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Cyberpunk 2.0: Political economy, energy, and the future US

Yeah, totally boring academic title, but there's a point to it. Here in this online community, we tend to err on the side of rational analysis, and I'm going to be a stinker and point out how much politics shapes what passes for rationality. For example, if we were a rational species, there wouldn't be 20 million-odd people in Southern California where I live, because the area's semi-desert at best, and the only way people can live here is to have water pumped in from hundreds of miles away. If history and archaeology are any guide (going back to Mesopotamia), cultures that relied on long-distance irrigation have inevitably fallen when their water systems failed, and there's no reason to think southern California will be any different. So why are there so many people in this evanescent "paradise" that is southern California? Politics. Politics turns rational proposals, such as John Wesley Powell's 19th Century rational proposal to dam some western rivers and irrigate a bit of farmland, into the unsustainable sprawl of pork-barrel dams and water works that is the American West today. That's why I'm talking about political economy, not just economics: this isn't just about money, it's also about political power. That's what makes it more interesting, complex, and yes, irrational.

Speaking of rational proposals for restructuring civilization, there's one out there, by Stanford engineering Professor Mark Jacobson. He proposes that, by 2050, the US can supply its power needs entirely through renewable sources: photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, waves, and hydroelectric dams (see The Solutions Project, among many others). Here I'm not going to analyze Dr. Jacobson's proposal in much detail, because most of you are more tech savvy than I am, and you're perfectly capable of doing that yourselves. What I'm more interested in is what politics could do to this rational proposal, and what kind of an America would result.

On the good side, if we switch to using 100% renewable electricity globally, we'll have stopped emitting both greenhouse gases and nuclear waste, and this is a very good thing indeed, especially if you want to avoid the 100,000 year-long Altithermal I wrote about in Hot Earth Dreams. Also on the good side, there seems to be no physical reason why we can't do it. On the bad side, well, let's just say that mirror shades will come back into fashion.

At the Solutions Project website, Dr. Jacobson outlines how much each power source would contribute to the energy budget of each US state. He assumes that we'll be able to get by with less energy, mostly because quite a lot of fossil fuel energy is wasted as heat, and that energy won't get wasted by things like solar panels. He also assumes that we'll develop progressively better batteries or energy storage technologies (he goes for hydrogen, I prefer ammonia), so that by 2050 or so we'll power everything from aircraft to bulldozers from sustainable electricity stored in one form or another. While I have no idea whether it's better to electrify a D-6 caterpillar, run it on ammonia, or to start from scratch and design an electric mule-analog moving an updated Fresno scraper, for the sake of this essay, I'm going to assume that Jacobson's ideas are broadly feasible, and that we can get away with switching to running civilization on 100% renewable electricity, possibly with some changes to his formulae.

Since I've already done the calculations for California (link to blog entry), I'll just repeat a table here as an example of the kinds of changes Jacobson proposes. The table below shows the rough difference between how California got its power in 2014 and how Jacobson proposes we can get it in 2050, by percent:

• Coal: -100% (we go off coal completely)
• Natural Gas:-100% (natural gas too)
• Oil: -100% (yup)
• Nuclear: -100% (ditto, because politics)
• Biomass: -100% (putting sequestered carbon back into the air is stupid)
• Hydroelectric (all forms): -61%
• Geothermal: -36%
• Solar (all forms): +627%
• Wind (all forms): +142%
• Wave and Tidal: N/A (grows from zero to one percent)
• Unspecified Sources of Power: -100% (California currently gets some power from "unspecified sources," while Jacobson specifies everything)

Let's unpack the renewables. First off, Jacobson's plan relies a lot less on hydropower from dams, and that's probably a good thing. Basically, all the good dam sites in the US were built on decades ago (per Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert), and there's somewhere north of US$50 billion dollars of maintenance needed for the 84,000-odd dams we already have in the US (source). In my blog, I recently posted about some of the other problems dams have (link). The tl;dr version is that dams have serious issues with sediments and salt, the 50-100 year design life of many of them is ending Any Day Now, although their functional lives can be prolonged by that $50 billion of maintenance we're ignoring. Various sources (cf this New York Times article and its references) don't think that new large dams are cost-effective anywhere in the world. One can hope that the craze for building huge dams ends worldwide. Really, they're just like the pyramids, the end result of older powerful males with bad cases of Edifice Complex.

Geothermal doesn't have such problems so far as I know. It just isn't as big a piece of Jacobson's pie.

Solar power, in Jacobson's model, has four components: residential photovoltaic (PV), commercial and government rooftop PV, commercial PV plants out in the boonies, and boonie-sited concentrated solar thermal plants, like good ol' Ivanpah. Of these, Jacobson's model has rooftop PV supplying 13% of California's power (that's commercial, government, and residential rooftop PV combined), while solar plants provide 26.5% and solar thermal plants provide 15%. Some have argued that this is probably too much for solar thermal, and I happen to agree with them. Still, whatever the mix of technologies, this is a lot of big power plants, all sited outside cities. Where are we going to put them all? To satisfy Jacobson's plan, solar will have to grow by 627%, from supplying less than 4% of California's energy to over half, albeit half of a reduced energy total.

Wind has its own issues, and the number of turbines needs to more than double. Tidal energy is still largely in the design phase, but we'll need to put whatever turns out to work for tidal power generation off our ever-so-scenic coasts.

That's just one state out of 50, and each state has its own mix of power sources. Jacobson's group really did a lot of research and modeling, and he put much of his work online (see The Solutions Project, among many others).

Of course it gets more complicated, because most of the US west of the 100th meridian (aka the West, formerly the Great American Desert) is running out of both rainwater and groundwater. If you want the gory details, go read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert (actually, read it anyway, it's muckraking journalism at its finest. It puts Chinatown to shame). The bigger point is that there are thousands of dams in the West, irrigating a total acreage about the size of Missouri (per Reisner). East of the 100th meridian, such farmland is largely watered by "godwater" raining from the sky. In the West it's watered by irrigation from dams, often built as pork barrel projects that deliver as few as five cents on every dollar invested in them, but which made voters happy.

Many Western farms also rely on non-renewable groundwater. In the case of the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies farmland from the Dakotas to Texas--the land of the Dust Bowl--that land is being farmed using an aquifer is being managed so that it will be depleted in 50-100 years, with 35 percent of the land going out of production in the next 30 years (reference). California's San Joaquin Valley is probably in as bad shape, but we haven't monitored our groundwater until very recently (reference). Over time, the groundwater will run out, and I strongly suspect that the bigger farms will be replaced with solar plants. This isn't instant famine, because far too much irrigated ag land is growing things like alfalfa and other cattle feed, or export crops like almonds. Still, the Ogallala Aquifer grows about 20% of America's cattle, corn, cotton, and wheat, so its progressive loss means less food for an increasingly crowded world, and less of culturally critical products like beef, bread, and cotton.

But you're trying to figure out what these dry figures have to do with cyberpunk and electricity, I suspect?

Let's start putting it all together. In places like California, the current building trend is to build mixed-use subdivisions of closely packed homes surrounding a mixed-use mall that includes a grocery store and various services. This is all very rational, boring, and anonymous, living spaces separated from shopping spaces, residents required to get in their cars and drive to their jobs, which are typically located in different areas due to all sorts of tedious zoning regulations. As Jacobsonian electrification takes hold, these old subdivisions will get retrofitted with rooftop solar and electric cars, then decay as their design inefficiencies become ever more burdensome (for instance, many burb homes are power hogs that are only livable when you run the air conditioning all day). These older burbclaves will also get (forcibly) wired into smart grids that bring in power from big solar plantations out in the boonies where none of their residents is supposed to go. The newer developments will pack people ever tighter, if you believe the current Visionary Planners, warehousing them in a largely artificial environment where everything from food to water to power to material goods to residents are completely imported, and the light-polluted night sky is the color of a flat screen on standby. Those people who can't work at home will still have to commute, because rational urban planning has the bad habit of separating living and working into different geographic areas, so that you can't live above the shop. Given how Koomey's Law will keep dropping the energy requirements for computing power for probably another few decades, these congested new urban burbclaves will probably be wired from the rooftops to peoples' shorts, assuming our foolish infatuation with Big Data won't go away any time soon (why did nature evolve the ability for brains to forget, I wonder?). Big Brother will be watching, at least when he's not obsessing over all the false positive correlation patterns your life is randomly throwing up.

Where are all those new wind and solar plants going? That's where it gets political. As Gibson once wrote, the street finds its own uses for things, but in this case, we're talking about K Street in Washington DC. Some of the biggest farms in California are already owned by everything from oil companies to insurance companies, so when solar gets more profitable than whatever they're currently subsidized to grow (i.e. when their groundwater runs out), they'll solarize. In other cases, as at Ivanpah, and as I saw in the first solar boom of 2009-2011, plants will get proposed in all sorts of stupid places, with international investors relying on the political pull of their K Street contacts to sweep aside whatever legitimate concerns the environmentalists and local residents throw up. As with all the pork barrel dams that got built between 1940 and 1980, I'm quite sure that, once the US gets religion about solar plants, there will be a profusion of badly designed, stupidly sited solar and wind plants, built to enrich companies and get some politician re-elected on the promise of sustainable growth powered by sustainable electricity. By now it's a fine American tradition, despite Congress's showy attempts to rein in government spending.

That's the Suits side of our cyberpunk future, all very rational, designed, over-simplified, and bureaucratic, from the warehoused humans to the solar plantations to the super-rich megacorps. What about the punks?

Solar has always had its rebellious side. For decades it's been the power of choice for people wanting to unwire themselves and get off the grid, and just because the grid has gone solar, it doesn't mean that people will stop trying to use solar to power their freedom. One of the biggest fears of the current power companies (like my own SDG&E) is that homeowners will simply put up solar panels and unwire themselves, leaving the companies with a grid to maintain and too few customers to maintain it. They're fighting back, predictably, by trying to make going off the grid impossible, and that conflict will doubtless continue for decades.

That's the thing about renewable energy. Unlike legacy energies, like oil, coal, or nuclear, wind and solar can be used on the small scale, by people trying to carve out their own space rather than being wired into The System. The polymorphous nature of renewable energy will play out in a really complex dance, as the Suits struggle to keep people in The System so that it can generate profits, while the "punks" (often well-to-do, but still punks in their self-conception) use the same power to free themselves from the parts of The System they don't like. It's a fight that's happening now, and it will only get more intense as solar and batteries get cheaper and options proliferate.

There's another aspect to the various grids. They need to get smart, to accommodate the increasingly fluctuating power supplies and demands caused by renewable energy being dumped into them by thousands of small suppliers. And that causes a huge problem.

The problem isn't the need to build better batteries and energy storage, because everyone needs better batteries for all those new electric bulldozers and things. People like Elon Musk are trying to get fabulously wealthy building batteries, and some will undoubtedly succeed. There are even other energy storage options, like tiny ammonia synthesizers that produce a few gallons of ammonia off wind power. Ammonia's a lot like natural gas in terms of energy storage, but it doesn't have any carbon in it.

No, the problem is simpler and more dangerous: smart grids are hackable. As we come to depend on them, we make ourselves more vulnerable to anyone with an effective cyberweapon, from a lone wolf hacker to a foreign government. Of course, if we stay with dumb grids, we're condemning ourselves to a much more dangerous future of severe climate change, so either way is dangerous. Still, sustainable electrification changes the face of conflict. Rather than bomb a city and invade, a coercive cyberforce, military or otherwise, can hold utility systems hostage until the enemy politicians give in to their demands. The potential for long term human misery is largely the same as in conventional war, but the weapons are much less lethal, at least in the short run, and therefore more appealing to hawkish politicians. Personally, I don't ever want to be trapped in a city without water, but that might happen one day to get my city to pay ransom or something. Anyway, a smart-grid future is a future of black hats, white hats, red queens, and Wired Wars replacing World Wars. The cyberwarriors won't jack their brains directly into cyberspace, because that's too slow and, anyway, neurosurgery will get more dangerous as multiple antibiotic resistant bacteria become the norm. But that doesn't make cyberwar any less dangerous.

Ready for your mirrorshades yet? This is a 2030s America of decaying suburbs retrofitted for solar, newer, urban burbclaves (crushclaves?) of people warehoused in smart apartment complexes, the spiritual descendants of Roman insulae, with everything and everyone piped into them, housing people stripped of their history in particular places, given the option of living artificial, highly controlled lives, and sometimes rebelling, whether or not there are bread and circuses (or national health care). There will be solar-roofed and often tiny homes all over rural America, while refurbished rural service stations swap batteries rather than pump gas, strange new construction equipment builds (perhaps prints?) new buildings, and planes bumble across the sky on electric engines. If we use ammonia as our renewable fuel, smog will be a common problem (ammonia burns to NOx, a common smog pollutant), and meth will be the cheap street drug of choice (ammonia can be used to make it), but at least their tailpipes won't emit greenhouse gases. The West's currently irrigated, salt-poisoned ag lands will revert piecemeal to desert, and rural Westerners (or their megacorp employers) will follow the Saudi Arabian example of exporting power and importing food and water. We may come to share the Saudi embrace of religious conservatism, too. Some western cities will dry up and blow away (Las Vegas), while others will tough it out (probably the holy city of Salt Lake, the birthplace of Western irrigated agriculture). Still others, like Los Angeles, will continue to reinvent themselves as manufacturing and commercial hubs that import everything from water to power to food to people, at least until the earthquakes hit. After that, who knows? Some Okies will pack their electric jalopies and move north and east to tend godwater farms, while the country struggles to settle millions (but hopefully not hundreds of millions) of climate refugees.

The megacorps will strive to order and simplify our lives, for that is where they get their power, while the hackers try to free themselves, and perhaps us, by making our lives as disorderly and complex as possible. But it's not a question of who wins. It's an ever evolving new landscape, a red queen race with an unknown number of contestants. Sustainability is not static.

Unfortunately, electrification is not necessarily sustainable either, because so much depends on how the End of Oil plays out. Currently, some predict that demand for oil will peak in 2035 (source), and if we're still burning oil by 2050, we're in for severe climate change. Others say that the US, which is sitting on the biggest shale oil deposits in the world, has a crumbling oil industry that is spending more than it is earning and may not recover from its current depression (reference). Currently, Big Oil has tremendous political power, and they're perfectly willing to use it to everybody's detriment. Then again, Big Coal had a huge amount of political power not too long ago, and that industry is collapsing as we speak, due to market forces. Politics and economics are inextricably linked, like it or not.

How will it all play out? No one knows. Still, it's just possible that we'll make it to a brighter, more sustainable future. And if we do somehow make it to this bright and shiny future, we'll definitely need shades.

275 Comments

1:

Electrical Energy STORAGE ?????

Ammonia is the way to go, so I assume the politicos will oppose it (Vested interests)

2:

Because of the obstacles you mention, smart-grids ain't going to cut it ...
Too vulnerable to both hacking & politicking ( the latter at all scales )

3:

Wrong direction entirely. Solar power will be cheaper than our current power sources, once economies of scale kick in and we learn how to make panels, inverters and batteries more efficiently. When power is cheaper, people will use more of it, not less. Think cheap air conditioning, cheap desalination, cheap transportation. The suburbs will thrive once autonomous vehicles let you get to places while you're online, drunk, or whatever.

4:

@greg - you may say smart grids wont come because it's obviously a stupidly risky idea, but in the UK we're getting wall to wall radio adverts for installing a voluntary smart meter, and hte ex-national supplier is offering 'free' weekend electricity if you take one.

No fair and balanced assessment is being made to the public, despite many negative expert (and government!) reviews.

But, how else is the government going to keep control when the Russians turn of the gas than by controlling the people's ability to organise and control by cutting their power ?

5:

This is what's so fascinating.

Even though I've run into starry-eyed engineers who are thrilled to work for Elon Musk to solve the battery problem at the Gigafactory, in this case you're betting against innovation and for the status quo.

Not saying your wrong, but I am saying that prejudices often have sociopolitical roots. It's hard to tell what's possible and what's not when you're drowning in a wash of propaganda.

As for smart grids, they're already in process, in part because our existing grid is a jury-rigged mess.

That also goes for the idea that power use always increases. For instance, California now has a flex-alert system to tell people to shut down all heavy electricity usage on hot days (turn the AC up to 78oF or higher, don't run the laundry, etc. until after 9 pm) to avoid blackouts. Efficiency is fighting with greed out there.

6:

Given my experience in NJ working for a major utility, the intrinsic difficulties of linear construction, the extraordinary time taken to obtain the required permits from the myriad municipalities, counties, states, federal agencies and varied quangos and the nested political nature of semi-monopoly utilities....
I can't see it happening in anything like your timeframes here but I would love to be wrong about that

7:

Retrofitting all the homes that use natural gas or heating oil would be a non-trivial problem too, of course

8:

Most of (but not all of. The exceptions - the list of nations where infrastructure gets built on time and on budget is hilarious. IE: SPAIN.) the western world has managed to choke it's own ability to build large infrastructure projects to death. This is not politically sustainable. At some point in the not-to-distant future there is going to be some changes in this field, just because it's going to be too bloody embarrassing a situation to be permitted to continue.

9:

I'm going to be more optimistic than many here and say that smart meters are not generally going to be dreamy for black-hat hackers. The main reason is alignment of incentives: if smart meters are developed in a sloppy and insecure way, people will be able to steal electricity by hacking their own smart meters. Smart meters in general are more likely to have security akin to satellite pay TV smartcards (where the money is made selling access to to the service, not by selling the gateway hardware) than to Android phones (where manufacturers make money off of hardware and security updates are just a cost center; all the bad effects of security failures fall on the end user). Even pay TV smartcards have been hacked, of course, but they require unusual levels of effort to do so, down to reverse engineering microchips in sophisticated labs. And the companies that work in this space are vigilant about fixing vulnerabilities as soon as they're found.

Smart meters don't need to play videos, render PDFs, open Word documents, or execute JavaScript. They don't even necessarily need to run a general purpose operating system. They can run a small, hardened software stack with a tiny attack surface -- just like pay TV smartcards.

10:

Smart meters would also be useful if they can tell a utility where the supply is not functioning
Currently, in NJ, after a major storm or hurricane, the utilities literally send people out to drive around and report the downed poles
Not a big concern for people in the UK like Greg, admittedly

11:

And a huge number of people, including me, are telling, or waiting to tell those proposing to put "smart" meters into our houses ... EXACTLY where they can be inserted, preferably with the sharp corners protruding.
NOT going to have one.

[ Downside - if you move house you "have" to have a smart-meter installed & if you change supplier you have to have a "smart" meter installed. ]
What a fucking big con

12:

YOUR "grid" is a jury-rigged mess.
The UK's not nearly so much.

13:

A N other popular entirely false myth, I'm afraid.

The largest construction project in the whole of Europe is in progress, here in London.
On tine, possibly fractionally ahead of time & definitely inside it's admittedly very large budget.
"Crossrail"

14:

Crossrail is an amazing achievment, but it's costs are far higher than in comparable Spanish projects
Of course, in the US we have the second avenue subway and other related fiascos in NYC whose costs and lateness bely belief

15:

@greg - I moved house a few months ago in the UK. No requirement from Random Company top of the results on Compare The Meerkats to have a smart meter installed. Oddly the FAQ on https://www.smartenergygb.org/en/faqs saying you did not have to have one has vanished since the Open Rights Group asked a while back : https://twitter.com/orgmanchester/status/699248021280858112

16:

A good essay, and barely a word about GW ;) Some points:
1. The Taylor Act prevents a lot of California farmland being converted to other uses, like solar farms. This is politics, but it will have to be overturned. Currently farms are being bought for access to well water.

2. California is appallingly poor at water management. Residential use is wasted watering lawns and laundry. Gray water systems would at least reuse laundry water for garden use. The state does operate a limited rebate for lawn removal, but my neighbors mutter about my mulched from garden. Ag water is the big drain, but again, recycling with some basic thermal distillation could reduce the demand. Cities could recycle black water and use those cheap solar panels to desalinate sea water.

3. I'm not so sure about doing away with gas. It is much more efficient for heating than electricity, and cooks swear by gas as the better, controllable heat source. Gas appliances have a long life, so getting rid of gas completely might be hard. Maybe methane or H2 could be generated onsite to at least run ranges?

4. A densely populated, desert dry California might be a great experiment in how to build human habitats with limited resources and using them efficiently. We will need that sort of expertise if we are to expand into space.

17:

other related fiascos in NYC whose costs and lateness bely belief

Perhaps Andreas can tell us how it's going with Brandenburg Airport?

18:

My area of California has just installed "smart" water meters. Water was not metered and so waste was obvious, made worse by those who think the drought is a hoax and over water their lawns and feel the need to wash the driveway and sidewalks. We know that reduced lawn watering saves a lot of water as was demonstrated by the voluntary water use restrictions and imposed watering schedules. We just need to change attitudes permanently.

19:

Two points:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-03/solar-developers-undercut-coal-with-another-record-set-in-dubai

"Solar power set another record-low price as renewable energy developers working in the United Arab Emirates shrugged off financial turmoil in the industry to promise projects costs that undercut even coal-fired generators.
Developers bid as little as 2.99 cents a kilowatt-hour to develop 800 megawatts of solar-power projects for the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority, the utility for the Persian Gulf emirate, announced on Sunday. That’s 15 percent lower than the previous record set in Mexico last month, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The lowest priced solar power has plunged almost 50 percent in the past year."

Second, the post is betting that the battery problem will not be solved within the next 15 years. Personally, I think cheap deep cycles batteries based on Sodium or Magnesium will be dirt cheap by 2025 and grid storage will no longer be a problem.

20:

"He also assumes that we'll develop progressively better batteries or energy storage technologies ..."

This step in Dr. Jacobson's plans is basically "Then a miracle occurs." The density of energy storage needed to replace the electrical power grid of a First World country (and make no mistake, that's what the plans are talking about) is far beyond our current technology. Discovering such a thing is not a matter of incremental improvements to batteries or fuel cells; it would require radical insights - and you can't plan for radical insights.

And if that particular miracle does occur, the power grid will be the first thing to go. The amount of power lost to simple electrical resistance in the power grid is a big chunk of most countries' energy consumption. If energy storage becomes dense enough power plants can recover that loss by hooking up their generators directly to hyperbatteries that get shipped to customers. In those circumstances the neo-insulae you postulate cannot appear, for they depend on a power grid, and the grid is no longer economical to operate.

21:

I'm not so sure about doing away with gas. It is much more efficient for heating than electricity...

This is a half-myth that becomes more like a 3/4-myth under California's climatic conditions, and a 7/8-myth in a renewables-heavy California future.

Burning natural gas in a home furnace to heat the home is more efficient than burning the gas in a turbine to make electricity and then sending that electricity through a resistance heater to heat the home. Burning gas to make electricity and then heating the home with an electrically powered air source heat pump is actually even more efficient than burning the gas directly, at least until outside air temperatures fall significantly below freezing. It takes a system coefficient of performance of about 2 for an ASHP powered by a state of the art combined cycle gas turbine (54% gas-to-electricity conversion efficiency) to be more efficient than burning the gas directly in a home furnace. As you can see in e.g. Figures 1 and 2 of this report from the Minnesota Division of Energy Resources, down to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside air temperature (-7 Celsius), an ASHP supplemented with resistance heating, running off of CCGT-sourced electricity, is more efficient than burning the gas in a home furnace. As California experiences few household-days with conditions colder than this, household gas heating is largely less efficient than electrically driven systems.

Finally, in a renewables-heavy future even the efficiency penalty for direct resistance heating largely disappears. If you're generating electricity on cold nights from wind/tidal/hydro power, that energy is born as electricity. There is no primary energy wasted by an intermediate thermal conversion cycle, like there is for combustion based generation.

22:


California has droughts in the pre-settlement record of enormous length - but I don't think this will lead to California being abandoned. I think it means it will be a permanent exercise in hydrological engineering. Desalination is getting cheaper, solar most certainly is going to deliver cheap power for those purposes where uninterrupted service isn't that vital, and cali gets enough rays. So it's going to be the state that is verdant solely because people are manufacturing the water to make it so.

