Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Night Poetry: Wang Wei

Chinese poet, Wang Wei, lived a long time ago. His poetry apparently had a Taoist bent.

Bamboo Grove

Sitting alone in the dark bamboo,
I play a lute, hum loudly to the world.
No one hears I am so deep in the forest.
A bright moon shines, my face shines back.

—Wang Wei


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good News and Sobering News on Wind Energy

The good news over the last three or four years is that wind generation is being taken seriously in the United States. A number of European countries are way ahead of us in terms of total percentage of electricity produced by wind. And it will still be true for some time to come that Europe as a whole still generates more power from wind than we do. But Americans are finally making progress. Here's the story by AWEA: the American Wind Energy Association:
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported today in its third quarter (Q3) market report that the U.S. wind energy industry installed 1,649 megawatts (MW) of new power generating capacity in the third quarter—an amount higher than either the 2nd quarter of 2009 or the 3rd quarter of 2008—bringing the total capacity added this year to date to over 5,800 MW. AWEA also reported that wind turbine manufacturing still lags below 2008 levels, in both production and new announcements.


The total wind power capacity now operating in the U.S. is over 31,000 MW, generating enough electricity to power the equivalent of nearly 9 million homes, avoiding the emissions of 57 million tons of carbon annually and reducing expected carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2.5%.

Like I said, this is good news. But we need to put it into perspective. For one thing, 31,000 MW is only a small percentage of our total generating capacity. In addition, as Americans over the next ten years turn more and more to hybrids, electric cars and plug-ins, we will need more electricity produced by wind and solar.

According to the EIA (part of the Department of Energy), the United States in 2007 had a maximum generating capacity from all sources of 994,888 MW. That's a lot of electricity. Unfortunately, some 75% of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels. We have a long ways to go to retire fossil fuels just for producing electricity.

We also will have to create a larger capacity to electrify our transportation. Luckily, cars need less energy in the form of electrical power than they do from gasoline and diesel, largely because so much of the energy from fossils fuels is lost in the form of heat.

Let's hope we can double the production of wind turbines in the next two or three years.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's Alternative Energy, Not Alternative Fuels (sigh)

If it burns, it's a fuel. If it's ethanol, it's not new.

So I had a problem when BusinessWeek had this headline a few days ago: ENERGY SECRETARY TELLS CEOS NEW FUELS COMING.

Well, I'm not sure that's precisely what Interior Secretary Ken Salazar or Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at a meeting in North Carolina. I hope not. Actually, BusinessWeek isn't totally at fault. They simply ran an AP story whose headline seems to have been used elsewhere as well. But a periodical is responsible for its stories. If someone has truly discovered a 'new fuel' out there and it's truly clean, that would be major news. If I were a reporter and or an editor at BusinessWeek, I would have jumped all over that story. Google News would have given me at least a hundred hits and the Dow would have jumped 200 points.

At the very least the editors at BusinessWeek should have read the article which spoke only of wind and solar energy. The last time I looked, we don't burn wind, and solar farms catch sunlight rather than burn it.

Here's a more complete story from Kendall Jones of NBC17:
"North Carolina has the potential as a state to be the Saudi Arabia of alternative fuels," District 2 Congressman Bob Etheridge said.

From offshore renewable energy to solar panels, Washington leaders said North Carolina can manufacture green energy products and harvest the clean fuel.

Secretary Salazar said his agency has cleared out bureaucratic confusion holding up potential offshore renewable energy projects.

Saudi Arabia? Okay, somebody used the word 'fuel' at the meeting. Ouch. Etheridge may not have been the only one to use the word. I expect today's Republican politicians to be ignorant because their party has been overrun with right wingers. But Democrats too have an obligation to be careful with their vocabulary. Maybe Etheridge was using 'fuel' as a metaphor. If Salazar or Chu used the word 'fuel,' shame on them. The last thing business CEOs need to hear is more about dreamosol, the magic fuel that will mysteriously appear out of the laboratory and solve all our problems.

During the Bush years, there was talk of a hydrogen economy. Hydrogen is a true clean fuel. But only after it's put in your car. It has two major problems: you have to strip carbon from fossil fuels or you have use energy to make it from water. It's a solution that isn't a solution.

By the way, here's part of a press release on U.S. Department of Energy website:
“This is a company whose mission is to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change and to build a sustainable, triple-bottom-line that values people, the planet and profit,” Salazar said during his visit. “Its employees have installed more than 11,000 solar panels, producing about 2.8 million kilowatt hours of clean energy.

Their work in 2008 offset more than 74 million pounds of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of planting 5.7 million trees. These folks believe they can help change the world for the better and we couldn’t agree more.”

"Solar power produced by SAS here in Cary is a great example of the emerging energy economy, and a model for forward-thinking policies driving innovation in our state,” Sen. Hagan said. “North Carolina is well-positioned to take advantage of opportunities in this new economy. I am committed to investing in sustainable, American-made energy that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create new manufacturing jobs in North Carolina and throughout the nation."

