Saturday, October 31, 2009

WWF Study Puts Global Warming Into Perspective

I put together a Microsoft Excel interactive pie chart that can be opened or downloaded (file downloaded from this link is guaranteed not to have a virus) that may help people to put into perspective various efforts (like doubling the efficiency of the US car fleet, or the elimination of coal for electricity generation) to reduce greenhouse gases.

I read the WWF study last night. At first I was a little shell-shocked, but as I read on I grew numb hopeful. At least now we have a decent study that clarifies what needs to be done, how fast it has to be done, and most importantly, when these efforts need to get started. It's now or never. There will be no going back and no way to fix this if we don't get started now.

Following are several highlights I took home from the study.

There are four main drivers: Clean energy generation, energy efficiency, low-carbon agriculture and sustainable forestry.

Bioenergy comes with the following caveats:
“ deforestation, no competition for land between bioenergy production and food production and protection of biodiversity and nature conservation.”
Bioenergy is potentially CO2 neutral. However, the expansion of palm oil and tropical crops, such as sugarcane, for biofuel production could become a significant driver of deforestation. Bioenergy developments must therefore be appropriately regulated to prevent further deforestation.

We will all have get to drive electric cars!

Since there are alternatives for land-based transport – but not for air and sea, as it stands today – the priority allocation of sustainable biofuels must be to the aviation and shipping sectors …energy demand from the land-based transport sector is met through grid-connected renewable sources…

They demonstrated that once renewable energy industries reach an economy of scale (a critical mass of sorts) they would from that point on become much cheaper than fossil fuels. Everything will cost less because energy will cost less. Investors are going to get their money back and then some. Fossil fuels will be left in the ground because they are no longer the cheapest option (or only option).

In the beginning, coal fired power plants must rapidly be retrofitted to burn natural gas. It produces about half of the CO2 as coal. Later, natural gas will have to be phased out as renewables come on line. We will have to limit other uses of natural gas to have enough to displace coal. Again, we will all have get to drive electric cars!

Growth of nuclear power was not assumed. They gave a few reasons for this. One is that the WWF has historically been opposed to it for all of the usual reasons. Another reason is that nuclear power can only grow fast enough to make a modest contribution in any case. They also noted that thanks to massive government meddling with subsidies, nobody has a clue what it really costs.

They mention the fact that a terrorist attack on some nuclear power plants could kill hundreds of thousands and cost hundreds of billions. After watching religious nutballs fly jets into the Twin Towers and Pentagon I don't know how anyone can still deny this possibility. [Update: This analysis indicates that a typical containment dome would protect a nuclear plant from an airliner attack. Also watch this video of a large fighter jet being crashed into a concrete block to see how an aluminum aircraft fairs against reinforced concrete.] By their calculations nuclear power is not a make-or-break part of the solution so why bother? These are all good arguments and if they are wrong on too many of their assumptions, well, we can build nuclear plants as well, accepting the risks as the lesser of two evils. A global warming tipping point trumps all.

Burning some fossil fuels but capturing the carbon (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) is one of the 24 main solutions although the authors acknowledge that this might not work and that there is a risk we will waste a lot of time and money to find that out.

They began by asking, "Is it is already too late to avert a catastrophic temperature rise? If the answer were yes I probably would not be doing this post. They concluded that it isn't too late but only if we land on our feet running within the next four years.

To figure out when we need to get started they looked at the history of free market industrial growth. By assuming industries like wind turbine manufacturing and efficient technology growth will grow at maximum known historical rates for industry, they could back off roughly when it will be too late to do anything. In other words, if we don't hit the ground running in the next four years, industries like wind turbine manufacturing will be incapable of growing fast enough to avert this coming train wreck.

There are a few graphs on the report that you might want to check out. See pages 13, 16 (return on investment), 36 (or 58), 105 (point of no return).

This scenario would take unprecedented political will. Political will is a function of what voters want. Politicians will not martyr themselves for the greater good if their ignorant constituency wants the opposite.

