Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1969, Garret Hardin wrote a seminal paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” This allegory explains how the overuse of a shared resource can lead to ruin. The story goes like this.Imagine a small village in a valley nestled in the mountains. The center of the village is a common area where the farmers can graze a cow for their own benefit. Everybody gets a share of the wealth.

One farmer recognized that if he put more cows on the common, he would do better. But the more cows on the common, the less grass there is available for each cow. The farmer realized that with more cows on the common, each cow gets less, but if he has more cows, he gets a bigger portion of the shared resource.

Other farmers see the benefit of putting more cows on the green and so they add more cows. They all see that each cow added means less grass per cow, but also recognize that the more cows they own, the better off they are individually. This is the tragedy. Each farmer benefits individually by adding cows, but the expense of more cows on the green is born by all.

Unrestrained addition of cows will lead to overgrazing the common and its ultimate destruction.
The moral of the story is that shared resources can only be maintained if properly managed. The villagers must collectively agree on a limit to the number of cows each farmer can graze so that the common can continue to be productive.

A good example of successful management of a shared resource is the deer population in Arkansas.
Before serious management began in the 1930s, the population of white-tailed deer in Arkansas had plummeted to something like 500 deer statewide. Deer had been completely eliminated in a number of counties.

With careful resource management, that is, restrictions on hunting, the herd has recovered to about a million animals. Now, everybody gets to share the wealth, but only through collective action.
Now ,you may ask, why a column dedicated to energy matters consumes space discussing cows on the common. It’s an allegory.

Think of the burning of fossil fuels as cows and the atmosphere as the common that sustains it. Each year over 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide— cows as it were — are added to the atmosphere, aka the common. The majority of this is from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. This excess carbon dioxide is acting as a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the planet. Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide are also dissolving in the oceans causing them to become more acidic.

Our tragedy is each of us benefit individually from the increasing use of fossil fuels, but force the rest of the people on the planet to suffer degradation of the common. It is time to manage the global common, our atmosphere. The scientific community in essentially every country in the world is in agreement that we must restrain our release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and the major way that will occur is through reductions in the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

Like it or not we need to exhibit restraint, it is the only way we can preserve our global common for future generations.

Wind Power, Potential and Limitations

Electricity produced by wind turbines is growing faster than any other sustainable energy source. The United States currently has about 35 GigaWatts installed capacity. With a capacity factor of .35. This means we’re producing about 100,000 GWhs per year, or over two percent of total electric production.

The history of wind power begins with sail boats over 3,000 years ago. Not long there after, the sail was adapted to the blade of a windmill to do jobs such as grinding grain and pumping water. Until rural electrification came to the midwestern U.S., a lot of ranches/farms were provide with water from the iconic Aeromotor windmill.

Current turbine technology has evolved from simply doing mechanical work to cleanly generating renewable energy in the form of electricity. Turbine capacities range from small 5 kW turbines to power a single family home to the largest which currently have a capacity of 7 megawatts. These giants stand almost 1,000 feet tall and have a blade diameter of more than 400 feet. Just one of these operating normally could supply all the electricity for around 1,500 homes.

There is some potential for wind power in virtually every state, but the midwestern states hold the highest potential. All the electricity needs of the country could be supplied by wind power from just four midwestern states:The Dakotas, Kansas and Texas, if there were sufficient transmission and storage capacity. But that is a very, very big if.

Realistically up to about 10 percent of the electricity needed in this country could be covered by wind without any changes to the infrastructure of the electrical grid. This is because power companies have to have that kind of flexibility in production capacity to meet variable demand. This means clean wind energy production can quadruple or more. Importantly, this increase in power production can be done incrementally, at lower cost that the one time construction of nuclear or coal plants.

From about 10 to 25 percent wind energy penetration, infrastructure changes will have to be made to maintain continuous power production. This can be done by a combination of a larger grid with wind forecasting which will allow for the movement of power from one locale to another. Expansion of wind power beyond 30 per cent of total needs can be done but at a higher cost. For each kilowatt of wind electric there will be a need for a kilowatt of stand by, ready reserve power. This can be provided by natural gas fired turbines, the power of which is matched with the wind field.

