March 30, 2010

Rays From Space

By: Aaron Datesman

I didn’t pay much attention to the recent Toyota recalls, but am sort of amused to read that the culprit might be rays from space:

Federal regulators were prompted to look into the possible role that cosmic rays played in Toyota's product recall fiasco after an anonymous tipster suggested the design of Toyota's microprocessors, software and memory chips could make them more vulnerable to interference from radiation compared with other automakers. This is because Toyota has led the auto industry in its widespread inclusion of electronic controls in the manufacture of their various car models.

As electronic devices are made to perform more and more functions on smaller circuit chips, the systems become more sensitive and vulnerable to corruption, and thus more prone to interference from radiation, said Ewart Blackmore, a senior researcher at TRIUMF, a cyclotron facility in Vancouver, Canada, that works with companies to test and analyze the effects of radiation on products.

I like this because it sounds as if the chairman of Toyota was at a loss to explain why the cars built by his company were killing people, so he asked his twelve-year-old son what he thought might be the matter. As excuses go, “It’s RAYS FROM SPACE” sounds much more plausible than “The cars are possessed by demons”. However, I have some acquaintance with this field, and I find the explanation to be plausible. This is especially true since the current solar minimum (which is also currently serving to mask the effects of global warming somewhat) has increased the cosmic ray flux significantly over the last several years.

I’m interested in this because it points out how dangerous it would be to thoroughly computerize the control systems for (say) a nuclear reactor, an airplane, or a missile warning system. Or, I should say, how dangerous it is that we often choose to employ computers in those situations, because of a thoroughly false belief that computers are more “reliable” than people. In airplanes they call this computerization “fly by wire”. Missile warning failures are another, even more terrifying, example.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 11:29 PM | Comments (11)

My Strategy: Hate Everyone

My strategy when thinking about politics has always been to hate everyone involved in every situation. This has rarely if ever steered me wrong.

So, I hate the Hutaree crazies for being violent idiots, particularly in an internet world where you can easily escape this type of idiocy if you choose.

I hate the FBI for getting them charged with "attempting to use weapons of mass destruction." (I guess WMD is such a productive term of propaganda the government thinks, "We can do SO MUCH MORE with this than just invade Iraq.") I hate them for possibly using a taser on a 12 year-old. I hate them for, as Jim Henley explains in this awesome post, quite possibly inventing a crime out of whole cloth as they've done so many times before.

I hate nice liberals for, as Charles Davis points out, focusing on mostly hypothetical Tea Partier violence while ignoring the genuine violence being meted out by Barack Obama. (Sentence of 2010: "Perhaps they shouldn't just be ignored, but until Glenn Beck's followers kill two dozen people in a remote village, I'm going to spend most of my time focusing on those with control over the tanks and nuclear weapons.")

I hate America's economic elite for deciding the best thing to do for working people in the U.S. rustbelt was punch them in the face over and over for the past thirty years.

Oddly, I find I can still like people in general and individually while hating all human subgroups. Come to my party this weekend!

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:51 PM | Comments (23)

March 29, 2010

A Science Joke Which Writes Itself

By: Aaron Datesman

MEMS, or Micro-Electrical Mechanical Systems, is a sub-field of electrical engineering which has emerged in the fifteen years or so. The first “killer app” for MEMS was the collision sensor which activates the airbag in an automobile, but the devices are fairly ubiquitous today. For instance, the microphone in your cell phone is probably a MEMS device; and so is the gizmo which tells your digital camera which direction is pointing up when you rotate the frame.

Like 90% of the modern practice of electrical engineering, of course, MEMS would almost certainly not exist except for Pentagon support. It’s in this vein that I got a good laugh from the title of this article about MEMS research going on in Israel:

More sensitive sensor paves way for better prosthetic limbs, cars and missiles

It’s a perfect cycle: we’ll build better missiles to blow up your cars and outfit your mangled children with better prosthetic limbs.

I have no idea whether the author of the article was trying to make this joke. But intentional or not, it’s simply a fantastic conjunction.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 10:35 PM | Comments (9)

March 27, 2010

Not Dead, Just Resting

I'm not slowly fading away from the internet(s). On the contrary. But this site's caterpillar stage is coming to an end. If things go according to plan, fairly soon it will transform into chrysalis—or pupa—and thence into beauty.

P.S. I may or may not be a transvestite serial killer.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:16 PM | Comments (17)

Democracy Whiskey Sexy Etc.


Secularist challenger Iyad Allawi's coalition won the most seats in Iraq's election, according to preliminary results on Friday...

From a 2005 New Yorker article about Allawi:

[T]here have been persistent rumors that [in 2004] Allawi shot and killed several terrorist suspects being held prisoner at a Baghdad police station. When reporters asked him about the rumors, Allawi denied that he had shot anyone, but added that he would do “everything necessary” to protect Iraqis...

In late June, however, I sat in on an interview, conducted by Paul McGeough, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, of a man who claimed to have witnessed the executions. He described how Allawi had been taken to seven suspects, who were made to stand against a wall in a courtyard of the police station, their faces covered. After being told of their alleged crimes by a police official, Allawi had asked for a pistol, and then shot each prisoner in the head. Afterward, the witness said, Allawi had declared to those present, “This is how we must deal with the terrorists.” The witness said that he approved of Allawi’s act, adding that, in any case, the terrorists were better off dead, for they had been tortured for days.

In the ensuing months, the story has lingered, never having been either fully confirmed or convincingly denied. (Allawi did not address the incident with me.) During my visit to Jordan, a well-known former government minister told me that an American official had confirmed that the killings took place, saying to him, “What a mess we’re in—we got rid of one son of a bitch only to get another.”

Mission accomplished.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 07:19 AM | Comments (10)

March 24, 2010

A Suggestion

Someone in the progressive world needs to find a relative of someone killed in the Oklahoma City bombing who understands that was the result of nineties right-wing incitement, and get that relative on TV talking about how we're on the same path now. Things are getting fairly alarming, and we should be using any means we have to shame the right into tamping down the crazy. We might not succeed, but it's irresponsible not to try.

If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear it. Added bonus: preventing another Oklahoma City keeps Democrats from using the opportunity to extinguish our few remaining civil liberties.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:27 PM | Comments (36)

March 22, 2010

One Sentence, Three Lies

This is from the email from "Barack Obama" that the White House sent out last night:

Because of you, every American will finally be guaranteed high quality, affordable health care coverage.

1. Not every American. At least 15 million will remain uncovered in 2019.

2. There's no reason to think it will be "high quality," and many reasons to believe it won't be.

3. Families near the median income could still end up paying $10,000+ in premiums and out of pocket expenses every year if someone in the family has a serious illness.

If there was one place I was sure the Obama administration would be different from Bush, it was that they would give us higher-quality lies. Oh, was I naive. And I say that as someone who's more happy than sad that this monstrosity passed. (Don't hit me!)

P.S. It wasn't really because of "you," the various people getting this email. So maybe it's one sentence, three and a half lies.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:22 PM | Comments (42)

March 18, 2010

The Origami Congressman

By: John Caruso

Several entirely unexpected things happened yesterday: the sun rose, the Earth continued spinning on its axis, the Globetrotters beat the Generals, and Dennis Kucinich submitted to the demands of his party superiors and personal ambition:

I joined with the Progressive Caucus saying that I would not support the bill unless it had a strong public option and unless it protected the right of people to pursue single payer at a state level. It did not. [...] I have decided to cast a vote in favor of the legislation.

Now, I like Kucinich.  Really I do.  But the only question with the guy isn't if he's going to fold, but when (and will it be a crane, or a fish, or a frog? Hey, cool, a panda this time!).  As with the Iraq war platform plank sellout in 2004, so with the health care vote now.

Congressional Progressive Caucus members like Kucinich achieve nothing because their threats are empty, and everyone knows it.  They achieve nothing because they're willing to risk nothing.  They're taken for granted because they are in fact granted.

As with Progressive Democrats, so with progressives who vote for Democrats.  Yes, they're angry about Iraq and Afghanistan and civil liberties and bailouts and drone strikes and health care and every other atrocity the Democrats sponsor or support, but it doesn't make a damn bit of difference, because everyone knows that no matter what happens they'll still dutifully vote for those same Democrats.  And until the day comes when they finally decide there is some shit they will not eat, they'll continue to lose.

ADDING: In order to spare the jellyfish from Ohio further embarrassment I omitted his claim that "I kept my pledge and voted against the bill"—meaning the original bill, that is.  What a kidder!  For reference, Kucinich's pledge said that in order to win his support, "any legislation that moves forward through both chambers, and into a final proposal for the President’s signature, MUST contain a public option" (my bold, their caps).  But "any" there was just one tiny little word in a big long letter, so you can see how he might not feel that it invalidates his claim.

— John Caruso

Posted at 03:43 PM | Comments (70)

All Is For the Best

By: Seth Ackerman

Yesterday, Brad DeLong posted this graph without comment:

delong unemployment graph small.gif

I guess in the grand scheme of things, unemployment right now isn’t all that bad.

Except that - hey, what’s with the legend along the left side of the graph? “Percent of non-farm labor force”? Don’t we usually talk about the unemployment rate as a percentage of the total civilian labor force, not the non-farm labor force? (Yes, we do.)

Fortunately, the economic historian David Weir, the source of Brad’s data, produced unemployment estimates using both definitions. Even more fortunately, they’re conveniently available via Cambridge’s Historical Statistics of the United States, which you need a subscription to, via a fancy university such as Stutts .

The graphs below show Weir’s unemployment rates reported both ways. Weir originally published his data only up through 1990, so I’ve added in a horizontal bar showing today’s current unemployment rate of about 9.7%:

weir unemployment both.jpg

Yup. Pretty bad. Pretty world-historically bad.

