Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

I Think We’re Going to Solve Global Warming

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:56 pm, June 3rd, 2017

Several weeks ago I decided that one of this month’s journal entries would be about why I’m optimistic that the problem of climate change is one that the world is going to solve, and the recent announcement from Trump that the US would join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations not to be a part of the Paris Climate accords makes the subject even more appropriate.

To greatly oversimplify the issue of climate change, solving it means that clean energy needs to be a better option than fossil fuels in terms of cost and reliability. Looking at trendlines for both metrics, it seems that the world is underestimating how soon that tipping point is going to arrive.

Cost

In terms of cost, consider the following:

  • Batteries, key to storing renewable energy, are dropping in price by a rate of about 8% per year, meaning a 60 kw/h battery pack that today is a $13,600 component will cost $5880 in a decade, $2580 in twenty years, and $1080 in thirty years – we are fast approaching the point where the cost of the most expensive component of an electric vehicle is more than offset by the savings from not needing a complex engine or transmission, an exhaust system, or any of the other supporting components of a modern gasoline vehicle. Note that the 8% estimates could even be pessimistic – one study reports that electric vehicle battery pack costs dropped from $1000 per kw/h to $227 per kw/h between 2010 and 2016.
  • Solar power is following a similar trajectory, with costs declining 6-7% per year. A 2015 estimate put the cost of solar at $122 MW/h, vs natural gas at $82 MW/h, and coal at $75 MW/h. At a 7% annual improvement, the cost of solar matches that of coal and natural gas by 2022, and by 2030 solar costs would be just $41 MW/h, half that of natural gas.

The health benefits of reducing air pollution from fossil fuels are an indirect cost, but according to the US Department of Energy:

Achieving the SunShot-level solar deployment targets — 14% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar in 2030 and 27% in 2050 — could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% between 2015 and 2050, resulting in savings of $238–$252 billion… This could produce $167 billion in savings from lower future health and environmental damages, or 1.4¢/kWh-solar — while also preventing 25,000–59,000 premature deaths.

Reliability

From the standpoint of reliability, the fatal flaw for renewable energy is that it’s only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, but cheap batteries allow renewable energy to be stored and used whenever needed, and they also provide huge benefits for the grid. Since its inception the electrical grid has required energy to be used as soon as it is produced, so grid operators have had to execute a complex process for matching output to demand, and also have had to ensure that enough generation is available to match the highest possible load, meaning some power plants exist solely to meet demand on those few summer days when everyone is running their air conditioners. As batteries get cheaper, suddenly that’s no longer the case – instead, you store energy to handle peak loads, generation capacity just has to match average load (so inefficient power plants can be retired), and grid reliability is no longer an issue.

Reliability of cars improve when the system goes electric, too. A gasoline engine is about 20% efficient, the electric motor is closer to 75% efficient. The gasoline engine has belts, pistons, and tons of other moving parts that can fail, the electric motor is essentially a simple shaft wrapped in wires that costs far less to produce. A gasoline car requires a complex, multi-speed transmission, an electric car has a simple, single-speed transmission. A gasoline car uses oil, requires an exhaust system, and has tons of belts and hoses, an electric car has none of those things. Twenty years from now, we’ll wonder why anyone ever put up with regular trips to the mechanic.

Finally, consider home solar. Today we accept that a transformer failure or a fallen tree can mean no power for a few hours, and that a natural disaster can mean power outages for days. However, as solar and batteries drop in price, the grid starts to look kind of crazy – why would anyone pay more to have an unreliable grid connection that requires flimsy high voltage wires to be strung through the neighborhood when a system that can generate power from sunlight and store a few days worth of backup energy is available for the same (or less) money?

Why the future is awesome

The timelines above suggest that within the next twenty years a renewable energy world will beat out fossil fuels on both a cost and reliability basis. Stretch that 30-50 years, and all sorts of interesting possibilities occur – to cite one, desalination is cost-prohibitive because it is energy intensive, but if energy is cheap then a city like Los Angeles, located next to the ocean but forced to import freshwater from hundreds of miles away, could conceivably generate more freshwater than it needs and actually start exporting water to the rest of the state. Citing another interesting possibility, cheap energy might make it feasible to begin scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere, so not only would emissions drop as fossil fuels are phased out, but mankind could actually begin to forcibly remove some of the greenhouse gases that we’ve unleashed.

Leaving the Paris Accords seems like an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound for the country, but the rate of technological advance still gives me great hope that the problems the world faces are going to be overcome, with or without support from America’s political leadership.

Engineering is Awesome

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 11:09 pm, August 29th, 2016

Here’s a round-up of exciting news in the engineering world, which means this is a journal entry that probably only my dad and I will read in full:

  • On August 14th SpaceX landed its sixth rocket (two on land, four on a barge at sea), making this amazing feat of engineering seem almost ordinary. Even better, the first rocket that they ever landed is now on display at their headquarters down the road in Hawthorne, so Audrey and I got to visit it this past weekend, and can do so again anytime I need a spaceship in my life (i.e. a lot). Supposedly they will be launching the initial flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket to take to the skies since the Apollo era, before the end of the year. SpaceX also claims to be on schedule with their manned program, so people may be regularly going to space in a non-Russian rocket again starting next year. Finally, they are going to announce details about their BFR (yes, it stands for what you think it stands for) for traveling to Mars in the coming months. We live in the best time in history.
  • Tesla just announced an upgrade to the Model-S that they have dubbed the P100D. The new model goes 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, travels 315 miles on a charge, and costs more than the combined price of six Subarus. Luckily, the trickle-down effect ensures that their less expensive cars will eventually inherit much of this new technology, so those of us who don’t want to take out a second mortgage to buy an electric car won’t have to do so. Additionally, they continue to claim that the Model-3 is on schedule for deliveries in late 2017, the ginormous Gigafactory, while still only a fraction of its eventual size, is already being used to produce battery packs, and all-in-all Tesla remains the coolest car/energy/battery company that has ever existed. Did I mention that we live in the best time in history?
  • In non-Elon Musk news, Boeing’s new 737-MAX airplane is well into its test flight schedule and might actually be ready to deliver earlier than planned; the new plane was originally scheduled to begin service with Southwest in the third quarter of 2017, but it looks like it will be delivered several months sooner. Given the fact that the 737 is the most common passenger plane in the air today, the majority of air travelers will soon enjoy quieter, more comfortable, and more efficient air travel. Planes aren’t as awesome as spaceships (what is?) but they occupy an exclusive level of coolness that is shared with few other human endeavors.
  • Locally, the much-maligned California High Speed Rail project is actually under construction, with bridges, viaducts and other structures being built near Fresno. The project thus far is a great idea that has spawned a series of ever-more-dismaying disappointments, but even with its problems it now seems highly likely that in 10-25 years it will actually be completed, after which Californians will probably wonder why anyone would have opposed such a valuable piece of infrastructure. And for the record, high speed trains occupy a similar realm of coolness as airplanes.

