Sim City gains an environmental dimension

The game franchise that first defined the city-building genre in 1989 will be re-released next year as a multi-player online computer game, developed by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts Inc.

This time, however, SimCity has an environmental theme …  a fetish for coal burning plants in one city can spread smog and sickness in adjacent cities run by other players, for example … “For the first time in SimCity, players’ decisions will have consequences that will extend beyond their city limits,” said Lucy Bradshaw, senior vice president of Maxis. “It’s up to the players to decide whether to compete or collaborate to shape the world of tomorrow — for better or for worse.”

With thanks to dbostrom on the RealClimate Open Thread, which contains miscellaneous lighter items amongst the serious discussion of the latest in climate science. Read the whole article on the LA Times site, and read lots more about it at, if it is your kind of thing.

Going solar: lots of Aussies

The news headlines a couple of days ago were, “35-fold increase in solar power,” which I thought was pretty good, but there is more to it than that. Here’s how the ABC saw it:

A new report released at climate talks in South Africa overnight has found the number of solar panels installed in Australian homes has grown 35-fold in the past three years.

The Clean Energy Report says more than 1 million Australians now live in homes powered by solar panels and the nation is on track to meet its target of a fifth of its energy from renewables by 2020.

While state feed-in tariffs helped increase the popularity of solar energy, the report found uncertainty over whether a carbon tax would be introduced stalled larger projects like the construction of new wind farms.

They were reporting on a publication of the Clean Energy Council, working primarily from this press release (pdf) about a bigger report which is available from their site.  Its biggest numbers are:

  • Renewables generate 10% of Australia’s electricity.
  • Hydro generates two thirds (67%) of that, with wind next at 22%, followed by bioenergy at 8.5% and solar PV at 2.3%; other technologies are all less than a tenth of solar PV.

So solar PV is still tiny but it is no longer insignificant and is growing really fast.

The other domestic solar technology, passive solar water heating, is not mentioned amongst the electricity generation figures but actually saves three times as much fossil fuel as domestic PV: “The energy saved from solar water heating is equivalent to 7.2% of the clean energy generated in Australia.” That said, the growth of solar hot water has slowed over the last couple of years after a big spike in 2009. The Clean Energy Council thinks that is because, “The generous government support available for solar PV systems has led many customers to choose PV over solar hot water, despite the excellent energy savings available from the latter technology,” but that, “a national ban on the replacement of electric hot water systems from 2012 is expected to give the solar hot water industry a welcome boost.”

Back to electricity generation:

The growth of solar power was one of the stories of 2011 following a record year in 2010, when 380 MW of solar power was installed. As at the end of August 2011, 1031 MW of solar power was installed across the country, representing more than half a million household systems. This is more than nine times the amount of solar power installed as at the end of 2009 and more than 35 times the total installed just three years ago in 2008. More than 230,000 of these systems were installed in the eight months from January to August 2011.

Nationally it is estimated that 8% of all suitable homes are fitted with a solar photovoltaic (PV) power system. … The cost of solar PV continues to fall rapidly and is expected to reach the cost of grid electricity towards the middle of the decade.

And if you need another reason to feel good about your own solar PV installation (or another reason for installing one soon), here it is:

Electricity prices in Australia have risen about 30 per cent over the last four years. 

There are several factors behind the recent price rises. By far the largest is the need to replace and upgrade the ageing poles and wires of the national electricity grid, some of which have been in service for more than 40 years. Recent estimates suggest that more than $130 billion will be necessary to upgrade the network over the next decade, growing to $220 billion over 20 years. Research indicates that these network costs will cause price rises of up to 66 per cent in NSW and Queensland by 2015. Similar increases are likely in other states and territories. [my emphasis]

That, of course, will reduce pay-back time for solar installations considerably.

No-one can do anything about suppliers’ need to replace ageing poles and wires, but growth in solar PV will reduce the concurrent need to increase the capacity of the distribution  network, as well as postponing the need for new baseload power stations. If we try hard enough, perhaps we can put off major new power stations long enough for wind and solar technology to have become the automatic first choice.

Just for fun: Wordles

Wordle is a free online java applet for generating ‘word clouds’ from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text, by making them larger, and the wordle is therefore a sort of visual summary of the text. I was introduced to it by an example on RealClimate, where someone had used it to summarise the IPCC Extreme Weather Event report I talked about here.

climate wordle

Wordle is fun and is an easy way for the artistically challenged to produce interesting graphics. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and colour schemes, and you can ‘rig’ the results by deleting words from it or by pre-loading the text with multiple repetitions of the words you want featured.

More text makes your wordle a more representative overview of the subject, while less will usually give you a more dramatic-looking result.

Update, December 2020: The original wordle creation site has succumbed to the tyranny of time but spawned imitators before it did so. Look them up…

Grab bag: Just for (slightly geeky) fun

The web brings me lots of cute and/or entertaining snippets which are worth sharing but don’t really deserve a whole page to themselves. Here’s a selection of recent ‘grabs’, with thanks to those who pointed them out to me.

Tata Develops Car That Can Run On Air

A car that runs on air sounds like an interesting idea that’s too good to be true. I followed it up to the extent of finding more technical details, here, and it is, in fact, both.

It should indeed be cheap to run and reduce pollution in the cities – both good – but it is essentially another ‘long tail pipe’ technology in that the power source is really  mains electricity, since the compressed air, like hydrogen or batteries, is just a way of storing energy. Until the mains electricity is generated from renewable sources the Tata ultimately runs on coal or oil, so there is still a pollution cost. This link points to a way around that problem, but it is some distance into the future.

IgNobel prizes

The Ignobels are awarded annually for ‘achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK,’ as the website says. They do that.

Fate of the World game

Computer strategy game Fate of the World gives gamers the chance to save a virtual world from climate catastrophe.

Using real climatic models, it gives gamers and environmentalists the chance to test policy ideas on a global scale. Its developers intend the game to be fun and to help increase awareness of the complex nature of fighting global warming.

Initial reviews (linked from bottom of this Greenpeace review) are positive in terms of game enjoyment.

Quantum levitation

I sent this link to a young relative (relatively young, anyway) working in quantum physics and he sent me a link to by way of explanation. (That content has been removed but is still full of geeky fun, so it could be worth a visit.) Another knowledgeable friend said, ‘What you are seeing with the superconductor is a result of the diamagnetism and flux pinning of the superconductor,’ and pointed to

World Solar Challenge

This is the first time Green Path has covered a sporting event (and may be the last) but it is a pretty special event: the World Solar Challenge is a cross-continental road race for solar powered cars.

2009 winner, Tokai Challenger
The 2009 winner, Tokai Challenger

The official site announced that, “The field for this year’s World Solar Challenge 2011 Darwin to Adelaide is the largest yet. On Sunday October 16, 42 teams from 21 countries will take to the starting line, among them three teams from Australia, to do battle for line honours 3,000 kilometres away, in Adelaide.”

Good ol’ Wikipedia is better on the history than the official site:

The race attracts teams from around the world, most of which are fielded by universities or corporations although some are fielded by high schools. The race has a 20-year history spanning nine races, with the inaugural event taking place in 1987. The objective of this competition is to promote research on solar-powered cars. Teams from universities and enterprises participate. In 2005, 22 teams from 11 countries entered the primary race category. …

By 2005, several teams were handicapped by the South Australian speed limit of 110 km/h (68 mph), as well as the difficulties of support crews keeping up with 130 km/h (81 mph) race vehicles. It was generally agreed that the challenge of building a solar vehicle capable of crossing Australia at vehicular speeds had been met and exceeded. A new challenge was set: to build a new generation of solar car, which, with little modification, could be the basis for a practical proposition for sustainable transport.

That change of emphasis, with its accompanying rule changes, has effectively capped the average speed of the winners at about 100 kph, even as the technology keeps improving.

The latest news on this year’s race as I write after lunch on the 18th, is that they are half way, about to reach Alice Springs, and making good time – hitting speeds of 130 kph, in fact – after delays caused by road trains and bushfires.

Thursday 20 October: We have a result – the Japanese team won, defeating the Dutch by a very small margin. Read more at ABC News.