U.S. renewable energy forecasters got it *slightly* wrong, turns out

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation on July 13, 2010. The U.S. Energy Information Administration did not predict this.

The future didn’t look much like we thought it would.

I’m not talking about flying cars or colonies on Mars – although those two are looking promising at the moment.

In 2006, the U.S. Energy Information Administration laid out its predictions for renewable energy installations a decade hence. Its prognosticators extrapolated out the curves of past performance and divined 0.8 gigawatts of U.S. solar capacity by 2016. With wind, they were a bit more bullish, predicting 17 gigawatts of turbines spinning away. (A gigawatt is roughly what a big coal-fired power plant can produce, capacity factors aside.)

They were off by just a touch.

As InsideClimateNews reported yesterday, the United States had an installed solar capacity of about 37 gigawatts last year, about 46 times higher than the EIA had guessed. This country installed 14 gigawatts of solar in 2016 alone.

Solar grew from a tiny base. Wind had a better foothold in 2006, so the projection wasn’t quite as far off: the 82 gigawatts of turbines in the United States was merely five times higher than the EIA had estimated.

The 45 percent plunge in coal-fired generation wasn’t on their radar, either.

This isn’t about assailing the EIA. Who could have predicted the fracking boom, which turned utilities off to coal and on to natural gas? Or the rise of Solar City, Sunrun and other solar-panel leasing programs. The EIA had no more clue than I did that I’d have Sunrun panels on my roof as of 2010, or that Chinese manufacturers would come to produce panels so cheaply.

Perhaps proposed tariffs on those panels with grind the progress to a halt. Or, perhaps, Tesla’s Nevada battery gigafactory and the proliferation of electrified, self-driving cars will put panels on many more rooftops (and high-voltage plugs in many more garages), and stoking the trend further beyond the imaginations of actuarial bureaucrats. With regime change in 2020, national politics could become a tailwind again. Elon Musk, in addition to vastly increasing the odds of a future with humans on Mars, is betting big on batteries, electric cars and, yes, solar panels – Solar City’s 2016 merger with Tesla wasn’t on the EIA radar, either. Of course, Tesla itself didn’t mass-produce a car until 2008.

The lesson isn’t that Elon Musk’s business hunches should necessarily supplant the products of EIA forecasters. It’s that long-term forecasting, especially when it comes to something as complex as energy markets, is fraught. So there’s reason for skepticism – and, as the last decade’s numbers show, for optimism, too.

Ancient craft yields storage medium of the future

An example tablet from a commission by the Kunst Historiches Museum Wien. (Courtesy of Martin Kunze)

The preservation of our collective story — so much of which is told in electronic pulses and stored in bits and bytes — may well hinge on the oldest of materials: clay.

It’s not just any clay. It’s a specially designed stoneware (the stuff of bathroom tiles) formed into 20-by-20 centimeter ceramic tablets. Martin Kunze, an Austrian ceramist and researcher, invented them, and once printed with snippets of science, politics, art, culture and much more, he stores them in a cavern in a salt mine in Hallstatt, deep in the Austrian Alps. The cavern, accessible via an 80 centimeter-wide tunnel, will naturally close up over time. There, what Kunze calls “the greatest time capsule ever” will wait for someone, someday, to find it. [more]

Robots kill, and they’re just getting started 

Gabriel Hallevy - When Robots Kill

For Gabriel Hallevy, one of the world’s leading legal thinkers in the emerging field of criminal law as it applies to intelligent machines, it started in a movie theater. The professor at Ono Academic College in Israel had already established himself as a prominent legal thinker in areas like criminal law, criminal justice, laws of evidence, and even corporate law when he sat down to watch I, Robot.

While the movie didn’t do much for Will Smith’s career, the seed it planted in Hallevy’s mind helped advance legal theory surrounding future crimes committed by intelligent machines to a point at which it’s now keeping pace with — if not out ahead of — the technologies themselves. [more]

Autonomous ErgoChair: a review

Autonomous ErgoChair

The Autonomous ErgoChair. It also comes in all sorts of much more interesting colors.

Before getting to the brass tacks of this post – a review of an office chair made by a company called Autonomous – I’d like to get on the record that Autonomous is an interesting-as-hell company. I mean, how many other outfits selling sit-stand desks or tabletop sit-stand desk adapters also offer, for all of $19, a corrugated fold-out (called, appropriately, Cardboard) that, with some extremely basic origami, converts any table or desk into a standing desk? Much less also produce, as Autonomous also does, a telepresence robot (in this case named Clone)?

