Archive for September, 2012

Climate and energy news roundup

Here are some of the energy-related stories in the news that I’ve been following this past week:

The NY Times has a two-part series about data centers and energy.  The first part focuses on dispelling the myth that data centers are energy efficient, despite what you often hear from the companies that operate them.  The second part is a story about Microsoft building a data center in rural, central Washington.  Tech companies have been building data centers in areas where electricity and land are cheap, and localities are struggling to deal with the infrastructure challenges as well as the companies themselves.

Last week, PBS aired a segment in their Newshour that many are accusing of containing false balance. The segment in question had a lengthy interview with Anthony Watts, a well-known climate change skeptic, in which the interviewer made no attempts to press Watts on the scientific foundations of his arguments nor did he point out the scientific consensus on climate change.  PBS has since apologized for the segment.  Ironically, arctic sea ice hit a new record low just 24 hours before the PBS story aired.  While we’re talking about the arctic, it’s worth mentioning that Shell has abandoned its plans to drill up there for the year.  They’ll most likely try again next year, as they’ve already spent $4.5 billion on drilling since 2005.

Also in climate news, a court has denied the FOIA request by the American Tradition Institute seeking the release of emails from climate scientist Michael Mann.  Earlier in the year, Virginia’s attorney general tried to get access to some of Mann’s documents under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act and was denied by the VA Supreme Court.  Although it’s likely that there will be appeals and further lawsuits, hopefully this will calm the waters for some climate scientists.

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Climate change, meet auto-tune

Proof that auto-tune can be used for good.

On a related note, if you’d like to see how your legislator has been voting on climate issues, click here.

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In the (word) clouds

I’m always on the lookout for better ways to visualize data and information.  My hard drive has an endless supply of Excel spreadsheets, replete with myriad charts, graphs, and projections.  But unless you’re a data-driven person (read:nerd) like me, the previous sentence is enough to put you to sleep.  So this morning I thought to myself, “I wonder what other things I can try to make visually appealing.”

So, that led me to…word clouds! A word cloud is essentially a word count of a document, where the relative size of the words indicate how often they are repeated.  The larger the word, the more times it was repeated in the document.  Below are word clouds from various climate action plans (in order, Hollins, E&H, Lynchburg College, Washington & Lee University, and University of Richmond).

There’s nothing too unexpected here.  The first two clouds show a focus on carbon, emissions, and campus.  As you get further down in the list, words like sustainability and environmental start to get larger.  This could reflect different organizational priorities, or it could simply be a result of differing writing styles.  Nonetheless, it’s a fun and easy way to quickly compare a few schools’ climate change aspirations.

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Solar fun

Jack and Dianne Mason of Meadowview, VA came by E&H on Friday to give a solar demonstration to an environmental studies course.  Jack is a former geology professor turned solar evangelist.  His focus is on Africa (Kenya in particular) and those shiny boxes you see in the picture are actually solar ovens.  Basically, they are cardboard boxes with reflective collectors and black interiors that capture sunlight and absorb as much as possible.  The result is pretty impressive.  After less than an hour, both ovens were well above 200 degrees.  They are designed to be used like a slow cooker; you just put your food in there in the morning, point it south, and you have a hot meal when you come home.  Brilliant!

The Masons also brought some other nifty solar gadgets.  There was a solar powered fan, a bank of solar powered LED lights hooked up to a car battery for storage, and a homemade solar thermal system.  Keeping things simple again, Jack just made a plywood box and stuck a used glass patio door on top of it.  Inside it’s much like the oven, except it has copper tubing to circulate the water.  It feeds the cold water from the bottom of the tank, meaning no pumps are needed because as the water heats up it rises to the top of the panels and back into the tank.  He also had a solar powered pump on display.

I loved the simplicity of it all.  Renewable energy has a reputation for being expensive and complicated, but this demonstration was proof that all you need is some spare materials and a little know-how to get the ball rolling.  Solar PV systems aren’t yet feasible or cost-effective for everyone, but this demonstration showed that there are plenty of renewable energy solutions for all types of applications.

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