show trip means no blogging for about the next 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the post under construction didn't get finished in time. I could post it as a work in progress, but that would mean you would all re-read everything when I got finished with it.
Think of it like an omelet; when it's done, it'll be so much better than half-cooked.
Happy Pi Day
(Too cryptic for you? I hope you pondered it instead of just passing it over, because it deserves some transcendental meditation.)
Blowin' in the wind
The US nuclear industry is getting a long-overdue boost. Declining supplies of natural gas (accounting for 18% of US generation; stats) plus stiffening prices for coal (which supplies roughly 50%) have driven a surge of interest in new plants. While coal plants are going to come on-line earlier, nuclear is zero-emission and will be in great demand in a future where the control of greenhouse gases is recognized as a crucial element of ecological, foreign and economic policy.
But the next generation of nuclear plants will not begin delivering power until around 2018, and some parts of the country long ago turned away from coal to reduce pollution. What's left? Fortunately, it's the fastest-growing source of electricity in the world: wind power.
Wind capacity is growing exponentially, and manufacturers are moving aggressively to expand manufacturing. Installed capacity in the US grew by 35% in 2005, or 2431 megawatts; world capacity grew nearly as fast, with total capacity growing by 25% and installations up 43% over 2004. Total installations were approximately 11.8 GW; at 30% capacity factor, the new turbines represent about 3.5 GW of average production. This is small compared to other additions, but the rate of expansion is faster than anything else on earth and the resource is 3 orders of magnitude away from any intrinsic limits.
At the typical 30% capacity factor, the US will receive roughly 740 MW from last year's turbine installations; that's about 3/4 of a large nuclear plant. But that rate of growth is going through the roof, as both the number of turbines installed and their size increases every year. If total capacity continues to rise at a compounded 35% per year, the 2006 additions will equal 1 nuclear plant, 2009's will equal 2.5, and the sum from 2006 through 2018 will equal 136 GW of average production or 136 large plants. By the time the first third-generation nuke comes on line, wind power could be delivering more electrical power than all the nukes currently on the US grid; they would be supplying roughly 30% of 2004's total consumption (up from 0.36%).
But can that rate of growth be maintained at such capacity? If the only limit on expansion is the capacity left untapped, the future looks quite rosy for at least the next 20 years. The logistic curve stops accelerating at 50% of its asymptotic value, and 50% of the limit for the continental US is a mighty big number. The wind potential from the top 20 US states averages about 1.2 TW (may be an underestimate). At an average production of 139 GW, the US would only be about 12% of the way to full use of the resource. The logistic curve would still be accelerating strongly at that point, and even at a 35%/year base rate of increase it wouldn't hit the turnover point for another five years or so.
Making effective use of this energy could become a bigger task than generating it. Piling on another 120 GW of capacity (36 GW average production) each year might be more than either transmission could move or demand could absorb. This would allow fossil-fired plants to be retired and other users to switch from fossil fuels to electric power during periods of surplus. Demand-side management is bound to play a huge role over the next couple of decades, coming to be more important than peaking generation. One of the consequences is likely to be a flattening of the electric price curve, making the off-peak generation of base-load plants even more valuable. By the time that the new nukes flip on their switches, the world will be a very different place.
The various anti-science forces in the world continue to be attacked brutally. No, not with nukes, aircraft or even suicide bombers; they're being ruthlessly assaulted with satire.
I bring you:
Sustainability, efficiency and Jevons' "Paradox"
Jevons' Paradox is a misnomer; it is really no paradox at all. The idea that it is a paradox assumes that the price-demand curve for product is flat. This is a notion that most students of economics would laugh at.
This is best illustrated with an example. Let's suppose that I'm in the widget business. The old widget-making process uses one hogshead of floo at $10 to make one widget; at $15/widget I can sell 1000 widgets a month and I make $5000. If I improve my process to use only 1/2 hogshead of floo per widget, I can sell for $10 and still make $5/widget. Here's the "paradox": suppose that people will buy 3000 widgets/month at $10 each so my floo consumption goes from 1000 hogsheads/month up to 1500. Floo could go to $15/hogshead and I'd still be making $7500/month compared to my original $5000/month. Everyone is better off: I make more money, the floo producers make more money, and the public enjoys 3 times as many widgets. Even Wikipedia has it right.
Jevons' Paradox only applies where supply is not limited by other factors. This does not apply to oil; all the money in the world cannot put more in the ground nor change the geological constraints on its rate of production. Price has some effect on the recovery methods used, but it mostly decides who gets what's produced. If we doubled our efficiency of using oil, either we could consume twice as much of its products while paying the same price, consume lots more and grab even more of the oil with the higher price we can pay, or hold our consumption to less than double and watch the price of oil go down.
At least it would go down temporarily; depletion will eventually bring the supply back down and cause the price to be bid up once more. But the ability to pay a greater price has a salutary effect: it makes other sources competitive. Suppose that the producer of $10/hogshead floo gets it by mining his raw material and pressing out the liquid; if there is a process for making floo from grape leaves and willow bark at $12.50/hogshead, the improved widget process opens up an entirely new source of supply. So long as the viniculturists and coppicers can supply the raw material for 1500 hogsheads a month, the price of floo will remain pegged at $12.50 even if the miners go out of business.
This bears a deliberate resemblance to our situation with petroleum and its substitutes. Biofuels and batteries are expensive, and their production costs have to come down before they're competitive; worse, the further off the prospect of price parity, the less likely people are to invest to make it happen. But every increase in the price of petroleum brings that point closer. The cost of alternatives will hit the breakeven point for one use, and then another, and another. The bigger the industry, the greater the yield from accumulated experience; the greater the cost of petroleum, the faster the investment in new technology will come. The more efficient the use of the alternatives, the more business they will take away from today's suppliers.
This will work so long as the alternatives do not run into resource constraints of their own. Corn ethanol is almost there already (it's likely that resource constraints and the consequent price boosts are the entire purpose of the ethanol program), but cellulose resources in garbage and crop and forestry wastes are very under-utilized. The wind capacity of the United States stands at about 10 GW out of an estimated 1.2 terawatts possible (and another 900 GW on the continental shelves), and solar is barely on the map.
We won't have to worry about competing uses for waste biomass until we're using a lot of the waste. It would take decades to build out the continental wind resources alone, and I can't see us worrying about competing uses for solar energy for a very long time.
To a first approximation, the likely product of Jevons' Paradox for alternative energy is to make it more attractive and more widely used. Efficiency is our friend, and as for the paradox, I say bring it on.
I'm trying to see if Yahoo photos will let me link to images. Here's a diagram I was going to post to "Going negative".
Thank you for your forebearance.
Ford's ad for the hybrid Escape (reachable from the link at the top, sometimes) is interesting for what it does NOT say. I didn't find performance or towing capacity in the specs.
But a little bird told me they're paying really well for each click-through.
UPDATE: Thanks, folks. I hope to share that with some of you someday.
Tasteless. Offensive. Funny as all get out.
I laughed out loud as I looked at this (warning: offensive to Christians).
What do you bet that nobody ever produces a Mohammed version?
UPDATE: Also have a look at this Flash movie about Exxon-Mobil.
Out of town on rails
Regular readers here will remember that I've pointed to and occasionally discussed the Blade Runner road/rail truck concept. Well, it came up again in an e-mail discussion the other day (the fruits of which might appear elsewhere). I pointed out that even a doubling of truck fuel economy over the next 14 years would only cut total consumption by 34% if road mileage continues to increase by even 2% per year; if we could double economy AND switch 60% of mileage to modes which don't burn any fuel, we could increase the savings to 74% *. I got the following response, which I should have anticipated:
> The question is, CAN we move 60% of that mileage to modes
> which run on electricity in 14 years?
Not having an answer ready meant that I hadn't done my homework. Better late than never; I went directly to the BTS1 to check it out. Here's what I came back with:
In 2003, there were 3,974,1072 miles of highway in the USA, of which about 46,500 miles was interstates3. The total urban free/expressways (interstates and other) came to 24330 miles; rural interstates are another 32048 miles (total 56378 for all freeways), and other rural arterials come to 97039 miles.
The same year, combination trucks (semi-trucks and vehicles with trailers) travelled 140,160 million miles4. I could not find the mileage breakdown for this category.
What it takes
Commercial trucking in general seems to have more detailed statistics available5. Commercial trucks travelled 215,884 million miles in 2003; we're looking for 60% of that, or about 130,000 million vehicle-miles. Urban and rural interstates accounted for 86,692 million vehicle-miles (almost 2/3 of the target), leaving about 43,000 to go. Other urban streets account for 58,830 million vehicle-miles, but we probably can't convert lanes of surface roads to electrified rail (save for dual-use, like trolley cars?) so it's questionable how much of that could be electrified. On the other hand, short hauls away from an electrified artery could be driven on power from flywheels or batteries; this may not be hopeless. Rural arteries tend to be less heavily travelled (otherwise they wouldn't be rural) and do not account for as much fuel use per mile of road as urban ones.
Electrification of the urban arteries would be best for eliminating diesel emissions in densely populated areas. This is a two-fer.
What it might cost
It all comes down to money. Adding two lanes of electrified rail to all interstates and urban free/expressways means ~113,000 lane-miles of rail3; that covers about 40% of all truck vehicle-miles. Covering the most-travelled 50% of urban truck routes means another ~59,000 lane-miles of rail (plus overhead wires) in urban areas, getting at least half of the remaining 43,000 million vehicle-miles. Power from flywheels or batteries could make fuel-free, zero-emission jaunts from the main lines to destinations, maybe getting the balance. It would be close regardless.
This scheme would have a total of about 172,000 miles of rail. If we could build that out at 20,000 lane-miles per year we'd have it in about 8.5 years. There's almost 4 million miles of road in the total system3, and rebuilding it every 20 years means at least 200,000 miles of road (much of it 4- and 6-lane) per year. This looks feasible to start by 2010 and have finished by 2020, with time to spare. At $2.4 million per lane-mile, the capital cost would be about $270 billion or about $35 billion per year.
Note that this does not include the simple expedient of throwing rails back onto unused rights-of-way and running trucks on it.
What it might save
"Combination trucks" burned about 27 billion gallons of fuel in 20036. 60% of this is 16.2 billion gallons. At $2.50 per gallon, it would cost $40.5 billion per year; substitution of electricity at 1.5 kWh/mile and 10 cents/kWh (including savings from lower rolling resistance of rail) would cost 19.5 billion dollars per year, for a gross savings of $21 billion/year for energy. The investment would pay off in about 14 years, not including lower expenditures for pollution control, health, and other external costs of petroleum consumption in general and diesel fuel in particular. If trucks other than "combination trucks" could use the rail/electric system it would pay off faster, and any increase in fuel prices would do the same.
Note that rail moved about 1/3 more ton-miles of freight in '03 than trucks did7, while consuming only 3.8 billion gallons of fuel8 to trucks' almost 38 billion gallons9. The more we can make trucks like rail (and efficient as rail), the more we can ship without burning fuel.
A 2% per year increase in vehicle-miles compounded over 14 years comes to 32%, or 132% of the original. If fuel per mile is cut in half, fuel consumption falls to 66%, or a 34% decrease. Slashing another 60% off the fuel consumption by replacement with e.g. electricity cuts the net
fuel consumption to 26.4% of the original, or a 74% decrease despite a 32% increase in vehicle-miles.
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/index.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_01_01.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_01_05.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_01_32.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_truck_profile.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_04_05.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_01_46b.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_04_17.html (back)
 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_04_05.html (back)
One of the major issues of energy policy is EROEI, Energy Return On Energy Invested. If something consumes more energy than it produces (without some other advantage like portability or compatibility), it isn't worth using. The greater the EROEI, the better the investment.
Some investments use energy to produce on-going savings. These have to be measured by a different standard; the investment is up front but the return is over a span of time, so both the rate and duration of the return are important. The payback may be measured in months to decades. This complicates matters. (Fiscal rather than energetic payback is a further complication; prices of some forms of energy are rising faster than the discount rate, which makes future returns more valuable than today's investment rather than less. I will not try to analyze the price of energy and will restrict this to physics rather than economics.)
The housing stock of the USA varies in efficiency with some of it being fairly good and some being notoriously inefficient (early houses with balloon framing and no insulation, or the cheap stock built in the 1960's being examples). If these buildings are to be updated, the energy invested in the process must be returned during the remaining lifespan and the faster the better. But how do you measure either the return or the investment?
When in doubt, guesstimate. It usually gets to the ballpark, and guesstimates can be refined when you get more data.
The standard for residential construction used to be the exterior wall with 2x4 studs (actually 3-1/2 inches thick) on 16-inch centers with fiberglass insulation and skins of plywood outside and sheetrock inside; it was rated at a nominal R-111, with its actual insulating value being quite a bit lower due to thermal bridging via the studs. The typical wall actually gets about R-9 per various authorities. The question becomes, if we have such a wall and want to reduce our net energy consumption, what is the best thing we can do to it?
Insulate the living daylights out of it, of course. I did some calculations of the heat loss of an unimproved 2x4 stud wall versus the improvements which could be added by re-skinning the house with various thicknesses of solid foam insulation. (I also just, as in Thursday night, made a pass through Home Depot to check current retail prices and the R-values claimed for the materials.) If the foam monomer is produced from natural gas and the efficiency of production (weight of foam per weight of gas) is 50%, this table sums up what I got for extruded polystyrene (not beadboard) foam insulation:
|Base insulation R-value:||9|
|Insulation value, R/inch||5|
|Insulation weight, lb/ft3||1.5|
|Mfgr efficiency, %||50|
|Heating value of nat. gas, BTU/lbm||23875|
|Foam thickness, inches||0||1||2||3||4||5||6||7||8|
|Foam weight, lbm/ft2||0||0.13||0.25||0.38||0.5||0.63||0.75||0.88||1|
|Heating degree-days||Heat loss per square foot of wall, BTU/year|
|Heating degree-days||Energy payback time, years|
Types of foam insulation
Polyisocyanurate board is a better insulator than extruded EPS (about R-6.5/inch after aging compared to R-5) and weighs about 2 lbs/ft3 to XEPS's 1.5. This makes it roughly equal in insulating value to an XEPS board 4/3 as thick; 6 inches of polyisocyanurate is almost exactly equivalent in insulating value to 8 inches of XEPS. They are also amazingly close in retail price; the optimum cost XEPS board was $17.64 for 4 cubic feet (4 foot by 8 foot by 1.5 inches, R-7.5) while the best-buy polyisocyanurate was $12.34 for 2.67 cubic feet (4 foot by 8 foot by 1 inch, R-6.5). The polyisocyanurate is very slightly cheaper for the same insulating value, at least in quantity 1. Which one you'd choose for a given installation would depend more on the immediate price situation and other details (like property taxes from increased "square footage") rather than the specific R-values.
Spray-on urethane does not appear to be even remotely competitive for similar applications. The kits I found cost around $700 for 50 cubic feet of foam, roughly $14 per cubic foot. The insulating value is not good enough to justify this cost, but it can be used where rigid board cannot. Since it is incommensurable with the other two types I will not consider it further.
I did some research on the synthesis of styrene (the monomer for polystyrene) and found that it's derived more from coke-oven products than petroleum per se. It appears that the raw material for polystyrene may not be affected much by shortages of natural gas or oil. I had difficulty even finding the molecular structure of isocyanurate monomer (see here), though the nitrogen-carbon ring at the center looked unusual to me; I did not find any hints regarding the typical raw materials for its manufacture.
As you can see, the calculated energy payback from the invested fuel is very good; even 8 inches of foam takes a mere 11 heating seasons to pay back its energy of manufacture in an area with 2000 heating degree-days, and just 5 and a half where it's cold enough to make 4000 degree-days. Unfortunately, the fiscal payback is nowhere near as attractive. Slapping R-40 of XEPS onto a wall costs roughly $2.94/ft2; under the most severe climactic conditions it would only save about 8700 BTU/year, or 0.087 therms. If the price of natural gas rises to $1.50/therm it would take over 22 years to pay for itself, exclusive of the cost of structural skins and re-siding. Even at today's low interest rates, this is not a very attractive investment. Half that thickness (4 inches, R-20) would save about 11¢/ft2/year at a cost of $1.47/ft2; this would pay off in a bit over 13 years. At current interest rates, this is moderately attractive. Greater levels of insulation may pay off faster if combined with a smaller, cheaper heating plant or other economies made possible by the reduced heating load, and tax deductibility of mortgage interest versus operating expenses also adds a bias towards insulation. This is not a simple calculation.
On a straight EROEI basis, retrofits of foam insulation appear to be a very good investment. Even the thickest (near-superinsulation) applications will pay off the chemical energy invested in them many times over the life of the structure, and in just a few years in the coldest climates. The fiscal payback is not nearly so attractive even for the raw materials sans installation costs (at least at retail), unless other factors are considered.
1. R-value is a measure of resistance to heat transmission, in feet-squared hours degrees-F per BTU. Divide the temperature difference by the R-value, and you get the heat transmission in BTU per square foot per hour. The R-value is 1 over the U-value, and vice versa. (back)
Ergosphere subject index, 2005
June 29: Change log
August 9: Cheers and raspberries
November 8: Yes, I don't write enough
June 15: June biomass roundup
October 24: Grass power revisited
December 23: What can you do with 1.3 billion tons?
July 7: Going negative
December 31: The Weyburn option
February 24: One small step for carbon
June 29: Zinc: Miracle metal?
December 12: Meet you halfway
January 14: Getting it done
August 19: A bite-sized cogeneration example
December 28: Cogeneration could have come to the rescue
August 13: Immediate responses
October 7: Immediate responses: revive the PNGV
December 20: Think globally, take care of yourself
October 27: From bad to worse
January 10: News Briefs
February 19: The Ergosphere turns 1
May 13: A list of don'ts.
June 3: Comment policy
July 12: Why people still buy Microsoft
September 26: Quote without comment
October 28: Quote without comment
October 31: Alternative energy is civil defense
December 1: AE is civil defense, redux
April 29: It's (a) mine!
June 13: SMH: anti-nuke propaganda organ?
July 19: Super-cooled
April 29: It's all gas
July 31: Triage
December 13: Someone has way too much free time
December 14: Kos-ternation
December 16: An allegory
December 20: And a day before solstice, too
December 21: Target: sugar producers
December 28: Denialists and echo chambers
May 12: The glossary
September 8: FAQ
December 21: The Reference Library
September 24: Scribblings for September 2005
October 26: Scribblings for October 2005
June 3: Fertilize this!Why hydrogen is no route to renewables
August 10: Petroleum independence as a growth engine
September 10: A lever and a place to stand
December 22: The next domino falls
March 31: Forty-two
October 30: A reconception of marine power
The Ergosphere turns 2, and open thread
Okay, enough of all the flattery. Tell me what you really think.
And not just about the blog. What's on your mind? Yeah, you.
Better than chocolate
Blogging is a very human activity. There's dry facts, wet blankets, gut-busting humor, warm camaraderie, hot flamage, cold hostility... the full spectrum. And then there are the things that make your day.
The following is the "mystery letter" I received last Thursday. I could have posted it sooner, but for a blogger whose raison d'etre is to promote ideas it looked like it arrived just a few days early. I'm sharing it with the gracious permission of the author, jffchrstn at netscape dot net (who I hope will document and pass on his plans!).
I have meant to write you for a while now and give you my appreciation for being a voice of possibilities of a different energy future. In finding your posts on the Oil Drum and reading your blog you have inspired me to quit wringing my hands and standing like a deer in the head lights. I am moving forward on finishing my Super insulated retrofit of my great grandmother's farm house and incorporating a combined heat and power unit powered by biomass gasification. The figures you site of different energy sources and your methodology of harnessing those have taught me to look closer at trying to manage the entropy of a fuel source through prioritized utilization and by the best efficiency means. And not to be narrow sighted on ones vision of energy generation and fuel type to the exclusion of better possibilities or combinations.
My original plan for this house has evolved over the years. As I have gained more knowledge and skills my progress slowed because of my uncertainty in my original assumptions. But now I have been gaining a renewed drive and will finish the mechanical portion in the coming months. I want to thank you again. My expanded goal now is that I may help my neighbors and community as the time comes closer to Peak Oil and how that plays out for civilization in the coming years. My fear is that I will not have enough time and money to start and finish all the projects I feel will be necessary to have working and documented. I feel these projects will help me and family live a good life and that I will be able to show others and pass on the theory and plans so that they can copy them and pass it on. I guess this is my version of investment for retirement planning. I will not bore you with a bunch of details of these projects unless you're interested but I would like to ask you if I run into a technical or theory problem if I may call upon you for an opinion or be pointed in a direction to find what I may need. I have not found anyone in my local area that has much of a technical interest in alternative energy let alone someone who could be a mentor. I am always amazed how near sighted and biased people can be in the face of empirical data and the shear denial when you try and extrapolate a future. Thank you in advance for taking the time to read and or respond to this letter.
