Tag Archives: Green Energy

Low Hanging Fruit: A Very Healthy Diet for The Planet Earth

Michael Mann has an editorial on Scientific American’s site putting the well known 2.0C limit in perspective for the upcoming climate talks in Paris.

Mann makes a number of important points in his essay (read it here: Meeting a Global Carbon Limit Is Cheaper Than Avoiding One) but there is one point that I want to underscore.

The key factor is that there are technological innovations and economies of scale that emerge only in the course of actually doing something.

Here’s the thing. Let’s say you were suddenly in charge of one trillion dollars of money that could be used to address climate change. What would you spend the money on? Here are some suggestions.

1) Build machines that take CO2 out of the air.

2) Invest in the “next generation” of nuclear reactors.

3) Purchase a huge amount of deforested land and re-forest it.

4) Divide the money up among numerous research groups to develop as yet unknown clean energy technologies that may save us.

All those things are potentially good ideas, and we should probably think about doing all of them at some level. But that is not how you should spend your trillion dollars. The way you should spend your trillion dollars is to underwrite the cost of converting as many homes and businesses as you can to using passive geothermal heating and cooling, and to install photovoltaic on the roofs. Some of the money could also be used to switch internal combustion engines over to electric. Why do these things first? Because they are low hanging fruit. The results would be immediate. A home that uses passive geothermal will use about half, or less, of the fossil carbon for that purpose. A home that has fully deployed PV panels on the roof can cover the electricity for all of that home’s commuting costs and run the heating and cooling system, and a few other things, for much of the year. And so on. As long as our landscape is characterized by buildings with roofs that serve mainly to convert sunlight into heat, we can buy out that sunlight, harness it, and move towards a greater percentage of clean energy very very quickly.

At the same time, of course, we do want to do research on new technologies, perhaps even carbon capture (though I think that should be way down on the list). But there is so much we can do with existing technologies addressing existing needs. As Mann put it, “The obstacle is not a physical one—it is one of political and societal will.”

Should I Wash My Dishes Before Putting Them In The Dishwasher?

As an anthropologist, I find the interface between technology and the larger culture in which it is embedded fascinating. You all know the old story of the family cook who habitually cuts the ends off the roast before slipping it in the oven. One day her child, hoping some day to be the family cook, asks why this is done. It turns out that nobody can remember, and the matter is dropped. But the question comes up again, at a later family dinner, this one attended by great grandma, who was the family cook a generation ago, and of course, she knows the answer.

“Back in the day,” she says, “It was the depression. We weren’t able to just go to the store and buy whatever we wanted, like people these days.”

Grandma always managed to work in a mention of how poor they were back in the depression. But this time it was relevant. “We had only one roasting pan,” she continued. “It was only 14 inches long and the roast was always a few inches longer. So I’d cut the ends off.”

And of course, ever since then, subsequent generations had learned to cut off the ends of the roast because that is how grandma did it, and there must have been some reason, though nobody knew what it was. And now, the roast, be-ended, sits small in the large stainless steel double handed Williams Sonoma roasting pan.

I think that is how some people load their dishwashers. Back in the day, dishwashers weren’t very good at washing dishes. They were really status symbols that did little more than rinse off the dishes that you’d already scraped and run under the faucet. You put dishes in the dishwasher that already looked pretty clean. The role of the dishwasher was to remove the few remaining cooties (or dog saliva for some households) and, if you kept up the supply of anti-spotting juice, to make sure that the glassware was shiny-clean.

Dishwashers have changed. A reasonably good dishwasher, not even the most expensive or fancy, does a much better job at washing dishes. Even cheap ones, probably. The difference in price between dishwashers is mostly a matter of bells and whistles and whether or not it has a stainless steel front, that sort of thing. Inside, the engineering of how to spray water on dishes from various angles for a very long period of time has been worked out. These days, you only need to remove the large parts, the parts that remain because people these days, unlike back in the depression when there was not enough food, have forgotten that they should finish the food on their plate. Even the chicken bones. Back in the depression, people ate the chicken bones.

When you wash dishes in the sink, you use water and energy. The energy is to heat the water, but also, the water itself requires energy to process and pump. When you wash dishes in the dishwasher, you use energy. Again, heating and getting water are factors, but also, the dishwasher has a pump and may have a water heating element, and of course, a drying element. More on the drying element later.

If you did a complete hand washing job on your dishes, then ran your dishes on a full cycle in the dishwasher, you would be using way more energy and water than required to actually get the dishes clean. But if you only hand wash the dishes a little — scrape the plates than run them under the water — maybe you are using less energy and water. But the fact remains, if you just scraped the dishes minimally and the put them in the dishwasher straight away, with absolutely no rinsing, you will use a minimal amount of energy.

Some people claim that they do hand washing so efficiently that they are using less energy than a dishwasher would ever use. Such folk eschew the dishwashing machine entirely. However, dishwasher experts claim that this is only rarely the case. The dishwasher uses a small percentage of the water and energy you use in hand washing.

