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Out of Africa: microhydro lights rural Kenya

The big problems with national electricity grids in Africa get a lot of attention, but for most Africans who live in rural areas -- of the grid -- the only hope to get electricity at all is to do it themselves.

I've long been a promoter of the idea that home-grown electricity systems based on tiny dams and so-called "micro-hydro" systems can provide a lot of relief for poor or marginalized African peasants. There is hardly a bandwagon behind inexpensive micro-hydro electricity systems, even though tens of thousands of them could be installed easily in such water-rich and electricity-poor countries as Uganda and Malawi, for instance. But micro-hydro in Africa is growing nicely, providing hope for the future in an otherwise gloomy electricity outlook for the world's poorest region.

Reports this month out of central Kenya -- where I happen to be at the time of posting -- naturally caught my interest. Residents of a village named Kibai are benefit from a miniature hydro generating facility at a small waterfall on a river called the Mukengeria. The electricity generated by the system isn't much actually; an estimated 2.5 kilowatts a day. Yet the power is enough to charge batteries for mobiles, run a few computers, a television set and some small industrial machinery.

Sounds modest but it adds up to a revolution in daily life in Kibai.

Such projects can be easily duplicated, so long as prices for the basic materials, can be brought down through mass purchasing. The turbine is especially important to get right. Kibai relied on a United Nations agency for help (the U.N.'s Industrial Development Organization). Not exactly a low-cost provider, the U.N. deserves credit for keeping alive the micro-hydro dream.

The real leap forward will come when governments offer micro-hydro packages in do-it-yourself kits -- and by the tens of thousands. Anywhere water runs, even a little a bit, there is the promise of electricity. Governments are showing more interest in the concept, though not a single African country currently is supporting more than a token effort, which is too bad.

Is Cap and Trade the Only Path to Carbon Reduction?

Ask an economist for the best way to reduce carbon emissions, and the answer almost always is a carbon tax: drive up the cost of emitting CO2, and then let free markets find the technologies to avoid or reduce emissions. Ask a politician, and the answer is almost always cap-and-trade: set annual ceilings for carbon emissions, sell or issue emissions allowances to the major emitters, and let them trade the allowances so that those best able to cut emissions do so first. Every half-wit knows that either scheme will drive up energy and electricity prices. But economists prefer the tax because itâ''s technology-neutral and virtually self-administering, while politicians dislike the tax because itâ''s a tax and prefer to make it look as if in their system the emitters are bearing almost all compliance costs.

The Lieberman-Warner cap and trade bill that was introduced in the Senate a couple of weeks ago, only to be withdrawn moments later because its backers lacked the clout to bring it to a vote, reflected the politiciansâ'' point of view. Because the tax route is so unpopular in the corridors of power, and because both McCain and Obama have endorsed cap and trade, itâ''s been considered almost a foregone conclusion that sooner or later the United States will have a carbon trading system. But the alacrity with which the Lieberman-Warner forces folded has prompted some speculation that other approaches to carbon reduction may turn out to be attractive after all. Sure, the billâ''s backers figured that next year, with a strongly Democratic Congress and a president sympathetic to cap and trade, it will be much easier to get a bill through. But if they really had the courage of their convictions, shouldnâ''t they have hung on a little longerâ''at least long enough to get it across to the public that this is an important item on the political agenda? A lot of editorialists and commentators certainly thought so.

One thing that alarmed the billâ''s backers was the insistence by its opponents, mostly Republican, on having the whole bill, which runs to hundreds of pages, read out loud in session. Thatâ''s a tactic that could end up backfiring. If carbon trading will create an administrative nightmare, then the answer may beâ''not to do nothing about climate changeâ''but to enact a carbon tax. Days after the billâ''s 2008 demise, the New York Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin drew attention in his blog to a proposal from the climatologist James E. Hansen for what Hansen calls a â''carbon tax with 100 percent dividend.â''

Taking his inspiration from freelance economist Peter Barnes, who has proposed creation of a â''sky trustâ'' consisting of the proceeds from sales of emissions allowances, Hansen suggests an escalating carbon tax, with 100 percent of the proceeds fed directly back to the public, with each taxpayer getting the same monthly share. Hansenâ''s formulation is geared to satisfy both economists, who donâ''t want politicians to treat a carbon tax as just an easy source of revenue, and political progressives, who want taxes to be progressive. Since richer people tend to use more energy and emit more carbon, a carbon tax will tend to take a bigger bite than they get back, when proceeds are rebated equally.

