Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wireless EV charging and solar hubris

The Guardian has an interesting new article on wireless vehicle charging systems, which reduce the need to plug in your EV.

This kind of new idea, and the massive drop in the price of PV these last two years, makes it seem pretty likely to me that the future of both transportation and diversified energy systems is PV/electric. If wireless power exchange can be made a two-way street, we will secure a major economy on power storage for base load, which makes PV that much more viable.

The average price of solar panels dropped by between 40 and 60% over the last three years. This is because of mass production. New high-tech factories, like the superb Nanosolar factory in California, are now able to crank out very cheap panels very quickly. There have been great economies found in the material inputs, as well as through mechanization of production.

It used to be the the solar cells had to be individually placed on the panel and soldered by a human technician. Now this can all be done by machine. In the case of Nanosolar, the amorphous semiconductor "ink" involved requires no soldering at all.

So, like the technogeek I am, indeed like the cheap Yorkshire-born technogeek I am, I keep checking and rechecking the price of panels online using Google shopper and the like, to see when I'm going to buy my household system.

This is an idea I had a few months ago in response to an online debate with an oil industry researcher, in which I held that PV and wind energy prices were beginning to approach a very general price parity with oil, and even coal, so that, some time in the very near future, the climate denier/fossil fuel industry apologist position that mitigation would be expensive would no longer hold water.

It would then be cheaper to begin to end our use of fossil fuels than to continue, even without considering the cost of climate change.

This is, of course, a turn of events that both OPEC and the Russians do not wish to see occur, but that we should. The strategic gains for the west would be massive.

In the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt and Syria, when OPEC was in the sway of Arab nationalism and anti-Israeli sentiment, it was diversification of the US and UK energy portfolio, including the first Carter-era efficiency gains with North Sea and Alaskan production, that dropped the price of a barrel of oil down to where some OPEC producers really were feeling the pinch.

And, of course, they let go. The embargo was lifted.

This of course led to a recovery of the US and UK positions in the global economy after the former era of "stagflation," and $11/barrel oil fueled the decade of prosperity and high employment we enjoyed in the 1990s and up through 9/11. More recently the pendulum has swung the other way, and the current price of oil gives disproportionate power to countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuala, and their ilk.

All good friends of the west and democracy.


My own idea, my next big project after switching 90% of our home heat to home-grown biomass and super-insulating, another small contribution to the recovery of the west and the triumph of democracy over dictatorship (!), was to fit a solar PV system to our house that would be cheaper than my power bill, reduce fossil fuel consumption, and of course, to geek-up the process, documenting it, and the costs, here.

Since I plan to install this system myself, with one or two students to help or look on for the education value, there's a major saving over the cost to most other American families.

But other than that, I think this a useful test.

Of course, it gets a little complicated. For one thing, electrical power in Maine has very little energy content from OPEC, the Russians, and the other Petrostate dictators whose teeth I wish to see bite the dust.

So the concept is flawed from the get-go.

That's what I get for being an armchair energy geo-strategist.

But bear with me. The price of oil is definitely conditioned by the availability of energy alternatives, and if, eventually, my solar plans turn out as planned, if millions of Americans do the same (as hundreds of thousands of Britons already are thanks to their feed-in tariffs), and, if as is also expected, electric vehicles become cheaper and more easily available and are used for night-time storage, then we'd be able to produce most of our energy using renewables, and then we'd have some leverage, wouldn't we?

Paradoxically, the faster oil prices rise, the sooner we get to deploy this great western-owned technology, reduce our dependence, and get our leverage and geopolitical position back. Ivan knows this too, of course. But he's just about as feckless and stupid as we are when it comes to choosing the right geo-strategic energy policy, so he won't be able to take much comfort in this knowledge.

But back to my micro-scale experiment:

The power supply for our little farmhouse comes from Central Maine Power and costs between 15¢ and 16¢ a kilowatt-hour (counting both the per-KWH delivery and per-KWH energy charges that would be offset, were we to produce our own solar power).

The best solar deals I've found recently involve the purchase of panel/inverter combination kits. These are packaged for contractors, but I can do all the work required myself. My father was a UK electrician. He trained me while I was quite young, and I worked for an US electrical contractor while getting though grad school. I wired this house we live in myself, and I've built several other solar power systems as well.

