The fiscal cliff and future of the wind energy industry

For the last two months, virtually every national television news broadcast has at least mentioned the "fiscal cliff" in one way or another. We have been inundated with stories about how politicians in Washington, D.C. have been trying to hammer out a deal to prevent a series of tax increases and spending cuts that are set to go into effect at midnight tonight.

There has been so much coverage of this topic that the term "fiscal cliff" topped the list of words or phrases people would most like to see banned, released earlier today by Michigan's Lake Superior State University. But, as annoying as it may be to hear those two words repeated over and over again, they carry great significance as you read this, particularly for the wind energy industry.

A tax credit for the construction of wind energy systems – covering roughly 30 percent of the building costs – is among those on the chopping block should we topple over that dreaded cliff later tonight. According to the American Wind Energy Association, economic uncertainty has cost 10,000 jobs over the last three years in this industry, and another 37,000 could be lost if the tax credits are allowed to expire.

The impact on the wind energy sector and the U.S. economy

With the current boom in domestic oil and natural gas production sweeping the United States, the expiration of these tax credits could cripple the wind energy industry's ability to remain competitive. This would also be a harsh blow to the alternative energy technologies sector as a whole, not to mention the environmental concerns related to the controversial hydraulic "fracking" process being used to access fossil fuel reserves in shale rock formations. And, with 37,000 newly unemployed Americans coupled with middle class families paying higher taxes, we could see another recession.

In November, The Huffington Post reported that wind energy companies were anticipating difficult days ahead because of the fiscal cliff. Some began to lay off workers, including military veterans who had received training through federal green jobs programs that help them adjust to civilian life.

"We heard it was coming up, but we weren't sure when," said Andrew Sipres, a military veteran and employee at a Colorado-based wind turbine manufacturing facility. "One day we all showed up, we met in the lunchroom and they told us what was going on. Then one by one they took us into the office."

Sipres and his co-workers are the people building wind turbines, and they are the ones who may lose their jobs. If we have fewer individuals building these systems that suddenly cost 30 percent more to manufacture than they used to, the industry will be in dire straits.

What can be done to save the wind energy industry?

Nearly two weeks ago, CNNMoney reported that the American Wind Energy Association said the industry could survive if the tax credits were phased out over a reasonable time period, rather than disappearing in one fell swoop should fiscal cliff negotiations stall at the eleventh hour.

Association officials told the news source that the wind energy sector will be able to compete with coal and natural gas by 2018 as they bring manufacturing costs down, but only if the tax credits remain through that point. Natural gas plants are currently about 35 percent cheaper to build.

"We need to close that gap," Steven Lockard, chief executive of a Scottsdale, Arizona-based turbine blade manufacturer, told CNNMoney. "Costs have come down 90 percent in the last two decades, but our job is not done yet."

The way to continue to get those costs down is to invest in innovative alternative energy technologies. As new, cutting-edge joining methods for metal are developed, including metal brazing and soldering techniques, the industry can succeed in providing sustainable and affordable power that is safer for the environment than our current alternatives. At midnight tonight, we will find out what the future holds.

NASA to build LED lighting system to help astronauts sleep

Insomnia and sleep deprivation on Earth can be annoying, but in space it can be life-threatening. That's why NASA has launched a plan to replace the fluorescent lights on the U.S. section of the International Space Station (ISS) with solid-state lighting modules.

These new systems will be made up of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, that can transition between red, white and blue hues. While those colors happen to match the American flag, the idea behind this move is less patriotic and more about helping astronauts get adequate sleep while on extended missions in space.

"The effects of insomnia, such as irritation and depression, not to mention the tendency to make mistakes, are extremely dangerous in the space station, due to its closed and pressurized quarters," reads an article for Ubergizmo.

A NASA study conducted in 2001 showed that roughly 50 percent of astronauts had to take sleeping pills while in space. But, these new LEDs will help them get some much-needed shuteye by mimicking the different times of day we experience here on Earth. Blue, for example, is supposed to promote energy and represent daytime, while red signals the transition from day to evening and helps them fall asleep.

According to NASA officials, the new lighting system will be tested in 2016 and will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $11.2 million to install on the ISS. LEDs require state of the art thermal management technologies in order to run properly without overheating. Getting a replacement while in space is obviously more complicated than it would be on Earth, so these systems must be meticulously designed.

If executed properly, American astronauts will be better equipped to deal with the rigors of long-term space deployments.

Climate change in western Antarctica and the importance of alternative energy technologies

The effects of climate change and a rising global sea level were made abundantly clear to New York City residents when entire neighborhoods and subway tunnels were flooded as Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast in October.

Now, a new report sheds even more light on this topic. According to an article in Nature Geoscience, scientists conducting research in western Antarctica for more than five decades have concluded that temperatures have risen by double the previously estimated amount.

Since 1958, temperatures in the region have gone up by 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit, leading researchers to classify it as one of the fastest-warming parts of the world. If this trend continues, massive ice formations are likely to melt and lead to a significant rise in the global sea level.

"The surprises keep coming," Andrew J. Monaghan, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and participant in the study, told The New York Times. "When you see this type of warming, I think it's alarming."

The Times article points out that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise sea level around the world by 10 feet or more over a few hundred years. While this may seem like a small amount over a long time period, the gradual effects on coastal areas, particularly during hurricanes and other natural disasters, as well as sea life and the global environment, will be significant – potentially catastrophic.

That is why it is critical that we invest in alternative energy technologies that will stem the tide of climate change and the subsequent damage it will yield. Everything from improved methods of bonding battery terminals to solar module soldering techniques will help us become more efficient at producing, storing and utilizing clean energy.

Doing so will reduce carbon emissions and hopefully begin to reverse decades of harm done to the Earth's environment.

The rise of ‘green skyscrapers’

With each passing day, strides are being made in alternative energy technologies that paint a bright picture of what the future holds for our planet. Sustainable power sources are highly sought after as replacements for coal and fossil fuels that we currently burn en masse to the detriment of the environment.

As these technologies develop, we are seeing more and more individual projects making use of innovative green approaches to construction and energy efficiency. Take , for example, the new PNC Bank global headquarters expected to be built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This "green skyscraper" is being designed to take advantage of a series of alternative energy technologies that will not only be better for the surrounding environment, but also provide a more pleasant workplace for company employees.

"The building 'breathes' with a double-skin facade: a natural ventilation system that has a glass outer weather and air barrier and an inner layer with automated air vents, a wood curtain wall, and manually operated sliding doors," writes Ariel Schwartz, a senior editor at Co.Exist. "A series of automatic sensors on both layers open up the building for air when the weather is nice."

Add to this a "solar chimney," which pulls warm air and exhaust up through the center of the building as the double skin draws fresh air in, and this will be a bastion of energy efficiency. Not to mention, there will also be a series of photovoltaic solar cells on top of that chimney.

As Schwartz explains, 91 percent of the building will be lit by daylight, drastically reducing energy consumption from lamps and overhead lighting systems. She also describes her favorite part of the design – glass-walled "outdoor-spaces." These areas, located every five stories, will reflect the season outside. Imagine being indoors but feeling like you're sitting outside in a garden on a beautiful summer day while you eat lunch or collaborate with a colleague.

Thanks to state-of-the-art solar module soldering techniques and other leading alternative power solutions, city skylines may soon be populated with energy-efficient skyscrapers like this one.

DARPA’s ‘robotic mule’ continues to make strides

In October, we took a look at an innovative endeavor from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In conjunction with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) and Boston Dynamics, DARPA is developing a "robotic mule" to assist military personnel in the field.

Known as the Legged Squad Support System, or LS3, it can carry up to 400 pounds of equipment across treacherous terrain at roughly 20 miles per hour. A series of state-of-the-art sensors allow the mule to map out the surrounding area and navigate various obstacles.

For the last two weeks, DARPA and MCWL researchers has been putting it through the paces in the woods of central Virginia to show the progress being made on the project. A video posted online highlights some impressive feats on the part of the mule, including its ability to recognize and respond to voice commands, step over felled trees and follow a human leader throughout a simulated urban environment with narrow passageways.

At one point in the woods, the mule fell down a hill into a muddy ditch and righted itself with no assistance from a human being, then continued on its journey.

