Archive for the 'Energy' Category

Technology Gateway Video

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

First the disclaimers: While I do work for NASA, I do not speak for them.  They employ me for my professional capabilities and on occasion my professional opinion. Nothing I say should ever be construed as anything other than my personal opinion. As a NASA employee I am allowed and often times encouraged to say what I think. This and the exceptional people I get to work with every day are what make NASA great and a great place to work.

I wish to respond to a number of things that have popped up on the web in the past few days and weeks. I do this here because I can control the message. Every issue has at least two sides but, only the writer gets to decide how to present them. I do not plan to make discussion of my work on this site a habit and I do not plan to allow any comments to this post. It is unlikely that any email on this topic sent to me will generate a reply. Undoubtedly, bits and pieces of this will be taken out of context and used to support claims and opinions which I myself do not hold.  Such is the nature of the Wild West Web (WWW).   All I can ever hope to do is to maintain the original content and context.  In my opinion, reputable sites will link back to this original content and others will not.

As you have likely already noted, a non-technical video on a patent application for a new technology was made public on a NASA website this past week. It is part of the overall innovation disclosure process.  It is just one of the ways NASA communicates with the public about what we do. As mandated by Executive Order, every civil servant is required to disclose an innovation or invention which may be a of value/benefit.  Google “NASA technology reporting” if you wish to read the executive order and how NASA has implemented it. If a patent application is filed, a video may be produced to inform the general public of the nature of the invention or innovation.  It may be a non-technical piece that communicates what this invention is about and why people might care.  Such is the case of the recent video on Surface Plasmon Polaritons.

As for what people are trying to read into this video, specifically my use of the word “demonstrated”, it is my professional opinion that the production of excess energy has been demonstrated when the results of the last 20+ years of experimentation are evaluated. There has been a lot of work done in the past 20+ years. When considered in aggregate I believe excess power has been demonstrated. I did not say, reliable, useful, commercially viable, or controllable.  If any of those other terms were applicable I would have used them instead. If anything, it is the lack of a single clear demonstration of reliable, useful, and controllable production of excess power that has held LENR research back. As a non-technical piece aimed at the general public, my limited media training has taught me that less information/detail is generally better than more. I did not produce or direct the video. While I saw the video before it was released, I did not learn of it’s release until the email started pouring in Thursday morning.

There have been many attempts to twist the release of this video into NASA’s support for LENR or as proof that Rossi’s e-cat really works. Many extraordinary claims have been made in 2010. In my scientific opinion, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I find a distinct absence of the latter. So let me be very clear here. While I personally find sufficient demonstration that LENR effects warrant further investigation, I remain skeptical. Furthermore, I am unaware of any clear and convincing demonstrations of any viable commercial device producing useful amounts of net energy.

So what does extraordinary evidence look like? As a trained scientist, I have been taught the historical standards for acceptance of experimental results or theories. Experiments and theories go hand-in-hand in what is known as the scientific method.  Both must be independently tested, replicated, or verified.  As a minimum, experimental results must be replicated by an objective and independent party. The nature of the test or replication needs to adhere to the spirit of the original experiment but, should be under the full design, implementation, and control of the independent tester. So, if a device is claimed to be capable of producing excess heat by nature of its operation (i.e., the consumption of fuel via a nuclear process), it must be operated properly. The way power input and power output are measured should be left up to the independent tester. This is standard scientific practice. What would take this to the next level (extraordinary evidence) would be to have the test be an open public test. The nature of the test and specific approach to executing the test should be made public. The conduct of the test should be open to additional 3rd party experts. And finally, the data should be publicly released. Further peer review of all aspects of the independent test is a must. Community consensus is the ultimate goal. Every attempted demonstration of a LENR device that I am aware of has failed to meet one or more of these criteria.

