Archive for the 'The Future' Category

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.

Petition to the FCC

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008
Mesh Network

Mesh Network

Google is behind a petition to the FCC that requests that they set aside the soon-to-be-vacated VHF & UHF analog TV spectrum for free access (open, unrestricted – to some extent). Their vision is a wireless network from coast to coast with few, if any, gaps and free access for all. Just think of an iPhone that does everything the current one does without the need for a telephone company. Imagine home internet access with DSL, Cable, or dial-up service costs. Think cable or satellite TV without the cable or satellite TV companies. Think access everywhere and anytime without having to sell your arm/leg/first-born to a borderline monopolistic company raking in huge (I’ll argue excessive) profits. Imagine the reliability of a mesh network. Go to the website, read the FAQ, and sign the petition.

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?

Hummer

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.

Hypermiling

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.

Civilization without Civility

Friday, August 1st, 2008

August is National Win with Civility month, “stressing the benefits of being civil and courteous to each other in all aspects of life.”

Can a Civilization without civility exist? The root of both words pertains to the behavior of social groups acting with common laws, values, and objectives. The interaction of individuals for the common good of most (if not all) to make things better, for themselves as well, is the core of this (after all a rising tide raises all boats). Civility seems to be disappearing and being replaced with something decidedly less civil. ‘Me too’ has been replaced by ‘me first’. I see this shift almost everywhere now including my own mirror. Do civilizations ultimately reach the point where the expectations of the civilians within it focus solely on self(ish) interests? Is this the natural progression of things? Is it inevitable? Is this why, to date, all great civilizations have collapsed? I don’t know for certain. Is the tide now ebbing?

I’m not the first, or likely the last, to note that civil behavior is waning. Just drive around town at almost anytime of day and you will encounter folks obviously acting solely for their own perceived benefit. I call it a perceived benefit because often times it could very well result in their own loss. Case in point: on the way home from work tonight, I was first in line in the leftmost lane of a dual lane left turn signal. There were four cars behind me and no one in the turn lane next to me. There is a good reason for that. Shortly after the turn that other turn lane becomes a right turn only and quickly ends. There is no merge lane afterward. Before the light changes a BMW pulled up along side me. The light changed and we all began to make the left turn. The BMW kept pace and was able to signal and merge in behind me comfortably before his lane ended. Out of nowhere (but probably from behind the BMW) a motorcycle zoomed by cutting closely in front of me and narrowly avoiding running out of road in the right lane. He then looked at me in his mirror with obvious disgust that I had not given him more room between me and the car now close in front of me (it had come from the other direction just before the light changed). I really never saw the motorcycle until I heard it roaring along side me while passing. The motorcyclist had a passenger riding on the back. I think that was what made me notice the reckless behavior. That passenger had absolutely no input into what might have occurred. I have yet to see a case of car vs motorcycle where the motorcycle won (or even tied). This was clearly a case of someone only thinking about themselves. Perhaps not the most obvious case of uncivilized behavior I could cite, but it is the one that triggered my thoughts here.

I’m sure you or I could cite many recent examples of this type of (non-)thinking behavior or even more overt uncivilized actions that fall just short of actual crimes. Please feel free to add your own examples. I do not know what triggered the beginning of the loss of civility or when it began. Where does the justification for all of the self righteous indignation come from when people are caught acting selfishly. I thought one of the founding premises of our civilization was that you are free to act as you wish as long as those actions do not infringe the the rights of others to do the same. I guess that includes being allowed to act like an ass as long as I retain my right to call it such. I’d rather spend my time on other matters though. There are many manifestations of the loss of civility, some of them can be found in the way our government acts (or fails to act). The evolution of societies and civilizations is a fascinating subject I hope to return to here from time to time.

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.