Eclipsed, Lately

HDR composite of eclipse (Tom Murphy)In the event that anyone still checks this site for new posts (not sure whether to be proud or concerned), here’s an update. But mostly it’s a pointer to some photos I think some may enjoy.

While I remain concerned about the collision course between growth and resources, I have found ample distraction these past few years: research, teaching, administrative duties, bike commuting, and starting a company to make aircraft detectors. Oh, and politics. What a spectacle!

Speaking of spectacles, ever since traveling to Mexico in 1991 to see my first total solar eclipse, I’ve wanted another one. Just afterwards, a consultation of upcoming events suggested that the next one I was likely to see would have me waiting until 2017! As a 21-year-old, I wondered if I would even still be alive in that distant year, inconceivably old. I made it. And what was I thinking—old?!

So after much anticipation and preparation, I traveled north with a college friend, remote-camping/mobile and ready to pounce on the best weather prospects. We ended up in far eastern Oregon, on BLM (our) land. The experience was amazing: I automated my cameras so that I could largely just gawk. It was all too short: I needed a pause button to really take it all in. I’ll have to settle for future eclipses. And to that, I say Mexico (not the U.S.) in 2024—based on likely weather. Besides, it’s unclear whether the eclipse shadow will be able to get past the wall we keep hearing so much yakking about.

But you can see highlights of my photos from the recent glorious event here.

In other news, my Nickel-Iron batteries seem to be holding up well (I owe a post on some real analysis of these). I am “living the dream” in my daily commute. After 12 years off a bike (obvious routes are dangerous; hilly profile would require time-inefficient shower), I finally solved the problems: (longer) trail route and an e-bike (off-grid-solar-charged). Purists would say I’m cheating, but I say I’m back on a bike and working plenty hard. The rough-hewn route exposes me to wildlife (the occasional coyote or bobcat, even), has a few stream crossings, and enriches my life by offering a daily connection to the natural world. My propulsion energy is now free of direct contributions from fossil fuels, which I find to be rewarding—even if the materials/manufacture are still utterly dependent.

So that’s it for now. I haven’t given up on Do the Math, but have not had much new to say, and little available time in any case. I hope all is well with you all.

BBC Questions Indefinite Growth

Theo Leggett of the BBC interviewed me in late January as part of a program asking: “Can the World Get Richer Forever?”  You can listen to the show here.  My part begins about eleven minutes in.

I was also asked to contribute some short text for the write-up (same as first link above), but apparently Theo was unable to get contributions from all participants, so wrote the piece himself.  But here is what I sent him.  I was asked to answer the question:

Can the World Get Richer Forever?

Shame on you for even asking.  Of course not.  At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources.  We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet.  The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects.  We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power).  Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels.  But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years!  Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams.  The other point to make is that even if we capped physical growth due to finite resources, we cannot expect to continue getting richer indefinitely.  This would necessarily take the form of non-physical exchanges of utility/worth, but to keep growing these activities would have to eventually utterly dominate the economy—rendering the finite and essential resources effectively free.  And tell me how that makes sense.


Peak What?

separating U.S. influence on global oil production

(you’ll see larger later)

I’ve been maintaining “radio silence” for a while—mostly on account of an overflowing plate and several new new hats I wear. All the while, I have received a steady stream of e-mail thanking me for Do the Math, asking if I’m still alive, and if so: what do I make of the changing oil situation? Do I still think peak oil is a thing?

Let’s start with the big picture view.

I was wrong about everything. Oil is not a finite resource: never was and never will be. We will employ new technologies and innovate our way into essentially perpetual fossil energy. We’ve only scratched the surface in exploration: there are giant deposits (countless new Saudi-Arabia-scale fields) yet to be discovered). The shale oil tells us so—and it won’t stop there. Shale first, then slate, marble, granite: just squeeze the frack out of rocks and we’ll get oil. Meanwhile, whole new continents are being discovered, rich with resources. The most recent was hiding behind Australia. And naturally it doesn’t stop there. We have now discovered thousands of planets just a hop away, most of which are likely to contain fossil fuels of their own. So game over for the resource limits crowd, yeah?

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Plans to Put PV to Pasture?

PV out to pasture?A colleague pointed me toward an article in the LA Times last week, which lays out a plan to remove financial incentives legally bestowed on solar photovoltaics (PV) to the detriment of utility power companies. The plan is spearheaded by the Koch brothers and their political action group, Americans for Prosperity.

In summary, they target two laws that give a big boost to solar: net metering, and renewable mandates. Both impart crucial advantages to solar installations that can change the economics by a large factor.

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Elusive Entropy

partial mixWe’ve all heard it. We think we understand it: entropy is a measure of disorder. Combined with the Second Law of Thermodynamics—that the total entropy of a closed system may never decrease—it seems we have a profound statement that the Universe is destined to become less ordered.

The consequences are unsettling. Sure, the application of energy can reverse entropy locally, but if our society enters an energy-scarce regime, how can we maintain order? It makes intuitive sense: an energy-neglected infrastructure will rust and crumble. And the Second Law stands as a sentinel, unsympathetic to deniers of this fact.

A narrative has developed around this theme that we take in low entropy energy and emit a high entropy wake of waste. That life displays marvelous order—permitted by continuous feeding of this low entropy energy—while death and decay represent higher entropy end states. That we extract low entropy concentrations of materials (ores) from the ground, then disperse the contents around the world in a higher entropy arrangement. The Second Law warns that there is no going back: at least not without substantial infusion of energy.

But wait just a minute! The preceding paragraph is mostly wrong! An unfortunate conflation of the concepts of entropy and disorder has resulted in widespread misunderstanding of what thermodynamic entropy actually means. And if you want to invoke the gravitas of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you’d better make darned sure you’re talking about thermodynamic entropy—whose connection to order is not as strong as you might be led to believe. Entropy can be quantified, in Joules per Kelvin. Let’s build from there.

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The Energy-Water Nexus

The principal challenge of this century, in my view, will be adapting to a life without abundant, cheap fossil fuels. It has been the lifeblood of our society, and turns out to have some really fantastic qualities. The jury is still out as to whether we will develop suitable/affordable replacements. But additional challenges loom in parallel. Water is very likely to be one of them, which is especially pertinent in my region. For true believers in the universality of substitution, let me suggest two things. First, come to terms with the finite compactness of the periodic table. Second, try substituting delicious H2O with H2O2. It has an extra oxygen atom, and we all know that oxygen is a vital requisite for life, so our new product will be super-easy to market. Never-mind the hydrogen peroxide taste, and the death that will surely visit anyone foolish enough to adopt this substitution. Sometimes we’re just stuck without substitutes.

Substitution silliness aside, water and energy are intimately related in what has been termed the Energy-Water Nexus (see for example the article by Michael Webber from this conference compilation; sorry about the paywall). We’ll explore aspects of this connection here, touching on pumping water, use of water for the production and extraction of energy, and desalination. As glaciers and snowpack melt and drought becomes more common in the face of climate change, our water practices will need to be modified, hitting energy right in the nexus.

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Blow-by-Blow PV System Efficiency: A Case Study for Storage

A short while back, I described my standalone (off-grid) urban photovoltaic (PV) energy system. At the time, I promised a follow-up piece evaluating the realized efficiency of the system. What was I thinking? The resulting analysis is a lot of work! But it was good for me, and hopefully it will be useful to some of you lot as well. I’ll go ahead and give you the final answer: 62%. So you could peel away now and risk using this number out of context, or you could come with me into the rabbit hole…

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Solar Data Treasure Trove

I have not kept it secret that I’m a fan of solar power. Leaving storage hangups aside for now, the fact that the scale of available power is comfortably gigantic, that perfectly efficient technology exists, that it’s hard-over on the reality axis (vs. fantasy: it’s producing electricity on my roof right now), and that it works well almost everywhere—what’s not to like? Did you trip over that last part? Many do. In this post, we’ll look at just how much solar yield one may expect as a function of location within the U.S.

The ancient Mayans laboriously accumulated a substantial set of observational data on solar illumination across America well ahead of the present need. Okay, it wasn’t actually the ancient Mayans. It was the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), who embarked on a 30-year campaign beginning in 1961, covering 239 locations across the U.S. and associated territories. Imagine this. How many people were even cognizant of solar power in 1961? Yet the forward-thinking scientists at NREL appreciated the value of a solid baseline dataset way back then. This level of foresight seems akin to the Mayans constructing a calendar going all the way to 2012. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a gift from the past.

I have often consulted and enjoyed the product of this work over the years—called the NREL Redbook, or more formally, the Solar Radiation Data Manual for Flat Plate and Concentrating Collectors. But with a snazzy blog post as motivation, I have taken it up a notch and produced a variety of graphical representations of the dataset to explore what it can tell us. Let’s begin the guided tour.

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Do the Math Turns One: Place Your Orders

One year ago today, Do the Math was born with a post on the absurdity of continued growth—in this case illustrating a Galaxy-consuming civilization in a mere 2500 years. Within a month, the site was getting thousands of pageviews per day, as I cranked out a backlog of thoughts and analysis surrounding the energy challenges we face.

In the process, adhering to a weekly schedule forced me to perform many new calculations on topics I had not previously explored very deeply. So besides being a cathartic experience, I gained new understanding, finding the exercise of constructing the alternative energy matrix to be particularly clarifying. One of the major lessons for me has been that while the physical scale of any alternative energy resource is important—and sometimes a showstopper—more often it’s the practical limitations that form the biggest barriers.

Finding the time and (mental) energy to keep the blog rolling has been challenging, but it’s you folks who inspired me to keep trucking. Knowing that each post would be read by thousands, and knowing that I could look forward to some excellent and thought-provoking (although sometimes just provoking) comments made the enterprise worthwhile.

At this point, I have dropped the cadence to bi-weekly, and my list of future topic ideas is slowly being whittled down. Many comments in the past have requested that I write a post about issue or another. I invite you to submit requests (even if repeated) in the comment forum below. Note that I might not have the background, interest, or time to invest if serious analysis is required. But there is some chance I’ll take the bait—and the idea may already even be on my list! Please refer to the Guide to Posts for a refresher of what’s been covered already.

Also, I think it fitting on this first anniversary to extend a note of gratitude to Asher Miller of the Post Carbon Institute for inspiring me to start writing, and for putting me in touch with the fine folks at the Energy Bulletin. The EB editors: Bart Anderson, Kristin Sponsler, and Simone Osborn offered early guidance and good advice (plus instant readership) that was vital to getting Do the Math off the ground. So a hearty thanks to these folks! 1.5 million pageviews later, their contributions have clearly had an impact.

And thanks to you, the readers, for your role in making this a successful and rewarding endeavor.

Heat Pumps Work Miracles

Part of the argument that we cannot expect growth to continue indefinitely is that efficiency gains are capped. Many of our energy applications are within a factor of two of theoretical efficiency limits, so we can’t squeeze too much more out of this orange. After all, nothing can be more than 100% efficient, can it? Well, it turns out there is one domain in which we can gleefully break these bonds and achieve far better than 100% efficiency: heat pumps (includes refrigerators). Even though it sounds like magic, we still must operate within physical limits, naturally. In this post, I explain how this is possible, and develop the thermodynamic limit to heat engines and heat pumps. It’s a story of entropy.

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