Which does imply that some of the currently popular crops are going to be phased out just because they are too absurdly water intensive.
What crops will be grown in the steady state where farmers are paying Israel-level prices for water?

23:

"Then a miracle occurs."

The first two miracles will be battery driven transport and domestic backup.
When there is enough domestic backup and a smart grid everything becomes far more flexible.

24:

I was going to point out that dams don't seem to be all that sustainable, but you seem to be there already.

Some years ago, I read The Coal Question, one of the first serious academic attempts to predict the future, written in the 19th century by William Stanley Jevons, the founder of mathematical economics (at least in the UK). Jevons worried about what would happen to British industry when the coal mines were exhausted, as he thought they inevitably would be. He dismissed petroleum as an energy source, on the ground that no one made any significant use of it for that purpose; he thought solar energy might work better, in areas such as the southwestern United States—but not in Britain! So this topic has a history. . . .

25:

Homework problem for you: assuming perfect efficiency, how large an area of PV cells is required to collect the energy generated by burning 1 liter of gasoline?

26:

This step in Dr. Jacobson's plans is basically "Then a miracle occurs." The density of energy storage needed to replace the electrical power grid of a First World country (and make no mistake, that's what the plans are talking about) is far beyond our current technology.

Low energy density systems are fine for stationary electrical storage. No miracles are necessary. The energy density achievable with lead-acid batteries (~40 watt-hours per kilogram, ~100 wH/liter) is fine for stationary storage. Want to power your detached suburban home in California for 3 days on stored electricity alone? You need about 75 kWh of storage, e.g. 750 liters at 100 wH/liter -- a volume comparable to a medium-large chest freezer. The reason you wouldn't actually keep 75 kWh of lead-acid storage attached to your home is 3-fold: it's too expensive, lead-acid batteries have low cycle times, and 75 kWh is overkill. Storage is something you'd add after or in conjunction with rooftop solar, so you never really need storage as extreme as 3 days' worth with zero recharge. (If the sun does not rise for 3 days, you have problems that no battery can fix).

Battery research for stationary storage applications is all about reducing the amortized lifetime cost per stored kWh supplied. You can get that cost down by reducing manufacturing costs at a constant lifetime target, by increasing the lifetime (allowable number of charge/discharge cycles) at constant manufacturing cost, or some combination of the two. There are many approaches to reducing manufacturing costs and/or increasing cycle life, from charge controller tweaks that can be done with software all the way to introducing brand new battery chemistries. Higher energy density storage might arrive as an incidental result of stationary storage research but it's not required. If you find two battery approaches that are equally good except that one has twice the energy density of the other, of course you'll take the denser one because it'll make packaging, shipping, and installation easier. But density takes a distant back seat to amortized lifetime cost.

And if that particular miracle does occur, the power grid will be the first thing to go. The amount of power lost to simple electrical resistance in the power grid is a big chunk of most countries' energy consumption.

Also no.

EIA Frequently Asked Questions: How much electricity is lost in transmission and distribution in the United States?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that electricity transmission and distribution losses average about 6% of the electricity that is transmitted and distributed annually in the United States. (Average of annual losses in 2005 through 2014.) Estimated losses in 2014 for the entire United States were about 5%.

27:

I notice that costs are not included. The fact is that gas furnaces at 97-98 efficient in converting energy, and these can be easily used to update older, less energy efficient gas furnaces. Make a cheap, electrical, heat pump and I will consider it, but you have to show that these will be as inexpensive or net cost saving over simple, gas fired furnaces for heating and gas-fired water heaters.

But what to do about cooking? Force everyone to go electric? Even restaurants? See if you can even find a high-end, electric range alternative.

I don't think we need to be purist about this. Reduce gas demand to a low level, but replace everything else, so that the small amounts of CO2 emitted are well within the biosphere's capability to sequester. This may result in gas suppliers longer using a grid as it is too costly to maintain, which could make using gas more difficult and expensive (e.g. using propane via delivery or cylinder replacement).

28:

I notice that costs are not included. The fact is that gas furnaces at 97-98 efficient in converting energy, and these can be easily used to update older, less energy efficient gas furnaces. Make a cheap, electrical, heat pump and I will consider it, but you have to show that these will be as inexpensive or net cost saving over simple, gas fired furnaces for heating and gas-fired water heaters.

Yes, burning more fossils instead of manufacturing more efficient equipment is the low-cost way to go. And if we keep doing it long enough, nobody will need winter heating any more, so there's that bonus to consider.

29:

Last was unnecessarily combative. Sorry, Alex. I agree that there is low-hanging fruit to be plucked even before we convert everyone to air source heat pumps. Some low residual level of combustion based energy can probably be accommodated, and probably won't be totally eliminated.

30:

Dimethyl ether is a good propane substitute, fairly easy/efficient to synthesize from electrolytic hydrogen and carbon dioxide, if the day comes that there aren't enough customers to maintain a gas pipeline network and restaurants (and others with a need for real flame) need some suitable synfuel to fill their storage tanks.

31:

Assuming a 20 year life for a solar panel, 15% conversion efficiency and an average 4 hour peak watt efficiency equivalent, 1 gallon of gasoline is replaced by 0.0017 m2 of solar panel.

If you want that 1 gallon every week, then you need about 1.7 m2.

IOW, a small panel on the roof or in the back yard will give you the energy equivalent of that gasoline to run ICEs.
We know that replacement is viable, because you can already plug in your electric car with a solar paneled garage port. Tesla will sell you such systems.

32:

Let's crunch some hard numbers for solar using the Neuhardengberg solar plant outside of Berlin; 145 MW nominal capacity 245 hectares (0.95 square miles) as an example.

First the nominal power sited of 145 mW is the "watt-peak", which is energy production under ideal conditions.

From Wikipedia: "The maximum power measured is the nominal power of the module in "Wp". The nominal power divided by the light power that falls on the module (area x 1000 W/m2) is the efficiency. Watts peak is a convenient measure because it enables one to compare one module with another and track industry capacities and shipments. Equivalent measures can be used for wind electricity generators, though obviously the specification of ideal conditions is different."

The facility in question is a PV facility generating DC. Homes and appliances have to be run on AC. This necessitates running the DC through a converter.

Converters transform AC into DC and vice versa. There are two types of converters—rectifiers and inverters. Rectifiers use diodes in various configurations to perform the conversion. The more complicated inverters rely on microprocessor circuits and transistors.

DC is converted to AC by means of an inverter. The output waveform (voltage over time) varies with the quality and cost of the inverter from rectangular (poorest quality and least cost) or trapezoidal (better quality and more cost) to a true sine wave identical to that directly produced by an AC generator (best quality and most expensive). Inverters can be connected either in parallel for higher power or in series for higher voltage. The operating power of an inverter varies with voltage; typically a 100-W inverter will operate at 12–48 V.(see my article at: http://www.distributedenergy.com/DE/Articles/Converting_with_Rectifiers_and_Inverters_1850.aspx)

Which then brings to the issue of operational efficiency. An inverter's efficiency may vary from something just over 50% when a trickle of power is being used, to something over 90% when the output is approaching the inverters rated output. An inverter will use some power from your batteries even when you are not drawing any AC power from it. This results in the low efficiencies at low power levels.

Typical inverter efficiency will be around 60% on most days, and each day will see variable DC output due to variable sunshine (more on that below). So that 145 nominal mW becomes an average, typical DC to AC inverted power production of 87 mW.

Even on bright sunny days, the average solar power gain is considerably less than the peak used to determine nominal power in watts-peak (due to movement of the sun, latitude, season, etc.). For example, from David MacKay's analysis in "Sustainable Energy without all the Hot Air":

"The power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000 W per square metre. That’s 1000 W per m2 of area oriented towards the sun, not per m2 of land area. To get the power per m2 of land area in Britain, we must make several corrections. We need to compensate for the tilt between the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about 60% of its value at the equator (figure 6.1). We also lose out because it is not midday all the time. On a cloud-free day in March or September, the ratio of the average intensity to the midday intensity is about 32%. Finally, we lose power because of cloud cover. In a typical UK location the sun shines during just 34% of daylight hours. The combined effect of these three factors and the additional complication of the wobble of the seasons is that the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of south-facing roof in Britain is roughly 110 W/m2 and the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of flat ground is roughly 100 W/m2.” (see: http://www.withouthotair.com/c6/page_38.shtml)

So let’s take the 87 mW of inverted AC production and reduce it to 32% to account for average solar intensity. This reduces actual output to 28 mW. Then again reduce this amount to 32% to account for cloudy days (England having roughly similar climate and latitude as northern Germany). Nearby Berlin has an average of 1625 hours of sunshine annually (see http://www.currentresults.com/Weather/Germany/annual-hours-of-sunshine.php). With annual daylight of 365 x 12 = 4,380 hours, this is equivalent to 37%. This is roughly equal to that of England with 34%. This gives us an amount of 9.5 mW.

So after accounting for reductions for DC to AC conversion, latitude and climate, the facility’s actual POWER production is only 6.5% of its rated nominal power in Watts-peak under ideal conditions. If this facility’s average AC output was to be equal to it nominal 145 Mw it would need a land area almost 16 times greater than 0.95 square miles, an area equal to almost 15 square miles.

Note that daylight hours only account for half of a 24 hour day on average, resulting in a further 50% reduction in ENERGY production as measured in kW-hours. So increase the area required by a factor of 2 to 30 square miles.

But since energy created by the PV system will still be needed at night (indeed its heaviest demand load will be at night for heating and illumination) it will need to produce enough energy to store for later use at night. With a typical charger efficiency and battery efficiency of 80% and 70%, the overall energy storage efficiency comes to 56% under ideal conditions. To account for energy storage inefficiency the required land area has to double again to 60 square miles – about 38,400 acres.

Now a typical natural gas power plant produces 10s to 100s of mW, 24 hours a day, irrespective of climate or location, and without the need to store power. For example, the proposed Apex Matagorda Energy Center natural gas power plant will have a capacity of 317 mW and a 22 acre footprint (see http://www.mcedc.net/news.php?op=view&id=246). That’s twice the capacity of the German PV facility, or half the equivalent area per power output of only 11 acres.

To produce the same amount of energy as an equivalent natural gas power plant, a PV solar array would require a footprint 3,000 to 4,000 times greater in extent.

The destroyed habitat alone makes PV a bad environmental choice. The PV cells themselves are doped with toxic materials. Until recently, PV meant flat-panel cells and modules. While this allows for some saving in production costs due to inexpensive roll-to-roll fabrication, the material costs are much higher, since almost the entire cell needs to be lined with doped silicon. The doping often involves the introduction of relatively expensive materials, such as gallium arsenide or indium selenide. (see my article at: http://72.3.251.71/DE/Editorial/Concentrating_on_the_Solar_Future_1765.aspx).

PC cells do not last for ever. current warranties run for about 10 to 20 years of operation, after which they have to be disposed of and replaced. A complete conversion to PV energy spources would present us with a serious toxic waste disposal problem.

No matter how you look at it, habitat destroying footprint, toxic pollutants, need for additional infrastructure, etc. - methane is better for the environment than PV. Solar energy is a pipe dream. We simply cannot run a modern industrial civilization on renewables.

The numbers just don’t add up.

33:

I don't know whether everyone in the industrialised north has forgotten about cooking on cylinder gas, but for seven months I did fine with this. I had a cylinder, which had an initial outlay, but refills were much cheaper at the nearest Oilibya petrol station. You delivered the empty cylinder and took a full one. No fuss. And since the power went off every single day, due apparently to a privatisation to incompetent British friends of the kleptocracy, I was very happy to cook on gas. Lighting was a solar lantern: leave it in the sun in the daytime, and since this was on the Equator, there was serious recharging. Some of these cuts were long enough to drain a laptop battery; these lanterns could recharge a phone but not a laptop. Would any of you nice geeks like to invent a butane-powered computer, pretty please?

