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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Panasonic to Sell Battery Big Enough to Power a (very efficient) House

This is huge.

According to Physorg, Panasonic will market a battery for home use beginning next year. They claim it will power a house for a week, which does not tell us much. Your average American house consumes far more energy than your average Japanese house. At some point they will publish actual ratings for us to ponder as they did in an earlier press release announcing the production of a battery for light electric vehicles and one for storage, apparently smaller than the one shown above.

Many solar enthusiasts are excited because they will finally have a decent battery to store sunlight in (assuming it is affordable). It will charge and discharge rapidly, and last for a decade or so, like most other major appliances.

One day, all states will allow net metering. Net metering laws allow you to gain credit on your electric bill for the solar energy your panels contribute to the grid (the energy you could not use when the sun was shining so brightly).

Where I live, you get a year to use up the solar energy you contribute to the grid and the amount of electricity you are allowed to contribute is enough to actually power an average American home.

This is generally simpler and cheaper than trying to store your own electricity in the only affordable batteries available today--the clunky, short-lived lead-acid design that was also used in WW I submarines.

From a utility company's perspective, net metered solar panels are essentially appliances that turn off the light switches in your house and many of your neighbor's houses. They can't charge for power they did not generate, or to put it another way, they can't charge for power not used (your panels effectively turned off a lot of light switches by removing load).

This battery might cost less than the installation charge for connecting your system to the grid. It may finally be more cost effective to stay off the grid.

It can also be used as an emergency power source (like a generator) during outages. Batteries like this are the death knell for fuel cell and reciprocating engine backup generators. It does not have to be charged with solar power for that purpose but certainly, you would get a lot more bang for your buck if it were combined with solar, and with solar you would also get emergency power backup. This is an example of technology begetting technology, creating an exponential benefit.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Question for Arianna Huffington

(Photo credit catchesthelight via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Why does Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (an organization that just spent almost a quarter of a million dollars last quarter lobbying for corn ethanol) have a blog in the Huffington Post's environmental forum? Why not give a spot to the ACCCE so they can use it to tell us how clean coal is?

The RFA has been retained to defend a client--corn ethanol. It is analogous to the NRA, which is currently fighting to keep lead bullets legal in Arizona even though they are poisoning California condors.

The RFA's claim to support all biofuels is a Trojan Horse to hide corn ethanol in. The last thing the corn ethanol lobby wants is a competitor that can make ethanol cheaper than they can. Right now the only feedstock that can do that is sugarcane and that is why they continue to support the tariff against it. If or when another feedstock becomes cheaper, they may well find a way to thwart it as well.

From his latest post:

"Consensus in Copenhagen? Replace Gasoline with Biofuels!"

Riiiight. The title insinuates that the consensus in Copenhagen is to replace gasoline with biofuels regardless of environmental impact or cost. He starts exaggerating right away:

"Transportation accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions"

Transportation accounts for about 12 percent of GHG, not 25 percent. He is off a modest 100 percent.

"Delegates to Copenhagen may not know it, but the limousines in which they are riding are running on ethanol made from straw."

Good to see some progress on biofuels that are not made from food but the delegates also may not know that:

"..Denmark’s Inbicon today [one month ago] opened its first demonstration facility producing cellulosic ethanol, but potential customers will have to wait.

Inbicon has already sold its first year of production to Statoil, which plans to blend the ethanol into the Danish fuel supply early next year. In addition, some of the ethanol is being reserved to fuel E-85 vehicles during next month’s COP-15 meeting in Copenhagen.."


Dinneen continues:

"...there's one issue on which the world's wealthier and poorer nations should be able to agree:

Immediate action is needed to increase the production of biofuels of all kinds, particularly for use in the transportation sector"

Most climate experts agree (Jim Hansen in particular) that coal is the biggest problem, not gasoline. And you would only want to promote biofuels that actually reduce GHG emissions. Corn ethanol, which accounts for 99 percent of the ethanol used in the United States does not fit that bill.

"Fortunately, one solution is already available. With the support and coordination of governments and international bodies, existing and emerging biofuels can continue to replace the use of gasoline and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases."

Actually, the only biofuels that produce less GHG than conventional petroleum are those made from waste and from sugarcane grown on degraded or existing cropland. And another solution that is readily available are high mileage cars like the Prius, Insight, Civic hybrid and on and on which produce about 100% less GHG than America's present car fleet average.

"In 2008, the 9 billion gallons of domestic ethanol produced and consumed in the US resulted in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions comparable to removing 2.1 million cars from the road."

That 9 billion gallons of ethanol (which usurped about thirty thousand square miles of cropland) all came from corn and 2.1 million cars represents only about one percent of our registered cars. About 70 percent of corn ethanol comes from fossil fuels. The thirty thousand square miles of corn fields diverted to gas tanks displaced carbon sink land outside the US, and the large amounts of fertilizer created large amounts of nitrous oxide (hundreds of times more potent than CO2). When accounting for fossil fuel input, land displacement, and fertilizer generated nitrous oxide, corn ethanol likely produced far more GHG than the gasoline it displaced.

"This year, the world is expected to produce 80 billion liters (around 21 billion gallons) of ethanol, replacing the need for 1.9 billion barrels a day of crude oil."

A commenter in the Huffington Post article pointed out several days ago that the above sentence makes no sense. The world consumes about 86 million barrels of oil a day. About 1% of global oil consumption replaced by ethanol.

"It is estimated that the global production of biofuels will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 123 million tons in 2009 alone. Such an impressive and growing environmental benefit stands in stark contrast to the environmental footprint of the petroleum industry which continues to worsen."

That estimate, wherever it came from, is likely 100% wrong, and I would not call it impressive. Assuming he meant metric tons CO2 equivalent (I doubt he has any idea) 123 million tons is minuscule (a fraction of a percent) in comparison to total global emissions.

"Researchers from the University of Nebraska have reported that, compared to gasoline, today's ethanol reduces direct greenhouse gas emissions between 48 percent to 59 percent."

Those values are estimates for the newest biorefineries, not an average for all existing refineries. I love how he quotes research that supports his product while simultaneously denigrating researchers with findings that don't support his product. The researchers also state in the Nebraska study that this does not include GHG from land displaced nor does it include the latest findings for nitrous oxide release which suggests corn ethanol is up to 50% worse than gasoline.

"According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, ethanol produced from these cellulosic feedstocks has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85 percent, compared to gasoline."

Bait and switch baby. The RFA is using the potential of future non-food based fuels as a Trojan Horse to hide corn ethanol in.

"Meanwhile, as conventional oil is depleted and exploration shifts to unconventional sources such as tar sands, shale and the deep sea, finding and using petroleum will require more energy and release more greenhouse gases."

The above sentence is the first accurate one in this article. However, the environmental impact of biofuels are already gargantuan and will only get worse as biofuel production increases.

"All of this is occurring against a backdrop of increased agricultural productivity activity."

I took the liberty of editing that sentence. The number of hungry human beings just passed through a billion for the first time. A recent paper in Nature demonstrates that our agriculture is primarily responsible for exceeding planetary nitrogen boundaries. I talk about it in the following article titled "Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries."

"Vast tracts of arable land remain unused. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported, there are, at present, 1.5 billion hectares of land used for farming. That is only 11 percent of the world's surface area, and almost twice as much arable land - 2.8 billion acres - remains unused. With new magical farming technologies, this land can be responsibly and sustainably managed to provide a growing population both food and renewable fuel."

The above paragraph is nonsensical gibberish. If there is so much arable land going unused why don't we grow corn for biofuel there instead of using our rich, fertile farmland? That's a rhetorical question. Everyone knows that answer--cost.

"That is why it is so encouraging that the developing world has huge supplies of the "biomass" (wood and plant wastes) that will be the feedstocks for the next generation of biofuels. As one recent study concluded, biomass could fuel 65 percent of the world's energy consumption by 2050. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America account for about half of this global potential."

The above paragraph got a chuckle out of me. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America account for about half of this "wood and plant waste." By waste, I suspect he means "ecosystems not yet destroyed by humanity."

"These facts stand in contrast to those who argue biofuels are destroying the land and responsible for deforestation."

See what I mean? By using the word "those" he is denigrating not just the science, but the scientists that have demonstrated that instead of trying to grow crops on degraded and denuded land, farmers tend to clear virgin land to grow crops when price signals (corn ethanol hogging up 30,000 square miles of land and doubling the price of corn) suggest they may profit from creating that new cropland. That's what slash and burn agriculture is all about.

