Let Them Eat Grass - Free Range Livestock are Better For Environment

A friend and advisor, Chris Tuozzolo, more or less has a CSA for a free-range cow. He told me I should write a post, a rejoinder, actually, to my prior post on how beef causes nearly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of people will think "free range cows must be better for the environment in every way, because they are natural!"

Shortest version: free range cows are better than feedlot cows by a factor of 2-3, putting them closer to pig-meat, but they still aren't amazing.

cows.

Other short version: the amount of disinformation on this topic is astounding. You literally can't find a reliable link on the first search page of google. All the articles are either by free market groups (feedlots are market efficient!), corn lobbyists (feedlots use our corn!), or vegans (there is no such thing as good meat to eat!). Much of the information that is available is "science" is in fake journals. In other words, it really is fake information put into journals that are made up to let any information through, provided you pay them to publish it. A reader literally needs an understanding of journal impact factor (ie, ratings of whether journals are real or BS, as it turns out some peer-reviewed journals will literally publish anything for a fee) to figure what's real and fake, and most people without PhDs don't know what impact factor means. In other words, I don't know how the rest of you can pick apart the real from the BS on this topic.

Full version

I did research. Holy crap, the bullshit (heh, punny) information is fed to you with a firehose on this one. This is a prime example of very smart people being paid to lie to you very effectively.

feedlot cows. Pic from EPA.

I'll keep the important information short. Grazing cattle are far better for the environment than feedlot cattle. The best information I can find (published in Science with over 2000 other authors having cited the article in follow-on research) (note, this article is on sustainable food and covers a lot more than meat, but it has a good chart on water use and GHG in varying feeding areas) says the following:

  • Grazing cattle produce half as much methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) per year as feedlot cattle
  • Grazing cattle take 1/5th the water per day
  • Pigs produce about the same GHGs in either setting, but keeping them clean in a feedlot takes 3x as much water
  • Grazing cattle take up to 33% longer to reach edible maturity (but they are leaner, so you get more actual meat). This came from other, less reliable sources, but we'll take it at face value
  • Adjusted for time to market*, feedlot cattle make 50% more GHGs and use 450% more water (looking at you, California, with the 4th most cattle of any state)
  • I think that time-to-market number may be made up, which would make the numbers more like 100% more GHG and 500% more water from feedlots

*That 33% more time to maturity also could be a manufactured number. I can't confirm it from reasonable sources. Even if it is true, then feedlot cows produce more pollution and take more to make.

Other problems with feedlots:

  • It is quite possible that constant antibiotic use in feedlots, constantly fed to animals as a means mean to prevent them from getting sick (increasing profits), leads to antibiotic resistance. So next time you get a case of untreatable gonorrhea from antibiotic resistance, raise a glass to industrial agro-farming (also known as American-style farming).
  • Grazing cows stand apart farther. Feedlot cows stand next to each other, helping spread of disease, so they need more antibiotics
  • Sustainable grazing (not often practiced in the US) promotes the change of deserts to land.
  • Once you start growing grass in desert areas, the grass holds the rainfall in place long enough so it absorbs into the ground rather than running off into rivers, making a positive feedback loop.

Seriously, watch this TED talk. It's starts with a powerful message. "To stop the spread of deserts, we killed a metric fuck-ton of elephants. Desertification still happened. It turns out we killed a bunch of innocent elephants. The way to reverse desertification is to have managed grazing." Don't watch it when drunk though, cause you'll either get very angry or very sad.

Hokay, so, we've now covered that managed grazing can actually reverse desertification, which means aquifers can start to take in more rainwater and some CO2 will be drawn down in the growth of new plants.

Why Vegans hate this

But yes, a subset of vegans (and likely a majority) love to argue that eating meat is an environmental disaster (it does push global warming happen faster), and so it upsets them that grazing cattle may actually be a positive net effect (counting the turning bare desert into growable land). Feedlot beef growth is definitely pretty bad, but it's highly likely that a well-managed grazing system for cattle will result in net positive benefits of environmental restoration.

You can't blame vegans too much for pushing that grazing is bad, because, as the rest of this article points out, it's hard to figure out which is correct data.

Journal Impact Factor and Judith Capper being a fake scientist

Journal impact factor is a measure of how important and useful certain journals are. Science and Nature have high impact factors. Also Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS - pronounced P-nass, best/worst acronym ever), much more rigorous, has a high impact factor. The article I cite above is from Science, which means it was cited 2000 times. As in 2000 other journal articles reference and talk about it. It's kind of a big deal.

One counter article is by a "scientist" named Judith Capper. She publishes articles that say that feedlot farming is less GHG intensive than grazing. Except she published in a journal called Animals. It's literally a fake journal. It isn't listed as having impact factor. What's better, half of the 35 citing authors are her. She cites herself more than anyone else cites her. Pretty much, this is an udder bullshit article (haha) with awful science behind it. Typically when a majority of citations are yourself, it means everyone else thinks you're insane.

So you, dear reader, having never had to write a PhD thesis where you had to defend the sources you chose, would just see that this woman is a professor and has a PhD and say, "This must be true!" Except it's not. Articles do things like say, "Cows emit methane, and cows that eat grass take longer to bring to market, so more methane comes out!"

Except that cows that eat grass often emit less methane, cause there is less weird stuff in the grass (as the information earlier on in the article points out). So pretty much they take one true thing (cows produce methane) and then ignore the rest of the facts to lie about the ultimate maths.

I call BS.

In Closing

This post has been all over the place, and it over 1000 words. Pretty much, grazing cows are far better than feedlot cows for the environment. Grazing pigs just use less water, which is useful in California. Good luck finding real information on any of this, though.

Tesla's Powerwall - Not Economical

Tesla Powerwall

I'm gonna open by saying that I really like Tesla's powerpack. Technology isn't pushed past the bleeding edge without loss-leaders pioneering. That being said, the numbers, as usual, don't lie. On a per-unit-energy cost basis, these things aren't economic in most of the US. Once you consider the externalities, however, the overall benefit does make them "profitable." Likely you will see subsidies to internalize these externalities, thus making the powerpack work.

Unless the inverter costs too much. More on that later.

One major implication I haven't seen anyone talk about? Utility companies currently have to pay people with solar panels who produce excess electricity at market rates. They've been trying to get rid of this for years. This technology gives utilities every reason to demand they no longer pay people for their excess produced solar power. This has enormous implications. It's now indefensible to force utilities to buy at market rates the extra power produced by homes with solar. Read more near the bottom.

It's in my weight class!

Tesla's Powerwall next to a car. Small-ish and sleek. 7 inches deep, weighing 220 lbs

What is this Powerwall?

Powerwall is a power pack that you hang on your wall. It costs $3,000 for a 7kwh pack designed for a daily cycle, meaning it's charged and used once per day. This is the cost without installation. Also, this is the cost if you already have solar cells and an inverter. If you want to work with the grid alone, you have to buy an inverter*. Even if you already have solar cells and don't need an inverter, this seems like it's a product designed for the wealthy. Let's look at the math (my favorite part!)

*Inverters. Batteries and solar panels produce DC current, or Direct Current. This means it doesn't change phase. What we use in our homes is Alternating Current or AC. The alternating current means that the positive and negative terminals switch sides of the power plug. In the US, they switch sides 60 times per second. DC means that the terminals do not switch sides. Hence batteries having a + and - terminal, and all your non-battery electronics not having these.

The Maths!

We are going to make some of the rosiest assumptions in the world. First, though, let's get some solid data lines up. Take a peak at NPR's cost of electricity infos.

1. On average, people pay 12 cents per kwh of electricity

2. In Hawaii, they pay 33 cents. We'll use this as a case study.

3. The Northeast and California, two other case studies, pay about 16 cents.

4. The average American uses 900kwh of electricity per month in their home (from eia.gov).

Really rosy assumptions

1. The sun shines for 300 days a year and provides enough electricity to power your house during shining and to fully charge the battery

2. The electricity grid doesn't buy back your excess solar*. If they do have to buy it back, then the economics discussed here don't play out

3. You've already paid for all of your solar installation and you aren't concerned about those costs of that electricity going into this powerpack

4. These things don't degrade over time (extremely rosy assumption)

Hokay!

300 days per year of 7kwh of electricity provided by this beast is:

 300\frac{days}{yr} \cdot 7\frac{kwh}{day} \cdot = 2100 \frac{kwh}{yr}

So 2100 kwh/year. What's that get you in most of the US?

 \$ 0.12 \cdot 2100 = \$ 252

So $252 per year. For a $3000 battery pack. In most of the US, if your solar panels worked perfectly for 300 days a year, it'd take you 12 years to pay back your investment. This is a 6% annualized ROI (Return On Investment). In other words, you'd make more money in the stock market, so it's a bad investment, not even accounting for installation costs and with impractically rosy assumptions, in most of the US.

What about in the Northeast and California, where electricity is $0.16?

 \$ 0.16 \cdot 2100 =\$ 336

Or payback in 9 years. This is an 8% ROI, making it a decent investment.

Let's be realistic, though. In the Northeast, we have storms and winter. Solar panels don't work so great here. We aren't getting 300 cycles per year out of this. We'd be lucky to get 150, making it an 18 year payback, or about a 3% ROI. What about California? They actually might get 300 days of viable sun a year. So in California, you could be break-even.

Now what's the problem here? Normal people don't look for 8% ROI on their home upgrades. They look for 15%. Pretty much they want 3-5 year payback periods. So pretty much, someone has to have a very green outlook on life to buy one of these. Or there have to be subsidies (more later)

Hawaii

Hawaii has sunshine and electricity costs 33 cents. Let's say you've paid off your solar panels in Hawaii.

 \$ 0.33.2 \cdot 2100 =\$ 700

In Hawaii, with our rosy assumptions and no installation cost, the powerpack will pay for itself in 4.25 years, for a whopping 18% return on investment, without any subsidies. There is a viable business model here.

Seriously, someone go start a powerpack/solar panel installation company in Hawaii.

Anywhere else, and these things will need hefty subsidies.