A recent poll has indicated that only 57% of Americans think there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming (down from 71% a year ago). Another poll taken on Darwin's anniversary earlier this year found that the majority of Americans (61%) don't buy the theory of evolution. On the other hand, we still teach the theory in our high schools.

If you have quit worrying about global warming because your favorite lay media outlet told you that the Earth hasn't gotten warmer for the last ten years (global warming has taken a break), you need to start worrying again. Maybe the first step to fight global warming should be to get rid of TV news and printed newspapers. This would force people to read blogs for information. At least the opposing viewpoint is there if you choose to look for it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Myth of the American Farmer

Image is everything. Whatever image you may have in your head of an American farmer, the too-numerous-to-count agriculture promotional groups most likely planted it there. Thanks to my teenage daughter who is very active with 4H, I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, "I love my farmer," and in her case that is quite true.

Here are some results of a recent poll conducted for the National Corn Growers Association.

A nationwide survey conducted for the National Corn Growers Association found broad public respect and trust for family farmers and support for corn as food, feed and fuel. Ninety-five percent of those polled find farmers to be trusted messengers on issues such as agriculture, corn products and ethanol – and ethanol itself was supported or strongly supported as a good fuel alternative by 65 percent.

Respondents also spoke out about what they saw as the top benefits of corn-based ethanol. Thirty-four percent mentioned reduced dependence on foreign oil [so small it can't be detected], 19 percent mentioned the creation of new jobs [tens of billions in subsidies to give farm states like Nebraska a grand total of 1,000 new jobs] and 16 percent liked it for its environmental benefits [of which it has none].

I'll bet the word "corn" was never put next to the word "ethanol" in that poll. You can also bet that the wording was loaded to get answers they could publish. For example, using the word "family" next to the word farm.

Farmers can't be trusted on food and fuel issues anymore than oil companies can. It is a fact of human nature that the profit motive clouds judgment:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding."--Upton Sinclair

Following is a quote from a Nebraska corn farmer from a recent article in CNN (I don't link to it because it has no comment field):

"The food versus fuel argument is, you know, not my decision," Jeff Shaner told us. "It is the market decision. If in five years the market is telling me to go with switchgrass, we'll go with switchgrass. ... Whether if be corn or soybeans or whatever the case may be, I just hope I am flexible enough to realize it and change what needs to be done in order to be successful."

That's right. He will plant grass instead of food if that's where the money is.

The small family farm is a small business, no more deserving of charity than any other small business. Farmers are businessmen, nothing more, nothing less.

And when the farm lobbyists threaten that your food supply will be in jeopardy if you don't subsidize farmers, understand that your food would cost even less if a lot of these marginally profitable farms were bought out and run by companies that are capable of making a profit.

I doubt that your image of an American farm involves a series of steel buildings filled with cages of chickens laying eggs onto a conveyor belt. That's an egg farm. I recently watched an episode of Dirty Jobs where the film crew visited an egg farmer. The show's host scooped up tons of chicken offal off a concrete floor with a front-loader tractor under the elevated chicken cages while said chickens continued to crap on him. Not real interesting, but dirty.

I also doubt that your image is of a heavy equipment operator. Ever see the documentary called King Corn? As far as I could discern, there is little difference between a corn farmer and any other operator of heavy machinery except farmers drive their machines in a straight line. Check out some of this John Deere equipment that helps them do that.

Here is a short list of adjectives (in the order they appeared in my head) that you can stick in front of the word farmer: organic, tobacco, cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, chicken, pig, egg, and dairy. There are also tree farms but we usually call those people foresters, although a tree farm is not by any stretch of the imagination, a forest. Note that you don't have to actually produce food to be called a farmer nor will your crop necessarily be used for food now that government mandates for biofuels exist.

On the surface, farming sounds like a great way to make a living. Imagine a small business where all you need is some land and a tractor. You have no boss, no office cubicles, no commute, and depending on what kind of farmer you are, you might get to take winters off! Sign me up!

