Posts Tagged clean energy

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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Mark Jacobson’s Science

The writings of Stanford’s Mark Jacobson effortlessly blends science and ideology along a continuum to envision an all-renewable energy future for America. His success in doing this marks a sad state of affairs between science, culture and politics.

Jacobson’s popularity began with his 2009 Scientific American piece, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables. The piece and his recent works argue both a means by which we could transition to renewable-only power and that an all-renewable energy mix is the means by which we should pursue greenhouse gas reduction. They seem to answer several questions, though the questions aren’t stated explicitly:

Is it possible to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is it feasible to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is it desirable to power 100% of the planet with renewables?
Is a renewable-only portfolio the best means of stopping the increase in atmospheric CO2?

The first question is an engineering problem. The 2nd is an engineering and economic question. The 3rd is economic, social, and political. The 4th is my restating of the 3rd to emphasize an a-priori exclusion of non-renewables from the goal of stopping the increase in atmospheric CO2. That objective, implied in the Sci Am article’s title, is explicitly stated in the piece’s opening paragraph:

“In December leaders from around the world will meet in Copenhagen to try to agree on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. The most effective step to implement that goal would be a massive shift away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources.”

It should be clear to readers that the possibility or technical feasibility of a global 100%-renewable energy portfolio in no way defends the assertion that it the most effective way to implement that goal is such a portfolio. Assuming that the most desirable way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is by using a 100% renewable portfolio, the feasibility of such a portfolio becomes an engineering, economic, and social challenge; but that is not the gist of Jacobson’s works, where the premise and conclusion are intertwined.  Questions 1 and 2 would obviously be great topics for a paper, as would questions 3 and 4. Addressing all of them together is a laudable goal – and one that requires clear thinking about evidence and justification. On that requirement, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables fails outright in my view, as do his recent writings.

Major deficiencies in Jacobson’s engineering and economic analyses have been discussed at length, most notably by Brian Wang, William Hannahan, Ted Trainer, Edward Dodge, Nate Gilbraith, Charles Barton, Gene Preston, and Barry W. Brook. The deficiencies they address include wrong facts, adverse selection, and vague language, e.g.:

“In another study, when 19 geographically disperse wind sites in the Midwest, over a region 850 km 850 km, were hypothetically interconnected, about 33% of yearly averaged wind power was calculated to be usable at the same reliability as a coal-fired power plant.”

Engineers will note that “usable at the same reliability” simply cannot be parsed into an intelligible claim; and if the intent was to say that that these sites had the same capacity factor as a coal-powered plant, the statement is obviously false.

Jacobson’s proposal for New York includes clearing 340 square miles of land to generate 39,000 MW with concentrated solar power facilities. CSP requires flat, sunny, unburdened land, kept free or rain and snow without addressing the possibility, let alone feasibility, of doing this. His NY plan calls for building 140 sq mi of photovoltaic farms, with similar requirements for land quality. He overstates capacity factor of both wind and photovoltaics in NY, as elsewhere. He calls for 12,500 5MW offshore wind turbines with no discussion of feasibility in light of bathymetry, shipping and commercial water route use. Further, his offshore wind turbine plan ignores efficiency reductions due to wind shadowing that would exist in his proposed turbine density. The economic impact, social acceptability, and environmental impact of clearing hundreds of square miles of mostly-wooded land and grading it level (NY is hilly), of erecting another 4000 onshore turbines, and of 12,500 offshore turbines is a very real – but unaddressed by Jacobson – factor in determining the true feasibility of the proposed solution.

The above writers cover many concerns about Jacobson’s work along these lines. Their criticism is aimed at the feasibility of Jacobson’s implementation plan. In my engineering judgment these complaints have considerable merit. But that is not where I want to go here. Instead, I’m intensely concerned about two related issues:

1) the lack of knowledge on the street that Jacobson has credible opponents that dispute his major claims
2) absence of criticism of Jacobson for doing bad science – not bad because of wrong details but bad because of poor method and bad values.

