Monday, May 11, 2009

Use of paper in USA

This is my second trip to USA. One thing which totally caught my attention and also surprised to me a huge extent was the use of paper in this country.

If the students taking this class get a chance to visit the east side of the world they will notice some systems in society is way more efficient than the system in this country which is so intensive.

Use of (paper napkins in the bath rooms for drying hands)/or even a dryer can easily be replaced by each guy carrying a handkerchief. It might sound funny to you guys, but you go to India, every hygienic conscious person carries one. Besides, use of paper in restrooms can easily be replaced by use of water. I wont go into more details, All I can say is there is wastage of paper everywhere in this country. paper industry is not only intensive energy wise, but you do not know how many trees are brought down to meet the paper supply of this paper intensive country.

Winners and Losers of Renewable Energy Policy

On a recent trip to Memphis via the Fort Worth area I saw the “ethanol free” sign shown here. Just 40 miles west of Cow Town, this sign summarizes a common public sentiment towards corn ethanol that is held in that ranching community. Meanwhile, Midwesterners continue to display adamant support for the corn ethanol production that has increased to more than 9 billion barrels per year and is motivated by the nationally mandated Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS). The discord between these two regions demonstrates a significant hurdle for renewable fuels, in that many renewables are localized in particular regions (wind in west Texas, solar in the Southwest, biomass in the Midwest, etc) and their implementation will benefit some of the population more than others. Additionally, the discord between the two powerful agricultural regions demonstrates how government subsidies and mandates artificially create winners and losers in the marketplace.

The negative impacts of corn ethanol production on Texas agriculture have been significant. Many cattle ranchers could not afford to send their calves to the feedlots (due to high feed costs), therefore drastically reducing their annual income. In the wall street journal, Governor Perry stated that the increased corn prices drove the leading Texas pork producer out of business due to feed costs that rose 50% in four years.[1] Texas is a national leader for many agricultural products, particularly beef cattle, cotton, and broilers, but produces relatively little corn[2]. The agriculture sector employs about 14% of working Texans and yields about 9% of the state’s GDP [3], much greater percentages than the national average for these categories (2% and 0.7% respectively [4]). Negative impacts to the livestock industry can have significant effects on the Texas economy, particularly in heavily ranched counties.

Midwestern support of corn ethanol remains strong and seven Midwestern states account for nearly 80% of the ethanol production, a result illustrated in the map below.[5] The House Agriculture Chairman, Collin Peterson, a democrat from Minnesota demonstrated the region’s dedication to corn ethanol in a recent knee-jerk response to the EPA deciding to incorporate indirect land use change in the overall emissions balance for producing corn ethanol (a change which causes corn ethanol to be slightly worse or equal to petroleum gasoline regarding emissions [6,7]). He declared that, “I will not support any kind of climate change bill,” because believed the EPA would continually tinker with the RFS rules and could not be trusted.[8] The Iowa Corn Growers Association states that “as the first environmentalists, Iowa’s corn growers have worked to build market demand for our current viable source for energy independence,” and support $0.45/gal blender’s credit for ethanol and the $0.54/gal ethanol import tariff.[9] The continuation of corn ethanol production is in the Midwestern agricultural sector’s favor, and they understandably support strong measures to promote its continued growth. The contrast of public opinion towards corn ethanol in different regions of the country highlights a challenge that the deployment of many renewable energy sources will face. With a heterogeneous composition of resources, the U.S. Congress must find a way to promote alternative energy production and balance the interest of all regions. The resolution will undoubtedly be determined by the complex governmental proceedings in Washington as a compromise between regions with varying levels of bargaining power (i.e., corn lobbyists, cattlemen lobbyists, wind lobbyists, etc).

1. Perry R., “Texas is fed up with corn ethanol,” Wall Street Journal, Online at, August 12, 2008.

2. “The Texas Economy,”, Online at

3. “Texas Agriculture Facts,” Texas Department of Agriculture, Online at /gt/channel/render/items/0,1218,1670_1693_0_1692,00.html

4. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy,” Economic Research Service, USDA, Online at http://www.ers.

5. Gottsschalk A., “The Impacts of the U.S. Corn Ethanol Policy on the U.S. Cattle Industry,” Range Beef Cow Symposium, University of Nebraska, 2007.
6. “EPA Lifecycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Renewable Fuels” Environmental Protection Agency, Online at, May 2009.

7. O’Hare et al., “Proper accounting for time increases crop-based biofuels’ greenhouse gasdeficit versus petroleum,” Environmental Research Letters, 2009.

8. Geman B. and Samuelsohn D., “CLIMATE: 'I will not support any kind of climate change bill' -- House Ag chair,” Greenwire, Online at 1?terms=Climate+Change+Bill+Peterson

9. “Sound Ag Policy Vital In This Presidential Race,” Iowa Corn Growers Association, Online at, October 17, 2008.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Corn ethanol, not bad??

I know we all have been heard how bad corn based ethanol is for the environment generally bad policy. So I figured I wanted to hear the other side of the story and this is what I found.