It's everything I was hoping for when I kicked off this blog:
- He constructively criticized what he found here.
- He took ownership of the ideas, and arguably improved upon them.
- He is putting them into practice. (Way to go!)
- He's spreading the word. (I hope that word eventually includes photos, plans and instructions... and if you need a writer, you know where to find me.)
It's the best thing I could have received: knowledge that it all makes a difference. (Without this blog, I am nothing.)
Of course, any area where I have knowledge - or where the readers here might - is fair game for questions. If interest develops I may post threads for exchange of information; open discussion here has already brought up useful things, like pointers to data on the Listeroid engine family.
PS: Friday is The Ergosphere's 2nd birthday. There will be a small blog-flurry in celebration.
The news Sunday carried a surprise item about the Veep hitting a friend with shotgun pellets in a hunting accident. (The victim is reported to be in good condition.) It appears undeniable that the Vice President forgot, ignored or never learned the first rule of firearms safety: be certain of what you're shooting at, and never aim a gun at anything you don't intend to shoot.
Unsurprisingly, this has caused all kinds of action in the blogosphere and elsewhere. I think this sums it up rather well:
While the event is newsworthy, I find it most interesting as a metaphor. This administration is headed by oil men, and Cheney in particular is said by many to have no vision for the USA other than using ever-increasing amounts of oil. As US production will never again reach its 1970 peak, this means more foreign oil. Further, it means ever-more-expensive oil.
This means ever greater profits for the oil companies (and oil dictatorships which still have oil to pump). This is Cheney's bird on the wing: money, money, money. But when he shot at the money, he hit the American public.
Did you get the message today?
Today, February 12 2006, is the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. (Happy Darwin Day!)
It is also Evolution Sunday, a day on which hundreds of congregations nationwide (at this writing, the page says 441 in 49 states and DC) have "... come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science."
That's only an average of 9 congregations per state, but it's a start.
Energy tax incentives
Here are some links (h/t: Enviropundit) for energy conservation tax incentives:
Simply Insulate: Tax info made easy. Major information for existing homes, data for new homes not present (the site claims that IRS regulations are not available yet).
Tax Incentives Assistance Project: Runs the gamut from new and existing residential to business to vehicles.
DSIRE: Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy.
Department of Energy: the horse's mouth.
(Also added to the Reference Library)
Quote without comment
Coby at Realclimate wrote:
...faced with the dangers that the best science warns of, based on very voluminous and consistent evidence, it is utterly unacceptable to say "prove it" and tacitly or explicitly endorse a "damn the torpedos, full speed ahead" social policy.
That's one hell of a gamble with something unique, priceless and not ours to damage.
Hoping it will go away
I listened to the State of The Union address Tuesday night, and I was very disappointed in the initiatives for energy. Bush's cronies got theirs; "more research" for clean coal (which others seem ready to build today, judging from the announcements of new IGCC powerplants), and more money for nuclear energy (which has a ten-year lead time and isn't going to start coming on line until a couple of crises from now). Ho, hum. He gave token nods to the things that can make a difference fast, and we need now: hybrid-car batteries and wind plants. Hydrogen isn't going to be a player for quite a few years, but he increased its already-excessive budget anyway.
With all this money devoted to far-off energy problems, it's significant that he didn't mention one which is looming very close indeed: natural gas. Prices skyrocketed along with motor fuel in the aftermath of the hurricanes, and they've not come down very far. Gas prices have already caused much North American industry to shut down and move overseas, and homeowners have only been spared bills of mammoth proportions by an unusually mild winter. Had we received the weather that Russia got, we'd have a crisis where we'd have to choose between heating homes, running business and generating electricity because there wouldn't be enough gas to do all three.
Despite the snow falling outside my window as I write this, it appears that we've avoided the crisis that a hard winter would have given us. But warmth this winter is no guarantee that we'll have it the next, and gas is only going to get more expensive as gas fields get deeper and further out into the water. Change will take time; if we're going to dodge this problem, we've got to act now.
What could we do in the next 10 months to make things better for next winter? The simple answer is, anything that makes us need less gas between now and the spring of 2007. Your summer peaking electricity comes from gas? Turn up your A/C thermostat and use a fan to maintain your comfort level. Re-lamp with compact fluorescents and save juice all year. If you're going to update your windows, do it ASAP. If you aren't but they're leaky, get some heat-shrink film and put it up as soon as the heating season starts. Put awnings over the windows that get lots of heat in the summer. Caulk all those windows and doors, call a contractor to insulate those walls, put another 6" of blown-in in that crawlspace attic. Dial down the thermostat a few degrees (TODAY) and throw on a heavier shirt and socks; most of us will never notice the difference after a while. Build some storm windows (I hope to post something on my own simple DIY model before the next heating season).
Notice anything in common about all those ways to avoid a crisis next winter? Bush didn't endorse or even mention a one of them, explicitly or implicitly.
This administration is a mystery to me. There are only two possibilties here: it either recognizes this looming problem or it does not. If it doesn't, it is grossly inept and incompetent. The President was smart enough to ask people to drive slower when our gasoline supply was slashed by hurricane damage; this problem is exactly analogous.
If the administration does recognize this problem, its silence must be explained. The less charitable (some might say cynical, or even paranoid) explanation is that the regime is run by fossil-fuel interests, and the greater the gap between supply and demand the better the price they'll get (or some other personal or political advantage); energy-dependent businesses and families be damned. In my opinion, this is treason.
The more charitable explanation colors them pathetic rather than treasonous. This explanation holds that this is a problem that frightens these big, strong people in Washington, and they've decided to hide and hope it goes away.
Never another Sony
We interrupt your regularly scheduled energy blogging for a short consumer product rating and rant.
Some years ago, I bought a Sony Discman player. I took it out shortly after I bought it, put a disc in it and went for a walk. It didn't play right. It didn't play right at home after that, either; it would get maybe halfway through most discs and then error out. The same discs would play fine on my stereo, so it was the Discman. That thing never worked; I was going to send it back to Sony, but I was so disgusted to have something fail right out of the box that I couldn't bring myself to write the letter. I think I eventually threw it away.
Come to 1997. I needed a cheap stereo with a CD player, so I got an Aiwa. Seemed to work okay. A couple of years later, it stopped playing some discs; it would error out. Then it errored out on most discs; finally it stopped recognizing any disc. Cleaner discs did not help. I finally resorted to using my Panasonic portable with the car adapter to run through the tape player. No CD player should fail in just 2 years; I said, "No more Aiwa, ever."
Some time later I saw a news item that Sony had bought Aiwa. I remember thinking, "So now Sony is going to be the same kind of junk that Aiwa made. So much for them." And then, having thought it, I forgot about it. (You see where this is going.)
Fast-forward to May 2005. I was looking for a compact stereo which played MP3's on CD-R. Looking through Best Buy, I found a number of things which had lousy sound, didn't seem to handle discs properly, or didn't work at all (the satellite-enabled boom box wouldn't play anything, or even function on FM; who were they kidding?) But there was a decent-looking (if somewhat bulky for my purposes) Sony CMT-HP somethingorother with a 5+1 CD changer, and it played my MP3 discs beautifully.
The alarm bells should have been going off in my head, but I didn't remember in time.
The unit worked fine for the week that I used it, then circumstances changed and it wound up being put away for a while. A few months ago I hauled it out again and put it in the computer room. The MP3 capability was good, but I noticed something ugly about it: the CD wouldn't hold its place on a disc if you switched away from it. It had no resume feature at all; not only wouldn't it recall a position if turned off and back on, it wouldn't even hold a spot when switching to the tuner! Somehow I'd missed noticing that it had crap software when I bought it.
It didn't do much except play the radio until my favorite station killed its music programming and I was thrown back on my CD collection for background sound. This started getting repetitive, so I began hitting the library for new things. This worked fine until tonight. The machine hit the end of a disc, started its groaning change to the next disc....
And never finished. And then it wouldn't eject. Powering it down and back up wouldn't allow an eject. Holding it face down didn't produce an eject. It was holding two library CD's hostage, and wouldn't even acknowledge that it was malfunctioning; it just sat there displaying "CD EJECT".
What kind of junk omits basic features from the outset, then has a mechanical failure after just a few months of regular use, and has software so bad it doesn't even note its own failure?
I had to take it apart to get the discs out. After liberating the library's property from its malfunctioning clutches, I had a choice to make. I could put it back together the best that I could, and be paranoid about it doing the same thing again in a month... or tomorrow.
Or I could write it off as yet another Sony piece of junk that cannot be trusted with anything ever again.
I refuse to inflict this thing on anyone else. The main unit is in pieces in the wastebasket. I have absolutely bought my last Sony, ever.
It only takes one
It all comes down to energy. Early in the day of the automobile the electric car was the simple, clean, quiet and reliable choice. It had more than sufficient power, but the batteries of the day could not store enough energy to compete with a tank-full of petroleum (or even alcohol). This turned into a killer deficiency. The electric was left driving short trips around town; gasoline offered range, all-day cruising, FREEDOM! Despite the pathetic 14.9% average efficiency of the US gasoline-powered fleet, a 15-gallon tank of gas can be turned into a whopping 82 kilowatt-hours to the wheels, yet it weighs less than 100 pounds and refills in a few minutes. A typical lead-acid battery pack for an EV weighs hundreds of pounds and holds less than 20 kWH, yet requires several hours to recharge. Clearly, something had to change before battery-powered vehicles could compete on the same turf.
Ever since the first Li-ion powered tzero showed that electric vehicles could overcome the range barrier, it was obvious that some battery technology would eventually make the EV competitive. The Li-ion battery with the lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) cathode clearly wasn't it; cobalt is too expensive, it charges too slowly, and it releases oxygen when overheated which leads to destructive and hazardous thermal runaway. Besides, the $60,000 cost of a tzero full of 18650 cells was clearly beyond what the market will bear.
Several different chemistries are now vying for dominance. Valence Technology's Saphion, based on doped lithium iron phosphate, is made from very inexpensive materials and has no thermal runaway problems. Altair Nano has a number of products, some of which are meant for batteries; I understand that their lithium titanate is going into some fast-charging cells which also beat the thermal runaway issue and have excellent charging performance and cycle life. A123 Systems is cagey about their exact technology, but they've announced some power tools powered by their cells. Their cycle life is claimed to be good, and charge/discharge rate is stellar: 5 minute recharge, and discharge power almost up to 5 kW/kg. One of these appears bound to kick NiMH out of conventional hybrid vehicles; after that, the drop of price with increased manufacturing volume will lead to more and energy storage aboard vehicles. If this is combined with recharging from the grid, it will lead to less and less need for petroleum. It only takes one technology to cross the finish line to make it all happen.
Enter a dark horse to the race. a barium-titanate ultracapacitor. EEStor claims a unit with the following characteristics:
- The product weighs 400 pounds and delivers 52 kilowatt-hours.
- As of last year selling price would start at $3,200 and fall to $2,100 in high-volume production.
Reading this at The Energy Blog was another "HOLY CRAP!" moment for me. This is far cheaper than Li-ion batteries. Its energy density is comparable, the cycle life is far beyond the needs of a vehicle, and the power density is astounding. At a 10-minute discharge rate, I calculate the power output as up to 312 kilowatts. That's more than FOUR HUNDRED HORSEPOWER from a 400-pound package! If it can be drained in 200 seconds, it would out-power a Bugatti Veyron.
This product looks like it would make a killer EV all by itself, but it would also shine as the storage element of a GO-HEV. Suppose you could get a third of the capacity for half price: 17 kWh for $1600, weighing 150 pounds. It would drive a Prius+ about 60 miles, a somewhat larger car perhaps 45-50. If it let you eliminate 80% of a 750 gallon/year gasoline habit and replace it with $600 of electricity, it would save you about $800 a year at the gasoline prices I see.
Would you buy it? (You're reading this; do I really need to ask?)
If these things work as advertised, the first auto manufacturer to market them is going to see the fuel consumption of its products plummet. It would constitute a suit for divorce from the oil industry and everything else it is associated with. It could turn "electric" into synonyms for clean, quiet, safe, economical, and screaming performance. And peak oil? Who'd care? Overnight, oil would cease to be relevant.
A technology and a manufacturer. It only takes one.