There is one last point I wish to cover. It has been claimed that I no longer give proper credit to Widom and Larsen for their theory. I disagree with that opinion. When I talk to my family, friends, or neighbors about some of my work. I do not cite Widom-Larsen Theory or any of their papers. There would be little point in doing so. Who the intended audience is must determine what you say and how you present the information. If a technically competent person comes across a non-technical presentation they should recognize it as such.  To expect that every form of communication is exactly what you need or want it to be is unrealistic.  The fact that Widom-Larsen Theory (WLT) was not explicitly mentioned in the video fit the intended audience. It is not an indication that I no longer believe WLT is likely the correct explanation behind LENR. I have been consistent in my professional briefings to indicate that I find WLT is likely correct. It appears in every briefing where I have had the time to include it and where the briefing was intended to be technical. I’ll point to my last public technical briefing at NASA GRC as evidence of this. I will continue to do so until such time that WLT has been demonstrated to be flawed. Quite frankly I am baffled that WLT is not receiving more wide spread attention. Applications of the theory appear to go far beyond LENR. The fact that I did not mention WLT in the Aviation Week article was a mistake on my part. It was a technical article to a technical audience. I communicated my regrets on that omission directly to Lewis Larsen and am quite willing to admit that error publicly – mea culpa.

How to Install a Solar PV Array – Part 1: Planning

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

This is the first in a multi-part series documenting what we hope will be the successful design, planning, installation, and evaluation of a residential solar photovoltaic array.  There are two main types of solar power installations: battery systems and grid-tie systems.  I chose the latter since we will not have to purchase or maintain a large number of batteries.  Instead, the electrical grid and our local utility will act as our battery.  This also gives me the ability to produce only a fraction of our power while purchasing what we need in excess of our own generation capacity in the usual way.  Our choice does not affect much of what you’ll see and learn in this series, however.

I’ve been watching the performance of photovoltaic (PV) panels improve and their price drop for a few years now.  Commercially available PV panels with efficiencies of 15% are on the market at reasonable cost.  Recent developments in power inverter technology allow for an economical and efficient inverter to be coupled directly to each individual panel.  I’ll address each of these shortly.  The recent federal rebates covering 30% of the cost finally pushed us over the edge and I will be placing a modular, expandable PV system on our home.  This first installment will cover how to set realistic goals for system performance, how to assess your site, and on-line tools to help with some aspects of the system design.

How much power do I need?

We originally had an electric water heater, oil furnaces and average efficiency air conditioning in our home.  I began charting our energy usage month by month beginning in 2007.  That year we used 22,000 kWhr of electricity. Over the next two years we replaced the electric water heater and oil furnaces with high efficiency natural gas units.  We also replaced the Air Conditioning units with more efficient 14 SEER ones.  Our incandescent lamps were upgraded to either compact fluorescent or LED lamps.  Doing those upgrades reduced our annual electricity usage to 15,800 kWhr or by nearly 30%.  I suspect there are other things we can do to lower our usage, like getting rid of the old refrigerator in the garage.  The point I’m trying to make here is that you need to estimate how much power you use in a typical year and that there are a number of things you can do to reduce your usage.  Installing solar power is not cheap and you need to do some homework before you decide to spend money on a new system.  Our power usage has been pretty stable since the upgrades and I feel that I have a good estimate for what we typically use in a year.

The state we live in, Virginia, has fairly good regulation of the utilities and has put in place reasonable laws governing how utilities have to work with residential customers who wish to generate their own power.  This will certainly vary from state to state.  In VA, we cannot generate power in excess of 10kW of what we use.  This means we cannot push more than 10kW of power back onto the grid.  Practically speaking, this means we probably should not plan to generate more than 10kW of peak power.  We are allowed to generate more than we use in any given month with the excess being carried over from month to month.  We are never allowed to carry over more than we use in a year.  Anything beyond that we provide to the utility for free.  You will need to read up on the regulations applicable to your specific location as this information will be used later.  Given the fact that fluctuations in solar energy due to the weather can cause year to year changes of 10% or sometimes 20% in certain locations, I wanted to limit our solar PV systems size so that we produced no more than 80% of what we expect to use in a typical year.  For our system, that meant we want to produce about 12,500 kWhr per year in an average year.