Here is a report from Texas A&M university detailing the reasons why ethanol is not a driver of higher food prices.

Also some more pages that detail other reasons why ethanol is not so bad.

I'm not sure if I am sold yet but it is interesting to think about.

My Biggest Energy Vice

Admittedly I may have gotten overly-excited when I realized that the price of plane tickets had dropped significantly this spring. Within the last 40 hours I've made a quick round trip to DC, ~1500 miles each way, and have 3 more journeys of similar distance lined up over the next couple of months. We've heard about how big the carbon footprint of air travel is, but I really had no sense of what the order of magnitude is...According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) new aircraft today are 70% more efficient that those 40 years ago and 20% more efficient than 10 years ago. Airlines have a target increase of 25% by 2020. (

According to Margot Gerritsen, faculty member in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford, a Boeing 737 with 75% occupancy gives about 80 miles per gallon for each passenger ( She further states that:
  • aviation accounts for about 1/7 of transportation-related carbon emissions
  • one round-trip from San Fransisco to Paris equates to about 15% of the average annual US household carbon emissions
  • airline growth world-wide is about 5-6% per year (a significant cumulative increase over the coming decades)
  • contrails are of interest because they lead to positive radiative forcing, however they dissipate relatively quickly

Airbus recently sponsored a global competition for new concepts in aircraft design and engineering, and has been narrowing down finalists. A group at Stanford is one of five finalists for an idea of using a "V" formation similar to migrating birds to reduce drag (up to 20% according to calculations). (

I am looking forward to dramatic improvements on this front, because while I love to conserve energy, buy local, bike, etc. I have a really hard time with the idea of reducing my travel!

China and coal

Well, what do you know... It turns out that China is really doing something about its emissions.  We have been listening for a long time now about how China has become the world's leader in carbon emissions.  In this regard there are three typical excuses you hear from the Chinese, 1) we are manufacturing for the world, 2) we have lower per-capita emissions than other developed countries, 3) we are growing, we need to pollute before we can afford not to.  Great excuses! To be honest they do make sense to me, however I have always had the feeling that they are not enough.  It is not important.  It turns that China is really doing something about its emissions (yes, I said it again).  According to a recent article from the NY Times China is currently building 60% of its new coal power plants with high efficient less-pollutant technology than traditional coal power plants.  So China is the new leader in clean coal power plants.  I would have never guessed so.  I have always been concerned about the efforts of countries such as Denmark and Austrialia in regard of climate change, I mean... does it matter what they do if China keeps growing?  Now I now it does.  It is still not enough, but 60% of new power plants in China means one a month.  That is not bad, not at all.

Federal R&D for Fuel Cells Dropped

On Thursday, the US secretary of energy, Stephen Chu, announced that the Obama administration will cut off funding for R&D into vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells in favor of more practical projects that can be implemented more quickly. Dr. Chu, a Nobel prize winning physicist and former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said hydrogen fuel cells face big challenges related to the their development as well as the transport of hydrogen.

Former President George W. Bush hailed hydrogen fuel cells as a “pollution-free solution for reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil” and went so far as to predict that children born today will be driving hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The Obama administration, however, is focusing on different research areas by establishing eight “energy innovation hubs” (coined as “Bell labletts”). The labs will focus on basic research and will be funded for five years in hopes of luring top scientists to develop practical solutions to the nation’s current and future energy needs.

Dr. Webber has talked a lot about the need for more R&D, from both industry and government. While the energy department’s budget has only been increased by less than 1% (not counting stimulus money), I am hopeful that the Obama administration’s focus and restructuring will make this R&D money more effective. I am also hopeful that Dr. Chu’s experience as chairman of Standford’s physics department, head of Bell Labs’ electronics research lab, and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will bring more science and academia into our energy policy.


Wave power potential

I had originally posted this as a comment to another post below, but was hoping to see if anyone who is an expert on wave power might be able to tell me if my logic is close or just way off.

Waves have a very intense amount of energy. You can feel it when you go swimming at the beach and see it when you look at the aftermath of hurricanes on the shoreline.

I am not an expert on wind or wave power but I would bet that it is related to the density of the water itself. For wind, Pwind=.5*Pair*A*V^3 and I would imagine that the equation for water energy is similar. However, when waves move through water, they do not actually move the water in the direction of the wave. Rather they displace the water(medium) in a direction that is perpendicular to the direction of the wave. Therefore, the speed part of the equation would be 2 times the height of the wave (h) divided by the period of the wave (t). Therefore, the power in the wave would be, Pwave=0.5*Pwater*A*(2*h/t)^3.

If air density (Pair) is 1.275 Kg/m^3 and salt water density (Pwater) is 1,025 Kg/m^3 than the energy density of water should be ~800 times more than that of air for a given cross sectional area moving at the same V. If 75% of our planet is covered by water and you assume an average wave height of 2 meters and an average period of 8 seconds (, earths water surface area of 361,132,000 Km^2 ( , then you get total wave power of 2.3*10^16 watts or 23,130,000 Giga-Watts of total wave power availability on earth.

