Monthly Archives: April 2014

Phantom Loads

A while back a congressman at a town hall meeting suggested that federal research dollars were being wasted and gave as an example a study examining how much energy is used when a consumer electronic device was turned off. Everybody knows that electronic devices don’t use power when turned off, right?

I am sure the line drew a laugh and the was object of derision of the crowd, but the irony is that the questioned study aimed at reducing waste and therefore saving, not wasting dollars. Real money is wasted on a daily basis due to phantom loads.

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

Many consumer devices such as televisions, computer printers, video gaming devices, and others are actually in standby, not off when switched off. These phantom loads or sometimes called vampire loads use significant amounts of energy.

There are two basic reasons for the phantom energy use. One is for convenience. Televisions, DVRs and such, are left in stand by mode so that they will come on more quickly. These are so called instant on devices. My LCD television has a little red light which glows when the television is “off” meaning of course that it is still on even though it is turned off. It may be off for 20 hours a day, but is still using power so that it will come on six seconds faster that if it had been unplugged. I use a couple of bucks a year for that six seconds. A couple of bucks a year for just one device is no big deal, but most homes have several instant on devices.

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

The other type of phantom load comes from the need to transform alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC). AC is the type of electricity that comes out of the wall. It is what the power company delivers and sells to you. Direct current on the other hand is what is used to power some devices and especially to charge anything with a battery. Collectively these are the devices with “the brick”, a transformer. You plug the brick into the wall and then it gets plugged into a device, say a cell phone. Even without the cell phone plugged in (or the computer printer or the computer speakers, or the wireless telephone, et. al.) they are still using power.

The instant on devices use only a fraction of the power when in stand by mode, but the fact that there are numerous devices in a home and they are in this mode most of the time means it can add up. The power bricks are especially inefficient, wasting anywhere from twenty to a whopping eighty percent of the energy consumed. This wasted energy is ultimately lost in the form of heat, adding to air conditioning loads in season. For the average household six to ten percent or more of total power to consumer electronic devices is attributed to phantom loads.

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com

image credit: www.nativeenergy.com


The only answer to reducing these phantom loads is to unplug or “unpower” the device when not in use. A few power strips at strategic locations around the house can save energy. And every bit of energy not used is beneficial to the environment and your pocketbook.

earth

IPCC Report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is body of thousands of scientists from around the world who are collaborating on an understanding of global warming, its causes, and how we as a society should address the risk of climate change. It was formed in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Program. It is preposterous to think that this international group of scientists have any hidden agenda or are manipulating the data they gather for nefarious means.

The data they gather, the conclusions they reach, and the policy recommendations they make are all determined by consensus among the many scientists and open to the public for scrutiny. Every five years they issue an update on the current state of knowledge concerning global warming. The Fifth Assessment Report(AR5) provides a clear and most up to date view of the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to climate change.

drought

drought

The new report shows that global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen to unprecedented levels despite a growing number of policies to reduce climate change. Emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades.

The emission of green house gases is causally linked to global warming, and the outlook is challenging if not down right grim. To reverse the effects of global warming or to at least limit the rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will require major institutional and technological change to give a better than even chance that global warming will not exceed this threshold.

Flood

Flood

There is a clear message from the scientists, “to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” Simply to hold the temperature rise to 2 degrees will require reductions of green house gases from 40 to 70 per cent compared with 2010 by mid-century, and to near-zero by the end of this century.

Economic analysis for a business as usual scenario suggests consumption will increase between 0.6 to 3.0 per cent per year. With controls to meet the aforementioned goals that growth will be lowered by .06 percent per year. Growth will not disappear, but rather be reduced by 10 to 20 per cent from business as usual. This analysis does not consider the beneficial effects of a more stable environment and cleaner air.

A large share of the goal can be met by reducing electricity production from fossil fuel sources to near zero. A range of technologies are available but wind and solar strategies alone can meet the goal, assuming the development of a more robust system of transmission and storage for these intermittent energy sources.

The alternative to action will be a hotter world with more severe storms. Both droughts and floods can follow changes in climate. The ocean will continue to acidify creating an inexorable die off of significant numbers of species. Climate instability will stress political stability as countries vie for resources threatened by climate change.

Crop production will fall. As climate shifts so will food production, from locales with ideal conditions to locales with poorer soil and or moisture conditions.

Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves just what are we willing to do to ensure that the future we leave to our descendants is as stable and prosperous as that we inherited from our ancestors.

Waste to Fuel

Most transportation be it personal or commercial depends on liquid fuels. The availability of liquid fossil fuels is decreasing and the cost is rising, Our dependence on these transportation fuels will continue until batteries and the electrical grid are greatly improved.

The only current alternative to fossil fuel is biofuel, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy beans. Ethanol makes up a scant two percent of our liquid fuel needs, biodiesel less than that. The figure is even lower than that when you account for the fossil fuel energy inputs to the production of biofuels. We won’t see row crop biofuels making up a larger share of our fuel needs because of the negative environmental impacts and the fact that biofuels production drives up food prices.

fueling up

fueling up

Another source of biofuel could be to waste to fuel plants. There are already plants which burn garbage (solid waste) for the generation of electricity, consuming about fifteen percent of all solid waste. Although this does produce energy and reduce the need for landfills, it doesn’t help with transportation needs. There are also concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the combustion products.

Liquid fuels such as methanol and ethanol can be produced from solid waste but currently the process is less efficient and more costly. Solid waste consists mainly of cellulose from various plant products and fossil fuel derived items like tires and plastic. Other unexploited sources of feedstocks are agricultural wastes from farming and timber harvesting. Even grass clippings and leaves could be utilized.

These materials when heated to high temperatures produce a mixture of gasses. The gasses can be chemically manipulated with catalysts and turned into methanol. Another methodology utilizes just the cellulose component. The materials are treated with sulfuric acid to release the sugar which is then fermented by traditional methods to produce ethanol. Japan is currently using this technology to produce ethanol for blending with gasoline.

A model system for waste to fuel would look something like a plant sited near a current landfill. Municipal solid waste, agricultural wastes, and suburban wastes would all be brought to the processing plant where the materials would be separated . Materials which are unusable wold still be land filled. Process heat for the plant would be provided to a degree by burning methane captured from the landfill.

So how much fuel can we expect to get? Estimates vary wildly. How much useful waste can be collected, how much energy will be consumed in the process, and the efficiency of the conversion process are just some of the confounding variables. Estimates range from a few percent up to as much as thirty percent of our liquid fuel needs.

waste fry-o-lator oil to biodiesel processing equipment

waste fry-o-lator oil to biodiesel processing equipment

The biggest problem with waste to fuel strategies is the resource base. The best way to contain the rising cost of any and all fuels is to become more efficient. The easiest way to be more efficient is to reduce waste. That means a diminishing resource base. This may not be a business model that many will wish to pursue.

The only long term solution to our energy needs, regardless source or form is to use a lot less and produce what we need sustainably. We have to learn to live within our means.

usca

Privatize Collegiate Athletics

In our society we reward those who entertain us with handsome incomes. The average player in the National Basketball Association earns an astounding 5.5 million dollars a year. The annual “income,” that is the value of a college scholarship for a player in this year’s final four is under 30,000 dollars a year. Does that mean that we don’t value collegiate entertainment as much as pro ball? Not in the least. The spoils go however to the schools, not the athletes.

Each team in the final four will earn close to 10 million dollars for their school, with part of that shared with their conference. Serious money for the winners, but even the losers earn close to 2 million dollars. So its a good thing, right? Not really.

Right now very few athletic programs support themselves, requiring considerable subsidies from students and taxpayers in the case of public institutions. Only 1in 8 teams in NCAA division I is a net profit center. When athletic programs are considered in aggregate, only a scant 3 percent reach the break even point. The percentage is even smaller if it exists at all when considering other college athletic associations such as NCAA Division II and III and NAIA.

This situation with athletes may change soon. The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that the football players at Northwestern University are employees, not student athletes. Their rationale is that the considerable time commitment of the players and the fact that their scholarships are tied directly to their performance on the field makes them employees. NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr stated that athletes “fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of employees when one considers the common law definition of an employee.”

Schools, the NCAA and the public in general disagree, which is expected when you consider that paying the athletes their due would drive up considerably the cost of entertainment.

Injured Athlete

Injured Athlete

So we have a situation where athletes are grossly underpaid as entertainers, and students and taxpayers have to subsidize the costs for the entertainment. In a global economy can we afford to take money away from academic programs that produce an essential product – an educated workforce?

The only reasonable answer is to entirely sever athletic entertainment from academics. Privatize collegiate sports. Let private corporations lease the name and possibly facilities for teams. In a sense the movement has begun already. It is no longer the Orange Bowl, it is the FedEx Orange bowl.

The logical way would be for the professional teams to adopt collegiate athletics as farm teams. The NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. could finance sports just like professional baseball farm team programs.

Alternately it could be done ad hoc. Big entertainment teams would require big sponsors so how about the Haliburton Sooners and what else but the Walmart Razorbacks? Smaller venues could go much more cheaply so we could have the Whatta-burger Wonderboys of Arkansas Tech.

The Cargill Cornhuskers (Nebraska)? The Volkswagon Volunteers (Tennessee)? Lots of possibilities.

exxon valdez oil

Oil Spill Du Jour

This week connects several events. The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the first anniversary of the Pegasus pipeline rupture in Mayflower Arkansas, and a brand spanking new oil spill in the Houston Shipping Channel of coastal Texas.

On March 24th, just after midnight the Exxon Valdez, loaded with over 50 million gallons of crude oil steamed out of Prince William Sound. Before the supertanker cleared the sound however, the ship collided with a reef which tore open the single walled hull releasing about 20 million gallons of crude oil. Twenty five years later oil can be found under rocks around the beach of the sound.

Exxon Valdez attempted cleanup

Exxon Valdez attempted cleanup


In a very short time hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of sea lions and whales, and even 47 bald eagles were killed. A robust herring fishery has yet to recover. Damage to the local economy was devastating. Bankruptcies of both businesses and individuals shot up, and many families had to leave their ancestral communities for lack of jobs.

On March 29th an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured and began spewing crude oil into the yards and streets of Mayflower Arkansas. The estimated quarter of a million gallons of crude, actually a substance known as dilbit, came from the Tar Sands of Alberta Canada. It is a mixture of tarry crude oil known as bitumen and and a diluent of lighter hydrocarbons, hence the name dilbit. Over a score of homes were evacuated. The dibit ran down the streets and intimately into Lake Conway. The pipeline has been closed and my not be reopened due to it’s passage through sensitive areas such as the Lake Maumelle Watershed.

Mayflower, AR

Mayflower, AR

On March 22nd a barge tow was struck by another vessel, releasing just under a quarter million gallons of a material know as bunker fuel – essentially heavy crude oil. The material is so viscous that it requires heating to flow threw fuel lines to burn in ship’s engines. Because of the spill, one of the busiest shipping lanes in north America was closed. This shut down oil refineries that produce over ten per cent of the oil refined in the United States.

Oil covered Shore Bird

Oil covered Shore Bird

So what connects the events besides late March? Human error. Every one of these events were due to multiple errors. Double walled hulls on the Exxon Valdez, and better navigation could have prevented the disaster in Alaska. The closure of the Houston shipping channel could have been avoided by better management of shippers involved. The ship which collided with the barge was already under probation for other problems. Replacement of aging pipelines and more frequent inspections could have prevented the Mayflower spill.

There are over 20,000 oil spills reported annually to the EPA. Some are minor and some not so minor, but they point out just how common the events are. In aggregate the economic and personal losses are large and generally unaccounted for when we look at the price of fossil fuels. The level of collateral damage we are willing to accept to avoid changing our lifestyle is staggering.

atmospheric co2

Impermanent Permafrost

The planet passed a milestone by mid-May of 2013 – the atmosphere hit 400 PPM Carbon dioxide. The carbon comes from both natural and human caused sources. Decomposing plant matter releases carbon naturally whereas burning fossil fuels does so “unnaturally”. Plants remove carbon during the growing season, so there is a cyclic annual variation in total carbon in the atmosphere.

For hundreds of thousands of years there was a balance between winter releases and summer decreases. Beginning in the industrial revolution of the late 18th century, winter releases have exceeded summer decreases such that the average concentration has gone from about 280 to 400 PPM.

We have a new milestone this year. This year the winter release in the northern hemisphere reached 400 PPM, almost two months earlier than last year, March 12th to be exact. This is yet another measure of the accelerating pace of the change to the atmosphere.

Some who confuse weather with climate may claim that polar vortex indicates that global warming isn’t happening, but this is a weather phenomena that was peculiar to the eastern United States. California and much of the west coast saw exceptional drought and warmer than normal weather. The iconic Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome was hampered this year by warm weather. Portions of the 1000 mile long course were free of snow and ice.

 2014 Iditarod

2014 Iditarod

Global climate computer models and recent observations show that the northern reaches of the planet are warming faster than areas closer to the equator. This can actually accelerate global warming due to certain feedback effects on the concentration of gases in the atmosphere.

The tundra is characterized as a treeless area where the subsurface soil remains frozen year round. During the brief summer the surface snow melts and grass and sedge grow. One might think that warmer weather and shorter periods of snow cover would be good for growth but in fact recent research suggest just the opposite. It appears that earlier snow melt and warming in the permafrost results in lower soil moisture and hence less photosynthetic productivity.

The warming in the arctic has other scary possibilities. Occasionally, reasonably well preserved but definitely dead whole animals have been recovered in the tundra. Scientists went searching for for smaller game and found a virus. The virus was found in tundra frozen for at least 30,000 years. The difference besides size is the fact the the virus was viable. The virus when thawed out was able to infect and kill amoeba.

giant virus

giant virus

The thawing of the tundra and its disruption by extractive industries stands a good chance of exposing animate life on this planet to disease vectors not seen for thousands of years or even never before seen. As just one example consider that smallpox, exterminated from the surface of the planet, could make a comeback. Some experts say that over the centuries it has killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined. The future is ours to protect or ruin.