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.

China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

In the previous post, I described how thermal power plants use a massive amount of water. This time we are going to explore a specific case. As usual, it's China.

Power plant water use can be a problem in a water-stricken area. Let's look at a case-study. China is a water-stricken area, and has a lot of thermal power plants. In fact, China uses more primary energy than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, their power plants are far less efficient than they should be. So they are wasting water, and this is unsustainable. Moreover, China has 1,350 million people. The US has 314 million.

First, let's look at the rainfall of China, compared to the US:

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Looks pretty similar, right? Now recall that the US has 1/4 the population of China. And pretty much the exact same amount of area. Keep that in mind while we look at China's powerplant locations:

 

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

So. The places that have the most people and need the most power are the same as the dry places. In other words, China is building the bulk of its thermal power plants in the area that can't provide sufficient water to cool the power plants.

Before coming to the complete picture, let's check out the water use:

Fresh Water Use in the US. source

Fresh Water Use in the US.
source

In the US, 80% of water use is to grow food and to make electricity.

Finally, where is all this water coming from? Rain alone isn't enough, it comes from the ground. Fresh water from the ground is not unlimited, and we are running out of it. It's called Fossil Water, and here is what the situation looks like in the US:

Water withdrawals in the US

In other words, a huge chunk of our country is relying on water that will not exist in a few decades.

And looking at China:

China's groundwater depletion rate

In the US, the scale of groundwater depletion tops out around 400 cubic kilometers. In china, it tops out at 3,000 in regions. That's not to say that the US won't run out. It just says that China is in serious trouble.

Again, 80% of water use is for electricity and agriculture. And China has 4x the people of the US. There is not sufficient water. Would you rather run out of electricity, or run out of food? It's not an easy choice, but food can be imported. That being said, someone has to grow the food, and that country better have a robust water supply. Moreover, food growth is a low income industry. A country that marries itself to being a food supplier, unless it charges gouging levels of prices, is marrying itself to never being a high-income country. But charging price-gouging levels is a bad idea.

While this mental exercise was fun, let's look at some examples.

First, while Californians probably shouldn't have been growing water-intensive almonds in a dessert in the first place, running out of water has imperilled the world supply of all sorts of nuts and things. They are tearing up their farms because of lack of water.

That's only the start. Drought in Syria helped bring about war there. Syria is a tiny country that doesn't matter on the world scheme. India, China, and Pakistan face water shortages. Combined, they have 1/3 the world population. They also happen to hate each other. As climate change progresses, and some countries face droughts, people may not want to choose between food and electricity. They may try to divert water supplies, sparking tensions and even war.

So. Does your power plant have a drinking problem? If you live in China, it definitely does, and it's causing all sorts of strife.

Wrapping it all together: Yes, a country can import food. But you know how much of the world relies on the middle east for oil, and we talk about energy security? That's just stuff that makes your cars move. Remember how Russia threatens to shut off natural gas to Europe if they don't get in line with Russia's plans, and so much of Europe is cowed? That stuff keeps homes warm, but it isn't as important as food. Imagine a powerful country that is mostly reliant on other countries for food to stay alive. That's a really bad situation. The country in this situation has to either take dictations from whoever feeds them (not really a problem if you are getting your food from non-powerful nations, but still irksome), or has to take over a food-producing country.

One potential solution: Chinese power plants are notoriously inefficient. If you have a 25% thermodynamically efficient powerplant, it uses 30% more water than a 37.5% efficient power plant. China should either shut down inefficient plants and require new construction that is efficient, or require retrofits of old plants. It would be very expensive, but less expensive than the social and political cost of running out of water too soon. What about the US? Most of our plants are pretty efficient already. Especially our Natural Gas plants that much of the country runs on. We probably spend too much water on watering desserts to make food, but that's another story.

An almost-final note. While solar power and wind power use water in construction, their water use is minimal compared to that of thermal power plants. Barring solar-thermal (it's thermal, it uses water), these renewable resources are the only answer to the reducing the choice between electricity and food. In other words, expansion of wind power and solar PV is the only cheat code we have to deal with this impending water shortage.

One last thing. Why did I single out China? Only because I know a lot about China. Pakistan will have water shortage issues, but they already don't have electricity. In the summer, they have blackouts for up to 20 hours a day cause they can't produce enough electricity. This is a country of 180 million people, bordering India, and sharing a strong mutual resentment with India. More on this later, though.

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

Eating Beef and Mutton Causes 15% of Climate Change Emissions

Meat!

In what may be the worst article I ever read (not in terms of scientific quality, but in terms of making me a sad clown), eating certain types of meat causes 15% of climate change. Unfortunately, you, reader, do not have access to the full article, so I will pull some of the quotes from it.

"Worldwide, the livestock sector is responsible for approximately 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions3 (7.1 of 49 Gt CO2e yr−1)." 5.7Gt of this is from ruminants, animals that have more than one stomach and chew their cud (about 4.6Gt from cows, .6Gt from buffalo, and .5Gt from sheep and goats). 1.4Gt are from monogastric, ie single stomached, animals: pigs, chicken.

Why do ruminants produce so much? Cause they belch methane. On a 20 year timescale Methane is 75 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. And why is this? We've discussed this before, but it is worth revisiting.

The Science of Heat-Trapping Gases (skip this part if you don't like science)

(Any atmospheric chemists reading this: I apologizes for bastardizing the science a little bit, but this is meant for a general audience, so I will gloss over details and simplify some concepts)

Electromagnetic Spectrum! (source)

First, let's revisit the idea of radiance. Everything gives off light. It's not light like we normally consider it, as in what we can see. Instead it is all sorts of light we can't see, either. Like infrared, UV, and even x-rays. You've heard of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's the picture above. Visible light is only a tiny fraction of it.

So. Again, everything gives off light. The wavelengths of light an object gives off is based on its surface temperature. Humans give off a characteristic light at around 35C, cause that is roughly our body temperature. This is just a small part of the infrared. The Earth absorbs the light that the sun gives off, warms up, and then emits its own light based on surface temperature. And this light it emits? It is heat. It is the planet/sun/person losing its heat energy.

And that light it gives off is in the range shown in the picture below.

Image from UCAR. Look at CO2, and then look at the region around 8.

The image above tells the whole story. Consider the drop in the line to be absorption %. In other words, a sharp dip in the line indicates that compound is re-absorbing the light that Earth gives off, trapping it in the atmosphere. If you look at the CO2 band between 4 and 5, and then the higher CO2 band, you see that it pretty much is absorbs all the light. If you look around 8, where methane absorbs, you see that it is pretty much wide open. So every bit of increase in methane is fully effective at trapping more heat emitted from Earth.

"But Jason," you say, "If CO2 absorbs pretty much all the light in it's region, how does more CO2 increase how much heat it traps?" Well, my friend, you ask an excellent question. You know the Doppler effect? The one where an ambulance siren sounds differently coming towards you than it does when it goes away? That is because the vehicle is traveling an appreciable % of the speed of sound, so it slightly compresses the sound waves when it comes towards you (the ambulance sort of is trying to keep up with sound waves, so it emits subsequent waves closer to each other) and spreads those waves out when it is moving away from you (the ambulance is kind of trying to move ahead of each sound wave it emits, so a little extra space is between wave peaks). Your ear interprets the pitch of sound based the distance between these wave peaks.

How the heck does this relate to CO2? Well, this doppler effect occurs in light absorption as well, mostly related to effects based on the distribution of temperatures in a set of molecules. There are many different types of effects with light absorption that can act similarly, and they are together referred to as Broadening Effects. They are called this because they smear out the absorption region. So, more CO2 in the atmosphere, more broadening of the light absorption. In other words, CO2 absorption expands out sideways in that picture of light absorption, which is less efficient than expanding directly down, like CH4 does.

Back to the Meat!

CO2 equivalent emissions from various types of meat.  From Ripple, W, et al (2014). Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change.

CO2 equivalent emissions from various types of meat.
From Ripple, W, et al (2014). Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change.

Briefly, ruminants produce a lot of CO2 per kg of meat. The above chart compares them all. Stick with poultry and pork.

Cow alone contribute nearly 10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. There are 1.4 billions cows in the world. About 20 million get added per year. That's pretty much a cow for every first-world citizen. Now, I'm a die-hard carnivore, but that sounds like a lot.

Now that I've spent a ton of space on describing methane, let's talk about some other causes of emissions from cows. With 20 million more cows needing places to eat and live per year, there is massive deforestation. Cows also tend to destroy environments, making it difficult to grow stuff there later. In some cases, it rapidly converts land to desert. But watch this video where a guy talks about how managed livestock movements can actually reverse desertification.