Carbon trading has come under considerable criticism not only on the political right but the political left as well, often for overlapping and complementary reasons. The Hansen-Barnes approach could be appealing at both ends of the political spectrum, to the extent concern about possibly catastrophic climate change is real.

To the extent carbon trading loses its aura of political inevitably, the door opens for other possibilities as well. Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official and author of a devastating critique of the â''hydrogen economyâ'' vision, has a commentary in todayâ''s Nature Reports Climate Change (June 20), in which he condemns cap and trade as too slow and indirect. Romm wants to ban construction of coal fired plants, unless they make full provision for carbon capture and storage, and at the same time provide generous tax credits and incentives for energy efficiency and low-carbon generation and fuels.

â''These are all features of the climate plan of the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama,â'' says Romm, showing his hand. But note: Obama is not the only candidate proposing a direct attack on climate and energy problems. McCain said this week that he wants to add 45 nuclear reactors to the nationâ''s fleet of atomic power plants.

Attention Walmart shoppers: digital TV converters on aisle 37


Iâ''ve been following the digital tv transitionâ''the countdown to Feb. 17, 2009, when analog television in the U.S. goes darkâ''pretty closely. In general, I think the Department of Commerce has been doing a good job getting the word out about the transition through public service announcements and a p.r. campaign. If you watch any English or Spanish language TV at all, and donâ''t Tivo through the commercials, you have likely heard multiple times about the $40 coupons available for people who need converter boxes and donâ''t want to either subscribe to cable or buy a new television. (Iâ''m actually in that group (though my husband is pushing for a new TV), are is my mother and aunt.) This group includes almost 19 percent of the U.S. TV households, or over 20 million people, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, and others who want to convert second or third televisions in their homes, even though their newest TV is already digital.

Thereâ''s no denying there are problems with the transition; my coupons (they look and function like debit cards) took months to arrive after I ordered them in late January, and expire next month. Stores donâ''t always have converter boxes in stock; last week, during a meeting of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, several Congressmen proposed extending the expiration dates, since a reported 60 percent of coupons issued are expiring without being used. (You canâ''t order new coupons after yours expire; itâ''s two per household, thatâ''s it.) The FCC will likely run out of coupons long before the transition date; Congress budgeted $1.5 billion for the program, but that wonâ''t cover everybody. So far, nearly 17 million coupons have been requested, over 15 million mailed, and just over 3 million used.

Enough backstory. Yesterday I went into Walmart, coupons in my purse, digital recorder in hand (Iâ''m working on a podcast about the digital TV transition). I expected that Iâ''d ask about coupon-qualifying converter boxes and my question would baffle the sales

clerk. Heck, itâ''s hard to get someone at Walmart to tell me where the cat food is.

â''Theyâ''re in aisle 37,â'' the Walmart associate I approached reported, pointing a few aisles to her right. â''We only have the RCA ones in stock right now.

â''Uh, do you know anything about them?â''

â''The RCA ones are better than the Magnavox.â''

â''They are?â''

â''Oh yeah.â''

Wow. I was impressed. She really seemed to know something. â''Are you selling a lot of them?â''

â''Uh huh.â''

She seemed so knowledgable, I was tempted to ask her about the cat food, but I resisted and went straight to the converter display, about six shelves, half empty. I wasnâ''t the only one holding my coupon card and comparing it against the box to make sure the RCA gizmo qualified for the discount. â''Radio Shack is sold out,â'' another customer offered as she took a box off the shelf. She wasnâ''t happy about having to go to two stores. Frankly, she wasn't happy about the digital TV transition in general, and wasnâ''t planning to hook it up until she absolutely had to next year. But I guess she heard the news that she'd have to do it eventually and that she needed to get and redeem a coupon while the coupons are still available.

I just bought one converter, though I have two coupons. Including tax, it cost $10 and change over the $40 coupon price. The checkout clerk grabbed my card and scanned it since I was a little slow getting it into the scanner; I had to sign for the purchase, as if it were a credit card. She also confirmed that converter sales were hot.

Next: off to a specialized electronics store for converter number two.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

A Truly Green Greenland in Human Time Arrests Mind

Perhaps nothing beats the Sahara for feelings of timelessness and unboundedness, but surely the worldâ''s icy deserts take second place in the metaphysical imagination. Itâ''s more than a little disconcerting to learn then, in the June 20 issue of Science magazine, that just 400,000 years agoâ''well into the era in which modern humans were evolvingâ''the southern reaches of Greenland were not just green but covered with vast spruce forests. A second article in the same issue discusses two very sudden warmings Greenland experienced 15 thousand and 11 thousand years ago, while a perspective piece addresses the implications of Greenlandâ''s climate changes for tomorrowâ''s world.