So, how should we construe these two different unemployment definitions? What’s the difference? Well, a hundred years ago agriculture accounted for a much bigger portion of the labor force – about a third. So not only was a large segment of the population relatively sheltered from the labor market, and thus immune from unemployment, but if you did get thrown out of work, you might be able to return to the old homestead and make ends meet there for a while. Nowadays, you probably can’t. The magic of the market is all we have.

As helpfully explained in the interpretive essay on unemployment data included in Historical Statistics of the United States:

Unemployment is the condition of someone who is willing and able to work but who cannot find employment. For the self-employed, there is always something to do, even in slow times. Unemployment, therefore, presupposes a class of workers who are dependent on wage or salary earnings for their livelihood. Even as late as 1900, only about two thirds of the labor force were wage and salary workers.

The essay goes on to reference Alexander Keyssar’s pioneering study of the early history of American unemployment:

Early production of manufactured products took place within an agricultural setting in which any reduction in industrial employment could be offset by reallocating labor into some alternative sphere. The appearance of modern unemployment, in [Keyssar’s] story, required the abandonment of agriculture for full-time industrial work.

So there you have it. Sorry for being so long-winded to make a fairly straightforward point. I just didn’t want to see Brad’s graph become the basis for some Frankenstein talking point.

—Seth Ackerman

Posted at 12:52 PM | Comments (7)

March 16, 2010

A Little Visual Flair for Universal Health Care

By: Aaron Datesman

Point #1: According to a Harvard study, 45,000 Americans die every year because they don’t have insurance and can’t get access to health care.

Point #2: There’s around a gallon of blood in the human body. The blood of 45,000 people would fill a swimming pool 20 feet by 30 feet in size to a depth of about 7 feet, which is pretty gross.

Point #3: They approach politics with a bit more visual flair in Thailand.

Anti-government protesters poured a small amount of blood at the headquarters of the government in Bangkok on Tuesday, but the demonstration did not live up to their threat to douse the ministers' offices in blood.

The protesters intended to collect 1,000 liters (1 million cubic centimeters) and then throw the blood on the grounds of the Government House, which houses ministerial offices, at 6 p.m. (7 a.m. ET).

Thai protesters.jpg

Point #4: The US Capitol Building is very pretty, and (like the Founders) very, very white. Why is this? Was this a good idea? It seems to me that ten thousand or so pissed-off health care activists armed with gallon jugs of pig’s blood could create some very arresting imagery.

Although I like numbers, they don’t move me. Why can’t we take a page out of the Thai playbook? The Reflecting Pool filled with blood - that would grab my attention. Hopefully, it would also bring to the fore the idea that the failure by Congress (and by the Obama administration) to enact universal health care IS KILLING TENS OF THOUSANDS OF AMERICANS.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 11:26 PM | Comments (18)

An Update on the Wind Energy Resource

By: Aaron Datesman

It turns out that the Department of Energy just wrapped up the first review of US wind energy resources conducted since 1993.

The new study.....finds that the contiguous 48 states have the potential to generate up to 37 million gigawatt hours annually. By contrast, total U.S. electricity generation from all sources was roughly 4 million gigawatt hours in 2009. The estimates show the total energy yield that could be generated using current wind turbine technology on the nation's windy lands.

This does mean what it seems to mean - that the available resource of non-polluting renewable energy dwarfs (by nearly a factor of ten) the demand for energy (considering only electrical energy in this case). Although conversion, distribution, storage, and transport are all hard problems, the scale of the resource is so great that we ought to be discussing powering the US entirely by wind energy.

The map below illustrates the US wind resource. The primary difference between this survey and the 1993 survey is the height of the wind turbine towers, which have increased from 50 meters in 1993 to 80 meters (as tall as a 26-story building) today.


— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 12:13 AM | Comments (16)

March 14, 2010

I Love This Joke

FAIR has an great advisory about the incredibly gross conduct of the New York Times in their recent "reporting" on ACORN and James O'Keefe, and the even grosser conduct of their Public Editor Clark Hoyt when challenged. You can contact Hoyt at and (212) 556-7652 and see if it's possible to get them to print the truth.

The best part, of course, is Hoyt's reaction when asked about this sentence in a recent NY Times story:

Mr. O’Keefe made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the liberal community group Acorn...

Why, Hoyt wants to know, should they correct it just because O'Keefe was never dressed as a pimp while filming inside ACORN offices? As Hoyt explained to Brad Friedman, the article "says O'Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on ACORN counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time."

I know this is old news and many people have taken a crack at it already, but I haven't had time until now:

Clark Hoyt took off all of his clothes and walked into the offices of the New York Times

Clark Hoyt wet his diapers and contentedly settled down to write his column for the New York Times

Clark Hoyt gathered courage to say "I am in love with you" and rang the doorbell of Bill Keller's house

On the one hand, human beings are fundamentally broken, but on the other hand I LOVE THIS JOKE.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:04 PM | Comments (9)

March 10, 2010

20% by 2030

By: Aaron Datesman

This map shows NREL projections for meeting 20% of the US electricity demand (projected forward) with installed wind power in the year 2030. The projection is derived taking into account both the wind resource, and reasonable predictions for electricity transmission and distribution. The map appears in this presentation, which is short, not too technical, and worth looking over.


I find this fascinating, but would like to make only two points.

1) I have been told (I heard this from an NREL scientist at the AWEA conference in 2006) that the offshore wind resource in the US is sufficient to meet the country’s electricity demand. I’m skeptical about this, because, well, it’s something I heard at an industry conference, but do note the offshore wind included on the map above. Despite my skepticism, the offshore resource in the US is undeniably huge. What’s more, this resource is located near most of the US population - so that offshore wind energy could actually be distributed to where the demand is.

2) Notice the minimal installed capacity in North Dakota (the “Saudi Arabia of Wind”). This reflects the distribution issue I’ve written about in earlier posts.

I don’t find 20% 20 years out from now a particularly worthwhile goal. I think we should “go down swinging”, think big and try to reach audacious goals. But it’s undeniably useful to look at what industry and DOE present in professional settings.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 08:19 AM | Comments (29)

March 08, 2010

Why health care reform is not a "huge progressive victory"

by Seth Ackerman

Ezra Klein says progressives should see the health care bill as a “huge progressive victory.” He makes a number of points to support his claim, but I think these are the main ones: The bill is the most ambitious piece of social legislation since the 60’s. The plight of the uninsured has been a liberal rallying-cry for decades. The exchanges, regulations and subsidies in the bill will “create the core structure of a universal health-care system in this country.”

To me, these are all reasons why the Democratic bill is not a huge progressive victory. In fact, it’s closer to being a huge progressive defeat.

Let’s start by asking why there have been no large-scale advances in social legislation since the 1960’s. The first thing I’ll note here is that the last big, ambitious measure, Medicare, was a government-run single payer program that displaced or preempted private health insurance coverage for about one in ten Americans. That’s why the AMA, Ronald Reagan, and the nascent conservative movement spared no effort to decry it as socialism.

Yet none of that prevented Medicare from passing in 1965 with 13 out of 32 Senate Republicans voting in favor. Nor did it stop the bill from winning the support of half the senators from the Deep South (5 out of 10, or 7 out of 14, depending on whether you count Texas and Florida). And what about the Mark Pryors, Blanche Lincolns, Ben Nelsons, Mary Landrieus of the world? In 2009, we were told they fought the Senate bill’s mildly progressive elements because they represented states that are “obviously” too conservative to support even such tepid liberalism. But in 1965, three of the six senators from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska voted for or pledged support for single-payer Medicare, a.k.a socialism.

Clearly something has gone terribly wrong since 1965. The ideological barriers against solving national problems through public provision rather than through the logic of profit maximization have increased enormously. That’s not an original thought, and there’s no need to rehearse the long list of possible historical reasons – the fraying of liberalism, the chain reaction of race, rights and taxes, etc., etc.

But surely if we want to determine whether or not this is a historic progressive victory, we need to ask what exactly the health care reform effort has done to stem this ideological regression, since it clearly lies at the root of an unending string of progressive defeats. And the answer comes straight from the lips of Barack Obama, who has repeatedly told the country that this is a great bill because (1) it’s not an unrealistic and impractical foreign-inspired government-run program; (2) it doesn’t turn your health care over to government bureaucrats; and (3) it relies entirely on the principles of business competition and consumer choice (usually abbreviated to “choice and competition”).

But still, what about the millions of people who’ll now be getting health insurance? Covering the uninsured has been a liberal cause célèbre for years - how can anyone deny that’s a major progressive victory? First let’s all remember that millions of elderly people got prescription drug coverage due to a bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush. Medicare prescription drug coverage had been a Democratic rallying cry for years. Yet I don’t recall a single person claiming that Bush’s Medicare expansion was a huge progressive victory, and in the end 95% of House Democrats voted against it in a close vote.

Second, besides being a moral issue, the health care crisis was – to put it bluntly – a great issue for progressives. And not just for progressives, but for progressive ideas. Everyone could see the dysfunction of a system where people go bankrupt because they get sick or stay in jobs they hate just so they can keep going to the doctor. And there was always a feeling that time was on the side of health care reform: Most people who paid attention to this stuff knew that universal coverage in some form was inevitable. It was just a question of how. (The insurers certainly understood this, which is one reason why they agreed not to fight this bill.) The status quo wasn’t just bad, it was unsustainable. A reckoning was sure to happen, and when it came the obvious solutions would all be progressive-inspired. After all, if America is the only country without universal coverage yet spends more than every other country; and if all those other countries’ systems are more public and less private – well, the solution (or at least the right direction to go in) seemed obvious.

So health-care reform was not just a goal in itself. It was also a lever to revive liberalism, so that all the other myriad problems in this country could also be addressed. That’s why this issue was so cherished by the left. Now that lever has been pulled – only to bring about a moderate-Republican bill, sold on explicitly conservative grounds, that has been unpopular almost from the beginning.

But what about the reform itself? This is Ezra’s point three – the “structure” this bill is creating. Let’s do some arithmetic: Health spending equals the average price of health care services times the quantity of services purchased. To cut the growth of health spending, you either need to force people to consume less health care – i.e., cut services – or reduce the rate of medical inflation, which in the U.S. is way above the rates of other advanced countries. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that by far the larger cause of our outrageous health spending is higher prices, not higher levels of health care use. The bill cuts Medicare payment updates to pay for itself, but I haven't seen any evidence that the underlying rate of growth of health spending will significantly decline as a result of this bill. By “significantly,” I mean enough to change the long-term budget forecast from “disaster” to “not-disaster.”

Countries where health care prices are negotiated centrally with the government at the national or provincial level – for example, because they have a single public payer for health care – pay much lower prices and their medical inflation rates are lower. (Here's a good article about price vs. quantity; it's a pdf.) Yet this plan does nothing to change the status quo in the U.S. It includes some pilot-project-type programs to see whether Medicare can cut some services without reducing quality. (We are assured this will never affect the quality of health care for the elderly, but it surely won’t be tested on Lloyd Blankfein.) But the “structure” left in place is still based on private health insurance – i.e., decentralized price determination, or what Obama likes to call “choice and competition.”

But it gets worse. The decentralized private payment system will inevitably start crowding out the public insurance we already have, especially Medicare. With continued double-digit medical inflation, the slow-motion dismantling of Medicare isn’t a possibility, it seems like an eventual certainty. (Just look at the current deficit hysteria, which is now being propitiated by the White House and its independent commission.) We are on a moving train going in the wrong direction; instead of turning the train around, this bill tries to solve the problem by having us all run towards the caboose.

This is not an argument about whether Obama “pushed hard enough” on this or that, or whether Harry Reid sold out such-and-such. The obsession with this kind of short-term thinking is the whole reason why we’re in this mess. It’s quite possible Obama couldn’t have gotten elected if he'd proposed anything more ambitious than the “Demo-plan.” And once in office he may not have been able to get his Demo-plan passed without dropping the more liberal features.

But all of that is beside the point. Whether or not a better health reform plan could have passed at this precise moment is a secondary issue. The larger question is what this bill tells us about this precise moment. Obama came into office with every whim of history leaning in his direction: a discredited Republican predecessor, a crisis of deregulated finance that reached a crescendo literally weeks before the election (what luck!); the largest Democratic majorities in decades (in a sense, even larger than the 1965 majorities; not counting southerners, the Democrats had 47 Senate seats in 2009, versus 40 in 1965). Such a clear shot will not return for decades.

And the result: The Democrats shot their historical wad on health care by re-introducing Bob Dole’s bill from 1994 and justifying it as a free-market solution. How is that a “huge progressive victory”?

Posted at 06:29 PM | Comments (42)

March 07, 2010

Wind2H2 at NREL

By: Aaron Datesman

Having recently written about a grand proposal for wind-to-hydrogen (WTH) renewable energy here, it’s certainly useful to look at what actually exists currently, has undergone testing, and been proven to work. To the best of my knowledge, this demonstration project at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado represents the state-of-the-art in this field. The demonstration system includes 100kW and 10kW wind turbines connected to electrolyzer equipment which converts water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored either for subsequent conversion into electricity, or for use in a hydrogen-powered vehicle.

This is quite small in scale - an industrial turbine today might be 3,000kW or larger. The GE proposal linked in the earlier post describes a proposal for a WTH demonstration project in NY State (Tug Hill-Syracuse) at the scale of 500MW. That’s 500,000kW, or 5000 times larger than the NREL system. To exploit the wind resource in North Dakota (at the scale of 100’s of GW, or 100,000,000kW), requiring HVDC, H2 pipeline, or some other means of transmission and distribution, is another factor of 200 larger on top of that.

(By the way, I will post more about the question of HVDC vs. H2 pipeline transmission at another time. I appreciated the discussions about this on previous threads a lot.)

As a rule of thumb, when a factor of just 10 is involved, from an engineering perspective you’re dealing pretty much with something new and different. So even to fund the WTH demonstration project in New York State would be quite audacious. On the other hand, the NREL Wind2H2 project seems to have been funded at the level of only a few million dollars. How much could be done with 1000 times that amount? I think that we should find out.

The report on the Wind2H2 project offers the following information:

Analysis showed . . . . the projected cost of hydrogen falling to $5.83/kg from a baseline of $6.25/kg. Better matching the electrical characteristics of renewable energy sources to the hydrogen-producing-stacks would further improve system efficiency and further lower overall cost.
DOE has a target of reducing the cost of central production of hydrogen from wind-based water electrolysis to $3.10/kg by 2012; by 2017 DOE seeks to reduce this cost to under $2/kg.
Today’s commercial electrolyzer systems are designed for operation from grid supplied AC electricity with little regard for system efficiency. Integrating power electronics, between the RE source and stack, provides opportunity to improve efficiency and to reduce capital cost of the system.

