Will Blog for Experience: Patrick

I'm a student blogger for Experience.com and if my blog gets the most readers out of these 5 blogs I will be going to Washington, D.C. for a job shadow at the Department of Energy, courtesy of CBCampus. Experience is a career site specifically for college students & alumni. They provide extraordinary job opportunities, real-world insights, and a network of inspirational role-models to help students explore and launch careers they love. Keep reading my blog if you want me to lead this challenge!

Experience, Inc.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

DOE Experience

I applied to this little contest blogging about energy because, frankly, it seemed made for me. I’ve blogged for 5 years or so, and I last August I decided sustainable energy was going to be my thing. Plus I had ideas for getting hits. After getting two posts to the front page of digg, I was fairly confident I had it. I earned myself a trip to DC.


Monday night I stayed at the fairly classy Hotel Washington. Getting there was simple and straightforward, mostly because I visited the University of Maryland a few weeks ago. I feel like I’m getting to know the area. Unfortunately I arrived a tad late, and everything in DC seems to close around 7. I was afraid dinner was going to be at Mcdonald’s, but I found a Subway minutes before it closed. The last employee actually walked out of the store as I did.

Tuesday morning I grabbed a bagel from Corner Bakery and casually made my way over to the Department of Energy. The weather was a tad chilly, but sunny. And much better than Chicago, so it was a nice walk. I got there and took a few pictures of myself in front of the DOE sign. Afterwards a homeless guy asked me if I got the tulips.


Security was tight, but not a hassle. I had to remove everything from my pockets and walk through a metal detector. After passing this test I was escorted to my first experience of the day, sitting in on a meeting. Six guys in the integrated building systems division talking over a multi-year plan for improving energy use in buildings. They are just concluding a guidebook for 30% energy savings over the current minimum standards, and were discussing how to get to 50%. Long term (20 years?) they want to get to 100%, meaning a zero-energy building. Things that came up were included daylighting, HVAC, and IEQ. Daylighting was primarily discussing orienting your building to take the best advantage of available light. HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, & Air Conditioning, which I have seen as a research topic at many a grad school) was discussing how to make these big systems more efficient. And IEQ stands for indoor environmental quality. They eventually got round to the idea of having a contest for schools, sort of like the solar decathlon, to encourage student teams to design model systems. I was able to contribute a little to the meeting here, which was fun. If this contest happens, I’ll try to participate from Maryland.

Next was a lecture called “Cost-Saving Innovations and Sustainable Design Make Middle School a High Performer” by Jay Enck. He talked about the design of a new LEED-silver middle school in Alabama. Cool building, and I’d love to go to school there, but Mr. Enck wasn’t a very dynamic speaker, and it was the same old presentation on sustainable building design. Brendan Owens of the U.S. Green Building Council did a much better job at the ESW National Conference last fall (presentation available 3mb pdf). This lecture was actually at the National Building Museum. Cool fact I learned on the way out: each window has three bricks missing underneath it. The airflow through the sum of all these missing bricks is exactly equal to the open airflow through the roof of the building, essentially creating a passive air conditioning system. And this building was build a century and a half ago. Impressive. On the way back to the DOE, I had a good chat with a senior engineer about solid state lighting. They’ve moved on from compact-fluorescent light bulbs to LED and OLED lighting. They have a goal for LEDs with 200 lumens/watt with a lifetime of 200,000 hours. This is about ten times the light/power as an incandescent, and 20 times the lifetime. Seeing as 30% of energy use in buildings comes from lighting, this could put a big dent in the nations energy consumption, to say the least. That’s a lot of numbers, purely off of memory. I think they’re relatively accurate, but please correct me if you know better.

Next I sat down with another engineer at talked for awhile. He talked to me more about lighting, showing me a little demo solar-powered LED beacon, and a white OLED light. We moved on to talking about windows, which are a big energy loss in buildings, seeing as they can easily have 1/10th to 1/20th the insulation value of walls. He pulled out a piece of aerogel, saying they were thinking about tossing that inbetween two panes of glass to create an even more efficient window. Current issues with that are aerogel isn’t perfectly transparent, it still has a slight haze to it, and it is brittle, so as windows bend and flex it would probably develop cracks. And he didn’t even mention cost, which you know is an issue if you’ve ever tried to buy yourself a piece (I’m a geek, I’ve tried, deal).

Then it was 3:00, and I went for late lunch with a relatively new DOE employee and talked DC, career moves, and school with him. It was a good, chill, practical way to end the day.

It was a fun experience; I don’t think I want to work at the Department of Energy right out of grad school, but later in my life it might be rewarding. They don’t do any of the research themselves, so I don’t think I could get my hands as dirty as they should be getting. But they do have a very strong impact in the energy consumption of this country. Their goals are ambitions, and they plan on achieving them. I met a few people whose passion for the work really impressed me. The power they have to encourage the adoption of new technologies could be very useful in my future plans of saving the world, but first I want to develop some of those new technologies myself.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Portable Solar Power for $180

For about $180, I brought together all the components needed to power a typical laptop for a couple hours solely on solar power. It's great for emergencies, or just knowing you are powering something real with a completely renewable resource.

This kit weighs about 2 lbs, costs $180, and will power my Macbook for 1.75 hours (1.83ghz, browsing the web and checking email via Airport Extreme, bluetooth off, screen brightness about 70%) with a little more than 5 hours of good sun. Here's what it takes:

Solar Panel

I bought my panel on ebay for $80. It's a 15 watt foldable panel, weighing 1.6 lbs with folded dimensions of 10.5" x 8.5" x .75". Easy to stuff in a backpack, to say the least. It outputs power via an SAE 2-prong trailer plug.

Sunlinq 25W Foldable Panel. The included accessory kit means you don't need to buy any more cables, but it's prohibitively expensive at $374
Build your own.


I like the Powerpacks offered by Xantrex, because they bundle a battery and an inverter into one package, meaning there are fewer cables to connect and it's easier to use. I got a Powersource Mobile for $95 from Amazon a couple weeks ago; they've since raised the price, but you can find it elsewhere for about the same. It weighs less than a pound, has a 4 amp hour lithium ion battery, with a three pronged AC outlet as well as two USB ports.

Better: Powerpack 600 HD. With 3 AC plugs, a built-in flashlight and radio, and a 28 A-hr battery, you can do a lot more with this. It only costs $130, but it weighs almost 30 lbs.
Cheaper: Xpower Pocket Power Pac 100. It's a little clunkier, but has a 3.3 A-hr NiMH battery and is almost as compact as the Powersource Mobile, for only $65.

CLA Adapter

To connect the solar panel to the battery, you're going to need an adapter to go from the 2-prong trailer plug to a cigarette lighter. You can buy it alone for about $5, or you can buy an accessory kit with a few other nice cables for $18.

Closing Thoughts

If you plan to let this sit for days on end, or plan to get a solar panel with more wattage than I had, I would highly recommend getting a charge controller to prevent damaging your battery.

Through trying this out, I found that it is very hard to get 5 hours of good sun in Chicago in the winter. It's a great feeling when it works, but not practical for day-to-day use.

While the folding panel itself is small, unfolded it's fairly large. The best places I found to lay it out were on a roof or in a park.

I would really like something even easier to use, such as a backpack with solar panels on it. Voltaic solar bags are close, but not really practical for powering a laptop. Yet.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Charlie Rose

Charlie Rose talks alternative energy.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Russia supplies natural gas to much of Europe, and the state-owned gas company can make ridiculous threats because of it. Last year Russia demanded a price increase of over 400%, which Ukraine refused to pay, leaving much of the state in the cold. This winter similar threats have been made to Georgia and Belarus. Russia uses it's power to discourage former Soviet Union, generally pro-Russian states, from going over to the EU and being more pro-European.

This just illustrates the importance of energy independence. Everyone relies on energy, and dependence on foreign nations for these resources just makes energy a political bargaining tool. The US government clearly doesn't like the Venezuelan government, but there's nothing to be done because any hostile action would result in a drastic cut in energy supplies to the US. The more energy we generate at home the less constrained we are in international relations.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sweden's Energy Policy

The goal of Sweden's energy policy is to "create conditions for efficient and sustainable energy use, as well as a cost-effective Swedish energy supply with minimum negative impact on health, the environment and the climate." Sounds like a good policy to me. Here's how they do it:
  • Fossil-fuel free electricy: 1/2 Nuclear, 1/2 Hydro
  • Switching from oil as the main heating fuel to biomass
  • Pioneering flue gas desulphurization, reducing acid rain
  • Green certificates: All electricity users must by them, corresponding to a % of their energy usage.
  • Energy taxes
    • Started taxing carbon dioxide in 1991 to encourage efficiency and the use of bio fuels
    • 2001 green tax reform: Taxes will be increased by 3,200 million (is that 3.2?) Euros over the next 10 years
    • Energy taxes account for 10% of Swedish state revenue
  • Part of the European Union emissions trading scheme
Green Certificates

Friday, December 15, 2006

Energy Forcasting

EIA: The greatest failure of them all?

The Energy Information Administration is supposed to be a largely independent government organization to provide data on the future of energy supplies. They seem to continually project increasing oil and gas production, and lower prices. This article argues that the EIA is not doing nearly enough to force action on an impending energy crisis. It's worth a read.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tom Friedman is my hero

Tom Friedman regularly writes columns for the NYT on energy. They are fairly good columns. His column in October, "The Energy Mandate" , first got me hooked. In it, he argues energy should not be a priority issue, it should be the priority issue.

Plus, he's funny. From the video: "The issue green has been named by its opponents...They named it...vaguely french."