Thursday, August 30, 2007

Cost of Freedom

I've been expecting a revival of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young ever since the President said that Iraq is just like Vietnam. Those haunting lyrics:

Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down.

fit with Iraq even better than Vietnam since if we just left oil buried in the ground, we would not be spilling blood all over the sand. And, we'd be a heck of a lot more free too. Oil, coal and gas are like the chains ghosts rattle to show their misery.

But, the President is a kidder. In Korea or Vietnam we were there by invitation under a theory that we were fighting for our own freedom. In Iraq we are fighting for our enslavement to oil because any theory that we are fighting for someone else's freedom breaks on the hard rock that we are fighting all sides in a civil war; no motive but oil is left. So, what is the cost of freedom from oil?

I mentioned already that I'd raised the idea with Phil Sharp that rationing makes the most sense. This is an idea that I'd been kicking around for a few years on green email lists. The idea would be to have a second currency (like postage stamps) but instead of rationing the way we ration money to set the inflation rate, distributing the resource at the top, we would distribute the resource equally to all so that every one's creativity would become engaged in figuring out how to get off ghost energy. The way we ration cash is a cap-and-trade system at the top of the banking system. The way to ration carbon is a cap-and-trade system at the consumer level. I want to say right now that the term white market, as I coined it a few years ago, is a ration free portion of the economy that is already off carbon. As many Amish are moving to solar power for their workshops, the goods they sell would be pretty much part of a white market already. But, I don't mind a different coinage at all. E. Swanson's idea is that the white market is the place where people who have been especially successful in reducing their fossil fuel use go to sell their extra rations to people who need more time to get things figured out. And, I don't mind calling the rations icecaps as George Monbiot proposes, but I do think that his proposal to give the government it's share for free is a mistake. Government should recover the ability to use carbon the way that it recovers the ability to use cash. Then it is apparent to citizens how well the government itself is doing on getting off carbon. Citizens can't practice eternal vigilance if the government use is not coming out of their pockets. Monbiot's view seems to be changing though compared to the rationing ideas he presented in his book Heat. He does not mention granting rations to the government here but he is still concentrating on rations for electricity and fuel rather than having the rations trace fossil fuel use throughout the economy. (Note to George: the highest rate of sea level rise mentioned by Hansen et al. (2007) is 5 meters per century, it could go higher but when talking about 25 meters they say centuries rather than millennia. See this response at Ultimately, icecaps need to trace back to as close to the mine or well-head as possible to be retired. In the case of oil, many will be retired at the tanker, for coal at the mine and for imported goods at the border. It is doubtful to me that the WTO will object to requiring rations appropriate to the use of fossil fuels in the manufacture and transport of imported goods since all goods face the same treatment. To get a low ration burden a Chinese manufacturer need only use solar power and a sailing ship.

At first, the total rations match current use and then the total issued is reduced each year reaching zero at a particular date. That date should be set so that the impact on total demand for oil and gas is substantial even if production is curtailed for physical reasons such as the effects of exhaustion of the resource. The date should also be set to minimize the cost of carbon dioxide sequestration out of the atmosphere that we may well need to undertake. Finally, we need to work within a time frame that makes converting the transportation fleet, electrical energy sources and home heating feasible. The shape of the curve to zero should likely be steep at first down to a 20% reduction because conservation can manage this kind of reduction fairly easily and this saves everyone money. The time-scale for energy source conversion is about 20 years at the present rate of growth of renweables (45% annual) while the longest time-scale is for home heating since oil and gas furnaces last a long time. Fleet conversion has a shorter time-scale since automakers anticipate putting plugin hybrids on the market in 2010. Their retooling could take 5 years from that point so that fleet turnover would be nearly complete in 17 years. Monbiot urges a 23 years to zero emissions date. Very cheap renewable electricity might persuade those who rely on oil or gas for heat to convert before their furnaces are worn out so his date may be a good choice. A 5% of current use reduction per year for 4 years gets us to cheap oil and gas and captures the low hanging fruit of conservation. The remainder of the curve though would be nearly as steep at 4.2% of current use per year. Taking the date at 2035 would have us reducing at 3% of current use per year after the first four years, a rate that enhanced economic activity owing to lowering energy costs could likely sustain. Continued growth of the US renewable energy industry over the following few years after US zero emissions would cover world energy needs and would be produced below the cost of production of fossil fuels so that any lagging countries would be easily persuaded to get with the program. Presumably our balance of trade will be nicely positive as a result. This would also be the time to undertake technological carbon dioxide sequestration efforts since this would be the point at which the cheapest renewable energy equipment could be produced most abundantly and also the point at which we would know what scale of effort will be required.

