Physics for Environmentalists

“Alienation from nature and indifference toward nature processes is the greatest threat leading to destruction of the environment.”

For years this statement appeared at the top of an ecology awareness campaign in western national parks. Despite sounding like Heidegger and Marx, I liked it. I especially liked the fact that it addressed natural processes (how things work) rather than another appeal for empathy to charismatic species.

At the same time – early 1990s – WNYC played a radio spot making a similar point about indifference. Mr. Brooklyn asked Mr. Bronx if he knew what happened after you flushed the toilet. Bronx said this was the stupidest question he’d ever heard. Why would anyone care?

The idea of reducing indifference toward natural processes through education seemed more productive to me than promoting environmental guilt.

Wow did I get that wrong. Advance 25 years and step into an Green Tech summit in Palo Alto. A sold-out crowd of young entrepreneurs and enthusiast brims with passion about energy and the environment. Indifference is not our problem here. But unlike the followers of Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog, 1968-72), whose concern for ecology lead them to dig deep into science, this Palo Alto crowd is pure passion with pitiful few physics. And it’s a big crowd, credentialed in disruptive innovation, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship.

As Brand implies when describing all the harm done by well-intentioned environmentalists, impassioned ignorance does far more damage than indifference does.

At one greentech event in 2015, a casual-business attired young woman assured me that utility-scale energy storage was 18 to 24 months away. This may have seemed a distant future to a recent graduate. But having followed battery tech a bit, I said no way, offering that no such technology existed or was on the horizon. With the cost-no-object mindset of an idealist unburdened by tax payments, she fired back that we could do it right now if we cared enough. So where was the disconnect between her and me?

I offered my side. I explained that as the fraction of base load provided by intermittent renewables increased, the incremental cost of lithium-ion storage rises exponentially. That is, you need exponentially more storage, unused in summer, to deal with load fluctuations on the cloudiest of winter days as you bring more renewables online. Analyses at the time were estimating that a renewable-only CA would entail 40 million megawatt-hours of surplus summer generation. Per the CAEC, we were able to store 150 thousand megawatt-hours of energy. And that was only because we get 15% of our energy from hydroelectric. Those big dams the greens ache to tear down provide 100% of our energy storage capacity, and half the renewable energy we brag about. (A few battery arrays were built since this 2015 conversation.)

Estimates at that time, I told her, were putting associated battery-aided renewable production cost in the range of $1600/mw-hr, as compared to $30/mw-hr for natural gas, per the EIA. An MIT report later concluded that a US 12-hour intermittency buffer would cost $2.5 trillion. Now that’s a mere $20,000 for each household, but it can’t begin to handle weather conditions like what happened last January, when more than half of the US was below freezing for days on end. That 12-hr buffer would take about 10.5 million Tesla Powerpacks (as at Mira Loma, 210 kw-hr each) totaling 470 billion lithium-ion cells. That’s 27 billion pounds of battery packs. Assuming a 10-year life, the amount of non-recyclable rare-earth materials involved is hard to consider green. I told her that could also mean candles, blankets, and no Hulu in January.

Her reply: “Have you ever heard of Mark Jacobson?”

Her heart was in the right place. Her head was someplace else. I tried to find it. She believed Jacobson’s message because of his authority. I named some equally credentialed opponents, including Brook, Caldeira, Clack, Davies, Dodge, Gilbraith, Kammen, and Wang. I said I could send her a great big list. She then said, in essence, that she held him to be authoritative because she liked his message. I told her that I believe the Bible because the truthful Bible says it is true. She smiled and slipped off to the fruit tray.

For those who don’t know Jacobson, he’s a Stanford professor and champion of a 100% renewable model. In 2017 he filed a $10M suit against the National Academy of Sciences for publishing a peer-reviewed paper authored by 21 scientist challenging his claims. Jacobson sought to censor those threatening his monopoly on the eyes and ears of these green energy devotees. Echoing my experience at greentech events, Greentech Media wrote in covering Jacobson’s suit, “It’s a common claim from advocates: We know we can create a 100 percent renewable grid, because Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson said we can.” Jacobson later dropped the suit. His poor science is seen in repeated use of quirky claims targeting naive environmentalists. He wrote that 33% of yearly averaged wind power was calculated to be usable at the same reliability as a coal-fired power plant. I have yet to find an engineer able to parse that statement. To eliminate nuclear power as a green contender, Jacobson includes carbon emissions from burning cities caused by nuclear war, which he figures occur on a 30-year cycle. My critique from before I knew he sues his critics is here.

When I attend those greentech events, often featuring biofuels, composting, local farming, and last-mile distribution of goods, I encourage people to think first about the energy. Literal energy – mechanical, thermal, electrical and gravitational: ergs, foot-pounds, joules, kilowatt-hours and calories. Energy to move things, the energy content of things, and energy conversion efficiency. Then to do the story-problem math they learned in sixth grade. Two examples:

1. Cooking oil, like gasoline, holds about 31,000 calories per gallon. 70% of restaurant food waste is water. Assume the rest is oil and you get 9,000 calories per gallon, equaling 1100 calories per pound. Assume the recycle truck gets 10 miles per gallon, drives 100 miles around town to gather 50 pounds of waste from each of 50 restaurants. With 312 gallons (2500 lb / 8 lb/g =312 gal) of food waste, does the truck make ecological sense in the simplest sense? It burns 310,000 calories of gas to reclaim 312 * 9000 = 2.8 million calories of waste. Neglecting the processing cost, that’s an 8X net return on calorie investment. Recycling urban restaurant waste makes a lot of sense.

2.  Let’s look at the local-farming movement. Local in San Francisco means food grown near Sacramento, 90 miles away. If the farmer’s market involves 50 vendors, each driving a pickup-truck with 250 pounds of goods, that’s 9000 miles at 20 miles per gallon: 450 gallons of gasoline for 12,500 pounds of food. We can say that the 12,500 pounds of food “contains” 400 gallons of embedded gasoline energy (no need calculate calories – we can equally well use gallons of gas as an energy unit). So the embedded gallons per pound is 450/12,500 = 0.036 for the farmers market food. Note that the vendor count drops out of this calculation: use 100 vendors and get the same result.

Safeway says 40% of its produce comes from the same local sources. Their semi truck gets 5 mpg but carries 50,000 pounds of food, but for 180 miles, not 8000 (one round trip). If carrying only Sacramento goods, Safeway’s round trip would deliver 50,000 pounds using 36 gallons. That’s 0.0007 gallons of gas per pound. Safeway is 51 times (.036/.0007) more fuel efficient at delivering local food than the farmers markets is.

That makes local produce seem not so green – in the carbon sense. But what about the 60% of Safeway food that is not local. Let’s fly it in from Mexico on a Boeing 777. Use 2200 gallons per hour and a 220,000 pound payload flying 1800 miles at 550 mph. That’s a 3.28 hour flight, burning 7200 gallons of fuel. That means 7200/220,000 = 0.033 gallons per pound of food. On this back of the envelope, flying food from southern Mexico is carbon-friendlier than the farmers market.

In any case, my point isn’t the specific outcome but for social entrepreneurs to do the math instead of getting their energy policy from a protesting pawn of a political party or some high priest of eco-dogma.


“I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about, We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.” – Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline

Not that names mean much, but how many of them, I wondered, could identify the California Black Oaks or the Desert Willows on the grounds outside.

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  1. #1 by richard brakeman on August 16, 2019 - 12:04 pm

    Most that we hear called “science” is a brand more than a discipline. Follow the money. Researchers hired and paid by a single donor (corp or govt) are easily compromised, to some degree desiring to please the donor, thereby securing future business.

    A better funding model would be for multiple sources to be consolidated into a pool where neither the researcher nor the donor can select one another; overseen by a committee or board whose members serve short terms that cannot be renewed; and researchers’ past performance as scientists on board-sponsored projects is periodically evaluated to uniform standards.

  2. #2 by sstorage31 on August 18, 2019 - 3:22 pm

    I give you a 5 star on this. I like your use of math that is easy to understand. Could you send this to Al Gore and his likes?

  3. #3 by False Progress on August 21, 2019 - 1:05 am

    Industrial wind power should be shunned out of sheer ugliness, but now it’s “green” to desecrate vast swaths of scenery just because Jacobson et al claim it is. A bleak world awaits if this myopia continues. Actually, it’s too late for many scenic areas.

    https://falseprogress.home.blog/2016/08/29/windturbineslandscapes/

  4. #4 by Knox Bronson on August 21, 2019 - 8:34 am

    Thanks, Bill. Glad I found you again.

  5. #5 by Bill Storage on August 23, 2019 - 5:06 pm

    Hey Knox! How goes?

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