Monday, February 26, 2007

An Heir of Leadership

This is more of a straight post taken from my journal at Slashdot. No redefinition.

The US negotiated the Montreal Protocol in the 1980's to control chlorofluorocarbons which had been shown to disrupt the Earth's ozone layer, allowing ultraviolet radiation to penetrate to ground level. This treaty has, until recently, been considered one of the most successful international treaties ever made. Control of these chemicals has reduced the rate of destruction of the ozone layer, preserving both health and the productivity of agriculture.

The Montreal Protocol was taken an a model for the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases which cause global warming. The problem of greenhouse gases is considered to be more difficult because the mechanism of replacement of chloroflurocarbons needed to make the Montreal Protocol work is not so clearly available for the most important greenhouse gas, CO2. Further, there was a large disparity in the level of greenhouse gas emissions between developed and developing countries and reducing greenhouse gas emissions was thought to impact economic development. So, developing countries were left out of the first round on emissions reductions and had no responsibility, on their own, to limit the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, but rather were to be a testing ground for the efforts of developed nations to assist in economic development while also helping to avoid some of the worst emissions.

While the US negotiated this treaty, there were clear indications that it could not be ratified without stronger commitments from developing countries. In essence, the US negotiated in bad faith.

Now, the problem of economic development is catching up with the Montreal Protocol as well. The substituted materials worked when the demand for them was limited largely to the developed nations, but now economic development has brought in a larger pool of demand html. The substitute chemicals, while better, do not bode well with a much increased load. The solution for this problem may well end up being further substitution such as magnetic refrigeration But the fact of the problem raises another issue. If the Montreal Protocol needs revision, who can provide the leadership to bring this about?

US leadership was crucial to both the Montreal and the Kyoto Protocols but US credibility now lies in shambles because in never intended to implement the second protocol. Yet, the US has most at risk should the first protocol not succeed since mid-latitude food production will be at risk. I would suggest that it is time to end the patronizing attitude that divides the world into developed and developing countries and admit that leadership could come from those who have been left out. China is already taking a lead on renewable energy, and perhaps India could bring us together again on ozone depletion. Hey, Ross, what's that great whooshing sound?

It's everyone else filling the vacuum we've left in credibility space.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


I keep on changing the sense of terms in what I'm trying to do here. So, ghost energy is the opposite of Real Energy, borrowing energy is about realizing the cost of clean up rather than depleting a resource and saving energy is about storage rather than turning off the lights. This is pretty normal when your trying to work out a new way of looking at things since there is a need to avoid old habits. But now I'm forced to make up a term because I've already used saving energy for another purpose. This is fine since I'm still following McDonough who has railed against the ecoefficiency movement as completely uninteresting. I think he's done this to be provocative, and many of my friends and corespondents are big on ecoefficiency, so I'm going to choose a more neutral term, trimming energy. Besides, I'm interested in just about everything, and I see a lot of innovation going into trimming our energy use around the edges. I think that the term trimming also evokes a sense of attentiveness, as in "Sister help to trim the sail, Alleluia!" In deference to McDonough though I should say he has a point: participation in Real Energy is much more visceral than the detailed work of scrimping for savings here and there.

I went to the Great Energy Efficiency Day IV at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in DC on Wednesday with one main goal. I wanted to rent solar panels to James Rogers, Chairman, President and CEO of Duke Energy. He was speaking when I got there. I didn't talk with him because he was off to an interview afterwards, but I did leave my card with his assistant. So, we'll see how that goes. I was thinking of him because he is one of the biggest polluters but he wants to do something about it. Putting solar panels on his house would help. Also, I thought it might be a link in an energy web that could mimic an ecological web. Once I was there, I probably should have approached Alan Kelly of ExxonMobil on the same principle, but his presentation was so self-serving and misleading in the context of the meeting that I just didn't have the stomach for it. I'm never going to be any good at sales if I keep up this judgemental attitude though. Still, I will make one remark: You keep on harping on how energy efficiency is such a long term investment, and it is only big players like you who can afford to take such a long view and manage this sort of thing. Little players like citizens or governments really shouldn't bother their little heads about it. So, you've had a good long 16 years since Kyoto to make your investments yet the fruits of your plan are so withered that it is laughable. You're projecting a huge increase in fossil fuel use out to 2030. Would it not be better to say that big players like you are simply so inflexible in your complacency that adequate innovation is just beyond you? Still, it was nice of you to mention that global warming "may" be a problem.

