DOE’s Agency Learns from Some Early Mistakes

Energy direction: Arun Majumdar is the new director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.  Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

ARPA-E’s new director explains how it is evolving.

By Kevin Bullis

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a controversial federal agency created to fund research into radical new energy technologies, has run into some inevitable problems in its first months of operation. But the agency’s director, Arun Majumdar, says the agency is learning from the first round of funding and improving the selection process. And the agency has already helped advance technologies that may otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

The agency was first proposed in a 2007 report from the National Academies as a way to maintain America’s competitiveness in science and technology. It received funding this year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The agency is modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which pursues high-risk research with potential military uses.

Some critics have complained that ARPA-E covers ground already accounted for by other federal agencies. They also allege that it puts the government in the inappropriate position of “picking winners” among potential new technologies. Supporters counter that ARPA-E offers a way to fund breakthrough approaches to energy that the private sector is too conservative to fund, and that other agencies typically ignore.

The key difference with ARPA-E, Majumdar says, is that unlike most other government agencies, it has permission to take big risks. “It’s in our mandate. We can take risks, and we can fail and that’s okay.” For example, other groups within the U.S. Department of Energy are funding improvements to lithium-ion batteries, which are already used widely. “They cannot digress too much from that because there are certain metrics to meet,” Majumdar says. “ARPA-E gives you a chance to look a little beyond.” If even a few of the risky projects succeed, he says, “we will leapfrog over other,” more conventional approaches.

Selecting which projects to fund, however, has proved challenging. The agency was swamped with about 4,000 initial proposals, and could only back about 1 percent in its first round of funding. Some researchers have also complained about the lack of qualified reviewers–many of the most qualified potential reviewers in academia and industry were disqualified because they also submitted applications. What’s more, in the first round, researchers did not have a chance to respond to reviewer’s criticisms, which made it impossible to correct misunderstandings.

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Lowe’s Launches Energy Centers to Help Customers Go Greener

From: GreenBiz Staff,

Twenty-one Lowe’s locations in California will soon include new Energy Centers, providing information and products related to measuring, reducing and generating energy. Energy Centers will roll out to other U.S. and Canadian stores in 2010.

The home improvement retailer created the Energy Centers to provide a one-stop location within stores for energy needs.

For energy measurement, the Energy Centers will feature power monitors that monitor real-time energy use and offer other features like energy bill projection. On the energy reduction side, the centers will include compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and programmable thermostats.

For those who own homes that are a good fit for solar and wind power, Lowe’s offers a couple different solar panel products and will soon offer utility-connected wind turbines by special order.

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Homemade Green Cleaning Products That Work

s-GREEN-CLEANING-largeFrom Associated Content, by Ester November

If you want to clean green but don’t trust plain baking soda to do all the heavy lifting, here are some simple recipes for homemade green cleaning products that work.

Many folks have jumped on the homemade green cleaning product wagon, only to discover that nothing cleans a bathtub like an old-fashioned can of Comet. If you want to clean green, but don’t trust plain baking soda to do all the heavy lifting, here are some simple recipes for homemade green cleaning products that work.

Disinfectant All-Purpose Spray

There are tons of recipes floating around for all-purpose sprays that claim to clean everything from your shower tile to your coffeemaker. What you should know is that unless the recipe for an all-purpose spray contains either lavender or tea tree oil, it’s not antibacterial. This may not bother you in the slightest, but if you’re especially prone to colds, you might want to put the extra oomph in your homemade cleaning products.

Lavender and tea tree oil probably won’t kill every germ that comes into your house, but they are known for their antibacterial properties. To whip up the closest thing you can get to a homemade disinfectant, squeeze a couple drops of liquid castile soap into two cups of hot water. Stir, don’t shake. Then add 30 drops of either lavender or tea tree oil, or a combination of both. Pour it into a spray bottle and use on everything but glass.

Air Freshener

Commercial air fresheners don’t really clean the air; they just cover the existing odor with a stronger smell. Use lemons combined with other household ingredients to draw odors from the air instead.