The story may be covering a different event on the same trip but at least the writer of the article didn't use the word 'fuel.' There's hope. Maybe the writer of the article should hold seminars for members of Congress.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Night Poetry: Lines from Dante

There are hundreds of translations around the world of Dante's Divine Comedy. If one can read it, the original version is best. The Divine Comedy, of course, begins with the Inferno. Here are the opening lines of one of the world's great poems.


I was midway through our journey of life
and woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered far from the true path.

It is not easy to say what it was,
this thick wood of gnarled trees, stubborn and grim
(the memory of it stirs my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could hardly be worse.
But to show the good that took long to come
I must talk of things other than the good.

How I entered there I cannot recall,
so sleepy had I become when I first strayed
from my course in life, leaving the true path;

but when I found myself nearing the bottom,
at the edge of the wilderness, in the valley,
where a shadow plunged my heart deep in fear,

I raised my head and saw on the hilltop
a golden silhouette of the morning light
that heartens men forward on every road...


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Oil Accordion

Since at least 2005, the price of oil has been rolling up and down at least two or three times a year. Although summer seems to be a major period of rising prices for crude and winter sees the price for a barrel of oil falling to lower levels, other factors increasingly lead to uncertainty during other parts of the year. We are in an of energy turbulence and most of that turbulence is connected to oil.

In the comments section of The Oil Drum:Europe, Nate Hagens speaks of the "oil accordion." It's an apt image and here's what he says:
The bigger issue is the oil accordion.

Now the economy can afford $100, yet oil companies require $60.
In the future the economy will be able to afford $90 and oil companies will require $70.

Then, $85 vs $80 etc.

Someone suggested it be called the Oil Price Accordion but that's not entirely descriptive. As oil demand goes up, prices go up and make it possible to support expensive oil projects such as drilling in deep water, drilling in the arctic and drilling very deep. But as more oil comes online, the price begins to drop. Or the high price of oil—usually in addition to other problems—begins to have a dampening effect on the economy. This affects oil production which begins to drop. Oil projects cannot be turned on and off without serious costs being incurred (as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico have shown, oil can be turned off fairly quickly but starting the oil back up again is expensive and that has to be included in the cost of shutting down).

It's true that for twenty-five years, we assumed that occasional high oil prices didn't hurt the economy that much since the percentage of oil that affects the economy has dropped in that period. But the real cost of producing oil has been rising for some time. And the United States is finally paying additional economic costs for buying so much of its oil on the international market.

We're finding that market forces are not always efficient. It's disruptive when such things as oil prices or real estate prices dramatically rise or fall. The oil accordion is a descriptive name in this time of worldwide economic turbulence.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Resilience in the 21st Century

I don't honestly know what's going to happen for the next 100 years but we're having trouble producing enough energy to keep the world running at its current economic level. It's doubtful the world can support 7 billion people let alone the 10 billion people that forecasters were predicting just a few years ago.

In the 1950s, we dreamed of abundant energy, but over the years we made many blunders and allowed ourselves to be overly dependent on oil. In truth, too many people in business and government seemed to be waiting for the major breakthroughs that were supposed to supply endless energy with a minimum of problems. Nuclear energy turned out to be difficult to manage and fusion of course never happened.

It is likel that much tragedy and sorrow lies ahead. How much no one can say. Maybe we'll luck out. Maybe somebody at the last minute will invent dreamosol and our energy problems will be solved. Or maybe people in places like the U.S. will recognize that we have a problem and get serious and launch a massive program for the next ten years to diversify our energy, simplify our lives and find more efficient ways to get things done. If not, the U.S. and the world are going to need lots of resilience in the years ahead.

There's still lots of energy but the core problem is that it's not likely to be enough for 7 billion people, let alone billions more. Still, maybe we can squeeze through the hard times with ten million little solutions But to get through the hard times, we're going to need resilience, the ability to deal with a bad situation and somehow manage to turn it around, even if it takes time, lots of time.

Resilience can be found in unlikely places. Here's a story from CNN (via Leanan of The Oil Drum) about a teenage boy in Malawi who took the future into his own hands:
...amid all the shortages, one thing was still abundant.



[William] Kamkwamba... ...spent his days at the library, where a book with photographs of windmills caught his eye.

"I thought, this thing exists in this book, it means someone else managed to build this machine," he said.


Armed with the book, the then-14-year-old taught himself to build windmills. He scoured through junkyards for items, including bicycle parts, plastic pipes, tractor fans and car batteries. For the tower, he collected wood from blue-gum trees.


Three months later, his first windmill churned to life as relief swept over him. As the blades whirled, a bulb attached to the windmill flickered on.

Keep in mind that the young man got better and better at building windmills and he's still at it, while teaching others how to do more. Read the full story and check out the two pictures. Better yet, drop CNN a line and let them know we need more stories like this. If there's a future in the year 2200, it will be because of kids like William Kamkwamba, whether they are found in Africa, the United States or anywhere else in the world.

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