There’s obviously lots of other excitement going on in the engineering world, but I like spaceships and planes and trains and batteries, so that’s what goes in the journal. If you’ve read this far and are lamenting the lack of stories about animals attacking me in the Antarctic or mornings spent thawing boots after a frigid night sleeping in the back of a Subaru, the coming months will have a bit of travel in them, so give it another few weeks before you decide to delete your bookmark.

Full webcast of the launch and landing of the SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission on August 14, because no one should ever get tired of seeing a spaceship land on a boat.

Living in the Future

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 3:35 pm, March 31st, 2016

At 8:30 tonight Tesla will unveil their third-generation electric car. A company that just five years ago was mocked for having the audacity to think they could survive, much less compete with the existing automotive behemoths, is on the verge of launching a $35,000 automobile that is projected to sell 500,000 vehicles every year by 2020, and is one of the most anticipated new car launches in history.

Meanwhile solar panels are now 100 times cheaper than they were in 1977, and as cheap or cheaper than traditional electricity sources in most markets, with prices continuing to drop. At the same time, the major drawback of solar not being viable at night is being addressed by the fact that battery storage solutions drop in price by about 8% every year.

We live on a planet where global warming due to greenhouse gases is already causing massive disruptions to ecosystems not capable of handling rapid climate change, where even an area as remote as the North Pole faces hazardous air quality, and a seemingly infinite number of other environmental problems can easily lead to hopelessness and despair.

In a world faced with challenges that can seem overwhelming, it’s worth marking this date. Tonight the next generation of the automobile is being unveiled, and it changes the paradigm of how transportation affects the environment. This new car is driven by advances in battery technology that will have applications for all sectors of the energy industry, and will almost certainly change the way the world is powered. And it was created in spite of a hostile political environment by engineers who saw a problem and set out to solve it by building the best car that they could design. We live in the future, and the future seems like it’s going to be a good place to be.

Tesla Model 3

There and Back Again

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:22 pm, December 28th, 2015

Six months ago, after seventeen consecutive successful launches, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket blew up during its journey to orbit. I was bummed.

Last Monday SpaceX returned to flight, and not only successfully completed the mission but also brought the first stage back to the launchpad and landed it vertically. I’m not sure how the average person views that accomplishment, but to this engineer watching the live webcast it was one of those jumping-up-and-down-and-cheering-while-no-one-else-is-in-the-house things. The history of spaceflight since the 1960s has been a series of minor improvements, but this is a major new development that could have vast repercussions for how we access space. Using an imperfect metaphor, a rocket costs a similar amount to an aircraft, and the airlines aren’t charging $60 million per flight, so the ability to use a rocket more than once has the potential to vastly reduce costs for getting things into space. Everyone immediately thinks of sending more humans into orbit when considering cheaper access to space, but think about the revolutionary impact that communications satellites, planetary probes, the Hubble telescope, and earth monitoring satellites have had on our daily lives and our understanding of the universe, and then increase that by at least an order of magnitude if costs decrease. Then jump up and down and cheer.

SpaceX still has some significant technical challenges to address before they can actually re-use their rockets, but there is reason to believe that in the next few years they will have figured out how to use each rocket more than once, and this recent landing will mark a historical turning point when options for space increased dramatically. I’m excited.

This rocket went to space, deployed its second stage, and then returned to the launchpad and landed vertically. That’s ridiculously excellent.

Trains that go fast

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:24 pm, September 29th, 2015

I wrote the following about the California High Speed Rail project 18 months ago:

Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan.

Since I wrote the above there have been a few positive developments:

  • California has budgeted 25% of all cap and trade funds to high speed rail, amounting to $750 million in 2015 and likely increasing in future years, so the project now has a not-insignificant portion of its funding. Whether devoting such a large percentage of cap and trade revenue to high speed rail is the best use of the funds is highly debatable, but viewed solely from the standpoint of the rail project it is a positive development.
  • Construction has started in the Central Valley, and even if the project somehow fails to be completed the initial work will still offer safety and traffic benefits via grade separation of existing rail lines.
  • Nearly a decade after the project was conceived, Caltrain and high-speed rail finally seem to be doing some coordination on development in the Peninsula with Caltrain announcing plans to standardize the height of their boarding platforms with high speed rail.
  • There has been discussion about expediting the Palmdale to Burbank section of high speed rail, which could be operated on its own to reduce commute times in LA from ninety minutes down to twenty. While the Bay Area and the Central Valley are fighting high-speed rail, Southern California has so far been enthusiastic about the potential for improved transit options.
  • Of the two segments of the network that have been bid out for construction, both have come in under the projected budget. The first segment, 30 miles from Madera to Fresno, was estimated to cost $1.2-1.5 billion but was bid for $985 million. The second segment, 65 miles from Fresno south, was estimated to cost $1.5-2 billion, but was bid for $1.36 billion.

Despite the positive developments there remain an enormous number of reasons for concern:

  • In its first real chance to prove that it can get things done now that construction is starting, the rail authority is already one year behind its own schedule for acquiring land in the initial segment that is currently being built.
  • The rail agency is still sticking with cost estimates that are almost certainly unrealistic. While the two segments in the Central Valley came in under budget, building a route through the mountains and across active seismic faults, as well as through the densely populated Bay Area and Los Angeles area, will most definitely be difficult and expensive, and that cost and difficulty will only be increased by the ongoing delays.
  • In the Bay, Caltrain and high-speed rail will share the same corridor, but the two have barely coordinated. Caltrain is spending $231 million on a train control system that is incompatible with high-speed rail, is spending over $1 billion to electrify just 51 miles of rail and doing so without fully coordinating with the high speed rail project, and until recently was considering buying new trains with doors at a different height than the high speed rail trains, meaning platforms could not be shared. Both projects would save MASSIVE amounts of time and money if they would just work together, but for whatever reason they repeatedly fail to do so.
  • High speed rail has unfortunately become a political issue, with all Republicans now expected to state their opposition to anything that resembles a high-speed train, no matter what its merits may be. There would be tremendous benefit in having critical yet rational oversight of California’s rail project, but politicizing things unfortunately has the effect of causing one side to promote the project and gloss over its faults, while the other promises to kill it at the first opportunity despite its obvious benefits.
  • There is still NIMBY opposition to high speed rail from wealthy Bay Area communities like Palo Alto that at worst could kill the project, and at best will result in compromises that will harm the system as a whole. The Peninsula is perhaps the most important segment in the entire route, and sadly is also by far the most troubled and least advanced.