One kg of hydrogen has about the same energy content as one gallon of gasoline. Therefore, the marginal cost (excluding the capital costs of the production equipment) of the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline produced by this method is around $6. This strikes me as rather excellent for a technology in its infancy - in fact, in Europe this would be cheaper than gasoline.

So, all right - if we could make $6 per gallon of gasoline-equivalent fuel from renewable resources without pollution, could we distribute it to where we need it to go? Is a hydrogen pipeline system just a pipe dream?

Well, we already have around 900 miles of hydrogen pipelines in Louisiana and Texas. I think that the pieces exist, and are waiting to be put together.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 10:33 PM | Comments (17)

March 05, 2010

All your power are belong to us

By: John Caruso

Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation is participating in democracy!

PG&E Corp. plans to spend $25 million to $35 million on a California ballot initiative that would limit the ability of cities and counties to go into the public power business, the company reported Friday.

PG&E Corp. is the parent company of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. utility, which is fighting efforts by Marin County and San Francisco to start their own power agencies. Proposition 16, on the June 8 ballot, would force any local governments that want to establish electrical service to win the approval of two-thirds of their voters first.

So far, PG&E has supplied all of the proposition campaign's funding, totaling $6.5 million. On Friday, PG&E took the unusual step of telling its investors that funding for the campaign would affect the company's 2010 profits, lowering them by 6 to 9 cents per share.

Now, some cynics might believe that PG&E is taking this hit to its bottom line for selfish reasons.  In fact, they might even assume that if a corporation spends $25-$35 million to pass a ballot measure, it's solely because it believes it will accrue more than $25-$35 million in additional profits as a result in the future.

But it would be wrong to assume that in this case, because nothing could be further from the truth.  Here's the real reason why PG&E is providing the sole backing for this ballot measure:

When local governments enter the retail electricity business, it can cost taxpayers millions or billions of dollars in public money or debt. These are risky long term capital decisions that can impact local spending on other budget priorities, can increase consumer electric rates, and cannot be easily reversed.

See?  PG&E is just worried that these risky public power agencies would end up costing taxpayers more money, thus depriving them of important public services like, say, pillow-providing for the elderly or possibly adorable puppy-petting.  And by the way, the quote above is from the web site of "Taxpayers Right to Vote"—the grassroots organization PG&E has just founded for the sole purpose of helping taxpayers retain their precious right to vote, which is apparently mortally threatened in some way by the creation of municipal power authorities.  That's just how dedicated they are to democracy!

In fact, PG&E is so selflessly devoted to the common good that they're even planning to reduce electric rates this summer:

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is asking the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve proposals that would reduce average electric rates by 2.5 percent from March 1 levels, beginning June 1. The proposals are among a number of measures PG&E is taking to help customers with their electricity costs.

"We understand that electricity is a fundamental need, and know that many of our customers are deeply affected by job losses and the economic downturn," said Helen Burt, senior vice president and chief customer officer at PG&E. "While our customers work hard to conserve energy and pay their bills, at PG&E we are also working hard to help customers save."

You see?  PG&E obviously just loves their customers, who are of course also taxpayers and (though it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else mentioned here) voters.  And in a gigantic and no doubt entirely unrelated coincidence, this rate reduction will  happen on June 1st—one week before the June 8th election.  Life's funny that way, isn't it?

Now, it's true that this reduction will basically just balance out a rate increase that PG&E has already scheduled for March 1st.  And I don't doubt there are a few people out there so cynical that they might suspect that PG&E planned these offsetting rate changes in order to use the rate "decrease" to curry favor with voters right before the election, without affecting their bottom line.

And that's what's wrong with this country: too many people (like these nogoodniks) refuse to believe that corporations have only their best interests at heart.  Thank goodness there are magnanimous corporate citizens like PG&E to prove them wrong.

— John Caruso

[ Crossposted since we're on the topic of power. And if you just can't read enough about PG&E's commitment to democracy, here's a followup. ]

Posted at 02:55 PM | Comments (16)

Transmission Line Losses

By: Aaron Datesman

I enjoyed the comments attached to this recent post about wind-to-hydrogen renewable energy. Some of the discussion involved losses on power transmission lines. I would like to elevate my response up to a blog post since, although this is sort of a dry topic, understanding it is actually somewhat important.

Partly due to history, and partly due to physics, the US electrical transmission grid is actually rather localized. The electrical energy we use is generated pretty near where we use it (also, pretty much just before we use it). This is a big problem if you propose to harvest energy in one place where it is abundant (for instance, via concentrated solar in Arizona, or via wind turbines in North Dakota) for use someplace else far away.

The historical portion of this surprising fact, I think, has to do with how the electric power industry evolved in the early 1900’s - generally as municipal utilities, many publicly owned. The physics contribution has to do mainly with transmission losses.

Now it’s not hard to dredge up the figure that transmission losses account for about 10% of the electrical energy generated in the US - that is, out of every 10W of power generated, we lose 1W getting that power to where it’s put to use. Because we use a lot of power, this represents a huge waste, but measured as a calculation of efficiency it’s pretty good - that’s 90%.

