Tag Archives: future


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


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.



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.



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.

The Real Costs of Fossil Fuels

Arguments against sustainable energy sources always include the fact that they are taxpayer subsidized and so more costly than they appear. These kinds of claims have been expressed before, but it is always worth reviewing the subject. How about the subsidies for fossil fuels? The direct cost of a gallon of gas, the cost at the pump, is currently about three bucks a gallon. The indirect costs can add as much as another $10 or more to the real price of a gallon of gas, bringing the total to something like $15 a gallon.
The direct costs are easy to calculate and include the cost to find produce, transport, refine and distribute the gasoline. These costs will continue to rise as crude oil becomes more scarce. It is increasingly harder to find the oil. And what oil is found is in smaller fields, deeper in the ground, farther out to sea, or all of the above.
As an example of the extremes taken to find and produce crude oil, the BP oil spill in the Gulf occurred at a well in 5,000 feet of water,

BP oil spill

BP oil spill

which was to be drilled another 18,000 feet below ground for a total depth of about 23,000 thousand feet. That is more than 4 miles below the surface of the ocean. Existing leases in the Gulf will necessitate drilling in water twice that deep.
The real run-up on the price of a gallon of gasoline comes from the indirect costs which include, but are not limited to military, environmental and healthcare costs.
Military costs to secure access and transportation of foreign oil are difficult to calculate, but the Congressional Research Service estimated well over $100 billion per year. These cost estimates do not include the direct cost of two wars in the Persian Gulf region. Estimated addition to the cost of that gallon of gas: $4.
war for oil

war for oil

Indirect costs for healthcare come about from burning that gasoline. Much asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and heart disease can be attributed to air pollution from automobile exhaust. Additional healthcare costs in Los Angles due to air pollution are put at about $1,200 per person, per year. Nationwide, the estimate is $75 billion dollars per year. Estimated addition to the cost of that gallon of gas: $3.
What is hardest to calculate, but in the long term the most damaging is the cost to the environment.
Obvious costs include everything from lost profits and wages for tourism and fisheries in the gulf due to oil spills to various global phenomena. Some are quantifiable — others not. Insurance companies are at the forefront in trying to put a value on property losses due to climate instability.

global warming is triggering more severe storms

global warming is triggering more severe storms

Here is one example. The estimate to mitigate a one-meter sea level rise from global warming is about $250 billion. Increased droughts, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes are all costly and the predicted result of global warming. This is admittedly a guess — but, estimated cost to that gallon of gas: several more dollars per gallon.
Finally there is the incalculable cost of environmental degradation – loss of habitat and biodiversity. What is the value in dollars to maintain a stable environment for our children’s future?

It’s About Time

Weights and measures including time, are immeasurably important to to our lives. Our food supply our depends on our knowledge of the seasons, and what we buy and sell is linked to our ability to measure what something weights, or its volume and myriad of other measures.

Measure of time comes in two ways, that set by some natural phenomena such as the time it takes the earth to travel around the sun and those times which are seemingly arbitrary – the length of a second, a minute and an hour.

The length a year is obvious, it is how long it takes the earth to circle the sun, about three hundred sixty five days. But not exactly because it is actually about a quarter of a day longer, hence the need for leap years which have three hundred sixty six days. There is actually another finer adjustment, because to keep the calendar in sync with the season, there is one more rule, a century year is not a leap year unless it is evenly divisible by four hundred. The year two thousand was but the next three century years will not be.

Winter soltice, Machu Pichu

Winter soltice, Machu Pichu

A day is governed by the time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis. The time it takes to make a full rotation is actually lengthening due to tidal forces which create drag and slow the rotation but not by much. A day gets a tiny fraction of a second longer in a century.