34:

To summarize, in order to effectively produce power equivalent to the nominal 145 kW, the area devoted to collectors has to be increased to compensate for losses incurred by:

a. conversion from DC to AC (60%)
b. latitude (32%)
c. cloud cover (34%)
d. only operating during daylight (50%)
e. battery storage (56%)

This is a total reduction of about 98%, necessitating a 55x increase in collector surface area to produce power equiavlent to its nominal rating. In this case about 55 to 60 square miles instead of the actual 0.95 square miles.

Furthermore, the average European uses 0.688 kW of energy (Americans use 1.363). So the 145 kW facility covering 55 to 60 square miles provides enough electricty for 210 Europeans (approximately 50 households). Germany has a population density of 609 people per square mile.

So tell me why this makes any kind of sense, either environmentally or economically.

As for the less then benign environmental effects of utility scale solar, see this summary of the adverse ecological impacts of Germany's renewable energy program from Der Spiegel:

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-renewable-energy-policy-takes-toll-on-nature-conservation-a-888094.html

>It was in this way that, in 2009, Germany's largest solar park to date arose right in the middle of the Lieberoser Heide, a bird sanctuary about a 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Berlin. Since German reunification in 1990, more than 200 endangered species have settled in the former military training grounds. But that didn't seem to matter. In spite of all the protests by environmentalists, huge areas of ancient pine trees were clear cut in order to make room for solar collectors bigger than soccer fields.

>A similar thing happened in Baden-Württemberg, even though the southwestern state has been led for almost two years by Winfried Kretschmann, the first state governor in Germany belonging to the Green Party. In 2012, it was the Greens there who passed a wind-energy decree that aims to boost the number of wind turbines in the state from 400 to roughly 2,500 by 2020. And in the party's reckoning, nature is standing in the way.

35:

Ther is a reason why we are entering a Golden Age of Methane,and not just from fracking. If Japanese research can develop the technology to extract methane from hydrates safely (and not trigger a clathrate gun), this can only be a good thing.

As a chemical reaction, burning methane creates half as much GHG per BTU generated. Furthermore, natural gas power plants are 20% to 30% more efficient than coal in terms of kWh generated per BTU.

I for one hope fracking puts coal out of business. Coal kills people, like at the Massey mine disaster over a year ago. Coal mining chops off mountain tops and fills valleys in Appalachia with acidic mine waste.

It’s also better environmentally than solar based renewables. To produce the same amount of electricity generated by a single natural gas power plant whose footprint (including the employee parking lot) is only a dozen acres you would need wind farms and solar arrays covering hundreds of square miles. Each component will need access roads, regraded topography, drainage structures, utility hook ups and easements, etc. That is a lot of destroyed habitat.

And then there are the economic impacts of solar energy. The cost of a complete conversion to renewables will make us all poorer in real terms. The operating and capital costs (especially land requirements) of equivalent solar energy sources are such that these additional costs would throw the world economy into a major depression.

The economic benefits of methane OTOH are uncontestable. It’s cheaper than coal (with less than half the GHG per kWh generated) cheaper than nuclear, and waaaay cheaper than solar, wind, tides, PVCs or biomass.

Permitting is not much of an issue (providing we get some stricter standards for siting brine disposal wells – or require brine recycling – and improve the quality of well casing construction). We already have an extensive infrastructure in place to transport natural gas across the country. Its so cheap American chemical companies who rely on methane as a chemical stock) are exporting chemicals competitively worldwide. It has triggered an industrial renaissance in the Rust Belt where steel mills even in blighted Youngstown, Ohio are working three shifts to meet demand for piping.

And you can forget about electrical cars. CNG vehicles are far more efficient, cost effective and environmentally safe. Don't plug in your hybrid, tap it into your home's gas line. EV's a just giant mobile batteries and all batteries wear out over time. And when batteries wear out they become toxic waste. Imagine the toxic waste disposal problems from millions of junked EVs every year.

Methane is good. Methane is our friend.

36:

Propane distribution already fulfills that role. For farms, you have propane delivery to fill a tank. For a backyard BarBQ you buy refillable propane containers. Both are a lot more expensive than utility gas today.

Living in California, obviously solar PV is the way to go. It is now cheaper than old solar thermal roof heaters for hot water, but still more expensive than cheap thermal panels to heat a pool.

PV is still declining in price, batteries will eventually be cheap enough to allow off-grid power. So suburban residences and businesses will be fine. Cities will need offsite power delivery from those solar farms. However, cities have the potential to be much more energy efficient than the suburbs, and also a lot more water efficient. I would bet on cities as the future, just designed differently. That is going to be the hard part, as cities change very slowly.

I think the Jacobson analysis should be considered as a proof of principle, to undermine the "we must use fossil fuels or the economy collapses" meme. It is a worthy goal. I'm not even against using nuclear, although I do the consequences of venality are a potential showstopper. Nuclear cannot be implemented fast enough in the US, so why bother unless it is absolutely necessary, ( perhaps just for corner cases)?

I'd love to see the day that my utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, just becomes Pacific Gas, but realistically all we can hope for is slow retrenchment with minimal political support for the utility. That is also probably the most flexible solution too, as grids are not evil things and do have value, even if they are unsightly when run on poles. Retrenching back to the cities seems like a possible scenario, as off-grid becomes the economic choice for suburbs and rural areas.

There is also room for huge efficiency gains too. Many single family homes in California have only a little roof insulation. Walls are often uninsulated and windows are often single paned. Serious retrofit with state help could reduce HVAC energy demand, make the transition easier, as well as have a quick impact on emissions. Where the rest of the country is regarding efficiency, I don't know. Housing stock has about a 2% replacement rate, so 50 years at least to rebuild to LEED standards, which, starting today would get us to around 2066. It's feasible, I think.

37:

Am I anti-solar?

Heck no!

I'm just anti-panacea, especially panaceas that don't take into account hard engineering numbers.

No doubt solar has hit a tipping point and is paused for take off. The reasons for this are threefold: over production of PVC arrays by Chineses factories that floodd the world market, simpler and cheaper instaltion techniques, and creative financing that allows Joe Homeowner to see positive return from his solar rooftop investment from day one:

http://www.npr.org/2015/04/10/398704224/how-solar-power-has-gotten-so-cheap-so-fast

For now solar accounts for less than 1% of America's energy supply. All renewables provide 13 percent of the domestically produced electricity in 2015, and 11 percent of total energy generation, with the bulk of that provided by traditional hydro electic dams and burnign biomass. I would love to double solar capacity to 2%, 4% 8% 16% ormore of our energy supply and that will happen one day.

We are also on the cusp of being able to make carbon neutral liquid fuels as cheaply as we brew beer: hydrothermal liquefaction of algea grown in brakish water or even sewage, extracing oil for the lipids in raw sewage,converting lignocellulosic biomass into fuel feedstock, using aerobic bacteria such as TU-103 to produce biobutanol as a direct relacement for gasoline (being aerobic really simplifies production and reduces costs), etc.:

http://foresternetwork.com/weekly/energy-storage-solutions-weekly/natures-own/

I love solar.

I also believe that it has to pass muster in the free market, otherwise we are wasting our money on feel-good white elephants.

And I don't want to sacrifice habitat to solar arrays and wind farms.


38:

Half-nonsense, near-irrelevancies, and complete nonsense.

The continental United States has much better solar resources than Berlin, California especially so. You don't even cite any published megawatt hour numbers for Neuhardenberg -- it's just guesswork piled atop guesswork.

California's Solar Star is the largest solar farm in the state as measured by peak output. The site covers 13 square kilometers and last year supplied 1,663,593 megawatt hours for an annualized real power of 190 megawatts, 14.6 megawatts per km^2. To get real annualized AC production of 145 megawatts from another facility like Solar Star would take ~10 km^2, less than a seventh of the land area you estimate (30 square miles, 78 square kilometers) for Neuhardenberg-before-adding-storage.

Solar Star, like the vast majority of solar farms, is based on crystalline silicon PV modules. Silicon based modules do not contain exotic or toxic materials like indium, gallium, arsenic, or cadmium. Crystalline silicon PV easily commands more than 90% of the terrestrial PV market in the last 5 years, the present, and for the foreseeable future.

According to the field studies cited in Photovoltaic Degradation Rates — An Analytical Review, the median degradation rate for a crystalline silicon PV system is 0.5% per year, measured across 1920 systems, implying a useful median lifetime upwards of 30 years.

39:

.. Nothing constructive of appropriate scale (including renewable energy) will quickly without immense political weight behind it.
And if you have that you could replace all fossil electricity with nuclear in < 15 years.

That's been an option for every first world nation since 1974. Only Sweden and France actually did, but everyone (in the first world) could have, and still can, if the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism is broken.

Seriously, don't argue for renewable schemes of greater than Messmer Plan scale ambition and at the same time call another Messmer Plan impossible. Heck, even if nuclear makes you break out in hives, the Messmer plan is worth studying because it is an example of successfully decarbonizing the grid.

40:

And no, you really can't run a D6 dozer on battery power - at least not as inexpesniely as diesel fule. There is a reason why fossil fules are so popular, they remain cheaper and have a higher energy density than the best lithium ion batteries. Batteries are great for many traportation applications, but running heavy construction equipment is not one of them - at least not yet.

CNG, OTOH is a mature technology that has become more cost eeffective than traditonal fossil fuels:

http://foresternetwork.com/weekly/energy-storage-solutions-weekly/innovation-at-the-pump/

As The Economist put it, “America’s unexpected, and most welcome, bonanza of natural gas from its vast shale deposits seems to be doing as much to reduce pollution as many of the efforts introduced over the years to restrict emissions from vehicles, power stations and other sources. The biggest breakthrough the energy industry has seen in decades, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) combined with horizontal drilling, has released unprecedented quantities of gas from this shale. As a consequence, the spot price of domestically produced natural gas has tumbled from a high of over $12 per million British thermal units (Btus) in 2008 to less than $2 in 2012, before settling at around $4 today.”

By comparison, natural gas is 80% cheaper than oil on an energy equivalent basis. As noted by the American Enterprise Institute: “In February [2013] oil was selling for an average of $95.32 per barrel, and natural gas was selling for $3.34 per million Btu. At a multiple of 5.8 times to equal the same amount of energy produced by a barrel of oil, natural gas was selling for the equivalent of only $19.38 per barrel.” And according to Autoblog, “Thanks to the precipitous drop in prices for compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid propane (LPG), fleets can save a fortune by switching over to these fuels. OEMs such as Freightliner and Thomas Built Bus have jumped into the market. International now offers the Transtar Class 8 semi … that runs on CNG. … A fleet can save well over $150,000 in fuel costs over the six-year life of a truck. For fleets that run their per-mile operating costs to the penny, this is a financial windfall.”

41:

The effects of latitude, climate, losses during energy storage, etc. are not irrelevent. They are the reasons why solar is less than 1% of our energy mix.

I prefer to do the hard engineering based on harsh reality to make solar a real contributer of energy...

... not pretend that they don't exist.

42:

You're not taking a hard nosed approach based on number crunching; you're supplying some real numbers and then filling in the gaps in your knowledge with shit you made up. You sound like the stereotypical no-nukes parrot who's citing a few real problems with nuclear power and then inventing a bunch of junk to complete the dreadful picture, just with a different target for your ire.

See Gish. See Gish gallop. Gallop, Gish, gallop!

44:

Low energy density systems are fine for stationary electrical storage. No miracles are necessary. The energy density achievable with lead-acid batteries (~40 watt-hours per kilogram, ~100 wH/liter) is fine for stationary storage. Want to power your detached suburban home in California for 3 days on stored electricity alone? You need about 75 kWh of storage, e.g. 750 liters at 100 wH/liter -- a volume comparable to a medium-large chest freezer.

Houses aren't the problem; factories and (now) server farms are the problem. You can't collect enough power to run an industrial town from the sunlight and wind in that town. You need some way to move the power from the places it can be generated to the places it's used - and if you're moving power, density is everything.

Come to think of it ... it may be feasible now to power a suburban house just from rooftop solar cells, but is it feasible to power an urban apartment building that way? Because if it isn't, sustainable power implies the people now living in big cities will have to spread out into the countryside, and a lot of land now uninhabited will have to be developed for human habitation. I rather thought most Greens strenuously opposed that kind of thing, preferring that humans be penned up within cities to leave as much land as possible to wilderness.

45:

I probably shouldn't angry-comment here but the nonsense I see posted seems to have come from some sort of Nonsense Central about renewables, because I see this sort of pseudo-skepticism posted all the time in comments even on sci/tech sites.

Solar panels are full of toxins!
And they need exotic/rare materials!
And they're only getting cheap because of Chinese factories run under horrible conditions!
And they only last for 10 years!
And you'd need to pave over the countryside to supply an appreciable fraction of our electricity needs!

Every claim false, and every one taking far more time and patience to rebut than to make. And even once you correct people in one thread, patient citations and calculations and all, they'll pop back up repeating the same nonsense in the comments on an article a few weeks or months later...

46:

Sorry about the delay on the format change on the top page. I forgot to ask Charlie how to do that "click to read more" thing, and fortunately he was good enough to show me how to straighten that out.

47:

Houses aren't the problem; factories and (now) server farms are the problem. You can't collect enough power to run an industrial town from the sunlight and wind in that town. You need some way to move the power from the places it can be generated to the places it's used - and if you're moving power, density is everything.

You don't move electricity from solar farms to server farms by sending a truck full of batteries each day. You transmit electricity over wires, just like now. Grid storage/backup batteries need to move at least twice -- once to the installation site, and once again to a recycling center when they've reached end of life. They don't need to move a lot more than that.

48:

Also, given the mess with the Porter Ranch Methane Leak, I'm amused that people still think methane is better than oil. It's a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2, and it's turning out that it's currently impossible to keep it from leaking from around well plugs and similar attempts to stop leaks when extracting it. It also appears to leak quite readily from pipes. It's such a small molecule that it finds its way around simple concrete plugs and such.*

Even good ol' Bill McKibben admits that switching from coal to natural gas wasn't really a smart thing to do, even though he initially pushed for the switch. Data from a 2016 study estimated that methane leaks in the US increased 30% between 2002 and 2014, and that's only 30-60% of the increase in global methane seen over the same time period.

Anyway, back to the Rorschach test of 100% renewables. It's fascinating what everybody's reading into this. Has anyone other than Matt really dived in to Jacobson's ideas?

*incidentally, the problems with keeping methane from leaking suggest that piping CO2 into the ground for long term sequestration is going to be problematic. Similarly, piping hydrogen around is going have similar, if not worse, leakage problems.

49:

Remember that about 80% of California water goes to agriculture. The big users are crops like alfalfa, which is, among other things, exported to China to feed livestock there. This is one of the reasons that vegetarians want us to stop eating beef, and it's a fairly good one. Unfortunately, the new Big Thing in California agriculture is almond trees, and the problem there is that the require years of water to grow to a productive age (unlike lettuce or melons, which are annual crops), and then they have to be watered all the time, just like people, or they die and the farmland is useless until the dead trees are bulldozed out.

The other problem with western agriculture is salt. Even if it was energy efficient to distill water and put it on farmland, you've still got to figure out where to put all the salts (and its not just NaCl) that are leaching out of the land due to irrigation. Some aquifers under California's San Joaquin Valley are brackish, so farmers using that water are salting their fields with it, while hoping a miracle happens (like a hurricane coming over to wash the salt off their fields) to keep their lands productive.

In the decades to come, I suspect that salt, as much as water, will convince farmers start growing solar panels, and I suspect that the Taylor Act will get amended if it's a choice between an incipient dust bowl in the San Joaquin (with megacorps just walking away from land, leaving saline dust to blow around and cause health problems), or letting them put solar panels on it and try to keep the dust down.

As I understand it, the San Joaquin isn't the only area to have huge salt problems. It's also true for the Imperial Valley (both valleys are old sea beds), as well as parts of Arizona (around the Salt River) and Utah, just to my knowledge.

50:

What's the time frame on all this? Do we have fusion yet? Does that count as nuclear?

51:

Why do people keep inventing some grandiose scenarios that will transform the world in 20 years because the water runs out?

We can desalinate water for residential use easily. That's NOT a problem. The grand sprawling LA won't go away, it'll just switch to desal. UAE does this on large scale already, with solar power providing energy for reverse osmosis plants.

This is also a good way to use the daily solar energy peak, since you can just store the desalinated water.

The central valley in California will have to adjust, but even when groundwater fails, they'll still have more than enough snowmelt to provide staple food for California.

52:

I hadn't forgotten about ag. I'm more sanguine about salts than you are. If you are distilling water for recycling, you end up with a solid cake of salt that can be stored/buried in containers. Conceivably in some cases, you might just need to remove the salt before watering. It won't be cheap, but I don't see why megafarms cannot do this.

As we've discussed elsewhere, I see vertical farms playing a role here, and they are far better able to recycle water.
Yes, reduced beef consumption will help. I eat it rarely now, myself. However, I am not against free range cattle grazing, if the land supports it. Almonds are a current issue, made particularly so by the politically connected mega farms. However we could make laws to phase them out so that when the trees need replacing, something else must be grown with less water demand. Damn, but I do like almonds ;)

I agree that politics will eventually handle the Taylor Act issue. Similarly, water rights might eventually change in the face of a real crisis. I cannot imagine that land owners will forever be able to resist the demands of the non-farming population. Hopefully we can do this as a win-win, rather than as a zero-sum game. However, I also don't want to see huge swathes of land covered in solar farms either. If monoculture fields and viticulture is depressing, imagine all those black panels covering the landscape. Maybe we can make some tradeoffs - create solar farms, but also reserve land for re-establishing "natural" habitat.

53:
The central valley in California will have to adjust, but even when groundwater fails, they'll still have more than enough snowmelt to provide staple food for California.

I wish that were true, but it isn't. Farms relying on snowmelt irrigation are under the control of irrigation districts which in turn are dependent on teh Army Corp or Engineers. Farms in teh central Valley with aquifer water are just drying up and staying fallow. A number of irrigation ditches now have grasses growing in them, as water has been so scarce. Almond growers, if they are lucky, are given just enough water to keep their trees alive. Well drlling is now backed up years, as wells need to be deepened. Residences are also needing to drill deeper wells too, not just farms. I imagine the same is happening with farms dependent on the Ogallala aquifer.

54:

You don't move electricity from solar farms to server farms by sending a truck full of batteries each day. You transmit electricity over wires, just like now.

Why wouldn't you send a truck full of batteries from a solar farm, if transportable batteries capable of storing enough power for a server farm actually existed? Because, if they did, I don't see why fossil fuel and nuclear power plants wouldn't charge and ship off identical batteries for their customers ... in which case there is no power grid anymore. It's a bad idea to convert power twice (battery -> grid -> customer) when it can be converted once (battery -> customer).

The only reason the power grid exists is that it isn't feasible to store electricity in mWh quantities, so it has to be generated when it's needed. That's also why solar and wind are so little used to generate electricity. Thus you can't make solar or wind important power sources without also making power lines obsolete.

55:

Yes, if we had miracle batteries (Shipstones) it would change the world. But we're not going to get miracle batteries. Nor do we need miracle batteries for solar and wind to become important power sources. Last year Iowa produced over 31% of its electricity from wind. Texas produced 11.7% from wind, and it has a relatively isolated power grid covering most of the state, so that's without interstate balancing or significant storage. For comparison, in the United States hydroelectric generation provides about 7% of electricity, and I think hydro is still considered important.

56:

Uh? Don't understand. I see no "click to read more" thing at all, which makes me happy because "click to read more" things should be killed with fire.

57:

"The facility in question is a PV facility generating DC. Homes and appliances have to be run on AC. This necessitates running the DC through a converter."

No, they don't. The use of AC is simply because it can be changed in voltage with a simple transformer, which makes it easy to generate at a few thousand volts because that's convenient for building generators, step up to hundreds of kV to reduce transmission losses, and then step down to something safe enough for use. Back when generation was local and long-distance distribution didn't come into it, DC supplies were common.

The biggest loads in the home are heating appliances of one kind or another - space heating, water heating, cooking and such - and these do not care whether they are run on AC or DC. Nor do commutator motors, although you may need to operate them on a lower DC voltage. (Indeed they prefer DC, although the difference isn't apparent at domestic scales; this is why some traction systems use AC at the notably low frequency of 16.67Hz, as a sort of compromise).

Nearly everything else these days has several converters built in - and the first one is a rectifier to change AC to DC. (In higher power devices like a PC PSU that is accompanied by a "power factor correction unit" which is another type of converter.) Then there is an inverter producing AC at a high frequency which can be changed in voltage using a much smaller transformer than would be needed for the low frequency of the supply, and then (usually) another rectifier to change it back to DC. Such devices would work just fine off DC, and it would save the losses in the initial rectifier and PFCU.

Some devices like lamp dimmers and things with variable speed motors take advantage of the AC supply to save a few components in the variation department. The difference is pennies these days.

Fluorescent lamps with a plain inductor for the ballast need AC, but switched-mode ballasts (which are OK with DC) are a drop-in replacement, and generally cheaper than a plain inductor these days too.

The only things which are a significant problem are things with induction motors - this is generally things with some sort of pump (fridge compressors, central heating circulation pumps, etc.) These would need an inverter added. In size and complexity it would be somewhat less than a PC PSU, ie. no big deal.

58:

Just for reference: Berlin has a similar latitude as Edmonton, Alberta.

Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal all lie to the South of Berlin.

59:

Just a minor thing, but:

"... neurosurgery will get more dangerous as multiple antibiotic resistant bacteria become the norm ..."

Are antibiotics necessary when you're unpacking a mesh in a brain that's been threaded in there, starting in the femoral artery?

60:

My plan to deal with that runs as follows:

1) Keep repeating "fuck off" for as long as it is effective.

2) Tempest the meter - Faraday cage, ferrites on the supply leads and stuff.

3) Jam the meter - inject noise into the supply lines if it's using line transmission, or if it's using radio place a CW source of a few watts near it so it locks up the front end of the receiver.

4) Sack the supplier off entirely, put solar panels on the roof (fortunately it faces south on one side) and/or home-made windmills driving old car alternators, backup store comes for free in the shape of the residual capacity of car batteries which no longer do for people's cars and the bin men won't take. (Yes, I know fine they're far from ideal, but they're free, so it doesn't matter.)

Hmm. Maybe that's the idea - get a certain proportion of the conversion to renewables from making the conditions for maintaining a grid supply intolerable to people like me? And also to people who share my intolerance to having a spy box installed in my home but not my ability to supply the necessary hardware by recycling junk, so they can make money out of flogging new stuff instead.

61:

It's on http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/index.html. Tastes differ, but personally I think it's at best inelegant to swamp other people's posts with my long essay, especially when I don't think others are done with them.

62:

You forget the other use for dams is flood control. Dams are not going anywhere and while they exist you might as well use them for power. I do agree that hydro is probably not going to see a big upswing though

As far as batteries and solar, my off the grid solar place in southern Oregon has 50kwh of lead acid batteries that I bought last year for 19k. However you are only suppose to use half that under normal circumstances as discharging below 50% shortens the lifetime

The batteries are charged by a solar array capable of producing 4kwh at peak or around 20 kWh in the course of a summer day and about half that in a sunny winter day. There is also a wind turbine that can hit around 1 kWh when it really gets cooking

The house is energy efficient and insulated out the ass. It is also heated via wood and propane (s not 100% renewable but would work pretty well in the hydrogen / ammonia world frank describes)

All the gear to generator the power probably ran around 50k and the whole setup is suppose to have a twenty year lifespan

There is also a propane generator for backup and you DO need it in the winter as a prolonged period of cloudy or snowy weather wil drain your batteries even with the wind turbine helping

So it CAN be done but you still need either a grid or a non renewable backup energy source and around $70k of gear.

Assume by 2030 the cost has halved. Still pretty pricey for your average middle class income .

63:

If you have to pierce the blood-brain barrier, you're basically creating a hole for bacteria (which are less than ten microns across generally).

64:

What exactly are "people like you"? I guessed the "intolerance to having a spy box installed" before you explicitly stated it, but what other characteristics make smart grid intolerable to you?

