Ethanol skepticism reaches mainstream media

Since the State of the Union speech proposed an energy policy high on ethanol, the mainstream media has started to cover the flaws and risks of corn-based ethanol.
In the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago SunTimes, and Albany Times Union, to take an anecdotal sample, news analysis and op-ed pieces notice that:
* even if the entire US corn harvest were dedicated to ethanol production, it would replace only 20% of current gasoline use
* ethanol production doesn’t save much, if any fossil fuel. Pessimistic estimates say that corn ethanol production is net negative; it takes more energy to produce then you get in return, while optimistic estimates are only about 1.3-1, compared to 10:1 for oil.
* corn for energy cuts into the amount available for corn flakes and pig feed.
Hopefully the conflict between food and fuel will cause the ethanol fad to flare out. Once the cost of food raw material and cattle feed cuts heavily enough into the earnings of food producers, there will be a powerful industrial lobby counterposed against the corn processors who are currently buying US policy.

Speaking of followup, muni wireless

installations have been around for long enough to come back and test which ones are working. Novarum, a consultancy specializing in wireless broadband, has gotten behind the hype and the skepticism, and tested muni wireless networks by coverage and speed. The best rated system were Saint Cloud Florida and Mountain View (which worked when I was there). The first thing to note is that according to the study, some of them actually do seem to work. Second, reasonable performance depends on more transmitters; early estimates recommended 20 transmitters per square mile, but it appears as though 40 are needed for adequate performance.

Novarum also ranked the cellular broadband networks, and included them in an overall ranking with the wifi nets. The Saint Cloud net came in first overall, and the Google Mountain View net came in number ten on the combined list. The cellular nets rank better because they have better coverage. Wifi nets, when you can get them, are faster than cellular.
One puzzlement is that Palo Alto appears on the wireless list, ranked number 8, at 2.45 on a scale of 5. On the University drag, there are plenty of locations offering free wifi, but what is the muni offering? Is it the lame Anchorfree service that has poor connectivity and a horridly annoying registration system? If that’s the case, then it’s below the cutoff where a rational person would consider the system to “work.” Santa Clara is above it, ranked at 2.65. A field trip may be in order for some anecdotal testing. I wonder where in the Santa Clara sprawl the network is to be found?
What was the population in the survey? Hard to say. To build that top 10 list, how many citiies did they visit. Ten? Fifty? They don’t say on their website. This makes it impossible to draw conclusions about the overall state of muni wireless investments.
Novarum plans to come back in six months to test again.

Battery high tech and the need for news follow-up

A model helicopter hobbyist validates the claims of the A123 advanced lithium ion batteries. Eager to find light-weight, high-powered batteries for his remote controlled helicopters, Gary Goodrum disassembles battery packs designed for DeWalt power tools and rebuilds them for airborne use. He found that the A123 batteries live up to their billing, providing good power and fast charging at low cost. Also, they lack the tendency to burst into flames found in competing lithium polymer batteries.
What’s really cool about this story is that Goodrum is a hacker using the batteries for his hobby. He doesn’t have the same incentive to optimism that infects the manufacturer, their funders, and vendors of vaporware electronic cars like the GE Volt. He just wants the batteries to fly his toy helicopters.
It’s easy to find a stream of announcements about cool new energy technology on blogs like Renewable Energy Access and The Energy Blog. It’s harder to find follow up to the press releases. What happened to the Green Fuel algae cogeneration technology pilots, intended to use CO2 emissions from smokestacks to grow algae, which is converted to biofuel? How about the wave energy pilot off the cost of Washington State? The press releases, verbatim or lightly rewritten, cover the initial optimism, but what happened then? It would be great if there were more stories that covered follow up and validation to the enthousiastic product announcements and pilot deployments.

Why shouldn’t Toyota foster a Prius users community?

TechDirt has a snarky article about Toyota’s effort to create a web community with Prius owners, referring to previous flops: a failed Walmart customer community, and an “anti-social software” application that let people sms others based on license plate number.
Toyota’s implementation sounds flawed, but the idea has merit. Walmart shoppers have little in common other than they like cheap stuff and are willing to drive to get it. Prius owners, on the other hand, may have more in common, including maintaining a fairly new product, as well as interests in other green purchases and green policy.
The Toyota site, by news report, allows toyota owners to create profiles of themselves, and search profiles of other people. But what Toyota owners have in common isn’t the desire to date or hire other Toyota owners (the motivation in MySpace and Linked In sites with this format. It’s to share information about owning a Prius, and being generally interested in responsible household energy use.
The need would be better served by a traditional blog/wiki setup, where owners could tell stories about their Prius use, Prius products, and other experiences using and seeking green products. A profile might be a feature for the system — and individuals could choose how much to disclosed about their personal identity — but it wouldn’t be the first thing that a user would do. There are other features more important than profile detail and profile search — the ability to create local “prius club” events, for example. A built-in wiki would help Prius users build information about hybrid technology.
There are reason for Toyota not to host the site themselves, as TechDirect suggests, but to sponsor an independent site. Prius owners might be interested in third party modifications, such as plug-in conversions, that would void a Toyota warranty. Toyota might not be willing to foster plug-in mods under its own roof, although they would certainly benefit from learning from those early adopters. It would be useful to have a ratings service for mechanics and third-party products, and Toyota might not want to sponsor this directly, either. Prius owners might be interested in organizing to advocate green policy at a local or national level. Toyota might or might not be interested in being directly assocated with this.
So, the best solution might be for Toyota to be a sponsor in a third-party hosted community, rather than hosting itself. And, while profiles could be a useful part of the tool set, it wouldn’t be the place to start. Prius owners are probably more into their shared interests than personally interested in each other.