To make a general air freshener, squeeze the juice from a fresh lemon into a dish with baking soda. Leave the dish uncovered. If you want to get fancy (or miss the decorative look of a plug-in), stick a dried flower sprig in it, or mix some pretty pebbles into the powder.

You can squeeze lemon juice into vinegar for a similar deodorizing effect. Use vinegar with a squeeze of lemon to clean kitchen utensils and pans after cooking fish or garlic.

Lemons are also great for killing mold. When you’re done squeezing the juice into homemade cleaning products, grind up lemon leftovers in the garbage disposal to clean it out and get rid of lingering food smells in your kitchen.


Degreasing is one of the toughest sells for homemade green cleaning products. If your grease is too tough for an all-purpose spray, get your kitchen shining again with white vinegar. Mix a pinch of washing soda, a couple drops of castile soap, and two tablespoons of vinegar into two cups of boiling water for a general degreaser. Or use plain white vinegar diluted with water in proportion to the toughness of the spot.

The inside of your oven can get pretty gross if you’re not paying attention. For a good deep clean, mix baking soda and water to form a thick paste. Coat the inside of your oven with the goop before you go to bed and scrape it off in the morning. Then clean as you normally would with some water and castile soap, or with your all-purpose spray.

For a greasy kitchen spill, dump salt directly on top of the oil or grease. Let it sit for a few minutes to absorb. Then wipe up the mess and clean as normal.

Plant Cleaner

If you’re like most people who are concerned with air quality in the home, you’ve probably got some foliage that needs occasional dusting. Put a little bit of mayonnaise on a rag and use it to polish your plants’ leaves. For some mysterious reason, mayonnaise makes houseplants look wonderful and leaves no smell behind.


“Non-Toxic Home Cleaning”: Eartheasy

“25 Safe, Non-Toxic, Homemade Cleaning Supplies”: Tree Hugging Family

“Antibacterial activity of essential oils and their major constituents against respiratory tract pathogens by gaseous contact”: The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy

“Homemade Green Cleaning Products”: Go Green & Save the World

“Alternative Cleaning Recipes”: Ecology Center

Scientists Warn of Climate Accounting Glitch

Published: October 22, 2009

An accounting glitch in the way some greenhouse gas emissions are calculated could critically hobble efforts to reduce them in coming years as nations move to combat global warming, scientists warn in a new report.

The accounting error even gives the impression that clearing the world’s forests, which absorb and thereby diminish heat-trapping carbon dioxide, is good for the climate, the scientists write in an article published Friday in the journal Science.

The glitch boils down to this: in emission calculations, all fuel derived from plants and other organic sources — including ethanol — is generally treated as if it had no effect on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even though though biofuels do emit carbon dioxide when burned.

This might make sense if the source of the fuel were, say, a crop of corn grown specifically for use as fuel, because the crop would have absorbed carbon dioxide as it grew, offsetting what it emits when ultimately burned.

But if an existing stand of forest land is cleared for fuel, its ability to absorb carbon dioxide is lost, and the net balance of the gas in the atmosphere goes up.

An energy and climate bill passed in June by the House of Representatives, the so-called Kyoto protocol drafted in 1997 and the European Union’s cap-and-trade law, in which companies trade emissions allowances, all exempt emissions from biofuels, without taking the source of the fuel into account, said Timothy D. Searchinger, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Princeton University.

“It literally means you can chip up the world’s forests and burn them” for fuel without noting the effect on the world’s greenhouse gases, Mr. Searchinger said.

The article traces the problem back to the 1990s, when international organizations worked to create a framework for emissions monitoring. In the mid-1990s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized that when forests are cleared or when plants are harvested for bioenergy, the resulting release of carbon dioxide should be counted either as land-use emissions or energy emissions, but not both.

To create an international standard and avoid double-counting, IPCC chose to classify these emissions in the land-use category.

Mr. Searchinger said the glitch arose in 1997, when nations hammered out the Kyoto Protocol, which was eventually ratified by 184 countries. (The United States refused to ratify the agreement.)

