/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Peak oil? Nonsense! Says Daniel Yergin

Dr. Daniel Yergin has just published "The Quest," "a magisterial masterpiece," according to an endorsement by Dr. Lawrence Summers, a well known economist and ex-President of Harvard University. Mr. Yergin received his B.A. from Yale University in 1968, and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations (1974) from Cambridge University.

The other endorsements came from:
  • Mr. Walter Isaacson, a writer and biographer, and President of The Aspen Institute.
  • Dr. Henry Kissinger, who received his A.B., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University. His doctoral dissertation was titled "Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich)."
  • Mr. Steve Coll, a journalist and writer, and President of the New America Foundation.
  • Mr. Fred Krupp, an environmental lawyer from the University of Michigan, and CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund.
  • Mr. Frederick W. Smith, B.A. in economics from Yale University, CEO of FedEx Corporation, and a fraternity brother of George W. Bush.
  • Dr. Susan Hockfield, B.S. in biology from the University of Rochester, Ph.D. in Anatomy and Neuroscience from the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and President of MIT.
What do Mr. Yergin and these seven pillars of the East Coast establishment have in common? The answer is simple: These otherwise wonderful people would not recognize crude oil or condensate raining on their heads, and have no idea how to find hydrocarbons, and recover and process them. Most would be gravely challenged when asked to solve a quadratic equation.

So how exactly, in Dr. Kissinger's words, "The Quest, by Daniel Yergin, one of world's most experienced and influential authorities on global energy, may well become the definitive work on the science, history and economics of this most complex and important subject"?

Excuse me, but aren't science and engineering qualifications still relevant in this post-1984 world? Who am I to say, a mere petroleum engineer, who has dabbled in the recovery of hydrocarbons by every conceivable method over the last 30 years?

I cannot say, because I am not fluent in the newspeak, do not practice real politik, and am not aroused by the slogan Ignorance is Strength, next to War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery. Thus, I will stick with what I know well: science and engineering.

Which brings me to the delicate subject of Dr. Marion King Hubbert, who is cavalierly dismissed by Mr. Yergin as "one of the most controversial" earth scientists of "his time." Being a skilled propagandist he is, Mr. Yergin must dispose of Dr. Hubbert since he wants to convert the readers to his deeply held faith in an infinite supply of crude oil (mixed with infinite amounts of gas condensate and biofuels).

In fairness to Mr. Yergin, he seems to be admitting between the lines that the Everlasting Oil Plateau party is over, especially when one considers the two biggest party poopers: China and India.  One needs, however, to dig deeply, and into Mr. Yergin's earlier proclamations of the glorious future to get this message. In 2005, Mr. Yergin predicted a "large, unprecedented buildup of oil supply in the next few years." In 2011, he no longer was so ebullient.

But I digressed. For the record, Hubbert was a genius Ph.D. physicist from the University of Chicago, a geologist, and one of the two best American-born scientists ever.  The second was Josiah Willard Gibbs. Under Hubbert's leadership, Shell Development became the Bell Labs of the oil industry, a spectacular achievement not replicated ever since anywhere in the world. I am one of many grandchildren of King Hubbert. Academia is permeated with us:  Professors George Hirasaki, Larry Lake, Lynn Orr, Gary Pope, Skip Scriven, and Harold Vinegar, all members of NAE, are but a sample.
Dr. Marion King Hubbert

The first-class scientific contributions of Dr. Hubbert are impossible to list in a short blog. Suffices it to say that starting from resource estimates and plate tectonics to migration paths of hydrocarbons, modern exploration, rock mechanics and rock physics, King Hubbert and Shell Development he managed for over 20 years created the modern approach to hydrocarbon recovery. They also brought us computer memory, seismic processing with signal stacking, and the first significant deep offshore discoveries and development. Forty years later, the oil and gas industry is still living off of the grand discoveries made in Shell Development.

In 1963, one year before Hubbert retired, Shell was so far ahead of everyone in offshore engineering that Shell had to make public some of its discoveries to start bidding on federal leases. By law, there had to be another bidder. The big auditorium at the venerable Bellaire Research Center was filled with industry representatives, each paying $100,000 ($750,000 in 2011 dollars) for his seat.

In 1979, first deep offshore oil flowed from the Shell Cognac platform. Today, 20 percent of all oil worldwide is recovered offshore as a direct consequence of the pioneering work by Dr. Hubbert and his fellow-researchers. Shell Development, where I worked for 7 years, shaped me more as a scientist than 18 years at UC Berkeley and 3 years at UT Austin combined.

Now on to Hubbert peaks. In 1956, King Hubbert presented to the world a decade of his revolutionary thinking at Shell and predicted a peak of oil production in the U.S. in 1970. Of course he was widely ridiculed and dismissed by the vintage copies of Mr. Yergin, who still finds it impossible to conceive of finite resources. Then it happened exactly as Dr. Hubbert had predicted fourteen years earlier.

Please try to find an economic forecast of anything significant in the world that lasts unscathed for more than a quarter. In 1929, for example, the Harvard Economic Society declared that a depression was “outside the range of probability.” The current depression started in December 2007, but through 2008, most economists predicted a 2.8% rate of growth of the GDP. As it often happens with the economists, they are not only clueless about the future, but also oblivious to the known measurable past.
The 1956 prediction of the annual rate of production of crude oil in the U.S. Note that King Hubbert did not know about the future Prudhoe Bay (the largest oil field in the U.S. producing since 1977), deep offshore production (starting in late 1980's), horizontal wells and massive hydrofracturing (starting in late 1990's). Yet for 2010, or 54 years later, Hubbert's higher estimate predicts 2.7 million barrels of oil per day, or 50 percent of the actual production rate. With the benefit of more production history, a better estimate of crude oil production rate in the U.S. can be obtained with a multi-Hubbert peak analysis that accounts for the newer populations of oil fields and wells. I have calculated that an extra 50 billion barrels will be produced in the U.S. as a result of new discoveries and revolutionary changes in technology. But, just as Hubbert predicted in 1956, crude oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970, and there is nothing we can do about it.

I could continue to explain how Hubbert curves must arise from a set of weakly correlated random variables (many oil or gas fields, or large groups of wells with arbitrary production histories), but we described this emergence elsewhere. I must warn the readers that mathematics (pardon my language) was used. Incidentally,  we predicted that the world coal production rate would be peaking right now, together with the crude oil rate.

In summary, might I suggest that for his self-preservation Mr. Yergin ought to stay away from the giants of science? They always win in the long run. Does anyone remember who Grand Duke Ferdinand I de' Medici or Cardinal Maffeo Barberini were? Probably not, but we do recognize Galileo's name instantaneously.

A cold war journalist, historian, and a consummate gate keeper for the rulers of yesteryear, Mr. Yergin is like a sparrow. Sparrows fly close to the ground in noisy flocks and can never imagine what a lonely eagle sees from commanding heights. Dr. Hubbert was such an eagle. So was Galileo.
 A large flock of sparrows

P.S. Do you ever wonder how deep the human capacity for denial and self-delusion is? At what point people who do not tolerate a mere thought of the spherical finite Earth that revolves around the Sun will change their mind? A hint: Three hundred seventy years have passed since Galileo's death, but most of what we do unfolds much faster now.

