Earth Passes a New Climate Milestone


Charlie Riedel/AP

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in May were 50 percent higher than during the pre-industrial era, reaching levels not seen on Earth for about four million years, the main US climate agency said on Friday.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed the threshold of 420 parts per million (ppm), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said. PPM is a unit of measurement used to quantify pollution in the atmosphere…

Last May, the rate was 419ppm, and in 2020, 417ppm.

Global warming caused by humans, particularly through the production of electricity using fossil fuels, transport, the production of cement, or even deforestation, is responsible for the new high, the NOAA said…

Its warming effect is already causing dramatic consequences, noted NOAA, including the multiplication of heatwaves, droughts, fires or floods…

“We have known about this for half a century, and have failed to do anything meaningful about it. What’s it going to take for us to wake up?”

What will it take…indeed? Humans are great at passing the buck. And, then, we complain about the cost figures generated by the public and private bodies charged with providing solutions.

Time for excuses has run out.

California cranked out so much solar power this spring that wholesale electricity ran negative$

❝ The extraordinary success of solar power in some pockets of the world that combine sunshine with high investment in the technology mean that governments and energy companies are having radically to rethink the way they manage—and charge for—electricity.

California is one such a place.

❝ On March 11, it passed a milestone on the route to powering the whole state sustainably. For the first time, more than half the power needs of the entire state came from solar power for a few hours that day…

The power came from utility-scale solar photovoltaic farms, solar thermal plants, and the panels installed on private homes. Based on the data it collects, the EIA estimated that in each hour of peak times, that total capacity produced 4 million kWh of electricity on March 11…

❝ The spikes also have a big effect on wholesale energy prices, which dipped to zero or even to negative territory this spring during certain hours in California…That’s in sharp contrast to the same hours (8am to 2pm) in the month of March between 2013 and 2015, when average hourly wholesale prices ranged from $14-45 MWh.

Negative prices usually happen because there’s a glut of renewable energy, but non-renewable generators are also producing. They don’t shut them off completely because of the high costs of restarting.

California now accounts for a sizable chunk of the US market, having the highest energy demand of any state after Texas. It also has almost half of all the solar power in the US.

❝ This doesn’t mean, however, that Californians are paying nothing for their power because wholesale prices don’t translate directly into retail prices, which are based on averages, not single days. But it will mean energy companies start to rethink how they deliver and charge for electricity as the mix of renewables increases.

Unless, of course, you’re a public utility, fossil fuel producer or dimwit politician who hopes and prays that renewable power sources just disappear.

SpaceX returns to flight and succeeds with historic landing

Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket at its landing pad here Monday evening in its first flight since its rocket exploded six months ago.

The historic landing, the first time a rocket launched a payload into orbit and then returned safely to Earth, was cheered as a sign that SpaceX, the darling of the commercial space industry, has its momentum back…

Monday’s flight, initially delayed because of technical concerns, was the second time in a month that a billionaire-backed venture launched a rocket to space and recovered it. And it represents yet another significant step forward in the quest to open up the cosmos to the masses.

In a call with reporters, Musk said that it appeared the stage landed “dead center on the landing pad. … We could not have asked for a better mission.” He called it a “revolutionary moment.”

Typically, rocket boosters are used once, burning up or crashing into the ocean after liftoff. But Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and Tesla, and Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com who has his own space company, have been working on creating reusable rockets that land vertically by using their engine thrust. If they are able to recover rockets and fly them again and again, it would dramatically lower the cost of space flight.

On Monday, SpaceX’s first flight since its Falcon 9 rocket blew up in June, Musk topped his fellow tech billionaire and space rival, by landing a larger, more powerful rocket designed to send payloads to orbit, and not just past the boundary of what’s considered space. It was a much more complicated feat that was celebrated as another leap forward for Musk and his merry band of rocketeers.

Catching up to Buck Rogers all the time.

A quiet breakthrough in geothermal power tech

Not a lot of startups tackle the field of geothermal power, which entails tapping into hot rocks deep in the Earth to produce energy and electricity. That’s because it can be an expensive proposition, and can require extensive permits and environmental reports. But a rare startup called AltaRock Energy has recently delivered a promising breakthrough that it says can lead to the commercialization of its next-generation geothermal technology.

