Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Saving not Borrowing

Continuing with the theme that nature runs on current accounts, there are two situations I'd like to cover. One is that nuclear power is really borrowing and the other is that storing energy looks much more promising now.


To follow the first argument, you'll probably want to look at this plot of average binding energy per nucleon as a function of the number of nucleons in an atom. Open it in a new window. You'll see from left to right that the energy rises steeply from hydrogen (H) the lightest element to a peak at iron (Fe) and tails of slowly to uranium (U). It is a beautiful curve with all sorts of fascinating stories to tell, but we just want to look at a simple aspect: you don't get much energy from nuclear energy. True, the scale is in Mega electron volts (MeV) which is high, but what happens in a nuclear chain reaction is that uranium splits producing daughter species at around 120 on the horizontal axis of the plot. So, the energy release comes only from moving left up the slow tail.

Now, when this is done, it makes a mess because the daughter species often end up with too many or too few neutrons to be stable and so they are dangerously radioactive. Some of that mess cleans itself up in under a thousand years, but some of it remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.

We can't build things to last that long; even Hittler's thousand year nightmare did not presume to this. So, we pretty much have to clean up the mess. Now, to clean up the mess we have to remove from or add neutrons to the daughter species to make them stable. Now, here is the problem, for each unstable daughter species you need energies around 8 MeV and so you need a power source as powerful as the nuclear plant to clean up the mess from the nuclear plant.

This means that we have to pay back all of the nuclear power we have ever used and probably more to clean up after ourselves. That means we've borrowed tomorrows energy for today. Nature does not like to work this way, so we're probably on the wrong track using nuclear power. The other end of the curve, where it rises steeply is much more interesting for producing energy. For one thing, it is much harder to produce long lived waste on this end of the curve. This is also how the Sun works.


Usually when we talk about saving energy we mean turning off the lights when they're not being used or insulating a house. This really means avoiding using commoditized energy, not putting energy away for later use. It is true that with ghost energy you could think of this as not burning today what you could burn tomorrow though it really still means borrowing since we still have to clean up the mess. But this is about real energy.

So, by saving I mean storing. There is a little discussion about this further on but here is something that seems very exciting: this flywheel seems as though it might hold a few days of energy, real energy, in a distributed system. To me this means that we can work on current accounts with just the right amount of prudence to allow us to accomodate the intermittancy of renewable energy. This looks very scalable as well, just put them wherever we are participating in real energy. I don't mean to say that this is the only way to store real energy. Sustainable forestry comes to mind as do algae based biofuels. But with this, you don't have to cart it around, which is kind of nice.

Thanks to Ron Backman for the flywheel link.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Knowing Warming

I want to argue that ignorance rather than carelessness is the main reason for the global warming problem. It is true that hummers are wasteful when they are not used for their intended purpose: muscling through tough terrain. And, we could get much more efficiency out of the way we use fuel. Market induced efficiency gets us to arguments like "the cost of home heating fuel makes insulated windows pay for themselves." So there is a trade off between the cost of fancy widows and fuel use and one is not being careless, exactly, if one waits for the payback time to be short enough to meet some other consideration such as how soon you think you'll move or how much more you might gain by investing the money you'd spend elsewhere.

In the seventies, people began to consider the idea that fossil fuels were a depletable resource and began to use the argument that we should use less in order to prudently preserve the resource for future use. This was sometimes countered by the argument that we should go full speed using them because the growth would help to finance development of a replacement: inexhaustible fusion. People concerned about environmental damage largely conceded the need for cars and power plants but wanted them made cleaner and thus safer.

In the eighties it was pretty easy for people like me to see a potential warming problem with fossil fuels because I studied planetary atmospheres then and the example of Venus and the theory of why it had no oceans tickled the mind with regards to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. That was a concern at that time about a runaway greenhouse and I have to say that the much more imminent issue of nuclear winter dominated my activism. However by the early nineties I'd thought of a potential solution to global warming involving sequestration of CO2 in Antarctica which I kept to myself thinking that it would be a desperate measure and fusion was still an out. Others have thought of potential sequestration solutions that might work better than my scheme which takes advantage of the cold in Antarctica an one of Bucky Fuller's favorite ideas about the relation of surface area to volume. For example, sequestration through mineralization makes some sense because it imitates the geological carbon cycle we have been interfering with.

I say that this kind of thinking was easy for people like me. But, there are not so many people trained so broadly in the relevant sciences. Astronomy is, in many ways a hopelessly complex subject, and we (joyfully) throw everything we can at it. It was only by the mid-nineties that atmospheric scientists began to arrive at somewhat robust conclusions that global warming is a near term problem. In February we'll see firm consensus statements that it is happening and that the consequences are likely to be severe.

