Tag Archives: future

Exxon valdez cleanup

Trump, the Environment, and the Cabinet

It would appear that president-elect Trump thinks our air and our water are too clean and If he is successful we are likely to have less of both (and there is no reason to assume he won’t be successful due to the republican majorities in both houses of congress.)

Oddly, in 2009 he signed a letter along with numerous business leaders to President Obama encouraging him act. “”We support your effort to ensure meaningful and effective measures to control climate change, an immediate challenge facing the United States and the world today” … and further “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

Now his pronouncements are just the opposite. In 2010 he said that Al Gore should have his Nobel peace prize revoked because he decided that global warming was a hoax. His evidence du jour was the fact that it was winter and snowing. Later still he expanded on the hoax idea claiming that not only were the world’s scientists conspiring to promote a hoax but apparently doing so at the bidding of the Chinese who invented the hoax in the first place.

So when Trump takes office in January which one will show up ? Will it be the Trump of “catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity …” or the more contemporary Trump of 2015: “it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax.” Some how it is not surprising that Trump sees money as the only motivation.

Based on a few cabinet nominations it looks like the recent Trump will show. Scott Pruitt, nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency is currently the Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma, the politics of which are dominated by the oil and gas industry. In this position he has sued the EPA numerous times to block the EPA from enforcing regulations aimed to protect our air and water. If the Senate approves the nomination, it will mark a sea change at EPA. Every previous administrator at EPA has worked to protect the environment and relied on sound science.

Another critical cabinet position is the Secretary of Energy, currently headed by a theoretical physicist with a PhD, Ernest Moniz. The Energy Department oversees not only our overall energy policy but also controls our nuclear armaments. Trump’s pick is Rick Perry former Governor of Texas and a friend of the fossil fuel industry. In 2008 Perry ran for president. One of his planks was the elimination of the Energy Department. With no small irony, during a debate he was asked to name the departments he intended to eliminate. He only had to remember the names of three departments, but he remembered only two – Energy was not one of them.

Although the mission of the state department is only tangentially related to the environment, Trump’s selection speaks volumes. Nominated for Secretary of State is none other than the CEO of Exxon-Mobile, the world’s largest player in the fossil fuel industry. Rex Tillerson as head of Exxon-Mobile had planned a 500 billion dollar deal with Russia to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic. When Russia annexed Crimea and was implicated in shooting down a commercial airliner over Ukraine, sanctions from the US and other western powers made the artic drilling deal null and void. Mr. Tillerson noted at a news conference in 2015 that he looked forward to lifting the sanctions on Russia. Drill baby Drill.

Species Extinctions

President Obama, when announcing his clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions said “we only get one home. We only get one planet. There’s no plan B.” The current human population is about 7.4 billion and growing by about 80 million a year. The United Nations population program projects a global population of 11 billion people by the end of this century, on our only planet.

Humans and our as yet unrestrained growth are having a profound impact on our only home, planet earth. We have transformed our atmosphere by filling it with excess carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The oceans are becoming more acidic from the same carbon dioxide dissolving to form carbonic acid. Agriculture has transformed over 80 per cent of the arable land and 50 per cent of the total land surface.

Our evolutionary success comes at the expense of the rest of the planet’s wildlife. We are driving other species to extinction at an unprecedented rate. Species come and go but scientists at the World Wildlife Fund estimate that human activities have accelerated the rate by over a 1000 times the natural extinction rate.

Our largest or possibly most gentle competitors for the resources of the planet are going first. Marine mammals are particularly stressed. A twenty million year old river dolphin found only in China is now officially extinct. The Banjii, called the “goddess of the Yangtze,” succumbed to human pressures in the form of habitat loss, suffocation in fish nets and collisions with shipping.

The world’s smallest porpoise is also the world’s most endangered. The Vaquita lives in the northern end of the Gulf of California, There are likely less that 60 animals, and these continue to die mainly in fish nets, many of which are illegal. Scientists are considering a hail Mary approach to its survival similar to the successful effort to save the California Condor. The rescue plan would involve collecting and captive breeding to rebuild stocks of the Vaquita. The problem is that this animal has never been held in captivity and uncertainties abound.