"Yet, forest land in the US has been increasing at the same time that ethanol production has grown."

That would of course prove nothing, assuming it is even true. More land is being planted with corn to capitalize on its high price. That land is not coming from protected American forests.

"Moreover, global deforestation has slowed as global biofuel production has accelerated. The development of biofuels could fuel the economies of developing countries, reducing the desperation that produces deforestation by illegal logging, cattle ranching, and subsistence farming."

Global deforestation has slowed with the economy, but it would have slowed even more without the demand for biofuels. Biofuels won't reduce "the desperation that produces deforestation by illegal logging, cattle ranching, and subsistence farming." It will add to the destruction being caused by those things. Biofuels are a new demand on the biosphere.

"Energy security, economic growth, and environmental responsibility: These are three reasons why the Copenhagen climate change conference should create a new consensus, among developed and developing nations, to encourage the production and use of biofuels."

Corn ethanol does not provide any meaningful energy security, economic growth (it would disappear in a year without government largess), or environmental responsibility.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Climate Cover-up, a Review

This review follows on the heels of what the media has dubbed climtategate--a textbook example of how to make a mountain out of a mole hill. A few weeks prior to that brouhaha, the media was awash with reports that the world is actually cooling, which upon closer inspection also amounted to nothing. Sticking with mole analogies, correcting the disinformation perpetuated by those who seek to discredit climate research has become a perpetual game of Whac-A-Mole.

The book does a very thorough job of documenting the history of sometimes despicable attempts by various vested interests and contrarians to discredit climate science. There is no doubt which side holds the science high-ground on this issue and after reading this book there should be little doubt which side holds the moral high-ground.

It gets off to a slow start but hang in there. It gets better, ending with a bang. It is not a neutral perspective of the pros and cons of the global warming debate. This is a detailed, no holds barred account of the people who work to discredit climate science and the methods they use to do it.

The authors begin with a critique of octogenarian Freeman Dyson, the world’s most notable global warming skeptic. Dyson is in a class of his own and does not deserve to be lumped in with the usual ignoramuses, cranks, and conspiracy theorists. I suspect his mention at the front of the book was one of those last minute edit jobs in response to a NYT article about Dyson’s skepticism just prior to the book’s release. Climategate, the latest global cooling farce, and Dyson’s skepticism are all examples suggesting that an updated version of this book a year from now might be twice as long.

Dyson is an icon in the world of science and scientists don’t like it when anyone takes a pot shot at one of their heroes. Dyson is by all accounts a genius. He probably thinks people who use calculators are sissies. Back in the seventies, Dyson published a paper which calculated that we could stabilize carbon in the atmosphere by simply planting a trillion or so fast growing trees.

Intellectually speaking, I am but a speck of dirt on the bottom of one of Dyson’s shoes, but people who once proved brilliant in their field of expertise rarely prove to be quite so brilliant in unrelated fields, like climatology. Michael Jordon comes to mind.

Some climate models suggest that planting trees in the upper latitudes would have a warming effect because they would reduce reflectivity of snow on the ground. If true, this is an example of how humanity has already reached some points of no return. Out of curiosity, I just fired up a spreadsheet to calculate how much land mass a trillion trees would cover spaced at five foot intervals with a five foot square boundary around each. Dyson could probably do this in his head. Maybe I have a decimal point in the wrong place but according to my calculations they would cover the Earth’s landmass dozens of times over unused arable landmass more than twice over (see comment by Pete S).

The following was found in a publication describing a lecture Dyson gave in 2006:
“He had useful advice for his home planet, but he also puts most of his hope in the colonization of space and a future beyond our atmosphere. In outer space, he believes, there will again be speciation in the Darwinian sense.”

Following are some quotes from a NYT article:
“Forty years ago it was fashionable to worry about the coming ice age. Better to attack the real problems like the extinction of species and overfishing. There are so many practical measures we could take”

“I’m still perfectly happy if you buy me a Prius!” Imme [his wife] said.

“It’s toys for the rich,” her husband smiled, and then they were arguing about windmills.”

1) The ice age hypothesis was short lived, not widely accepted, and blown out of proportion by a lay media looking for sensationalist headlines, as always.

2) If we attacked all of the world’s problems (like overfishing and species extinction) linearly (one at a time) instead of in parallel, the sun would go dead before we got to the end of the list.

3) A Prius is not a toy for the rich.

Dyson is also a big proponent of solar power, so, go figure.

Skepticism is one of the keystones of science and anyone who wasn’t skeptical when they first heard about global warming should contact me so I can sell them some land in Florida. Likewise, the word skeptic might be appropriate for those who have been living in caves for the last decade and have just caught wind of the concept, but what do you call someone who refuses to move to the next stage regardless of the evidence?

The word denier was used 36 times in this book. Denial is also the first stage listed in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' book, "On Death and Dying." (see the Wikipedia article on the Kubler-Ross model). Denial is the overarching reason for a belief in an afterlife. Acceptance of the results of decades of global warming research is not by any means tantamount to accepting one’s eventual demise, but the potential ramifications of global warming appear to be enough to send many people scurrying for their ostrich holes.

Much of the denial we see is probably related to the potential ravages of global warming. If the research results were suggesting that global warming has little potential and would have little impact, I doubt there would be any debate at all.

Few of us will live an entire life without facing situations that we find so threatening that we deny they are true, at least at first. Coping mechanisms help us deal with unpleasant realities until we can gather ourselves and face them, or not. But some people have become very adept, maybe too adept, at capturing the anxiety relief denial can provide especially when doing so will not have a negative impact on their daily lives. They have a hair-trigger reality switch that has been honed to a shine by repeated use, and few people who do it are consciously aware that they do it because awareness would deactivate the switch.

We of course pick and choose our denials. You could deny that walking in front of a speeding bus is dangerous but you would also be taking a big personal risk. Unlike some forms of denial, denying the potential ramifications of global warming entails no physical danger to the denier, only anxiety relief. It is custom-made for using denial as a coping mechanism. However, a prolonged and collective denial by enough people may have an impact on our children’s and grandchildren’s lives by radically altering the world they will live on. Collective, self-reinforcing denial may have been what brought the Easter Island civilization down.

There are plenty of other reasons not to accept the findings of decades of global warming science. You may just be ignorant or misinformed, or have a contrarian personality disorder that is not constrained by logic and evidence (conspiracy theorists fall into this group), but whatever reasons you have, they are not backed by science, regardless of what you may have told yourself to the contrary.

[Update 12/06/09]

An earlier review by Roberts can be found here on Grist. Denier debunking is like trying to kill zombies that won't stay killed.

Half of the review on the Guilty Planet blog is spent criticizing the authors for critiquing Dyson. She thinks that Dyson is qualified to critique climate science because of the "book" he wrote about using trees to absorb carbon back in 1977. I commented on the blog pointing out that he had not written a book, but had only published a paper. She didn't publish my comment, but I see she corrected that part about him publishing a book on the subject:

...the first entry that pops up is his 1977 [book] paper published in the journal Energy titled: "Can we control carbon dioxide in the atmosphere".

In a book [Climate Cover-up] that lauds accuracy so loudly, a misstep such as this so early on can be fatal ...

... Dyson is probably a bad early target for Hoggan, who should have stuck to the corporations (worthy of his energy), rather than making false claims about a venerable scientist. Climate Cover-Up recovers from this slip up but, as the old African proverb goes, one falsehood can spoil a thousand truths.

Spare me.

And take the time to click on this video (found on Pharyngula):

and if that was not enough, watch birth of yet another Climate Croc:

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Armchair Climatologist

[UPDATE 9/14/2010] This post was moving up the Digg ratings and then suddenly stopped. Digged was being rigged by a gang of climate skeptics that call themselves the Digg Patriots who reflexively vote down any climate change articles.

You know who I'm talking about, that stereotype who inevitably appears in the comment field armed with irrefutable evidence that climate change is a giant conspiracy theory. He dares other commenters to engage him in nuanced debate so he can bury them with the (erroneous) data he's gleaned off the internet.

As with the debate over dark matter, or string theory, or any number of other science topics, the debate over the "science" of climate change is between climate scientists using the scientific method. Real climatologists engage in debate in peer reviewed science journals.