Where to place the array

The next thing you need to determine is just where are you going to put the solar panels.  If you have a heavily wooded lot, you will be severely limited as to where you can locate the solar panels and how big your array can be.  We are fortunate to have a large open lot that gets very little shade, so finding a place to put a large number of solar panels should not be a problem.   What I will call ‘full size panels’ are typically ~36″ wide and ~64″ tall.  These produce 180 to 230 Watts of power in full sun, depending upon make and model of the PV panel.  There are a lot of different ways to mount solar panels.  The two most common are roof mount and pole mount.  Which method you choose will be dictated by your site, structures, and aesthetics.  We want to mount ours on a roof, but none of our roof slopes have a good southern exposure.  Our best sections of roof are oriented with their  exposure to the south west.  I thought this would be huge problem because common sense indicates that you want your solar panels to face south.  I even went so far as to design a “solar shed” that I could place on our property with the proper southerly orientation.  Talking with a number of local folks who have solar panels and doing some simple searches on the web for information on how much energy you can get from the sun, it appeared that our area has an average of 4.6 hours of sun per day on average over the course of a year.  Doing the math (4.6 hours/day x 200W/panel x 365 days/year = 336kWhr/panel/year) told me that I’d need at least 37 optimally placed panels to produce the 12.5MWhr/year that I wanted.  That is roughly 600 square feet of solar panels or a 20′ by 30′ rectangle.  After spending some time with a tape measure in my backyard, I concluded that I had the room for an array of that size.  With those estimates, I wanted to build a new “solar shed” and put the solar panels its roof with the building oriented perfectly to the south for maximum illumination.

Expected performance – PVWatts

Once I got an estimate on what a new building would cost I began to think about how many more solar panels we could buy instead.  It turned out to be quite a few and I wondered if we had other more cost effective options.  Our house is a rancher with a lot of roof area.  The problem is that the house has the corners aligned with the cardinal directions N, S, E, & W, so the slope of the roof is mostly aligned towards the SW direction.  I was going to write a program to calculate how the annual power output varied when you changed the tilt of the panel (slope of the roof it is mounted to) or the orientation of the roof with respect to south, but I thought that someone had certainly already done the calculation.  Indeed they had.  I found a couple of journal articles which concluded that the orientation relative to true south was not too important.  After thinking a bit about the ecliptic, the length of the day as function of season, and how the power output varied with the cosine of the angle between the position of the sun and the vector normal the plane of the solar panel, I could see why this might be true.  A little more searching led me to a really neat online tool called PVWatts that calculates the power output of a solar panel.  PVWatts is extremely useful and pretty easy to use.  By clicking on a map of the US (a version covering Europe also exists) and filling in some values on how big your solar array is and how it is oriented, PVWatts will calculate the average month by month output an total annual energy production at your location.  It even includes the average local weather for cloud cover and the  variations in solar cell efficiency as a function of temperature.  This is exactly what I needed to size my solar array and evaluate the several possible installation locations.  You can save a lot of time by skipping the map clicking if you save the URL of the form that follows.

Relative change on output as a function of tilt

Relative change in output as a function of tilt

I ran a series of simulations for my location.  The first was to see the effect of varying the tilt of the solar panels.  From my reading on the subject, the consensus was that you wanted to tilt the solar panel to match the latitude of your location, in my case 37 degrees.  Other reading indicated that a tilt of less than the latitude would produce the maximum annual output.  My roof has a 10/12 slope or a tilt of 40 degrees. I ran PVWatts several times changing only the tilt of the array from 0 (flat on the ground) to 90 degrees (standing vertically as though mounted to a wall).  The first figure shows the relative monthly energy and annual energy output relative to a solar panel tilted to match the latitude.  What you can see in the figure (click the figure to see the full sized version) is that as the panel tilt is reduced, the power output increases in the summer months and decreases in the winter months.  The opposite it true as the tilt increases.  At my latitude, the sun goes almost directly overhead in summer and the power output of a panel tilted to 90 degree drops close to zero.  The last point on the graph is the total annual power generated.  It shows that over the course of a year, the total energy output varies only slightly for tilts within 10 degrees of the local latitude.  The tilt alters the amplitude of the seasonal variation.  You can use this to your advantage if you wish to change the amount of power generated in summer vs winter.  Based on my power use history, we use 2.5 times more power in the summer than we do in winter.