Autonomous ErgoChair

The ErgoChair cuts a sharp figure from behind.

Autonomous’s office chair, called the ErgoChair, is closer to the mainstream of office accoutrements than is the Clone. It’s also something I was looking for right around the time the folks at Autonomous reached out and offered up an ErgoChair for review. (They also offered up a SmartDesk 2 standing desk, which I reviewed here).

I have sat in the ErgoChair for a solid week now, in fact sitting much more than I otherwise would have given the sit-stand desk I use. I have done this extra sitting after a decade or so of using what was, at the time, a similarly priced Office Depot chair (which is to say, not a cheap office chair). And I write this review having spent a few months earlier in my career – at a doomed dot-com, appropriately – with a gold-standard Aeron office chair. Given these facts, and perhaps most importantly the fact that that my body (male, five-foot-ten, 170ish pounds, given to slouching) is not your body anyway, take my view on this piece of mail-order office furniture as one man’s opinion.

My view is that the ErgoChair is a really good office chair. It is wildly adjustable (while I’m always happy to delve into mechanical detail, it’s more efficient for us both to check out Autonomous’s YouTube video showing as much – plus the music is uplifting). The armrests raise and lower substantial amounts and slide both forwards-and-backwards and sideways. The seat tilts. It also lifts up. There’s excellent lumbar support. The headrest, which like the back of the chair is mesh and stays cool, is also adjustable (vertically as well as tilt angle). The coolest adjustment, though, is the chair’s ability (also adjustable) to lean back to the point that you’re well into recliner territory.

The ErgoChair comes extremely well-packed in a box whose contents took about 45 minutes to convert from sturdy components into an actual chair – with the help of, no surprise, an ergonomic Allen wrench that Autonomous includes.

Working from a home office, my naps can happen on the family room carpet under the dog’s watchful gaze. In an office environment, napping on the lobby carpet under the receptionist’s watchful gaze might well be frowned upon. With an ErgoChair, you could just lean way back and nod off. Bosses beware. (Or maybe bosses should just embrace: there’s no shortage of data showing that short naps are in fact productivity boosters).

And if you care – and despite not wanting to care, I care, given that the home office is a converted dining room about eight feet from the front door – the ErgoChair looks modern and sharp. I chose a black-on-black model, but there are tons of color options, most more interesting than my selection.

For comparison’s sake, my aging, similarly priced office chair adjusted nicely but had a less-flexible back. At times, during the first couple of days using the ErgoChair, I found myself leaning back and being surprised by the give (which itself is adjustable). This passed with time.

The only aspect of the chair I miss from my older model is the seat itself. I sort of sank into the old Office Depot model. The ErgoChair’s seat is soft to the touch but, if it were a mattress, it would be classified as firm. I’ve gotten used to this, too. And frankly, for those of us who stand half the day or longer anyway, a slightly harder chair is as much a positive as a negative. You don’t sink in and find yourself on your duff slouching severely seven hours later. Certainly the ErgoChair seat is soft enough for napping either way.

The ErgoChair is not the best office chair money can buy. If you care to spend five times more, you can pick up a Herman Miller Embody, for example. Or feel free to snag an Aeron for two-three times the price. But for $299 plus $39 shipping, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better chair than the Autonomous ErgoChair. One man’s opinion, of course.

Autonomous SmartDesk 2 sit-stand desk: a review

Autonomous SmartDesk 2 image

The Autonomous SmartDesk 2, Business Edition, shortly after assembly.

It’s probably an overstatement, and it’s become cliché, but there’s enough truth to it that it bears repeating: Sitting is the new smoking. And so when shopping for a desk, the smart money is on sit-stand.

There are, obviously, simple standing desks. I have two problems with these. One, standing can become as monotonous as sitting. Two, I’m a writer and work odd hours, which means I play odd hours – in my case, this can mean going for a run over lunch. After running 6-7 miles, I typically want to take a load off my legs. So whatever the solution, it would have to be a sit-stand desk.

The folks at Autonomous sent me the equivalent of a review copy of such a desk. In this case, it’s a 53-inch by 30-inch, walnut surfaced, grey-undercarriaged SmartDesk 2 Standing Desk Business Edition (the link defaults to the $299 Home Edition; the Business Edition retails for $399 and pops up when you scroll down a slight bit and click on the Business Edition option; shipping and handling is $49 for either one).