The event, The Great Energy Efficiency Day IV, was a corporate sponsored political event and it is encouraging that so many companies are looking hard at the real problems we are having with ghost energy. So what solutions does trimming energy provide? Since we are really in a crisis, it actually has to be a big part of the near term approaches to the problem. Sorry, Alan, efficiency is a quick solution, not a sometime after 2030 solution. There is enough available with present technology to trim 20 to 30% of our ghost energy consumption, enough to eliminate the need for any new ghost energy plants according to David Wooley of the Energy Foundation. The point was made over and over again that trimming energy costs much much less that bringing on more ghost energy borrowing capacity, and that was in terms of dollars spent, not warming mitigation costs.

Much of the talk was about how to encourage the adoption of that technology. I got a huge rise out of Phil Sharp when I pointed out that, in his analysis, the options boiled down to a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system which left out what Americans usually do during a war: they ration. He went on about burning the printed rations from the Carter administration during the Reagan administration and huge administrative costs and all that. Seems to me that the Reagan administration burned a lot of energy bridges. But his main theme is that there is no political will to ask any sacrifice of the American people. I was a little saddened that this point got applause from the front rows because it shows little faith in America's people. I guess cynicism grows as you move up the pecking order. Speaking with a bright guy from Dow afterwards, we agreed that cap-and-trade was rationing for the big players to enjoy. Polluters get to monopolize their pollution niche. Still, he wanted to consider a sector-by-sector approach. I think this makes sense as a friendly competition in the way that the Chicago Climate Exchange runs things, but as a regulatory matter it is still prescribing that polluting is OK. I also spoke a little with Phil Sharp after the ration burning speech and pointed out that if you do cap-and-trade with rations to citizens, then everyone's creativity is brought to bear in making decisions about carbon. He still worried about having two currencies, though I pointed out that we already use both cash and postage stamps. He's a smart guy too, so maybe he'll think about it more.

There was also talk of reregulating utilities. The idea here was to make the compensation for utilities proportional to increased efficiency rather than increased energy use. Well, if you think about it, utilities aren't really deregulated since they are still monopolies, it is just that they write their own regulations these days. With Real Energy, they'll be ripe for actual deregulation. You can find some thinking about this relying on government subsidies to utilities here from Reid Detchon's web site.

There were a few people there who were not wearing suits. A few people from the Sierra Club and Josh Forgotson and we had a good chat about Step it up 2007, an April 14 political event, but this time not a corporate event. I also met a good listener, Wendy Burt from DOE.

So, there are many ways to trim energy use which work and can reduce our ghost energy use by 20 to 30% in a short amount of time, short enough to meet the obligations we negotiated at Kyoto. There are also many lumbering approaches to how these might be implemented. Perhaps a forum less influenced by the slow-go thinking of the big players would be the best place to figure that part out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007


One way we all participate in Real Energy is to eat. True, fossil fuels make up a portion of the way we get food, but at base we all rely on photosynthesis to eat. The food chain is grounded in this. Actually, it is better to call it a food web and in a more immediate way than usually taught in school. For most of our lives, when we eat we are not making a bigger us, adding mass to our bodies, we are making a more active us. If we sum up at the end of our lives what we've eaten and subtract what we've eliminated and what's left to bury there is a whole lot of food mass that is missing. Where did it go? It's been pushing up daisies all along.

The carbon that plants pull from the air to construct their bodies is sent right back to them when we eat and then exhale that carbon back to the atmosphere. We are carbon evaporators built to feed plants. Plants are carbon catchers built to feed us. The plants have it a little easier because they don't have to chew.

While the picture of returning our bodies to the solid soil and the web of life is correct, it misses the main show which is the passing back and forth of carbon through the tenuous air. At the center of all this is the process of photosynthesis that frees the carbon we've bound to oxygen and makes it available to make the starch and sugar we eat.

Another way many of us participate in photosynthetically mediated real energy is through combustion. The ethanol that is added to our gasoline to reduce smog comes from plants and those who heat with wood or pellet stoves also use combustion to evaporate carbon back to plants. The question I'd like to look at is: Can we do this more to get away from ghost energy and participate more fully in real energy?

I've mentioned algae before and there is a reason for that. The amount of oil you can get from algae compared to rooted plants is much greater. The main thing is to look at energy per unit area per unit time. For ethanol production we get:

400 gal/acre Corn
665 gal/acre Cane
1000 gal/acre Switchgrass

For oil production we get:

18 gal/acre Corn
48 gal/acre Soy
110 gal/acre Peanut
10,000 gal/acre Algae

And you get about as much ethanol from algae to boot. Ethanol comes in at about 20 Mega Joules per liter and oil comes in at around 33 Mega Joules per liter so taking an acre to be 4047 square meters and a liter to be 0.264 gal and one year to be 3e7 seconds we get 0.25 watts per square meter for corn ethanol, and 0.02 watts per square meter for corn oil. For algae we get about 11 watts per square meters from the oil. The algae is getting close to what we can get from silicon solar cells (about 40 watts per square meter averaged over day and night).

There is a catch though, for the algae, the high efficiency is boosted by using a concentrated source of carbon dioxide such as a power plant. So, a source that could provide something like the amount of liquid fuel we consume for transportation is stuck to consuming fuel in another way. People like to enclose the algae to ensure that the particular strain that is good for producing oil is not out competed by a less useful strain and also to reduce water evaporation but this makes getting the carbon dioxide to the algae a little tough. Sounds like a job for hemoglobin or something like it.

If we demand less in the way of liquid fuels so that we are not setting up a competition between food and fuel, then there is an opportunity to reduce the extra carbon we've put into the atmosphere and still derive some fuels from plants. Not too surprisingly, the method is organic.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Executive Summary

To me, it is refreshing to see markups in the IPCC 4th Assessment Summary for Policy Makers . It's out even if there are still places where the units are still being converted or the wording is shifting. They know what they mean and mean what they say but consensus takes work all along the way.

Real Energy is what the report is all about, or at least an abstraction of real energy. The units are given in equivalent solar forcing, watts per square meter all over the place. So, green house gasses add some of these and aerosols subtract some of these, and the change in the reflectivity of the Earth takes away some. The equation comes to people do 2.3 (greenhouse gasses) -0.5 (aerosols) -0.5 (cloud formation because of our aerosols) +0.35 (because we also make smog) +0.34 (evaporation of fuel) -0.2 (changing the reflectivity through land use) and +0.1 (making the snow dirty) which comes to 1.9 W/m^2. From the Sun we get an estimated extra 0.12 W/m^2 since 1750. What is really important about these numbers is that the uncertainties have been estimated. You can't be confident of what the consequences of these measurements are until you know how well the measurements have been done. For the last number the range the report gives is 0.06 to 0.30 W/m^2 and the solar constant is about 1400 W/m^2 so we now work to about 0.004%. As an astronomer, that makes be feel pretty proud. In ground based mid-infrared astronomy we start at about a part in a million just to measure anything at all, but measuring the Sun is actually a more difficult problem.

Now, all of these numbers are changes from 1750 AD and all but the one for the Sun are changes that happened because of what we've been doing. And, what we've been doing has been happening most in the last 4 decades so we really ought to take this into account if we want to look at the relative importance of what we do and what the Sun does. In a rough way we can just multiply what the Sun does by the ratio of 4 decades to 25 decades or about 0.15 which means that what we're doing is about 100 times more important than what the Sun is doing in terms of changing the temperature of the Earth. Isn't it great to know something with quantified uncertainties?

All of this is about physical measurement and modeling but there is more to the report. The report also looks at how the climate is likely to behave based on different ways that we might behave in the future. Here, estimates of political, economic and demographic conditions in the future are assumed and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions are projected from that. The demographic numbers are probably the soundest portion of these though they all feed into each other. China, for example, is retaining its one child policy which is a political impact on demographics. Now all of this is very uncertain because the future of human behavior is notoriously unpredictable. There are always a few seers who get it mostly right, but knowing which ones those are is very hard to do.

What I find really important about the assumptions about future human behavior is that they do not include any reasonable ones. The report ignores completely the effect of meeting Kyoto and going forward from there. This is a huge hole in the report because it hides the estimated results of policy initiatives that are already underway from policy makers.

While it is true that until about the end of 2006, the prospects of meeting Kyoto obligations looked bleak for a number of countries, some have made real progress which means that there are models that work. The prospect of a major effort by the rest of us to meet the end of the 2012 compliance period is not really impossible, but it's been excluded from consideration.

At the end of 2006, sales began for long term rental contracts for solar power that cost no more than what utilities charge for delivered electricity. This is possible because the cost per peak Watt is now $1.53 owing to large scale production. Because the contracts are fixed rate, they actually cost less than taking delivery of power from a utility in the inflation regulated economic environment we've maintained since the seventies.

For the US to meet the Kyoto obligations it needs to reduce it's emissions by about 20% from current levels. We get a pretty good shot at that if we build about forty 500 MW per year capacity solar panel fabrication plants by 2011. That's one plant per net metering state, a tall order, but not beyond what could be done given that there is an economic incentive to do so. Taken together with increase in wind capacity and the introduction of plugin hybrids which make a lot of sense in the current high oil price environment, meeting the Kyoto obligations is not out of the question for either the US or Australia regardless of good faith issues affecting both countries.

So, as an advance on quantitative understanding of global warming, the report is really really nice, but in terms of modeling the effects of pursuing various policy options, it is pretty much a failure since it excludes the economically most likely scenarios.