By values, I don’t mean ethics, beliefs or preferences. Jacobson and I share social values (cut CO2 emissions) but not scientific values. By scientific values I mean things like accuracy, precision, clarity (e.g., “useable at the same reliability”), testability, and justification – epistemic values focused on reliable knowledge. To clarify, I’m not so naïve as to think scientists and engineers shouldn’t have biases and personal beliefs, that they shouldn’t act on hunches, or that theory and observation are not intertwined. But misrepresenting normative statements as descriptive ones is a kind of bad science against which Bacon and Descartes would have railed; and that is what Jacobson has done. He answered one question (what we should do to level CO2 emissions) while pretending to answer a different one (are renewables sufficient to replace fossil fuels). This should not pass as science.

Jacobson’s writings are highly quantitative where they oppose fission, and grossly qualitative where they dodge the deficiencies in renewables. This holds particularly true on the matters of variability of renewables (e.g., large regions of Europe are often simultaneously without wind and sun), difficulties and inefficiencies of distribution, and the feasibility of energy storage and its inevitable inefficiencies (I mean laws-of-nature inefficiencies, not inefficiencies that can be cured with technology). He states the fission is not carbon-free because fossil fuels are used in its construction and maintenance, while failing to mention that the concrete and other CO2-emitters used in building and maintaining solar and wind power dwarf those of fission.

At times Jacobson’s claims might be called crypto-normative. For example, he says that “Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.” As stated, the claim is absurd. Applying the principle of charity in argument, I dug down to see what he might have meant to say. Beneath it, he is actually including the CO2 footprint of his estimation of the impact of inevitable nuclear war. So, yes, with a big enough nuclear war included (not uranium refining and transport), the CO2 emissions of nuclear power plus nuclear war could result in up to 25 times more CO2 than wind. But why stop there? We could conceive of nuclear war (or non-nuclear was for that matter) that emitted thousands of time more CO2 than wind power. Speculation about nuclear war risks is a worthwhile topic, but not when buried in the calculation of CO2 footprints. And it has no place in calculating the most effective means to cut greenhouse gas.

How can Jacobson have so many mistakes in his details (all of which favor an all-renewables plan) and engage in such bad science while so few seem to notice?  I’m not sure, but I fear that much of science has become the handmaid of politics and naïve ideological activism. I cannot know Jacobson’s motives, but I am certain of the incentives. Opposition to renewables is framed as opposing the need to cut CO2 and worse – like being in the pocket of evil corporations. I experience this personally, when I attend clean-tech events and when I use this example Philosophy of Science talks. As a career and popularity move, it’s hard to go wrong by jumping on the renewables-only bandwagon.

At a recent Silicon Valley clean-tech event, I challenged three different attendees on claims they made about renewables. Two of these were related to capacity factors given for solar power on the east coast and one dealt with the imminence (or lack thereof) of utility-scale energy storage technology. All three attendees, independently, in their responses cited Mark Jacobson’s work as justification for their claims. My attempts at reality checks on capacity factors using real-world values in calculations didn’t seem to faze them. Arguments hardly affect the faithful, noted Paul Feyerabend; their beliefs have an entirely different foundation.

Science was once accused of being the handmaid of religion. Under President Eisenhower, academic science was accused of being a pawn of the military industrial complex and then took big steps to avoid being one. The money flow is now different, but the incentives for institutional science – where it comes anywhere near policy matters – to conform to fickle societal expectations present a huge obstacle to the honest pursuit of a real CO2 solution.

I’m not sure how to fix the problem demonstrated by the unquestioning acceptance of Jacobson’s work as scientific knowledge. Improvements in STEM education will certainly help. But I doubt that spreading science and engineering education across a broader segment of society will be sufficient. It seems to me we’d benefit more from having engineers and policy makers develop a broader interpretation of the word science – one that includes epistemology and theory of justification. I’ve opined in the past that teaching philosophy of science to engineers would make them much better at engineering. It would also result in better policy makers in a world where technology has become integral to everything. Independent of whether a statement is true or false, every educated person should be able to differentiate a scientific statement from a non-scientific one, should know what constitutes confirming and disconfirming evidence, and should cry foul when a normative claim pretends to be descriptive.


“The separation of state and church must be complemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.” – Paul Feyerabend – Against Method, 1975.

“I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same.” – Keith Briffa – IPCC email correspondence, 2007.