  • "Our new, field-by-field analysis of production capacity, led by my colleagues Peter Jackson and Robert Esser, is quite at odds with the current view and leads to a strikingly different conclusion: There will be a large, unprecedented buildup of oil supply in the next few years. Between 2004 and 2010, capacity to produce oil (not actual production) could grow by 16 million barrels a day -- from 85 million barrels per day to 101 million barrels a day -- a 20 percent increase. Such growth over the next few years would relieve the current pressure on supply and demand."
Daniel Yergin, Washington Post, July 31, 2005
  • Jeff Brown has calculated that to maintain the 2002 to 2005 rate of increase in Global Net Exports out to 2010, in 2010 we would have needed (to close the 16 mbpd gap), another Saudi Arabia, another Russia plus another Norway (based on 2010 net exports).
  • “With much of the conventional supply of oil and gas rapidly depleting, the industry is being forced into much more inhospitable and costly environments, as well as into unconventional oil and gas. All of this requires new technology. There is much occurring today on all of these fronts to develop that new technology, albeit at much higher prices than it is for conventional gas.”
Randall Gossen, President of the World Petroleum Council. EuroNews 
  • And, no, North Dakota will never be a "Saudi Arabia" of the Bakken shale oil or any other fossil resource.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The bearable weight of not-being

My friend, Rob Dietz, has reminded me about these words by Aldo Leopold: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." But when I mention the assorted causes of my internal bleeding to my wife and friends, they all look at me with disbelief and impatience. They do not feel the way I often do. What if their thinking is wiser and reflects what really can be done in a world overrun by seven billion people, who always want more than they have at any given moment and place? For most people on the Earth, "more" means safe water to drink, fresh food to eat, and a shelter with a cook stove and outhouse. For the very few "more" means an $2.5 million watch and unlimited access to all conceivable resources to be used at will.

So let me step back. The Earth, our beautiful blue and green living planet, will continue to be when we are gone, just as she was before we came. In fact, she probably is shutting down or simplifying her life-giving forests, savannahs, estuaries and oceans to get us to launch and shrug us off a little faster; a pesky, self-important and self-righteous species that literally eats her alive. Boy, is she getting tired of us and our prayers for a rain here while we are obliterating trees and clouds over there. In my lonely chronic hurt, am I yet another well-meaning but self-deluded, affluent American, who thinks that he may stem the inevitable with a teaspoon?

Save the planet?! What a stupid and arrogant thing to say! How about this: "Please, please, God, let the planet save us, and we promise to get out of her way." Of course, as a species, we are organically incapable of saying this simple prayer and following up on it.
The New Yorker Cartoon Collection
We can't say this prayer, because more for us is all we want.  To make sure that we get what we want, we have created and refined the most successful - if only for us - social contract in the history of mankind: The Global Capitalism.

Where I write these words, everyone - even the poorest - has benefited from the global capitalism and everyone uses the multitudinous fruits of its technology.  So why should we change?  Only because we may be committing suicide in slow-motion?  Or because millions of others are suffering and dying for our comfort?

Sorry, no time to answer these questions.  I'm off in my Prius to a farmer's market 12 miles away.  I positively need to pick up some locally grown produce and a fair-trade cappuccino. It's my time to relax. So why do I need to see that guy in a beat-up truck who's smoking a cigarette and drinking coke? What an environmentally insensitive slob! And he also looks so tired and unhealthy. Maybe he lost his job? Oh, who cares anyway? What a nice cappuccino...time to relax...

A 6-mile wide lake of absolutely deadly toxic waste left near Baotou, China, after refining and smelting the rare earth metals we use in our Priuses and in wind turbines. But I love my Prius and the renewable electricity I get.  Did I mention that plenty of soil there is also poisoned, as well as groundwater and one of the major waterways in China? In short, people die far away so that I can boast my environmental credentials and drive a Prius.

 P.S. I hope that Milan Kundera would agree with my assessment. Please read his masterpiece, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

P.S.P.S.  For the record, I actually do not own a Prius but drive a small, diesel engine-powered Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI.  And I do not drive 24 miles to get a stupid cappuccino.  Every day, I do see, however, the poor and the dispossessed, even in the affluent booming Austin, TX.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why Good Engineering Education and Research Are Inseparable? Part II - Research and Technology

Has anyone heard of foreigners clamoring to emulate the U.S. K-12 school system?  I certainly haven't.  I do receive, however, foreign delegations that want to learn how we organize academic research and graduate programs at UT Austin.  This happens at least once a month.  People around the world correctly perceive that most Tier 1 academic institutions in the U.S. are second to none and worthy of emulation.

And how about premier U.S. corporations?  Do they come to UT Austin or to the local community colleges to hire their top engineers and scientists?  Do they set up research campuses and incubators around UT or the Austin Community College?  (Please do not get me wrong, ACC is a very fine and vastly underfunded institution, which treats the most difficult cases of acute high-schoolitis and online-learnatis.  My youngest daughter, a BS graduate in premed from UC Santa Cruz, is a nursing student at ACC, and I am pleased with the quality of her program.)

Thus, it astounds me that some of the UT Regents want to convert the Texas' flagship university to an equivalent of a community college or a K-12 institution, and use economic and efficiency arguments to justify their tragic confusion.  Other than destroying Texas' top-tier education, I cannot imagine a faster path for converting our Lone Star State into a third world country.  If this "cost-saving" demolition of UT Austin happened, the U.S companies that still look for high-level skills and training would move to MIT, Georgia Tech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Eastern Europe, India, China and so on.  Their research projects would move there too.  And top UT scientists would soon join the exodus.  In fact, my use of conditional verbs is incorrect; research has been moving to foreign countries for several years now.
So why a world-class university has to have active researchers who work on basic research and develop technology, while also teaching?  The intimate relationship between teaching and science is the answer.

Research and technology are like these two tango dancers; they dance fluently together and support each other.

The main subject of this story is the interdependence of science and research on the one hand, and technology and teaching on the other. Science is the most difficult cognitive activity of humans, not counting poetry of course. Science progresses not through a slow orderly accumulation of results, like an accountant's ledger, but through the messy, disruptive and unexpected discoveries that demolish the status quo. I repeat, a new theory or technology usually collapses the old ones and there is little peaceful coexistence.  Think of the ancient stationary phone competing with the iPhone.

Even the first-rate scientific findings (think of Nobel prizes) are not immortal - the later replace the earlier. I cannot stress enough that major scientific findings are not only made, but also abandoned. Science is in a permanent state of flux, and scientists are eternal voyagers, always going somewhere, and never arriving at a safe port. In science, there is no "there." There are only endless trips into the unknown.
So how can a non-scientist handle all this complexity, fluidity and uncertainty of science, and teach them to the next generations? Because he/she is a "Sherpa"?
I hope that you are beginning to see the clear and present danger of charging the mere teachers with education of a highly skilled technical and scientific labor force.

But it gets worse, as the inventor of the quantum theory, Max Planck, once observed:
To be sure, with every advance in science the difficulty of the task is increased; ever larger demands are made on the achievements of researchers, and the need for a suitable division of labor becomes more pressing. (Vortr├Ąge und Erinnerungen (Lectures and Recollections), 5th Ed. Stuttgart, 1949.)
Max Planck also wrote this about his two very famous teachers: "Helmholtz was never quite prepared, spoke slowly, miscalculated endlessly, and bored his listeners, while Kirchhoff spoke in carefully prepared lectures which were dry and monotonous." Not all famous scientists are the most sensational teachers, but they do educate a few Max Plancks here and there. And the young Maxes then lay the foundations for nuclear weapons and nuclear power, cancer therapies, NMR, computers, networks, iPhones, digital cameras, HDTVs, solar cells, and so on.

What about the relationship between technology and science? It is quite simple: Without new types of data of ever higher resolution, acquired with devices of ever increasing power, modern science cannot function. Thus technology provides the data gathering capability for science. Science in return provides new theory and methods to design and construct the new sensors and machines. Therefore science and technology are intertwined in an eternal tango, only more so today than yesterday. In fact, at any given moment, progress of science can occur only within the barriers set by the available technology.
What if Galileo had a Mount Palomar telescope at his disposal?

