Climate action 05

This week we have high speed transport, the demise of coal, autonomous cars, urban planning and fitting out micro homes

A team lead by Dr Deng Zigang at Southwest Jiaotong University in China have built a magle...

Maglev trains use electromagnetism to lift the train off a track and to provide propulsion. The Shanghai Maglev Train is the fastest passenger-carrying maglev train.  It once reached 501 km/h in pre-launch tests. The line opened in April 2004 and runs 30.5 km from the center of the Pudong district of Shanghai to Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

Air resistance becomes more and more important.  The article says

“If the running speed exceeds 400 kilometers (250 miles) per hour, more than 83 percent of traction energy will wastefully dissipate in air resistance.”

The idea of running a maglev train in a vacuum, therefore, seems a logical one. It would increase its potential top speed and improve its energy efficiency. This principle is the same as the one that the Evacuated Tube Transport is based, which could theoretically transport people between new York and Beijing in 2 hours.

It sounds more practical than the current high speed rail speed for business trips from Brisbane to Melbourne.  However, having a vacuum tube running from Bribane to Melbourne mightpresent a few wee practical problems of their own – even if the pasengers lie down to minimize tube diameters,
Large-scale sackings and closures of mines in the Australian coal industry have been making the news in recent times.

According to a recent report issued by commodity analysts at investment bank Goldman Sachs, we shouldn’t expect this to turn anytime soon.

Australian governments are essentially powerless as a series of major global changes unfold that will curtail demand for coal and mean there is little need for any new coal mines for the next decade.

Over the last few years, coal exporters have been riding a boom supported by China suddenly switching from an exporter to a net importer of coal. That boom is now over. And according to Goldman Sachs, India’s robust demand for coal won’t save them from three key headwinds:

 1. Goldman Sachs believes environmental regulation continues to undermine the case for new coal-fired plants in many markets, and it expects regulation to increase in terms of geographical spread, as well as depth.

It observes that this is an issue extending beyond Europe’s emissions trading scheme:

In the US, new regulations are widely expected to prevent the construction of new coal-fired plants unless they are fitted with carbon capture and storage technology; this would act as a significant disincentive for new projects. Together with the spread of carbon emissions trading in China and similar moves to reduce emissions by other nations, we believe that regulatory headwinds are far from abating. This hostile environment reinforces the thermal coal paradox whereby low prices do not lead to new demand.

2. Competition from gas and renewable energy is becoming genuinely serious. Much has been said about the rise of shale gas in the US but changes are afoot in other regions as well.

In relation to China, Goldman notes:

…a clear shift has occurred in the fuel mix of new capacity, as the traditional reliance on coal-fired plants is giving way to a more diverse mix where renewable energy plays a greater role. In 2013, thermal generation capacity (including gas) accounted for a smaller share of new capacity than hydro, wind and solar power. As concerns around pollution intensify, we believe this trend to lead to a gradual deceleration in coal-fired generation.

Coal is also not looking good in India either:  India has several hundred million people without any power at all and for many of these local rooftop solar is far more practical than connecting the homes via a new grid to large coal fired power stations.  In this context it is worth noting that India’s new government led by Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi is reported to have said that it sees solar as a critical part of a plan to electrify every home in India within the next five years.

In addition, Bloomberg quotes Narenda Taneja, convener of the energy division at Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, as saying:

“We look upon solar as having the potential to completely transform the way we look at the energy space.”

To make matters worse for coal, Climate Spectator says that

India has encountered considerable problems in rolling out a series of mega-coal power plant complexes intended to meet India’s rapidly growing demand for power. Regulations that have capped power prices below levels required to generate a financial return, in conjunction with corruption, resistance to expansion of domestic coal mines and rises in international coal prices have all acted to hinder such plans.”

Doesn’t look like a good market for high priced Australian thermal coal.

4. Self driving Google cars will have no steering, brakes or accelerator

The Australian ran the above article on this autonomous car that Google plans to bring into limited production.
The front of the Google car has a funny cartoon face.
The car will have no steering wheel,  brake or accelerator because it will drive itself.  One person who has tested the prototype said it was like “catching a chairlift by yourself, a bit of solitude I found really enjoyable.”
The development of autonomous cars has been progressing a lot faster than expected.  As a consequence, regulations are well behind current developments.
Our government should be urged with getting on with the business of developing new standards and regulations for autonomous cars, narrow track cars (that are narrow enough to travel two abreast in one lane) and cars that can save weight by being designed to avoid crashes rather then survive them.
I have been saying for some time that one of the big risks of not doing anything about climate change is that we may face punitive  trade sanctions once powerful countries such as  China and the US become more and more serious about climate change.  Rob Burgess of Business Spectator thinks that Obama’s carbon tax will put us at a disadvantage.
 An interesting article on what Janette Sadik Kahn, who used to be transport commissioner for New York, did to turn New York into a bike and pedestrian friendly city.  
Janette Sadik-Khan
Speaking at Adelaide’s Velo-Cities conference, Ms Sadik-Khan said streets need to be redesigned to act more like social “living rooms” rather than congested pathways.

Her new approach to footpaths revolutionised NYC, removing congestion and encouraging more people to walk.

As in many Australian cities, the introduction of a bike share system and extensive cycle path network proved controversial.

“Our streets are where we play and meet, kind of like the living rooms of New York, and so when you change something like that it can cause a stir.”

Read the article for details.  A few comments that caught my eye were:

Leadership at the local level is where Ms Sadik-Khan sees most of the innovation in urban design taking place.

“It’s interesting to see that the innovation that you see in cities like Sydney, Adelaide and Auckland and in New York City … it’s the cities that are innovating,”

“Rather than instigating a drawn-out planning process, Ms Sadik-Khan moved quickly. She and department of transportation officials temporarily closed sections of road and car parks and marked out where a new plaza might be built.

“So we used a fast-acting approach and literally painted the city that we wanted to see. We painted curb lines, painted green as if it was grass, we threw down tables and chairs and temporary planters,”

“The key was to change the use of a space quickly so people could see what it looked like.”

Ms Sadik-Khan did this in areas where residents and business wanted the public space. If anyone did not like it, “we could change it back”.”

7. MIT’s cityhome project

Smaller apartments and houses are a logical approach to dealing with cities where the cost of land has sky rocketed and more and more people want to live close to work, shops and entertainment areas.  The question is how do you do this without compromising quality of life?  It is the sort of question that can be broken up into questions like: “How do you configure the dining room in your micro-space so guests don’t have to sit at a work station during supper?”  Its a topic I will keep returning to in Climate action.

Part of the answer to these questions is to fit things in in a smarter way.  Another part may be to specify higher rooms to provide the height needed to make smarter use of the vertical space.  Then there are systems that make better use of the space by moving things around depending on what is going on:  Rolling beds up, folding things out of the way etc.  

Touch controlled surfaces allow the CityHome unit to move back and forth a few feet, thus ...


The MIT cityhome project is about moving things around.  Gizmag says that: “The concept is relatively simple: condense all the necessary amenities, such as the bed, entertainment unit, counters, work space, cooking unit and range, furniture storage, etc. into one transformable wall system. Looking like an intricate Italian kitchen unit, the CityHome project from MIT’s Kent Larson and Hasier Larrea not only solves the typical spatial issues associated with tiny condos and apartments, but does so via interactive touch elements, hand gestures, and voice control.

Internal motors connected to command units silently move out units selected by predetermined hand gestures (presumably registered by the control system using built-in cameras), so no physical effort is required. One gesture could, for example, draw the bed out of its space. Another instructs it to return to its original position, and then a work desk can be moved out (which also doubles as a dining table for six).”

CityHome project would let users bring the hide-a-bed out at night and slide back into the...