AltaRock Energy — which has backing from venture capitalists, as well as Google and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s investment firm — has been working on enhanced (sometimes called engineered) geothermal tech. This technology drills wells deep into the ground, injects them with cold water to fracture the hot rocks, and creates a geothermal source of power where none was naturally occurring. Traditional geothermal systems, in contrast, tap into naturally occurring geothermal reservoirs…

Geothermal power is also the holy grail of clean power because it’s not intermittent like solar or wind power. Geothermal power can produce electricity 24/7 — including at night — while wind power drops off when it isn’t windy, and solar power ends when the sun goes down. Constant power like this is called baseload power, and it’s one of the reasons why coal and natural gas are so widely-used.

AltaRock Energy said that it has reached a milestone at its demonstration site in Bend, Oregon, which it believes is a good sign that it’ll be able to commercialize its enhanced geothermal tech. AltaRock CEO and founder Susan Petty told me that the company has been able to create multiple, stimulated geothermal areas, from a single drilled well. “This has never been done before,” said Petty, who has been involved with geothermal stimulation since the 1970s.

Creating multiple geothermal zones from one well is important, because it means more geothermal power can be produced and the process becomes a lot cheaper in the long run…Being able to create multiple geothermal zones from one well brings down the overall cost of enhanced geothermal by 50 percent, Petty said.

AltaRock is still in the testing and research phase. Now that it’s stimulated multiple geothermal zones at the site, it still needs to run injection tests and test the heat exchange areas. It also needs to drill a production well in the stimulated zones, which could happen by the end of this year or early 2014. Enhanced geothermal sites need at least two wells, one for injecting and one for producing the power.

Go for it. There ain’t hardly anything cleaner than geothermal.

My only experience has been with the naturally occurring systems. I am surprised it’s taken until recently for folks to get round to dispersed boreholes from a single site. It’s been common in oil and natgas drilling for decades.

Stanford researchers complete 1st computer model of an organism

In a breakthrough effort for computational biology, the world’s first complete computer model of an organism has been completed, Stanford researchers reported…A team led by Markus Covert, assistant professor of bioengineering, used data from more than 900 scientific papers to account for every molecular interaction that takes place in the life cycle of Mycoplasma genitalium, the world’s smallest free-living bacterium.

By encompassing the entirety of an organism in silico, the paper fulfills a longstanding goal for the field. Not only does the model allow researchers to address questions that aren’t practical to examine otherwise, it represents a stepping-stone toward the use of computer-aided design in bioengineering and medicine.

“This achievement demonstrates a transforming approach to answering questions about fundamental biological processes,” said James M. Anderson…”Comprehensive computer models of entire cells have the potential to advance our understanding of cellular function and, ultimately, to inform new approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of disease…”

Biology over the past two decades has been marked by the rise of high-throughput studies producing enormous troves of cellular information. A lack of experimental data is no longer the primary limiting factor for researchers. Instead, it’s how to make sense of what they already know.

Most biological experiments, however, still take a reductionist approach to this vast array of data: knocking out a single gene and seeing what happens…

This situation has resulted in a yawning gap between information and understanding that can only be addressed by “bringing all of that data into one place and seeing how it fits together,” according to Stanford bioengineering graduate student and co-first author Jayodita Sanghvi.

Integrative computational models clarify data sets whose sheer size would otherwise place them outside human ken.

“You don’t really understand how something works until you can reproduce it yourself,” Sanghvi said…

Computational analysis leading to computer simulations as thorough and complete as climate projections, stress testing in engineering design, pre-production cost analysis in consumer goods – or more so – is methodology that’s been waiting in the wings for biology, bio-engineering.

This is a process that not only can bring greater understanding to biology; but, rational design.

SpaceX Dragon splashdown return to Earth from ISS rendezvous


Photo provided by SpaceX – capsule in Pacific right after splashdown

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft successfully returned to Earth Thursday, becoming the first privately-owned spacecraft to complete a mission to the International Space Station.

The pilotless Dragon left the ISS after a nine-day mission loaded with 1,455 pounds of cargo on early Thursday morning. After separating from the space station, Dragon fired a series of engine burns to slow itself down enough to drop from orbit. The craft encountered temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit on the most intense part of the fall.

Dragon also fired a series of thruster bursts to keep itself on target for a splashdown a few hundred miles from southern California. At 45,000 feet above the Earth, the craft deployed two small parachutes that stabilized its flight path. Once those parachutes were fully deployed, three main brightly colored chutes were released, each with a diameter of 116 feet. Dragon’s altitude loss then slowed to about 17 feet per second, allowing it a comfortable aquatic arrival.

