Prescription for The Planet – Tom Blees

My friend Bill Kerr gave me a copy of this book to read, which provides several ideas for solving energy and climate problems.

The book has some interesting ideas, for example using boron as a fuel. Apparently any solid metal will burn under the right conditions, so you can use iron or boron as a fuel, in the same sense as hydrogen is a “fuel”. Hydrogen is a way to store energy, like a battery. You can’t dig it up naturally in a form and volume sufficient to drive a car on. So it’s generated using fossil fuels or electricity.

Metals can be used in the same way, you burn the boron, capture the oxide, then recycle it back to boron using an external energy source. The fascinating thing about the proposed Boron engines are the exhaust products are liquid at combustion temperatures. A nice twist on traditional engines which have liquid fuels and gaseous exhausts.

One problem is that Boron engines, let alone cars, don’t exist yet. In contrast I drive a practical, low cost, Electric Car that is solar powered. I am doing this today, no R&D required.

The book recommends breeder reactors as our energy future, nuclear reactors that can generate their own fuel. I don’t understand the nuclear technology, however a system that makes it’s own fuel is pretty cool. The social problems in selling such technology to the general public are daunting. Although given the risks of dam failure I would rather live 1km away from a reactor than 1km down stream from a hydro dam. Unfortunately emotion around nuclear technology has clouded the issues. I do think nuclear deserves more of a “fair go” in public debate.

Using some numerical models the book makes the point that large scale renewable anything (wind, solar, hydro) is a big problem right now. I tend to agree. I figure coal fired electricity will be the base for a long time to come.

However I’m more bullish about Solar PV than Mr. Blees, at least for home use. His models assume the US average of 10c/kWh but thats low by world standards (we pay around 20c/kWh). Solar is about AUD$5/Watt retail here at the moment. Payback period of < 10 years and falling. There are other benefits over central generation - no transmission lines, peaks during summer, lower gird loading, and insulation from rising energy costs. It's possible to halve most peoples electricity use (I did it) – his figure of 888kWh/month average US usage is 30 kW/hr day. Easy to get this down to sub 10-15kWhr/day for most people, at least in Australia.

One key message is that there are plenty of options for a energy rich, non fossil fuel future. It’s not the science or technology that is the barrier – it’s political will and public education.

The core issue for me is that any big changes in our energy systems will take 20 years. The central argument of Peak Oil is that we have much less time than that. Governments are blissfully charging ahead with growth oriented economies aimed at consuming more and more scarce resources. They are planning exponential growth against a finite resource base. So we will be entering an “energy decent” over the next decade, very little can now be done to stop that and the economic problems it implies.

Low Energy Pool

Backyard science is cool. For the last few months I have been working on a theory to reduce the energy consumption of my pool. I started with a theory, and tested it with an experiment. It failed a few times, so I re-worked my theory and have now reduced my pool energy consumption by 75%. That’s a saving of around 7.5 kWh/day in summer. Now I can write it up and share my results with others. I think it’s just great that the Internet enables all of us to do real science on this scale.

Pools suck from an energy point of view, as I explained a few years ago in this popular blog post on the Floatron. The Floatron allowed us to reduce our filter run time from 10 hours day in summer to 4 hours. In addition every few weeks we would add solid chlorine tablets to boost the chlorine level a bit. However I wanted to go a step further, 4 hours is still around 4kWh/day, a big chunk of our household power consumption.

With the Floatron system some residual chlorine is required to keep the pool clear, about 0.5ppm. When this chlorine levels drops, the pools becomes cloudy, and slightly off color. However the cloudy appearance is not a full blown “green pool event”, as the copper ions keep the algae at bay. It can be simply corrected by raising chlorine level to 0.5ppm for a few days (you don’t need a legion of chemicals).

Maintaining or raising the chlorine level often means running the pool pump, which is connected to the salt cell. The pump pushes water through the salt cell,which injects the actual chlorine via a current passed through the cell. So to raise the chlorine level, you need to run the 1kW pump. A salt cell connected to the pool pump looks this this:

The actual power required to run the salt cell is much lower that the pump. Mine had a power input of 150W, and I measured 7.1V at 9.4A or 67W at the cell.