I had two uncles who thought farming sounded like a great lifestyle. Both purchased farms and gave it a go. Both also worked part time jobs to stay fed, and both gave up the farm after a few years. As a child I recall watching a show (that was boring even to a child) called Green Acres. It was a comedy about a city slicker and his socialite wife moving to the country to become farmers. It's a recurring theme that continues to this day as the resurgence of farmer's markets attest. People will forever decide to test the waters of that fantasy that keeps them going as they sit behind that cubicle in the office.

My late next-door neighbor started out in life as a farmer. He was born and raised on a farm that didn't have electricity. One day he broke his back lifting something a little too heavy. He gave it up and moved to the city, like 98% of the rest of us. His name was Farmer Breakfield, seriously.

Small farmers incessantly complain about how little money they make, even though they are some of the biggest subsidy recipients in the country. Razor thin profit margins are a fact of life in market economies. Mature industries drive profit margins down as businesses compete for consumer dollars (if government does its job to bust monopolies). The consumer is king, not the business owner. Book sellers, grocery stores, petroleum blenders, computer retailers, and on and on all have razor thin profits.

Ever watch any of the logger episodes (Swamp Loggers, Ice Loggers, etc) on the Discovery channel? They also operate on razor thin profit margins. The only difference between small book shop owners, or small loggers, and small farmers is the size of their lobbies.

If you want to be your own boss and own your own business in the country, maybe you should just accept the compromises that come with that decision, or move to a city and get a job like just about everyone else does. There is no need to preserve rural communities. American citizens are all free to move to where the jobs are like I did, and most others do.

Life is one giant power struggle. Only politicians have access to the public larder. Only politicians can access that larder to buy votes. Government support of corn ethanol is bribe money to buy farm belt votes.

Farming is a necessary evil to keep us fed. From an environmental perspective few occupations are worse. A corn field is one species away (corn) from being as biologically impoverished as a mall parking lot. The less agriculture we do, the better off this planet is.

[Update 10/7/09]:

Just stumbled on this piece of footage promoted by Growth Force, which is a fitting name for an organization dedicated to forcing corn ethanol onto fellow Americans. You will find a pro football player standing behind a flatbed truck. Wonder why they picked a guy with the name Chad Greenway?

In any case, much of what he says turns out not to be true, which isn't his fault. He didn't write the script. He starts with a statement that sums up why xenophobic rhetoric cajoling us to strive for energy independence via corn ethanol works so well:

"... it's an us against them kind of world ..."

He goes on to tell us why it's a myth that corn ethanol has raised the price of food. The proof offered is a vague reference to a non-existent correlation between dropping corn prices and increasing fuel and food prices. Corn and fuel prices dropped at about the same time, as the 2008 commodities speculation bubble collapsed.

Food price changes (up and down) lag feedstock price changes because they have to draw down already purchased grain stocks. They also move much more slowly than commodities prices. You can't suddenly double the price of your eggs to cover losses from feed prices that tripled. Unless your competitors all did the same thing, at the same time, your eggs would be left to rot in grocery stores. And it's illegal for good reasons (thanks to anti-collusion laws)to get together with your competitors to fix prices. Odd that he didn't mention the Congressional Budget Office report saying that corn ethanol raised the cost of food about $9 billion last year.

He points to a bushel of corn and tells us it can produce "three" gallons (almost) of clean (not true) renewable (not true) ethanol (while pointing at "three five-gallon" containers). He tells us that this bushel (56 pounds) will produce 17 pounds of distillers grains (while pointing at a container that contains about 50 pounds of distillers grain). He concludes by telling us that our home grown energy potential (corn ethanol) is "practically limitless" (also not true).

Friday, October 23, 2009

A2B verses A123

[Update May 23, 2010] Spotted another guy riding an A2B on the bike trail the other day so I thought I'd follow him to see how he used it. He was listening to an MP3 player and didn't have any rear view mirrors.

I clocked him at 20 mph the whole time except when he slowed down in traffic. He used his pedals once, briefly, as he climbed a short, fairly steep hill.

A few days later I spotted him again going in the opposite direction. Now I know where he lives and where he works!

[Update May 13, 2010] Spotted an A2B coming down the road yesterday. No pedaling. He turned a corner and headed up a hill. Again, no pedaling. That is not a bicycle. That's a scooter with pedals on it, commonly known as a moped. Is it cool for these quiet, underpowered mopeds to share bike lanes and trails? Sure. They're quiet, don't spew fumes, and as long as they don't exceed bicycle speed limits they are no more dangerous or obnoxious than a bicycle.

[Update April 4, 2010] I finally test rode an A2B. It does not have the ergonomics of a bicycle. Note in the picture how far forward the pedals are in relation to the seat. It feels like a kid's bike. You will be much more dependent on the battery, which means it will have less range and a shorter life for a given battery size. And if you have to pedal it home with a dead battery, consider calling your friend who owns a truck, at least in Seattle. I have a feeling that the battery won't last long because most will treat the A2B as a scooter rather than a bicycle.

The one I rode had been purchased used from the dealer. It had been returned (at least once) for a refund and the new owner was having his doubts. My guess is that the battery is grossly undersized for an electric scooter, which is how most owners treat it.

I've seen a couple of these A2B machines running around town. I finally spotted one on display at a scooter store. That's my electric bike parked next to it (videos of it in action found here and here). Some yahoo wanting to purchase an electric scooter to drive from his yacht at one end of a dock to the mailbox at the other end had waylaid the proprietor so I never got a chance to test ride it. You can find a video of a test ride done by the WSJ here.

From the above video:

"…after people ride it for a while they sort of quickly migrate through that phase of …[pedaling] …and, and usually when that surprise is, is discovered [that the pedals are mostly for show] it comes with a little, 'Wow!'"

I would describe the A2B as an electric moped disguised as an electric bicycle. Note in the video that it is described as an electric bike. Mopeds (motor--pedal, get it?) are scooters with pedals. In most, a gasoline engine provides the power. The engine is limited to something less than one horsepower, which allows you to ride one without a license in most states. The pedals are a necessary evil to help you get up hills and to get rolling. There is no way you would want to try to pedal one home if you ran out of gas. The same is true for the A2B unless home is at the bottom of the hill you're on.

Mopeds also differ from a scooter because, like a bicycle, they have larger diameter wheels. A tiny wheel diameter will help you get up hills and to get started from a dead stop, but it requires a lot of RPM to go fast. RPM is limited on bikes by our human geometry, thus the bigger wheel diameter and poor hill climbing ability--a trade off for speed on flat surfaces. RPM is less limited on mopeds, thus the slightly smaller wheel diameter, and scooters with high RPM single-stroke engines can get really high revolutions, thus the really small wheels.

Why market the A2B as an electric bike? Bicycles are often chosen over scooters because the law treats scooters like little tiny cars (sans armor plating). But riding a scooter in traffic is viewed by many as a death wish. Bicycle laws provide a measure of flexibility to protect riders from cars. They can ride beside the road, share pathways with pedestrians, and in most places, on sidewalks as long as pedestrians are given right of way. A bike can also go off-road if needed, be thrown on a bike rack, or lugged into your living room.

The A2B will stick out like a sore thumb on a bike trail or sidewalk, especially since most people apparently don't bother to pedal it.

A bicycle that you have to pedal (where the electric assist really is just an assist) is no more of a hazard than any other bicycle adhering to speed limits but lines have to be drawn. We can't let scooters and motorcycles on pathways and sidewalks just because they keep it under 20 mph. IMHO, if you are not using your legs to move you should not be on a bike trail or sidewalk.

If you are forced to ride this thing in traffic at all times, why not bite the bullet and get a scooter?

The battery only has a one-year warranty. This is the problem with virtually all-electric vehicles at the moment. The batteries suck. I've been using mine for three years with no noticeable drop in performance but you can't get A123 batteries on a commercially produced bike …yet.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Carnage in the bike lanes streets

(Photo credit coffeego via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Two recent articles have motivated me to do another biking post. First up is this one, from Science Daily

Despite the wide-spread attention paid to the importance of wearing helmets, helmet use did not change during the time period of the study, and more than 33 percent of 329 bicycle injury victims had a significant head injury. Even more alarming, the number of chest injuries increased by 15 percent and abdominal injuries rose three-fold over the last five years. “We were astounded by that data,”

“We’re talking about injured spleens and livers, internal bleeding, rib fractures, and hemothorax [blood in the chest]. Those kinds of injuries are reflected by an increase in injury severity score,” he added.

