Category Archives: Future

What does the future hold for us?

Declaration of Energy Independence

We’re coming up on the 232nd anniversary of our nation’s independence from England. We now find ourselves owned, controlled, and at the mercy of other countries for our nations lifeblood, energy. King Abdullah tells us to get used to high oil prices.

It’s time folks to send a hardy FU to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and take our energy needs into our own hands, and it’s not for lack of resources that we haven’t done this already.

America has the means to be entirely self-reliant from an energy perspective, moreover, we have the means of being entirely self-reliant in a clean sustainable manner and becoming a significant world energy supplier. For too long the American dream has been just that, a dream. It’s time folks that we collectively and cooperatively make it a reality.

Let’s talk about what conservation can and can not do for us. Conservation can’t make energy, our best conservation efforts won’t eliminate the need for primary sources of energy. Conservation beyond a point entails lifestyle trade-offs that for many are unacceptable. Some people might be happy in an 8×10 foot room with a couple of LED lights and eating only raw vegetables, but many of us can not be happy that way, we are biologically omnivorous, we like to have a little space, we need intellectual stimulation and physical exercise. Providing for these things requires substantially more energy than the most simplistic survival lifestyle.

Conservation can significantly reduce the size of the problem. There are many conservation measures that we can take that not only don’t reduce the quality of our lifestyle but can actually enhance it. We should be pursuing these with a great deal of zest.

In the short term, to some degree we are going to have to rely on dirty energy sources, to the degree which conservation can reduce demand, it reduces the environmental damage caused by those sources.

More than 26% of our nations total energy consumption is radiated away as 60 Hz electromagnetic radiation or dissipated as heat in our nations power grid. That is, more than 1/4 or our energy is wasted in our antiquated inefficient electrical distribution system. A good portion of that energy comes from the dirtiest possible source, coal.

Eliminating the waste in our electrical distribution system or at least reducing it to it’s practical limits, would make huge impact on our nations carbon foot print. The single largest waste on the grid is in the long distance AC transmission system. The problem is long wires act like antennas and radiate a good portion of that power away. Not only is this wasted energy but power line frequency electromagnetic radiation has been shown to increase the rates of leukemia, lymphoma, and some other cancers. Harmonics of 60 Hz also cause the familiar buzzing radio interference while listening to AM stations.

The solution to this problem is to convert all transmission lines which are 300km or longer to DC transmission. DC lines do not radiate. There is a small conversion loss at either end of the line, converting from AC to DC, and then at the other end from DC back to AC, but it is less than 1%, and for any lines longer than about 300km, the reduction in radiative losses more than compensates for conversion equipment losses.

This change would reduce losses in our electrical distribution system to about a quarter of what they presently are, eliminate cascading failures, and provide immunity to space weather induced failures. In addition it would greatly increase the capacity of our grid system enabling a larger share of renewable sources to power the grid. This single change would save almost as much energy as we currently import and it would only improve our lifestyle by reducing power brownouts and blackouts.

Energy wasted in the distribution system is only one source of waste in our electrical system, the other source is the mismatch between demand and supply. Our generating system has to be designed to meet peak requirements, which tend to happen during mid-day. But neither coal fired plants nor nuclear plants can be effectively throttled. It takes too long to bring up the reaction rate in a nuclear plant from a shut-down condition, about three days, and coal fired plants also can not change their combustion rates rapidly. The result is about 75% of our generation capacity runs at full tilt all the time, only natural gas and hydro-electric generation lends itself well to being throttled. Our nighttime demand falls to much less than 75% of peak and as a consequence all of this excess energy is wasted. Coal is burnt, heat goes up the stack and is lost; nuclear fuel is fissioned, waste is created, but heating up the cooling towers and downstream water is all that we get from it during the night.

What if there were a way we could capture and use all of this excess energy when we needed it? Well, it turns out there is. If the nations commuters replaced their cars with plug-in electric hybrids with an all-electric range of 40 miles or more, almost the entirely daily commute could happen without the use of gasoline, and there is enough wasted generating capacity at night to charge all of those vehicles without fissioning a single additional gram of uranium or burning a single additional ton of coal.

Switching all of our commute vehicles to plug-in hybrids would enable us to eliminate our oil imports. This would remove all the carbon dioxide generation associated with those oil imports without putting a single additional carbon atom into the atmosphere from power generation.

If we did this AND converted all of our 300km or longer transmission lines to DC transmission, and added some East-West interties so that we could take advantage of time zone differentials, we could eliminate all oil imports and 15-20% of our coal and natural gas usage for electrical generation. So that’s what conservation in just two areas CAN do for us and it’s quite a lot! That’s what conservation can do without getting into all the little things we can do at home, switching from incandescent to compact fluorescent and as technology allows, to LED lighting.

Incandescent bulbs convert between 3-5% of their electrical energy into visible light, compact fluorescents between 15-20%, and currently available LED’s from about 15% to 30%, but LEDs in the laboratory have achieved close to 100% conversion efficiencies producing more than 300 lumans/watt which is approaching 100% efficiency.

People have various objections to compact fluorescents, but most of those are based upon bad experience with older technologies, though the garden variety CFL bought at your local retailer still has much to be desired in my opinion. The cheaper CFL bulbs tend to have two phosphors, one producing a greenish light and one producing an orangish light balanced to give the appearance similar in color to an incandescent bulb, and while on a white wall the color may appear similar, the CFL’s short comings become apparent when you have colored items, reds appear extremely dark because CFL’s give off very little red light, the same is true of violet, and blues and yellows appear muted.

You can buy full spectrum bulbs that, while not providing the completely continuous spectrum of a black-body source, does have lines in all of the colors from violet to red and thus render color much more vividly. Phosphors that provide these colors are more expensive and this cost is more than reflected in the cost of the CFL bulb. The other thing is that the eye is less sensitive to colors at either end of the spectrum than those near the center and as a result these full spectrum lamps appear dimmer than their orange/green counterparts. I have found that even amoungst the cheaper bulbs, there is considerable difference in the quality of the phosphors used. So if you don’t like the color of one brand, try another. I personally have found the Phillips CFLs provide a more pleasing light than many. Lights of America bulbs tend to provide a cooler white with more blue and I think better overall color rendition but the quality of their ballasts seems to leave something to be desired. I have experienced a high failure rate with Lights of America bulbs.

Domestic heating and cooling is another area where we use a lot of energy but addressing that involves better insulation and more effecient heating and cooling apparatus which, like replacing vehicles, tends to be expensive.

It is clear though that conservation can buy us a lot even before we step into the realm of degrading our livestyle, in fact it is apparent that many of the things we can do will enhance it.

Look at plug-in hybrids for example, if we eliminate all that gasoline burning, the air quality in major metropolitan areas surely will be much more pleasant than it presently is.

But now we get realities to deal with. Our economy is already wrecked, most of us can’t afford to go out and buy a new plug-in hybrid, even if such were already on the market, which they aren’t in the United States.

So we’ve got to do other things in the short term, things we can afford to do, things like car pooling, bicycling, relocating closer to our work, or telecommuting and working out of our homes, and most of us can afford to replace our incandescent lamps.

We need to increase our nations domestic energy production so that less capital gets sent out of the nation and is available for things like improving the electrical grid, buying plug-in electric hybrids, and developing new energy sources.

To the degree that we rely on oil or hydrocarbons, our dependency should be completely upon domestic resources. We have more coal than any nation in the world, gasoline, diesel, heating oils, and jet fuel can all be made from coal. We have around 3.5 trillion barrels of oil in the form of oil shales, about half a billion of which is recoverable with existing technologies. Presently we have a federal moratorium on leasing of oil shale extraction rights. There is significant oil deposits along the continental shelf but we have a drilling moratorium prevent these from being tapped.

I’m not in favor of environmental damage that these sorts of projects would entail, however balanced against the damage we are doing in Iraq and the potential for a war with Iran, I think we should be developing our own resources. Beyond that, in my view it’s not ethical for us to inflict environmental damage on other parts of the world to sustain our own needs.

In California we’ve got heavy crude reserves approximately equal to those of Venezuala but we aren’t tapping them. I don’t know to what degree California’s environmental laws play into that, but even if we were to tap these resources, we lack the refinery capacity to deal with heavy sour crude. Given that heavy sour crude is mostly what is readily available, even though it’s more expensive to refine, the raw supply costs less and we should have refinery capacity to use it. We also have tar sands in other parts of the country that yield similar heavy sour crude.

I can envision a time when we no longer require oil at all, not just for fuel but where we can get hydrocarbons we need for plastics and what not by recycling existing materials, or agricultural and forestry waste, or even by the growth of oil-rich algae, but in the immediate future we are still going to need it.