“A philosopher who has been long attached to a favorite hypothesis, and especially if he have distinguished himself by his ingenuity in discovering or pursuing it, will not, sometimes, be convinced of its falsity by the plainest evidence of fact. Thus both himself, and his followers, are put upon false pursuits, and seem determined to warp the whole course of nature, to suit their manner of conceiving of its operations.”  – Joseph Priestley – The History and Present State of Electricity, 1775

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Pure Green Sense

With some sadness I recently received a Notice of Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors signaling the demise of PureSense Environmental, Inc. PureSense was real green – not green paint.

It’s ironic that PureSense was so little known. Environmental charlatans and quacks continue to get venture capital and government grants for businesses built around absurd “green” products debunkable by anyone with knowledge of high school physics. PureSense was nothing like that. Their down-to-earth (literally) concept provides real-time irrigation and agricultural field management with inexpensive hardware and sophisticated software. Their matrix of sensors record soil moisture, salinity, soil temperature and climate data from crop fields every 15 minutes. Doing this eliminates guesswork, optimizing use of electricity, water, and pesticides. Avoiding over- and under-watering maximizes crop yield while minimizing use of resources. It’s a win-win.

But innovation and farming are strange bedfellows. Apparently, farmers didn’t all jump at the opportunity. I did some crop disease modelling work for PureSense a few years back. Their employees told me that a common response to showing farmers that their neighbors had substantially increased yield using PureSense was along the lines of, “we’re doing ok with what we’ve got…” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Not too long ago, farmers who experimented too wildly left no progeny.

The ever fascinating Jethro Tull, inventor of the modern seed drill and many other revolutionary farming gadgets in the early 1700s, was flabbergasted at the reluctance of farmers to adopt his tools and methods. Tull wrote on Soil and Civilization, predicting that future people would have easier lives, since “the Produce of Land Will be Increased, and the Usual Expence Lessened” through a scientific (though that word is an anachronism) approach to agriculture.

The editor of his 2nd edition of his Horse-hoeing Husbandry, Or, An Essay on the Principles of Vegetation and Tillage echoed Tull’s astonishment at farmers’ behavior.

 How it has happened that a Method of Culture which proposes such advantages to those who shall duly prosecute it, hath been so long neglected in this Country, may be matter of Surprize to such as are not acquainted with the Characters of the Men on whom the Practice thereof depends; but to those who know them thoroughly it can be done. For it is certain that very few of them can be prevailed on to alter their usual Methods upon any consideration; though they are convinced that their continuing therein disables them from paying their Rents, and maintaining their Families.

 And, what is still more to be lamented, these People are so much attached to their old Customs, that they are not only averse to alter them themselves, but are moreover industrious to prevent others from succeeding, who attempt to introduce anything new; and indeed have it too generally in their Power, to defeat any Scheme which is not agreeable to their own Notions; seeing it must be executed by the same sort of Hands.

Tull could have predicted PureSense’s demise. I think its employees could have as well. GlassDoor comments suggested that PureSense needed “a more devoted sales staff.” That is likely an understatement given the market. A more creative sales model might be more on the mark. Knowing that farmers, even while wincing at ever-shrinking margins, will cling to their established methods for better or worse, PureSense should perhaps have gotten closer to the culture of farming.

PureSense’s possible failure to tap into farmers’ psyche aside, America’s vulnerability to futuristic technobabble is no doubt a major funding hurdle. You’d think that USDA REAP loan providers  and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants programs would be lining up at their door. But I suspect crop efficiency pales in wow factor compared to a cylindrical tower of solar cells that somehow magically increases the area of sun-facing photovoltaics (hint: Solyndra’s actual efficiency was about 8.5%, a far cry from their claims that got them half a billion from the Obama administration).

Ozzie Zehner nailed this problem in Green Illusions. In his chapter on the alternative-energy fetish, he discusses energy pornographers, the enviro-techno-enthusiasts who jump to spend billions on dubious green tech that yields less benefit than home insulation and proper tire inflation would. Insulation, light rail, and LED lighting isn’t sexy; biofuels, advanced solar, and stratospheric wind turbines are. Jethro Tull would not have been surprised that modern farmers are as resistant to change as those of 17th century Berkshire. But I think he’d be appalled to learn the extent to which modern tech press, business and government line up for physics-defying snake oil while ignoring something as fundamental as agriculture.

As I finished writing this I learned that Jain Irrigation has just acquired the assets of PureSense and has pledged a long-term commitment to the PureSense platform.

Jethro Tull smiles.

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Sun Follows the Solar Car

Bill Storage once got an A in high school Physics and suggests no further credentials are needed to evaluate the claims of most eco-fraud.

Once a great debate raged in America over the matter of whether man-mad climate change had occurred. Most Americans believed that it had. There were theories, models, government-sponsored studies, and various factions arguing with religious fervor. The time was 1880 and the subject was whether rain followed the plow – whether the westward expansion of American settlers beyond the 100th meridian had caused an increase in rain that would make agricultural life possible in the west. When the relentless droughts of the 1890s offered conflicting evidence, the belief died off, leavings its adherents embarrassed for having taken part in a mass delusion.

Model TWe now know the dramatic greening of the west from 1845 to 1880 was due to weather, not climate. It was not brought on by Mormon settlements, vigorous tilling, or the vast amounts of dynamite blown off to raise dust around which clouds could form. There was a shred of scientific basis for the belief; but the scale was way off.

It seems that the shred of science was not really a key component of the widespread belief that rain would follow the plow. More important was human myth-making and the madness of crowds. People got swept up in it. As ancient Jewish and Roman writings show, public optimism and pessimism ebbs and flows across decades. People confuse the relationship between man and nature. They either take undue blame or undo credit for processes beyond their influence, or they assign their blunders to implacable cosmic forces. The period of the Western Movement was buoyant, across political views and religions. Some modern writers force-fit the widely held belief about rain following the plow in the 1870s into the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. These embarrassing beliefs were in harmony, but were not tied genetically. In other words, don’t blame the myth that rain followed the plow on the Christian right.

Looking back, one wonders how farmers, investors and politicians, possibly including Abraham Lincoln, could so deeply indulge in belief held on irrational grounds rather than evidence and science. Do modern humans do the same? I’ll vote yes.

Today’s anthropogenic climate theories have a great deal more scientific basis than those of the 1870s. But many of our efforts at climate cure do not. Blame shameless greed for some of the greenwashing; but corporations wouldn’t waste their time if consumers weren’t willing to waste their dollars and hopes.

Take Ford’s solar-powered hybrid car, about which a SmartPlanet writer recently said:

Imagine an electric car that can charge without being plugged into an outlet and without using electricity from dirty energy sources, like coal.

He goes on to report that Ford plans to experiment with such a solar-hybrid concept car having a 620-mile range. I suspect many readers will understand that experimentation to mean experimenting in the science sense rather than in the marketability sense. Likewise I’m guessing many readers will allow themselves to believe that such a car might derive a significant part of the energy used in a 620-mile run from solar cells.

We can be 100% sure that Ford is not now experimenting on – nor will ever experiment on – a solar-powered car that will get a significant portion of its energy from solar cells. It’s impossible now, and always will be. No technology breakthrough can alter the laws of nature. Only so much solar energy hits the top of a car. Even if you collected every photon of it, which is again impossible because of other laws of physics, you couldn’t drive a car very far on it.

Most people – I’d guess – learned as much in high school science. Those who didn’t might ask themselves, based on common sense and perhaps seeing the size of solar panels needed to power a telephone in the desert, if a solar car seems reasonable.

The EPA reports that all-electric cars like the Leaf and Tesla S get about 3 miles per kilowatt-hour of energy. The top of a car is about 25 square feet. At noon on June 21st in Phoenix, a hypothetically perfect, spotless car-top solar panel could in theory generate 30 watts per square foot.  You could therefore power half of a standard 1500 watt toaster with that car-top solar panel. If you drove your car in the summer desert sun for 6 hours and the noon sun magically followed it into the shade and into your garage – like rain following the plow – you could accumulate 4500 watt-hours (4.5 kilowatt hours) of energy, on which you could drive 13.5 miles, using the EPA’s numbers. But experience shows that 30 watts per square foot is ridiculously optimistic. Germany’s famous solar parks, for example, average less than one watt per square foot; their output is a few percent of my perpetual-noon-Arizona example. Where you live, it probably doesn’t stay noon, and you’re likely somewhat north of Phoenix, where the sun is far closer to the horizon, and it’s not June 21st all year (hint: sine of 35 degrees times x, assuming it’s not dark). Oh, and then there’s clouds. If you live in Bavaria or Cleveland, or if your car roof’s dirty – well, your mileage may vary.