The study was done in Denver, apparently a very bicycle friendly city. I would hate to see the data from Seattle's Harborview trauma center.

In a nutshell, increased bike traffic without improved bike infrastructure = carnage. The only way to motivate politicians to prioritize bicycle infrastructure is to motivate their voting constituencies. The snarling car drivers should take a back seat. Life is a power struggle but it never hurts to hold the moral high ground when attempting to plant a meme.

The second post was from Treehugger. The picture of the little girl who lost both of her parents is just heartrending.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yet another DIY solar hot water project

I've been meaning to build a solar hot water system for some time now. I will post on my progress periodically, including details for anyone wanting to learn from my mistakes. Although I've read everything I could find on the Internet about solar hot water, I'm sure there is a lot I don't know but will soon find out.

By doing it myself I'll be able to pass on what I learn. One critique of solar is the expense. Telling people "I then paid $9,000 to have solar hot water installed" does not make for interesting reading. It irritates me that something this simple can cost as much as an economy car. I also like the idea of recycling materials when practical. The Internet, and Craigslist in particular, may save us all!

I recently got the ball rolling by picking up two glass panels that were being given away on Craigslist. They each measure 46 x 76 inches. I doubt if they are low iron (for less heat loss) and have no idea if they are tempered.

I also ordered two solar absorbers off the Internet that will fit under that glass. Building my own absorbers was clearly going to be time consuming, difficult, and expensive. I picked them up a few days ago at the trucking terminal. The crate had been smashed in on one side and I found out after unpacking them that both absorber panels had a damaged pipe and broken welds at the manifold. If you look closely you can make out the bent pipe on the left side.

Lesson number one, pay with Visa so you stand a chance of being compensated if your panels arrive with damage.

Although I'm not ready for one, I also checked Craigslist for new or like-new electric hot water heaters and found several available, some for free, some for a hundred bucks or so. I will remove the heating elements and use it to store water that was heated by passing it through copper heat exchangers in the solar panel drain down tanks with a low-powered circulation pump.

I spent a lot of time deliberating over the system design. I was very tempted to use the simplest design that provided the most energy per dollar invested using the minimum number of parts. It would run the clean water supply pump, one tank in addition to my existing hot water tank, no anti-freeze fluid, and no heat exchangers. You lose a lot of heat with heat exchangers and anti-freeze fluid.

However, because of the other engineering tradeoffs involved, I finally decided against that system. First, the above design is vulnerable to freeze damage. Because panels radiate heat up at the sky, the water in the tubes can freeze on a clear night even when the air temperature is above freezing. We have all seen this in action on our car front windows that slope back like a panel does. Several days a year you will notice that only your front window has frost on it. Decades of experience with designs that tried to prevent these panels from freezing by draining them when it gets cold with a complicated and unreliable valve system have proven that given time, they will one day freeze anyway when one of these valves fail. I tried to convince myself that I could manually drain the panels on cold nights but reality finally sunk in. Best not to deny reality just because you don't like it.

The next reason is overheat damage. This happens on hot summer days when you have all the hot water you need but the sun keeps heating the water trapped in the panels creating high temperatures and pressures. Repeatedly overheating and pressurizing your system will fatigue joints, melt rubber and plastic parts and eventually leading to failure or possibly to a hot water tank pressure relief valve opening. My panels will have to be able to handle continuous dry stagnation.

I chose a design that automatically (and in a fail-safe manner) drains the water out of the panels into holding tanks every time the pump stops running, which happens when the sun isn't shining because the pump is powered by a solar panel. If you live where the water is hard you will have to use special solar panel anti-freeze for the liquid pumped through the panels to prevent mineral scaling from building up. You can also use distilled water and be prepared to replace any that evaporates. Here in Seattle the water is very low on minerals. I suspect I can safely use tap water for a decade or two.

The pump will also stop running when the water has reached its max temperature and trips a heat sensor, which is also backed up by an overheat sensor for redundancy and safety. This solves the problem of overheating the system because there is no liquid in the panels to cause problems and because the system is open to atmospheric pressure (unpressurized).

The downsides are that I need another tank, two pumps, a heat exchanger, and about 20% more solar panel to make up for the losses associated with having to use exchangers.

Because my roof is not only two stories up, has a steep incline, and also happens to face the wrong way, I will put the panels on the ground right in my front yard, which faces south. This will make maintenance easy. I'll also have to make sure they look nice with no pipes showing.

Wish me luck and stay tuned. Feel free to chip in with advice to help me up the learning curve.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries

[Update 10/9/2010: A study was just published in Science (click here for full text--$ub reqd) that parallels a study published in Nature earlier]

Apparently, we've punched through three of those boundaries already, two of them big time. See here. You can read the entire paper in the journal Nature here.

Now, largely because of a rapidly growing reliance on fossil fuels and industrialized forms of agriculture, human activities have reached a level that could damage the systems that keep Earth in the desirable Holocene state.

Note that of the two causes listed, one of them is industrial agriculture, which is also wholly dependent on fossil fuels. I don't have the answer but it surely isn't mixing the products of industrial agriculture with fossil fuels and burning the unholy union in our SUVs.

What image does the term "industrialized forms of agriculture" conjure-up in your mind? I suspect that for most Americans it's corn. For me it is biofuel, which in America is synonymous with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel. In Europe it might be wheat (Hunger for biofuels will gobble up wheat surplus), in Kenya it might be jatropha (How a Biofuel 'Miracle' Ruined Kenyan Farmers), in Tanzania it could be just about anything (Public Fury Halts Biofuel Onslaught On Farmers), in Indonesia, the world's fourth third largest GHG emitter, palm oil will soon drive the wild orangutan to extinction and in South America, sugarcane is king.

We have tried to identify the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change.

The nine processes that define these planetary boundaries are as follows:

1) climate change
2) rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine)
3) interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
4) stratospheric ozone depletion
5) ocean acidification
6) global freshwater use
7) change in land use
8) chemical pollution
9) atmospheric aerosol loading

Items 1, 2 and 3 have already exceeded the boundaries, and not by just a little bit.

Records of Earth history show that large-scale ocean anoxic events occur when critical thresholds of phosphorus inflow to the oceans are crossed. This potentially explains past mass extinctions of marine life.

The air we breath is about 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen. The nitrogen is mostly inert, just taking up space in our lungs. We 6.7 billion human beings (soon to be 9 billion) have been grabbing this harmless nitrogen gas in the air and turning it into harmful nitrogen compounds. Sewage from both human beings and our domesticated animals and agricultural runoff from nitrogen fertilizers (another form of sewage) all ends up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

We are killing the oceans:

At about 400 locations worldwide, agricultural fertilizer and other pollutants flowing into rivers and deltas have created underwater conditions so low in oxygen that aquatic life can't survive. These locations are called dead zones …If we did no biofuels, and we just allowed for food production to increase …you still can't meet the hypoxia goals in the Gulf of Mexico. You still need to take mitigation actions even if we didn't produce biofuels.

The above photo shows trails of mud behind fishing trawlers as they scrape the bottom of the Gulf.

You can't kill the oceans and expect life on land as we know it to survive. It has happened before. The geologic record has shown that. It is called anoxia. The oceans lose their ability to hold enough oxygen to keep anaerobic bacteria at bay. These organisms emit things like sulfur compounds (the rotten egg smell) instead of CO2 as metabolism waste products and will kill all oxygen breathing lifeforms in the oceans.

Today's biofuels simultaneously exacerbate biodiversity loss and the nitrogen putrefaction of oceans and waterways, all the while releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases that had been locked up in forest and grassland carbon sinks to boot. How stupid is that? If you've been holding your breath waiting for politicians to save us, well, you can at least exhale now.

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