So I decided to try running the salt cell outside of the pump system. Under normal usage salt cells die every few years, so I had an old one lying around. They don’t usually die completely, they just become less effective and need to be replaced. So I took an old cell, waterproofed the electrical connections with some tubing and silicon, and threw it in the pool:

The idea is that with both ends of the cell open, natural convection currents would spread the chlorine around. The pump would still run a few hours a day and occasional pool use would also stir up the water.

I connected the wires to a 20W solar panel, via a Maximum Power Point Tracker (MPP) developed by Elektra. The MPP enables the solar panel to operate at it’s maximum power point (e.g. 17V) while allowing the load (in my case the cell) to find it’s own operating voltage, about 6V for my salt cell. A MPP is like a switch mode power supply in reverse. It allows the output voltage to vary, which keeping the input voltage fixed. They can double the efficiency of your solar panel.

Using the MPP I managed to get a maximum of 6.8V at 2.3A (15.6W) into the salt cell in the middle of the day. Plenty of tiny bubbles coming out of the cell. So I backed off the filter run time to 2.5 hours, then waited a few days to see what would happen to my chlorine levels.

The pool went cloudy and a little green. My good wife was not happy, and muttered something about “Honey, I shrunk the kids” experiments. I reasoned that the panel was too small, not enough current (or power, whatever makes the bubbles) was being supplied. It could probably only supply current for an average of 8 hours/day, or (125Wh/day).

So I connected a lab type power supply to the cell, and put 3.2A at 8V through it for 24 hours a day. After a few days the pool was clear and the measured chlorine was 0.5ppm and rising each day. Backing it off to about 15W kept the chlorine level constant and pool nice and clear.

OK, so that gave me a ball park figure of around 15W for 24 hours/day, or 45W if solar powered for 8 hours/day. Adding a bit of overhead for losses lets say a 60W panel. They cost around $500 here which was vetoed by the financial controller.

For a permanent power supply I bought a cheap 12V, 2.5A car charger. I chose a cheap charger as I wanted a simple unregulated transformer type design. Buying a charger and hacking it was cheaper and more fun that buying all the parts, drilling a box etc and building my own power supply. Looking inside I could see it was a simple fullwave rectifier using two diodes and two 12V windings configured as a center-tapped transformer. My first attempt was simply to remove one of the diodes to make a half wave rectifier. This would give an average DC voltage of half of 12V which is 6V. This worked, but the transformer ran hot and consumed 44W of AC for a power output to the cell of about 13W.

So I partially unwound one of the 12V windings until the unloaded AC voltage was 7V. I then built a bridge rectifier for just this winding and obtained around 5.4V and 1.9A at the cell (10.3W). This is a bit low, but I’ll see how it goes in the pool for a few weeks. I have the other winding spare so I can try unwinding again, this time leaving a few more turns on. The power input is about 23W so it’s not as efficient as I would like. A switch mode power supply configured as a current source would be ideal.

My filter run time is now 2 hours day. This filters the pool water, and injects extra chlorine from the conventional in-line salt cell. Total power consumption is 2kWh/day for the pool plus 600Wh/day for the continuous chlorination gadget. Thats a total of 2.6 kWh/day, down from 4 kWh/day with just the Floatron, or 10 kWh/day pre-Floatron. The 1.4kWh/day saved is enough to run my fridge. In addition we no longer seem to need supplementary chlorine in the form of tablets (saving maybe $60/year). The pool is crystal clear, best we have ever seen it:

Curiously, the measured chlorine level is quite low. I measure it every few days and it’s hovering around 0.2ppm. With the pool looking this good I had figured the chlorine should be higher. Maybe its concentrated in pockets that I am not measuring, as with my “outboard” salt cell chlorine distribution is likely to be less uniform.

Is it safe?

My understanding of how the copper ions (from the Floatron) and the chlorine remove algae and bacteria is weak. I am not even sure what all those bubbles are coming out of the cell. Are they chlorine gas, or some other by-product? I am pretty sure the Floatron takes care of algea, as we haven’t had a runaway green pool event in years. The Floatron site claims that it can also kill bacteria, and has a test report you can read. However the sample size is small (one pool). Other sources maintain that a high chlorine level is required to kill bacteria.

I had some interesting comments on my Floatron post from Nick work works for a state Water board (here and here). He makes safe water for a living, and also posted some interesting links on pool sanitisation.

