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Friday
Jun072013

Solar Winning 

I just found a couple of studies about projected installations of power plants over the next few years. One, by Gerry Runte of Greentech Media Market Research, predicts that there will be between 78 and 91 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity installed worldwide between now and 2020. That accounts for projects with a probability between 10% and 90%. The most probable number is 84 GW.

According to the research firm IHS, 2013 should see the installation of 35 GW of photovoltaic (PV) systems worldwide, up from 32 GW in 2012. The IHS projection through 2017 is that the PV market will rise to 61 GW annually, with a 2013-2017 total of 242 GW.

(Click image to enlarge)

If we project that the 2010-2017 average growth rate of 17.6% continues, annual PV installation would reach 99GW in 2020, for a 2013-2020 total of 497 GW, 413 GW more than nuclear.  Of course, sheer capacity isn't the whole story. Not every power plant runs 100% of the time.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry average capacity factor for nuclear power plants is 86%. That is the comparison between how much energy they actually produce in a year and how much they would theoretically produce if they ran 100% of the time. In reality they have fueling and maintenance outages as well as unscheduled shutdowns.

The capacity factor of photovoltaic systems varies according to the local climate. In the continental U.S., the output of a 1,000 watt system might vary from 1,100 kilowatt-hours annually in Seattle to 1,700 kWh in Dagget California, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Given 8760 hours in a year, this is a capacity factor of between 12.5% and 19.4%. Call it an average of 16%.

Apply that to our projected 497 GW and in 2020 the 2013-2020 PV installations would be producing 79.52 GW-hours annually. Meanwhile, that 84 GW of nuclear at 86% capacity will be producing 72.24 GW-hours annually. That is, if there is enough nuclear fuel at an affordable price. I imagine that the sun will still be shining in 2020.

Wednesday
May292013

The Marginal Barrel 

I just read an interview with an oil industry analyst named Steve Kopits. He’s the guy who pointed out that 4 of our last 5 recessions happened just after our national expenditures on oil reached 4% of GDP.

Kopits talks about a concept that is new to me – peak oil price.

When we think about supply and demand, we generally think in terms of a simple relationship with price. All other things being equal, if supply goes down, price goes up. When price goes up, demand goes down. Of course, there is such a thing as price elasticity. That is, if you are truly dependent upon something a 10% price rise won’t result in a 10% fall in consumption.

Oil has shown itself to have a very elastic price. Oil cost $25 a barrel back in 2000. Now it costs more than four times that much (Brent price $110), but you don’t see a drastic drop in consumption.

Enter the marginal consumer, the marginal barrel, and carrying capacity. The marginal barrel is that highest priced barrel of oil that blends in with the rest of the world supply and holds up the world average price. The marginal consumer is the world’s poorest consumer, or the consumer for whom there is a less appealing but plausible alternative to oil waiting for use. Carrying capacity, in Steve Kopys’ thinking, is the maximum price that a particular country will tolerate before cutting back on consumption.

According to Kopits, the U.S., Europe, and other western industrialized nations hit carrying capacity at around $110 a barrel. China has another $10 or so to go before it starts losing its taste for the stuff. Some poorer countries have hit their limits already.

The upshot is that although supply is constrained, the price has hit a wall. Enough people, countries, and industries will grudgingly conserve or switch to prevent oil prices from rising drastically. Here in the U.S. gasoline consumption is down 3% from last year. This could be partly due to the recession, but partly because we have hit our carrying capacity.

By Kopitz’s estimation, just as world oil production has hit a bumpy plateau, so too has the price of oil. It will come to rest north of $110, but this will make more consumers retreat from the market.

Nota Bene: Increasing wealth, increasing efficiency, and inflation will all tend to raise the nominal carrying price of oil. The price will creep up along with our efforts to be more efficient, simply because a mile of driving or a day of 68F in a house will cost the same.

This is when, paradoxically, the most energy efficient economies become the greatest users of oil. (The formal term is Jevon’s Paradox) It is a huge advantage. Oil is an unparalleled commodity, as both energy and chemical feedstock. The city, state, or nation with the highest efficiency, and therefore cost tolerance for oil, will be able to take advantage of its conveniences after other entities have been forced to use lower quality compromises. The same holds true for any other energy source.

I’d like to see my home state of Vermont put more emphasis on energy efficiency. Right now we are the fifth most energy efficient state in the U.S. I’d like to see us beat out Massachusetts for the top spot. Then I’d like to see us pour it on and open up an unbeatable lead. It would put us in an enviable economic position as all energy sources approach their limits.

(Just in case you are interested, I now have a Twitter account, @MinorHeretic. Nothing serious, just photos of the natural world and minor absurdities. A break from all the grim stuff.)

Tuesday
Apr302013

Now I have actually heard everything 

This is trivial, but we all need a break from grimness.

A couple of nights ago I had just gone to bed when I heard an odd noise. It was a kind of repetitive high-pitched whining. (When I described it thus to a friend, he said, “But you don’t have a girlfriend right now.” Rim shot.) It sounded like a slightly guttural squeaky toy; “eeee-urngh, eeee-urngh, eeee-urngh.” It was just loud enough to be annoying.

I sighed the sigh of the sleep-interrupted, donned boots and a coat, grabbed a flashlight, and went out on the front porch. A quick scan around the driveway revealed a porcupine standing just behind my car. It eyed me with that cold, irritated look that porcupines have, spread its quills, and ambled off into the woods.

The sound continued. It seemed to be coming from my car, so I shined my light underneath. Lo, there was another porcupine. My car being a low-slung compact, the porcupine was wedged in flatter than I had ever seen an animal, at least a live animal. It seemed to be distressed. Whether it went under there to escape the other porcupine, or whether the path under my car was simply the shortest line between two points, I can’t say.

I went back in the house and grabbed my semi-proverbial five-foot pole. I gently prodded the porcupine to see if it would move. It emitted the sound of an outraged squeaky toy and stayed put. The animal was stuck, either physically or emotionally. The whining continued uninterrupted. I would not be able to sleep with this animal under my car. Aside from the sound, I was worried that it might find some residual salt on my tires and have a snack, as porcupines sometimes do.

I noted that it was facing the rear of my car, quills pointed forward. I went and grabbed my car keys, started the car, and half-inched it forward a few feet, listening intently for the sound of porcupine anguish. By the time I got out and looked around, the porcupine had run off.

I neglected to record the sound, but this link will give you an idea of what I was listening to. Imagine the last few seconds of the recording repeated endlessly. Having listened, you will be one of the elite who can identify the sound of a porcupine in distress. You’re welcome.

(YouTube being what it is, here is a domesticated porcupine being cute.)

Tuesday
Apr232013

Senatorial Clout 

A bill requiring background checks for people buying firearms at gun shows and on the internet was defeated in the Senate last Wednesday. The vote was actually positive, 54-46, but it lacked the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. Whatever you think of this particular legislation (and 85-90% of Americans seem to approve of it) it shows the fundamental dysfunction in the Senate.

The filibuster has to go. It’s not in the Constitution, it’s not in federal law, it’s just a Senate rule from long ago days of collegiality in that body. In theory, senators representing 13% of our population could kill a bill or a nomination by filibustering.

Looking at the votes for and against this bill, and the percentage of the population represented by those senators, I calculate that 37% of the population was enough to beat 63%. In fact, if we generously assume that all the no votes are from senators representing overwhelmingly Republican states, those least likely to approve of gun control, we find that only about 12% of Republicans oppose universal background checks. That means that only about 4.4% or less of their constituents opposed the measure. Somehow, less than 5% of the population managed to out vote the rest of us.

Beyond the filibuster, there is a wide differential in the political clout of a California citizen compared to a Wyoming citizen. Both states have two senators, but California has over 38 million people, where Wyoming weighs in at 576,000. I was intrigued by this, so I created a spreadsheet and worked out a Senate clout ratio by state. California has a clout ratio of 1, with just over 19 million citizens per Senate seat. Texas, with 13 million per seat, has a clout ratio of 1.5. Your Texan citizen has one-and-a-half times as much political clout as a Californian. It gets much worse. Once you get past the big states such as New York, Florida, and Illinois, the ratio goes past 5. The citizens of Oklahoma get ten times as much influence for their votes as Californians. The smallest 20 states all have ratios over 12. The champion is Wyoming at 66, with my own Vermont second at 61. In a way it is gratifying to know that my vote is worth that of 61 Californians, or ten Tennesseans. But really, is that fair?

