever heard).

Jeff Miller, who works in global development at Better Place, said that if the company were hired it would build charging stations in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and battery switch-out stations at rest areas about every 40 miles along the I-5 corridor. Electric vehicles, he said, have a battery life of about 100 miles.

So, assuming you were leasing one of their electric cars, you would have to stop and swap batteries roughly every hour (because the 100-mile claim is almost certainly BS at highway speeds). Electric cars are a long way from being used for long distance interstate travel. That is what plug-in hybrids are all about. You use electric power for shorter, lower speed missions, and use the engine for rarer long distance trips.

The natural gas pumps suffer a similar problem as electric in that your range is very limited, not to mention there are almost no cars running on it.

God save us from our politicians and the lobbyists advising them.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

African ethanol producers accepting employment applications

Photo:ElMarto via Flickr

Wanted: Young cane cutters for part time seasonal work. Must be willing to work ten hours a day swinging a machete in tropical sun while wearing gloves, long sleeved shirt, and hat--no retirement benefits (because you won't live that long). Apply within.

The comment below ElMarto's photo on Flickr titiled "Truck Shadow Escape" reads:

The sun at noon burns the sugarcane field. There are no trees, no shadow available except for the rectangle under an old truck. The sharp edges of the sugarcane leaves oblige collectors to wear long sleeves, gloves, boots, hats and also t-shirts around the head to protect their ears from cutting. A ten minute rest is all there is to escape from the sticky heat.
Adam Welz lives in South Africa. Last year he drove to Massingir Mozambique to see first hand the impacts of a scheme to grow sugarcane for ethanol. The article describing what he found appeared in the latest issue of Mother Jones. I typed "Massinger" into Google Earth to get a feel for the area. I found forest and savanna crisscrossed with dirt roads and livestock trails.

The good news:

The sugarcane plantation will employ 2,000 people.

The bad news:

Mozambique's population (where the total fertility rate is five children per woman) grows by that much every two days. With eventual mechanization the number of employed will drop to 400. As a means of reducing poverty, cane ethanol is a drop in a very large bucket. Industrial agriculture provides very few jobs per square mile. The fix for African poverty remains elusive, but industrial agriculture is unlikely to be the answer.

Welz discovered that the same land had been promised by the inept and corrupt government to several groups of people in addition to Bioenergy Africa, the company planning to grow cane and make ethanol. We all know who will win that struggle.

I discover that many of ProCana's 75,000 acres had indeed been slated rather precisely (and publicly) as part of planning for the Transfrontier Park. Some 29,000 people still live within Limpopo National Park's borders, and as many as 9,000 in the heart of the park are supposed to be relocated. After years of delicate negotiations, park authorities have arranged for the inner 9,000 to move to the valley of the Rio dos Elefantes, just downstream of Massingir Dam. They have—as Mozambican law requires—obtained permission from "receiving" communities to build houses for the newcomers and, very important, identified a sufficiently large grazing area for the new residents' livestock.

A ProCana map I've managed to obtain shows that the company's 75,000 acres cover this intended grazing zone. The same chunk of land has been promised to both the inner 9,000 and ProCana.
Global warming is about the destruction of the Earth's biosphere. Destroying more of the biosphere with industrial agriculture just accelerates that destruction. This project will consume nearly 75,000 acres of native woodland and savanna.

We drive in the 4x4 into ProCana's claim. The bush rustles and sings; birds are everywhere, and the savanna is filled with gray-barked and butterfly-leafed mopane trees, some of the biggest and oldest I have ever seen. A giant baobab, centuries old, provides a backdrop for a screaming flock of parrots, while a black-breasted snake eagle hovers overhead. Holtzhausen told me his environmental people found no trees of value here—charcoal burners, he said, cut them long ago. I'm not sure where those experts looked, because here, in the perfectly cadenced afternoon light, is paradise.
The article concludes with Adam presenting a possible scenario to ProCana's Corné Holtzhausen:
His 75,000-acre farm/factory will have serious ecological impacts—lost wildlife habitat, greenhouse gases released as natural vegetation is destroyed, massive water consumption, fertilizer and pesticide pollution. On the greater scale of Africa, these might be considered small, but ProCana is not alone. What about the hundreds of other big investors who will rush in if he succeeds? Who will stop his beloved Mozambique, and much of the rest of the continent, from being turned into vast pesticide-and-fertilizer-soaked monocultures? He smiles, a great gotcha smile, and pauses. "People like you," he says. "People like you who wear cotton shirts that take 25,000 liters of water to make—you like to wear them, because they're comfortable. People like you who drive private cars and like to fly around the world in aeroplanes. The consumer. That's who determines what happens."
Consumers my butt, I did not ask to have ethanol blended into my gas. How long are we going to let our governments get away with this?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Solar powered pogies and other oddities

Always a day late and dollar short, I thought I'd get this post out before winter ends next week.