One place we could grab some free energy from an clean up the environment in the process would be to retrieve the mid-pacific plastic whirlpool garbage and process it either into new plastics or through thermal depolymerization, into other hydrocarbon products. It would be nice to eliminate that floating garbage dump and given that it’s a potential energy source, why not tap it?

In terms of renewable sources, we’ve got plenty; for example we have enough geothermal sites in the non-sensitive areas of the Rocky mountains to supply the electrical energy needs of the entire nation. Likewise, we have enough wind resources in just three states to supply the entire nations electrical needs. A relatively small portion of our land devoted to solar power production could supply our energy needs. There are many other options, ocean currents, tidal, ocean thermal, wave power, etc.

We’ve got to commit the resources to do whatever we need to do to eliminate our dependence upon foreign energy now, keep our dollars at home and provide jobs here.

Society

One of the major problems our society has is that social rules do not acknowledge the reality of what human beings are, a mammal, a primate, that sexually reproduces and has all the drives that served to make us a successful species which evolved over millions of years to the point where we’ve now changed our environment so radically that we’re maladapted to the environment we’ve created.

We have jailed 2% of our population and in my view this is wrong. Instead, what we should be doing is trying to find a way to adapt to the environment we’ve created, or alter our environment to be more suited to that which we’ve adapted to over the last several million years. We have people in jail for drugs, sex crimes, theft, and various violent crimes among other things.

Over millions of years we developed the most complex brain of any land mammal on the planet. Our brain developed over a period of time when generally food was scarce, consequently where food is plentiful, we tend to be fat.

Our brains evolved reward feedback loops where if a given action lead to a reward, doing this got us food, sex, comfort, whatever, then that behavior was reinforced. It’s not something we are consciously aware of yet it had survival value because it reinforced the behaviors that got us food, shelter, and propagated our genes. Of course this adaptation happened before we had the ability to chemically create rewards.

Enter the modern era where we can make all sorts of chemicals or cultivate plants that make them, that affect this reward circuit and now what used to be an adaptive behavior becomes a destructive behavior. Snort this, shoot that, smoke this, swallow that and the reward center is chemically stimulated, and the behavior that lead to that is reinforced, addiction. And now that is what the majority of our jail population is there for, addictions. Many secondary crimes, theft, violent crimes, are related to addiction.

Is it their fault that an adaptive mechanism is now being presented with a situation for which it is now maladaptive? No, and yet rather than treated, most are punished for it. As a society, we really need to find better ways to deal with this whole addiction thing, whatever the addiction might be it involves that same reward-feedback mechanism that prior to artificial stimulation used to enhance survival in an environment that proceeded the artificial one we’ve created only recently.

Sex crimes are another area that largely represents a maladaptive response to our present environment, but several thousand years ago when we were living in small tribal groups without religious convictions that tried to tell us we’re not animals, behaviors which are now criminal were at the time adaptive.

In the last hundred years we’ve gone from a situation where it was routine to marry someone off as soon as they reached puberty, to a situation where they’re not allowed to consent to sex until they’ve actually passed their physical reproductive prime. Life expectancy has also dramatically changed in that time but better nutrition and artificial chemicals in our food and water supply that mimic hormones, particularly that mimic estrogen, have advanced rather than delayed puberty. This really creates a situation that is much different than we were adapted to even a hundred years ago.

Laws which regulate such things as sodomy and prostitution even among consenting adults, are influenced by a couple of forces. Religious ideas that suggest that we are different from other animals, that we have a soul and animals don’t and that we are imbued with original sin and animals are not, have been reflected in laws that frankly do not reflect the physical reality of our nature.

These religious beliefs are codified into laws because if we are allowed to act upon our nature it threatens the believes of those that hold those religious views and by extension their immortality. No matter what your religious convictions, biologically we are still animals, primates, that reproduce sexually, and religious views do not change the brain wiring, hormone system, and the drives that result, which developed prior to religion. If someone’s religious faith isn’t strong enough to be maintained in the face of physical evidence to the contrary they should deal with it rather than trying to impose laws to hide the physical aspects of our nature.

As a society, it is OK to decide some behaviors which were adaptive in the past no longer are adaptive in the present, but I think we also have to acknowledge that we can’t discard millions of years of evolution overnight and jail everyone who fails to do so.

Rather I think we need to change the environment we’ve created to more closely match that to which we’ve evolved and we need to provide help for individuals who are having difficulty adapting to our changed environment.

To do otherwise is really no different than Hitlers proposal of Eugenics, just kill everyone who does not possess the genetic makeup that society deems proper. By jailing 2% of the population and preventing them from participating in society, this is effectively what we are doing.

But then the one thing you can say about the Nazi’s, what they lacked in compassion they made up for in efficiency and given what we’re doing in Iraq perhaps we are simply in an era where efficiency counts, greed, money, power count, and compassion, love, freedom, life, do not. Our big developed brain has allowed us to invent an incredible set of tools for repressing and killing each other.

I’ve really had these feelings about society for a long time but when I was younger, as I saw the new millennium approach, I thought, an irrational thought I know, but I thought, 2000 would be a new era. When we enter the new millennium, people will look back at what we’ve done, all the people we’ve slaughtered, all the people we’ve repressed, and see that it was bad, and decide collectively to make the new millennium better.

It has not happened yet, instead, we’ve used our technological prowess to maim, kill, and repress far more effectively than we could before. It is time to put the dark ages behind us.

Bussard Polywell Fusion Update

For those of you following the development of the Bussard Polywell Fusion reactor, I’ve got some information that I’ve managed to glean from various sources. I don’t really know with any certainty which source is the original authoritative source since they all seem to be quoting each other, but the word is that WB7 after tweaking is “running like a top” according to Dr. Nebel.

The Navy had committed late last year to building a demonstration power reactor if WB7 met expectations. Dr. Nebel suggests this is the case, that nature is acting as we expected, the reactor is running like a top, etc, but no specific information is given.

However, on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log, an article by Alan Boyle says that a group of experts from the funder (and he doesn’t elaborate with respect to who the funder is, so I don’t know if someone other than US Navy has gotten involved) will be coming to review the data this summer (which technically we are in now) to review the data and decide whether or not to fund a power reactor.

EMC2 Fusion is also soliciting private contributions to continue research. I am concerned their unwillingness to share data is going to make that difficult, but I can also understand that the US Navy might prefer that data not be shared.

I wish Google or Paul Allen or some other independently rich person who would rather not see us go down in flames as a civilization would fund this and make the information public. There has to be someone out there with the ability to fund this and the knowledge to understand the potential importance of this machine to civilization.

Evil Television

Television has conditioned the American Public to be unable to grasp anything that is more complex than what can be represented in a 15-second sound bite. This in and of itself is tragic because simple solutions do not usually work for complex problems and many of the issues we face today are complex.

Global warming for example; is not as simple as “put more CO2 into the air and the Earth gets warmer”. It is far more complex than that. For example, there is an 11-year solar cycle, actually it is a 22-year cycle but peaks twice in that cycle, during which the Suns energy increases and decreases with sunspot activity. When it increases, the Earth gets warmer, when it decreases the Earth gets cooler; and that effect is more rapid and more pronounced than warming due to CO2 and thus over short time periods of a decade or two, masks the effect of CO2. But CO2 does contribute to a gradual warming. There are many other aspects of this that need to be understood in order to see the full picture and come up with viable solutions but that’s not the point of this post, the point many of the issues that affect us can’t fit in a 15 second sound byte.

So called “Peak Oil” is another example, it’s a complex issue; we haven’t come anywhere close to using up half of what is in the Earth. We have used up a large portion of that which is near the surface, on land, which isn’t in politically or geographically difficult areas to extract, which has the quality of having a low viscosity, a high proportion of lighter hydrocarbons, and a low percentage of sulfur. But we’ve got plenty of heavy sour crude that is easy to get at but difficult to refine, and we have plenty of light sweet crude that is deep requiring drilling more than 20,000 feet through bedrock which is difficult and expensive, or off-shore a mile or more underwater, or in politically difficult to work in areas like Africa, Russia, or the Middle East, or in geographically difficult areas, like Anwar. There is more, but point again, it doesn’t fit in a fifteen second sound bite.

The same is true of so many pressing issues and that’s one of the reasons I’ve created these blogs, but unfortunately they’re only read by a small segment of our population, the majority of Americans still get their news in 15 second network television sound bites.

Another disturbing trend in television lately, and particularly I am seeing this on Fox News, is the deliberate taking sound bites out of context. For example, the sound byte of Reverend Wright saying, “Not God Bless America, God Damn America”, and in that speech he is actually quoting someone else and really you have to watch the whole sermon and put it in context to understand the meaning. Reverend Wright was in the marines for eight years, he does not hate this country. But this was repeatedly used out of context by Fox News in association with Obama to try to smear Obama and harm his chances at the presidency.

Another out of context quote that Fox News keeps using as do members of the Bush administration is a speech by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he is purported to say that Israel will be wiped from the map; and therefore Iran having nuclear technology is unacceptable. Again this is a sound bite taken out of context, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is actually quoting one of his predecessors in a speech in which he is contrasting his policies against those of his predecessors, so in effect what he is saying is completely the opposite of what this sound bite that Fox News and the Bush administration keep using implies when taken out of context which is the only way in which they present it.

The way television is being used to manipulate people is beyond evil. Folks, do a little investigation, you can find the entire speeches on the Internet, Google is your friend, Television is your enemy. Find the whole speeches, learn the context that these sound bites came from, and understand that the people using them out of context are trying to manipulate you in the most horrible of ways, ways that if successful, will result in the needless deaths and suffering of millions of people.

I am hopeful that when this federal mandate of the end of analog television broadcasting happens next year that a lot of people will just say screw it, not buy new televisions and perhaps over time they’ll even learn to think beyond the fifteen second sound bite.

Oil Drilling

I’m going to ask very nicely that you please read this through and consider it carefully because I know what I’ve got to say here is not going to be popular on the surface and the knee-jerk reaction, if you don’t really take the time to understand it, is going to be to reject it. Please understand that my desire is that we get off of burning hydrocarbon mineral resources for fuel entirely.

We are in an extremely precarious situation in which oil supply is not able to keep up with world oil demand, and the growing economies of China and India are going to exacerbate that problem. We are in danger of starving to death with even a minor interruption in supply. We are also on the brink of world war III directly because of oil. Iran holds the worlds second largest reserves of conventional, poke a straw in the ground and light sweet crude that you can almost put in your gas tank without refining spurts out, oil.

There is concern over Iran’s nuclear development. Sanctions won’t be effective and the reason they won’t is because the world needs Iran’s oil and Iran isn’t going to just give it away without getting something in return. Iran needs nuclear power now because it makes business sense, they can sell the natural gas and oil for much more than the power they can generate via nuclear will cost. They need it in the future because when the oil runs out they still need to be able to desalinate water to grow enough food to feed their population.

Arguably Iran needs nuclear weapons because they’ve got a crazy neighbor that has a predisposition to bombing neighboring countries on a regular basis which happens to possess nuclear weapons already and Iran also has a resource that various nations wants and without a deterrent they’ve got no hope of avoiding invasion. Iran isn’t going to voluntarily give up their future, allow their country to be overrun so their resources can be stolen and then allow their people to starve to death. We and Israel can threaten them with military action but they know that lacking a deterrent, that military action will happen anyway because they have oil.

The only way to diffuse this situation is for the United States to become self-sufficient for our energy needs very rapidly and that can not happen fast enough to avoid catastrophe if we only pursue renewable options. Furthermore, if we do not address our needs internally and continue sending our money to the Middle East, we will not have the economic means to convert to renewable resources. If we starve to death or if we’re all glowing in the dark after world war III happens, nothing else will matter.

To the extent that our oil habit is destructive to the environment, it is morally objectionable to export our environmental destruction to the Middle East, Canada, and Mexico, and other nations. We should bear the environmental costs of our energy appetite so that we have the motivation to change our ways. Changing our ways doesn’t mean we have to suffer a poor standard of living. Quite the opposite, continuing with the status quo will insure a poor standard of living for Americans.

It is really important that we make the transition to a sustainable economy while maintaining and improving the world wide standard of living. The reason for this is that the more people on this planet, the greater the demand for resources, the more waste produced, the more environmental destruction results. Countries with a good standard of living, excepting immigration, have a negative population growth. People who feel they will be secure in their old age don’t tend to have a lot of children. This is the most humane way to contain the world population, bring the standard of living up to acceptable levels for the entire world population. This will take energy, however, how much energy is a huge variable depending upon how we go about it.

We need to take immediate steps to end US imports of hydrocarbon fuels, oil, natural gas, etc. We have ample supplies of all of these raw resources right here in this country. I’ve already stated in previous messages what I think we need to do in terms of developing renewables, but nothing can scale these things up fast enough and we need to avert starvation, world war III, and poverty.

To this end, we need to allow drilling offshore, the development of oil shale which presently is under a moratorium, develop tar sands, build refineries capable of dealing with heavy sour crude, and build coal-to-liquid capacity. We do need to do this as cleanly as possible, develop and deploy the necessary technology to clean up any spills that do occur, put in place legal infrastructure that will provide oil companies meaningful incentive to do things as cleanly as possible.

We have as much heavy crude in Southern California as does the entire country of Venezuela. The only reason Venezuela is able to provide substantial oil to the world, (including all the Citgo gasoline stations you see around the United States) because they developed their heavy crude resources and built refinery capacity that is able to refine it into diesel, gasoline, and other useful distillates.

We have 35 billion barrels of oil sitting in a recently discovered field about 150 miles off of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t heavy crude, it’s light sweet crude we could feed to our existing antiquated refineries and make gasoline and diesel. In all probability there are many more oil fields like this off of the continental shelves of this country as similar fields have been found along the continental shelf of virtually every other country that has allowed exploration. In this country, most of the offshore areas are off-limits to exploration and production. We have an estimated 3.5 TRILLION barrels of oil in oil shale and tar sands. Right now there is a moratorium on the production of this oil.

We need to allow exploration of the continental shelves, build refineries capable of dealing with heavy sour crude and develop the heavy crude resources in California. The crude that can be extracted from shale and tar sands will be heavy crude so we need the capability to do cracking and reforming as well as sulfur removal.

Now, if we do all of this several things are going to happen; the cost of crude world-wide will plummet and Iran’s oil will lose it’s value and thus the incentive for world war III will go away. Likewise, the value of Iraq’s oil will also plummet and we won’t have the incentive to remain there. The value of the US dollar will improve when we eliminate the export of billions of dollars in exchange for foreign oil. Our national productivity will improve as we bring our troops home from foreign soil. All of this new activity will create jobs in the United States. Lower energy costs will lower our manufacturing costs allowing us to recover some of our lost manufacturing base, providing more export products and jobs.

When we stop occupying foreign countries, stop killing and maiming their citizens, and stop creating environmental problems for them while we steal their resources, the world will view us with less hostility and more respect.

Getting at all of this oil still won’t be cheap; oil that is left is plentiful but it involves drilling deep to get at abiotic oil, drilling under water to get at light sweet crude along the continental shelves, building new refinery capacity to utilize easy to get at but difficult to refine heavy crude, or extracting oil from oil shale or tar sands, economic incentive will still exist for the further development of renewables. Wind power has become less expensive than coal, and solar is approaching the cost of coal. Solving oil shortages will not change these basic economics. When our citizenry start to see the environmental costs because they are here at home and not half-way around the world, that will further motivate people to move towards renewables. But in the interests of avoiding a near-term end to civilization as we know it, we must end our dependence upon foreign oil and gas now.

In addition to opening up these things for development here in the states, I believe we need to slap a $20/barrel tax on imported oil.

Now you say but this is going to contribute to global warming; in the short term this is true, but we’ve been given a bit of a short-term reprieve in global warming and in the long term this will enable us to have a chance at making the shift. Otherwise our economy is going to grind to a halt and we’re going to fight world war III and final. It will go nuclear if it happens, that is pretty much inevitable, and Iran is allies with China and Russia so it won’t be small scale nuclear. If this happens we won’t have to be concerned with global warming.

But if we avoid this fate by doing something intelligent for a change, nature has given us a short-term reprieve and this is how; our climate is tied to our suns activity. The last three solar cycles have been increasingly active; this has added strongly to global warming. Now we are in a solar minimum and the start of the next cycle is so far two years late. This winter was the coldest winter on record in the northern hemisphere. In Washington state we had snow in June in the passes. We had snow at sea level in mid-April, the latest we have ever had it.

This pattern is the same pattern the sun has displayed in the past before entering periods of inactivity like the Maunder minimum. Even if this does not happen, a delayed start has always been the sign of a weak cycle, so we are going to have in all probability a decade or longer of cooler than normal climate.

However, there are greater issues caused by carbon dioxide than global warming, the biggest issue are the effects on ocean chemistry. The oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and by no coincidence, we get 70% of our protein from the oceans. Carbon dioxide increases ocean acidity, and this dissolves the shells of various ocean life forms from microscopic on up. If allowed to continue this will destroy the entire oceanic food chain.

Carbon dioxide depresses the freezing point of the oceans, even in the absence of heat, it threatens to release huge amounts of methane presently trapped in methane hydrates. Methane is 100x more effective in terms of it’s greenhouse gas effects. If this happens, we’re in a big world of hurt. So no, we can’t keep allowing carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere, we need to stop burning fossil fuels.

We have to address the immediate threats immediately and if we don’t we won’t have the infrastructure necessary to address the longer term threats, and starvation and war is inevitable. First stop the hemorrhaging that is the life blood of our nation flowing to the Middle East, then treat the cancer which has taken many forms ranging form our dependence upon hydrocarbon combustion, to the military-industrial complex, to the oligarchy that has replaced what was supposed to be a democracy, and then start the healing, correcting environmental damage, repairing foreign relations, fighting world-wide poverty, and a general transition towards sane sustainable living.

McCain and our future

If we’re going to stand a chance at having a future; we need a serious change in direction. I don’t believe McCain is going to do anything good for this country. The war that is breaking us will continue, he clearly doesn’t know anything about economics and our economy is in desperate need of help, and I don’t see him doing anything to bring us to a state of self-sufficiency let alone sustainability.

Nobody can speak for McCain quite like McCain himself:

Solar Cell / Panel Efficiency

A couple of things I failed to mention recently with respect to solar panels and their efficiencies. Polycrystalline solar cells basically “leak” at the crystal boundaries. That is to say, electrons and holes recombine at the edges of the crystal without going through an external circuit, and it is this that causes these panels to be less efficient than monocrystalline cells.

But there is more to this difference in efficiency. The rate of electrons and holes recombining at these crystal boundaries tends to be relatively constant as long as there are electrons and holes available to recombine, while the rate that electrons are ejected by photons varies with light intensity.

While a monocrystalline panel might be 17% efficient at full lighting and a polycrystalline panel 15%, which isn’t a huge difference, in 50% lighting that monocrystalline panel will still be close to 17% efficient but the polycrystalline panel will be much less than 15%, perhaps 13%, and as the lighting falls the efficiency of the polycrystalline panel falls off rapidly, and a point is reached where no power at all is produced because electrons combine with holes at the crystal boundaries as fast as they are ejected by photons. However, the monocrystalline panel will produce electricity corresponding to illumination relatively linearly down to very low light levels.

Consequently, a monocrystalline panel will produce less than full power but still what might be usable power under overcast skies, a polycrystalline panel will produce much less under these circumstances, if any power at all.

So if you live in a place like the Pacific Northwet, you may want to consider shelling out a little extra for monocrystalline panels. You’ll get more usable power out of them relative to polycrystalline than the difference in efficiency would suggest.

This consideration really applies only to unconcentrated solar arrays. If you’re concentrating the light with mirrors, lenses, or reflectors, the concentration won’t be effective in overcast skies anyway and in that case the array is only going to operate in direct sunlight effectively regardless of which type of cell you use. Also, concentration will reduce the differences in efficiency making polycrystalline cells more attractive.

One of the problems with silicon cells is that of gathering the energy they produce. A physicist by the name of Bram Hoex discovered that he could increase the efficiency by more than 1% by adding a thin layer of aluminum oxide to the surface. I’m curious how this works since aluminum oxide is normally an insulator. Still if it works, that is what’s important, if it works and it’s cheap enough that it doesn’t rise the cost of the panel more than the efficiency.

I’ve included a link on the title to a page in Science Daily that provides more information on this.

LED Lighting

I’ve added a new section to the sidebar for LED lighting. While LED lighting is presently very expensive, there are some applications in which it is preferable to compact fluorescent and ultimately LED lighting promises to be much more efficient, provide better color rendering, have a much longer life span, and be less expensive than compact fluorescent without any toxic mercury (but there are other toxic substances such as arsenic, although generally in significantly lower quantities).

We use a tremendous amount of energy for lighting. Compact fluorescent greatly improved lighting relative to incandescent lamps and even somewhat over the larger fluorescent tube lamps. Incandescent lighting tends to turn between 3-5% of the electricity it uses into visible light while compact fluorescent tends to turn between 15% and 20% of the energy consumed into visible light.

LED stands for light emitting diode. It is a solid state device that acts like a solar cell in reverse. LEDs in their pure form produce a very narrow band of light frequencies so they have a distinct color such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, etc. White LEDs are being manufactured for illumination purposes but these actually are usually blue LEDs with a broadband yellow phosphor that converts a portion of that yellow light into a broadband yellow spectrum light. Single color LEDs can be made with efficiencies that very closely approach 100%, but white LEDs currently in production are usually on par with compact fluorescent efficiencies with 15-20% efficiencies though some of the very best approach 30%.

This method of making white light actually is spectrally very sparse and renders colors very poorly. A better and potentially much more efficient method is to combine a red, green, and blue led into one unit. This can produce a LED which has spectral output in all the same energy bands that our eyes have receptors and thus can render colors much better. Until recently, ultra-bright and efficient red and blue LEDs existed but ultra-bright green LEDs were not as efficient and limited the overall efficiency of a LED light using this technology. However, recent advances now make it possible to make an ultra-bright and efficient green LED but this type of RGB LED isn’t yet in wide production.

So while present LED lighting tends to be insanely expensive, only about as efficient as compact fluorescent, and with a similarly icky color rendering index, the potential exists and has been realized in the lab, for LED based lighting that is nearly 100% efficient or about five times more efficient than compact fluorescent, and that has an excellent color rendering index. This is about as large of an improvement in efficiency over compact fluorescent as compact fluorescent is over incandescent lighting. Hopefully we will see these get from the lab into full scale production and costs drop out of the stratosphere soon.

LED light lifetime also tends to be much better than compact fluorescents, with typical ratings from 30,000 to 70,000 hours, however, this is actually much better than the numbers indicate because of the difference in the way lifetimes are rated. Compact fluorescent lamps are considered “dead” even in the absence of complete failure when their output drops to 50% of their new output. LED lighting is considered “dead” when it’s output drops to 70% of it’s new output. If LED lifetimes were rated at 50% instead of 70% output, they’d be much longer. Also, compact fluorescents frequently do fail outright rather than just dimming, but in the absence of some external abuse, LED lamps rarely do, they just get progressively dimmer with age. Lastly, the rate that LED lamps dim is dramatically lower when operated at less than 100% rated output power and their efficiencies are generally higher at below 100% rated output power.

One additional difference, compact fluorescent lamps perform poorly in cold temperatures owing to incomplete vaporization of mercury used in the arc tube but LED lights are generally more efficient at lower temperatures. LED lifetimes are longer at lower operating temperatures.

Inexpensive Solar Panels

Recently, I added a section to the sidebar of Solar Panel sources at prices of $4 or less per watt. A recent search turned up a few more sources under the $4/watt figure, one at $3/watt though the $3/watt panels were CIGS technology which, although less expensive, is both less efficient and shorter lived than silicon panels, particularly mono-crystalline solar panels.

When you look for Solar Panels, the most common types you will find are mono-crystalline, poly-crystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, and CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenide) (Cu(In,Ga)Se2) [Thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed out my error.]

Of these mono-crystalline panels are the most expensive; there are even more expensive multi-junction solar cells and solar panels manufactured but they are so expensive that they are generally reserved for space applications where the power-to-weight ratio far outweighs the additional expense given the huge cost of getting something in orbit.

Mono-crystalline solar panels are generally the most expensive solar panel designed for terrestrial applications, however, they are the most efficient single junction panel and they have the longest lifespan. Mono-crystalline solar silicon panels will generally provide efficiencies of 15-19% and lose less than 10% of their power production capability in thirty years. You should look for panels with a glass, not plastic face because plastic will discolor over this time frame and reduce efficiency.

Poly-crystalline silicon solar panels are less expensive than mono-crystalline panels but also have lower efficiencies, generally in the range of 12-15%, and poly-crystalline silicon solar panels will usually lose about 10% of their capacity in the first couple of years. Thereafter they will generally remain stable for decades.

Amorphous silicon solar panels use a thin film of silicon deposited on a substrate such as steel or glass. Those that use steel as a substrate are flexible. They typically have low efficiencies ranging from about 6% to 10%. Although they cost less to produce, market demand is presently much greater than supply because their flexible nature allows them to be used in products where other types of solar cells can not be used, such as roll-up portable battery chargers, and at present their retail cost does not reflect the lower cost of production and in fact tends to be higher than other silicon panels. Because many different substrates and disposition methods are used to produce these cells, little is known about their long term stability and it is likely to vary widely with the substrate and manufacturing process used.

CIGS technology solar panels are very inexpensive to produce, but they have lower efficiencies and deteriorate faster than other solar panel technologies. Although they are often advertised as having a lifetime of twenty years, they really haven’t been around long enough to know what their long term performance will be like. Although much less expensive to produce than silicon panels, the present market saturation conditions tends to keep their retail prices at around 75% of those of polycrystalline solar panels. However, as production is ramped up they have the potential for producing power at well under $1/watt and at that rate, a shorter lifetime and lower efficiency may well be an acceptable trade-off for much lower costs in many applications.