Carnot, and Limits 

There’s a type of question I get a lot in my line of business. “What’s the latest development in solar panels?” “Is the price going to drop a lot more?” “Are the solar panels out now going to be obsolete in a few years?” “Is there some big development in panel efficiency right around the corner?”

There are a lot of questions like this in the energy business in general. People watch computer technology advance in step with Moore’s law, with everything getting smaller, faster, and more whiz-bang by the month. I see an expectation out there that energy technology could, and should, do the same. It’s a large and complex question, and I’ll take a whack at it from various angles in no particular order.

I’ll start with a general thesis, as efficiently expressed by a friend of mine who has long experience with electric vehicles. He and another soccer dad were on the sidelines discussing the problems of transportation, energy, pollution, and the like. The other dad summed up by saying “They’ll think of something.” My friend responded, “I am they, and we won’t.”

Let’s think of energy in terms of conventional automobiles. At highway speeds, most of the energy required by a car is used to push air out of the way. The two factors in this are the frontal area of the car (the shadow cast by a light lined up directly in front of it) and the Cd, or coefficient of drag. This is the factor of how the shape of the car, with all its curves and projections, slips through the air.  A beer can travelling sideways has a Cd of about 1. Your average modern sedan has a Cd of about 0.35, a pickup about 0.45, and a Toyota Prius about 0.26. The GM EV-1 managed 0.195. Below that, you get into solar race cars that look like space ships.

If you design a car with two people sitting side by side in a reasonably upright position there is a certain bare minimum frontal area necessary.  In other words, no matter how slick you make the car, there’s some minimum amount of energy that it will take to make it go 65 mph on the highway. Add rolling resistance, acceleration, and hill climbing; beating 80 miles per gallon is a serious challenge.

With wind turbines there is a factor called the Betz Limit. No wind turbine can get 100% of the energy out of the wind. If it did, then the air coming out the back of the turbine would come to a dead stop, and no new air could come in the front. Albert Betz figured out that the theoretical maximum energy extraction would be 59%. Modern wind turbines get around 75% of that. It really isn’t going to get much better.

Standard commercial photovoltaic modules tend to have efficiencies in the teens to about 20%. This compares well with the 33.7% Shockley-Quiesser limit, the theoretical maximum for a single layer silicon cell. Every so often you might read about some laboratory reaching an efficiency of around 40%, but this is with an expensive multiple layer cell under sunlight concentrated by lenses or mirrors.

Batteries are getting better bit by bit, but are still much less energy dense than fossil fuels. Part of the problem is just the nature of the physics involved – electrochemical electron transfer versus combustion. What it really gets down to is that every molecule in a can of gasoline is potential energy, while in a battery much of the material involved is a base on which the energy transfer takes place. That base is generally a flat plate that has to be mechanically strong and conductive to electricity, meaning metal, meaning heavy.  Another problem is thermal. As we try to pass more energy through a smaller object, the inefficiency of the process will heat up that object. The battery packs in modern electric cars tend to have cooling systems.

An economic problem with battery development is the old adage that you can’t make a baby in one month, even with nine women on the job. Battery developers can’t know the lifespan of a battery until they test a battery for its entire lifespan. In fact, they don’t know until they have run it through its lifespan in a number of different ways. Investors don’t like delay and uncertainty, and battery development is full of that.

And then there is Carnot. In the early 19th century Nicolas Carnot figured out that the maximum efficiency of an engine that turns heat into motion was defined by the operating temperature of the engine compared to its environment. That is, the hotter the fuel burns and the colder the surrounding temperature, the more efficient the engine. We can’t do much about the environmental temperature except by moving to Antarctica, but we can burn the fuel hotter. Except that then we have to create exotic materials that won’t melt. There’s a limit to that, both physical and economic, and to the ultimate combustion temperature of readily available fuels.

Huge diesel engines can approach 50% efficiency, but most automobile engines operate down around 15%. Your average automotive engine is really a rather efficient furnace that happens to make a driveshaft rotate in its spare time. We’re stuck with that.

The physical world is hard. I get the impression that many futurists have been seduced by the ease of the virtual world. No, programming is not easy, but it doesn’t run up against physical constraints in the manner of combustion chemistry or aerodynamics. That’s why I don’t expect some breathtaking energy breakthrough that will conveniently make our problems go away.

We do have a lot of technologies that will help us towards a sustainable energy future, but they are trumped by habit, law, and vernacular design. We’re used to apparently cheap energy and behave as if it is actually cheap and endless. We’ve structured our lives around these false assumptions. Our laws governing transportation, subsidies, zoning, building codes, and foreign policy are based on these false assumptions. The past and present design of our buildings, transportation infrastructure, and electrical infrastructure are guided by these habits, laws, and assumptions. It will be a long, difficult fight against our emotional investment in obsolete ideas.

So no, with energy there will be no great leap forward. (Where have I heard that phrase before?) We have to accept incremental technological progress and equally incremental social progress. It will take more psychological skill than technical knowledge. Much of that psychological effort will be overcoming the propaganda of those who are making immense quantities of money from the status quo. It would be nice to think that some genius will come up with the great invention that will save the world. In reality it will be each of us out there, face to face, changing opinions, one person at a time.


An Open Letter to Harry Reid

The Honorable Harry Reid

United States Senate

522 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20510-2803


Dear Senator Reid,

Nice job negotiating with John McCain and getting an up-or-down 51%-to-win vote on those nominees. You made Mitch McConnell look like a clumsy political dinosaur. Not difficult, was it?

Now nuke the filibuster in its entirety. Till it glows. No loopholes. It’s not the law, it’s just something someone in the Senate thought up back in the 19th century. You know the history. The Senate had a rule that any senator could talk as long as he wanted on an issue. Eventually people figured out that this was comically impractical and created a cloture rule, where 2/3 of the Senate could stop debate. Then it became 3/5 in 1975. It could become 51% in 2013. There’s nothing sacred about it. And face it, sucker punching McConnell would be justice mixed with joy itself.

Oh, right, the hallowed traditions of the Senate. Collegiality, dignity of the institution and all that. Shall I give you a window on the thinking of people who aren’t in the Senate, the other 300 million minus one-hundred of us? We don’t give a ding-dong-damn about the hallowed traditions of the Senate. What little collegiality you now enjoy does not concern us.

As for the dignity of the institution, well, if wearing clown suits and Groucho glasses would get some movement out of you, then make it so. Big toed shoes all round.

You are giving us all the impression that you guys can store your worldview in a Dixie cup. It’s all about your daily experience, your wealthy donors, and those unpleasant people from K Street who tell you how to vote. Maintaining the illusion that you are more than a bunch of carefully selected butlers for the billionaire class is more important than getting something accomplished for us. Hint: That’s why colonoscopies poll better than Congress. (Also root canals, lice, and Genghis Khan)

Here’s a joke that cracked us up back when I was about twelve. This guy dies and goes to hell. A demon tells him he wasn’t so bad, so he can choose his own punishment. The demon leads him past all these rooms with people being tormented. Some are boiling, some are burning, some are freezing. Then he looks into a room where people are standing around up to their knees in dog shit, drinking coffee. He thinks, “Well, I guess I’ll get used to the smell after a while.” He grabs a cup of joe and wades in. After about five minutes another demon comes to the door and yells, “Coffee break’s over! Back on your heads.”

Ok, Harry, so the Senate will be an unpleasant place to work if you end the filibuster. So sorry, but you chose your room. Coffee break’s over.

Very Sincerely Yours,

The Minor Heretic



Unpaid internship is yet another thumb on the scale in class warfare. Only those who have family money backing them can afford to make the first step into prestige jobs. Watching the internship phenomenon and the student loan debacle makes me wonder whether the invisible hand is once again picking its own pocket.

Business owners are perfectly happy to get talented and driven young people to work for free. Of course, in the long term this reduces the pool of people available to fill those positions. If only those from well-off families need apply, then there is a vicious generational cycle as fewer families are in a position to help their children up the vocational ladder.

The student loan problem is sheer short-sighted idiocy. The rest of the industrialized world realizes that “subsidizing intellectual curiosity,” as Ronald Reagan so stupidly put it, is a net gain for society. Educating people is one of the highest return investments we make. In various ways our friends across the Atlantic either provide free or virtually free higher education.

Aggravating the situation, higher education costs have been outpacing inflation. Since the 1980s the average college tuition has gone up by over 500%. Most of this rise, as Catherine Rampell wrote in the NYT, is because state aid to state colleges drops with every recession. When the state budget gets tight, aid to education is the first victim pitched over the taffrail. When the economy recovers the aid doesn’t, so tuition costs ratchet up.

However, the banks make money from about three-quarters of student loans, and their interest is, well, interest. They are being loaned money by the Fed at near zero interest rates and making money loaning it out to students at 6.8%. The combination of increasing tuition and interest rates has three major effects. First, it scares off some unknown number of potential students altogether. Second, it directs students towards degrees that should lead to greater personal financial return, as opposed to greater general societal benefit. Third, it tends to keep these new graduates docile in their jobs while they are paying off those loans. It is similar to employer-based health insurance in this way.