Yesterday, I rode my hybrid electric bike from Fremont, which is at sea level, over Capital Hill, down into the Rainier Valley and back. It was about 15 miles round trip. I took mental notes on the discomfort I experienced along the way.

1. It was a cold and my face was freezing.
2. Although I had on thick gloves my fingers still got cold.
3. Whenever I needed to undo a zipper or do anything else with my hands I had to take my gloves off.

Taking gloves off so one can do something like adjust a jacket zipper requires riding with no hands while dodging potholes and cars. Yes, I know I could just stop riding to do it but like most other guys, I'm too stupid for that. And once you get your gloves off, you have to stick them under one arm. Putting them back on is even worse because you now have to bring your teeth into the act as well.

I spent the last two days in my workshop cobbling together fixes. The freezing face problem was handled by bolting on a cheap and simple face guard (found at Lowes and Home Depot among other places). I used wing nuts to make it easy to remove. Much to my surprise, it worked flawlessly on several test-rides in cold air. You can see it in action here. Never mind the bolt sticking out of the top. I'll get to that in another post.

This fix may also offer some protection against face plants. I know three people who have augured-in face-first this year. My wife's walking buddy woke up with face rash and a concussion. She isn't sure what happened but thinks she may have hit a slippery painted stripe on the road. She's afraid to get back on her bike. My wife's Spanish teacher managed a rapid deceleration using her face and a metal fence post, splitting her lower lip. My daughter's friend's boyfriend lost several front teeth and needed reconstructive surgery on his nose after his front wheel came off. Luckily for him, chicks dig scars. Bike helmets just don't offer much in the way of face protection unless you are willing to wear a full-faced version used in racing circles. The ones on the market today tend to be hot and uncomfortable. If anyone knows about one that works for regular bike commuters let me know.

The cold fingers problem can be resolved by a combination of Atlas 370 Nitrile Touch Gloves (preferably black to maximize solar gain) and a pair of solar powered pogies which you can make yourself. These gloves are very flexible with textured rubber on one side and cloth on the back to let them breathe. They are thin enough to manipulate things like zippers and bike helmet latches with ease but you can't quite pick your nose with them on. If that's a priority with you, consider cutting the tip off the index finger.

What's a pogie you say? It is, among other things, a wind and water proof cover that fits on an oar or handlebar (motorcycle or bicycle) to keep your hands warm and dry. This is an example of a pogie fail.

After much deliberation and a few glasses of wine, I made a pair out of one-gallon Glad double-lock freezer bags. Clamp one end around your handle bar with a paper clamp and cut a six-to-eight inch slit on the bottom side about two inches from the aft seam to stick your hand in. Experiment until you get it right. They come 40 to a box. Keep a few in your bike bag for riding in the rain or on cold days. I was hoping that by using a transparent material I would get some solar heating and sure enough I did when stopped at a light. Convection losses while moving overwhelm any solar heat gain. Who knows, one day you might start to see solar heated pogies available commercially.

You can't tell a nerd from a dork by looking. A dork does not realize that his or her pants are too short, whereas a nerd just doesn't care. Saving the planet is going to be a delicate balancing act. Ideas must scale (become popular with large numbers of the unthinking herd) and to do that they have to cross the coolness barrier. I am hopeful that if fixie bikes (which have the advantage of being able to go in reverse) can cross that boundary, this helmet and solar powered pogie can.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Weatherization Nation--How I reduced my natural gas use 60 percent for less than $400

Update 10/16/2009: Solar hot water project started.

Update 1/23/2010: 95 percent efficient furnace installed.

My name is not Earl. I've crossed everything off my list and I'd like to share what I have learned.

I'll start with my results to date. I spent roughly $400 and achieved a 60% reduction in my gas-heating bill for the month of February. My goal is an 80% reduction but that last 20% will cost me. To obtain that I will install a solar hot water panel in the one sunny patch of yard I have, along with a heat exchanger on the first floor shower drain, and possibly one of these bad boys. Our hot water accounts for almost 20% of our gas use.

And here's my list:

  1. Reroute gas furnace air-intake ducts to draw warm air from heated space rather than basement.
  2. Install R-21 insulation in unheated basement ceiling (which is the floor of the first story).
  3. Design and build moveable pop-in insulated shutters for all first floor windows.
  4. Keep upstairs doors to bedrooms and bath closed during day.
  5. Install R-11 in stairwell wall that leads from unheated basement.
  6. Weather-strip door from basement to house
  7. Install insulated door on laundry chute.
  8. Install damper in fireplace.