The protocol imposes no limits on land-use emissions in developing countries. So if a forest is cleared in Indonesia and ends up as biofuel in Europe, Asia does not count the land-use emissions and Europe does not report the tailpipe emissions.

The end result is that the carbon release from bioenergy use is not counted at all.

The Science paper is one of several recently published articles calling attention to the error. Dr. James A. Edmonds, a chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, arrived at similar findings in a paper published in Science several months ago.

His study found that under current accounting methods, a commonly cited global target of limiting carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million in the atmosphere could result in a vast expansion of bioenergy crops, displacing nearly all of the world’s natural forests by 2065.

“The basic point is that if humans set up systems that don’t share nature’s value system, we’re setting up the wrong incentives,” Dr. Edmonds said.

NREL Helps Green Building Designers with Updated Software

openstudioWritten by Megan Treacy on 16/10/09

One of the most important changes we can make in the fight against climate change is to make buildings more energy efficient both through retrofitting existing buildings and making new construction ultra-efficient.  Luckily, that task is becoming easier for building designers.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory released an updated plug-in for Google’s SketchUp building modeling software this week, expanding the potential for architects and designers to implement green building features from the drawing board.

The OpenStudio plug-in brings more energy efficiency modeling tools to the open-source software.  Designers can now easily determine the best window placement or solar panel positioning and because the plug-in is integrated with NREL’s EnergyPlus software, the building’s heating, cooling, lighting and ventiliation systems can all be simulated.

SketchUp also can pull data from Google Earth, allowing users to enter in the exact longitude and latitude of the building location and see how landscape features can influence their design.  All of these tools will allow designers to keep energy efficiency in mind from the very beginning through the end of a project, meaning any inefficient designs can be cast off right away, saving time and money.

Ultimately, NREL would like OpenStudio to also link in with construction-cost databases to factor in building costs and with the LEED certification program to allow designers to meet LEED standards even at the modeling stage.

The OpenStudio plug-in for SketchUp is now compatible with Windows 7, Linux and Snow Leopard.

via Earth2Tech

Meters for the Smart Grid

In this year’s economic stimulus package, the United States government allocated $4.5 billion to developing technologies for the “smart grid,” a revamped delivery system for electricity. Advocates envision a digital system that can make energy-saving adjustments to power flow. Several million networked meters have already been distributed in the United States.

But critics say that rushing to roll out this system could give rise to security problems. At a recent conference, Mike Davis, a senior security consultant at the Seattle-based research company IOActive, gave a presentation on a proof-of-concept cyber attack that could potentially allow an attacker to shut off large numbers of meters remotely. Researchers say now is the time to test the smart grid and get security right.

The current generation of smart meters, Davis says, “is probably not mature enough” for some of the new network features. He has not publicly released brand names of meters he has tested. This page shows a sample smart-meter interior.


The Green Home Guide From Popular Science

green-home-guide-coverIts Free

Did you know you can cut your water use by 10 gallons a day by switching toilets? That a new washer and dryer could save you almost $150 a year? These are just two of the dozens of tips, tricks, facts and projects packed into the free Green Home Guide, the second in our series of digital special issues called Genius Guides, designed to make you an expert on one of the core PopSci topics. You can click through our animated home to see the worst spots for wasting power, air and water. Or explore our interactive map to get energy cost and CO2 stats for each of the 50 states. We’ve also got stories of three ambitious homeowners who have taken energy savings to extremes, heating their house with a room full of sand or powering it with a waterfall.

Our goal is to use this experiment in digital publishing—with Zinio in our case—to both learn something about creating content for an emerging medium and give you far more information than we could in a print issue, in an easy-to-navigate and entertaining manner. As a magazine maker, I love that this format has all the depth and interactivity of a Web page, yet with the immersive quality of a print publication. And I think our design is pushing the envelope for what can be done on a digital page. I’d love to hear your feedback on the Green Home Guide—from the experience of opening it to the navigation inside to the content itself. Help us figure out where this is headed and how we can keep producing both the content and the medium you want to use.