Internal Combustion “Not a Great Product”

January 14th, 2008

I just stumbled across this great quote from VC Matt Trevithick at Venrock. It is part of an interesting interview on Earth2Tech in which (in part) Trevithick wonders aloud whether the VC model is going to work well in the alternative energy sector.

The quote about the internal combustion engine is brilliant, though. He must mean that in the same way that people talk about Microsoft products not being very good- it hasn’t stopped Microsoft from massive success, and internal combustion’s flaws haven’t stopped it from being about the most successful single product ever (not counting sliced bread).

For the record, I think Trevithick’s point was to compare the relative efficiencies of gasoline and electric motors with their fuel sources. Gasoline packs a huge amount of energy into its volume, but the engine doesn’t extract it very well and creates lots of waste. Electric motors are very efficient by comparison, but batteries are lousy.

The real gem in the interview, though, is where Trevithick starts to break down the alt-energy field into IT-based businesses like demand-response company EnerNOC that make easy VC investments and “pure energy” ideas like solar and biofuels that may not be good places for venture capitalists to play. I’ve wondered about this too. The latter category requires so much infrastructure development that it seems like a tough job for all but governments and corporate giants.

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Thoughts on Electricity

November 27th, 2007

I installed the TED Model 1000 in my house last week and the results have been interesting, if not revelatory. The device hooks into my circuit breaker panel and has a separate display that plugs into any outlet in the house. When set up, it shows exactly how much electricity we consume, updated every second. I can add the rates I pay and see how much I am spending on a per-second basis as well. It is fascinating to see the difference when we turn on/off a single light.

I have a couple of observations from a week of using the thing:

1) We have a usage “baseline”, or several actually. In the middle of the night (grr, insomnia) with all the lights out and everything closed down, we have an ambient drain of about 0.15 kwh. During the day, even with all the lights off, it is higher- more like 0.6 kwh. I haven’t figured out why this is exactly. I’m starting to suspect that the refrigerator works harder in daytime when it gets opened and closed regularly.

2) Savings will come from a few big changes like trying to use the dishwasher less (or maybe not at all), and a lot of small ones. I tend to leave lights (or music) on in a room if I leave, but know I’ll reenter in a couple of minutes. I can now quantify exactly how much that costs me and I’m inclined to do it less.

I also have a wish: the device has a USB port, but apparently it isn’t functional. I’d really love to work through the data in greater detail on my computer, so I wish the TED’s makers would turn on the port and build some software to let me analyze consumption patterns.

I’d also like more granularity, but that isn’t realistic. I’d like to see the data measured on a per-outlet basis so I could figure out *exactly* how much energy each electrical device I own draws. That’s beyond the scope of the TED, though.

The TED cost $150, plus a few dollars to have an electrician hook it up. It was a pretty nominal cost for some very interesting data. People say they made up the cost pretty quickly with the money saved on electrical bills. We’ll see how long that takes.

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California Clean Tech Open, TED 1000 and the Refrigerator-Unit Electricity Measure

November 1st, 2007

I attended the California Clean Tech Open Finals this week, a business plan competition for emerging companies in the clean technology area. The companies were impressive and the event sold out at 900 tickets- both great signs for the sector.

Having reflected on it, two thoughts stick in my head about the event:

1) The tradeshow format (someone I know likes to refer to it as a “science fair”) is brutal, and perhaps hardest on new businesses. With no context (esp name recognition) other than the information the companies present it is very hard to tell which companies have real prospects.

2) One of the evening’s speakers was Noah Horowitz from the NRDC. He gave a fascinating talk about the power drain of consumer electronic devices. Per my recollection, a 2 or 3 tuner digital video recorder such as Tivo uses as much energy per year as a refrigerator. An Xbox360 or PS3 uses huge amounts of peak power, and if inadvertently left on will drain as much electricity as two refrigerators per year.

I had no idea I had so many refrigerators in my house. If nothing else, the event prompted me to buy a TED 1000 to display real-time electricity usage in my house. I’ll be interested to see how many more refrigerators I have hiding in my house.

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Zero is a Pretty Small Number

October 15th, 2007

Blog Action Day has put out a call to post about the environment today, and this is partially in response to that.

The cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose have pledged to reduce landfill waste to zero by the year 2020. That is an ambitious goal- zero doesn’t leave much margin for error (or any, actually). I wondered how they planned to accomplish that. Recycling and composting go a long way, but those last few percentage points are going to be hard-fought.

On similar lines, I read about a study yesterday from the University of Victoria, Canada finding that according to the computer models used in the study, the European Union’s stated plan to reduce industrial carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 (even if adopted worldwide) will fail to meet the goal of limiting a global average temperature increase to 2°C. Even 90% reductions would eventually push temperatures over the 2°C and something very close to 100% reductions are necessary to limit the increase.

My first reaction to this is that 100% industrial emissions reduction is impossible. That means no carbon emissions at all- how can this be done?

My next thought is that distinguishing between “industrial emissions” and everything else is a nice way of saying “basically all emissions everywhere”. I guess that allows people to burn wood to heat their homes, but for all practical purposes if infrastructure needs to be created to eliminate carbon emissions from industry it won’t make much sense to maintain a carbon infrastructure for consumer uses.

This leads me to thought three, which is that if the data are accurate, they certainly clarify a lot of things. Peak oil/coal/gas issues become secondary if we have forty-three years to stop using all of them almost entirely. Alternative energy sources need to become not just mainstream but the default.

And thought four is that I sure hope the study was wrong somewhere, because zero is an awfully small number and we’re going to be right up against the wire if that’s the target we need to hit.

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