So I am not sure if my system is taking care of bacteria. Bacteria are invisible so there are no obvious signs like water clarity. Swallowing pool water with bacteria can make you ill, in particular if you are sick already, or very old or very young. People are the main source of bacteria in pools. Like many pools, ours spends 355 days a year people free. Of course I don’t want anyone to get ill in our pool, but to be honest my main motivation is to make sure the damn thing doesn’t go green, while wasting minimal energy (both electrical and human).

From my previous pre-Floatron days, I know that pool chlorine levels vary wildly as most people (like me) aren’t likely to closely monitor the pool every day. This usually means multiple “green pool events” a year, and many hundreds of dollars in chemicals. These chemicals and high chlorine levels also have nasty side effects, like itchiness and sore eyes. So with a crystal clear pool that requires hardly any maintenance I do feel I am ahead of the pack in safety. To double check I will get a professional bacteria test done on my pool water, to see if my system is taking care of bacteria.

Fuel Consumption of a Pedestrian Crossing

Once or twice a week, encouraged by my wife, I hop on my bike and pedal a few km down to a local gym. On the way I have to cross South Road, which is a major arterial road here in Adelaide. The only safe way to get across is using the pedestrian crossing at a set of traffic lights.

Something has been bothering me about this pedestrian crossing – how much fuel was I wasting by crossing that road? Today I decided to quantify my fears with some numbers – when I pressed the button I counted about 40 cars and 10 trucks up to semi-trailer size that I had stopped. I estimate that a total mass of 40(1,300) + 10(10,000) = 152,000 kg needs to be braked to a stop, then be accelerated back up to 50 km/hr by burning fossil fuels.

Now 50 km/hr is about 14 m/s, which means the total energy of this moving column of vehicles is 0.5*m*v*v = 14.9MJ. So 14.9MJ is required to take the mass from 0 to 50 km/hr, which must come from fossil fuels. I think petrol has about 32 MJ/litre and I estimate that an internal combustion engine is 10% efficient in converting fossil fuel to kinetic energy at the varying loads required under acceleration. For the sake of argument I will assume all the vehicles run on petrol, although the trucks would of course be diesel and a few of the cars LPG. Anyway this means to take my bike across this pedestrian crossing requires 14.9/(32(0.1)) = 4.6 litres of fossil fuel, plus some fuel consumed in idling and a few extra minutes to the journey of at least 40 people. At current prices that’s about AUD$6 of fuel, or $12 for the two way trip to the gym. Although to be fair today a fellow biker crossed with me so lets call it $9 for the round trip.

My conclusion is that the world supply of fossil fuels declines by 4.6 litres every time I press the button on that pedestrian crossing.

In comparison if I had taken my inefficient 6 cylinder internal combustion car (about 7km/litre on a short trip in traffic) I would have used about 1 litre or AUD$1.20. My car would travel with the traffic and not cause a red light at a pedestrian crossing. If I had taken my electric car then about 28 cents in electricity (at current peak rates here in South Australia) would have been used. I draw no conclusion from this, as intuitively using a bike is much better than even an electric car.

To be honest 14.9MJ and 4.6 litres seems low, can anyone suggest a different way of working this out or spot an error in my estimates?

EV Battery Tester

I am interested in testing my my EV batteries – for example to measure the effects of various charging strategies. So I dreamed up a system using a WRT54G router and my little $2 PIC based voltage and current sensor WISPCAR board from last year. The WISPCAR board senses voltage and current and sends them out a RS232 port at 4800 baud. It also has a watchdog timer, and costs about $2 to make.

With our recent Mesh Potato work I have routers and serial ports on my mind. I have also been in touch with Bart from the Flukso Project who are using routers to monitor home power consumption – another area I am very interested in.

Routers are cool data collection devices. They are essentially mini-Linux systems so you can so all sorts of clever things like use shell script and connect them to the Internet. They usually have unused serial ports (WRT54GL’s have two) and often a few GPIOs. Best of all they are wireless – so you can start a test running then monitor it from your laptop some where else in the house. It’s “a good thing” to monitor battery tests like these as the power levels involved are substantial and there is the possibility of expensive battery damage.

I connected the WISPCAR board to my PC via a RS232 cable and it worked first time, even though it had been a year since I last used it. Despite surviving in my junk box for that long I promptly managed to blow it up in about two hours, I think I put 12V into one of the PIC A/D ports. Oops. The prototype was built on veroboard which was painful to flip over all of the time. So I rebuilt in “Manhatten” style so all the parts were on the top. Pretty, isn’t it!

Finding an 40A Load

To test my EV deep cycle batteries I wanted a load of around 40A, as that is the 60 km/hr “cruise” current of my EV. Finding a way to discharge batteries at these sorts of currents is not as easy, for example you would need at 0.3 ohm 480W resistor. It’s also nice if the current stays constant for the duration of the test, despite heating of the load and the battery voltage changing from 12.5V to 11.5V as it discharges.

I used a suggestion from the EVDL – a couple of 300W 12V to 240V inverters. I scurried around the house for a few hours, trying to find some 240V devices that were in the several hundred Watt range. Hairdryers, curling wands, and bedside lamps mysteriously disappeared from the house, only to re-appear on my bench in the shed! Finally I settled on a couple of bedside lamps with 60W bulbs, and an oil filled electric column heater connected to a Variac. The Variac allowed me to finely adjust the current to get exactly 40A. I measured the current using a 100A shunt connected to the battery (1mV/A).


I modified the PIC assembler code just slightly. To avoid over discharging the battery I wanted the watchdog timer to stop the test if the router should fail to poll the PIC every 20 seconds. Normally the watchdog drops the power for a few seconds, then restores it, to reset the device it is monitoring. The watchdog controls a 12V/40A automotive relay that can stop and start the test under control from the router.

It’s possible to connect WISPCAR directly to a PC using a RS232 adaptor, this is how I did most of my development. So the router is not really required, I just felt like doing it that way to explore the idea.

Getting the WRT54GL router serial port to work correctly was tricky. I couldn’t get the first serial port to change from 115000 to 4800 baud using the stty command. Every time I set it some other piece of software set it back! This port is configured as the serial console, however the second RS232 port on the router was free and I had better luck changing it’s baud rate to 4800.

To make WISPCAR work I needed to send commands and log data from the WRT54GL serial port, preferably under the control of shell script so I didn’t have to write and cross compile any C code. A few hours of head scratching and Googling led to this solution. To write a character to the serial port:
echo -n 'w' > /dev/tts/1
This command resets the watchdog timer and prompts WISPCAR to send a line of data. This data is read like to a file called “w” like this:
dd if=/dev/tts/1 bs=1 count=36 1>w 2>/dev/null
Good old dd to the rescue. I initially tried:
cat w < /dev/tts/1
but it wouldn’t send me the line until the sending device sent a Ctrl-D (end of file). In practice you start the read line first then send the command to wispcar:
dd if=/dev/tts/1 bs=1 count=36 1>w 2>/dev/null&
echo -n 'w' > /dev/tts/1

Each line is exactly 36 bytes long and contains some status information plus the voltage and current A/D samples. From then on it’s easy for shell script to extract the voltage and current samples and save them to a text file with a time-stamp. The shell script also monitors the voltage sample and stops the test at a certain threshold.

The text file output is easy to grok and plot using Unix tools like cut and Octave. Or the text file could be imported into a spreadsheet if that’s your thing. As the discharge current from the inverters is very stable, the AH capacity of the batteries can be calculated from the time the test ends. Here is a sample output plot.

Note the rough shape of the graph. Part of this is sampling glitches – electrical noise (perhaps from the inverters) upsetting WISPCAR as it samples. The chunky step size is due to the 8 bit resolution of the PIC A/D, that works out to about 1 bit/100mV which is a little coarse for this application. However even with this noise the system is effective in measuring the AH capacity of the batteries – the main goal of this work.

WISPCAR Hardware Mods

To reduce the sampling noise I made a few hardware changes. Here is the latest schematic. To the current sensor I added a capacitor to roll off the bandwidth at 10Hz and effectively reduce the gain for any high frequency noise signals. I lowered the resistor values in the Voltage sensor divider to lower the impedance and reduce the impact of any induced noise. I also added some filtering capacitors to lower the frequency response to about 10Hz. This removed most of the glitches for the next few tests:

Note this test starts at 13V – the battery had just come off charge. This discharge time (and hence capacity) is the same as the first test plotted above with the same battery.

A further improvement would be a higher resolution A/D or a way to just sample the 13-10V range, at the moment much of the A/D range (for example 0-10V) is never used and hence wasted.