The more I think about this number, however, the more I hate it. The figure is remarkably deceptive. This is true because what it really measures is not efficiency; instead, it measures the total system losses measured against the total system generation. This provides no guidance about what the losses would be like if the distribution system were different - for instance, if it incorporated longer transmission lines. A useful figure would normalize to line length and utilized line capacity.

That’s complex-sounding but means something simple. From my desk at work, I can walk to a 150MW natural gas-fired power plant. It provides power to the Laboratory facilities, all of which lie within a radius of about one mile. Because the transmission distance is quite short, the transmission losses in this case are very small (<1%). Let's say that they are 0.5%, or 0.75MW.

Someplace in Nebraska or some other sparsely-populated state, however, there is certainly a small town or some energy-consuming facility which lies a great distance (say ~50 miles) from a power-generating facility. Maybe it uses 100kW of power. Due to the distance, the transmission losses in this case are quite large (I will estimate 35%, which is representative of the calculation coming up).

In aggregate, the example system comprised of Argonne National Laboratory plus a factory in Nebraska refining corn syrup suffers transmission losses of 785kW, or 0.52%. America is like this. The transmission efficiency looks high (losses of only 10%) because most of the power we use (normalized to capacity) travels only short distances (normalized to length). This does not mean that line losses per distance are low. Mostly it means that the lines are short - not at all adequate to carry power from North Dakota to someplace useful.

So, this is a nice, simple explanation, but is it true? To test it, this site has a useful model of an electrical distribution network. There is a little bit of math ahead, which I only include because I think some readers will like it.

Following the diagram and the text below it, Ohio Edison operates 5757MW of electrical power generation (let’s call it 6000MW). The source voltage is 18kV; this gives 300,000A of current in the generating facilities (rounding for convenience).

The ratio of the step-up transformer to the transmission line is 350/18, which we’ll call 20. This means that the current in the transmission line is 300,000/20, or 15,000A. Current is stepped down in this manner in order to minimize transmission losses, but they cannot be eliminated.

In order to calculate the transmission losses, we’ll assume that the transmission cable used for this application has a resistance of around 0.1 Ohms per km of length. This is at the low end of the range (so the loss estimate will be low) according to a couple of spec sheets I looked at.

This yields (P=I^2R) 22.5MW lost power per km of length, or 0.4% per km. That’s 0.6% per mile, or 10% of the total energy lost over a transmission distance of just 18 miles. After 115 miles, only 50% of the power remains.

This is the basis of my opinion that you really do lose a lot in the transmission lines, which has serious implications for how one might design distribution networks incorporating renewable energy sources.

Oh, OOPS: I wrote this post late last night, and managed to convince myself of something that isn't true. The conclusion that the lost power per unit of length is 0.6% per mile of length is correct. I then took that number and compounded it (like interest) to find the total loss, like this: 0.994^N=0.9, where N is the length in miles, to find the distance corresponding to 10% loss.

Actually, it's simpler. Since the resistance increases at the same rate as the length (0.2Ohms for 2km, etc.), the loss just scales as length as well. So the benchmark comparisons actually are 17mi for 10% loss and 83mi for 50% loss. The overall point remains correct, but the specific numbers were wrong. I apologize for the error.

(What led me to over-think this question is the answer you get using this method to calculate the loss over, say, 300mi: 180%. Of course this is impossible - you can't lose more than you started with - from which I concluded that the physics actually should involve constant bites in percentage terms from a diminishing total. This is incorrect. When the line losses start to get pretty large, I think a slightly more complex analysis of the distribution network must be invoked. Since this doesn't alter the conclusion, which remains correct, I'll omit further explanation.)

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 01:12 AM | Comments (15)

March 03, 2010

Put That in Your Pipeline and....Keep Matches Away

By: Aaron Datesman

I’m fortunate to work at a place funded with your tax dollars which is truly a national treasure: Argonne National Laboratory. The very best aspect of my job is the constant stream of brilliant minds who glide through to lecture. One of the best of these in the past year was Prof. Daniel Nocera from MIT, a chemist who is working on renewable energy approaches which mimic the action of photosynthesis. It’s a fascinating topic and a very active area of research.

I have a DVD of his lecture (which I’m willing to copy and share, although I cannot post it), but I bring it up because a pessimistic comment on a previous post brought it to mind. I found Nocera to be quite refreshingly blunt in a compulsive sort of way. At one point he said, in reference to the possibility of meeting our energy needs amid environmental and population constraints, that although he doesn’t think we can make it

[T]he obligation as a scientist is to go down swinging.

That statement seemed both pithy and correct, and so made it verbatim into my notes from the lecture. I also like it because it doesn’t leave room for pessimistic inaction. In this vein, when I read around in the scientific and lay technical literature (library access is another very excellent job perk!), I find very many indications that we already have all of the tools we need to save ourselves and our planet.

