Monday, January 28, 2013

Clean Energy

Clean Energy is really a misnomer.  There is no such thing as "clean energy".  All energy sources emit pollutants during their life-cycles.

All we can say is that there are cleaner energy sources.  In other words, some sources are cleaner than others.

Since CO2 is the main green-house gas we are now concerned about, following is a comparison of carbon emissions when different energy sources are used for generating electricity.

"A literature review of numerous energy sources CO2 emissions by the IPCC in 2011 found that that the CO2 emission value, that fell within the 50th percentile of all total life cycle emissions studies conducted, was as follows." (From Wikipedia):

Now, depending on what lobby calculates the above numbers they tend to vary somewhat, but the point is that NO energy source is clean.  Sure, there is no doubt that coal is the dirtiest one but on the other hand it is significant that, at least in this particular study, solar (which is considered by many the ultimate green energy) is dirtier than nuclear energy.

Why is this?  

Answer: although solar panels produce no carbon emissions during operation, the emissions produced during their manufacture have to be "amortized" in the energy produced by the panels during their useful life.  And these emissions are not negligible.  The silicon has to be mined, purified, fused, doped, cut, soldered, transported, installed, etc.  Plus the aluminum and glass components of the panels also go through an energy intensive manufacturing process.

And by the way, oil is located somewhere between coal and natural gas.

So, even though ALL energy sources emit carbon dioxide when you factor in their complete life cycle,  it is obvious that fossil fuels are the dirtiest.  All the rest we could label as "low carbon" energy sources.  

What humanity needs to do to prevent a climate catastrophe is to move from "high carbon" to "low carbon" energy sources.

Today the USA is significantly reducing it's carbon emissions by switching part of their coal electric utilities to natural gas.  This is probably the simplest and fastest way to reduce carbon emissions but is obviously only an intermediate step in the solution.

Long term we have to move aggressively to "low carbon" sources.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Too Much Innovation

Unless the name of your CEO is Steve Jobs or Edwin Land, there IS such thing as too much innovation.  When a company tries to change too many things at the same time and is not led by a genius CEO that is deeply involved in the most minute technical and marketing details, the endeavor will almost certainly have unpleasant consequences.

Since Jobs and Land were arguably unique in the history of modern capitalism, no other company should embark in daredevil innovation pursuits.

What is the antidote to endangering a company (and even the general public) by engaging in "excessive" innovation?

Answer: reading and internalizing the book Great by Choice authored by Jim Collins.

At the end of the day, "excessive" innovation is really nothing more than excessive ego, and if there is not a real genius leading the effort, it would almost certainly end in disappointment if not something worse.

Conclusion: tame your ego and read Collins' book.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Do We Need Subsidies for Solar and Wind Power?

Well, "we" don't need the subsidies, only the solar and wind companies need the subsidies. 
However, let's face it, these industries are pretty much mature and there is really no reason to continue subsidizing them. Spain and Germany are a perfect example of where this road leads to: very expensive energy, loads of debt and then a very difficult uphill battle to remove the subsidies once these industries get used to them. 
Besides, "renewable" installations for the most part are NOT replacing conventional energy installations or preventing additional investments in conventional energy (because "renewable" energy is not constant or reliable). So at the end of the day, "renewable" energy installations are just surplus capacity that makes life more difficult for conventional generating plants (that have to adjust their output to the variability of "renewable" energy).

Let's analyze the German example. First, yes, it is true that a substantial share of this country's electricity is produced with renewables: biomass, hydro, wind and sun. Solar photo-voltaic panels, however, represent only close to 3% of the total and they have been receiving most of the subsidies for renewable energy.

For anyone interested in the facts, we would kindly recommend the main story in Der Spiegel English Edition of October 10, 2012. The story is titled: German Energy Plan Plagued by Lack of Progress.

