Louis Michaud’s Vortex Engine

You’ve heard of wind and solar. But what about harnessing other forces of nature for energy? Like, tornadoes. That’s Louis Michaud’s idea. He’s an engineer who dreams of powering the world with tornado machines.

Flora Lichtman of The Adaptors Podcast filed this story for the public radio show Marketplace.

Hear more stories like this on The Adaptors Podcast.


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Rome BURNS: Russia to raise Ukranian natural gas prices

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Just around lunchtime today, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, sat down to chat with Aleksei Miller, the head of Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopoly.

“So how’s it going?” Medvedev began, according to a transcript of the conversation released by the Russian government. “Anything interesting happening? Anything good going on?”

“We’re exporting 162 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe,” Miller said, adding that in 2013 more than half of that volume flowed through pipelines that transit Ukraine.

The transcript didn’t say whether the men were smiling.

Moscow shut down those pipelines during a pricing dispute with Kiev in January, 2009, causing widespread wintertime fuel shortages in Europe during a time of peak demand.

Miller’s statement seemed designed to remind the European Community that it could happen again if the West, in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, leveled sanctions against the Kremlin.

The EU imports nearly a third of its natural gas requirements from Russia.

After a bit more chit chat from Miller, Medvedev got to the point of the meeting.

“So let’s talk about current events,”  Medvedev said. With theatrical understatement he continued: “How are relations with Ukraine? Are there any new problems going on, or is everything as it was in the past?”

Following the revolution in Maidan square, of course, very little between Ukraine and Russia remains the same except for the fact that the Kremlin supplies Kiev with some 70 percent of its natural gas requirements. Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the price of that gas by nearly one-third late last year in a deal that convinced the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to step back from establishing closer economic and political ties with the EU. That move triggered the political revolt that sent Yanukovych fleeing to Russia, where he remains.

Miller went on to tell Medvedev that Ukraine, whose economy is crashing, is 1 billion 529 million dollars behind in its natural gas payments to Russia.  “Ukraine hasn’t fulfilled its obligations,” Miller said. “Gazprom has decided not to extend the subsidy beginning the first of next month.”

Medvedev was ready with a reply.

“He who doesn’t pay his bills must understand that there will be negative consequences,” he said.

The Russian prime minister and Gazprom chief executive met in a town called Gorky, outside Moscow. Gorky means “bitter” in Russian. It’s not clear whether the venue was intended deliberately to underline the Kremlin’s mood regarding developments in Kiev.

Afterwards, the Russian government’s Twitter feed reported the news:


Правительство России ‏@Pravitelstvo_RF  5h

«Газпром» с апреля отменит льготы на газ для Украины в связи с неисполнением Киевом обязательств по контракту http://bit.ly/1eQpHeU


“From April Gazprom will curtail favorable gas pricing for Ukraine in connection with Kiev’s failure to fulfill contractual obligations,”  the tweet said.

Just as this registered on social media, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kiev, voicing Washington’s support for the new Ukrainian government and, as the saying goes, putting money where his mouth is. Kerry offered 1 billion dollars in loan guarantees to help offset the price rise in Russian gas.

In related economic news, the ruble fell to a record low against the dollar yesterday in reaction to developments in Ukraine.  With more value for the American currency, it would be a good time to visit Russia if you were inclined to do so.

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Army’s micro-grid for combat zones

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

An unlikely energy innovator – the US Army – is preparing to deploy a radically redesigned combat outpost featuring a smart micro-grid. COPs are basic military camp for about 100 soldiers. They need to function like small communities – with water, sanitation, food, and power.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, supplying these units with fuel and water became the single greatest point of vulnerability. The new COPs cut fuel demand by at least 50%, which means fewer caravans, and fewer casualties.

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Rome BURNS: Italy’s power grid, taken by storni

Robert Rand, BURN Editor 

Not long ago, as Rome passed through the final weeks of winter, a swirling black cloud flew in from the hills outside the city just before sunset. It whorled in the skies over my neighborhood, elegantly dancing to and fro and inside out. I’d never seen anything like it. My daughter thought it was a tornado. I was mesmerized. The whole thing seemed extraterrestrial.

The show took place every day in the late afternoon for more than a week. The performers were flocks of European starlings — gli storni – come to roost in Rome and elsewhere in Italy by the many, many thousands.

Despite the beauty of their aerobatics, the starlings are not particularly welcomed here.

There are some obvious reasons.