The current sensor wasn’t really needed as the load current stayed constant. However I would like to work on that some more one day – it seems to have some problems I don’t quite understand like offset error (I am weak on op-amps). The ideal circuit would amplify a mV level differential DC signal (e.g. 40mV from the shunt at 40A) up the the 0-5V range of the A/D in the PIC. It has to be differential as we are sensing the current on the “high side”. Note the + current sense wire must be separate to the 12V power lead to avoid power to WISPCAR flowing thru the current sensor wires and inducing an additional voltage offset.

Going Further

There are many applications for the combination of a $2 PIC circuit and a router. So far I have used the combination for monitoring a solar power Wifi station and testing EV batteries.

This system could be simplified a lot to make it friendlier for the non-Linux geek. For example the router could present the battery discharge data as a web page on it’s internal server or even generate graphs. The test cut off threshold could be set using a web-based GUI.

Original WISPCAR post
WISPCAR SVN containing schematics and source code files
David’s EV Page
Flukso Project

Kjell Aleklett Lecture

Yesterday I took a much needed break from Mesh Potato hacking and pedaled into Adelaide University to see a lecture by Kjell Aleklett, who is the president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas who is visiting Australia this week.

Couple of important points that I took away:

  1. Kjell explained the physical process by which oil percolates through porous stone to oil wells – he then made the point that economists think that oil flows are propelled by money, not physical processes. In other words economists (and therefore governments) think money can overcome physical supply problems. Oops.
  2. The estimates of greenhouse gas emissions and hence global warming are based on continued growth of fossil fuel use. However these estimates do not take into account the actual peaking of oil, gas, and coal supplies. When the limited supply situation of fossil fuels are modeled, greenhouse emissions are constant over the next 50 years. If fossil fuel supply is limited, you limit huge increases in carbon dioxide concentrations.
  3. All current economic models assume unlimited future growth. Growth requires fossil fuels, which are reaching the limits of physical supply. For example if our population increases, we need a new suburb, and new cars to handle commuting. So if fossil fuels are limited, this means that from now on economic growth will be curtailed. No economic growth means the current economic systems break.


My original post on Peak Oil.

Some thoughts on our obsession with economic growth.

A Drive in the Mitsubishi MIEV

Today I was fortunate enough to go for a drive in a MIEV, the single demo unit that is on tour around Australia! This will probably be the first of the new generation of production electric cars (fingers crossed).

Funny how these things come about. I was sitting down to lunch on Sunday talking to one of my wife’s friends, Nina. She mentioned that she was a receptionist at Mitsubishi Adelaide, and told us the staff would be having a test drive of the MIEV today.

Say what? I didn’t even know it was in town. I was pretty excited so Nina kindly asked the Mitsubishi people if I could take a look at the car, and I was invited to join Nina on a test drive! WOW!

So at 3pm today I hopped in my EV and electo-commuted down to Mitsubishi HQ. Just as I entered the car park I saw the little MIEV cruising around. It pulled over as they changed drivers. Suddenly, just as I was passing the MIEV suddenly shot out in front of me – if I hadn’t hit the brakes we might have had the first EV on EV collision. Try explaining that to the bosses back in Japan!

The MIEV had a big sticker “Australia’s first Electric car” on the back. Ahem. Really? Then what, exactly, am I and probably 100 other Australians driving? They can’t even say “first production EV”. Yet (production starts in July).

Anyway Nina and I waited patiently and soon is was our turn. I hopped in the spacious rear of the car (heaps of leg room and height) while the Mitsubishi engineer minding the MIEV (Ashley) showed Nina how it worked. It has an automatic style gear selector but basically its D to drive and off you go. Nina drove us around the nearly empty and spacious Mitsubishi car park, getting up to about 50km/hr. We got a good feel for the acceleration and regenerative braking (both good). It felt nice and light compared to my lead-acid EV, especially over speed bumps. Easy to drive and a nice little car.

The instrumentation was a speedo, a charge/discharge gauge, and a battery bar graph. I missed the presence of an ammeter and voltmeter, but I guess part of the magic of a production EV is abstracting some of the technical detail away from end users.

It has a home charger (overnight) and a fast charger (30 minutes to 80%). The fast charger requires something like 50kW – equivalent to a whole suburban block here. It would make the street lights go dim! Anyway I figure that just like our EV the regular charger is good enough. Filling up an EV is not like filling a petrol car, you don’t stand around waiting for it to fill up. It’s more like a mobile phone, you just plug in and walk away.

After the MIEV Nina asked if she could try my EV! We followed the same course and curiously it felt and drove much the same. Nina said both cars felt great. If my car had Lithium batteries (i.e. equivalent range and weight) there wouldn’t be much in it at all.

The MIEV project is one of the new breed of factory EVs. I really hope it goes into large scale production and turns up in a showroom soon at a reasonable price. Good on Mitsubishi for making this happen.

The Amazing Rocket Stove

I just built a Rocket Stove out of 3 tin cans and tested it by making my morning coffee:

My 10 year old son then followed up by frying an egg. Each time we used a tiny amount of fuel; a bit of cardboard to get it started and maybe two sticks 1cm wide by 10cm long, weighing a few grammes:

Rocket stoves are very efficient as they burn the fuel at high temperature. You can see some ash between the inner and outer cans above which insulates the combustion chamber. Air flows under the tray in the magazine which is preheated before combustion. They can be built in a variety of sizes. Mine used a small paint tin as the outer container and is big enough for a coffee pot or small fry pan. A larger one (say using a 5 litre oil can) could handle a families cooking.

I am interested in Rocket Stoves for a couple of reasons:

  1. On our recent trip to East Timor, I noticed most people cooking on 3 stone fires. This is causing environmental (and practical) problems as vast amount of firewood are being used up. The cost of the wood fuel is also significant for people in one of the poorest countries in Asia. So an efficient wood stove could really help. Rockets Stoves can be built out of locally sourced materials (old tin cans, bricks) and could generate much needed employment.
  2. I am interested in heating my house from wood this winter, but don’t want to pay $3,000 for a commercial slow combustion wood heater. So this little stove is a first step. I have seen some heating stove designs that use bricks and old drums to make efficient radiant heaters.
  3. I am interested in alternatives to fossil fuels like natural gas for cooking. Over the last few years we have been taking steps to improve our home energy efficiency and in particular reduce fossil fuel consumption. Our last gas bill was trivial ($12 gas, $50 supply charge) as we have solar hot water. The low fuel consumption of a Rocket Stove means we could supplement our household cooking with fuel from garden waste, e.g. sticks and other garden material I usually throw out!

It took me three tries to get a working stove; I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon messing around with tin snips and tin cans and like everyone I love playing with fire! My Rocket Stove takes a little while to start burning well, but once it does you get a small, very stable flame. Almost like a gas stove, but coming from one little stick. It’s easy to control, just slide the sticks in or out of the magazine.


I used the tin can Rocket Stove example in this Capturing Heat booklet.

What I would do with $43B

The Australian Government has kicked off a $43B National Broadband Network (NBN) to give everyone in a Australia a 100Mbit/s fibre connection. It’s the biggest infrastructure project in our history, and represents about $2100 per person of unfunded government debt. The theory is that it will make us more productive, help education, health and business.

Funny thing is I am quite content with my 1Mbit/s DSL, in fact I could live with 128kbit/s for my web surfing, email, and occasional tarball download. I find email to be the most useful thing on the Internet, and that works fine over dial up. My kids soak up the extra bandwidth for movies, but that is hardly making the country more productive (probably the opposite). The best thing about DSL is that it’s always on, rather than the speed. Maybe I am atypical, but I have never said, “I wish I had faster Internet” while using DSL.

Reminds me a bit of Windows and MS Office. Once a certain level of performance/GUI was reached (Windows 95 and MS Office 97) everything that came afterwards was (expensive) fluff. Well once I obtained always on connectivity via DSL, I reached that “good enough” point.

I think we can do better. Here are some ideas I have for spending AUD$43B over 8 years:

  1. EV conversions: Lets convert every small car in Australia to be a 100km range EV. Now there are 20M people here, so maybe 5M small cars. That gives us $8,600 per car. A current 100km conversion in quantity 1 costs about $25,000, but in quantity 5M we can expect some big discounts for volume, so $8,600 should do it. Actually for $8,600 each we could probably build new EVs, however recycling a petrol car saves a lot of energy embodied in the manufacturing process. A 100km range EV would cover 90% of the populations driving needs (it does for our family). Pleasant side effects would be the creation of a new (export) industry, lower greenhouse emissions (if charged from green electricity), and radically reduced dependence on foreign oil.
  2. PV solar or Wind: Lets put PV solar on every house in Australia. I am guessing there are about 8M houses (2-ish people per residence), this means $5,400 per residence. A 1kW PV system costs about $12,000 today (although we currently get an $8,000 rebate). However it’s reasonable to assume at least 50% plus quantity discount for 5M so $5,400 should do it easily. That’s a total of 5GW of PV solar. That’s about twice the current peak electricity generation capacity of the state of South Australia where I live. Actually that’s probably pessimistic, industry standards are drifting down to USD$2/watt, so $43B would give us 15GW of PV solar (at 1AUD = 0.7USD). With wind power we could do even better, $43B would buy us perhaps 30GW at such a high level of investment. Now 30GW ($1USD/watt) at a wind power activity factor of 30% is 30E9(0.3)(24 hours/day)(365 day/year)/(1E3 W/kW) = 78BkWh/year. In 2005 Australia consumed 220BkWh, so thats a big chunk of our power. With some reasonable electricity consumption measures we could probably live on one third of our current consumption.
  3. Mesh Potato: The Mesh Potato is a Wifi mesh router with VOIP. You place one on your roof, and it self-forms a telephone network by talking to other Mesh Potatoes on nearby houses. It doesn’t need cell phone towers of land lines. Or phone companies. Lets say in very high volume we can install a Mesh Potato with a solar panel and battery to power it for $100 per house. With $43B we could install 430M mesh potatoes. That’s too many for Australia (only 8M houses), so we could put one on every house in Australia and North America. Or globally its one for every 28 people on the planet. Even better – distribute Mesh Potato networks to the poorest 1B of the world, which makes in 1 phone for every three people. This would build a global telephone network so we could all make free phone calls to each other. As a side effect it would build a free Internet backbone that is independent of land lines, governments, cell phone towers (it uses unlicensed spectrum), and telephone companies. Obviously some scaling and number of mesh hop problems but for $43B I am sure they can be solved!

Peak Oil and Why Growth is Evil

Oil has no future. Really. Just look at this graph of oil discovery (borrowed from this excellent Peak Oil Overview). The graph shows oil discovery (in billions of barrels) per decade.

Now oil discoveries peaked at about 500 billion in the 1960’s, about the time I was born and started crawling towards anything electrical and driving my Mum crazy. World wide we use around 85 million barrels/day, or 30 billion a year. So when you read the next mainstream media article about a “billion barrel oil discovery” remember that 1 billion barrels is just 12 days world oil consumption.

So 30 billion barrels a year is 300 billion a decade. Now look at the graph above. In how many decades did we discover more than 300 billion barrels?

And what is this fixation with economic growth? Politicians seem to be telling us we are all doomed unless we constantly grow the economy. The worst thing about the financial crisis is that we might now get “growth”. growth Growth GROWTH!

The problem with x% growth is that it is exponential. That means we consume more and more every year. It goes to infinity real fast. More oil, more water, more people, more money, more debt. Just 5% growth means doubling every 14 years. One small oversight guys: nature is finite. A good example is yeast growing in a Petri dish. Nature always shuts down exponential growth. Always. Usually by killing everything in the Petri dish.

Economics is busted as it depends on the ultimate unsustainable practice – exponential growth.


An earlier post on Peak Oil.

Driving Strike

Between May and August 2008 I went on a driving strike – for 3 months I didn’t drive a car. It all started late one May evening. I was driving along the freeway on the way back to Adelaide. This was at the recent peak in fuel prices so I was actually driving at far less than the freeway limit (only 95 km/hr) to experiment with saving fuel. Probably daydreaming about VOIP or echo cancellers or Electric Cars knowing me. Anyway I missed the end of the freeway 60 km/hr sign and the friendly South Australian Police were hidden just a few 100m after the sign around the next corner, booking me and a bunch of other people.


Another bloody fine. Between my wife and I we have blown $800 in fines this year! In South Australia revenue from tickets is a budgeted income item for the government. It’s a big business here, just like taxes on gambling. Just like some people can’t help gambling, it’s human nature for people to accidentally exceed the speed limit. So the SA government does it’s best to extract revenue from pensioners playing poker machines, and people driving cars. They regularly put the fines up ($300 for 15 km/hr over the limit at present), and use all sorts of tricks like speed cameras hidden in rubbish bins. Of course all the real criminals are locked up so it’s just us speeding motorists left now.

It’s got to the point where my wife and I actually budget for speeding fines each year, they are just such a part of life for everyone in this State. Unfortunately we got our 1st fine on New Years day (56 km/hr in a 50 zone) so there goes the 2008 budget! A lady from my wife’s church copped THREE fines in one day – they changed the local limit to 40 km/hr near her house and she missed the sign.

Not that I’m bitter. Fair enough – if I can’t concentrate enough to stay beneath the limit then its probably best that the Police and I go our separate ways. So I said “enough” and hung up the car keys in disgust. The driving strike was on!

Why Dump the Car

I had a few other reasons:

  1. I have a general problem with internal combustion technology, it’s about 0.5% efficient, unsustainable, and is about to cause untold misery through the effects of Peak Oil.
  2. Save money.
  3. I figure oil prices will force me to stop sooner or later, might as well beat the rush and learn to live life without a car.
  4. Cars (especially internal combustion cars) are impossible for 90% of the world due to resource constraints. This can’t go on, and is unfair to most of the world.

Of course we still had my wife Rosemary driving so the family was not exactly going cold turkey. She sided with the Police and agreed that maybe I am the sort of absent-minded person who shouldn’t be driving. My kids were extremely distressed – they could see this might mean……..exercise!

The Challenge (or lack thereof)

Unlike most people I am fairly time rich. I keep my life simple so that I don’t have many commitments scheduled and don’t have to race about town over the course of the day. My wife and I manage our expenses and debt so that we don’t need two full time jobs to sustain us. I guess you could say we have down shifted – compared to many of our peers we earn and spend less but live better. So I appreciate that not everyone could consider dumping their car.

I work from home, live 7km from the the center of the city and have good public transport (both train and bus services) nearby. However the city I live in is designed for cars. We have large suburban blocks (low density living), and a large city area (perhaps 80km long by 20km wide) for the population of just 1M people. Most residents have poor access to public transport compared to a European city.

Getting Around

I used my bike, the train and bus, and car pooling to get around. When I needed to buy something heavy or distant I would wait until it was convenient for my wife to take me as a passenger.

Imagine taking your kid to a doctor. This is what I had to do: walk to school, extract kid, walk to bus stop, wait for bus, catch bus, visit doctor, wait for bus, catch bus, walk from bus stop home. At least two hours elapsed time for a 15 minute visit.

Every 2 weeks I need to visit Mt. Barker, a country town about 40km away, and a 40 minute drive in the car. This was something of a challenge. I ended up getting there by catching a train and a bus, total elapsed (door-door) time 1 hour 50 minutes. To get home later in the evening I arranged to car pool with a guy who drives home near my place from the same meeting, and shared fuel costs with him.

I installed a child seat on my bike to transport my three year old to day-care. He loves it, and with the extra 20kg it’s great exercise. You really understand the miracle power of fossil fuels when you are peddling against the wind in the rain with 20kg of squirming toddler on the back and a car goes whooshing by….


  • Generally I used a lot more time traveling. Like a lot of technology, cars allow us to use our time more efficiently, to pack more into the day. This, I think, is not always a good thing. For example I found myself actually talking to my kids while sitting on buses. Time efficiency is not always the best way to run your life.
  • Some stuff (like a late night meetings) I just chose not to do. It wasn’t that hard.
  • Diet ceased to be a problem – unlike most 40-somethings I could eat anything I wanted. All that bike riding burned a lot of calories. Even then I had to go out and buy new jeans one size down.
  • I was generally more relaxed from lots of exercise, not being a driver, and not rushing about in a car. Public transport forces you to slow down a bit.
  • I read a lot of good Science Fiction on buses and trains. I can recommend Against a Dark Background.
  • To be fair – life probably got a little more tougher for my wife. She now had to ferry kids to sports, and drive me around occasionally. However I really enjoyed the time we spent driving around together. Good time to talk.

End of the Strike

I eventually broke the strike as I needed to test my Electric Car. Once I get the bugs out of that hopefully we will sell the carbon-burner. Many of the habits I developed are still with me – I am still doing my commute to Mt. Barker without a car and riding my bike for most trips. I only generate smog by burning irreplaceable 80 million year-old liquids once or twice a week!