Nanotech Woes and the Oil Crisis as a Savior

With prices for a barrel of oil around $130 and Americans facing $4-a-gallon fuel prices at the pump, people are getting really worried. As well they should be. Here in Spain, a truckersâ'' strike to protest the rising price of diesel over the last six months resulted in gas stations without fuel and grocery stores with empty shelves within just 3 short days.

But not to worry, technology will fix all this, right? The optimist in me says, â''maybe a little.â'' And the pessimist in me says, â''It wonâ''t be nearly enough.â''

With this thinking as a backdrop, I came across a recent editorial piece from Allan Shalleck at Nanotech-Now "Near Term Nanotech Profits from Fuel and Transportation". The article basically laments how after years of investment (and I might add, hype) nanotechnology companies are still not producing the kind of profits that would make most businessmen, and in particular Wall Street types, take notice.

Shalleck urges that companies involved in nanotech should really be focusing their efforts in the energy and transportation sectors. If they do, Shalleck reasons, they will be raking in the profits.

Sounds reasonable enough. But the biggest story over the last few years in nano-enabled fuel additives that improve efficiency: Oxonicaâ''s Enviroxâ'¢, has turned into a legal battle with Neuftec over IP issues, and looks to be causing Oxonicaâ'¿well letâ''s call it difficulties.

If Enviroxâ'¢ is an example of how easy it is to come up with a nano-enabled fuel additive and have people knocking down your door to give you money, then we should expect it to be a bumpy road getting these solutions to market.

I also came across this recent announcement from Industrial Nanotech Inc. that claims its Chinese distributor has begun working with a major Asian automotive manufacturer to trial the company's patented NanoBoostâ'¢ automotive parts coating for heat control and increased fuel efficiency.

Ah yes, â''the trialâ''. I guess you have to see if the stuff actually works. This distills what has really been ailing nanotechâ''s economics: a lack of patience.

But on the positive side, nanotech doesnâ''t need to worry about being on technology push side of the equation anymore. There is certainly market pull now. Whether it will be able to show economic results fast enough to satisfy Wall Street types almost seems inconsequential in the face of whether it will be able to meet the market demand for fuel savings.

Study: Surfing the Web on Company Time Is a Good Thing

If you're reading this item instead of pressing your nose to the old grindstone at work, relax. You're hardly alone. In fact, your boss is probably doing it, too. According to a new study, not only is "cyberslacking" not wasting time, it's actually productive over the long run.

As explained in this article from the Associated Press, using the Internet for personal reasons can help workers balance job and life responsibilities. And everyone on up the totem pole in the workplace seems to be engaging in the practice on the sly, from entry-level employees to senior managers.

The study, based on a phone survey of 1024 people during the summer of 2006, was published in this month's issue of the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior. In their paper, "On cyberslacking: Workplace status and personal Internet use at work," authors R. K. Garrett and J. N. Danziger reveal that, despite the efforts of some firms to monitor personal Web and e-mail use during business hours, employees have grown accustomed to these outlets as part of their routine. They even benefit the employer: with lingering personal matters resolved, workers are more likely to be able to concentrate on their job assignments, which suggests they should be more productive.

One of the study's principals, R. Kelly Garrett of Ohio State University, told the AP: "It's appropriate to just avoid the knee-jerk response that all personal Internet use is detrimental."

Garret said the study was still preliminary, and that he and Danziger (of the University of California at Irvine) were not trying at present to go much further than gauging the types of employees who use the Internet for personal reasons. Still, he speculated, additional research into the matter could suggest alternatives to enterprise administrators as to how they could improve their policies on personal activities online, to the benefit of both employer and employee alike.

Now, that's something we could all appreciate at work, without looking over our shoulders.

(Speaking of surfing the Web, Garrett might want to surf on over to the AP story mentioned in this column at The New York Times, Study shatters myths on personal Net use at work, where his name, R. Kelly Garrett, is hyperlinked to the paper's archive of R. Kelly articles. Ouch! Well, at least he's topical.)