P=0.5*1025kg/m^3*361,132,000,000,000m*(2*2meters/8seconds))^3 = 2.3*10^16 watts

This seems like a lot. Maybe someone can tell me if I am way off on this.

Waste to worth!

A comment from the Democrat candidate for the 2009 gubernatorial elections in Virginia caught my eye when I was browsing through few articles to get ideas for my blog. Terry McAuliffe words were, "We can turn not only chicken waste, but all agricultural waste into renewable energy." Even though this may sound almost crass, it makes a truckload of sense. It makes one think about actually how important it is to start thinking about changing wastes into something worthy. A little seriously, that is. It's been said that this technology is going to help nations become energy independent, if not completely, atleast upto an extent. It has to be acknowledged that various amazing techniques are being developed on this front. Thermal methods which are the least popular (apparently) due to their carbon emissions, are being replaced by other environment friendly methods like the ones employing wet sewage sludge, pyrolysis with limited air supply (gasification) etc. The general public tends to have a prejudiced opinion against incineration plants, but it is true that these WtE  (Waste to Energy) plants are four times more regulated then a normal coal power plant. It has been said that EPA makes rules so stringent for this industry that it may as well be called one of the cleanest.

Though the WtE approach may not help in covering a huge part of the nation's energy needs or goals, it sure would be one of those initiatives that would help in a longer run. Let's hope it does!

Friday, May 8, 2009

"Anaconda" a new way to harness wave energy

A new method of harnessing wave energy was described in a recent New Scientist article. The anaconda, a rubber snake filled with freshwater, sealed at both ends, and tethered at one end to the ocean floor, is currently undergoing wave tank testing in preparation for full-scale trials. As waves push along the length of the snake, they exert pressure that is transmitted by the water inside which "forces anaconda's walls to expand outwards into the wave troughs where they are under less pressure, forming 'bulge waves' that travel along the anaconda's length." The bulge waves force a turbine to spin which generates electricity. One huge benefit of the anaconda is its simplicity - except for the turbine, no moving parts are required and only one tether to the ocean floor is needed. This minimizes construction and maintenance costs, which are typical disadvantages of wave harnessing devices. Fifty anacondas could generate enough electricity for 50,000 homes. I didn't realize that waves are much more energy dense than wind. Only one commercial wave farm is currently in operation; hopefully anacondas will spurn more development in this area. 

Barras, Colin. New Scientist. "Sea 'snake' generates electricity with every wave." May 7, 2009. 

    Energy & Transportation

    We’ve learned about the pitfalls of biofuels. The negative effect on agriculture and land practices, for example, 16 billion gallons of corn – based ethanol is the limit because we cannot remove more than that amount of land from food production; thus, the nod to farmers has an inherent limit. We’ve examined the resultant emissions of NOX, how it is not logical to clear a carbon sink to replace it with a low carbon fuel, and the effect of biofuels on food prices, especially in developing countries. We’ve also learned about the secret agenda of hydrogen fuel cells, and how the system works well but getting at it is the tricky part since hydrogen is not a naturally occurring element. And we’ve also discussed the conventional technologies for transportation use and their impact on our environment, health, and more.


    Yet what I think needs to be talked about more is moving away from these ‘alternative’ transportation technologies since most of them focus on the personal vehicle. While I do believe that the above-mentioned applications are great for the trucking industry (the largest culprit of emissions), the personal mobility model needs to shift. Technologies are wonderful additions or fixes to our “addictions” as Bush stated, but true benefit comes when people shift their values and change their behavior. So what will it take for people to change their ways? High gas prices? Unattainable new alternatives? A free plug-in hybrid solar electric vehicle? A train stop at their doorstep? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone knows.


    About a year ago, Krugman (or was it Friedman) wrote a wonderful op-ed piece in the New York Times about a new initiative to bring thousands of smaller vehicles (like smart cars) to India. Similar to the $100 laptops available children in developing countries, these cars would be cheap, efficient, and attainable to varying socio-economic classes. But as the author pointed out, why would we want  India  to emulate us, to give people personal vehicles? Wouldn’t they benefit more from investments in light rail or other appropriate means of transit? It seems logical, the author pointed out, that if we could learn from the outcomes of the personal vehicle here, those lessons could be applied to countries about to take the leap.


    In our own country, we need changes beyond advanced transportation or alternative fuels. In fact, I think advanced transportation should mean a layered approach of bikes, walking routes, buses, hard rails, light rails etc. Perhaps India should take lessons from European countries like Switzerland, instead of the U.S. when it comes to transportation.

    Energy & Equity

    Austin is known for its progressive politics, especially in regards to municipal environmental policies. For example, Austin has a goal to make the city carbon neutral by 2020, in part through the savings of 700 MW of energy in energy-efficiency and conservation. As the infrastructural leader in this plan, Austin Energy runs many key programs such as solar rebates, green choice, weatherization, and others. Green incentive programs are good transitional interventions in the market, and are an effective way to encourage the adoption of technologies that increase energy efficiency. But, if those incentives are provided disproportionately to advantaged communities—by accident or intentionally—they serve to widen the gap between the most and the least privileged. So how does AE’s incentive programs disproportionately benefit advantaged communities? (Note: this blog is not suggesting that AE is doing so on pupose).


    Austin has experienced large growth as of late, as well as changes in the population. It is now a “majority-minority” city, meaning more than 50% of Austin’s citizens identify themselves as Non-Caucasian. This is important to mention because of our history and issues of segregation and equity of minority populations.


    In the 1800s, freed Black residents of Austin, about a 1/3 of the pop, had established communities, businesses and schools across Austin.  But in 1928, the “Plan for Austin,” created a “negro district” to segregate the city. Aside from commercial/business zoning areas mapped on the plan, the two residential districts were listed as white residential and miscellaneous residential. Services were not provided to black residents on the west side, forcing them to move to the east side where the city said they would provide infrastructure. Essentially, they enforced segregation through the allocation of sewers, water, electricity, paved streets, street, lighting, and schools. But even after 1928, disproportionate services were still an issue. Large portions of East Austin remained unpaved through the 1960s, while Clarksville (formerly a black neighborhood on the west side) wasn’t paved or adequately provided with sewage until the mid 70s.


    Though it was segregated, it remains geographically segregated along lines of race, class and socioeconomic status (most obviously with I-35 as the dividing line).  Some have even claimed that the smart growth movement in the 90s, and thus the 2005 map of priority environmental conservation areas in Austin, for aquifer protection, pushed development to the east side causing gentrification and forcing minority populations to move even farther away from central Austin.   


    In 2008,  through qualitative and quantitative analysis by several thesis projects in the school of architecture, data and maps demonstrated that the shifting demographics show the majority Black and Latino populations living east of 35 (20-80%) compared with under 20% on the west side. Median family income in 2000 was $70K for Anglo; $35K for Black and $36K for Hispanic. When examining education levels, less than 20% of the population on the west side has high school or less while east and far east Austin, 60-80% of population has a high school degree or higher.

    However, something interesting arises when you compare these maps to the geographic distribution of participants in the Austin Energy rebate programs from 2004-2007. These maps indicate clearly that most participants live on West side. In particular, the solar photovoltaic program has a much higher participation rate in West Austin than in East Austin; however, participation in the free weatherization program is concentrated in Central and East Austin.

    There are many reasons for the disparity in the solar rebate program: education, access, finances. One, it’s a cost issue. The solar rebate program requires money upfront. Two, it is perhaps the most technically difficult to understand of the rebate programs. Three, AE doesn’t do any real marketing of their solar rebate program, as they can meet their goals without it, meaning, clients are in effect self-selecting. And lastly, renters are not eligible for many of the programs offered and many east Austin residents are renters when compared with west Austin.

    But these reasons don’t excuse efforts to make these programs more equitable. So what to do? If anything?  Policy, such as these rebate and incentive programs, need to not just be applied equally, but equitably. That is, with a recognition that certain city residents are not being served, and that be serving them, not only are we addressing an (implicit) unjust issue but also increasing the amount of participants thereby helping AE reach their goal sooner.

    Incentive policies need to shift to address these issues: more emphasis, education placed on minority pops so that they can essentially reach their target. Low-income residents already pay a proportionally larger amount of their total income to utilities than their higher income neighbors, and the inequality of this burden will only increase with the cost of energy if they are not able to take advantage of energy improvements in their homes or installation of solar technologies while wealthier members of the community receive public financial resources to do so.

    The fact that a large portion of the participants in these programs are from a certain area of town is not necessarily indicative of a lack of equity. And I am not incriminating Austin Energy as having unethical policies. But the maps clearly indicate that a higher percentage of residents of west Austin are participating in AE rebate programs. So while some programs are more equitable, others are not. And the answer is not easy to find as no maps or written policies explicitly state purposeful unfair distribution of service. Nor do I personally think that they did it implicitly. Though not AE’s direct fault, they should target resources specifically toward outreach to members of the east Austin community in order to even begin to move toward widespread adoption of green technologies, which again, will help them reach their target (especially as large solar arrays are limited in geographic space but there are a lot of roofs in Austin). 

    Turbines in the Water

    In 2006, I saw a documentary at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival called “building the future – energy” which highlighted four innovative individuals making a difference to meet increased energy efficiency through technology. Or more pointedly, meeting new energy frontiers and advancements. I was struck by one person in particular whose class lecture the other day reminded me of:  Trey Taylor. He is capturing hydroelectric power that does not require a dam. He and his team are putting windmills, if you will, in rivers to capture the large amount of constant energy created by tidal movements. Even Dr. Webber mentioned the other day in class that the best “wave” energy is not caught on the wave’s surface. Well maybe these guys have it right. After two failed attempts to lower their devices into the east river (each previous attempt resulted in the loss of either a blade or other malfunction due to strong currents), they successfully placed these turbines in the East River in NYC. Currently, they generate enough power for a small convenient store/market in Manhattan.