I hope that this project is eventually built, but I’m far less enthusiastic than I once was due to the poor management that has characterized things so far. In my own community I’ve watched millions of dollars disappear into legal fees as Beverly Hills fought a much-needed subway for no reason that anyone can understand, and I’ve watched my own neighbors fight changes to make flights into LAX more efficient solely because some areas might occasionally get slightly louder plane noise; neither of those situations inspire confidence that a questionable management team will be able to quell the opposition to the much larger and more complex rail project sufficiently to allow the project to be a success. That said, it’s worth remembering that nearly every major infrastructure project, whether the Golden Gate bridge or the interstate highway system, was loudly opposed by some of the populace, but once built the opposition disappeared as the benefits became obvious. With luck, in another 20 years we’ll be riding the train to San Francisco and wondering how anyone could have ever opposed such a useful transit option.

This video will be much more awesome when it isn’t CGI.

The Final Frontier

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 5:42 pm, July 31st, 2015

As is often the case, when it’s the end of the month and I don’t have anything in particular to write about, I write about spaceships.

  • The cause of the SpaceX rocket explosion has been announced as a strut that snapped due to a manufacturing defect. It doesn’t sound like there is 100% confidence that’s actually what happened, but if it was the cause then it’s a relatively easy fix and one that will lead to a more reliable vehicle. Future launches aren’t expected to be postponed more than a few months while the issue is addressed.
  • NASA’s giant new rocket, creatively named the “Space Launch System (SLS)”, has had several successful engine tests and is scheduled for first flight in 2018. It would be the most powerful rocket ever launched, but is unfortunately a machine without a clear purpose – there are no imminent plans to send people to Mars or the moon, and with a price tag of at least $500 million per launch (and up to $5 billion by some critical estimates) it is far more expensive than any other option for satellite launches or space station resupply missions.
  • The New Horizons spacecraft just zoomed by Pluto, providing some surprising information about a dwarf planet that is about 40 times further away from the sun than the Earth is. This plucky little spacecraft was initially cancelled in 2000, but a large backlash revived its funding, and it spent nearly a decade after its 2006 launch reaching the edge of the solar system. Its useful life is expected to be 15 years, meaning there should be plenty of science to come as it travels through the Kuiper Belt.

Last of all, for anyone not quite clear on how far away Pluto really is, here’s a model of the solar system that has been scaled so that the moon is the size of a single pixel. Spoiler alert: Pluto is FAR away.

False color image of Pluto

False color image of Pluto, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. We live in a time when robots are sending us photos of other planetary bodies from 4.7 billion miles away, and that is AWESOME. Photo from NASA.

It IS Rocket Science

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:37 am, June 30th, 2015

Despite being wiped out from four straight weeks of travelling for work, I got up at 7AM Sunday morning, partly because my brain is running on Central time and partly because I’m an engineering geek and wanted to watch the latest SpaceX launch to see if they would finally be successful in their ludicrous attempts to land a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Instead, about two minutes into the launch, I saw a live webcast of the rocket disintegrating as it was traveling at a speed of approximately 4000 km/h. From the video it was clear that something exploded on the second stage portion of the rocket, but unfortunately more than 48 hours later there still doesn’t seem to be any clue as to what specifically went wrong.

I’m bummed about it.

Prior to this flight the Falcon-9 rocket had a perfect record – yes, there were some minor glitches on previous flights (an engine exploded once…), but it successfully completed its primary mission on each launch, and did so at a fraction of the cost of any other rocket. At the same time, the way SpaceX was operating was a throwback to the early days of flight and space, when people dreamed big and not only tried to do impossible things, but succeeded with surprising regularity. Since those early days aerospace has become slow, bloated and hugely risk averse, so the upstart SpaceX provided the hope that they might be the ones to bring the future that seemed all-but-certain in 2001: A Space Odyssey closer to reality. With luck their engineers will be able to pinpoint the cause of the failure and return to service with an even more robust vehicle, but at this moment the cause of the explosion is a complete mystery, and thus the Falcon-9 is a machine with an unknown fatal flaw. For anyone who was amazed at the incredible successes of SpaceX thus far, and excited about what this rocket meant for the future of spaceflight, this setback is a disheartening reality check.

However, rocket science is very, very, very hard – that’s one reason I switched to computer programming, where if I make a bad assumption in my work it usually won’t result in pieces of a $60 million machine being scattered over a vast swath of the Atlantic. Given their surprisingly successful track record to this point, I would not bet against SpaceX recovering from this failure in a big way – they still have plans to ferry astronauts to the space station in a Falcon-9, are still on the verge of being able to land and re-use a rocket, and they still have a long list of customers anxious to use their lower-cost rockets for satellite launches.

On Saturday night prior to the launch I was watching a documentary about the dawn of powered flight that highlighted the competition between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. On an early demonstration flight for the army the Wright’s flying machine crashed, killing an army lieutenant and putting Orville Wright into the hospital for months. Similarly, on a test flight the day before his first public demonstration, Curtiss had mechanical difficulty and his machine crashed. The Wrights regrouped and were soon aloft again, and Curtiss rebuilt his machine overnight and then made the longest powered flight in history the following day.

Elon Musk got the worst possible gift for his 44th birthday on Sunday, but there seems to be little doubt that history will remember him as one of the great engineer entrepreneurs of of the 21st century, and like Curtiss and the Wrights he will most certainly emerge from this setback stronger than ever.

Video of the “anomaly” that caused the loss of the Falcon-9 rocket on Sunday. Skip to 2:25 if you want to see the sad part.

Why I’m Optimistic

Posted from Culver City, Calfornia at 8:06 pm, April 28th, 2015

Back in February I wrote the following:

What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options.

I read a lot of news that continues to make me hopeful about the steady technological progress being made, and while it may be of interest mostly just to me, here’s one such example. First, a caveat: most new companies and technologies will fail for one reason or another – they will be poorly managed, there will be some unforeseen problem that throws the business model into disarray, or they will simply be unlucky. This journal entry isn’t necessarily meant to highlight something that will definitely become a solution to the world’s problems, but is simply meant to illustrate one way that solutions are being developed to address seemingly dire issues, and how those solutions have the potential to make the world a much better place.

Tesla is in the process of building a massive lithium-ion battery plant that will double the world’s supply of lithium-ion batteries when it is running at full capacity. Business analysts are focusing on the fact that this factory will eat up a huge supply of the world’s lithium, driving up prices and potentially depleting the world’s reserves of this valuable element. These analysts suggest that the world simply won’t have what it needs, resulting in manufacturing shortages and disruption to the technology sector. Engineers, however, mostly ignore the business analysts in this case. So why the difference?

Concentrated lithium reserves are rare, but as a trace element lithium is the 25th most common element on earth – there are 230 billion tons of it in seawater alone. Current methods of extracting lithium involve processing it from salts and brine pools, which requires evaporation followed by disposal of potentially toxic byproducts. Queue the engineers. While the following may not end up being the solution to the world’s lithium needs, it provides an example of how engineering seems to always find solutions that defy the doom-and-gloom scenarios of business analysts.

Today, the three main problems with lithium production are:

  1. It is difficult to find sources of lithium that are concentrated enough to make production worthwhile.
  2. The energy costs associated with extracting lithium, whether via evaporation or some other processing method, can be high.
  3. Safe disposal of the byproducts left over after the lithium is extracted add additional cost.

Enter lithium extracted from geothermal wastewater. Geothermal plants drill into the earth’s crust to tap into superheated water which is brought to the surface, used to generate power, and then pumped back into the formation from which it was extracted. This geothermal water just so happens to be very high in mineral content, including valuable elements like lithium. Suddenly, the problems associated with lithium production are not so severe:

  1. Geothermal waters are high in mineral content, and the geothermal plant has already done the work of bringing that water up from the depths of the earth’s crust.
  2. The water is already superheated, greatly reducing the energy costs required for processing.
  3. The byproduct after extracting the valuable elements from this geothermal wastewater is no more toxic than what was extracted in the first place, and the geothermal plant already has the infrastructure in place for safely pumping it back to the formation from which it was originally extracted.

Making this method of lithium production an even bigger win, using geothermal wastewater for production of rare elements helps reduce the costs of geothermal power in two ways. First, a major issue faced by geothermal plants is the buildup of mineral deposits in the pipes used to return wastewater to the geothermal reservoirs, so extraction of some of those minerals reduces the wear and tear on the infrastructure, meaning pipes have to be replaced less often. Second, companies using the wastewater compensate the geothermal plant for providing the water, introducing an additional revenue stream for the plant. Thus, in the end the world gets both a cheaper, cleaner source of rare elements, and reduced costs for a renewable energy source.

In this particular example, the first attempt to extract lithium from geothermal wastewater has had a rocky rollout, with the first company to build a demonstration plant now facing funding difficulties, but a solution will be found. Where the majority of people see problems, the engineers of the world see potential solutions, and that gives me confidence that the worst of the world’s issues will eventually be solved; I’m excited to see what innovations will be created in the process.

Cool Stuff in 2014

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:42 pm, December 31st, 2014

Mostly because it’s fun for me to put these lists together, for the final post of 2014 here’s a look back at some news events that I got excited about:

  • SpaceX Reusable Rockets – The important caveat is that SpaceX hasn’t yet landed and re-used a rocket, but this year they figured out how to take a first stage that was plummeting back towards earth at multiple times the speed of sound, slow it down, and fire its rockets so that it could “land” vertically on a pre-determined spot in the ocean. That’s a really big deal, and their next launch is going to attempt to vertically land a rocket on a floating platform. It is an awesome time to be a fan of spaceships.
  • Transbay Center – The “Grand Central Station of the West Coast” finally began poking its head above ground this year, with the first structural steel being put into place during the past few months. When completed, this massive development will be the home for California High Speed Rail, Caltrain, Muni, buses, and will be the heart of a new San Francisco neighborhood.
  • Los Angeles subwayGround was actually broken for a subway to the Westside in Los Angeles, and the residents of Hell all donned jackets. If ever there was a city in need of vastly improved mass transit it is LA, and slowly but surely the situation is improving.
  • Tesla Gigafactory – Tesla announced that it will be building a battery factory outside of Reno that will produce more lithium-ion cells in a single facility than are produced by all other manufacturers in the world combined, with the goal of dropping prices on their battery packs by one-third and giving them the ability to quickly innovate on a core component. This move has huge ramifications for US manufacturing (Reno?!?! What other commodity technology isn’t built in Asia?), energy storage (see JB’s talk to understand how energy storage is going to massively change the world), and Tesla’s future automobiles.
  • Solar technology – Related to the previous item, solar panel prices have gotten dramatically cheaper over the past few years, to the point where solar power is now cost-competitive with grid electricity in many places. There is no reason to believe that trend shouldn’t continue for the immediate future, which will mean that many homeowners may soon be choosing between solar panels and a local battery storage unit versus paying more for power from the electric company. Suddenly power that produces no CO2 emissions looks like it could become a dominant force in the world market, and the environmental outlook begins looking a bit less grim.
  • National parks – Somehow in a deeply polarized Congress, the Defense Bill included an amendment that initiated the largest expansion of the US national parks since 1978, adding 120,000 acres to the national park system. Combined with an earlier executive action that created the largest marine protected area in the world, it is not all doom and gloom on the environmental front.

I’m sure I’ve probably missed some obvious stuff (Europe landed a probe on a comet!), but that’s a decent sample of things that excited me during the year. Hopefully 2015 will continue the trend – we live in exciting times.

SpaceX vertical rocket landing test, showing off the grid fins used for steering the rocket during its supersonic descent. Also, there are some cows that get freaked out at the two-and-a-half minute mark.