Beware of Those Green Jobs and Tax Claims

Today, June 18, General Electric issued a report claiming that U.S. subsidies for wind energy are more than repaid by added tax revenues accruing to the Federal government. Yesterday, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, with backing from a collection of politicians and dignitaries, unveiled an analogous study arguing that many thousands of new jobs will be created if the country embarks on a new round of nuclear power plant construction. In an economy beset by outsourcing, rising unemployment, and straitened tax bases, these are enticing prospectsâ''and like any siren sounds, they should be treated warily at best.

GE, which has almost $2.5 billion invested in wind farms, says that in 2007, such farms produced a net benefit to the U.S. Treasury of $250 million, taking into account tax revenues from the farms themselves, vendors, and workers. CASE says that if the United States proceeds with construction of the 30 reactors currently under consideration, 12,000 to 21,000 new jobs would be added: each new reactor under construction could require as many a 4,000 workers at peak periods, and each operating reactor would provide 400-700 â''high-payingâ'' jobs.

Nobody denies that promotion of green energy projects can bring many benefits, including enhancement of the countryâ''s global competitiveness in emerging markets. But claims about how many jobs or how much net tax revenue such projects will generate are completely without merit unless energy projects are compared to each other.

The country needs more energy, and especially more clean energy, and somehow it will get it. Itâ''s interesting to ask how many jobs and how much revenue will be created, along all the alternative paths for generating the extra needed energy. But treating any one path in isolation from the others is essentially meaningless.

NASA's Spacesuits of the Future Are in the Works

Look for astronauts to soon be sporting a bold new look.

The U.S. space agency has commissioned the creation of a line of new spacesuits for its upcoming Constellation Program. NASA announced last week that it is bestowing a US $184 million contract to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston, Tex., to develop a pair of next-generation protective gear for its travelers to the Moon and beyond.

According to NASA, one of the Constellation suits will primarily meet the needs of astronauts for extravehicular activities while traveling in space and the other will be used for surface activities on the Moon. Collectively, they will be called the Constellation Space Suit System.

"The award of the spacesuit contract completes the spaceflight hardware requirements for the Constellation Program's first human flight in 2015," said Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.

NASA stated that it will need suits for as many as four astronauts on Moon voyages and as many as six space-station travelers at a time. During early, short-duration lunar missions, the Constellation suits will only need to hold up to a week's worth of surface work. Later missions, though, will require them to be rugged enough to operate for months.

The cost-plus-award-fee spacesuit contract includes a basic performance period from June 2008 to September 2014, NASA noted. Oceaneering International and its subcontractors will design, develop, test, and evaluate the suits; they will then be responsible for manufacturing, assembling, and overseeing the first flight of the suit components. The subcontractors include: Air-Lock Inc. of Milford, Conn.; David Clark Co. of Worcester, Mass.; Cimarron Software Services Inc. of Houston; Harris Corporation of Palm Bay, Fla.; Honeywell International Inc. of Glendale, Ariz.; Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz.; and United Space Alliance of Houston.

"I am excited about the new partnership between NASA and Oceaneering," said Glenn Lutz, JSC project manager for spacesuit systems. "Now it is time for our spacesuit team to begin the journey together that ultimately will put new sets of boot prints on the Moon."

In a statement on its Web site, Mark Gittleman, vice president and general manager of Oceaneering Space Systems said: "We have a world-class team of companies and individuals who are all committed to NASA.... We have been working together with NASA for some time and are fully prepared to meet all of the requirements for the program."

Court to Inventors: Pay Those Fees or Else


On 10 June 2008, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) affirmed a lower court decision that denied Corliss Orville â''Cobâ'' Burandtâ''s request to reinstate his patent on variable valve timing technology, which had expired due to unpaid maintenance fees. Barring either an appeal for a hearing in front of all 12 CAFC judges or an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, this decision effectively ends Burandtâ''s quest to regain control of his patents. Had he won, he might have been able to compel automakers like Toyota and Honda, which use variable valve timing technology in their hybrid car engines, to pay him royalty fees on his invention. Now heâ''s left wondering what might have been had he been able to fight for control of his patents from his former partner and patent assignee IRI Holdings before the company let them devolve into the public domain.

Working pro bono, Burandtâ''s legal team, led by Scott F. Yarnell, along with Donna M. Praiss, Elizabeth M. Wieckowski and Eugene C. Rzudcidlo all of Hunton & Williams LLP as well as patent attorney and IEEE member George Macdonald, argued that the United States Patent and Trademark Office and its director, Jon W. Dudas, acted capriciously in denying Burandt's petition to reinstate his patent.

