Using electricity from regenerative braking

Most rail mass-transit systems use electricity for motive power. The electric motors that accelerate the train can also be reversed to slow the train and generate electricity, which is called regenerative braking. Unless this energy is used immediately (another train is leaving the station at the same time as one is arriving), it typically is shunted to a bank of resistors and wasted as excess heat. However, a couple transit systems are finding economical ways to use this energy.

Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) installed a lithium-ion battery system to store the excess power. They are able to make the investment profitable by accessing the frequency-regulation market. Not to get too technical, but the market prices for electricity greatly depend on the desired use. Base-load electricity (from traditional power plants) is cheap, but cannot accommodate sudden changes in demand. Frequency-regulating power is used to respond to sudden spikes or dips in consumption. (If this power is not available, the system cannot maintain the desired 60 Hz current, hence the name, frequency regulation.) Utilities will pay a premium for this short-term power supply to keep the overall system running smoothly. SEPTA now earns up to $200,000 per year as a power provider and has reduced energy use by 20 percent. The Scientific American article also discusses other storage technologies in Los Angeles and Portland.

The Dutch train system, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), faces a similar dilemma to find a profitable use for their excess energy. Netherlands heavily subsidizes their commuter electrical costs to make transit affordable. NS pays approximately 1.5¢ per kWhr instead of the market rate of about 20¢ per kWhr. While this is great for Johann and Jaantje Commuter, there is little incentive for NS to implement new programs or systems to reduce consumption. As an alternative, NS is looking  to convert 30 diesel buses operating out of the Apeldoorn station to electric. The engineers cited in the Climate Progress article estimate that this will save about €8 million (US$11 million) over the next 12 years. Unfortunately, the article did not contain any specifics on whether this is an actual project or merely an engineer’s dream.

Hopefully, projects like these demonstrate viable ways to creatively use readily available but wasted energy.

Friday Cat Blogging – 04 Jul 2014

Bruno 04 Jul 2014
Yeah, Happy whatever… 

Okay, this is late for the 4th, but posing a cat with silly holiday props is time-consuming. Probably a bad idea as well, both as a photo and as a general annoyance to the cat. But, Bruno tolerated it long enough to get this one shot, so I can’t waste it.

Happy Canada Day, Happy Independence Day, and congratulations to Eugenie Bouchard for a historic, but too short Wimbledon run! She’ll be back.

Meanwhile in Canada … 30 Jun 2014

Hockey vs. Church Tweets

In preparation for Canada Day, Macleans put together a clickbait page with 22 mostly useless maps about the Great White North. There are a couple possibly interesting ones on income inequality and gender imbalances, but mostly are cutesy things like common cliches, number of hockey players, and most F-bomb tweets. You can live without clicking the link, like the sucker I was, but silly links make the Internet hum.

Regardless, while you’re getting your morning fuel for the World Cup game tomorrow, boycott Belgian waffles, but pour some extra maple syrup on whatever artery-clogging American-style breakfast you choose in honour of ‘la fête du Canada.’

Friday Cat Blogging – 27 Jun 2014

Bruno & Hobbes 27 Jun 2014
No, we’re not about to fight. Why do you ask?

Of course, about 2 minutes later, they were fighting. Those last all of 5 seconds, so I didn’t get a shot of that. Hobbes takes the defensive pose shown above and taunts Bruno. It’s like two kids on a long road trip where one is always, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” Eventually, Bruno gets pestered enough to pounce, which loosens a couple tufts of hair and everybody moves on like nothing happened.

All Science is Garbage (except when it isn’t)

It’s been a pretty big year for the Public Library of Science (PLOS). They published their 100,000th article and had their first paper gather over 1,000,000 hits. The mega-hit paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings are False,” put a quantitative analysis to what most anybody watching daytime TV or network news (or spent 5 minutes on the Internet) probably already knew. “Why are they reporting that this new (insert random noun here) will cure cancer or make me lose weight or lead to the US winning the World Cup when six months ago that same thing triggered cancer, caused obesity, and cursed the Cubs — again.” (Ok, that last one really is based in science.)

The blog Understanding Uncertainty explained in simpler terms why research findings in the news are probably bogus. They outline the five steps that need to happen before you hear about this great new thing:

  • Been considered worthwhile to write up and submit to a journal or other outlet
  • Have been accepted for publication by the referees and editors
  • Been considered ‘newsworthy’ enough to deserve a press release
  • Been sexy enough to attract a journalist’s interest
  • Got past an editor of a newspaper or newsroom.

At any point, if the “science” isn’t controversial, interesting, or just plain weird, it drops out of the loop and sits quietly in the ivory tower of academia.

This leads back to the post title, if you hear about some “science” in the news, at a minimum, the findings are being exaggerated and hyped or are just plain wrong. But, the science you don’t hear about continuously makes steady progress and verifies and improves on previous research.

As an analogy, imagine a research paper that claims smoking two packs of cigarettes a day will give you perfect health, let you live to 150, and give you a full head of hair. That article will make the headlines of every newspaper, TV program, and aggregating website imaginable. But, the real science is in the decades of research and innumerable papers proving the dangers of smoking.

Meanwhile in Canada … 23 Jun 2014

Last week, the Canadian Parliament approved the Nordion and Theratronics Divestiture Authorization Act (the “Nordion Act ”). How’s that for an exciting lede? Well, this could have significant impacts on the world’s supply of medical isotopes, used for nuclear imaging procedures to diagnose cancer and heart disease.

The act itself merely allows the Crown corporation to be sold to a foreign entity (in this case, the US firm, Sterigenics). But, the issue with the isotopes is that Nordion’s Chalk River research reactor is scheduled to close in 2016. The CBC article quotes an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report:

The loss of Canada’s processing capacity in the second half of 2016 reduces current global processing capacity by approximately 25 per cent in that period.

I don’t pretend to have a solution for this or really understand all the implications. The Chalk River Lab is almost 70 years old and building a new facility would certainly take years, if not decades, to complete. The teeny, tiny, kernel of libertarian in me says that government interference in the private market leads to all sorts of distortions and skewed incentives. However, my bleeding-heart liberal side notes that governments need to serve the entire population and sometimes has to override the “free market.” Medical isotopes are necessary in modern medicine and seem to me to be worth the intervention.

Climate Change and Interesting Things