Friday, May 14, 2010

Crude awakening

Sure, some people are calling the oil spill in the Gulf a "crisis." And I guess to certain people with certain world views, it is a crisis.

But I prefer to look on the bright side of things. Where some people see crisis, I see opportunity. In this case, it's the opportunity to look at our national energy consumption and talk about ways to make it better.

And I'm not alone. Two of my favorite bloggers have noted the increased awareness of our energy situation.

Xavier Onassis, reining Imperator of Independence made some great points in his post about a smart energy grid, or as he called it an "agnostic energy grid":
What we need is a … power grid that will accept input from any source at a standard, pro-rated, kilowatt-based compensation, feed that electricity into the grid where it is distributed as needed at a standard, pro-rated, kilowatt-based pricing system.

There are so many ways to generate electricity that with a distributed generation strategy and a unified grid, we can have all the power we need without depending on fossil fuels.
He then lists many different ways to produce electricity, including small nuclear reactors like those that have been used for years to power America's warships at sea.

That post dovetails nicely into R.Sherman's two-part series on the importance of nuclear energy to our energy future. It's a great series (as you would expect from one of Missouri's finest minds) that scientifically points out that the so-called "green" energy solutions won't be enough by themselves to provide all of our energy consumption needs.

All these points made me realize that as a culture we have a pretty limited view of how we generate electricity. It's either from nuclear plants, coal plants, hydroelectric or wind or some other grand scheme.

But let's not forget that there are many ways to capture energy that is wasted every day. It seems like there are many opportunities to generate-- or rather capture -- small amounts of energy over a very large area. Kind of a "long tail" approach to the energy problem.

For example, an Israeli company has developed a new highway surface that generates electricity as cars drive over it.

A United Kingdom company has developed a way to convert the kinetic energy of pedestrians walking down a busy street into electricity.

There have also been proposals to embedded piezoelectrics in shoes, clothing, even body parts to convert kinetic energy into electricity.

None of these plans individually generate very much electricity. But if created in mass and spread out over a national -- maybe even global -- smart energy grid, a dent could be made in our electrical consumption.

So my mind started to wander and look for ways to capture and convert more kinetic energy into electricity. They've got cars and sidewalks and shoes covered. People have even hooked bicycles up to generators.

And then I saw an opportunity literally right in front of me. We need to have tiny little piezoelectric generators embedded into every computer keyboard and mouse in the country.

Just think of the potential. Any time anyone presses a key on the keyboard -- and it's done billions of times a day -- a tiny electric charge would be created. Every time you move your mouse, every time you hit the enter key, every time you backspace to correct a misspelling you would be generating a tiny bit of power.

All of these tiny bits of power would cascade into the smart energy grid like delicate snowflakes on a mountain top. But by the time they accumulate, they would become an avalanche of clean electric power that anyone could have access to.

And finally, at long last, the millions of bloggers writing inane, uninformed posts about subjects of which they have little understanding would be serving a useful purpose.

tagged: , , , , , ,


  1. Love that idea! Sign me up :)

  2. Some people say that every little bit helps. My personal philosophy is that "every little bit" is still just a little bit. When you have a system that you describe that requires enormous collectors to capture just tiny amounts of intermittently available energy, you have to make very large capital investments that do not pay back the investment because of the low number of "turns" or the low "capacity factor".

    Think of economic value of a restaurant that uses solar cooking. They might have low energy costs, but they cannot cook much food or serve very many customers quickly. They would have to invest in a LOT of tables that will be filled up with customers waiting for their food to be delivered instead of customers who get fed, depart and provide space for other paying customers.

    I used to operate those small nuclear power plants that have been powering ships at sea ever since the Nautilus reported that she was "underway on nuclear power" on January 17, 1955. They provide all of the power we need to run ships, supply electricity, distill water, and even produce new oxygen. They respond rapidly to changes in load.

    Who needs a bunch of small solutions when we know how to make big changes that can make many fossil fuel applications obsolete?

    Only the oil, coal and gas companies stand to lose out in a rapid shift to nuclear energy. Perhaps that is why they have been providing funds to the nuclear opposition for at least 4 decades.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

  3. Thanks for the plug.

    It really has to be combination of things, methinks, but government needs to get out of the way and let smallish entrepreneurs and engineers come up with solutions, supporting what's promising and jettisoning what's not quickly.

    I happen to believe private finance is better able to gauge successes and failures more quickly than bureaucrats.

    BTW, spidey powers are overrated, plus the web-crap sticks to everything. To wit: forget ever reading a paper again.



Your turn to riff...