Scalability in Energy Production.

Scalability is the capacity to expand production as the need for additional power comes to the fore. A nuclear power plant can take years from the time of initial planning, permitting, and construction, whereas installation of solar panels for a home array will take only a couple of days. The material and labor costs during the construction or installation phase raise the cost of the power source over the cost to fuel and operate the facility once completed.

For necessarily large projects like nuclear or hydro-power facilities, long lead times are needed to bring power on line. This means that planning and construction must begin long before the power is available. This has considerable monetary cost because money is spent year after year before any money comes in from the sale of the power after completion.

An unpredictable risk inherent in the long term, big projects is that conditions may change. A steep drop in the economy during the recent “great recession” resulted in decreases in demand for energy world wide. Changes in technology, particularly with power sources which are more scalable may make a large project obsolete. Natural gas turbine technology is quite scalable. Turbines designed for jet aircraft can be used to generate electricity. The advent of directional drilling and fracking has greatly increased the availability and lowered the cost of natural gas which fuels scalable gas turbine facilities. Planning and construction of large scale coal plants are being canceled left and right.

Our economy is slowly recovering from the recession and new power sources are needed. Scalable power supplies are rapidly replacing large projects because they can reliably deliver power when and where it is needed and at a lower cost.

Solar power is booming across the country. Solar PV is growing 17 times as fast as the economy as a whole. This is due in large part to its scalability. If you need a little power, use just a few panels, such as what be need to charge the batteries on a remote cabin or an RV. To power the average home requires about 20 or 30 panels (10 kilowatt system which can produces 1100 kWh per month.)

For utility scale solar the numbers can get quite large. A one megawatt facility in Benton AR just went online. It employs 3,840 panels on a 5 acre site. The largest planned in Arkansas is an 81 MW, 500 acre facility with 350,000 panels. The country’s largest array not surprisingly is in California. At 550 MW, the array of over 2 million panels will power close to 100 million homes.

Wind is similarly scalable except at the lowest end of the spectrum. Modern wind turbines for utility scale facilities are 2 MW, however 8 MW turbines are being used in offshore locations. For perspective an average nuclear reactor is 1000 MW. Wind farms in the midwest vary in size but average around 200 turbines. A wind farm of this size could cover 50 square miles, but the actual footprint is minuscule as the land within the farm can still be used for forage/pasture.

Trump Pulls Out

It is now clear now that the current administration has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement for specious reasons. Trump will take us off the world stage, away from 195 countries who do recognize the risks of ignoring global warming, ocean acidification, and climate change.

Global warming as a concept is not new. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and Nobel laureate wrote in 1896 on the risks of continued burning of fossil fuels and the resultant accumulation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere. [On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground] The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had been stable stable for hundreds of thousands of years – under 300 parts per million (PPM). In under 200 years we have raised the concentration to the current value of over 400 PPM, 150% of the value at the start of the industrial revolution.

Despite the relatively simple physical principals involved and despite the evidence from air and water temperatures, rising sea levels, and melting ice President Trump still thinks that global warming is a hoax. He seems fixated on the idea that developing sustainable energy supplies will drag our economy down. Is there evidence of such?

Very simply -No. Germany has installed more solar photovoltaic energy systems per capita than any other country, yet they are running a trade surplus with the United States. On a good day Denmark can produce 100 % of its energy from wind turbines and runs a considerable trade surplus with the United States. Ironically, much of their surplus involves selling wind turbine technology to us. We do have a small industry manufacturing wind turbine blades, but the company is Danish. China has leapt to the head of the pack for producing solar panels and we all know about their trade imbalance.

What do the captains of industry here think? Big fossil fuel producers such as Exxon-Mobil support the agreement. Even coal companies support the agreement. Walmart supports the agreement. Of course forward looking companies like Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Apple, Tesla support the agreement. Polls shows that the majority of Americans in every state, across the political spectrum support the agreement.

The agreement that we are walking away from is first and foremost voluntary. The agreement would in no way allow foreign influence of our laws or sovereignty. The agreement calls for international goals for reducing the rate of global warming by reducing the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses.

The US goal was a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 27 % of 2005 emissions by 2025. This is doable with a combination of energy efficiency, sustainable technologies such as wind and solar and switching from carbon intensive coal to natural gas. These changes to our economy are already underway and by participating in the agreement we show the world that we care about collective actions for all humanity, even for all life on this planet.

By not joining the agreement we turn away from 195 countries and join with Syria, torn by a violent civil war, and Nicaragua, who thinks the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

PV Primer, 2017

The cost of photovoltaic systems (panels and inverter) has dropped to about 1 to 2 dollars per watt. At this price, including the 30 % federal tax credit, systems have payback times in less than 7 years, regardless of size. This assumes a cost of about 10 cents a kilowatt hour (kW-hr) for electricity.

Here are a number of nuts and bolts issues for those interested in solar power. First and foremost you must have a location with southern exposure. Even a small amount of shade can seriously reduce energy production. For most this means a roof top location, but it needn’t be if you have the space to put the array on the ground. The simplest mounting puts the panels flat on the roof. The pitch of the roof is not all that important as long as it faces south.

The amount of space needed for an array of course varies as to how much total power you want to produce. Different manufacturers make panels in different sizes (watts) but the total space needed is the same because all PV panels have the same efficiency, about 15 %. Five 100 watt panels will take up the same space as one 500 watt panel. One kW requires about 80 square feet of space.

A big decision is whether the array is isolated or connected to the electrical grid. Grid-tied systems here in Arkansas can take advantage of net metering. This means that the power produced by the panels can actually make a meter run backwards if they are producing more power than the home is consuming at any time. About the only disadvantage of a grid-tied system is that when the line goes down, so does the solar power production. This is necessary to protect power line workers.

The alternative to grid-tied is to go entirely off line by buffering production with batteries. This avoids the aforementioned problem, but greatly increases the cost and “hassle factor” of the system. This is only practical when connection to the grid is cost prohibitive, as in remote locations.

The total amount of energy produced by a system is obtained by the total wattage of a system. For example a 1 kilowatt system can produce a maximum of one kilowatt hour only when the sun angle is ideal. Averaged over a year, a simple rule of thumb is that you can get 4 hours of net production per day. Hence a 1 kW system can be expected to produce 4 kW-hrs per day, more some days, less others.

Let’s use an average consumption of 1000 kW-hrs per month (close to the average in Arkansas) to determined a system sized to replace 100 % of electric needs. 1000 kW-hrs per month means 33 kw-hrs per day. Divide that by 4 to get a a little over 8 kW system. To allow for some inefficiencies say we use a 9 kW system. At 1.5 dollars a watt, the total cost would be 13,500 $. The 30% federal tax rebate brings the final cost down to 9,450 $. Sales taxes and installation will add to the cost, but these numbers can be used to approximate a cost if you are interested in going solar.

Human Energy, Embodied Energy

Humans, as just about all living thing, have a capacity to do work. By subtracting the energy we need for basal metabolism from total caloric intake we get a measure of useful work. For an average American, we do about 500-1000 kilocalories of work daily. Converted to kilowatt-hours (kWh) it’s only 1.2 kWh.

We consume vast amounts of additional energy in the form of electricity and gasoline to name just two, and the indirect energy embodied in the goods and services we use in modern society. If we add it all up and convert it to a single unit, it comes to 220 kWh per day. It is as if we all employ over 200 slaves a day! How in the world did we get here?

One place to begin is with human control of fire. There is clear evidence of the control of fire 200 to 300 thousand years ago, which roughly corresponds with modern humans, Homo sapiens. However there is growing evidence of the use of fire goes as far back as a million years ago. Not only did fire provide warmth and protection but also increased nutrition.

Only a slight step up from burning wood was the use of charcoal. This was important for the advancement of the various metal ages. Copper and Tin were ores easily smelted using charcoal which provided both an energy source and a chemical reactant for making metals. The bronze age, bronze being made principally from Copper and Tin, dates to the dawn of civilization – about 6000 BCE, 8000 years ago. This begins the use of embodied energy, rather than direct energy use.

The next step was a giant one, the identification of fossil fuels as energy sources. The demarcation of modern life begins with the industrial revolution around 18th to 19th centuries. This is the age of coal and iron and mechanization. The steam engine powered by coal not only revolutionized manufacturing but also transportation via steam trains and ships.

The beginning of the age of oil is usually connected to Edwin Drake’s oil well near Titusville, PA. Crude oil and its refined products rapidly displaced other energy sources because of convenience. Our success in World War II was due in large part to our exploitation of fossil fuels for manufacturing and transportation.

World War II also ushered in the atomic age, first with bombs, then “atoms for peace.” The first civilian nuclear reactor in the US (the first in the world was in the Soviet Union) was in Shippingport, PA in 1958.

As our consumption of crude oil continued to increase, by 1969 our ability to produce oil peaked. Shortly thereafter the Organization of Petroleum States formed, began an embargo, and caused the US to realize that in terms of energy we are not be the masters of our fate.

Loss of control of the oil market, coupled with the increasing recognition of the harmful effects of the burning of fossil fuels ushered in the beginning of renewable, or better described sustainable energy sources, notably wind and solar.

Name Your Poisoner

There seems to be a newfound fondness for the Russian government on the part of Trump’s followers, both in the government and the population at large. Several officials have been less than forthright about their connections with Russian government officials or moneyed oligarchs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused from the investigation of Russian interference in our election. Mike Flynn was fired after only three weeks on the job due to his failure to divulge his connections to Russia. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager was fired after it was revealed that he had multi-million dollar contracts with certain Russian oligarchs. Other examples abound.

There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the political aisle that the Russian government or associated criminal elements tried to affect the outcome of our election, and would like to see further destabilization of democracy in America. This is the usual stuff of “cloak and dagger” behavior reminiscent of the cold war. The Russian government also has a much darker side.

Early in the twentieth century, Russia developed a lab to test poisons to be used by various agents and spies. Poisoning is a common method for dealing with both foreigners and Russian dissidents. One of the more famous events occurred during the cold war. Georgi Markov was an anti-communist Bulgarian writer who lived in exile in London. While crossing a bridge to catch a bus in 1978, he was poked in the buttocks with a umbrella. Later in the day he went to a hospital with flu-like symptoms. Three days later he was dead. On autopsy, a small hollow pellet was discovered at the site of the poke. Chemical analysis showed that he had been intentionally poisoned with ricin, an extremely potent toxin made form castor beans.

Victor Yushchenko ran in 2004 for president of Ukraine on a policy of aligning his country with the west rather than Russia. Shortly after his election he met with Ukraine officials who favored an alliance with Russia. Later he came down with what was initially diagnosed as acute pancreatitis. Later still he developed extreme chloracne, a condition only seen in individuals exposed to certain chlorinated hydrocarbons. In Yushchenko’s case it was determined that he was exposed to TCDD, a toxic bi-product of the manufacture of Agent Orange. Although he survive he was ill for months and remains disfigured from the chloracne.

Another dissident, Alexander Litvinenko fled Russia for asylum in the UK. In 2006 he became ill in the evening after having lunch with two Russian officials. He was diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning from Polonium-210. Three weeks later he was dead. It is thought that only a few drops of a Polonium solution in a bowl of soup would produce a lethal effect. This synthetic element can only be had from reprocessing waste from a nuclear reactor.

Surely the luckiest Russian poisoning victim is Vladamir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza describes himself as a Russian democracy campaigner. In May 2015 he became ill for unknown causes. Blood works showed elevated levels of heavy metals but no known toxins were found. Although sophisticated chemical analysis can detect the most minute amounts of toxin, it only works if you know what to look for. Last February he became inexplicably ill again. He was in critical condition for weeks but is now recovering. It can’t be said for sure if Kara-Murza was poisoned – twice – but surely he is a target of the Kremlin and Russian leaders have a long-standing monstrous tradition of poisoning political opponents.

Nerve Gas and Tomahawk Missiles

In August 2012 President Obama said “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around …that’s a red line for us.” This was in reference to an admission by the Assad regime in Syria that they had chemical weapons but they would “never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances.” Within a year, there was evidence that suggested that the nerve gas Sarin had been used on a civilian population.

In the U.S, polling showed that the public had tired of war and was on record as opposing more involvement by our military in the area. Obama sought a joint resolution for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against the Government of Syria to Respond to Use of Chemical Weapons.” The resolution failed. With neither public nor congressional support for military action, Obama sought an agreement with Assad to remove the chemical weapons.

After the recent use of Sarin, the current administration acted without congressional approval and launched an attack with 60 Tomahawk missiles on an air base in Syria. It is thought that this was the base from which the most recent chemical attack was launched.

Sarin is a very toxic nerve agent. It actually isn’t a gas but rather a liquid designed to be aerosolized, meaning sprayed as a fine mist. Contact with bare skin or especially inhalation causes a number of symptoms ranging from heavy salivation, profuse sweating, muscle cramps, convulsions and death resulting from respiratory paralysis. Not pretty, huh?

Sarin is a member of a class of poisons known as Acetyl Choline Esterase Inhibitors. Other substances that have the same effect, but lower toxicity are a number of insecticides. Even the relatively safe house and garden type insecticides kill insects by the same mechanism. So how do they work?

Imagine you want to wiggle your big toe. A message travels from your brain via several nerves “talking” to each other to get the signal all the way to your toe. For the signal to get from one nerve to the next requires the opening and then closing of a “gate.” The gate opening allows the signal and the closing stops the signal. If the gate doesn’t close your toe would continue to wiggle. That is the way Sarin and other Acetyl Choline Esterase Inhibitors work. They keep the gate open. A small stimulation of a nerve can’t be turned off. The affected tissue is overstimulated.

Back to the deaths from Sarin in Syria and our military response. By bombing the airfield a message was sent but is seems to be a fairly ineffective one. Within days the base was back in operation and launching conventional bombing attacks on the same town that had been attacked with Sarin. Now we are left with what’s next?

A recent Galllup poll found that a scant 51% supported our missile attack on the airbase, and 54 % oppose any further strikes. Finally, 69% are not confident that the the one strike will dissuade Assad from again using chemical weapons.

Republican Healthcare – or Lack Thereof

About the only way I know to lower the cost of health insurance for those willing and able to buy it is to let people die on the curb in front of the hospital. Yep, give up your humanity and you too can save on health insurance.

If you opt for humanity and take that person into the hospital, it will cost you, and likely cost you a lot. That person without health insurance will incur costs which the hospital must absorb. The only way a hospital to stay in business if they accept indigent care is to charge paying customers, usually insurers, more to offset the unreimbursed care.

If we are to be humane and provide care for the free riders, is there a better way? If we wait for high blood pressure to cause a heart attack, treatment of that one condition can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Alternately, drugs to manage the high blood pressure can cost pennies a day – Penny wise, pound foolish.

The reason the republicans struggle to produce a health plan to replace the ACA, even though they have had several years, is there is no plan that actually works if it doesn’t include everybody. There are two ways to do that – make sure everybody has access to affordable care through private insurers or go to a less costly single payer universal healthcare system like just about every other country in the world.

Government managed systems work well. We currently spend much more per capita for healthcare and with poorer outcomes. There are over 40 countries with lower infant mortality rates, greater life expectancies and lower costs.

The new president said while campaigning that his replacement healthcare plan would cover everybody and cost less. As to the costs we won’t know until after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores the new bill. I can predict immediately however that it won’t cover everybody because the first line of conservative talking points is repealing the mandate to purchase insurance, guaranteeing free riders. Another promise is to lower ACA spending, which means that subsidies for the poor will be lowered or eliminated, further reducing the pool of insured.

For those middle income folks there may be cheaper insurance policies available, but only because substandard policies will again become available. Lower costs mean lower coverage. The ACA policies required a minimum standard of coverage which included preventive care. Cheap policies will be available which only cover catastrophic costs. Ironically, avoiding the costs of preventive care leads to greater catastrophic costs.

The real winners with the proposed healthcare law are the rich, no surprise there. Taxes will go down while at the same time subsides not previously available to the rich will go up.

Conservatives continue to try to view healthcare as subject to the same market forces as buying unessential commodities, but it just doesn’t work that way. We are alone in the world with our failure to make that recognition.

The Eyes Have It

Charles Darwin published the “Origin of Species” in 1859 and established evolution as the central organizing principle of biology. The molecular basis of evolution became clear about a century later with the understanding of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid – better know as DNA.

DNA is the stuff of inheritance, and changes in DNA are the stuff of mutations and ultimately evolution. The code of life is defined by a simple alphabet consisting of only 4 letters and a grammatical structure which demands words can only be three letters long. Although this means there are only 64 words (called codons) in the DNA dictionary, “sentences” in the genetic code can be crazy long, literally tens of thousands of words long. The functional unit of DNA are strings of codons called genes which specify instructions about life.

Most importantly, the code is shared by all life. The codons mean the same thing in an aardvark and a zebra, from simple bacteria to you and I. Closely related organisms have closely related sequences of codons. This has allowed confirmation or rearrangement of the cladistic relationships of life. Not only can whole organisms be compared but also individual organs.

The evolution of the eye can be seen by comparing DNA across many organisms. Devotees of the idea of intelligent design, i.e, the god did it crowd, have suggested that an organ as complex as an eye cannot have arisen by evolution. They proffer the idea of irreducible complexity. It’s the old “what good is half an eye” argument. Mammalian eyes, just as one example, have several parts including a retina, an iris, a lens, a pupil, etc. Arthropods have compound eyes with multiple lenses and retinas.

There is a range of types of eyes that serve different functions and therefore have different levels of complexity, but in the last analysis they all share one common feature and that is the detection of light. The basic requirement for light detection, shared across all life, is a group of closely related molecules called rhodopsins. If light shines on this molecule, it changes shape and that triggers a signal to the brain that says light! Multiple copies of the molecule allow greater sensitivity and features such as a lens add acuity to the detection. Slight variations in the structure of the rhodopsin allows for detection of different wavelengths (colors). That the rhodopsin occurs across all kinds of life is seen in the gene which codes for the production of the molecule.

Here is the really interesting part. The gene for rhodopsin synthesis occurs in forms of life that have no eyes, such as a primitive organism know as cyanobacteria. These ancient bacteria have been around for billions of years. Why would a bacteria that couldn’t care less about detecting light have rhodopsin? It turns out the bacteria use this molecule for an entirely different reason.

Minor mutations in the rhodopsin gene allowed for the “repurposing” of the molecule to serve as a light gathering structure, rather than the function it serves in bacteria. This repurposing of structures is not an uncommon feature in evolution and allows for small changes to make big differences. Life is not irreducibly complex.

End of the Empire?

Since the conclusion of world war two, the United States has been viewed as the global leader. Much of this was due to the fact that we were the only industrial power on the planet that didn’t suffer massive infrastructure damage due to the war. We also had vast reserves of fossil fuels which we exploited to considerable advantage.

To most of the world we were the industrial, technological, educational and even moral leader. Now and especially since the election of the present national leadership, much of this is being questioned.

On the energy front we are still a major producer of fossil fuels, especially with the advent of the marriage of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The problem is that the world is moving on. Fossil fuels are yesterday’s technology. This has been clearly signaled by the Paris Agreement.

Seventy-two countries have ratified the agreement to reduce carbon emissions through efficiency and increasingly sophisticated solar and wind technologies. The countries which most vigorously develop and deploy these these “future fuels” will become the next leaders. Although we here in the US invented solar photovoltaics and pioneered wind power we are becoming small time consumers in this energy market.

The majority of wind turbines and solar panels here in the US are made overseas. Wind turbine blades, made here in the US, are made by foreign companies’ subsidiaries. Our labor goes to produce profit for companies in China and India.

And what does our current leader do? He has signed executive orders rolling back President Obama’s clean power plan that would have drastically reduced carbon emissions at little to no cost. The president’s proposed budget eliminates the energy star program – a program which has returned an astounding 300 dollars for every dollar invested! What does he say about our energy future? We’re gonna make coal great again. This makes about as much sense as subsidizing buggy whip manufacturing.

What does China do? China is on a trajectory to drastically reduce their reliance on coal. They are the world leader in producing photovoltaic panels and just recently became the world leader in installing solar. Denmark is a world leader in wind energy – currently getting 42 % of its electric power from wind. They are on target to reach 84% by 2035.

We currently get a scant 4 % of our electric power from wind and have essentially no target for improvement. We have essentially abandoned our position as world leader in the future of energy production.

Our immigration policy shows that we no longer really care about the “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” It is also impacting our educational leadership. Student in-migration is down. Forty percent of graduate schools are reporting decreased applications from foreign students. They represent the world’s best and brightest, who no longer see the US as the place to be.

Is this end of the empire? Just as the center of civilization passes from one society to another we very well may be witnessing the decline of or dominance in the world. We still possess the world’s biggest military but we may no longer be the world’s leader.

Sanctuary Cities

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a crack down on sanctuary cities. He has threatened withholding billions of dollars in federal grants that would otherwise go to the cities for projects such as transportation and housing infrastructure.

The title sanctuary city is a rather non-specific appellation but it refers to communities that don’t fully cooperate to capture and hold the undocumented for probable deportation by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials.

The Justice Department argues that sanctuary cities allow violent criminals to roam the streets. AG Sessions mentioned a couple of gruesome examples of undocumented men who had been picked up for minor crimes but released and then went on to commit much more violent crimes. Conversely officials in sanctuary cities argue that it is not their job, nor do they have the resources to act as proxies for ICE.

The question is, should we be detaining for likely deportation those undocumented immigrants who have been picked up for minor crimes? Answers to a few questions would be helpful. Do undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at higher rates than legal immigrants and/or citizens? Is the level of violent crime higher is sanctuary cities than others? Can this kind of police action actually make cities less safe?

To the first question, numerous studies over many years have shown that undocumented immigrants are no more violent than those born here. Census data for 1980-2010 shows that US citizens are anywhere from twice to five times as likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute has concluded that “undocumented immigrants had crime rates somewhat higher than those here legally, but much lower than those of citizens.“

The president has claimed that sanctuary cities are breeding grounds for violent criminals, but again the data don’t support the assumption. Professor Tom Wong, Professor of Political Science, UC San Diego analyzed data from the FBI statistics and found that counties designated as “sanctuary” areas by ICE typically experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime, including lower homicide rates, than comparable non-sanctuary counties.

So what, you say. It’s good to get rid of those illegal aliens, whether they are violent criminals or not. Maybe so, maybe not. In February an undocumented woman went to the El Paso, Texas county court house to obtain a protective order for an abusive domestic partner. While there ICE agents arrived and detained her for probable deportation. Since then undocumented women across the country are apparently dropping domestic abuse cases for fear of deportation. Essentially it is open season for domestic abusers. And it’s not just domestic abusers. In this type of environment any undocumented person is subject to more violence because the violator knows that they are less likely to have their crime reported.

Police everywhere know that finding the bad guys/solving crimes is a whole lot easier if they have the community on their side. When police go to the door to ask an occupant if they have knowledge of a crime in front of their home, is an undocumented person going to cooperate, if they know it may result in their deportation? Or will they just not answer the knock, even if it means a violent criminal remains at large?