We maintain the first floor of the house (where the thermostat is located) at 70 degrees during the day (when occupied) and at 60 degrees during the night or when unoccupied. The heat loss from the first floor keeps the upstairs warmer than 60 degrees. As you walk from the balcony to the second floor, to the first floor, and on into the basement you can feel the air get colder and colder because warm air stratifies (hot air rises).

Use encapsulated fiberglass insulation battens. The fiberglass is enclosed and won't get under your shirt and make you itch "like a man on a fuzzy tree." It is usually white and reflects light well. It costs more but is not the fire hazard that paper-backed insulation can be. Building codes require that you cover paper-backed and foam board wall insulation with a 15-minute fire barrier (typically gypsum board or metal) to give occupants time to escape a fire before the smoke and fumes are released.

The most effective item on the list by far is the pop-in moveable insulation. In theory, these things cut the heat loss through our walls almost in half. We have a lot of big windows. You should be thinking, "What in the hell is pop-in moveable insulation?" It's a piece of insulation cut to the shape of your window and covered in cloth that you can "pop" into the window cavity from the inside. Get it?

How to make your own moveable insulation

  1. Use two-inch thick polyisocyanurate insulation board with aluminum foil on one side.
  2. Use a cheap sabre saw to cut the foam about a quarter of an inch smaller than the opening you plan to cover.
  3. Cover the edges with God's gift to man (duct tape) to keep them from chipping.
  4. Use sticky-backed foam insulation strips to fill gaps around the edges. It does not have to be perfect.
  5. Sew or have someone sew a cover out of fire resistant fabric. Be sure to add a few tabs to make handling easier.
  6. Install it with the foil toward the inside of the house leaving a gap between the foam and the glass.
Make one for a single window to get up the learning curve before you move on to another window. Get all of your screw-ups out of the way on your first window so you don't screw up all of your windows. Each window will be different and will require a different design.
Watch for signs of excess moisture against the wood sill. My windows stay dry but if yours don't, you can protect the wood with a few extra coats of oil-based paint or a good sealant. Tile or slate also works if you have nothing better to do.

Back in the 70s' when America was first introduced to the concept of energy conservation, insulated window shades were all the rage. They are a form of moveable insulation, sometimes referred to as night insulation. They could boost your window up to around R-4 or 5. The ones I made take the windows to around R-12.

I was granted permission for this experiment from my family under the condition that the insulation does not go up until after dark and is out before my wife gets out of bed. For all of you wannabe handymen out there, always remember, "Ain't mama happy, ain't nobody happy," and "If the women don't find you handsome, may they at least find you handy."

Keep in mind while designing these, what you will do with them when they are not in the window. They can fold accordion style and lay behind a couch. They can be covered with art and hang on the wall in plain sight, even on top of each other for a 3-D look. If you have a friend artist, turn her loose on them. They can be beautiful, high-status works of art--conversation pieces at dinner parties.

Every house is different. The highest priority and the biggest bang for your buck is to insulate your attic or roof. The best insulation is fiberglass and the more, the better. Be careful not to block airflow from the eve vents. I already have R-36 in mine.

The easiest to insulate, but the lowest return on investment is your floor. It will have the lowest temperature differential. May as well do it because it is relatively easy, unless you have an old house with 6 x 6 beams spaced four feet apart…

Replacing your old single pane windows with modern double-glazed ones will cost a fortune and improve each window from an R-1 to about an R-2 to R-4.

You can check to see if your walls have insulation in them by removing a piece of baseboard trim and looking for it by chipping a small hole in the plasterboard. You can have professionals (and I use that word lightly) blow insulation into the walls by cutting six inch holes along the top of the walls. The insulation will get hung up on wires and fire blocking and also settle with time leaving the top without insulation and the bottom compressed. There will also be the potential for moisture problems. There are other things you can do short of ripping down the plasterboard but there is no easy way out with walls. Mine are R-11. I ripped down the lath and plaster to do it many years ago.

The very cheapest thing to do is look for holes and cracks to plug, especially if you don't have a fireplace damper. A chimney without a damper is worse than having an open window because it will cause a draft that will suck air out of your house.

Hopefully, by this time next year I will be able to report that my family has reduced its total energy use by 80% without sacrifice or undue expense. By swapping a 24 mpg Outback for a 48 mpg Prius and a 15 mpg Cherokee for a hybrid electric bike we have already managed to reduce our car footprint roughly 80%. We still travel the same number of miles without sacrificing time, comfort, or cash.

I have proved (mostly to myself) that a 100% solar powered home is not just another Internet urban legend when I designed the Hybrid Solar Home for the Pacific Northwest that would use solar energy for all of its needs, power and heat (at least on paper). Great if you're in the market for a custom designed home with unobstructed southern exposure but the big ticket item is going to be retrofits of existing structures.

Next up, reduce the electric bill. The two big-ticket items will be the refrigerator and dryer. This is going to be interesting.

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