    To me, this is quite a feat. It might take many trails and years for it to be mainstream, but it works! And when I think about all of our cities in the US that are built on rivers – Pittsburgh, Boston, NYC, Cleveland, Portland OR, all the ones along the Mississippi, Denver, Newark, Boise, Atlanta, Cincinnati, others– the potential for this technology grows. And lots of our (US) rivers are dirty – too dirty to swim or recreate in so we may as well put them to other productive uses. And while not all river flows are created equal, any technological application (or “fix”) is best applied when done so contextually – that is, with a full understanding and respect for the local climate and context. But…the East River is more productive and efficient than the other rivers alluded to in the above list of cities since it flows both ways, meaning, it’s a tidal straight with fluctuating currents.

    But this cannot be the silver bullet to urban energy issues. They’re expensive – the NYC project cost $7MM, and I wonder if people will say that fish get caught in them the same way people say windmills kill birds. (They are 16 feet in diameter). And though dams are often objectionable to environmentalist – for good reason, primarily the downstream impacts such as siltation changes and community displacement – these seemingly less intrusive turbines might not be so objectionable. Often when things are ‘invisible to us, they really are out of mind. For example, we don’t always think about our water pipes coming in and wastewater pipes going out of our houses until one of them breaks and becomes visible to us. 

    The initial attempt that saw in 2007 in that movie failed, as did the second. But this past fall, NYC invested in a third attempt and now has 6 turbines rotate enough to generate electricity only about 77 percent of the time. But At full capacity, the 10 MW project could power an estimated 10,000 homes. Hmmmm…..not much of a dent for NYC, but every small step helps. Due to the so-far success of this third attempt (still by the same company, Verdant), NYC wants to eventually put in 300 of these turbines (which will also help Verdant get back the millions of dollars they lost in the first few attempts.  Part of NYC’s reason for this project is that they want to have 80% of their energy generated within the city – through any way possible: wind, solar, tidal. ). Perhaps we can catch up to Nova Scotia, Australia or France. Apparently in 2000, the idea of turbines in the east river was way too far-fetched as it was rejected by NY state senate; but times have changed and our culture is more aware and accepting of, and more ready for, alternatives – perhaps especially ones that are not visible to us. Once underwater, it’s not a noise, sight, or other nuisance to consumers. This invisibility (along with the other positive factors) could enhance the success of the project and make the East River pilot study the benchmark for implementing other projects in other cities. 

    Thursday, May 7, 2009

    Shale Gas and Water : The Wrong Perceptions

    The United States has abundant natural gas resources. The Energy Information Administration estimates that the U.S. has more than 1,744 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of technically recoverable natural gas, including 211 tcf of proved reserves (the discovered, economically recoverable fraction of the original gas-in-place). Technically recoverable unconventional gas (shale gas, tight sands, and coalbed methane) accounts for 60% of the onshore recoverable resource. At the U.S. production rates for 2007, about 19.3 tcf, the current recoverable resource estimate provides enough natural gas to supply the U.S. for the next 90 years. Separate estimates of the shale gas resource extend this supply to 116 years.

    There is a coomon perception that shale gas development used a lots of water and may impact the drinking water quality due to hydraulic fracturing. The quantity of water needed to drill and fracture a horizontal shale gas well commonly ranges from about 2 million to 4 million gallons, depending on geologic formation. These volumes may seem very large, but they are small by comparison to some other uses of water, such agriculture, electric power generation, and municipalities, and generally represent a small percentage of the total water resource use in each shale gas area. Calculations indicate that water use for shale gas development will range from less than 0.1% to 0.8% of total water use by basin.

    In some shale gas areas, the water needs may challenge supplies and infrastructure. As operators look to develop new shale gas plays, communication with local water planning agencies, state agencies, and regional water basin commissions can help operators and communities to coexist and effectively manage local water resources. A successful technique would be identification of supplies that do not interfere with the community needs. Similarly the concerns for fracturing fluid contaminating water may be low since fracturing fluid is 95% water and 5% chemicals. And the service companies doing a hydraulic fracturing job ensure through state of the art monitoring systems that fracturing fluid does not leak into fresh water aquifers.

    The long-term sustainability of shale gas operations in a given region depends on several factors such as:
    > Working closely with the local, state, and federal
    regulatory environment
    > Coping with the stress placed on the local fresh water supplies
    > Effective and economical wastewater management plans

    Thus, state regulation for the environmental practices related to shale gas development, usually with federal guidance, can effectively address the regional and state-specific character of the activities in comparison to single federal regulations.

    Till now not a single case of water aquifer contamination or excessive use of water straining public supply of water has been observed or reported. Therefore before we make an issue out of everything we need to think that Shale Gas is the future of Gas supply and we need to encourage it.