Recall that this rather dim picture cannot be made much brighter by technology. Physical limits restrict the size of the car-top solar panel, nature limits the amount of sun that hits it, and the Shockley–Queisser limit caps the conversion efficiency of solar cells.

Curbing CO2 emissions is not a lost cause. We can apply real engineering to the problem. Solar panels on cars isn’t real engineering; it’s pandering to public belief. What would Henry Ford think?

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Tom Hight is my name, an old bachelor I am,
You’ll find me out West in the country of fame,
You’ll find me out West on an elegant plain,
And starving to death on my government claim.

Hurrah for Greer County!
The land of the free,
The land of the bed-bug,
Grass-hopper and flea;
I’ll sing of its praises
And tell of its fame,
While starving to death
On my government claim.

Opening lyrics to a folk song by Daniel Kelley, late 1800s

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Engineering Innovation, Environmentalism and Sustainable Energy

GlobeLightBulbIf the world is to be saved, it will be innovative engineers who save it.

There is a reasonable chance that the planet needs saving from greenhouse gas and too much carbon dioxide. It’s not certain, and the climate models have far more flaws than many admit (Trenberth’s missing heat, the missing carbon sink, etc.). But the case for global warming is plausible and credible. It’s foolish to try to quantify the likelihood of climate catastrophe; but the model’s credibility and its level of peer review is sufficient to warrant grave concern and immediate work.

Environmental activists, scientists and politicians have made real progress on the climate problem. Calamatists and deniers might not see it that way, because that progress has been by fits and starts. It has involved bitter ideological disputes, ugly politics, and money spent on absurd tangents and scams. But such is the path of progress in a democratic system; and no one has yet to find a better means of agreeing on how to live together.

Environmentalists are opinionated, irrational, pessimistic, Luddite ideologues, unwilling to change their minds or their methods despite evidence. At least that’s how their opponents see them. But national parks, low-emissions cars, lead-free paint, and elimination of chlorofluorocarbons have served us all rather well with acceptable costs; and noisy environmentalists can take much of the credit. It is hard to argue (though some have) that we aren’t better off as a result of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Environmental activism has been innovative and entrepreneurial. Bold individuals and grass-roots movements did their work by being disruptive. They sought and received investment, more in publicity than in money, from high profile Hollywood entertainers. They attached brands, like Jane Fonda, to their polemical products with great success. Richard Posner calls non-academic moralists like Rosa Parks and Susan B Anthony “moral entrepreneurs.” That term seems equally applicable to much of the environmental movement.

Environmentalism, packed with emotion and persuasive passion, is a fine tool for raising awareness. It has been wildly successful; and the word is out. Environmentalism is, however, an extremely poor tool for problem solving. Unfortunately, much of the environmental movement seems unaware of this limitation. It’s time for the engineers.

leonardoScientists have done – and will continue to do – great work in climate modeling, energy research, and geoengineering theory. They’ve shown that global warming could disrupt ocean currents causing a new ice age, that synthetic algae biofuel warrants serious study, and that direct manipulation of climate – if you look far enough into the future – is not only possible but inevitable. Man-made or not, the earth’s climate will do something very unpleasant in the next 50,000 years and humans will likely choose climate engineering over extinction. Scientists will define the mechanism for doing this; engineers will translate concepts into technology. It will be scientists who demonstrate inertial confinement fusion but it will be engineers and innovators who make it utility scale.

Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, correctly observes that America has an alternative energy fetish. While walkable neighborhoods, conservation and home insulation get little press, solar power is everyone’s darling. The lens of technology is focused almost exclusively on a single cure for our energy problems: produce more energy. But the energy crisis can also be seen as cultural rather than technological. History gives evidence that increases in production and consumption efficiency lead to more consumption (Jevons Paradox). Ozzie proposes that better designed communities, reproductive rights, efficiency codes, insulation, and dwellings designed for sensible passive solar energy have great leverage since they address demand rather than supply.

In Green Illusions Ozzie is neither anti-capitalism nor anti-technology. Some of his proposals involve behavior change and others call for innovative design and engineering aimed at reducing energy demand. On the former, I’m not convinced that enough behavior change can happen in the time needed to seriously impact CO2 output. But I’m very optimistic about the potential for technology and capitalism to save us, Jevons Paradox and all, and despite claims that technology and capitalism are the roots of evil.

The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. – Lynn White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”

Let’s change the system and then we’ll begin to change the climate and save the world. The destructive model of capitalism is eradicating life. – Hugo Chavez at the Dec. 2009 UN Climate Change Conf.

The environmental movement now seems far more interested in mutual confirmation of their moral superiority than on fixing things. Far too many environmental moral-entrepreneurs have let their fight take them to an ideological – perhaps religious – place where they dwell on ecological sin and atonement, and revel in the prospect that things are going to hell fast. Since it was technology, capitalism and Christian ethics that got us in this environmental mess, we need to reject the whole lot; and they certainly can’t be part of the cure… Not so fast.

schematicThe big variables in the CO2 game are population, per-capita energy use, device efficiency and production efficiency. Despite their local success, our moral entrepreneurs have had little effect on awareness and behavior change outside Europe and America, the so-called global north. The parts of the world just now creeping out of poverty have other priorities; per-capita usage and device efficiency will likely be driven more by economics than by morality. China, for example, now adds roughly one gigawatt of coal-based electricity generation every week. It has made it clear that no climate-related restrictions will impede its growth. And China exports about 99% of the solar panels they produce. If we cut US CO2 output to zero, it would amount to only a minor delay in the timing of any impending global warming catastrophe.

The global south is where the action is; but the successes of our environmental moral-entrepreneurs have not escaped the boundaries of the global north. Fortunately – and due solely to market forces – the fruits of our technological entrepreneurs travel around the globe at the speed of light. The Jevons Paradox is a dressed-up claim of elasticity of demand with regard to price. The efficiencies of Jevons’ concern were dollars per watt, not CO2 per watt. US electricity prices have climbed steadily (roughly constant when adjusted for inflation) for the past several decades. So Jevons is largely irrelevant in the US and is no reason to throw in the towel on production or consumption efficiency. To the extent that Jevons applies to scenarios where consumption is affected by regulation and peer pressure, it still begs for innovation to bring about higher efficiency devices and power generation means.

RetailElectricityPrice

As the global south move out of poverty, they will buy refrigerators, air conditioners and cars. If all goes well, they’ll buy more efficient versions of those appliances than we did as we crawled out of poverty. If we’re luckier still, they’ll use electricity that comes from something other than the conventional coal plants they’re building at breakneck pace. That might be coal or gas with sequestration, small nuclear, or maybe fusion if we get our act together. It won’t be wind and it won’t be solar – for land-area reasons alone (do the math).

My main point here is a call for more innovation of the engineering type and less of the moral/environmental entrepreneur type. US environmentalism is becoming increasingly short-sighted, fighting a battle that, even if won decisively in the global north, is a miniscule fraction of the whole war. And that style of environmentalism has no tools to take its battle to the global south. What we can take to the global south is engineering innovation. We can’t keep that within our borders even when we try.

Engineering and innovation, with reasonable policy intervention (i.e., Jevons-neutralizing tax) can solve the problem of sustainable clean-energy generation. Behavior change is tricky and it takes time and finesse. Adoption of superior technology is much faster. I’m putting my money on the engineers.

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US Wind Power Limitations – Simple Math

I am all for wind power where it makes sense. It seems to make sense in certain high mountain passes in California where the wind is both strong and consistent – class 6 or 7 wind resources where class 3 or 4 is thought practical for power generation. For the most part, the US has thus far chosen its wind farm locations wisely in terms of energy generation. Some may say not so wisely from an aesthetic or habitat perspective, but that is not my concern here. Even without considering the base-load issues of wind (see previous post), projecting wind energy’s capability to supply a major portion of US energy demand by extrapolating from such high quality wind resources is ludicrous.

America’s wind farms on average have an output of about 1.4 watts per square meter of land they occupy. The Roscoe facility in Texas does somewhat better at about 1.9 w/sqm and California’s top locations do about 2.8 w/sqm. Data from the US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory and AWS TruePower, a group that does wind analysis for DOE (which does seem a bit prone toward telling us what we want to hear) shows most of the US to fall far below these sites in capability.

Bold claims have been made by enthusiasts like Al Gore and advocacies like the Energy Justice Network about wind’s potential to power all our energy needs. Let’s take a quick look.