While Dragon descended from the heavens, a NASA aircraft watched via infrared camera and a pre-positioned group of ships owned by SpaceX sat ready to recover the 19-foot-long spacecraft. The craft touched down in the cloud-covered Pacific Ocean at 11:42 a.m. ET.

The ships’ crewmembers initially had trouble locating the spacecraft because of the heavy cloud coverage in the area, but the orange-and-white main parachutes caught their attention. SpaceX dive teams then disconnected the main parachutes and towed the craft to the barge, which used a heavy-lifting crane to take it on board…

Dragon launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 22 after a series of delays. It docked with the ISS on May 25, becoming the first privately-owned spacecraft to do so. The spacecraft brought experimental equipment and other cargo to the ISS.

Bravo. Another milestone completed.

Lee Kuan Yew retires from Singapore’s government

1965

Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, said on Saturday he was leaving the cabinet, the first time he will not be part of the government of the wealthy city state since independence in 1965.

Lee and Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded him as prime minister in 1990, announced in a joint statement that they were opting out of government since last week’s general election signaled the emergence of a new generation. Both men were returned to parliament in the poll.

“We have made our contributions to the development of Singapore,” the two said. “The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation.

“After a watershed general election, we have decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore…”

The long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), co-founded by Lee Kuan Yew, won the May 7 election with 81 of 87 seats, but took only about 60 percent of the popular vote, its lowest ever since independence.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, said after the election there had been a distinct shift in the political landscape.

Many (Singaporeans) wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach,” he said at a news conference last week. “Many desire to see more opposition voices in parliament to check the PAP government.”

This election was remarkable for the stridency of anti-government rhetoric both at opposition rallies and on the Internet.

The PAP-led government has transformed Singapore from a third world backwater to a first world financial center, but critics say decisions are not taken in an inclusive manner, and dissent is muzzled.

That’s putting it gently.

Like any number of nations that faced the task of racing over centuries of development after ejecting colonial overlords, Singapore [and Lee] relied on those portions of history and culture which stressed unity on behalf of achievement.

It appears that the shifting dialectic of democracy is on the upsurge, once again, and taking a leading role in the future of Singapore. Welcomed, of course, by those who fought at all levels – and there were many – to get to this day without destroying the dynamic growth of the city-state’s economy and standard of living.

Milestone: TARP bank bailout turns a profit


Tim Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

It isn’t often that the government launches a major program that achieves its main goals at a tiny fraction of its estimated costs. That’s the story of TARP — the Troubled Assets Relief Program. Created in October 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, it helped stabilize the economy, using only $410 billion of its authorized $700 billion. And most of that will be repaid. The Congressional Budget Office, which once projected TARP’s ultimate cost at $356 billion, now says $19 billion. This could go lower…

One lesson of the financial crisis is this: When the entire financial system succumbs to panic, only the government is powerful enough to prevent a complete collapse. Panics signify the triumph of fear. TARP was part of the process by which fear was overcome. It wasn’t the only part, but it was an essential part. Without TARP, we’d be worse off today. No one can say whether unemployment would be 11 percent or 14 percent; it certainly wouldn’t be 8.9 percent.

That benefited all Americans. TARP, says Douglas Elliott of the Brookings Institution, “is the best large federal program to be despised by the public.”

The source of outrage is no secret. Bankers are blamed for the crisis and reviled. The bank bailout — TARP’s first and most important purpose — was instantly unpopular. Most Americans, says Elliott, “believe that taxpayers spent $700 billion and got nothing in return…”

… As it was, TARP invested $245 billion in banks (and about $165 billion into the other programs). The extra capital helped restore trust. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve increased its lending; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. guaranteed $350 billion of bank borrowings. Banks resumed dealing with each other because they regained confidence that commitments would be honored.

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Milestone: Personal Computers in use passes 1 billion mark

The number of personal computers in use around the world has surpassed 1 billion, with strong growth in emerging markets set to double the number of PCs by early 2014, says research firm Gartner.

Mature markets accounted for 58 percent of the first billion installed PCs, but would only account for about 30 percent of the next billion, Gartner said.

“Rapid penetration in emerging markets is being driven by the explosive expansion of broadband and wireless connectivity, the continuing fall in PC average selling prices, and the general realization that PCs are an indispensable tool for advancement,” George Shiffler, research director at Gartner, said.

I wonder how many are corporate hardware treated strictly the same as telephones or copying machines?