All 5 of the worlds species of Rhinoceros are endangered. Fewer than 60 Javan and 100 Sumatran Rhino’s survive in southeast Pacific Islands. Other Rhinos in India and Africa are more numerous but still critically endangered.

All is not lost however, as there are a couple of uplifting trends. A giant concern for the future is global warming. On that front there is some good news. Carbon free energy sources around the globe are the fastest growing source of new power. Simultaneously at least here in the US, our per capita consumption is actually decreasing. Even though there are more of us, we each are using less.

Most promising for the planet is the strong positive correlation between increased women’s education and birthrates. The more educated a woman, the fewer children she will have. Also more educated women delay childbirth and are therefore better able to provide for the children they have.

Solar Based Solar Energy

A major drawback of most if not all sustainable sources of energy is the matter of intermittency. Power can’t be generated by wind turbines if the wind doesn’t blow, and solar panels don’t generate power when the sun doesn’t shine.

There are three ways to deal with this. One is to simply expect to use power when it is available. This is impractical for homes or hospitals or industries where power is necessary 24/7, but it is conceivable that certain industries could run their industrial processes when power is available. Sources such as wind and solar are intermittent, but reliably so. A major problem with this strategy is that expensive equipment can’t be used for sizable amounts of time, making the industry less efficient and therefore less competitive.

The obvious solution is energy storage for leveling the availability of power, and there are a number of different strategies. Pairing energy sources to level access to power may be possible in some cases. In some areas the wind blows more at night. This could be combined with daytime solar PV. Actually this is already occurring to some degree via our electrical grid that utilizes both wind and solar inputs.

The holy grail of sustainable but intermittent energy is inexpensive grid scale battery storage. This is a major forefront of sustainable energy research today. Some Japanese researchers are taking another tack however. What if you could find a place to put solar panels where the sun always shines, with no shadows or clouds, just sunlight 24/7. No problem, just head out into space about 20,000 miles. Solar panels are already hard at work powering hundreds, even thousands of satellites and of course the international space station.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a 25 year plan to develop gigawatt scale solar panels in space and then beam that energy back to earth. For perspective the average nuclear power plant produces a little less than a gigawatt. The two reactors at Arkansas Nuclear one combined output is about 1.8 Gigawatts.

This will be a BIG project. To produce that kind of power requires an array of solar panels that weigh on the order of 10,000 tonnes and covers an area of a couple square miles, but this is the easy part. Getting that power back to earth is the really tricky part of the plan. The idea is to beam the power back from space via microwaves. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit would point a sending device towards an earthbound antenna which would absorb the microwave power, then convert it to electrical energy that could be sent to grid along with all the other energy sources.

We use microwave ovens to heat up cold cup of coffee, but in this application the power is sent only a few inches, not tens of thousands of miles. Microwaves are sent long distances in the form of radar, but the relative power level is extremely low. To beam relevant amounts of power tens of thousands of miles is the real challenge.

So far testing has only involved sending kilowatts of energy over a fraction of that distance. Stay tuned.

RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

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.

Clean Power Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the Clean Power Plan. This plan has been evolving since multiple supreme court rulings avered that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant and should be regulated according to the Clean Air Act. Carbon Dioxide is the principle greenhouse gas driving global warming. It’s release to the environment must be slowed and ultimately stopped to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The plan seeks to lower the emissions of Carbon Dioxide by going after the low hanging fruit first: coal fired power plants. The national mandate is to reduce emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, so implementation will be spread over 15 years. Interestingly, current levels of CO2 emissions are lower that 2005 already. This is due to a combination of the recession lowering demand for power and the increasing reliance on sustainable energy supplies such as wind and the conversion of older coal plants to natural gas. Natural gas plants have always been cleaner burning in a number of ways such as particulate emissions, but especially cleaner due to lower CO2 emissions.

Realistically the country has been moving away from coal already. The cost of coal fired plants has been on the rise because of the increasing recognition of the harmful health effects of burning coal. This has resulted in stricter control of emissions other that Carbon Dioxide. These include particulates which when inhaled interfere with breathing, and toxic metals that pollute the environment and have health consequences of their own. An additional factor driving down the use of coal is the availability of increasing amounts of cheap Natural Gas brought on by the fracking boom.

The situation here in Arkansas is made more difficult because we are behind the curve when it comes to transitioning away from coal. Although the national mandate is a 32 percent reduction averaged over the states in aggregate , ours is 37 percent. The relevant measure is “pounds of CO2 produced per amount of electricity generated (lbs CO2/MMWhe .) California for example only needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 14 percent because they have already moved aggressively to sustainable energy supplies. The states have much latitude in how to lower carbon emissions. Increasing efficiency in energy production from coal plants, carbon trading, and producing more energy from renewable energy are all on the table.

In addition to reducing the risk of global warming, the health benefits of cleaner air abound. Reduced particulate emissions will reduce the incidence of asthma and other cardiopulmonary ailments. Other improvements include lowered emissions of toxic heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that tens of billions of dollars will be saved in 2030 by improvements in human health and environmental services.

The coal industry is of course squealing like a stuck pig and will sue, along with states heavily dependent on coal use like Arkansas. Their argument is regulation will drive up the cost of electricity. History has shown time and again that industry claims of the cost of regulation are invariably exaggerated. The EPA claims that actual costs of electricity will go down.

And finally there are jobs. Although a few jobs in mining, transporting and utilizing coal will be lost many many more will be created in the new industries associated with renewable energy.

rare earth elements

Rare Earth Elements

As is the case in so much manufacturing, China is now the world leader in the production of a class of elements known as rare earths. They are not actually rare in terms of relative abundance in the earth’s crust, Cerium for example is about as common as Copper. The rare part of the name comes from the fact that they are difficult to obtain because they generally don’t occur in high concentration deposits as do better known metallic elements such as Iron, Copper, and Nickel.

Where they are found, the ores occur in lower concentrations and because the various rare earth elements have very similar chemical properties, they are difficult to separate. This makes the processing all the more expensive. Seventeen elements constitute the group, the majority of which occur in the Lanthanide Series of elements.

Although they share much of their chemical properties, each has unique uses especially in electronics and other modern high tech products.

One of the more common is Neodymium (Nd, atomic number 60.) It confers hardness and unique optical properties when used in small amounts as a dopant in glass. This glass is then used in the manufacture of certain kinds of lasers. Nd is also used in an alloy for high strength permanent magnets. Neodymium magnets have the advantage of having a high magnetic field strength to weight ratio. Applications include loud speakers, in-ear headphones and computer disks.

Several of the rare earths were first discovered in Ytterby, a small town in Sweden,. Yttrium (Y no. 39), Ytterbium (Yb 70), Erbium (Er 68), and Terbium (Tb 65) all take their name from the same mine

As noted many modern devices utilize rare earths – electronics, magnets, lasers, batteries, and efficient lightning just to name a few. An obvious modern device loaded with rare earths is a hybrid car. About 28 kilograms (~ 62 pounds) of rare earths go into a hybrid car. That is only a small fraction compared to the total weight, but it is a very important fraction.

Another now ubiquitous device, the cell phone, is chock full of rare earths. The glass is harder, and the speakers and memory are lighter, and the vibrating motors stronger – all due the rare earths.

So what’s the big deal about rare earths? The big deal is that currently China controls 97% of the market on these elements which are so important to modern society and even more importantly to a modern military. Our military is dependent on a foreign power for a strategic material. There are exploitable deposits of rare earths in the United States, but are not mined because of costs.

Efforts are being made to bring the cost of mining and processing of the rare earths down which could make our sources more attractive. That said, applying the same techniques to the richer Chinese deposits will make their materials correspondingly cheaper also.


Attitudes on Global Warming

Yale University has for a number of years operated a climate change research project. The project studies not only the cause and implications of global warming but also the attitudes of Americans towards related issues. They have “attitude maps” with a resolution down to the county level.

Not surprisingly, it appears that attitudes break out on liberal/conservative lines. In locales that voted for conservative candidates, acceptance of the reality of anthropogenic global warming was lower than in those locales where votes tilted toward liberals.

Although most Americans,63% [55% for Pope County] believe global warming is happening, only 48% [42%] believe it is man-made. In Arkansas Pulaski, Bradley, and Chicot are the only counties where a majority believe human activities are causing the warming.

Among residents of Pope County, 52% believe that global warming will harm future generations. Nationally 61% share the opinion. A super majority of the citizens of the United States, 74% believe we should regulate CO2 . In Pope county the figure is 68%. The majority opinion disappears when the public is asked about a particularly effective regulatory mechanism – a revenue neutral, refunded to the public, carbon tax. Only 44% [42%] would support a carbon tax.

Interestingly even though a majority of the citizens of Arkansas favor regulating carbon emissions, we enacted legislation last month to frustrate implementation of regulations on CO2, and our attorney general has joined with 11 other attorneys general to sue the Environmental Protection Agency’s over the regulations. The people of Arkansas believe one way but our elected officials act another.

There is a dramatic difference when the attitudes of the general public and the scientific community are compared. As noted earlier only 48% of average Americans believe global warming is man-made. Among scientists that number is 87 % (from a recent poll by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS). This is a clear consensus yet the public believes otherwise. Only 44% answered yes to the question, “do most scientists believe global warming is man-made?”

The discrepancy is likely due to efforts by fossil fuel industries to spread confusion. It is an effective yet scurrilous method championed most prominently by the tobacco industry. For decades the tobacco industry was able to put off any regulation by stating that the risks of smoking were unsure, or that there wasn’t a consensus among scientists about the connection between smoking and lung cancer.

A common technique is to covertly fund “independent” scientists who do biased work. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist who published research intended to downplay human influence on global warming was funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars by fossil fuel industries. His source of funding was not disclosed. This conflict of interest is at a minimum a violation of ethical standards.

“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect… “ Johnathan Swift

photo credit: onlysimchas.com

Global Warming: Questions and Answers

Don’t the record snowstorms hitting the Northeast mean there is no such thing as global warming?

No, not at all. No one single event event, cold or hot, wet or dry, can be blamed on global warming or used to deny global warming. Global warming is due to increased amounts of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere. A Higher average global temperature is just one outcome. Snowstorms are dependent on atmospheric moisture and warmer air holds more moisture. As long as the temperature at the base of the cloud is below freezing, it will snow. The higher the (below freezing)temperature, the greater the snowfall.

More rainfall will be better for crops then, right?

Not necessarily. Not only is a warmer atmosphere wetter, it is also more dynamic. Severe storms will be more common, including flooding. Even without floods, too much rain can be a problem. Too much rain in the spring can delay planting. Too much rain in the fall can cause problems with harvesting. Both effects will lower crop yields.



Well then at least we don’t need to worry droughts, right?

Not necessarily. Global warming is the cause, climate change is the effect. Climate scientists make predictions for the future climate based on computer algorithms called Global Climate Models (GCMs). There are several of them and they all generally agree. Not only will the atmosphere get warmer but other changes will occur. Rainfall will be greater overall, but the distribution patterns will change. Precipitation in coastal areas will increase but in mid-continental areas it may increase only slightly or actually decrease.



Wait, you can’t have it both ways can you?

Actually yes. Consider the following scenario. Here in Arkansas the climate is predicted to shift from one amenable to mixed hardwoods such as an oak/hickory biome to a more savanna like climate. Rainfall may increase but it will come in fewer, more intense storms. The factor that is most important to plant growth is soil moisture during the growing season. Higher temperatures mean faster evapotranpiration. The Ozarks very well may become a badly eroded prairie-like biome. We are predicted to have more rain but a drier climate.

Even drinking water may become harder to get – or at least more expensive. Fewer but more intense rainfall events means more runoff. This means less recharge of natural aquifers so less well water. Reservoirs will need to be greatly expanded to capture larger rainfall events.

Well, at least it won’t cost so much to heat homes and offices in the winter, right?

OK, I’ll give you this one but over all utility bills may be higher due to the greatly increased demand for air conditioning in warmer months. Summer electric loads are currently higher in the summer than winter, and this differential will expand. Not only will hotter summers cost more, heat waves will become more frequent. Heat waves are already the most lethal extreme weather event.

The climate has changed in the past and we survived. Why is this any different? Climate has changed before but never as rapidly as it is/will be changing in the near future. We will no doubt survive but a lot of plant and animal life won’t. Our future will be hotter, both drier and wetter, more lethal, and less diverse unless we act and act fast.

Global Warming 2014 Edition

This year has seen several international, national, and local issues relating to global warming.

Organizationally, the IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change might be considered the lead agency on issues of global warming. The IPCC is a group of thousands of climate scientists from around the world. The fifth pentennial assessment report states: “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 [Celsius] 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.”

Whereas the IPCC is the scientific wing of the UN, the UNFCCC or the United Nations Framework on Climate Change is more of a political policy wing. In their meeting in Lima Peru this year they concluded that it is increasingly difficult to prevent the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding—events that could harm the world’s population and economy.

After months of negotiations, President Obama and President Xi Jinping in November affirmed the importance of strengthening bilateral cooperation on climate change and will work together to adopt a protocol on climate change. They are committed to reaching an ambitious 2015 agreement that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.

In June President Obama, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has promulgated rules for power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. This is the first time that the EPA has taken steps to regulate Carbon Dioxide as a pollutant, an action begun in 2007 by President Bush, but delayed by court battles meant to block the regulations.

Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline remains stalled. This pipeline, if completed, will move oil produced by strip mining the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta Canada. The line will terminate after traversing almost 1200 miles at refineries on the Gulf coast. It’s approval is questionable as this will exacerbate global warming by providing an international market for more carbon emissions.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Plains and Clean Line has been released. Basically the EIS determined that there are no adverse environmental or socioeconomic effects of the transmission line. The power line will move 3,500 MegaWatts of wind generated electricity from the panhandle of Oklahoma, across Arkansas to Memphis.

Entergy has recently purchased a gas turbine fired electrical power plant near El Dorado. With a capacity of 1980 MegaWatts, this may signal the intention to close the older less efficient coal fired White bluff plant.


Crowd Sourcing Energy Storage.

The amount of electricity produced for the grid must be matched very closely with demand. There are large swings in demand from hot summer days when demand is high to mild spring and fall nights when demand is low.

To match demand with supply requires that a certain amount of power be constantly produced, the so called base load, and this must be supplemented with additional power sources for peak demand times. The cost is higher for electricity generated only intermittently. To encourage use of electrical energy during off peak times and discourage use during peak times some areas vary the cost of electricity with the season and time of day.

If massive batteries were available the power production could be smoothed out and only base load would be needed. Excess power produced at night could be stored for use when peak demand occurred. Alas such massive grid connected batteries don’t exist. Or do they?

Instead of a few massive batteries for a metropolitan area, how about 10s or 100s of thousands , even millions of smaller batteries all interconnected to the grid.

Enter electric vehicles as battery storage devices for the grid. The idea is called V2G, for Vehicle to Grid. Electric car batteries are connected to the grid for charging and this is especially true at night, so they immediately help to level demand by charging off peak. An electric vehicle owner could charge at night at home then drive to work in the morning. There, the driver would reconnect to the grid and charge or discharge as needed. Smart outlets controlled by computers could simply shuttle power to and from the individual vehicles as needed, essentially crowd sourcing energy storage and delivery.

Especially valuable would be plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. In addition the the energy stored in their batteries, they could act as stand alone generators, supplementing power production with their engines which are easily capable of providing electric current to the gird.

Plug-in hybrids are becoming increasingly popular. Cars like the Chevy Volt operate on a “dual fuel” basis. They can run on gasoline stored in a tank or on electricity stored in a battery. Such vehicles, when connected would provide power to or take power from the grid as needed. Pricing would be computer controlled to pay a premium to power providers at peak demand times and charge appropriately for electricity delivered to vehicle owneers as needed.

Although the idea for V2G was originally planned as a method of covering the need for peak demand in urban areas, the same idea could be used to smooth production system wide. It could be an elegant way to compensate for the intermittency of sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar.

Electric companies of the future may not be the massive monolithic power providers of today, but rather simply brokers for grid distribution of a diffuse set of suppliers. Large wind turbines, small solar arrays and even the family car parked in the garage, all contributing through a computer managed network.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt