Sunday, December 03, 2023

Watch what people do, not what they say about renewable energy

In a Pew Research Center poll early last year 69 percent of American adults said that they "prioritize developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding the production of oil, coal and natural gas." Some 72 percent believe the federal government "should encourage the production of wind and solar power."

So why are there no working wind farms in the waters of Great Lakes, one of the best wind resources in the country? You don't have to take my word for it that this area is a prime location for wind turbines. Here's what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said in a June 2023 news release about its latest report on offshore Great Lakes wind resources:

Wind resource assessments estimate that the Great Lakes’ potential power capacity is 160 gigawatts for fixed-bottom wind turbines and about 415 gigawatts for floating wind energy systems. That wind energy resource potential exceeds the annual electricity consumption in five out of eight of the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a holiday break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, December 3.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Self-extinction: Male fertility, pesticides and the end of the human project

It is a common meme these days that humans are busy bringing about their own extinction. This is usually imagined to take the form of mass death resulting from the effects of climate change including food shortages, and/or from the rapid decline in the availability of fossil fuels, and/or from a worldwide pandemic caused by a microbe as lethal as the Ebola virus.

But what if our path to extinction is really taking the form of damage to human fertility of the type described by a new report that links the dramatic decline in male sperm count directly to pesticides? What if human society collapses for lack of new humans? The plants and animals might rejoice if they can do such a thing. But the human project would come to an end.

And that speaks to the central issue for humankind. Is the human project worth saving? And, if it is, are we as a global society willing to do what it takes to save it? On current form one would expect that the answer is no. But in order to change the answer to yes, the "yes" forces would have to proffer some very compelling arguments to get the world's chemical companies to give up on synthetic pesticides. I can imagine arguments that include reference to the literary, musical, architectural, artistic, philosophical and scientific achievements of humans. But these would likely fall on deaf ears unless the scientific achievements are allowed to include the continued dispersal of pesticides into the air, water and soil across the globe.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

We'll never run out of sand, right?

The single most abundant element in the Earth's crust is oxygen making up 46.6 percent of the mass. The second most abundant element is silicon making up 27.7 percent, mostly in the form of various molecules combining silicon and oxygen. Silicon dioxide is the kind people are familiar with and it is found on most, but not all beaches of the world.

It just doesn't seem reasonable to be concerned that we will somehow run out of sand. After all, the estimated weight of the Earth is 1.3 X 1025 pounds (13 followed by 24 zeros) or 6.5 X 1021 tons. The crust makes up 1 percent of that total weight, so the crust weighs 6.5 X 1019 tons. Of that, 27.7 percent is silicon or 1.8 X 1019 tons. The world consumes about 50 billion tons a year. For comparison's sake, that's 5 X 1010 tons annually—which if you do the math means we will run out of sand from the Earth's crust in 360 million years at current rates of consumption.

But, of course, not all sand is created equal. Much of it is unsuitable for industrial purposes such as making concrete or proppants in hydraulically fractured oil and gas deposits (fracking). The shape and uniformity of sand grains are crucial in certain uses such as proppants (which keep fractures open once they've been made). Sand casting (used to make metal objects) requires a mixture of three different kinds of sand, each with a different chemical formula. Sand of particularly high purity is required for glass-making and for solar panels and computer chips.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

AI: The information economy becomes ever more energy and resource intensive

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece entitled "The unbearable lightness of information." Since then the information economy has become ever more resource intensive. Examples include Bitcoin, the widely recognized digital-only currency, which, as it turns out, consumes about as much electricity as the nation of Norway each year. (Why a currency with no physical bills should weigh so heavily on the energy system is explained in the same linked piece.)

Data centers and data transmission networks account for between 2 and 3 percent of global electricity consumption. Think of all the things in the world which use electricity, and you'll see why this share for this one facet of society is such a large chunk.

While the telecommunications industry is becoming more efficient in its energy use, total energy use continues to expand. The emerging 5G system uses three times more energy than 4G. Between 2020 and 2026 network energy needs are expected to increase 150 to 170 percent. So much for the information economy being light on resources!

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The miniaturization of death: How technology has tipped the balance away from state power

Miniaturization is a signal advance in modern electronics. The slogan has been "smaller, faster, cheaper, better." That has been the case for consumer electronics for decades. But parallel to the seeming benefits are dangers associated with packing ever more destructive power into smaller packages and simpler processes—not all of them electronic in nature.

One of the principles of government and society is the monopoly on force enjoyed by the government. In the abstract, members of society give up the right to use force against one another and agree to live by a set of rules enforced by the government. Law courts become a substitute for internecine warfare and gang violence in resolving disputes. Police become the enforcers of public order. But, in truth, it is the agreement among members of society to abide not only by laws and rules, but also by long-observed customs that facilitates peaceful coexistence which has the most importance.

In reality, the state has never had a complete monopoly on the use of force. There have always been groups or individuals who have challenged that monopoly for various reasons such as the commission of crimes, the resistance to government mandates, the overthrow of governments or the desire to set up one's own independent state in a region currently controlled by the government.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Graphite: A new energy economy resource is suddenly harder to get

The substance that constitutes a pencil lead and an important component of electric vehicle batteries is suddenly less available. China, the world's top producer of graphite, will now require permits for shipments abroad. The country is the world's top producer and plays a special role by refining 90 percent of the graphite used in electric vehicle batteries.

In what now seems like the ancient past, pencils were used to fill out bubble sheet forms and tests because the machines that read them did so by sensing the electrical conductivity of the graphite-filled ovals. (Today, optical scanners read such forms by sensing the reflectivity of the ovals.)

It is the conductivity of graphite which makes its so useful for electric vehicle batteries. China's move would not be such a big deal if graphite were more evenly distributed around the world. But its production is overwhelming centered in China—which produces five times more than second-place Madagascar and 56 times more than either Canada or Russia which are tied for sixth place.

However, the United States, a center for electric vehicle manufacture, has no domestic source of graphite. All of it must be imported.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

We're poisoning teenagers (but it doesn't seem to matter)

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung pointed out that when guilt is assigned to one person for a misdeed, it can weigh heavily on that person. But when guilt is assigned to millions, the burden becomes so light that it is easy to ignore. The general response is, "What can one person do? How can my actions really matter that much?"

See how that works! And, now we have an entire society drenched in synthetic chemicals and people feel powerless to do anything about it. And, the people who make those chemicals may feel that same way. If only one company tries to do something about it, the total picture will remain essentially the same (and the company will probably be penalized in the marketplace as it plays by its own more costly rules). But, on reflection, I think most of those who make these chemicals would deny or minimize their harm.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise then to find out that teenagers are being exposed to two popular herbicides glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and the widely used insect repellent DEET and suffering from poorer brain function. Researchers also opined that the rise in chronic conditions among young people may be related to ever increasing chemical exposures.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 15.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

The clean energy economy turns out to be the metals energy economy

A very observant longtime friend of mine opined recently that the clean energy economy is really just a metals energy economy where metals provide the basis for energy production and transmission. The idea that this emerging economy is going to be light on resources compared to our current fossil-fuel based economy is a fantasy.

And you don't have to take his word for it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has attempted to project the needs of this new economy. The IEA's report entitled "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions" contains some eye-popping statistics that drive home just how much in the way of metals might be needed in order to supply the builders of this clean energy infrastructure.

Using two scenarios the IEA estimated that growth in demand coming from clean energy industries just for battery-related minerals will explode by 2040 relative to 2020:

1. Lithium: Between 13 to 42 times.

2. Graphite: Between 8 and 25 times.

3. Cobalt: Between 6 to 21 times.

4. Nickel: Between 6 to 19 times.

5. Manganese: Between 3 to 8 times.