The most important aspect of people-level rationing is that it makes a transition to real energy affordable because it reduces the cash price of coal, oil and gas by reducing demand. A carbon tax makes things more expensive by raising (cash) prices so people do not see the benefit in their wallets and don't have extra funds to buy a new plugin hybrid electric car, for example. Tax shifting only works up to the point where there are remaining taxes to shift and a rapid transition would need a very steep carbon tax which would likely overrun current taxation. Rations give everyone room to maneuver, a bit of freedom on the way to even greater freedom.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Undertaking

The reason, I think, that people get so infuriated with James Hansen is that he has such a long track record of being right much sooner than other people. He's the kid in class who gets the answer not only first, but right away, no sweat. He's also the kid who just blurts out the correct answer without being called on. So, people like the President attempt to censor him and there is a great roaring on the internet when some data published on the web has an unimportant flaw (see he's not perfect).

So, here comes another flap. A newspaper article has misquoted a new paper by Hansen and co-workers saying that they are predicting 25 meters of sea level rise by the end of the century. And, a number of blogs are cranking up the ridicule. But, if you read the paper you'll see that they predict 25 meters in centuries, not this century. This is still important because it is not 25 meters in a thousand years, but you end up with several meters by the end of this century, not 25 meters.

Let's work backwards in the paper because there is some really big new at the end that the newspaper article missed. First the last footnote:

The potential of these 'amber waves of grain' and coastal facilities for permanent underground storage 'from sea to shining sea' to help restore America's technical prowess, moral authority and prestige, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, in the course of helping to solve the climate problem, has not escaped our attention.

Back in the day, colorful footnotes used to set apart some of the better academic writers but you don't run into these as often now. The footnote is about a scheme to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by burning plants to make electricity and then squirting the carbon dioxide down below the bottom of the ocean where it should stay put. The big news is not about the particular scheme, which is a little awkward, but that they are discussing sequestration at all. This is a big departure because up until now Hansen has been saying that there is likely a decade or so over which we might simply reduce emissions and thus avoid a large sea level rise. Sequestration is likely to be more expensive than just reducing emissions. The cost to build a coal plant that captures carbon dioxide for sequestration is about $2.20/Watt while thin film photovoltaic panels are being manufactured now at a cost of $1.19/Watt. So, where we would be saving money by reducing emissions, adding on a requirement to clean up the mess we've made already through technological intervention could add to our costs. There is a large prize being offered to figure out how to do large scale sequestration and make money too so it may turn out that we'll learn that sequestration saves money as well, but so far, adding sequestration to a coal plant looks as though it adds about 40% to the cost of building a plant. For a biofuel plant there may be similar costs and since the methods we know to get photosynthesis to scale up to our energy use involve needing a source of concentrated carbon dioxide, a sequestration plan based on burning grasses won't have a big impact on the atmospheric CO2 concentration even though growing grasses does help. Biological methods to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, if needed at scale, probably have to occur in the oceans though the potential of coastal regions to support much more mineralization should not be overlooked. At a guess though, since we are seeing so much progress in shifting from thermodynamic to quantum means of generating electricity, a technological approach to sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will leverage the very low cost of electricity and high availability of energy we can anticipate to use chemical sorbants that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere much faster than plants can so that we minimize the land use impacts of our clean up effort.

Again, the big news is that Hansen is calling for sequestration of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere rather than what particular method is given as an example. So, why the change? Let's keep working backwards:

The best chance for averting ice sheet disintegration seems to be intense simultaneous efforts to reduce both CO2 emissions and non-CO2 climate forcings. As mentioned above, there are multiple benefits from such actions. However, even with such actions, it is probable that the dangerous level of atmospheric GHGs will be passed, at least temporarily. We have presented evidence (Hansen et al. 2006b) that the dangerous level of CO2 can be no more than approximately 450 ppm. Our present discussion, including the conclusion that slow feedbacks (ice, vegetation and GHG) can come into play on century time-scales or sooner, makes it probable that the dangerous level is even lower.

This is it, we won't go farther though the paper seems virtuosic. They find no evidence that ice sheets linger once the temperature goes up when they examine big climate changes in the past. That makes changes in ice cover and plant cover into an additional feedback that boosts warming on a shorter time-scale than usually assumed. This puts us in a position where just reducing carbon dioxide emissions as quickly as we can may not be enough. The solution to global warming would then involve reversing it, not just ending it. And, this is why the position has changed.

