Navigant Research Blog

Musk’s Hyperloop Vision Takes Shape

— August 12, 2013

After months of speculation, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has published his plan for the “Hyperloop” – a superfast transport system that, in theory, can transport people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes and could be built for 10% of the cost ($6 billion) that the California High Speed Rail Authority is currently spending on a train between the two cities ($68 billion).  A combination of the Concorde, an air hockey table, and a rail gun, the system could also, according to the Silicon Valley billionaire, produce more energy than it consumes.

Musk’s 57 page Hyperloop-alpha plan outlines the construction, operation, safety, and cost considerations for this new form of transportation, which hurls small capsules through two elevated tubes.

Composing 40 capsules that hold 28 passengers each, the Hyperloop would transport passengers from L.A. to San Francisco for $20 one-way, based on a 20-year amortization of the $6 billion cost to build the system.  The whole system could be powered by solar arrays on the outside of the tubes.

Each aerodynamically designed capsule, or pod, contains an air compressor, a compressor motor, space for passengers, and a battery pack (among other, smaller components).  The air compressor at the front of the capsule takes in air as the capsule moves through the tube.  Most of the air is dispelled out the tail of the capsule, which helps decrease drag and air pressure at the front of the capsule.  Vacuum pumps create low air pressure within the tube to further decrease drag. Some air is compressed, cooled, and pushed out the bottom of the capsule to produce an air cushion on which the capsule is suspended.

Now Go Build It

The capsule is accelerated and decelerated by a linear induction motor; the rotor of the system is mounted on the bottom of the capsule; and a stationary component that provides power to the capsules is attached to the inside of the tube.  At cruising speed, the capsule coasts on a cushion of air.

Musk proposes that the Hyperloop be constructed on top of the I-5 corridor to minimize right-of-way issues.  The steel tubes, which could be prefabricated and welded together onsite, would be mounted on pillars 20 feet to 100 feet tall.  The whole system would require 21 MW of energy annually and would produce 57 MW with the solar panels attached to the top of the tubes.  Energy is stored in each capsule’s battery pack.  Musk’s plan also takes into account safety issues such as earthquakes, power outages, and other emergency situations.

Whether this futuristic vision will ever be realized is questionable.  For his part, Musk says he is currently too wrapped up with Tesla and SpaceX to tackle another revolutionary transportation technology.  He’s inviting others to take on the task of building the Hyperloop.


Wind Power is Killing Birds and Bats – So What?

— August 2, 2013

That wind farms kill birds and bats is not news.  Nevertheless, a recent study by S.K. Smallwood, has gained attention recently for finding that estimates of mortality rates may be understated.  Smallwood’s conclusions have been overstated in the press – cited as another reason to mistrust renewable energy.  In the wind industry and in wildlife protection circles – among the experts, in other words – the findings are less alarming.  Two reasons stand out: a) the number of birds killed by wind power generation is minimal compared to other sources of human-caused bird kills, and b) the wind industry continues to collaborate with wildlife agencies to create solutions that will further minimize windmills’ affects on wildlife.

To put things into perspective, Smallwood’s estimate of 573,000 bird kills at wind farms (based on 2012 wind energy levels) pales in comparison to other human-caused bird deaths. In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the following numbers of annual bird deaths from human causes:

  • Hundreds of millions of deaths (estimates vary widely) from collisions with buildings
  • 4 to 50 million deaths from collisions with communication towers
  • 174 million deaths from collisions with  transmission lines
  • 60 million deaths from collisions with cars
  • 72 million deaths from pesticide poisoning
  • Up to 2 million deaths from oil and wastewater pits
  • 39 million deaths due to cat predations

These figures are now outdated, and have likely increased, further dwarfing bird kills at wind farms.  Additionally, wind power generation poses much less risk to birds than other forms of energy generation.  It’s estimated that, in 2006, fossil-fuel power plants were responsible for 14.5 million bird deaths.

Night Off

Because wind power is a safer alternative for wildlife compared to other sources of energy, wildlife agencies and protection groups have been working with the wind industry for years to minimize impacts to all wildlife at wind farms while promoting wind energy development.  These efforts resulted in the 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines, which describes best practices for siting and surveying wind farms.  What’s more, wind developers are encouraged to take preemptive actions to avoid harming wildlife, such as siting farms as per the USFWS Guidelines, purchasing incidental take permits if there is an unavoidable risk of harming protected wildlife, and other mitigation strategies for potential impacts.  Even when all of these have been considered, deaths still occur, and some wind developers are taking matters into their own hands to minimize bird and bat kills.  Since finding a dead endangered Indiana bat at the company’s wind farm in 2011, Duke Energy pauses operation of the wind farm from dusk to dawn during the bat’s migration season to avoid future fatalities.  Other wind developers are now curtailing operations at wind farms when bird or bat migration is occurring.

Wind farms, however, are not excluded from wildlife laws, contrary to the thoughts of some. If wind developers choose to move forward without taking the above-mentioned precautions and the death of a protected species occurs, an investigation and lawsuit are possible.  This has occurred over the deaths of bald and golden eagles and Indiana bats on numerous occasions.

Birds and bats are being killed at wind farms, but not nearly to the same extent of other anthropogenic causes.  All forms of power generation are dangerous for wildlife.  Wind power is just less so.


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