A more subtle and serious effect is the occasional blackout caused by way too many birds perching on electric power lines all at the same time. In the town of Brindisi, in the heel of southern Italy, outages once resulted when an army of starlings simultaneously took flight from their power line roost, triggering oscillations that interrupted the flow of electricity.

In Fasano, about a hundred miles north of Brindisi, the combined weight of the starlings caused high tension wires – in the words of a local newspaper – to be “sent into a tailspin.” In the Tuscan town of Montecarlo, a newspaper reported frequent blackouts and called the starlings “a scourge.” The city urged hunters to take up arms.

I checked with Terna, the Italian transmission grid operator, and was told that Rome did not experience any starling-induced blackouts this year. The city has used loudspeakers and light projectors to repel the birds with some success. A Terna spokesperson did point out that the company works with environmental groups to study the interaction between high-voltage lines and birds. One objective is to minimize avian collisions.

More than 9,000 special noise-making “dissuaders” – like this one – have been installed on the Italian grid to make power lines easier to see by birds in flight.

Bird grid dissuader


Here is Terna’s 2011 “Sustainability Report.”

By the way, “murmuration” is the word used to describe an airborne starling ballet. Daniel Butler, a writer for the Telegraph, described the science behind it this way:

Each bird strives to fly as close to its neighbours as possible, instantly copying any changes in speed or direction. As a result, tiny deviations by one bird are magnified and distorted by those surrounding it, creating rippling, swirling patterns. In other words, this is a classic case of mathematical chaos (larger shapes composed of infinitely varied smaller patterns). Whatever the science, however, it is difficult for the observer to think of it as anything other than some vast living entity.

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What goes down: Stein’s Law and the cost of energy

Carey King, BURN Contributor

Stein’s Law states: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

For nearly 60 years after World War II, the percent of U.S. household income spent on food and energy – or personal consumption expenditures (PCE) – declined.

But then things started to change. Again. Between 1998 and 2002, PCE for food and energy stopped declining and started increasing. The PCE for “food + energy” reached a minimum of 18% in 2002. Whether or not this will be the minimum percentage PCE for “food + energy” for the US for all time is a good question.

But this percentage cannot decrease forever because energy and food will never be free – back to Stein’s Law. As we’ll see shortly, the reversal of these trends could be an indicator of a fundamental transformation for our economy and society.

Carey King - Food_Energy chart

Figure 1. Personal consumption expenditures of US households expressed as a percentage of total expenditures. Data are from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis Table 2.3.5. Food = “Food and beverages purchased for off-premises consumption” and “Food services and accommodations.” Energy = “gasoline and other energy goods and of electricity and gas.”

The reason to consider both the PCE for energy and food is because food was fundamentally an energy source of pre-industrial power from humans and animals. Before fossil fuels and significant industrialization using wind, wood, and water power in the early 1800s, food was the major energy resource for prime movers.

The food that animals and people ate was the fuel that powered them, and therefore the machines and tools they operated. Thus, the quantity of food and fodder produced from the land had a major influence on the amount of power for agriculture and a little industry.

In a large sense, fossil fuels and subsequent technologies drove down the relative cost of food and energy. Those energy-dense resources enabled the technical change that generated economic growth. Fossil fuels also meant fewer and fewer workers were needed to grow food and mine energy sources.

Since 2002, we have been spending an increasingly higher proportion of our personal income on food and energy, due to resource scarcity. Thus, there has been an increased demand for more investment (capital and labor) in these basic needs.

In other words, food and energy have become increasingly scarce – and therefore, more expensive – because of the rising demands for each around the world.

As a result, an increasing proportion of workers and other resources may be needed to produce the same quantity of food and energy (fossil and renewable), possibly with declining per capita consumption. This is the exact opposite trend of fossil-fueled industrialization!

The truth is that constraints in food and energy supplies, together with consumption patterns (and demographics, too, but that’s another subject) have caught up with much of the ‘advanced’ economies (e.g. EU, US, Japan). Unconventional oil alternatives – oil sands, deepwater, oil shale, biofuels – don’t have the same level of pure energetic value as energy sources of the past.

In considering the ongoing debate about American jobs and decreasing unemployment rates, note how the oil and gas commercials tout the jobs they create. Then, remember the figure in this article. Historically, the economy has grown the most when we’re moving jobs out of the energy sectors.

The rising cost of energy is a primary cause of our slow economy, and there is a limited rate at which we can adjust to this new reality. The sooner citizens, businesses, and politicians accept this fact, the better we will be in the future.

Carey King is a research associate in the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy. King researches energy systems and how they work together and within the environment. King contributes blog posts for Environmental Research Web, under Energy – The Nexus of Everything.

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