It is true that there has been some carelessness in fossil fuel use, but I would argue that even if we had been 20% more efficient in our fuel use, we'd still be in trouble. We would have had to know in the fifties that fossil fuel use had clear and quantified global warming implications to be accused of carelessness. What we have been is ignorant up until just about now. We have been as children playing with matches, unaware that we might burn down the whole house, and even unaware that we're not suppose to play with those neat little paper packages because no one could have told us of the danger.

So, here we are, in trouble and finally aware that we are in real trouble. What do we do?

We have known since the seventies that we should not be playing with the particular pack of matches called nuclear power. We might have beguiled ourselves with the dream of Yucca Mountain but it was truly irresponsible not to have continued the Clam Shell Alliance work and shutdown all the plants until the waste problem was solved. Yes, this would have added to or present global warming problem, but you have to go with what you know. I was out of the country then so I don't know how we got to the insane position that letting the current plants live out their design lifetime was somehow OK. They are producing waste as they operate and there is no place to put it. Some very serious and hard working people have been working on the waste disposal problem, but it has been considered a very difficult problem with potentially no reasonable solution since the seventies and it makes no sense at all to continue to make more waste. We have been careless here.

What we don't do is make the same mistake that we have made with the nuclear plants. We should not say that the investment has been made in the coal, oil and gas infrastructure and it would somehow be unfair to investors to put all of that out of business before they see return on investment. Investing is risky, even in utilities, and the interests of shareholders is none of our concern. It is a false efficiency to let these things run out their design lifetime.

One thing I'm trying to do right now, and something that makes me both hopeful and excited, is to replace our infrastructure through market competition. This is not the whole solution, it only gets us to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without other efforts coming into play, but it does it very quickly, and that is what we most need right now since we just can't afford to wait.

Another effort that looks promising is .

So, carelessness and ignorance are two distinct roots of the kind of trouble we get ourselves into. It seems to me that we can now learn from our real carelessness with regard to nuclear power to address our ignorance about how to respond to global warming. Don't give shareholder interests any weight at all!

Slashdot users selling solar

The number of slashdot users selling solar is growing so this is an external link to list their sites so you can pick friends, foes or freaks to do business with. When you get to the sites, try the solar savings calculator at the bottom left to estimate how much money you'll save. When you click on "Reserve Your System" you'll lock in the offered 2005 rate which could start saving you money as soon as your system is installed. Any of us will be happy to help you understand the offer in more detail.

In order of appearance:





The company we are selling for has been discussed on slashdot in response to an article in Wired Magazine. Slashdot readers are pretty tech savvy and have been following advances in solar power for years. To me, the three main things to remember as you read through these comments are net metering, net metering and net metering. Net metering is the reason solar power can work as a distributed power generation method today. It competes at retail prices.

There are other important aspects to the residential solar power business that also need to be considered to make that competition successful. Most of these have to do with reducing costs. On the manufacturing side, a larger fabrication plant reduces production costs by a large amount though it is risky to build a large plant without an assured market since the cost of sitting idle is proportionally larger. The flow of distribution of panels can also be less expensive when the specifics of the market are well known. With a wait list of customers, delivery of panels to installers can be better managed reducing logistical costs. An installer I know has lost a day on the roof because a parts supplier sent the wrong mounting equipment. With panels, mounts, inverters and interconnects all designed to work together these sorts of expensive delays can be more easily avoided. There is also a scaling effect in installation. When an installer is assured of may years of back-to-back jobs, investing in labor saving equipment becomes more attractive even when the initial cost is high. Getting workers and equipment to the roof with lifting equipment avoids the labor cost of erecting scaffolding and trips up and down a ladder. The use of automation to monitor system performance and to handle billing also represents a cost savings since much of customer service is anticipated and the requirements for a customer service staff are reduced. Most people have a monthly personal visit from their utility to read the meter. With automated billing, this cost is avoided (for the company, customers still pay to have their utility provided meter reading, that is the connect charge in your utility bill). Finally, since the sales force works on commission, the costs of attracting customers is controlled to a specific percentage of revenue. This aspect has come in for some criticism on slashdot, but it does lead to large sales at controlled costs. The sales force has already registered enough customers to account for half of the total capacity installed in 2006 in the US (both residential and commercial). This is important because the plant capacity has to be sold in advance to ensure that it produces continuously. Offering rental rates of $0.07/kWh and up ensures a large potential market while long term fixed rate contracts offer customers a chance to save money over time.