When we start carving up a day we move into arbitrary units. Why twenty four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour and sixty seconds in a minute? The twenty four hour day has as its origin the observations of stars by the ancient Egyptians. This has little to nothing to do with modern time keeping, but it stuck. The same is true for the divisions of hours and minutes. In this case we look to the Babylonians who had a base sixty counting system. To the Babylonians numbers like six, twelve, sixty, and three hundred sixty were “round numbers” just like ten, one hundred, and one thousand are round numbers in our base ten decimal system.

Talk about stuck in a rut, we measure time based on an archaic, four thousand year old, base sixty system which is confusing and unnecessary.

Big Ben

Big Ben

Quick, tell me how many seconds in three hours. UGH – let’s see sixty times sixty times three. Like archaic measurements used in the United States, bushels and pecks, ounces and gallons, and ounces and pounds, these non-decimal calculations are tedious.

Scientist use the metric system for its simplicity. Virtually all units are in base ten EXCEPT
time. It’s about time for a change. The staff at “Keep Time-keeping Simple Inc” Propose the following: ten hour days, one hundred minute hours and one hundred second minutes. If you were keeping time with a one mississippi, two mississippi kind of notation it would work for decimal time, as doing the math shows the decimal second to be eighty six per cent as long as a Babylonian second.

Back to the previous challenge of how many seconds in three hours, no problem: one hundred times one hundred times three is thirty thousand. You can do it without pencil and paper.

Lunch is at five o’clock sharp, and if you don’t want to stay up for Johnny Carson, set the VCR to record at 9.375 and don’t worry about AM or PM, they don’t exist. Good night everybody

Sea Level Rise

Global warming is the result of somewhat complex atmospheric dynamics which can result in a warmer planet, stronger storms, both floods and droughts, political instability and elevated sea levels. Probably the simplest of these outcomes to understand is sea level rise. If it gets warmer ice melts to water and drains into the oceans, raising the global water level. Additionally as the oceans warm, the warmer water takes up more space and adds to sea level rise.

Those that deny the risks of global warming might say that melting icebergs or the melting of the north polar ice won’t change sea level and if that is all you consider, it is true. But there is much more ice trapped on land in the form of glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet and the vast Antarctic ice sheet. Enough in fact to raise the level of the seas eighty meters, or over two hundred and fifty feet.

A sea level rise of two hundred fifty feet would leave only Lady Liberty’s head above the New York Harbor. Only the tippy-tops of the skyscrapers in most coastal cities will be above water. The Atlantic coastal plain, South Florida, and the state of Louisiana will be fishing grounds.

This level of rising seas is the worst case scenario based on hundreds of years of unabated burning of fossil fuels, according the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So what about sea level rise in the near term, say within the twenty first century? There are people alive today who will see the turn of the next century. If the combustion of fossil fuels is not reined in, a modest projection is a two meter (over six feet) rise. If anything combustion of fossil fuels is accelerating due to advanced recovery techniques like horizontal drilling and fracturing.

The impact of a two meter rise in sea level varies from a minor nuisance to a catastrophe depending on location. Some islands in the South Pacific are already suffering from the one quarter of a meter rise over the past one hundred years or so.costal The combination of rising sea level and more severe storm surges due to global warming are causing coastal erosion. Increased salinity of the remaining soils which decreases agricultural productivity is as troublesome as the erosion.

The real catastrophe is the flooding of large coastal cities. Miami, New Orleans, and Tampa are three of those at greatest risk because most exist at sea level already, and are also sensitive to more flooding due to tropical storms and hurricanes. Estimates of fifty billion dollars per city per year may be necessary to prevent or mitigate damage due to flooding.

The most recent experience with severe coastal flooding was due to Hurricane Katrina. Economic losses to Louisiana and Mississippi are estimated to be over one hundred fifty billion dollars.
Our thrust for the cheapest energy up front may very well cost us a lot more when all the costs are accounted for. Solar, wind, and geothermal which don’t drive global warming are looking cheaper every day.