Headlines

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:54 pm, May 29th, 2014

Four headlines of note this week:

  • SpaceX announced version two of their Dragon space capsule, this one capable of carrying astronauts. They are on track to be carrying people into space by 2017, and this new capsule is both reusable and capable of landing almost anywhere using maneuvering thrusters. The goal is to be able to fly it back to the launch pad, refuel it, strap it to a rocket, and send it into space again, thus greatly reducing costs and putting all of us space nerds one step closer to a trip into orbit. For anyone still reading who isn’t an engineering geek, this announcement may be considered one of the big moments in the advancement of technology in a few decades.
  • A $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River (yes, there is one) was announced today. LA’s preferred restoration option was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, and eleven miles of concrete will soon be removed and returned to a more natural state. I’m torn on this one – any time we can keep something natural, or fix damage that has been done, I’m a fan, but $1 billion could have been used to restore vastly larger and more important wetlands elsewhere (example). That said, bringing some nature back to the concrete jungle of LA will be a welcome change.
  • In more controversial news, the EPA is about to unveil serious efforts to combat climate change by setting CO2 limits on power plants. It’s highly doubtful that the EPA’s proposals are the best solution to the issue of climate change, but since the Senate killed the Cap & Trade bill in 2010, direct executive action has become the only viable option for addressing a very serious problem. With any luck, once these rules go into effect it will spur Congress to debate a better solution that does more to address the problem while producing less chaos in the marketplace, much like what was originally intended with the 2009 Cap & Trade bill.
  • Apple holds their Worldwide Developer Conference next week, where they are expected to announce a framework for integrating iPads and iPhones with home devices like lights, security systems, etc. They may also announce their rumored health-related watch, and while I’m skeptical about it, if anyone can make a device that promotes healthy living it’s Apple, and the thought of people having something on their wrist that encourages exercise, good eating, and other good behavior while also notifying them of serious health issues, that seems like a big win.

That’s a lot going on all at once, and even without a pressing deadline to get in three journal entries before the end of the month, they seemed significant enough to record for posterity. Ten years from now I’ll either read this while looking at my Apple health-monitoring device and watching the latest space tourist launch into orbit, or I’ll do neither of those things and wonder how I could have ever thought these announcements were significant :-)

Legos for Grown-ups

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:41 pm, March 30th, 2014

While the East Span of the Bay Bridge is finally operational, there are a bunch of other projects going on in California that the engineer in me continually follows up on. While I may be the only one interested, it’s fun to re-read these entries a few years later, so here’s a status report on a few of them:

  • Transbay Center – This San Francisco project is essentially building the Grand Central Station of the West Coast, a $4.5 billion development that will bring together eleven different transit agencies and eventually include Caltrain service in downtown, and (theoretically) high-speed rail. Shockingly the project is mostly on schedule, with most of the below-ground work done and the above ground work set to start this summer. Completion is scheduled for Summer 2017.
  • Subway to the Sea & Exposition Line – Despite Beverly Hills doing its best to derail the $4 billion subway project, one of LA’s busiest traffic corridors might soon have a subway, and people on the West Side will actually be able to get to the rest of the city without spending an hour in traffic. As a bonus, subway excavations are unearthing huge caches of Ice Age fossils. Meanwhile, the first phase of the Exposition light rail line has already exceeded its 2020 ridership projections, with the second phase to Santa Monica on schedule for a 2015 opening. It’s ridiculous that America’s second-largest city has such terrible mass transit, but things are improving rapidly.
  • California High Speed Rail – Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan. Killing the project now probably means it will be another decade before anything new could be proposed, but that might be better than building it poorly, and in the interim it might be possible for a less ambitious (and probably more profitable) route from LA to San Diego, or LA to Las Vegas, to be built and prove the viability of such a system.
  • Farmer’s Field – If anyone could bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and redevelop a huge section of downtown with a stadium and other venues it would be AEG, and most of the approval for this $1.2 billion project is in place. However, with no NFL team ready to move, the continued redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles is on indefinite hold, and in the interim parking lots and unused office buildings fill an area that should be a centerpiece of the LA area.

I’ve always been a big nerd when it comes to huge construction projects, and these four projects are particularly exciting ones since they all have the potential to dramatically change the regions in which they are built.

The Future is Now

Posted from Livermore, California at 10:51 pm, February 27th, 2014

Two notes about two of my favorite companies:

  • Tesla Motors announced a bit more about their proposed “gigafactory” this week, which (if built) will produce as many lithium ion batteries in a single, massive US plant as were produced in the entire world in 2013. They will be partnering with established battery manufacturing firms, giving them the necessary know-how and experience to make this happen, and making it possible that a component that we take for granted as coming from Asia could suddenly be produced primarily in the US. What’s more, by bringing production in-house Tesla foresees significant economic advantages, and I suspect that they will work hard to innovate in battery technology and thus quickly drive down the cost and improve the efficiency of their most important component. Longer term, Tesla Motors might follow Apple Computer in dropping the second half of its name as the company gains the ability to produce massive battery packs that could be tied to the electric grid to provide large-scale energy storage, thus revolutionizing the electrical grid in as significant a way as what Edison and Nikola Tesla did at the turn of the century.
  • Meanwhile, Spacex will be launching another rocket to the International Space Station in mid-March. While they have seemingly made the once-unthinkable task of private rocket launches seem almost mundane, this launch will be noteworthy for having landing legs attached to the first stage. The plan is to try to “soft land” the rocket into the ocean as a test, with the goal of controlling things sufficiently that the rocket can eventually be flown back to the pad and re-used. Spacex has already reduced launch costs to almost one-third of what their competitors charge, but if they can create a truly reusable rocket then costs will plummet (think of the difference in costs of air travel if we only used each plane for a single flight) and an age of space exploration that rivals the journeys of European explorers after the Middle Ages could conceivably begin.

It is of course entirely possible that either of these companies could fail in their efforts, but it’s not hyperbole to say that if they each meet their goals that they will change the world as we know it in very dramatic ways. It’s a fun time to be alive.

A Journal Entry About SPACESHIPS!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:50 am, June 30th, 2013

It’s not a secret that I think Elon Musk’s three companies (SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City) are three of the most exciting businesses out there, and that each is likely to radically change the world for the better. Enough has been written about Tesla lately, but two items of great excitement with respect to SpaceX haven’t gotten a ton of attention.

First is their efforts towards a more reusable rocket. As Elon Musk has put it, space travel today is comparable to airline travel if you had to throw away the plane after each trip – most of the reason that space launches are so expensive is that you either don’t get the vehicle back after launch (most rockets), or when you do it takes so much work to get it back into flight-worthy condition that there isn’t any cost savings (the space shuttle). SpaceX originally planned on recovering their rockets in the ocean using parachutes, but when that proved infeasible they moved to a vertical takeoff and landing model. Here’s a video of a test of SpaceX’s ten story take-off and landing vehicle rising 250 meters into the air, then landing vertically. They’ll be testing this system on actual rockets returning from space starting later this year, with a goal of being able to reliably land and re-use the rocket in a few years time.

Second, they are planning on a test launch of their new Falcon Heavy vehicle in the coming year. If you need to put 117,000 pounds into low earth orbit, this will be the only vehicle that can do it, and combined with its lower launch costs could create all sorts of new options for satellites (for comparison, the Delta IV Heavy is the current largest rocket on the market, and it can carry around 50,000 pounds). Even more exciting, this will be the first rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket with that amount of power.

It’s sad that after advancing from airplanes to moon rockets in under two decades our exploration of space has seemed to stagnate for fifty years, but it’s hugely exciting to be on the precipice of another major evolution of travel beyond the planet’s atmosphere.

I Don’t Get It

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:39 pm, May 27th, 2013

This journal entry is a rant. Posts about mastodons and tar pits will return in the future, but those expecting stories of spaceships parked at donut shops might want to skip this entry.

For those still reading, Elon Musk recently tweeted the following:

It is unfortunate that climate change was brought to public attention by Al Gore, as it then became a “left wing” issue.

That tweet gets to the heart of something that is both saddening and frustrating about today’s discourse: a number of issues, many of which are very important, are now approached with the mentality of sports fans: “My team is right, your team sucks!” Just as with sports, individuals support “their side” and ignore the merits of the argument.

Consider Musk’s example of global warming: admitting (or denying) that climate change is a serious issue is a litmus test for the far left and far right; commentators on the right are constantly screaming that it is either a hoax or not caused by human activity, while on the far left you might think that anything less than the elimination of all fossil fuel usage is akin to Armageddon. However, looking at it from the standpoint of the scientific community, there is similar certainty that human produced greenhouse gases are heating up the planet at a dangerous rate as there is for theories such as the big bang or evolution. Meanwhile, saying that climate change is a problem that should be addressed will get a politician voted out of office on the right, while far left activists are chaining themselves to the White House gates over the construction of a single oil pipeline, and in the mean time not even a minimal amount of action is taken to mitigate something that will have serious negative future consequences.

Similarly, I’m convinced that ten years from now no one will buy a new car without debating whether or not that car should be electric. From an engineering standpoint (mechanical engineering grad here!) electric cars are undeniably better technology. Consider:

  • Battery technology today allows a range of 300 miles, and that technology is improving at about eight percent each year.
  • Maintenance on electric cars is minimal – no oil changes, no belts or hoses, no transmission, no emission system.
  • Electric engines are approximately three times more efficient than gas engines.
  • The driving experience in electric cars is vastly better – you have full torque immediately, offering a ridiculously fast acceleration.
  • Electric cars have no emissions – the smog and related pollution issues of cities like LA will diminish significantly with a move to electric vehicles.

However, with Romney and much of the right wing having labeled Tesla Motors as a “loser” and an example of an Obama “failure” during the campaign, any mention of Tesla is now followed by comments about how the company is a beneficiary of “crony capitalism”, is merely building a toy for the rich, and will be bankrupt any day now. This, despite the fact that Tesla repaid its government loan (issued under a Bush administration program) nine years early, was funded solely with private money for its first seven years, is one of the few new manufacturing ventures in the US, is the first successful new American car company in several generations, has always planned for a mass-market ($30,000) vehicle as part of their roadmap, and has built a car that literally has people cheering after test drives and has won awards from every automotive group that has reviewed it, including the highest score in Consumer Reports history, and Motor Trend Car of the Year. If we can’t support this example of American ingenuity, what has gone wrong in our discourse?

Other issues evoke similar reactions: nuclear power is supported on the right and opposed on the left despite studies that seem to indicate that use of nuclear power has saved lives. Environmental issues are now immediately dismissed as left-wing, although the vast majority of people support clean air, clean water, and a place for wildlife. The list of issues goes on and on: guns, GMOs, healthcare, taxes, immigration; all of these devolve into “my team versus your team”, despite the fact that there is clearly a huge amount of middle ground on which agreement (and action) is possible.

In spite of the seemingly grim atmosphere, things do tend to work out in the end, although given the state of rhetoric today it seems that we’re making it much, much harder to get to that end state than it needs to be.

OH MY GOD SPACESHIP !!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:56 pm, March 31st, 2013

I live in a city with a space shuttle, and that makes me very, very happy. Yesterday the girl took me to visit it at the California Science Center, and there was much rejoicing. The supporting exhibits include a wealth of information about the mysterious “space potty”, computers from mission control, and a history of the shuttle program. The highlight, obviously, is the opportunity to visit up close with a vehicle that has traveled at 17,500 miles per hour, fixed the Hubble telescope and built the space station, cost $2.1 billion to build, and withstood temperatures of over 3000°F.

For reference, here are journal entries from past encounters with the spaceship:

The Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

This vehicle has been to space, repeatedly, which pretty much makes it the coolest thing ever built.

The Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

While it takes rocket scientists to build a space shuttle, decorating one apparently requires a dyslexic flag painter.

2032

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:00 pm, October 24th, 2012

Despite being horrid at it, journal entries that make predictions about the future are some of my favorites to write. Thus, in keeping with a long and embarrassing tradition of ignoring better judgment and making uninformed guesses about the future, here are some thoughts about trends that might develop over the next twenty years.

To provide some perspective, think back twenty years to 1992. At that time most people didn’t know what the internet was. Pagers were the best way of contacting someone and cell phones were still almost a decade away from becoming ubiquitious. CGI was still a rarity in film, and it would be another year before Jurassic Park would stun the world with dinosaurs that were not filmed using robots or stop motion. Global warming was still an obscure theory that only a handful of climate scientists (and Al Gore) had even heard about. Even though predictions about today’s world made in 1992 would have likely been as wrong as the flying car and nuclear-powered dishwasher predictions made in 1950s science magazines, it’s still fun to make an attempt to speculate on developments over the next twenty years.

Energy

Two specific developments might vastly change energy: batteries and decentralized power generation. Currently energy can be generated, but it is hugely difficult to store efficiently and thus must be used immediately. With batteries becoming approximately eight percent more efficient each year, and assuming my math is correct, in twenty years they’ll be about five times more efficient and likely significantly cheaper. Today’s best batteries can power a car for 300 miles, so in twenty years that same battery would theoretically allow 1500 miles of range; with that kind of storage almost all non-electric motors (which are less efficient) would become obsolete, and more generally energy would move from something that must be produced on-demand into an entirely new paradigm. In addition, renewable sources like solar are also improving rapidly. Today, in places with lots of sun, solar is cost-competitive with grid electricity. Assuming a 4-5x improvement in the next two decades, combined with efficient batteries that can store energy for usage when the sun isn’t shining, and suddenly it would be more economical for individual households and businesses to have solar panels than to not have them. If that happens then usage of decentralized power skyrockets, and reliance on huge, centralized coal, oil and gas power plants (and the corresponding pollution they generate) diminishes greatly. As a wildcard, at some point (be it in ten years or a hundred) research into fusion and superconductors will yield breakthroughs that will result in essentially limitless, super-cheap, pollution-free energy.