The argument rested in part on Burandtâ''s extraordinary circumstances (detailed in my Spectrum article Down and Out in Ham Lake and in a radio segment for NPR's Living on Earth), which his lawyers said prevented him as the equitable title-holder from paying the maintenance fees. The three-judge CAFC panel sided with the USPTO and held that that Burandt could not be granted an opportunity to pay the maintenance fees past due on patents that the legal owner of the patent, IRI Holdings of Minneapolis, had intentionally allowed to expire. The court held, â''Here, IRI, as the legal title holder of the patent, was the party responsible for paying the maintenance fee. The record demonstrated that IRI failed to exercise reasonable care in ensuring that the maintenance fee would be paid in a timely manner. Indeed, the record was devoid of any evidence suggesting that IRI took any steps to make timely payment of the maintenance fee. Rather, the record indicated that IRI allowed the â''406 patent to expire, as it had deliberately allowed three others of Burandtâ''s patents to expire. As such, under the guidance set forth in Ray (Ray v. Lehman, 55 F.3d 606 (Fed. Cir. 1995)], we find no clear error of judgment or any abuse of discretion with regard to the Directorâ''s conclusion that unavoidable delay was not shown.â''


I talked with Macdonald last week by phone. He was going to huddle with the Hunton & Williams team and Burandt to determine whether or not to proceed down the final open legal avenues. Macdonald read about Burandtâ''s plight in Spectrum and took on his case, paid overdue fees himself, and hooked Burandt up with Hunton & Williams, a firm famous for representing NTP against RIM in a case where NTP prevailed to the tune of $612.5 million.

While Burandt wants to fight on until the bitter end, neither CAFC or the Supremes seem likely to take on the case. Then again, stranger things have happenedâ''like a company that owned the basic technology behind todayâ''s booming hybrid car market just letting the patents expire, losing itself and potentially its inventor, Burandt, tens of millions of dollars.

A Way Out of U.S. Nuclear Waste Impasse?

The issue of Science magazine published today, June 13, contains an important commentary about how the intractable nuclear waste problem might be solved. Isaac J. Winograd and Eugene H. Roseboom Jr, retired senior scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, suggest creating the proposed repository for high-level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain in stages, starting with a pilot facility. Their views have some weight inasmuch as they take creditâ''or blame?â''for having conducted the studies that led to the selection of the hugely contested Nevada site in the first place.

There are at least two ways of recounting the history that led to the current impasse. If you asked me, Iâ''d tell you that in 1989 Luther J. Carter, a respected former news writer for Science magazine, wrote a book for Resources for the Future in which he said essentially this: if weâ''re ever going to solve the nuclear waste problem, we have to just pick a site more or less arbitrarily, and thenâ''damn the torpedos!â''ram it through. What better location than the place where the United States had tested nuclear weapons all through the fifties, a place already thoroughly contaminated by radiation? (Thatâ''s a caricature of Carterâ''s views, to be sure, but I believe he put it pretty much like that to me personally, when I discussed the situation with him a few years later.) What Carter and RFF failed to take into account, in any event, is the degree to which Nevada opinion would rally in the interest of blocking a Yucca Mountain facility. As a result, Nevadaâ''s congressional delegation could be counted on to block creation of the repository at every opportunity, and any presidential candidate vying in a Nevada primary would be sorely tempted to pledge opposition to the project.

Winograd and Roseboom tell the story a little differently. More than a quarter century ago, they say, they proposed storing wastes â''in areas with deep water tables, specifically within the several-hundred-meter-thick unsaturated zones common to the arid and semi-arid Southwest USA.â'' That led directly to a focus on the Great Basin and, within it, to Yucca Mountain. Nonetheless, when Congress passed legislation in 1987 selecting the site for a repository, the bill immediately became known, as the authors say, as the â''screw Nevada act.â'' Technical study followed upon technical study, it soon becoming clear that scientists and engineers would never reach full agreement about long-term risks. Then came a virtual death knell on July 9, 2004, when the generally conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the integrity of the site would have to be guaranteed not just for 10,000 yearsâ''the standard up to the thenâ''but for as much as a million years.

The appeals court decision put nuclear waste strategy into a dead-end. To get out, Winograd and Roseboom argue, â''it behooves the earth science community . . . to inform the courts, the public, and legislators that . . . the fate of HLWs over times frames of hundreds of millennia is not knowable.â'' To win back public confidence, they suggest, build a succession of repositories at Yucca Mountain, evaluate them one at a time, retrieve wastes as necessary, and ultimately SOLVE THE PROBLEM.


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