Monthly Archives: August 2019

Powering Flight

The obvious answer to a cleaner and safer future is the abandonment of fossil fuels. For the production of electricity, this is already on the way. Use of coal has been cut in half just since the turn of the century and the trend continues today.

Decarbonizing surface transportation is way behind the curve, but occurring nonetheless. Projections suggest that by 2030, half the new cars on the market will be electric. In the second quarter of 2019, One electric car, the Tesla Model 3, sold more cars in its class than any other. And all the others were gasoline-powered cars.

Stationary power production and surface transportation are easy compared to flight. To practically power aircraft takes an extremely energy-dense fuel. Fossil fuels such as gasoline or jet fuel are 70 to 100 times as energy-dense as the energy stored in a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery.

The only current alternative to liquid fossil fuel is biofuel, ethanol from corn and sugar beets and biodiesel from soybeans. 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.

Another source of liquid fuel could be waste-to-fuel plants. There are already facilities 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 air transportation. There are also concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the combustion products.

Recycling has become difficult recently as China has greatly decreased accepting our wastes. Rather than simply landfilling wastes that can’t be recycled, it is possible to convert the waste to a useful fuel to power aircraft.

Various wastes , even municipal sewage waste, when heated to high temperatures produce a mixture of gasses in a process called destructive distillation. These gasses can be chemically manipulated with catalysts and turned into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

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 would still be landfilled.

The biggest problem with a waste-to-fuel strategy is the resource base. The best way to contain the rising cost of just about anything 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 of source or form is to use a lot less and produce what we need sustainably. We have to learn to live within our means.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Renewable comparisons

Arguments against the deployment of renewable energy supplies range from the ridiculous to the sublime. from economic to aesthetic. From deceptive to just plain lying. The biggest lie, of course, is that they aren’t necessary as global warming is a hoax. The scientific consensus concerning anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming. In terms of the general population, the understanding of the risk is highest among younger, more educated compared to older, less educated populations.

There may be some valid claims that disfavor renewable energy sources but in comparison to what? And at what cost to either our pocketbooks or to a globally stable climate? Considering the current cost and trends, Wind and solar win hands down. Even utilities in conservative parts of the country – Entergy as one example are installing solar panels and producing or at least buying wind-generated power.

The most important issue is one of the release of greenhouse gasses, notably Carbon Dioxide (CO2.) It has been disingenuously argued that because of the energy used in the construction of renewables, they release more CO2 than traditional fossil fuels. The argument is preposterous. Multiple studies around the planet vary only slightly as to the results. The measure is CO2 produced per net energy produced over the lifetime of source. The units are grams of CO2 produced per kilowatt-hour produced (g/kWh.) The smaller the number the better.

The gold standard is a large hydro dam, at about 4 g/kWh. Wind is second with about 10 g/kWh, but this number is decreasing as turbines become larger and more efficient. Solar Panels, about 30 g/kWh due mainly to the high energy demand to refine sand into pure Silicon. Fossil fuel-powered plants have energy demands from their manufacture but also from the burning of the fuel itself. Relatively clean natural gas results in 400 g/kWh. And the biggest loser? Of course, it’s coal at 1200 g/kWh. Renewable wins again.

Another specious argument is that renewables are bad for the environment due to the use of toxic materials in their construction as if fossil fuel plants don’t. The average solar panel has about 4 grams of Lead per kilowatt of installed power. For a home system which requires on average 10 kilowatts, there are about 40 grams of Lead solder. Recycling the panels brings the toxic load to near zero. A small percentage of panels, about 5%, employ Cadmium technology, but again this toxic material is incorporated into the easily recycled panels.

Compare that with just the lead released to the atmosphere on burning coal, lead that is widely dispersed in the atmosphere and then to the soil and water, over 42 tons per year of Lead that can’t be recycled. Along with other toxic metals including Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium. The homeowner with 40 grams of lead in solar panels has over 9,000 grams of lead in the battery of every car in the driveway. Whereas toxic releases are part and parcel of burning fossil fuels, toxic components of renewables are small in amount and are not automatically released to the environment. Renewable wins again.

Whenever you hear someone talking about the toxic components associated with renewable energy be sure you have the whole story which includes the far greater toxic burden associated with fossil fuels.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

National Popular Vote

A national movement is afoot to skirt the electoral college in the election of the president. Two out of the last five presidential cycles resulted in the election of a president by the electoral college even though the candidate had only a minority of votes – George Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Obviously, this doesn’t sit well with the majority.

Election by the electoral college was established in the constitution. The rationale was two-fold. First, many at the constitutional convention just didn’t trust the voters to make an informed choice. An indirect process was created whereby voters in the respective states voted for electors to decide for them who should be president. Secondly, differences between more populous urban states and less populous rural states with a dash of slavery thrown in resulted in the current method of choosing electors.

Each State was allotted the number of electors equal to their congressional delegation – the number of Senators and Representatives. Individual states decided how to apportion their votes. All but Maine and Nebraska have chosen to utilize a winner-take-all method for apportioning the electoral votes. Whoever gets the most votes gets all the electoral votes.

Cue the National Popular Vote initiative. Our current system allows for the election of our president via minority rule. To change to a direct election would require an amendment to the constitution. This is made difficult by the fact that the methodology for amending the constitution is cumbersome and can take years. The popular vote initiative can be accomplished by an interstate compact whereby states agree to pledge their electors to who wins the national popular vote, regardless of how the vote goes in their state.

The compact will be in effect when and not until states with a total of 270 electoral votes agree to participate. That number is a majority and therefore all that is necessary to elect a president. So far 16 states have passed legislation joining the compact equaling 196 votes. Oregon was the most recent to join the compact along with New Mexico, Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Vermont, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland.

States with a total of 74 more electors are necessary to initiate the agreement. If and when this occurs the electoral college will still exist but no longer determine the outcome of presidential elections. One problem with this scheme is its dependence on impermanent state law. Right now in Colorado, there is an initiative petition circulating to repeal participation in the compact.

With the compact in force, we have essentially direct election of the president, The person who gets the most votes is elected president. Right now only a few swing states are important to candidates and therefore receive campaign visits. Deep red states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas and a Deep blue state such as Massachusetts get no campaign visits whatsoever. With the compact in force, every state matters.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.