Chis Mooney has written up the current research on dishwashing efficiency. His Washington Post article cites research from the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The bottom line: Don’t pre-rinse the dishes. Just put the damn dishes in the dishwasher. Oh, and you think your hand washing is efficient, do consider the possibility that you don’t really know that. You just think that because you want to. It is almost certainly the case that you can’t really prove that and it is likely (but not impossible) that it simply isn’t true. From Moony’s Washington Post article:

… dishwashers just keep needing less and less water (and energy) because of improving appliance standards, even as they get better and better at using it.

“While it may be possible to use less water/energy by washing dishes by hand, it is extremely unlikely,” Jonah Schein, technical coordinator for homes and buildings in the EPA’s WaterSense program, said…

“In order to wash the same amount of dishes that can fit in a single load of a full size dishwasher and use less water, you would need to be able to wash eight full place settings and still limit the total amount of time that the faucet was running to less than two minutes,” he said.

“…modern dishwashers can outperform all but the most frugal hand washers,” adds the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

This applies to modern Energy-Star rated dishwashers. Which, if your dishwasher is reasonably new, is probably your dishwasher. And by new, we mean up to several years old because this has been true for a long time. Moony’s story has further details on exactly what makes dishwashers more efficient.

So, this is like cutting the ends off the roast. In the old days, you needed to wash your dishes before you washed your dishes. Now, you can just wash your dishes. But do you? Or are you still cutting the ends off the roast?

(It is unfortunate for the dogs that they lose in both cases.)

Moony also talks about the drying element in dishwashers, and I have a word or two to say about that as well.

Consider the term “dishwasher safe.” In my household, everything is “dishwasher safe.” This is because I put everything in the dishwasher. If something is not dishwasher safe, it gets weeded out. Most things that are not dishwasher safe are subject to heat damage when the drying element comes on. I installed our present dishwasher about five years ago. The heating element has yet to come on. Well, it did by accident once and boy, did that smell bad. (If you don’t use the heating element, it tends to accumulate a layer of stuff that smells bad once you do turn it on). This is not to say that the only unsafe thing in a dishwasher, if you are a plate or a bowl or something, is the heating element. The water in a dishwasher is hot, and the chemicals are caustic. We have a number of coffee mugs that no longer say what they formerly said because the cheap printing process used to make them did not stand up to the slings and arrows of outrageous technology. Those coffee mugs that change on the outside when you put hot coffee in them? That works because of a layer of cheap plastic on the outside of the cup. My Doctor Who mug (where the Tardis disappears and reappears) lasted one day. I still have it but it is a simple black mug with no evidence that the Doctor ever existed. And, when I pop in “clean recyclables” like a peanut butter jar made of plastic, that stuff comes out distorted and half melted, but not really melted and it isn’t a problem; It was on the way to the recycling bin anyway.

If you never turn on your heating element you will use a lot less electricity and many non-dishwasher safe items survive the dishwasher. I’m not making any promises, I’m just telling you what I do. Don’t worry, the dishes get dry. Modern dishwashers run some air through after the washing is finished on a full cycle, and if you open the door, physics, in the form of evaporation, will work very well.

This, of course, is a metaphor for many other things. Consider the culture of your use of technology. Do you let your car warm up for a long time on a cold winter morning? To you leave it running when not actually driving because you heard it takes more energy to start it than to run it for a while? Do you leave florescent lights on in the office all day even when the rooms are empty because you heard that was more efficient? As usual, you are probably doing it all wrong. Not your fault, it is just how our brains, and our cultures, work. But you can change and help make a difference.

Build a solar power plant to help run a water treatment plant!

RMU Announces Solar Plant Completion

Rochelle Municipal Utilities, in Rochelle, Illinois, has. started operation of a large Photovoltaic Solar Plant providing power to their water treatment facility. This is a great example of a project that should be done in more places.

In the Spring of 2014, RMU was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to fund construction of the Solar Plant. ICECF provides grants for up to $2/watt or 60% of the system and its installation costs, whichever is less. As a result of the competitive bidding process, Eagle Point Solar was awarded the project.

“Rochelle’s 312 kW Solar Photovoltaic plant is one of the larger Public Power Utility owned plants in Illinois. This plant will provide renewable energy to the water treatment plant” stated Business & Financial Analyst Dan Westin. “Treatment plants require a lot of energy to make clean water. Rochelle will continue to explore financially sound projects in the area of renewable energy.”

As a result of this project, Rochelle Municipal Utilities has been selected as a recipient of this year’s Northern Illinois Renewable Energy Summit & Expo’s “Leadership by Example” award.

You can view the plant’s output real time here.

The water treatment plant has a peak energy demand of about 420 kW and the PV system can cover over half of that. During summer months, when the Sun’s energy is maximally available, the sun will provide about 45% of the plant’s energy requirements. It helps that the plant operates mainly during daylight hours, so this is a good fit for a solar installation.

According to Dan Westin, of Rochelle Municipal Utilities, “the unique part of Rochelle is that as a Muni owned utility it can include the grid capacity cost savings in the business case as well the solar energy credits marketed in the Pennsylvania market. The payback is less than five years that way. So 15 years of free solar energy. The cost of producing clean water goes down.”

Dan also told me that there are similar projects in Galena and Rockford Illinois.

