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Book Review: The End of Oil


You may recognize author Paul Roberts from the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? (I did, at least :) )

I have just finished reading his excellent book, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, which will now be added to our book list. Here are my thoughts:

The title of the book makes it sound like an alarmist clamour concerned with peak oil. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is instead a comprehensive overview of the whole shebang: the energy crisis and the shape of things to come. Not only oil, but other hydrocarbon fuels, hydrogen, nuclear, wind, solar, energy efficiency and the economic implications of all the above are discussed, in a sober and impartial manner. Roberts does not appear to be lobbying for any particular energy source, in fact, he details the great leaps currently made in wind farms, fuel cells, clean coal and solar power, but is quick to point out the practical shortcomings, economic considerations and incredible technical challenges.

The book is rife with well-backed claims, interesting (if unsettling) facts and cogent arguments. I also found the important history lessons on the emergence of the hydrocarbon economy and the 1973 oil embargo very informative and interesting.

Some reviewers note that the book quickly became a bit awkwardly out of date. This is true to some extent. The “worst case” scenario where oil reaches $50/barrel and sends the world economy plunging now seems like a rosy picture. Another case in point is where Roberts predicts that since US interference in Iraq to “secure” oil supply caused more harm than good through disruption, Iraqi oil exports will essentially never rise above pre-war levels. This turned out to be wrong: it did in fact shatter that barrier in 2007.

A commendable aspect of the book is how Roberts courageously and continuously lambastes the Bush administration, the automotive industry, the coal lobby and other major hydrocarbon stakeholders, but at the same time acknowledges that the massive asset inertia of the current energy industry makes lowering emissions and improving efficiency an immense economic and pragmatic challenge. These kinds of objective analyses almost go as far as watering down the author’s plea: sometimes the reader may get the impression that there’s enough ammunition in the book to argue both for complacency and immediate action.

PS. Academic demands have restrained activity on SurfaceTension over the past few months. Rest assured, though, that I’m confident we’ll soon return to firing on all cylinders.

EVs: A detailed analysis


Rei at Daily Kos is currently running an interesting series analyzing the economics and feasibility, as well as current state and future outlooks of electric vehicles. Rei possesses considerable technical knowledge on the subject, and is confident that EVs are the answer, based on well-backed arguments and facts.

The gist of his analysis is The economics of electric vehicles, together with an overview of the upcoming battery technologies in The battery revolution will not be televised. I’ll refer you to the articles for details, but here are some of the highlights: Apart from the fact that maintaining your EV will be much cheaper than maintaining a gasoline car, an area that holds great promise in bringing EVs up to speed with gasoline cars is fast charging. Promising battery technologies lithium phosphate and lithium titanite, from A123Systems and AltairNano respectively, both support fast charging, and on top of that are non-toxic and inherently safe.

  • A fast charging station costing $125,000 can return 8% on investment in a couple of years by attracting just 3 cars per day
  • a peer-reviewed study by the Department of Energy found that the US grid has 84% of the capacity necessary to support a transition to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles
  • Fast-charging stations such as the PosiCharge by AeroVironment trickle-charge a battery system from the grid, and then fast-charge customer vehicles’ batteries, meaning that existing electricity distribution infrastructure can readily be utilized.

These new batteries last for thousands of cycles and are near 100% efficient, unlike the lithium-ion batteries found in today’s laptop computers. A123Systems’s batteries are currently used in some plug-in conversions of Toyota Pruises, and they are also set to be used in the upcoming Chevy Volt (due in 2010).

Further reading: An original post dating from 2005 on Green Car Congress about A123Systems technology, as well their history. Rei has also assembled a detailed wiki on electric cars that is well worth reading.

In other news, John McCain has promised a $300 million prize for developing a revolutionary breakthrough battery.

Update: CNN ran a story on 14 Aug. about the increasing amount of people in the US who refuse to wait for car companies, converting their cars to electric by themselves.

The Curse of Suburbia


In the past couple of weeks, I coincidentally came across some related pieces about a major shaping force of the relatively affluent population groups in the world today: suburban living. With the recent oil price hike, it turns out that the trend is becoming less popular in the United States and other developed nations (although obviously still widespread and immensely scaled), whereas the trend has recently emerged and is booming on a massive scale in China, where the size of the middle class is growing at an astounding rate.