In summary, the self-anointed reformers of academia with mere business degrees are possibly the last humans capable of dealing with the exponentially growing complexity of science. They also should not be telling everyone how to run higher education. MBAs simply do not have the cognitive capacity to imagine these difficult and delicate tasks.

Through the poisonous advice to industrial managers with MBA degrees and nothing else, McKinsey Co. did more damage to industrial research in the U.S. than everyone else combined. The U.S. research labs have never quite recovered from that damage and their research has been moving to Asia and Europe.

Americans are pretty bad at understanding historic processes. For us, if it does not happen in five minutes, it does not matter. Well, the industrial research train left for other countries about 30 years ago, and it is slowly gathering speed. Excellent academic research in the U.S. is most of what is left. So let's not try too hard to destroy academia using the very same managerial approach that proved so efficient at blowing up industrial research.

Can we improve academia? Of course. I think that the U.S. scientists and teachers should work much harder on streamlining their endeavors, dividing labor, and making sure that the next generation of scientists and researchers is actually taught science, not merely accredited in huge classes with first-rate teachers, who are no scientists. We also need to teach much more math and physics to our undergraduates, so that they do not quit on us as graduate students.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Good Engineering Education and Research Are Inseparable? Part I - Teaching

Here are two other questions related to the title:
  1. What unique benefits are given to students at all levels - from freshmen to PhD candidates - by a good engineer and scientist, who also happens to be a decent teacher? 
  2. How are these benefits different from those delivered by a credentialed, but scientifically incompetent teacher?
We keep on hearing the loud and stubborn voices that call for a strict separation of teaching from engineering practice and research. I think that these voices are tragically mistaken.

By the way, when I say "tragically," I am thinking of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. In a good Greek tragedy the audience knows the inevitable fatal outcome, but the protagonists don't.

For 22 years, I have been a teacher at two top public universities in the U.S.: UC Berkeley and UT Austin. Over time, I have taught some pretty large classes, so my statistical sample is sufficiently broad to justify the statements I shall make next.

This is what I see: Apart from a few individuals here and there - usually the first or second generation immigrants, often women, and mostly from Asia and Europe - U.S. high schools produce bright but fuzzy graduates, who can pass tests but know too little of anything, including rudiments of English grammar, punctuation, and orthography.

In my opinion, the notoriously underpaid and overworked high school school teachers who never were practicing professionals only add to the multitude of problems with the unfocused high school system in the U.S. For example, a mathematics teacher who 'took' a few college courses in math or even completed a major in math, but is not a breathing mathematician or scientist, may not properly teach mathematics or programming. Similar comments apply to the teaching of physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, and trade professions.
At a risk of repeating myself, I claim that a thoroughly accredited high school science teacher who has not been an active practitioner of what he/she teaches, and is not schooled in rigorous scientific thinking, could be harmful to the students. A Phys Ed teacher who cannot swim probably should not be teaching competitive swimming. The same remarks hold in spades for college teachers.  I find it troubling that so many tenure-track faculty in engineering never work in real world.
Those U.S. colleges that still teach, not merely accredit the clueless in exchange for sacks of cash, act as ER units that resuscitate their comatose patients and give them new life. Patient survival rate and miraculous recoveries have been superb at the two clinics where I have operated. These miracles demonstrate over and over again that the U.S. universities are still among the best or simply the best in the world.

Here is most recent of the several "thank you" emails I received from the engineering students at Berkeley. Many of these students were ready to kill me when I taught them programming.
Hi Professor Patzek- I was in your E77 class in Fall 2002 seven years ago!!!  I since graduated from Berkeley in 2005 and went to medical school.  I am now at UCSF doing brain tumor research, and I wanted you to know that I am actually using MATLAB these days to solve some key questions in brain tumor biology.

I have to admit that MATLAB really gave me a hard time in your class, and when it finished, I swore to myself that I would never use it again.  But when I started my research at UCSF, I realized that there was NO WAY I could do my work efficiently without it.  You can tell your students in your class that maybe they might have a difficult time during the class, but you learn MATLAB best when you use it.  I am learning everyday and actually went home yesterday thinking to myself that I love MATLAB!

Just wanted to let you know!

Hope you are doing well!

Your former student,

L.J. (Her non Anglo-Saxon name was obscured by TWP)
In addition to being an engineer and scientist, I am also a practicing programmer. I did not make it easy on the students, who in return evaluated me quite poorly. Many of the same students saw the light a few years later and thanked me profusely. The low student evaluations in E77 were used to admonish me during my promotion to Full Professor at Berkeley. After a scant praise of my research in the promotion letter, I was told to get my act together and teach E77 better.

The difficulty with teaching programming is similar to that with teaching piano. Only a few students will ever be concert pianists, some will become proficient in playing, but most will stop at using two fingers to play Chopin. So who do you teach to play: Those who actually might use the skill, or those who won't? In a class of 180 students, this is a tough question to answer. I tend to teach those students who express some will to be taught, however diffuse that will might be.

Back to the main story: When it comes to graduate education in engineering and science, far too many U.S. students choose not to compete with foreigners; those Americans are simply too limited when it comes to calculus, physics, chemistry, perspective, ambition, perseverance, and so on. They also want to make too much money too soon, and have no patience for waiting and earning the commensurate knowledge. When it comes to PhD projects in petroleum engineering, close to no U.S. citizens apply, unless the economy is really bad.

Have you ever tried to answer this unsettling question: Why does the sum of science education in high schools and undergraduate colleges in most foreign countries exceed that in the U.S.? In other words, why so many foreign students from so many foreign universities are better prepared/more willing than natives to take on graduate education in science and engineering in the U.S.? If my argument about high school science teachers is wrong, i.e., these teachers cannot do more than they already are doing, then we are left with the general unwillingness of U.S. college graduates to get a graduate degree in science or engineering, perhaps commingled with greed.

I should add that the undergraduate students of petroleum engineering at UT Austin are among the best in the world. I am not saying this because I want to be nice; it is a statement of a measurable fact. These bright motivated students, however, are not interested in graduate studies, and in becoming researchers and faculty. They want to get out as quickly as possible, conquer the world, and make fortunes while at it. Therein lies our problem of having 80-90 percent of foreign-born graduate students, especially at the PhD level.

Next, I will tell you about the subtle dance that entwines technology and research, and their sexy relationship with teaching.

P.S. Both my son, who is finishing his doctorate, and a knowledgeable UT faculty friend tell me that I am wrong about the high school teachers being insufficiently prepared to teach sciences in depth.  Perhaps I am, but I still want this possibility to be left open for discussion.  This is what my son wrote:
I started editing the first opinion piece, but I stopped because I had some fundamental issues with the argument. First of all, I don't think you are commenting on K-12 teachers, because why should an elementary school teacher be a professional mathematician to teach 3rd grade level math. You are really speaking about high school level math and science teachers. But even so I am not convinced that a high school teacher needs to be a professional engineer working for Boeing or a programmer working for Google to be effective. I agree that a greater amount of training should be required of high school level math and science teachers, but how can we expect them to also have professional careers outside of being a full-time teacher? I'm actually not entirely sure what your argument is. I think you make a more effective argument about the American desire for immediate money/power/gratification. But this isn't the same argument as what you begin the piece with. My personal belief is that Americans are supported in laziness over hard work and expect too much too soon. However, this is no longer an American problem so much as a global instant-gratification, technology-supported phenomenon. This isn't really a problem of teaching as much as it is a societal problem encompassing everything from politics, to marketing-is-God, music and arts, to whatever. 
My son's statement about the international scope of problems with finding good graduate students is true.  I just taught two short courses to second-year PhD students in Poland, and with two or three exceptions those students were thoroughly unmotivated, while being overly pampered and too generously supported.

P.S.P.S.  This comment was sent to me by email:

I'll give a brief anecdote and you'll have to take my word that it is representative of many situations in many high schools. During my second year of teaching high school math, my department chair was a young teacher with 3 years of experience -- mostly 9th grade remedial math (is this someone who is highly qualified?). We were looking over state test results, and she suggested that we take an average of the scaled score for our classes as a measure of our performance as teachers. Besides having a problem with being evaluated professionally based on how my students performed on a test for which they are not held personally accountable (!) I had a problem with this averaging methodology. The scale score on a standardized test is not on a linear scale. Scale scores range from, for example, 1052 to 3041 (2010-2011 9th grade TAKS math test), with 1052 representing a raw score of 0/52 and 3041 representing a raw score of 52/52. The correlation between raw and scaled scores is something approaching a high (5th or 6th degree) order polynomial. A passing score is 2100, which is equivalent to 28/52 or 54%.

I wasn't saying the average scale score would be meaningless, just that it wouldn't mean quite what my department chair was suggesting. Shouldn't it have at least been obvious that the scale score that corresponded to the average of the raw scores would not be the same as the average of the scale scores? She (and most of the department) failed to comprehend, and I was labeled as a troublemaker because of such and similar objections.

Another objection was to the use and evaluation of what they called “rigor.” In plain English, rigor means something difficult, something that takes some effort and hard work. Education “professionals” (I use the term loosely), define rigor in a similar manner, but evaluate its presence in a classroom or lesson quite differently, muddying up the concept with psycho-babble about knowledge taxonomy and continua of thinking. I thought it was highly misleading and almost manipulative to describe (to parents and the public) a curriculum as rigorous (or relevant, for that matter) according to the framework outlined in the link provided. I pointed this out to one of our consultants and was later reprimanded for being uncooperative. And at the same time as being made to spend my planning periods in “professional development” sessions where I was retaught the "real" meaning of rigor and relevance, I was taken aside and told by the principal and said consultant that I wasn’t “dumbing down” my lessons enough. This is the double-talk so characteristic of all politicians, school principals and superintendents included.

In other words, the public education system is a hostile environment. I was told by multiple veteran teachers that there is just no getting around administrators who want things to be done their way (right or wrong), no matter where you go. You just keep your mouth shut about things that are wrong, or you somehow ingratiate yourself to whoever is at the top at that moment (risking your downfall with his inevitable departure), and perhaps get his ear and his confidence (while sacrificing your pride and integrity). I suppose this is what I am to expect in any type of work environment, so I am trying to get used to the idea, but it still chafes me.

Perhaps it is a not a matter, then, of lacking a workforce prepared for and capable of teaching good mathematics in public schools, it is just that the public school system is not a place where a person with the
adequate background tends to get along very well. In my experience, that is. The teachers could do more, but they aren’t allowed to because of politics and greed in school administration, and a number of other societal ills (lack of discipline, family planning and family participation, value of education, etc).

The problem with the education system does reach down into the elementary grades. I would not say that had my high school education been better, I would be better off. I went to a high school with exemplary science and math programs. Nor could I say that the undergrad program I completed was in any way inadequate. The problem is in how young children are fundamentally taught to learn and think mathematically. It is done in such a hokey and short-sighted way. Students are often no longer even required to memorize the basic arithmetic facts and algorithms that would speed up their computations and algebraic manipulations. But even when I was in school and those things were required, we weren’t really taught about the structure of mathematics. Logic and set theory were brief topics in 10th grade geometry (or in special classes my parents would take me to during the summer and after school), and are now almost completely absent, believed irrelevant. Most teachers wouldn’t know how to teach them anyway. I would have had to study them to be prepared, and now realize how important it is for students to become familiar with these ideas at a young age. Trivium, quadrivium, apprenticeship? Does this mean I am getting old?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ethanol in fuel - Up close and personal

Five years ago, I published a short letter to Science about the real biofuel cycles.  The letter was published after a long struggle with the journal's Editor of Physical Sciences, Dr. R. Brooks Hanson, who limited my letter to 150 words, and tried to prevent me from putting in a link to these supporting materials. The whole fight was for not, because the link has been broken since I left Berkeley.  In these supporting materials, I made the following two statements:
Furfural in an impure ethanol mixture will gradually dissolve almost any rubber or elastomeric seals or ducts in storage systems and car fuel systems. (Page 13)

Finally, ethanol dissolves a large number of substances insoluble in water and acids, such as many inorganic salts, phosphorus, sulfur, iodine, resins, essential oils, fats, coloring matters, etc. (Wright, 1994).  Therefore, the metal-rich sludge in fuel tanks of most older cars will dissolve in ethanol-containing gasoline and accelerate corrosion of fuel systems and engines in these cars. Older fiberglass fuel tanks will dissolve in ethanol concentrated in the omnipresent trace water, causing gradual failure of many motor boat engines. Because fuel tanks in gas stations are made of steel, there will be increased corrosion from the metal salts-ethanol-water electrolyte. This corrosion will ultimately eat through the tank walls. (Page 38)
Almost no one paid attention.

Today, I had a personal encounter with my own predictions.  My Stihl chain saw stopped working.

Click on the image to see the full size
My Stihl chain saw with the replaced carburetor membranes, fuel filter and spark plug 

The competent local dealer told me cheerfully that the carburetor membrane in the saw got stretched and lost elasticity because of ethanol in the gasoline.

Click on the image to see the full size.
Here you can see the ethanol-damaged bulging elastomer membrane in the carburetor that no longer could maintain fuel pressure, causing the primed saw to stall after 5 seconds or so.

In short, the carburetor stopped functioning because of ethanol in all gasoline I can buy in Texas.  For my three different saws, I only purchase the highest octane gasoline at a local Exxon station, hoping that they do not add ethanol crap to their best product.  Obviously, I have been proven wrong. The cost of rebuilding the carburetor was almost $100, plus two car trips to the dealer.

Given my long track record with the ethanol biofuel additive, I really do not feel disposed to subsidize this racket from my own pocket.  It is enough that my tax money is being wasted every day to keep corn ethanol on a life-support system.

What do you think?  If you have a similar story, please drop a comment.  Perhaps together we can do something about it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Energy, Ignorance, Lies and Bullshit

By reading some of my posts on energy, you now understand that a modern society cannot exist without huge amounts of energy flowing through it day and night.  In fact, I have argued, the modern society fails if these energy flows diminish, just like a starved mammal becomes sick and eventually dies from lack of food.

Further, I have explained that almost all of your electricity and transportation fuels comes from fossil fuels, uranium, and water behind dams.  I showed graphically that renewables are but a small addition to our daily energy portfolio.

Finally, I compared the energy sources and energy use in two important U.S. states, Texas and California.  These states are perceived quite differently.  California's image is synonymous with progress and clean energy, while Texas is regarded as overly conservative, and prone to using fossil fuels.  Yet, as I demonstrated, electricity sources in these two states are not that much different, and Texas produces 1/3 more renewable electricity than California.  Fundamentally, California lives on imports and borrowed time, while Texas is self-sufficient in electricity and petroleum, while exporting plenty of natural gas and transportation fuels to the rest of U.S.

I think that 99% people in the U.S., when asked about energy and energy sources, would not arrive at conclusions similar to mine. In particular, almost everyone would significantly overestimate the role and potential of renewables, including wind, geothermal, biomass, biofuels, and photovoltaic panels and solar concentrators.  Most people would not think too much about the consequences of cutting off flows of certain types of energy, such as electricity from coal or uranium.  After all, we all know that electricity comes from the reliable outlets in our homes.
Why are energy facts so different from perceptions?
There is no simple answer to this question.  Human psychology and general lack of science education in the U.S. are the root causes of the discrepancy between what is and what we wish were. But there is more...

A famous philosopher from Princeton, Harry Frankfurt, described ignorance in this splendid little book.
The problem with ignorance and error is, of course, that they leave us in the dark. Lacking the truths that we require, we have nothing to guide us but our own feckless speculations or fantasies and the importunate and unreliable advice of others. As we plan our conduct, we can therefore do no better that to spin out uninformed guesses and, shakily, to hope for the best. We do not know where we are. We are flying blind.
On Truth, pages 60 - 61.

Add the quintessential American narcissism and arrogance to ignorance, and you have an explosive mixture that may yet lead to the downfall of our great country. Why do I think about Thomas Friedman when I am writing these words?  Maybe because of how he has been overselling "clean tech," a "hydrogen economy," and the renewables. And he is one of the best journalists we currently have.

Now on to the lies.  Again, Harry Frankfurt summarizes the corrosive influence of lies better than anyone else:
Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy. To the extent that we believe them, our minds are occupied by fictions, fantasies, and illusions that have been concocted for us by a liar. What we accept as real is a world that others cannot see, touch, or experience any other way.
On Truth, page 78.

OK, I admit that I almost never watch cable TV news channels. If you do, and your mind is not yet fried (like Dwayne Hoover's mind after reading the novel about free will and robots by  Kilgore Trout in the "Breakfast of Champions"), you will recognize that Harry's crystal clear description of liars fully applies, for example, to Fox's Murdochisms.  (Personally, I cannot watch Fox News for more than five minutes, because I get violent nausea and throw up.  It must be my not-so-fond memories of the similarly lying, corrupt, and hate-mongering communist propaganda.  There is a difference, however.  In the old communist Poland legally there was nothing but propaganda.  Here we have PBS, NPR, CSPAN, BBC, and a few internet choices.  So why would anyone voluntarily watch the fair and balanced Fox News?  Or MSNBC? Or that pitiful, irrelevant leftover of the once mighty news channel, CNN? Below you see a hint of an answer.)

"Something deeply insidious and corrupt is at work that has been on view in both Britain and the United States. It involves the takeover of politics by money and spin and massaged images and privileged coteries. It is the death of statesmanship." Roger Cohen, NYT,  Read more...

Bullshit is an intellectual analog of carelessly made, shoddy goods.  You might recognize here much of contemporary journalism.   Unlike a liar, a bullshitter has no relationship with truth.  He says whatever is convenient or expedient.  Sometimes what he says coincides with the truth, and sometimes it does not.

A shoddy journalist merely records whatever is fed to him/her, makes sure that the package looks attractive, and moves on to he next job.  Bullshit has been the bane of most reporting on "advanced biofuels." I would also say that much of the recent spate of articles on gas shales falls into the same category of bullshit.

Everyone knows a bullshitter or two.  I knew an outstanding one at Berkeley.  Whenever I confronted him about another lie or misrepresentation on the record, he would say: "I was misinterpreted," or "a journalist didn't understand what I meant."  Never mind that he could correct his statements when the same journalist submitted a transcript of an interview to him.

Charming bullshitters are very dangerous, because they can easily mislead us if we are not careful. These bullshitters usually end up in positions of power. Most people are not careful, and that's why we are where we are in the understanding of energy and other complex issues.

P.S. 7/24/2011. The recent murderous rampage of a Norwegian right-wing religious nut shows how lies and hatred can produce a really crazy person.  Remember Timothy McVeigh?  He was our own mega-nut of the same ilk.  Now please look back at the image above, stop, and reflect for a moment.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

California versus Texas - Fuel Consumption

In the previous post I compared electricity production and imports in California and Texas. I told you that renewables generate about the same fraction of electricity in both states. Texas produces all of its electricity, while California imports coal and gas - as electricity and for electricity generation - almost five days a week.

It is important for you to understand that California will need to import a lot of carbon as natural gas to continue "decarbonizing" its economy by, for example, switching to plug-in vehicles. Without all that extra carbon, California's economy will undergo a miracle slimming diet. Such are the laws of physics.

What I didn't tell you in the previous post is that roughly half of all natural gas in California is used to generate electricity. The residential sector uses 22 percent of the other half. Of that amount, 88 percent is used by space and water heating.  So, if there are problems with imports of natural gas to California, not only there will be blackouts, but also a lot of unrefrigerated raw food will have to be consumed in the cold houses.

Since 1970, the number of households in California has almost doubled from 6.5 million to 12.5 million, pushing total residential natural gas consumption from about 5.5 billion therms in 1970 to about 6.7 billion therms in 2007. However, thanks to the significant improvements of efficiency, the average annual gas consumption per household has dropped more than 36 percent, from 845 therms to 538 therms.
One therm equals 100,000 Btu or about 100 cubic feet of natural gas, or about 30 kilowatt hours (kWh) of heat. An average household in California uses therefore 1,300 kWh of natural gas heat per month; quite a lot.
What I also didn't tell you is that water is a significant source of embedded energy consumption in California.  In 2005, the total water-related energy use in the state was 48,000 GWh of electricity, and 4.2 billion therms of natural gas, i.e., 60% of the total residential use of natural gas. Pumping water to LA required, respectively, 19% of all electricity used in the state, and 32% of non-generational natural gas use. So, I guess, there may also be 15 million thirsty unwashed people in Southern California without the plentiful supply of natural gas.

But I digressed.  Let's talk about the use of liquid transportation fuels in California and Texas.

Click on the image above to see it in full size.
Californians drive a lot. They also use their special blends of gasoline that need to be produced in California. Californians are so dependent on their cars that a closing of a single freeway in L.A. for 53 hours has been termed a "carmageddon."

Click on the image above to see it in full size.
Hwy 405 sans traffic and people. This is how a completely decarbonized L.A. will look like. There is nothing wrong with this vision of the future, as long as the many fewer people who will live in the decarbonized L.A. will have water to drink and food to eat.  Image source: Associated Press.

Even during the current deep recession, California needs a steady supply of crude oil at a rate of 600,000 barrels per day, 7-days a week, 24 hours a day. Since California produces its own special brands of gasoline, imports of finished petroleum products are minimal. According to the California Energy Commission, in 2009, California produced enough crude oil to power its transportation each Monday through Wednesday 7:12 p.m. The rest of each Wednesday, and on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Californians drive on imported crude oil.

The crude oil imports to California are dominated by Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Iraq, with Mexico being a distant fourth supplier. In 2005, these main three oil suppliers delivered 71% of crude oil imports in California. Another important development has been the appearance of Angola, Brazil and Canada as the increasingly significant suppliers since 2005. California's oil sources are also the main suppliers of heavy, sour crudes to the Pacific Basin. For this reason, California competes directly with other Pacific Rim consumers, who have the ability to process these heavier crudes. In light of the growing oil consumption in China and China's political clout, California may not be able to compete well in a constrained oil-supply market.

Incidentally, the oil supply situation is quite different in Texas, the second most populous state in the U.S. on its way to eclipse California as the main economic driver of the U.S. economy. This will inevitably happen, unless the Republican extremists destroy Texas' growing public education and what's left of the already meager government services here. In fairness to Texas, however, California has already conducted a summary execution of her public education system, once an envy of the entire world. It is safe to say that California will never recover from this ugly execution and we in Texas should welcome as many of the dazed survivors as we can.

But I have digressed again. As of this writing, Texas produces essentially as much oil as it consumes,  1/4 of U.S. natural gas, and its refineries produce about 25% of U.S. supply of gasoline and other petroleum products.   Texas produces four times more energy as natural gas than as crude oil.  For the benefit of Mr. Urbina and others, Texas has plenty, plenty of natural gas for export to New York and Pennsylvania.
With the Great Recession of 2008-2030(?), demand for crude oil in California dropped by 60,000 barrels per day, to roughly 600,000 barrels of oil per day, the same rate of oil consumption as in 1982.  This is the good news.
Now the bad news. The number of days per year between 1982 and 2009, during which California gets its oil supply in-state, from Alaska, and from foreign imports. California's own oil production declined from 224 days of total supply in 1982 to 144 days in 2009. Imports from Alaska declined from 120 days in 1982 to a mere 55 days in 2009. Imports increased from 21 days in 1982 to 166 days in 2009. To put these numbers in perspective, in 2009, Californians were able to drive 2.8 days per week on the locally produced crude.

The ratio of oil equivalents consumed in Texas as finished petroleum products to the oil produced in Texas. This ratio was 1:7 in 1960 (Texas produced seven times more oil than it used), and it is just 1.1:1 today.  A small road tax on Hummers, Chevy Tahoes,  and so on, should bring this ratio to balance almost overnight.  Sources: Texas Railroad Commission, DOE EIA, accessed 10/25/2010.

On an energy basis, natural gas and natural gas liquids produced in Texas are about 4 times more important than all oil and 21 times more important than enhanced oil recovery (EOR) here. Note that the natural gas liquids in Texas are as important as the total oil production. Data sources: Oil & Gas Journal, US DOE EIA, and Texas Railroad Commission.

P.S. I thank the anonymous reader for the comment and I stand corrected. Here is the full list of foreign crude oil suppliers to California in 2010.  It is interesting that since 2007, Mexico has virtually stopped exporting oil because of the fast-declining production there. Angola was displaced by Russia and Colombia. Colombia is reaping benefits from a relative peace and a rational crude oil production policy, while the irrational Venezuela keeps on sinking.   

By the way, if you go to the California Energy Commission's website, it will take you some time to find the crude oil statistics. While searching for the shameful transportation fuels, you may treat yourself to reading up on many other more important subjects, such as the Bionenergy Action Plan. Reality check, anyone?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Texas versus California - Electricity Production

Using the approach introduced in the previous post, I will now investigate how electricity is produced and imported in Texas and California.  I choose these two states because I have strong ties to both of them, and they also enjoy very different public images.  Texas is generally viewed as pro-oil, gas, coal and nuclear power, while Californians appear to oppose all of these sources of electricity in their outlets, while touting the green and renewable sources.  It is therefore instructive to look at the main sources of your electricity when you live in Texas or California.

For the record, last year, Texas produced twice the amount of electricity imported and produced in California. Most of the difference was caused by air-conditioning everything in Texas, but also by Texas' large base of heavy industry, which is already gone from California, perhaps forever.

I start with my home state,Texas, because it is very simple to describe its electricity sources.  Basically, Texas has its own electrical grid, independent of the rest of the U.S. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT operates the electric grid and manages the deregulated market for 75 percent of the state.  This grid is powered almost always by the energy sources and power plants within Texas' national borders.  Texas imports cheap, low-sulfur coal from Wyoming, just like everybody else (two counties in Wyoming produce almost 1/2 of U.S. coal).  But Texas could quickly switch to its own, much lower quality coal, or tap into its own huge production of natural gas.   In 2009, Texas produced 152 days of its electricity from coal, 145 days of electricity from natural gas, 45 days of electricity from nuclear reactors and 1 day from hydro turbines.
Click on the image above to see it in full-size.
Over the last 15 years, the base load electricity in Texas has been stably divided among coal, natural gas, and nuclear power sources.  Coal and natural gas had almost equal shares, together delivering almost 300 days of electricity per year in 2010.  Also in 2010, nuclear power delivered about 45 days, and hydropower a short one day of electricity in Texas.  I remind you that Texas is a very dry state with just a couple of big dams.

Most of the remaining 20 odd days of electricity was delivered in Texas by wind turbines. With the exponential rate of growth of wind-generated electricity in Texas through 2011, wind's share is now closer to 25 days of electricity per year.
Click on the image above to see it in full size.
In 2009, the remainder of electricity in Texas was generated from petroleum (2 days), wood and other biomass (0.5 day), and wind (20 days).  Please note the exponential rate of increase of wind-generated electricity in Texas.  Twenty days of wind electricity in Texas is equivalent to 40 days of wind electricity in California, given the 50% smaller consumption of electricity in California.  In Texas, there was no discernible production of electricity from geothermal sources and solar photovoltaics.

The situation is not nearly as simple in California.  First of all, California has been "decarbonizing" its economy by ceasing local electricity production from coal, and instead buying mostly coal-generated electricity from the surrounding states.  Second, California produces only 13% of the natural gas it consumes, so most - if not all - gas used to produce electricity there comes through pipelines from elsewhere in the western U.S. and western Canada.  California is at the end of those pipelines, forcing it to compete with other states for supplies.

With these two caveats, the picture of electricity generation in California is not all that different from that in Texas.  In 2010, coal produced 112 days of electricity consumed in California, natural gas 138 days, and nuclear reactors 41 days.  California is much better endowed in hydropower, and in 2010 it produced an incredible 43 days of electricity with water turbines. 
Click on the image above to see it in full size.
In 2010, the base load electricity in California was generated from coal (112 days), natural gas (138 days), nuclear reactors (41 days), and hydro turbines (43) days.  Coal was imported as mostly electricity, and almost all natural gas was imported as fuel. Therefore, one way or another, California imports almost 5 days of the electricity it consumes each week. If this is not downright dangerous, what is?

The renewable sources of power generated some 30 days of electricity in California.  Wood and other biomass generated 7 days of electricity, wind 6 days, and solar concentrators and photovoltaics a whopping one day.  I say "a whopping one day,"  because in 2010, the U.S. figure was probably 2 hours of electricity per year.  Please note that 1 day here equals 24 hours of electricity. 

The largest source of renewable electricity in California is geothermal steam that delivered 16 days of electricity per year in 2010. Geothermal steam is generally cheaper than photovoltaics and works most of the time. Unfortunately, the term "geothermal" does not have the same sex-appeal as "clean solar energy".

Click on the image above to see it in full size.
The giant solar power plants in the Mojave desert, like the one above, have paid off handsomely. After a multibillion dollar investment, California can now boast its own very sexy solar power for 6 hours a day over 4 consecutive sunny days in one year (but not over the intervening nights). 
In 2010, the renewable electricity in California was split among wood and other biomass (7 days), wind (6 days), geothermal (16 days, and solar (1 day).  Note that in 2010, the "clean" California generated one month of its electricity from renewable sources, about the same fraction as the "dirty" Texas. 
Remarkably, from wind alone, Texas generates 1/3 more renewable electricity than California from all renewable energy sources.
In summary, I hope that you see now how difficult it is to get away from the base-load electricity generated from coal, natural gas and uranium.  Incidentally, New York wants to shut down their 2000 MW Indian Point nuclear power plant.  It's a great idea, as long as they understand clearly that the environmentally-friendly coal from blowing up West Virginia will come to rescue, or they will have to use a whole lot more of natural gas from that hydrofractured shale next door, or they will have to start turning off those lights, plasma TVs, computers, air-conditioners, etc.   Otherwise, the good New Yorkers will experience some really nice brownouts or blackouts, or both.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Where is my energy coming from?