Thinking Big About Clean Energy

I want to put a solar panel on my roof so that I am releasing less greenhouse gas into the environment. But then I hear that manufacturing solar panels causes the release of greenhouse gasses, so I have to subtract that from the good I think I’m doing. But then I realize that the people who are making the solar panels have to change their method so they release less greenhouse gas into the environment.

We hear this argument all the time (for example, here). You think you are doing something “green” but it really isn’t green because yadayadayada. I am suspicious of these arguments because they often (though not always) come from people who want us all to keep using fossil Carbon based fuels, for some (unsupportable) reason or another. One might think that these arguments have to be addressed in order to do a rational and well thought out analysis of the decisions you make.

But that is simply not true for three reasons.

Reason One: So what? Nobody tells me I have to make a rational decision about buying the 72 inch wide TV to replace my 64 inch wide TV, but suddenly I’m a bad person if I don’t do a detailed Carbon-based cost benefit analysis when I want to do something EVEN COOLER than having a bigger TV, like putting a freakin’ cool solar panel on my roof? Excuse me, but STFU with our rational argument yammering.

Reason Two: You can’t count. If I put a solar panel on my roof, almost no one is going to discount the value of my house because it gets some free electricity, but a significant number of people are going to pay more for it when I sell it because it is cool. See reason one.

So when I put these together, my personal cost benefit analysis leans towards doing it more than the nay sayers might say. But still, if putting up a solar panel kills more polar bears than not putting up a solar panel, because the manufacturers of solar panels use thousand of tons of coal per square inch of solar panel, I’ve got to consider not doing it. Except for reason three.

Reason Three: If we all refuse to act until everyone else acts than we will not act. I will buy whatever solar panel I want, and the people who make solar panels can compete for my business by getting the energy to make their solar panels from … solar panels! Or not. Eventually they will because we ALL have to stop using ALL of the Carbon. Driving an electric car in a region where more coal is used to make electricity, would have to be MUCH less efficient than not driving the electric car (in terms of carbon release) to make me think twice about it. I’ll drive my electric car and at the same time we’ll watch the electricity companies make more and more of their electricity from wind and solar, and they will have a bigger market to sell that in because we are locally replacing gas with electricity. Of course, I will need the electric car to get cheaper before I can get one, but if I had one, that is what I would be thinking.

I’ve had conversations about this issue with a lot of people and these conversations have made me realize that the structural argument against clean energy is wrong for the reasons stated above. It turns out that A. Siegel has had similar arguments and he has had similar thought. It is possible that he and I have even talked about this and are pretty much on the same page. Go read To solar carport or not to carport, that is the (or at least a) question … and see what you think!

The naysayers want you to think small, but they make it look like thinking big. Instead of just calculating the immediate costs, consider also the distant polar bears crushed by the wheels of industry because you want a solar panel, they advise! But no, think even bigger. Think not only along dimensions of production and supply, but also, time and socioeconomic change. In order to address the climate crisis, we have to keep the Carbon in the ground. In order to keep the Carbon in the ground, everybody has to do everything they can do all the time, and not sit on their hands waiting for some other guy to change a value in our spreadsheet. Think big.

No Coal in Minnesota

Governor Mark Dayton has called for the elimination of coal as a source of energy in Minnesota. Doing so is, clearly, essential. Having a governor call for it is a new thing; we are only seeing this sort of policy being developed recently.

From MPR News, Dayton said to a group of energy policy ad business leaders:

“Tell us what a timeline would look like, what has to happen for that timeline to be met and what kind of incentives or inducements do we need to provide to make that happen,” …

Dayton’s comments came during the state’s first-ever Clean Energy Economy Summit. He said converting coal plants to users of natural gas should continue, along with investments in renewable energy.

Only 46% of the state’s electricity is currently generated by coal, and alternative energy sources have been growing in their contribution. Over 14,000 Minnesotans are employed in the clean energy business, much of that in the area of energy efficiency.

Refocusing on clean energy is good business sense.

David Mortenson, president of Mortenson Construction, said his company and others are embracing renewable energy as a cost-competitive solution. He said the cost of wind and solar has dropped while coal and natural gas markets become increasingly volatile.

“And when you can guarantee the price of delivering a kilowatt 20 years from today, because that’s what you can do with solar and wind, you have a competitive advantage because coal, natural gas, they can’t tell you want the cost to produce power in six months will be,” he said

Energy and Climate Change Items of Interest

Every one of these is a topic I’d like to write an entire blog post about but I don’t have time right now. So, YOU write the blog post!

In Michigan there is an emerging debate and discussion about using the Vast Forests in that state to provide energy. This is a good idea because it does not involve the release of fossil Carbon from fossil fuels. It is a bad idea because it involves the release of Carbon currently trapped in a medium term and important Carbon sink. It is interesting because it highlights a key feature of the whole energy and climate change thing. Sun makes burnable stuff, we burn it. This is just another version of this where we would be relying on trees, and on whatever level of efficiency forests provide. I assume we can build a better mousetrap than this.

In Minnesota, Xcel Energy has broken a record:

MINNEAPOLIS — Xcel Energy issued a press release Wednesday declaring that it had achieved a milestone when 46 percent of customers’ electricity needs in the Upper Midwest were met by wind energy at 3 a.m. Sunday.