The Death of a Child

December 23, 2012

I originally wrote this brief piece right after President Obama’s speech earlier in Newtown. The community is rather affluent so I don’t know how I could help them other than with my deepest empathy with the loss of those children.  In all honesty, I also wrote it for myself, for my own catharsis. Our son Kane, 17 years old, died in an automobile accident over five years ago.

Tonight president Obama made a heartfelt speech in Newtown to the parents and community that lost so many children in a senseless violent attack on an elementary school. My heart goes out to them and the pain they are feeling.

I know a thing or two about that pain, the loss of a child. Any death, be it a stranger, neighbor or even a relative is painful. Most all of us, whether we want to think of it or not, will suffer the loss of our parents. We will bury them or deal with their death as we can. It is the natural order of things and somehow embedded in our DNA. It is hard and it hurts, but even harder, even more painful is the loss of a child. kane2

The death of a child is completely different. I don’t think how a child dies matters, be it illness, accident or homicide. Dead is dead. But losing a child is different fundamentally than any other death. The death of a child is the death of the future. You don’t get to see him grow up, rather he is frozen in time. She doesn’t grow up, he doesn’t go the prom, she doesn’t graduate, he doesn’t marry, she doesn’t have children. They don’t because they aren’t.

A dear friend commented “the Newtown parents have joined us in a club we would have given our lives to avoid belonging to. We know what they are feeling and we are sad for them and angry on their behalf. And we can honor them and our own lost children by staying that way.”

When your child dies, the future dies, and it hurts in a way that can’t be imagined. Tomorrow we can talk about how to work as a society to reduce these deaths. Tonight we grieve.



Quality health care in the United States has until recently been a luxury; that is, something only for those that can afford it. This should change over the next few years as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – more colloquially known as Obamacare – rolls out.

healthcare costs

healthcare costs

Currently our system of “every man/woman/family for themselves” has resulted in total health care costs which are on the order of twice the rest of the industrialized world as measured as a fraction of the gross domestic product.

Sadly, because of our past approach, we’ve end up with poorer health care outcomes such as higher infant mortality rates and shorter life expectancies. There are several reasons why we pay more but get less compared to the rest of the world. First and foremost is the lack of preventive care for the poor or those that think it is unnecessary.

infant mortality

infant mortality

When it comes to health care, the old saw “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rules. An example or two should suffice: The absolutely most effective health care dollar spent is the dollar spent on vaccinations. Horrible diseases such as small pox and polio have been eradicated. Other diseases that caused high infant mortality rates such as diphtheria and pertussis in the past have been drastically reduced.

Yet much preventive care is unachieved. Consider heart attacks and stokes as a cost factor. Either of these conditions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat after the fact, but literally pennies a day to prevent with blood pressure medication.

Over a million families file for bankruptcy every year. Medical bills are the principle cause or contribute to these filings over sixty per cent of the time. Obamacare will reduce bankruptcies by abolishing lifetime benefit limits and price discrimination for pre-existing conditions, thus lowering out of pocket costs for families.

What is cheaper to you personally? Assisting the poor (and mandating those who can but refuse to) obtain health care? Or picking up their tab through higher premiums for your health care? The rest of the world has the answer and it is the former. That is why Obamacare will lower costs overall by adopting policies which favor preventive care and full participation in our common care.

Considerably more savings in health care can be had if we control costs via even more collective action. A Titanium alloy hip joint costs about 350 bucks to produce yet insurers are charged close to ten thousand dollars, a markup of three thousand per cent! Why? Because they can, and we pay unnecessarily. In Belgium, on the other hand, the national health system takes a bid for the same joint. The resultant cost is less than a thousand dollars, a tenth of the cost we pay for the exact same item.

There are many things that benefit us collectively such as education, police and fire protection, national defense, infrastructure for commerce, scientific research, and the list goes on and on. It is time we recognize that our health care should fall into the same category. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction but there is still more that can be done to lower costs further and improve care.

high speed rail

Trains, Here and There

Automobile use as measured by miles traveled per capita peaked in 2005 and has been falling since. It is had to explain by a single variable, gas prices have been both up and down, not continuously up. We went through the worst recession since the great depression, but the economy is now improving, albeit slowly. Vehicles are becoming smaller so less accommodating for passengers but more efficient thus cheaper to operate.