At about 29 inches, just right for sitting.

The Home and Business Editions look the same. The difference is under the hood, so to speak: the Home Edition has a single motor that moves the desktop up and down from 29 inches to 47 inches, with a 220 pound capacity and a one-year warranty. The Business Edition on which I now type sports dual motors and rises from 24 inches to 51 inches, with a 300-pound capacity and a five-year warranty. Another difference between the two, and perhaps decisive to the highly impatient, is that the Business Edition moves up and down 2.3 times faster than the Home Edition’s one inch per second.

And at 51 inches, roughly armpit height for the average American adult male, and well into power-forward territory as far as standing-desk height.

Unless you’re using Olympic plates as monitor stand, I have a hard time imagining why one would need the extra 80 pounds of desktop weight capacity. Being able to go as low as about two feet could well benefit folks with small children, as that’s low enough for the tiniest of chairs. On the other end, I can tell you that 51 inches is up to roughly the armpits of a 5’10” adult male. For the record, someone my height will probably find the 40-42 inch range maximally comfortable – I’m at 42.1 inches as I stand right now. While writing the previous paragraph, I was at 29.1 inches.

As far as the speed of motion, 2.3 inches per second may or may not sound like a lot, but it’s about a foot every five seconds, which is pretty damn fast, as the below video shows.

While functionally similar, I will say that having electric motors do the work is much more satisfying than manually raising and lowering the Varidesk I use in another workspace. It also allows for leaning on the desk, which Varidesk users do at their peril while standing.

In addition to the manual up-down controls on a sleek black keypad anchored to the bottom of the desk, there are four preset options. You set these by raising or lowering the desk to the desired height, holding a button labeled “M” until the LED displaying this height starts to blink, and then pressing one of four buttons labeled 1 through 4. I’ve set two, at 42.1 inches and 29.1 inches. Press a button and, 10 seconds of quiet whirring later, the table arrives at the desired height like a dog much more obedient than mine. I imagine that, in an office environment, this feature might attract pranksters – who could, say, change my 29.1-inch preset 1 to the maximum 51 inches. I will not be teaching my daughters about the presets.

Otherwise, from a functional perspective, the SmartDesk 2 Business Edition is solidly built, looks sleek, has nice silvery caps in the far corners for plugs and other wires to descend through. Weighing in at probably 80-90 pounds, it doesn’t move at all with my typing despite being on carpet. In all, this is a very nice product to use. The question you might have, then, is how easy or hard it was to assemble. So let’s talk about that.

Probably the hardest thing about assembling the SmartDesk 2 will be getting in into your dwelling. That’s not all that difficult, either, really, thanks to the fact that it arrives in two boxes: The first, 38 pounds, holds the desktop; the second, 67 pounds, contains the legs, feet, motor(s), and control electronics. The desktop is unwieldy but not all that heavy; the legs etc. box is heavy but small enough to allow leverage. I moved them both around solo without a problem.

I will not drag you through the entire assembly process, which took just over an hour. My experience assembling various Ikea furniture was probably helpful, but this is straightforward, step-by-step stuff. The printed instructions sufficed; had they not, there are videos on the Autonomous website. I did take a few photos, which I’ll drop below. I will say that, unlike Ikea furniture, I assembled this with a sort of Christmas-morning anticipation, one which heightened right off the bat when I noted that the dual motors are called, technically, linear actuators. But you don’t rush these assembly experiences, I’ve learned from various Ikea fails (none cataclysmic). It all came together with impressive precision, and as with my Ikea constructions, I’m confident that the bolts are tight, having tightened them myself.

Bottom line: This is an attractive, robust piece of office furniture that looks great and is easy on both body and budget.

With that, I leave you with a few assembly-related images.

The SmartDesk in its travel duds.


The desktop upon opening of the box. The packaging, particularly around the edges, is damn-near bulletproof.


The undercarriage box upon opening. Lots of heavy foam padding here.


The desk, a little over an hour later, assembled and ready to go. The linear actuators are at the top of each leg, connected to the control box (center), which in turn is connected to the keypad (lower left). It is critical, at this point, to turn the desk over to enjoy optimum functionality. Note that Autonomous sends along cable stays for the truly organized; I made due with the twisty ties that had bound the cables during shipment.