Skepticism seen on slashdot and in the industry is pretty understandable, but as one of the lobbyists for a company that does this business in the commercial sector acknowledged to me, someone is going to profit from this business model even it this company does not. In the commercial sector Morgan Stanley, for example, is behind some of Walmart's current solar expansion, though not, so far, part of this company's financing. The trick is to make it work with the smaller systems that are appropriate for homes as it already does for larger systems on commercial buildings. The vertical integration and economy-of-scale savings described here make me think that this business is not "too good to be true" but rather too good not to promote.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What is Real Energy?

This blog got it's title from something William McDonough said. If you don't know about William McDonough, he co-wrote "Cradle to Cradle," a book about designing things so that you know how they end up once people are done with them. His web site has a sample of his writings.

What I heard him say in an interview with Michael Toms was that nature does everything on current accounts. There is no borrowing. On considering this, I think we can say that there is a little saving going on. Seeds, for example, can store energy for a long time until they sprout, and a camel's hump is made for storage. But the point about not borrowing is pretty profound I think. You can't use tomorrow's sunlight today and repay it in two days time. The energy input is taken up instantaneously and all the follow on activity is
a process of expending that energy, from leaf to ruminant to steak to microbes, it is all one run.

Now, there are many kinds of energy: chemical, potential, kinetic, nuclear and all of that. I got to wondering just what the difference is between the natural flow that McDonough was describing and what we do. It seems to me that when we capture the dregs of ancient supernovae, or dig up ancient forests, we are dealing with something unreal. Not that the supernovae didn't happen or the forests of a hundred million years ago did not grow, but that they are just not part of the present natural flow. We have to summon them rather than participate in them.

So, the ghostliness of those sources of energy got me to the present blog title, Real Energy, owing to its substantialness compared to the spectres. I know that some people call this renewable energy and so do I most of the time, but there are some who call nuclear energy, the supernova's spirit, renewable, thinking that breeder reactors somehow make things perpetual. I'm not interested in extent into the future, I'm interested in the present natural flow, the here and now. This, being the only reality we have, is where the term Real Energy comes from.

Probably the RealClimate title had an influence as well.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Your opinion could be paid for by ExxonMobil

As material from the web site of Sen. James Inhofe makes Slashdot's front page in what is basically an ad hominem attach on a Weather Channel meteorologist, the tactics of ExxonMobil in using smoke, mirrors and hot air to slow our response to global warming is revealed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. From the Executive Summary:

In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease.

It goes on to say that information laundering was used to attempt to confuse the public.

If you don't know that fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is being fed to you, how can you be sure your opinion is your own?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

State of the Earth Report

This is reposted from

The Green Party of the United States EcoAction Committee marks Earth Day 2006 with its State of the Earth Report.

Posted April 25, 2006

Human life relies entirely on the Earth's complex and resilient Biosphere and the Ecosystems that sustain it. The oxygen we breathe is replenished by plants, which also help to create the soil in which we grow our food to feed our children. Our wastes are cleansed and our water is purified through wetland ecosystems. Much of the building materials for our homes are derived from the forests we love or from the rock we stand upon. The air, food, water, and shelter that benefits us as a species; all of these are supplied by the Earth's ecosystems.

While the Biosphere of the Earth is inherently resilient it not impervious to harm. The diversity of the Earth's species enables this inherent resilience and leads to an ever evolving yet subtle equilibrium. Existing niches are filled and re-filled leading to new and more specialized species which, in the face of environmental change, respond to produce highly functional and elegant adaptations. The resiliency of Ecosystems can be measured by the level of species diversity, and thus, are threatened when ever-expanding resource depletion and environmental degradation exceed the replenishment capacity of the Biosphere. Human induced environmental changes that exceed the natural pace of specie adaptation leads to mass extinction, weakened ecosystems and a reduced Biosphere.

On this Earth Day, the current rate of species extinction has never before been matched, not even by the great mass extinctions observed in the fossil record. Those were periods of geologically induced ecological collapse when the character of life on Earth changed over millions of years, or a geological-blink of an eye. The boundary of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event in the geological record shows the effect of mass extinction, where approximately 50% of all plant and animal species on the Earth disappeared.

While there maybe multiple hypotheses for the cause of the extinction, there is no debate on the effect. After mass-extinction events geologist have noted "gaps" in the fossil record. These gaps are understood to be a time of measured recovery of the species diversity that is characteristic of robust ecosystems.

That is, the recovery of healthy ecosystems that are capable of sustaining large creatures, like human beings, took geologic periods of time to retrieve their lost diversity.

It has only been a few decades since humans first realized that their actions, deforestation for example, can be directly responsible for causing high rates of extinction in sentinel species. What we know now, on this Earth Day, is that just stopping deforestation and adopting better natural resource management may not be all that is required to halt the high extinction rates in forest ecosystems. What we know now, this Earth Day, is that we are rapidly changing the whole of Earth's climate: our Biosphere. Forest ecosystems, even left to themselves and untouched by logging, may disappear in a generation in response to changing precipitation patterns, stress from invasive species distributed by humans, and changing temperatures. All of which conspire to overwhelm their capacity to adapt.

Last year we witnessed the huge human toll exacted by large and violent storms, but what we witnessed will be nothing compared to the human toll that will accompany a rapidly collapsing Biosphere. We only need to look to those who live on the edge, such as the Inuit of Russia, Alaska and northern Canada. The plight of the Inuit, who are losing their ability to hunt, along with their brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom may seem slight compared to the loss of majestic cities to rising sea levels, but the Inuit's plight is a clear sentinel warning to us all. The changes leading to ecological collapse are happening and will cause us to lose what we hold dear.

The greatest threat to bio diversity and human society today is from Global Warming caused by increased levels of CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels. The USA is the largest per-capita emitter of CO2 and as such each citizen has a primary responsibility, an individual duty, to curb unsustainable and harmful appetites for energy. We must find ways to improve our lives and our way of life, while using clean and sustainable forms of energy. We believe that the Green Party of the United States is the sole political leader in the effort to achieve these goals. The Green Party of the US has been leading the call to reduce our CO2 emissions, and in the interest of planetary ecosystems as well as humanity, we implore each citizen and the Nation to join us.

Theodore Roosevelt said, "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value."

This Earth Day, we recognize that to help our sisters and brothers of the Inuit to restore the ecosystem they rely on, and to ensure the survival and well-being of future generations, we must set aside our wars and our divisions first to stabilize and then to reduce green house gas concentrations in the atmosphere. We declare that in order for all future generations of Americans and Inuit to enjoy the Earth as we have, ecosystems must be preserved and not shattered by our actions. For in reality, all people, past present and future are Inuit, and all future generations are our children.

As representatives of the people, it is critical for public officials at all levels of government to initiate actions that will begin to address the damage done to the atmosphere and develop comprehensive and realistic plans that can be implemented to construct a renewable infrastructure alternative. The GPUS EcoAction Committee seeks to promote and advance the existing science and policies to provide leadership in the new century that takes America away from depleting, non-renewable fossil fuels and towards renewable and sustainable forms of energy. We encourage the system-wide approach for national energy retooling.

To these ends, the GPUS EcoAction Committee calls on the government and people of the United States to aggressively support and implement the following measures:

-- We, as individuals must make profound changes in our own lifestyles, demonstrating to elected officials our own commitment to and expectation of change in local, regional, national and global environmental policy;

-- We must phase out all subsidies and tax breaks to fossil and nuclear energy industries;

-- We must move to full cost pricing starting with carbon taxes;

--We must provide incentives, legislation, and institutional reforms to bring renewable energy technologies on line and readily available to the consumer;

-- We must encourage the export and expansion of these technologies into overseas markets to competitively displace fossil and nuclear power, and large-scale hydroelectric projects;

--We must research and implement interim, as well as long term offsets, such as reforestation, accompanied by measurable cutbacks in emissions;

-- We must reject biomass incineration and inefficient biofuels production as unnecessary, insufficient, polluting, damaging to ecosystems and a waste of energy;

--We reject the concept of "clean coal";

--We must put an absolute limit on CO2 emissions Nationally and work to facilitate a Worldwide CAP. This limit should be based on the amount we need to cut fossil fuel usage in order to aid in reversing the rise in average global temperatures.

--We must base our cutbacks in fossil fuel usage on this limit; this means stabilization as quickly as possible and an 80% cutback to be reached within ten years;

This Earth Day, the GPUS EcoAction Committee calls on all citizens and all branches of the US government to provide responsible stewardship and care of the Earth and all people, and we call on the people to demand justice and accountability from your representatives and from yourselves. We must act to ensure that future generations are not harmed by our way of life, but that their lives are enhanced by it.

American Interests in the Middle East

American vital interests in the Middle East, cited in the President's speech on January 10 are really two fold. The first is that uninterrupted oil supplies be available and the second that theocratic states not become so powerful that they pose a challenge to our position as the only superpower. Our military presence in the region is related to the first interest while our support of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and a number of smaller Arab states is related to the second. They are also intertwined in the sense that our support of those states enables our military presence in the region through bases and ports which support logistics.