Okay, back on point. We apparently eat too much cow. Well, we eat too much in general. I am sure that the people eating too much in general are also eating too much cow.

Scary point: I recently read that the amount of extra food that went into making our world's obese could feed 300 million people for life. In other words. nearly half of world starvation could be completely fixed if a bunch of us weren't overeating. And we'd be a good chunk closer to stopping climate change.

Shorter version: next time some vegan tells you that eating meat causes 15% of climate change, first, agree with them. Then let them know that it is mostly from people over-eating cow, and that since you eat mostly chicken and pork, they should bring their complaints somewhere else.

On a more serious note, I do not like admitting the reality of cow being bad for the environment. I love eating cow. I make smoked meat. But we need to trust the numbers and be impartial towards these things. So I make mostly smoked pulled pork and pork ribs. And I eat a ton of chicken.

thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Apartment Rentals and Energy Waste

Landlords usually suck. And they probably cause some notable percent of emissions by being lazy (I would guess like 1+%) and not modernizing their apartments (modernizing by 1980s standards).

Drafty rental unit?

Background

A few months ago, I wrote my most-trafficked article about why living in the suburbs is bad for your wallet, and bad for the environment.

A lot of people had some ridiculous responses.

The ultimate point of the article was that living in a city is better for the environment than living in the suburb. Many responses mostly ignored the environmentally friendliness part. These butthurt folk only cared about the size of their house (which, as we showed in the previous article, means they probably suck in terms of energy efficiency). If they did, they would have pointed out the giant gaping hole in my argument: most landlords don't give a care about energy efficiency of your apartment. They aren't paying for utilities, they only care about your rent.

Some Sources of Energy Waste in Houses

In my last article, I pointed out that all houses need some amount of venting. So bigger houses will likely need a lot more energy to heat and cool than smaller houses. The driver of this was how many times per day the house cycled all of its air. It will surprise most people to find that the amount of ventilation that is still considered safe will dump all of your heated / cooled air 15 times per day.

Drafty windows, much? (same disclaimer as below, burrowed image from a commercial website)

In most cases, your landlord doesn't care about how drafty your place is. On other words, the old place I lived in in Somerville probably exchanged all of its heat to the atmosphere about 100 times per day (we could perceptively feel drafts through every window and door). So the place took about 4-8x as much energy to heat as a well-sealed house of the same size.

What incentive does the landlord have to fix this? Absolutely none. He doesn't pay any utilities. He gets rent no matter what. Given that a majority of people won't ask what the air-exchange rate of an apartment is, he won't have to fix it.

What about appliances? Stoves are pretty easy. Electric stoves produce heat by using electricity to heat an element. They are pretty efficient at converting electricity to heat, but newer ones can definitely be more efficient and save you money. Gas stoves, as long as they don't leak, do pretty well despite age.

Remember these fridges? (note: I just burrowed this from a random site since I couldn't find a .gov site with an old fridge)

Fridges, dish washers, clothing washers, and dryers, or really any other appliance (including hot water heaters, etc.) are a very different story.

Just go here and play around with how much you'd save in electricity annually to figure out how much you'd save by buying a new fridge.

And then remember that 1 kwh of electricity requires 1 lbs. of coal. And then let's consider that replacing an early 1990s era fridge with a new energy efficient one in MA will not only save about $200 per year, but will save nearly 1300 kwh. Or 1,300 pounds of coal, if you get all your power from coal (or about 700 lbs. of methane (recall that methane produces a lot less CO2 for the same energy production)). I am going to repeat that again. Replacing a 20 year old fridge will prevent the equivalent of burning 1300 lbs. of coal in environmental change per year.

That's right. Your landlord being lazy and cheap is making us burn 1,300 lbs. of coal per year. And the energy savings from replacing other old appliances is similar.

What about replacing windows, doors, etc., for ones that don't leak? For ones that have a lower amount of heat transfer directly through the window (double paned, triple glazed, etc.)? It's huge. You can even get tax credits to replace old windows, making the payback time less than 5 years. But many landlords don't care about this, because they don't face the costs of heating a home. They would just be paying money for replacement appliances and windows, and they would never see a return on this investment.

I don't think I need to belabor this point. Old appliances and leaky housing are things your landlord doesn't care about, but they are things that matter in terms of energy use.

So how to fix it? That's for policy people to figure out. I'm not one of them. But I would suggest a few things:

1. Require that landlords report yearly costs of heating to 65F in winter, and cooling to 75F in summer, as well as electricity bills, every time they show an apartment to a potential tenant. This way tenants can add this price in to their monthly rent, and it will force landlords to make a correction for the market.

-or-

2. Require landlords to not have appliances that are more than 15 years old, and windows and doors that are not more than 25 years old

Obviously #1 is much better with market mechanisms, paperwork, etc. I would go with that, since there is pretty much no overhead involved.

Anyone else have any ideas to address this? Leave it in the comments!

Also, if you liked this, please subscribe & share. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

*Recall from an earlier article that the energy use of heat from electricity depends entirely on the "energy mix" of the grid. If enough of that electricity comes from renewables (let's conservatively say 3/4), then the amount of CO2 produced from using electric heat will be better than gas heat (even if the last 1/4 is dirty coal, hence using the 3/4 conservative #).

Is Nuclear Power Really the Most Expensive Technology?

No. It isn't.

Let's explore this more. In a country that already has a well-developed electrical grid / electricity distribution system (sorry, much of Africa), doesn't have ideas based on fear about how dangerous nuclear power is (European and North American countries, +Japan), and doesn't have a terrorism issue (proliferation), nuclear power is the cheapest and least polluting type.

Okay, so where can we find a country that meets this description? How bout Croatia, where some scientists did some probabilistic modeling on this?

From the results of the simulations it can be concluded that the distribution of levelized bus bar costs for the combined cycle gas plant is in the range 4.5–8 US cents/kWh, with a most probable value of about 5.8 US cents/kWh; for coal-fired plants the corresponding values are 4.5–6.3 US cents/kWh and 5.2 US cents/kWh and for the nuclear power plant the corresponding values are in the range 4.2–5.8 US cents/kWh and a most probable value of about 4.8 US cents/kWh.

Let me sum this up. In Croatia, nuclear power is likely going to be the cheapest source. Plus is doesn't pollute and kill people like gas or coal.

Admit it, you needed this.

Why do we face a different situation in the US and Europe? Easy. I've mentioned it before. There is so much concern about the safety of nuclear power that each construction gets mired in legal battles. The legal battles themselves don't cost much. What costs a ton is that these power plants took out $8 billion in loans, meant to be paid back over 10 years. Those loans accrue interest. If legal hurtles slow the construction of the plant down and it takes 15 years instead, those extra 5 years of loans are gonna have several extra billions in interest to pay. Suddenly the cost of power produced goes up.

These costs need to be paid back. The only way to pay back higher than anticipated costs would be to charge more for nuclear power.

So it's safe to say that stalling the construction of a nuclear power plant can effectively prevent it from ever getting built. Now we are in a situation where no one wants to fund a power plant, because the chance of it being slowed and made unprofitable is a bit higher.

Sometimes there are just plain time overruns. The US hasn't build nuclear power plants in years. Our companies barely know how to do it. Our people haven't been trained in colleges and universities to build nuclear power plants. We just don't have the nuclear engineers we would need to make a nuclear renaissance happen, and we'd need several nuclear power plants built before we finally get the hang of it. So there will be a learning curve. Would you want to fund that learning curve? Probably not when natural gas is so cheap in the US.

Are we gonna get there any time soon? Not without a major policy shift. Let's look at planned nuclear power plants worldwide:

Planned nuclear power plants. Image mine, constructed from data available at

Planned nuclear power plants. Image mine, constructed from data available  here

So um... Good job, China. US? Not so much. 32 of the 72 nuclear power plants scheduled to come on-line in the next 5 years are in China. 4 are in the US.

Nuclear power will be more expensive than gas (and coal) power in the US unless 3 things happen:

1. We account for the annual loss of life and increase in asthma and heart disease associated with gas power plants.

2. We start building nuclear power plants now, training a cadre of engineers and speciality construction personnel to finish power plants quickly, safely, properly, and on time (the first few will be finished slowly, behind schedule, but still safe and properly complete, cause lots of eyes will be on them)

3. We continue to build enough of them so that the future ones are build on time and for less expense, driving down the cost of nuclear power to competitive levels (especially when accounting for the external costs of pollution and CO2 from gas and coal).

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster