Engineering porn

One of the specialized delights of crossing the Bay Bridge while its new eastern span was under construction was seeing the Left Coast Lifter at work.  Especially in a tech world where the witchcraft and magic of Maxwell’s equations rule and stuff is just bits in a cloud.  “Wow,” I said to myself, “I bet that’s close to the biggest crane in the world!”  and I was right. Coming soon to a river near our northeast readers, and renamed I Lift New York. Don’t miss it if you like drop-dead awesome machinery.

Skepticism about TED Talks

The hype over TED talks is not justified

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

That’s one of the choice lines in Benjamin Bratton’s critique of TED talks. I know many gifted people who have done TED talks, but I demurred when I was asked to speak at one of the numerous TED spinoff events (I think it was called TED-x but it might have been TED-ious). I find the deference of the audiences a bit creepy and also dispiriting. If an audience of my students were as docile and adoring as TEDgoers, I would consider myself a failure as a teacher.

The Onion’s parody of TED talks is the ultimate takedown of the format. If you mixed this video in with a random sample of 9 other TED talks and asked 1,000 TED-goers to guess which one was the fake, I am not confident that most of them would come up with the right answer.

Credit Where It’s Due

Did everyone see that our colleague Steven Teles received one of David Brooks’s Sidney Awards for his “mind-altering” (I am quoting) National Affairs essay on kludges? So far as I know, the award means only that the recipient gets attention in Brooks’s column; but anything which helps the wider world to read the wisdom of the Reality-Based Community must be worth having.

Congratulations, comrade!

Icarus in China

A bland photo of solar panels in China has hidden meanings.

Not another solar blog post … Trust me, this isn’t really about solar but about imagery and power.

The photo:
Panels ChinaScreenshot_1
At first sight, the only surprising thing about this image from China is the standard of the middle-class houses.

Here’s the accompanying story, from the English website of Xinhua, published on 9 April:

Photo taken on April 8, 2013 shows solar panels of a homemade photovoltaic power station made by a local resident named Mo Zhikai in Wumeng Village of Ningbo City, east China’s Zhejiang Province.

The 27-year-old Mo, an enthusiastic fan of photovoltaic power generation, installed over 70 solar panels with the capacity of 7.5 kilowatt on the roof of his own house and garage in 2009. Yet these panel were left unused as they were not allowed to be incorporated into the State Grid. Things changed as the State Grid Corporation of China released a document on Feb. 27, 2013, encouraging distributed generation to be incorporated into the State Grid. Staff members of Ningbo Power Bureau came to Mo’s village for a survey of Mo’s homemade photovoltaic power generation equipments on Monday. Mo will have the first homemade photovoltaic power station in Ningbo if everything goes smooth in 35 workdays.

Just a cute human-interest story to fill the pages? Possibly; I don’t think so though. (Alert: data-thin armchair speculation below the jump)

Continue reading “Icarus in China”

Limits to solar efficiency?

The efficiency of solar panels can still increase a lot.

Cambridge physics professor David Mackay is scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. In his online best-nonseller Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, page 39, he thinks we are already at the practical limit of PV efficiency:

Typical solar panels have an efficiency of about 10%; expensive ones perform at 20%. (Fundamental physical laws limit the efficiency of photovoltaic systems to at best 60% with perfect concentrating mirrors or lenses, and 45% without concentration. A mass-produced [photovoltaic] device with efficiency greater than 30% would be quite remarkable.)

Accordingly his scenarios assume 20% panel efficiency for residential and 10% for utility. That’s till 2050. In 100% renewable scenarios, the volume of solar is constrained by total roof area and competing land uses. So if you could plug in a higher efficiency, the limits shift too.

The DECC online scenario calculator uses 10% PVefficiency load factor and apparently 20% efficiency throughout. This is plain wrong. [Update, correction: I confused efficiency and load factor. See endnote]. In SRoeCo Solar’s online database comparing 12,622(!) panels, the median panel at position 6,311 has an efficiency of 14.50%, and only the bottom 3% are below 10%. The best panel is at 21.57%.

Here’s why I don’t believe Mackay’s 20% (or SunPower’s 21.57%) is a limit. Continue reading “Limits to solar efficiency?”

Pass the Popkern*

The British approval of the costly Hinkley nuclear power station still faces major obstacles in Brussels.

* Explanation of awful bilingual pun at end

While my American readers settle down on Tuesday night to enjoy the end of the political ambitions of Ken Cuccinelli at the hands of a Democratic party hack with zero experience in government, I’m settling in for a long comedy serial: Sir Humphrey Appleby vs. European Commission in re Hinkley Point C.

Hinkley_we_599-300x183The dying nuclear industry (my take on the economics, politics, mascot) has just scored an extraordinary win in Britain. The government will commission EDF and its Chinese partners to build the £16bn, 3.3Gw, two-reactor Hinkley C plant. It’s a fixed-price contract: but to get this protection from the high construction risks, it has had to guarantee an FIT of £92.50 ($147.9, €109.3) per megawatt-hour for no less than 35 years from the supposed completion date of 2023, indexed for inflation. And EDF will be compensated for any curtailment from wind and solar.

The FIT is double the current British wholesale price, twice the current onshore wind FIT, and considerably higher than current German non-indexed FITs for on-and offshore wind and solar. The price of both wind and solar is bound to fall; the British government accepts this, but it lowballs the trend rates. It thinks the price of solar will only decline by 3% a year, far lower than experience and typical industry forecasts.

Whatever were they thinking of? I thought this was bizarre, but nevertheless a done deal. Not in fact. Continue reading “Pass the Popkern*”


Really smart students are sort of a dime a dozen at my school; students who can finish in three years and get into graduate school, not so many.  This guy obviously has some real chops; too bad for me he was in such a hurry and didn’t have time to take any of my courses!  He has a really promising career in front of him; if it unfolds as it appears it will, it will be good for my health and yours down the line.

Unclear if that career will be as long as we might hope, though; the incredibly cool software he will code  after he’s, say, 40 may be left for someone else to do, or not done at all. See, to the best of my knowledge, our smart students do their thinking and like that with their physical brains, Brazinski too.  For some reason, Cal’s idea of how to take care of that particular device is to send it to collide with really big guys, again and again, to entertain the rest of us and pay for our fancy new stadium and coaching office palace.

Maybe that’s efficient use of a class-A brain; Mark weighs 305 lbs and will surely give us some Really Great Hits this season - the kind you can hear over the crowd and the announcers on TV - to go with all the one’s he’s taking and dishing up in practice. In the seven minutes of play he will probably get (that’s the average playing time of a member of our football squad), should be at least two or three of those!  As between doing some wonky computer stuff for a few decades, and steering an offensive lineman into collisions for a couple of years, don’t the fundamental values of a university clearly favor the latter way to use up a good brain?

A New Technology to Reduce Alcohol-Involved Criminal Offending

A new technology to monitor alcohol-involved offenders is a step forward, but still imperfect

States have adopted different approaches to reducing recidivism by intoxicated drivers. Some employ ignition interlocks that prevent an offender’s car from starting if the person in the driver’s seat fails an inbuilt breathalyzer test. Others have adopted 24/7 Sobriety, which requires offenders to appear in person twice a day and be breathalyzed.

Mark Kleiman and I have highlighted the evidence that 24/7 Sobriety both makes the roads safer as well as reduces other types of alcohol-related crime. Ignition interlocks have much weaker evidence of success. This could be in part because all one has to do to evade an interlock is drive someone else’s car, whereas an in-person test is pretty much impossible to fake given that the staff who administer the in person breath tests know the offenders personally. Ignition interlocks are also more constrained in their scope: 24/7 Sobriety can be employed for any alcohol-related crime whereas interlocks only make sense when the crime is driving under the influence.

Enter a new technology that brings to interlock some of the benefits of 24/7 Sobriety:

The ignition interlock system is equipped with a camera to detect if someone other than the offender is testing and a GPS to pinpoint the offender’s location on a map for each test. The offender must test twice a day, whether or not he or she drives the vehicle that day.

The pilot test results from 119 offenders are impressive: 99.5% success over more than 100,000 breath tests. However — and it’s a big however — preventing recidivism in this population depends on a knowable, swift, certain and modest response to breaches of alcohol-abstinence orders. In traditional 24/7 sobriety, this is easily done because the offender is right in front of the police and can be arrested and jailed for one night immediately. But what, practically, can the police do if someone with the interlock “blows hot” in an automobile that is parked 100 miles away?

One might say that the 99.5% success rate in the pilot study proves this is a minor concern. But the pilot study rode on the credibility of the much larger, longer running 24/7 Sobriety program in South Dakota, which everyone knows responds immediately to breaches. If a different state started with this new technology, they would need an upfront commitment of police resources to immediately arrest faraway offenders who test positive for alcohol. If that were not done, the program would get a reputation for inconsistency and lassitude among offenders, which has been the kiss of death for effective community supervision in much of the country.

The Inventiveness of People in Trying Economic Circumstances

Traveling through a poverty-stricken Peruvian village, I met a man with a gift for caring for llamas

450px-A_Quechua_girl_and_her_LlamaMy faith in humanity has been repeatedly buoyed over the years by observing the extraordinary creativity and resourcefulness of people in trying economic circumstances. I reflected upon this life lesson during a recent trip through some of the poorest towns in Peru.

In towns without a paint store were astonishingly beautiful murals. Talented locals created lush pigments from local plants, brushes from animal hair, and wonderful images from their minds. Local doctors had poor access to medicine, but were remarkably resourceful in harnessing the power of therapeutic plants to do their healing work. But the Peruvian who impressed me the most was an extremely old man I met who was renowned for his ability to care for llamas.

In my broken Spanish, I was able to gather that the llama was central to life in the town, particularly for the transport of foodstuffs and crafts for trade. It was thus a significant problem that a local bird known as the malchiste had taken to nesting in the warm, thick manes of the llamas during the winter months. The noisy birds irritated the animals, disrupted their sleep and inflicted scratches that sometimes became infected.

In a wealthy country, the llamas would simply have been stabled in a tightly fenced enclosure, but that was beyond the means of the poor people of the village. So the inventive old man suggested rubbing baker’s yeast all over the llamas to repel the birds. Stunningly, it worked.

I asked him how he ever came up with such a strange but effective idea. He responded that he long ago learned that Continue reading “The Inventiveness of People in Trying Economic Circumstances”