Glider ready to fly higher than the U2 spy plane


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The Perlan Mission II glider, which is designed to fly higher than the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird, has made its maiden flight. The aircraft separated from its towplane at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above Roberts Field at Redmond Municipal Airport in Oregon, but is expected to go much higher next year when it makes a world altitude record attempt to the edge of space.

Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock piloted the aircraft on its first flight, gliding back to the ground on wings with a span of 84 ft and surface area of 263 sq ft. The 5,000-ft altitude of the maiden flight is a baby step for the aircraft, which is expected to reach 90,000 ft next year when it will attempt to soar to the edge of space over Argentina.

If successful, this will not only smash the current glider world record altitude of 50,727 ft set by Perlan II’s predecessor, Perlan Mission I, in 2006 with Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson at the controls, but it will also beat the SR-71’s current record-holding altitude of 85,069 ft. Although a number of aircraft have exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs, the SR-71 retains the “absolute altitude record” for sustained flight.

While the SR-71 achieved the record drawing power from two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbo-jet engines, Perlan II will look to reach these dizzying heights by riding air currents over certain mountainous regions near the north and south poles that can reach into the stratosphere.

The Perlan team isn’t looking to go to the edge of space just because it is there, but to aid in research into high-altitude flight, climate change and space exploration. Since the aircraft is engineless, it will reach high altitudes without polluting the atmosphere it will study in an effort to shed more light on how the stratosphere impacts global weather, the health of the ozone layer, and to collect data to improve climate models for more accurate climate change predictions.

Bravo!

US deaths from gun violence vs. US deaths from terrorism

In his impassioned address in the wake of Thursday’s horrible shooting at an Oregon community college, President Obama issued a challenge to the media. “Have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports,” he asked.

Okay.

Here’s what that looks like (at least, for 2001-2011, the period for which we could find the most reliable data quickly courtesy of the State Department, the Justice Department, and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko).

gun deaths chart

Any surprises? Think we have fair and balanced priorities?

Utility-scale solar costs diminished by half in the last five years

SONY DSC

SONY DSC


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Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has released a report on the state of utility-scale solar installations in the US. Just about everything in the report is remarkable for anyone who’s followed the solar market closely. Over the past five years, prices have dropped by half, while the capacity factors are approaching that of wind. As a result, the most recent installations are offering power at prices that are competitive with natural gas—not the cost of the plant and fuel, but the fuel alone…

One of the issues with utility-scale solar has been that some of the earlier plants were built outside the Southwest. This has meant less overall generation and a lower capacity factor, meaning that the panels are only producing power at a fraction of their maximal rate. Both of these raise the cost of the electricity generated. But installations in the Southwest have boomed to over 90 percent of the total installed hardware. This has capacity factors up and costs down. More recently, large projects have been getting more popular in the Southeast, which may change this dynamic in the future.

For now, the total capacity factor is about 27.5 percent of what the panels are rated for. But the best projects see capacity factors of 35 percent—similar to a typical windfarm in the US…

Regardless of the cause, the low costs have allowed power purchase agreements (PPAs) in the Southwest to reach unheard of levels: “Some of the most-recent PPAs in the Southwest have levelized PPA prices as low as (or even lower than) $40/MWh (in real 2014 dollars). At these low levels—which appear to be robust, given the strong response to recent utility solicitations—PV compares favorably to just the fuel costs (i.e., ignoring fixed capital costs) of natural gas-fired generation.”

For a technology that was recently one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation on the market, it’s a remarkable turnaround.

Two questions remain for consumers. (1) Who’s keeping an eye on the price-fiddling fixed in the DNA of most public utilities. Here in New Mexico, the crooks in charge of oversight and regulation – of fellow crooks – don’t provide much confidence in equitable pricing. (2) Rooftop solar will probably grow just as quickly as utility-scale solar. Or better. Those two classes of crooks mentioned in (1) will try to screw consumers with an added tax for the maintenance and infrastructure expansion they’ve previously taxed us for – over decades.