American energy demand in 2010 was 28,700 terawatts. Though peak demand is much higher than average demand, for the sake of easy (conservatively erring in wind’s favor) we can distribute that total energy consumption over 24 hours for the year and get an average power demand of 3.3 million megawatts for the US. The land area of the 48 contiguous states is 8.1 million square kilometers. With a 1.4 watts per square meter (equals 1.4 megawatts per square kilometer), we’d need 2.3 million square kilometers of wind farms to supply our 2010 consumption with wind. That amounts to 29% of the land area of the contiguous 48.

The portion of the US that would be needed to supply this power, without consideration of distribution, urban and reserved land, and wind resource quality then looks like this:

Wind farm land requirement to fill US energy needs 2010

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has published a lot of the AWS TruePower work on potential wind sites in America, usually focusing on areas with a capacity factor of 0.3 or greater, broken down by wind speed. Their charts show most of the US as having some potential for wind generation, but many wind advocates are clearly unaware that the energy contained in wind is not proportional to its velocity. It may seem that the forces of nature conspire against us, but the energy content of two mile per hour wind is only 4% of the energy content of ten mph wind. Worse yet, wind turbines are designed for peak efficiency at one specific speed; thus a wind turbine designed for 10 mph (4.5 m/s) wind will get much less than 4% of its design power with a 2 mph wind (more on that here).

The below map is based on a similar one at the DOE Wind Program site. Using Photoshop’s Hue-Saturation-Brightness tool I whitened the useless wind resources from their color coded map, removing the color for wind regions below wind power class 3 at a height of 80 meters (260 ft). Here’s what’s left, from which it is very apparent that wind can play only a limited role in American energy even if we cover every square foot of land where quality wind blows – without regard for environmental, aesthetic and practical considerations.

US Wind Resources, Power Class 3 or above

When President Obama recently said “all of the above” about energy policy, he certainly meant all of the above where sensible. Large subsidies to wind (which have thus far gone primarily to direct expeditures, not R&D) do not meet this requirement. Unbridled wind advocacy, whether stemming from uninformed enthusiasm, dirty politics, or corporate greed, contributes to the wickedness of our energy problem by taming a small increment of it whilst creating the illusion that the solution approach is scalable. Engineering fundamentals show that the energy problem is indeed solvable, so there’s plenty of room for optimism. But let’s not set ourselves up for disappointment by ignoring the hard facts about wind.

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Wind Energy (Light)

My previous post on wind energy was long. Here’s the executive summary, followed by two corrections resulting from reader comments.

Based on current or foreseeable grid and energy storage technology, wind energy cannot supply base-load power. It therefore cannot play a major role in energy-independence or reduction of greenhouse gases. If utility-scale storage existed, wind energy might be economically viable. Even if storage and transmission capability existed, the low energy density of wind farms combined with rarity of high-quality wind resources in the US mean that wind cannot contribute significantly toward our energy goals. Without utility-scale storage, building more wind farms also requires building more conventional electricity sources, which do not meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals.

John Droz, called “anti-wind crusader” by the Sierra Club, challenged my claim that wind receives less money than other forms of electric power, noting that this hasn’t been true in recent years. Based on US Energy Information Administration data John is indeed right and I stand corrected on that point. John observes, in his presentation materials (slide 85), that the 2010 wind subsidies exceed those to all conventional sources combined. John doesn’t include all tax breaks in his calculations, but I have done so in the chart below. Even with tax breaks added, his point on subsidies is still nearly as strong. In absolute dollars, wind subsidies plus tax breaks greatly exceed those of coal, gas or nuclear, while wind’s contribution to net power is tiny. Also note that only a small fraction of wind subsidies is R&D; most goes to direct expenditures.

Architect and Design-Thinker Richard Heimann observed that my chart of levelized costs of different energy sources made wind look too good because wind without a base-load provision isn’t realistic. In other words, there is no such thing as wind energy by itself (a point also stressed by John Droz). The second chart below (click to enlarge) shows what wind would look like if base-load capacity were added using the lowest-priced gas option (ACC gas). This raises the cost of wind considerably, putting it on the same scale as solar photovoltaic.

None of this makes wind look any better of course.

2010 Energy Subsidies

Levelized Energy Costs by Type

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