Monthly Archives: November 2015

Upcoming Paris Talks

Next month, world leaders from over 190 countries, and scientists that represent governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will meet again, this time in Paris, to try to address the issue of global warming. This is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. Fully 80% of the global economy runs on the energy produced from burning fossil fuels which releases Carbon Dioxide. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a blanket trapping heat which results in warming the planet.

The answer is simple and clear, but the solution is anything but. The answer is to stop burning carbon as an energy source. How that is achieved is the crux of the problem. Some say that if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to solve the climate problem. To be honest that was an easy goal to achieve. First and foremost we did it essentially alone. The global warming challenge requires the cooperation of every country on the planet, something which has never happened before.

Our putting a man on the moon also didn’t require any special source of energy or concern for the wastes produced therefrom. To solve the global warming crisis will require a combination of drastic reductions in burning fossil fuels, massive improvements in energy efficiency to reduce demand and an expansion of sustainable non-carbon energy sources over an extremely short time scale, unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Some steps have been initiated in a few countries, most notably Western Europe, where several countries have moved aggressively to deploy wind and solar. On a good day Denmark can get 100 % of its electrical energy needs from wind. Germany is not particularly well situated for solar power yet in 2014 they produced over 6% of the electrical energy from solar PV panels. Even China is reacting. Their current 5-year plan has a goal of over 11% of energy needs from renewable sources. That’s some of the good news, the bad news is that it is not nearly enough.

If the countries could agree to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from the current scenario, over the next 50 years, it will only push back the time it takes to double the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 10 years – from 2065 to 2075. Some countries such as those in western Europe have both the technological acumen and the political will to achieve that kind of a goal. Others like the US have the technology but as yet have not expressed the political will to take on the task. And finally much of the rest of the world has neither.

So where does that leave us? Eventually the planet with run out of energetically available fossil fuels, but it doesn’t look like curtailing their use will happen any time soon. Adapting to “a new world order” of the climate variety seems inevitable. If there is one thing we humans do well is adapt. As a species we are very young, but have come out of Africa and covered the globe, occupying every conceivable niche. From the frozen tundra to desiccated wastes of deserts. From lowland swamps to the tops of mountain ranges.

We will pull our cities back from the submerging coasts, and adapt our crops to the hotter regimen. But what about the rest of the biosphere? I suspect we will be adapting to a more biologically barren world.

Don’t Buy Oil

The horrible terrorist attack in Paris has drawn a number of responses as to what to do. Both French and US forces have launched bombing raids against ISIS forces in Syria. Many are calling to again put “boots on the ground” – a euphemism for send sending more of our sons and daughters off to die. With irrational fear trumping compassion, many governors want to have nothing to do with refugees from Syria.

Nether war nor fearfulness will solve our problems. It is time for a different perspective. The chaos in the middle east cannot continue without money to pay the fighters and buy the weapons and ammunition. Much of the money to fund the terrorists comes from the sale of oil. A step was taken with the bombing raids recently when over a hundred oil tanker trucks were destroyed. These were tankers that ISIS used to sell oil on the black market. As long as they have access to the oil, ways will be found to sell it. Additionally cash from the Gulf States flows directly to ISIS. It is not the official positions of the governments of the Gulf States, but rather private donors, made rich through the sale of oil, who are contributing to ISIS.

If the terrorists will find a way to sell the oil they control, and the riches of the Gulf States donors will continue to flow to the terrorists, what is to be done? Starve the beast. Stop buying oil. Not just the black market oil or the oil produced by the Emirates, but all oil. If we don’t buy the black market oil, we go somewhere else to buy oil. But someone else will buy the oil. Same for the Gulf States oil. We buy instead from Venezuela or Nigeria. But then someone else buys the Gulf oil. The problem is that oil is a very fungible commodity. Within limits, oil is oil, no matter where it comes from.

The answer is to stop using and therefore stop buying, oil. If we completely withdraw from the market, we will effect a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. We in the United States constitute a scant 5 percent of the world population, we consume over 20 percent of the world’s resources including oil. The drop in prices means less revenue from the sale of the black market oil and lower revenues for the emirates, hence less money to fuel terror. Transitioning to an electric economy fueled with wind and solar has its costs, but so does waging war.

Transitioning away from the use of oil will happen eventually as oil on the planet runs out, why not start now and help to stabilize geopolitics in the process. Why not start now to reduce pressure on the climate that comes from burning the oil? Why not stop now to help clean the air to reduce health care costs. A final benefit would be that we could become world leaders in sustainable energy technology.

Transportation Resistance

From Galileo to Elon

Over 400 years ago as the story goes, circa 1590, Galileo performed a scientific experiment which has been reproduced in schools across the planet to this day. Galileo went to the iconic leaning tower of Piza and dropped two balls, one larger and heavy than the other. As everyone knows, they hit the ground about the same time. This disproved Aristotle’s hypothesis that heavier objects fall faster.

What both Galileo and Aristotle were not considering was an aspect of fluid dynamics – air resistance. Basically air is a fluid and it gets in the way of movement. Anyone who rides a bike or paddles a canoe knows it’s a lot harder with the wind at your face; that is, greater air (or wind) resistance. Even if the air is standing still, it still gets in the way and slows things down. The faster you go, the more important the wind resistance becomes.

A bicyclist can make about 15 to 20 mph without too much difficulty but more than that is a problem due to drag. Get rid of the drag and the sky is the limit. Cyclists have attained well over 100 mph riding behind vehicles outfitted with a fairing to shield the cyclist from wind resistance.

In years past when fuel costs were low, the extra energy expended to overcome wind resistance was not important in motorized vehicles. It is today and will continue to become more important as fuel costs rise. Nowhere is wind resistance, that is aerodynamic drag, more important than in the trucking industry.

The first effort in the industry was the addition of fairings over the cabs of 18-wheelers which resulted in a 15% increase in fuel efficiency. A more recent innovation is the addition of side skirts on each side and between the wheels of big rigs, which have been shown to improve fuel efficiency by 5 to 15 percent depending on design. Finally “trailer tails” are being added to extend the saving another 5%. All together this add up to over 30% fuel savings, with payback times of a about a year for fleet vehicles.

Small steps to save fuel or increase speed result from reducing drag, but what if you could completely eliminate drag by eliminating the air itself? Listen up. Elon Musk is the billionaire savant who produces the wildly successful Tesla electric car. He also pioneered private industry space flight with his SpaceX company, which is regularly delivering supplies to the International Space Station orbiting above earth.

Mr. Musk has proposed building giant evacuated tubes into which transportation vehicles could attain speeds in excess of a thousand mph. These tubes would work just like the little canisters that deliver your checks and cash back and forth from the bank window to the remote drive-up station. The only difference is that people or bulk goods would go in the canisters, and travel thousands of miles at thousands of miles per hour. He has suggested that eventually an underground transportation network could transport people from New York to Los Angles in 45 minutes! That requires a speed of about 4,000 mph.

EPA Rules and Regulations

The 1960s saw much turmoil, but one positive feature was the growing awareness of the need to protect the environment. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and brought an awareness of the damaging effects of the use of persistent pesticides. Other dramatic events during previous decades such as fogs comprised of sulfuric acid killed people. This occurred when an inversion layer trapped the stagnant air.

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland OH caught on fire, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a couple of bridges. The fire was a result of pollution from oil and other flammable factory wastes – and this wasn’t the first time.

The growing concern of the public, youth activism, and the first Earth Day forced the hand of President Nixon. Previously protection of the environment was spread over several agencies, but mainly the Health, Education, and Welfare Department’s National Air Pollution Control Administration and the Interior Department’s Federal Water Quality Administration. The programs were combined with the creation of a new cabinet department, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Existing laws concerning water were amended and strengthened and became the Clean Water Act of 1972. The act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States. And it is not static but rather dynamic, being amended as sound science influenced policy. Changes have met with controversy.

Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 had left unclear just what the “waters of the United States” mean, so the EPA and Corps of Engineers collaborated on the Clean Water Rule which more clearly defines just what waters will be subject to regulation. The ultimate goal is to protect drinking water. Agricultural, and industrial concerns have called the rule overreach and in fact Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has sued to block the implementation here in Arkansas.

Similarly the Clean Air Act has existed since 1963 but has been amended several times as needed to protect the air we all depend on. Toxic emissions that resulted in acid rain, and levels of heavy metals that can cause nerve damage and especially brain damage (Mercury, Cadmium, Lead) have been lowered in the environment.

The EPA has been studying haze (smog) in National Parks and Wilderness Areas since 1988. In 1999 they began an ambitious program to work with states to clear the air. The haze is due mainly to power plant emissions of fine particulates. The Regional Haze Rule however has been delayed to the point that recently The Sierra Club has sued the EPA for failing to implement a plan in conjunction with the state of Arkansas. [disclosure: I am an officer in the Arkansas Chapter of the Sierra Club]

Another contentious feature of clean air results from Bush’s EPA declaring Carbon Dioxide a pollutant in 2006. Much litigation later, President Obama has sought the Clean Power Plan, meant to reduce CO2 emissions by 32% by 2030. Both the Regional Haze Rule and the Clean Power Plan are being vigorously opposed by our Attorney General as being too costly.

As the population continues to grow, our regulatory structure must meet the demand of more pressure on clean air and clean water. We are the problem, and we have to be the solution.

Mean Coal

To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.

Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.

In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.

We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?

Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.

So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.

To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.