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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twitter debate, a new oxymoron

As a kid, did you ever play a game where you try to talk with someone while under water? That's what it's like to debate someone on Twitter.

This page serves as a place holder for Disqus comments about Twitter comments.

Twitter is great for disseminating links but was not designed for discussion or debate.

Go to the comments section under this page to join in ...or just lurk.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trip to the Brazilian Cerrado and Pantanal

I’ll be blogging this week about my trip to the Brazilian Cerrado and Pantanal, where there is still a great deal of biodiversity left, although, how much longer it will be there, I can’t say. There’s an assortment of insects crawling across my computer screen as I type. I’ll be sticking random photos that I’ve taken while here into the posts.

Click on any image to initiate a higher-resolution slideshow.

And while I’m on the subject, I wonder if the proliferation of  affordable digital cameras, with their capacity to zoom in on distant objects as well as on very small ones, hasn’t reduced wildlife mortality from hunting? A camera with a powerful zoom lens makes a great substitute for a rifle with a scope.
Brazilian birders wielding cameras instead of rifles

I took the above photo of a group of Brazilian birders taking photos. Is the taking of photos instead of hunting scratching the same itch?

The Cerrado 

A small praying mantis found on our cabin wall staring right back at the camera

Our accommodations in the Cerrado at a twelve hectare former wildlife research station were somewhat rustic. One night we noticed a small praying mantis on our wall (among the many other insects and spiders). I thought, “Great, it’ll eat some of these other bugs.” Didn't work out that way (fell victim to a spider). Praying mantises are the only insects I'm aware of that can (and will) swivel their heads to look over their shoulders at you.

Large toad.

Tree frog with camouflage evolved to blend in with its forest environment sticks out like a sore thumb in the wrong environment (a bathroom).
Large cricket species (see index finger for scale) that hung out in the bathroom along with the tree frogs.
Our daughter let a toad stay in her cabin for a few days (good for hoovering-up spiders and insects on the floor). She also had tree frogs in her bathroom (because they are attracted to places with a water source, they're commonly called bathroom frogs in Brazil) which ate insects on the walls and ceiling. The large crickets (also often found in the bathrooms) were apparently too big for the tree frogs to eat.
Our water supply.
We drank from used, dust covered, soda bottles that had been filled with potable water from a communal well in the nearest small town. Not a bad way to recycle a few of the billions of water bottles.

Solar panel with (defunct) battery storage.
The ecological lodge had a solar panel connected to a defunct 12-volt lead-acid battery, likely powering 12-volt lights in one of the cabins (except at night). It's common for the ecologically minded to experiment with solar after reading the endless hype on the internet. I've certainly done my share of experimenting. It will be part of our future energy mix, but probably not as big as many solar enthusiasts imagine.

Meals were cooked with firewood.
Meals were cooked, like most meals by the rural poor all around the world, using biomass (wood) quite simply because it is the least expensive way to do it, not to mention the smoke keeps insects at bay. Each energy source has its advantages over others. Good luck cooking with solar panels.

It’s the dry season, hot (pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis). Electricity, I suspect, is courtesy of some far-away hydro dam. No air conditioning, just a barely functioning table fan. The top of the fan guard was missing and I kept accidentally putting my fingers in the blades. I’m typing with small bruises on the tips of my fingers.

Livestock and its impact can be seen everywhere.
Cattle ranching provides most income in this region. It’s primarily a form of slash and burn agriculture. Unproductive pasture left alone long enough eventually begins to grow back into forest ...only to be bulldozed, burned, and converted back into pasture again. But sometimes, nature goes down fighting. I had asked our guide why there were so many partially burned piles of wood. Turns out that the trees here have evolved very effective fire resistance. The ranchers have to repeatedly set the piles on fire over a period of years to finally get rid of them.

The Pantanal

We left the Cerrado and drove for about eight hours mostly over bumpy dirt roads in 100 degree weather in a truck with no air conditioning to a ranch/tourist lodge in the Pantanal where the accommodations were much improved (air conditioning, effective screen wire in windows, hot showers, but still no internet or cell service).

Domestic pigs are largely free ranging and sometimes become feral (photo courtesy Nina Finley).

Our guide told us that there is no legal hunting in Brazil with the exception of permits to control the likes of feral pigs. This is, in theory, especially true in the Pantanal reserve (although something like 20% to 50% of this preserve, depending on study, is still used for livestock grazing).

Not really possible to eliminate feral pigs from a wildlife preserve when they are allowed to free range in it.

White-lipped peccary.
Is a peccary a pig? Depends on your definition of pig. They are very  "pig-like" in their appearance and behavior but are actually fairly distantly related to domestic pigs. A biologist (and my daughter) would tell you that they are not pigs, if by pig, you mean a feral version of a domestic one.
Peccaries are about as closely related to domestic pigs as whales are to hippos.

Some people think peccaries are a rodent, I suspect, because they often share the same habitat with a rodent of about the same size that can also act quite "pig-like."
Capybara (a rodent the size of a pig) taking a mud bath.

Some road signs had been shot up with high-powered rifles.

Jaguars are still sometimes (illegally) hunted in the Pantanal. Dogs are used to find and chase them until they go up a tree where they are subsequently shot out of the tree. Shockingly, some estimates suggest that there are only about 6,000 jaguars left in the Amazon, Cerrado, and Pantanal combined.

Not all poor farmers are going to passively tolerate a jaguar eating their goats and pigs. As a student of human nature, I'm going to hypothesize that some will covertly shoot the jaguar and bury its carcass rather than greatly increase the risk of being caught by trying to sell its hide. The decline in jaguar populations in preserves shared by farmers are, I suspect, being exacerbated by the discreet elimination of the big cats by farmers in these preserves. One analogy here in the States would be ranchers and wolves.

Several signs along the highway through the reserve asked drivers to watch out for wildlife. On the way in, the only roadkill we saw was a tapir. Ironically, on the way out, we ran right over a mature three-foot long tegu, creating the second road kill seen on this part of the trip. Roads continue to be one of the biggest sources of wildlife mortality. I have often used a road analogy to describe a wind turbine as the equivalent of three cars circling a racetrack in the sky at 150 mph.

Tegus in South America are an example of convergent evolution in that they fill the ecological niche taken by monitor lizards in Africa and Asia
Green iguanas are about the same size as the larger tegu species, however, being tree dwelling vegetarians as opposed to ground dwelling omnivores, they fill a different ecological niche.

My daughter caught on film another large tegu species in this combination wildlife preserve/farming community that the locals call the caiman lizard because it's skin looks so similar to that of a caiman. Part of the tail had recently been cleanly severed by what I  suspect was an angry, machete-wielding, chicken farmer.

Modern humans don't live in harmony with nature. We, as the Borg collective would say, assimilate it. Brazil gets about 70% of its electricity from dammed tropical rivers. Had they used nuclear energy instead, those river ecosystems would still be intact.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

More thoughts on the robustness of Mark Jacobson’s 100% renewable energy plan

Figure 1: Trickle-down solar collector test rig

When I first saw the paper critiquing Jacobson's 100% renewables plan (see here, here, here, and here) I thought to myself, “If he denies there are any mistakes but then makes changes, I'll know that the critiques had at least some measure of validity.” Lo and behold, after denying that there were any mistakes, he immediately made revisions to the study.

I also thought, “And if any changes made involve his input assumptions, that would suggest that the study results were likely heavily biased by cherry picked assumptions all along (garbage in = garbage out).”

Why did Mark Jacobson limit his 100% renewable game plan to the expansion of wind and solar?

In a nutshell, it’s because “we” environmentalists are opposed to practically every other energy source. Corn, palm, cane, and canola liquid biofuels, new dams, and the combustion of biomass have all more or less been rejected as being too environmentally destructive.

But nuclear power does not necessitate the obliteration of river ecosystems, salmon runs, forests, or grasslands. Instead, environmental groups have rejected it on the pretense that it’s too expensive, dirty, and dangerous.

And because none of that is necessarily true, one has to conclude that it’s being rejected out of willful ignorance (not unlike the rejection of the theory of evolution by some groups and for similar reasons).

You might argue that Jacobson rejected nuclear energy because of its cost but when Jesse Jenkins mentioned in a tweet that Jacobson’s own data had (inadvertently) demonstrated that the inclusion of nuclear would actually have lowered costs, Jacobson’s response was to simply ban Jenkins from his twitter feed.

The difference between Jacobson’s study and most others is the extraordinary claim to know how to decarbonize an entire industrialized planet via the expansion of only two (sporadic) energy sources: wind and solar.

I don’t know at what point Jacobson went off the rails, but a research paper is just a road-map used to test hypothesis. Unless and until the results are vetted, the results of studies like these are only, at best, theoretical. In reality, hypothesis rarely pan out, in part or especially in full. His promotion of the study’s grandiose theoretical results as factual borders on the (pick a word for me).

Papers tend to serve as stepping stones for later ones. They are rarely the be all end all solution. A study was recently published that looks a lot like Jacobson's except it fixed many of his problems with the inclusion of nuclear.

The devil is in the details.

Let me give you a simple real world example of a study I did to test the hypothesis that single story homes in Seattle can supply all of their own heating needs using a trickle-down solar collection system. I'd read about these systems but couldn't find any data on them, so, to satisfy my curiosity, I generated my own data by constructing a test rig using a single piece of black corrugated metal roofing covered with glass. A pump circulated water to the top of the roof segment from a three cubic foot insulated container at the bottom. See Figure 1.

The test confirmed that a system like this, on mild, partly cloudy days in Seattle could raise the water temperature from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 110 degrees. Using that information and a whole lot of assumptions to fill in for missing data, I was able to calculate that it would be possible to store, during the summer, enough hot water in a well-insulated pool under a well-insulated single story house to meet its heating needs for a year in that part of the world using a south facing shed roof with the proper inclination etc, etc.

If I were so motivated, I might at this point claim my study proves that every house in Seattle could and therefore should be heated this way. But a peer review of my plan might ask:
  1. How would the glass, inside and outside, as well as the corrugated metal under it be cleaned and by who?
  2. How do you prevent ground water from compromising the insulation around your underground storage pool?
  3. How much power would the pumps consume (can’t be solar powered because the roof is all used for heating water)?
  4. How would you secure the glass to resist wind, snow, and seismic loads?
  5. How long would it take before the water abrades a hole in the roofing?
  6. Who would repair leaks in the storage pool and how?
  7. What would the design of this storage pool look like?
  8. How do you control the water quality in the pool?
  9. How would the heat be retrieved?
  10. What would it all cost?
Technological issues aside, how would you convince people to install this system, assuming you could get it to work and the necessary infrastructure to support it? Some neighborhood covenants require cedar shake roofing for its aesthetic appeal. Seattle zoning laws don't allow solar panels in front yards and on, and on.

Now consider Jacobson’s claim to have calculated ways not to just heat homes in Seattle, but to power an entire planet with the expansion of just wind and solar. I came up with a short, very incomplete, list of ten unanswered questions for my study. Jacobson’s study would generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of them.

Communism also looked good on paper in its heyday …doesn’t work. The NIMBY factor alone likely makes his plan untenable. However, if I were a renewable energy lobbyist or  possibly an extreme left politician, Jacobson's plan would be just the ticket.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Greenpeace isn't the only one, the UCS, Sierra Club, FOE, and even the WWF, to name just a few, all share the blame.

Michael Shellenberger is going after Greenpeace in a series of articles exposing their disingenuous anti-nuclear energy activities. More power to him.
  • Climate change isn't a global conspiracy by scientists to solicit research funding.
  • Climate change is the result of mass global deforestation and the combustion of billions of tons of hydrocarbons that have been stored underground for hundreds of millions of years.
  • The oceans are not going to absorb the extra carbon and heat energy forever.
I could be wrong about climate change. You never know. But isn't it about time to stop using coal to make electricity, regardless? Coal was the replacement for wood when parts of Europe ran out of forests to burn. It's old-school, dangerous to mine, environmentally destructive (although less so that burning wood), and filthy. Nuclear has been coal's main competitor for over half-a-century now. It is a much cleaner and environmentally friendly alternative. Maybe we should replace coal plants with nuclear plants and lessen the impact on those who make a living mining coal by facilitating their participation in their construction and operation?

Should we risk trying to decarbonize without help from nuclear, risk the effects of climate change by excluding the world's largest source of proven, scalable, low carbon electricity? Considering that there is no meaningful risk to including nuclear in the energy mix and that the risk of excluding it may be cataclysmic, the answer should be one of those rare no-brainers.

Video of a dragonfly laying eggs

Nature was collapsing all around us long before anyone heard of climate change. Read the latest in a very long line of books about this subject: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Just a few days ago I took the above video of a dragonfly laying eggs in a goldfish pond. This is not an intact ecosystem. It's covered with a net to keep the cats, raccoons, and herons from eating said colorful carp, which are an invasive species, as is the English ivy in the foreground. It has a pump to aerate the water, and the fish are fed fish food made from fish. Being in the middle of a city you can hear the city noises; cars, trucks, aircraft, snippets of conversations. If the larvae of that dragonfly reduce the goldfish population, that's fine, because dragonflies also eat mosquitoes.

Argentine wildlife reserve--Esteros del Ibera

Speaking of which, I once had the pleasure of visiting an increasingly rare, largely intact ecosystem. You have probably never experienced one this intact, and as sad as this sounds, your children and grandchildren are even less likely to do so. While watching caiman, capybara, and any number of other fascinating creatures go about their business at dusk, I witnessed hundreds of thousands of dragonflies rising into the sky to eat mosquitoes (3:17 into above video and pardon the poor quality for I knew not what I was doing). Although it was ideal mosquito habitat, I don't recall being bitten by one, or even seeing one, while there.

What led many of the world's largest environmental organizations to focus on nuclear energy at the expense of nature (nuclear is one of our most benign sources of energy when it comes to ecosystem disruption--Chernobyl actually resulted in the creation of Europe's largest wildlife preserve)?

In part, the answer has to do with the profit motive (big surprise). I'm all for seeking profit, but sometimes it can lead to bad outcomes. There's money to be made if you can convince people that you're going to protect them from some evil, like nuclear power ...Satan. It works for the Vatican, the UCS, Greenpeace, FOE, any lay-press organization that prints readership garnering anti-nuclear articles. In the beginning, there actually was a conscious effort by some of these environmental groups to make stuff up about nuclear energy, specifically to maintain or increase membership. But before long the creation and dissemination of anti-nuclear misinformation became a self-propagating snow ball rolling downhill, which didn't really matter much until it ran into climate change. Anti-nuclearism eventually evolved (can I use that word?) into a key component of most environmental group's tribal identity. Indoctrination works. Ask any creationist. To this day, a significant percentage of the victims of German antisemitic indoctrination in the thirties and forties still cling to their antisemitic views.

Clearly, it's easier to motivate people with fear than it is with facts. That's because the parsing of fact from fiction is much easier said than done. And since warring parties always claim to have the facts on their side, logically, not being sure who actually has the facts, many people are going to play it safe and side with the group claiming to protect them.

So, in the end, fear trumps facts. Does this mean that if you want people to accept nuclear energy you have to make them even more afraid of climate change? Maybe, but these same environmental groups are busy convincing people that all you need is wind, solar, and hydro to defeat coal and gas. Their contention had been bolstered by the work of Mark Jacobson's 100% wind, water, and solar game plan, but that just went down in flames. Jacobson is a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large. Irony is not a strong enough word to describe the negative impact of the anti-nuclear stance of major environmental groups when it comes to fighting climate change. Read Has anti-nuclear fear mongering nullified all progress made by wind and solar since 2000?

Aspects of our human nature, like our propensity to split into warring tribes, are preventing meaningful progress to slow climate change. Tribal identity is typically the result of imprinting in one’s youth, which could lead to a belief that it’s God’s will or just as easily that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous and dirty. From Clean Energy Mind Games:
“As persistent opposition to nuclear power by many environmental groups demonstrates, not even an appeal to concern about the global environmental threat of climate change is enough to reverse deeply held beliefs. The fear of being disloyal to the tribe and then being ostracized is a visceral, personal, and powerful barrier to revisiting the sources of one’s opposition to nuclear energy.

…we shape our views so they agree with the views of the group or groups with which we most closely identify. Agreeing with and promoting our group’s views demonstrates loyalty, which earns us status as a member in good standing, worthy of our group’s support. This is vital for nothing less than our sense of safety since as social animals we instinctively depend on our group—our tribe—for protection.

But nuclear opponents steadfastly deny these findings. They consistently portray nuclear accidents as doing much more harm than neutral experts have found. They consistently overstate the health risk from even the tiniest problems at any nuclear power facility. This is not unlike the science denial of people who reject the evidence of anthropogenic climate change. The phenomenon is the same. It is cultural cognition working to produce a view of the evidence that, though honestly held, simply conflicts with the current state of established scientific knowledge.”-- David Ropeik

Also consider reading this: How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous.

Likewise, climate activists are asking climate skeptics to be disloyal to their tribe, to brave being ostracized, to give up their sense of safety. Are most climate skeptics any more likely to do that than most climate activists are to embrace nuclear energy? Climate skeptics are just as resistant to facts as the anti-nuclear climate activists.

Not all people react to fear in the same way. Some deal with it via denial, which I suspect is the case for many climate skeptics. This is an example where too much optimism can lead to disaster. Evolution works in mysterious ways. Imagine three hominids in the distant past walking along on the African savannah. One is an optimist, one is a realist, and one is a pessimist. A lion approaches. The optimist assumes it probably isn't hungry. The pessimist has given up all hope. Where's the realist? There she is, in the top of that tall tree.

There’s always hope, or so they say, but that’s not really always true.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Has anti-nuclear fear mongering nullified all progress made by wind and solar since 2000?

Figure 1 Emissions increase resulting from nuclear closures

"Twitter debate" is an oxymoron but once in a while I go down the rabbit hole, and when others get involved, it quickly devolves into a confused muddle not too unlike Alice in Wonderland.

It started when I responded to a tweet by Jonathan Gilligan:

At this point, I mentioned that fear, not economic competition had created the gap between the red and blue curves seen in Figure 1 above. After visiting his Twitter page, I'm thinking that maybe he's not all that enamored with nuclear:

The argument that the closing of the Japanese and German reactors as a result of anti-nuclear fear mongering may have largely, if not entirely, nullified all efforts by wind and solar to reduce emissions from 2000 on is pretty devastating.

Gilligan began formulating an argument to deemphasize the fear mongering of anti-nuclear groups: 
Antinuclear fearmongering began in 1970s. Why does red curve only start 40 years later? 
This does not explain why anti-nuclear fear mongering was so much more effective after Fukushima than after Chernobyl or Three Mile Island
...but those don't show up on the graph that Finley posted: Steady growth until a few years before Fukushima.
Thus, the story of how antinuclear fears shaped the growth of nuclear energy is more complex & dynamic than the thesis that anti-nuclear fears were responsible for decline in global nuclear output after Fukushima.
No similar declines after Chernobyl or TMI. The causal factor was present for 40 years, but the decline only recently. Thus, more to the decline than just fears.
In your argument, what caused citizens to become convinced nuclear was too dangerous after Fuku 11, but not after C'byl 86 or TMI 79?
I tried to pin him down:
You're saying that 60 or so reactors in Germany and Japan would have closed post quake even without the indoctrinated unfounded fear of it.
He then appears to cede that they were closed at least partly out of fear and then suggests other factors:
No. I never said that. I said that the fear is complicated, and it's only one of the many factors. 60 reactors didn't close after C'byl.

Many reasons. One is techno-optimism: renewables were much more plausible to public in 2011 than in 1986 (20% of German electricity).

I responded that "techno optimism" does not explain the suddenness of the closures in Japan and Germany. The suddenness was out of unfounded, implanted, fear. As for Chernobyl, fossil fuels were very plausible substitutes for nuclear back in 86 but didn't replace it in Russia (as they have largely done in Japan and Germany) because they had not been indoctrinated with a fear of nuclear.

Gilligan continues:
Neither fear nor optimism account for the whole story. What other factors do you think contributed?
I am saying that it's more complicated than just one cause, and we don't know all the factors. You're the one saying it's one simple cause.
Conversely, I wonder ab't role of techno-optimism: growing perception that renewable power is feasible, so ppl want clean non-nuke options [emphasis mine].

He has a mildly relevant point in that fear is just one piece of misinformation being used against nuclear--it isn't safe:
New Scientist Graphic and Greenpeace version of it (added wind, ignored hydro) isn't clean:

The groups over-hyping solar/wind/HVDC Super Grids (the techno optimists, except when it comes to new nuclear) tend to be quite negative about nuclear (Mark Jacobson is rabidly anti-nuclear).

Clearly, and unequivocally, Japanese and German reactors were not closed by economic competition. Fear is the link that all of the other arguments for the closing of Japanese and German nuclear hang from. Without the fear factor, those reactors would still be up and running.

In a nutshell, the world can thank the misinformation disseminated by anti-nuclear groups for nullifying most, if not all, emissions reductions from wind and solar combined since 2000.

If Figure 1 starts to gain traction (finds its way into other articles as my aerospace/nuclear industry analogy did), we can expect to see the formulation of more counter-arguments to deflect the blame away from anti-nuclear fear mongering for largely nullifying the progress of wind and solar. Watch for it.

Because all studies depend on input assumptions, by assuming that there is an extra cycling penalty on natural gas used to follow the many ups and downs of wind and solar and assuming a reduction in capacity factor for aging wind and solar farms, it wasn't difficult to tweak assumptions to show that the closure of nuclear has nullified all emissions reductions from wind and solar since 2000.

A spreadsheet showing the assumed factors as variables allow one to see the impact of choosing different assumptions. A serious study would be vastly more complex and should include error bands and on and on. My simple spreadsheet (screenshot in Figure 2) is substantially simplified, serving only to demonstrate some of the factors that would be considered to quantify emissions nullification. Like any study, it's biased, and in this case, the bias is in a direction to make my points about research bias as well as the lack of progress resulting from the closing of nuclear.
Figure 2: Spreadsheet Screenshot of Simple Study to Demonstrate Potential Emissions Nullification
A recently published meta study (of dozens of other recent studies) found that inclusion of nuclear along with wind and solar in low carbon grids significantly reduces costs.

Update 7/24/2017: Added last two paragraphs and figure 2.