One such deal currently offered includes six 170 watt panels and an inverter for $8,000.

Getting there, price-wise....

In Maine, on our house, on average for the year, these would produce

6 X 170W x 365 days x 4.5 hours/day = 1,675,350 WH or 1675 KWH

Maine's net metering regulation allows you to credit all this power against your power bill. Our house has a south-facing roof that is a perfect solar site, which would allow almost all of the 4.5 hours/day of sunlight to be converted to electrical energy.

The value of this power to me is therefore 1,675 KWH x 15¢/KWH = $251/year or $21/month.

The cost of the $8,000 solar power system is reduced by the $2,000 or 30% federal tax break.

There's also a state-level rebate of about the same magnitude that would very likely expire in a few months if the most conservative of the candidates currently running for the Governor's Office in Maine were elected.

I can't afford to plonk down even $4,000 cash on such a system, so I'd need a loan. $4,000 on a cheap loan, such as a home equity loan or a secured consumer credit loan, would be about $60/month. On a more expensive loan, such as a credit card, it would be about $100/month. The $21 bucks I would get from net-metering don't begin to pay for the system.

So we're not there yet. Solar PV has to come down by yet another two thirds in price or electrical power go up by two thirds in price, or some combination, before I can realize my ambition.

But we are within the same order of magnitude. And I do think we'll see the price drop/price rise combination over my lifetime, and likely we'll see the solar prices drop a good deal more over the next decade, especially with government help in key places.

I'd be willing to bet on another 50% drop in five years.

My earlier insulation and biomass fuel efforts, on the other hand, have already begun to be paid off by the reduction in energy costs of this house, and have already helped wean the west off oil. The previous occupants used to burn 10 cords of wood and 700 gallons of heat oil a year. Last year we burned 4 cords and less than 50 gallons. Our local forests are burgeoning in biomass, so we don't really worry about adding to carbon in the atmosphere by burning this wood.

So at least one form of solar power, native Maine biomass, is cheap, viable, carbon-neutral, and geo-politically helpful.

That woodsmoke from our chimney is the pure smell of freedom, folks.

Up yours, Vladimir!

I guess I'd better go start the durn thing up, hadn't I?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bird music

Nothing to do with anything but I enjoyed it.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Solar advice to a friend building a new home

Here are some notes I wrote up for a guy I know, a Unity alum and parent of a Unity student, who is building a new home for his family.

XXXX, you ask for some thoughts on reviewing the pictures of your site:

1) In general, solar energy comes in three forms, solar photovoltaic for electricity production, solar thermal hot water, and passive solar which is where we use the sun's energy, and super-insulation and sealing, to heat the home in winter through good design principles and retain the heat.

2) The latter is nearly always the most cost effective way to use solar energy at your stage in the building process. A few extra thousand dollars on insulation and design now can save up to 90 percent of your energy bill later. This is because heat is the largest energy expense for houses in Maine by far, not electricity or hot water. Unfortunately Maine architects are rarely trained in passive solar design principles. Give yours a good interrogation to find out what he or she does or doesn't know. (Those law enforcement job skills come in handy, don't they?) The main features are to orient the longest axis of the house east-west, so the long wall catches the southern sun, and give that wall larger windows, while other walls get smaller windows. If the winter sun is then allowed to fall on massive objects within the room -- usually a dark-colored concrete floor is used as in the Unity House, but furniture and walls can also be used -- then the heat is saved naturally (passively) and released through the night. The house will also be very comfortable and pleasant to live in. Especially if the floor is used as the heat mass. For this to work insulation values in walls need to be R 40 and up and in ceilings R 50-60 and up. Air-tight sealing, including basements, and some form of heat exchange ventilation complete the package. We have such a house on campus, the Unity House and I will be glad to show it to you next time you visit. Just give me some warning. I can also arrange for XXXXXX's class to take a tour. The Unity House was expensive but there are much cheaper ways to achieve the same values.

3) If east west orientation is not or no longer possible, as seems likely based on your foundation pictures, proper up-to-date systems of air-tight sealing and those high insulation values can still save you 70-80% of your heat bill. Make sure to either do them during the construction phase, or at the very least least make the place air-tight now and make provision for additional insulation to be added later (by adding foam board to the outside walls or similar). Use of a blower-door test after the building envelope is completed but before the interior is begun is a good way to assure air-tightness. Insulation is much cheaper than heat bills. Payback for insulation added at this stage, say from R19 to R40 in the walls, is going to be less than two or three years. R40 is not yet standard practice for insulation although it should be. Maine builders are way too impressed with their recent (last decade) code update to R19 code for walls, and remain lazy about sealing basements, although the common use of Typar-type building fabric has eliminated most air links through walls in new construction. Again, interrogate. Don't accept low standards if this is what your builder offers. You need that R40, and you need the building to be sealed. Once sealing is achieved, additional ventilation is needed. It's important to ventilate a tight house properly to avoid moisture problems inside the house, even inside the walls and attic and basement crawl spaces. Powered heat exchange ventilators work best, but careful construction of wall and crawl space areas goes a long way to making sure moisture doesn't end up where it's not wanted.

4) Looking at the pictures of your immediate site, you'll need to cut down a lot of trees to make solar work on that site. Those trees are quite a lot bigger than I thought, and a lot closer to the building. Prove this to yourself next time you visit the site by looking to see where the noonday sun is in December: 23 degrees above the southern horizon. You'll see it effectively filtered through all those trees. The trees will prevent any solar energy making it to the house, and reduce the return on any investment in passive solar design or panels to very little. I would take them all out, if what I wanted was a solar house. No reprieve: all those south side trees that block the December sunpath must go. This stands true for solar hot water too. The only exception is solar PV, where you could locate an array of panels on the far side of the trees and run the power through a wire to the electrical distribution center.

5) If you can get all the above done: design and build a passive solar house or at least a well insulated and sealed house, solar hot water or solar PV is the icing on the cake. It's currently expensive but prices have dropped lately, in the case of PV about two thirds of the price it was four years ago, and in the case of solar thermal hot water about 80% of the price four year's ago. The price is still dropping, and you can get help from the state and a tax credit from the federal government. A reputable installer can design you a system for the house. Here's rough numbers for a conventional two-three bedroom family home: For about $15,000 you can make most of the electrical power you will ever need ( a grid-tied system), and for about $10,000 you can make up to 80 percent of your hot water. Now is the time to go consult the installer, because you want to a) get your taxes back and get the rebates, some of which expire next year, and b) wrap the extra expense into whatever financial instrument you are using to pay for the house. It's this combination which makes it cost effective: the total system will cost $25K, but you get 30% back on your taxes and 30% from the state incentives, so this is only $8.5K, and the payments on, say, an extra $8.5K of financing added to a first or second mortgage are about $70-90/month, which is less than your electricity/hot water bill will be if you didn't have the system. You will still have an electricity bill, but it's likely to be less than $40/month on average, including the cost of making hot water when the sun doesn't shine.

If you don't mind, I'm going to take your name and identifying features out of these notes and post them to my website as an informal guide for students and others to use.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finding the overlook

Here's a successful coursework assignment: Our Intro to CLE map readers find the Mt Harris overlook.

There's no trail to this beauty spot, just a deer run in the woods, and you only know you're there when you look up and can see the pond. The students get only an eight-figure UTM grid reference, and must find it by pacing and using bearings and orienteering.

Some groups find it the first try. Others need to come back the next class and find it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soup kitchen repellant

Our local food bank continues to do a roaring trade, helped along by the efforts of our own students and the veggies for all program, while the papers continue to talk about folks losing their jobs and houses.

All this misery!

How can people protect themselves against job loss and foreclosure and food insecurity?

Aimee and I don't stand in much fear of losing our jobs. Higher education is considered somewhat recession-proof, with students actually returning to college when the business cycle is in a trough.

Even so, one purpose in running a farm is to have a warm place to live and to have food. As I read articles about Americans who have either lost jobs or had their hours cut back, one question might be, does it work? How easy is it to grow your own, and does it put heat in the hearth and food on the table cost-effectively? Now that the harvest is in, let's do the books.

This year we farmed a little over four acres, including our land with a half-acre that neighbors loaned to us for the purpose.

(We let our lease on the 12 acres surrounding lapse -- Aimee needed a new car and I needed airfare to visit my ailing mum, so sending several hundred extra dollars to the absentee landowner in Florida was out of the question. We may take it up again in later years, but thus far we haven't needed the extra land for firewood or agriculture, so although the lease payments preserve future options, they're not strictly part of the farm.)

