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Nashua;57.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/ra.png;2014-11-24 09:57:41

Huge N.Y. Army base gets 100% of electricity from wood - is that good?  

gg1124fortdrum

In this photo taken, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013 the Burgess BioPower plant is seen in Berlin, N.H. The 75-megawatt power plant replaces the paper mill that was the heart of the city for 100 years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Biomass energy - burning wood to produce electricity - is controversial within the green-energy field. Although it seems like a no-brainer to replace oil/coal with wood, because the latter sucks carbon out of the air when it regrows, there's s debate about whether biomass should really be considered carbon-neutral.

The complication arises because wood releases more carbon per energy unit that most fossil fuels, which stretches out its carbon-cycle benefit to the point where it may not make much difference over human lifetimes. That's especially if forests are deliberately cut for fuel, as compared to burning extraneous woodstuffs. A 2010 study for Massachusetts debunked wood's carbon credentials, and the topic has been much debated ever since.

Nonetheless, the Great North Woods (the region from upper NY state through the upper half of the three Northern New England states) has so many trees that we're bound to consider how to use them for energy. There are a half-dozen biomass-electricity plants operating in New Hampshire now, and while they're still a small part of the picture they're not insignificant.

The Associated Press has a story today about Fort Drum, a huge Army base in northern New York state, which has switched 100 percent of its electricity production to wood, and is setting up a microgrid so that the base can operate independently if necessary. It's part of the military's push to be more self-reliant when it comes to energy, as a defensive posture rather than an environmental one.

ReEnergy Holdings acquired the formerly coal-fired power plant at Fort Drum in 2011 and spent $34 million converting it to burn biomass — mostly chipped up branches, bark and other residues of timber operations in New York’s North Country.A $12 million project is also underway to connect the plant directly to the base’s substations next summer.

The Pentagon is pushing construction of independent power grids at military bases out of concern that utility companies are vulnerable to hackers, terrorists and natural disasters.

And the best sentence in today's Boston Globe is ...

From the story about MIT's football team:

Quarterback Peter Williams has thrown for just over 957 Smoots this season.

Is that a wet bulb on your thermometer, or are you happy to see snowmaking?

Ski areas hereabouts have started to open despite the lack of natural snow, thanks to the technology of hurtling water into cold air so that it crystalizes.

Snowmaking is a function not just of the air temperature but of the "wet bulb" temperature, which involves a non-linear relationship between temperature and relative humidity. (In drier air, snow can be made at higher temperatures.)

After I learned about wet bulb temperature as part of a story about snowmaking, I went to good old wikipedia to learn more about that vaguely obscene-sounding metric, only to encounter this formula:

 (H_\mathrm{sat} - H_0) \cdot \lambda \cdot k' = (T_0 - T_\mathrm{eq}) \cdot h_\mathrm{c}

  • H_\mathrm{sat} water content of interface at equilibrium (kgH2O/kgdry air) (note that the air in this region is and has always been saturated)
  • H_0 water content of the distant air (same unit as above)
  • k' mass transfer coefficient (kg/m²⋅s)
  • T_0 air temperature at distance (K)
  • T_\mathrm{eq} water drop temperature at equilibrium (K)
  • h_\mathrm{c} convective heat transfer coefficient (W/m²·K)

"Water content of interface at equiplibrium"? No wonder I'm a lousy skier.

Can't get enough ballot selfies? Hear me on "The Exchange"

If it seems I can't shut up about "ballot selfies," then here's more confirmation: Yesterday's The Exchange started with me babbling - er, informing the world - about it.

Here's a link. The rest of the hour covered ballot initiatives.

Last night, we heard the perfect Science Cafe sentence

Last night's Science Cafe NH in Nashua was the usual full house at Killarney's Pub. The discussion was about medical screening, and how much of it is too much.

The three physicians on the panel (Jose Montero, head of the NH Department of Public Health Services, Sanders Burstein, family physician and geriatrician, medical director at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Nashua, and Salvatore Vella, internist with Southern New Hampshire Health Services) said that an element of emotion and subject choices come into the decision - that's the art of medicine to go along with the science.

That didn't entirely well with everybody in our engineer-heavy audience - we want numbers, dammit! - so Dr. Vella came up with a sentence that I think perfectly sums up the whole Science Cafe approach:

"We are not digital beings - we are analog."

I love it because it acknowledges the non-quantifiable squishiness of reality, but examines it through a quantifiable lens.

Science Cafe is taking December off - see you Jan. 21, 2014. The topic is being decided; we have a few possibilities at our website.

Google engineers: Even best-case renewable energy adoption won't fix climate change

You want to read something depressing? Read about a discussion by Google engineers exlpaining why the company stopped funding R&D in renewable energy. Here's a tidbit:

Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences.

I learned about this from this post in GreenTech Media, a site that is very interested in renewable energy from a techy side, as well as the environmental. This is not what they want to hear.

Science Cafe in Nashua tonight (Wednesday) - can there be too much medical screening?

Can there really be too much screening for cancer? Yes, although how much is too much - that's a tough question.

We'll be discussing it in four hours at Science Cafe NH, which starts at 6 p.m. in Killarney's Pub, 9 northeastern Blvd., Nashua. See you there.

Rooftop solar electricity: Cost-competitive with coal, oil in all 50 states by 2016?

gg1119solarcost

Courtesy photo
Some of the 17 homes at the Nubanusit Neighborhood co-housing development in Peteroborough that installed solar panels in 2013.

Solar power is wicked expensive, right? Well, the falling cost of solar panels and, more importantly, falling "soft costs" for installation and permitting, plus an increase in financing options, is changing that.

The cost of rooftop solar-powered electricity will be on par with prices for common coal or oil-powered generation in just two years -- and the technology to produce it will only get cheaper.

The prediction, made by Deutsche Bank's leading solar industry analyst, Vishal Shah, is part of a report on Vivint Solar, the nation's second-biggest solar panel installer. Shah believes Vivint Solar is doing so well that it will double its sales each year for the next two years.

The sharp decline in solar energy costs is the result of increased economies of scale leading to cheaper photovoltaic panels, new leasing models and declining installation costs.

So begins an article in ComputerWorld magazine (you can read it here, with lots of intersting charts), one of many I've seen lately about how solar costs are getting low enough to displace some fossil fuels (although not natural gas, at least not in the U.S.). This article says that even the possible loss of the federal solar investment tax credit, which seems more likely after the midterm elections, won't stop this trend.

The U.S. solar installer market is still highly fragmented, Shah noted in his analysis. But he expect that to shift dramatically over the next three to five years as large solar manufacturers and installers, such as First Solar and SolarCity, grow to facilitate economies of scale.

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Drone operators can be fined or charged for operating 'recklessly'

The government has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they operate the remote-control aircraft recklessly, a federal safety board ruled Tuesday in a setback to small drone operators chafing under Federal Aviation Administration restrictions.

So says the Associated Press. Read the details here.

Aspirin a day may prevent a second heart attack, but apparently not the first one

Aspirin really is a miracle drug that accomplishes all sorts of surprising things. I take a couple a week to reduce the risk of skin cancer, which is a problem in my family, and studies have found that it may help reduce the risk of a number of other cancers, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

But the one benefit from taking regular low-dose aspirin that most of us have heard about is to prevent heart attacks. Alas, the evidence now seems to show that while such aspirin use will reduce the risk of having a second heart attack, it does nothing for people who haven't had an attack in the first place and who aren't at particular risk. (Time has a good synopsis.) Because aspirin can cause intestinal bleeding, overuse is to be avoided.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.

ggScienceCafeSidebar

Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: Wednesday, Jan. 21

TOPIC: To be announced

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).

PAST TOPICS:

2014:

November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

2013:
November:
Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

2012:
November:
"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

2011:
Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"

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Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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