Many could be living off the grid soon!

From MIT:

In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.

Watch the brief video then read the linked article:

It will be interesting to see if this technology can be available in less than the 10 years the article suggests.

Technology like this, if it can be cost effectively delivered, can turn the whole electrical energy conservation movement on its head as well as dramatically reducing residential carbon footprints.

Price Gouging?

Post Katrina gas prices maybe went up 10-15% depending on where you lived and in most cases they have rolled back down. Nevertheless, cries of price gouging were rampant and continue. But that is gas. If it is some other good like, say, oysters then it is a feel good story:

With two-thirds of Louisiana oyster beds wiped out by the Aug. 29 storm, prices of Pacific oysters have soared as Gulf Coast processors scour for alternatives thousands of miles away. That’s allowed Taylor Shellfish to raise its prices 38 percent in the past month to $40 per gallon of oysters.
“It’s the strongest demand that I’ve ever seen for oysters,” says William Taylor, ……
Prices have surged as much as 50 percent since the hurricane, according to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, giving the Northwest growers some relief, even as they sympathize with the hurricane victims 2,000 miles away.

Imagine the outcry if gasoline prices had gone up 50%!
Seems like so-called market forces working the way they should in both cases. It can, though, be a bit hard to tell if the market is really working in the extensively regulated and subsidized oil and gasoline business.

Wasting Energy

Ethanol is clean. Ethanol is enviromentally friendly. North Dakota is going to subsidize ethanol use.
Only the last sentence may be true. North Dakota apparently is going to supplement the over $.50/gallon federal subsidy with an additional subsidy:

Gas stations are expecting ethanol fuel sales to zoom when a state tax break takes effect next month, although backers of the alternative fuel are less sure if consumers will stick with it.

Why use ethanal? Well,

Ken Kornkven, manager of a Cenex station in Portland, N.D., said some customers who can’t use E-85 also support it simply because it’s a renewable fuel.
“It’s a feel-good thing,” he said. “Even if they aren’t using it they liked to see it being used.”
As part of the initiative, a group of college students are traveling the state this summer in a vehicle festooned with a “GoE” logo, promoting ethanol and giving away free tanks of the blended fuel.
“I think a lot of people have heard of ethanol, but I don’t know how many of them know the benefits,” said Brent Klava, 21, a North Dakota State University student. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

But is it really a win-win for everybody? Recent studies suggest that ethanol fuel is not a great way to solve our energy problems:

Recently, Patzek published a fifty-page study on the subject in the journal Critical Reviews in Plant Science. This time, he factored in the myriad energy inputs required by industrial agriculture, from the amount of fuel used to produce fertilizers and corn seeds to the transportation and wastewater disposal costs. All told, he believes that the cumulative energy consumed in corn farming and ethanol production is six times greater than what the end product provides your car engine in terms of power.

Another article argues that ethanol’s touted cleanliness, reduced carbon dioxide production, can be achieved with a simpler approach:

Essentially you may as well burn gasoline and use the land base for reforestation (to store carbon in soil organic matter and standing biomass) than to grow corn and produce ethanol.

Patzek has a complimentary suggestion: repurpose all the funds devoted to ethanol to making automobiles more efficient.
Seems reasonable to me! Better that we all benefit from the wealth transfer than to give these dollars to corn growers and fertilizer makers.

Jet Powered Cell Phones

And they might help keep you warm in the winter:

Though the turbine�s blades span an area smaller than a dime, they spin at more than a million revolutions per minute and are designed to produce enough electricity to power handheld electronics. In the foreseeable future, Epstein expects, his tiny turbines will serve as a battery replacement, first for soldiers and then for consumers. But he has an even more ambitious vision: that small clusters of the engines could serve as home generating plants, freeing consumers from the power grid, with its occasional black- and brownouts….
Epstein�s immediate goal, however, is to use these miniature engines as a cheap and efficient alternative to batteries for cell phones, digital cameras, PDAs, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. The motivation is simple: batteries are heavy and expensive and require frequent recharging. And they don�t produce much electricity, for all their size and weight.
On a per watt basis these things apparently will be smaller and more efficient then comparable fuel cells. But they do have a bit of an exhaust issue.
Read the rest.

Pebbles to Hydrogen

China’s growth demands a lot of energy and they are aggressively pursuing nuclear options. On the one hand traditional reactors such as have not been built in the US since 1979 and which make many nervous. On the other hand they are working on pebble-bed reactors:

A reactor small enough to be assembled from mass-produced parts and cheap enough for customers without billion-dollar bank accounts. A reactor whose safety is a matter of physics, not operator skill or reinforced concrete. And, for a bona fide fairy-tale ending, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is labeled hydrogen.
Small currently is in the 200 Megawatt range and cheap means approximately $300 million. These small reactors can be combined in a modular fashion using common monitoring and control systems. This seems promising simply from the perspective of power generation but there is more.
Apparently this reactor techcnology has promise for hydrogen production:
To power a billion cars, there’s no practical alternative to hydrogen. But it will take huge quantities of energy to extract hydrogen from water and hydrocarbons, and the best ways scientists have found to do that require high temperatures, up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. In other words, there’s another way of looking at INET’s high-temperature reactor and its potential offspring: They’re hydrogen machines.
…Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories believe efficiency could top 60 percent – twice that of low-temperature methods. INET plans to begin researching hydrogen production by 2006.
In that way, China’s nuclear renaissance could feed the hydrogen revolution, enabling the country to leapfrog the fossil-fueled West into a new age of clean energy. Why worry about foreign fuel supplies when you can have safe nukes rolling off your own assembly lines? Why invoke costly international antipollution protocols when you can have motor vehicles that spout only water vapor from their tail pipes? Why debate least-bad alternatives when you have the political and economic muscle to engineer the dream?
Now this looks like a line of research I’d be putting a lot of money into if I were promising the citizens of my country a reduced reliance on foreign oil.
Update (9/9): An alert reader notes in the comments that the DOE has identified a similar reactor type as part of its technology evaluation roadmap. It is not, though, clear from the referenced document what level of funding the US has provided for this effort.