Archive for January, 2007

Changing nicknames

Static Merchant is causing confusion.

I’m switching to calling myself Envelope Filter for simplicity.


Solar Power 2.0

powerlines.jpgI threatened to post a further set of musings last week on the subject of solar power in response to Archie’s latest post on the subject. This is that response.

Archie mentioned a few things. Mainly that Solar is the most abundantly available form of sustainable energy. This is doubly true when you consider that wind power is also largely driven by solar. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s discard wind power as a major contributing factor to an electricity grid. I’m not saying it won’t or shouldn’t be. I’m going to talk about New Zealand’s situation, but it’s fairly indicative of most developed nations. I plan to address the ‘global grid’ concept towards the end, but let’s look local first.

I stress this is all purely conceptual. It’s certainly not all my idea, and I doubt there are any ideas here not already roaming freely elsewhere.

The first logical step is energy conservation. This is already well underway here from central government, with tv ads giving tips on the subject, discounts available on energy-saving lightbulbs, and government/councils spending money on insulating people’s homes for them. Ok, that’s that point dealt with.

The next step is to shift towards lots of solar panels. Either the water heating kind or electricity gathering. I believe our government is already offering interest free loans for the purpose of installing solar water heating in one’s home. I think that’s awesome.

Let’s talk about the grid. Right now it’s top down, with a few-to-many relationship. Power is generated by a limited number of sources, mostly hydro dams and gas plants, in great quantity and fed into the national grid sufficiently to keep the voltage acceptably constant with minimal fluctuations. This is what is meant by power quality.

Current mainstream thinking on solar electricity is that if every residential dwelling were equipped with a modern, moderately efficient solar panel or small wind turbine (probably the panel) then each would be able to reduce their reliance on the national grid. It would still be there for when it’s cloudy or there’s no wind. Houses would have battery banks to last them through the night and supply for a while if the next day is cloudy.

I propose going a step further to a many-to-many grid. If every dwelling has the capacity to both generate it’s own power and store its surplus then would it be possible to sell your unwanted electricity back into the grid? There may be a flaw in my thinking as it may be troublesome to convert your stored energy to AC current of sufficient quality to feed into the grid, but what if it is possible? If this is technically feasible, could a portion of the country that is sunny collectively sell its surplus production to a cloudy part of the country? Taking this a step further, could a country collectively sell by day to another night-bound country?

This many-to-many arrangement fits the square kilometers of required panels into the existing architecture of the country, eliminating the need to fence off large tracts of land for solar farms. That might not be so hard to do in Australia, for example, but in NZ you might have some trouble. I think it’s a slightly more elegant solution.

Is this at all achievable? You might have to ask a more qualified engineer than myself that, but assuming the technical issues of power transmission could be solved I believe than it can be done. One issue might be the efficiency of commercially available solar cells. This may need to improve before it becomes seriously achievable.

I believe that New Zealand stands well positioned to show some real leadership on this. We are a small, technologically developed nation, with a population that overwhelmingly believes in being ecologically friendly. With dedicated leadership from several consecutive governments we could do it.

As always, I invite opinion. I certainly invite people to try and push some action from their governments.

All it would take would be one country or state to figure out how to do it.

Musings on sustainable/affordable transport

Archie has generated a discussion I find interesting over at his site on the subject of petrol prices. Metro makes a valid point about this pushing us toward cleaner technology such as electric vehicles.

I want to make the point up front that I’m totally in favour of that.

People often say things to me like “electric vehicles are awesome because they don’t pollute and they’re cheap to run.” I thought I’d put up a post exploring that statement in a wider sense because sustainability is a subject dear to my heart.

At face value, the statement about electric vehicles is mostly true. The vehicle has no emissions except hydrogen during charging (with present lead-acid-type battery technology). That will likely change. In terms of cost, the cost of a usable kilowatt of electricity is less than the equivalent kilowatt of petrol.

Let’s explore these factors in a more holistic sense within the framework of a nation. I’ll use New Zealand.
How about this question: by switching all vehicles in NZ from petrol or diesel to electricity do we eliminate the burning of carbon fuels in our country and their carbon emissions?

Answer: no.
NZ relies on a wide range of energy sources, mainly hydro-electric, gas, coal, geothermal and wind in descending order of market share. There is a limit to how much power we can generate sustainably (and when it is needed in the grid) from geothermal and wind. Hydro-electric is our major component, but our dams are already near their generation capacity and the idea of flooding more valleys/damming more rivers is fairly abhorrent to most NZers. Oh, and hydro apparently produces large amounts of greenhouse gas too.
30-40% of our present generation comes from gas and coal. Mostly gas. By adding a massive new energy demand to the grid from everyone charging vehicles, we need to burn more gas/coal. Despite modern co-generation plants like the Southdown Plant, this still means a lot of new plants. New Zealand is strongly anti-nuclear. I support that, along with most of the country, and it’s unlikely to change. Having said that, I have seen studies arguing that coal is even more environmentally damaging than nuclear. I’m not exactly sure that’s true, but I do know that coal is extremely damaging and it could be true.