Regardless of the reason, we are moving around less; and, there has not been a concomitant increase in mass transit. Is it time for us here in the US to consider an emphasis on mass transit to the degree that is available in Europe or the far east? Travel by train there is easy and frequent. You want to go from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bucharest, Romania, 1700 miles? There are trains for that, and daily I might add.

Not only can one travel long distances between large cities, but also short distances to small towns as well. There are nine different departure times daily from Chepstow, Wales to London, England (Chepstow is a town about the size of Clarksville, AR.) This would be equivalent to a train, nine times a day from Clarksville to Little Rock.

But we’re all about speed, right; and trains are too slow. Well they’re not so slow in Europe or the far East. Speeds between one and two hundred miles per hour are common.

European high speed rail

European high speed rail

And unlike the USA; Japan, Korea, and China are all investing in infrastructure which will allow for faster, more efficient trains.

China currently operates a fourteen hundred mile rail at over two hundred miles an hour, and is expanding rail service faster than highways or airlines. When a high speed rail became available in Taiwan most passengers switched from the comparable air route, and highway congestion decreased.

Technological advances in Japan involve a Maglev train. Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, where levitation of the train above the rails means a near frictionless and therefore faster, quieter and more efficient rail line. The train has been successfully tested on a short track at over three hundred miles an hour and expects to be in service by 2015.

What about American Exceptionalism? Is anything unique going on here? One bright spot is California which has proposed a high speed rail line between Los Angles and San Francisco. The voters in California have approved close to ten billion dollars to develop the line, which at two hundred miles an hour would complete the trip in two to three hours. Current driving time for the trip is seven or eight hours.

A real game changer has been proposed by entrepreneur Elon Musk, who designed and sells the Tesla, a successful all-electric car. He wants to build a Hyperloop, basically an evacuated tube,



to transport people at eight hundred miles per hour. The technology is the same as that used to move money and checks from the remote teller to your car at the bank. The trip from Los Angles to San Francisco would be about a half an hour and if similar technology existed locally one could go from Little Rock to Dallas in about twenty minutes. Now that would be both exceptional and American.

Professor Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger during a

Petri Patties – Lab Grown Meat

Even though we have yet to recover from the current recession, we still lead the world in economic might and that is reflected in our high rates of consumption of everything from crude oil to meat. Both of these commodities contribute to our exaggerated contribution to global warming.

As other countries expand their economies, that is become more wealthy, they tend to eat more meat. China in 1961 consumed four kilograms per person. By 2001 that jumped to fifty-four kilograms. Currently half of all pork produced in the world is consumed in China. By comparison the US eats over one hundred twenty kilos of meat per person per year. By the year 2050 global meat consumption is estimated to double, from the current 230 to 465 million tons.

The connection between meat consumption and wealth is easy to see. Protein from meat is expensive. The cheaper alternative comes from diet that balances beans and grains to provide complete protein – nutritious but bland. So what’s the harm if you can afford meat? Two factors; personal health effects such as heart disease correlate with high meat diets, and meat production contributes to global warming.

Enter the lab burger,stage left – PETA has a bounty out for the first practical lab grown meat. A study done a couple of years ago suggests that if meat could be “grown” in the lab, about 50 per cent less energy would be used, virtually no land would be needed, and ninety per cent less green house gases would be emitted compared to traditional agricultural methods. These environmental improvements result from considerable decreases in methane release from ruminants and decreased deforestation not needed for feed; corn and soybeans, and fodder; grass from pastures.

We now have a Petri patty, not practical by any measure but at least the proof of concept has been achieved. Last month a celebrity chef in London, England prepared the world’s first and only hamburger made from meat grown in cell culture in a laboratory in the Netherlands. The idea of lab meat is not new. As early as pre-world war II, Winston Churchill wrote about the possibility. He was concerned that a war which resulted in a blockade of the UK could threaten the population with starvation.

