The Sunny Side of Blog Action Day

If you haven’t yet heard of Blog Action Day, read up! Here’s what everyone is talking about:

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind – the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the defining issue of my generation, and I’m excited to be part of the conversation. There have been a number of exciting conversations taking place regarding the magnitude of the problem, and ways to impact the public policy dialectic, conserve, and live greener. While conservation is an integral part of a comprehensive energy policy, developing energy alternatives to fossil fuels is indispensable if we’re going to maintain our standard of living while averting resource wars in the future. Hence, I’m going to tackle a subject I’m really excited about – the development of commercial solar power utilities.Why am I excited about it? If you think about it, solar power is our only long term viable bet. Fossil fuels will eventually decline in production to the point of not being feasible eventually. Wind and geothermal are fantastic sources of energy, but their power density is limited. Coal is dirty, and will run out eventually too. Nuclear energy is awesome, but expensive; besides, once again we’ll run out. We’ll eventually deplete Uranium (for fission) and Hydrogen sources (for fusion). Most importantly, most of the earth is drowning in sunlight – the sun drops 8 kilowatts of power per square meter in the American southwest, for example.

Besides, solar is finally near commercial feasibility. The US Department of Energy, several states, and several countries have been quietly tinkering with the development of commercial solar power. Their findings, in a nutshell, are that solar can be a high power density energy source and solar collectors can put barren desert land to productive use. The 10 megawatt Seville, Spain PS10 and the 64 megawatt Nevada Solar One plants are among the first photovoltaic power plants to go online for commercial purposes. The Nevada plant uses parabolic trough solar power concentrators, which hold the promise of even higher higher power density than standard photovoltaic panel installations used for home water heating. The massive SEGS (Solar Energy Generating Systems) installation is a collection of nine plants in San Bernadino using parabolic troughs producing 354 MW of power (about 5% of total peak power required in Los Angeles).

The 11 Megawatt PS10 Solar Generator in Seville, Spain

There are two exciting developments to surface recently. The first is audacious goal to provide 100% of the U.S.’s power needs via compact linear fresnel technology (CLFR) , which is commercially feasible according to Palo Alto-based Ausra’s Chief Scientific Officer, David Mills. From Scientific American’s coverage of CLFRs:”Ausra will rely on a different type of concentrating solar power plant to deliver on this promise. French physicist Augustin Fresnel showed in the 19th century that a large lens, like the parabolic troughs of the existing solar-thermal plants, can be broken down into smaller sections that deliver the same focus.” Mills goes on to say “The maximum you can get into the grid is about 25 percent from solar,” including photovoltaics, but once you have storage, it changes from this niche thing to something that could be the big gorilla on the grid equivalent to coal.” That’s critical to switching over use of solar – not as an intermittent, niche product but as a mass market product which replaces rather than supplements non-renewable energy sources.

Further research on a longer time scale involves bypassing the limitations of inclement weather altogether by collecting solar radiation in space using geostationary satellites. Space-based solar power would use a roughly half mile-wide solar panel arrays to gather sunlight in orbit. The idea is to beam power down to Earth in the form of microwaves or a laser, then converted to electricity. Sounds like science fiction more than science, right? To be fair the U.S. abandoned the idea in the 1970s as economically unfeasible. The tide seems to be turning, and increasingly mainstream science is embracing the idea. However the economics of photovoltaics has changed radically since then, making the mathematics work according to the U.S. National Security Space Office. The recent Pentagon agency report is a shot in the arm to an idea considered ingenious but commercially unfeasible. While any such technology is more than a decade away from any proof of concept, what’s exciting about this is the change in thinking.

The key take-away here is that we’re starting to apply “sustainability” (fail-over) to sustainable power. Executed properly, there is the potential to turn the U.S. from the world’s biggest energy importer to possibly one of the world’s biggest energy exporters. It’s a win-win scenario: not only are we getting cleaner air, lower environmental impact, more reliable locally produced power, and refuge from oil price instability, but we’re also shifting from outsourced job to locally supplied jobs. Wouldn’t that be neat?

Romance of the 2 Kingdoms 二国演义

My life has been busy lately. Ling ling is moving to California soon, and this would be one of my last trips to China prior to her move. I’ve decided to take you along, albeit in virtual fashion, hopefully to both entertain and inform those of you considering a trip to China. We spent time in three cities, and invite you to click on the place names to jump over to our flickr photo album for more eyecandy.

Lianyungang

“One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Those of you who know me well know this summarizes my life in a nutshell. I’ve always envisioned an end goal and never work via a checklist; I prefer flexible planning and taking calculated risks to catapault me forward. Rigid planning precludes serendipity. So much to my surprise, I met the most radiant, vibrant, and loving person in my world a year ago. Serendipity personified. I went back to see her in China one last time before she moves here to the US, and microblogged the trip. I figured I’d share some thoughts and sights here as well.

Ling ling and I segmented our trip between Beijing, Shanghai, and a small town she grew up in called Lianyungang. Her birthplace the home of the mythical Hua Guo mountain, as well as some rather humourous signage. It’s a port town between Beijing and Shanghai, and the location of the Han people’s most widely known epic play Sun Wukong (aka The Monkey King). If you ever take in a Beijing Opera performance, the legend of Sun Wukong is what you’ll be treated to. Aside from the breathtaking mountain range, the other popular place to go hang out, of course, is the windswept oceanfront.

We had a wonderful time as always with the Dai clan. As it turns out, the buzz on the trip was Ling ling’s father buying his first car. You’ve probably read about how China is moving from “green” bicycling and mass transit to commuter traffic. I was able to see the transition from the ground floor, and as such I have mixed feelings about the transition (which I’ll spare boring you with). Regardless, it was quite an adventure riding in the backseat behind a neophyte driver in a place where traffic rules are more like suggestions. He managed well enough to get us all over town, including to the beachfront to take the following picture on our last night in Lianyungang.

The other big change in their lives is the purchase of a new home in Lianyun, just a stone’s throw from their current home. They’ve purchased into the new Dacheng development, currently under construction and due for completion in 2008. According to Chinese tradition, they were delighted to inform us they will “preserve” on the three bedrooms for their daughter and news son. They’re simply the most awesome in-laws I could hope for, and I look forward to seeing the new home next year. Unfortunately, Ling ling will have to part with her favorite next door neighbor, seen with her below.

On our final day, we spent the day in a number of scenic spots at the foothills of the largest mountain in the city. The staff at Qingyu Works, who we hired to immortalize these moments was a pleasure to work with, and had a great sense of humor throughout the marathon photo shoot (which took hours). While the professionally produced photos are not yet ready, here’s a preview of things to come:

Beijing

“Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

My life is typical of the information age: distributed yet ironically connected in ways unimaginable 20 years ago. In this age, home is less defined by a dot on a map and more by where you feel as though you know everyone. By that measure, Beijing certainly feels like home in every important way. The place feels comfortable the way a broken in pair of jeans does.

One of my favorite lunchtime haunts in Beijing is Bianyifang in Chongwenmen, where the prices are great, the Peking Roast Duck is delicious, the service is spotty, and Ling ling manages to get into a hysterical spat with the waitress every time we arrive. One of my favorite pics I took this trip is the following picture at the entrance to Bianyifang.

We spent some time there and then shopped around the Chongwenmen district for a bit. No sightseeing, price haggling or tourist traps this time around; I think I’m starting to feel like a local after getting the local scoop. We spent the time window shopping at the Grand Pacific, and taking in a Beijing Opera performance at the Liyuan theater. After reading about Lianyungang above, you can probably guess what epic play was photographed below.

The superbly-acted opera performance proved more elaborate than the foreigner-friendly Lao She Teahouse performance, yet the ambiance was missing. Lao She perfects makes Peking Opera an experience to be savored the way tea is to be enjoyed, while Liyuan‘s auditorium seating feels a bit more like watching a movie. On the other hand, Lao She felt rushed and incomplete compared to vibrant Liyuan; Lao She put on a performance designed for ADD foreigners taking in the local culture. I would love to combine the ambiance of Lao She with the meticulously choreographed Liyuan performance.

Shanghai

“I believe totally in a capitalist system, I only wish someone would try it”
-Frank Lloyd Wright

Surging, electric, ostentacious, dubiously architectured, China meets Buck Rogers. That’s Shanghai. If Beijing is the civic center of China, and Hong Kong is its Hollywood, Shanghai is its capitalist center.

A center crowded with people on China’s national holiday, as you can see above. In fact the crowds of folks venturing out were so thick, I would liken it to being in a crammed elevator all the time. Hailing a cab took us about half an hour at times – I was beginning to feel like Danny Glover there for a while.

Most of our sightseeing centered around Chenghuangmiao (“God’s temple in the city”) , which was originally buit in 1403 during the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty. As the name suggests, the walled city was build to beseech the gods to protect the city. Today, it’s the largest street market I’ve ever seen. While there are a number of outstanding local eateries, it’s worthwhile to purchase the local delicacies from the sidewalk vendors who hang out a shingle within the temple walls. These seems to be popular with the locals as well as travelers from afar.

Much like the rest of the city, Chenghuangmiao was packed with local visitors taking to the streets as is common during the National Day holiday.

By nightfall, we took a walk down the colonial promenade and called it a day. The next day we made our way to the to the Oriental Pearl Tower seen below; Easily the most recognizable fixture in the Shanghai skyline.

We made our way up the tower, to an expansive view of the rest of the city from the observation deck of the tower. Before hitting the observation deck, we stopped over at the revolving floor restaurant in the middle of the tower. It was pretty cool watching a constantly moving view of the Shanghai skyline, and I managed to catch a nice snapshot of the view outside the window which includes the two tallest buildings dotting the Shanghai skyline: on the left is the Shanghai World Financial Center, to the right is the Jin Mao Tower.

Much like Las Vegas or New York City, Shanghai really shines at night. I wondered if the cornucopia of neon lighting would end up making the city look like a large scale amusement park, but far from it; the rainbow of neon lends a beautiful glow to the city.