Sunday, April 25, 2010

Electric car update: Mainstream is just a stroke away

Electric cars are nothing new, and yet they're the newest thing.

(Image: the Aptera 2E electric vehicle. The company claims the equivalent of 200 miles to the gallon. Image: Aptera.)

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor, made the point at the recent world congress of the Society of Automotive Engineers:

“All the early cars were electric. They've been around really for the past century or so, but they really haven't had mass-market appeal.”

Ford, both the company and Bill, are betting that the industry and the mass market have changed.

“It appears the biggest game changer will be electric vehicles,” he said.

Some electric vehicles are already in the market and changing perceptions, like the Tesla Roadster. Somewhere in the neighborhood of half a dozen of them are cruising the roads in Hawai'i, on several islands.

The electric car getting the most press these days seems to be the Nissan LEAF, which promises 100 miles to a charge. It will sell for roughly $33,000, but qualifies for a $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit, bringing it into the mid-$20s.

Reservations for the LEAF started April 20. Nissan is reporting strong demand, although the car isn't due until the end of the year.

BMW, whose Mini was tested extensively as an electric car (the Mini-E) is preparing to launch an electric vehicle with a 160-mile range. It's called the Megacity. If you want it as a pure electric car, you can buy that, but a high-efficiency gas version will also be available. More here.

General Motors, which still isn't sure the public is ready for pure electrics, at the Auto China motor show today (April 25, 2010) was to unveil its expanded Volt. Like the standard Volt, to be released next year, it has a 1.4-liter gas engine that kicks in when its 40-or-less-mile electric range is reached. The new MPV5 is just a little longer, wider and taller—and gets less range.

Those of course, are all pretty standard-looking cars (Well, the Tesla Roadster sizzles when you touch it, but it's still a hot little Lotus—nothing fundamentally un-carlike.)

Then there's the Aptera. Unlike everything above, this looks like a high tech, aerodynamic cross between a car, a motorcycle and a small plane. And it gets the equivalent, the firm says, of 200 miles to the gallon.

Would you feel save leaving it unattended in a public parking lot? I don't know. But it sure looks cool.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sashimi news: Mercury in tuna, marlin-- the threat may not exist

There are high levels of mercury in many popular eating fish, but the kneejerk assumption of human health hazard may not be appropriate.

It's just not that simple.

(Image: Bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus. Credit: NOAA's Fisheries Collection)

In fact, tunas and other fishes may also contain selenium, a substance that provides mercury protection for humans—binding up and detoxifying the mercury.

The issue has come to a head recently with a new publication on mercury, a publication that ignores the selenium protective issues.

The cited paper focuses strictly on mercury levels and the potential health impacts of those levels of mercury, without looking at other compounds in the fish that may reduce or eliminate the threat.

In fact, there's a body of evidence that tunas, in particular, contain a fair amount of selenium—and that tunas with high levels of mercury may accumulate even higher levels of protective selenium.

A 1972 study found that Japanese quail that were fed high levels of mercury in a corn and soy diet did not live as long as quail fed a diet with tuna in it. Rat studies showed that selenium decreased the toxicity of methylmercury in rats. The study concludes: “Selenium in tuna, far from being a hazard in itself, may lessen the danger to man of mercury in tuna.”

A 2007 study by John Kaneko and Richolas Ralston, on fish caught near Hawai'i, is even more clear: “Protective effects of selenium against mercury toxicity have been demonstrated in all animal models evaluated.”

It goes on to say that when studying dietary risks “considering mercury content alone is inadequate.”

Let's be clear. There is real seafood mercury threat in certain situations. Residents of Japan had significant health impacts on eating seafood after an industrial spill at Minamata Bay in Japan 50 years ago. And whale meat appears to accumulate mercury without some of the protective levels of selenium. Also, shoreline fish exposed to mercury pollution from the land can be implicated. And freshwater fish may not have consistent levels of selenium.

But most deep ocean fish appear safe in this regard.

In the Kaneko-Ralston study, the researchers cut up dozens of ocean-caught tuna of various species, swordfish, mahimahi, marlin, spearfish, opah and others. Among them, only the mako sharks sampled did not appear to have sufficiently high levels of selenium to be protective.

“Because of the significantly negative selenium health benefit value of mako shark, consumption of this fish during pregnancy would not be advisable,” the authors wrote.

Kaneko, a veterinarian, fisheries researcher and consultant, said the issue can be very complex, but “the evidence to met is pretty convincing” that most deepwater species are perfectly safe to eat from a mercury perspective.

A number of papers on seafood safety is available here.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wave power offerings expanding

A wave power developer with a project off O'ahu has received next-generation funding to vastly expand the size of its electrical generating units.

A $1.5 million Department of Energy grant to Ocean Power Technologies will fund the expansion of the company's PowerBuoy designs from 150 kilowatts to 500 kW.

(Image: An Ocean Power Technologies PB40 PowerBuoy in Kane'ohe Bay. Credit: Ocean Power Technologies.)

Ocean Power Technologies under a Navy contract has installed a PowerBuoy in Kane'ohe Bay. For more on that project, see here. The Kane'ohe unit installed late in 2009 was the second experimental PB40 unit installed in the bay.

The PB40 unit is for testing, and does not actually deliver power to shore. By contrast, the larger units will feed electricity by cable to the power grid. The company has projects in several countries that are in various stages of development.