To keep our internet, telephones, computers, television sets, refrigerators and lights going, we require electricity 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It is therefore instructive to know what sources of energy provide electricity in our outlets day-by-day.  The data from the U.S. Department of Energy are plotted below as days of electricity per year supplied to the U.S. customers from each major primary energy source.

It turns out that between 1997 and 2008, coal supplied between 176 and 200 days of electricity to all U.S. outlets.  Coal fuels the base-load power stations and its consumption has been remarkably constant.

Similarly, in 2008, natural gas supplied 79 days of electricity, nuclear power 72 days, and hydropower 23 days.  The electricity share of natural gas grew from 50 days per year a decade ago, to almost 80 days in 2008.  No new nuclear reactors have been built in the U.S. since late 1970s, but the nuclear power industry has learned how to manage their reactors better, and their share of electricity generation has grown somewhat.  The share of hydropower has decreased substantially over the last decade because of droughts and dam silting.

Together, these four basic sources of primary energy delivered 350 days of electricity in 2008.  The remaining 15 days of electricity were delivered by petroleum (4 days), biomass (5 days), wind turbines (5 days), geothermal steam generators (1 day), and photovoltaics/solar thermal concentrators (1 hour).
To see the full size image, click on the image above.

Electricity generation in the U.S. uses 37% of primary energy (heat generating energy), more than any other sector of the energy economy.  In 2008, coal delivered 176 days of electricity; natural gas, 79 days; nuclear power, 72 days; hydropower, 23 days; and all remaining sources combined, 15 days. Overall, 70 % of electricity in the U.S. was generated from purely fossil fuel sources in 2008. Data source: DOE EIA, accessed 03/28/2010.

To see the full size image, click on the image above.

The remaining 15 days of electricity generation in the U.S. can be split as follows: In 2008, four days of electricity came from petroleum (essentially a single power plant in Honolulu, Hawaii); 5 days from biomass burning to cogenerate electricity from wood chips, agricultural residues, etc.; 5 days from wind turbines, and growing fast, especially in Texas; 1 day from geothermal steam, mostly in California; and 1 hour from solar photovoltaics and solar thermal concentrators, also mostly in California. When someone tells you that electricity generation from photovoltaics doubles every year or so, please understand its tragically negligible significance. Data source: DOE EIA, accessed 03/28/2010.

The transportation sector is totally dominated by petroleum, as shown below, assurances to the contrary from the Renewable Fuels Association notwithstanding.  Our freedom from petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels currently lasts for only one week per year and perhaps two weeks in the future.  In 2008, automotive gasoline provided 202 days of all transportation needs in the U.S., diesel fuel 100 days and jet fuel 38 days.  Residual or bunker oil used to be burned in electrical power stations up until 1985, but now it powers ships almost exclusively.  Ethanol sufficed to power transportation in the U.S. for 8 days in 2008, and ethanol production itself requires a significant amount of fossil fuels.

The message is clear:  The only way out of the total dependence on petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels is to electrify railroads, and move goods and people across the U.S. using electricity.  Currently, there are no other choices, unless one prefers to be deluded by biofuels or a "hydrogen economy."

To see the full size image, click on the image above.

Consumption of liquid transportation fuels in the U.S. uses 31% of primary energy (heat generating energy), and is the second largest sector of the energy economy.  In 2008, automotive gasoline delivered 202 days of transportation; distillate oil (mostly diesel fuel), 99 days; aviation jet fuel, 38 days; residual oil, 18 days (now used almost exclusively to power ships); and ethanol, 8 days.  When someone tells you that driving your car on ethanol will make the U.S. energy-secure, laugh, because fossil fuels provide 98% of energy used to power U.S. transportation. Oil shortages caused by the peaking global oil production will cause disproportionate disruptions in transportation, but none in electricity supply. This is the reason why a crash program in railroad electrification would benefit the U.S. enormously. Data source: DOE EIA, accessed 03/28/2010. 

I hope that now you understand my concern with so many cooks and drivers in the U.S. publicly flaunting their ignorance as "energy experts."  What is it about energy, this divine source of almost everything in a modern society, that makes people say so many innate and emotional things?  Because they have barbecued

P.S. Please check out the 1,000 juicy comments to that WSJ editorial. Did you notice that this energy commentariat consists mostly of men?  Are they trying to suggest that "my energy is bigger than yours?"  If not, why are they so angry?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Things we say and do

Four years ago, in September 2007, I participated in a ministerial conference of OECD in Paris.  This conference was attended by the ministers of transportation and environment from the European Union, the U.S. observers, as well as a few invited industry people and faculty.

OECD stands for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It was conceived as a counterweight to OPEC. The largest contributor to OECD is the United States, which provides nearly 24% of the budget, followed by Japan. As a consequence, the U.S. exerts some influence on OECD.

At that Paris conference, I was asked to make a dinner speech.  [Reading this topical speech is essential to your understanding of my arguments against the serious public confusion surrounding issues of big energy.]

Halfway through my speech everybody in the room stopped eating and you could hear a fly, because no forks and knives were clicking. There were but a few questions afterwards. It appears that this speech has disqualified me permanently from receiving further invitations by OECD. Perhaps I caused too much indigestion. Or, perhaps, the U.S. delegation, then headed by a person well known for saying "no" to anything that might be environmentally beneficial, had something to do with blacklisting me.

Later, I learned that the U.S. insisted on firing the two OECD employees, one Dutch and another American, who were in charge of organizing the conference. And why not?  Why was I allowed to put this paper into the record?  I have to confess that my paper had some impact on the EU policy towards the customary wanton rape and pillage of the poor countries in the tropics. This never-ceasing rape has been lovingly sponsored by the World Bank (and IMF and others).  The World Bank has been providing loans and loan guarantees to the local despots and transnational corporations, who then do the actual raping.

The World Bank loans have been fabulously lucrative to us.  Historically, the World Bank preferred to fund large projects: hydroelectric dams, roads, power stations, mines, etc.  Not only most of the construction and machinery would be handled by us, but much of the loaned money would be embezzled and sent back directly to us in big suitcases.  But never mind, the poor nations would still have to repay the loans and interest with their resources and environment.  Customarily, an American heads the World Bank, but now China wants in on the action. 

But I digress. So, back to the story.

In May 2007, at an earlier preparatory meeting to the ministerial conference, also in Paris, a representative of Denmark made some really stupid remarks that were a proof of either her gross incompetence or thorough dishonesty. Basically she was pushing the "second generation biofuels" for a company that was giving her money. A representative of Germany (a Ph.D. chemical engineer like me) and I did not try to contradict her, and, at the coffee break, a senior diplomat from Italy asked us why we did not point out the obvious inconsistencies in her remarks and did not debunk the false statements she made. That Italian gentleman then said to both of us something I would always remember. He said:
Please understand that you may be the only people in the room, who understand the facts and the scientific truth. The remaining people are lawyers and politicians, like me, and they have no way of discerning whether something that was said was true or not. So if you do not react quickly, a lie will enter the record and will stand as fact for this audience and many others.
By the way, the superb German delegate I just mentioned was swiftly removed from his position in the German EPA, and no one from the German government attended the ministerial conference in September.  This outstanding German proposed the most scientific and radical policy that would govern international approach to biofuels. They say that "our girl,"  Chancellor Angela Merkel, was personally involved in his disposal. But who called Ms. Merkel?

After these two OECD meetings, of the six people who entered my story here, the only person who was not directly hurt was I, because I was a tenured professor from Berkeley. I also had a thick skin and an invaluable experience of opposing autocrats in the old communist Poland. Another professor from Berkeley, who was asked to present at the preparatory meeting in Paris an untenable position of someone else, committed suicide a couple of months later.

That someone else, yet another Berkeley professor, who is now a big wig at the World Bank, weaseled his way out of the May meeting in Paris by telling a touching but verifiably false story. He said that he would have to go to Mexico instead of Paris to help with a sudden death there of his graduate student.  Instead, he went to New York and gave a TV interview.  In Paris, the stakes were high, because arguments for California's "decarbonized" future economy were unveiled for the first time to the public. That "dry run" in Paris by a junior Berkeley faculty standing in for his boss was met with a great deal of skepticism.
Nevertheless, when they encourage you to think that tenure is bad, think twice. If it were not for tenure, I wouldn't be here to chronicle this forgotten story of the cutthroat, brass knuckles politics surrounding big energy. 
Ever since that OECD conference, I felt obliged to challenge lies that were hurled in my presence at the unsuspecting public. For that whimsical custom of mine I paid a high price at Berkeley.

Next, I will describe the unbearable stupidity of some of the arguments surrounding supply of energy in the U.S. In this context, the famous Czech writer, Milan Kundera, would have a good laugh:
This reconciliation [with the bottomless evil that we clearly recognize as such, TWP] reveals the profound moral perversity of the world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, page 4.

In a couple of short installments, designed not to bore you too much, I will build a foundation for my arguments against the sensational and propagandist articles, like the one on natural gas by Mr. Ian Urbina, a journalist, who writes for the New York Times. Such articles are too shallow to be meaningful and further confuse the already confused people.

What I said in that OECD speech four years ago is impacting today the lives of people who two years ago would never even think about energy. It takes a decade or so to enact an energy policy, and this policy may last for several decades. Thus, a bad energy policy, one which is based on false arguments, may end up hurting not only us, but also our children and grandchildren. Tomorrow is July the 4th, an auspicious day to ponder the state of this Union, in addition to drinking beer and barbecuing. So think about what I just said.

P.S. Here is some more of the brass knuckles politics, this time in the context of natural gas. Just think how difficult it will be to understand the truth behind a flood of contradictory statements. And we haven't even started yet.  Mr. Berman should grow a much thicker skin if he wants to stay in this game.

P.S.P.S.  Have you read  some of the diverse reader comments to an anonymous WSJ oped on hydrofracturing?  If you have, do try to make sense out of this emotionally-charged cacophony, will you?

P.S.P.S.P.S.  Only now the ethanol subsidy fiasco is coming to an end. How many times have I been publicly attacked and disparaged for saying the same thing over-and-over-again for the last 7 years or so?

Monday, May 30, 2011

The stupid things they say and do - Part 1

I have decided to start a series of brief comments on the current flood of rather incoherent babble that attacks us in the U.S. from every which direction. Here is a relevant snippet from my favorite New York Times, 5/30/2011, Changing the world by dropping out:
Parents, do you hope that your children have the chance to become like Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and hedge fund manager? If so, Mr. Thiel suggests that you encourage them to drop out of school. In fact, he will help by paying them to do it.

On Wednesday, the Thiel Foundation, funded by Mr. Thiel, announced the first group of Thiel Fellows, 24 people under 20 who have agreed to drop out of school in exchange for a $100,000 grant and mentorship to start a tech company.

More than 400 people applied. The winners include Laura Deming, 17, who is developing antiaging therapies; Faheem Zaman, 18, who is building mobile payment systems for developing countries; and John Burnham, 18, who is working on extracting minerals from asteroids and comets.
The fellowship addresses two of the country’s most pressing problems, Mr. Thiel says: a bubble in higher education and a dearth of Americans developing breakthrough technologies.
First of all, give me a break.  Are the anti-aging creams, minerals from asteroids, or PayPal money for poor countries that have none, the most pressing U.S. problems?! Or are these projects simply tied to Mr. Thiel's business ideas?

Second, let's assume boldly that  Mr. Thiel and Mr. Burnham studied physics in elementary school or high school, or - God forbid - in college. All that is required is sort of the 1850's physics. Assuming that they did, they would know in about 5 minutes that extracting minerals from comets and asteroids is impossible. There is not enough fossil fuel to burn to launch multiple rockets and a huge space ship, which then would have to travel to a remote asteroid, extract the impossibly expensive minerals, and haul them back to Earth. The last time I checked, most Earthlings had not left their planet. Also, have these two gentlemen seen the prices of crude oil and coal lately?

Obviously, both of them have no idea about physics and about the stringent requirements of engineering. Therefore, I suggest that Mr. Thiel dedicates a part of his generous $100,000 fellowship to enrolling Mr. Burnham back in a good college. There, Mr. Burnham might actually learn something useful about science and engineering, instead of taking a terminal MBA degree.  (Once you have read and digested this link, you will gain a clearer understanding of the true meaning of "terminal.") Alternatively, both these gentlemen may spend the one hundred grand on producing a timely sequel to Idiocracy.

Here is my general comment:
You do not develop a breakthrough technology that is not Facebook, when you know nothing about science and engineering. It is simply too late for that. By dealing with venture capitalists, I know from personal experience how uneducated they are in their funding choices, and how much money they pour down the drain. One hundred thousand dollars could educate two good American engineers, instead of manufacturing yet another ignorant but arrogant American businessman, who might confuse being rich with being smart.  
To close, here is a sane reaction of another New York Times reader to the similarly cocomaniac ideas of  Mr. Bill Gates:
Only experience on the front lines in a classroom makes one an educator. It’s one thing for people who have made their business fortunes to be philanthropic, but setting their own agendas to effect change in educational policy is crossing the line. It is a giant egotistical misstep to assume that one can come in from the outside and overhaul educational policy — on a national level no less.
Privately funded advocacy is no substitute for independent research. Are we seeking true educational solutions or Bill Gates’s politically motivated agenda?
Framingham, Mass., May 22, 2011
P.S. The published comment to this blog is fairly typical.  Yes, I agree, there are many more things in heaven and earth than any single person can grasp.  The implication that - therefore - somehow we we will magically overcome the current problems with the peaks of oil, coal, phosphate, rare-earth metals, soil, clean water, social complexity, etc., is simply not true.  As it happens, there are no viable alternatives to crude oil, natural gas and coal that could drive our runaway technological civilization; mining of asteroids notwithstanding...

P.S.P.S. Here is a thoughtful comment I received by email:
I guess comments are closed for your most recent blog post. I just wanted to mention I worked at a high school where one of Bill Gates's pet projects, First Things First, was implemented, and it was a complete failure. The Institute for Research and Reform in Education, which developed this reform model, of course, never mentions the dozens of high school in which their model failed.

Reading your blog helps remind me that it's not the Ph.D.'s in education that will ultimately reform education in this country. Those people are going to be bankrupt and out of work when the education system they have been forming and reforming finally reaches its breaking point, and we are left with educator individuals with actual content mastery to rebuild public education from scratch, if at all.

If policy makers have their way, public schools will soon cease to exist. An uneducated populace is a lot easier to manipulate.

"The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."
Thomas Jefferson

It's just too bad our education system is wasting that tax.

These are things I have to be reminded of when I am tempted to take a job teaching high school again. There's a lot of personal fulfillment in it, but it is ultimately an intellectually bankrupt system, which is why I left it in the first place.

Thanks for your writings,
Iona P (Precious) Williams