As an aside, I am interested to see what happens if/when Vermont gets single payer health care. I am thinking of all the people who are quietly suffering bad bosses and wretched jobs “because we need the insurance.” I imagine that the country song “Take This Job and Shove It” will become a leitmotif in HR departments throughout the Green Mountains.

Back to internships and loans: Back to the future. The general direction of these developments is back to the days before the G.I. Bill, when there were fewer, smaller colleges and universities with fewer, richer students, most destined for the smaller number of elite jobs that required degrees. A college education was as much a marker of class status as an indication of practical knowledge.

Not even the banks want this. At some point the reduced customer population offsets the greater return per customer. The universities, having expanded to accommodate the masses, don’t want to accordion back down to the elite student bodies of the early 20th century. And, of course, everybody in general wants a reasonable opportunity for higher education. However, by chasing the short term dollar we are heading there.

The opening move is to think about what kind of educational landscape we want as a nation and recognize that our present policies point us in a different direction. Then we need to think about medium to long term consequences and legislate with those in mind.  I like Senator Warren’s proposal to loan students money at the same near-zero rate we extend to big banks. Australia already does essentially this. It’s a start. Absent an economic recovery that refills state treasuries, the feds should redirect some money from various corporate subsidies and military boondoggles to reducing tuition at state universities. Corporate subsidies and taxes are the right place for this because, after all, we are training their future employees.

Whenever I hear about the student loan issue I wonder who is out there, making that decision about going to college or not. I can visualize some intelligent, creative, original thinker, looking at the costs and the job market. Maybe this is the person who will discover the technology that changes our lives for the better, or negotiates the supposedly impossible peace treaty, or creates the work of art that defines an era. Or maybe, lacking the platform for developing his or her talent, this person’s potential is lost. Aside from prospective superstars, how many decent, bright young people will live with their potential undeveloped, and what will that cost us as a society? There are no guarantees, but higher education is one of the best gambles we make.


Spider Webs 

Laws are like spiders’ webs: if some light or powerless thing falls into them, it is caught, but a bigger one can break through and get away. Solon

It has been reported and discussed, but I can’t let it go by. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, perjured himself in front of a Senate committee, and he is going to get away with it.

On March 12 of this year Clapper appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the following exchange occurred:

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR.): “This is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer because I know Senator Feinstein wants to move on. Last summer, the NSA director was at a conference, and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, ‘The story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.’

“The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Director of National Intelligence JAMES CLAPPER: “No, sir.”

SEN. WYDEN: “It does not?”

DIR. CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

SEN. WYDEN: “Thank you. I’ll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.”

Since then we have seen the revelations by Edward Snowden, a former employee of Booz-Allen-Hamilton and the CIA, which completely contradict this. Yes, in fact, the NSA has been collecting all sorts of data on essentially every American.

Clapper didn’t have to lie. Senator Wyden had given him the list of questions in advance and offered him the chance to modify his answers afterward.

Clapper himself admitted to lying on national television. “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no.” “Least untruthful” means “untruthful”, which means he lied under oath to the Senate, which is a crime, as follows.

False Statements (18 U.S.C. 1001)

I. Except as otherwise provided in this section,

II. whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive,

     legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States,

III. knowingly and willfully—

IV. a. falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;

      b. makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or

      c. makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any

      materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry; shall be fined under this title,                   imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.


In theory, Honest Jimmy is facing up to 5 years in federal prison. Well, if you or I confessed to perjury on national television, it’s likely we would be facing up to 5 years. James Clapper, DNI, however, is a powerful Washington insider. He’s more likely to win the Powerball.

It reminds me of an incident a few years ago when President Bush said on national television that he had authorized 30 cases of warrantless wiretapping. If an ordinary person had admitted to participating in a conspiracy that involved 30 cases of warrantless wiretapping, that person would be looking at prosecution.

And, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes points out, Snowdon and Glenn Greenwald get vilified for leaking, while journalists who peddle government sponsored leaks get a pass.

It’s not about national security or rule of law. It’s just about power.

Spider webs.


An administrative note: I now have a Twitter account, @MinorHeretic. I swore I would never get one, but, well, it’s complicated. The @MinorHeretic account is the diametric opposite of this blog. So far I seem to be posting oddball things I see in passing, animal pictures, and trivia. Pure amusement value. Everyone needs a break.



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.