Change sounds like just what we may be needing to lay on the eyes of the ghosts we have dug up to ferry them back where they belong. All the more reason to get real about energy so we can save our pennies for the task ahead.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Many more ghosts

You never get a response from the New York Times if you submit a letter to the editor aside from an auto-response in the case of email. On the other hand, they don't want material submitted or published elsewhere so we're a bit stuck. I'll leave it up to them if they want to carry this.

The New York Times had a pretty good editorial on Thursday urging Congress to investigate the recent mining accident in Utah. They feel that some decisions of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) could have played a role in the deaths. In the following letter I agree with them but point out again that the reduced productivity for coal mining implies that even more strenuous safety efforts are needed than those that in earlier years led to reduced annual mining fatalities. So, Congress take note:

Your Editorial, "Unsafe Mining" of August 23, 2007, rightly points out that continuing to reduce coal mining deaths after last year's rise will require greater effort and Congress should look into the specifics of the most recent disaster to understand how an MSHA official died, how the mine came to be reopened and if any official corruption was involved. That Gary Jensen, an MSHA inspector, died in the rescue attempt is very concerning since his experience is lost and cannot benefit the avoidance of future accidents. This, more than anything else, even the upsurge in mining deaths last year, suggests that the MSHA is not able to do the job it once did in reducing mining deaths.

But Congress also needs to go beyond understanding the institutional breakdown in the MSHA to a broader picture that we are moving towards diminishing returns for coal mining. An MSHA operating as it once did may not be able to reduce the number of mining deaths each year as it has in the past. A study conducted by the Energy Watch Group this year finds that in the US the per miner productivity has been declining since 2000 and energy production from coal has been declining since 2002 owing to greater reliance on poorer quality coal. This indicates that at a given level of safety, a larger number of miners must die each year since ever more miners must be employed to compensate for the reduced productivity. The report suggests that outsourcing our mining deaths could not be sustainable since China and Australia will soon see similar declines with only Former Soviet Union countries boosting production out to 2050 but with world production in decline after 2030. So, an MSHA that would continue to reduce mining deaths as it once did would need to work much harder than it has in the past because it will need to protect many more miners. For a grieving agency this may seem like hard news indeed, but Congress must push it to greater efforts. NASA has now returned a school teacher safely to Earth. The MSHA can take inspiration from this.

Relying on depleting resources inevitably means greater danger as the more easily obtained and higher quality portions of the reserves are exhausted. The days of Phoebe Snow and the Road of Anthracite are long past but now we are coming to a more serious turn: do we double the 104,621 deaths that got us from 1900 to 2006 as we dig deeper for lower quality coal or do we go to the extreme to preserve life?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What the dormouse said

Note: Mr. DeVore has responded in comments linked below.

I don't know why Chuck DeVore, Orange County Assembly Person would insult the California utilities he says he wants to help, but he seems to be a bit deranged in most of his arguments. He wants to repeal a long standing law in California that bans new power nuclear plants. To open, he insults Californians, calling them hypocrites because 80% of them don't carpool or use mass transit. He is outraged that California will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% in 13 years while growing 20% in population. For 7 million new people, that's about 400 new homes a day. Every day I hear of a new housing development in California with solar power built in. What part of 2 gigawatts doesn't he understand? And, what of existing homes? While new applications for rebates for solar installations were falling off earlier this year owing to time-of-use rates, applications for rental of solar power systems were more than covering the deficit. As of today there are more than 3,600 applications for no-rebate systems which don't immediately show up on the million solar roof books. Will the existing homes in California have fewer installations than the new homes? What part of 6 gigawatts doesn't he understand? Why, this is the capacity he is proposing for new nuclear power all in thirteen years.

He has particular problems with understanding electricity. He proposes that out-of-state power sources would suffer huge transmission losses and argues that nuclear power should not be sited out of state because of this. But he must not know that the Pacific Intertie already supplies LA from Washington and manages this distance quite well. But, since LA already sucks the Colorado River dry, north is about the only direction he can go to site new out-of-state nuclear power while closer solar installations like Solar One will require less in the way of new lines. In fact, north is the only direction he can go for new nuclear power even in-state since coastal sites will face the risk of sea level rise and are unsuitable for new nuclear power plants. So, what he really wants is for the City of Sacramento to build four new nuclear power plants to power southern California. But then he'll have to wait for the levy system to get repaired because Sacramento faces its own flooding issues. And with the changing flows that loss of snowpack will bring, the Sacramento and American Rivers may experience the same kind of problems that shut down reactors on the Tenneseee River and in Europe. So, four new nuclear power plants in the middle of the State Capital to be started after the levies are fixed (10 years) and the law is changed (? years) and taking 6 years for completion gives a minimum of 16 years before any electricity is produced at all with no certainty that the plants can even operate under changing flow conditions. The lack of realism is astounding. Perhaps it is not so much that the utilities are risk adverse as he demeans them, but rather they not raving mad.