As an article titled “The car becomes the burden of suburbia” in the Mail & Guardian confirms, in the United States, car sales are plummeting to two-decade lows, house sales are dwindling, public bus and train use is suddenly on the rise, and all in all, suburban living is reportedly proving less and less popular. Some doomsayers are even predicting that inner cities and suburbs are soon to reverse their roles: inner cities will be rejuvenated and become the habitat of choice, whereas suburbs will become the new slums for the poor. Fears fueling this haunting prediction are worsened by the fact that many US homes are currently being abandoned due to foreclosure problems, caused by the credit crunch [See “Contractors are kept busy maintaining abandoned homes“, New York Times].

The Mail & Guardian article focuses specifically on Greater Los Angeles, where in the past, continued demand for suburbs gave rise to massive urban sprawl. Seeing it for yourself leaves you both in shock and awe: have a look at the Santa Clarita Valley, for example, on Google Earth, between the mountains just North of Los Angeles (another oft-cited example is the San Fernando Valley). These scenes really reinforce the mocking 1962 song, “Little boxes on the hillside, made of ticky-tacky…“, evidently ahead of its time.

Then I came across the alarming cover story of the Feb. 25, 2008 issue of TIME Magazine in a physical copy, which explores the migration of millions of newly affluent Chinese to freshly built suburbs around its major cities (there are now 49 cities in China with a population of 1 million or more). The article focuses on a family living in New Sonjiang, one of 10 new suburban “satellite cities” built around Shanghai, which are expected to attract 5 million new inhabitants in the next 10 years and creating far-reaching sprawl in the process. Car sales in China attest to the rise of suburbs: they are growing by 26% per year. Whereas the Chinese are thrilled by the new amenities offered by suburbs that they simply could not have had in China’s cities, such as cleaner air, spacious lots and a healthier environment altogether for children, the Chinese didn’t lay out these places on their own: Chinese planners were reportedly spotted while on special visits to suburbs in Arizona and California, where they showed great approval of what they saw, took notes profusely, and then took the ideas home [Be sure to watch the photo & audio essay accompanying the TIME story].

Can the Earth sustain a new Chinese middle class, bereft of the perils of communism, possibly 700 million strong in the not-too-distant future? Only time will tell, but since suburbs are inherently unsustainable, and since this is where so many of these citizens will settle, the case for Earth’s resources are looking grim.

In the cities where I have been, notably London, Paris and Hong Kong, I learned to appreciate the immense value that dense residential centres coupled with proper public transportation adds, as I’m sure everyone else has if they came from the suburbs or from the developing world to visit such cities. In my case, I came from South Africa, which meant that a place like London presented in paradigm shift in the view of public transportation. Even in the light of this shift, I found Paris’s public transport better than that of London, but neither of the two are anywhere near as good as that of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s public transportation scintillates a sense of aesthetics, sophistication, modern design, adequacy, and above all, effiency. The mass transit railway (MTR) system is so efficient, it takes you the same time to go into the station, get onto a train, travel and get out of the next station whether 10 or ten thousand people where using the particular leg, due to proper design and strategic redundancy which elimates any bottlenecks.

Alas, those of us living in a suburb, especially those who have not been to the major cities of the developed world, take the need for a car for granted. In most suburbs, even in the developed world, it simply isn’t practical to try and cope without a car. It’s needed for everything from commuting to work, to buying groceries, to visiting the doctor (or so we believe is necessary to attain a certain quality of life and level of comfort). This has a massive impact on our carbon footprint, yet those in major cities in the First World most often have no need for a car whatsoever. First of all, there’s a supermarket, a coffee shop, a computer store, a restaurant, on every corner - litterally - doing away with the need to travel far for basic needs. Second of all, a train or bus or tram station will always be within walking distance, allowing you to travel quickly and conveniently to address more specialized needs, such as visiting a doctor or a specific attraction, or to commute to work.

Since suburbs have gone global, and even in South Africa we are indeed living in a suburb akin to those in the US, I’m sure many people take suburbs for granted, something that simultaneously spawned out of necessity all over the world. True? Not quite. Whereas suburbs have various advantages that should probably have driven the adoption of something similar all over the world at some stage, the modern suburb was hatched in post-World War II United States, riding the crest of the cheap oil wave. You can read about some of this in the Mail & Guardian article, although the phenomenom is often described in a variety of places:

Since the 1950s and the building of the pioneering car-orientated suburb of Levittown in Long Island, the American city has been designed for the convenience of the car as much as its human inhabitants. People live kilometres away from jobs, shops or entertainment. If you take away cars, the entire suburban way of life collapses. To some, that development is long overdue.

“Suburbia has been unsustainable since its creation,” said Chris Fauchere, a Denver-based filmmaker who is producing a new documentary on the issue called The Great Squeeze. “It was created around cheap oil. People thought it would flow easily from the earth forever.”

What will the world’s relatively affluent population demand in the future in terms of housing? I don’t know, but it’s no simple choice. Suburbs obviously offer pleasant advantages, notably low-density, spacious living, but high-density city living in the developed world is still an experience that makes you feel really efficient and impressed if you hail from a suburb. I’m by no means pretending to know something on the subject of housing, but it seems like suburbs are almost a scaled-up, compacted version of country living, bringing you closer to the city and into a tight community while trying to preserve some of rural advantages. City planning is something that has always been very interesting to me, and I’m very excited to watch how the phenomenom unfolds in the coming years, in light of changes in behavioural patterns as well as environmental concerns.

UPDATE:  This Slashdot story is most likely hogwash, but the discussion it has led to is quite interesting, and it touches on the topic of this post many times.

Wasteful Ethernet


Did you know that in 2005 alone, all the network controllers (in computers, switches, routers, etc.) in the United States consumed 5.3 terawatt-hours of energy, sufficient to keep 6 billion 100-watt lightbulbs shining for a full year? As the May issue of IEEE Spectrum reports, a major reason for this is that network controllers maintain the same appetite for energy regardless of whether they are not in use or in full throttle operation. This is incredibly wasteful, since people only use their links at full throttle for 5% of the time on average, studies have shown.

There are currently two competing schemes that aim to address this problem in the near future:

  • Adaptive Link Rate, developed by researchers from USF Tampa and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories,  which will step down the speed of an Ethernet link if the full capacity is not needed. The researchers, Ken Christensen and Bruce Norman, claim that simply switching between 100Mb/s and 1Gb/s (in home, office and data-center devices) whenever possible will already save $300m in energy costs. The problem facing their solution is that it currently takes 2 seconds to step down the speed of an Ethernet link (the link has to be dropped and reinstated), which is unacceptable. A faster protocol for linking will be needed, and the pragmatic requirement is set at 1 millisecond.
  • “Low-power idle”, proposed by Intel, in which the controller will always operate at the maximum rate, but will be put into a sleeping state when not in use. Intel claims that this will provide better results. Once again, turning the device on and off is a challenge, but up to 1Gb/s, it is easier than switching speeds. When it comes to 10Gb/s, however, there is no clarity as to which scheme is desirable.

Whereas the call has not been made yet, “a complete redesign of the network interface controller system is needed”, Cisco’s Hugh Barass is quoted as confirming.

Dubai’s Shape-shifting Green Buildings


The BBC reports that Dubai is to build towers that rotate continuously, so they will “never look the same, not even in a lifetime”. The towers consist of 80 floors, and each floor is a seperate apartment. Obviously, this will only be the playground of the rich and famous (expected price tag: $3.7 million - $36 million), yet it would at least not waste energy:

The 420-metre (1,378-foot) building’s apartments would spin a full 360 degrees, at voice command, around a central column by means of 79 giant power-generating wind turbines located between each floor.

The slender building would be energy self-sufficient as the turbines would produce enough electricity to power the entire building and even feed extra power back into the grid, said the Italian architect at the unveiling of the project in New York.

The project is expected to cost $700 million and will be completed by 2010.

Bugs that excrete oil?


It was widely reported that LS9, a startup company in Silicon Valley, claims to have genetically modified E.coli to excrete crude oil, and they further claim the process is carbon negative:

LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-de-signing their DNA.

Because crude oil (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result.

The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

The company indicated that they do not intend to use corn as a feedstock, they are instead looking at woodchips and wheat stock, among other things.

The catch here is that their technique does not exactly scale well:

The closest that LS9 has come to mass production is a 1,000-litre fermenting machine, which looks like a large stainless-steel jar, next to a wardrobe-sized computer connected by a tangle of cables and tubes. It has not yet been plugged in. The machine produces the equivalent of one barrel a week and takes up 40 sq ft of floor space.

However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago.

Did you know?

In 2010, there will be 4200km of new highways in and around Shanghai, China that didn't exist in 2000. Varese, a town in Northern Italy, runs on 100% renewable power. The town uses a mix of wind, solar and small-scale hydropower. The town has reaped benefits from the energy network through added jobs, and an additional 350,000 euros [US $514,000] in revenues that are handed over to the council each year.


SurfaceTension is all about seperating the signal from the noise when it comes to renewable energy, climate change debate, protecting the environment, and embracing green, environmentally friendly technology and energy alternatives.
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SurfaceTension is all about seperating the signal from the noise when it comes to renewable energy, climate change debate, protecting the environment, and embracing green, environmentally friendly technology and energy alternatives.

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