Bionics

Bionics is something that sounds scary until you realize it is already happening. Today people think nothing of pacemakers or hearing aids, and almost everyone has a cell phone that they carry at all times to keep connected to everyone else. The process of melding humans and machines is already well underway, and will only continue. In the next twenty years technology will probably become available to make bionics even more personal, including capabilities such as the ability to project a screen directly onto the retina, thus moving the functionality of a cell phone from a device in your hand to something that is actually inside of your head. With increased processing and networking speeds, having an infinite amount of data about the world projected directly into your field of vision will no doubt revolutionize how people interract with one another.

“Thinking” computers

When a person is trying to solve a problem they gather all available information, analyze it, weigh things appropriately, and then make a choice. If that choice turns out to be incorrect they can gather more data, change how existing data is weighed, or otherwise modify their thinking to make a better decision. Currently computers are far better than humans when it comes to analyzing input given a specific set of rules and data, but they aren’t good at modifying those rules or gathering more data; that’s going to change at some point in the future, and when computers can begin analyzing and solving complex problems it will have massive repercussions for quickly advancing knowledge in fields ranging from economics to politics, and especially in all facets of scientific research.

Medical advances

People often lament that medicine hasn’t cured any major disease since eradicating polio, but the medical field may be on the verge of huge advances using stem cells, or cells with properties similar to stem cells. Today if you have nerve damage (such as a spinal cord injury) there is little or nothing that can be done about it, but stem cells offer the potential to simply use your body’s existing genetic blueprints to “fix” the damage. Similar processes could be possible for creating new tissues, thus eliminating the need for organ or blood donations. These breakthroughs would affect all manner of other health and medical issues, so assuming the technology continues to advance, everything from joint pain to amputation could become as anachronous as polio is today.

YAY Spaceships!

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:05 pm, May 31st, 2012

Although it’s a little dismaying to be so excited about something that the country first did fifty years ago*, the launch by SpaceX to the space station is still a big deal. While NASA has done amazing things, the private sector is far better positioned to someday make us all into astronauts and help fulfill my childhood fantasies of looking at the earth from the other side of the clouds.

The second Falcon 9 launch (the mission prior to the most recent one) on December 8, 2010.

*This comparison is only correct insofar as the destination is still low earth orbit; the technology behind the Falcon 9 rocket is at least an order of magnitude beyond the rockets of the early 1960s.

Blame the Legos

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:41 pm, November 17th, 2011

I like the idea of building things – when I was a kid I spent hundreds of hours with Legos, in college I studied engineering, and today I waste inordinate amounts of time reading about ongoing engineering projects. Thus, because I think it’s interesting, and because I know that my mom will still love me even if everyone else is chased away by these geeky journal entries, here’s a rundown of some of the cooler projects going on today:

  • Electric Cars. Partly because of my old roommate I’ve been a follower of Tesla Motors since the beginning, but even without a personal connection it’s hard not to be excited about electric vehicles. The internal combustion engine hasn’t really changed much in 100 years, but in the next ten years a system that is smaller, more efficient, and requires far less maintenance will be a viable option. As batteries continue to improve it’s not inconceivable that we could eventually see cars that get a thousand miles to a charge, making today’s concerns about charging times and running out of electricity a non-factor and causing future generations to wonder why we were willing to deal with tailpipe emissions, gas stations, oil changes, and noisy motors.
  • The Bay Bridge East Span. Caveat: building a huge bridge with so many stakeholders is a recipe for massive cost overruns, as this project showed. Still, once a design was approved and lawsuits had run their course (the project was proposed twenty-two years ago in 1989) the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge ended up being an impressive feat of engineering. Opening in 2013 at a cost of $6.3 billion, this bridge will be two miles long, carry 270,000 cars a day, be capable of withstanding a magnitude 8.5 earthquake, last 150 years, and will be beautiful as well. Despite the crappy process that was required to actually get this bridge built, the end result is pretty spectacular.
  • New airplanes. The Boeing 787 just entered service after four years of delays, and while it may not look much different from today’s planes it’s hugely interesting under-the-hood: instead of aluminum much of the structure is carbon composites, it’s twenty percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and a variety of technical tweaks have gone into making it quieter and better at dealing with turbulence. The just-announced 737-MAX is a less-ambitious replacement for Boeing’s most popular model, with a planned fifteen percent improvement in fuel efficiency (amongst other changes) and a scheduled entry into service in 2017.
  • California High Speed Rail. While I’ll admit a fair amount of disappointment at how this project has been managed, the idea behind 220 mph trains linking California’s major cities is one that is about thirty years overdue. With new highways running between $2 and $16 million per lane-mile and road and airport congestion on the rise, high-speed passenger rail seems like an obvious solution, and one that the rest of the world is already implementing successfully. Hopefully California can get its act together and follow suit.
  • The Transbay Center. The Bay Area does a fairly good job with mass transit, but unlike New York City’s Grand Central Station there isn’t really a central transit hub. That changes in 2017 when a new terminal will open linking BART, MUNI, Caltrain, buses and (hopefully) high-speed rail.
  • Renewable Energy. While sadly the subject of renewable energy has become politicized of late, behind the scenes the technology has gotten really, really interesting. Solar is at the point where even without subsidies it is economically competitive in areas with a lot of sun, and with efficiency continuing to improve one can imagine a future where rooftop solar installations de-centralize the power grid, causing less need for huge central power plants. There are wind turbine models that generate as much as five megawatts, orders of magnitude more than those built in the 1980s, and that power is produced at about one-fourth of the cost of those older turbines. Similarly, energy efficiency is something to be impressed by: looking at just one example, flat screen TVs today use sixty percent less power than those manufactured in 2006.
  • Space. NASA estimates that its next-generation rocket system will cost $97 billion. For about $800 million SpaceX has already built and launched two rocket models, with a third (the Falcon Heavy) planned for testing in 2013. SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket is already capable of delivering cargo to the space station, and if successful the Falcon Heavy would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket. There’s no guarantee that SpaceX will be successful or that their costs won’t increase, but it’s nevertheless exciting to see the future of space returning to something more like what everyone imagined it would be back when America was putting men on the moon forty years ago.

This is Mainly Filler

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:12 pm, February 28th, 2011

A handful of moderately interesting bits that may or may not be worth recording:

  • Space Shuttle Discovery is on its final mission. More than thirty years ago I remember my mother taking me to the Nashua Science Center where they gave a presentation on the great new replacement for the Apollo rocket. After one more mission that era will be over for good, which is an odd thing to consider.
  • In the world of airplanes (which are awesome) Boeing is getting ready for the first flight of the 747-8i, the world’s longest commercial airplane, and will shortly be announcing plans for the plane that will replace the 737.
  • The wicked awesome JAMWiki 1.0 was unleashed upon the world at the end of January to a roar of silence, although on February 11 apparently 5800 Kazakhis downloaded it, a new record for single-day eastern bloc installs.

And with that, February now has three journal entries. Hopefully March will yield slightly more material and the last minute panic entries can be avoided.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:20 pm, October 13th, 2010

With this journal now beyond its eighth birthday, one use of it that I’ve occasionally enjoyed indulging in at the expense of my twos of readers is posting thoughts about what seems important in technology, politics, or whatever; it’s fun to look back a few years later to see how trends played out versus what might have been expected at the time. For those who are bored to death by such posts, head immediately to Lolcats to avoid a geeky trend analysis.

The dotcom wave crested nine years ago, and since then it has seemed more and more likely that the next boom would be led by energy and conservation technologies. Dotcom disrupted markets by introducing new ways to do traditional tasks faster and more efficiently, offering huge value for those who adopted the new technologies. With new energy developments on the horizon offering a similar value proposition, it seems that another burst of change is inevitable. That said, here are a few specific technologies that seem like they will end up being interesting and important with respect to energy and conservation. The comments link is available should anyone else care to throw out their own thoughts.

Electric cars

While there is some attention still being given to solar cars, hydrogen cars, and hybrids, electric cars look more and more like they will be the primary automotive technology in the future. Battery storage is rapidly improving, and if trends hold then in another 5-10 years cars could be on the roads with expected ranges of 400-600 miles per charge. More importantly, however, is that electric cars make better sense from a technology standpoint than hybrids or internal combustion engines – the motors are more powerful and more efficient, and the supporting systems are simpler. An electric car doesn’t need oil changes, doesn’t have an exhaust system, has simpler cooling needs, etc. As the range issues are addressed and the cost of battery packs come down, it’s very tough to imagine anyone choosing oil changes, gas stations, and a $600 maintenance charge every 30,000 miles to something that they can just plug in at night. I’m obviously heavily influenced by JB on this issue, but while I’m not convinced Tesla will lead this trend I’m fairly certain that it’s one that’s coming in a big way.

Solar panels

Similarly, as solar panel efficiencies are improving it is becoming cost-effective for greater numbers of people to install them. While for most people the allure of solar panels is currently that they’re a “green” option, as soon as the economics of solar panels offer a cost advantage over grid power it’s tough to imagine that there wouldn’t be a rush for the mass market to install them; companies like Solar City are already pushing a sales message that is primarily based on economics rather than environmentalism. With current rates of improvement, the economic argument should be a HUGE selling point in places like Arizona and Southern California within the next several years. Should home generation become more prevalent, it is also conceivable that the need for new power plants might then be lower than current projections.

Environmental Concerns

This may be overly optimistic, but a side effect of a move to electric vehicles and solar panels would be less air pollution and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Any such benefits would obviously take time to kick in as old technologies were slowly phased out, but if (for example) 10% of vehicles are electric by 2015, and 30% are electric by 2020, air quality improvements should follow. This optimistic view isn’t an argument against trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traditional sources, but it does give some hope that even in the absence of legislative action there may still be some chance of avoiding the worst predicted effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Peak Oil

Oil production rises each year to meet increased demand, but at some point there simply won’t be enough oil that can be extracted from the ground for that trend to continue. The commonly held assumption is that demand will continue to rise while supply will remain stable, causing a massive shock to economies and industrial systems. However, as electric vehicle technology improves it would seem that there will, for the first time, be a viable alternative for the most common use of oil. Since people are driven by economic factors, given the choice between a $20,000 vehicle that runs on $5.00 – $7.00 a gallon fuel, or a $30,000 vehicle that can be plugged in, fears over a depression brought about by peak oil may actually be replaced by a mini economic boom as replacement technologies are adopted.

Traffic Congestion

It’s tough to tell if today’s political environment is an anomaly or not, but at least in the US there is a dearth of sensible long-term planning as candidates look to quick-wins and uncontroversial decisions. Currently candidates in several states are campaigning against transportation projects that could produce huge long-term benefits, albeit at short-term cost. In California, a much-needed high-speed rail line is opposed by the current Republican gubernatorial candidate and will at best be delayed by myriad lawsuits from cities impacted by the proposed rail route, and at worst will end up canceled.

With so many obstacles to major changes to the existing transportation system, it seems that incremental approaches implemented at the local level are the only options to looming congestion nightmares. New York and several other cities already have implemented small-scale solutions, such as systems that allow buses to manage traffic lights to speed up bus routes. It seems logical that such “smart” traffic lights will be implemented elsewhere to optimize traffic flows. Similarly, cities will probably begin looking more at options like congestion pricing, reversible lanes, and better use of real-time traffic data for routing. While it would be great to think that large mass-transit projects will play a bigger role, it’s tough to see how such projects will be implemented, meaning that small-scale projects are likely to be the main area of growth.

Aerospace

While more efficient air and space travel could enable a number of new developments, this area sadly doesn’t seem poised for huge advances. With private companies like SpaceX now capable of launching payloads for a fraction of traditional costs it’s possible that additional uses for space will open up, but technology is still probably twenty years away from a cost point where really exciting changes could take place. Similarly, with more fuel efficient airplane technologies such as the Boeing 787 launching, air travel should become more pleasant, but revolutionary changes like blended wing body planes or hypersonic transports look like they’re still 30 years away from becoming a day-to-day reality.

Other Items

Water is going to become a bigger and bigger issue; if desalination doesn’t become a more prominent option then the world will face severe shortages. Assuming the energy requirements for desalination decrease and available fresh water supplies continue to be used up, the oceans should soon become a big part of the municipal water plan.

Smart grid technology is already being put in place to allow variable pricing of electricity, which should cause users to shift electricity usage and thus decrease the need for new power plants. The idea is that if electricity is more expensive when demand is high then people will defer usage until prices decrease; it’s less sensible to run the dish washer at mid-day if you can do so for half the price in the evening.

Biofuels will continue to gain attention, particularly things like cellulosic ethanol and algae fuel, but simpler technologies like electric motors, wind power, and traditional power sources may prevent them from ever being widespread. Instead, something like algae fuel production may be most useful as a way for large industrial facilities to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously creating a commercially valuable by-product.