The biggest technological impediment to even greater expansion of wind generated electricity is the issue of storage. A robust wind system would be able to produce more power than demanded at times, but excess capacity can’t be stored. Novel storage mechanisms are being explored including compressing air in subterranean caverns or pumping water up into reservoirs. These strategies have the potential to store power over hours or possibly days. The future of wind and other clean sustainable energy sources rests in the hands of the scientists and engineers of the future who will solve the storage and transmission issues.

The only major environmental concern with wind turbines is associated with bird and bat kills. The most recent studies show that selecting sites for wind fields which avoid major migratory pathways for both birds and bats greatly reduces mortality. Regardless, bird and bat mortality from wind turbines is extremely low compared with collisions with other man made structures.

Geoengineering to Mitigate Climate Change?

We humans as a species are quiet young, maybe a couple of hundred thousand years old. Modern humans even younger, say eighty thousand years old. But we are oh-so-successful. We have spread from our ancestral home in Africa around the globe, occupying every conceivable climatic niche from polar regions to the tropical rain forest and savannas and deserts and everything in between. Everywhere we go we dominate the region at the expense of any and all other life, well rats and cockroaches might be the exception.

Part of our success is due to our ability to react very rapidly to any perceived threat. We can dodge a spear from an enemy, evade a charging tiger or jump from the path of a wild pitch at home plate. What evolution has not blessed us with is the ability to recognize a slow motion threat such as climate change.

Our attitude may be changing but not in time to stop it from happening. Global warming is real and underway. The ten hottest years on record worldwide have occurred in the last 12 years. The drought plaguing the US midwest is the worst since the 1950s. The long term projections suggest that the mixed hardwood forests of the Ozarks will become more of a savanna like grass land ( Mid continental drying is predicted by global warming computer models.)

Our addiction to fossil fuels, more explicitly to cheap energy, is an apparently insurmountable risk to our future. Or is it? Can we have our cake and eat it too? We want to continue to burn fossil fuels thus producing heat trapping carbon dioxide, but somehow reverse the effects of this pollutant.

One idea that has been seriously discussed is the allowance of more of another pollutant in the atmosphere. If we take the scrubbers and and bag house filters off of coal fired power plants we could inject enough sulfuric acid and particulates into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight. The increased albedo, or reflectivity in the atmosphere would prevent sunlight from getting in to warm the earth. There is evidence that this actually works. In 1991 Mount Pinatubo violently erupted and sent massive amounts of ash particulates and sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere which resulted in a couple of years of falling rather than rising temperatures across the northern hemisphere.

The problem of purposely polluting the atmosphere with sulfuric acid is the resultant acid rain, one of those pesky unintended consequences. So two wrongs make a right?

Another geoengineering strategy involves the use of all the old Pontiacs and Plymouths in junk yards across the United States. We take them and grind them up finely and then spread the iron across the southern oceans. Sounds crazy? But this is another scheme that might help. And with fewer unintended consequences, maybe.

he southern ocean’s primary productivity is limited by Iron. This is to say that all the things necessary to grow algae which absorbs carbon dioxide are present except iron. Iron is a component of an enzyme used to make chlorophyll. With sufficient iron present the algae grows and eventually dies and falls to the bottom of the ocean taking the carbon with it. The more Plymouths in the ocean the less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Weird, huh?

But here’s an idea, why don’t we stop burning fossil fuels? We don’t need to dump noxious chemicals into our air and water to offset our desire for cheap energy. A combination of energy efficiency and sustainable energy supplies can do it. Now there’s a thought.

Silent Spring Redux

Rachel Carson wrote her now famous book Silent Spring fifty years ago. In her book she documented the unintended effect of the use of persistent insecticides such as DDT. DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane) when introduced was heralded as a tremendous advance in technology in the battle between humans and insects for our food supply.

Previously available insecticides were toxic to all forms of life. The so called first generation pesticides include agents such as Lead Arsenate which contain both Lead and Arsenic. Nicotine from tobacco plants also has historical use. These substances are acutely toxic to humans and pests alike.

DDT and other second generation pesticides were thought to be much safer as they have much lower toxicity to mammals and birds compared to insect toxicity. Further, these substances were persistent meaning that insecticide application occurred less frequently. An unintended consequence of the use of these insecticides was their bioaccumulation.

The littlest critters are eaten by little critters, who are in turn eaten by slightly bigger ones. The higher up in the food chain, the higher the accumulated dose of insecticide. The problem with birds, raptors in particular is not acute toxicity but an effect on egg shell thickness. Eagles, hawks, and some sea birds weren’t killed directly by the pesticides, but rather had trouble reproducing because the thin egg shells broke.

When the problem of bioaccumulation was recognized a new generation of pesticides was developed. The third generation of insecticides are of a relatively low toxicity to non-target organisms, but more importantly much less stable in the environment. But once again unintended consequences rears its head.

This third generation of insecticides includes a class of compounds called neonicotinoids. As their name implies they are structurally related to nicotine but have more specificity in their toxicity towards insects. Imidacloprid is an example and is in widespread use around the world. It is used against many insect species especially agricultural pests.

The neonicotinoids were developed and put to use in the middle of the 1990s with considerable success. It has only recently come to notice that a connection exists between these compounds and a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Around 2005 it was noticed that wild honey bees were disappearing. Bee keepers also noticed that the number of bees in their hives were decreasing to the point of collapse hence the name. What was happening was poorly understood as there weren’t any dead bodies and as every murder mystery follower knows it’s hard to get a conviction without a dead body. The only thing known about CCD was that bees went out in the morning but didn’t come back in the evening.

Two recent studies published in Science have made the connection. Using the equivalent of radio collars for bees, scientists were able to show that bees exposed to minute quantities of neonicotinoids were not killed outright. They essentially were made stupid, too stupid to find their way back to the colony. The insecticide is taken up into the tissues of plants where it finds its way to the nectar and pollen. Bees collect the nectar and pollen, are intoxicated and get lost. It’s as simple as that. But that is a big deal, as over thirty percent of food crops worldwide require pollination by bees.

Originally published in the Russellville Courier, August 2012

Climate Feedback and Global Warming

Climatology is meteorology writ large. They are really different branches of atmospheric science. If you want to know whether it is likely to rain tomorrow talk to the weatherman who is a meteorologist. But if you want to know about what the weather will be like in a number of years, you should consult a climatologist.

A considerable irony concerning our recent heat wave in the area, think meteorology , is the use of air conditioning to combat the heat. Using air conditioning requires power to generate the necessary electricity. The electricity comes to a large degree from burning fossil fuels which contribute to global warming, think climatology. This short term reaction to a meteorologic phenomena contributes to a long term climatological phenomena. Climate scientists call this positive feedback. Burning fossil fuels to run air conditioners contributes carbon dioxide to atmosphere which traps heat and makes the planet warmer, which requires more air conditioning, which causes carbon dioxide release which causes more heating which… You get the picture.

In this case the feedback has a human element. Other feedback loops are purely physical phenomena. These feedback loops add to the complexity of climate modeling. Predictions of future climate rely on computer calculations, the accuracy of which depend on how well the variables in a climate system are understood.

Water vapor in the atmosphere is without question the most important of the global warming feedback loops. Water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas itself; that is, its presence in the atmosphere traps heat and contributes to global warming. The positive feedback comes about because the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the temperature of the atmosphere. The hotter the atmosphere the more water vapor, the more water vapor in the atmosphere, the more heat trapped in the atmosphere, the more water vapor in the atmosphere, the more… You get the picture.

When natural gas (methane) is burned it produces carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Unburned methane released to the atmosphere is itself a potent greenhouse gas. There are vast stores of methane trapped in permafrost of the tundra. As the planet warms, the permafrost thaws which releases methane. Methane release warms the planet thawing more permafrost which releases more methane which… You get the picture.

The amount of solar heating of the planet is a function of albedo, the reflectivity of the planet. Sunlight is strongly reflected by snow covered expanses near the north and south poles. As the climate warms due to global warming, the snow melts exposing soil which is much less reflective. The less reflective soil traps more heat, warming the planet further, melting more snow, which traps more heat… You get the picture. The same is true of sea ice and the oceans. Ice is more reflective than water.

A final irony is that as the area of the oceans covered with ice shrinks, it opens more area to exploration and untimely production of crude oil, but you get the picture.

Originally published in the Russellville courier, July8, 2012

On Potatos and Poisons

What do foods such as potatoes and tomatoes have in common with cigarettes, pretty (Italian) women and various toxic drugs? They are all members of or derived from the same family of plants called Solanaceae. [sole-ah -nay-see-ee]

These plants are found around the world. The new world contributed edible potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers whereas eggplants are from the old world, specifically India. It is hard to imagine what Italians put on their pasta or what fed the Irish before the Colombian Exchange, a term used to denote the world wide trade in goods which developed after the globe was united in trade following Columbus’ discovery of the new world.

Solanaceae contributes in addition to valuable foodstuffs, numerous toxic plants including what is arguably the most toxic plant on earth- tobacco. The active ingredient is nicotine which is both additive and toxic. Fifteen percent of the world’s population and close to a third of all adults use tobacco. The World Health Organization calls tobacco addiction the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, killing over five million people a year.

One of the more interesting members of Solanaceae is Atropa Belladonna, also called Deadly Nightshade. The genus name Atropa comes from the name of one of the three fates of Greek mythology. Atropos would end the existence of mortals by “cutting the thread of life”, an obvious reference to the lethality of the plant. These and other members of Solanaceae contain Tropane alkaloids which interfere with nervous transmission. This property has been taken advantage of as both an agent of murder and as useful medicinal agents.

An integral part of an Ophthalmic exam (eye exam) involves putting drops of an Atropine solution in the eye. Today derivatives of Atropine with a much shorter duration of action are used, but I digress. Here’s where the Belladonna part comes in. Bella donna means beautiful woman in Italian. As early as the middle ages, women would use a tincture (dilute alcohol solution) of the plant to dilate their pupils, thus producing a more beautiful appearance.

Studies have shown that photographs of women retouched to enlarge the pupils are viewed as more attractive than photographs of women with smaller pupils. Not surprisingly, The rather racy slang “bedroom eyes” has the same origin. The opposite seems true. “Beady eyes” or small pupils is a pejorative term.

And while I’m on pupil size, I should mention that human infants have very large pupils. It is said that this is due to the underdeveloped musculature necessary to constrict the pupils. But is it underdeveloped eye muscles or an evolutionary adaption of the infant to be viewed as more attractive?

An eye can threaten like a loaded and levelled gun, or it can insult like hissing or kicking; or, in its altered mood, by beams of kindness, it can make the heart dance for joy.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

From bedroom eyes to boiled potatoes and eye exams to eggplant parmigiana , its about Solanaceae.

Originally published in the Russellville Courier, January 1, 2012

Drunk/Cell Phone Driving

These days it is common to see folks talking on their cell phones while driving. Interestingly, several studies at the University of Utah have shown that drivers are more impaired talking on a cell phone than drunk! The testing involved drivers who used hand-held or hands-free cell phones or were drunk (.08 blood alcohol). By all measures, cell phone users were as or more impaired than the drunk drivers.

Additionally, cell phone users drove more slowly and took longer to get back to speed after decelerating, thus slowing the flow of all traffic. A prospective study at Virginia Tech followed one hundred drivers for a year and “concluded that talking on cell phones caused far more crashes, near-crashes and other incidents than other distractions…”. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, found that the risk of distraction is as high for drivers who use hands-free cell phones, as for drivers who use hand-held devices. Finally a study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded, based on accident statistics, that the risk of having an accident quadruples due to cell phone use. Laws already exist banning drunk driving. One could reasonably conclude that if we are serious about reducing the risk of injury and death due to traffic accidents, we should ban the use of cell phones while driving, be they hands free or not.

Global Warming, briefly

There are two great issues concerning the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. 1. Fossil fuels that power our civilization are in limited supply and if exploited at ever increasing rates, could become scarce in a few generations. 2. The fact that the very use of them is damaging on every scale.

Local pollution from internal combustion engines contributes to the formation of tropospheric ozone which is known to increase premature deaths, especially among those with compromised respiratory capacity. Global scale pollution relates to global warming and ocean acidification. These global scale pollution events have the capacity to radically change the environment in numerous detrimental ways.

Combustion of fossil fuels since the mid 1800s has raised the net carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere more than 30 percent — from about 290 to 394 ppm as of this writing. Prior to this the concentration of carbon dioxide was relatively unchanged for more than 400,000 years. Historical concentrations of carbon dioxide can easily be obtained from ice core data. Simply drill down through ice in Greenland or for the longest time, Antarctica. Analysis of tiny gas bubbles in each annual layer of ice reveal the gas composition at the time of the snowfall.

The changing composition of the atmosphere is important because the temperature of the earth is in a delicate balance between the input energy from the sun to the planet and the heat radiated away from the planet. Any change in input or output can impact the balance, and therefore the global temperature. For example, the output of the sun is not absolutely constant, but the measured changes are very small compared to the planetary heat increases being measured.

If the input energy from the sun can’t be blamed on rising temperatures, then the problem must lie with energy output. Carbon dioxide and a couple of other gasses, most notably methane and nitrous oxide, act to prevent heat from radiating away from the planet. The imbalance in the equation is due to the output side, not the input. If the sun shines on a window and you leave your windows closed on a summer day, it will get a lot hotter than if you leave them open, allowing the heat to escape. This is the classic greenhouse effect.
But are temperatures rising, and if so, by how much?

This is a tougher call, for the simple reason that climatic temperatures are a very “noisy” signal. We are looking at a possible elevation of temperature of a degree or two already and several degrees during the next couple of human generations. Those changes are small but significant considering that daily temperatures can vary roughly 40 degrees and three times that annually at some locations.

There are numerous changes to climate and habitat already occurring which are most easily explained due to the burning of fossil fuels. Just a few, but certainly not all, effects are glaciers receding at unprecedented rates, tundra permafrost is thawing, plant and animal ranges are moving both northward and up slope, and the oceans are becoming more acidic.

All these effects destabilize many forms of life on the planet, not the least of which are you and I and generations to come — our future.

Solar Power in the Ozarks

When my wife and I built our home in 1985 we had no idea we would ultimately become our own power company selling electricity to the rest of the world. We did know that we wanted a home that was full of sunlight, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We wanted a home with modern conveniences. A home with a spacious deck overlooking Mill Creek. A home nestled up to the bluff behind us. The only question was how to achieve this goal at a cost we could afford. Our path to comfort and affordability comes through efficiency.

Amory Lovins, a physicist and energy efficiency guru coined a wonderful term – negawatts. Negawatts are the kilowatts of electricity you don’t need to buy because of efficiency. Better wall and roof insulation means a cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter home with less energy use. The same goes for energy saving double pane windows. Efficient lightbulbs such as compact fluorescents keeps your house well lit and use less energy. Shade trees, house eaves, and shower heads also matter but lets move on.

If the three most important things about real estate are location, location, location, then the three most important things about solar power (you were beginning to wonder if I would ever get there) are efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. The location of solar power is simple. The only requirement is access to the southern sky. Expensive land , cheap land, on a roof or on the ground, it doesn’t matter other than southern exposure. So why is energy efficiency so important? Because electricity generated by PhotoVoltaic (PV) panels is not cheap, at least on the front end. But equally important to what solar power does costs is what it doesn’t cost.

You don’t have to blast the top off a mountain in West Virginia, to get at the coal underneath. Miners in Kentucky don’t have to die in underground explosions to get at coal. No wells in Arkansas need be polluted or foundations cracked from hydro fracturing for natural gas. Children everywhere needn’t suffer asthma as a result of emissions from coal powered plants. No terrorist will obtain radioactive materials which could result from the nuclear power fuel cycle. All the above are called externalities which affect the cost of energy, but don’t show show up on your bill. These costs show up in health care costs, lives lost, homes destroyed, and taxes paid.

Our solar panels only have the direct cost of purchase and installation, no fuel costs, no externalities. They convert sunlight into electricity with about 15 per cent efficiency. Our array consists of forty panels mounted on a frame in a meadow covering about 450 square feet. It is a grid-tied system with a bidirectional meter. When the sun is shining excess energy production goes through our electric meter making it run backwards and into the electric lines for others to use. At night we draw power from the grid. Overall our system produces about a third again as much energy as we use, thus making us a clean, sustainable power plant for the rest of the world.

In the last analysis and not discounting for externalities our electricity is expensive. So why do we do it? To us externalities do matter. To us the health of children, the lives of coal miners and the preservation of family home sites matter. Plain and simple, it is the right thing to do.