A BP 150 is installed off Reedsport, Oregon, and is scheduled to be joined by nine others to form the company's first commercial buoy array. Its total capacity is listed at 1.5 megawatts.

There are many designs of wave energy systems. The PowerBuoy concept is a long cylinder that floats vertically in the water, tethered to the ocean floor in 100 to 150 feet. It generates power as waves pass by the unit.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hawai'i Prep's new Energy Lab: Beyond LEED

The folks at the Hawai'i Preparatory Academy on the Big Island hope their new energy lab will be a place where people can brainstorm Hawai'i's energy issues.

But it's also a place whose very existence and design make statements about where we need to go.

(Hawai'i Preparatory Academy's new Energy Lab at night at right above, and below, by day. Credit: HPA.)

The lab will formally open this weekend, timed to Earth Day celebrations. It was conceived three years ago at a Go Green workshop with HPA students, faculty and parents.

"The idea of the Energy Lab kept coming up in our small group discussion, which was focused on energy. In an hour, we had covered the walls with sticky notes. There were tremendous ideas, from all the things we could do in alternate energy, recycling, co-generation, and wind, to metering electricity on every building on campus, to becoming energy self-sufficient and possibly even an energy exporter," said Bill Wiecking, an HPA upper school science teacher and director of the lab.

An anonymous parent funded the development of the 6,112-square-foot lab, whose design was influenced by the Vladimir Ossipoff, the late Hawai'i architect who celebrated the use of the natural environment in his work.

It is two stories with a basement, and includes open classrooms, video conference room, labs, a workshop and outdoor meeting spaces protected from the Waimea winds—themselves a huge energy resource. Wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, natural ventilation and will help reduce the facility's outside energy demand to near net zero. It will include a cooling system that uses cold night air to chill water, which in turn is used during daylight to cool the lab's warmer spaces. It will catch and store water for later use.

Many buildings in Hawai'i have now been developed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards. (LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental design.) This one aspires to a newer, higher standard, the Living Building Challenge.

"It's a living building; it will teach through its operation with all of its systems clearly illustrated for learning purposes. It's intended to be a utilities-neutral building with hopes of exporting power. It's the first of its kind for a school building in Hawai‘i,” said project manager Ken Melrose.

"This is a place where we will actually change the future. We are in a position to make a tremendous mark on the whole green alternate energy future of how energy is produced, used, and handled,” Wiecking said.

( The public is invited to a community open house 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 17. Reservations are encouraged—808-881-4266; or e-mail:

Architect: David Croteau, AIA

Flansburgh Architects, Boston, Massachusetts

Project Manager: Ken Melrose, Pa‘ahana Enterprises

Contractor: Quality Builders, Inc.

Square Footage: 6,112 under roof (4,363 sf upper floor; 972 sf basement; 777 sf outdoor classroom)

Groundbreaking: August 14, 2008

Opening: January 5, 2010

Estimated Building Cost: $6.3 million

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hip boots and sandbags: Climate change isn't coming--it's here

An odd piece in the great debate over climate change is that some of us are still arguing about whether it is going to happen.

The discussion is akin to two guys standing up to their knees in rising flood waters, debating whether it might rain.

In case someone hasn't yet noticed, climate change is already here.

(Image: This is a NOAA compilation of 92 different studies of climate reconstructions, part of NOAA's Paleoclimate Network (PCN). It records how temperatures differ from the norm over time. You can find more here. The reconstructions are from global studies of tree rings, glacier cores, stalagmite measurements, lake sediments and even the historical dates of grape harvests. Source: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

Climate science is extremely complex, but there are some simple basic basics. Here are three.

1. A 50-year-long series of high-elevation measurements at Mauna Loa Observatory show that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, to levels not seen in a very long time.

2. Many, many climate models predict that this leads to a warmer atmosphere.

3. And, as predicted, it has warmed and continues to warm. We are able to measure the warmer atmosphere, both directly and indirectly. The most reliable air temperatures show a significant warming trend. The southern boundary of permafrost is moving north. Spring is coming earlier. The deep ocean is warming.

Here's a pertinent bit of information on the coming of spring, from Berlin's Humboldt University:

“The growing season in Europe, here defined as the average time between leafing and leaf fall of selected trees, has extended by 11 days in the last 30 years, mainly because leaf infolding begins earlier by about 2.7 days per decade in spring. Events such as the blossoming of fruit trees in Germany (apple, cherry, etc.) were affected by the higher temperatures in the end of winter and in the early spring. An increase of average air temperature between February and April by 1 degree Celsius lead to an advanced leaf unfolding or blossom of trees in Europe and Germany by about one week.”

Some media are still trying to frame this as a debate over opposite but equally supportable sides. Which requires a remarkable suspension of reality, or it requires simply not paying attention.. We don't customarily cite other blogs, but Climate Progress has interesting insight here.

If you need to argue, there are lots of things to argue about. Not whether sea levels are rising, but how fast. Not whether oceans are warming, but how much. And whether as a society we should be doing more to prepare ourselves for the predictable further impacts, or doing more to address the possible ways of reversing the trend, or both.

Climate change is here. It's time to stop talking about whether it's going to rain, and start serious talk about hip boots and sandbags.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010.