That’s an all-time high for Xcel, which recently was named the nation’s top wind power provider for the 10th straight year. At the time of the record, 1,622 of 3,512 megawatts were being produced by wind turbines.

It has been windy in Minnesota over the last few days! Anyway, details here.

When an oil spill or similar environmental disaster happens we are assured that new technologies will make such a thing much more unlikely in the future. Well, “New “Safer” Tank Cars Were Involved in Lynchburg, VA, Oil Train Fire.

And while we are speaking of accidents, “Accident Leads to Scrutiny of Oil Sand Production” and “Fracking disposal wells may cause quakes 30 miles away, researchers say“.

Climate change and President Obama’s legacy:

The satellite images viewed by President Obama before a meeting with eight Western governors were stark, showing how snowpack in California’s mountains had shrunk by 86 percent in a single year.

“It was a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment,” recalled White House counselor John D. Podesta, one of two aides who briefed the president that February day. Obama mentioned the images several times as he warned the governors that political leaders had no choice but to cope with global warming’s impact.

Read Juliet Eilperin’s interesting essay in the Washington Post.

Hydro power is “Carbon Free” but also can be environmentally destructive, and it only provides a small amount of our electricity. But, we could in theory get more. A “DOE study suggests America’s rivers are troves of vast untapped hydropower potential and developing many of them could help combat climate change by using renewable energy to reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants that emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.” Climate Central item is HERE.

And finally, Some see proposed wind farm as a threat in Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been planning to write up a 10,000 Birds post updating this topic, so maybe that will be my next post there. In the mean time I want to make a proposal. Invent a wind turbine that is very visible to birds. It will be less efficient than other turbines. So what? We need the clean energy, we can pay more for some of it. Just invent the damn thing. I have a design in mind, if you are a serious engineers in the wind power area contact me and I’ll tell you how it works. We’ll share the patent.

Koch Brothers And Utilities Try To Ruin Solar Energy

Solar energy is one of the best and most easily implemented options to reduce our use of fossil Carbon based fuels. Never mind that the sun is only up and strong for part of the day, and is often covered by clouds. If you put a few square meters of solar panels on the roof of a residential or commercial building, you get clean and free (after the investment into the system) electricity thereafter. Clearly, this is an underutilized technology. In recent years there has been a precipitous drop in the cost of implementing solar energy, so it is now economically kinda dumb to not put solar panels on your roof. Worked out over the long term, a properly done implementation of solar can save a home owner hundreds of dollars a year after accounting for the cost of the equipment, installation, maintenance, and permitting fees. And, since part of your energy is coming from non-Carbon based sources, by implementing solar you also save money on those Survivalist Training Courses you might otherwise have to buy for your grandchildren if you expect your progeny to continue to exist in the not-too-distant future.

But every dollar that you save by using solar energy is a sum of money not earned by utilities and the owners of the energy production system, which generally translates into Your Power Company + The Koch Brothers.

So, naturally, the Koch Brothers and various energy utilities have been investing money to make sure that solar is not worth it. One way to reduce the viability of solar to the home owner or small business is to reduce or eliminate the payments that utilities make back to the owner of the solar energy system in the purchase of excess energy produced during those bright sunny days when your solar panels are at home doing their job while you are off at work doing your job.

A Sunday Review editorial published over the weekend in the New York Times discusses this strategy. The Koch Brothers and others have, over the last few months, ramped up their spending to reduce or eliminate renewable energy incentives. Since for the most part utilities are regulated state by state, this is being done at the state level. At present, owing to grassroots organizing combined with a bit of rare common sense in state legislatures, most states require utilities to pay for energy fed back into the system by homeowners with small power plants. But, there are moves to reduce these paybacks or to charge homeowners a surcharge so the utilities actually make money on your electricity, to the extent that for many homeowners, installing solar may not be worth it. This is a kick in the groin for homeowners and small businesses who have already installed systems with certain expectation of cost and benefit, and it is a kick in the groin for the planet, and our future, because the shift to solar for some of our energy will be slowed down by these nefarious changes in regulation.

According to the NYT,

Oklahoma lawmakers recently approved such a surcharge at the behest of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group that often dictates bills to Republican statehouses and receives financing from the utility industry and fossil-fuel producers, including the Kochs. As The Los Angeles Times reported recently, the Kochs and ALEC have made similar efforts in other states, though they were beaten back by solar advocates in Kansas and the surtax was reduced to $5 a month in Arizona.

But the Big Carbon advocates aren’t giving up. The same group is trying to repeal or freeze Ohio’s requirement that 12.5 percent of the state’s electric power come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. Twenty-nine states have established similar standards that call for 10 percent or more in renewable power. These states can now anticipate well-financed campaigns to eliminate these targets or scale them back.

In some contexts, the utilities and their lobbyists are making the simple, straight forward, and correct, argument that wanton installation and use of domestic solar will hurt their profits. But we all know that the number one problem with our energy system at present is that it is driven by profits of the few at the cost (often through externalities, such as everybody dies etc. etc.) all others. Energy utilities should be viable, not profitable, and everyone knows and agrees with that. (Except the energy utilities.) And, of course, the Wealthiest People In The World need to keep their Mega Yachts well appointed, so that’s a consideration that most common people take into account … and ignore, resent, and get mad about.

So, as the NYT points out, Koch and friends have an alternative strategy to gain the hearts, minds, and monies of the American people.

Solar expansion, they claim, will actually hurt consumers. The Arizona Public Service Company, the state’s largest utility, funneled large sums through a Koch operative to a nonprofit group that ran an ad claiming net metering would hurt older people on fixed incomes by raising electric rates. The ad tried to link the requirement to President Obama. Another Koch ad likens the renewable-energy requirement to health care reform, the ultimate insult in that world. “Like Obamacare, it’s another government mandate we can’t afford,” the narrator says.

Here’s the ad that blames Obama for wanting to harm old people:

Thanks, Obama!

Here’s the ad that links Solar Energy and Obama Care to Solar Energy:

Do you find this annoying? Of course you do. But there is something you can do about it.

Since this battle is being fought at the state level in the US, if you are a US citizen and voter, just contact your state reps and tell them that you do not appreciate what the Koch Brothers and various utilities are doing. Send them a link to the NYT editorial …

… and tell them that you support home owners and businesses that want to use solar and that you don’t want to see any hint of legislation to interfere with that effort. Not sure who your state representatives are (or is, in some states, you have only one)? CLICK HERE to find out.

You might decide to not do this for one of two reasons, and in both cases you are wrong so please consider. Incorrect reason 1) “I live in a state that has already implemented good laws and regulations and I see no evidence that the Koch Brothers and Kin are coming after us, so why bother?” The reason this is wrong is that they are coming after your stat, you just don’t know it yet. Your letter, phone call, or email to your reps are a form of inoculation, imperfect, but potentially effective, against this. Incorrect reason 2) “My particular legislators are cool. They won’t vote in favor of any such Koch Sponsored Legislation (KSL).” That is wrong because your legislators are embedded in a complex system of give and take. It’s called “Politics.” They need a record of having been contacted by numerous constituents about this. That only happens if you contact them. So just do it.

Shawn Otto, in his book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” reports that he once asked a legislator (at the federal level) what constituted a “groundswell” of support for a particular issue. I don’t recall the exact number, but Shawn was told something to the effect and of the magnitude of “a dozen or so” letters from constituents. Note, I said letters, not emails. A letter looks like this:


It’s a tremendous amount of work. You have to print it out, find an envelope somewhere, get a “stamp” which costs several cents, and put the object in one of these:


… but it is worth it. Every one of those is probably worth hundreds of emails, because emails can be automated. But just to be sure, you can send the same text as an email and as a “letter” and while you are at it, send a tweet or two. When you send a tweet to your representatives, be sure that the tweet does not begin with the @ sign because if it does, it will not be generally viewable to others who follow your Twitter account. Put a “.” or something (not a space) first, then others will see what you are up to and perhaps join in. (See this for how to use Twitter more effectively.)

OK, that’s all for now. Imma go tweet my reps. See you later.

Calculating The Carbon Cost Of … well, anything.

There is currently a twitter argument happening, along with a bit of a blogging swarm, over a chimera of a remark made by John Stossle and Bjorn Lomborg. They made the claim that a million electric cars would have no benefit with resect to Carbon emissions. The crux of the argument is that there is a Carbon cost to manufacturing and running electric cars. When we manufacture anything, we emit Carbon, and when we make electricity to run the cars, we emit Carbon, etc. etc.

Lomborg is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. But here I want to focus on one aspect of why he is wrong that applies generally to this sort of topic.

My point is very simple, really. We can take any green and clean technology, such as making Ethanol from corn (to replace gasoline produced from fossil fuels), or building windmills, or running electric cars on juice produced in coal plants, and so on, and count the fossil Carbon released by the process against the savings of Carbon by the process. But that is wrong. The reason it is wrong is that we need to keep the Carbon in the ground. If there is fossil Carbon being released by a coal plant that is running, ultimately, electric cars (or buses or trains) than there is a savings for the simple reason that running vehicles with electricity is a) more inherently efficient than using countless tiny explosions of fossil fuel, and b) almost always uses a mix of non-fossil-carbon energy sources such as wind power, hydro, nuclear, and solar. But that is not the point. The point is that ultimately we have to change the energy source from coal and natural gas to other sources. When we see a variable in the Carbon savings for a given technology that involves releasing fossil carbon, we have to hunt down that source and change it to non-fossil energy production. We need to build the electric cars in plants that are run on non-fossil energy, and use materials that are obtained, shipped, and processed with non-fossil energy, and run the vehicles on electricity made with non-fossil sources.

And increasingly, this is happening. If you have a plug in EV car now, there is an increasing number of places where you can plug the thing in and get non-fossil fuel juice to charge it up. This of course is developing too slowly. Every park and ride lot, the big giant parking lot at the mall, and your garage, should all have solar cells on the roof to provide at least some of the energy used to charge cars that plug in for some juice. Individual home owners should opt, where possible, to buy wind generated energy over fossil fuel generated energy. And so on.

The argument that “you can’t do this thing to avoid using fossil fuels because the thing uses fossil fuels” is countered by the argument that “if you are using fossil fuels than you need to find a way to not use fossil fuels.” The entire argument that the use of fossil fuels is involved in the non-use of fossil fuels is real, but temporary, and is really nothing other than an argument to not use fossil fuels in ALL areas we are currently using them, eventually.

Are electric cars any good? Lomborg says no, but he's wrong.

John Stossel, writing at Real Annoying Clear Politics, (which is not a terrible place except for John Stossel) quotes some guy named Bjorn Lomborg about electric cars, thusly:

Do environmentalists even care about measuring costs instead of just assuming benefits? We spend $7 billion to subsidize electric cars. Even if America reached the president’s absurd 2015 goal of “a million electric cars on the road” (we won’t get close), how much would it delay warming of the Earth?

“One hour,” says Lomborg. “This is a symbolic act.”

There are a lot of reasons that this is wrong. First, cars are not nearly the problem that buildings are. The vast majority of carbon released from fossil stores into the atmosphere (as CO2, mainly) has to do with buildings … heating them, cooling them, lighting them, and running the stuff we do in them. Vehicles are important but they are a smaller contribution. But they are still important. Anti-Earth people like Stossel and Lomborg seem to have an extra bit of hate for electric cars, and I think the reason for that is that the widespread deployment of electric cars can actually help with the buildings. One thing we need to make a smart grid work well is a lot of batteries. If there were charging stations at both home and work and most people who drove at all drove electric cars, the top 20 percent or so of the battery storage in all those cars (in the US there are hundreds of millions of vehicles) could be used to allow individuals to express their Liberties in the Free Market of Electricity, storing and supplying surplus juice at a profit. If you do this right you can probably drive your car for free this way, depending on your driving patterns.

Also, this is a very difficult number to calculate and is probably one of those things where you can make up any number and then find an equation that equals it.

Cars? Whose cars? Cars around the planet (one billion or so) or cars in the US (a quarter of that)? Which cars? The lower or higher milage ones? Who is driving them and how far? If we are only replacing hybrids, you wouldn’t get much. If you are replacing Ford F3000s, you’d get a hella lot. Also, these people are anti-global warming science. If you are anti global warming science, are you even allowed to calculate things using — global warming science? Can you insist that climate change is not real, or not related to CO2, or that important things like climate sensitivity (how much heat arises from how much CO2, simply put) are not known or not properly calculated, and still use those mathematical relationships to make up some dumb argument like this one?

No. You can’t.

Anyway, it probably can be calculated but I’d rather see the calculations done by someone who knows what they are talking about, so I asked atmospheric scientist and energy expert John Abraham about this and here’s what he said.

If you put 1 million clean cars on the road and have them last 15 years before removing them, and if you take the typical emissions of a vehicle (5700 kg CO2 per year), you have saved 8.6 e10 kg of CO2 in the 15 years. Now lets assume you don’t put any more clean vehicles on the road. How many hours is this worth of global emissions?

We emit about 36 billion tons of CO2 per year which is about 4.1e9 kg CO2 per hour.

Therefore, those cars, over their lifetime, would have saved 21 hours of emissions from all CO2 sources.

So, he was only off by 2100%

In addition, I asked my friend J. Drake Hamilton at Fresh Energy if she had a handy link to an article somewhere that would address this question, the question of the efficacy of electric cars and such, and she game met the following. Thanks J.

Clearing the Air on Electric Cars and Pollution

A new study from North Carolina State purportedly shows that electric vehicles won’t reduce pollution in the long term. A closer look at detailed results reveals that the study actually shows the opposite: that higher electric vehicle adoption can significantly reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions. That’s right–despite the confusing spin–the North Carolina state study confirms what the vast majority of studies have shown: electric cars are a key part of our longer-term strategy to cut carbon and smog-forming pollutants.


I want my flying electric car! Forget the jet pack.

If we, Western Civilization, had started out with electric cars, and a century later someone came along with the idea of exploding little dollops of gasoline mixed with air to propel them, that person would be thought insane.

Depending on price, the cost of energy to propel an electric car a given distance can be about 5% of the cost to propel a gas-explosion style car. The electricity to power the electric car can be produced in any number of ways, some icky some cleaner, but much more efficiently. Some of that energy can be generated where the car is parked, at home or work, under a Photoage, a structure with photo cells that serves as a garage. Since most cars just sit there for much of the day, this can be a significant amount. Meanwhile, the car’s batteries can be part of the smart grid, the top 15% or so being used by the grid to store/use electricity keeping supply and demand closer.

I used to think the inefficiency of making all the volts in big giant plants and sending it out over wires obviated all of this but experts tell me this is not true. Also, as the grid becomes more and more localized, and it becomes more and more normal to fit homes or other buildings with solar and use batteries, etc., the source becomes closer to supply. But really, it may be the difference between generating a magnetic field from available electric potential vs. causing a series of explosions inside a big heavy metal thing that matters most.

(This brief comment was prompted by Don Prothero‘s post of the image at the top of the post on Facebook.)

The Fukushima Alternative

On March 11th, 2011, a large earthquake caused a large tsunami in Japan, and the two historic events wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The power plant had six boiling water reactors of the kind used around the world in many nuclear power plants. Three of the six reactors suffered a meltdown, and containment structures meant to contain a meltdown were also breached. This is regarded as one of the worst nuclear disasters to ever happen, possibly the worst of all, though comparing major nuclear disasters to each other is hard for a number of reasons.

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, Ana Miller and I produced a number of updates no Fukushima, in which Ana’s studiously assembled list of sources was organized, assembled, and commented on. These “Fukushima Updates” together with a number of other posts on Fukushima can all be found HERE.

Yesterday I looked up how much the Fukushima disaster is likely to cost when the cleanup is all over. This is a very difficult number to estimate, but various sources put the cost at between 250 and 500 billion US dollars. For the present purposes, I’m going to assume that the actual cost will be at the higher end of the scale, and I’m going to take that money and do something else with it.

So, I’ve got 500 billion dollars and I want to spend it on non-carbon based non-nuclear energy production. What will that get me?

I’ve only done a few rough calculations, and I welcome you to correct or add or revise in the comments below. I am not an expert on this topic and I am easily confused. Please correct me in the comments but be nice about it I’m sensitive.

According to the good people at Blue Horizon Energy, which installs home solar panels and such, I can have a 625 square foot solar installation that would produce about 5000 W of power for about $20,000 dollars. Why would I want such a thing? Because I want to put it on the high school that is down the street from my house. Oh, I also want to put one on the middle school. And the strip mall where the grocery store is. I know this would be a bit more expensive, but I also want to put one or two over the parking lot at the strip mall, so cars underneath it would not get covered with snow but could hook up during the day to charge their batteries (for people with electric cars). And so on.

With the money to be spent ultimately on the Fukushima cleanup, I can install approximately 25 million of these things at current costs. I have a feeling, though, that I could get a discount. Also, if I was going to spend 500 billion buckaroos on solar, that itself would help drive down costs because costs of solar energy are dropping fast. I’m thinking I could probably squeeze 30 million units out of my budget.

There are about 100,000 public schools in the united states, a bit over that number if you count private schools. But I have 30 million units! There are about 30,000 towns and cities that probably have a city center, city hall, public works department, or some other building that a unit could go on. There are about 35,000 super markets. I’m going to make a guess and figure that if there are 30,000 supermarkets there must be at least 50,000 strip malls. There are probably several tens of thousands of parking structures, private or public. Imma guess 50,000 of those.

So far, then, we have over a quarter of a million places to put my solar panel arrays in a manner that would involve a reasonable level of management and negotiation, but we have 25 million arrays. OK, so maybe we’ll put more than one array on most of these structures. Maybe we can fit four on average, since some strip malls are large. Then we add big box stores that are not on strip malls. There’s almost 1,800 targets so there must be roughly the same number of Wall-marts. There are movie theaters and many other places with flat roofs where it would be fairly easy to install a big bunch of solar panels and still cover only part of the roof (fire departments do not like it when you cover the entire roof). And then, of course, there are farms. Lots and lots of farms with barns and other buildings on which a solar panel could be stores.

In the end, we can install 25,000,000 units that are worth 5000 Watts each. That is 125,000,000,000 W. I’m assuming that this is potential power and not realized capacity, which may be as low as 15%, but could be higher. Hell, let’s just say 20%. That’s 20 gW. Could that be right?

Putting it another way, we can install 16,250,000,000 square feet or 583 square miles of solar power.

Or maybe we should just use the money to build a smaller number of thermal solar installations like the IVANPAH project in California. There, they spent 2.2 billion dollars to develop solar power facilities that produce 392 MW (That’s a bit smaller than a single reactor of the type found at Fukushima). With 500 billion dollars, we could produce over 225 of these plants, which in turn would produce over 89,000 MW of power. That’s like building over 170 new nuclear reactors (distributed among a smaller number of plants, presumably). There are currently about 435 nuclear plants making energy around the world and in a few years that number will rise to about 500. Many of them have multiple reactors. Let’s assume for a moment that there are an average of four reactors per plant, so my 170 new reactors is equal to about 10% of the installed nuclear power base.

So, one way to look at it is this: The cost of Fukushima’s cleanup is equal to about 10% of the existing nuclear power industry’s energy production capacity. Looking it another way, we can retrofit every school district, municipality, parking garage, and farm with enough solar energy to make a big dent in their daily use of energy.

What would you do with the money?

Happy Anniversary Fukushima. Also, thank you Ana for all your work on the Fukushima feed.

The Most Impressive Comeback Story You Haven’t Heard (Guest Post)

The Most Impressive Comeback Story You Haven’t Heard

By Ross Chanin & Emilee Pierce

If you read the tech press, you know the scoop: Google just bought Nest Labs (the maker of smart thermostats and smoke detectors) for $3.2 billion. For context, that’s more than three times the amount that Facebook paid for Instagram in last year’s blockbuster deal and Google’s second largest acquisition to date.

What you probably haven’t heard is what this megabuy says about the cleantech industry. In fact, you probably haven’t heard that it involves cleantech at all. That’s because the vast majority of media coverage focused on Google and what this acquisition tells us about the Internet giant’s future plans.

But there’s another story here. Nest is hardly the only cleantech company making headlines these days. Among the others: Tesla, the maker of luxury electric cars, posted a market cap reaching $22 billion in 2013; Solar City, a leading residential solar installer, saw its stock rocket 700 percent in the twelve months following its IPO; and Opower, which deploys social influence to reduce energy consumption, doubled its user base in the last year alone.

These companies aren’t one-off successes. We think they represent the forefront of an impressive industry comeback fueled by appealing products, sleek marketing, big data, and elegant software. Nest made smart thermostats cool, Tesla made an electric car a status symbol, and Opower made energy consumption a neighborly competition. At American Efficient, we hope to make renewable power a must-have for you and your favorite local coffee shop.

Clean technology choices aren’t new, but appealing, sleek and simple ones are. We have a crop of new, consumer-facing cleantech brands to thank for that. We now want to purchase renewable power for our home or business, install solar panels on our roof, upgrade to efficient home products, drive an electric or hybrid ride — just to keep up with the Joneses. That’s big news.

But here’s the thing: You won’t hear about the cleantech comeback from your morning paper or nightly news program. Mass media continues to portray cleantech companies as either lonely orphans or oddly healthy members of an otherwise sick family (See: 60 Minutes: The Clean Tech Crash). But the real story is about what’s new and what’s next: cleantech with a consumer-friendly design and sound economics. In our view, it’s a cleantech comeback. And a big one at that.

Ross Chanin is co-founder and CEO of American Efficient, a clean tech company that helps consumers purchase renewable power and energy efficient products through a network of retail businesses, competitive power suppliers and regulated utilities. Emilee Pierce is American Efficient’s VP of Marketing & Partnerships. More info at: http://www.americanefficient.com/

James Hansen on Nuclear Power

James Hansen, the famous climate scientist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren, talks about the possible role of nuclear power in addressing climate change, and in particular, reducing the release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

I think he is far to pessimistic on the use of solar and wind energy than he needs to be and notice that he, and no one else ever, seems to mention geothermal, which could reduce our release of carbon by double digit percentages using existing technology in a few years. Having said that, there is probably no way to solve our energy problem without implementing next generation nuclear power to some degree.

Photo Credit: u? via Compfight cc

Waste to Energy Plants Are Good

When I was a kid, there was a strange looking garbage can in the back yard. It looked like a regular metal garbage cans (garbage cans were metal back in those days, before plastic was invented) but it was covered with round holes about one inch in diameter. It was also heavily corroded and lived behind the large brick fireplace that was also in the back yard. No one used it for anything but I remember that it had an interesting story that went along with it.

This can was used back in the day, before I was born, by my grandfather (who lived upstairs) to burn garbage. The story was about a can of shaving cream. Apparently, one day my grandfather was burning garbage and there was a discarded shaving cream can in there, which should not have been included in the garbage to burn because such a thing could explode. And it did. A piece of shrapnel from the exploding shaving cream can blew a new hole in the side of the burning garbage can, whizzed past my grandfather but missed him, passed through a hole in a nearby chain link fence and took a chip out of a brick in the apartment building next door. As evidence of this event there was an extra, ragged hole in the garbage can and a piece of brick missing visible on the side of the apartment building.

Yeah, I don’t believe it either. I was the youngest of four siblings and telling me tall tales was a family amusement, since the television had not been invented yet.

Anyway, the idea that burning garbage is good for the environment should strike you as wrong, because garbage is … well, it is garbage … and burning it releases all sorts of horrid toxins into the environment. So, burning garbage to produce energy would also be a bad thing. Better to burn something nice and clean. Like coal. Or uranium. Right?

Well, wrong, actually.

Author and science communicator Shawn Otto (Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America) has written an interesting piece on burning garbage to make electricity. It turns out that opposition to waste-to-energy technology is an example of science denialism on the left. Modern waste to energy plants are clean, and may be cleaner than many other forms of power plant. Also, when we burn garbage, we are getting “free” energy, to at least some extent, in relation to the problem of burning fossil fuels. While some of the Carbon released into the atmosphere in burning garbage may be Carbon from fossil fuel sources, much of it is carbon from non-fossil fuel sources (like trees).

Today’s waste-to-energy plants are not your granddaddy’s trash burners, and some liberal groups, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to look at the actual science and reevaluate long-held assumptions in light of new information and increasing concern over climate change. When they do, they are finding that today’s WTEs look surprisingly good for the environment and for fighting climate change.

Shawn’s article is detailed and has numerous helpful graphics. Go read it and become much better informed about the science of waste-to-energy production.

I think that one of the plants Shawn visited during his review of this problem may be the power plant not far from my house in Elk River. That power plant is built on the site of one of the earliest commercial nuclear power plants. That little fact has nothing to do with the topic at hand but I find it interesting nonetheless.

City of Angels Will Dump Coal by 2025

Last February 17th, there was a big rally at the Los Angeles City Hall where people demanded action on climate change and an end to our reliance on fossil fuel. The city of Los Angeles gets 39% of its electricity from coal fired plants, so that would be hard.

But today, we’ve learned that “…Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be “signing papers” in the coming weeks that will wean L.A. from coal-fired power within 12 years.”

Apparently, the mayor made this announcement at a UCLA event discussing related issues, and it was a real jaw dropper, truly unexpected. This will require shutting down two coal plants.

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc