Monday, November 28, 2011
This is the problem with all those sources of unconventional oil we've been studying in class, the Bakken shale and the Albertan tar sands, and so on. Although these sources reduce North America's dependence on oil from "petrostates" like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Russia, they don't reduce price. High cost heat oil will be with us for years to come, as long as demand from developing nations continues to increase, and as long as the new sources we rely on are as expensive as they are to extract.
What should Mainers do?
Insulate, weatherize, and/or switch to a cheaper-per-btu fuel, such as home-grown hardwood pellet or firewood. Those are the only realistic choices in the short term, absent some Big New Idea in Maine energy.
The sooner we realize this, the better.
The Governor's Office of Energy Independence is promoting increasing natural gas supplies as one solution. I believe this is a useful measure in the medium to long run, but I'm not sure what we think it's going to do for us this winter.
I'm sorry, Mr. LePage and Mr. Fletcher, but I don't understand how natural gas, admittedly cheap right now, can be an immediate substitute for high cost heat oil when we only have a very small amount of city gas supply infrastructure in Maine to begin. We have to lay new pipe to get that new gas to new consumers. The current crisis that results from the lack of LIHEAP and the high cost of heat oil can't last very long. People, even those on low incomes, will adjust to the loss of LIHEAP over time, two or three or four winters, by making investments in home weatherization, insulation, and switching to pellet or firewood fuel at the margin. The state's efficiency and weatherization programs, increasingly efficient themselves (5,000 homes were weatherized last year, a record), will help cut the time taken to bridge to warmer, weatherized Maine homes down a tad, but much of the interim will be a good deal colder, at the margin, for a larger number of Mainers than before.
By the time that gas pipe has been laid, much of the current heat oil crisis will be past, and much of the suffering will be over. The new infrastructure will be nice to have, in five or ten years time. But it isn't going to help next week and next month, this winter and next winter, which is when we'll need the help.
There's another way to think about this: Natural gas, which is very cheap now, can be a good substitute for coal in electricity production, however, reducing climate emissions and costs, and electricity in general can be much more easily easily gotten to consumers as a heat source than gas using existing infrastructure. We could buy more natural gas instead of oil tomorrow, if we wished, if we were to use that gas as electricity.
(Before anyone write to complain, let me state a disclaimer: Yes, I do know the Second Law. Very well, thank you. I know that we'll use overall more energy this way. But this is about economics and the time-taken-to-deploy technology, as well as physics. You need to know a bit about all three, in my business.)
Maybe what we should do for this year, instead of imagining we're going to magically lay all that pipe in the frozen months, is create some kind of lower cost, off-peak electricity scheme, and help folk access the cheaper price of gas through off-peak electricity, by allowing them to heat their homes with small, cheap, and relatively safe electric resistance heaters using off-peak power.
Ceramic storage heaters are particularly useful because they can be run off low cost, off-peak power and the energy stored up will last for several hours.
(The url above links to just one manufacturer. No endorsement is intended. Indeed, this technology is so simple, these heaters could be manufactured right here in Maine if we wished, a true job-creator.)
One closely associated idea that has (possibly) begun to circulate in the legislature is for a community energy bill that would allow towns and municipalities to create or to buy into power production projects, such as wind or small scale hydro or biomass plants, and to sell that energy at discount to themselves, and possibly taxpayers through some kind of smart grid accounting system. Introduced by Kevin Raye, and reported, as far as I can tell, only in the Quoddy Times, "An Act to Increase Energy Options" is a durn good idea, if you ask me.
It would be an even better idea if it included this Smart-Grid, off-peak discount-sales-to-LIHEAP recipients and local taxpayers option I'm suggesting. Without that, well, it's still a decent idea, just not a really timely one at this particular juncture in Maine energy history.
Unfortunately, I was unable to secure any details of this act despite writing to my State Senator Mike Thibodeau, whose utilities regulation committee it has been assigned to.
I'll keep working on it.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Job creation, in other words, for Sustainable Energy Management students.
Here in Maine we have a similar scheme in place called PACE, which stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy, and there are others in the US.
The possibility for a serious case comparison will therefore shortly come into being. I already have way too many degrees, but a good case comparison of these two countries' approaches to PACE-type loans would make a great master's or PhD thesis.
The obvious role of a scheme like this as Keynesian stimulus, assuming the proper scale of uptake, would also make an interesting study. The British are notorious homebodies, and as a general rule dislike having strangers in their home, especially repairmen, and so there may be some rather non-linear and threshold effects in the demand curve for take-up.
One interesting factor, post-Thatcher, is that the dearth of proper apprentice and community-college schemes for training the required electricians, plumbers and builders, combined with the general fall in favor of working with one's hands, has meant that in recent years the UK has imported tradesmen wholesale from eastern Europe.
This wave of handy immigrants has slowed recently as the economy has also slowed in Britain, and some have already made their grubstake and returned home to Lublin or Danzig, presumably to enjoy a happy retirement, with the proper amounts of pickled herring and sausage.
(So much for Solidarność.)
One obvious result, if the new scheme hits the proper scale, will be to reopen the floodgates. But fixing a tap doesn't necessarily require one to perform a full-on energy audit, use a computer, fill out complicated government forms, essentially negotiating a mortgage for the householder with the government, and so on, all in a foreign language. And these post-Soviet volumes of available handymen were likely just that -- a one-time only endowment of trained repairmen left over from the command-and-control era, now aging and stiffening. Have younger eastern Europeans abandoned the trades in the same way that young Britons and Americans have? A good question, to which I don't know the answer, but on which the success of this scheme may rest.
Even if they haven't, there are obviously huge barriers in language and training to be overcome here, to reduce the market friction and speed the uptake.
I do hope that the coalition has begun to lose its distaste for building government. This is one job that needs doing, but it needs to be done well, and there are obvious needs in education and training, as well as in bureaucracy and oversight.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Also in response to the blog article, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club posted an excellent update on Chinese coal markets, well worth the read not only for its excellent content, but also for its economic and technological competence. It was too long for Andy's comment section so was re-posted on Crocodoc:
This was particularly helpful as it came along at a moment when I was (once again) beginning to feel that most environmentalists had lost the plot, technologically speaking.
This feeling overcomes me regularly when confronted with Maine's anti-wind power activists movement, and indeed with anti-energy NIMBY-ism of all kinds. I guess it's just part of the angst of our times.
Talking about angst of the times, I was remembering the early nineteen-eighties in Britain on one of my blog posts just recently, and then came across this excellent Channel Four documentary on the undeclared civil war that was fought in Britain's northern and western mining communities in 1984 and 1985. This was the conflict that, along with the Greenham Common Peace Camps, forced me out of the Royal Air Force.
Not only is it an excellent film, it also has a great eighties soundtrack.
It made me quite nostalgic.
You'll need to rent it on DVD, or buy a VPN membership.
I was less amused by this article here. Although the idea of the Teamsters picketing Sotheby's swankiest auctions with an inflatable rat sculpture does lend itself to a chuckle or two.
That must be a form of art too, right? Protest art?
Thursday, November 17, 2011
I was lucky enough to have had one of those superb technical educations in my youth, the kind that no longer exists, where I was taught to do pretty much anything in the engineering fitter/fabricator's pantheon.
This wasn't trivial. My high school gave all of us two whole years of classes in each of Metalwork, Woodwork, and, just to make sure we were up-to-date, Plasticwork. The young men (this was back in the days of sex discrimination in education) had to take Technical Drawing (the women took Needlework, but then, thanks to the then-burgeoning women's movement, we all took Home Economics).
Then I won a place in the Royal Air Force's vaunted aircraft technician pipeline at RAF Halton. Eight hours a day, for a whole year, of everything you ever wanted to know about, and do with, aircraft engine technology -- hands-on. We literally took apart whole airplanes and put them back together, all day long. I'll never regret that time.
(Except for the daily drill and parades and PT three times a week, just to remind we were still in the military. And oh, how those drill sergeants and corporals hated us baby techies -- they could lord it over us for the length of the course, while we were mere LACs, but almost as soon as we graduated, we went right over their heads on the pay scale.)
But then came Thatcher.
Britain was supposed to wake up and smell the post-industrial coffee, give up on three hundred years of engineering technology predominance, which in Thatcherite terms was fatally and permanently associated with socialism, and step boldly into the post-modern world. Britain was no longer to be run by grumpy northern and western working class industrialists like Nye Bevan or Ernie Bevin, but instead suave smooth suburbanites from the home counties, preferably with aristocratic connections sufficient to woo the Iron Lady (who in my view had a rotten inner core of inferiority complex), would lead us into the bold new future.
The unemployment of the Thatcher years would end, we were told, when all the market distortions were wrung out of the economy, and then we'd all have well-paid roles in the Service Sector and the Information Age.
We took three hundred years of technological supremacy, in which analysis and data and destructive testing could tell you, with effort, what was true or not. And we discarded it. We threw the baby of technology out with the bathwater of socialism, and instead swallowed the Newspeak of spin as our new Authorised Version.
It's a pity George Orwell was dead by 1984. He would have worked with wondrous satire on Thatcher and her spinmongers.
What followed was the Stalin-esque purging of whole northern and western British communities. If you want to see what this looked like, the film Billy Elliot is a good way to do so. Just watch what's going on in the background, instead of the ballet in the foreground.
Oh. And enjoy The Clash on London Calling, permanently part of the soundtrack of my youth. They don't make 'em like that anymore, either.
My own personal discombobulation at this wholesale change in national ideology, which was admittedly only partly-thought out at that point, led me out of the RAF and even out of the country, never to return. Twelve years of a superb American liberal arts education, and ten years research into renewable energy technology and climate change mitigation policy, and I'm just about beginning to understand it all.
Meanwhile, the world turned, and the general lack of internal western agreement on industrial policy has made it so we've invented whole industries since then, industries by the bucket load, and turned them over to the Chinese.
And now we have ten per cent unemployment. Again.
So what's the solution?
This may be where I part company with Chackrabortty. He seems to think, although he doesn't quite come out and say so, that those manufacturing jobs can somehow be clawed back from the Chinese.
This is a conceptual error. We need a more nuanced view of what has actually happened, and then we'll realize that this isn't likely or even possible. Sure, we've given the Chinese, and continue to give them, the technological information, and even the specialized equipment needed to create vast new industries. They're building massive new cities of millions of people around the factories that now house our older industries.
But we didn't give them what they really should have wanted, which was the robotics, and the code, and the builders of robotics and code, and then the engineering and materials science and chemical and biological design, that they would need to build any truly modern industry.
There are no legions of workers in a modern factory. There are legions of computers, connected to laser cutters, robots, and computerized assembly lines. Someone has to design and build all this stuff, of course, often from scratch, which is one reason that those few of the old fitters and tool-and-die makers that learned how to use the new machines are so highly paid. But that's not very many people. A team of a few hundred up-to-date western technologists, Germans or Brits or Americans, armed with millions of gigabytes of ROM, can design and build a factory that can make enough solar panels for a small city in a year, and then go on to build another factory, and another.
But these are factories that have virtually no workers.
Check out this Nanosolar video here to see what this really looks like.
All those miners in Billy Elliot? There aren't jobs for them in a Nanosolar world.
It isn't that the west's ability to imagine things and build them has declined. It's actually been enhanced and refined by the addition of cybernetics and nano-engineering and biology, whole new electronic and materials technologies invented wholesale in our universities and industrial laboratories.
And we didn't give that stuff to the Chinese. We couldn't give it to them, even if we were foolish enough to want to do so.
That kind of truly modern technological supremacy comes from the one thing the Chinese don't have, which is the freedom of speech and thought represented by our democracy, still standing despite the attacks from Citizens United and the Koch brothers; and the intellectual freedom represented by our glorious and still supreme higher educational system, still standing despite all the dumbing-down that No Child Left Behind and our ridiculous commercial media can throw at it.
And it's that freedom and that educational system that ultimately leads to these technologies.
As long as China is a closed society with a closed political system, all they will get will be our secondhand technology, not the good stuff.
Because no-one that smart wants to live someplace where your vote doesn't count.
Now the Indians, however, are another story. They do have an open society, and they are easily capable of learning to do what we do, once they've figured out how to end the corruption in their political system.
But they're on our side. I don't fear the Indians. They're not a threat to freedom and democracy. Despite their burgeoning revolutionary movement led by Gandhi, two and a half million Indians volunteered to fight for Britain during the Second World War. Indian people are thoroughly integrated into both British and American society. We'll go forward together.
None of this is helpful for the nine or ten per cent of Americans and Britons that are currently unemployed.
Even with our technological and yes, manufacturing prowess, there aren't, and won't be, well-paid jobs for badly trained or untrained workers who can't read, write, think, figure, understand science and technology, use a computer, and most importantly of all, imagine.
And the really well-paid jobs will be for people who can do all these things at a very high level of intellectual ability.
We have to figure out what to do with these other people, the folks who don't or can't think.
But in the absence of the mass industrial employment of old, figuring out what to do with the New American and British lumpenproletariat is no longer a manufacturing problem.
It's a social problem. A huge social problem.
It's not that there aren't useful things for them to do. There's plenty of useful, undone work in our society for people who can't or won't learn technology and science: in health care and non-science education and the environment and social work.
It's instead that we seem to think we would rather have unemployed, untrained people crowding our capital parks and demonstrating, or worse, in the unemployed and drug-infested underclass, than to simply raise our upper-income bracket taxes a little to pay them to do some of this useful work that the commercial market can't or won't do.
Do the Koch brothers and their ilk really think that they will enjoy living in a society where so many people are so permanently unemployed and not provided for?
Monday, November 14, 2011
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Jim Hansen has used the phrase “essentially game over” when referring to the greenhouse gas emissions that would ensue from the use of Tar Sands oil as an energy source. To be sure, there is one heck of a lot of carbon in this one source, and Bill McKibben has referred to the proposed pipeline as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” As discussed over at RealClimate by Ray Pierrehumbert, the amount of carbon in this single source is equivalent to almost half of the future emissions needed to push us above 2 degrees C average warming, which is the point at which the biosphere will become a net source of CO2 as processes such as respiration and burning exceed the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. The Canadian Tar Sands oil reserves are six times the size of Saudi Arabia’s. Is it any wonder that TransCanada is fighting tooth and nail to deliver this oil to consumers? Obviously, the profits to be made from this single source of oil are immense. Moreover, we must consider the life cycle carbon emissions associated with mining and transporting the Tar Sands oil. Assuming in situ extraction, we must add 23% -41% to the carbon footprint necessary for conventional petroleum, thus making this arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet.
The article at RealClimate makes the valid point that not all of the estimated 230 gigatonnes of carbon in the Canadian Tar Sands would be mined. Assuming full production, I would guess that somewhat less than half will be delivered to market over the lifetime of extraction from this single source. In combination with the other sources of coal and oil on the planet, it is clear that even this more modest amount would result in massive pollution. Similarly, it has been argued that this should be viewed as a transitional source of oil to be used while we decarbonize our economy. Perhaps this would be a reasonable argument if there were any evidence whatsoever that the US is moving in the direction of reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Ray Pierrehumbert draws the obvious parallel to the alcoholic who puts the vodka in the cupboard while promising to drink only a little bit.
What is most troubling about this discussion is the assumption that our estimate of the additional warming from this carbon is based on a partial understanding of only first-order feedbacks. The initial radiative forcing from CO2 added to the atmosphere is only a portion of its warming potential. To this must be added the near term, or first-order, feedbacks of clouds, disappearing sea ice, and a myriad of other relatively short-acting factors such as black carbon (enhances warming) and aerosols. Aerosols are complex, but their overall global effect in the form of pollution from smoke stacks and tail pipes has been one of cooling because they reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth. This masks the warming potential of the greenhouse gases. Indeed, part of the reason for a hiatus in warming for the last few years may have been increased pollution from China. Using only these first order feedbacks, it is deceptively comforting to think that we will not cross the 2 degree threshold for possibly several decades while emitting up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon from coal and oil.
This is a considerable overestimate of our remaining latitude for emissions. There is ample evidence that the second-order, longterm feedbacks on climate are emerging much faster than previously thought. Specifically, the timeline for permafrost thaw seems to be quite short. A recent paper from the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that the tundra will become a net source of CO2 by roughly 2025, a date uncomfortably soon. This estimate ignores the amplification of warming from methane and first-order warming from new CO2 emitted as the tundra progressively thaws. Similarly, the Amazon has experienced two droughts of 100-year severity within five years, inducing widespread tree death. The scale of carbon loss from tree death and burning from these droughts will effectively negate the carbon uptake potential of the Amazon basin for an entire year. Note that the Amazon basin is so large that it could hold most of Western Europe and the UK with room to spare. Finally, recent research has found that there is widespread forest dieback in progress. While the cause of this is complex and only partially related to climate change, it nonetheless adds to the greenhouse gas burden of the atmosphere. It has now been confirmed that for most forest types dead trees really do burn more frequently than living ones. Overall, I see no processes or factors that might slow warming during the coming decades. Thus, I think that we will cross the 2 degree C threshold much sooner than previously estimated, and I would argue, almost certainly before 2050.
I know that I share a sense of urgency with many other scientists who have studied climate change over recent decades. During our recent trip to DC to circle the White House, Tim Godaire asked me if I was afraid. In all honesty, the answer is yes. From my study of the literature, I believe that our emissions must peak no later than 2020, with strong mitigation thereafter if we are to retain any certainty of avoiding significant and dangerous climate change during coming decades. A recent report by the National Research Council shows that peak warming is approximately linearly proportional to the cumulative carbon emitted, and that this warming will persist for the next thousand years before beginning a slow decline over the next ten thousand years. Yes, you read that correctly: The emissions we produce today will have their effect over a millennium and beyond. I daresay that this gives new meaning to the concept of seven-generations sustainability. Once the biosphere becomes a net emissions source, we effectively lose leverage to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations through our efforts at mitigation. That is not to say that mitigation after that point is useless. Quite the opposite is true in that our efforts will need to be all the more strenuous to avoid catastrophic climate change.
It has been suggested to me that my active messaging on the science of climate change is inappropriate for someone in my role as a college president. I find this quite odd, because I thought that my job was to do everything in my power to ensure the future for our students. I urge all of us to take this science very seriously and to act in every acceptable way to influence our policy makers to begin massive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. To the greatest extent possible, we simply must leave the carbon in the ground. The good news is that conversion to a green economy will be a source of millions of jobs and economic renewal. The bad news is that the dinosaur economy will be hard to kill.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Not exactly the clear cut victory folks were hoping for, but a victory nonetheless.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
But I enjoyed his editorial today. It may be the reference to the Putney Debates -- as someone steeped in the heritage and traditions of Quakers and Levelers, the dissenting churches, Fabianism, and so on, even the American descendants of these, I always like it when a commentator is literate in this history.
The other part I liked was the bit about the "three B's."
Monday, November 7, 2011
It was a hard slog, but worth it. Not bad for a girl from Barry, Old South Wales.
If she can do it, why can't we?
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Actually, what I really wanted was my own grid-tied Vestas V-15 wind power plant. The V-15 is a second-hand turbine widely available from refurbishers. I would have used much of the power it could produce behind the meter in a dump-load mode, feeding it into my own home heat and possibly an electric car. But that will have to wait for the repeal of the Jackson wind turbine ordinance.
(I tend to see it as inevitable that Mainers eventually realize that wind power is cheaper than oil for heating homes and running cars, and repeal all the restrictive ordinances that have recently been passed. In most cases only a minority of townsfolk voted for the ordinances, because special town meetings were always used. Everyone knows that only the folk that are interested in a measure show up to special town meetings to vote. Eventually, the folks that were left out of the decision will realize how much was left on the table in the form of new tax dollars and cheaper heat and transportation, and we'll begin to repeal these ordinance or modify them.)
In the meantime, here's another state that has figured out that wind power is great for heating homes.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
The Womerlippi farmers mow lawns and clear brush with a small flock of sheep, and have long been advocates for this system: using woolly critters instead of gas- and diesel-guzzling, polluting, climate-change causing lawn mowers.
We've even tried, with very little success so far, to introduce the idea to Unity College, which has what seems like a good square mile of lawn.
You can lead a sheep to water...
But if we're about anything here on the farm, it's perseverance. I'm sure the Unity College sheep herd, and shepherds, will have their day.
And the Unity College sheepdogs. They should have their day too.
Every dog has his day.
Here's another article, one of many I've read in the last few years, about urban shepherds and mowing lawns with sheep.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News
LIMESTONE, Maine — The skies around the Loring Commerce Centre will look a bit different this fall now that a Massachusetts-based business has secured the rights to test its airborne wind turbines at the former air force base.
Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, said that Altaeros Energies is preparing to test its helium filled floating turbines, which are being developed to turn high-altitude winds into electricity.
“This project is in the development stage,” Flora said late last week. “Their product is a helium filled cylinder approximately 30 feet across. It is light enough to float and it is tethered to the ground with a cable.”
The company is led by alumni of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Company officials could not be reached for comment Monday. But according to the firm’s website, www.altaerosenergies.com, the airborne balloon, which is designed to hold a wind turbine in its hollow center, can produce abundant, low-cost renewable energy and can operate at higher heights where winds are much stronger and more consistent than on the ground.
It can ascend to an altitude of 500 feet or more and the generated electricity is transmitted to the ground and into the power grid through the tether cable.
Flora said that Altaeros will be operating out of Loring’s arch hanger for several months while the testing program is under way.
The testing could last up to three months.
Presently, Science Applications International Corporation is leasing part of the arch hanger. They will allow Altaeros employees to share the building’s unused space.
“Altaeros will be a subtenant in the building,” said Flora.
He added that while nothing is set in stone, this could turn into a long-term partnership between the center and Altaeros.
“It is possible that they would return to do additional testing or other work,” he said.
The Loring Commerce Center, located on the former Loring Air Force Base, is a commercial, industrial and aviation park that houses more than 20 employers, including Loring Job Corps and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.