Subsidies

Why would you subsidize these things? Easy. There are only two reliable power sources that can compensate for variability in solar power: hydro and natural gas. Every other power plant takes far too long to spin up to be useful. In other words, nuclear power doesn't stop producing pretty much ever. Coal power takes about a day to get to capacity, so it can't cycle well.
Hydro power is a limited resource. We are pretty much tapped out in the US, and what we have is already being used, so it can't ramp. We'd have to replace what's currently being used with coal, natural gas, or nuclear to use hydro for solar-grid reliability, so that entirely defeats the point.
Natural gas ramps quickly, and we have excess capacity in the US. Natural gas still produces CO2 that spreads globally, and NO2 that spreads locally. NO2 becomes a strong acid when you breath it in, so we have healthcare reasons to reduce it. Thus it might make sense to subsidize these powerpacks to make people more likely to buy them.
Second, this is good tech. It's pretty much where it needs to be in order to make sense to buy in many parts of the country, if you already have solar. Subsidizing it will cause further advancement in battery tech, making it that much more viable in a wider array of applications. Battery tech is one of the things holding us back from so many viable technology applications, so if there is something to subsidize that will more than pay for itself, it is battery tech that is nearly cost-even now.
Some Extra Thoughts on my Rosy Assumptions
*If Solar Companies don't need to buy back Electricity
In most places, if you produce excess electricity that you don't use, the solar company has to buy it back at market rates. So buying this powerpack and storing energy for commercial purposes is useless. All of the economic discussion above is bunk if the grid needs to buy your excess power. In other words, only greenies would buy it.
One important thing to consider. This product makes storing electricity from solar into a break-even cost in any sunny part of the country. Utilities have always hated paying for this. They lose money on it. They've fought legal battles to get it repealed. And now they have the ammunition they need to repeal it, because it's now no longer a burden to consumers to store their excess electricity for later use themselves.
Maybe consider buying utility stocks if you find a company that is over-exposed to paying for home-solar-produced power? I'd tell you to look towards California here.
Inverter Costs
If you don't have solar already, you have to pay for the inverter to make this thing convert DC back to AC for your home. I can't see any reason to do this. The cost differential between peak power and non-peak is about 4-6 cents in most places. Far too little to justify the expense of both an inverter and a powerpack. A gas generator is a better bet if you need reliable power.
Large Scale Efficacy
I'm betting the large-scale systems are more cost-effective. They don't need to be as small and as sleek. And you can have one large inverter for all of the daisy-chained power packs. Who would buy these? Commercial electricity buyers, like stores.
Who wouldn't buy these? Industrial complexes. They make deals directly with electricity companies and pay $0.07 to $0.10 per kwh.
Thanks for reading!
 - Jason Munster

Solar Roadways: Full of Crap and Bad at Math

First of all, sorry it has been over a month since I've posted. I've decided to get together a few people to start addressing some of the things I write about, and that has taken my time up til now. I'll be posting once per month from here on out, on the first Sunday of every month. Today's post is a long one, but one of the most interesting I've written by far.

This is the one time where I will say the following: if you are short of time, skip directly to the math section. It shows a serious glaring deficiency of either forethought or disclosure on the part of the founders of Solar Roadways. Moreover, it shows they can't do basic math. Never trust an engineer who can't do basic math. It's a very crackpot idea.

Here We Go!

I've heard a lot of talk about Solar Roadways recently. I'm going to use it as an example of how to analyze some "science." After you follow the very basic math below, you will see that the team at Solar Roadways does not know what numbers to run*. A much larger problem: they suggest that solar roads can replace fossil fuel power, while simultaneously and surreptitiously admitting that they need a ton of grid power to make this work. So pretty much they are either dumb or straight up liars.

First, let's talk about why these roads might be good, from their point of view. Being a by-the-numbers type of guy, the first thing I did was check the "numbers" section of their website. While their assumptions are dubious at best (more on that later) They say that their roads could provide 3x the energy that the US needs, in kilowatt hours (kWh is a useless measurement here, cause it will be intermittent power. In other words, it produces no energy at night, and will need to be supplemented by fossil fuel power. More on that later). Also, the roads look a lot cooler, with light-up sections, and ability to melt snow so that road maintenance is reduced.

So the thing is wired to the grid so that if it snows, it can use heating elements to melt the snow instead of plowing it. But doesn't snow take a lot of energy to melt? Would it take less energy just to push it with a plow? Time for the math!

Math of Melting vs Pushing Snow

Plow trucks to be replaced by Solar Roads? Not happening.

Plow trucks to be replaced by Solar Roads? Not happening.

Okay. Let's assume middle-case scenario of 8 inches of snowfall, being removed with one sweep by plow trucks, and that this is between powder and heavy snow in consistency, which means 1" of water equivalent. A DOT snowplow clears 10' width of snow, or 120 inches. In one foot of movement forward and plowing 8" of snow it moves the water-weight of 1"x120"x12" or

 1 \cdot 120 \cdot 12 = 1440 in^3

Now we have to figure out how much energy cost this took in fuel, so we will later relate this to the mileage efficiency of a DOT truck. First, let's figure out how much energy it takes to melt this much snow into water. Do do this we need the latent heat of fusion, or the energy it takes to transition from ice to snow. It's 334 Joules/gram. How do we convert from cubic inches of water to grams? Easy. Because the metric system makes sense, one cm^3 of water = 1 gram. There are 2.54 cm per inch, so:

1440 in^3 * (2.54 cm/in)^3 = 23600g

Okay, we have grams, now let's calculate the energy to melt as much snow as a plow moves from driving 1':

23600 g \cdot 334 \frac{J}{g} = 7,880,000 J

Or ~7.8MJ. Per foot. Or, for a mile:

7.8 \frac{MJ}{ft} \cdot 5280 \frac{ft}{mile} = 41184MJ/mile to melt 8 inches of snow.

Okay, so, a plowtruck uses diesel. Each gallon of diesel has 136.6MJ. Very conservatively assuming a plowtruck gets ~5 miles to a gallon (I'm guessing it's more like 10, someone who has driven one, correct me and I will correct these #'s), it would take 27.3 MJ to plow one mile of snow. Compared to 41,184MJ to melt it. It literally takes 1500x as much energy to melt is as it would to move it.

This is what you would call a very very bad idea. Engineers as cofounders should know better than to let this slide as a potential solution.

End of Math Section

Okay, so now that we've completely dismantled the case of using these things to melt snow, lets move on to some other issues. We'll skip the minor issues, because that's just nitpicking, and move straight to the parts where they just don't know what they are talking about, and finish with things they clearly know about, but are purposefully misleading people with in order to get more money. Finally, we will close with me realizing that Nathan Fillion is a fool.

Okay, to the problems with this solar roadways project:

Dubious assumptions:

Things they don't understand: the supply lines of a very basic input.

REE mining in China is not a clean thing. Nor was it great in the US. Right now there is not enough world production to make enough of these solar roadway tiles. Look at this article to see more pictures of REE production in China.

