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The ‘Silent Green Revolution’ Underway at the Department of Energy – Ross Andersen – The Atlantic

11 Sep
In previous decades, the Department of Energy drove basic research by operating giant government-funded labs, but under the leadership of Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, the agency has transformed itself into something different: the biggest, greenest venture capital firm in the world.
After receiving an unprecedented surge in funding for renewable energy courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Chu set to work hiring big names from the nation’s top research laboratories, in order to staff a new agency called ARPA-E, modeled after DARPA, the R&D wing of the Pentagon. In just three years, ARPA-E has made more than 180 investments in basic research projects in renewable energy, and that’s in addition to grants issued by the Department of Energy proper, like the one that funded the Ocean Power Technologies project in Oregon. …

In the book you describe a new federal agency, ARPA-E, a stimulus-funded incubator for alternative energy technologies that is the brainchild of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Can you describe how ARPA-E came into being? 

Grunwald: The stimulus didn’t create vast new armies of government workers at alphabet agencies like the WPA or CCC; ARPA-E was its only new agency, with a staff the size of a major-league baseball roster. But it’s a really cool agency, the kind of place where Q from the James Bond movies would want to work. It actually had its roots in the Bush administration, when Chu served on a National Academy of Sciences panel on American competitiveness that released a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm; one of its recommendations was an energy research agency modeled on the legendary DARPA at the Pentagon. The idea was to finance out-of-the-box, high-risk experiments, like an early-stage venture capital firm. Congress authorized it, but never gave it money to launch until the stimulus.

The early days at ARPA-E were pretty insane. Its first couple of employees had to put out its first solicitation, and it was inundated with 3700 applications for its first 37 grants, which crashed the federal computer system. But they attracted an absurdly high-powered team of brainiacs: a thermodynamics expert from Intel, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a clean-tech venture capitalist who also taught at MIT. The director, Arun Majumdar, had run Berkeley’s nanotechnology institute. His deputy, Eric Toone, was a Duke biochemistry professor and entrepreneur. Arun liked to say that it was a band of brothers; I like to think of it as a $400 million Manhattan Project tucked inside the $800 billion stimulus.

via The ‘Silent Green Revolution’ Underway at the Department of Energy – Ross Andersen – The Atlantic.

Behind Nuclear Breach, a Nun’s Bold Fervor – NYTimes.com

11 Aug

She has been arrested 40 or 50 times for acts of civil disobedience and once served six months in prison. In the Nevada desert, she and other peace activists knelt down to block a truck rumbling across the government’s nuclear test site, prompting the authorities to take her into custody.

She gained so much attention that the Energy Department, which maintains the nation’s nuclear arsenal, helped pay for an oral history in which she described her upbringing and the development of her antinuclear views.

Now, Sister Megan Rice, 82, a Roman Catholic nun of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and two male accomplices have carried out what nuclear experts call the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex, making their way to the inner sanctum of the site where the United States keeps crucial nuclear bomb parts and fuel.

via Behind Nuclear Breach, a Nun’s Bold Fervor – NYTimes.com.

Power Failures Hit Millions in India – NYTimes.com

31 Jul

India has struggled to generate enough power of its own to fuel businesses and light homes, and the country relies on huge imports of coal and oil to power its own plants. But supply and demand may not explain away this week’s grid failures, power executives said.

The failure on Tuesday affected roughly twice as many people as the massive power outage the previous day, when the northern power grid failed and left more than 300 million people without power for several hours. No official reason for the Monday’s failure has been given, although some local news reports pointed fingers at state governments which were overdrawing power.

That assessment is too simplistic, Mr. Saxena, of BSES, said. There are controls in place on India’s electricity grids that override an outsized power demand. “We have one of the most robust, smart grids operating” in the world, he said. It would “not be wise” to give an assessment of what happened at this time, he added.

via Power Failures Hit Millions in India – NYTimes.com.

The Huge Shift in Our Energy System That’s Happening Right Now in 1 Chart – Alexis Madrigal – The Atlantic

18 Jul

As long as Americans have made electricity, they’ve gotten more of it from coal than from any fuel. While petroleum and natural gas have played huge roles in our energy system, coal’s been responsible for more than 65 percent of the fossil-fuel electricity we’ve generated for most of the last 50 years. (And for big chunks of the 20th century, we made half of all the electricity in this country by burning coal.)

But natural gas is in the process of overtaking coal as the top fuel in America — and fast. The energy system, as you can see in the chart, tends to change slowly. But just look at the last three years in the chart below. That’s the kind of growth that you tend to see in the high tech industry, not energy. That’s an honest-to-goodness hockey stick.

via The Huge Shift in Our Energy System That’s Happening Right Now in 1 Chart – Alexis Madrigal – The Atlantic.

Saudi Arabia Unveils $100 Billion Plan To Make Solar ‘A Driver For Domestic Energy For Years To Come’ | ThinkProgress

14 May

In a report from Bloomberg Businessweek on the recent announcement, a consultant with the Saudi government, Maher al- Odan, explained the country’s strategy: “We are not only looking for building solar plants….We want to run a sustainable solar energy sector that will become a driver for the domestic energy for years to come.”

The plan will also help the country save hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude per day. With diplomats and energy experts privately concerned that Saudi Arabia has overstated its oil reserves by as much as 40%, the country will need new resources to make up for declines in production.

via Saudi Arabia Unveils $100 Billion Plan To Make Solar ‘A Driver For Domestic Energy For Years To Come’ | ThinkProgress.

Last Reactor of 50 in Japan Is Shut Down – NYTimes.com

5 May

Japan’s last operating reactor was taken offline Saturday, as public distrust created by last year’s nuclear disaster forced the nation to at least temporarily do without atomic power for the first time in 42 years.

The reactor, at the Tomari plant on the northern island of Hokkaido, was shut down for legally mandated maintenance, said its operator, Hokkaido Electric. As Japan’s 50 functional commercial reactors have been shut down one by one for maintenance, none have been restarted because of safety concerns since last year’s Fukushima disaster.

via Last Reactor of 50 in Japan Is Shut Down – NYTimes.com.

Moby Dick Redux: It’s about the oil

29 Apr

That’s right, Moby Dick, the 19th century novel by Herman Melville, one of the great novels. Of course we’re beyond it, it was published in 1851. Whales were hunted for their oil, which was used for lubrication, and, above all, lighting. Though whaling began to die out a decade after Moby Dick was published—oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859—it was big business when Moby Dick was published, and America’s whaling fleet was the largest in the world.

Rather than continuing on with my own observations, however, I thought I give you a Martian interpretation of the book. Well, not real Martians, a fictional ones, a pair invented by Margaret Atwood and plopped into a New York Times op-ed:

“‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor. Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.

“Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”

Seems about right.

Navajo Community Banks on Proposed Solar Array – NYTimes.com

26 Apr

With tens of millions of acres held in trust for tribes, experts say Indian Country has the potential to supply more than four times the nation’s electricity needs with solar. Wind resources blowing across tribal lands could meet another 14 percent of the need.

“Just huge, absolutely huge” is how Michael Utter, chief executive of the nonprofit consulting corporation Rural Community Innovations, describes the potential.

via Navajo Community Banks on Proposed Solar Array – NYTimes.com.

The Next Big Thing in Green Energy: Floating Wind Turbines – Technology – The Atlantic Wire

23 Apr

Wind power, you see, is one of the few natural resources the United Kingdom has a lot of. Smartplanet reports that “the UK has more offshore wind capacity than any other country,” but the problem is most of the steady, heavy winds blow over parts of the ocean that are too deep to build foundations to. So floating turbines, which stay in place via cables anchored to the seafloor, make sense. But they’re still very much experimental technology. The first-ever floating turbine went into operation off Norway in 2009, and today Norway’s still the most advanced in the field. The U.S. and U.K. want to catch up, and they’re willing to pay to do so. So if you’ve got some plans lying around for a design you think might work, now’s the time to pitch them.

via The Next Big Thing in Green Energy: Floating Wind Turbines – Technology – The Atlantic Wire.

Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar – Bloomberg

23 Apr

The rest of the world’s going solar, and local, why not the USofA?

From the poorest parts of Africa and Asia to the most- developed regions in the U.S. and Europe, solar units such as Anand’s and small-scale wind and biomass generators promise to extend access to power to more people than ever before. In the developing world, they’re slashing costs in the process.

Across India and Africa, startups and mobile phone companies are developing so-called microgrids, in which stand- alone generators power clusters of homes and businesses in places where electric utilities have never operated.

In Europe, cooperatives are building their own generators and selling power back to the national or regional grid while information technology developers and phone companies are helping consumers reduce their power consumption and pay less for the electricity they do use.

via Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar – Bloomberg.