He makes another astounding statement: converting transportation to electricity would require doubling generation capacity. This shows a complete lack of understanding of the poor efficiency of the internal combustion engine. Electric transportation is much more efficient and would require at most a 30% increase in generating capacity and likely much less. But most roofs can provide this, so the 8 gigawatts of solar capacity that we may easily anticipate from home roofs alone make a very good start on this.

Others of his deluded statements include that life cycle carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power are lower than for solar power: Nuclear plants can't be built without fossil fuels and concrete and nuclear power plants can't be recycled while solar panels don't require fossil fuels to make and recycling makes their net energy ratio higher than any other power source.

His plan to change the law in California also apparently hinges on a plan to change the federal law aimed at preventing weapons proliferation. So, now he has to change two laws and meet a 13 year deadline. These are talking points, not serious proposals. The people of Orange County should take a good look at who is paying for the nuclear kool-aid he's been drinking and give him a good long rest.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tuppence in the Sun

Mr. Dawes Sr. If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound, soon that tuppence, safely invested in the bank, will compound! And you'll achieve that sense of conquest, as your affluence expands! In the hands of the directors, who invest as propriety demands!

The lyrics to the song that follows this bit of wisdom in the musical Mary Poppins can be found here. The next song, Step In Time is much more energetic and it is perhaps understandable that a song about compound interest would fail to catch on.

We are seeing a lack of propriety these days in a number of financial transactions. The slicing and dicing of risk seems to have led to a question of what value many securities have if any at all. But, if you want to take on projects that extend over a substantial period of time, credit markets are likely to be a part of what you do.

One thing we need to do is transform how we get energy and a number of options include long term components. Nuclear power, for example, extends so far into a climatically uncertain future that it is seeking extra help with finance through federal loan guaranties.

While renewable energy is forever, its implementation can be taken in 10 to 25 year chunks so it fits much better with standard lending terms. Further, risk is low so while raising capital though venture mechanisms can happen, it is also attractive to banks, especially since renewable energy equipment can serve as insured collateral. This is why so much of the financing for renewable energy is coming from institutions like Credit Lyonnais and Morgan Stanley especially in the commercial sector. In the residential sector, solar power equipment is being rolled into a mortgages for new home construction while installers for existing homes are getting savvy at helping customers find financing through secured credit based on increased equity.

But, what if you want to follow the commercial sector model of separating ownership of the equipment from the use of the equipment in the residential sector. Individually financing each deal, as might work for supplying Walmart with solar power, becomes time consuming and thus expensive. What is needed is an aggregate instrument. One way that aggregation has been used with propriety is the securitization of leases. CVS, for example, financed its eastern expansion based on the security provided by the fact that it had property leases to conduct its business. This brought them lower cost financing since the aggregated leases were more secure than individual leases.

One way to secure low cost credit to allow the long term use of solar power on homes is to secure the credit on the basis of an aggregate of rental contracts which assure repayment of the debt. So long as those contracts are sufficiently attractive that few of them are likely to be broken (they save customers money) then you have a low risk security that does not require high interest. This is the form of financing that Citizenre has adopted for its solar power equipment rental business. Shaving the cost of financing puts it in a better competitive position than attempting to work out deal-by-deal financing, so much so, that it can afford to ignore state-level rebates available to individual purchasers of solar power equipment.

There is certainly room for venture capital in the solar power business, especially for high risk new technology development. But, for deployment of proven technology, the model being adopted in the commercial sector using more traditional financing leads to cost savings that are important for market competitiveness. Carrying this over to the residential market, with its much larger roof space resource, will likely rebalance the solar market towards an acceleration of its current 30% annual growth.

Monday, August 6, 2007


People who should really know better are beginning to say we should consider nuclear power as an alternative to coal power as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. One person, who should be careful, has made history by being the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. Her district strongly opposes nuclear power, and it is even illegal in her state to build new nuclear power plants. She may feel that she now represents the other members in Congress who elected her speaker, but she won't be Speaker for long if she stops representing her district. She is not required to abandoned the positions that got her elected to Congress just to be Speaker unless she became Speaker in a dishonest manner, promising to betray her constituents in exchange for power.

