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It’s Not Easy Being Green, It’s Expensive (And Not Too Smart)

Thumbing through the April 2014 issue of Mechanical Engineering, one finds a heavy predominance of articles pertaining to so-called Green Engineering.  Some of these articles cover pretty neat engineering science, regardless of the use to which it is being applied.

For instance, however impractical, a system designed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Technology to wirelessly charge bus batteries is pretty cool.

Two new buses were put to work last August on a 15-mile route in Gumi City, an industrial center 150 miles from Seoul.  The buses are all-electric, not hybrid, and they do not need to plug in for a recharge. Instead, they periodically drive over cables buried in the roadway along their route.

Ignoring the false premise driving the innovation for these buses, namely to reduce so-called “greenhouse gas emissions,” one can at least admire the science.

The charging technology is called “shaped magnetic field in resonance,” or SMFIR.  ….

The concept is called on-line electric vehicles, and the heart of OLEV technology is the transfer of enough electricity across [air] gaps of up to 10 inches to power a fully loaded bus.

There is a lot of admirable and interesting stuff in the article and one can overlook the motivation and impracticality by focusing on the sheer innovation.  (At the end of the article, an MIT professor and engineer on the project admitted blithely that if South Korea were to switch all urban transportation to SMFIR vehicles, they would need to build four more 1,000-megawatt nuclear generators.)  Costs for infrastructure for the buses would be $235,790 per km.  The doesn’t include the cost of the nuclear plants or the buses.

Another article in the magazine touts the benefits of concentrated solar power, and ends with a plea to continue subsidies. Because,

The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative calls for reducing the cost of solar power to 6 cents/kWh by 2020.

Evidently the writers of this article didn’t look at the practical ramifications of such subsidies.

The chief economist of the Heritage Foundation wrote in a February 2014 issue of The National Review,

Not long ago nearly all the nations of Europe bought into this same dream of green-energy free lunch as they legislated tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for solar and wind power while directly and indirectly taxing and capping carbon-based energy.  These policies were set in motion about a decade ago to meet strict and self-imposed targets, begun with the Kyoto  treaty, for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.  By 2030, the EU promised, its carbon emissions would be 30 to 40 percent below 1990 levels, adding that it would reduce them even further if other nations followed in its green footsteps.

But in recent weeks all of that has come crashing down.  In January Brussels announced with little media fanfare that the EU is ditching their renewable-energy standards.  What they whisper is that they are doing so as a matter of economic survival.

The Germans, who have been quicker to learn from their mistakes than the rest of Europe, figured out, in the wake of several so-called green energy company bankruptcies, and problems competing with the rest of the world, that this was a bad idea.

Berlin says it will end lavish tax breaks for solar power. … economics minister Sigmar Gabriel announced that reliance on green energy could lead to a “dramatic deindustrialization” of Germany if such reform weren’t passed.  …  “We have reached the limit of what we can ask of our economy,” Gabriel observed.

Back to the Mechanical Engineering magazine, another article explains

The U.S. Department of Energy has approved $1 billion in financing for FutureGen 2.0, which will attempt to capture at least 90% of the carbon dioxide from a 168-megawatt coal generator near Meredosia in west-central Illinois. 

The DOE actions constitute the last step in the National Environmental Policy Act process but does not guarantee the project’s construction.

Let’s save a billion dollars.

Finally, the epitome of stupidity appeared in an article entitled Cookstove Monitoring

Yeah, you read that right, Cookstove Monitoring

Cookstoves have been supplied to more than 800 million people worldwide.  The cookstoves are aimed at solving the crisis of indoor air pollution, deforestation and economic hardship linked to open cooking fires, but cookstoves go unused around the world.

The hypothesis is that there is a design solution to this problem – rather than that perhaps people don’t want to change the way they live their lives.

To prove out this design problem hypothesis,

Businesses and universities are incorporating low-cost cellphone technology and high-priced proprietary instruments into stove sensors and air quality testers.  A $75 wireless device from technology company Nextleaf Analytics of Los Angeles latches to the stove and records when it’s used.

Of course.

The company is working both on retrofitting the device to existing stoves and incorporating it directly into new stoves being manufactured, which won’t be used either.

These sensors also detect

.. black carbon emissions around the cooking station.  Wood and coal smoke carries black carbon particles that are a major greenhouse-effect contributor and a risk factor for respiratory and other diseases.  

While the latter may be true, the sensors will do nothing to change that fact.

Furthermore, Nextleaf’s founder admits that visiting people’s houses to collect data is costly and could lead to changes in behavior, which would introduce a bias into the results.  It’s also quite intrusive.

Of course.  Changing the behavior is the goal, is it not?  Using the stoves rather than open cooking fires is the whole point.    But isn’t this intrusive in its very nature?

Why on earth is so much money being spent to try to reduce greenhouse gases for people who are much more in need of  a consistent food supply and clean water??

There were more “green” articles in this issue.  Apparently this is a big area of focus for mechanical engineers today.  Someone should perhaps suggest that part of engineering should be to look at the premise of why one would solve a problem before one goes about solving it.


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