    Wednesday, May 6, 2009

    Stop Ruining My Nap!.... I Mean the World

    It seems to me that we have a very large problem with lawn care. Absurd amounts of water keeping golf courses green in Arizona (Sierra), or use of fertilizers in cities where the run off pollutes the water (Biello). But what about the everyday maintenance machine, that we have mechanized, which contribute to the consumption of petroleum products, and produce CO2? Maybe I am a little extra sensitive to the use of gasoline powered tools to do yard work right now because I have just been woken up from one of my few opportunities at a nap by a man walking around with a reverse vacuum cleaner strapped to his back doing the same work a broom does, and from what I can tell with about the same efficiency. The push lawn mower is not fairing much better since it only travels as fast and the man is walking, which seems like would not be affected if the man was pushing a mechanical mower. The only difference it seems is that the latter two would not be producing any CO2, or noise! According to “Gas Mowers Belch Pollution” the EPA reported that mowers are responsible for 5% of the nation’s air pollution, and Americans burned 800 million gallons of gasoline each year keeping their yards trimmed.

    Mechanical mowers (known as reel mowers) are simple (by comparison), lightweight, and comparable in price (“Push”) and have a 0 carbon footprint (“Push”), although I am sure they are not counting the energy required to build the mower. However, with the much simpler construction, I would guess that even this is lower than conventional mowers. Some even have rechargeable to batteries to aid when the grass is a little too long (People).

    It is also reported in both “Gas Mowers Belch Pollution”, and “Cleaner Air: Gas Mower Pollution Facts” that gas powered mowers have a second serious problem. Apparently mowers are a little clumsy with their fuel, where the two articles cite the EPA as stating “17 million gallons of fuel… are spilled each year refueling lawn equipment” (People). 17 million gallons is “more fuel than all the oil leaked by the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989” (Snider).

    There are not any reported city crews that are using electric lawn equipment yet, mainly because the electric equipment is not yet powerful enough to handle that much work, however there are companies emerging that use electric equipment (Snider). Clean Air Lawn Care, in Boulder Colorado, is such a company, charging their equipment overnight or on the solar panels that company truck’s support (Snider).

    This seems like it could be a relatively easy transition which would make a significant difference, in cities especially. The technology is already available, in the form of reel mowers, and only requires the public to stop being lazy. Not to mention, if there were more companies like Clean Air Lawn Care, then I might have been able to squeak my nap in between classes and work. I know it would make me happier, and better rested.


    Biello, David. “Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Stream and Rivers – Creating Vast ‘Dead Zones’”. Scientific America. Accessed 6 May 2009. streams

    People Powered Machines. “Cleaner Air: Gas Mower Pollution Facts”. Accessed 6 May 2009.

    “Push Reel Mowers”. Clean Air Gardening. Accessed 6 May 2009.

    Sierra, Christian. “Par for the Course”. Tuscon Weekly. Accessed 6 May 2009

    Snider, Laura. “Gas Lawn Mowers Belch Pollution”. Scripps Interactive Newspaper Group. Accessed 6 May 2009.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009


    As we reach the end of something, it becomes important to go back and ask ourselves - why are we doing that we are doing? A course or active research at 'the intersection of energy, technology and policy' exists in recent times because we face a tricky situation whereby we run the risk of using up our rations, before it can be replenished. In the face of this never-faced-before problem, we collectively express our fears, with the coining of the term Sustainable Development. I, as my last entry on this blog, would like to present a few thoughts on this greater picture, the nexus of which with energy we now understand.

    Sustainable development for most part, is a way of living, a sharp decision making tool and an evolutionary birthmark that keeps the species surviving. It is as simple as a poor farmer investing in his son’s education while he battles with repeated years of drought (research and development), as courteous as leaving the loo as clean as one found it (social awareness and sensitivity), as pragmatic as the ant saving for winter while the grasshopper danced away (farsightedness) and as eternal as giving a man the fishing rod instead of the fish (smart consumption and production). Sustainable development over the years have gained greater momentum in the micro level, from rural micro-finance scheme in Bangladesh, to harnessing renewable energy (micro hydro) in Iriri village in Solomon Islands, to waste management schemes with community participation in Rajasthan, India. Howsoever small their contribution to the global economy, it helps uplift the lives of the people in the societies where it is implemented.

    These community-based success stories itself, prompts us to question, if it is possible to make good profit in a Sustainable developmental economy, or is it all about social service and charity? The answer probably lies in the Aristotlean doctrine of man being a social animal, Nash’s equilibrium of the good of the individual lying with the good of the flock and not with the misinterpreted notion of survival of the fittest (Darwin was talking about genes and not individuals fighting it out!).

    The repartee isn’t complete without stating what isn’t sustainable development. Think of the smartest guys in the room, Enron, think of the great economic crashes (even the recent one!), think of devalued currencies of certain states in the recent past, think of the millions of refuges in Africa who rely on food programs of UN, think of blood diamonds and conflict zones. These are situations that could have well been avoided if at one point of time, we hadn’t been chasing wins (be it through GDP, stocks, money, dead bodies), without thinking of long-term consequences. The prefix sustainable serves as reminder to the goof-ups we have made over time, while in our pursuit of “riches”. It is also a pointer to the principle on which the most successful societies of the world are based on, equality of opportunity and growth.

