Saturday, July 19, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Deep Impact's primary mission was to rendezvous with comet Tempel 1 about three years ago; at that time it fired a metal probe at the comet, which impacted at a high speed, and created an explosion that allowed the main satellite to gather data on the comet's composition. The clips linked above allow scientists to better understand what kinds of data would enable us to recognize earth-like planets around other stars. Full article at SpaceDaily.
See, because Oregon is such a high-elevation state, we're much closer to the moon, so it looks ever so much bigger...
Yeah, Yeah, ever so much B.S., but it is a nice picture.
SpaceWeather is primarily concerned with near-earth conditions, solar wind, aurorae, and so on, but they do a good job of keeping you up to date on other astronomical news and viewing opportunities. Yesterday they pointed out that they had a satellite tracking page, where you can find where and when bright satellites such as the International Space Station will be visible from your location. Just go to this page, enter your US Zip or Canadian postal code (they also have a page linked here for locations outside the US and Canada), and it will send you to a page with info on when and where to look, and how long the satellite will be visible. Keep in mind that the new date starts at midnight.
Here's a couple of exampes:
more graph humor and song chart memes
more graph humor and song chart memes
And here's the front page.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Lyrics here (Clearly everyone copies the lyrics from someone else: the book is thick enough to stun an ox, not "think" enough. I looked over six or so sets of lyrics and they all had this wrong)
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Me (holding up a bagel at the counter): What kind of bagel is this?
Barrista: Umm, herb and cheese.
Me (sliding it under another bagel): Do you know what kind it is now?
Me: Suburban cheese.
Yark! Yark! Yark!
Ok, Ok, not really
Me: Didja hear about the farmer whose tractor left him?
Me: He got a John Deere Letter.
See? Isn't this fun?
Me: When George and Laura have sex, who's on top?
Barrista: Christ, Lockwood! That's gross! Would you please just go away?
Me: Laura is always on top. You know why?
Barrista: I don't even want to picture this...
Me: Because there's no one on the planet who can fuck up like George.
You're welcome to them. Didn't say I was proud of them, just that I enjoyed them.
Oh, Puh-leeze! We have no accurate idea what oil resources exist. There's every reason to believe there's at least a few barrels worth. There's no reason to believe we'll suddenly find another Saudi Arabia's worth. The amount we'll find between those two endpoints is basically unknown. As a response to high prices at the pump, simply drilling every acre within U.S. territorial waters is probably not a very smart response. CNN's analysis this morning said that the very earliest this oil could hit the market is 2017; the earliest it's likely to make a difference to prices is 2030. If we want to maintain our addiction to oil for the next 20 plus years so we can take advantage of a few cents or a few dimes per gallon of price reduction (which will last no longer than a few years), then we should discuss that option.
On the other hand, I find the ignorance of hard-core environmentalists nearly as infuriating. Drilling for oil is not evil. We do not use baby seals for for drill bits. Let me make this clear: if you live in the U.S., you depend on oil. Even if you don't own a car. Even if you heat your home with wood. I'm stretching a little here, but not much: I can't think of a single product that isn't in some way dependent on oil. If you live under a pine-bough lean-to in the woods, and live completely off of wild plants and grubs, you can ignore this. Of course, you have neither electricity nor computer, so you're not reading this. Basically, if you ever buy anything in this country, you depend on oil.
We desperately need to find alternatives to our level of consumption, but it is unlikely in the extreme we will ever reach a point where we don't need oil at all. We may reduce our consumption by a factor of a hundred, even a thousand, but it's still too useful, too versatile to give up completely.
I feel a little like I'm beating a dead horse, but we do need to find our remaining oil resources. We do need to do seismic surveys of our coastal waters. Contrary to conventional wisdom, oil is a renewable resource. Trouble is, right now we're using it on the order of a million times faster than it's regenerated. So along with getting an accurate inventory of just how much we have left in this country, we need to start looking at where we can replace oil with other resources. We have numerous options in the transportation sector, fewer in plastics manufacturing, and fewer still in candle-making. Yeah, there's bayberries and beeswax. But environmentalists want the cheapest candles they can find.
There's no rush: the oil will take years and decades to make it to market. A few days, or even a few years, Mr. President, will not make a big difference. And for those whose righteous indignation is giving them ulcers: when you give up your car, your plastic food packaging that keeps everything fresh and unspoiled, when you give up your synthetic fibers made from petroleum and your cotton fertilized with petroleum-created fertilizers and sprayed with petroleum-based pesticides, when you give up the electricity delivered in petroleum-insulated wiring, then we can talk about when we should stop drilling for oil.
In short, Pickens proposes installing windmills across the Midwest and Great Plains states in large enough numbers that we can shut down or retool the 22% of the nation's electricity generated by natural gas. That natural gas could then power about 38% of the country's vehicle fleet, and reduce our imports of petroleum by nearly a half- in today's prices, about $300 billion a year.
Off the top of my head, I have two reactions: first, Great! Let's go! Second is the more realistic realization that we're not really talking energy independence here; we would still need to import about 32%, a bit less than a third, of our oil. However, strategically, that means that we would be much less dependent on OPEC. OPEC will do just fine without us, but putting another major energy stream into competition with them would lower their profits somewhat. Furthermore, OPEC is truly holding us hostage right now; if they chose, they could cut us off. If you think $4.00 per gallon gasoline is bad, try to picture $15.00 on that pump (with 9/10 of a cent at the end, of course). Much of the funding for Muslim terrorist groups comes out of oil profits. Severely reducing our consumption of Middle East oil is unlikely to affect that funding substantively (again, there are lots of customers waiting in line to buy OPEC oil), but I for one consider it asinine to purchase a weapon for your enemy, regardless of the fact he can easily find one elsewhere. (This should not be taken to imply I consider the Middle East, Muslims, or OPEC to be enemies- just the terrorists, and the groups that funnel money to them.)
There are lots of questions. First, it should be pointed out from the start that Pickens has invested heavily in gas; I have also read (though I want to verify it a little more thoroughly) that he has invested in wind turbine manufacturing. So no matter the ultimate impact, following his recommendations is going to net him a great deal of money. This should raise a red flag for anyone in our culture. If someone is recommending you spend a bunch of money that the person is going to profit from, you should definitely check and double check the claims and reasoning behind those recommendations. That's not to say you should simply dismiss them, but you should check them out.
So do we have enough dependable domestic supply of natural gas (henceforth in this post ng.)? First it should be pointed out that he's not proposing that the supply per year should increase, but that our current supply feeding electricity generation be diverted to transportation. For those who use ng for heat, hot water, cooking, etc. this is good news. If he was proposing adding to ng demand, price would inevitably rise. From what I hear, ng is already pretty spendy during the heating season for those with cold winters. Furthermore, he seems to be suggesting that ng as vehicle fuel is sort of a stopgap, an interim solution. He suggests hydrogen or electricity as closer to the desirable endpoint than ng. The question remains, do we have enough to make this a reasonable proposal? Well, as always it depends on what numbers you want to pay attention to. NaturalGas.org provides estimates from three sources ranging from 1191 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) to 1779 Tcf. Averaging the three estimates gives me about 1430 Tcf. I had to look around for some conversion factors to find the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil to natural gas, and found a good site here. Divide BTU's per barrel oil by BTU's per cubic foot ng and you get 5653 cf ng equals one barrel of oil (There are likely some efficiency differences, but this is a good ballpark estimate). The previous page with the link to the conversion factors provides the figure of roughly 21 billion barrels in proved oil reserves. Dividing 1430 Tcf ng by 5653 cf per barrel yields an estimated oil equivalent of 253 billion barrels- about 12 times the amount of oil we have.
However, there's a caveat: in the example above I was comparing estimated ng to proved oil. Looking at a further EIA page, we find the proved reserves are only 211 Tcf (as of Dec. 2006), less than 15% of the estimated total, or only one and a half times the estimated oil equivalent. Oooh, what a letdown! But wait! There's more!
I have to admit, I'm having fun with this ride. Let's call it a wonkercoaster. My point is that it's really good idea to pay attention to the fine print.
If you look at this still further pdf (5.4 Mb), and read the first column of the first page, you'll see that our proved reserves went up 3% in 2006, and that we "proved" 36% more than we produced. In other words, we're still finding ng at a greater rate than we're using it. Crucially, the opposite is true for oil; if you look at this pdf on page 4, you'll see that during the period of 2005-06, total proved reserves fell by 785 million barrels- which takes into account new discoveries and "proofs" over that period. This left a total of just under 21 billion proved barrels. If we were to continue the loss of proved reserves at that rate, we would run out of oil in about 26.7 years from Dec. 2006, or about August 2033. In the meantime gas is being discovered faster than we produce it.
In short, if you want to object to Pickens' suggestion on the basis that natural gas is in short supply, the numbers don't back you up well. This was quite surprising to me; as I've mentioned before, the energy crunch of the late '70's made a lasting impression on me. Ng was stretched, and for a while, if I remember correctly, there was a moratorium on hooking up new customers. I had not realized that the estimates for reserves were that high.
The next issue is the capitol investment involved in building enough wind turbines to cover 22% of our electricity production. Our annual national electricity production is 4.1 billion megawatthours (Mwh), according to the EIA. 22% of that is 902 million megawatt hours, or 902 billion kilowatthours. The California Energy Commission provides a rough estimate that "Large-scale wind farms can be installed for about $1,000/kW." If we assume that these turbines generate at a constant nominal rate (this is not a valid assumption, but it eases off-the-cuff calculations, and helps adjust for the fact that Pickens is specifically targeting the most productive wind areas), then we multiply 902*10^9Kwh/year * 1 year/365 days * 1 day/24 hours * $1000/Kw. Cancel units, we're left with $, good. The arithmetic reduces to 902* 10^9*$1000/365 * 24. Fire up the calculator and we get $103 billion. This sounds like an awful lot, yes? But keep in mind that's roughly 10 months of what we spend in Iraq. And keep in mind the estimated savings by displacing imports of foreign oil are $300 billion per year. In other words, savings from reduced oil imports would cover the capitol investment costs in 4 months.
Now that last sentence is a little ingenuous. There are a number of other costs I haven't accounted for, including, off the top of my head:
- Infrastructure for distributing the electricity
- Infrastructure and stations for redistributing ng to vehicles
- Maintenance of turbines
- Refitting the vehicle fleet to run on ng (Rawley pointed out to me that refitting fuel injection engines would be more difficult/expensive than engines with carburators; I'll take his word for it; my knowledge of cars sputters out after muffler bearings and that little propeller thingie up front)
- Land purchase or leases
These are not minor costs, though I have been assuming that the cost of purchasing and erecting the turbines would be more expensive than any other single cost. But let's pretend that's a very bad assumption and that these additional costs bring the total to ten times the installation cost. We would still cover the capitol investment through reduced imports in less than three and a half years!
And let's look at the flip side: reasons that costs might be lower than the estimate above:
- With a serious and prolonged push to manufacture wind turbines, economies of scale would kick in, and technical development would speed up, reducing up front costs, increasing efficiency and dependability, and perhaps reducing maintenance costs.
- Much needed manufacturing, construction and maintenance jobs would be created in large numbers. This would increase incomes in some areas of the country that need additional income badly, and increase tax revenues.
- Manufacturing infrastructure would provide export opportunities. Technological advance could make US products highly desirable elsewhere. At the present time, from what I've heard, most of our wind turbines are imported.
- There are many other places where wind power would be cost-efficient. They may not be as widespread over regions as the Midwest/Great Plains are, but I can tell you that the west coast tends to be pretty windy, as do many western mountain passes. Utilizing such areas could provide still more positive feedback to decreasing wind generation costs, and at the very least a continuing market following the completion of the Pickens plan.
This list is speculative, and I don't have the expertise to quantify or estimate how much these factors might reduce costs. But I would be surprised if some of these didn't kick in.
The final issue I want to address is the footprint of such a project. Looking at GE's PDF on their 2.5 Mw turbine, the rotor diameter is 100 meters. This means the spacing between individual towers must be a minimum of 100 meters in all directions. Rather then calculating the area for hexagonal packing I'll just treat the packing as square (again, it makes for easy math). This means each tower would require a hectare, about 2.5 acres. Basically repeating the calculations from above, we get 902*10^9Kwh/year * 1 year/365 days * 1 day/24 hours * 2.5 acres/2500 Kw. Running through the calculations, I get 257 thousand acres. 640 acres is a square mile, so that is equivalent to just over 400 square miles, or as one massive block, a square about 20 miles on a side. Quite doable, considering the size of the area under consideration. This land would not be limited to only wind generation: the footprint of the towers themselves is small compared to the diameter of the rotors. Farmers could lease out their lands and still raise crops or livestock on most of the area; I can't imagine they'd forgo 10% of it. My guesstimate is closer to 5% (I couldn't find figures on the tower footprint).
The one environmental consideration I'm aware of is that the turbines are known to kill birds indiscriminately. I don't know facts and figures on this, but it is an issue that should not be ignored, especially along major migratory flyways. Given the amount of area in the wind maps Pickens uses in the video, those areas should be avoidable. Nevertheless, we should try to find ways to reduce this risk.
My impression is that this is a plan that's doable. It has limitations: what doesn't? It's a small piece of the overall energy puzzle, and a promising step in a promising direction. We're caught between a rock and a hard place: declining petroleum on one hand, and deep concern over climate change on the other. The easy answer would be to turn to coal, but until we develop some confidence in carbon sequestration, we shouldn't simply turn to the easiest answer. As I noted in yesterday's post, I don't think there's going to be one or two magic bullets that solve our energy problems. I expect whatever solution we come to will be made of many little pieces all linked together to create a cleaner, safer, more sustainable picture.
Monday, July 14, 2008
On a related note for pollution. What would be your energy policy? This is Boone Pickens energy plan, which harps on Reduction of foreign oil sources by switching cars to natural gas, increase of Wind power in the midwestern plains, and increase of solar energy production. He treats certain concepts like bio-fuels as a joke. Doesn't talk about geo thermal, and doesn't even consider the possibility of getting rid of our reliance on coal burning as our biggest energy source.
He also left a link to a YouTube video on T. Boone Pickens' natural gas/vehicle fuel idea, apparently a presentation at an automobile convention in Las Vegas. The video is 41 minutes long, and I've only watched the first couple of minutes so far, but here's the link. As it happens, I had found a shorter piece earlier that lays out his plan, and have been meaning to post it. I'll come back to this in a bit.
This is a great question, and one I spend quite a it of time considering. I'm not going to try to answer it all at once; as I think about framing an answer, I find many of my idea are negative- i.e. things I think are bad ideas that we shouldn't pursue. For example:
- We shouldn't undertake a massive drilling program in the misguided belief that we can increase the supply of petroleum in the short to middle term. The expectation of cheaper oil will maintain a high level of demand over the short term, and is very unlikely to produce enough supply to meet current and projected demand over the medium to long term.
- McCain's idea of a $300 million "X Prize" for a better battery is silly. R&D is going on intensively right now to develop better batteries, and the economic payoff for a longer-lived, higher energy-density battery will be hundreds of times more than his proposed prize.
- I have very mixed feelings about nuclear, but until we bite the bullet and decide how and where we are going to deal with the spent fuel, I don't believe that fission should be dramatically increased as an energy source. I don't recommend a moratorium on new plants, but doubling our nuclear generation of electricity doesn't seem responsible.
- There is a lot of discussion about carbon sequestration, in particular, injecting CO2 into geologic reservoirs to be stored for very long time periods. I know there are what are called under-pressurized reservoirs, where the hydrostatic pressure is lower than in layers above. Many of these can be demonstrated to have been sealed for millions of years- surely a time period that would be satisfactory for storing CO2 for human ends. However, I would like to see more public discussion of potential risks of this practice, and what proportion of generated energy would be required to separate and store the gas. Would it be both safe and cost-effective? I haven't seen enough information to convince me.
- I believe we should back off corn ethanol immediately. The effects of this practice on the food market have been very disturbing, and have reverberated around the world. Unfortunately, billions of dollars have been invested in ethanol plants, and neither energy corporations nor farmers want to hear this.
However, each of the above items could be recast as strategies we could pursue:
- We should continue exploring for accessible oil and drilling when the environmental impact is considered acceptable. This is sort of weasely: risk some might find acceptable might not be considered so by others. The fact is we will continue using petroleum, even if we find plentiful alternative energy sources. It's used in plastics, biochemicals (pharmaceuticals, pesticides, etc.), construction (asphalt, blacktop, tar paper, etc.), and many other non-energy applications. It is central to our lifestyles. As I discussed in an earlier post, the process of exploration is time- and capitol-intensive. It is unlikely private interests would invest in exploring in an area unless they know they will be granted drilling rights when and if they find a promising target. In other words, unless we open up (for example) the California and Florida coasts for drilling, no one is going to invest the hundreds of millions or billions it takes to find out if there are likely petroleum resources present. I am against opening ANWR (as an aside, I've been spelling this ANWAR, which is how it pronounced. The correct initialism stands for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.), but I think we should consider opening coastal waters for drilling. I would prefer to undertake intensive exploration, but as I say, that just won't happen if drilling rights don't come with the package. The message that has to be emphasized with this is two-fold: first, this potential oil won't be in the pipe for a decade or more, and second, even when it is in the pipe, it will likely not amount to a very large flow compared to our current rate of consumption.
- I believe that the free market can deal with a lot of problems, but it has an ability to externalize real costs (e.g., dumping CO2 out a chimney costs a coal-fired electricity plant next to nothing, but it costs human society as a whole a great deal over time) This, in my view, is where government has the right and responsibility to intervene and regulate to impose realistic costs. In the case of more efficient batteries, market forces are clearly pushing industry to invest in research; I don't feel that government intervention through subsidies or "X Prizes" is called for. In the case of fusion power, the Holy Grail of energy, I feel our government should be more supportive. (There's a good discussion of fission vs. fusion here, and I posted a longish comment that is relevant to this post). Generally speaking, where the free market recognizes incentives to pursue potential energy sources, the government should stand back- to the extent that costs are being properly counted- and where the potential payoff is too speculative for the market to invest, but there is good reason to suppose there will be a payoff over the long run, the government should provide incentives/subsidies to encourage pursuing them. To provide two more examples, I do not think the government should be subsidizing big oil. I do think we should be providing tax credits to home and land owners for buying small-scale wind or solar installations. If and when solar and wind become competitive or even cheaper than commercial sources, such tax credits should be terminated.
- Nuclear has real potential. One strategy, which we have been half-heartedly pursuing since roughly 1980, is to take the spent fuel and store it over geologic time deeply buried in the ground. If we are to continue with this approach, we need to quit screwing around and do it. The vast holding ponds at our nation's nuclear reactors are very dangerous, and we need to lock them up, the sooner the better. Another approach to dealing with the waste is reprocessing; this is the route France has taken. No nation generates a larger proportion of its electricity from nuclear than France. Fission creates a toxic mash of many elements, some radioactive, some not. This "mash" can be chemically separated into its constituents, which can then be routed into different paths or uses. Of the radioactive isotopes, many are short-lived. (I'll take cobalt-60 as the outer edge of "short-lived;" with a half-life of about five years, only 0.1% would be present after 50 years. Others would effectively be gone within months to a decade) The short-lived isotopes are the most intensely radioactive- if you think about it, this makes sense. If you have a mole (6.02 X 10^23) of atoms with a half-life of a year, 3.01X 10^23 will break down and give off energy in that year. If the half-life is 10,000 years, it will take 10,000 times longer for the same number of atoms to break down and give off energy. Hence, short-lived isotopes are much more intensely radioactive than long-lived isotopes. But they go away fast; long-lived isotopes remain dangerous, on human scales, effectively forever. The most problematic product of reprocessing is plutonium, which of course is the material of choice for fission bombs. Now I'm not positive about this, and I'll do some looking around to make certain, but I believe plutonium functions fine as nuclear fuel itself. We don't have to use it for weapons. We can "burn" it to heat and light our homes. Reprocessing also recovers unfissioned uranium 235. In spent fuel, a significant portion of the U-235 is unused; it seems wasteful to simply shove it in a hole and forget about it. So to summarize, reprocessing separates waste components. Short-lived isotopes with no commercial value can be sequestered on site; within a decade or few, they will have broken down. Plutonium and recovered U-235 can be fed back into the energy generation stream. Long-lived isotopes with no commercial uses will still need to go to some long-term storage facility- and so we return to Yucca Mountain. Either certify it and open it, or find an alternative. The drawbacks of reprocessing are 1) it's a technically demanding, dangerous undertaking. Remember this waste is intensely radioactive. 2) Security issues: back to plutonium- at both the reprocessing plant and in transit to a plutonium reactor, this material needs to be protected and guarded intensely. The difficult part of making an atomic bomb is getting the material. That is not to say assembling the device is trivial, but compared to concentrating either the U-235 or plutonium, my understanding is that engineering the bomb is a minor difficulty. 3) Reprocessing nuclear waste is currently forbidden by law in this country, I believe due to drawback #2. 4) As I pointed out above, current technology still leaves a certain amount of material that needs to be buried and stored for many millenia. Reprocessing will not remove the need for a Yucca Mountain or its equivalent, just reduce the necessary size or increase its functional lifetime. The answer to Studies' original question, "What would I do?" would include looking very carefully at fuel waste reprocessing, with a slow move toward more fission power for electricity.
- The US has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal; we have enough to last us centuries. The issue of global climate change throws a money wrench into this option. I would like to see more discussion of strategies for locking up carbon in one form or another to keep it out of the atmosphere. This probably deserves a post of its own because there are many different approaches, each of which has its own drawbacks, limitations and benefits.
- Sugar cane ethanol is about seven times more efficient than corn in terms of ethanol per acre; the problem here is that the US does not have much land with a climate appropriate for sugar cane. We should end the tariff (intended to protect US corn interests) on sugar ethanol from Brazil. Cellulosic alcohol, derived from the digestion and breakdown of cellulose (the structural component of woody plant material), could take advantage of marginal croplands poorly suited for producing food. This is not a mature technology, and I think subsidizing research to push it faster is a good idea. We can't afford- more generally, the world can't afford- for us to use food to run our cars.
Some other positive actions would include
- Demand higher efficiencies for CAFE standards- the recent regulations passed this spring were pathetic in terms of their ambitions.
- Get our national rail system up to modern standards, both in terms of passenger and freight. In the east, it would be far more efficient and less expensive to travel on the order of 500 miles or less by rail than by plane if we had modern high-speed passenger rail. The west coast corridor (LA, SF, Portland, Seattle) seems a little problematic to me, but I think there's potential there. The amount of cross country freight traveling by truck is insane. Most of the distance should be covered by rail, with local delivery by truck.
- Promotion of small-scale co-generation. Individual home and land owners should be encouraged to invest in small-scale electrical generation (roof-top solar, wind, hydropower if they have a stream with some drop), and electrical utilities should be required to buy excess for distribution to the grid (I believe they are under current law, but this is another item I need to check before I state that it's so unequivocally). Individually generated sources are not going to be sufficient to cover everyone's needs all the time, but they can supplement the grid. During poor periods, the user will buy from the grid. During good periods the grid can buy from the user. The problem here is the high initial investment, which could be somewhat offset by tax credits.
- Individual awareness and decision-making. Even though I have this listed last, I think it's probably the most important one of all. Think about the energy choices you make. Turn off lights. Switch to CF bulbs (I bought my first one nearly five years ago, it averages 6 hours a day and it still hasn't burnt out). Put on thermal underwear and wear a sweater during the winter, and turn down your thermostat. Invest the extra few thousand in that hybrid. Combine car chores to save miles. Use the SUV only for full family outings. The problem I see all the time is that people use resources so mindlessly- they just don't think about it. Well, think about it. A national leader has a pulpit from which he can try to convince the American people to consider their energy decisions, but aside from Gore, very few have chosen to do so. Carter gets ridiculed to this day for saying we all need to sacrifice a little comfort for energy security, and that we need to think more carefully about the way we consume energy. After all, weren't the 80's and 90's flush with energy? Well, yes. And now we're in a worse situation than we were in the late seventies, and our addiction is more intense than ever. If we had taken Carter seriously, we wouldn't be having this discussion now.
Now this is not an exhaustive list. There are lots of little things I haven't hit here. And overall, I don't think there's any one or two big strategies that will get us through this current situation; I think that a lot of little energy sources, and a lot of little energy savings, will be the path toward weaning ourselves from the current over-dependence on previously under-priced monolithic energy sources. But these are some of the larger-stroke items that I think are a move in the right direction.