The process is simple in principle but extremely difficult in practice. The simple explanation: take a muscle cell from a cow, stimulate the cell to divide in a nutrient broth, and voilà! The lab burger. In practice the process took several years and over four million dollars. Tissue harvested from a carcass is first treated with an enzyme to remove connective tissue and release the muscle cells. The cells are cultured in fetal bovine serum, a fluid taken from slaughtered calves. Alternative cell culture media exist but performed poorly. Because the cells lack any vasculature the cells can only be grown in thin films. Also methods had to be developed to “exercise” the developing muscle tissue.

One final problem is physical, the cells are colorless and without fat so the lab meat was colored with beetroot juice and cooked in butter and oil. For cultured meat to become a real alternative it has to be a whole lot cheaper, redder and fattier.

Carbon Capture and Storage

President Obama recently gave a speech at Georgetown University addressing global warming. He has recognized that limiting carbon emissions from power plants is an important step in reducing our contribution to the release of green house gases. One approach is the process where the Carbon Dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal is captured and stored, rather than released to the atmosphere.
If Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) can be made to work, we could have our cake and eat it too.  That is, we could have the benefits of cheap energy without the negative consequences.   Basically CCS is a process of capturing the Carbon Dioxide waste stream from a power plant and then putting it somewhere other than the atmosphere.

The problem is that it is neither cheap nor easy. CCS technology could double the construction and operating costs of a power plant.   A further limitation is the need for storage sites such as airtight underground caverns or the ocean depths, where the carbon dioxide would stay for a long, long time. Like forever.
The best site would be a geologic formation where subsurface rock naturally reacts with carbon dioxide via a process which chemically mineralizes it. These formations exist but are few and far between. We need enough storage space for about thirty billion tonnes of carbon dioxide for this year and even more in future years due to growth.
Without mineralization, storage becomes much more difficult. Carbon dioxide, a gas at normal pressure, would need to be pumped into storage wells and the wells then capped to prevent release.  At atmospheric pressure it would require over six thousand cubic miles of underground open space per year. This kind of space doesn’t realistically exist, hence pressurization is necessary to reduce the volume.   The higher the pressure the more difficult it will be to contain the stored gas. Any leakage will increase the cost both economically and energetically- all that capture, transportation, and pressurization uses energy.
Another storage site to consider is the ocean depths.  The advantage of ocean storage is that the conditions of the abyssal plain are high pressure and low temperature.  Under these conditions carbon dioxide exists as a liquid with a volume only a fraction of that as a gas.   Slowly, the dissolved carbon dioxide would react with seawater forming carbonic acid. We would slowly turn the oceans of the world into salty soda water.  Rather than just sounding silly, it’s actually deadly.  The acidity created by the higher carbonic acid concentration would essentially sterilize the oceans.
The only way to store the thirty billion tonnes of carbon dioxide produced every year seems to be by pumping it at high pressure into every hole in the ground that we can find, plugging the hole and then hoping that the cap doesn’t come off, forever.  But what if a storage site does burp?
Lake Nyos is a crater lake in Africa.  Local conditions cause the lake to be supersaturated with carbon dioxide.  A limnic eruption occurred in 1986 for causes not entirely clear.240px-Nyos_Lake This event caused the near instantaneous release of close to 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is just like the classic mentos and diet coke eruptions, except deadly. The heavier-than-air gas killed about 1700 people and all their livestock.  This area was thinly populated or the death toll would have been much higher.
Carbon capture and storage, in the last analysis, is expensive, uses a lot of energy, and is quite risky to all life in the area of the storage wells.  Additionally Carbon Dioxide is only about half of the problem associated with global warming. The only real solution is abandon the use of fossil fuels and get all our energy from wind, solar and geothermal.