Alternative Energy and Energy Independence

Man's Impact on Climate —
A Fresh Perspective

At PlanetWatch, we spend very little time debating whether global warming is caused primarily by human-beings. We believe the time needed to answer that question completely is greater than that required to learn that "no" is the wrong answer. Therefore, we believe in behaving as though the answer were "yes", and saving our time and energy for remediation.

Nevertheless, an interesting related theory has come to our attention that brings fresh insight.

William Ruddiman, retired Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, a few years ago authored the book Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, which advances persuasively an argument about man's impact on the climate of Earth. He proposes that, not only has man been influencing the climate since the Industrial Revolution, but that his influence goes back much farther.....probably about 8000 years....since the introduction of widespread organized agriculture. In fact, he argues that man's clearing and cultivating large areas of forest may have warmed the planet enough to have forestalled what would otherwise have been a new ice age!

He further shows in this scholarly but highly readable book that periods of plague reduced populations so substantially, that resultant climate cooling can be seen in the historical data by which paleo-climatologists like Ruddiman determine temperature variations from long ago.

Now, of course, widespread consumption of fossil fuels (ancient sunlight stored as hydrocarbons) may well be causing accelerated effects.

Ruddiman's hypothesis is likely to be debated for many years by fellow scientists, as is normal in that field, and, as a professional, he welcomes the process. It seems likely to us that his ideas will survive such challenges, because they are thoroughly researched and he presents considerable evidence from both sides of the argument.

Looking ahead, Prof. Ruddiman finds it deplorable that the issue of how much humans influence climate has been "hi-jacked" by powerful special interest groups, from both sides of the debate, who argue fiercely over the subject and waste precious time and resources in a fight that that need not be resolved in order to move ahead with conservation and mitigation.

In that, he shares our general view of the matter.       - Douglas Ayer

A To-Do List For Energy Policy

Any serious discussion of the issue of energy independence and global warming must recognize the extreme complexity of the topic, as well as the wide variety of views of the problem and the remedies. And since energy use is such an important issue, not only for humanity, but also for us as a nation, it calls for a major, multifaceted, comprehensive approach.

Even if the body politic were united on the need, which it is not, there are so many interests and factors involved that it will be a major challenge to arrive at a rational energy policy which will effectively address the problem and move us towards true energy independence, a secure economic future, and a cleaner environment, while preserving our planet.

Even for those who question whether human activity has caused recent global warming, it makes sense to develop new sources of energy that do not drain our national resources by importing oil or protecting our access to oil through military force, at the same time providing cheaper and cleaner energy. Since fossil fuels are finite resources, we should also be actively searching for new sources of energy before they are exhausted or their cost becomes prohibitive.

It also makes sense to foster the development of new technologies that will make this independence possible, while employing thousands of Americans at high skilled jobs. If we wait for other countries to develop these new energy systems, and we are already behind Germany, Japan and Denmark, we will lose a great economic opportunity and will end up importing technologies instead of developing our own and exporting them. Instead of importing oil or liquified natural gas, we will continue to out source good manufacturing jobs and import costly equipment to generate electricity.

Alternatives Are Not Without Consequences

Recent initiatives to increase the production of corn-based ethanol to replace imported oil, however, are counterproductive, since its production consumes as much energy as it provides, some of it from fossil fuels, and it has already led to higher prices for corn and other foods. Therefore, while an increased reliance on coal and ethanol would promote energy independence, neither would reduce harmful carbon emissions.

Other bio-fuels might be more efficient than ethanol, thereby saving energy while creating new jobs. Nuclear energy would provide power without emissions and increase energy independence, but any new plants would be very expensive and no one has solved the problem of nuclear waste disposal.

This leads to the potential of alternative, renewable sources, like solar, wind and ocean wave-produced energy. Though the last is still unproved, it does show promise and is currently being tested in several coastal areas. Wind turbines and solar installations currently require substantial investments, but more efficient systems are being developed and as the market expands, costs will be driven down. Here is where government subsidies, or tax deductions, could play a major role by promoting the development of new technology, creating new jobs and lowering equipment and installation costs.

While solar and wind power are intermittent or not available in all areas, they are providing clean, renewable energy at increasingly competitive prices. Public institutions and corporations have recognized the opportunity to reduce energy costs and are already installing solar panels and wind turbines to replace traditional sources of power. In order to make wind and solar more viable, improved batteries or storage systems need to be developed, as well as more efficient transmission arrangements between these remote sources and the markets where the energy is consumed. To make this happen, cooperation between government agencies and the private sector is crucial.

Wind and solar systems also have the potential to create more jobs than relying on capital-intensive industries like coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power. Since all of these, including ethanol, also require large amounts of water, they increase pressure on an increasingly scare resource, vital to human survival and a major source of conflict throughout the world.

In California, it is estimated that 20% of the energy is used to pump water, mainly to supply the thirst of Central Valley agriculture and Southern California development. Using non-renewable sources seems counterintuitive in sunny California, in as much as the power to move water over mountains increases the state’s energy budget and carbon footprint.

In other parts of the world, however, millions lack potable water, often because of a lack of electricity. Every year more people are displaced because of a lack of potable water than from war and thousands of children die every day from diseases due to tainted water. Wind and solar power, however, have been harnessed in some of these remote areas to pump water from the ground or run water purification and desalination plants.

Solar Doesn't Always Mean Photovoltaics

The sun not only enhances the quality of life by providing electric power for these communities, but in some areas of Latin America, Asia and Africa, solar box cookers have replaced wood or cow dung as fuel for domestic cooking. Thanks to the efforts of various NGOs, these basic devices have slowed deforestation, reduced the time and energy expended in collecting fuel, mainly by women, and decreased the unhealthy fumes they breathe, while improving the nutritional value of food through a gradual cooking process.

Since we are such intensive users of energy, buying more appliances with shorter life spans, living in larger homes, commuting longer distances and consuming goods from distant lands, none of the above will come close to solving our energy problems, especially as our population grows and other countries raise their standard of living.

What we need, therefore, is a comprehensive program that emphasizes conservation, reduces waste, encourages the development of new technologies and builds a new more efficient infrastructure. It is estimated that conservation alone would not only reduce operating costs for homes and businesses, but also eliminate the need to construct any new coal-burning energy plants.

By developing a more efficient energy infrastructure and promoting conservation, we can slow the rate of increase in our energy consumption, and combined with the development of renewable sources of energy, reduce our dependency on imported or native fossil fuels, foster a more stable energy future, create jobs and reduce harmful carbon emissions.

Given the energy costs and the emissions released to transport our food and consumer goods, this national energy policy should also emphasize buying locally, supporting local producers and workers and encouraging community development. Since it is estimated that much of our food travels an average of 1500 miles to reach us, consuming local goods would lower their cost, reduce energy consumption and emissions and support local growers.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles -- Nothing Can Be Left Off the List

Clearly a comprehensive national energy policy must include the development of more efficient and cleaner cars and trucks, as well as more accessible public transit. Even if we manage to produce and sell clean cars running on electricity or bio-fuels, however, urban sprawl and liberal land use policies will continue to foster energy waste, not to mention stress levels and road rage. Currently the focus is on making our vehicles more fuel-efficient, not on redesigning our cities to reduce commute times or lessen the fuels consumed and emissions released.

Green building is catching on, encouraged by government mandates as well as promising reduced energy costs over the lifetime of the structure. But will Americans be willing to accept changes in lifestyles or be willing to invest in more energy efficient, but also more expensive, cars, homes and appliances?
      - Tony White


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Engulfed in the Madding Crowd:

Make Room for Man

Throughout the twentieth century, and to the present day, man has increasingly followed this biblical directive to a fault, to the point where our very presence is an ominous threat to all other life forms on the planet, including our own.
      In the years between 1950 and 2000, an already swelling population of humans on the earth multiplied by 240%. Think about that for a moment. In all of man’s time on earth a growth spurt of that magnitude, in those huge numbers, was never even considered to be possible. (Malthus, of course, thought otherwise.) It is now predicted to increase 30% by the year 2025.
      Moreover, from 1950 to the present time, over 25% of animals and plants on the earth became extinct. Most authorities on extinction agree that a far larger percentage of the remaining species are in danger of the same fate over the next 20 to 30 years. There is already abundant dialogue about the eradication of species in the wild that we have always taken for granted: elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, sea mammals, large fish (and the fish they eat), and polar bears. A conservative estimate of the full number in peril is as much as 50% of all the species now living on the earth. “The current extinction event is due to human activity, paving the planet, creating pollution, many of the things we are doing today,” said Bradley J. Cardinale, Assistant Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at UC Santa Barbara. “The earth might well lose half of its species in our lifetime. We want to know which ones deserve the highest priority for conservation.”
     The fact that scientists are even considering species priorities for survival is in itself alarming.
     Is man responsible for this precipitous decline? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The human race generally has a long history of callous disregard of other life forms on the earth in favor of its own. An old but striking reminder of this indifference can be found in the accelerated extinction of a bird species in Audubon’s time: the passenger pigeon. It is widely believed to be the most prolific bird ever to inhabit the planet. Audubon wrote of flocks of billions of the birds darkening the sky in flight. It was the most common bird in North America in the early 19th Century. (One flock was roughly measured to be a mile wide and 300 miles long!)
         A loss of habitat due to immigrant Europeans settling inland began their decline, but the primary cause originated with the commercialization of pigeon meat as a cheap food for the poor and for slaves, which resulted in hunting the birds on a massive scale. (Profits were there to be made, after all.) There was a slow decline in their numbers from 1800 and 1870, followed by a precipitous decline over the next thirty years. The last remaining bird died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
         In a little over 100 years, one of the most common, most populous birds on the planet was willfully removed from it by human greed and callousness, and most of this decline was precipitated by man without the benefit of the killing methods later provided by the Industrial Revolution.

Fast forward to the present
         Today, in our oceans alone, ninety percent of the big fish are gone. We have overfished the oceans to such a shocking extent, that according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, the maximum wild-capture fisheries potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached. Already severely depleted: the Mediterranean bluefin tuna, the Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and most species of shark.
         There is also growing concern over the smaller species -- so called forage fish: herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, crucial to the sustenance of the larger fish, are also decreasing rapidly. It is noteworthy that the biggest consumers of these smaller species are the agriculture and aquaculture industries. Almost one-third of these caught-in-the-wild smaller fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish, pigs, and cattle. By itself, aquaculture uses up nearly 53 percent of the world’s fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil -- an alarming statistic. As if those statistics aren’t a red flag, as much as 25% of the total wild catch is thrown back dead, termed “by catch”.
         Further, feeding fish meal to farm-raised fish is incredibly inefficient. It takes 3 kilograms of forage fish to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon, 5 to 1 for cod, and shockingly, 20 to 1 for tuna, claims John Volpe, Assistant Professor of Marine Systems Conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
         Yet for all of this available information, the process goes on, since it provides jobs for those who are part of the industries who have created the problem. Add to this the fact that most people’s overall perceptions are of the oceans as a vast, inexhaustible supply of fish and seafood, readily available at your favorite seafood restaurant or supermarket.

Water, Water Everywhere — Except Where Needed
         Now to the most basic necessity on earth: fresh water, which is seemingly most accessible and plentiful. It has also been a principal source of conflict, and doubtlessly will again, perhaps sooner than we realize.
         By 2050, the population of the earth will be 9 billion people, most of them in developing countries. There is enough water for everyone, even in those numbers, except for the fact that it doesn’t rain in the places where it is often needed the most. India, for example, has to sustain almost twenty percent of the earth’s population from four percent of the earth’s water. China has forty times more people than Canada, but less water than Canada.
         The great civilizations of the world, by and large, were built around great rivers, which brought great prosperity to the cities and their civilizations. Ancient Rome had its aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, modern New York has the Hudson, London the Thames, Rome the Tiber.
         Today, however, no river can keep up with the demand of today’s mega-cities. In New Delhi, more than a third of the water from rivers and reservoirs is lost to leaks from deteriorating pipes and pumps. More is siphoned off by an aggressive water mafia, which sells it to poor people who should be getting it free. So, if the water can’t be had from the surface of the earth, there is no choice left but to dig for it. In India, China, and Africa, and a large part of the developing world, people are digging as if there is no tomorrow.
         Almost two billion people get their water from wells, and many are easily accessible. More is available in rocks, or buried far below ancient shale. New drills and inexpensive pump technology have made much of that water retrievable, thus relieving millions from their reliance on rain. This all comes at a cost, however; when most groundwater is used up, it is usually gone for good.
         Of course, in America, for the moment, we don’t have those concerns. In the 1970’s, in the middle of the last American crisis in food and gas prices, riots were common on the college campuses, but they were never about food or water. They were mostly about social, political and cultural issues, never about survival. Yet, in other countries, people were starving, often to death. Grain prices soared, rice tumbled. In Ethiopia and Cambodia, the standard of living was down to survival status, and food riots upended those in power.
         It’s happening again. Food riots in Egypt, Bangladesh, and many African counties. China, Indonesia, and India, rice-bowl counties all, ship their export-restricted rice under armed guard.
         Malthus’ basic theory stated that populations, which grow geometrically, will eventually outpace food production, which grows arithmetically. Many doomsday scenarios, real or imagined, have been based on this theory. Notwithstanding, over the last 200 years, Malthus has been largely discredited, due in part to the Industrial, Transportation, Green, and Biotech Revolutions. Today’s problems do not necessarily refute that judgment, but serious concerns emerge.

Competing for Oil
         One of the most serious is, of course, energy. As population grows, so does the need to be fed, to be clothed, to be warmed, to be cooled, to travel, to buy, and to build. Oil is still the most affordable and accessible source of energy worldwide, but many regions and countries, particularly Europe and Japan, are working feverishly to develop alternate sources. A slowing of the population rate over the next 30 years would make these transitions more comfortable for all concerned.
         As for food, in theory, the world has never approached the end of its ability to produce it. According to Joel E. Cohen, Professor of Populations at Rockefeller University, and the author of How Many People Can the Earth Support? “There is enough grain in the world to feed 10 billion vegetarians, but much of it is being fed to cattle, the SUV’s of the protein world, which are in turn guzzled by the wealthy.”
         If one flies across the United States, and even across the world, one will see much empty land below. Right now, the entire population of the world would squeeze into the state of Texas, allowing for 100 square feet of living space for each person. Put them in skyscrapers, and they get even more room to spread out.
         And what about water? When the price skyrockets, we can build pipelines to the polar icecaps, or desalinate seawater. Of course, the cost will be probably be outrageous.
         So, if our economy recovers and holds, for the time being, we’re okay. Not so, in good times and bad, for 800 million people who are chronically hungry.
         There is no denying that even in America, a burgeoning population has created many demands and periodic corresponding shortages: food, water, energy sources, healthcare, social services, maintenance, and transportation, to name a few. We have a high standard of living, but life has become increasingly complicated. In America, we talk about big banks, big oil, big auto, big med, big insurance, and on and on. Companies have gotten large and more monopolistic because America’s own swollen population has created larger economies of scale. In the 40’s and 50’s, corporations of the size and magnitude we see today were unthinkable.
         The American happiness quotient has been going slowly but steadily downhill over the last forty years. This has culminated in an economic downturn that is unprecedented since the Great Depression. Impediments to recovery will be exacerbated by the enormous numbers of people who are now or will be out of work.
         We need to take a hard look at how to curb further growth in our numbers, and how to help other countries who are in far worse shape than we are, if we can all survive this severe economic downturn. America must learn how to build an economy that is not based on population growth and consumerism. We must set an example for the rest of the world by curbing our historically voracious appetite for energy. We also need to put the wealth of the world to work more effectively and efficiently to make the quality of life more comfortable for people of all levels of income.
         It is foolish and naïve of Americans to think that the problems of the rest of the world will not ultimately migrate to America.
         And yes, just because all of the people of the world will fit into Texas doesn’t mean they’ll get enough to eat or drink, or that they’ll be happy there. With all the people, there will be no room for supermarkets, gas stations, hospitals, forests, lakes, open spaces, art galleries, museums, concert halls, and the like.
         And how many of us want to spend the rest of our lives as vegetarians?          - John Burr

Further to the Question of Highway Speed Limits and Compliance

Our face is red because one of our many alert members pointed out an inaccuracy in our article below ("Something Big We Can Do NOW") on the above subject.
    The article said that drag due to air friction increases according to the square of the ratio of the speed increase. So, a 20% increase in speed increases air drag by 44%. That was correct. What was incorrect was our contention that the power needed to overcome that increased friction, and therefore the fuel consumption, would also be higher by 44%. That was incorrect.
    High school physics tells us that power required is proportionate to speed times force. So power needed to overcome increased air drag varies as the cube of the ratio of speed, making the argument for reducing highway speeds and compliance with them even more compelling.
    Of course, there are other components that determine fuel consumption, like road friction, which depends heavily on weight. So, a 20% increase in speed does not imply that fuel consumption will increase by the cube of 1.2, or 73%, but it does mean that the estimates in the article are probably understated.
    And, it will take a few years for all of us to be driving lighter cars. But today we can start driving our already too-heavy cars a bit more slowly.       - Douglas Ayer

Something Big We Can Do NOW

Some time ago I saw in a major daily newspaper an ad for a new (expensive) synthetic oil that Exxon-Mobil claims will reduce engine friction enough to reduce fuel consumption about 1.5%. They point out that this would reduce CO2 emissions by millions of tons and have the equivalent impact of removing 1.5 million cars from the road.

Commendable, for sure. Every bit helps.

But it brought to mind an idea arising from an incident that happened yesterday.

I drove a few miles on our local Interstate Highway, where the speed limit is 65 mph. I was in the right lane, not in a great hurry, driving 65 which increasingly, at least for me, is fast enough. It was unsettling to find that the rest of the cars and trucks were passing in the middle and left lanes at fully 80 or 85 mph, all with virtual impunity. I was almost a hazard to them and to myself by going "only" the speed limit.

As an aeronautical engineer, I understand that aerodynamic drag on a rolling vehicle, not needing to generate lift like an airplane, increases as the square of the ratio of forward speed. So, going 85 versus 65 produces 71% more so-called form and skin friction drag. That means that the power required to push the car along, when more or less constant rolling friction is taken into account, is about 50% more, and of course fuel consumption varies roughly in proportion to power generated, as efficiency stays about the same.

That got me thinking about things that we can do in America to show our willingness and ability to reduce CO2 emission with something we can do today.

We all applaud the progress in solar energy, geothermal power, wind generators, fuel cells, efficient buildings, new PHEV cars, lighter airplanes and so on. But most, if not all, of these offer improvements in the fairly distant future.

Staring us in the face is an opportunity to reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions almost immediately. We have even done it before (which could be a problem) so we know what to expect.

Obviously, I am talking about reducing and/or enforcing speed limits. It would take significant effort and severe penalties for violations. I envision Federal mandates, for example, and ca. $250 fines for exceeding the limit by more than 10 mph.

Do the math.

After coal for making electricity (which is really not an "energy service" like light, heat or motive power, but is instead a delivery system, like a gasoline tanker truck), transportation, including cars, buses and trucks, is the second largest emitter of CO2. If we merely obeyed the speed limits we could save at least 20% of the fuel we burn in cars and trucks. If we lowered maximum limits to 55, and obeyed them, the results would be even more impressive. In addition:

  • We would save more lives and serious injuries per year than all those suffered in the last five years by our troopers in Iraq.
  • We would almost certainly keep the cost of petroleum low because the drop in demand would be felt worldwide.
  • The impact could be almost immediate, in contrast to so many other programs.
  • We would set an example that the USA is finally getting serious about energy efficiency and fossil fuel emissions.
  • We would restore a sense that laws are on the books to be enforced, not ignored.
  • We would generate significant penalty revenues from those who continue to speed, despite the new rules.
  • Computing an auto's speed by its elapsed time between stations, electronic toll readers could impose fines scaled by excess speed, vastly increasing those penalty revenues beyond what highway police can reel in.
  • The effect of such a program could be ten or even twenty times as important as the Exxon-Mobil synthetic oil.

But almost nobody is talking about it, much less promoting it.

      - Douglas Ayer