Even back when the framers of the Constitution were figuring this out it was considered a half-assed compromise. James Madison, in The Federalist #62, lamely excused it as the best that could be done, with no real political or philosophical principle behind it.

“But it is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but "of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable." A common government, with powers equal to its objects, is called for by the voice, and still more loudly by the political situation, of America. A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger States, is not likely to be obtained from the smaller States. The only option, then, for the former, lies between the proposed government and a government still more objectionable. Under this alternative, the advice of prudence must be to embrace the lesser evil; and, instead of indulging a fruitless anticipation of the possible mischiefs which may ensue, to contemplate rather the advantageous consequences which may qualify the sacrifice.”

How unfair was it in the late 18th century? Using numbers from the 1790 census, the maximum clout ratio was between Virginia and Delaware, at 11.7 in Delaware’s favor. Most of the original 13 colonies had clout ratios under 3.

Here’s an idea: After each census, take each state’s population as a percentage of the whole country and round it to the nearest whole number. That’s the number of senators it gets, with each state getting at least one. California would get twelve, Texas eight, New York and Florida six each, and four each for Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia would get three each. Another ten would get two each, and the rest would get one. That would result in 108 senators, 110 if we gave Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico some kind of representation.

The clout ratios would plummet. Most would stay within 15% either side of 1. Once we get down the list to New Mexico and other states with two million or less inhabitants the ratio goes over 1.5. Instead of topping out at 66 with Wyoming, the Cowboy State has only a 5.44 advantage. We of the Green Mountains come in at 5. While those in Tennessee might whine that they lost their 6:1 advantage over Californians, they can take comfort that Vermonters no longer lord it over them by 10:1.

That’s constitutional amendment, and therefore a less than slim possibility. I propose the concept more as an illustration of gross unfairness rather than a practical pursuit. It illuminates the unfairness stacked on unfairness that is the filibuster. Right now, I’d settle for an end to that idiocy.

Monday
Apr152013

The Boston Bombing

 As you are undoubtedly already aware, two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, killing three people and injuring over 170.

Bombs in public places are a daily fact of life in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other troubled countries, but why? I know it is about political conflict, but what are these bombers actually accomplishing? The people of a country plagued by bomb attacks aren’t more likely to say, “Right, you guys with the bombs who killed my family, I want you to be in charge.” It’s not even about frightening people into capitulation. It’s most often an expression of capital-N Nihilism, the pitiless philosophy that existing social and political institutions must be destroyed to create a space for some new order.

Bombings like this, or those in the Middle East, are an attempt to degrade the structure of society. They impose a burden of security expense, reduce freedom of movement, encourage overreaction by security forces, and cripple the mutual trust on which a society depends. Explosions like this are designed to shatter the basic confidence people need to engage in ordinary civic life.

The big question hanging in the air right now is who did it. I have a few ideas on this subject, with huge caveats attached. I wouldn’t bother even speculating at this point, except that a number of commentators have predictably jumped on the “Muslim terrorist” bandwagon. The questioning of a Saudi national evoked a flurry of speculation, although now investigators do not consider the man to be connected, except as a victim.

Mostly, I have an idea of who didn’t do it.

The jihadists have been markedly silent so far. There are no news reports of any al Qaeda franchises claiming responsibility, something that would be automatic if it was such an organization. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban (which claimed responsibility for an attack in Times Square in 2010) went out of their way to deny responsibility. Al Shabaab or similar organizations would be shouting their triumph over the Great Satan by now. This silence goes against all previous instances of jihadist attacks. The lack of a claim of responsibility is characteristic of a domestic perpetrator.

That leaves us with various domestic suspects. There are elements of this attack that tell a story about that.

