Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting a dose of electricity power losses

I now have the opportunity to answer my own question of a few blogs back; we lost power for 14 hours in our rental in Vermont. Energy is such an essential aspect of modern life, and electricity and its deliverance is a fragile commodity. We don't appreciate it until we lose it.

We were on our way to dinner in Waitsfield when suddenly my headlights illuminated power lines all over the road ahead of us. The lines were snaking in the high winds, which had knocked down a utility pole.

You see, it had been almost 60 degrees fahrenheit that day, and the rapid and unprecedented melting for Vermont (global weirding :) had apparently made the base of the pole unstable, so the wind easily knocked it down.

With the electricity off, we three-point turned away from the wires and drove route 17 west to Bristol for dinner. Then the fun started (for me at least). We returned to our little rented house, then by candlelight made a big "lodge fire" in the stone fireplace. The others took the two flashlights and went to sleep in the loft, while I slept by the fire and kept it going all night. It was wonderful.

I woke up when the sun came up and made camp coffee by heating the water in the fireplace. It was toasty and cozy in the room, and I didn't miss power for a second (although I am typing on a laptop right now). No vapid TV and blaring boom boxes; the cacophony of power excess. I was vaguely disappointed when the power came back on, although my family appreciated it, since my son had kind of a bad cold.

Everyone has to prepare themselves for a possible bad energy crisis, and more so, for gasoline supply shortages, which could happen within the year. What would you do if you suddenly couldn't get gasoline for several days or weeks? Have you even thought about it?

Another thought that came to mind was that a hybrid makes a pretty good energy-storage device.

When I turned on the Prius that night, it was the only robust power source on in that dark settlement, save for the amazing starlight. There are lots of proposals out to use millions of plug-in hybrids for energy storage during peak electricity demand, as well as to charge them up during off-peak hours.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Still dependent on fossil fuels after all these years

We have an array of 22 solar photovoltaic (PV) modules on our roof here in New England that will probably end up providing more than 15 percent of our kilowatt hours in 2008 (an upcoming blog will inventory our 2008 energy use).

This is great production, don't get me wrong; we don't exactly live in sunny Vegas or Boulder. Yet as we sit here in two feet of new snow (pretty, mind you), it occurs to me that we are still not quite hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels.

solar modules we hardly knew ye

On days like this, our solar PV array, which often provides up to 100 percent of our daylight electricity, is completely knocked out. If one or two modules in a PV array are covered by snow, for instance, this usually disables the entire array until the snow melts off (or I roof rake it off, which is known to happen!).

Homeowners have an option, however, to place a free-standing solar array on their property, which can easily be shoveled off.

Consequently, our house is heated by two propane-burning Monitor and Rinnai heaters downstairs, a conventional heat pump (electricity) when the temperature needs to be raised upstairs, and a fireplace insert that I am sitting beside writing right now. None of the energy sources are renewable or really sustainable (except for the wood, which I speculate is responsibly rotated at the local farm where I buy it).

Although we buy "green energy" in Massachusetts, the typical electricity user in Massachusetts derives more than 80 percent of their energy, according to this site, from nuclear (28 percent), natural gas (33 percent), coal (12), and oil (10 percent).

Solar provides far less than one percent of the electricity in Massachusetts, which is why our 15+ percent is exemplary. However, if we depended on solar for a substantial chunk of our heating, say, to power our heat pump, we would freeze and our pipes would burst.

Thus, we are overly dependent on propane to heat the house. Propane is a byproduct of oil refining or natural gas processing, and is not a renewable fuel. When natural gas and oil inevitably peak and decline, so will propane. Although our small heaters do a very good job, their use is ultimately not sustainable.

Propane is expensive too; $3.15 per gallon on our last bill. A very cold winter month will result in the burning of 100 gallons of propane by our machines (we also use it for an oven). In addition, burning propane produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Further, since our country is dangerously dependent on oil and natural-gas exporters, then propane is also a part of this problem.

Propane is also potentially hazardous, as it will blow up a house if released in quantity and ignited (we store ours in two tanks on the side of the house).

The point is that the northeast U.S. is a very long way from being able to substantively provide heat energy from renewables: solar, or wind for that matter (ground-source heat pumps are a different story, and the subject of a future post).

That doesn't mean, however, that the sun belt of the U.S., including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, could not generate substantial amounts of energy from solar thermal plants in their deserts.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The latest cheap oil era may be fleeting

Gas was $1.67 per gallon at my favorite station down the road. Crude oil has plummeted from its Summer high of about $145 per barrel (pb) to less than $40 pb. Yippee! Let's get the Hummers down off the blocks and hit the road! The era of cheap oil is back! (Writer's disclaimer: the last few statements are facetious. I drive a hybrid.)

Hold your horses. The New York Times reported on December 16 that the sudden drop in oil prices, the yo-yo effect that experts call "volatility," has abruptly put the kibosh on many oil production projects throughout the world. From off the coast of Africa to the Dakota's countryside, an oil boom that had commenced apace last Summer is grinding to a halt.

The result is likely to be a tight oil supply, once again, that will inevitably increase oil and gas prices precipitously. Ironically, some of the sting has been taken out of alternative energy projects, even though new energy sources to replace oil will be critical, now that the oil price has dropped again.

The International Energy Agency, in a study of hundreds of the world's largest and oldest oil fields, has also raised peak-oil alarm bells in its World Energy Report about the long-term prospects for oil supplies.

"Even if oil demand was to remain flat to 2030, 45 mb/d of gross capacity – roughly four times the current capacity of Saudi Arabia – would need to be built by 2030 just to offset the effect of oil-field decline," the above link quotes IEA Executive Director Nubuo Tanaka.

Four new Saudi Arabia's, in other words, would have to be found simply to compensate for the on-going decline of the world's largest fields. Wow.

The latest drop in gas prices appears to be a tantalizing mirage, or relief, for drivers, but not much more meaningful than that. Therefore, we have to keep our eye on the ball: plug-in hybrids, electrified transportation, and finding ways to conserve oil use.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What do you do when the electricity goes off?

Many New Englanders were confronted with this problem just north of where we live, where an extensive ice storm knocked out electricity all over Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and parts of Massachusetts for several days.

The experiences are emblematic of what could happen during an extensive energy crisis involving supply shortages of oil, natural gas, and other energy sources.

Watching the news coverage, I was struck by the vast differences in preparation among the citizenry. Many were bearing up well with good-humored Yankee stoicism, but were barely surviving with homes cold enough on the inside to see your breath, long gas lines (or no gas), and difficult treks to find food to restock the pantry.

A lot of people simply threw up their hands and crammed into any hotel with power that they could find. I joked with my family, rather lamely, that we would have just headed with our Prius into Boston in search of a Marriott, where I have a sort of "frequent stayer" program.

The good ole venerable wood stove

I was impressed by one fellow in New Hampshire who seemed to be actually having a good time. The reason was that he had a wood stove, a chain saw, and plenty of fallen-down trees to chop up and stoke the heater with. A wood stove will keep a fairly large area of a house, about 500 hundred square feet, toasty enough to live in, and you can heat up water, soup, and other stuff on its hot surface.

The man's family was simply sleeping in the vicinity of the stove, they had plenty to eat and drink, and he was not letting the fire go out. He talked about how everything for this long weekend had become "simpler," and that there was something nice and bucolic about how they were living (no TVs, video games, iPods, modern stresses, etc.).

Doesn't this observation remind you of the kind of post-Peak Oil scenarios people often talk about?

I vowed after listening to him to do two things: replace my wood-stove insert with a full-fledged wood stove, and get a couple of free-standing, perhaps kerosene burning lamps. My father, who passed away this year in his eighties, but lived successfully for decades on the wooded coast of Maine, in his infinite wisdom, gave me a kerosene burning lamp about 12 years ago. After not using it for a couple of years I donated it to a charitable auction, and now I'm kicking myself.

As one stranded person in northern New England put it this weekend, "You don't truly appreciate something until you no longer have it," and that's electricity.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Have I really conserved?

By displaying how much gasoline I used on the year in the left column of this page, I'm helping myself reduce gas use by measuring my consumption, whereas also crowing about my accomplishment. I'd say I've reduced my gasoline consumption by about 175 or more gallons per year, compared with previous years.

But is 225 gallons of consumed gasoline in a year really a lofty goal? Not really. Let's do the math.

A lot of people in China want to realize the American dream and drive like Americans.

According to Lester Brown's book Plan B 3.0, if China reached the car-ownership rate of Americans (three cars for every four people) by 2030 China will have more cars than exist on earth right now (heading for 2009).

And to provide the space on which to drive them, they would have to pave over a lot of the acreage that they require to grow rice and feed their teeming throngs.

Now to my supposed reduced consumption. 1.1 billion cars is the projected number of cars owned in China given an average eight-percent economic growth rate from now until 2030. What if all of these cars driven by people in China used as much gas as I did in 2008?

1.1 billion X 225 divided by 365 equals 678,082,191 gallons of gas used per day. Since one barrel of oil produces about 20 gallons of gas (plus other products like heating oil), then China's 2030 consumption equates to about 33,904,109 barrels of oil per day.

This number exceeds present U.S. consumption by more than 10 million barrels per day, and would probably represent more than one-third of all the daily available oil in the world.