They assume an 18.5% efficiency of the solar panels. These are panels that use Rare Earth Elements (REEs). On their FAQ, when someone asks if they are using REEs, they state (paraphrased), "Our electronics don't use silver or gold" (neither of which are REEs, so they are either changing the topic or don't know what question they are answering) "but we can use any solar cell." Good that they can use any solar cell, because there is not enough REE production in the world to produce solar at the scale they need to even replace one major highway with these. Bad they they use 18.5% as their assumed efficiency, because solar cells in this range of efficiency use REEs.

REEs are pretty much only produced in China, because producing them make a massive amount of pollution. Decades ago every other major country quit producing REEs because of the pollution they cause, and because China didn't care about pollution or health hazards, so the world was happy to let them pollute themselves and take their REEs. It's been so long since the US produced REEs that we literally don't know how. Solar Roadway's answer is "let's leave this to the government." They aren't addressing the problem at all. While other countries are looking to have their own production, it will take a very long time for this to come to fruition, and the production rate still won't be enough for a second-rate harvesting design (flat roads with bad optics vs. tilted panels with great optics to concentrate light perfectly).

At best, they can go with non-REE solar cells, which have about an 5-10% efficiency. That means that each of their hexagonal panels will produce half the power anticipated, and thus will make half as much money toward recuperating their costs. In other words, these non-REE solar panels need more basic raw materials (in terms of roadway) per kwh produced, and thus will cost more per unit energy, in an already material-intensive design for a solar cell. This shows that the project is lacking in any real expertise or understanding of the core problem they are trying to solve. Keep in mind that these are not dealbreakers. The team could hire an expert, or consulting, to fill in their knowledge gaps (likely the former, consultants are expensive, and they really need long-term help to bring this to fruition). Also, it doesn't negate all the other benefits of the solar roadways. Finally, non-REE solar panels are a hot topic in research. If the rest of the solar roadways tech is developed, and they are just waiting for good solar cells, it will rapidly enhance future deployment.

In short, the solar cells are a slight additional benefit to whatever holds them in this case of mass-distribution and inefficient use of cells. So if this new road itself doesn't compare favorably to asphalt, the project is sunk in the water.

Things they are just completely wrong/misleading about: melting snow, shutdown of fossil fuel, price of energy

We discussed the melting of snow. They suggest it replace snowplows. Bad idea. It's clearly not going to work, energetically speaking.

They keep talking about how 50% of US electricity use is from fossil fuels, and how these roads are going to replace it. This is so wrong that it is hard to debunk in one post. But here goes: First, only 40% of US primary energy (my link, please read it for background if you feel a bit lost, it is far briefer than this post) is for electricity. Second, only 66% electricity of this comes from fossil fuels. In other words, 26.4% of US electricity comes from fossil fuels (if we change all our transportation over to electric, these numbers will change, but that would require these roads to have induction power installed - AKA roads that provide the car with energy for driving so they don't have range issues). This is the total amount of emissions that could be replaced by solar roads in their current design.

Primary energy in the US. As detailed by the math above, only 25% of primary energy in the US can currently be replaced.

 

So, pretty much they are off to a bad/misleading start there. But this is nitpicking. The real issue comes in when they talk about replacing fossil fuels. First, they talk about heating the roads. This means they will have to put energy into the roads. Where will this energy come from? Power plants. So much for shutting down fossil fuel. But wait, there's more! Solar power is intermittent. It doesn't even work at night, so power plants also have to be on then. So pretty much, their idea of shutting down power plants is completely shot out of the water by these two things. Can solar roadways still be part of a larger energy solution? Well, not if they are heating roads to melt snow. That just takes far too much energy. If they scrap the melting snow idea and go to just producing energy? Yeah, it might help some. But let's get to one last funny part, the one that shows they know that they won't be shutting down fossil fuel power any time soon.

Energy storage. From their FAQ, they mention that there will be "virtual storage" in that during the day they will add power to the grid, and at night they will take power from the grid. This is double-speak to mean: during the day we will provide power that can offset coal and natural gas power plants. At night when we aren't producing, natural gas powerplants (again, my link) will fire up to power our roads (nuclear is not an option for power phasing like this, nuclear powerplants don't spin up or wind down on half-day timescales). In other words, they fully well understand that they aren't going to do away with the rest of the power grid, and that they aren't going to replace all those fossil fuel emissions. So pretty much, saying that these can replace our power grid is double-speak sales points.

The final problem? They don't understand energy distribution. Electricity is produced at about $0.03 to $0.08 per kwh at a power plant. By the time it arrives to us, we pay $0.13 to $0.25 (or $0.50 in Hawaii), because distribution costs a lot of money. Solar panels on our roofs produce power that costs about $0.15 to $0.20 cents per kwh, give or take. So the end-user cost of grid power is the same as that of house solar. But if you run that solar power through the distribution channels and add that price, suddenly you're talking $0.25 to $0.40 power. So, unless they are giving this power away for free, it's probably not gonna be a great solution.

Some Solutions

I've softened my usual tone quite a bit for this writeup, cause I don't want to be a complete naysayer of something who is trying to do something positive (sorry, I know how much you all know and love my biting sarcasm and scathing reviews).Outside of their false solution of trying to solve the energy/climate issue, this idea has some potential. On that note, rather than pointing out problems, I've come up with some great solutions.

My suggestions:

1: Nix the whole melting of snow concept to replace plow trucks. Energetically, it doesn't work. Plow trucks should still exist. Instead of replacing them, replace the salt and sand they need to spread. Make it so plowtrucks plow all but the last 1/8" of snow, then melt that (note, this is still a tremendous amount of energy, but stay with me). This will have a few benefits:

  • No more salt and sand on roads means less salt and sand damage to vehicles, making vehicles last longer
  • No more salt and sand on roads means that DOTs can save money buy not buying these things
  • ... no salt and sand runoff, which pollutes local waterways
  • ... animals that go to roadways in the spring to lick off accumulated salt won't do that, reducing traffic accidents from moose and deer, etc.

2: Get a bit more cognizant or REEs and their limitations. Don't use bad assumptions that are easy to poke holes in.

3: Stop selling people on false promises of doing away with fossil fuels. It makes the whole green movement look bad when prominent people are lying or severely misinformed.

4: Focus on the real potential of making these have inductive energy for electric cars. This could eliminate range anxiety (people fearing their electric cars will run out of energy and leave them stranded). Electric car sales will move a lot faster if people can drive from LA to SF, or between Boston/NYC/DC. The potential partnerships include every major car company that markets in the US. Also, this could reduce oil use, and drastically reduce air pollution from cars in these busy areas by further replacing combustion engines with electric ones (even if we power them with electricity from coal, a well-scrubbed coal plant produces fewer bad things than a car). Moreover, since people won't need fuel, they could be assessed a charge per mile driven instead. By whoever owns the roads. Here is your real money-maker for the roads, fellas. It will be far more lucrative than producing tiny amounts of electricity. Please get on this. It will lead to more electric car research, and more rapidly drive forward battery development, and it turns out that cars make a bunch of really bad pollution that causes harmful side effects like death.

This last bit, changing your startup's tack when a better model comes along, is important. And solar roadways needs to do that for a viable product, because their core solution faces a lot of headwinds (yay, sailing puns!) in break-even with their current model.

So, overall, these roads could be an excellent idea. The solar part, their main selling point, is BS because of cost, efficacy, and the need for gas-fired power plants to supplement them. The shutting down most fossil power plants is a lot of nonsense for the same reason. Making the environment better by reducing salt and sand use? Decent. Potentially by making most cars electric? Game-changer, but they are barely looking at that aspect right now. Probably cause they are too busy counting the piles of cash that indiegogo just threw at them (or, more likely, answering the insane number of emails that comes from this sort of campaign).

Hokay, that's my piece. Thanks for reading this long one.

- Jason Munster

Extra stuff!

Some background about Solar Roadways initial funding: They were funded by government SBIR. This stands for Small Business Innovative Research. It's for high-risk, high-reward research. In other words, this was considered high-risk from the start. They got a phase II, which means they did well. It's clear they still have issues and are still high-risk. But I'm glad someone is paying for research and innovation like this, especially because if it pays off, it could result in more jobs and more taxpayer base. That being said, they haven't received more funding or any grants to build this out further. Possibly cause it's a big, crazy idea. Elon Musk can pull off big, crazy ideas, because he is a brilliant manager and has a very strong personality. These guys are going to need some bigger guns on their team if they are going to make something of this project.

Second, Nathan Fillion is a bit of a fool. In touting Solar Roadways, he displays why pop culture heroes shouldn't get involved in matters outside their field of expertise (mainly, looking good in front of a camera, and pretending to be someone who they aren't in front of a camera). His adoration of something he doesn't understand falls deep within the territory of religious fervor. Nerds: just cause one of your heroes likes something doesn't mean it actually is plausible.

One final-final note: I know that this post is 3x longer than my rest. I assure you, it's far shorter than I wanted it to be. I don't believe in two-part posts very often, though. If you have read this far. please leave a comment so I can appreciate you forever 🙂

*Engineers who don't know what numbers to run are a bad investment. For my own company, all business types are skeptical of how much I know (or want to take advantage of me fully) until they find out that I used to be in finance and have a really good idea of the big picture of most things. In short, this company has a lot of potential once they take on broader experts.

Your Power Plant Might Have a Drinking Problem

While at an energy conference (ARPA-E, 2014) I found out that power plants account for 40% of water draw in the US. Simply put, they use a lot of water. The good news is that it doesn't have to be fresh water. Brayton Point, for instance, uses grey water. In other words, it uses water that came from your toilets and sinks that has been reprocessed. Others use saline water from oceans (all water in the oceans is saline, cause it is salt water).

No math this time, just review the math from my thermal power plants post.

Why do power plans needs water? Cooling purposes. The way a turbine works is that high-pressure air has to drive through it. The way this happens is water is flashed to steam. Steam takes 1600x the space at 1 atmosphere compared to water. So it creates a massive pressure differential on one side of the turbine, turning the fans, turning the turbine, and generating electricity. The steam needs to be cooled on the other side to either create the vacuum that drives the pressure differential to turn the turbine, or, if it's a close cycle and the same water is used, to cool the steam back to water. It needs to be water again, otherwise it cannot expand and drive the turbine.

Schematic of a thermal power plant. It needs water to cool the water used to drive the turbine.

Okay. That was complicated. Let's break it down further. This section if very detailed, and most of you will want to skip this paragraph. Here goes: There are two major ways to run a thermal power plant. Combined cycle, and single cycle. Combined cycle is more efficient. How? It uses several turbines to extract energy rather than a single one. Think about it this way: when you have 300 degree celcius steam coming from the coal-burning reactor, it is all steam. There is no water-phase droplets in it. This is called dry steam. It can be directed to special high-efficiency turbines that can extract a lot of energy. The steam then loses pressure and temperature, and some water droplets begin to form. If this mix of steam and water were directed at the same turbine, it would pit and tear at the turbine blades, destroying it. Two things could be done with this steam. Either it could be directed to another turbine, or it may not be reused. The second turbine will be designed differently for steam that is lower pressure and lower temperature. Having multiple turbines like this increases efficiency. Inefficient plants use only one turbine

(everyone else should join back in now) Eventually you end up with a mix of water a steam. As I said before, this has to become water again, so it can expand to steam and drive turbines. Or, if a plant is doing a once-through cycle and expanding water from a stream, it needs to dump the water back into the environment. Dumping near-boiling water into the environment is a terrible idea. That would be a bit of a disaster. So, in either case, you need a lot of water from the environment to cool the water used for the steam cycle in the plant. An alternative scenario is using evaporative cooling towers. They evaporate water, which requires heat to go into the water, which then cools other water. No matter what, cooling a plant requires a lot of water.

So here we come back to the end point. Power plants use an insane amount of water. "Ahh, but Jason," you ask, "these are just thermal power plants. I use solar power. So my plant is water-efficient!"

Not so, I say! Solar plants also use water for cooling and cleaning. And this is from NYT, an ostensibly liberal paper that likes solar. This is because major solar plants use solar thermal, rather than solar PV. Solar PV is pretty much water-free, other than for cleaning mirrors. But that electricity is too expensive to be useful at the grid scale (recall from a prior post that it costs about 3-7 cents to produce a kwh of electricity, but we buy it for 20 cents, so it makes sense for us to put solar panels on our houses at the cost of 20 cents per kwh, while it doesn't make sense for power companies to use solar panels since they mark up prices 3x to get power to us).

How does this compare to coal? In the link above, we have solar power using 1.2 billion gallons a year to produce 500mw of power. Your average coal plant produces 600 watts of power. A once-through plant draws "between 70 and 80 billion" gallons a year. But a closed-cycle plant, the one that uses the same water in the plant and only uses other water for cooling at the end of the power cycle, uses 1.7 to 4 billion gallons a year. So the efficient ones are comparable to solar in water use.

So here we have a chart showing all this:

Water use by power plant type, source 

Note that you can find different graphs using different information sources, but the general point always remains: power plants use a lot of water.

Wind power, however, doesn't use water. Unfortunately, wind power is only available in a few places. How about hydro power? It passively uses water, so it doesn't really count. Great, right?

Not so fast. How much of the US power generation comes from thermal and solar sources? According to the EIA, 87%. I reproduce the info here:

In 2012, the United States generated about 4,054 billion kilowatthours of electricity.  About 68% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), with 37% attributed from coal.

Energy sources and percent share of  total electricity generation in 2012 were:

  • Coal 37%

  • Natural Gas 30%

  • Nuclear 19%

  • Hydropower 7%

  • Other Renewable 5%Petroleum 1%

    • Biomass 1.42%
    • Geothermal 0.41%
    • Solar 0.11%
    • Wind 3.46%
  • Other Gases < 1%

So yeah. Your power plant has a drinking problem.

thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

China, Accounting Pollution in Manufacturing, and Greenwashing

A Call for a Consumption Based Pollution Levy: Pollution from Chinese Export Manufactures Drift to US West Coast

Pictured here is a NASA image of smog in China. Nearly all the gray is smog. This is a result of the rise of manufacturing, and rapid production of low-quality power plants

Guys, no science in this one. Also, stay tuned for a better treatment of this topic from Archana Dayalu over at Policylab. I originally wrote this for policylab, but it turns out Archana had the same idea earlier. Hence you'll notice a completely different writing voice (it's not the fun one I use in my blog).

As I wrote in the past, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs allows the US to push all the pollution in manufacturing into other countries while enjoying lower prices of goods manufactured by cheap labor. Thanks to Kate Wang for bringing a recent NYT article to me attention.

An early edition report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that a significant amount of pollution drifts from China to the west coast of the United States. The authors argue for a changing of attribution of the associated pollutants to the consuming countries, rather than China, the producing country. The authors gloss over any potential impacts this would have on world trade. Lead author Jintai Lin writes:

Atmospheric modeling shows that transport of the export-related Chinese pollution contributed 3–10% of annual mean surface sulfate concentrations and 0.5–1.5% of ozone over the western United States in 2006. This Chinese pollution also resulted in one extra day or more of noncompliance with the US ozone standard in 2006 over the Los Angeles area and many regions in the eastern United States. On a daily basis, the export-related Chinese pollution contributed, at a maximum, 12–24% of sulfate concentrations over the western United States.

In other words, goods manufactured in China and consumed by the United States directly cause pollution in the western United States. The upside is that the former heavy manufacturing centers in the Eastern United States have outsourced to China, cleaning up the air of the Eastern US. The article points out that, given the dense population of the east coast, this is a net win for the US, at slight expense of the west coast and great expense of pollutants in China.

Air pollution in Beijing. One picture taken on a clear day, another on a smoggy day. This is the capitol city of China. This is the ugly side of outsourcing.

It remains unclear what the author's ultimate goals are. There is no international accounting of pollution. Either the authors are greenwashing--the practice of trying to make manufacturing or other industry look environmentally more friendly through the process of bullshitting--or they are anticipating some accounting system, either internal to China or external, in the future.

The authors argue for a different method of accounting for pollution associated with manufactured goods. Currently, all pollution is attributed to the producer. Chinese factories build the goods, China gets assigned the pollution in international ledgers. Consumption based attribution, they argue, would make more sense. The goods are made for American (and otherwise) consumption, and the pollution should therefore be attributed to America.

Disregarding whether this is right to do, or whether it would accomplish anything more than green-washing China’s economy, let’s explore several of the implications of this policy change. Specifically in a hypothetical world that has to account for pollution contained within products, which, aside from green-washing, would be the major reason to worry about pollution attribution. Manufacturing of these export goods requires significant amount of energy. The sulphur and black carbon that reaches the west coast specifically come from coal-fired ower plants. China puts few controls on emissions from these power plants, and the required rate of construction results in power plants that are significantly less efficient than those in the US. This means that every bit of energy produced and used in China, for manufacturing or otherwise, contains more pollution than it would in the US or any other developed country. Moreover, Chinese manufacturing is less efficient than developed countries for a variety of reasons.

The end result is that a good manufactured in China embodies more pollution than the exact same good manufactured in the US, Japan, Korea, Europe, or any other advanced nation. If policies were put in place to move to a consumption-based attribution of pollution, and that attribution had real-world implications on the cost or value of a product, Chinese goods would face a competitive disadvantage. The implications are pretty straightforward: either China cleans up its manufacturing and energy sector, greatly benefitting China and slightly benefitting the rest of the world from a pollution standpoint, or goods are produced in countries where they can be made for less environmental cost, hurting China’s exports while healing its air quality and benefitting the rest of the world financially and environmentally.

While this attributing of pollution on the consumption side seems to mostly have net benefits, it only works if purchasers or producers are forced to pay for pollution they bring about. We are not currently in a world where either are held accountable for the pollution associated with manufacture of Chinese exports. In this, Jintai Lin’s suggestion seems only like greenwashing: an attempt of finger-pointing for the destruction of China’s air quality and environment.

Thanks for reading

- Jason Munster

The President's State of the Union Address. Geopolitics of Oil: Expanded US (and Russian) Oil Drilling and the Middle East's Bane.

source

An oil rig in the Bakken. This represents a massive shift of primary energy resource production power in the world. picture source

What do the price of oil, the president's state of the union address, and middle eastern stability have in common? In the address, the President talked about fighting climate change, but the US is going full-tilt towards more drilling. While this sounds like hypocrisy, it actually puts the US and the world in a better position to deal with climate change. Sounds crazy? Keep reading. Here's a hint though: What would happen if the price of oil dropped to $40 overnight? Much of the Middle East power structure would collapse.

The Science!  (skip this if you only care about what oil prices do for the Middle East)

Because this is a science blog, I am writing science stuffs here.

Hokay, the background. The world consumes around 90 million barrels of oil a day. How much of this does the US produce? Check out this graph:

 

Historic US oil production. Source is EIA

Historic US oil production. Source is EIA

I want to point out three things. First, in the 70s and 80s the US was one of the world's most prolific oil producing countries. A lot of this came from huge Texas fields, like Eagle Ford. And then the gigantic basins like Eagle Ford ran out of easily accessible oil, and US oil production collapsed. Now look at the ramp rate of production in the most recent years. The rate of increase in production is unprecedented. It's going up fast.

Next, lets focus on Texas and North Dakota:

North Dakota and Texas Oil Production

North Dakota and Texas Oil Production

Notice the massive rate of increase of production. From 2008 to 2012, Texas alone increased production so much that it provided an additional 2% of the world's oil. North Dakota is producing nearly 1 million barrels a day, or slightly more than 1% of the world oil. Together, they produce 3.75 million barrels per day, 4% of the world's oil.

Let's put this in perspective. Iran produces 4 million barrels a day. North Dakota and Texas alone produce nearly this much. Look at those growth rates. Are they showing any signs of slowing down? No. In other words, the US is rapidly becoming one of the world's most prolific producers of oil.

How'd this even happen? Hydrofracking and horizontal drilling. Earlier I said that Eagle Ford and such were played out. In reality, all the easy oil in it was pulled out. The remaining oil is like the Bakken: tight oil. Let me emphasize this:

Every single major play of the 70s and 80s is about to become a new Bakken.

That means going back to the days when the US was the largest oil producer in the world. That means Russia is also going to be able to ramp up production, once they figure out how to hydrofrack.

So the price of oil is going to drop in the future.

What This Means for Politics and the Middle East;

Expansion of drilling in the US and Russia will have two major effects. The first is that we will no longer rely on oil from the Middle East to supply the world markets. In this case, the world will care less about stability in the middle east. To the point where the world would just let the Middle East burn, just like we let happen in Africa today (except for Israel, I would guess)

This would mean less military spending, which would in turn mean more domestic investment (or lower taxes, but our ailing infrastructure and gutted R&D budget really could stand to be brought back up to where it was when the US rose to become the world's only superpower).

The second implication of this glut of oil is much more far-reaching. It means is lower oil prices worldwide. If oil drops below $75 a barrel, even Saudi Arabia struggles. It'll be hard for the Middle East to make trouble when they cannot afford to. Now let's say hypothetically that Iran funds terrorist groups (I haven't researched this and don't know whether it is true, so it's a hypothetical). If the price of oil drops to the point where they can no longer profitably produce, then suddenly our hypothetical country cannot fund terrorism. And we save moneys from no longer needing as much anti-terrorism programming.

In other words, we save money because we won't be sending military to the middle east, and because terrorism will potentially be more poorly funded.  

Let's sum up: produce more oil, the price of oil drops, countries and companies make less money from oil (mostly countries, companies have a way of maximizing profits pretty well), since countries have less money, they can't push their state agendas as much.

Wrapping This Up

So, pretty much, drill more in the US (where we can regulate emissions), save a ton of American (and European) money by no longer having to make sure there is peace around oil resources, use that money to fix all the problems we've created with the environment. In other words, more drilling is a potential long-term solution because it will eventually free up more funds in the federal budget.

It's my guess that the president can't say, "We need to drill in the US to make it so we don't have to spend money stabilizing the Middle East. Once that is no longer a problem, we can use the extra money to address climate change."

Some criticisms: If the decrease in the price of oil results in more oil consumption, this would be bad for the environment. We need to continuously improve efficiency of vehicles and industry, and decrease our demand for oil and fossil fuels. Any money saved from military intervention happening less should be driven towards this goal.

That's all for now! Thanks for reading.

