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The Potential of Electrified Urban Rail and/or Electric Vehicles

Alan Drake, The Oil Drum
Liquid transportation fuels are not the only option for transportation. There is a general consensus on The Oil Drum that shifting long and medium distance inter-city freight from heavy trucks to electrified railroads is an essential “silver BB” with an implied expansion of inter-city passenger rail service on these electrified tracks.

This modal transfer trades about 20 BTUs (or joules) of diesel for 1 BTU (joule) of electricity. The massive gain in efficiency makes electrified railroads sustainable if social order can be maintained. The history of railroads in the 1800s shows that oil is not essential for railroad operation and maintenance. Some “doomers” have suggested that “running the railroads” with their essential freight and passenger service may be a key to maintaining social order.

This consensus contrasts with two competing and overlapping memes for urban transportation; electrified urban rail and personal electric vehicles. Thus the “and/or” in the title. Bicycling has been largely overlooked in the discussions so far.

My formal position is at:

Walking and bicycling are the ideal post-Peak Oil urban transportation modes. But they are suitable for only a few urban trips (0.5% commuted by bicycle in 2000) and almost never used for suburban trips. And many Americans simply cannot imagine walking to the grocery store or bicycling to the post office or work due to the post-WW II changes in our urban form and habits.
(13 Nov 2006)

It heats. It powers. Is it the future of home energy?

Mark Clayton, The Christian Science Monitor
Residential ‘micro-combined-heat-and-power’ units are efficient furnaces that create electricity.
Down in Bernard Malin’s basement is a softly thrumming metal box that turns natural gas into hot water and generates $600 to $800 worth of electricity a year – a bonus byproduct of heating his home.

“It’s like printing money,” says Mr. Malin, the first person in Massachusetts – perhaps in the nation – to own a residential “micro combined-heat-and-power” system, also known

But he’s not likely to be the last.

Since Malin changed his home heating system to micro-CHP in February, 18 other families in the Boston area also have adopted the technology, which squeezes about 90 percent of the useful energy from the fuel. That’s triple the efficiency of power delivered over the grid.

Factories and other industrial facilities have used large CHP systems for years. But until the US debut of micro-systems in greater Boston, the units had not been small enough, cheap enough, and quiet enough for American homes. Add to that the public’s rising concern about electric-power reliability – seen in a sales boom of backup generators in the past couple of years – and some experts see in micro-CHP a power-to-the-people energy revolution.

“Right now these residential micro-CHP systems are just a blip,” says Nicholas Lenssen of Energy Insights, a technology advisory firm in Framingham, Mass. “But it’s a … technology that … could have a big impact as it’s adopted more widely over the next five to 10 years.”
(15 Nov 2006)

Making Mercedes in Ghana

Orla Ryan, BBC News
Ghanaian mechanic Frank Darko boasts that he can make any car. Any car? “I can make any car. Ask me,” he said. A Mercedes Benz?

“I need the engine but the body I can build it. It would take me two or three weeks to complete it, if you bring the engine and chassis,” he said.

Few of Mr Darko’s customers want Mercedes Benz and few want their cars built from scratch. But many bring cars, trucks, buses and trailers so badly damaged that in any other country they would be a write-off.

In the hands of Mr Darko and others like him, life is breathed back into hulks of scrap metal and fashioned with heat and hammers into something, well almost new.

Mr Darko is a “straighter” – so-called because he can straighten crooked vehicles.

He is one of an estimated 80,000 mechanics, engineers and artisans who work in Suame Magazine, an industrial slum, possibly one of Africa’s biggest.
(13 Nov 2006)
A glimpse into the future of the West? -AF

Dropping Pounds From Their Waste
U.K. shoppers encouraged to bully manufacturers that create excess waste

Offering hope to scofflaws everywhere, U.K. Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw says British shoppers should leave “unnecessary and excessive” packaging at store checkouts and tattle on package-happy manufacturers.

The government-sanctioned shop and skedaddle plan sounds delightfully naughty — particularly since manufacturers found guilty of overpackaging single items can be fined up to $9,500. Packaging waste in Britain increased 12 percent between 1999 and 2005, and one-sixth of the 5 million tons of rubbish generated by Brits every year comes from supermarket packaging.

The country’s top 13 grocery retailers pledged last year to reduce waste by over 175,000 tons by 2008, but so far have eliminated only 38,000 tons.

“Until the supermarkets demonstrate clearly that they are willing to lead by example, we cannot expect consumers to get fully engaged with reducing their own waste,” Bradshaw said. We’re so glad Spotted Dick comes in those tiny cans.
(15 Nov 2006)
Original has links to other articles.

A bigger economy doesn’t always buy happiness

Eric Weiner, LA Times
The U.S. should think about a general wellness index alongside GDP to gauge the country’s true health.
A QUICK QUIZ. What do the following have in common? The war in Iraq. Sales of cigarettes. The recent fires in Southern California.

The answer: They all contribute to our nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP, and therefore are all considered “good,” at least in the dismal eyes of economists.

GDP is the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. GDP measures the size of the pie, not the quality of the ingredients – fresh apples or rotten ones are counted the same. Or, to put it another way, the sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally (assuming the sales price is the same).

GDP doesn’t register, as Robert Kennedy put it, “the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.” GDP measures everything, Kennedy concluded, “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Yet we continue to track this quarterly statistic as if nothing else matters. If GDP is up, we feel good. It means we as a nation are doing better and are, presumably, happier. Low rates of growth or, God forbid, a shrinking economy mean we are less well off and, presumably, less happy.

However, recent research into happiness – or subjective well-being, as social scientists call it – reveals that beyond the surprisingly low level of about $15,000 a year, the link between economic growth and happiness evaporates.

Americans are three times wealthier than we were half a century ago, but we are no happier. The same is true of Japan and many other industrialized nations. Yet we continue to treat economic growth and well-being as one and the same.

But one country does not. Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation, has invented a radically new metric: Gross National Happiness.

It’s not a joke, and these mountain people are not oxygen-deprived. Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, is serious about pursuing a different kind of development, one that, in the words of the late economist E. F. Schumacher, treats “economics as if people mattered.”

Others have toyed with alternative measures of national progress, but none have gone as far as Bhutan’s happiness policy. The country’s home minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, calls conventional measures of economic growth “delusional.” Instead, Bhutanese officials make decisions based, in part, on whether they will contribute to the nation’s collective happiness.
Eric Weiner is the author of the book “The Geography of Bliss,” to be published by TWELVE in 2008.
(13 Nov 2006)

Serving Up Energy Efficiency, Market-Style

Joel Makower, WorldChanging
A rather cool thing has been happening lately in the hot world of computer server farms: product manufacturers are serving up dramatic improvements in energy efficiency — with scarcely an activist, regulator, or other pressure group to claim credit for it.

Except for customers, that is.

The problem, for the uninitiated, is that server farms — those massive banks of computers that manage traffic for Web sites, email hosts, and company networks, among others — are ravenous energy consumers. There are at least nine million servers in the U.S., operating 24/7, providing the bandwidth that allows businesses, individuals, and governments to store and serve up every type of data and media imaginable, from iTunes to IRS forms.

Servers are growing at an astonishing rate — not just in numbers, but in speed, demanding ever-greater amounts of power. According to the research firm Gartner, there has been a significant increase in the deployment of high-density servers over the past twelve months, leading to huge power and cooling challenges for data centers. The energy needed for a rack of these high-density servers can be between 10 and 15 times higher than for a traditional server environment.

…For those who operate server farms, this has become a nontrivial issue. While energy costs represent less than 10% of a typical company’s information technology (IT) budget, that could rise to more than 50% in the next few years, says Gartner. For companies like Google, whose massive computing infrastructure, by one estimate, gives it “the largest utility bill in the planet,” the push to make servers run cooler and more efficiently has taken on added urgency.
(13 Nov 2006)
This good article by Joel Makower shows the limitation of efficiency alone as a goal. Makower points out the “dramatic improvements in energy efficiency,” but at the same time, total energy usage has gone up. This may be an instance of the Jevons Paradox (also known as The Rebound Effect):

as technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, total consumption of that resource may increase, rather than decrease


A green future for colleges

Paul Marthers and Amir Rahnamay-Azar, Inside Higher Ed
There is mounting evidence, corroborated by the world’s leading scientists, that planet earth is on fire, that global warming is an inexorable reality, that there is scant need for further studies. The evidence submitted cries for individual and collective solutions. Can natural-resource-dependent institutions, like colleges, play an active, if not leading, role in saving the planet? Yes. Should they? Yes

An essential first step is for colleges to determine if they can function in a more sustainable fashion: that is, meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practicing sustainability means making environmentally friendly, otherwise known as “green,” choices related to energy, construction, renovation, purchasing, and investment. Modeling sustainability requires more than just an adjustment to college and university operations, it requires a reconsideration of institutional missions and pedagogical values.

Energy costs are higher than ever, creating pressures on all organizations to find efficient, inexpensive alternatives to fossil fuels.
(14 Nov 2006)