I'm not feeling ambiguous anymore.
After watching how things have developed, and spending some time looking at some things Barack Obama has written, blog and website material, and watching John McCain speak, and after seeing the pick in running mates; I'm really feeling much better about Barack Obama than John McCain.
With John McCain, I see a guy who appears to be in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's, very much like Reagan heading into his second term. He is stumbles on sentences, seems to confuse different issues, and in general seems to only be able to deal fluidly with issues that are thirty years in the past.
In my view the biggest single issue affecting this country is energy. I know a lot of people would say the economy, but it is energy that underlies our economic woes. We have an economic system that can only function in the face of continuous growth. A growing economy demands a growing energy supply and while there is still a large amount of hydrocarbons in the ground, they are getting increasingly expensive to get at, their use has negative environmental impacts, and their use can't be scaled to meet our growing energy needs. McCain does not have as good of a grasp on the energy options available to us as does Obama and McCain does not seem to have a solid understanding of the relationship between our economy and energy.
Then his choice of running mates; Sarah Palin, and two things are very clear; she hasn't the experience, knowledge, or intelligence, to serve as vice president, and she's got serious ethics issues that come out in incidents like Troopergate
and the incident with the Wasilla librarian
It is my contention that John McCain does not have the energy or motivational ability to move this country out of the current downward spiral that it is in, and Sarah Palin isn't qualified to be Vice President let alone president.
When you look at the fact that John McCain is 72 years old and has already had a number of malignant cancers (I've read four from one source, five from another), his odds statistically of making it through his first term aren't very good and that means our odds of having Sarah Palin for president are far too good for my comfort. The thought of Sarah Palin appointing supreme court justices when she can't even name a single supreme court case that she disagrees with is something I find deeply discomforting.
There are a couple of issues that do bother me about Obama, particularly how he responded to the Republican's attempt to tie him to Reverend Wright; the Republicans, and Fox News in particular, repeatedly took snippets from Reverend Writes sermons, particularly the snipped, "God Bless America? No God Damn America". They took those snippets out of context, in most cases he was quoting someone else; and his history of having served in the marines is not consistent with someone who would wish ill on this country. Quite the contrary, and if people bother to watch the entire sermon, they would see that he wants this country to succeed, but you can't succeed without recognizing failures and learning from them.
It troubled me the way Obama distanced himself from Reverend Wright instead of pointing out that the Republicans had used the sound bytes out of context to intentionally mislead; but I also understand that the American public has too short of an attention span to listen and comprehend such an explanation so it was politically expedient, but in my opinion, wrong.
The second thing that bothers me is his pick of running mate; Joe Biden. I understand why he picked him, as a counter to the republicans claim that he didn't have enough experience in international affairs, however, I feel that was a mistake. He needs someone who has enough experience and energy to help implement his policies, and he needs to have someone as a running mate who shares his passion for change. Joseph Biden has passed legislation that appears to me to favor the interests of big business over the common person, and I think we need quite the opposite, someone who will protect people from the abuses of these mega-multinational corporations.
Now on the plus side, I believe our largest issue in this country and in the world today is energy and I believe Obama understands this. Most of the political agendas seem concerned with the distribution of wealth, but there seems to be very little concern with the creation of wealth. We've lost our manufacturing base, and now much of our service industry has been outsourced to foreign countries.
What we've done is instead of paying for what we import with exports; we've manipulated the markets by continuously increasing the money supply. Countries that export to us have floated our debt in order to keep exporting to us; otherwise the value of the dollar would have fallen, relative to foreign currencies, long ago, which would have cut our consumption and increased the attractiveness of our products on the international market. But we've now reached a point where nobody is willing to continue to float that debt, and would would have been a soft gradual adjustment is now a crash.
We now import close to 70% of the oil we use and that makes everything we do expensive. It makes what used to be a strong export for us, food; more expensive to grow, process, and transport, and so the largest export is now becoming unattractive on the world market.
In order to turn this around we must become energy self sufficient; and this is an area where I think Obama has a very good understanding of what is necessary. The scope and the pace of McCain's energy proposals are very inadequate and they are not sufficiently comprehensive. John McCain believes that primarily we need to increase drilling, that nuclear and clean coal can play a part, and solar and wind, well ok we'll throw that in but no concrete plans to actually do something that would enable their usage at greater levels.
Obama on the other hand, was actually familiar with a development that few Americans are aware of, and that is of a device that is known as the Bussard Polywell fusion reactor. This reactor is entirely different than the Tokamak reactors that are the mainstream path to fusion. It is an ingenious design that is at least three orders of magnitude less expensive to construct than a Tokamak, and that can achieve the energy levels necessary to fuse aneutronic fuels such as hydrogen-boron. These are fuels that produce no neutrons in their reaction and only charged particles. This has two advantages, it doesn't lead to neutron activation of reactor components or neutron embriddlement, issues that ultimately limit the lifespan of fission reactors and of fusion reactors that use fuels that produce neutrons such as deuterium-tritium. Even those reactors are infinitely safer than nuclear fission reactors, they can't melt down or explode and there are no long-lived high-level radioactive wastes produced, but the Polywell reactor can get around even those levels of radioactivity though it still can't produce zero neutrons but the levels are very low.
The Polywell fusion reactor was invented by Dr. Bussard who passed away last year about this time, but it's development was funded by the US Navy, and ultimately was intended to lead to a working power reactor. The Navy was looking for a replacement for fission reactors in submarines, aircraft carriers, and other large vessels. The military advantages are huge, you can get your fuel right from the sea and basically never need refueling; you don't have to dispose of or handle radioactive waste, and in a war there is no danger of fissionable materials falling into the hands of enemies because of the reactors used in your vessels.
The Navy funded the development of six research reactors, WB1 through WB6, all six performed to specifications or exceeded them. WB7 was slated to be the last research reactor per se, and if it succeeded the Navy committed to building a full scale power reactor. WB7 was built, some adjustments were necessary but in just over half a year adjustments were made and it operated at design specifications. At that point, the Navy took the whole project secret, a technology that could provide unlimited clean energy to mankind is now a Navy military secret.
Obama is familiar with this reactor and it's development, I was very suprised to read about it in his blog. I was familiar with it but I've been following the development of fusion over decades and I particularly like to follow the alternative approaches. To be sure, the Tokamak can produce electricity in huge quantities; but the physics of a Tokamak reactor are such that the larger it is scaled up, the more efficient it becomes, and commercial break-even can only be achieved with a very large reactor. Getting investors to invest in an unproven technology that can't be tested on a small scale is very difficult. At the present state of the art a full scale conventional Tokamak reactor would have to be about 4GW in size and cost around 25 billion or more to build and there are still unanswered material engineering issues that are bound to make the first reactors less reliable and more expensive to operate than desirable. Nobody knows for example, how various materials that are being proposed for the diverter, a component that extracts helium ash from the reacting plasma, will react to the heat loads, neutron, and ion bombardment that they will be subject to in a working power reactor. Research reactors neither reach the necessary power levels nor operate long enough to answer these questions.
By contrast a power producing Bussard Polywell reactor only costs about 25 million (that's with an 'm' instead of a 'b') to build, and can be built on a much smaller scale that represents a more acceptable risk for potential investors. Operating on aneutronic fuels makes it completely safe so it can comfortably be placed right in the middle of a city where the power is needed. Because all the reaction products, when operating on aneutronic fuels, are charged particles, electricity can be extracted directly using a reverse plasma dynamics device, with projected efficiencies of around 80%. With no moving parts for the actual generation, and much less waste heat to remove than with a thermal plant, the operational costs will be very low. The amount of power produced from a single gram of boron and hydrogen will for all intents and purposes mean the fuel is essentially free.
But it remains to be seen how well it will scale; we can't put all our eggs in one basket, or at least shouldn't, and he understand other alternatives; oil will continue to be a part of the mix as well other fossil fuels and nuclear fission. Really we're in a situation where we need to pursue every single option that we have with great vigor, otherwise we're going to collectively starve and our economy is going to totally collapse. Barock understands this and is intent on directing a large amount of resources to addressing the problem rapidly.
Modernizing our national electrical grid is something that we absolutely need to do. Currently, we lose around 17% of the energy we generate in our grid; and this is equivalent to all of the oil we import. We could reduce this loss to 1-2% and at the same time approximately double our grid capacity by converting all lines longer than 300km from AC transmission to high voltage DC transmission. Almost all of that loss is radiative and changing to DC eliminates that radiative loss. It also eliminates a phenomena known as skin effect where the intense magnetic fields force the current to the outside of the conductors essentially reducing the size of the conductors and increasing their resistance. So in addition to eliminating radiative losses, DC transmission, by eliminating the skin effect, greatly decreases resistive losses (usually referred to as "copper losses" even though copper is rarely if ever used in long distance transmission lines).
Doubling the capacity of the grid and largely eliminating the losses over longer distances would enable a much larger percentage of our power to be derived from wind and solar. Wind and solar power have are intermittent power sources, but geographical diversity can address the issue of availability of wind power. In Germany, which has a much smaller geographical footprint than the US, it has been found that about 1/3rd the peak capacity is continuously available because the wind blows here or there but it's always blowing somewhere. Here in the US, where we have much greater geographical diversity to tap; the ratio should be better. Solar is of coarse only available when the sun is shinning, but that is not a bad thing because it happens that is when electrical demand peaks.
So, we could save the energy equivalent of all the energy we import just by modernizing our grid; without adding any additional generating capacity. But because a DC line can be operated at 1.414 times the voltage of the RMS value of an AC line given
the same insulators, right there it increases the capacity by 141%. But there is more; long distance AC lines are limited in capacity by sag. As current increases, the wires expand, causing the distance over which power has to travel to increase, and
that causes a phase shift. Power arriving at the destination with the improper phase relationship results in current flow between generating sources that never goes through a load but only heats up the transmission lines further. But with DC transmission, the phase is maintained by the inverter at the terminating end, and so this current limit no longer applies and only mechanical issues become limiting factors and so typically capacity is increased by 200% or more.
Further; because phasing is no longer an issue, and frequency is determined electronically by inverting equipment and not by the mechanics of the source generator, the load / frequency relationship is eliminated and this prevents cascading failures from occurring as the result of sudden load or generation shifts.
By greatly improving the capacity and eliminating this load/frequency issue; the amount of power from variable sources such as wind and and solar, in terms of a percentage of the total power mix, can be greatly increased. This is good because wind power is the least expensive source of electricity, less expensive even than coal with today's technology.
If we eliminate the loss penalty associated with long distance transmission, and if we eliminate the cascading failure, then it makes sense to tie the Eastern and Western grids together allowing us to take advantage of time zones and the fact that peak electrical demand occurs at different times across the country. DC transmission also allows grids of differing frequency to be joined, so we could even consider doing things like tying the North American grid into South American or even Soviet grid across the bearing straits. Politically that seems impossible now but if we weren't all fighting over dwindling energy resources it might become politically possible and economically advantageous.
So seeing Barack speak of the Bussard Polywell reactor, seeing him state that modernizing the grid should be a high priority, makes me feel very good about his knowledge of the energy situation.