"This was the first time DARPA and MCWL were able to get LS3 out on the testing grounds together to simulate military-relevant training conditions," said Lt. Col. Joseph Hitt, DARPA program manager, in a press statement. "The robot's performance in the field expanded on our expectations, demonstrating, for example, how voice commands and 'follow the leader' capability would enhance the robot's ability to interact with warfighters. We were able to put the robot through difficult natural terrain and test its ability to right itself with minimal interaction from humans."

DARPA officials said they even expect U.S. warfighters to be able to use the mule for charging batteries in radios and other handheld devices in the field.

Advanced methods of bonding dissimilar metals will help researchers continue to make improvements in the LS3 program, building future mules that can handle increasingly difficult situations.

Green taxis help save the environment

As evidenced by previous posts in this blog, it is impossible to stress the importance of alternative energy technologies enough. Solar and wind power have come a long way in the last decade, and as we continue to develop innovative ways of making these power sources more efficient and affordable, they will play an increasingly significant role in the preservation of our global environment.

Battery and energy storage technologies are perhaps equally important in the struggle to curb climate change and pollution. With the world's population climbing at the fastest rate in history, there are more and more automobiles hitting the streets every day.

Consider major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. The vehicle traffic alone in these cities accounts for staggering amounts of greenhouse emissions. And, it's not just individual car owners contributing to this. Think of the thousands upon thousands of taxis transporting people to and from points all throughout these cities.

Thankfully, several cities are beginning to recognize the benefits of a green cab fleet. As a recent article in The Atlantic Cities points out, a fleet of all-electric taxis is awaiting what many feel is an inevitable approval from the county government to launch next year in Arlington, Virginia.

The city of Chicago started its own green taxi program last year, and across the pond in London they have been embracing hybrid taxis since 2004, the news source reports. In fact, this past summer, the city tested out five zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell cabs that can travel up to 250 miles before needing to be recharged.

Through state-of-the-art bonding of battery terminals and energy storage technologies, the harmful emissions in these metropolitan meccas can be drastically reduced, while air quality improves by leaps and bounds.

Manufacturing industry awaits fiscal cliff resolution

Manufacturing in the New York region, including the northern New Jersey and southern Connecticut areas, declined for a fifth straight month in December, according to a recent Bloomberg article. While there exists a healthy optimism about the future of manufacturing in that region over the next six months due to increased consumer spending, the future seems to hinge on the resolution of the fiscal cliff controversy in Washington, D.C.

"The biggest challenge for manufacturing is lack of confidence due to uncertainty in fiscal policy," Tom Simons, an economist at Jefferies Group Inc. in New York, told the news source. "That is slowing down activity. There are reasons for manufacturing to come back but it's going to be a couple of months before we start to see the acceleration."

More than $600 billion in tax increases and budget cuts are set to go into effect in 2013 if lawmakers cannot reach a resolution. The outcome of the ongoing negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on the Hill will directly impact manufacturing, not just in the Tri-State area, but throughout the U.S. and international markets as well.

While a resolution to the fiscal cliff debate that avoids such tax increases and budget cuts would clearly be favorable to the industry, manufacturers must be prepared for the future regardless of what happens in Washington. Innovative technologies that improve process efficiency, lead to higher-quality products and lower manufacturing costs are essential for these markets to flourish.

Take consumer electronics for example. Aluminum has become a popular material used to create lightweight and portable devices. As such, advanced techniques for soldering aluminum have become highly sought-after. And with sapphire-protected camera lenses on smartphones catching on, manufacturers will benefit greatly from cutting-edge sapphire bonding processes.

One way or another, manufacturers will have to find creative ways to build products no matter what economic situation the country finds itself in.

West Virginia pipeline explosion raises controversy over automatic shut-off valves

A pipeline explosion destroyed four homes and transformed an 800-foot stretch of Interstate 77 in West Virginia into a blazing inferno last week. It took Columbia Gas Transmission workers roughly an hour to turn off the gas by manual shut-off valves, prompting federal investigators to launch an investigation.

According to the Ithaca Journal, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended the use of automatic or remote valves that can turn off the gas promptly in the event of an explosion, allowing emergency responders quicker access to the scene.

The automatic valves use a series of sensors that gauge changes in pressure, temperature and more, and then the line can be remotely shut down if needed. The pushback regarding this technology has been the cost, though advocates say the cost of not doing so is far greater.

"Safety costs money, and it can either cost money up front, or it can cost innocent lives and untold tragedy to others who are in the proximity of these pipelines when they explode," Jim Hall, chairman of the NTSB from 1994 to January 2001, told the news source. “The price is set. It's just do we pay it [upfront] now or pay it later?"

Thanks to innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals and sensor housing assembly, these valves can be built and installed for far less than they used to cost. And, as many regulators have pointed out, the property and equipment damages alone that results from an explosion can total millions of dollars, not to mention the threat of injury or death and subsequent lawsuits.

Whatever the NTSB investigation uncovers, all can agree that better preparing ourselves for dealing with such incidents is in everyone's best interests.

Solar-powered plane to fly around the world

What if someone told you that by the year 2015 an airplane would be flown around the world without burning a single drop of fossil fuel? Instead, the craft will be powered completely by solar energy.

In 2009, Solar Impulse took to the skies for the first time. The following year, its pilot, Andre Borschberg, set an endurance record after flying the uniquely designed plane for 26 consecutive hours. All this was done, as a recent article in Popular Mechanics explains, thanks to solar power and state-of-the-art onboard batteries that stored the energy for use even after the sun had set.

The news source reports that Borschberg and his colleague, Bertrand Piccard, have set even loftier goals for Solar Impulse and its presently under-construction sequel, Solar Impulse 2. In May of 2013, Borschberg will pilot the aircraft in 20 to 30-hour stretches from the Bay Area in California across the nation, landing at a several points along the way to New York City with an ETA of late June.

In 2015, Solar Impulse 2, which is currently halfway through the construction process, will set out on a journey around the globe. Borschberg told Popular Mechanics that the real challenge lies in building a plane that weighs as much as a car but uses the same amount of energy as a scooter and can fly for up to five consecutive days at a time – not exactly something you would expect to circuit the Earth in.

"In the 21st century, explorers have the responsibility of bringing solutions to the big problems of humanity," Piccard added, saying that Solar Impulse is about showing that you don't need fossil fuels to fly.

We've talked about alternative energy technologies in many forms throughout this blog, but powering an airplane with solar energy is a first. In a project like this, the aircraft must be designed and constructed with precision or it and the pilot will be in grave danger. Since something like this is not typically done, innovative solar panel soldering techniques are critical for the project's success.

Drones used to prevent illegal poaching

The African continent is littered with the carcasses of elephants, rhinoceros and other species that poachers are slaughtering to the point of near-extinction. An August 2011 article in Vanity Fair estimated that the elephant population in Africa during the 1970s and 1980s was cut from 1.3 million to roughly 600,000. This time is commonly referred to as the "great elephanticide."

In recent years, it has been estimated that there are 36,500 elephants poached on the continent for their ivory tusks every year. As the article explains, the rapid growth of the middle class in China has placed a premium on ivory and and animal skins, and poachers are all too willing to accommodate the increasing demand.

Johnny Rodrigues, a conservationist in Zimbabwe, told the news source about a watering hole from which all manner of creature drink.

"Elephant, giraffe, zebras, sable, kudu, warthog, baboons, buffalo, even hyenas and jackals – all your different species came, and each took its turn to take a drink," he said. "It was like Noah's Ark. And after all had a drink they came back a second time, each in its turn. And you say to yourself, Why can't humans learn from that? We'd kill each other to get to the water."

Now, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is taking a technology commonly associated with targeted killings and trying to prevent villainous criminals from poaching these majestic animals into extinction.

With a recent infusion of $5 million from Google's Global Giving Awards, the WWF is using unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known today as drones, to monitor and report illegal poaching activities across both Africa and Asia. The idea, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, is to detect and deter this criminal activity. With too few resources and such wide expanses of land, drones can cover ground that conservation and animal rights groups simply cannot.

But, unlike the drones used in military applications, these ones are unarmed. Thanks to state-of-the-art metal joining methods, the unmanned vehicles are lightweight, maneuverable, durable, and possibly a last line of defense for these endangered animals.