Sunday, July 21, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, July 28.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Why ocean acidification could make some geoengineering schemes irrelevant

The idea of runaway ocean acidification has now joined the idea of runaway global warming as a threat so large that it stands almost co-equal in its danger.

Part of the problem with ocean acidification is that geoengineering schemes for lowering Earth's temperature by reducing the sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface won't affect ocean acidification. And recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that there is a tipping point in acidification beyond which the process becomes self-reinforcing and could lead to a mass extinction.

The idea of runaway global warming has been around for a while. In its original form it was speculation about whether the Earth could enter an unstoppable process that appears to have occurred on Venus billions of years ago and boiled its oceans away—leaving a planet so hot that surface temperatures today are high enough to melt lead.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Connectivity becomes too dangerous: Putting manual security back into the grid

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last week that would form a government-industry working group to "examine ways to replace automated systems with low-tech redundancies, like manual procedures controlled by human operators." The news release linked above specifically references an attack on the Ukrainian grid that succeeded only partially because of such manual technology:

This legislation was inspired in part by Ukraine’s experience in 2015, when a sophisticated cyber-attack on that country’s power grid led to more than 225,000 people being left in the dark. The attack could have been worse if not for the fact that Ukraine relies on manual technology to operate its grid. The Senator’s bill seeks to build on this concept by studying ways to strategically use "retro" technology to isolate the grid’s most important control systems.

The enthusiasm for all things automated and digital has run into a snag. The purveyors of so-called "smart" systems would like us to think that there are always digital solutions to digital problems. But, in truth, digital security problems merely reflect an ongoing arms race between security technologies and procedures and the hackers who work constantly to circumvent them.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Shale oil and gas: Destroying capital one well at a time

Recently, the former CEO of the largest shale gas producer in the United States told a roomful of conference goers what any competent financial analysis would have revealed many years ago: the shale oil and gas industry as a whole has been destroying capital since its inception.

"The fact is that every time they put the drill bit to the ground, they erode the value of the billions of dollars of previous investments they have made," said Steve Schlotterbeck, former head of natural gas behemoth EQT, at a petrochemical industry conference. "It's frankly no wonder that their equity valuations continue to fall dramatically."

But, the real news here is not that the shale oil and gas industry has from its beginning been destroying capital one well at a time. It's that a major industry insider freed from the constraints of his former job has admitted it.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

When software rules the world

I was a young boy when elevator operators still closed those see-through, metal accordion interior elevator doors by hand and then moved the elevator up or down by rotating a knob on a wheel embedded in the elevator wall.

Within a few years all those operators were gone, replaced by numbered buttons on the elevator wall. Today, so many activities that used to be mediated by human judgement are now governed by algorithms inside automated systems.

Apart from the implications for elevator operators and others displaced by such technology, there is the question of transparency. It's easy to determine visually whether an elevator door is open and the elevator is level with the floor you're on so that you can safely exit.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, June 23.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Alarm bell on decline of nuclear power way too late

Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that neglect of the world's nuclear electric generating plants would lead to a precipitous decline in climate-friendly nuclear energy production around the world.

The agency, a consortium of 30 countries which monitors energy developments worldwide, said 25 percent of nuclear capacity could be lost by 2025 and two-thirds by 2040. The cause is clear. Little new capacity is being built and much of the current fleet of reactors is nearing the end of its lifespan.

The IEA's warning comes about a decade too late. That's because the timeline for planning and building nuclear power plants can be that long.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Is there a way to counter the Chinese stranglehold on rare earth metals?

Those of us living in the United States are once again getting an education about the importance of rare earth elements for the production of consumer electronics, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and military equipment such as night-vision goggles. The reason for this education is a Chinese threat to retaliate in the ongoing trade war with the Trump administration by restricting exports of rare earths.

Clockwise from Top Center: Praseodymium, Cerium,
Lanthanum, Neodymium, Samarium, and Gadolinium.

It's not an empty threat. The last time the Chinese restricted exports in 2010 prices skyrocketed on the world market. Back then the Chinese produced more than 90 percent of the world's supply. Ostensibly, the Chinese were reserving these critical metals to bolster domestic manufacturers by forcing production of devices requiring the metals to occur in China. The Chinese eventually relented in the face of an adverse ruling from the World Trade Organization.

To understand this threat in context, first, it is important to know that rare earths are not rare in the earth's crust. Some of the most important are as plentiful as zinc and chromium. However, rare earth elements do not occur in concentrated deposits nearly so often as zinc, chromium and other plentiful metals. That means that rare earths are expensive to mine.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

CO2 emissions: The trend is not your friend

When the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in late March that energy consumption in 2018 rose at the fastest rate in a decade, it confirmed something that most of those who truly understand the climate crisis already know: Collectively, humanity is making almost no progress in doing anything significant about climate change. So, it's not surprising that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has hit yet another record high.

While the dominate public narrative has been that we are making great leaps toward a low-carbon economy through the rapid deployment of renewable energy, the IEA report showed a civilization moving inexorably toward climate catastrophe.

Of the growth in energy demand—the extra energy needed to power the world economy in 2018 versus 2017—70 percent was supplied by fossil fuels. When we hear, as the IEA tells us, that solar energy generation increased by 31 percent last year without appropriate context, we fail to understand that this is off a very small base relative to fossil fuel energy.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Helium is a finite resource—who knew?

Almost precisely 10 years ago I wrote about the likelihood of a shortage of helium in the not-to-distant future in a piece entitled "Let's party 'til the helium's gone." Last week worries about a helium shortage appeared in my news feed. It seems that we are indeed going to party 'til the helium's gone as no steps that I know of have been taken to avert the inevitable shortage.

That the shortage comes as a surprise results from a certain scientific illiteracy about the makeup of the universe and the geology of the planet. More on that later.

It also results from a peculiar type of economic thinking that is pervasive today that states that when shortages occur of any commodity, prices will rise to incentivize exploitation of previously uneconomical resources and automatically solve the problem. This intellectually lazy pronouncement does not consider whether the new supplies will be affordable. (As I pointed out in another piece about helium in 2013, "Things do not have to run out to become unavailable.")