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Caution ahead: Will more blackouts be the new normal?

June 30, 2014 by Klaus
Where were you for the great blackout of 2003? Most of us have a great story to tell from this day because 50 million of us in Ontario and eight U.S. states were plunged into darkness after an epic power failure.

Power was restored for many within a day, but for the rest of the week, businesses across the province faced mandatory or voluntary power restrictions leading to cutbacks and shutdowns.

The blackout was more than an inconvenience; it exposed some gaping holes in Ontario’s electrical grid. So, what’s changed in 10 years?

A lot, but not enough.

Research released earlier this year by Hugh Byrd, Professor of Architecture at the University of Lincoln, UK, and Steve Matthewman, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand found that this and other high-profile blackouts (there was an 18-hour country-wide one in Italy that same year, just to name one) are simply dress rehearsals for the future, when they will occur with greater frequency and increased severity.

In the report, Professor Byrd stated: “Western societies…are becoming ever more dependent upon electrical power yet supply will struggle to meet demand.”

Look around you right now – how much power are you using? On average, every household uses 25kWh of electricity every single day, which equals about $1,000 a year on your hydro bill. That may not seem like a lot, but remember, that’s an average.

So today, we remember the blackout almost nostalgically, but the reality is, our aging electrical grid is being stretched to the limit. Yes, the grid is tougher and smarter than it was 10 years ago, but it can still short out (the Superdome in New Orleans went dark for 30 minutes during the 2013 Super Bowl) or be torn down (the December ice storm proved that).

At every level, we have to start making the transition to something better, cleaner and more reliable. That means everyone – from governments to big corporations, small businesses to the average homeowner. Otherwise, as the report says, we’re likely to spend much more time sitting around in the dark.

Read the full report

Five tips for creating compelling infographics

June 16, 2014 by Klaus
Infographics are an incredibly powerful tool for conveying complex concepts in the simplest and most direct way possible. But you can’t simply slap one together and expect success.

The proliferation of easy-to-use, low-cost (and even free) tools have made the creations of infographics available to just about anyone with computer skills. Here are the five rules that we live by when creating effective infographics.

1) Identify what you want to accomplish. Understand the key messages you want to leave with your audience from the get-go. Then, be selective in the information you choose to include (and not include) in order to get your message across. Don’t overwhelm your audience by forcing them to work harder than necessary to find what they’re supposed to take away.

2) Know your audience. Tailor your content and use language that your audience will understand. In other words, don’t write in legal-speak unless you’re talking to lawyers.

3) Keep it simple. Your infographic should be clear and easy to understand. If it’s visually overwhelming, or contains too much information, readers will simply be confused.

4) Use colour for a good reason. Just because you have many colours to choose from doesn’t mean you should use them. Keep the colour palette simple and muted; accent colours should act as a guide to readers, not as the main focus.

5) Create visual unity. Infographics tell a story in a visually appealing way. Once you’ve selected the data to include, write your script. Every good story has a beginning, middle and an end – your imagery, colour palette and content will tell that.

An infographic is intended to engage your audience; the simpler and purer you make it, the more readily it’ll be understood.

Missed part 1 of about infographics? Read it now.

Solar power: What do you know about the most abundant energy source in the world?

June 02, 2014 by Klaus
Last month, we dug up a list of interesting facts about wind energy. But let’s not let the wind outshine the sun. Here’s our list of interesting facts about the most abundant energy source in the world.

1) 173,000 terawatts of solar energy strike the Earth continuously. That’s more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use.

2) Each month, a 1-kilowatt solar panel array will prevent approximately 170 pounds of coal from being burned and saves more than 100 gallons of water. But most solar power systems produce far more than simply 1-kilowatt per day.

3) The space industry was an early adopter of solar technology. In 1958, the Vanguard 1 was the first artificial earth satellite powered by solar cells.

4) The world’s largest solar electric system is in Germany. Bavaria Solarpark covers 62 acres and comprises 57,600 photovoltaic panels.

5) Germany holds the record for solar power output. Speaking of Germany, on September 29, 2013, German solar PV met 33.5% of its electricity demand over a 24-hour period. This sent prices on Germany’s electricity exchange below zero for six hours – meaning that conventional power plants that do not easily ramp up (or down) were PAYING customers to
TAKE their power.

6) The Vatican is solar powered. The Vatican is the first nation state to be completely solar-powered.

7) Solar panels work at extreme temperatures. Although they are most effective in the sunny equatorial regions, they work just as well in snow-bound countries. They need sun, not heat.

8) The biggest obstacle is storage. Engineers continue to build cheaper and more efficient solar panels so scientists are working on new methods of storing solar power, including testing quinone flow batteries and converting solar energy into hydrogen instead of electricity.

9) Canada gets more hours of sun per year than Germany. Germany holds the record even though that country averages about 1,550 hours of sunlight per year. Much of Canada gets about 2,000 hours of sunlight a year.

10) Canada ranks 29th in per capita solar production. Not surprisingly, Germany ranks number one, with Italy and Czech Republic following in distant second and third place.