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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Unintended Consequences of Government Mandated Biofuel Consumption

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

 Food Deficit

A recent article by George Monbiot explains one of the potential ramifications of diverting grains into fuel. Thanks to extreme weather around the globe:
 ”…this is also a year of food deficit, in which we will consume (31 million tons) more grain than farmers produced. If 2013′s harvest does not establish a new world record, the poor are in serious trouble.”
His main point is that thanks to a growing demand for food driven by an increasing population and improving standards of living, along with the conversion of grains into fuel, the world has to break harvest records every year to keep up. Thanks to grain reserves, humanity can weather years that don’t break records, but failing to break records for two or three years in a row means hunger for hundreds of millions because the price of food will spike as speculators capitalize on the fact that low supply relative to demand equates to higher prices. If weather extremes become more and more common, the odds of running out of reserves becomes more and more likely. (See more: Midwestern Drought, Ethanol, & Renewable Fuel Standard)

It is the prediction of things like mass starvation that help prevent things like mass starvation. This self-nullifying tendency is why a lot of predictions fail to materialize. Ignoring the prediction of massive traffic jams due to road construction could mean that you are the only one on the road because everyone else heeded the prediction, or it could mean that you are stuck in gridlock because you were not alone in ignoring it.

European Union Response

Finally acknowledging the fact that converting food into fuel exacerbates this potential, the European Union has begun the process of scaling back how much biofuel can be made from food. 

From Nature:
French President Francois Hollande last week called an emergency meeting of G20 agriculture ministers. They are due to meet in Rome on Tuesday (16 October) to consider a coordinated response to the sharp spike in food prices that has followed the worst US drought in decades. France is to put global biofuels production at the heart of the discussion.
Last week, a government spokesman told reporters after a French cabinet meeting that Paris “will push for a pause in the development of biofuels competing with food”.
Understandably, European farmers are not happy with this development because the conversion of food into fuel translates into higher grain prices, i.e., biofuel mandates create a chronic shortage.

United States Response

Here in the U.S., corn farmers who got enough rain are breaking out the champagne. Producers of corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are reducing production because with the price of feedstock so high, the more they produce, the more money they stand to lose. Not to worry. Consumption of their product is mandatory. They just have to hold on until blenders run out of credits (by blending more than legally necessary in some years, blenders earn credits that allow them to blend less at other times) and will be forced to pay what ethanol producers need to make a profit again. In the end consumers will pay for everything.

Today’s low natural gas prices (most energy in a gallon of corn ethanol is derived from natural gas as is the methanol used to make biodiesel) are not enough to offset the very high grain prices. (See more: Methanol versus Ethanol: Technical Merits and Political Favoritism)

Impact On Other Businesses

Because these record high grain prices are also hurting other industries that use corn and soy, the governors of eight states containing a lot of those industries are being lobbied to pressure the EPA to waive the mandate to blend ethanol, which in turn, concerns those who gamble for a living betting on the price of food commodities. A waiver of the mandate would release a lot of grain onto the market which would cause them to lose their shirts.

This of course, has all been said before. There are two differences this time around. One is the growing body of evidence of more frequent severe weather and its impact on agriculture. The other is the move by the European Union to reduce the use of food stock for biofuels.

Nissan Leaf Range Issues

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

A group of Nissan Leaf owners recently conducted a test in Arizona to see if high ambient summer temperatures in Arizona have  permanently reduced the capacity of their batteries to hold a charge.

 Does the Leaf go as far as advertised?

From Tony Williams, organizer of the group that tested the twelve Leafs:
“If you need the car to go that mythical 100 miles that Nissan advertises, first know that it never really went 100 miles for the typical US consumer.”
That conclusion, of course, depends entirely on your definition of myth and  “typical US consumer” (a term not used by Nissan on its U.S. website). Click here and then click on one of the colored boxes to see how far a Leaf will go for a variety of driving conditions.

The first question any Leaf owner gets is “How far will it go?” My standard answer is, “Around 100 miles if you’re tooling around town, and roughly 70-75 miles on the highway.” As that chart attests, the car is quite capable of going further than 100 miles especially if you minimize interstate highway speeds. The electric-only range estimates of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid are just as dependent on speed but because it automatically starts sucking gas when the charge is used up, the fact that it may not go as far as hoped on a charge is largely a moot point.

Jump on the nearest bicycle and try to make it go 40 miles an hour. The only thing stopping you (gearing permitting) is wind resistance, which increases exponentially with velocity. You would have no problem riding a bicycle 40 miles an hour on the moon where there is no wind resistance.
Interestingly enough, most conventional cars using internal combustion engines actually get better mileage on the freeway. It’s complicated, but in a nutshell, that’s because conventional cars are so inefficient in city driving scenarios (braking and engine acceleration losses) that those inefficiencies actually exceed wind resistance losses below a given speed.
 Analysis of the test results

I was putting together an analysis of their test data when I found a blog post by Mark Larson that beat me to the punch.

Click here to read his report AZ Leaf Capacity Kerfuffle: Much Ado About Nothing?

The above graph, published by Larson, summarizes the test results.

The table above, also created by Larson, summarizes the data in a different format.

This test would never pass muster in the world of science, where a hypothesis is proposed and tested using methods to minimize researcher bias. These guys were out to prove that the capacity of their batteries had been reduced by exposure to extreme heat beyond what the published specifications would predict. When any researcher sets out to prove he’s right, he will invariably manage to do so, at least until his research is peer reviewed or attempts are made to duplicate results. That is why the scientific method was invented.

There is a simple, relatively crude gauge, in the Leaf dashboard to warn owners when their battery won’t hold as much charge as it did when new. Nissan has suggested that some of these gauges may be out of calibration (possibly because of the extreme heat) and may be providing overly conservative estimates of battery life. Lo and behold, one of the cars in the test with a gauge indication of just 10 bars out of 12 went further than any other car.

The fact that more than one of the twelve cars tested by the Leaf owners had gauges that were not accurately indicating battery capacity suggests that a significant number of  Leafs may have gauges that exaggerate battery capacity loss.
In short, this paper failed its peer review. The test actually proved that:
  1.  Out-of-calibration gauges really are contributing to misperceptions.
  2.  All but two of the twelve cars thought to be damaged were actually performing within or just a few percentage points outside of the range band stated in a published Nissan technical bulletin (76 to 84 mile range when consuming energy at a rate of 4 miles/kWh at 70 degrees F ambient air temperature).
Again, from Williams, organizer of the group that tested the twelve Leafs:
“It was sheer stupidity to tell this group of owners that the batteries are ok…”
That conclusion, of course, depends entirely on your definition of OK, and stupidity. Larson’s analysis of the test results (which I concur with) didn’t jive with some Leaf owner’s misperceptions:
 “What I cannot see anywhere in these data is evidence that a Leaf is only achieving half its original range after one year, nor that another Leaf has lost 30% of its capacity in the same amount of time, nor that yet another is losing its capacity at 3 times the rate as anybody else, nor that a relatively new Leaf has lost 9% of its range in only one month.”
 Temperature impact on battery life and performance

Rightly or wrongly, Nissan never claimed that the batteries would perform per that specification no matter what and has warned from day one (in the owner’s manual and in a waiver signed at purchase) that exposing batteries to high ambient temperatures will likely permanently reduce their energy storage capacity faster than what would be expected for batteries not exposed to such temperatures.

Following is an excerpt from that disclaimer from the Williams analysis:

Nissan was anticipating that some cars would be driven in places like, say, Death Valley, or maybe Phoenix during record heat waves. It is likely that these car batteries were affected by heat.
 Click on the pink box in this link to get a feel for how much low temperatures can impact range.
The Leaf owner’s manual makes it clear that the rate of battery degradation will depend on how it is treated over its life.  From my owner’s manual:
The capacity of the Li-ion battery in your vehicle to hold a charge will, like all such batteries, decrease with time and usage. As the battery ages and capacity decreases, this will result in a decrease from the vehicle’s initial mileage range. This is normal, expected,and not indicative of any defect in your Li-ion battery. NISSAN estimates that battery capacity will be approximately 80% of original capacity after five years, although this is only an estimate, and this percentage may vary (and could be significantly lower) depending on individual vehicle and Li-ion battery usage.
Use of quick charge should be minimized in order to help prolong Li-ion battery life.

NISSAN recommends charging the Li-ion battery using the long life mode to help maximize the Li-ion battery useful life.

To prevent damage to the Li-ion battery do not expose a vehicle to ambient temperatures above 120 degrees F for over 24 hours.
If the outside temperature is −13 degrees F or less, the Li-ion battery may freeze and it cannot be charged or provide power to run the vehicle. Move the vehicle to a warm location.
 Passive battery cooling an engineering faux pas?

 Some pundits are questioning the wisdom of Nissan’s decision not to use an active battery cooling system.

Heat is an anticipated potential issue for a few dozen cars in very hot places. Certainly for 99% of the Leafs in the world, the passive system is perfectly adequate. Because there is no such thing as a free lunch, is it a good idea to saddle all cars with the weight, complexity, cost, and energy consumption penalties that come with an active cooling system (pumps, fans, tubes, hoses, radiators, coolant) just for a handful of cars (one or two percent of all Leafs sold in the world) in very hot places even when the owners signed a waiver?

It might be cheaper to buy back a few cars than stick all Leaf owners with that engineering trade off. The plug-in hybrid Volt recalled 8,000 vehicles for safety reasons. Recalls, retrofits and buybacks are common even with conventional cars.

 Nissan’s response

 At the time of my writing this article, Nissan had bought back two Leafs in the Arizona. They also took seven Leafs from owners complaining of reduced range back to their test facility for evaluation.
Nissan’s test results:
  • Nissan identified seven LEAF owners in the Phoenix area who had reported concerns with their vehicles. Nissan brought the cars to its Arizona test facility, removed the batteries for evaluation, measured capacity, and conducted voltage testing on individual battery cells.
  • The Nissan LEAFs inspected in Arizona are operating to specification and their battery capacity loss over time is consistent with their usage and operating environment. No battery defects were found.
  • A small number of Nissan LEAF owners in Arizona are experiencing a greater than average battery capacity loss due to their unique usage cycle, which includes operating mileages that are higher than average in a high-temperature environment over a short period of time.
  • In Arizona, we have approximately 450 LEAFs on the road. Based on actual vehicle data, we project the average vehicle in that market to have battery capacity of 76 percent after five years—or a few percentage points lower than the global estimate. Some vehicles in Arizona will be above this average, and some below. Factors that may account for this differential include extreme heat, high speed, high annual mileage and charging method and frequency of the Nissan LEAFs in the Phoenix market.
They may eventually have to offer consumers a hot climate cooling package for a few thousand extra, similar to the quick charge package I paid for (but have never used …that is now standard). Seattle residents would not need a cooling package.
Expectations and a Class Action Lawsuit

Williams, author of the independent Leaf owner study tells us:
I planned, and completed a promotional trip from Mexico to Canada, “BC2BC”, in June 2012 with my Nissan LEAF. However, my first car could not complete the trip as planned, due to its reduced range capability, so I leased my current LEAF, built in April 2012 and took delivery at the end of May. Now, with 7000 miles (11000 km), and only 3 months of actual use, this car could not complete the trip that it did in June. During the BC2BC trip, several times I arrived with 4%-5% capacity remaining, which means today, just a few months later, I would come up 4%-5% short. This car has never been exposed to the heat of Phoenix, although it was 104F (40C) in San Jose, California the one day that I was there.
He’s convinced that his new Leaf is also deficient even though it has never been exposed to “the heat of Phoenix.” What are the odds?

I strongly suspect that there’s nothing wrong with his car. I see the problem largely as a matter of expectations. Anyone who keeps careful track of car mileage (like my wife in her Prius) knows that it varies all over the place, usually for reasons unknown. Electric cars are no different in that respect. But, as common sense might suggest, because an electric car only has an 80 mile gas tank instead of a 300 mile one, and because you can’t quickly refill it, you should avoid the edges of its range envelope.

It just isn’t wise to ever purposely drive this generation of electric car to within 5% of its potential range estimate. In the sixteen months I’ve owned my Leaf I have done that exactly twice, and not on purpose (got lost). There are dozens of variables that you can’t control that impact range and with today’s slow rates of charge, you can’t count on filling up in a timely manner if you fall short.

Rule of thumb; if you can’t meet 95% of your annual driving needs within 75% of your car’s estimated range, don’t buy an electric car.

The entire concept of 120 and 240 volt public chargers (levels I and II respectively) seems like one of those “The Emperor has no clothes on” situations. It takes several hours to put a significant charge in a battery with these.  Why would anyone risk finding someone else already using that charger you were counting on (or finding that the charger is on the blink as is often the case), in order to get back home again?

I recently pulled in next to a Volt at a public charger at my local grocery store. I never bother to plug in because it isn’t worth a few cents of free electricity. I certainly don’t need that charge to get home. I asked the Volt owner why he bothered to plug in, which resulted in one of those awkward blank stares. The idea that maybe there was no good reason to plug in had not crossed his mind.

If I were offered more battery capacity for a fee, I’d decline. Because 99 percent of my driving missions are less than 50 miles, I already have more battery capacity than I need. I swap cars with a family member if I need to drive anywhere near the limit of my Leaf’s range. I have my car’s timer set to charge after 1:00 AM to 80% capacity to maximize battery life. I will on occasion charge it all the way up when I have a lot of driving to do the next day. If my daily commute took me to the edge of the Leaf’s range, I wouldn’t have bought it. Leaf owners who bought a Leaf needing to drive it to the edge of its range, quite simply, should have known better.

There are many people who bought Leafs who probably shouldn’t have and some of them are regretting it, as this recently filed class action lawsuit attests.

Having said all that, it will be interesting to see how Nissan now deals with what they already knew was coming–the fact that some owners would have faster than normal battery life degradation. Nissan may have underestimated how many people would experience early degradation because of where and how they are used, and just as importantly, how an American consumer would react to it.

Unplug — Discover The Forest

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

 I’ve seen several billboards around town with this image. I also saw it in an ad here on Consumer Energy Report. They’re part of a joint venture between the Ad Council and the USDA Forest Service. Here is a list of organizations supporting it. Every advertising executive knows that half of their money is being wasted. They just don’t know which half it is. In this case, I hope none of it is being wasted.
Forest fires have been getting bigger and more numerous. I listened to an NPR piece about how this is being called “the new normal.” The main driver appears to be decades of fire suppression that has allowed combustible brush and small trees to accumulate instead of allowing natural fires to periodically clear them out. The resulting infernos burn the mature trees that are normally impervious to smaller fires. The reporter stood on a ridge and looked out over a burned forest that extended as far as he could see. It isn’t expected to recover for thousands of years (i.e. never).

My own forest property is a bomb waiting for ignition. I am typically very critical of energy schemes that plan to burn biota in our cars and power plants. After watching the forest adjacent to my forest property be logged for paper pulp, I might support efforts to replace natural fires with the harvesting of brush and small trees to co-fire with coal, reducing the amount of coal consumed.

Coincidentally, I took the picture of that painted turtle to the right while camping this summer (full-size image here).
Forest fires have been getting bigger and more numerous. I listened to an NPR piece about how this is being called “the new normal.” The main driver appears to be decades of fire suppression that has allowed combustible brush and small trees to accumulate instead of allowing natural fires to periodically clear them out. The resulting infernos burn the mature trees that are normally impervious to smaller fires. The reporter stood on a ridge and looked out over a burned forest that extended as far as he could see. It isn’t expected to recover for thousands of years (i.e. never).

My own forest property is a bomb waiting for ignition. I am typically very critical of energy schemes that plan to burn biota in our cars and power plants. After watching the forest adjacent to my forest property be logged for paper pulp, I might support efforts to replace natural fires with the harvesting of brush and small trees to co-fire with coal, reducing the amount of coal consumed.

Obviously, mechanically harvesting that material is difficult and expensive, or paper pulp mills would do it instead of harvesting live trees. I’d also support laws that forced paper pulp to be made from thinning operations, although it would increase the cost of paper, but maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing either. I use very little paper anymore, and have practically lost the ability to write with a pen!

Ironically, Seattle has recently outlawed the use of plastic grocery bags. If you forget to bring cloth ones you can pay extra for paper bags, made out of trees. We always recycled our plastic grocery bags as trash can liners. Our supply has run out. I just purchased a box of plastic trash can liners.

George Monbiot summed up my thoughts on this topic nicely. Read Plastic bag obsession is carrier for environmental ignorance.

Is the U.S. Military Presence in the Middle East a Subsidy for Big Oil?

 Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report


Should the cost of maintaining a military presence in the Middle East be viewed as a subsidy to oil companies? This idea has been  repeated often enough to become unchallenged conventional wisdom codified by the “NO WAR FOR OIL” bumper sticker.

It has been argued that the Gulf and Iraq wars were not necessary to keep the global price of oil stable and neither is our continued military presence in the Middle East. There is no way to rerun the experiment to see what the world would look like had we not had the Gulf and Iraq wars. My guess is that the Gulf war was probably a smart move, the Iraq war,  maybe not so smart.

As for the continued military presence, it is money well spent if it is helping to maintain peace in the Middle East. As Steven Pinker effectively argues, one key to reduced levels of violence is an effective police force:
As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960′s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 am on October [7], 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.
In my neck of the woods the “No War for Oil”  bumper stickers are typically found on cars burning biodiesel because most biodiesel stations here give them away to promote their product. So, are these people really more concerned about world peace than the rest of us, or are  they just victims of marketing?  I cede the point that if it were not for oil (and Israel), our elected officials might do nothing to prevent a Middle East version of Darfur, but would that be a good thing?

Those who drive cars that use less liquid fuel have the right idea (TDI diesels, hybrids, and electric cars). Those who drive vehicles that simply replace fossil oil with food oil are IMHO, victims of marketing. Last week I was driving my Leaf in rush hour traffic and on two occasions I put my windows up so I wouldn’t have to breath the soot spewing out of two different vehicles burning biodiesel. Their smell will usually alert you to their presence.
The owners of these bumper stickers seem to think that if we stop importing oil:
  • Our economy will no longer be susceptible to oil price fluctuations.
  • We will no longer strive to maintain peace in the Middle East.
  • Our military budget will shrink.
But is any of that likely to happen if we stopped importing oil? And not to defend big oil, but why has the oil industry been singled out as the sole beneficiary of peace in the Middle East? The whole goal of maintaining that peace is to keep the “global” price of oil (the same price that we have to pay for it) lower, which is not the goal of any oil company I’m aware of.

Domestically Produced Fuel

There are two main reasons commonly cited  for why we would like to have all liquid fuel come from domestic sources:
  1. To keep the supply cost stable
  2. To reduce the trade imbalance
When we talk about supply we really mean supply relative to demand (shortages cause prices to rise and vice versa). In other words, what we are actually seeking is to stabilize cost. But because oil is fungible, domestic production won’t lower the price of oil significantly because those who own it are free to charge as much as the global market will bear:
The secret to making a profit in refining these days is for refiners to source crude oil domestically and then sell the refined products to US consumers at prices based on imported oil.
So scratch item one. Domestically produced oil does not necessarily significantly lower the price of gasoline for consumers.
Item two (reduction of the trade imbalance) is a moot point because we can’t reduce oil imports quite simply because we can’t produce significantly more domestic oil in perpetuity or displace much with agrofuels. The only way to accomplish a long-term reduction in imports is to reduce liquid fuel consumption, period, which has nothing to do with the military budget. And to do that you would have to convince your average American to start driving cars that get mileage similar to a Prius, or diesel Golf  instead of the best selling vehicle, the Ford F150 pickup.

It’s complicated. Earlier this year, along the Gulf coast, most of our imported oil ended up being exported after being converted into higher-priced gasoline and diesel (3.12 million barrels/day exported verses 5 million barrels/day imported), demonstrating how oil imports can actually reduce a trade imbalance.
After seven years of trying,  the idea that we can simply replace a significant (or even a measurable) amount of  imported oil with agrofuels at prices equal to or below the price of oil has proven to be a pipe dream. A few years ago Robert Rapier tried to quantify corn ethanol’s impact on imports but couldn’t find an impact, suggesting it is quite small to insignificant.

Midwest Drought

Food price, wildlife habitat, and water quality issues aside, the Midwest drought is demonstrating another reason why we should not become too dependent on agrofuels — price instability. Many corn ethanol refineries have been operating in the red this year because the price of corn is so high. So far, they can’t charge oil companies enough to cover their costs because each corn ethanol company is competing with the next one and their customers will naturally go for the one with the lowest price. They would have to collude to fix their prices (as the ethanol lobby always claims grocery chains do when the price of food spikes), which is illegal. Eventually, enough refineries will go out of business, and use up enough reserves, to allow the price of ethanol to climb (because its use is mandated, the price is not locked to global oil prices). And we all know who will get stuck with that bill.

We have not bought oil from Iran for decades. That’s mostly a symbolic move after the hostage crisis. They still sell their oil to other customers. We could stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf (16% of imports) or even from OPEC altogether (40% of imports). We don’t do that because it would cost more to buy all of our oil from non-OPEC sources, not to mention that it would be largely meaningless to do so since  oil is fungible (we buy oil at a premium from Canada, they might import for less cost for their own use from OPEC, pocketing the difference).

The Benefit of Protecting Global Markets

Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the military budget actually is a subsidy to oil, we would have to assume that the subsidy applies to the global oil market and not just our own. We have taken on the role of global sheriff  because world peace is good for business. The cargo containers flow from ships to rail and vice verse day and night at our sea ports. Allow the flow of energy to our trading partners to be reduced (a global price hike) and you will cut that flow of cargo containers.

Japan is experiencing some serious economic trouble at the moment largely because they are importing so much fossil fuel energy thanks to having their nuclear off line. We certainly wouldn’t want their supply of energy tripped up (through a global price hike) because, ironically, the technology developed in the Prius and Leaf hold the keys to our own liquid fuel independence.

The computers we type on would be of much lower quality and cost a great deal more were it not for this global market. Cars, tools, bikes, monitors, computers, and much of the food we eat come from trading partners who are also dependent on affordable supplies of energy.

Because we know that not all subsidies are boondoggles, we would have to determine if this hypothetical military budget subsidy pays off. To find that out you would simply divide the part of the budget allocated to protect global oil supplies by the amount of energy contained in that supply. Compare that number to just about any other subsidy you can think of (agrofuels, wind, solar, nuclear) and you would find that it pays off royally. Feel free to run that number for us but the cost per unit of energy won’t have enough impact to give oil any advantage over the likes of corn ethanol.

Another test would be to compare military expenditures to the cost of converting a percentage of our vast coal and natural gas resources into a liquid fuel as Nazi Germany did and as is done in South Africa today. A properly regulated free market doesn’t leave money laying around on tables. If it were cheaper to do that than import, we would be doing it, and as with tar sand oil, environmental ramifications would be brushed aside. I live a short distance from Gas Works Park, which is the remains of a facility that actually converted coal into a gas to be used for heat and lighting in Seattle. The arrival of electricity and natural gas made it economically non-viable.

Militarists who can’t sleep at night worrying about getting enough fuel to fight the next big one can relax. If we should ever find ourselves in a war big enough and long-lived enough that we would need to tap that coal and gas to fight it, we would do so. The idea that we could fight a war with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, (which account for about 99.9 percent of our liquid biofuels) is ludicrous, which is why the military has been funding research for alternatives.

In summary:
  1. We can only significantly reduce the oil trade imbalance by using less liquid fuel. Corn ethanol and its poor cousin, soy biodiesel,  are incapable of having a significant impact on our oil imports. The increased domestic oil production that we are presently experiencing is a temporary blip.
  2. To claim that the price of peace in the Middle East (benefiting every industry dependent on oil by keeping global costs down) is a subsidy to the oil industry (where the majority of oil companies might actually have bigger profit margins without peace in the Middle East)  is nonsensical.
Photo courtesy of PMillera4 via Flickr

Ethanol Saved Consumers $134,400,000,000 in 2011?

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

Back in 2009 two researchers released a study that suggested corn ethanol was saving American’s money at the gas pump. I wrote to one of the authors asking for clarification. His reply:
In the paper, we conclude that evaluated at the average ethanol production level of 01/1995-03/2008, the wholesale gasoline prices is $0.14/gallon lower. The change of retail gasoline prices varies across refinery markets from $0.29-$0.40/gallon.
He also added that the results were unique to prevailing conditions in 2009. According to Wheels, the report has been updated and now claims corn ethanol saved Americans a buck a gallon. However, thanks to ads trying to make hay from this study by the nation’s largest corn ethanol lobbying firm, aka, The Renewable Fuels Association, the study caught the attention of two other researchers:
Mr. Knittel of M.I.T. said in an interview that ethanol most likely reduced gasoline prices, at most, by 10 cents a gallon, after adjustments were made to account for the biofuel’s lower energy potential relative to pure gasoline. He described claims made by the trade group, which have appeared at bus shelters and billboards, particularly around Washington, as “false advertising.”
 Economic studies of this nature can be hard to refute because the only people qualified to critique them are other agricultural economists or statisticians. Common sense can only get you so far. However, Mr. Knittel and Mr. Smith are qualified to critique the study:
To illustrate their critique, the professors employed the same statistical models used in the Iowa State report to draw intentionally absurd conclusions, among them that ethanol production depresses the price of natural gas and increases unemployment in the United States and Europe. “We also used their model to show that ethanol production is causing my daughter to grow older, and if it was taken away she’d get younger,” Mr. Smith said in a telephone interview. “We know that’s not true, or at least we hope it isn’t true.”
Now that’s what I call good use of sarcasm. Shockingly, a spokesman for the RFA defended the scholarship their ad was based on, and never mind that he is no more qualified to defend it than you or I.
The study results are based on regional restraints on supply caused by refinery capacity, so the results will change if you enter a period of lower domestic fuel demand, increasing export of refined petroleum products, and record high prices for corn. Don’t expect to see results of the next study on any bus station billboards if it finds that ethanol is costing Americans $billions.
1200 x 112,000,000 = 134,400,000,000

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Nuclear Energy Denier

 Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

I was rebutting a comment I found under a CER News Desk article titled: Utility Head: Japan Can’t Afford Renewable Energy, Needs Nuclear when I realized I had generated enough material for an article. Here is a similar article titled Green energy to hit Germans' bills.

What labels would you choose for yourself?
  1. Renewable Energy Advocate
  2. Nuclear Energy Advocate
  3. Renewable Energy Denier
  4. Nuclear Energy Denier
I would choose labels 1 and 2. I used the term "denier" in my title only to make a point. I don't know who first applied the term "denier" to global warming skeptics but I have never used the term quite simply because it is hateful. I've also seen the terms "green energy denier" and "Chernobyl denier" used (see Radioactive Wolves!).

Global warming skeptics are not in any way analogous to the nut jobs who deny the Holocaust or the AIDS epidemic as the term is meant to insinuate. From Wikitionary:

Person who denies something.
Holocaust denier (see Wikipedia:Holocaust denial)
Global warming denier (see Wikipedia:Global warming denial)
AIDS denier (see Wikipedia:AIDS denial)

The renewables verses nuclear debate is as disingenuous as it is nonsensical. They are not mutually exclusive. They both replace fossil fuel as a source of carbon emissions. Renewables should be viewed as an alternative to fossil fuels, not nuclear.

Read The Nuclear Enhanced Renewable Grid (NERG) and Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy.

As usual, environmental journalist George Monbiot is ahead of the curve on this issue. In a letter he penned to David Cameron earlier this year countering the letter sent to him "by four former directors of Friends of the Earth" Monbiot says:
"For nuclear and renewables, as the Climate Change Committee has rightly pointed out in numerous reports, this is not an either-or choice; we need increasing deployments of both in the UK’s energy mix in the future (see appendix 1). Thirdly, the 12 March letter focuses significantly on economics, in short, arguing that nuclear is too expensive. We would point out that even if this were true, the writers themselves would have helped make it so by devoting decades to campaigning against the technology during their tenures at Friends of the Earth. In addition, if anyone has yet invented an inexpensive low-carbon energy source, we have yet to hear about it – Friends of the Earth today campaigns vociferously in favour of the retention of the solar feed-in-tariff, which delivers perhaps the most expensive, unreliable and socially regressive electricity ever deployed anywhere. Once again, we would refer you to the Climate Change Committee, which found that nuclear was potentially the cheapest of all low-carbon options available by 2030 (appendix 2)."
Although not a single talking point in the following comment I address is novel (few thoughts are), and not a single footnote to a source was proffered, the comment serves a larger purpose by providing me an opportunity to express some critical thought. I don't want the commenter to feel singled out and welcome him to continue to participate, but I would also like to suggest that he take the time to provide links to sources so the audience knows who the originators of the talking points are and so they can assess the quality of the sources of the information he passes along. I know of one site that does not allow unsourced comment. I don't think this is necessarily a good idea because it has a tendency to spill over into censorship.They do this in an attempt keep the comment field from becoming a come-one-come-all liar's club (although most people are inadvertently passing along information they don't realize--or care--is bunk).

George Harvey said:  
"According to the US Department of Energy in 2011, based on data taken in 2010, hydro, wind, biomass, and geothermal are all less expensive than nuclear..."
Which, if true, is at odds with the 2011 Department of Energy Quadrennial Technology Review that promotes the use of small modular reactors:
"The United States has traditionally taken a leading position in crafting the international civilian nuclear technology “rules-of-the-road” and has helped develop a sound technology base to implement and enforce those rules. With a current global deployment of 442 civilian nuclear power reactors and an additional 65 reactors currently in some stage of construction, civilian nuclear energy sits at the nexus of energy, climate, and security."
George continues:
"...even when costs to the consumer associated with waste and Price/Anderson insurance coverage are not included in the equation."
Those costs are already reflected in your very reasonable and competitively priced nuclear energy utility bill as an almost imperceptible surcharge.
"This challenges the concept of baseload power; when the wind is not blowing in one part of the country, it will be blowing in another."
If that were true they would have replaced their idled nuclear with wind instead of fossil fuels.
"...the questions that remain [about energy storage} are matters of fine-tuning... These things combine with the other challenges to the concept of baseload power to show it is actually mythology, a bogeyman created by those who can profit by it."
That is absurd. Baseload power isn't the result of backroom conspiracy theories. It's the inevitable result of a market seeking lowest cost solutions. Most renewable energy today is baseload. Read Dirty, Baseload, Centralized, Renewable Energy and A Baseload Free Power System.

Storage is rarely used quite simply because it is prohibitively expensive. For example, building a reservoir and pumping water into it can easily cost more than the stored energy is worth. Ditto for any number of other power storage schemes, like making hydrogen, or methane. And in cases where it can be economical, it can be used to improve the fficiency of any number of power sources, like nuclear for example, which could then provide peak power as well as baseload.

"The costs of nuclear that have not been faced yet, such as waste management, are without question apallingly high."
I find that claim to be very questionable. The nuclear industry has for many decades been required  to pay into a fund to deal with waste storage, which like their insurance, is already reflected in your very reasonable and competitively priced nuclear energy utility bill as an almost imperceptible surcharge. Never mind the fact that nuclear energy generates so little waste that to date is is all be stored on site in their own parking lots after half a century of power generation. From Wikipedia:
"With $32 billion received from power companies to fund the project, and $12 billion spent to study and build it, the federal government had $27 billion left, including interest."
George continues:
"Unlike nuclear power, renewable power has the upside of diminishing costs as greater investment is made..."
Nuclear has the same potential--as the aforementioned DOE report promoting the small modular reactor attests. Nuclear power plants often operate for more than half of a century. Obviously (conspiracy theories aside) they are cost effective or you would see higher electric bills when power is nuclear generated. Wind turbines as well as solar have much shorter lifespans. Read Nuclear Energy is Not a Mature Industry.

"Per unit of power produced, renewable power employs five or six times as many workers, while reducing costs to the consumer."
Stan, another renewable energy advocate nuclear energy denier, says to George Harvey:
"I’m really sorry buddy, but that is baloney, and then straight onto a bold faced lie."
True or not, the number of jobs created is irrelevant. What matters is economic efficiency. For example, a hypothetical power source that reduced energy costs by half, yet provided no jobs, is vastly superior to a hypothetical energy source that produced lots of jobs that had to be funded by increased energy costs.
George continues:
"Production may be locally owned, and profits stay local."
This is a moot argument. "Local" is relative. Universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, country, state, city, neighborhood, home. Most utilities are at the state level. They send power across state lines in the name of economic efficiency. Many are at the city level or even lower. The University of Washington has a natural gas power plant adjacent to our local bike trail right here in Seattle. You don't get much local than that, assuming that local ownership is always a good thing, which it isn't.
 "Renewable power can be a personal goal, the object of a cooperative or community."
 A well for your water can be seen as a personal goal, but it is usually better to use your "community" water system. Ditto for a septic system verses your "community" waste treatment system. For economic reasons, most people prefer to have a simple water line and sewer line, as well as a power line coming to their home, rather than deal with the time and costs of maintenance issues that come with owning a well, septic system, or a power plant on their roof.
"On the other hand, it can also be a good investment for big business, and can make more money than nuclear; notice the increased investments in renewables, and the lack of investments in nuclear by big business."
Certainly there are instances where renewables are cost effective, like Hoover dam. Investments in renewables like wind and solar are in large part thanks to the huge subsidy per unit energy they have been receiving. I'm eligible for $30,000 in subsidies if I put solar on my house. Read
Do Government Subsidies Ever Pay Off?
"Notice that the CEOs of two major businesses in the nuclear power business have said they see no future for it"
Notice that many more CEOs of  major businesses in the nuclear power business have said they see a big future for it.
"As renewable power has achieved grid parity, nuclear power has become obsolete."
If solar and wind were really at grid parity there would be no debate about letting their subsidies lapse. Nuclear is anything but obsolete, and is undergoing major technological growth.
"There is only one reason anyone can claim to be able to afford it, which is that is really handy for making bombs."
One might think, that because nuclear weapons came first, that it would not take a quantum intellectual leap to at least suspect that you don't need a nuclear power plant to make bombs. And sure enough, some nuclear powers didn't go to the trouble. They built small reactors instead, which produce no electricity, to make weapons grade material. Read Helen Caldicott--Nuclear Power Plants are Bomb Factories?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Radioactive Wolves!

Last week I stumbled upon this recent PBS documentary called Radioactive Wolves, which is about wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is worth a million of them. It was one of the most uplifting films I've seen in a long time. The comments below the film suggest I am not alone:
Amazing program: great work! So many fascinating, important issues raised — and I can’t get the haunting images out of my mind.

I thought the animal and plant life recovery was fascinating. As someone mentioned above…a lot of important issues were raised by this episode. I thoroughly enjoyed the program. Keep up the good work!

My son just returned from spending a week in the Ukraine. He toured Chernobyl…even fed the catfish and saw the wild horses. This episode was right on from he saw and experienced. It really let me share the experience vicariously. Thank you “Nature” for such a wonderful, thought-provoking episode.

This is the BEST show on TV I’ve seen in years! FASCINATING.

If I wasn’t already pro-nuclear energy before I would be more so now. This is critical info. If we destroy our world with our technology and self-serving greed then shame on us. But nice to know the planet and wildlife – and the way we were given this world to begin with – will survive.

Beautiful. Just as I remembered it. I worked for a few days in the zone and I was totally blown away by the richness and diversity of the life in the area. The frogs, and the hoopoes, the cuckoos, the wild pigs and the moose and the flowers and butterflies and… mosquitoes! When I came home to my socalled “healthy” and “unpolluted” home, I wandered around the forest just to compare and I found that my home is a sterile desert compared to the zone. It is indeed a strange feeling to know that the presence of humans are more detrimental to nature than the radioactivity from Chernobyl NPP. Choosing between me, you and Plutonium, nature would be better off with Plutonium than either of us.
There were, of course, also a few negative comments like this one (from a brainwashing victim) about unabashed brainwashing:
What utter, pro-nuke propaganda. Let’s see, now, twice the birth defect rate, though we’re supposed to think that’s OK since both rates are in the single digits. No mention that I recall (hard to watch such unabashed brainwashing) of longevity of populations in the dead zone compared to populations in clean environments. Comparing the “long-term” effects on relatively short-lived, and short-lived, animal populations with humans is simply not acceptable science. Just one more reason I despise the National Propaganda Network.
His claim that the film compared "the long-term effects on relatively short-lived, and short-lived, animal populations with humans..." is a strawman. No such comparison was made. When the narrator said "This land is lost to humans," I'm pretty sure he meant it. I'd have to watch the film again to be sure, but I don't think anything he said is correct. If you watch the film, let me know if I missed something.

There are a few scenes where people whore cheap dust masks to reduce exposure to potentially harmful radioactive dust, but for most of the film, nobody wears any protective clothing.

Darwin's as well as Einstein's theories were challenged by other scientists in their time. This is always the case for any theory and there are still some researchers claiming this area is not full of breeding populations of wildlife, but full of wildlife refugees who show up there only to die of radiation.

The area also has breeding populations of the European bison (wisent) and the last species of wild horse (Przewalski's) but there are no breeding populations of the giant wild ox known as the aurochs or the wild horse know as the tarpan ...because it's too late, they have already been driven to extinction. The last aurochs died on a game preserve in 1627. Ironically the wild horse population in the exclusion zone preserve is presently being decimated by poachers, so maybe there's no hope after all .

Chernobyl was a human tragedy that uprooted almost half a million people, but as far as wildlife is concerned, this film proves that low levels of radiation can be the least of two evils.

Photo courtesy of iam photography via Flickr

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Exaggerated Promise of Renewable Energy

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

The continued existence and expansion of human civilization is wholly dependent on affordable sources of energy. The latest study just released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (an organization that exists to study and promote the viability of renewable energy) suggests that it may be possible to get 80% or so of our electric power from renewable sources by 2050. The study also (inadvertently) provides evidence that renewable energy will be a minority player in humanity's energy portfolio.

The results may disappoint my fellow solar enthusiasts because it suggests that only 13% of our electric energy will come from solar. Distributed solar enthusiasts (who favor photovoltaic solar panels on rooftops) will be further disappointed because half of that 13% will come from water-sucking centralized concentrated solar thermal power plants, many located in desert ecosystems, leaving only about 6% for solar panels on rooftops, of which many will probably not be on rooftops but in centralized power plants, probably displacing ecosystems or crops.

But electricity represents only 40% of our energy needs. If we hog up all renewable energy sources for electricity, there won't be any left for the other 60% of our energy needs. In other words, the study tells us that only 32% of our total energy needs can be "potentially" renewable. I.e., it is going to need a lot of help from other energy sources--fossil fuels or nuclear. Liquid biofuels were not part of this study even though they can be used to make electricity and heat homes in place of electricity:
However, the modeled scenarios also did not explicitly assume any competition for biomass resources, including from transportation demand for biofuels
The definition of renewable isn't as clear cut as you might think because it involves the fourth dimension--time. Wind and solar fit the definition of renewable because their power source (the sun) is very long-lived. As long as humanity can keep the panels, turbines, and grid maintained, they will convert solar radiation from a giant nuclear reactor in the sky into electricity in perpetuity.

Corn ethanol is considered a renewable energy source (by its proponents) even though roughly 75% of its energy content is derived from fossil fuels. It is in reality, no more renewable than fossil fuels.

Hydro power, like wind, is also ultimately powered by the sun's energy, making electricity from the potential energy of stored precipitation. But now the definition of renewable runs into trouble because the machines that extract that potential energy (dams) have limited practical life spans:

You can do just about anything in this world (or other worlds-- mining the moon) if you have enough money. However, removing the silt from behind most dams is not considered to be an economically viable option. The cost of decommissioning all of these dams is something humanity will eventually have to deal with. In short, one can easily argue that hydro does not fit the definition of renewable (especially by the year 2050--the time frame for this study). Removing it from the NREL study, we find that only 68% of our electricity can come from renewable sources (27% of our total energy).

Inversely, one can argue that because conventional nuclear energy can produce just as much energy for just as long as hydro, it fits the definition of renewable as well as hydro does, and to make matters worse, so do fossil fuels (as is argued by Matt Ridley in his latest book).

It gets worse. The study also assumed that a lot of biomass (15% of the energy mix) is going to be burned in place of coal and further "assumed" that three-fourths of it would not come from dedicated crops like switchgrass.
Nearly three-fourths of the biomass feedstock was predicted to come from wastes and residues (which were assumed to have no incremental land-use impacts), the remaining biomass supply was assumed to be derived from switchgrass.

...requiring an estimated 44,000–88,000 km2 of land ...By comparison, the total area used for corn production in 2009 in the United States was about 350,000 km2 (USDA 2010). Because biopower-related land use is estimated to be sizable, efforts are needed to assess the degree to which and conditions under which land is available to support such an expansion without undue competition with food production and other uses.
If it were economical to displace a meaningful amount of coal with biomass today we would already be doing so to lower electric bills or increase profit margins. Burning biomass for energy is an idea as old as walking on two legs. The 80% prediction would drop considerably if this assumption turns out significantly wrong because there would not be enough land left to grow any corn (of which 40% is already being turned into ethanol).

Today biomass accounts for about 1.3% of our energy mix. They need it to increase by an order of magnitude by 2050. From an air pollution perspective, biomass has little improvement over coal. And because of land displacement issues, it is also not necessarily much better in the GHG department. From a wildlife habitat displacement perspective, biomass is worse than coal. Recent studies in the journal Nature have suggested that the last thing humanity should be doing is asking more of the biosphere.

Also, like squeezing water from one end of a balloon to another, using biomass for electricity would preclude the increased use of biomass for things like home heating (community boilers) and transportation (assuming that cellulosic will ever actually become commercially viable), not that using biomass for this is a good idea either.

Removing biomass from the list as well as hydro would drop the percentage of energy for electricity and in total to 53% and 21% respectively.

The study looked at scenarios ranging from 30% to 90% and made no attempt to assign probabilities or costs. In other words, the odds that the 80% 53% scenario will come to fruition may approach zero. The study is largely a wish list of what it would take for this to happen. However, any study that tries to predict what our energy mix will be 40 years into the future has to make a rather large number of assumptions.
Lastly, as a long-term analysis, uncertainties associated with assumptions and data, along with limitations of the modeling capabilities, contribute to significant uncertainty in the implications reported.
Right ...significant uncertainty. To wit, I stopped counting at 500, the instances of the words "assume," "assumed." and “assumption” in just the first volume of this four volume study. I also counted over a hundred instances of the words “uncertain” and “uncertainty” and fifty five instances of “likely” or “likelihood” in that first volume.

Over the last twenty years renewable energy has gone from being 11% of our energy mix to 10%. Doing my own study, hang on a minute ...a linear extrapolation of that trend would suggest that in 2050 only 8% of our energy will be renewable.

Just about every study I've read on this topic over the last decade has suggested that wind and solar combined (cost issues aside) can provide a maximum of roughly 35% of our electric power quite simply because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, particularly when we would need them to do so--on windless nights for example.

The NREL study pulled out the stops and managed to increase that 35% potential of wind and solar by roughly 15% for a total of 50%. As I often point out, I'm a big fan of solar so I was a little disappointed to see that wind will be providing about three-fourths of that 50% (wind 37%, solar 13%). This would require an increase in wind energy from about half of a percent to 37 percent in 40 years ...a 7500% increase. An increase of this magnitude would have to be done very carefully or it will be a disaster for some bird species. See this recent article in Nature titled The trouble with turbines: An ill wind:
“There are species of birds that are getting killed by wind turbines that do not get killed by autos, windows or buildings,” says Shawn Smallwood, an ecologist who has worked extensively in Altamont Pass, California, notorious for its expansive wind farms and raptor deaths. Smallwood has found that Altamont blades slay an average of 65 golden eagles a year. “We could lose eagles in this country if we keep on doing this,” he says.
Because this study was meant to see how much renewable energy could be incorporated it did not assume that any new nuclear power would be built. Interestingly enough the study also shows that about forty years from now existing nuclear power plants that have not reached retirement age would still be contributing more power than photovoltaic or concentrated solar. However, because the study did not account for the building of any new nuclear that would replace coal, coal is also still being used, also producing more power than photovoltaic or concentrated solar. It would have been smarter to replace that coal with nuclear. In their 80% renewable scenario, combined, photovoltaic and concentrated solar make up about 13% of the mix, coal and nuclear combined make up about 17%.

The scenarios described above—the Low-Demand Baseline scenario, the exploratory scenarios, and the six core 80% RE scenarios—were based on the low-demand assumptions, with overall electricity consumption that exhibits little growth from 2010 to 2050. To test the impacts of a higher-demand future, a scenario with the 80%-by-2050 renewable electricity generation but a higher end-use electricity demand was evaluated, with demand in 2050 30% higher than in the low-demand scenarios.

Wait a minute. The population of the United States is expected to grow by 37 percent by 2050. Demand for electricity will only grow 30 percent? Holding electric power growth at 30% would preclude the use of electricity (in place of oil) for things like transportation, heating, industry, again squeezing energy from one end of the balloon to the other. I drive an electric car which increased my electric bill about 30%. The Midwest is experiencing record heat waves. Assuming this is going to be a trend as a result of global warming we may experience higher air conditioning loads. My brother, who lives in the Midwest, expects his electric bill this month to top $300. Do the math.

Interestingly enough, the word nuclear was used just over eighty times in the first volume which is surprising considering that the study was about renewable energy. The study claims that this 80% renewable scenario would cost no more than has been predicted by preceding studies about future use of low carbon energy sources ...which include nuclear:

These studies generally considered a portfolio of clean generation technology options, including renewable, nuclear, and low emissions fossil. The estimated incremental price impacts of the core 80% RE scenarios are comparable to these estimates.

But the next quote demonstrates a bias against nuclear:
The future cost of nuclear power plants as well as power plants using CCS is particularly uncertain.
As if the future cost of renewables is not uncertain? How bizarre to compare an untested hypothesis like coal carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) with nuclear which has a proven track record of producing about 20% of our electricity for about half of a century at very competitive prices. There are also many improved versions of nuclear power in the pipeline that have great potential to reduce its high upfront costs and already unprecedented safety while maintaining its proven long-term cost effectiveness. The future cost is just as likely to go down as up.

As is typical, coal and nuclear are usually mentioned together in the report even though one dumps mountain ecosystems into creek ecosystems and uses the atmosphere as an open sewer, while the other has the same carbon footprint as solar power.
Achieving 80% renewable electricity would require considerable transmission investment
I strongly suspect that this will prove to be a gross understatement. Cost effectively distributing Southwest sun and Midwest wind to the coasts of the North American continent while integrating it into the grid is not going to be easy or cheap. To get there from here they acknowledge that we will need:
...increased electric system flexibility, needed to enable electricity supply-demand balance with high levels of renewable generation, can come from a portfolio of supply- and demand-side options, including flexible conventional generation, grid storage, new transmission, more responsive loads ...
But most of these things would improve the efficiency of conventional power generation as well. Storage will have to increase 400% above their baseline to compensate for wind and solar intermittency. Again, if that assumption turns out to be significantly off, the percentage of renewable takes yet another hit.

The study assumed that nuclear can't ramp up and down fast enough to compensate for wind and solar. In reality, there is no reason energy from a nuclear plant can't be stored in a similar manner to wind and solar energy for rapid release when needed when the wind stops or clouds arrive. Energy storage is rarely done today because it is expensive, regardless of whether it comes from wind, solar, or nuclear. If new technology arrives in the future to make storage cheaper, it will enhance nuclear's cost effectiveness to vary power output as well as other energy sources.

The next time you hear a commenter claim that all of our energy must eventually be renewable because we will eventually run out of fossil fuels and uranium ore, point back to this article and explain that it can't all be renewable, nor does it have to be. What it has to be is affordable, with enough reserve to last long enough for humanity to find a replacement, and relatively environmentally benign. New hydro (which doesn't even fit my definition of renewable) and biomass are worse than most fossil fuels when it comes to ecosystem impact.

If it were not for climate change and ocean acidification, fossil fuels would fit that bill. That leaves only three energy sources on the table: wind, solar, and nuclear (baseload, load following, and peaking versions--with storage and air cooled options available at extra cost).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hydropower: Dammed If You Do

No, that is not a picture of cooling ponds inside a nuclear reactor. Those are dust covers on the turbines at the Grand Coulee dam. According to the photographer, you have to pass through a metal detector to get this far into the power plant. Come to think of it, the nuclear power industry could probably improve their public image with similar tourist photo ops of their spent fuel cooling ponds.

There’s an article over on Mongabay about a protest of the  Belo Monte Dam project in Brazil:
 Belo Monte will flood more than 40,000 hectares of rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people. The project will impede the flow of the Xingu, which is one of the Amazon’s mightiest tributaries, disrupting fish migrations and potentially affecting nutrient flows in a section of the basin.
Photo credit: Atossa Soltani/ Amazon Watch / Spectral Q
They will of course lose in the end like all native people have always lost. You will be hard pressed to find a more environmentally destructive power source yet here we have a very upbeat article titled Hot dam: Hydropower continues to grow  on an environmental website:
Brazil, the second-largest producer of hydropower worldwide, gets 86 percent of its electricity from water resources. It is home to an estimated 450 dams, including the Itaipu Dam, which generates more electricity than any other hydropower facility in the world — over 92 billion kilowatt-hours per year.
The article also mentions Grand Coulee dam and the fact that the United States gets about seven percent of its electricity from hydro. It didn’t mention that:
 Kettle Falls, once a primary Native American fishing grounds, was inundated. The average catch went from a historical average of over 600,000 salmon a year to nothing. In one study, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the annual loss was over a million fish. The environmental impact of the dam effectively ended the traditional way of life of the native inhabitants. The government eventually compensated the Colville Indians in the 1990s with a lump settlement of approximately $52 million, plus annual payments of approximately $15 million.
Interestingly enough, the above link also says:
 In 2007, Grand Coulee generated the second-most energy among US power facilities, after the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant at 26.78 TWh. Palo Verde has a lower nameplate capacity but operates at a higher capacity factor, giving it slightly more annual output.
Which got me to thinking. There are over 1400 hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. compared to 105 nuclear power plants. The 105 nuclear power plants produce almost three times more energy …without destroying a single ecosystem or native culture. I then read a little bit about the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant:
Due to its location in the Arizona desert, Palo Verde is the only nuclear generating facility in the world that is not located adjacent to a large body of above-ground water. The facility evaporates water from the treated sewage of several nearby municipalities to meet its cooling needs. 20billion US gallons (76,000,000m³) of treated water are evaporated each year. This water represents about 25% of the annual overdraft of the Arizona Department of Water Resources Phoenix Active Management Area. At the nuclear plant site, the wastewater is further treated and stored in an 80 acre (324,000 m²) reservoir for use in the plant’s cooling towers.
You will be hard pressed to find an more environmentally friendly power source.

(Photo credit theslowlane via the Flickr Creative Commons license)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

First Vehicle to Home Power System in North America

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

Nissan issued a press release earlier this month to announce that Power Stream will be using the V2H system with its fleet of Leafs in Canada. This device acts as a charger and as a power inverter, allowing 4 hour charges instead of 8 hours as well as the capacity to power a home for a couple of days in the event of a power outage. Apparently your Leaf has to have the CHAdeMO protocol quick charge port which was an option on the 2012 cars.

The price seems about right to me costing roughly twice as much as the charge stations now installed in homes but that’s still cheaper than a charge station and a backup generator system. And if you live where there is a significant price difference for night electricity use it can defer some of its cost as well.
From the press release:
  • The EV communicates directly with the utility or with the home energy manager to help manage electricity consumption;
  • The EV acts as a back-up power source in the event of a power outage;
  • Time-of-Use demand response scenarios where devices in the home like the refrigerator, washer/dryer and EV charger react to changes in the prices of electricity based upon the time of day.
Click here to see a video presentation.

I’ve got this on my wish list when they become available in the States. Combine this with solar panels to keep the car charged and you could weather a power outage for as long as you can get enough sunshine. I could also see these units being sold at car dealerships. Instead of opting for leather seats, you might opt for a home power system.

 Something else I have on my wish list.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Will Fukushima Save the Bluefin Tuna?

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

From a story well worth reading in Forbes titled Fukushima Radiation May Actually Save Bluefin Tuna:
If the governments can’t help, maybe bad publicity will [save the bluefin tuna]. Nicholas Fisher, the study’s co-author and a marine biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says when he first saw the levels of radiation in the fish, caught off of San Diego, “my first thought was ‘this will do more for the conservation of this endangered animal than nearly anything else could.’”
Which is also the first thing I thought when this story first broke. And yes, I know that isn't a picture of a bluefin tuna. On the other hand, the Pacific blue fin is not the subspecies in trouble. It is the Atlantic version. Beware the laws of unintended consequences. When one species collapses we tend to increase pressure on what remains. If the public won't eat Pacific tuna, the pressure on Atlantic tuna may just get worse. From Wikipedia:

Global appetites for fish, especially Japanese appetite for sushi, is the predominant threat to Atlantic bluefin.

On the other hand, the public doesn't know one tuna variety from another, and few are going to bother memorizing which is which. If they get the mistaken impression that tuna has unsafe levels of radiation in it, to play it safe, they may chose to not eat tuna, regardless of type.One can only hope.

There are natural levels of radioactivity in the tuna, and Fukushima has only added the slightest amount more. (The report can be found here.) “But people are often anxious about radioactivity,” says Fisher. And this may be what ultimately benefits the Bluefin. The fish, Madigan points out, is not harmed by the radiation that they collected while swimming through the spill waters off the coast of Japan after the tsunami.
I listened to a story called "Radioactive tuna!" on NPR a few days ago. They had interviewed the head of a research team that identified Fukushima as the source of ceisum-134 and cesium-137 in Tuna caught off the coast of California. To be fair, they also mentioned that you would have to eat thousands of pounds of this tuna in one year to exceed a safe dose. They also mentioned that pregnant women have been warned for decades not to eat tuna because it contains elevated levels of mercury. Not mentioned was the source of much of that mercury--coal-fired power plants.

The researcher said that he'd been getting a phone call (including one from Al Jazeera) about every thirty seconds or so from media outlets looking for a story.

The NPR story elicited a very short retort titled Nuclear Tuna and Media Trivialization by a relatively high profile anti-nuclear activist. It's only a few hundred words long, conflates nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, contains numerous out of context quotes, and is devoid of a single source (not worth a read if you're considering it).

Radiation stories attract readership. I suspect that we're attracted to stories about danger and mayhem because at some level of consciousness, we are looking for information that may help protect ourselves and our loved ones from potential harm. This proclivity has no doubt served our species well for millennia, but in today's hopelessly complex technological world we are barraged with this kind of information and are often unable to sift the wheat from the chaff.

On the other hand, just last week a man went on a shooting spree and killed several innocent people a few blocks from my home, one of which was the mother of one of my daughters' classmates. Two years ago a man was murdered with an ax on the street one block from where my daughter was sitting in a classroom. Several years ago a bus driver was shot dead causing the bus to careen off a bridge, landing on the street I live on, just three blocks away. I could see why someone might develop a fear of going outside, sometimes called agoraphobia, but to get a case of radiophobia, you would need a lot of help from the media.

A lot of Americans have an excessive fear of flying, bugs, snakes, radiation, you name it, anyone one of which can kill you but the odds of any of them killing you are vanishingly low. How is it that we come to fear some things more than others? Fear is easily teachable. Parents can pass on a fear to their children, or not. My children have no fear of snakes, although they certainly know better than to handle a venomous one. I know people who are terrified of insects. My daughters love insects.

I suspect that the excessive fear of radiation started with nuclear weapons and was parlayed into a fear of nuclear energy by association thanks to anti-nuclear activists, some of which are likely motivated by personal phobias (an excessive, irrational fear).

Before the nuclear test ban treaty the United States alone detonated over 330 nuclear weapons (submerged in the ocean, buried underground, shot from canons, launched into space, you name it). The realization that all of the nuclear powers were repeatedly releasing all of that radiation into the environment is sobering but at the same time it puts into perspective just how out of perspective the public’s concerns are over radiation from nuclear power plants.

We've all read about the effects of massive doses of radiation on the victims of nuclear weapons on Japanese citizens. I recall reading the book Hiroshima by John Hersey when I was in grade school. After being told that the gods would favor anyone who made a thousand origami cranes, a little girl (just my age at the time of the reading) who was dying of leukemia made 600 of them before succumbing.

People have been taught to fear it by decades of post-apocalyptic science fiction (books and movies). My favorite (among many) post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories is A Canticle for Lebowitz. Anyone remember the movie On the Beach (1959 or 2000 versions)?

Note at this point that we're talking about radiation effects from nuclear weapons and other than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it's all fiction. Anti-nuclear activists learned early on the effectiveness of conflating nuclear weapons with nuclear energy. That's why just about every anti-nuclear article you read will mention nuclear weapons.

But then Chernobyl happened. The amount of concentrated radiation released by that accident dwarfed that released by a nuclear bomb, yet in the end it created Europe's largest nature preserve. Wildlife in the exclusion zone is thriving quite simply because the radiation is keeping people away.

I thought what biologists learned from Chernobyl was going to be the death knell for stories about mutants. However, the latest mutant horror flick, Chernobyl Diaries, has just been released.

It has been proposed by some (but not by me) that we could use this fear to keep humanity out of critical ecosystems by sewing them with low levels of radiation and posting warning signs around their periphery. Not a good idea. Profit motive will trump fear in this case and poor workers will be the ones used to exploit these areas, radiation or no radiation.

There are many carcinogens in our environment that can increase the incidence of cancers, including many viruses. Click here and scroll down to see the very extensive list.

When the quake hit Japan there was a virtual eruption of carcinogens into their environment from fires, exploding chemical plants, failed dams, polluted ocean sediments heaved up on the land, radiation from the stricken power plant, and on and on. Fukushima was just one of the thousands of sources. There may very well be a modest uptick in cancer rates from this quake from the many sources of carcinogens, but the latest research suggests that the contribution from Fukushima alone will be too small to detect.