There's a lot of room for debate over what should be done and we should all participate in those debates but the science is not ours to debate. The science is settled. Human activity has increased the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by burning forests and grasslands and by releasing hundreds of millions of years of stored fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere. That fact is utterly irrefutable. End of story. What remains to debate (among scientists) are the ramifications of that fact--the magnitude and timing of climate changes to come.

Don't encourage the armchair climatologist. Unless you happen to be a published, recognized expert in the field of climatology, you are no more qualified to debate the science than the armchair versions are, the only difference being, you should know that and they don't. Feel free to post links to peer reviewed science or you can just post the following link in response to their spittle-flecked diatribes, which will point them to the peer reviewed science for you: A Few Things Ill Considered.

Here (in response to the recent lay press feeding frenzy claiming that the earth is actually cooling) is a taste of what can be found there:

Why waste your time playing armchair climatologist Whac-A-Mole when there are websites that do it for you?

It can be hard to resist sometimes.

Against my own advice, I was recently drawn into a short debate with a couple of armchair climatologists in a comment field over the latest incarnation of the global warming hoax hoax involving the illegal hack into a university server.

And again later in the thread, here, and over on Grist here.

[Update 11/28/2009]

Thought this comment on the DOT EARTH blog is worth linking to as is this post at Stoat: Talking to the layfolk.

[Update 11/29/2009]

And another good blog post over on RESPECTFUL INSOLENCE about the theory of Crank Magnetism.

Foil hat image from Wikipedia Commons.

[Update 12/06/09]

Take the time to click on this video (found on Pharyngula) about McExperts:

Click here--to see a list of articles and to subscribe to future posts or subscribe by email by adding your address to the box in the upper right hand corner of the blog.

Monday, November 16, 2009

An Exercise in Futility?

(Photo credit via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

My wife brought home tuna for dinner the other night. My fifteen-year-old daughter, member of her school's environment club, 4-H, and a consummate organic gardener, whipped out her Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood card to see how tuna ranked. Yay! There it was on the Best Choices card. In fact, the card had six variations of tuna and one caveat:

Oh, and look, six variations of tuna and one caveat are also listed on the Good Alternatives card:

Ah crap. There are also about five variations of tuna on the Avoid card:

So, what was this lying on our plates? You can imagine how easy it would be to poke fun at three people who, after much deliberation, have no idea if the fish they are about to eat is the worst choice or the best. Not that it matters. Those cards will never make the slightest dent in what kind of fish is harvested. The only thing that can do that are strictly enforced science-based fishing regulations, and even those are far from fool-proof.

These cards may have some value as a way to increase public awareness but I think they need a sentence at the top that says something like, "Best not to eat ocean fish period."

[Update 11/16/2009]

I just ran into a related article by Andrew Revkin. Check out comment #3 found there. I can't think of a better post cold war use for our nuclear submarine fleet than patrolling fisheries and handing out tickets to violators ; )

[Update 11/27/2009]

From Mongabay:

Restaurants sampled in New York and Colorado are serving up bluefin tuna without informing their customers know they are dining on an endangered species

...nearly a third of tuna sampled in one restaurant in Colorado and thirty restaurants in New York served bluefin tuna, and nine of the restaurants did not label the tuna as bluefin.

...the FDA's approved market name for all eight species of Thunnus is simply 'tuna'," explains Lowenstein. He adds that if the FDA required that tuna be listed as individual species, it would allow consumers to make an informed decision [NOT!]

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mass Production of Multi-purpose Large-capacity Lithium-ion Battery Packs Begins Next Year

Just found this press release over on Green Car Congress:

SANYO to Mass Produce
New Large-capacity High-voltage Lithium-ion Battery Systems

This is big. I've been waiting for this announcement. The pack for "light" electric vehicles (the one with the disembodied hand) has twice the amp hours of my electric bike (but about 25% lower voltage). They sell about a million electric bikes a year in China.

Inside each of those plastic boxes are rows of batteries about the size of a C cell along with some sophisticated battery management circuitry including a charging system. Instead of trying to develop big batteries they are saving money by finding ways to effectively string together small ones using sophisticated electronics to make them behave like one big battery, which is exactly what the Dewalt packs that I use on my bike do as well, except the charging system is separate.

The battery is the weak link in all electric vehicles and solar power as well. These packs are the start of what the world has been waiting for. Put one on each motor for each wheel and you have yourself a low speed four person EV worth owning.

Get the storage version (the one on the left) for your solar panels and you can charge your light electric vehicle when you get home.

The next step will be bigger packs for electric car conversions. That will be a paradigm shift. The big car makers will be forced to compete in price with mom and pop shops converting cars to electric.

For those out there waiting for a pack to replace the V-8 in their F-150, don't hold your breath. That may never be cost effective. The cars of tomorrow will barely resemble the tanks we drive today ...IMHO.

I have not been this excited by since Dewalt power tools announced they would be using A123 batteries in their high-end power tool line. I was first in line to buy and adapt them to an electric bike.

Keep in mind that this is not another pie-in-the-sky technological lab experiment. This is nothing but meat and potatoes mass production of existing, commercially viable technology and it is all that's needed to make these modules affordable. Entrepreneurs will take it from there.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

WWF Study Puts Global Warming Into Perspective

I put together a Microsoft Excel interactive pie chart that can be opened or downloaded (file downloaded from this link is guaranteed not to have a virus) that may help people to put into perspective various efforts (like doubling the efficiency of the US car fleet, or the elimination of coal for electricity generation) to reduce greenhouse gases.

I read the WWF study last night. At first I was a little shell-shocked, but as I read on I grew numb hopeful. At least now we have a decent study that clarifies what needs to be done, how fast it has to be done, and most importantly, when these efforts need to get started. It's now or never. There will be no going back and no way to fix this if we don't get started now.

Following are several highlights I took home from the study.

There are four main drivers: Clean energy generation, energy efficiency, low-carbon agriculture and sustainable forestry.

Bioenergy comes with the following caveats:
“ deforestation, no competition for land between bioenergy production and food production and protection of biodiversity and nature conservation.”
Bioenergy is potentially CO2 neutral. However, the expansion of palm oil and tropical crops, such as sugarcane, for biofuel production could become a significant driver of deforestation. Bioenergy developments must therefore be appropriately regulated to prevent further deforestation.

We will all have get to drive electric cars!

Since there are alternatives for land-based transport – but not for air and sea, as it stands today – the priority allocation of sustainable biofuels must be to the aviation and shipping sectors …energy demand from the land-based transport sector is met through grid-connected renewable sources…

They demonstrated that once renewable energy industries reach an economy of scale (a critical mass of sorts) they would from that point on become much cheaper than fossil fuels. Everything will cost less because energy will cost less. Investors are going to get their money back and then some. Fossil fuels will be left in the ground because they are no longer the cheapest option (or only option).

In the beginning, coal fired power plants must rapidly be retrofitted to burn natural gas. It produces about half of the CO2 as coal. Later, natural gas will have to be phased out as renewables come on line. We will have to limit other uses of natural gas to have enough to displace coal. Again, we will all have get to drive electric cars!

Growth of nuclear power was not assumed. They gave a few reasons for this. One is that the WWF has historically been opposed to it for all of the usual reasons. Another reason is that nuclear power can only grow fast enough to make a modest contribution in any case. They also noted that thanks to massive government meddling with subsidies, nobody has a clue what it really costs.

They mention the fact that a terrorist attack on some nuclear power plants could kill hundreds of thousands and cost hundreds of billions. After watching religious nutballs fly jets into the Twin Towers and Pentagon I don't know how anyone can still deny this possibility. [Update: This analysis indicates that a typical containment dome would protect a nuclear plant from an airliner attack. Also watch this video of a large fighter jet being crashed into a concrete block to see how an aluminum aircraft fairs against reinforced concrete.] By their calculations nuclear power is not a make-or-break part of the solution so why bother? These are all good arguments and if they are wrong on too many of their assumptions, well, we can build nuclear plants as well, accepting the risks as the lesser of two evils. A global warming tipping point trumps all.

Burning some fossil fuels but capturing the carbon (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) is one of the 24 main solutions although the authors acknowledge that this might not work and that there is a risk we will waste a lot of time and money to find that out.

They began by asking, "Is it is already too late to avert a catastrophic temperature rise? If the answer were yes I probably would not be doing this post. They concluded that it isn't too late but only if we land on our feet running within the next four years.

To figure out when we need to get started they looked at the history of free market industrial growth. By assuming industries like wind turbine manufacturing and efficient technology growth will grow at maximum known historical rates for industry, they could back off roughly when it will be too late to do anything. In other words, if we don't hit the ground running in the next four years, industries like wind turbine manufacturing will be incapable of growing fast enough to avert this coming train wreck.

There are a few graphs on the report that you might want to check out. See pages 13, 16 (return on investment), 36 (or 58), 105 (point of no return).

This scenario would take unprecedented political will. Political will is a function of what voters want. Politicians will not martyr themselves for the greater good if their ignorant constituency wants the opposite.

A recent poll has indicated that only 57% of Americans think there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming (down from 71% a year ago). Another poll taken on Darwin's anniversary earlier this year found that the majority of Americans (61%) don't buy the theory of evolution. On the other hand, we still teach the theory in our high schools.

If you have quit worrying about global warming because your favorite lay media outlet told you that the Earth hasn't gotten warmer for the last ten years (global warming has taken a break), you need to start worrying again. Maybe the first step to fight global warming should be to get rid of TV news and printed newspapers. This would force people to read blogs for information. At least the opposing viewpoint is there if you choose to look for it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Myth of the American Farmer

Image is everything. Whatever image you may have in your head of an American farmer, the too-numerous-to-count agriculture promotional groups most likely planted it there. Thanks to my teenage daughter who is very active with 4H, I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, "I love my farmer," and in her case that is quite true.

Here are some results of a recent poll conducted for the National Corn Growers Association.

A nationwide survey conducted for the National Corn Growers Association found broad public respect and trust for family farmers and support for corn as food, feed and fuel. Ninety-five percent of those polled find farmers to be trusted messengers on issues such as agriculture, corn products and ethanol – and ethanol itself was supported or strongly supported as a good fuel alternative by 65 percent.

Respondents also spoke out about what they saw as the top benefits of corn-based ethanol. Thirty-four percent mentioned reduced dependence on foreign oil [so small it can't be detected], 19 percent mentioned the creation of new jobs [tens of billions in subsidies to give farm states like Nebraska a grand total of 1,000 new jobs] and 16 percent liked it for its environmental benefits [of which it has none].

I'll bet the word "corn" was never put next to the word "ethanol" in that poll. You can also bet that the wording was loaded to get answers they could publish. For example, using the word "family" next to the word farm.

Farmers can't be trusted on food and fuel issues anymore than oil companies can. It is a fact of human nature that the profit motive clouds judgment:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding."--Upton Sinclair

Following is a quote from a Nebraska corn farmer from a recent article in CNN (I don't link to it because it has no comment field):

"The food versus fuel argument is, you know, not my decision," Jeff Shaner told us. "It is the market decision. If in five years the market is telling me to go with switchgrass, we'll go with switchgrass. ... Whether if be corn or soybeans or whatever the case may be, I just hope I am flexible enough to realize it and change what needs to be done in order to be successful."

That's right. He will plant grass instead of food if that's where the money is.

The small family farm is a small business, no more deserving of charity than any other small business. Farmers are businessmen, nothing more, nothing less.

And when the farm lobbyists threaten that your food supply will be in jeopardy if you don't subsidize farmers, understand that your food would cost even less if a lot of these marginally profitable farms were bought out and run by companies that are capable of making a profit.

I doubt that your image of an American farm involves a series of steel buildings filled with cages of chickens laying eggs onto a conveyor belt. That's an egg farm. I recently watched an episode of Dirty Jobs where the film crew visited an egg farmer. The show's host scooped up tons of chicken offal off a concrete floor with a front-loader tractor under the elevated chicken cages while said chickens continued to crap on him. Not real interesting, but dirty.

I also doubt that your image is of a heavy equipment operator. Ever see the documentary called King Corn? As far as I could discern, there is little difference between a corn farmer and any other operator of heavy machinery except farmers drive their machines in a straight line. Check out some of this John Deere equipment that helps them do that.

Here is a short list of adjectives (in the order they appeared in my head) that you can stick in front of the word farmer: organic, tobacco, cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, chicken, pig, egg, and dairy. There are also tree farms but we usually call those people foresters, although a tree farm is not by any stretch of the imagination, a forest. Note that you don't have to actually produce food to be called a farmer nor will your crop necessarily be used for food now that government mandates for biofuels exist.

On the surface, farming sounds like a great way to make a living. Imagine a small business where all you need is some land and a tractor. You have no boss, no office cubicles, no commute, and depending on what kind of farmer you are, you might get to take winters off! Sign me up!

I had two uncles who thought farming sounded like a great lifestyle. Both purchased farms and gave it a go. Both also worked part time jobs to stay fed, and both gave up the farm after a few years. As a child I recall watching a show (that was boring even to a child) called Green Acres. It was a comedy about a city slicker and his socialite wife moving to the country to become farmers. It's a recurring theme that continues to this day as the resurgence of farmer's markets attest. People will forever decide to test the waters of that fantasy that keeps them going as they sit behind that cubicle in the office.

My late next-door neighbor started out in life as a farmer. He was born and raised on a farm that didn't have electricity. One day he broke his back lifting something a little too heavy. He gave it up and moved to the city, like 98% of the rest of us. His name was Farmer Breakfield, seriously.

Small farmers incessantly complain about how little money they make, even though they are some of the biggest subsidy recipients in the country. Razor thin profit margins are a fact of life in market economies. Mature industries drive profit margins down as businesses compete for consumer dollars (if government does its job to bust monopolies). The consumer is king, not the business owner. Book sellers, grocery stores, petroleum blenders, computer retailers, and on and on all have razor thin profits.

Ever watch any of the logger episodes (Swamp Loggers, Ice Loggers, etc) on the Discovery channel? They also operate on razor thin profit margins. The only difference between small book shop owners, or small loggers, and small farmers is the size of their lobbies.

If you want to be your own boss and own your own business in the country, maybe you should just accept the compromises that come with that decision, or move to a city and get a job like just about everyone else does. There is no need to preserve rural communities. American citizens are all free to move to where the jobs are like I did, and most others do.

Life is one giant power struggle. Only politicians have access to the public larder. Only politicians can access that larder to buy votes. Government support of corn ethanol is bribe money to buy farm belt votes.

Farming is a necessary evil to keep us fed. From an environmental perspective few occupations are worse. A corn field is one species away (corn) from being as biologically impoverished as a mall parking lot. The less agriculture we do, the better off this planet is.

[Update 10/7/09]:

Just stumbled on this piece of footage promoted by Growth Force, which is a fitting name for an organization dedicated to forcing corn ethanol onto fellow Americans. You will find a pro football player standing behind a flatbed truck. Wonder why they picked a guy with the name Chad Greenway?

In any case, much of what he says turns out not to be true, which isn't his fault. He didn't write the script. He starts with a statement that sums up why xenophobic rhetoric cajoling us to strive for energy independence via corn ethanol works so well:

"... it's an us against them kind of world ..."

He goes on to tell us why it's a myth that corn ethanol has raised the price of food. The proof offered is a vague reference to a non-existent correlation between dropping corn prices and increasing fuel and food prices. Corn and fuel prices dropped at about the same time, as the 2008 commodities speculation bubble collapsed.

Food price changes (up and down) lag feedstock price changes because they have to draw down already purchased grain stocks. They also move much more slowly than commodities prices. You can't suddenly double the price of your eggs to cover losses from feed prices that tripled. Unless your competitors all did the same thing, at the same time, your eggs would be left to rot in grocery stores. And it's illegal for good reasons (thanks to anti-collusion laws)to get together with your competitors to fix prices. Odd that he didn't mention the Congressional Budget Office report saying that corn ethanol raised the cost of food about $9 billion last year.

He points to a bushel of corn and tells us it can produce "three" gallons (almost) of clean (not true) renewable (not true) ethanol (while pointing at "three five-gallon" containers). He tells us that this bushel (56 pounds) will produce 17 pounds of distillers grains (while pointing at a container that contains about 50 pounds of distillers grain). He concludes by telling us that our home grown energy potential (corn ethanol) is "practically limitless" (also not true).

Friday, October 23, 2009

A2B verses A123

[Update May 23, 2010] Spotted another guy riding an A2B on the bike trail the other day so I thought I'd follow him to see how he used it. He was listening to an MP3 player and didn't have any rear view mirrors.

I clocked him at 20 mph the whole time except when he slowed down in traffic. He used his pedals once, briefly, as he climbed a short, fairly steep hill.

A few days later I spotted him again going in the opposite direction. Now I know where he lives and where he works!

[Update May 13, 2010] Spotted an A2B coming down the road yesterday. No pedaling. He turned a corner and headed up a hill. Again, no pedaling. That is not a bicycle. That's a scooter with pedals on it, commonly known as a moped. Is it cool for these quiet, underpowered mopeds to share bike lanes and trails? Sure. They're quiet, don't spew fumes, and as long as they don't exceed bicycle speed limits they are no more dangerous or obnoxious than a bicycle.

[Update April 4, 2010] I finally test rode an A2B. It does not have the ergonomics of a bicycle. Note in the picture how far forward the pedals are in relation to the seat. It feels like a kid's bike. You will be much more dependent on the battery, which means it will have less range and a shorter life for a given battery size. And if you have to pedal it home with a dead battery, consider calling your friend who owns a truck, at least in Seattle. I have a feeling that the battery won't last long because most will treat the A2B as a scooter rather than a bicycle.

The one I rode had been purchased used from the dealer. It had been returned (at least once) for a refund and the new owner was having his doubts. My guess is that the battery is grossly undersized for an electric scooter, which is how most owners treat it.

I've seen a couple of these A2B machines running around town. I finally spotted one on display at a scooter store. That's my electric bike parked next to it (videos of it in action found here and here). Some yahoo wanting to purchase an electric scooter to drive from his yacht at one end of a dock to the mailbox at the other end had waylaid the proprietor so I never got a chance to test ride it. You can find a video of a test ride done by the WSJ here.

From the above video:

"…after people ride it for a while they sort of quickly migrate through that phase of …[pedaling] …and, and usually when that surprise is, is discovered [that the pedals are mostly for show] it comes with a little, 'Wow!'"

I would describe the A2B as an electric moped disguised as an electric bicycle. Note in the video that it is described as an electric bike. Mopeds (motor--pedal, get it?) are scooters with pedals. In most, a gasoline engine provides the power. The engine is limited to something less than one horsepower, which allows you to ride one without a license in most states. The pedals are a necessary evil to help you get up hills and to get rolling. There is no way you would want to try to pedal one home if you ran out of gas. The same is true for the A2B unless home is at the bottom of the hill you're on.

Mopeds also differ from a scooter because, like a bicycle, they have larger diameter wheels. A tiny wheel diameter will help you get up hills and to get started from a dead stop, but it requires a lot of RPM to go fast. RPM is limited on bikes by our human geometry, thus the bigger wheel diameter and poor hill climbing ability--a trade off for speed on flat surfaces. RPM is less limited on mopeds, thus the slightly smaller wheel diameter, and scooters with high RPM single-stroke engines can get really high revolutions, thus the really small wheels.

Why market the A2B as an electric bike? Bicycles are often chosen over scooters because the law treats scooters like little tiny cars (sans armor plating). But riding a scooter in traffic is viewed by many as a death wish. Bicycle laws provide a measure of flexibility to protect riders from cars. They can ride beside the road, share pathways with pedestrians, and in most places, on sidewalks as long as pedestrians are given right of way. A bike can also go off-road if needed, be thrown on a bike rack, or lugged into your living room.

The A2B will stick out like a sore thumb on a bike trail or sidewalk, especially since most people apparently don't bother to pedal it.

A bicycle that you have to pedal (where the electric assist really is just an assist) is no more of a hazard than any other bicycle adhering to speed limits but lines have to be drawn. We can't let scooters and motorcycles on pathways and sidewalks just because they keep it under 20 mph. IMHO, if you are not using your legs to move you should not be on a bike trail or sidewalk.

If you are forced to ride this thing in traffic at all times, why not bite the bullet and get a scooter?

The battery only has a one-year warranty. This is the problem with virtually all-electric vehicles at the moment. The batteries suck. I've been using mine for three years with no noticeable drop in performance but you can't get A123 batteries on a commercially produced bike …yet.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Carnage in the bike lanes streets

(Photo credit coffeego via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Two recent articles have motivated me to do another biking post. First up is this one, from Science Daily

Despite the wide-spread attention paid to the importance of wearing helmets, helmet use did not change during the time period of the study, and more than 33 percent of 329 bicycle injury victims had a significant head injury. Even more alarming, the number of chest injuries increased by 15 percent and abdominal injuries rose three-fold over the last five years. “We were astounded by that data,”

“We’re talking about injured spleens and livers, internal bleeding, rib fractures, and hemothorax [blood in the chest]. Those kinds of injuries are reflected by an increase in injury severity score,” he added.

The study was done in Denver, apparently a very bicycle friendly city. I would hate to see the data from Seattle's Harborview trauma center.

In a nutshell, increased bike traffic without improved bike infrastructure = carnage. The only way to motivate politicians to prioritize bicycle infrastructure is to motivate their voting constituencies. The snarling car drivers should take a back seat. Life is a power struggle but it never hurts to hold the moral high ground when attempting to plant a meme.

The second post was from Treehugger. The picture of the little girl who lost both of her parents is just heartrending.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yet another DIY solar hot water project

I've been meaning to build a solar hot water system for some time now. I will post on my progress periodically, including details for anyone wanting to learn from my mistakes. Although I've read everything I could find on the Internet about solar hot water, I'm sure there is a lot I don't know but will soon find out.

By doing it myself I'll be able to pass on what I learn. One critique of solar is the expense. Telling people "I then paid $9,000 to have solar hot water installed" does not make for interesting reading. It irritates me that something this simple can cost as much as an economy car. I also like the idea of recycling materials when practical. The Internet, and Craigslist in particular, may save us all!

I recently got the ball rolling by picking up two glass panels that were being given away on Craigslist. They each measure 46 x 76 inches. I doubt if they are low iron (for less heat loss) and have no idea if they are tempered.

I also ordered two solar absorbers off the Internet that will fit under that glass. Building my own absorbers was clearly going to be time consuming, difficult, and expensive. I picked them up a few days ago at the trucking terminal. The crate had been smashed in on one side and I found out after unpacking them that both absorber panels had a damaged pipe and broken welds at the manifold. If you look closely you can make out the bent pipe on the left side.

Lesson number one, pay with Visa so you stand a chance of being compensated if your panels arrive with damage.

Although I'm not ready for one, I also checked Craigslist for new or like-new electric hot water heaters and found several available, some for free, some for a hundred bucks or so. I will remove the heating elements and use it to store water that was heated by passing it through copper heat exchangers in the solar panel drain down tanks with a low-powered circulation pump.

I spent a lot of time deliberating over the system design. I was very tempted to use the simplest design that provided the most energy per dollar invested using the minimum number of parts. It would run the clean water supply pump, one tank in addition to my existing hot water tank, no anti-freeze fluid, and no heat exchangers. You lose a lot of heat with heat exchangers and anti-freeze fluid.

However, because of the other engineering tradeoffs involved, I finally decided against that system. First, the above design is vulnerable to freeze damage. Because panels radiate heat up at the sky, the water in the tubes can freeze on a clear night even when the air temperature is above freezing. We have all seen this in action on our car front windows that slope back like a panel does. Several days a year you will notice that only your front window has frost on it. Decades of experience with designs that tried to prevent these panels from freezing by draining them when it gets cold with a complicated and unreliable valve system have proven that given time, they will one day freeze anyway when one of these valves fail. I tried to convince myself that I could manually drain the panels on cold nights but reality finally sunk in. Best not to deny reality just because you don't like it.

The next reason is overheat damage. This happens on hot summer days when you have all the hot water you need but the sun keeps heating the water trapped in the panels creating high temperatures and pressures. Repeatedly overheating and pressurizing your system will fatigue joints, melt rubber and plastic parts and eventually leading to failure or possibly to a hot water tank pressure relief valve opening. My panels will have to be able to handle continuous dry stagnation.

I chose a design that automatically (and in a fail-safe manner) drains the water out of the panels into holding tanks every time the pump stops running, which happens when the sun isn't shining because the pump is powered by a solar panel. If you live where the water is hard you will have to use special solar panel anti-freeze for the liquid pumped through the panels to prevent mineral scaling from building up. You can also use distilled water and be prepared to replace any that evaporates. Here in Seattle the water is very low on minerals. I suspect I can safely use tap water for a decade or two.

The pump will also stop running when the water has reached its max temperature and trips a heat sensor, which is also backed up by an overheat sensor for redundancy and safety. This solves the problem of overheating the system because there is no liquid in the panels to cause problems and because the system is open to atmospheric pressure (unpressurized).

The downsides are that I need another tank, two pumps, a heat exchanger, and about 20% more solar panel to make up for the losses associated with having to use exchangers.

Because my roof is not only two stories up, has a steep incline, and also happens to face the wrong way, I will put the panels on the ground right in my front yard, which faces south. This will make maintenance easy. I'll also have to make sure they look nice with no pipes showing.

Wish me luck and stay tuned. Feel free to chip in with advice to help me up the learning curve.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries

[Update 10/9/2010: A study was just published in Science (click here for full text--$ub reqd) that parallels a study published in Nature earlier]

Apparently, we've punched through three of those boundaries already, two of them big time. See here. You can read the entire paper in the journal Nature here.

Now, largely because of a rapidly growing reliance on fossil fuels and industrialized forms of agriculture, human activities have reached a level that could damage the systems that keep Earth in the desirable Holocene state.

Note that of the two causes listed, one of them is industrial agriculture, which is also wholly dependent on fossil fuels. I don't have the answer but it surely isn't mixing the products of industrial agriculture with fossil fuels and burning the unholy union in our SUVs.

What image does the term "industrialized forms of agriculture" conjure-up in your mind? I suspect that for most Americans it's corn. For me it is biofuel, which in America is synonymous with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel. In Europe it might be wheat (Hunger for biofuels will gobble up wheat surplus), in Kenya it might be jatropha (How a Biofuel 'Miracle' Ruined Kenyan Farmers), in Tanzania it could be just about anything (Public Fury Halts Biofuel Onslaught On Farmers), in Indonesia, the world's fourth third largest GHG emitter, palm oil will soon drive the wild orangutan to extinction and in South America, sugarcane is king.

We have tried to identify the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change.

The nine processes that define these planetary boundaries are as follows:

1) climate change
2) rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine)
3) interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
4) stratospheric ozone depletion
5) ocean acidification
6) global freshwater use
7) change in land use
8) chemical pollution
9) atmospheric aerosol loading

Items 1, 2 and 3 have already exceeded the boundaries, and not by just a little bit.

Records of Earth history show that large-scale ocean anoxic events occur when critical thresholds of phosphorus inflow to the oceans are crossed. This potentially explains past mass extinctions of marine life.

The air we breath is about 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen. The nitrogen is mostly inert, just taking up space in our lungs. We 6.7 billion human beings (soon to be 9 billion) have been grabbing this harmless nitrogen gas in the air and turning it into harmful nitrogen compounds. Sewage from both human beings and our domesticated animals and agricultural runoff from nitrogen fertilizers (another form of sewage) all ends up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

We are killing the oceans:

At about 400 locations worldwide, agricultural fertilizer and other pollutants flowing into rivers and deltas have created underwater conditions so low in oxygen that aquatic life can't survive. These locations are called dead zones …If we did no biofuels, and we just allowed for food production to increase …you still can't meet the hypoxia goals in the Gulf of Mexico. You still need to take mitigation actions even if we didn't produce biofuels.

The above photo shows trails of mud behind fishing trawlers as they scrape the bottom of the Gulf.

You can't kill the oceans and expect life on land as we know it to survive. It has happened before. The geologic record has shown that. It is called anoxia. The oceans lose their ability to hold enough oxygen to keep anaerobic bacteria at bay. These organisms emit things like sulfur compounds (the rotten egg smell) instead of CO2 as metabolism waste products and will kill all oxygen breathing lifeforms in the oceans.

Today's biofuels simultaneously exacerbate biodiversity loss and the nitrogen putrefaction of oceans and waterways, all the while releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases that had been locked up in forest and grassland carbon sinks to boot. How stupid is that? If you've been holding your breath waiting for politicians to save us, well, you can at least exhale now.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

A123 Is a Go

This is the type of battery I have been using in my hybrid electric bike since 2006. Each battery is good for 0.23 amp hours. I string forty together in a series/parallel configuration for a total of 4.6 amp hours.

Above is a picture of their new automotive class 20 amp hour battery.

I know first hand how well these batteries perform and it is nothing short of amazing. I'm still using the same ones and they still work like new (see here, and here).

A123 just launched their initial public offering and it was a huge success, raising $378 million. This is the real deal. Unlike corn ethanol refineries, which are just moonshine stills writ large, these batteries are a radical new technology and have been powering Dewalt's top-end power tools for about three years now. Back in 2006 investors thought they couldn't lose with the government guaranteeing a market for corn ethanol. According to

Pacific Ethanol soared to $42 per share in May 2006 and now are worth about 57 cents. VeraSun, an ethanol maker thought to have huge potential a few years ago, is now bankrupt.

However, nothing is for sure. They may have a killer technology, but that does not mean somebody won't come along with an even better battery. One misstep like a giant battery recall due to a manufacturing flaw could end it all. There may be health concerns about the nano particles used, patent infringement claims, or even lithium shortages. It's a complicated world.

Our government seems to think they have potential, having just awarded them a $250 million DOE grant. But that same government still backs corn ethanol so maybe this is a bad sign.

I called this shot way back in 2006. As I always say, the secret is to call lots of shots, highlighting only the ones that pan out.

Corn Ethanol Shuts Down Police Cruisers

(Updates have been added at the end of this post)

According to Green Inc., lab tests have confirmed that a high ethanol blend was to blame for taking about 70 police cars out of service in Baltimore.

At first it was suspected that diesel had contaminated the fuel. Here is a video of the mechanics flushing out the fuel injectors.

According to the maintenance supervisor in that video the cars were misfiring and some were running on only two cylinders resulting in low power. If you have ever fantasized about escaping from the police in a high-speed chase, you just missed your chance.

I suspect that the ethanol flushed residue out of the gas tank, fuel lines, pumps, etc clogging filters and injectors.

This made the news because it was a fleet of police cars. This is proof that there are millions of cars out there ending up in repair shops because of ethanol. Had this been a gas station in the middle of the city serving the general public, hundreds of cars would have ended up in repair shops but because each car would have been in a different shop, nobody would have known about the problem. Many repair shops suspect this is happening but why make a stink about something that is so good for business? Statistically speaking, this has to be happening all over the place. There are likely tens of millions of cars out there that are susceptible to higher ethanol blends.

And then there is the slow, methodical degradation of old rubber seals in older cars by constant exposure to 10% ethanol blends. These cars will fail randomly instead of in large numbers all at once. They will not be detectable without a statistical search of repair databases.

For the older car I drive, it cost me about a $100 to replace my fuel filter, $400 to replace damaged injectors, and $800 to replace a fuel pump. I have replaced all three in the last two years, plus my gas cap, which had a rubber seal that fell apart in my hands.

Low-income people tend to drive older cars, which are the most susceptible to ethanol. As rubber ages it becomes brittle and develops cracks, which can increase the area exposed to ethanol a hundred fold. But the politicians pushing to increase the ethanol blend to 15% are not worried about poor people, who don't vote or line politician's pockets with contributions.

Update 10/4:

From an article dated 9/22:,0,7240327.story

"..Tests were being conducted at a Towson lab to determine the precise problem, but officials say they were looking into whether the gas station's unleaded tank might have been filled with diesel fuel.."

The lab results arrived the next day as confirmed in an article dated 9/23:,0,1002895.story

"..Officials had expressed concern that the unleaded gasoline might have been mistakenly refilled with diesel, but results from a lab in Towson showed that ethanol was the apparent culprit.."

Next up, in an article dated 9/28:

The President of the company (Charlie Joanedis) that supplied the gasoline told Jay Hancock that he had a sample of the fuel in question sent to

"..a petroleum inspection company ..the gas was 10 percent ethanol -- just what it was supposed to be.."

To recap, on 9/23 a lab test (submitted by the city) found ethanol to be the problem and on 9/28 test results (submitted by the fuel supplier) found everything was hunky-dory--nothing wrong with the fuel at all and neither report made any mention of diesel contamination. If you had to bet your first born on it, which test result would you believe?

Now things start to really get confusing. In an article dated 9/30:

Blogger, Jay Hancock gets confused, sending us back to the original 9/22 article when diesel was first suspected (but rejected the next day after the lab results came back) thinking it was a newer article blaming diesel again. It appears that Hancock failed to check the date on the article, which was 9/22. Sigh.

It gets worse. The NYT blog Green Inc. followed suit in an article dated 9/30, also linking back to the original 9/22 article, apparently also mistaking it for a new article:

Word of advice to my fellow bloggers. Always check the dates on articles and it never hurts to read more than just the headline while you are there.

And while we are revisiting this let's look into some of these theories offered by the President of the company that sold the fuel to the city. From this link dated 9/28:

"..Joanedis [president of the fuel company] wondered why only police cars and not other city vehicles seemed to be affected …"

Nice effort but according to the original article dated 9/22, they were not the only vehicles affected:,0,7240327.story

"..Jeremy Ark, who said he is the fleet manager for a Maryland Transit Administration contractor that provides services for the disabled, said he had 17 buses break down beginning Friday afternoon .."

He then offers up another hypothesis:

"..Perhaps the Chevies were unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September.."

Perhaps ….but if "Chevies" are unusually sensitive to normal seasonal changes in the gas formula that take place at the end of September, then why are the roadsides all across the country not littered with stalled Chevies (not to mention that Sept 21 is not the end of September)?

The bottom line is this. Every car make and model is different and will be impacted differently by ethanol blends. This is especially true for older cars. The impacts may be immediate (like lower mileage, rough running, stalling) or long term (slow degradation of seals and corrosion of metal by water absorbed by ethanol). That, in a nutshell, is why we invented the flex fuel car, which is still only good up to 85% ethanol.

Unlike American cars, cars in Brazil where ethanol blends have been 22% since 1993 are all designed to run on that higher blend. According to Wikipedia:

"..All Brazilian automakers have adapted their gasoline engines to run smoothly with these range of mixtures, thus, all gasoline vehicles are built to run with blends from E20 to E25, defined by local law as "Common gasoline type C". Some vehicles might work properly with lower concentrations of ethanol, however, with a few exceptions, they are unable to run smoothly with pure gasoline which causes engine knocking, as vehicles traveling to neighboring South American countries have demonstrated.."

[Update 5/13/2010]

More cars taken out of action by too much ethanol:

All came out of the same pump during the same time frame," Cohen said.

Dominick Garretson, assistant service manager of Honda of Nanuet, said his mechanics have "had our hands full of vehicles."

He said whatever is in the tanks has been "eating up" the engine. There is damage to catalytic converters, fuel systems and spark plugs. Repair costs could range from $500 to $5,000.

(Photo credit 888bailbond via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Status Symbols on Horizon

According to the Edmunds Green Car Advisor blog, Mitsubishi has already sold out the first production run of it's electric car, the i-MiEV. And you are right. That isn't a picture of the i-MiEV above. It's a near-clone called the Blue Car that incorporates a capacitor along with the batteries. Here's the real deal.

The i-MiEV is based on the Mitsubishi i. It's expensive and will therefore have limited mass appeal. But envy, as is always the case, will drive a demand for similar cars that cost less and the market will meet that demand. I predict that the i-MiEV will do for the electric car market what the Prius (highest selling model in Japan, 14th out of 350 in U.S.) has done for the hybrid market.

And then there is the Audi e-tron. According to gas2.0, this concept car will be on display at the Frankfurt Auto Show. It is purported to produce "a full thousand more lb-ft of torque than the 'world’s strongest' semi truck." Good God.

I was motivated to do this post by an article over on the Dot Earth blog dealing with the dog-eared mantra that human beings can simply choose to stop consuming (or having sex for that matter). That idea is barking up the wrong tree. Human beings need to seek status. We need to provide more environmentally benign ways to satisfy that subliminal and almost totally ignored instinctive urge.

Here's the comment I left on Dot Earth:

They are on the right track, but the problem isn't consumption per se, but conspicuous consumption. They should join forces with evolutionary psychologists to better understand what drives us to want more and more material possessions. Man cannot live by vacations alone.

We seek bigger and more in a largely subconscious attempt to advance or hold our place in our monkey troop status hierarchy. Opioid release is how evolution goads us to seek status. If it feels good, you tend to want to do it. Sexual urges are closely related to status seeking urges, but more obvious.

The market would respond (and I suspect it is already beginning to do so) to an increase in demand for more environmentally benign status symbols. The Prius is presently the fastest selling car in Japan and the i-MiEV electric car has already sold out its first production run in pre-orders.

Update: A tipster reminded me of the Nissan LEAF, due to arrive next year and go into mass production in 2012.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Are biofuels really worse than Canadian oil sands?

Hardi Baktiantoro

Does it matter? What do biofuels have to do with oil sands? This is called a logical fallacy. Specifically it is a false dilemma in which only two alternatives are assumed (biofuels or oil sands), when in reality the options are not mutually exclusive, related, or even dependent on one another.

I borrowed this title from a post by John Guerrerio over on

When several scientific studies began publishing reports that supported the common sense contention that food-based biofuels usurp farmland the Renewable Fuels Association (which just spent almost a quarter of a million dollars last quarter on lobbying) had to cobble together some kind of defense.

Bob Dinneen, head of the RFA, has been using the Huffington Post blog to disseminate this false dilemma, see here and here.

I'd debate John on the Examiner blog in the comments but they only allow a thousand words characters and no active links to verify claims. So I have to take him to task here.

In some ways biofuels are worse, and in some ways they are not, depending on what metric you are measuring and what biofuel you are talking about. For example, tar sands do not have nearly the impact on food prices, biodiversity, or the Rhode Island sized Gulf of Mexico Dead zone as corn ethanol, but corn ethanol produces less GHG than oil from tar sand (although not less than conventional gasoline depending on type of land displaced, nitrous oxide released from fertilizers, and time given to displace fossil fuels).

In addition, "biofuels" can be gaseous, liquid, or solid. They can come from landfill gas, used restaurant grease, or our food supply. They can help drive the orangutan to extinction as is the case with palm oil, or capture a powerful green house gas as is the case with manure treatment methane digesters.

At some point, environmentalists are going to have to face some harsh realities. In addition to subsidizing and mandating the use of environmentally destructive corn ethanol our politicians have just permitted the construction of a pipeline to deliver oil made from Canadian tar sands. Jobs, pork barrel politics, and the illusion of energy independence will always trump environmental issues.

The market funds Canadian oil to satiate consumer demand while corn ethanol is kept out of bankruptcy via subsidization by taxpayers who are then forced to consume it via government fiat. It does not matter which is worse in the aggregate. Both ideas are worse than just using regular sources of petroleum and certainly worse than investing in the replacement of our conventional internal combustion engine car technology, which wastes 80% of the fuel in a gas tank regardless of what it is made from.

Here is a study for example that measured several types of biofuels against their fossil fuel equivalent and found in most cases that biofuels were actually worse and this does not even include land displacement or higher than realized nitrous oxide releases from nitrogen fertilizers (which can make corn ethanol up to 50% worse than gasoline).

Ironically, in this post, John tells us about the latest finding from NOAA:

The report shows that nitrogen emissions from natural processes are basically static, while manmade emissions such as the nitrogen fertilization of agricultural soils and fossil-fuel combustion have been growing steadily…

Whoosh, right over his head.

And here's a nice piece of contradiction where he begrudgingly concedes that:

While factorially ommissive [sic] in its considerations, the Nature Conservancy report's ulitmate [sic] finding, "Energy sprawl deserves to be one of the metrics by which energy production is assessed", is a good one that should enter into the debate on energy.

Factorially? The Nature Conservancy, as you might guess, is all about conservation. Conservationists (hunters and fishermen) are often "conservative." In a masterful piece of diplomacy, these researchers coined a new term for indirect land use change (a term the RFA and the likes of John here have been busily denigrating) called "energy sprawl." It's like an atheist calling herself a secular humanist in an attempt to dodge the negative connotation religionists have given to the word atheist. It’s a robust term because to denigrate it you have to defend sprawl.

In the above article John tells us that the Nature Conservancy is just as wrong as every other researcher that has findings not supportive of food based biofuels. Biofuel missionaries are prone to cherry pick their science.

I know this post is getting long but I have just barely scraped the surface. I begin the line by line parsing below:

The simplified argument against biofuels states that "cutting down forests to clear more land for growing biofuel crops could double greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years", according to Wilson School research scholar Timothy Searchinger.

The concept is simple to understand, not simplified. If you divert food into gas tanks, someone will make up the difference by putting more land under the plow.

Critics rush to judgement against biofuels saying that it is not intelligent to spend money in this way, but these sme critics remain silent when it comes to figuring the direct land use costs associated with increasing our oil supply with imports from the Canadian oil sands.

The dozens of recent peer reviewed studies have hardly rushed to judgment. Claiming that biofuel critics are not also critical of oil from tar sands is a strawman argument. The land displaced by tar sands is minuscule on a gallon per gallon basis compared to food based biofuels.

A recent report by WWF highlights some of the direct costs of Canada's dirty oil.

Unlike John, who feels compelled to refute the Nature Conservancy study in defense of food-based biofuels, I wouldn't want to refute the WWF study. But don't fall for this false dilemma. Oil sand has nothing to do with biofuels. In addition, here is what the WWF said to Obama in 2008:

Reconsider corn-based ethanol and support the development of best-practice performance standards. The demand for biofuels has increased food prices and accelerated deforestation that releases as much CO2 as gets saved at the tailpipe. Biofuels have a role to play in our response to climate change, but the rush to produce them has been ill-considered. The administration should support the development of performance-based standards to ensure that biofuels are part of the solution, not the problem.

John continues ...

Using biofuels to power our vehicles reduces overall emissions.

Again, no. How badly a biofuel increases emissions depends on what kind it is, where it is grown, and how many decades or centuries it will be grown. This has been documented in several studies now. From Wikipedia:

"Ad nauseam" arguments are logical fallacies relying on the repetition of a single argument to the exclusion of all else. This tactic employs intentional obfuscation, in which other logic and rationality is intentionally ignored in favour of preconceived (and ultimately subjective) modes of reasoning and rationality.

He continues ...

For this reason, the debate over whether or not to commercially produce biofuels has shifted to include these indirect costs associated with chopping down forests or taking land out of conservation status to grow plants to turn into fuel that we hear about so much in the media. Have these anti-biofuel number crunchers seen the landscape of the Canadian oil sands development? Can biofuel production really destroy a forest worse than this or this or this?

"Anti-biofuel number crunchers?" I think he means authors of published peer reviewed science papers. He goes on to link to photos of tar sand mining, which is analogous to coal mining except you get a liquid fuel instead of a solid one.

"Destroy a forest worse?" A destroyed forest is destroyed. It is a step function, not a matter of degree. It is destroyed or it is not. And yes biofuel production really can destroy forests just as bad. But the real clincher is that most of the destruction done by biofuels is in tropical forests, which are far more biologically diverse and store far more carbon than high latitude northern forests. It takes decades to centuries to recapture the carbon released by a destroyed forest.

From here:

"…The area of rainforest in the process of being deforested — razed but not yet cleared — surged in the Brazilian Amazon during 2008…"

"…24,932 square kilometers of Amazon forest was damaged between August 2007 and July 2008, an increase of 10,017 square kilometers -- 67 percent -- over the prior year. The figure is in addition to the 11,968 square kilometers of forest that were completely cleared, indicating that at least 36,900 square kilometers of forest were damaged or destroyed during the year

"…The surge in activity is attributed to the sharp rise in commodity prices over the past two years. While grain and meat prices have plunged since March, higher prices have provided an impetus for converting land for agriculture and pasture. Accordingly, the burning season of 2007 (July-September) saw record numbers of fires in some parts of the Amazon as farmers, speculators, and ranchers set vast areas ablaze to prepare for the 2008 growing season

"…U.S. consumption of corn to supply domestic ethanol production created a global corn frenzy which drove up prices and spurred expansion of croplands around the planet. Two examples are Brazil and Laos. Brazil increased production of soy to essentially make up for soy acreage lost to corn in America. In Laos (pictured), returns from corn were so high that Vietnamese traders pressured national park officials to open up protected areas in parts of the country to corn fields. They refused.

"…falling grain prices early in the year coincided with a sharp slowing in deforestation. As food and fuel prices peaked through late 2007 and early 2008, it appeared that Amazon deforestation would climb to levels not seen since 2005 — more than 15,000 square kilometers were expected to be lost. The sudden downturn changed all that. When the final numbers came in for 2008, they showed that deforestation only increased a modest 3.8% to 11,968 square kilometers…."

He continues ...

One square kilometer is roughly 247 acres, so the Canadian oil sands cover roughly 34.5 million acres.

That number represents the total area of tar sands in Canada, not what is actually being mined and according to Wikipedia, only ten percent of those reserves are concentrated enough to be economically mined. So, make that 3.5 million acres, or 5,400 square miles. You could drive a car at 60-mph around a circle that big in 4 hours. Our ethanol crop alone usurps about 30,000 square miles every year, never mind the impact of canola, soy, palm, and cane, and the area of land converted to biofuel crops grows every year along with government mandates for biofuel use.

Joule Technologies with their 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year technology could make 691,600,000,000 gallons of biofuel on the very same spot in Canada that we have already clearcut for oil sands production.

What does this have to do with food-based biofuels? This is another case of bait and switch. Not that I wouldn't support a magical technology like that, but good God, Joule Technologies is just another snake oil sales firm. How naïve can you get? The EPA was counting on Cello for most of our cellulosic fuel next year, a company just convicted of fraud.

Why do biofuels get strapped with ILUCs until their production capabilities are so hindered with doubt that investors run for the hills, while oil sand development gets a free ride?

Note that John's argument oscillates between calling land use change a crock, and claiming oil sands are just as land intensive (land use change isn't a crock), one argument contradicting the other. The EPA looked into the land use issues associated with tar sand oil and found what I did. Gallon for gallon, and over all they are not anywhere near as land intensive as today's food-based biofuels. This is a false dilemma, don't fall for the bait and switch.

The simple fact of the matter is that biofuels will never be as dirty as the oil sands in Canada, both in terms of energy cost to extract it and environmental degradation from its recovery.

The term "dirty" is not well defined. This is a debate technique where you deliberately choose words that can mean just about anything. It is left to the imagination. And he is flat out wrong about the energy balance of corn ethanol being better than oil sands. Roughly 70% of the energy contained in a gallon of corn ethanol came from fossil fuels. His contention that the environmental degradation gallon for gallon of tar sands is worse than corn ethanol is also pure conjecture.

Note how he conflates the fact that tar sand oil is more carbon intensive than food-based biofuels with land displacement use issues. Don’t fall for it.

We ought to be placing the the same level of scrutiny upon our fossil fuel industry that we are placing on biofuels. Since 'experts' say biofuels cannot sustain our society, we dont't foster their development; the same experts say that oil can no longer sustain our society, and we throw billions of dollars at securing the resource for the common sense.

The above comment is riddled with errors. For starters "we" do scrutinize fossil fuels. Our politicians ignore that scrutiny for personal gain, just as they are allowing continued subsidization and mandated use of corn ethanol.

It is a strawman to say that because biofuels can't sustain our society that we don't foster their development. The government is flushing billions down the toilet on corn ethanol and cellulosic. The government isn't throwing billions of dollars at Canadian oil, we consumers are. That is being driven by and paid for by the market, not by government handouts. I agree that our government should not allow the use of such a carbon intense fuel. The hard reality is that oil is fungible. If we don't buy it, someone else will.

Perhaps a closer look at today's biofuel technology will reveal that the ILUCs for biofuel are far lower than the direct costs associated with oil sands and OCS driling as well as mountaintop mining practices in Appalachia. We need to start looking at the costs of the alternatives to biofuels and comparing production them.

The above comment continues the attempt to connect tar sand oil to biofuels. There is no connection. Why would a serious researcher compare apples to oranges? Direct costs obviously favor tar sand oil over biofuels, which is why one has to be subsidized and use mandated and one does not. One is kept out of bankruptcy only by continued government largess and the other sustains a profit in the market. Biofuels disrupt food supplies, destroy vast carbon sinks and biodiversity. The tar sand oil creates more CO2 than conventional oil but usurps very little in the way of carbon sinks and biodiversity.

We are already getting oil from Canadian oil sands; biofuels definitely stack up cleaner than the oil sands process.

Here we go with the vague terms again. What exactly is the definition of "cleaner?" This is also pure conjecture, but even if future scientific studies prove biofuels "cleaner," there still is no connection between tar sand oil and biofuels.