The strategic picture changes substantially if our interests change. The ability of theocraticists to imagine a strategically significant state is enabled by the presence of ready cash available through the sale of oil at prices much higher than the cost of production. Saudi oil income is easily diverted to theocratically minded organizations while Iranian oil income is already attached to such a system. In Iraq, oil revenues, such as they are, are also available to those who are sympathetic to the theocratic movement both legitimately and through massive corruption. In short, the theocratic movement is well funded because there is such a large cash flow to skim.

Changing this situation by eliminating our use of Middle East oil can only help. Oil is a global market, so eliminating our use of Middle East oil really means eliminating our use of oil altogether. Taking US demand for oil out of the market reduces the price of oil to much closer to its cost of production which is going up in the Middle East as more elaborate extraction methods are needed. The cartel structure for Middle East oil sales would have a hard time surviving a market with slim profit margins since production quotas would be difficult to allocate.

If America has no demand for oil, then our interests in maintaining the flow of Middle East oil devolve to support of our allies' needs for such a flow. However, our most important allies are already committed to reducing their use of fossil fuels generally (apologies to those down under) so it is not so hard to envision a world where the free navigation of the waters near the Middle East are of little strategic importance.

The technology is available now to eliminate our use of oil and to save money at the same time, so it seems like a strategic approach to the Middle East and Iraq would be preferable to the tactical approach the President is advocating.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why Renewables Displace Nukes First

Renewable energy is intermittent. Solar is in the day time, wind is available when it is available. But, one fine sunny cool breezy day our renewable capacity is going to meet total demand. What is a regulator to do? The renewables will be too dispersed to tell them to shutdown. All the rapid response generating capacity will already be shutdown because the renewables are free and who wants to compete with that. Hydro is in the middle of a mandated water allocation flow.

So, rather than blow the grid, the regulators will call the nuclear plant and tell it to go off line. But to do that, it has to shut down so it won't be up again for three days. A week later it happens again, and so it goes that spring and the next fall and all of a sudden, the cost of operation of the reactor just went through the roof. The nuclear industry whines about base load and all that but shortly the economics take over and that plant is decommissioned because it just isn't flexible enough to work in a renewables dominated grid.

At this point, or a little sooner, it is realized that what we really need is energy storage, fast in to handle over production, and slow out as a reservoir to handle night time. Any thoughts on what that technology would look like would be appreciated.

Check this to see how quickly renewable energy might happen.

Solar Power the Amway Way

Solar photovoltaic power is competitive with retail electricity. If you could borrow at 3% and your electric bill were about $200 per month, you could buy a $30K solar PV system that produced all your power usage over the course of a year for the same amount that you pay for electricity now with a 30 year loan. This works in the states that have net metering laws. etering.shtml

But, borrowing at 3% is little difficult to come by. Another way to look at it is that at today's retail rates for electricity, you get a 3% return on investment in a solar PV system. You'll get a higher effective rate of return if electric rates go up. This ties into inflation which might make borrowing even at a higher rate (than 3%) make sense but I'm not going to try to calculate that.

That said, venture capital has been moving into the solar PV market because solar is competitive at the retail level. One example where FedEx went solar is here

At the corporate level that's fine. Big systems and big deals with risk management and all that. At the residential level, things are a lot slower. Enter a new player: Citizenre which plans on renting solar PV systems to home owners for what their utility currently charges them for electricity. Their model for coming to market is like that of Amway: Multilevel marketing. They plan to begin installing in the Fall of this year (2007) and they are signing up customers now through a word-of-mouth campaign. How far will this go? I'm not sure, but they've doubled their customer base in a very short time (about 10 days) and they are approaching 3000 contracts now. That could be 3 million contracts in 4 months if the viral marketing model works. I doubt that this can happen for practical reasons like server overload and the ability to build production facilities fast enough, but the eventual number of customers is not so unrealistic.

Another limit is the amount of net metering that states will allow as a percentage of total energy use. In Maryland, it looks like there is an out for the utilities at 34.7 MW of capacity olargrant/netmetering_statute.pdf which is not a lot.


As an update (3/4/07), Maryland Senate Bill 595 would increase the cap on net metering to 1.5 GW or about 8% of the 1998 peak capacity in the state. A PDF of the first reading can be found at the bottom of this link. New Jersey and a number of other states have removed caps on net metering. State-by-state information on net metering rules can be found here.

8% of the 1998 capacity is still not a whole lot. We are supposed to do that much under Kyoto but our use of electricity has grown since then so to meet those obligations we should really be trying to switch over 20% of current use, and be conserving at the same time.

I've posted some sales materials in PDF format at if anyone wants to help me try to fill out the current cap. Post them in your lunchroom with my thanks.