A few excerpts below:
"With the new rates, German citizens will be paying a total of more than €20 billion ($25.7 billion) next year to promote renewable energy. This is more than €175 for an average three-person household, a 50 percent increase over current figures."
And by the way, even before these price increases, Germans were already paying +37% more per kWh than the average in Europe (as a comparison, the French pay 23% less).
"The rising cost of electricity is also a burden on businesses. According to Oettinger, energy costs now represent the biggest liability for Germany as a place to do business, especially in light of the marked increase in the number of blackouts and voltage fluctuations in the grid."
"As long as there isn't enough storage capacity, virtually every solar plant and every wind turbine has to be backed up by a conventional power plant. Without this double structure, the power supply would collapse."
And finally: 
"At the same time, however, the boom in subsidized renewable energy is ensuring that conventional power plants are no longer profitable. Since the law requires that preference be given to green energy, if it's available, gas-, oil- and coal-fired power plants frequently have to be shut down to avoid overloading the grid. This reduces their revenues while increasing costs because powering plants up and down consumes a lot of fuel and inflicts additional wear and tear on the equipment."

So in summary, no, we shouldn't subsidize "renewable" energy. Being fair, we shouldn't be subsidizing any other energy source, either.

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Is Hydrogen a Viable Alternative?

Feelings, feelings and more feelings are what we see in many energy discussions. If we are talking about religion or maybe even about politics, it is OK to mix as much feelings as we want, but not when we are talking about energy. In this subject we should stay cozy to the facts, the laws of physics and yes, economics. 

Can renewable energy provide 100% of our energy? Yes but at a prohibitive cost. Consequently renewables are not really a total solution (yes, they have their place in our energy mix but their penetration is and will continue to be quite modest in a global scale).

For example, some renewable enthusiasts mention that excess electricity produced by the sun can be converted into hydrogen and then burned when we need the power. 

Technically this is 100% feasible, but economically... 

1. A say, one megawatt solar installation in a nice and sunny place produces on an annual basis only close to 200 kW average power (five times less than the "plate" rating).
2. The efficiency of electrolysis (to produce the hydrogen) is around 70%.
3. The efficiency of the hydrogen turbine (to move the generator) is probably less than 50%.
4. The efficiency of the generator should be in the order of 90%.
So, just the last three steps above result in a combined efficiency of 31.5%. In other words, 68.5% of the energy produced by the solar panels is lost in this hydrogen conversion process! And you still have to add the capital expenditures of the electrolysis plant, turbines, generators, storage tanks, etc. It makes absolutely no sense. 

Besides we wouldn't have to beat so much around the bush, there is something called rechargeable batteries with much better conversion efficiencies than the above. We could use them to store the excess electricity, but again it requires considerable investment that will impact the cost of the electricity produced: the batteries themselves, the inverters, warehouses, replacement of the batteries every so often, etc., etc. And sure, it is not particularly "green" to produce and then dispose of so many batteries. Even then if the sky were cloudy for several days the batteries would be completely depleted and conventional energy will have to come to the rescue. In other words, solar (or wind) cannot really replace conventional power plants.

Let's face it, the reason renewables require subsidies to survive is because they are more expensive than conventional energy and, specially, that they fully depend on the conventional electrical grid. 

So, let's not talk about wishes, let's talk about facts: when Japan shut down its nuclear plants after the tsunami almost 100% of the replacement energy came from fossil fuels. That's right: not solar, not wind but fossil fuels. They imported more coal, more natural gas and more oil. Their emissions went up and their balance of trade suffered. These are the FACTS. Not the wishes.

Now Germany is embarking in a very expensive renewable experiment and the only reason Germany will not go exactly the way of Japan (that is in substituting all nuclear with fossil fuels) is that France and other neighboring countries will gladly sell them nuclear electricity. Sure, German carbon emissions will go up (because they will increase their coal and natural gas use in generating electricity) but not as much as could be expected if France were not there to help.

As we all know the country at the center of the nuclear hurricane, Japan, is already re-starting its nuclear plants. It is time for all of us to also stop running away scared from nuclear power.

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Is Nuclear the Viable Option?

It is amazing, no, actually unbelievable that we are still discussing this subject. If global warming is NOT a HOAX, then we need nuclear. Period. End of story. Elvis has left the room. 

"Renewables" are, and will continue to be, niche energy sources. Why? Because they are not constant or reliable. Sometimes we have wind (or sun) and sometimes we do not. In other words, "renewables" are NOT base energy and civilization requires truckloads of base load energy. 

Technically we can store this energy but economically the costs would be outrageous. And hydro, by the way has pretty much maxed. In the USA it is actually declining. So, let's stop kidding ourselves once and for all: we NEED nuclear. 

Is nuclear dangerous? Yes it is, BUT not more than other energy sources. Arguably, the most dangerous energy sources by far are fossil fuels: they can bring the planet to the tipping point and bring down civilization, and even our species, with it. 

The main issue with nuclear is NOT its safety, but its upfront investment. We need an era of innovation in nuclear to make it more cost effective (thorium?). We also need to build the reactors like we now build the Boeings and the Airbuses: standardized designs produced in an assembly line fashion. 

Let's leave feelings aside and prepare for the moment when we will HAVE to drastically curtail our fossil fuel use. Of the low carbon emitting technologies, only NUCLEAR is ready for prime time. We cannot continue losing time discussing a moot point. We need to drive ahead, full steam, to a nuclear future.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Carbon Emissions 101

This is a fictitious interview with an energy expert that is not afraid of saying things as they really are, rather than as many wish they were.  

For the purpose of this exercise, let's say the energy expert is Mr. EE and Global News and World Report is interviewing him.

GNWR: what would be required to drastically reduce humanity's carbon emissions, in other words, what we need to do to prevent a global climate catastrophe?

EE: drastically reduce our fossil fuel use.

GNWR: but, what would be required to drastically reduce our fossil fuel use.

EE: a drastic increase in the prices of fossil fuels. And I want to stress here the word "drastic". Even though there is in general an upward trend in the cost of fossil fuels, if we leave it to "the market" the price increases won't be big enough or arrive soon enough to stop a runaway climate crisis.

GNWR: but, won't people understand the importance of reducing our carbon emissions and modify their behavior accordingly?

EE: maybe one percent or so of the Earth's population will voluntarily take this path but most people won't substantially modify their behavior until overriding economic factors force them to do so.  And the words I want to stress here are "force them." 

GNWR: can´t we just support wider use of renewables?

EE: Once you factor all the direct and indirect costs, renewables are not only more expensive than fossil fuels, they are vastly more expensive.

GNWR: so, please stop beating around the bush and tell us what exactly needs to be done.

EE: I would like to offer a much more imaginative, innovative, and interesting answer but as we stand today the only viable solution to our carbon problem are carbon taxes.  And again, we are not talking about "timid" taxes, but ones that would increase the price of fossil fuels by say, three, four or even five times their current level. This should obviously go hand in hand with the elimination of all subsidies both to fossil fuels and to renewables. Believe it or not, globally we are currently subsidizing fossil fuel consumption to the pitch of more than 500 billion dollars per year!

GNWR: if those carbon taxes were fully implemented, what would be the immediate result?

EE: first, our carbon emissions will truly drop dramatically.  This would obviously be a very welcomed result.  On the other hand the world economy will tank.  This would be a serious side effect, to say the least.

GNWR: why is that so?

EE: today the world economy almost single-handedly depends on cheap fossil fuels.  Some analysts even state that the 2008 world recession was REALLY caused (or at least triggered) by $150 dollar oil.  The carbon taxes we are envisioning would bring this price to, say, $450.  It would be a completely different ball game.

GNWR: but then, isn't the medicine worse than the sickness?

EE: THAT is the crux of the matter.  In other words, how do we reduce our emissions fast enough to avert a climate catastrophe while at the same time prevent the destruction of the world's economy in the process.

GNWR: could this conceivably be done?

EE: From a technical point of view, absolutely. The number one source of our carbon emissions is electricity production. In theory, all electricity can be generated with nuclear plants and nuclear produces almost no carbon dioxide during operation.  France already produces close to 80% of its electricity with nuclear plants.

GNWR: and renewables?

EE: aside from hydro, renewables have just been a costly diversion.  However, if they can survive by themselves without subsidies, then they would stay, but they will always be just a small part of our total energy mix.  Even hydro will face problems.  Climate change is already impacting countries where hydro is big, such as Brazil which may have to begin rationing electricity as early as this year. Venezuela and Colombia may not be far behind. So let me stress this even if Greenpeace doesn't want to listen: the future will be nuclear. Even Japan is already re-starting its nuclear plants.  Germany doesn't have any choice either so sooner or later they will continue investing in nuclear.

GNWR: what else needs to be done?

EE: another big contributor to our carbon emissions is transportation.  Here we need much more efficient cars, which at this moment means hybrids, and at the same time much less cars.  We have to  make public transportation attractive to many people that currently mostly use their car.  Also, we need to be more "bicycle friendly".

GNWR: anything more?

EE: yes, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency that will allow us to reduce our consumption of raw materials, energy, land, etc., while at the same time not overly affect our well-being.

GNWR: so then, there is hope!

EE: as mentioned, technically it is completely feasible but the real issues are political and here we can kill ourselves without really trying. 

GNWR: Thank you very much, Mr. EE.

EE: you are most certainly welcomed!

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Low Carbon Economy

Let's make no mistake: every alternative to fossil fuels is considerably more expensive.  The reason we have not moved to a "low carbon" economy is not a philosophical one, it is an economical one. 

However, just as a mind experiment, let's imagine how the world would change if the fundamental means to reduce humanity's carbon emissions was implemented: behavior modifying (in other words, painful) carbon taxes.

Sure, the only way for governments to proceed with this measure is if their citizens, in general, supported these taxes, if not, the governments could be brought down overnight.

But again, this is a mind experiment and thus let's assume that most of the seven billion plus persons on Earth support these taxes.

In order for these taxes to be "behavior modifying" they would have to increase the price of natural gas by, say, 300%, oil 400% and coal by 500%.  The differences in taxing obey to the relative "carbon intensity" of each energy source.

Not to tax all economies to death, these taxes will go hand in hand with the total elimination of all energy subsidies (both to renewables as well as to fossil fuels).  Let's say (and since we are in a planetary emergency) that in five years the full burden of these taxes goes into effect.  On the other hand, these carbon taxes could be "revenue neutral" for governments.

This is what we anticipate will happen:
  • SUVs will completely be a thing of the past.
  • Car sales will plummet but hybrids will dominate the (much reduced) market.  The smaller the car, the better.  Even then, full electrics will barely dent the market. 
  •  Public transportation will flourish as well as "alternate" means of transportation: bicycles, electric scooters, Segways, etc.
  • Buildings all over the place will be carefully insulated.
  • Public lightning will be upgraded with LED technology and presence sensors: only when a person is near them will the lamps turn on.  These same technologies will be used at home and business: no longer will illumination be left on all night for decorative or safety purposes.
  • Air travel will become extremely expensive and consequently its use will plummet.
  • There would be an uptick on solar and wind power, but the lion's share of low carbon energy will be supplied by nuclear power.  Massive investments in new nuclear generating capacity will happen all over the world.
  • Standards of efficiency will go up on all types of devices: air conditioners, fridges, TVs, computers, etc., but at the same time people will turn them off as soon as they are done using them.
  • World trade will decline since fossil fuel vessels transport almost all merchandise.
  • Almost everything will go up in price so people and companies will drastically curtail their consumption. 
  • Zoning laws will change all over so that tight-nit communities can again be the norm: school, shopping, work, will tend to be walking distance away. 
  • Innovation to replace fossil fuels will blossom.  However, no amount of innovation will stop the outrageous increase in energy prices. 
  • In spite of efficiency improvements A/C will be so expensive that weather related migrations will be common place. 
  • People will NOT necessarily be less happy, because consumption above a certain point doesn't add to happiness. 
  • Carbon emissions WILL go down very significantly.
Now, what would happen at the global stage?
  • Nations that depend on oil for most of their revenue will fall into a profound depression.  The price of oil (aside from the carbon taxes) will sink almost overnight and its consumption will be severely curtailed. Revolutions will bring down governments on these countries, but the new governments will not be able to cope either with the sudden and catastrophic reductions in revenue.  
  • Car companies, airlines, trucking companies will fold left and right.  The wave of bankruptcies won't stop there as almost every other sector of the economy will be profoundly affected.
  • China will be among the most affected countries since most of its manufacturing energy comes from coal and additionally transportation costs for its products will rise exponentially. 
  • European countries and the USA would be relatively less affected, but the standards of living of their populations will also suffer greatly.
  • Highways will be eerily empty and eventually many will be reclaimed for other uses. 
  • Although the 21st Century will still be firmly in place (we'll still have our smart phones and other sophisticated technology), energy-wise we will return to the early 1900s.  Energy will be an expensive luxury and only rich people will be able to consume as much as they want.  Anything combustible, including our forests, will be under siege. 
  • Food prices will skyrocket. 
  • Serious social upheavals will happen all over the world.  The human population will drop considerably. At the same time the climate crisis will seem to be getting even worse due to the inertia of the Earth's systems.
Conclusion: no wonder humanity resists with all its might any reduction in carbon emissions.  In the very short term the medicine certainly seems worse than the sickness, but in the medium and long term not starting to fix the sickness today will almost certainly mean even worse consequences.

Let's all stay tuned...

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Thursday, January 03, 2013


After reading The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner it is hard not to believe that 1) Bell Labs was by far the most innovative institution of the past 100 years (at least) and 2) that after Bell Labs innovation sprint between the late 1940's and early 1960's there has been really no more fundamental innovation on Earth.

These were the fundamental Bell Labs innovations during the aforementioned period:

1. The transistor.  This is by far the most important of all modern inventions because it evolved first into the integrated circuit (IC) and then into the microprocessor.  So, without the transistor there wouldn't be cell phones, or personal computers, or tablets or iPods, or...  And obviously there wouldn't be Google, or Apple, or FaceBook, or LinkedIn, or Amazon...

2. Semiconductor lasers (which were actually also an off-shoot of the transistor).

3. Optic fiber.  It allowed outrageous amounts of information to be transmitted all over the world.

4. Information theory.  

Without the above stated innovations, the world today would probably be very, very similar to the world of the early 1950's.  

Amazingly, the persons behind those discoveries are nearly unknown today.  What person in the street knows who was William Shockley?  Who knows who was Claude Shannon?

So for the past 50 years the only thing we have done is achieving small incremental improvements on the technological treasures released by Bell Labs.

Why did fundamental innovation cease?  There are at least two possibilities.

a) Bell Labs was a truly unique organization sprinkled with geniuses and no other institution has been able to replace it.
b) We have hit a real wall because there is nothing fundamental to innovate anymore.  Say, even if we produced "quantum transistors", they would still be transistors.  Or maybe we need to look in a completely different direction such as genetics (creating DNA) or even in more fantastic spaces such as tele-transportation.  Who knows?

Whatever the reasons, it is humbling and even scary to realize that humanity has not made fundamental innovations in more than fifty years and counting...

Understanding Renewables

To understand some fundamental aspects of renewables, let's study Germany since this is the country that by far has the most installed solar PV (photovoltaic) capacity in the world.
The German solar PV installed capacity at the end of 2011 was close to 25 GW (gigawatt).  However, the actual amount of electricity produced that year with solar PV panels was only 18 TWh (terawatt hour).  This is, on average, only 8.2% of the installed capacity.  In other words, the 25 GW of installed capacity produced on AVERAGE only 2.05 GW.  Now, this is a big difference!
Why the discrepancy?  
Because, off the bat, 50% of the year is night.  And then we have clouds, haze, and the sun striking the panels from behind (particularly in Summer).  So, overall, the capacity factor of German solar installations is consistently below 10%. 
Suddenly the numbers seem much less attractive.
But even these much reduced numbers don't reflect the real, and more complex situation going on.  If a cloudless day occurs in most of Germany, the total production of the solar panels at noon will approach the above mentioned 25 GW.  Consequently other (conventional) power plants would have to reduce their output or even be completely idled.  However, later in the day they will need to be back in the energy generation business. 
Who pays for the revenue losses of these conventional generating plants?  Good question.
At night, the PV production obviously drops to zero, but even during the day overcast skies can easily reduce the output by 90% or more.  Also, in winter the nights are much longer.
What we are trying to say with the above is that practically all the solar PV installed capacity has to be backed up with conventional power plants, in other words, renewables are not reliable.  Renewables for the most part do not replace conventional generating plants, they are only redundant fluctuating producers.
And here we come to one of the most thorny issues: subsidies for renewables.  Why are subsidies necessary?
1. Because renewables are MUCH more expensive than conventional energy.  Let's continue with the solar PV example.  When we read that the "cost per peak watt" in Germany has dropped to only EUR1.78 it means (once we factor in the capacity factor) that the actual cost of the average watt is almost EUR18.  This is an outrageous cost when you compare it with less than EUR2 investment for a fossil fuel plant and less than EUR5 for a nuclear one. 
2. Renewables are redundant power that is not really needed, so there is no real incentive (aside from the subsidies, that is) to build them. 

Below is the actual production of a PV installation at Fort Collins, Colorado for the past few days.  The output almost looks like an ECG during the day and at night there is (obviously) nothing.

That is all for today.  Thank you.