Therefore, not even my reduced consumption is impressive or sustainable, and I haven't even mentioned the associated carbon emissions, which is probably the most important aspect of reducing gasoline consumption.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

When I'll consider changing my mind about "global cooling"

One more word about global cooling and I'll clam up about it.

Until the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences come forward and say, "cool it folks (no pun intended), global warming is over, and actually, you better get your long underwear on," I'm not going to budge my position on global warming one iota (that manmade greenhouse gases pose a threat to trigger feedback mechanisms, such as vast methane releases, which will endanger civilization).

I listen to scientists, not Fox News bloggers.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A few more points about global cooling

Here are a few more points about "global cooling" and whether global heating has "stopped," some anecdotal and another involving a reference to a more technical climactic discussion.

The take-away point is that weather is "noisy," it jumps around from one extreme to another in different regions of the world, and that you cannot make long-term climate predictions based on local regional observations.

It seems like the global-cooling advocates are cherry picking their data, and making the common mistake suggested by the latter paragraph.

For example, it is very cold in New England right now given the time of year. A hike on Mt. Washington right now is only for highly experienced and equipped winter explorers; it's killer cold!

However, just last week, I looked out my window and mosquitoes were swarming around my (uncleaned) gutters where water had pooled. It is unheard of in this region to still have mosquitoes in the winter (I grew up in this area), as we have the last several years. It was also 70 degrees Fahrenheit at night just a week ago, and I am 35 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts.

The point is that these weather extremes are caused by dominant air masses originating from Canada (when it's cold) and the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico otherwise, which are in turn affected by the position of the jet stream.
You cannot come to global cooling or heating conclusions based on these short-term differences. However, the long-term changes I have observed in New England, along with all of the other accumulated evidence (e.g., the melting in Greenland and of the North Pole sea ice; the substantial glacier melting in the Alps), have lead me to strongly embrace the theory of a global aggregate temperature increase.

The site says it better than me here:

"The climate system has enormous amounts of variability on day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year and decade-to-decade periods. Much of this variability (once you account for the diurnal cycle and the seasons) is apparently chaotic and unrelated to any external factor - it is the weather."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hey wait, the earth is cooling...

I have heard a few arguments for global cooling of late.

This is a huge issue because, for example, President Obama may propose a far-reaching cap-and-trade system for CO2. While any opposing theory deserves consideration, "global cooling" discussions should not become another excuse for inertia unless the evidence is extremely strong and a scientific consensus forms around it, because the stakes are too high for future generations.

First, all short-term anecdotal evidence, such as glaciation in Alaska, should be thrown out, because one or two years is just a nanosecond in geological time.

You can just as easily find anecdotal evidence for continued warming in other regions.
Tell the Australians that their continent is "cooling off," or the people in southern California or Arizona, whose forested regions are often on fire. There are a lot of villages in Alaska where the permafrost is melting, causing their abandonment.
I've visited a glacier in Switzerland for the last 15 years (it has lost 30 percent of its mass since the 1970s), and it added snow last year, but that doesn't mean that "phew, global warming must be over."

"Global weirding" I've heard is a much better term for what's happening.

In addition, weather patterns are heavily affected by the growth of algae in the seas (algae is an important CO2 sink, and is critical for the formation of reflective clouds because it generates the cloud-seeding precursor chemical dimethyl sulfide).
The upper layer of the oceans has warmed over the decades, creating vast "deserts" where algae plumes used to flourish. Some scientists have concluded that runaway global heating can occur partly because of this massive algae destruction. See James Lovelock's "The Revenge Of Gaia."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama energy plan

Now that the historically estimable Barack Obama will be the 44th U.S. President, what kind of energy decisions would he make?

We can draw some conclusions from the energy plan posted on his web site. Here is a sampling of their plan (with any of my comments in parentheses):

  • Help "create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future." (An "Energy New Deal" is not out of the realm of possibility, as it accomplishes two goals at once; puts Americans back to productive work, and helps the U.S. become an energy superpower again.)

  • Get one million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015, partly by providing a $7,000 tax credit for the people who buy them.

  • "Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025." (This is a fairly lofty goal, as we get far less than one percent of our energy from solar photovoltaic or thermal energy, for instance.)

  • Help "develop five commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology." (This is unlikely as carbon sequestration is problematical and has not been implemented, as far as I can tell, with a commercial-scale coal plant in the U.S. I always thought of "clean coal" as a contradiction in terms.)

  • Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. (It is possible that President Obama, with his electoral mandate, will be able pass through this cap-and-trade system.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This is the introduction to my blog that was published in 2006:

I guess the best place to start is to explain the purpose of this page. What is the reason for taking up a space in the Web ether anyways?

Well, first of all, energy and environment are by far the most important issues facing current and future generations. Specifically, this page will discuss elements of E & E (as I'll refer to them from now on) involving the upcoming energy crisis or “peak oil,” as amplified by human-induced global warming.

These issues are much more important than international terrorism, for instance, or just about anything else you can think of, because they spare no person or species (in terms of warming) in the world their impacts, and literally “hit everyone where they live,” affecting how they get their food and water, how they stay warm in winter and cool in the summer, and whether or not people and their communities live in a stable habitat.

Why not write about the most important topic in you and your family's life?

I'll briefly summarize these two terms, peak oil and global warming. Then I'll provide you a little information about the writer, in the spirit of full disclosure, because it's only fair to convey to readers the background, biases, and motivations of the web page's producer.

Peak Oil

Peak oil refers to a milestone or point on a time line when the world is approaching or has already attained the peak production, the top of a bell curve, of the oil that it can extract from the earth. Simply put, once the world has attained oil peak, the amount of oil that we can take from the ground begins to wane at varying rates, and is of lower quality and more inefficient and expensive to extract.

This is geological reality; oil is a finite resource. Why does this matter? Because so much of everything we depend upon in daily life — manufacturing endless amounts of stuff, driving around in cars, heating homes, schools, and hospitals, and other critical forms of transportation like aircraft and shipping — run on oil.

This is a giant topic, but I'll try to make this little, admittedly inadequate definition as pithy as possible. There are a lot of good books out now, and apparently much solid evidence, that we have already or will shortly reach peak oil. The compelling nature of this issue is intensified by the fact that our governments and institutions have not adequately prepared for the impending situation when oil is not abundant and cheap. In other words, a substitute resource such as hydrogen or biofuels is not available to simply “step in” and run the global economy on, particularly faced with the rising oil demand from countries like China and India.

When is the last time you drove past a fuel station carrying gasified coal or tar-sands derived oil? Industry can begin immediately generating alternative fuels, but the transportation and distribution infrastructure is another ball game.

Global Warming

The Greenhouse Effect makes it possible for life to exist on earth. Global warming refers to the effect of the excess dumping or filling of the lower atmosphere with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. This has a destabilizing effect on the climate, causing fluctuations that in all probability would not have occurred, or would not have occurred with the same intensity, if the atmosphere had not received this load of gases.

Scientists have pretty much reached a consensus that human sources, such as car driving, smokestacks, and the burning of tropical forests, are substantially contributing to the catastrophic part of the global-warming equation. Another crucial part of the equation is that global warming feeds on itself; for example, the warmer the atmosphere gets, the more permafrost melts; the more permafrost that melts, the more methane and CO2 gets released, and on an on.

Ice cores have provided a solid historical record of how global CO2 levels affect average temperature; the atmospheric scientists really know what they're talking about here. Global warming is one of the few technical areas where the experts are more alarmed than the average person, which tells you something.

Feeding Off Each Other

These two issues — peak oil and human-induced global warming — amplify each other. Destabilized weather patterns in the form of dramatic regional climate changes, rising seas, brutal storms, tropical disease migrations, and the like, make the stresses and strains of an energy crisis that much more difficult to deal with. This is why it seems natural, and more interesting to write and think about (like numerous people are) these two issues together.

Who Am I?

Now for the disclosure part; I am not an expert in these areas by any stretch of the imagination. I have degrees in liberals arts and software engineering, and I am a writer, but mainly in the last few years of software books. Years ago I wrote a popular newsletter for environmental managers, but that was more about the ins and outs of regulations than science. I am a father and a outdoors devotee. I run, climb, and ride a bike a lot. I'm like everyone else; I notice weird changes in my immediate environment, like mosquitoes that are still present in the marshes in New England in January. In fact, these are some of the things I'm going to be writing about in part on this page.

Biases and Opinions

My biases are thus: I advocate a tremendous and immediate investment in renewable sources of energy like small hydropower plants; wind farms; and solar thermal plants and arrays. I advocate foremost conservation, as in reducing the amount of energy we consume and pollution we emit as individuals. In other words, falling back in love with your bike. Conservation is probably the easiest way, the low hanging fruit, with which the human race can deal with peak oil and emitting fewer greenhouse gases.

This page will not be one of those holier than thou tracts; I pollute and consume as much as anyone else (oh, maybe a little less, as I drive a hybrid car, keep food waste out of landfills and in a glorified garbage pile called “compost,” recycle like mad, use compact fluorescent bulbs, and ride my bike and walk a lot instead of drive). I have ridden a bike more for that great outdoors feeling and competition than as a driving substitute, but lately I've been trying to do more errands on my bike.

They Shoot Messengers Don't They?

In general, I'm for confronting problems, finding solutions, not fearing change, and taking some of the heat (no pun intended) off of the future generations that have to deal with the implications of our largesse. Thanks for reading to this point.