Verdict: Assuming we make up the shortfall of energy by adding gas or oil stations, we may save a percentage of emissions by burning more efficiently. We need to make massive investment in new power infrastructure. We are still burning large quantities of carbon fuel that we have limited resources of.

Let’s look at costs. At today’s electricity prices it would be cheap to operate an electric vehicle. How about when everyone has electric vehicles? Massive demand on the energy grid for a limited supply would see a major price increase, plus the costs of expanding the infrastructure would be factored into either the retail price or taxes depending on whether the government foots the bill. Either way, society pays for it.

This is all very negative I know. It’s not intended to be. This shift might occur over the next fifty years. Electric vehicles might not be particularly widespread until fifty years from now. They may never be. Another better technology may present itself that avoids these issues. I sincerely hope that’s the case.

Other developing technology may reduce the amount of energy required to get from point A to point B. Take this example: A guy driving to work in an average four-door car. Around 4% of the energy produced by the engine goes into moving the driver himself. Even with four people in the car you’re only up to about 14%. The rest goes into moving the mass of the car itself, is lost to heat/friction etc. If we could improve the car by, say, reducing it’s weight (without sacrificing structural integrity) could we reduce the energy it uses? Absolutely. This has already been happening for some time, but continuing advancements in materials technology may make even more substantial gains. That’s a conventional example. How about something more sci-fi like a relativity drive? This could potentially produce a hovercar if it ever actually works. Despite apparently violating fundamental laws of physics I’m suspending judgement until it’s peer reviewed. At the very least it proves that we’re not yet out of ideas.

There is some deep thinking around energy sustainability. Far too much to cover in a single post. There may be more on this in the future. Watch this space. In the meantime I welcome any healthy debate.

For now, I leave the fundamental point: Moving things or people from point to point requires energy. That energy needs to come from somewhere. All the sustainable forms of it that I can think of are driven by either solar or gravitational sources. We just need to figure out how to employ them efficiently and effectively. I believe we’ll manage it somehow.

On Mana

I’m wading in on the debate around the Topless Haka Photo from the UK:


Some kapa haka experts have come out and expressed offence over this. For context, this is going in a calendar raising money for breast cancer in Britain. I can’t say I’m offended by this. As Peter Sharples of the Maori Party pointed out – it’s important to be able to laugh at one’s culture from time to time.

For those not familiar with haka, see wikipedia

It’s important to note that haka are strong expressions of mana and different groups all have their own. The most commonly seen one is Ka Mate (the All Black Rugby haka that has subsequently been embodied by the rest of New Zealand sport) attributed to Te Rauparaha that is being parodied above. It is understandable that people think that this is the haka, but that’s not the case.

There are a number of haka videos on youtube (and I encourage you to view them all) but I present my favourite, the New Zealand Army Haka:

This is right at the ‘war dance’ end of the haka spectrum. Note the pride and passion. This is what mana really is. I doubt the soldiers here feel particularly threatened or offended by that photo.

Another pair go…

waving.jpgThe ongoing exodus of my extended friends for the Big Kiwi OE continues.

This time around it’s Nigel and Denise, who are flying off into South East Asia on their way to the Rat Maze of the UK.

Take care guys, and don’t forget to write/send pictures etc. Stick me on an email subscription to your travelblog if it supports it.

Haere Ra

Rainoaster challenge: Conclusion

The grand social experiment that was the raincoaster challenge has been deemed concluded!

And the winner is….Me! If you would take a moment to picture me pinning a big blue ribbon upon myself, standing in the middle of a nearly empty barn, grinning broadly, I would appreciate it.

It’s vaguely regrettable, but no-one else actually entered any successful weird searches. People may actually have tried, but the only evidence of this is from Archie and the Queenpin herself.

On the plus side my hits did spike fairly significantly! Maybe next time that happens I’ll have contrived some even more amusing/interesting content.

So in closing, allow me to leave you with my winning search:

Cephalopod Grandeur Delusion!

Try and work that into a conversation today. Difficulty: don’t use “hey I saw the lamest blog on the web today”


2007: Year of the High Five

Hi Five!My friend and I have decided upon something over the last few days: 2007 should be the official year of the high-five. Low fives are to be considered a reasonable substitute.

One of my resolutions this year is to high-five as much as possible. I’ve stopped counting, but I’m pretty sure I’ve exceeded 50 by now.

Need to shake hands? That could be a high-five! Just got that big promotion? Definititely a high-five. Bus arrives on time? Totally a high-five. High-five that guy you stand next to every morning and make a new friend!

I think of hitting links as a kind of high five.

High fiving could be the bridge that spans the gaps between people in this lonely world we live in. If high fiving a total stranger would help save the world, would you do it? Would you have the courage? Do you have the right stuff? Are you drunk in any way? That makes it easier to avoid the weird look.

We’ve been putting it into practice and it works

Remember – your globe needs you