Rental solar – consumer financing or con?

One of the biggest barriers to solar energy is financial. It’s cost effective but has a really long payback period. SunEdison is a Goldman Sachs based venture that solves this problem by building solar installations on the roofs of retailers like Staples and Whole Foods, and then sells them the power at a fixed cost. SunEd can raise the capital for the installations, and expects the retail energy will be higher than the cost of their capital. The customer doesn’t need to pay the upfront cost. Solar energy by closing the financing gap.
A company named CitizenRe is trying this model out in the consumer market.They’ll put solar panels on a homeowners roof, and sell them power in one, five, or twenty-five year increments.
They claim to have $650 millin in capital. But their web site doesn’t have any information about the source of that capital, unlike SunEdison which is clearly a Goldman Sachs backed company. Their execs don’t appear to have posted bios.
They claim that “Over 70% of our customers sign the 25-year contract because that locks in their rate for the entire term of the contract. ” They are planning to do their first installation in September, and claim 3694 customers for a pre-released product. Uh oh.
How have they found 2500 buyers to take a 25 year contract with a brand new company for a pre-released product. This smells fishy to me. The model is certainly attractive, but I wouldn’t sign a 25 year contract for a brand new product with a new company. I’m leery enough about a 2 year cellphone contract in a dynamic voice market. Thirty year mortgages are stable, because there is a huge legal and financial infrastructure behind them. Who are they selling to, and how are they selling? Do they have sales people visiting retirees in Florida and Arizona, or what?
Solar leasing seems like an excellent market opportunity. Moving from the business to the household market seems like a good and inevitable idea, especially with incentives such as the California Million Solar Roofs project. CitizenRe, though, sounds fishy.

How will the new House bill fund alternative energy? TBD

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed HB6, a bill that rescinds $14B tax breaks to oil companies, and allocates money to fund renewable energy. Excellent to see the new congress start to buy back energy policy from the oil industry. I hope the bill is passed by the Senate?
How is the renewable energy funding going to work? According to the New York Times, tbd.

House Democrats offered little clue on Thursday about how they would channel the money from oil producers into alternative and renewable energies. The bill specifies that the money will go to a reserve, which is essentially an accounting device to offset the cost of separate legislation aimed at promoting other sources of energy and efficiency.

The headline was widely covered, but this key detail wasn’t. Good on the NYT for answering the logical question. One of my concerns is that D policy will be beholden to the Corn lobby instead, and alt energy envestment will flow into the ongoing boondoggle which is corn ethanol.

Dianne Feinstein wants to ban mp3

Don’t look now, but the Senate re-introduced the PERFORM act, a bill that makes it illegal to record music from the internet and bans the use of mp3 by online music services (!). The consponsors are Senators Feinstein and Biden.
Feinstein complains that “New radio services are allowing users to do more than simply listen to music. What was once a passive listening experience has turned into a forum where users can record, manipulate, collect and create personalized music libraries,” said Sen. Feinstein.
Please tell Senator Feinstein that this is a good thing, not a crime. The EFF has information and a handy action alert. Please sign it, pass it on, and blog it.

Scott Rosenberg on software development

Caught author interview with Scott Rosenberg, about his new book about the Chandler project and software development. I like Rosenberg’s writing, but I haven’t read the book yet.
From the interview, Rosenberg sees Chandler’s failure-to-thrive as a cautionary tale about all software development. However, Chandler actually had a distinctively awkward set of initial conditions:
* architecture driven. They had a grand vision of a message-based storage model that they needed to get perfect before they did anything
* clearer vision of architecture than application. Reading Chandler’s material, there was no clearly articulated goal beyond a free clone of Outlook (though that alone wouldn’t have been a bad thing)
* infinite budget. Open source, with a wealthy funder. No economic constraints or time pressure to keep them on the straight and narrow. No personal itch-scratching, unlike the classic open source story.
Plenty of software projects fail because they don’t adhere to the logical set of constraints. Chandler started without the constraints.

Netvibes and portals

Like Yahoo and Google, but
* with widgets from anywhere to get out of the walled garden
* with lovely slideable ajax boxes that want to be a common design pattern
I hate the “everything-one-one-browser-screen”. It is horribly distracting. Multiple Windows are good.
Back in the day, I used to use a 3M sticky note application that let you type things on stickynotes and organize them on bulletin boards. Only problem was it had godawful memory behavior and if you had too much information it would kill your computer’s performance.
So, like NetVibes but with desktop widgets you can move around, bundle and snap together. Or a physical gizmo, the size of a deck of cards, with 5 or 7 or 12 display cards held together with a keyring. Plastic cards with a matt finish, slightly raised edges like coins, and a display. You can shuffle them so you see one or two or three at a time, or collapse them together. Each one is a widget; a clock or feedreader or a calendar. You configure the widget set from your desktop computer.
In front of your attention when you want it. Away and closed up when you don’t.

Social Kyoto

Personal Kyoto is a service that lets New Yorkers analyze their ConEd electric usage information. This wants to be a game. Connect with people you know, or people on your block, or people with a similar sized house. And then compete for energy efficiency. Sign up with your name or a handle. Get a blog for your account, and write about your adventures with LED lightbulbs or zombie-busting electronics powersavers or solar panels. This would take advantage of social pressure, competitiveness, and social learning.
Hmm… PG&E is introducing a SmartMeter service across California. They could do this.