    So, in summing up, in the modern economic scenario, where the good of the flock is compartmentalized, where the hand doesn’t feed the mouth of the bearer, it is doubly important to ensure that while one part of the world thrives, other part doesn’t putrefy. Today in the wake of certain violent activities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is the added threat of short-term political turmoil, with the ubiquitous ecological stop-clock in the background, which confronts us. We need to solve the riddles of global iniquities faster, given, today, sound bytes reaches remote corners of the world faster than a loaf of bread, making one aware of one’s misery. Otherwise, the consequences can be fast and dire, as we have witnessed in recent times.

    Monday, May 4, 2009

    Beaming Solar Energy to Algae

    I came across an article in the Seattle Times, written by Michelle Ma, on a novel way of growing algae for biofuels. As we know from Dr. Webber's class, and David Wogan's lecture, algae needs water, CO2 and sunlight to grow. There is, however, a debate in the scientific community on which is the better way to grow algae: whether it is the controlled environment of a bio reactor or the more "natural" algae pond.
    According to the article, a Redmond-based company, called Bionavitas, is tipping the scales of the debate in favor of the algae pond. The major drawback of growing algae in a pond is that one needs a large surface area to get a sizable crop, because algae only grows on the top of the pond, where sunlight is abundant. Bionavitas has suggested inserting glass rods into the pond, allowing light to pass through the top layer, in order to create a whole new layer where algae can thrive. That means that the production of an algae pond can increase many-fold and bring algae-based biofuels one step closer to a large-scale implementation.

    Although inserting glass rods seems like a great, idea, I don't believe that the will provide enough light to increase the output of pond drastically. It seems to me that algae located below the sun-lit top layer would only grow around the glass rods and nowhere else, since light will not be available there. Although some improvement does seem plausible, I don't believe this technology will offer that big of a gain to the overall output of the algae pond.


    Alternative Energy Manufacturing

    Over the course of the semester, Dr. Webber and some of our guest speakers have pitched the idea of Austin becoming a manufacturing center for the technology required for new alternative energy sources. The basic arguments for creating policies that would promote such industry growth are compelling: Austin already has a high-tech manufacturing market, the demand for alternative energy technology appears to be growing, and Texas as a whole could clearly benefit from an industry that could build into its need/want for new and clean energy.
    I find it interesting that this issue of attracting new clean tech industries is getting attention in places other than our classroom. Today, the New York Times posted an article on its Green Inc. webpage titled "Can Clean Energy Revive Manufacturing."[1] The article chronicled an interesting case of a manufacturing firm's siting decision. Focusing on SolarWorld, which chose Oregon as its site, the article discusses various financial and labor related incentives for attracting clean tech manufacturers, including tax incentives and the availability of trained/educated workforce. Based upon this article's reporting, the competition among states to host clean tech manufacturing is already occuring.
    I think that a state such as Texas is uniquely poised to capture new clean tech manufacturing, particularly because of experience with similar firms in other sectors of the economy. I would caution, however, that it might be wise to not reach too far in attempting to attract clean tech firms; picking a winner in the renewables race could be a dangerous move. Still, I will be very interested to see if Texas or any other state manages to become a leader in this emerging industry.


    Sunday, May 3, 2009

    Algae Breakthrough?

    The website "Technology Review," published by MIT, has an article from Friday regarding a company's announcement that it has developed a new, more efficient way to extract oil from algae. An excerpt:

    "The process combines ultrasound and an electromagnetic pulse to break the algal cell walls. Then the algae solution is force-fed carbon dioxide, which lowers its pH, separating the biomass from the oil."It's low energy, there's not a lot of machinery, and it's a simple process," says CEO Riggs Eckelberry. The algae and oil can be separated in a matter of minutes, he adds. A number of companies are attempting to take advantage of the fact that algae naturally produce oil. But growing algae and extracting its oil efficiently is difficult, time consuming, and expensive. While some companies are focusing on better growing and harvesting methods, others, such as OriginOil, are focused on finding new ways to access the oil. Each algal cell has a sturdy cell wall protecting it, making the oil hard to get at. The algae also have to be separated from the water that they are grown in and dried out before the oil can be removed. . . .
    In OriginOil's process, the algae solution is channeled through a pipe to which an electromagnetic field and ultrasound are applied, rupturing the cell walls and releasing the oil. Carbon dioxide is bubbled through, which lowers the pH. The resulting solution is then piped into another container. The lowered pH separates the biomass from the oil, and the oil floats to the top, while the biomass sinks to the bottom. The oil can be skimmed off, the biomass can be further processed, and the water is recycled. The whole process takes a matter of minutes, says Eckelberry."

    Hopefully this technique is actually as significant a breakthrough as the company is claiming, and will serve as a key step along the path to developing significant, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly energy production from algae. Encouragingly, it also represents a novel approach to bringing down the costs of this process. While other entities seek better ways to grow and harvest algae, OriginOil tackled the cost/efficiency problem from a different direction.

    Multiple breakthroughs like these on several fronts will likely be needed for all kinds of alternative energy forms which might one day be viable. For example, in solar generation, advances will likely be needed in making manufacturing more efficient, improving the performance of the cells, finding a better way to maintain the cells, and improving transmission efficiency. While it would be wonderful to solve all these problems at the same time under the same roof, odds are we would be better off if companies and institutions focused their efforts on specific problems best suited to their expertise, coming at them from all different angles.

    Cheers to OriginOil if their claims are accurate, and hopefully similar advances can be replicated across many of the alternative energy efforts researchers and entrepreneurs are active in today.

    The McCombs CleanTech Initiative:

    Instead of writing my last blog for ETP on a specific energy technology or policy issue I want to use this opportunity to tell you all about what a few of us McCombs students are doing to try to help the business school to better prepare its students for careers in a rapidly evolving energy industry, and to help promote UT and Austin’s efforts to become the world leader in clean energy.

    Many of you are engineering or LBJ students who are able to incorporate studies of energy into the programs you are in here at UT. For us business students though, it’s a bit tougher. McCombs has a strong reputation for preparing its students to work in trading or finance for traditional energy companies. Unfortunately, we have been a bit slow to adapt to the evolution of the industry. While we have many students who are interested in renewable energy, and quite a few alums working in the field, our curriculum only incorporates courses related to oil and gas.

    Several of us business students found the lack of a comprehensive approach to energy to be nothing less than shameful. Texas has led the nation in energy production, and UT has produced some of the top business leaders in the industry. Texas has been investing in itself to retain its leadership position in the industry, but McCombs had not take the same steps to ensure that it produces the business leaders of the energy industry of the 21st century… until now.

    I came to the McCombs MBA program not just because I wanted to earn a graduate degree in business form one of the best schools in the nation, but also because I wanted to prepare myself for a career in the clean energy industry. When I looked at schools there were ones that had programs designed to serve this area of interest, but none of them offered the comprehensive education and experience that I saw possible at UT. I was ultimately sold on McCombs and Austin because of the Austin Clean Energy Incubator, the McCombs CleanTech Group, and the number of clean energy companies set up to take advantage of Texas’s natural endowment of wind and sun.

    While I saw great potential for Austin and Texas in the clean energy industry, I was surprised when I arrived and learned just how much the city and the state were already doing in the industry. I knew there was a lot of wind power in Texas, but I didn’t know that the state had more than twice the capacity of California (at the time). I also didn’t know that the inventor of the lithium-ion battery was a UT researcher, that UT was home to some of the best algae biofuel research in the world, or that cutting-edge solar technology was being developed and commercialized in Austin. I also learned that there were lots of start-ups and small renewable energy companies here in Austin, and that the city had ambitious plans for promoting and investing in clean energy (e.g. Pecan Street and Austin Energy’s plans for a solar farm).

    With all of these great things going on it was clear that McCombs could be doing more to prepare students to work in the industry that UT researchers and Austin policymakers were helping to shape. So, Jeff Otto and I went to the new dean of McCombs, Tom Gilligan, to share our thoughts. Not only did Dean Gilligan agree that McCombs could and should do more, but he explained that strengthening McCombs’s approach to energy was part of his strategic vision for the school. And, he also agreed that there was a lot going on in Austin and at UT that few people outside of the Austin clean energy community new about… it was a story that was untold. To address the problem, he asked the McCombs communications department to help out by giving us some of the time of department’s photographer and camera man, Kris Maxwell.

    As a result, we were able to develop a short film about why Austin should lead the clean energy revolution (If you haven’t seen the film, you can view this version produced by Jeff Otto at: ). The idea behind the film was to interview the leaders (the entrepreneurs, the policymakers, and the thinkers) of Austin’s clean energy community and ask them to tell their stories. Together, the stories would tell the clean energy story of Austin.

    Further, we wanted help make sure that McCombs would continue to be known for producing leaders of the energy industry. So, along with another classmate, Jeff and I developed and proposed a CleanTech MBA Concentration. Other schools around the nation offer courses related to renewable energy, and joint degrees in business and environmental studies, but few offer the opportunity to specialize in clean energy. This proposed concentration focuses on developing project finance skills, but it also will help students to gain a broader perspective of the energy industry, and get first-hand experience through directed studies with clean energy companies and divisions.

    While the decision to add the concentration has yet to be made, the Assistant Dean of the business school, Daniel Garza, liked the initiative we showed, so he showed the video to more than 100 prospective students during the McCombs Preview Weekend last month. Since then, several prospective students decided to attend McCombs to pursue an MBA offering the opportunity to focus in clean energy. Even though the concentration has yet to be officially created they see the potential, and are willing to continue to carry that torch until the vision comes to fruition. Ultimately, our hope is that this initiative will make a small contribution to the long list of proof that “What Starts Here Changes the World”.