Another person who should be too smart to go for nuclear power is James Lovelock. His work towards understanding why the environment of the Earth is suitable for its inhabitants has been quite interesting. His thinking is that the world appears to take care of itself, adjust its atmosphere to keep a stable temperature, for example, because of feedbacks within the ecosystem. The ecosystem, viewed as a whole, acts to preserve itself in the same way that your body "acts" to keep its temperature stable. I was so impressed with his review of his work on a model called Daisyworld that appeared in Nature some years back, that I sent a copy to my daughter. It is a very simple model that acts as though it "knows" what is best for itself. Just a few simple behaviors on the part of some flowers controls the temperature of the whole world even as the luminosity of the Sun increases. In other words, life preserves itself as though all of life were aimed to do this without requiring collusion. Niches are adaptive in addition to species adapting to niches. Perhaps the problem is that Lovelock is looking for simple solutions, but he does not realize that nuclear power does not follow simple rules and so cannot fit into a self-stabilizing model.

Let's look at how this would break down. In the Power Plant World we have black power plants that warm the Earth and white power plants that cool the Earth just like the flowers in Daisyworld. As the Earth warms, a shift from black power plants to white power plants ensues. But, in Daisyworld there are simple rules, in Power Plant World there is an additional rule that the waste from the white power plants cannot touch the water. Now, we set the model to run. The temperature initially increases spurring a decrease in black power plants and an increase in white power plants, but the temperature continues to climb, as it must, because there is lag that is not present with the albedo mechanism used in Daisyworld. This means that the water level rises even as white power plants become more numerous and black power plants less numerous. And, the rule that the waste from white power plants can't touch the water has a devastating effect. It is so expensive to keep the waste from white power plants from touching the water, that when they die, their cores, which are very dangerous waste at that point, are usually just buried in place. But, when the water level rises, these cores have to be moved and buried somewhere else because of the don't touch the water rule. Moving the cores requires more energy than the white power plants produce in the first place so the whole system collapses.

Actually, in Power Plant World things are not really as black and white as they are in Daisyworld. There are also green power plants that can produce much much more power than either the black or white power plants can, so there is a happy ending which would not occur if white power plants were used.

Now, the purpose of the Daisyworld model is not to represent the full complexity of ecology, it is just to show that simple rules can lead to self-regulation. The purpose of Power Plant World is to show that adding more complex rules can destroy that self-regulation. We might add more and more rules to the construction of white power plants to perhaps avoid problems like sea level rise inundating their sites or warming temperatures requiring large cooling towers. We might anticipate where river flows will be large owing to climate change and put new white power plants there. In Daisyworld there is no planning, which is kind of the point, but in Power Plant World, there would not be more white power plants without anticipating the effects of the black power plants.

In fact, Power Plant World runs on good intentions with imperfect foresight, a combination that can lead to hellish results. But, it is pretty adaptable. The white power plants were never intended to regulate the temperature of the Earth, but rather as a bribe to limit the number of countries with nuclear weapons so that the chances that we'd blow ourselves up would be reduced. The idea that they might be used for temperature control only came up after it was realized that temperature control might be needed. Both white power plants and black power plants tend to kill those who are involved in running them disproportionally, so it is strange that the people who run them love them so much. But, this strange love, like a moth at a candle, has meant that there has been acceptance among the white power plant lovers that the rising temperature caused by the black power plants is a problem so they might be able to make more white power plants even though most people don't like them.

Nuclear power plants are very wasteful so they are very thirsty. To compete with the coal power plants, they have to be big to reduce costs, and since they waste most of the energy they produce, they need a way to get rid of that wasted energy so they pretty much need to be sited near a flow of water. Big coal power plants have similar problems because they are also wasteful, but they still try to get bigger to compete with the white power plants. They have somewhat fewer constraints though because they can shut down more easily if the waste heat becomes a problem, and they send a lot of their waste heat up a smoke stack, reducing their dependence on a flow of water.

Let's look at a particular example since we can see that the Power Plant World model has too many variables and interrelationships to be all that helpful. Calvert Cliffs has been a favorite of the strange love crowd because it got a licence extension even after the Three Mile Island accident made it quite clear that nuclear power is a very bad idea. It was a matter of letting thing cool down politically, and, as we will see, cooling down, in a radioactive sense, is going to be the issue that will make this license extension look very very foolish. Calvert Cliffs is a little unusual because it does not have cooling towers but rather relies on predictable tidal currents to carry away waste heat. It is located on the Chesapeake Bay right at current sea level. It has also recently submitted an application to build a third reactor at an estimated cost of $2.35/Watt, construction only, much higher than the capital cost of a wind farm ($1.30/Watt) which does not require fuel. You can see already that political rather than economic thinking is at work here. And, there are further political considerations. Maryland will be meeting all of it's new generation need with renewable energy as a result of its Renewable Energy Standards Portfolio, so the new generation from Clavert Cliffs will be for export, saddling the people of Maryland with the risks of nuclear power without any benefits.