Most of that four acres was for firewood and sheep grazing. We also brought in several hundred bales of hay and several tons of feed, so any proper calculation of our food balance sheet needs to take this into account.

So what did we grow since this time last year? We enjoy growing food and would probably do so even if we lost money, but it's nice to know whether or not your efforts pass the straight face test, commercially speaking.

Numbers are approximate.

4 cords of split, stacked and dry hardwood firewood
About 250 pounds of potatoes
35 dozen eggs
200 pounds of tomatoes, of which 100 pound canned or frozen
40 pounds storage onions
Assorted salad crops and herbs
Two weaned lambs sold on to another farm at two months
One fat lamb, 45 pounds dressed, already in freezer
One ewe and one older ram culled for mutton, 100 pounds dressed, already in freezer
3 pigs, around 180 pounds each dressed, not quite done

The going rate for cut, stacked and dry hardwood is $250/cord, so $1,000 there. If we credit ourselves $1/pound for potatoes, onions and tomatoes, $1.50 a dozen for the eggs, $50 total for the salads and herbs, $50 apiece for the wains, and $3/pound for meat, this is valued at $540 for veggies, and $2,208 for lambs and meat, so $3,748 total.

In order to grow these crops we input approximately,

150 bales coarse Maine hay @ $3.75/bale (that was robbery and we haven't been back since) = $563
1.5 tons pig pellets @ $250/ton = $375
0.5 ton store oats @ $240/ton = $120
0.5 ton coarse 16% bagged feed @ $10/50 pound = $200

Total for inputs is $1,258

Meaning we netted $2,490 worth of food and fiber for our efforts over the year.

This doesn't count the several tens of dollars of plant starts Aimee sold or gave away earlier this year, or any yarn we may sell from the wool clip. It doesn't make much sense to count the yarn since we sell it or use it so very slowly. The whole clip is still bagged in the barn and we haven't even thought to take it to the mill yet.

Given that we spent probably less than twenty five human-work days total in working the farm this year, this is a pretty good rate of pay and certainly well above minimum wage.

Not too shabby.

Much of this success is due however to the fact that the farm is set up pretty well at this point. If we hadn't put so much money and effort into the barn and fences and equipment, we wouldn't be able to clear this income. But our capital costs are negligible at this point, and the equipment seems to stay in pretty good repair from one year to the next if I tinker a few days each year, which when I have the time is actually a pleasure. This year's big investment was a new chainsaw, although there's a "new" secondhand lawn mower as well. the land is fertile and the input of fertility from pasture and grain via forage legumes, poop and compost is more than is needed to keep growing food on the same land for years to come.


This is valuing our food at pretty low dollar, too. Supermarket prices. Generally speaking food of this high quality comes much more expensively, so, for instance, people pay up to $4 dozen for free range eggs, and Aimee's pesto production alone (110 jars this year!) is worth many more dollars in value added.

This food and firewood should help keep the wolf from our door though.

Proof of concept.

I expect if the so-called Great Recession became the Great Depression, if Aimee and I lost our jobs, we'd lose the farm too, but if we as is more likely we pay it off and farm it into retirement, it should serve us well, keeping us as healthy as we keep it.

I always questioned the wisdom of the detached, urban way of life where everything is a losing trade with the system, and no-one really knows where their food came from.

It works fine until there's a recession.

It's a good deal easier and I think more rewarding to make bargains with Mother Earth instead.

And she cuts a fairer deal in return.

Independence of mind and body is the result. We might do well to remember that Jeffersonian wisdom as we reorganize after this latest economic disaster.

The real strength of a nation is not in nuclear bombs or industrial capital, but in the independent human beings and healthy landscapes the system is meant to create and maintain.

Without which the industrial system is just so much rusting machinery.

That you can't eat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Offshore wind announcement

Google has announced massive funding for an offshore wind transmission line for the "lower" east coast. Interesting!

And one of my PhD advisors, Willet Kempton of UDE School of Marine Policy, is noted on the front page article in which this is announced. Very cool.

In the NYT.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

From George at BuildGreenMaine

Dear Colleague,

With the rollout of our new website, we would like to also remind you of our upcoming BPI Building Analyst I certification class October 18-26th in Belfast.

Feedback we received from our August class coupled with the hiring of some of our recent candidates confirms what our students have told us for years, that Build Green Maine offers Maine’s best, most thorough and hands-on building science training experience. From classroom teaching to field instruction to proctoring the written and field exams, we ensure that our students are prepared for the whole process in gaining their BPI BA I certification. If you or your employees are in need of training and certification, why not get it done completely and get it done ‘right’ from the start?

In addition to the full class, we are also offering Test-only and Fieldwork Mentoring Opportunities. Specifically, if you or one of your employees has received Analyst or MSHA Energy Auditor training and are ready to take the exams, we will proctor you in either the BPI Written and/or Field Tests.

If you or one of your employees have received training or are currently working in the field, but are looking for mentoring and guided practice you can join us for the fieldwork days of the training class.

Finally, we offer an additional $75 discount to students who are or work for a company that is a member of MABEP (Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals).

So check out our website, email us at or call today at 323-1974.



Friday, October 8, 2010

Farm Energy Partners: Unity wind research on video

Here's a fun thing for the Unity College wind workers: their name "in lights." Our partners at Maine Rural Partners/Farm Energy Partners made an outreach video showing our anemometer placement in Mercer, Maine, among other renewable energy projects.

Wind worker Steve and I are shown with the Burrs (the landowners) working on the 100 foot anemometer tower, which equipment was donated by NRG Systems Inc. of Hinesburg VT, and Competitive Energy Services of Portland Maine, for which we mere scientists as always say "thank you, thank you."

The work was also funded by Efficiency Maine Trust using USDA REAP and DOE ARRA programs, with technical assistance from NRG and NREL.

This equipment will tell us the wind rose, wind shear, and temperature and average wind speed every ten seconds for the next year. It will rule in or rule out turbines of different make and model on this site and others on the same geological feature, a central Maine farmland and woodland plateau in the Town of Mercer. The larger effort of which this is a part will benefit the people of the state of Maine by allowing much better turbine planning, including noise planning. It will also allow cheaper wind assessments for towns and public agencies. Wind data gained from these efforts will be provided on request to the general public.

Many thanks to EMT, MRP and all our funders and supporters other collaborators for the great chance to do some science in the public interest.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Vinalhaven turbine update and noise science corrections

The New York Times has an OK article today about the Vinalhaven turbines and the noise problems with wind power plants in general.

I say OK. It has a terribly biased headline but that's just the usual yellow journalism. But it was interesting in places.

The primary substantive failing of the article is that it is an incomplete study of a difficult problem.

In particular, it aims to describe Maine's noise problems with turbines, but fails to accurately state why we have a noise problem with turbines, and fails to reference two concerns that we should be able to address, going forward, in other Maine wind power proposals: wind power noise modeling, and the particular noisiness of the Vinalhaven turbine make and model (and mark number).

The rest was fine, although the article also did a less than adequate job of trying balance the views of the few residents of Vinalhaven not in favor of the turbines adequately with those very many, a great majority, who are in favor. The attached video does a better job because you get to actually hear the low-grade clash of cultures that is taking place on the island in the voices of the folks that are being interviewed. As a person who studied environmental justice for some of my graduate work, with several field studies under my belt in more deprived places like Baltimore row house neighborhoods and Maryland eastern shore fishing communities, I have to say, I find this situation slightly ironic.

But let's get the science right before we start on the social science.

First up: the high noise levels of wind power plant at Vinalhaven or Beaver Ridge were unexpected. You can't get the companies involved to admit this because they face possible lawsuits, but I can tell you what I think happened, an educated guess. This unexpected noise was because we essentially took wind farm design approaches out of the midwest and Europe, where terrain is more open and less forested, and applied them in our woodsy Maine hills and dales.

It wasn't unreasonable or stupid to bring in midwestern expertise and use midwestern models. Ordinary common sense says that if you want to do a thing right, you bring in the guys who've done it before, or at least copy their ideas and systems. But in this case it backfired somewhat in terms of noise.

Not in terms of power production. If anything, these wind farms make more power than expected.

And for the same reason they make more noise than expected, which is high wind shear.

Specifically, expectations that ground level wind would be noisy enough to drown out turbine noise were not met.

Wind shear is the concept that wind speeds change as height above ground level changes, the wind layers shear, creating a laminar flow pattern.

The wind nearly always speeds up as you get farther from ground level interference. The more it speeds up, the higher the wind shear. The normal wind shear factors used for wind farm planning top out at levels of 0.3 (this is a factor or exponent in the Power Law equation, so, for once in science, no units are appropriate to state). But we have measured actual wind shear factors as high as 0.5 or 0.6 in Maine.

This throws all the design models off. You'll essentially hear noise pollution at further distance from the turbine than you otherwise would, although not all of the time and not under all atmospheric conditions, but definitely some of the time. This is because the wind at the ground level is low or non-existent, while the wind at higher elevation is turning the turbines just fine.

In the midwest it was generally a given that you couldn't hear a GE 1.5S model turbine at all once you got a thousand feet or so from the base because there'd be plenty of noise in the trees or grass or buildings. Here in Maine, especially in summer when wind shear is higher, you can hear the turbines, some of the time at least.

The other thing is that the GE 1.5S model turbine is noisier than some other turbines, although not noisier than all turbines and perhaps not even noisier than the average.

But there are quieter turbines, some made by GE even, some even later models of the 1.5 series, that might have been used.

It's a moderately big turbine, for one, and that makes it noisy. But it also has a gearbox, and that makes a lot of noise. Direct drive turbines make less noise. It also has a monopole tower. Lattice towers, available for smaller turbines up to a fraction of the capacity of the GE model, make less blade noise.

So to avoid the problems we've had at Vinalhaven and Beaver Ridge and Mars Hill, we should plan out our turbine noise models using expectations of higher wind shear, and work hard to not put turbines so closely upwind of houses, considering carefully the wind rose data that tells you where the wind comes from that is strong enough to turn the turbine. And we should consider using direct drive turbines for large scale wind farms and lattice-tower turbines for small scale community or private wind turbines.

This is of course probably too much pragmatism and common sense for our local anti-wind activists, who won't be at all happy with this kind of thinking.

I distinctly remember one encounter with such a person in a public meeting in which I tried as carefully and as moderately as I could to explain wind shear and even drew a picture of laminar flow, while all the time this person's voice was raised, talking way too fast and not at all listening.

The Tea Party of wind?

I don't say that they should necessarily be satisfied with this kind of thinking. That's a personal choice and a matter of conscience.

But since we can use this technology to do good things like reduce greenhouse gas emissions and begin to reduce oil consumption, reasoned analysis of our efforts so far should probably be considered.

By the way, our local wind activists will also dispute that wind power reduces climate emissions or oil consumption.

They're mostly wrong on the first, and partly right on the second.

When you connect a wind turbine to the grid and the wind blows, if it's just one turbine or even a small farm like Vinalhaven, what happens is that one or more natural gas powered "peak load" plants are throttled back to keep voltages stable throughout the grid.

That reduces GHG emissions, although not by quite as much as they would have been reduced if we'd been able to take a coal-fired power plant off-line.

Twelve twenty-thirds (12/23), to be exact. That's the ratio of GHG emissions between natural gas and coal. It's a bit more complicated than that due to differences in plant efficiency and the power curve of the natural gas generators, but that's a good number to start with.

You still have to have the GHG-emitting plants, you can't get rid of them because the turbine doesn't run all the time. But the more wind you have in your system, the less GHGs per unit electricity are produced.

If we could turn off a coal-fired plant, we'd obviously save more GHG emissions.

But coal-fired plants are very different, especially older dirtier ones. They like to run at full blast, because of the way coal burns: long, slow and hot. A coal plant is generally run at it's rated output all the time that it's running.

This isn't quite true for more modern combined cycle, fluidized bed systems, which are also about a third more efficient as older steam turbine plants. These can be throttled up or down a little. But they still are generally kept operating at stable outputs, not continuously variable outputs.

So we would need to be able to know exactly when wind power was going to come online if we wanted to specifically reduce GHG emissions from coal plants. This would be a good thing to do, because coal is damaging to the environment in other ways than just producing GHGs. There's also mountaintop removal mining to consider. Or acid rain, to name just two of many.

There are two ways to do this. One is to forecast the wind and change the number and distribution of coal plants you have turned on at any given time accordingly. The other is to have wind farms in the most consistent winds, which are generally offshore.

Europeans have succeeding in using both to reduce climate emissions from electrical power production. But as with the wind shear example above, it requires a little more complex thinking on the part of both power plant engineers and the folks they are making power for.

Engineers, who can be surprisingly fragile when it comes to some kinds of complexity, need a little help to appreciate a less consistent but still very green power source. Consumers need a little help to understand a more complex set of questions and choices than is normally encountered in consumer life, such as the trade off between the damaging effects of GHG emissions versus the damaging effects of wind power plants.

The other claim our anti-wind activists are making is that wind power doesn't reduce dependence on foreign oil. This is certainly true as long as you plan to drive a gas or diesel powered vehicle for the rest of your life, and pay the price of fuel at whatever rate it will be then. But I'm interested in plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles, and society should be too. I might like to consider, for instance, putting a medium scale, grid-tied turbine like a recycled Vestas V-15 on my property, and using the power for electrical resistance heat in winter and for vehicle charging.

I'd try to get my neighbor's cooperation by offering them free power through net-metering, a local power cooperative. I'd do this myself. I'd enjoy the engineering challenge, and I've seen a Danish farmer on TV who did much the same kind of thing.

Unfortunately, this would no longer be legal in many Maine towns because of the restrictive ordinances that have been passed.

(Funnily enough, despite an otherwise restrictive ordinance, a relatively large private turbine like a V15 could be made legal in my town of Jackson. You see, when our local anti-wind activists rallied for their restrictive ordinance, they made the ordinance apply only to grid-tied turbines. So if instead I just run the power into home heat and car-charging, I can put up my V15, or even a much bigger turbine, even one that would be totally offensive to my neighbors. Obviously I'm not going to do this because that would not be polite, but that's the way the ordinance is written. Go figure. I did explain this to the anti-wind group and the planning board at the time, very carefully. After all, if you're going to have an ordinance, you'd better understand the technology and it's various possible applications, and plan for contingencies, right? But I guess they weren't listening.)

At a much larger scale, we could, and probably will, consider feeding wind and solar energy into battery electric cars. We would do this just for reasons of developing green transportation, but as I've mentioned elsewhere, it wouldn't be a bad thing to have some more storage in our grid system for reasons of evening out intermittent solar and wind power production, and battery electric cars could provide some of this ability.


The Obama Administration relented: Solar panels are to go on the White House.

Go Unity! Well done Amanda, Jamie, and Jean. Thanks again to Bill McK.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fracking oil companies

An interesting article for class tomorrow, on the oil sands and shales boom.

Read it before you condemn my fracking language.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Proposition 23 and the Koch Kingdom

A New York Times opinion piece by Frank Rich today connects the activities of the billionaire libertarians, the Koch brothers, to the Tea Party, undermining that movement's claims to be grass-roots. An earlier magazine article by Jane Meyer, in the New Yorker last August made explicit some of the workings of their various think tanks and funding choices. The bottom line seems to be, if we believe Meyer and Rich, that these guys give millions, and likely hundreds of millions, each year to campaign against government interventions of all kinds, but especially environmental regulation.

I could care less about this, except that some of the ideas the Kochs spend millions to stifle are the most important in the world.

Most recently, they have been implicated in funding the vast Proposition 23 campaign to overturn California's energy bill, AB 34, a cap-and-trade bill not unlike RGGI here in New England.

Both Rich's and Meyer's articles, but especially Meyer's which goes into great detail, explain how the Kochs' point of view is essentially libertarian, small government, anti-interventionist. They're small businessmen who made good, became big businessmen, and now get to enjoy their money. Unfortunately, the way they enjoy it is by attacking ideas they don't agree with.

Rich and Meyer don't explain, and most of today's commentators on the Tea Party phenomenon also fail to explain, how modern political libertarianism, when it succeeds which is rarely, uses the mythology of small people and small businesses, but seems to work primarily for the further power of very large corporations. This is the irony of the Tea Party -- the beneficiaries, if any, of a swing to the libertarian right in American politics are unlikely to be the rank-and-file, self-employed, small-business types. Corporations will benefit, and not all corporations. There are plenty of corporations that stand to benefit from the green jobs agenda that is, by default, the alternative to the proposed deregulation of the Tea Party.

So excuse me if I find it ironic that the Koch's are well-heeled theoretical libertarians, while the Tea Party's supporters are vernacular libertarians, but the real ideological debate, the one that actually matters, that will actually result in change of one kind or the other if either the Koch's or Obama are successful this fall, is between a clean jobs agenda for corporate welfare and a dirty jobs agenda for corporate welfare.

But both are corporate welfare.

So it goes. How silly, that we can't see clearly the failings on both sides. When Dick Cheney wanted to study the energy problem he put together a secret team of corporate insiders from the energy industry, who came up with a nice new package of tax breaks and easier policies for themselves. Arguably, this contributed to the Gulf oil spill. The inherent failure to recognize the deadendedness of a policy based on post-peak oil also contributed to our involvement in Iraq. Massive benefits for the likes of Haliburton and Koch Industries ensued. Corporate welfare.

While Obama, who given his druthers would certainly advance climate regulation and fund green energy, seeks a cleaner, greener kind of welfare. But much as I like subsidies and other government assistance to clean energy and efficiency, it is still often corporate welfare.

If the Koch's investments were in companies like Nanosolar or Clipper Windpower, would they still be funding the campaign for Proposition 23?

So much for libertarianism. A pity, because I've always been deeply in favor of individual liberty.

I think I know who the real libertarians are, these days in the great Republic.

The real libertarians are Americans like the Mainers who call or email me in their dozens and tens of dozens each year, or that talk to me every year at the Common Ground Fair, seeking to know if a wind turbine would work on their property, or if I can explain how to build a household solar power system, or show them how to conduct an online energy audit, or solve a particularly tricky insulation problem. These folks are trying, all by themselves, without the aid of Obama or the Kochs, to move the energy economy a few more electrons or a few more barrels towards energy independence and away from climate disaster, for themselves and the country.

In doing so, they are helping move the US and the democratic west away from dependence on undemocratic, repressive, petro-states like Russia or Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

The other real libertarians, and sometimes they are the same people, are the academics and ordinary people that have mastered the very complicated area of climate science, looked deeply into the future, and realized how vital it is to get greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere down.

Because there will be no better chance for either repressive corporations or repressive regimes to take over than when the planet is fully in the throes of dangerous climate change, above 2 degrees Celsius AAT increase.

I have to admit, it isn't easy to understand climate science and to project the results of that inquiry into the even more nebulous fields of economics, political economy, and national security. I've been studying these areas for nearly fifteen years now, and I've had good teachers, some of the best minds in the field, and I still can make big mistakes and jump to incorrect conclusions. I can see why it might be easier, intellectually, to opt for a simpler story, to jump to a self-satisfying conclusion.

But all that will happen if I get it wrong will be that one more professor didn't do as good a job as he should of lecturing. This would not be a good thing.

But how bad would it be?

See, I don't have the real bully pulpit that comes with being able to spend millions of dollars on promoting my favorite bugbears.

If the Koch brothers are wrong in their ideas about climate change, and yet they succeed in bringing down this influential Californian law, and bring down others that may come after it, then the USA and the democratic west in general may have a much harder job surviving the next few decades.

In the very best possible outcome, we will miss out on an opportunity to begin to shed our dependence on a source of energy that is less and less available on our own safe ground, and more and more available from land and sea that belongs to the natural enemies of liberty.

In the worst, we may trip over the threshold of a tipping point and accelerate warming, fry our agricultural regions within a few decades, melt the ice sheets in a couple hundred years, and then have to somehow weather the planetary civil war that will ensue.

And where will be the liberty in that, Messrs. Koch?

Are you sure that your ideas about these issues are the right ones?

You'd better be right. I hope you are. At the very least, I hope you're willing to take your share of responsibility if you are not.

That's the real question for all of us, isn't it, the most important scientific and policy question of all.

How sure are we that the things we think are real, really are?

Unfortunately, since both the Kochs are over seventy, they won't likely be the ones that have to deal with things if they are wrong.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Here's the latest on Prop 23 in California, which stands a fair chance of going down due to common sense and the Gubernator's intervention.

An interesting moment in American history: Americans may, essentially, vote to tax themselves through user fees to reduce GHG emissions.