Author Archives: bob

Global Warming as a Threat Multiplier

The single most important, essentially all-encompassing function of government is to keep us safe. This too often is thought of only in terms of physical violence; you know the line, defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic… But other factors threaten our well-being. Climate change, floods, droughts, and intensified storms affect us all. Additionally, these factors can serve to magnify the risks of many others, especially military and political.

The term “threat multiplier” is used not just by what some call climate alarmists but also the Pentagon. The US military gets it.

Refugee crises have driven some countries into the hands of autocratic leaders who talk tough but at the expense of democracy. Refugees from the Middle East wars strains the patience if not the resources of Europe. The wars are ultimately political but the politics can be driven by environmental factors.

The bloody and seemingly endless civil war in Syria was preceded by a drought that drove farmers from the fields and herders from the pastures. Without work, the former herders and farmers were easily conscripted into the arms of warlords who paid them to kill not till.

The civil war in Yemen was begun over political power. Climate change is multiplying the suffering of the people. In the past, villages would store enough food to last for three or four months in times of emergency. In recent years less rainfall, resulting in reduced harvests, means little if any food is stored for periods of crisis. There is arguably no greater crisis than war.

Now, this civil war threatens to spiral into a broader war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or even engulf the whole region in conflict and misery.

The presidential election of 2016 was dominated by Trump’s call to “build the wall.” Although immigration was at the time at a fifty-year low, increasing numbers of refugees from the Northern Triangle region of Central America now threaten our stability.

Refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are fleeing violence born of lawlessness. Again these conditions are made worse by climate change. The region is getting hotter and paradoxically, both floods and droughts strain agriculture. What rainfall occurs happens in fewer, heavier events. Flooding followed by periods of drought. To stay alive in hard times, many, especially young males, turn to violence as their only recourse.

Not acting to reduce the rate of global warming will exacerbate problems across the board. Climate change itself and all the troubles that the change serves to multiply the ravages of war, famine, and refugee crises.

The good news is that there are solutions. Sustainable energy supplies that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere are cost-effective replacements for fossil fuels. Utilities and some cities here in Arkansas are adding large scale solar arrays to their energy mix. The cities of Clarkville and Fayetteville have installed arrays with the intention of powering all city functions. Hot Springs has recently signed contracts to do the same. Even the Dover School System is examining a solar power option.

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

Europe Gets It

Donald Trump, early in his presidency stated his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a voluntary agreement to which every nation around the world is a signatory. The scientific consensus around the world is that the planet is warming and humans are the cause. The response of the rest of the world is to work towards reducing the damage by limiting the use of fossil fuels as a major step.

President Trump’s position however is: “as of today the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution…”

Wind and solar, as replacements for coal are already the less expensive alternative for generating electricity. Leaders around the world know this and are implementing the use of renewable energy as a cost-saving measure in addition to reducing global-warming carbon emissions. Much of Europe is ahead of the curve. Below are the highlights of a few European countries energy mix.

Of course, some countries have natural advantages: Switzerland is mountainous, Denmark windy, and Spain sunny. Ninety-seven percent of Switzerland’s electrical energy is produced from hydropower. In terms of potential expansion, hydropower is difficult because in the developed world, most of the good sites are already developed.

Denmark is currently a wind energy leader, both in installed capacity and technology companies focused on wind technology. Over 60 percent of total electric generation is renewable, most of that coming from wind. Denmark utilizes much off-shore wind where turbines are larger and the winds stronger and more consistent, all of which lowers the cost.

As noted Spain benefits from the sun, but also some hydro. Their total fraction for renewable energy is 40%. Over half of that is solar photovoltaic arrays with some solar thermal plants. Surprisingly, about 4% is from geothermal which is tens times as much on a percentage basis than the United States.

Germany is interesting, they are not especially blessed with wind or solar but are working hard to utilize these sources none the less. Germany relies on coal and nuclear, both of which they plan to phase out in the not too distant future. Their renewable energy is now about 30%. Wind generation is spread across the Republic but especially in the north and off-shore in the Baltic and North Seas. Solar PV installations dominate in Southern Germany but there is much rooftop solar as far north as Cologne. For reference that is farther north than Winnipeg, Canada.
Compare the USA at 18% total renewables, 7% hydro, 6% wind, and 1% solar, with solar the fastest growing. With our vast potential for both wind and solar, we could be leading the world. More wind turbines and solar panels are needed but also needed is the infrastructure create a robust electrical grid. Particularly needed is transmission capacity to move an abundance of wind energy from the Midwest.

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

Bananas and Earthworms -Oh Boy

Invasive species come in all varieties, warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals, all kinds of plants, even fungi. Some are notable but cause little problems – armadillos, some are notable and troublesome – feral hogs, and some you never see but are dangerous – infectious bacteria and viruses in some biting insects.

Whenever a species is introduced to a non-native environment there can be negative consequences, earthworms for example. The last ice age covered North America as far south as southern Illinois. Any native earthworms would have been wiped out. After the glaciers receded, the upper midwest evolved for thousands of years without earthworms. Much later, that locale was populated with earthworms by incidental introduction from colonial ships from Europe. Rock and dirt used as ballast and dumped onshore was the likely method of introduction.

Generally speaking, worms are good as they churn and aerate the soil. But there is a dark side. Portions of hardwood forests in Minnesota and boreal forests in Canada have been negatively impacted by invasive earthworms. Fallen leaves accumulate on the forest floor and create a rich organic layer called duff. This duff layer is the natural growing environment for native woodland wildflowers. It also provides habitat for ground-dwelling animals and helps prevent soil erosion – basically natural mulch. When earthworms are present however they eat this leaf litter. In areas heavily infested by earthworms, soil erosion and leaching of nutrients may reduce the productivity of forest and even degrade fish habitat. Many tree seedlings, ferns, and wildflowers don’t survive this altered environment.

In the “unseeable” category of invasives are numerous fungi, smuts, rusts, mildew, mold, etc. Many of these are serious agricultural pests causing untold damage to food crops. The tropics where much fruit is grown for export are particularly susceptible. A new threat has recently come to the western hemisphere. Tropical plantations are subject to problems such as fungi because of the warm, moist climate and especially because plantations are generally monoculture. When only a single species of plant is grown in large concentration, the condition is likely to favor pests.

Guatemala alone exports over 3 billion pounds of bananas to the United States annually. All together we import over 8 billion pounds of bananas a year and this crop is at risk due to a fungus from southeast Asia. Although there are over a thousand varieties of bananas, 95 percent of all commercial bananas are essentially a clone of one – the Cavendish banana. It replaced a previous clone, Gros Michael or Big Mike. It succumbed to a fungus called fusarium wilt. A similar fate seems to await the Cavendish. In some parts of southeast Asia, a new variety of this wilt is reducing production there by forty percent per year. The wilt, a soil organism, just turned up in Colombia and could appear across central America.

Invasive species generally have an advantage as natural controls are absent. Monoculture acts to increase the distribution of the invader. Devastation of the banana crop in “northern triangle” of Central America will only serve to accelerate immigration to the United States as families seek some sort of income.

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

Too Many Guns

Once again we’re anguished over a seemingly senseless mass murder. Well, this time it’s not senseless but obviously driven by ethnic hatred. That hatred itself is senseless but real.

And just like every other time, gun safety comes up followed immediately by calls that now is not the time to talk about guns. We shouldn’t have the discussion because we are too emotional at this time. We need time to heal before making tough decisions. We shouldn’t politicize the grief of the bereaved.

The same refrain follows every mass murdering. So what to do? The NRA solution is more guns – of course. This is the tired good guy with a gun riff. The Walmart in El Paso has several thousand visitors a day so it would be reasonable to assume that there were a few hundred customers and employees present during the recent shooting.

Four percent of Texans have concealed carry permits so that Walmart could have had a dozen or so carrying guns that day. Where were they? Wisely, they were sheltering like any other sane person. To get up and start shooting would put them in jeopardy from the actual bad guy but also from first responders who can’t know the good guy from the bad guy.

It’s way past time for the talk, it’s time for legislation. Neither those with a violent criminal past nor the mentally ill should have access to guns, but loopholes in the law allow that access. It is estimated that one-quarter of all gun transfers occur through private hands where no background check is required. It is illegal to transfer a gun to a felon or one under indictment for a felony unless the seller is unaware. No problem – don’t ask, don’t tell.

That is a loophole worthy of Paul Bunyan’s belt. But it is one that could be easily fixed legislatively. Simply outlaw private gun transfers. If you want to sell a gun, you sell it to a licensed gun dealer. If you want to buy a gun, you buy it from a licensed gun dealer after a background check. If you want to give a gun as a gift, give them a gift card to a licensed gun dealer. See, that wasn’t so hard was it? Is it an inconvenience, yes, but so is maintaining the brakes on your car or attaching your toilet to a sanitary sewage system.

Similarly, licensing, registration, and insurance for guns, like automobiles would be simple and effective in reducing gun violence.

Consider the analogy of handling of prescription drugs. We have through our laws agreed that the distribution of them must be tightly regulated. Just because I have a script for an opiate and therefore can legally possess the same doesn’t mean I can sell them to my neighbor.

There are so many guns out in circulation now that it will take some time to have an impact on the use of guns in violent crimes but it will help. And of course we can’t expect perfection. We can’t expect that all violent crime with guns will stop, but we can expect a reduction.

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

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.

Renewable Energy Milestone

Renewable energy achieved a significant milestone in April, surpassing coal as the greater source of power for electric generation in the United States. This record may not persist as April is a windy month and because of mild weather less energy is needed for heating or cooling. Regardless, it is a milestone that portends the future.

Electric power from burning coal has been in decline for over a decade. Nuclear power is flat and renewable energy is ascendant. Of the renewable energy sources, wind is the leader followed by solar. Hydropower, geothermal and biomass are relatively static.

Technological advances and economies of scale are responsible for the lower cost and therefore greater penetration of renewables in the electric power production marketplace. Wind turbines are getting larger and taller which makes them more cost-effective in both production costs and efficiency as taller turbines reach windier levels of the atmosphere. As for solar arrays, the advances are mainly in cost reductions due to economies of scale rather than greater efficiency at capturing sunlight.

About seventeen percent of the energy mix is now renewable, and that is dominated by hydroelectric dam generation. In absolute terms, wind produces about seven percent and solar a little under two percent. These numbers are small but the two sources have the greatest potential for growth. Wind energy production has increased a phenomenal thirty-fold since 2000. When it comes to growth, solar is the champ having grown one hundred times faster than wind; that is, a three thousand-fold increase in installed capacity between the year 2000 and today.
One of the beauties of solar is its scalability. Practical installations range from small home systems providing most if not all of an individual homeowners electric power needs up to utility-scale monsters that cover hundreds of acres. Slightly larger than home size installations are those for schools and churches. Even larger installations include power for businesses such as Walmart Supercenters. The real growth, however, is in utility-scale solar arrays.

Entergy, the main supplier for electricity in Arkansas is now producing power from a giant installation near Stuttgart. This facility has 350,000 panels covering 475 acres. It produces enough energy for 13,000 homes. Using this scale of production suggests that every home in Arkansas could be powered from an area less than ten percent of Lafayette County, the smallest county in Arkansas.
Wait just a minute you say, what about when the sun goes down? Not to worry, at least for a couple of decades. Power grid managers won’t worry until intermittent sources reach somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of the total load. Right now wind and solar represent less than ten percent. Two factors are important, source management and grid size. Although wind and solar are intermittent, they are also predictable, and increasingly so.

Utility grid managers have become quite good at wind and sun forecasting. They know about how much wind and solar power will be available in the short term and can effectively plan for alternate sources during those times. The total size of the US power grid adds to the stability. Power can be shipped for one region to another with the flip of a switch – well, that and a more robust national grid of transmission and distribution lines.

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

Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and Full Electric Cars

Vehicles powered by electricity come in several flavors; simple hybrids (HEV,) plug-in hybrids (PHEV,) and fully electric (EV.) Their biggest advantage is that vehicles powered somewhat or completely by electricity are more efficient. This means they are inherently less costly to operate.

Toyota has led the charge with the introduction of their hybrid Prius in 1997 in Japan and 2001 in the US and the rest of the world. It is basically a traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and drive train. It has a small battery and electric motor which provides supplemental power, increasing the efficiency of the vehicle, even though the battery is charged mainly by the ICE. Scores of cars now use this hybrid technology and even a few pick-ups.

A very important component to all these electric vehicles is regenerative braking. When the car decelerates it causes the alternator in the vehicle to become a charging device for the battery, in the process slowing the vehicle without using the brakes.

Intermediate between simple hybrids and fully electric are plug-in hybrids. They are different in that they are true electric vehicles with an ICE to extend the range. The drive train in these vehicles are powered by the electric motor, the ICE is just used as a generator. The PHEVs have a battery which gives the vehicle a range of about 40 to 50 miles, generally enough for the majority of commuters. The vehicle can then be plugged in at home to recharge the battery for the next day’s commute. For longer trips, the ICE charges the battery on the fly.

The ability to charge a battery-powered car from the grid, that is by plugging into a wall outlet creates considerable savings as the energy to power a vehicle by electricity costs one third to one quarter as much as the cost of gasoline. Another bonus is cleaner air. Electric power is inherently cleaner than ICE power because much of the energy used to produce the electricity is from clean sustainable sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

The real future of surface transportation is all-electric cars. These vehicles take advantage of regenerative braking and other computer controlled mechanisms. The EPA rates EVs by comparing the electric energy used to the amount of gasoline an equivalent ICE car would use. It comes out to something like 130 miles per gallon equivalent or better. Although electric cars initial costs are higher, over the lifetime costs are frequently lower than ICE vehicles due to lower fuel and maintenance costs.

By far and away the best known electric vehicle is the Tesla, built by visionary Elon Musk. Depending on the model, Teslas have a range of between 250 to over 300 miles on a charge. More importantly for Tesla however is the fact that a fast charging network has been built out across the US such that travel, at least on interstate highways, not a problem. The Tesla charge stations are located so that a 200 to 300 mile drive get one to the next charger. Charge times to fill the battery are on the order of an hour or less.

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

The Celebration Gap

Early in the cold war, there was a missile gap. In the late 1950s, America was threatened by the perception that the Soviet Union possessed superiority in the size and number of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Turns out the fear was unjustified, as President Eisenhower’s science advisory committee greatly overestimated the Soviet arsenal.

What threatens us now is a celebration gap. Actually, it’s a get away from work to relax gap. The Fourth of July is here. Most get off work to be with family and friends so we can celebrate our independence from the rule of King George. The problem is, when it comes to celebrations we’re a bunch of pikers. We have ten federal holidays, which are usually matched by states but we have no national holidays where all workers have an expectancy of time off – paid or otherwise.

In most of the world, the civilized world with the sole exception of the United States, laws afford workers a guaranteed minimum number of paid National holidays. Leading the world is arch enemy Iran with twenty-seven paid holidays. Most of Europe guarantees somewhere between ten and twenty days.

But it gets worse (or better depending on your perspective), not only does much of the world guarantee paid holidays, they also mandate vacation time. This is most commonly two to three weeks on top of the holidays. France is instructive, where all full time employees are guaranteed five weeks of vacation in addition to twelve national holidays. Oh, and they have thirty-five hour work weeks. Remember this is all full time employees, not just government employees but butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

Should we Make America Vacat(ion) Again? Is there an advantage to taking time off or does it distract from productivity? There is significant evidence that worker productivity is better when interspersed with paid time off. One study showed that employees and were in a better mood and more effective in their jobs for over a month after a paid vacation. Another study showed that vacations increased net productivity and lowered stress.

Americans don’t get it. Almost forty percent don’t take a single vacation day in a years time. Even when vacationing, sixty percent take work with them. One of the longest-running collective studies of health, the Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 showed a positive correlation between vacation time and well being and longevity.

When compared to other nationalities such as Europeans, we work longer hours, spend less time with our friends and family, only to live shorter less fulfilling lives. Somewhere we seem to have lost our way.

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