Let's look at the 20 year license extension granted in 2000. The current reactors will be running until about 2035. But, the climate reports we have been studying predict that sea level rise is going to be more that two feet possibly before the end of the century. Non-linear effects on the ice sheets could bring this up to 15 feet by the end of the century. But, because of the international treaty, it is not legal to dispose of nuclear waste in the oceans. So, the reactors will have to be moved. Basically you can not move a reactor until it has cooled for a century so the licence extension means that the reactors cannot be removed to comply with the treaty until 2135. But, sea level rise will be 3 feet by that time pretty much for certain and the reactors in noncompliance with the treaty without drastic engineering on inundated and very soft muds. So, not only does the sea level rise imply that a never before tried reactor removal must be undertaken, but the license extension means that it must be done at even greater expense. The correct way to proceed would be to revoke the licence extension and even the license to operate so that cooling of the cores can commence now. A cost estimate for removing the cores in 2107 should be developed now, and a surcharge placed on other nuclear generation to cover this cost.

As noted above, the new reactor under consideration will be much more expensive than other forms of power, and it makes no sense to build a new reactor in a place that will be underwater even before the end of its design lifetime. But, even granting that it can be designed to remove the reactor as soon as needed rather than waiting for the hottest elements to decay, its construction costs cannot be levelized over the anticipate design lifetime, but only over a much short site suitability period. This likely brings the cost of power above $0.09/kWh, especially since credit markets are becoming aware of the risks associated with sea level rise. Federal loan guarantees don't really help this situation since they merely guarantee that default will occur, shifting costs onto the taxpayers. Similar conclusions have been drawn about proposed new reactors in England.

Nuclear power is anything but nimble. Very long timescales must be considered. The fact that the industry has been invoking global warming as a reason to build more plants, taken together with the fact that they have made Calvert Cliffs their success story example makes clear the need to scrutinize all of their proposals with much greater care than was taken in granting the license extension. The consequences of climate change: sea level rise, changing river flow patterns and heat balance need to be independently assessed for current reactors to see what increased costs are coming so that they may be added as surcharges now. There are a number of plants whose reactors will need to be removed to higher ground by the end of the century and these need to be identified and shut down to allow cooling time. Granting licences for new plants should be put on hold until such a study and surcharge apportionment can be completed. The industry's obvious inconsistencies in the case of Calvert Cliffs make their own assessments nearly useless. Either they have been disingenuous in their claim that a license extension was justified or they have been disingenuous in their claim that they have the foresight to make such a case since they quite obviously acknowledge the reality of climate change.

Will those who ought to know better come to their senses before they drive up the cost of energy by a factor of two or more while delaying real action on climate change? To be continued....

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Roof Pitch

Abstract: This one is long enough for an abstract so here goes:
An estimate of the available US residential roof surface area is made and the fraction of current net generation that can be replaced with solar power is as much as 46% using this area. Policy issues that could hamper full attainment are discussed. A new fast Norwegian model for electrifying transportation which also provides 0.5 days stationary storage of total generation is considered and found likely to move rooftop solar from its policy limited maximum fraction of 22% towards 46%. Utilities are advised to avoid long term purchase contracts for new nuclear power.

All the trees behind my house were cut down during nesting season with machines straight out of The Lorax. The machine would grip the trunk and, with a high pitched whine, the machine would sever the tree from the ground in about 4 seconds, then back off carrying the tree upright and drop the tree somewhat indiscriminately out off the way. Last fall I put together a new metal shed (with much cursing for the last bits of roof that were hard to get to). It turns out that the old wooden shed was on property that is to be developed in front of the house and it was so old it could not be moved. Doesn't leak though. Nothing has been happening though since the trees were all cut down out back. It could be that houses won't sell for what the developers thought they might so they are holding off.

I don't quite know why we are building so many houses. There aren't that many more of us. Maybe it is the divorce rate. We need two houses per family.

