Category Archives: Energy & emissions

Stop Saying ‘Smart Cities’

Digital stardust won’t magically make future cities more affordable or resilient.
By Bruce Sterling – The term “smart city” is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. “Smart” is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists.

Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.

The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy—and some are even actively pernicious—but they absolutely will be used in cities. They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.

However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

“Smart cities” merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. more>

The Two-Degree Delusion

By Ted Nordhaus – Forty years after it was first proposed, the two-degree target continues to maintain a talismanic hold over global efforts to address climate change, despite the fact that virtually all sober analyses conclude that the target is now unobtainable.

But it is worth considering the consequences of continuing to pursue a goal that is no longer obtainable. Some significant level of future climate impact is probably unavoidable. Sustaining the fiction that the two-degree target remains viable risks leaving the world ill prepared to mitigate or manage the consequences.

In reality, most of the climate risks that we understand reasonably well are linear, meaning that lower emissions bring a lower global temperature increase, which in turn brings lower risk.

There are a range of potential nonlinear tipping points that could also bring catastrophic climate impacts. Many climate scientists and advocates argue that the risks associated with triggering these impacts are so great that it is better to take a strict precautionary approach to dramatically cut emissions. But there are enormous uncertainties about where those tipping points actually are.

The precautionary principle holds equally well at one degree of warming, a threshold that we have already surpassed; one and a half degrees, which we will soon surpass; or, for that matter, three degrees. more>

Development, self-interest, and the countries left behind

By Sarah Bermeo – The self-interest of developed countries affected policy on foreign aid, trade agreements, and even climate finance, as I argue in my new book, Targeted Development.

Targeting foreign aid to areas where potential spillovers to the donor are high is not only the practice of great powers.

Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland have all favored more proximate countries in the post-2001 period—when you control for measures of need such as income, disasters, and civil war.

For Australia, Austria, Denmark, France, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, aid is also associated with bilateral migrant flows.

The more a donor imports from a developing country, the higher aid flows are to that country; this is especially true for Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

For states not targeted, however, the picture is bleak.

Where migration—and hence remittances—is low, foreign aid will also be low. When foreign aid is low, the chances of being granted preferential access to wealthy country markets is lower too.

Where geographic distance is great, economic engagement will lag behind. more>

Post-Davos Depression

By Joseph E. Stiglitz – I’ve been attending the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland – where the so-called global elite convenes to discuss the world’s problems – since 1995. Never have I come away more dispirited than I have this year.

The world is plagued by almost intractable problems. Inequality is surging, especially in the advanced economies. The digital revolution, despite its potential, also carries serious risks for privacy, security, jobs, and democracy – challenges that are compounded by the rising monopoly power of a few American and Chinese data giants, including Facebook and Google. Climate change amounts to an existential threat to the entire global economy as we know it.

Perhaps more disheartening than such problems, however, are the responses.

But, by the end of their speeches this year, any remaining illusion about the values motivating Davos CEOs was shattered. The risk that these CEOs seemed most concerned about is the populist backlash against the kind of globalization that they have shaped – and from which they have benefited immensely.

They may lack the candor of Michael Douglas’s character in the 1987 movie Wall Street, but the message hasn’t changed: “Greed is good.” What depresses me is that, though the message is obviously false, so many in power believe it to be true. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Researchers Boost Efficiency and Stability of Optical Rectennas
By John Toon – The research team that announced the first optical rectenna in 2015 is now reporting a two-fold efficiency improvement in the devices — and a switch to air-stable diode materials. The improvements could allow the rectennas – which convert electromagnetic fields at optical frequencies directly to electrical current – to operate low-power devices such as temperature sensors.

Optical rectennas operate by coupling the light’s electromagnetic field to an antenna, in this case an array of multiwall carbon nanotubes whose ends have been opened. The electromagnetic field creates an oscillation in the antenna, producing an alternating flow of electrons. When the electron flow reaches a peak at one end of the antenna, the diode closes, trapping the electrons, then re-opens to capture the next oscillation, creating a current flow.

The switching must occur at terahertz frequencies to match the light. The junction between the antenna and diode must provide minimal resistance to electrons flowing through it while open, yet prevent leakage while closed.

“The name of the game is maximizing the number of electrons that get excited in the carbon nanotube, and then having a switch that is fast enough to capture them at their peak,” Baratunde Cola, explained. “The faster you switch, the more electrons you can catch on one side of the oscillation.” more>


Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index

Digiconomist – Ever since its inception Bitcoin’s trust-minimizing consensus has been enabled by its proof-of-work algorithm. The machines performing the “work” are consuming huge amounts of energy while doing so. The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index was created to provide insight into this amount, and raise awareness on the unsustainability of the proof-of-work algorithm.

Note that the Index contains the aggregate of Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash (other forks of the Bitcoin network are not included). A separate index was created for Ethereum, which can be found here.

To put the energy consumed by the Bitcoin network into perspective we can compare it to another payment system like VISA for example. According to VISA, the company consumed a total amount of 674,922 Gigajoules of energy (from various sources) globally for all its operations. This means that VISA has an energy need equal to that of around 17,000 U.S. households. We also know VISA processed 111.2 billion transactions in 2017.

With the help of these numbers, it is possible to compare both networks and show that Bitcoin is extremely more energy intensive per transaction than VISA. more>

The danger in deregulation

By Samantha Gross – In the United States and around the world, energy production depends on support from local communities, what the industry calls “social license to operate.” Especially in a democracy, public opposition can make life very difficult for energy producers. Public support for energy resource development depends on trust—in the companies doing the development and in the regulatory structure that governs their activities.

When the Trump administration dismantles energy regulation, it runs the risk of undermining the trust that underpins domestic energy development. U.S. oil and gas production has grown dramatically in recent years, but we have also seen a public backlash.

The proposal to open nearly all U.S. offshore waters to drilling is an opening salvo in a battle likely to go on for some time. Many governors, even Republicans, are vehemently opposed to drilling in waters off their states.

But the hard push toward deregulation is likely to have consequences for public trust, not just in companies, but in government itself. If the public feels that the government is being run by and for the energy industry, accomplishing many important societal goals—like modernizing infrastructure and preventing the worst impacts of climate change—become much more difficult. more>

The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge


Markets Without Limits, Authors: Jason Brennan, Peter Jaworski.
Against Politics, Author: Jason Brennan.

By Jason Brennan – Who should hold power: the few or the many? Concentrating power in the hands of a few – in monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy – tends to result in power for personal benefit at the expense of others. Yet in spreading power among the many – as in a democracy – individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased and misinformed.

We have a dilemma.

Republican, representative democracy tries to split the difference. Checks and balances, judicial reviews, bills of rights and elected representatives are all designed to hold leaders accountable to the people while also constraining the foolishness of the ignorant masses. Overall, these institutions work well: in general, people in democracies have the highest standards of living.

But what if we could do better?

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Imaging Technique Unlocks the Secrets of 17th Century Artists
By John Toon – The secrets of 17th century artists can now be revealed, thanks to 21st century signal processing. Using modern high-speed scanners and the advanced signal processing techniques, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are peering through layers of pigment to see how painters prepared their canvasses, applied undercoats, and built up layer upon layer of paint to produce their masterpieces.

The images they produce using the terahertz scanners and the processing technique – which was mainly developed for petroleum exploration – provide an unprecedented look at how artists did their work three centuries ago. The level of detail produced by this terahertz reflectometry technique could help art conservators spot previous restorations of paintings, highlight potential damage – and assist in authenticating the old works.

Beyond old art, the nondestructive technique also has potential applications for detecting skin cancer, ensuring proper adhesion of turbine blade coatings and measuring the thickness of automotive paints.

Without the signal processing, researchers might only be able to identify layers 100 to 150 microns thick. But using the advanced processing, they can distinguish layers just 20 microns thick. Paintings done before the 18th century have been challenging to study because their paint layers tend to be thin, Citrin said. Individual pigments cannot be resolved by the technique, though the researchers hope to be able to obtain that information in the future. more>


Humanity’s fight against climate change is failing. One technology can change that.

By Akshat Rathi – The optimism surrounding renewable energy masks some harsh realities. Despite decades of progress, about 80% of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels—the same as in the 1970s. Since then, we’ve kept adding renewable capacity, but it hasn’t outpaced the growth of the world’s population and its demand for energy.

Today, about 30% of total world energy (and 40% of the world’s electricity) is supplied by coal, which emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than nearly any other fuel source.

The hugely valuable oil and gas industries, accounting for 33% and 24% of total world energy use, respectively, are also entrenched. “Based on what we know now, we would need major technological breakthroughs or weak world growth, including for large emerging and developing economies, for oil demand to peak in the next 20 years,” says Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti of the International Monetary Fund. Despite the growth in electric vehicles, most oil companies agree that peak oil is “not in sight.”

If you’re still not convinced, consider this: there are a handful of industries essential to the modern way of life that generate large amounts of carbon dioxide as a side product of the chemistry of their manufacturing process. These carbon-intensive industries—including cement, steel, and ethanol—produce about 20% of all global emissions.

If we want to keep using these products and reach zero emissions, the only option is to have these industries deploy carbon capture. more>