Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Green House of the Future Includes GSHP

The Wall Street Journal asked architects to draw up plans for the most energy-efficient houses they could imagine. They imagined quite a bit.

What will the energy-efficient house of the future look like?

It could have gardens on its walls or a pond stocked with fish for dinner. It might mimic a tree, turning sunlight into energy and carbon dioxide into oxygen. Or perhaps it will be more like a lizard, changing its color to suit the weather and healing itself when it gets damaged.

Those are just a handful of the possibilities that emerged from an exercise in futurism. The Wall Street Journal asked four architects to design an energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable house without regard to cost, technology, aesthetics or the way we are used to living.

The idea was not to dream up anything impossible or unlikely -- in other words, no antigravity living rooms. Instead, we asked the architects to think of what technology might make possible in the next few decades. They in turn asked us to rethink the way we live.

"This is a time of re-examining values, re-examining what we need," says one of our architects, Rick Cook, of the New York firm Cook + Fox. "We are re-examining the idea of home."

A fresh look may be long overdue, given the amount of damage that homes can do to the environment. It's easy to envision a power plant spewing pollution or a highway full of cars burning billions of gallons of petroleum. But buildings -- silent and unmoving -- are the quiet users of much of our energy, through electricity, heating and water consumption. The U.S. Energy Department estimates buildings are responsible for 39% of our energy consumption and a similar percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The growing awareness of that fact helps explain why green building is one of the most pervasive trends in the construction industry -- even as the economy struggles and home-building is at its lowest level in a generation.

So, how will the green homes of tomorrow help solve the energy puzzle? Here's a gander into the future.

"I'd love to build a house like a tree," says architect William McDonough of the Charlottesville, Va., firm William McDonough + Partners. And that's what he set out to do here.

The surface of his house, like a leaf, contains a photosynthetic layer that captures sunlight. Unlike today's solar panels, which are often pasted above a roofline, these are woven into the fabric of the exterior. They heat water and generate electricity for the home -- and create oxygen for the atmosphere, to offset carbon produced in other areas of the home.

Mr. McDonough envisions a sleek, curved roof with generous eaves to provide shade, which lowers the heat load in summer, thereby reducing the need for energy-hogging air conditioning. The roof also insulates and provides an outdoor garden. (Mr. McDonough designed a similar "green roof" for a Ford Motor Co. factory -- one of the first large U.S. buildings with that design.)

The "bark" of the treelike house would be thin, insulating films that would self-clean and self-heal, Mr. McDonough says, thus avoiding the need to replace them after years of exposure to the elements.

William McDonough + Partners envisions its house like a tree. The "bark" of the house is made up of thin, insulating films that would self-clean and self-heal if damaged. A curved roof with large eaves provides shade, which lowers the heat load in summer. The "trunk," or the frame of the home, consists of carbon tubes, while the "roots" are a heat-pump system buried in the yard.

It sounds far-fetched, but some of these technologies already exist. Self-cleaning glass, for instance, has a special coating that uses ultraviolet sunlight to break down organic dirt; rainwater then washes the filth away.

Self-healing paints that contain microscopic capsules of color are in use on some car paint, for instance. These vessels break open when the surface of the paint is scratched to repair the damage. Similar ideas could expand to repair other materials such as glass or cladding.

The "trunk" -- or the frame of the home -- would eschew wood or metals. Instead, lightweight, "resource efficient" carbon tubes would keep the structure standing upright.

Finally, the "roots" of the home would be a ground-source heat-pump exchange system buried in the yard. It would take advantage of the relatively constant temperature of the soil to control the home's climate -- bringing in heat in winter, when the ground is warmer than the surrounding air, and cool in the summer, when the ground's temperature is lower. Such systems exist today, but cost puts them out of the reach of most homeowners. (Until GroundSource Geo debuts next year...-ed.)


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Going Back to School for Earth Day

When it comes to promoting energy efficiency and our part to play, we value all aspects of the educational pipeline. Last week, Dennis Murphy was part of a provacative discussion entitled "Integrating the Clean Tech Value Chain." This MIT/Stanford VLAB Emerging Business Forum was produced by GroundSource mentor Ron Long, moderated by Dan Lankford of Wavepoint Ventures and hosted by Cooley, Godward. Quite a good time was had.

Not to be outdone, Palo Alto's trailblazing El Carmelo Elementary School will be the hub of Earth Day afternoon Expo activities. GroundSource was invited by Deloitte/CTO/PTA member Brian Goncher to explain heat pump mechanics to children and their parents. We look forward to many "aha" moments, despite the absence of a cute heat pump mascot.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bob Potter's Deep Pursuit of Hot Dry Rocks

"Drill, baby, Drill"
BY: Todd Woody @ grist

A veteran of the Manhattan Project is developing technology that could make it easier to tap geothermal energy locked deep underground.

[disclosure: GroundSource Geo is affiliated with Potter Drilling]

It’s the archetypal Silicon Valley story: Unknown entrepreneur toils away on a Big Idea in an anonymous office park until discovered by one of the Valley’s legendary deep-pocketed investors.

Another boy wonder CEO hatching the next Twitter or Facebook? Not quite. Meet Bob Potter, 88. He started his hardware company when he was just 83 with technology that grew out of his work on the Manhattan Project (yes, that Manhattan Project) back in the 1940s at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

It’s all about bits, not bytes. Bits as in drill bits. Potter Drilling is developing a deep-drilling technology to tap geothermal heat miles below the earth’s surface—heat that could be used to generate carbon-free electricity.

Conventional geothermal power plants draw upon underground aquifers of hot water relatively close to the surface to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. The problem is that underground water currently tapped for geothermal is found mainly in the western United States. But the technology Potter is developing could drill much deeper, meaning geothermal energy could be generated nationwide.

According to a 2006 MIT study, so-called Enhanced Geothermal Systems could potentially supply 2,500 times the country’s current energy consumption. That grabbed Google’s attention, and last August the Internet giant’s philanthropic arm agreed to invest $4 million in Potter Drilling as part of its green energy initiative.

The tech twist: Potter drills not with hard-as-diamonds bits but with water—extremely hot water. (More on that in a bit.) The goal is to radically cut the cost of EGS to spread the technology to regions that rely too much on coal for generating electricity but are not suited for solar, wind and other renewable energy generation.

“It is fun to see some old dreams come true,” says Potter standing in the company’s Redwood City lab-slash-workshop in a light-industrial park wedged in between Interstate 101 and the railroad tracks. He has just pulled into the parking lot after making the 1,200-mile drive up from his home in New Mexico (with a side trip to Fresno to visit his 95-year-old brother).

Tall and lean and partial to bolo ties, Potter looks as much a western rancher as a rocket scientist. He is in fact one of the fathers of EGS. Starting in the 1950s, Potter and colleagues at Los Alamos began investigating the potential of fracturing pockets of super-heated rocks located deep beneath earth’s surface. Their idea: Inject water in the fractured rock and pump the hot water to the surface to create steam to drive a turbine. The water is then re-circulated back underground in a closed loop.

But Potter soon encountered a major obstacle to making geothermal as common as coal: Drilling as deep as six miles below the earth’s surface is incredibly expensive, presenting a host of obstacles to overcome. Even conventional geothermal developers spend millions of dollars to just drill test wells. But EGS rigs must penetrate miles of hard rock that slows drilling to a crawl. And a broken drill bit 30,000 feet underground can force the abandonment of a $10 million well.

“Getting into the drilling was forced on us in a way because that was thing that really prevented hot fractured rocks from being viable,” says Potter.

When government funding of geothermal research dried up with the crash of oil prices in the early 1980s, Potter moved on to other endeavors. But in the late 1990s he returned to geothermal, and with MIT chemical engineering expert Jefferson Tester patented a drilling technology called hydrothermal spallation. Potter then persuaded his son Jared to start a company in 2004 to commercialize the technology and serve as its CEO.

The younger Potter holds a Ph.D. in geology from Stanford University and had already started two Silicon Valley geological-related companies. Potter Drilling limped along for a few years, unable to interest the Valley’s venture capitalists to fund basic R&D on something that seemed so, well, industrial and old economy.

Then Google came calling on a recommendation from Tester. “If Google hadn’t come along, the company would have died,” says Jared Potter, 56.

What sealed the Google deal was a demo of Potter Drilling’s technology like the one I’m about to see. We’re standing in front of a contraption that looks like a prop from the original “Star Trek.” Salad plate-sized analog gauges line either side of the seven-foot-tall U-shaped device. Suspended in the center is a silver container about the size of small beer keg connected to various tubes and valves.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Are ultracapacitors the key to making hybrids king of the auto market?

The Dark Horse in the Race to Power Hybrid Cars

By Larry Greenemeier Scientific American

MEAN GREEN MACHINE: An ultracapacitor-equipped Toyota Supra HV-R coupe was the only hybrid to win the 24-hour endurance race held at Japan's Tokachi International Speedway. Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The greatest victory so far for the cars, fueled by a combo of electricity and gas, came just weeks ago when an ultracapacitor-equipped Toyota Supra HV-R coupe became the first hybrid to win the 24-hour endurance car race held at Japan's Tokachi International Speedway. The hybrid Supra finished 616 laps of the 5.1-kilometer (roughly threemile) course—19 more laps than the second-place nonhybrid Nissan Fairlady Z. "The Toyota that won was able to deliver energy more quickly, accelerate faster, and use braking generation more efficiently," says Kevin Mak, an analyst with research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics and author of a recent study that explores the potential for ultracapacitors to complement and possibly even replace batteries in hybrid vehicles. "The days of the large hybrid vehicle battery pack may be numbered," he adds.

The reason, he says: capacitor technology that stores energy in the electric field between a pair of closely spaced conductors. An ultracapacitor, also called a supercapacitor, is an electrochemical capacitor with a higher energy density than normal capacitors, which potentially makes them a better fit for hybrid vehicles.

Ultracapacitors store electricity by physically separating positive and negative charges. Batteries store energy using toxic chemicals and their effectiveness fades over time. In addition, recycling the heavy metals in batteries is a difficult task. Capacitors, on the other hand, are constructed of much smaller fine carbon nanotubes, Mak says.

A major advantage of ultracapacitors is their ability to efficiently capture electricity from regenerative braking systems and provide that electricity to power a car's acceleration. Ultracapacitors not only charge more quickly than batteries, they also release energy more quickly, Mak says.

A drawback to their use is the technology's inability to store as much energy as a battery. But the Tokachi race proved that ultracapacitors could be more widely used in conjunction with smaller batteries to power hybrid cars. "Without the need for chemicals, capacitors can be lighter, thereby enabling the hybrid car maker to improve fuel economy further and reduce costs," Mak says. "The low weight would then make hybrid power trains more readily available to compact car segments as [has been] seen on Honda and Mazda concept cars since 1997."


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Introducing iBone

Congratulations to GroundSource Geo friend Tom Scharfeld for the unleashing of the iBone trombone app."Our aim is to produce something playable, practicable, and fun," said Tom."With iBone, we've brought the (trom)Bone and the band to the phone so users can make music, have fun, and even learn wherever they may be."

Visit http://ibone.spoonjack.com for video and images. iBone is available in the iTunes App Store now with an introductory price of $2.99.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cap & Trade: Two Views, a Correction and a Modest Proposal

Thomas Friedman: Show Us the Ball

Representative John B. Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has circulated a draft bill that would impose “a per-unit tax on the carbon-dioxide content of fossil fuels, beginning at a rate of $15 per metric ton of CO2 and increasing by $10 each year.” The bill sets a goal, rather than a cap, on emissions at 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, and if the goal for the first five years is not met, the tax automatically increases by an additional $5 per metric ton. The bill implements a fee on carbon-intensive imports, as well, to press China to follow suit. Larson would use most of the income to reduce people’s payroll taxes: We tax your carbon sins and un-tax your payroll wins.

People get that — and simplicity matters. Americans will be willing to pay a tax for their children to be less threatened, breathe cleaner air and live in a more sustainable world with a stronger America. They are much less likely to support a firm in London trading offsets from an electric bill in Boston with a derivatives firm in New York in order to help fund an aluminum smelter in Beijing, which is what cap-and-trade is all about. People won’t support what they can’t explain.

Michele Bachmann: Lost jobs, big hikes in your bills -- that's cap-and-trade

President Obama has repeatedly said he will not raise taxes on low- and middle-income families, yet his policies do not match his rhetoric. Take for instance, a new tax he has proposed on the use of energy. It's called cap-and-trade or, more appropriately, cap-and-tax. The tax would require energy producers and businesses to pay to emit carbon emissions in the hope of reducing greenhouse gases.

The Democrats need the revenue this will generate to pay for their expensive agenda. But getting it this way would be shortsighted because it will cost far more in the long run than it will bring in. While the president originally estimated that implementing this plan would cost $646 billion over eight years, his deputy director for the National Economic Council, Jason Furman, recently stated that it could cost up to three times that -- bringing the cost closer to $2 trillion.

Any way you look at it, it's low- and middle-income Americans who will pay dearly for this. According to an analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the average American household could expect its yearly energy bill to increase by $3,128 per year. Using an analysis by Peter Orszag, President Obama's budget director, that number would be closer to $4,000.

MIT Scientist: Republicans Misusing My Climate Change Paper

Apparently from this M.I.T. study, which found that a cap-and-trade plan along the lines of the one envisioned by the Obama administration would raise $366 billion a year at the outset. In reality, many of those costs will be passed on to consumers, but those costs will be offset by rebates and conservation and efficiency measures and the transition to other fuel sources and so on. In fact, the exact same study concluded that the actual costs to consumers would begin at $31 a year--or $79 per family.

Gilbert Metcalf in Technology Review

A leading economist explains why a carbon tax is the best strategy for cutting greenhouse gases and the use of fossil fuels.

The MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change