Trees are what grow over most of my neighbor's homes. I picked mine to have sun and a south facing roof. I used to live under a ginourmous sweetgum tree and it's shade cooled that house in the summer, but a good bit of insulation in this house seems to work better. But, with trees being slaughtered using those strange contrivances which, I'm sure, violate Dr. Suess' intellectual property rights, I'm not going to suggest that my neighbor's homes be included in these calculations. We'll estimate assuming all roofs get sun, but there is no suggestion that those that don't should. And, with things slowing down in the building trades, we'll use numbers from a couple of years ago which might compensate for some shady roofs.

What are we doing? We're going to calculate how much sunlight can be turned into electricity just using home roofs. The thing is, FedEx, Google, GM, Coke, Walmart, Kohls, Target, BJs, Cosco, Staples and other businesses are all turning sunlight into electricity using their roofs so they can save money. But, their buildings use so much energy that only about 30% of what they use can be covered this way. But, a house can cover what it needs pretty easily because we tend to like a little less activity at home. Keeping the doors open for shopper past midnight to sell a book about a boy wizard would not allow us much rest. So, can houses make up the difference so that businesses can run on 100% real energy too?

These calculations came about because Robert Rapier had been looking at biodiesel and finding that it would be quite hard to cover transportation with what could be produced. Robert is a contributor to The Oil Drum which we've scolded before. His conclusion was that the future is solar. The main reason is land use. If we use rooted plants to get real energy, they don't put all their efforts into just converting sunlight into stored energy. They are more interested in their social life, hobnobbing with bees, sharing delicious seed holders for dispersal and generally sharing news through their roots. So, as we've seen, only a little bit of real energy is available for harvest compared to all that was used. Robert decided that if we want to have food, we can't also grow fuel at the level that we use it. Now the standard example came up that a square of land in Nevada about 80 miles on a side running a solar thermal plant at 20% efficiency can produce all the energy we use. This is an easy calculation: Nevada has regions that get 9 kWh per square meter of sunlight per day on average over a year, or 375 Watts per square meter of average power. At 20% efficiency you get 75 of those. So we just divide the 1.2 TW of energy we use that we calculated earlier by 75 W per square meter to get the number of square meters we need. Divided again by a million gives 16000 square kilometers. The square root of this, 126 km, gives the length of the edge of the square which is about 80 miles.

Now, many people objected that this was impractical even though it was just an example of how little land is actually needed compared to what we farm. So, we set to calculating what could be done with roofs since this is surface area that is already being used. We need an estimate of the size of a typical roof, how many roofs there are and what the typical available sunlight is. This is a rough estimate (remember the trees) so we won't do anything fancy like match houses in states with the solar resource in that state.

Let's begin. For a home size we'll take 1700 sq ft from 2002, for the number of houses we'll take 124,500,000 occupied and vacant from 2005 and for the available power we'll take 5 kWh/m^2/day from the middle of the country. We're going to adjust the home size which comes out to be 158 m^2 down to 100 m^2 because some houses have more than one story. We'll only use half the roof (50 m^2) assuming that this is the south facing side, or if we cover east and west facing surfaces we only get to use half at one time. Then we'll take a system efficiency of 17%. Each roof then produces 1.8 kW as average power (5 kWh/m^2/24 hours* 50 m^2 *0.17). All roofs produce 0.22 TW. In 2005 average net generation in the US was 0.46 TW (4.055e12 Wh/365 days/24 hours). So the roofs can provide 46% of the electricity the nation uses. But the residential sector uses 37% of the whole generation. The roofs can thus provide extra power for the businesses but they can't cover the whole thing, only about half of what businesses can't do for themselves. Hydro and wind provide about 9% of generation so we are looking for another 100% -(30% of 35% = 10% commercial solar)-(46% residential solar) = 35% to cover the rest of the commercial and also the industrial sectors. Wind power can certainly do this while, as we saw in the case of the Nevada example, solar farms on non-agricultural land can also work.

Just like the businesses that are converting as much of their power use as they can to save money, homes can do the same thing and it turns out we can get a majority of our electricity using just roofs. All of this works essentially under net metering and 41 states have such laws. But many allow the utilities to confiscate the excess power produced within a year of generation. So, unoccupied homes should not be counted in this circumstance. Also, their are few incentives for landlords to save their tenants money so we might want to consider only owner occupied homes. With these limitations, we only get 60% of the residential sector or 22% of the total. These restrictions would seem to be more important than shading from trees. There is some transfer between the rented, owned and vacant buildings so we'll likely get to close to the whole residential sector eventually, and, for the vacant homes, with the utilities confiscating over production, there should be little reason to maintain artificial caps on net metering capacity since they'll see a very healthy overall 11% profit if the owners of the vacant properties don't put in server farms or some other means of using the power generated at the property. We should note that this is actually a huge profit because distributed generation means that expensive upgrades to much of the distribution system can be delayed or avoided all together. In fact, it may well be that utilities can maximize profits by paying a fraction of retail for generation above use rather than nothing. In that case, as the cost for panels comes down, their may be an incentive to use all of the roof.

But, there is a much more important thing coming that will increase the fraction of roof area that is used. The ghost energy depleting industries that we want to displace like to use talking points that emphasize how little real energy we a using right now. They'll sometimes acknowledge the 30% growth per year in renewables, but then pick a date about 15 years before that growth shuts them down to say that the amount of generation will still be small. Then they say that we need more coal, oil, gas and uranium to meet projected demand, hiding the fact that new capacity there will be very expensive because it won't ever be used for its design lifetime. They also ignore the fact that the dollar cost of real energy is plummeting while the dollar cost of ghost energy is only going up. The effect this has of the growth rate can only be positive, especially since renewable energy fabrication is so nimble compared to power plant construction. So, a 150% annual growth rate may not be out of the question. A number of individual companies are planning 100% annual growth just to keep their market share high, a number than investors look at closely. Planning for 100% annual growth takes some doing, but it is much less cumbersome than gaining approval for a new nuclear plant, especially in today's security environment.

The thing that is coming is actually a new business model for transportation that will increase the amount of power people use at home while decreasing the amount of gasoline they use. Companies that manufacture hybrid vehicles are saying that they expect the cost to manufacture these will be the same as for their other lines in a few years. The reason for this is that though the systems are a little more complex, the cost of retooling per unit goes down as the share of production goes up. These vehicles can be modified to have electric only operation with a range of about 40 miles by adding more batteries. But, the batteries are expensive even though the cost of running the vehicles is much less expensive. Batteries, like solar panels degrade in performance over time but for different reasons. For solar panels it is high energy particles which degrade performance while for batteries it is use which degrades performance. The behavior of solar panels has interesting implications for the estimation of the quantity Energy Returned Over Energy Invested (EROEI) because this becomes quite dependent on what level of performance you are willing to accept. If you cut off at a 20% degradation in 25 years, with a 2 year payback time, you get a value of 12.5 trending towards 25 with recycling (because you don't have to purify the silicon again). But, if you accept a 60% degradation you get a value of 33 trending towards 66, the highest for any energy source. You might be willing to accept a 60% degradation if you are replacing the lost performance with less expensive more efficient panels as needed so long as you still have roof space. With batteries for transportation, you really have to set a lower acceptance criterion for performance degradation because the car won't get so far with degraded batteries. Battery degradation also depends on the manner of use. Transportation is a tough environment while managed power storage is a benign environment because an individual battery can be treated gently.

The new business model for transportation takes advantage of this behavior of batteries. Noticing that at least 75% of a battery's useful life will be outside of a vehicle, a company in Norway is planning on leasing about a quarter of the of a battery's life for transportation then selling the remaining battery life to utilities for the power storage we need. Stationary storage does not need nearly the performance levels required by transportation. Now, transportation is about 28% of our total energy use with most of that in trips under 40 miles. By passing batteries on to utilities, the transportation sector will be providing storage for about half of our total energy use. You might think it would be 84%, but using batteries is much more efficeint than gasoline engines so the transportation sector energy use will shrink by about 2 thirds. The business model greatly reduces the cost apportioned to transportation for batteries, making electricity as a transportation fuel very attractive, while at the same time saving utilities money on their most expensive generation costs by allowing storage to cover peak demand. This makes mostly electric transportation the least expensive, especially since people will add capacity to their roofs at lower costs when this mechanism comes in over the fleet replacement timescale. The effect of this is to increase residential use of electricity by about 30%, and similarly increase the contribution of the residential sector to distributed generation. But, the businesses that are adopting solar power now, won't get this energy because it will be displacing gasoline use instead. Notice, though, that the increase in electricity demand this implies is met with real energy even under current net metering policies (excluding overall caps).

In consideration of this, to maximize profits, investor owned utilities should be pursuing a policy of divesting themselves of ghost energy generating capacity, avoiding like the plague very long term ghost energy purchase agreements, especially for any new inflexible nuclear generating capacity, and encouraging rooftop solar as much as they possibly can while working out clever ways to profit from the approximately half day of energy storage they can anticipate coming in from the transportation sector. In short, they should adopt a supermarket or warehouse business model, where they profit by the continual exchange of real energy that their distribution networks can provide. And that is the pitch for rooftop solar.