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

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Who likes to think?

I still cannot get over the interview Mr. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of corn-ethanol agriculture, gave to the Economist.  The stunned reporter observed that Mr. Vilsack's pandering defense of agricultural subsidies was so thoroughly bereft of substance that he began to fear that Mr. Vilsack would be sucked into the vacuum of his mouth and disappear.

I think that Mr. Vilsack has calculated that thinking is an activity foreign to most Americans, and internationally as well. Is Mr. Vilsack correct in his cold political calculation?  I doubt if I know the true answer to this question.

When I talk to the numerous Polish immigrants of my generation, who really should know better, I often cannot believe my ears. How they mindlessly repeat the assorted talking points-of-the-day that were drilled into their heads by the various roaring heads on a TV channel they watch, a talk radio station they listen to, and an internet "source" they scan for a confirmation of their prior beliefs.  I doubt if they ever watch two TV channels and so on, not that it would make much difference in the U.S. these days.

You would think that hardly anyone ever listens to NPR or watches PBS, the last two vestiges of civilization here. The Huns, Vandals and Visigoths, whom we just elected, are about to shut both down, so that the good people here may never have "thoughts" again.  But you would be mistaken in your estimate: 27 million people like you and I listen to NPR daily, more than to any other media outlet in the U.S.  This is why the Vandals want to dispose of it. The same Vandals have nothing against the annual multi-billion dollar subsidies to corporations that deal in corn and ethanol.  Which brings us back to Mr. Vilsack.

Thoughts are dangerous.  I should know. "We are healthy only to the extent our ideas are humane," said Kilgore Trout, and this statement became his epitaph. So what happens when we have no ideas of our own?

I also wonder how much people really read these days?  Not scan in a hurry, but read to digest, check, and ask their own questions.  In the hurried shouting I hear so often there are many proclamations of faith in this or that, but only a few questions are ever asked. What happens when we no longer ask questions?

Here my favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut, again comes to help.  In Chapter 15 of his Cat's Cradle , Vonnegut describes a visit of the book's narrator to GE's Research Center, where the late Dr. Hoennikker, a physics genius patterned after Langmuir, worked.  On the way to his office the Center Director, Dr. Breed, meets a secretary, Ms. Francine Pefko,  and starts talking to her, while the narrator (a journalist) listens: "You scientists think too much....You all think too much," the secretary blurts out.  Then the narrator sees:
"A winded defeated-looking fat woman in filthy coveralls that trudged beside us, hearing what Miss Pefko said.  She turned to examine Dr. Breed, looking at him with helpless reproach.  She hated people who thought too much.  At that moment she struck me as an appropriate representative of almost all mankind."
Was this what Mr. Vilsack concluded about us?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The U.S. Fatso After a Miracle Diet of Renewables

Almost every day on the way to campus I watch all kinds of monster trucks overtaking my small diesel engine-powered car.  The drivers look down at me with amusement and proudly roar from all of their 8 monster cylinders, spewing their monster exhaust fumes.  All these dinosaurs on wheels usually carry one person, who is not getting anywhere any faster than I do.  They do burn, however, four times more precious liquid hydrocarbons than I.  And herein lies the quintessential  U.S. infliction: blithe, mindless waste everywhere.

Since this blog post will likely be used for all kinds of political spins from the left and right, here is my disclaimer:
I am enthusiastic about most renewables (the giant-scale ethanol from any source and biodiesel fuel are excluded), and I would love to see a wiser use of much less energy in the U.S., as well as fewer people. Unfortunately, my fellow Americans - most notably politicians and journalists -  are rather oblivious to the challenges of living off of renewables and to the scope of life-style changes that will ensue, including a dramatic decline in population. My fellow Americans are also unduly scared of the inevitable reductions of energy use coming their way just like day comes after night.
Here "energy from renewables" is defined as heat and electricity generated from hydroelectric power stations, geothermal power stations, biomass co-generation facilities, wind turbines, biofuels, and solar thermal and photovoltaic panels. 

Let's start from the accounting of the heat and electricity generated from renewables.  The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has been under a lot of political pressure to make renewables look good.  For example, in EIA's spreadsheet Table1_2.xls, wind generated 0.546 quadrillion BTU's (quads) in 2008, but in mer_dataT07.02b.xls the actual electricity consumed in 2008 converts to 0.189 quads, which gives a very nice wind turbine utilization factor of 34%. In fairness to EIA, these 34% may also be the conversion factor from electricity to primary heat energy - they don't say. Similarly, corn ethanol gets 0.800 quads for the fuel heating value and 0.532 quads for co-products (as if though we were going to burn all that dry distiller grain etc., and cows could not eat the low-fossil-fuel-content grass).  However, no energy charges for the massive fossil fuel subsidies of biofuels are subtracted (sic!).  The same exaggeration applies to solar photovoltaics, but the amount of electricity they generated in 2008 was in the round-off error of other energy sources. And so on.

Therefore, in the plot below you will see the most generous, and perhaps not quite true energy throughput from renewables in the U.S., converted to barrels of oil equivalent per day per person. For more description of this plot, please see my previous post.
Click on the image to see the full-size version

The three vertical lines are the U.S. 
  • On all renewables (1),  
  • All renewables minus hydropower (2), and 
  • All renewables minus hydropower minus biofuels and their coproducts (3).  

On a diet of renewables, a statistical U.S. resident who currently gulps a tenth of a barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) per day, will be sipping roughly 1/100 of BOE/day as renewables only, thus reducing the U.S. energy "metabolism" to the level of China, Gabon, Uruguay, Botswana, or Angola. 

One-tenth of a barrel is four gallons. Think four one-gallon milk jugs. Or think about 20 bottles of Scotch, 0.75L each.  Try to drink that from a hose.  One-hundredth of a barrel is 1.5 liters. Think of mineral water in a large bottle.

Of course, I have cheated a little, because China, Angola, Gabon, Uruguay, and Botswana simply do not use much of hydrocarbons per person. However, China is the largest producer, importer and user of coal on the Earth, and the largest spewer of carbon dioxide. Angola is the eighth largest producer of oil in OPEC. Angola sells almost all of their oil to us. Botswana has huge deposits of coal.  After completing a 1,200 mile, $9 billion railroad line to Namibia, funded by the World Bank, Botswana will be able to mine lots more coal and sell it to China. And so it goes.  All of these five countries are significantly subsidized by natural gas, petroleum, and coal that are used for fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers, and field chemicals. Petroleum literally drives current agriculture. Uruguay derives most of its income from agriculture.

Still, you get my message, to undergo a successful diet of renewables, we in the U.S. will have to change our lifestyles more than at any time over the last 100 years.

Now, let's imagine how we would live in a world with no hydrocarbons and coal. Luckily, this will not happen for many, many generations, except in California and Pennsylvania (I am only half-joking).

Here are some of the effects: No liquid transportation fuels; no or little of the heavily fossil-fuel-dependent biofuels; a very different and better, but smaller agriculture with no GMOs; no plastics (bioplastics are impossible to produce without fossil fuels); and very few cosmetics, medications, household chemicals, and industrial chemicals.  

No significant production of steel and cement, and wind turbines, and nuclear reactors, and most of aluminum and copper, and of photovoltaic panels. No more driving a monster SUV, or any internal combustion engine car, to work and to shop, and positively no flying. Little or no air conditioning, and little heating. 

Most of the higher education as we know it today, unnecessary and gone. Most golf courses, gone.

Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Reno: does anyone remember them?  Most of New York, Washington, and all other mega-cities, gone. 

Growing rice and alfalfa in the desert, gone. Most agricultural irrigation projects, gone.  City lights at night, gone. Most of our energy-intensive hospitals and health care, down.  

Most of our imaginary investments and pension plans, puff! (They evaporate into the thin and much cleaner air.)  

The military as we know it today, gone. Most of federal government, gone.  Most lobbyists, gone. The United States is a loose collection of independent and often squabbling states, and many nation states disappear. 

911, gone.

Rockets, satellites, GPS, most of cellular phone communications, most of the internet, most of TV, cable, The Shopping Channel, Amazon.com, FedEx, UPS, Google.com, and this blog, - all gone.

The global economy, and Walmart and Costco, gone.

And so on.