(Another statement I wrote down which I like: “Solar isn’t too expensive; coal is too cheap.”)

Thinking along these lines, my previous post is sort of trite and didn’t address the most interesting question: where should that $8.33bn in guarantees for nuclear power plants have gone instead? My answer is, to demonstrate wind-to-hydrogen technology.

There is enough potential for wind energy in North Dakota to supply 1/3rd of the electricity consumption in the continental US. Now, although you can’t distribute that energy as electricity to where it’s needed (it isn’t widely appreciated that electrical generation and distribution is actually rather localized), it’s quite feasible to use wind-generated power to electrolyze water in North Dakota, making hydrogen, and to ship the hydrogen fuel via pipeline to Minneapolis or Chicago, where it would be converted back to electricity near the point of use.

I imagine that $8bn would be quite sufficient to demonstrate this technology on a pilot scale, jump-starting the industry, spurring innovation, and driving down costs. (By way of comparison, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline cost around $8bn in 1977 dollars.) The $3tn wad we’ve blown invading Iraq would probably have covered the cost of the wind farms and hydrogen pipelines altogether.

This sounds crazy even to me, like perhaps an American president in the early 1960’s saying that we ought to walk on the moon. So perhaps some day we should expect to enjoy computer-generated pictures of wind turbines in North Dakota, which the shadows will show to be obvious forgeries.

OK, jokes are easy and often great - BUT SERIOUSLY, what’s to stop Obama from giving this speech?

“We choose to eliminate our reliance on foreign sources of fossil energy in order to guarantee our national security both now, and in the future. To this end, I have instructed the Treasury Department to issue $1 trillion in bonds pursuant to a national security order which I have issued, in order to finance construction of this pathbreaking renewable energy facility. The Greatest Generation met the threat of fascism in their time; the population back on the home front supported them through the purchase of war bonds. Let this generation support America’s engineers and scientists as they meet the threat of our time by the purchase of Earth Bonds.”

We won’t fail because we lack the tools or the ideas - or the money. We’ll fail because we’ve lost the talent for politics and the courage to think big.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 09:21 PM | Comments (31)

This Blows!

By: Aaron Datesman

Although skeptical of nuclear power (I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and am just old enough to remember Three Mile Island), over the years I’ve struggled a great deal to form an informed opinion pro- or con-. This continued up through a brief period in 2005 during which I worked in the nuclear industry, when I was employed by Bechtel Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.

(As an aside, you haven’t heard of Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, located near Pittsburgh in West Mifflin, PA. Naval Reactors, the head office of the nuclear navy, prefers it that way.)

There was a lot of talk about the upcoming nuclear renaissance at Bettis in 2005. I remember especially a lecture by a very senior member of the technical staff, who shared his opinion that accidents at nuclear plants are a) unavoidable, and b) nothing to worry about. From an engineering perspective, I thought then and think now that his opinion is exactly right. The challenge is not to build a nuclear plant that can’t fail at all, since that’s impossible. The true challenge is to build one which fails only in limited ways, and never irrecoverably.

This settled the argument for me. When I understood that the mainstream opinion within the heart of the American nuclear complex accepts the inevitability of nuclear accidents, I became an opponent of nuclear power. In that context, this blows:

President Obama seized a key Republican energy initiative as his own Tuesday, promising $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees for a pair of Georgia reactors that he said would give new life to the U.S. nuclear power industry and create a surge of high-skill jobs.

What’s interesting is HOW MUCH this blows. What other opportunities are we forgoing in order to make this investment in nuclear energy? A modern nuclear power plant produces about 1000 MW of power when operating. This comparison is worthwhile: the American Wind Energy Association announced recently that

The U.S. wind industry broke all previous records by installing nearly 10,000 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity in 2009 (enough to serve over 2.4 million homes)

To account for intermittency (the wind doesn’t always blow), it’s customary to divide the generating capacity by ~3-5 to derive an equivalent to electric power produced by burning natural gas, which doesn’t suffer the problem of intermittent supply. Therefore, just last year in the US we installed generating capacity from wind at least equal to (actually, probably significantly larger than) the output which the two nuclear plants in Georgia will produce when they finally come on-line (which, hopefully, is never).

The installed wind generation capacity in the US is approximately 35,000 MW. This is something around 2% of total production, which is not a lot - but the annual growth rate in the wind industry exceeds 30%.

Nuclear is a dog - it’s not safe, it’s not economical, we don’t need it, and we shouldn’t have it. Maybe I didn’t expect anything better from Obama, but I sure expected better from Secretary Chu.

Come to think of it, Secretary Chu is my boss about fifteen times removed. Do you think he'll give me a raise for pointing this out?

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at 12:13 AM | Comments (8)

March 02, 2010

Everyone Has Failed Me

After I made this joke I was certain the entire internet was going to come to my house to hoist me on their shoulders and carry me around America. In fact, I was already considering whether I was going to have to hire security to protect me from overenthusiastic fans. Apparently that won't be necessary.

I resign.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:26 AM | Comments (21)