- Jason Munster

Sunspots, Climate Change, and Solar Hibernation

This article is a milestone for me! For the first time, someone left feedback and asked about a topic.

So. Today's topic is sunspots. Specifically, the upcoming solar hibernation and how sunspots relate to climate change.

Synopsis: Sunspots, solar hibernation, and such have a negligible impact on climate change in the long term, and cannot explain the warming we have seen over the Earth. Regular readers of my blog know that I don't shy away from the truth, such as the time that I wrote about how eating cow produces a lot of greenhouse gases (I am a 210 lbs. rugby player, and lean at that, eating meat is necessary for me to maintain my muscle mass, so I obviously want to keep eating it, but I also have to admit that beef has a deleterious effect on the environment). The primary driver of climate change is not short-term or medium-term solar output changes (defined as years to 100s of years scales), but is instead us.

First, what is a sunspot?

Sunspots.

The Science (as always, skip this section if you don't like science)

Hokay, so. Sunspots are places where the magnetic field of the sun strengthens locally. As a result, convection is inhibited. How, exactly? This is a subject for debate, but hydrogen interacts with magnetic fields, and the sun is comprised almost entirely of hydrogen. If you have trouble with the idea that hydrogen interacts with magnetic fields, just think to how an MRI works. The strong magnetic field in an MRI excites hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen atoms are present in water. If your body is injured, be it a bone or other tissue, or you have had a stroke and are bleeding out somewhere, there will be more hydrogen present in an area. The MRI images this extra water, and highlights where damage is. So, now we know that hydrogen interacts with magnetic fields, and something we use all the time makes use of this principle.

Yes, one of these big scary things.

So, we have super strong magnetic fields in small spots on the sun, a sun made of hydrogen, and hydrogen interacting with magnetic fields. The next step is how the sun works. It is made of hydrogen. The mass of the sun is so great that the hydrogen atoms are pushed close enough so that they merge. This is nuclear fusion, cause the nuclei are fusing to create helium. A ton of energy is released in this process.

Let's take a closer look at this idea of the atoms being pushed so closely together, because it is a pretty fundamental part of how the universe works, and your middle/high school teachers taught you lies here. We have all learned that gases are compressible, hence being able to inflate your tire, and that liquids and solids are incompressible, hence you not being able to squish them, and also the incompressibility of fluids making hydraulics work.

So this is wrong. You need immense pressures to compress a solid or a liquid, but it is possible. This is based on how atoms combine together. Atoms living in the same place like to keep their distance, because the electrons floating around the outside of the atoms push each other away. If you have enough stuff stacked on top of these atoms, say about 90% of the mass of the solar system, like we see in the sun, the mass of the stuff stacked on top of the atoms wins out over the electrons trying to keep them apart. The density of anything, including liquids and solids, can thus increase. Right up to the point where the nuclei of the atom are shoved together so closely that they bond, and then the atoms fuse to change the type of element they are. This releases a ton of energy.

nuclear- sidetracked

So, nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, releases energy, and nuclear fusion, the combinations of atoms, releases energy. What gives? Iron is the magic element. at 26 protons (that is how many iron has), you get no extra energy from fusion or fission. So pretty much, fusion releases energy up until the atoms have fused to make iron, and fission would do the same.

Back on track with the sun

So. The nuclear fusion happens in the place of most pressure in the sun. Which is at the bottom, nearer the core. So the core of the sun is much much warmer than the outermost layer of the sun. Convection, or updrafts, from the core to the outermost layer of the sun is what heats the outermost layer.

Remember those magnetic fields that locally get very strong? They stop convection in the places where they are strongest. So the temperature at sunspots is 2000 degrees C or so less warm on sunspots.

You can read more about it here: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/fsd/?n=sunspots

How this relates to climate

Times of high sunspot activity are associated with a very very small decrease in average surface temperature, which means slightly less energy, and also slightly more ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which means slightly more energy. Overall, it's a difference of at most 0.04%. But remember, this is raised to the 4th power, so we have:

1.0004^4= 1.0016 or a 0.16% change in total energy output of the sun. And remember, this is at max. See this article.

In other words, it doesn't do anything. In fact, the article I just referenced indicates that there were probably other factors at play.

Sunspots are pretty in false color.

Let's get down to some real numbers. The total measured change in surface forcing of the sun during a complete solar cycle, max to min, is about 1.3 watts/m^2. According to the best measurements that science can offer, the total forcing of man-made greenhouse gases is 2.3 watts/m^2 (see section C). While sunspot cycles do move significantly, they go up and down around an average. Man-made greenhouse gas forcing is only going up. And we've dumped enough stuff in the atmosphere so that man-made forcing has dwarfed solar cycles.

Many climate skeptics have argued that sunspots account for changes in the Earth's climate. While the increase in UV radiation can have an effect on the formation of ozone in the stratosphere, the difference in radiative forcing is too small from this to matter.

Unfortunately, several of the links posted in my feedback section are from crank organizations that literally make up data or go and find "scientists" to quote (read: scientists that don't understand science, whose theories don't match observations [note: when someone's theories don't match observations, they are literally lying out of stupidity]). In short, these organizations intentionally seek to obfuscate the science of climate change by confusing the general public about which scientists are authorities, and which are crackpots.

And this is pretty much how this always goes with climate change skepticism. Next week, I will talk about a recent article that shows that over $1 billion is spent annually to intentionally confuse the science of climate change. Not to disprove climate change, mind you, but to intentionally screw with voters. It's exciting.

This has nothing to do with crackpots, I just wanted to post another with sunspots from NASA cause these are cool pictures.

Thanks for reading! If you are a skeptic and have more questions, or you are not a skeptic and have more questions, leave them in the comments.

- Jason Munster