Relative change in output as a function of orientation

Relative change in output as a function of orientation

My second set of simulations explored what happens when you do not orient the panels to face due south.  The results of this came as a complete surprise.  Summer power production changed very little.  The reason for this is, during the summer, the sun travels over more than 180 degrees of azimuth.  It rises north of east and sets north of west.  The solar panel can only see 180 degrees of sky, so there is a range of orientations where the solar array will receive the maximum illumination.  What happens is that panels oriented slightly to the west produce their power later in the afternoon than those oriented due south.  At my location, orienting them to the west of south actually produces more power presumably due to a diurnal asymmetry in cloud cover and temperature.  My house roof is oriented almost exactly to the SW (221 degrees, green line in the figure).  With this orientation, the power output is reduced by only 20% in winter, but is still more than sufficient to supply almost all of our electrical needs.  The real important result is that putting the solar array on my existing house roof reduces the total annual energy generated by only 7%!  That means we have to add only another 2.5 solar panels to make up for the difference (40 instead of 37).  The extra cost is less than $3000 as compared to 10 times that for the cost of build a new “solar shed”.  This was a huge revelation.  PVWatts also includes some real world parameters for efficiency of the inverter, losses in the power wiring, and light loss due to dirty solar panels.  Based on the results of the PVWatts calculations, we are going to need to size our solar PV array at 9.2kW if we want to produce 80% of our electrical needs.  PVWatts will also calculate the annual savings based on your cost of electricity.

Panels, inverters, & mounts

PV panels come in a wide variety of sizes, voltages, and total power.  Depending upon which direction you plan to orient the panels, the panel length is a critical dimension to consider when deciding which panel to buy.  I plan to have one small array of 12 panels mounted on the garage and another 30 mounted on the house.  The total is 42 panels.  I put together a little spread sheet to help evaluate the panels and how many I could fit into the available space. On the detached garage I can mount the panels upright (Tall side vertical) and have the mounting rails run horizontally.  With that orientation I could fit twelve 230W panels in 2 rows of 6.  Over on the house, I hit a little snag.  Many panels are just a little over 64″ long, not including the required spacing between panels for the mounting hardware.  Standard roof framing has the rafters on 16″ centers.  The mounting rails are to be placed at the 25% and 75% positions along the length and have to align with the rafter (or you have to add stringers between them) for the lag bolts.  Do the math and you’ll soon realize that these long panels can only be mounted vertically unless you can tolerate having a 15″ gap between the columns of panels.  The available area on my house’s roof dictates that my panels have to be oriented horizontally into 6 rows of 5.  Otherwise, if I mount them vertically I cannot get 30 panels on that roof, only two rows of 12 panels.  You would think that the US manufacturers would have figured this out and made all of their panels shorter than 64″ long.  But no, the Asian manufacturers are the ones that make them the proper size.  For the garage, I decided to go with 230W panels made by Solon.  These are made in the US.  On the house, I’ll have 215W panels made by Sanyo.  Total rated power is 9210 watts.

Inverters are what turn the DC power from the solar panels into 240V AC power that you need to power your house.  Until recently, a typical installation had one or two of these in the system.  You would daisy chain you PV panels serially to produce a rather high DC voltage.  600V is not unusual.  There is nothing wrong with this, however in this arrangement, one under-performing panel (perhaps partially shaded) limits the current output of the entire string of panels.  The ideal way to convert the DC to AC would be to have an inverter for each panel.  This is now a viable option with the new micro inverters on the market.  Enphase makes a micro inverter that can be tied directly to the home’s AC power system.  This saves money since the system does not require a separate Automatic Transfer Switch to isolate the solar array from the grid when the power goes out.  These Enphase micro inverters turn off when the grid voltage is interrupted.  The micro inverters can also be daisy chained to simplify the system wiring.

You can find information on all of the hardware mentioned here in Part 1 over at Wholesale Solar.  Next time, we’ll get into the process of producing a system plan, obtaining the permits, and getting some of the preparatory work done.

LED Lamps

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Two styles of LED lamp

I’ve been searching for some LED lamps to test since I have been less than impressed by the very short lifetime of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). The CFLs do not last anywhere near the claimed 5,000, 8,000, or 10,000 hours. I think they might last that long if I turned them on and never turned them off, but that is not exactly my home lifestyle. So, I’ve been watching and waiting for some Suitable LED lamps to test. That day arrived when my wife said she was sick and tired of those CFLs in the kitchen that took 30+ seconds to get bright first thing in the morning. The problem was bad enough that I had switched one CFL back to an incandescent bulb months ago. When you want/need light you pretty much need it now. So I went to and bought a couple of R30 and PAR30 lamps.

I bought two completely different styles. One used five high power dimmable LEDs with a narrower 25 degree beam width and a 3000K color temperature. The other uses many lower power LEDs to produce a 5500K beam with a width of 40 degrees and could not to be used with a dimmer. I planned to use the latter in the kitchen where the distance between the lamp and the counter top was about 5′. The high power lamps are going in the ceiling of my family room 16′ above the floor. I selected the specific lamps based on their total lumen of output and their candle rating (includes the effect of varying beam width). My goal was to select a lamp that appeared to result in the same candle rating of the incandescent lamps I was replacing.

LED lamps are very intense, but not all that bright. These lamps in particular have clear lenses and produce a very direct light. The 40 degree spots did not work in the kitchen. We wanted a more diffuse light there. They do, however, work very well in the bedroom and the bath over the spa where they provide a delightful ambiance. Before I installed the high power spots in the ceiling fixtures I ran a quick test by putting them in a work light fixture. They produced a nice bright spot that was easily visible during the brightest part of the day on a wall 25′ away. I have since installed them and am very happy with the intensity of the light when I’m sitting at the computer underneath one of them and very pleased with way the light looks from across the room. It gives the room a completely different look. I’m planning to get two more for the other pair of corners in the family room.

I have to give these a thumbs up so long as they last their predicted lifetimes. The nature of the illumination is quite different from either incandescent or CFLs, so you should not expect that they will perform exactly the same way. In the right situation they perform better. In the wrong one, they can be worse. Given their current cost it will be an expensive experiment.

Capture the moment

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

I’ve been working on a special project at work. I can’t talk about the subject just yet, but hopefully soon. Let’s just say that it has the potential to change everything for just about everyone on the planet. I had the opportunity to present my work to management and it went exceptionally well. I have complete support for the next phase of the project. The events of the day are still soaking in and I wanted to capture the moment – here. This is really great news for everyone. Wish me well and I’ll do my best for you.

What’s Pickens up to?

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

T. Boone Pickens has been very active recently. You have probably seen his first series of commercials publicizing his plans (actually his actions) to promptly get the US off of its oil habit addiction. Many of you, myself included, noticed this, but paid little attention to his initial round of ads. He was recently promoting his plan in Las Vegas at a democratic conference. While this news was making its way off of front page news circles, a coworker emailed me an outline of his plan. While reading it the essence of the plan hit me. Yes, the initial series of infomercials touting the widespread availability and value of wind power are what you may be familiar with. The real genius of the plan is that it advocates the use of natural gas in transportation systems to bridge the gap leading up to technological demonstrations of alternatives like biofuel, electric cars, … . It took a while before the full impact of the plan sunk in. The key to any alternative energy source is the time it takes to be adopted and penetrate the market. One of the longest lived infrastructures are buildings (homes and commercial real estate have lifetimes in excess of 50 years). Automobiles, trucks, planes, and trains are a close second at 8-20 years. Pickens’ plan advocates the conversion of the transportation infrastructure from oil to natural gas. Aside from the cleanliness of natural gas relative to oil, the brilliance of this plan lies in the fact that existing vehicles can be converted from oil to natural gas at a minimal cost (relative to the cost of total replacement with hybrids or electrics – not to mention the infrastructure costs). I have had the opportunity to drive dual fuel vehicles that ran on both natural gas and gasoline. There is essentially no difference in convenience or performance. Imagine a tax on gasoline that funds a tax credit that offsets the cost of converting an existing gasoline/diesel vehicle over to natural gas. Both the increased cost of gas along with the rebate to offset the cost of conversion would quickly move us from oil to natural gas for our transportation needs. The US natural gas resources would create internal wealth, decrease significantly our trade deficit, and turn an unstable part of the world into something less important than it currently is. This is just a bridge to our new undefined energy future. It buys us time. It creates jobs and wealth within the US. By reducing our trade deficit, it gives us the capital to develop and deploy the long-lived solutions that are still in development. This is exciting and I am impressed with the plan. Let’s hope the message can be well formulated and spread widely.

Off shore leases for oil exploration

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Congress and the presidential candidates are on the verge of missing an opportunity. There are several bills working their way through congress to open up more off shore areas to oil exploration and, eventually, drilling. I propose that congress include a requirement that whomever obtains a lease to the new areas must install windmill electric generators at the site prior to exploration. The leases will be cheap, the infrastructure to get the power to land is to be included in the improvements they must build, and the energy produced must be purchased at a fixed price by the utility the power is fed into. In return the leases will be cheap. The oil companies should be required to meet a certain number of megawatts per acre of installed wind potential and in return will be able to buy that power at a discount for oil rig operations as well as obtain the leases at a significant discount. If the exploration does not pan out, they at least have power they can sell. This is very similar to the terms that were required of the early western settlers when they established mining claims. They needed to make site improvements beyond just digging the mine. This could be a win-win situation if only the dimwits in DC see the opportunity for what it is.

For the paranoid, are these leases the way for the oil companies to lock out wind power from prime wind locations?


Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

GM is looking to sell its Hummer brand and I think this is a huge mistake. Certainly the Hummer H1, H2, and H3 are obscene and their sale must come to an end. The Hummer name can undergo a transformation. Have you every heard an electric car? Hummer is the perfect name to associate with the sound they make. It is a marketing match made in heaven. GM should also use its Hummer name to manufacture and sell wind turbines. Again the marketing options are huge! We sell the electric cars and the windmills that power them. If GM sells the Hummer brand they deserve to go bankrupt.

Compact Fluorescent Lights

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008
Alternative to a CFL flood

Flood alternative

Last weekend I did a survey of my light fixtures at home and bought enough compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) to change nearly all of them over from incandescent. I’ve had a few CFLs in the house for a while and learned early on that paying for the good name brands results in lamps that last much longer and is worth the extra cost. I bought the GE brand because of the wide range of shapes, wattage, and colors available. I learned a few things this time around. You can get a lot more light out of that bedroom ceiling fixture with CFLs than you can with incandescent while not exceeding the power rating of the fixture and still use less energy. Some of the squatty globe style ceiling fixtures may require a smaller CFL form factor than you would like to use. The good news is that when you break a 23W CFL trying to make it fit, all of the glass and mercury is caught by the globe. I have a lot of X-10 switching in the house. It seems that the 3-wire X-10 equipment has no problem with the RF interference from CFLs. The two-wire switches can be a problem though. I have only one circuit, in the garage, that is problematic and I’ll follow up when I have a found a solution. The so called full spectrum (5700K) lamps are pretty blue and the warm white (2700K) lamps are very yellow at the lower wattage. The high wattage warm whites are much less yellow. Finally, I have yet to find a CFL spot or flood lamp that comes on bright when first turned on. They start out very dim and take a minute or more to approach full brightness. This can be good or bad depending upon what you need. In the master bath, I turn one of those on first in order to let my eyes adapt slowly. I like that a lot and I don’t need a lot of light when I am er… umm… sitting down for a while, however, in the kitchen I want those spots to be bright immediately. I found one lamp that is made of a conical spiral tube that works better as a flood.


Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I wonder how many folks are practicing some form of hypermiling without knowing it. For the past several weeks I’ve been employing a few of the most elementary tricks while in my 1998 Caravan. Things like accelerating slowly, not (being caught) stopping fully when possible, and doing the speed limit. I’ve been keeping detailed records of my gas usage and mileage since I bought the Caravan new and it appears that just these simplest things have increased my gas mileage by at least 10%. The thing is (and in some contrast to my post on civility) quite a few folks don’t seem to mind and are often found to be doing the same thing I am. I suspect the high price of gas has changed attitudes on the road as well as those in the automobile showroom.

Fossil fuels: Eden’s apple

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

There is war underway that you may not be fully aware of. It is not the biblical battle between good and evil that began in the Garden of Eden, but there are parallels. The battle is of epic proportions and involves some of the most powerful forces on the planet. At stake may very well be civilization itself. No I am not talking about the war on terror, at least not directly, that is only the most visible battle in a much broader war. This war is being fought over a wasteful way of life and the ongoing pursuit riches. The war has been fought for years, but only now have the fiercest battles begun. Battles in this war have names like Water, Poverty, Disease, Pollution, Energy. It is an aspect of the energy battle I wish to address here.

If you watch TV, read the news (electronically I hope), or engage in polite office conversation you are probably aware that Bush and other fossil fuel friendly politicians have been seeking ways to drill for oil in various places like ANWR for years. Most recently they seek to open up more off shore coastal areas for exploration with the stated goal to bring down the price of oil. You have probably also heard of Al Gore’s challenge to switch the production of electricity, essentially all of it, over from fossil-fueled power plants to renewable sources (like wind and solar) within 10 years. Interestingly, legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens has been in the media talking about his reasons for investing heavily not on drilling, but on wind power. In the middle is just about everyone else, you and me, and we are the real force to be reckoned with. We are the key to each side’s success. We are already causing things to happen much faster than anyone anticipated. And for once, this is a good thing. I’d like to explain in a bit more detail just what is going on, what is at stake, and what you can do about it.

In the past year, the UN released a report on climate change usually referred to as the IPCC report. The report is a substantial work of several volumes based on input from hundreds of scientists around the world. The report details the nature of climate change, the causes, the effects, and the ramifications of climate change on civilization. Also partaking in writing the report were politicians. The final report paints a not too gloomy picture of climate during the next hundred years. What you may not know is that the report is based a lot on climate models. In order to be accurate, models need to include all aspects of the problem. In order to be precise, those aspect need to be well understood. The less well understood, yet important, aspects of the climate system being modeled result in a large uncertainty/confidence in the models predictions. During final editing and negotiations, the report focused on the most robust conclusions. Namely that humans dumping CO2 into the atmosphere is primarily responsible for the observed climate changes. Predictions for the next 100 years, however, did not include some of the feedback mechanisms which are the least well characterized. Virtually all of these are positive feedbacks which would increase the rate/magnitude of climate change. So instead of talking about a sea level rise of 12 meters by the end of the century, we are instead reading in the report about changes of 2 feet. You may think that they were just being careful – perhaps so. You have certainly read about the unexpectedly rapid melting of the polar ice cap in the Arctic. Just a year ago, it was believed that the ice cap at the north pole would melt near the end of the century. Now the observational evidence – not models – indicates that it may be gone in less than 15 years. Glaciers are melting at accelerated rates throughout the globe. Remote sensing imagery indicates that spring is arriving earlier each year. You can question a lot of the details, but the overall evidence strongly suggests that things are changing and they are changing fast.

Climate models do tell us a lot about what specific processes are important. In particular they tell us that the increases in CO2 that have already occurred and are likely to occur from the continued reliance on fossil fuels to meet our increasing energy needs. Whether you believe the observed climate change is due to man or natural causes, it is quite clear the dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere is not going to help matters. The US annual energy consumption is of the order of 100 exojoules (or 100 Quadrillion BTUs). The way that energy is produced and used results in over half of it being wasted through inefficient production or conversion to useful work. This site shows the details of production and consumption for 2002. The overwhelming majority of our energy needs are obtained from fossil fuels (Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas). A few things derived from from this data are noteworthy. Light duty transportation (cars and small trucks) uses the bulk of the oil with an average efficiency of 25%. The generation of electricity primarily comes from coal with an efficiency of better than 30%. The bulk of natural gas is used by homes and industry and achieves an efficiency of 80%. The latter is not surprising since the natural gas use is primarily for producing heat (furnaces, hot water, …). The take away message here is that using fossil fuels to produce heat to make things spin – generators and vehicle wheels -  is horribly inefficient.

So why are they so determined to dig up every last bit of fossil fuel and burn it? Because it represents the fundamental value of the extant energy companies. They own the rights and means to exploit these fuels for profit. And, the profits are huge! There is also a huge investment in infrastructure to convert and distribute these fuels. The consumer is well equipped to consume them. The energy companies are faced with a difficult choice: go with what has made them great or risk changing to an unknown. Humans do not like change and uncertainty, they like the familiar and comfortable. That is true at least when they are comfortable – and the energy providers are very comfortable. Even when the topic of Peak Oil arises, there is so much coal in the US that the comfort level remains acceptable.

The problem is that climate change is real and it is probably changing faster than even the neutered IPCC scientists would like to have reported. Peak Oil has very likely already happened. China and India are on par with the US now for energy consumption (as a nation not per capita – there is a lot more room for their growth in that respect). Oil is $135 a barrel! The price of oil is determined by the limited supply and that is why the US is in Iraq and is worried about Iran. Despite its public statements, Saudi Arabia could not meaningfully increase its oil output if it wanted to. Peak oil likely occurred in 2006 or 2007. That is why the fossil fuel complex and their politicians are pushing so hard for more production in the US. Yes, they can make lots of money, but they really want to keep the addiction going. They are worried that we might just decide to switch. And they should be worried. Who would have thought that the US consumer, in love with their gas guzzling SUVs, would reduce consumption of SUVs & pick-ups to the point that GM would consider selling the Hummer brand and that Ford would virtually halt production of its very profitable pick-up line? Who would have thought that Toyota could not produce enough Prius hybrids? It did happen and it happened fast. The power is in the consumer’s wallets and we are beginning to realize what real power we have.

So what do we switch to? Last year’s fad was ethanol from corn. What a joke that is. When you account for the farming and fertilizer costs, the transportation aspects, and the production fuel needs, ethanol from corn produces 11 gallons for every 10 gallons of fuel consumed in production. This is why the production of fuel must never compete with the production of food. There simply is not enough productive land area or, more importantly, fresh water to waste on fuel production. Nuclear energy will not and should not become the dominant source of long-term energy. The current implementations of nuclear power either produce hideously lethal waste or the stuff of terrorist’s dreams. Either is a security nightmare. There are a few alternative nuclear technologies emerging, but in the long term they cannot become the dominant source of our energy needs on Earth (subject of a future post). We need to rely on either geothermal or solar power sources (including, biomass, wind, wave, and direct solar – not space solar power). The path to future sustainability of our civilization is to promptly curtail our use of fossil fuel in favor of geothermal and solar derived energy sources. Don’t bite the apple!

Many of the alternative forms of energy are compatible with our existing infrastructure. If we achieved just one thing: the widespread use of electric vehicles (80+% efficient fed by renewable energy sources like wind) for our light-duty transportation needs – we would not need to import any oil. If we added to that a bio-fuel, like bio-diesel from algae, for our long-haul and aviation fuel needs we could stop using fossil oil altogether (except for its, IMHO, proper use as a raw material for the production of other materials).  Coal is a bigger problem. It is the primary source of electrical power in the US and it is also the most potent (dirty) source of CO2. We have lots of it in the US and it will be very difficult to stop using it. There are thousands of coal-fired power plants and whole industries associated with mining, transporting and consuming coal. Fortunately, local politicians and voters have essentially shut down the building of new coal-powered electrical generation facilities by denying them permits to build.

We have a vast resource available to us that we are mostly unaware of. We also have a history for rapidly bringing the resources of our industrial might to meet to challenge. The US industrial complex (primarily the automotive sector) during World War II was challenged by president Roosevelt to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, and 6,000,000 tons of shipping. In the three years from 1942 to 1944, they built 88,400 tanks, 229,600 planes and 34,000,000 tons of ships. There is no reason to think that we could not produce a couple of million multi-megawatt wind generators (1 coal fired plant = 1000 Megawatt) in 10 years. All we have to do is want to do it. Today, we have idled an immense resource in the automotive industrial sector which could be promptly retooled for the production of wind and tidal energy generators. Given the support of congress and the ‘next’ president, we could quickly, albeit at a high cost, reemploy this idled expertise and capacity to produce and deploy an enormous production capacity for wind power generation. It would aid an ailing industry, put the unemployed to work, generate new exports (more on the state of our economy in a future post), generate tax revenue, generate income for the farm economy, devalue the importance of the Middle East, reduce the price of oil, and put us on a path to reducing our CO2 emissions to a tiny fraction of what they are today. More importantly, it would buy us all time to figure out what to do next.

If you have stuck with me this far – thank you. I have a few suggestions for how you can contribute. First  download and read a free book (PDF) called Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. This is the book that is fundamentally behind the Al Gore initiative and has been disseminated widely among the industrial and political elite. It is a long read that is initially somewhat depressing. You’ll come to understand why things are the way they are in the world. The remainder of the book is uplifting in that it clearly delineates a plan to overcome the challenges we face. If you cannot read the whole thing, try to read Chapters 11 and 12. If you read chapter 13, the summary, you’ll probably need to go back and read the whole book to understand it. These are the near-term things related to this post. After reading the book, I hope you will go out and replace all of your incandescent light bulbs with high quality compact fluorescent lamps (GE, Philips – not the generic imported trash-brands that do not last long). Buy a new car that is a hybrid (preferably a plug-in hybrid) or use mass transit systems. Seriously look at solar power. After running all of the plumbing to heat my pool with natural gas (yes I’m guilty as charged, but repentant – the future does not have to be Spartan), I installed a solar pool heater. It works great! It cost a little more up front, but it will last 3 or 4 times as long as a gas unit and I do not have to pay for the sunshine it uses. I’m looking at solar PhotoVoltaics next. I also switched from oil heat to natural gas last year. Probably the biggest thing I did was to switch my electric hot water heater for a natural gas one. I’m thinking about adding a solar water heater to the loop. There is more you can do, but that will be the subject of future posts.