Suddenly, the oh-I-am-so-business-oriented governor of Florida, who rejected funding for trains does not look so smart.  The V-8 powered troglodytes in New York, who are suing the city to get rid of bike paths, become ghosts of the past. 

In fact, most of us do not look very smart when we think back about our lifestyles and investment choices. Is it time for all of us to get smarter? 

My answer is, yes, it is time.  

Do I think that anyone but my family, some students, and a small group of friends will ever listen to me?  Hell, no!  Why? Read this, for example, to see how far we have strayed from a thinking society. 

OK, have you read the last link?  Then please reflect on how full of contempt for all of us our rulers must be.  Do they really think that we are mindless robots with no free will?  

P.S.  Sadly, the tragic earthquake in Japan has illustrated what I said in this blog just a week ago.  Here is what NYT reported on 3/15/11:
In the wake of Friday’s natural disaster in northern Japan, and the growing nuclear catastrophe that it touched off, residents here are fast learning that many things they have taken for granted — fully stocked supermarkets, precisely punctual trains, power for their electronics and cars — can readily slip beyond their reach.

Across the vast Tokyo metropolis, home to about one-quarter of the nation’s population, life has suddenly been upended in ways large and small. Some stores have been stripped bare of essentials like rice and milk, prompting the prime minister, Naoto Kan, to go on national television and implore people not to panic. Rolling blackouts to save energy have forced office workers to head home early rather than be trapped downtown. Many people are staying inside to avoid contact with any radioactivity from the stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima, 170 miles to the north, that may be carried this way by the wind.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Energy Throughput Defines Metabolism of Societies

Click on the image above to see its full size.

A human society can be viewed as a macro-organism, a far-from-equilibrium creature that exists by pumping energy through it.  The more complicated the society is, the more energy per unit time it needs to pump through to keep itself going.

What you see above is a plot of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in US dollars per day per person, versus the total rate of hydrocarbon use in Barrels of Oil Equivalent (BOE) per day per person.  The plot is doubly logarithmic, so a straight line here is a power law curve in Cartesian coordinates. The source of data is CIA, and all 200 countries on the Earth are plotted in different colors by their continents.

The three poorest countries with the least use of hydrocarbons are Congo, Burundi, and Chad.  On the other extreme, I show Qatar, Gibraltar, Luxembourg, and US.  China and Brazil are in the middle of the cloud of points that clearly form a linear trend.

The two solid lines are the power law scalings of metabolism in mammals from a tiny shrew to a huge whale.  For example, the skin area of a mammal scales with its body mass to the power 0.63 (the red line).  The oxygen intake, or the rate of metabolism in a mammal, scales with its body mass to the power of 3/4=0.75 (the green line).

As you can see, the throughput rate of the hydrocarbon energy per person is equivalent to body mass of a mammal, and the societal metabolism (GDP/person-day) is equivalent to the rate of oxygen intake in mammals.

This finding should not be surprising. A non-equilibrium dissipative structure, such as a developed society, organizes and feeds its complex institutions with a flux of energy, much of which comes from hydrocarbons. What surprises me is that the scaling exponents are almost the same for all societies on the Earth and for all mammals.

The metabolism-like scaling of societal complexity means that "bigger" or more complex societies necessarily require more energy throughput.  Conversely, a smaller energy throughput necessarily leads to a simplification of the society.  So don't worry, the U.S. will become simpler soon, and so will our health care system, as well as funding for education and research.

A corollary to the plot above is an observation that a steady-state society, whose material economy does not grow, still requires a certain level of energy flow through it to maintain its energy-conserving structures.  More importantly, even purely spiritual institutions and organizations will require their own energy throughput to remain active. Unless everything is recycled perfectly and only heat is given off, chemical waste discharges into the environment in a steady-state economy will continue to injure the environmental services for some time.  Thus, remediation of  active chemicals will require dedicated energy throughputs for some time after their discharge, at a cost of diminishing energy allocations elsewhere. Is, then, a steady-state economy possible? Or does the second law of thermodynamics prevent its existence through a gradual creation of entropy, and an ever-increasing diversion of energy to remediate the effects of this entropy?

Next, I will plot where the USA would be on this plot if it only operated on biomass, biofuels, wind turbines, and solar photovoltaics.