Monthly Archives: June 2015

Wind Turbines and Bird Kills

The Environmental Protection Agency will complete work on a rule soon which requires a collective 30 % reduction in carbon emissions from power plants over the next couple of decades. Essentially coal fired power plants will need to be shut down across the country. The best guess besides greater efficiency is that the power lost will be replaced to a large degree by utility scale wind turbines.

No problem, as there is a huge potential for energy generation. Just the wind in the plains has the potential of providing several times as much electrical energy as is consumed nationwide. Add off- shore wind and the factor is some 10 times what is used!

There are downsides however. The wind is intermittent, so additional sources of power need to be available when the wind doesn’t blow, but up to a penetration of about 30 % of the market it is doable without additional committed reserves.

But what about the birds, bird kills that is? Estimates are all over the map from a few tens of thousands to over a million a year. A recent review of over a hundred studies suggests that about 500,000 birds are killed by wind turbines annually. Currently wind turbines produce 4.4 % of the electrical energy consumed in the US. If we expect to ramp up energy production from wind turbines to 30 % of the market, then we should expect about 3.4 million bird kills a year. That is a lot of birds. How many bird deaths is too many? What activities should be limited based on how many deaths? Should we not expand the use of wind for electric generation?

Interestingly, bird deaths from wind turbines are a pittance compared to other anthropogenic factors. You can’t have too many communication towers right? We want lots of cell phone access and clear digital TV programming. These towers currently kill over 6 million birds a year. Give up your cell phone and you will save 12 times as many birds as wind turbines kill.

One solution would be to abandon electricity. No electricity means we don’t need the wind turbines. This would save 30 million bird deaths a year, due to electrocution from and collision with transmission and distribution lines. Um, maybe we ought to keep the lights on as the wind turbines aren’t really the problem.

We could save oodles on fuel if we didn’t drive cars. This would have the added benefit reducing global warming by lower carbon emissions. It would also save 200 million birds a year due to collisions.

Like the view out the window of your home or office? Board them up and save 600 million birds a year. By now you should see that those wind turbines are relatively benign compared to so many other man made structures. But all these put together pale in comparison to one single factor – cats. Between house pets and feral animals they kill an estimated 2.5 billion birds a year. That’s billion with a B. Our house pets and their escaped brethren kill 5,000 times as many birds as do our wind turbines, and I don’t think anybody is talking about eliminating the pets.

Why Electric Cars?

At the dawn of the automotive age electric cars were, in proportion, more numerous than today. With cheap gasoline and the much greater range the internal combustion engine (ICE) came to dominate the market and continues to do so to this day.

The tide is beginning to turn, slowly, but it is turning. First fuel is not so cheap anymore. In 1970 the price of a barrel of oil was about 3 dollars. This was the last time the US was a net exporter of oil and therefore had some control of the price. Adjusted for inflation that would be about 18 dollars currently. Even at the recently depressed price of around 50 dollars a barrel, it is several times more expensive than in 1970. A car getting 25 miles per gallon will cost the driver of an ICE powered car about 2.50 $ to cover 25 miles.

How does that compare with an electric powered vehicle? Modern vehicles running on electricity, whether they are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, or pure electric get around 4 miles per kiloWatt-hour (kWh). Locally electricity costs are around 9 cents a kWh. To cover that same 25 miles in this comparison means that the fuel cost for an electric car is 75 cents, less than a third the cost for gasoline.

An important feature of electric cars is their ability to recapture some of the energy consumed after accelerating up to speed – when you take your foot off the accelerator in an electric car the motor acts like a generator sending power back to the battery. It’s immensely important in stop and go traffic. This is a principle reason why hybrid cars such as the Prius get such good mileage, even thought they have only a small supplemental electric motor/battery for an otherwise gas powered car.

Gasoline engines have hundreds of moving parts. The parts need lubrication, and cooling and exhausting, and on and on. It is interesting to note that Forbes magazine has described the maintenance shop at new car dealerships as the principle profit center. You may negotiate a lower price for a new car but I doubt any negotiating room to lower the cost for labor and parts in the shop.

For an electric engine there is essentially one moving part, the rotor. No significant lubricants are needed, no coolants to maintain, no exhaust system, you don’t even need a transmission except to go forwards or backwards. Hence maintenance of an an electric car is significantly cheaper than ICE powered cars.

There are a couple of current drawbacks. Modern electric cars are produced as yet in small numbers and therefore don’t benefit from economies of scale. As they become more popular costs will fall. The biggest limiter right now is range and charging time. The high end Tesla with a 120 kWh battery has a range of over 250 miles. The charging time with one of their “superchargers” is about an hour.

The Chevrolet Volt, at half the price of the Tesla model S, has a 40 mile range on electric but the range is extended by an on board ICE that serves only to charge the battery on the fly.

Global Warming and Biodiversity

Global warming denial takes many forms and for a number of reasons. One factually true but disingenuous form of denial involves the claim that climate change has happened before and will happen again so we don’t need to take action.

It is factually true that the climate changes. But the changes which have occurred in the past generally took anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of years. On these time scales plants and animals adapt and net biodiversity is at least stable or even increases due to evolutionary adaptation to change.

Rapid climate change such as we are observing now is occurring at a pace which drives species to extinction. Slow climate change can be good as it leads to greater biodiversity but rapid climate change is always bad as it reduces species diversity. The richness, the real value – even economic value – of a biome is related to the diversity of organisms present.

Ecologists discuss this in terms of environmental services. Environmental services are the benefits we derive directly from our environment. Climate stabilization, biogeochemical cycles, the hydrologic cycle, soil development and protection, pollination services, and pest control are among the services provided by diverse environments.

Climate stability depends to some degree on forestation which removes carbon from the atmosphere while providing an environment that harbors much other biota leading to richness.

Biogeochemical cycles which release nutrients and build soils are enhanced by a rich biota that contribute to the process. Decomposing plant matter release substance which help build soil which contribute to more and more diverse biota.

The hydrologic cycle is stabilized to large degree by the flora and fauna. The flora provide soil stability and nutrients for herbivores. Herbivores feed carnivores. Fauna such as beaver are described as a keystone species. They enhance wetland habitat, reduce downstream flooding, and reduce silt runoff. In so doing they provide an important niche for other species as diverse as predators -wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions and any number of prey organisms like fish. The fish service the environment through fertilization for more flora.

Over a third of the human diet depends on insect pollination of vegetables, legumes, and fruit. Even meat production requires pollination of important feedstock such as alfalfa. Pollination is a service for which there is NO practical alternative.

While we are on thirds, over a third of crop production is lost to pests. Literally tens of thousands of insects exist in predator prey relationships. Invariably the more diverse the biome the more stable and therefore predictable is the environment.

Finally there are untold miscellaneous services. The majority of drugs come from or are produced synthetically but patterned after substances from nature. Woodpeckers are studied to learn how to build crash helmets, squid nerves can be a thousand times as long a human nerves and their study important to neurology. Even the study of primates, related indirectly to human ancestors, can tell us much about the evolution of human behavior.

Climate stability helps maintain a richness to our lives. Rapid climate change will if we allow it, produce a warmer, flatter, less attractive human existence. Is that what you want for future generations?


Stormy Weather in the Southern Plains

The recent wave of severe storms, tornadoes and flooding plaguing the southern plains, essentially Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas have cost a over 30 lives, countless injuries and billions in property damage. And it isn’t over yet. Some of the rain and flooding from these storms are breaking all records. One Texas official described the recent rain as “of biblical proportions”

One of the effects of global warming is more severe storms of all kinds – tornadoes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, etc. Over the following decades we will see these increase in both frequency and severity. As we continue to pump ever increasing amounts of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, more heat will be trapped, and more heat in the atmosphere is a principle cause of severe weather.

There are a couple of factors involved. A warmer atmosphere means warmer seas, which means more evaporation. Additionally the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere will hold is a function of temperature, the warmer it is, the greater the greater the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. Conditions such as wild fires will also increase, due to “dry thunderstorms.” Lightning and high winds accompany these events where the rain evaporates before it gets to the ground.

And it’s not just the current storms in the southern plains nor the blizzards on the east coast last winter, it is global. Although the Atlantic was rather calm during the traditional hurricane season last year, there was an unprecedented number of severe storms in the eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean nations. Again billions upon billions of dollars of damages and hundreds of lives lost.

An important point to make is that all this accelerated activity correlates with a warmer atmosphere. Can any one storm (or it’s intensity) be blamed on global warming? No, of course not. No more than any one home run by Mark McGwire could be attributed to steroid use.

The type of societal damage from severe storms varies. Flooding causes the most economic injury. Damage to infrastructure, homes and vehicles dominate the costs. Most human deaths in the US are caused by heat waves. Tornadoes cause the most human injuries.

So what can be done? In the long term the solution is obvious – quit burning stuff for energy production. Burning coal, oil and natural gas returns Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere over a few decades that took many millions years to remove from the atmosphere. The problem is one of recognizing the true costs of energy sources. What we see on our electric bill or at the gas pump only includes the direct costs. The costs of externalities due to severe weather is not included.

How about a weather tax assessed to energy sources driven by fossil fuels? The money from this assessment could be used to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure, subsidize construction of more storm resistant residences, improve drainage, and expand reservoir capacity in drought prone areas just to mention a few. Basically we should use the funds to provide for the general welfare as is called for in our constitution.