The first clue is the nature of the explosions themselves. Witnesses noted a smell of sulfur in the air. That points to gunpowder rather than high explosives. Watching the videos of the explosions I noticed the grayish-white smoke, the large yellow-orange fireball, the booming sound, and the relatively slow nature of the blast. The speed of the shock wave was actually slow enough to be visible on video as it blew out banners at ground level. These factors also point towards old fashioned black gunpowder, readily available for use in old-style muzzle-loading firearms.

The use of black powder indicates either a lack of expertise or connections. More powerful explosives such as dynamite, C-4, or even the kind of fertilizer based explosive used in Oklahoma City would have been more effective. One would think that a member of some organized, extended group would have access either to stolen or formulated high explosives.

An anonymous source inside the ongoing investigation told the AP that the bombs were made out of pressure cookers, with ball bearings and nails surrounding the explosive. The pressure cooker bomb has been a common improvisation in the Middle East and Central Asia, but given internet access to such information it doesn’t necessarily point to those areas as a source. What we’re looking at is a pair of simple, low powered devices made from readily available parts.

The timing of the explosions is another clue. They happened roughly 20 seconds apart. That speaks to timers. A set of remotely detonated bombs would have gone off simultaneously.

Then there is the overall timing. The bombs were set near the finish line of the marathon, but detonated four hours and nine minutes into the race, long after the front runners and the not-so-front runners had finished and departed. The crowds at the sidelines were far thinner than they would have been an hour or two earlier. A member of the Boston Police Department noted that they had swept the area for bombs earlier in the day and then before the first runners had finished, so the probability is that the perpetrator waited until after the last sweep to place them. The same source that spoke of the pressure cookers said that the bombs had been placed on the ground in black duffle bags.

The picture that emerges is someone of moderate mechanical competence and some local knowledge.  He was familiar enough with the Boston Marathon to know that the last few blocks of the course were the ones where people were packed, and waited until after the second police sweep. He made moderately powerful bombs, but lacked access to high explosives. He used timers rather than a more complex remote cell phone detonation.

Then there is the target and the date. A marathon is an obvious high profile assembly of thousands of people, but why not the New York Marathon or some other? Why not a target with more political significance?

People have pointed out that the date is significant. It is known in Massachusetts as Patriot’s Day. It is the Monday-holiday manifestation of the battle of Lexington and Concord, fought on April 19th. Aside from its obvious significance in U.S. history, it was the date of the 1993 attack on the compound of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Subsequently, Timothy McVeigh picked it as the date for bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Since then the date has had significance to extreme anti-government right wing groups. This year it also happens to be tax day. Right wing extremists also have a habit of not publicly claiming responsibility.

Here we get into a correlation vs. causation problem. The Boston Marathon is a huge, well publicized event and a soft target. It has been run on Patriot’s Day for over a hundred years. Was the motivation for this particular time and place the event, the date being incidental, or because the vulnerable event was on this particular date?

The problem with the right-wing extremist scenario is that the target doesn’t fit the pattern. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a comprehensive timeline of violent attacks by right-wing anti-government, Christian identity, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups on its website. The targets have been law enforcement officers, government buildings, government officials, abortion providers, minorities, and non-Christian religious buildings. Aside from a few bank robberies all the targets have been explicitly ideological. It’s hard to come up with an ideological identity for the Boston marathon. Although right-wing groups have often manufactured pipe bombs, just as often they have either formulated or obtained high explosives.

So it doesn’t look jihadist and it doesn’t look overtly ideological. With caveats layered on caveats, this looks like a mentally ill loner in the style of James Holmes, the Aurora movie theater shooter. If so, he was probably from the area. Perhaps there is an ideological motive in this, as with Jared Loughner, but secondary to the pursuit of some vaguely defined revenge on society. I could easily be completely wrong on this, but it’s the way the evidence points so far.

So what do we do in the face of this, especially if it is the apolitical act of a vengeful paranoid? Go in exactly the opposite of the direction intended by the perpetrator. Strengthen our ties to each other. Engage in public life. Go out of our normal paths to show compassion for others. Extend our trust and good will to strangers. I’ll repeat that: Extend our trust and good will to strangers. That is the first societal casualty of this kind of event. In a way it would be reacting to him, but more importantly it would be denying him power over us. No matter who the perpetrator and what his motive, it is what we should be doing anyway.

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