Mechanical Transmission of Power With Endless Rope Drives: More Efficient Than Electricity?

Wire rope transmission in 1896. Source: Stadtarchiv Schaffhausen.

Kris De Decker at  Low-tech Magazine has published a fascinating article discussing rope drives, a 19th-century technology that was used, especially in Europe, to transmit power over shorter distances. This method of transmission was actually “more efficient than electricity for distances up to 5 kilometres” and even today “would be more efficient than electricity over relatively short distances.”

De Decker makes an interesting connection to the spread of small-scale renewable energy production and suggests a possible role for a technology such as the endless rope drive:

“In spite of [some drawbacks discussed in the article], power transmission by ropes might have a place in our energy systems. Today, there is a trend towards small-scale, decentralized power production, based on renewable energy sources. These solar panels, water turbines or wind turbines generate electricity, but whenever we need to produce mechanical energy, eliminating the step of generating electricity could result in a somewhat less practical, but more efficient use of energy.”

De Decker thinks that “If we used modern materials for making ropes and pulleys, we could further improve this forgotten method.” He illustrates his article with many photos of 19th-century installations.

ARB — 4 April 2013

United Airlines Shoots Itself in the Foot With Poor Customer Service to a Well-Known Author

Today on his popular blog, Boing Boing, science-fiction author Cory Doctorow published an abysmal experience he had yesterday with United Airlines on the final leg of his U.S. book tour. I’m not going to repeat his account, but it is sadly typical of the experiences many of us have with big-company customer service.

In a nutshell, United Airlines screwed up and the customer service representative dealing with the problem refused to do the right thing for the customer. I’ve had similar experiences time and time again, and it is the primary reason that I am constantly searching for providers of all kinds who will treat me better than the communications company, bank, technology provider, regulated utility, retailer, or government agency I am currently stuck with.

Usually when I get mistreated by a big company I don’t blame the customer service rep who refused to help. I assume that that person is stuck with the rules, training, supervision, and other constraints imposed on them by their company. I try to avoid blaming the rep, but I always encourage the person to pass along to his or her masters the reason for my dissatisfaction with their company. Most big companies have people who sit around a table and discuss why their customers leave them, and I always have hopes that if enough feedback filters up from the front line, it might make a difference in the way the company treats its customers.

In short, my message to big companies is: Empower your front-line people to do the right thing for your customer.

ARB — 2 March 2013

Vancouver Going for “Greenest City”

Future Vancouver street sceneOver at ThomasNet Green & Clean, I wrote earlier this week about Vancouver, B.C.’s bid to become the world’s “greenest city” — see “Friendly Competition – Vancouver’s Bid to Become the World’s Greenest City.” In an interview, Vancouver City Councillor David Cadman gave me an inside view of the effort. Although the city definitely wants to become the greenest on the planet, there’s a friendly side to the competition:

Cadman tells me that “simply being a green city in one place like Vancouver isn’t enough. We have to take this plan and challenge a whole lot of cities to beat us, to move this challenge out beyond Vancouver to the rest of the world.”

He thinks cities are in a good position to incubate environmental innovation:

Cadman believes cities are well-suited to serve as sources of environmental innovation. Whereas “national governments don’t seem to be able to get their act together” to move forward on green initiatives, he tells me, “local governments are transforming the world around them.”

AB — 29 July 2011

El Hierro – Isolated Island a Great Demo of Renewable Energy

Over at ThomasNet Green & Clean this week, I wrote about efforts by El Hierro, the most remote of the Canary Islands, to become completely self-sufficient and wholly reliant on renewable energy — see “El Hierro — How an Island Can Serve as a Model for Renewable Energy.”

Some of the most interesting commentary I found on the El Hierro project has to do with the value of the island’s remoteness. One researcher writes that, when it comes to connecting with any outside electric grid, “[The island] is totally isolated, as the significant sea depths make any interconnection impossible.” Yet the island has a population of 11,000 and a significant economy.

The R&D director for the Canary Institute of Technology says that,

Islands can play a very important role as pioneers of the energy revolution… The island as a whole can serve as an experiment not only for this particular energy combination, but also for other types of energy-related issues like mobility, like efficient transport solutions… Examples like El Hierro will prove technologically that this is possible.

AB — 20 July 2011

Cisco’s Infographic About the Internet of Things

On the Cisco blog on July 15, 2011, Dave Evans, Cisco’s Chief Futurist in their Innovations Practice, posted the following infographic about the Internet of Things, which I’ve been writing about for a few years — see “Developing the Internet of Things and a Smarter Planet” and “Is an ‘Energy Internet’ Emerging?,” which touches on similar idea.

Click on this image to link through to the full-size original:

Infographic about the Internet of Things

I’m as much interested in the infographic as a method for the visual presentation of information as I am about the particular content of any infographic — in examining any of these presentations, I think it’s important to understand the data sources and to recognize that these graphics are simplifications of research that is often quite complicated.

I notice that author of this graphic says that by the end of 2011, “20 typical households will generate more Internet traffic than the entire Internet in 2008.” While the denizens of Casa Bredenberg no doubt generate a lot of traffic as Internet users, I doubt whether the objects in our house are right now generating 5 percent as much traffic as the 2008 Internet. Maybe if Progress Energy eventually gets its smart-grid rollout going …

AB — 18 July 2011

Rob Hopkins Response to Criticism of Environmentalism

My article this week at ThomasNet Green & Clean was on the fascinating, fast-growing Transition movement — see “The Transition Movement – Preparing for a World After Peak Oil.”

The “green movement” that seemed so powerful and dynamic just a couple of years ago has come under criticism recently, as you can see in Susanna Rustin’s recent article in the Guardian — see “Has the green movement lost its way?

Coincidentally, the Transition Network just concluded its 2011 conference in Liverpool. Co-founder Rob Hopkins wrote up his reflections on the conference in a blog post yesterday, and included a response to Rustin’s question:

An article in the Guardian last week asked “has the green movement lost its way?” I think that is the wrong question. The right question should be “has a new, emergent culture which embraces resilience and localisation, equity and partnership, even scratched the surface of its potential?” I think the answer is a resolute no. We’ve all had a taste of that this weekend.

Having written a great deal about innovation as analyst for the ILO Institute, insights like this get my attention. Innovations often come from unexpected quarters, when people begin asking new questions and asking questions in a different way.

AB — 12 July 2011

Integrating Wind and Solar Energy: German Virtual Power Plant Shows How to Do It

German Combined Power PlantOver at ThomasNet Green & Clean today, I’ve written about a groundbreaking pilot project called the Combined Power Plant. See the article, “German Combined Power Plant Demonstrates Real-Time Integration of Renewables.”

What these scientists are doing is using networking technology to integrate 36 separate solar, wind, and biogas installations into one “virtual power plant.” Combining multiple sources like this allows them to balance out the various sources, solving a key problem in the integration of renewables into the electric grid.

AB — 27 June 2011