65:

Oh, I see. I never go there... :)

66:

That plus intolerance to outside control of my use/pricing (particularly when that depends on "what other people are doing", since my body clock does not run on a 24-hour cycle synchronised with the planet's rotation), mainly... but "people like me" was meant to add to that a knowledge of electronics and a fondness/aptitude for building stuff out of other people's junk :)

67:

Any piece that's going to spin futures about the US electric grid has to start from this: "The US doesn't have one power grid, it has three. There are minimal transfers between the three. Each of the three has radically different resources for generation in both the present and going forward, and very different geographic distributions of demand." As an example, more than 90% of all the commercial nuclear power reactors in the US are in the Eastern Interconnect. By 2025, when Diablo Canyon closes, the Western will be down to four, and if the State of Washington is given its way, three. The US national labs routinely throw off studies for how to do a low-carbon (or even all-renewable) grid for the Western Interconnect that doesn't require much in the way of sacrifice. The Eastern Interconnect, OTOH, is an order-of-magnitude more difficult problem. As for separation, the Great Plains population peaked around 1930 and has been declining steadily since -- before much longer there will be a 500-mile wide empty buffer between the Eastern and Western grids that no one is interested in paying to span.

I know I'm out on the lunatic fringe on this, but I claim that within 50 years, the differences in electricity situations will be sufficient to result in a partition of the US into eastern and western pieces.

68:

"...50kwh of lead acid batteries that I bought last year for 19k."

It looks to me like you got bitten. That figure sounded my alarms so I put "90ah lead acid" into Amazon's search box (90Ah @ 12V = 1kwh). First result that actually meets the criteria (Amazon's search is terrible for throwing up irrelevant crap) was a deep-cycle battery for £58. 50 of these is £2900, or $3750 at the moment.

Similarly for the solar panels - the first result that isn't a phone charger type thing from putting "solar panel" into Amazon's search box is a 1kW roof mount beastie for £1280, so that's $33120 for 20kW. I daresay I could find them a fair bit cheaper if I could be arsed to do a proper search.

69:

That's a good point.

The counterpoint is that electricity might become one of the western US' best exports, and that would be an incentive for rewiring the country into one single smart grid.

It depends on the timescale. If we're talking within the next 50 years, I'm not sure that the US will split due to grid differences. As noted above, the grids might even get fused. However, if we're talking severe climate change and time scales of a centuries, I could easily see the US Northeast abandoning the western states, and western (US) civilization, such as remains, clustering along the Pacific Coast and centered in the Northwest. This assumes, of course, there are no catastrophic eruptions from any of the Cascadian volcanoes, like Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood.

70:

For most lead acid batteries you need to perform regular maintenance on them (adding water etc) to keep them running. Large banks of them can also be pretty dangerous. This doesn't work for me so I paid a premium for sealed no maintaince ones. You also need to pay a lot of attention to the spec sheets lifetimes vary dramatically

http://www.outbackpower.com/downloads/documents/Store_the_Energy/energycell_re_high_cap/energycell_re_hi_cap_specsheet.pdf

For solar it isn't enough to just buy the panels you also need an inverter and charge controller and usually some of hub. Also again quality effects lifetime.

But yes my stuff is top line kit. You do get what you pay for though and I kinda don't want to randomly explode

Mine are not roof mounted but on separate mounts s fair distance from the house. There is actually an impedance mismatch between wanting to keep the house cool and hence well shaded (cooling is harder then heating for me) and wanting the panels in the sun

Of course the upside of all this is current UD solar incentives let me write a good chunk of this off on taxes

71:
The counterpoint is that electricity might become one of the western US' best exports, and that would be an incentive for rewiring the country into one single smart grid.

There's a (long-delayed) project under construction to do just that called Tres Amigas

72:

Maybe methane or H2 could be generated onsite to at least run ranges?

Methane maybe. It is what most of the US uses already for gas. With propane being the "portable" alternative.

H2 molecules are so small that most systems setup for methane will leak at almost every fitting. And I wonder how hard it would be to add a "smell" to H2 for similar reasons. (Propane is an even larger molecule.)

73:

My area of California has just installed "smart" water meters. Water was not metered and so waste was obvious,

Doesn't NYC still not meter water? I hear various figures for how much is wasted as "no one cares". Empty building stripped of the plumbing, the water source might be running full time in the basement straight into the storm sewers.

My understanding is it would cost some astronomical sums to start metering it and of course you'd get a non trivial amount of political push back.

74:

no big deal

Sure.

75:

It looks like NYC is going for smart water meters (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/customer_services/amr_about.shtml)

In Cadillac Desert (written around 1980), the City of Reno is listed as not having any metered water. That's no longer true. Homes built in 1988 or later have meters. As of 2014, they're still converting the old homes that have flat rate water charges onto metered water. (https://tmwa.com/customer_services/watermeters).

Reno's in the desert, incidentally.

As is normal with environmental issues, the speed of response to increasingly limited resources is simply breathtaking.

76:

I fully intend to do [1] & [2] for as long as possible, should this become forced ....

77:

The whole of the UK uses methane for gas, of course & we don't seem to have the leakage problems that some parts of the US do.
Even with privatisation, the regulators & "Public opinion" & the press try to make sure that the more egregious scams & cheapskate operations the the US absence-of-infrastructure throws up.

Indeed, this whole discussion underlines, again, the difference between the approach to infrastructure in the US & Europe ....

I only just noted the last bit of the header of course (oops) [ " ... the future US" ]
Which could be very different from other people's futures, if only because of this ridiculous indifference & carelessness that you seem to have about engineering support

78:

Yes & no.

We do not need water meters in London, (even though we are getting them (*)) provided that the now-privatised utility continues to go back to the method used by their semi-nationalised predecessor of FIXING LEAKS.
We had about 15 years of minimal maintenance, under the initial privatisation, then the screams kicked them into actually abandoning the US model (see post above)
This is also sometimes called the "Railtrack Model" after a disastrous failure approx 1995 - 2002.
We learnt in time, fortunately.

(*) Which reminds me, I really must remove mine & put a blanking plate in .....

79:

"Politics turns rational proposals, such as John Wesley Powell's 19th Century rational proposal to dam some western rivers and irrigate a bit of farmland, into the unsustainable sprawl of pork-barrel dams and water works that is the American West today."

The politics are very simple. Buy some dryland at a few dollars an acre. Bring in a canal. Sell the new farmland for several hundred dollars an acre. You don't even have to pay for the canal, or even for the water. Read Cadillac Desert for the full story.

"San Joaquin isn't the only area to have huge salt problems"

It's really just the west side of the valley. The soil is highly saline because it is a former seabed. It can be farmed for at most a few decades.

The east side of the valley has rich alluvial soils with low salinity. And it has access to very pure irrigation water from the Sierras. People will be farming on the east side for centuries to come.

Drive down I-5 and you will see huge swaths of vacant land and dry ranchland. There are plenty of places to put solar and wind power without displacing existing farms and orchards. This is where Musk proposed to put the HyperLoop, which would be powered by solar panels along the route.

80:

If we're going to pack into burbclaves, how about burbcaves?

http://www.undergroundgardens.com/summary.html

If I had to live in Fresno, that is totally how I would want to do it.

81:

Mike Scott's point needs repeating.

When power is cheaper, people will use more of it, not less.

Generally observed behaviour, that: when a thing gets cheaper, people use relatively more of it. The incentives to economize disappear.

This is what car companies have belatedly realised about self-driving cars, and why they're all jumping on the self-driving bandwagon. Lower the cost of cars, and you'll sell more of them. Part of the cost of a car is the opportunity cost of the time spent driving the blighter. Lower that, and more of people's lives will be spent in traffic. Hurray! ...?

In the case of PV (if it plays out as boosters expect), cheapness in itself is not a problem. Environmentally benign, etc., so more or fewer panels makes little difference. But cheaper energy enables bigger houses, more suburban sprawl and more expenditure on related goods and services, and in general it enables a spendthrift cultural mindset.

82:

At the risk of derailing, what useful things can be done with methane that don't involve producing a load of CO2 as a byproduct?

One of the nice possibilities with solar is that it could allow some nations with a high insolation and a suitable coastline to produce and export ammonia, a rather easier way of shipping volts around the world than, eg. trying to lay a bloody great HVDC connection across the mediterranean.

What practical and interesting things could be done with a clean source of electricity and a reserve of fossil fuels?

83:

Meta-comment on the above: there is a general problem with studies by engineers, which is that engineers almost universally have an aesthetic preference for efficiency, and they don't realise that most people are not engineers and have other motivations.

If you like an engineer's report on some large social policy proposal, get an economist (and a sociologist and an anthropologist) to scrutinise it with a high-powered scrute. If it survives that, then OK. Maybe.

84:

Methane can be used as a chemical feedstock. It's always been a source of sadness to me that we've been burning oil and gas and coal, rather than using them as raw materials. (We do use some for that, but it should be almost all)

In theory you could also use it for filling lighter-than-air transports, but hydrogen is probably a better option for that, providing as it does more lift per cubic metre and less damage to the atmosphere when it's vented.

85:

Datapoint: Americans are not actually the most spendthrift nation in some categories.

When I came to Norway, my UK sensibilities were shocked. Norwegians left their porch lights on 24/7/52, even when it was light all night. If they had a basement and went down once a week, ditto. They simply didn't know what an off switch was.

It is no different now. I have never seen a timer switch in this country as they have in the lobbies and stairwells of Continental apartment buildings. Not once.

As for petrol, I have seen, in the country districts, people shopping for half an hour with their engines still running outside. If you pay a short visit to a pal, you leave your engine running outside his house, gassing the neighbours. I've heard of cars that automatically turn off the engine at big intersections (which is how I learned to drive in the stingy UK); well, no one here would buy one.

If you questioned either practice, they would answer that the electricity or petrol was so cheap that it positively begged to be done.

Conspicuous consumption at the lower end of the scale.

86:

Is there a modern method for using hydrogen without getting a "Hindenburg", then?

87:

Yes, you want a multidisciplinary study for any major project. Using noone but engineers is as stupid as using no engineers at all.

Architects ditto, come to that.

88:

Possibly, possibly not. Whether the Hindenberg would have been more survivable if it had been filled with helium rather than hydrogen is a question I've not seen answered, or even asked. My suspicion is not - the burning hydrogen went straight upwards, and the (relatively low) death toll was I understand due to the collapsing structure and lift gas leak.

(Using a highly flammable coating is something they've stopped doing.)

89:

I'd put it not so much that we don't realise; we do, but anything that isn't based on engineering principles is obviously wrong, so we ignore it. (And get pissed off when such considerations result in us being told to do something badly.)

90:

I'm aware it can be used as a chemical feedstock, but the most popular use (production of ammonia) would be sidelined in the event of bulk solar-powered electrolysis of water for hydrogen production (and also this is a CO2-releasing reaction).

There's other stuff like methanol production which is then used as a feedstock for many other things, but that's fairly commonplace today. What I was trying to ask was more like: what could be done that isn't done right now, due to power costs? (eg. like electrolysing the sea to make hydrogen?)

I'd love a clathrate-to-space-elevator system, but presumably there's some middle ground between today's steam reforming syngas production and scifi wish fulfillment

91:

I do like the idea of methane blimps though. Seems like methane is a bit too dense to make really useful air transports however (even aside from the question of whether blimps are a sensible idea in the first place).

92:

Norway has a use-it-or-lose-it "problem" with their generating capacity as nearly all of it is hydro and rain is a given, so either they use up the electricity or spill water over/through the dams without harvesting those juicy gravitational joules.

93:

"engineers almost universally have an aesthetic preference for efficiency, and they don't realise that most people are not engineers and have other motivations."

Truth. What we lack in poetic vision we make up for in hard headed analysis.

The whole point of my existence is to find ways of doing things more efficiently.

Anyone can design a bridge (or propose a solar energy based economy), but it takes an engineer to to so with maximum cost effectiveness.

Which is why we kind of look down on non-engineers and their opinions.

It's that darn reality that we have to always deal with.

You want utility or commercial scale solar? Screw PV arrays and go with concentrated solar mirrors driving a Stirling engines like the systems developed at Sandia Labs. Great engineering, no scientific breakthroughs - just incremental improvements in all of the non-sexy mundane stuff like framing, construction, etc to achieve the maximum eficincy of any solar eneryg system. And the Stirling produces AC not DC so no need for energy wasting inverters. No need for PVs with toxic chemcials. And the Stirling with proper maintenace never wears out, unlike PVs with their limited operational lives. And molten salt storage kicks battery's ass any day.

94:

I'm not at all keen on the idea of using ammonia as an energy storage and transmission medium, for one very simple reason; it's toxic and corrosive. It's also an even smaller molecule than methane, admittedly not by much.

A gas leak is dangerous because it might ignite. Ammonia is actually rather hard to ignite accidentally, but an ammonia leak wouldn't have to ignite.

For what it's worth, my favourite idea for an energy storage/transmission medium is methanol. It's liquid, so needs smaller pipes to move it although admittedly its energy density is lower than methane so that swings the balance a bit the other way.

Also, it's rather easy to get methanol to work in a fuel cell - which makes fuel-cell cars a reasonably practical proposition. (Also might make a good fuel for small electronic items such as smartphones.)

Finally, it's rather easy to make given some source of heat - which can be anything.

95:

Anything that involves storing electricity by converting it into ammonia or hydrogen or some other liquid fuel takes money and effort, ditto for the safe storage and transport of explosive energy-rich liquids and gases -- we are rather blase about the deaths and destruction caused when existing pipeline gas supplies blow up in towns and cities, regarding it as a cost worth paying for the convenience rather than treating it like we do nuclear power, as a barely-contained monster seeking to kill us all.

Reconverting stored fuels back into electricity costs even more money, machinery, maintenance etc. and all of this is on top of the original cost to produce the primary energy in the first place. That's why the assorted ideas for making fuel out of air/seawater and electricity don't go anywhere despite their initial attractions, the numbers just don't add up.

96:

Sorry, forgot. Just noticed the idea of methane blimps. Still a bit inflammable, but helium is beginning to run out and needs very good seals. Has anyone done any work on using neon (which can be extracted from the atmosphere) as a lifting gas?

97:

Norway's electricity production is already 96-99% renewable. Hydropower from about a thousand dams (937). It's like expecting eskimos to save snow.
'Course, we also export oil, so we're nowhere near carbon neutral.

98:

Methanol-powered laptops is an idea that predates smartphones, but it never took off. I don't know why. Maybe because it's toxic, maybe because it sets fire to things - if it's spilt and something ignites the puddle, the flame is nigh on invisible so you tend not to notice until it has ignited something else.

Neon as lifting gas: very much doubt it. It's denser than methane, and it's a pretty tracy trace constituent of the atmosphere so it's expensive.

It has occurred to me that ammonia has a particular advantage as a lifting gas: it dissolves readily in water, and can be released from solution with not too much heating. So you can adjust the amount of lift without either venting gas/dropping ballast or carting a compressor and pressure tanks about.

99:

"we are rather blase about the deaths and destruction caused when existing pipeline gas supplies blow up in towns and cities"

That is utterly boggling from this side of the ocean. We're terrified of gas leaks. The police will evacuate the street for a leak inside someone's house. The idea of actual pipelines going up is unthinkable, never mind it being common enough to get blasé about it.

100:

It might be unthinkable but it happens anyway. There was a major petroleum oil pipeline fire in Nigeria in 2011, the same year as the Fukushima meltdowns. The pipeline fire killed over a hundred people, the Fukushima disaster nobody. Guess which disaster got all the press headlines worldwide with calls for more stringent regulation and safety engineering and which disaster got ignored as business-as-usual and a price worth paying?

If we're so terrified of gas leaks why do we pipe it into homes, under streets, through cities and connect it to devices built at the lowest possible cost and not subject to mandatory inspections and space-grade safety engineering? Cost, basically.

101:
For what it's worth, my favourite idea for an energy storage/transmission medium is methanol. It's liquid, so needs smaller pipes to move it although admittedly its energy density is lower than methane so that swings the balance a bit the other way.

I'll confess that I hadn't considered methanol at all. I guess it works well as a transitional fuel as it can be made using either fossil or carbon-neutral renewable sources, and it seems a bit easier to use methanol derivatives to run minimally modified combustion engines.

It has better energy density than ammonia, which is a bonus from the shipping point of view.

I believe, though I'll also confess I don't actually have any numbers to back this up, that it is easier to whisk up ammonia from air and water than it is to create methanol, but I'm open to be corrected here by someone who actually knows what they're talking about.

Finally, it's rather easy to make given some source of heat - which can be anything.

Really? I was kinda under the impression that to make it on a useful scale you need a source of hydrogen, which inevitably means some sort of energy intensive process.

102:
Anything that involves storing electricity by converting it into ammonia or hydrogen or some other liquid fuel takes money and effort, ditto for the safe storage and transport of explosive energy-rich liquids and gases... (snip) despite their initial attractions, the numbers just don't add up.

And yet it may yet excellent way for countries with an excess of sunlight to profit from it by selling it to folk in darker, soggier parts of the world who will ilkely still need quite a lot of power. Globe-spanning HVDC grids seem to be less practical and more expensive (and somewhat more vulnerable). What else would you suggest?

Also, the fact that the number don't add up now is no indicator of the future, when we might have issues with too much co2, too little oil, and still need some reasonably energy dense fuel for various kinds of transportation, if not necessarily energy production.

103:

Solar PV can be bought in quantity at around $0.35 / Watt

104:

I'mm not sure what policy is here for number of posts, so I apologise in advance.

Some of the major problems with solar power (availability only on average over the year 12 hours per day maximum, with low output quite a lot of that time, and keeping the things clean among others) could be addressed by putting the solar panels where they belong - in space.

Not incidentally, this also leads to disaster insurance for H. sapiens; after all, rather a lot of people will be required to build the things and to work at all numbers-wise, space resources need to be used to build them.

Given copious cheap electricity (from a ground rectenna?) then various types of liquid or gaseous fuels aren't that difficult to make.

105:

Doesn't orbital solar require a) an astronomical investment in infrastructure, b) a significant price drop in heavy space lift and c) some fancy new technology with regards to microwave power transmission? Having the methanol man pop round in the morning with a few pints seems quite trivial by comparison!

I guess whilst massive surface grid and energy storage projects might well be cheaper and simpler, maybe putting power in space is more straightfoward than fixing the political issues associated with quite a lot of high-insolation countries around the world...

106:

Your comment intrigued me, so I went and ran the numbers.

Assuming 100% efficient batteries, you still have the energy cost of running the trucking system (both the energy needed to maintain the roads, and the energy needed to run the trucks). Coal (which typically takes the cheapest trucking route) costs about 1¢/t/mile to transport (excluding the capital cost of the initial build of the infrastructure - building the roads, rails or ports on a greenfield site - but not maintenance of the infrastructure or the transport vehicles).

The current grids in the USA cost you about 0.2 ¢/MWh/mile to transport electricity long distance (covering grid overheads and lost power during transmission) - that implies that your trucked batteries have to have a usable energy density on the order of 10 MWh per ton (around 40 MJ/kg) to compete with grid transfer (as trucking involves trucking the empty batteries back for a recharge, so 5 MWh per ton gets you equivalence on one-way journeys, while 10 MWh per ton gets you to equivalence assuming the batteries are discharged on their return journey).

This isn't an unachievable energy density - it's around what we'd expect from a lithium-air design - and is something we're aiming to achieve for other reasons (notably vehicle batteries, as it's about 90% of the raw energy density of diesel, but electric drive systems are sufficiently higher efficiency than heavy-duty diesel engines to make it worthwhile).

However, these calculations assume that we're not going to invest in making the grid more efficient (higher voltages, typically), the batteries are dense enough (MJ/L) that we're weight limited when shipping, not size limited, and that we're using the cheapest transport we have today, not pricier transport; I don't think these are unreasonable assumptions to make, not least because the local grid is less efficient than the long-distance links I used to get a grid price, so just as the trucking cost goes up, so does the grid cost.

The question then becomes whether (given battery tech that meets the requirements for trucking more efficiently than today's grid) you'd want to ship batteries, or improve the grid.

107:

Re Norway, Ammonia, Methanol. One of the criticisms of renewables is that they are bad at supply side control. The assumption being that the demand side is still there so at times of low output (night, still air) the shortfall has to be made up. There's a similar but opposite problem with Nuclear because it's bad at load following. Nuclear also has a backup problem because it's so centralised meaning that when it goes off line for maintenance or because of an emergency, the grid loses a large amount of supply all at once. The supply side therefore needs lots of backup and peak control. Today that requirement gets filled with gas powered turbine plants that can be spun up in minutes. It also leads to a perceived requirement for energy storage.

Perhaps though Norway points to a solution by creating a situation where there's considerably too much capacity. In times of low demand, we simply turn some of it off. At this point, PV Solar, Wind and Hydro have an advantage because they can be tuned from full available output to zero relatively quickly. But then we've got spare capacity going idle, so what we really need is industrial processes that we need in bulk on average but that can be started and stopped quickly. Ammonia production for fertiliser starting with Water+CO2+N2 looks attractive as does lime kilns for concrete, synfuel (methane, methanol), desalination and possibly others. The problem with most of these processes are that they run at high temperatures meaning they can be modulated on a daily cycle but not an hourly one. On the consumer end, things like car charging or electric storage heaters can be encouraged to occur at times of excess capacity via variable pricing. The question is what other systems and processes can be used to soak up power when there's excess capacity and turned off when there's a capacity shortfall?

The point being that demand management might be a way of dealing with intermittent and variable supply side without trying to store energy.

Other people must have thought of this and there's probably good reasons why it doesn't already happen. Perhaps it's scale that doesn't work. Just as long as the reasons are physical and not just political in terms of existing funding agreements or such like.

108:

One problem with space power is massively underestimating what a hostile environment vacuum is. I don't have the research to prove it but I'm willing to bet that the equivalently priced solar panel degrades faster in space than it would on Earth. Micrometeorites, cosmic ray strikes, vacuum welding and evaporation, thermal expansion and contraction etc etc.

The panels used on probes are far superior to those used for on earth applications and yet if we take Juno for example in the admittedly high radiation environment around Jupiter its panels are expected to degrade by 15% in 74 weeks...

You could probably carpet a desert or 2 with commodity PV for the equivalent cost putting any significant generating capacity in space.

109:
The question is what other systems and processes can be used to soak up power when there's excess capacity and turned off when there's a capacity shortfall?

If you're prepared to build the appropriate storage infrastructure, electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen (which you'll need to do anyway in order to make ammonia, etc) seems like something which is a bit more amenable to ramping up and down at short notice.

110:

Norway already exports its "surplus" electricity in the form of aluminium billets.

As for nuclear reactors they can load-follow but doing so doesn't save fuel or money so they tend to be run flat out.

111:
I don't have the research to prove it but I'm willing to bet that the equivalently priced solar panel degrades faster in space than it would on Earth

Shouldn't be too hard to find papers on this... there's lots of government, military and commercial interest in solar panels. I see quoted figures like a 25% drop in efficiency in GEO over 10-15 years. Not that it matters that much... it isn't the major problem, which is the cost of installation.

Looks like there's some NASA research in that area too, and I see figures of $100-$200 per kilo launch costs in 2000-era dollars for things to be financially plausible. That's 10 times cheaper than the projected cost of the falcon heavy which has yet to even fly, so it is bordering on needing a miracle to happen before it becomes practical (lightcraft projected costs ~$500/kilo, 2008, startram ~$50/kilo but is a pretty serious megascale engineering project all by itself).

At that point, you may as well cross your fingers and hope that someone gets a workable fusion reactor going instead.

112:

Wonderful article, the kind I keep coming back for. I can't help but apply my own semi-local filter to this, which is that there will be places in the world where this is a whole lot more boring. So here's my perspective from greater Cincinnati. (Which is a place of abundant water, plenty of arable land, and a relatively mild climate.)

1. The electrical grid is facing abundance, which is a problem under its current pricing model of "sell electricity by the MWh." They need a new pricing model, and they'll probably settle on the one that my water company (which has always faced conditions of abundance) has used for long time: sell access to the grid with a certain minimum amount of water provided. We currently pay about $30 per quarter (yes, that's just $120 for a whole year; those of you reading in California can pick yourselves up of the floor now) for being plugged into the sewer and water lines, and we get a certain number of gallons for that price that we never manage to come close to using despite moderate car washing and plant watering. I could see the electric company eventually being reduced to what it is (a grid operator) and pricing its services for what it actually does (keeps you hooked up). If you use more than a certain minimal amount of electricity, the grid operator will be happy to re-sell juice from a generation company (at a mark-up). This is actually how it works in some states like Ohio.

2. On the less boring side, I already see a number of these problems popping up in realty life when I travel. I have friends and relatives in California who pay $100+ per month (!!!) for water and still have to ration it out to be able to take a shower while admiring the various shades of gravel in their "lawn". At some point it will dawn on them that living in the desert sucks, and if your job is "location free" maybe you could probably make a go of it in one of those dirt cheap houses in Detroit (which sits in close proximity to two great big freshwater lakes). So while I have no doubt that many of the predictions in this article will come to pass, I do think there are significant re-adjustments to be made once people come to grips with the true amount of "supply" of basic resources that are available to them in various parts of the world.


113:

The electrical grid is facing abundance, which is a problem under its current pricing model of "sell electricity by the MWh." They need a new pricing model, and they'll probably settle on the one that my water company (which has always faced conditions of abundance) has used for long time: sell access to the grid with a certain minimum amount of water provided.

So what you're saying is that renewable energy is going to be too cheap to meter, right?

Not going to happen, sorry.

114:

I think he's being more nuanced than that - renewable energy is going to be cheap enough that, in order to get you to pay the full cost of transport and metering, it's going to be "bundled" with your access payment at a consumer level. Right now, we do the opposite - you don't pay the full cost of grid access in your access payment, because we bundle part of it in with your metered use, but microgeneration is going to kill that business model.

Think the transition in telecoms in the mid 2000s to early 2010s - not so cheap that it was too cheap to meter, but cheap enough that rather than ask you to pay £10 pcm for the hook up, plus a per-minute fee for calls, companies required you to pay £16 pcm for the hook up, and sweetened the deal by including "free" calls (e.g. all calls to landlines less than 60 minutes in length at weekends or in the evenings, or 1,000 minutes free per month to any national destination, or 60 free international minutes to a named recipient).

If you're a light user, you can adjust your usage to fit into the "free" band, and effectively pay £6/month for all your usage. If you're a heavier user, or a less price-sensitive user, you pay overage fees as the meter shows that you're using more than your inclusive usage.

115:

There's a (long-delayed) project under construction to do just that called Tres Amigas

Where Frank thinks that something like Tres Amigas would be used to export power from west to east, there's at least as good an argument that, given its position, Tres Amigas's big effect will be to provide Texas wind power generators access to the lucrative Southern California and Phoenix markets (via the proposed High Plains Express transmission line).

Exports from the west to the real demand centers in the east will need to be done the way that big chunks of power find their way to Southern California today: long-distance HVDC lines like the Pacific Intertie for BPA hydro, the Intermountain line from Utah, and the soon-to-be Transwest Express line from Wyoming.

116:

The whole of the UK uses methane for gas, of course & we don't seem to have the leakage problems that some parts of the US do.
Even with privatisation, the regulators & "Public opinion" & the press try to make sure that the more egregious scams & cheapskate operations the the US absence-of-infrastructure throws up.

The leakage discussed has to do with extraction, not distribution. Much/most of the US extraction is from land. And through very varied geology. (It's a large country.) The UK is a bit different.

From: https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.cfm?iso=GBR

Most of the UK's natural gas production comes from offshore liquids fields, accounting for 55% of total gross natural gas production in 2014. Natural gas production from these associated fields increased by more than 3% between 2013 and 2014. Natural gas from offshore dry gas fields accounted for almost 45% of production in 2014, and onshore fields accounted for less than 1% of total gross natural gas production.

Now UK regulations may be better but when only 1% of UK extraction is from dry land it's hard to compare the two situations.

117:

We're terrified of gas leaks. The police will evacuate the street for a leak inside someone's house. The idea of actual pipelines going up is unthinkable, never mind it being common enough to get blasé about it.

Somewhat the same in the US. I think the comment you were reacting to was about large distribution lines. When one of those has an issue and takes out a few people and a dozen houses or so Connecticut doesn't start a program to replace gas as an energy source.

But retail gas leaks are treated very seriously. The gas companies I've dealt with have trucks that survey their coverage zones sniffing for leaks. And if you call in a leak they will respond quickly 24/7. And if in a dense zone, yes the police will show up to start clearing areas if needed.

On a bit of a tangent my line had to be moved a few years ago and to do it they WELDED a new tap on the main under the street. Apparently they have a few guys certified to do this who spend their day going from site to site doing their magic.

118:

If we're so terrified of gas leaks why do we pipe it into homes, under streets, through cities and connect it to devices built at the lowest possible cost and not subject to mandatory inspections and space-grade safety engineering? Cost, basically.

In most of the US it is now illegal (against code so not a felony) to connect something to a gas line without certification. Not that this is always done. (Ahem.)

119:

The problem with most of these processes are that they run at high temperatures meaning they can be modulated on a daily cycle but not an hourly one.

Gas diffusion plants for nuclear fuel production were rebuilt in the US in the 70s to deal with this. The original designs were really based on several days to spin up or down production. They were converted so they could drop half their load on the grid in a few hours and the electric utilities would pay them to not use the power when needed elsewhere. Of course they had an economy of scale that most processes don't have. They were dropping their load by 200MW or more on 4 hours notice.

120:

Occasionally in the UK a row of houses blows up due to a gas leak. Sometimes it's a fast-food shop where the owner has taken liberties with the incoming gas feed before it reaches the meter and didn't do a good enough job of it. Yes it's illegal, no that won't stop people doing it.

Eengineers and designers could make domestic gas a lot safer but it would cost twice as much for the extra infrastructure and higher-grade appliances and that's a life-saving cost people are not willing to pay for.

121:

Cincinnati. (Which is a place of abundant water, plenty of arable land, and a relatively mild climate.)....my water company (which has always faced conditions of abundance) has used for long time: sell access to the grid with a certain minimum amount of water provided. We currently pay about $30 per quarter (yes, that's just $120 for a whole year; those of you reading in California can pick yourselves up of the floor now) for being plugged into the sewer and water lines, and we get a certain number of gallons for that price that we never manage to come close to using despite moderate car washing and plant watering.

I grew up a at the far west end of Kentucky on the same Ohio river and I remember never thinking about water costs. Now I live an an area with a limited watershed feeding us and no easy or even moderately hard way to increase the supply. So now it costs $55/mo for one or two of us to live with no lawn watering or car washing. And will likely go up. They last drought convinced the PTB to change from the "cheap as possible" model for water.

122:

The main obstacle to Tres Amigas is political: if the Texas power grid were connected to the Eastern or Western grids, that would create a legal pretext to transfer control of the Texas grid to the federal government. The Texas state government strongly opposes anything that could create such a pretext; and since Texas is large enough that it doesn't need to import electricity, nobody in the state can bring enough pressure to bear to change the policy.

123:

You want utility or commercial scale solar? Screw PV arrays and go with concentrated solar mirrors driving a Stirling engines like the systems developed at Sandia Labs. Great engineering, no scientific breakthroughs - just incremental improvements in all of the non-sexy mundane stuff like framing, construction, etc to achieve the maximum eficincy of any solar eneryg system. And the Stirling produces AC not DC so no need for energy wasting inverters. No need for PVs with toxic chemcials. And the Stirling with proper maintenace never wears out, unlike PVs with their limited operational lives. And molten salt storage kicks battery's ass any day.

Stirling Energy Systems went bankrupt because their Sandia-derived generators could not lower costs to match PV. PV has been making non-sexy mundane improvements for over 40 years. Note that in the 1970s the mainstay terrestrial PV technology was crystalline silicon, and today it's still crystalline silicon. The silicon PV industry and its suppliers have just iterated faster and better than all the disruptors who thought they could beat it.

A Stirling based solar unit "never wears out" -- are you sure you're an engineer? Show me something made by humans that never wears out and I'll help you identify how it wears out. In the case of the Stirling systems you can expect the mirrors to fail over time due to abrasion by airborne grit and glass leaching reactions between dirt, glass, and water whenever there's precipitation. (The same issues affect cover glass for PV modules). The control computers will fail eventually due to electromigration in the ICs if something else doesn't get them first. The load bearing metallic structural components will corrode and fail eventually (or if you're going to say: "they will be built out of corrosion resistant alloys and last essentially forever" -- ok, but then you can assume the same about PV...)

All concentrating solar thermal generators, Stirling or otherwise, work in a more limited range of conditions than PV. Unlike PV they need direct irradiance; silicon modules can operate at more than 90% of their standard test condition conversion efficiency on a grey cloudy day (e.g. going from 250 watts output at STC, 1000 W/m^2 direct illumination, to 45 watts output at 200 W/m^2 diffused illumination). You've probably noticed this problem if you ever started fires with a magnifying glass. On a cloudy day you can't form a sharp image of the sun; not only does it become impossible to make wood burst into flames, you can't even scorch things. Replacing all PV with sun-driven Stirling engines is a scheme to reduce the annual power output of every utility scale solar facility that's not located in a desert. That increases the real cost of electricity even more than you'd guess from the higher capital cost of Stirling generators over PV.

124:

Methanol is also fairly nasty corrosive stuff. And rather toxic.

If you want a reasonably safe, fairly non-toxic but high energy-density liquid, well, there are a number of popular choices:

* alkanes -- a mix of pentane and hexane is fairly popular, but you can
go up to dodecane before you get problems with it solidifying on you.

* ethanol

* acetic acid

* acetone

* propan-1,2,3-triol esters of C12 -- C18 organic acids a.k.a fats and
oils...

* or you can detoxify ammonia quite readily by converting it into urea,
but, as this is a solid, you'ld have to work with an aqueous solution.

Yes -- urea is readily combustible, if it isn't in solution. However burning the stuff in some sort of thermal engine is just taking the piss. Urea is pretty useful stuff for powering a fuel cell:

www.rsc.org/suppdata/ee/b9/b924786f/b924786f.pdf

and that's going to be way more efficient than any thermal engine, assuming it can be scaled up commercially.

125:

Occasionally in the UK a row of houses blows up due to a gas leak.

In my youth I heard about this guy, whenever he moved into a new house, there was a gas-leak explosion in his street. The context was a discussion of whether or not there was a real thing called luck, him being an extreme case; and no, I don't know of any rigorous study of this guy, so perhaps it's just woo.

OTOH, if John Le Carre is to go by, the blowing up of the row of houses is actually a cover story for state murder of dissidents.

126:

I take your point, but if anything changes, weaning Norwegians off their always-on basement lights is going to be as hard as getting Texans off their guns.

Point of information, we export power direct in rainy years, not just as aluminum billets -- there's supposed to be an integrated Nordic market now. Word is that we export in dry years too, so that the suits can hike the domestic prices. (No guarantees of veracity, it's all a bit complex for ordinary people.)

Incidentally, there is zero public discussion about the design lifetime of those thousand hydropower dams, ditto silting. Since we are such gneiss guys, perhaps silting is not such a problem as for dams on sedimentary-rock rivers, but that's above my pay grade too. IANAE, I just live here.

127:

No, everyone knows that gas explosions are the standard coverup story for excessively vulgar Mage battle.

128:

Methanol is corrosive to aluminum and magnesium alloys but not much else. The toxicity is an interesting question. It's acutely toxic to humans at high concentrations, but compared to liquid hydrocarbons it biodegrades rapidly and poses less of a threat to wildlife and water if there's an accidental release. It won't leave lingering contamination in the soil if a tank leaks the way hydrocarbon fuels do.

I don't think that acetic acid belongs on the list of lower-hazard replacements for methanol. Household vinegar is safer, sure, but that's not a fuel. If we're talking liter quantities of pure liquids, acetic acid is more corrosive and more acutely hazardous to humans than methanol.

There's an energy density, complexity, and efficiency tradeoff between stopping synthetic fuel synthesis at the methanol stage or pressing on to more molecularly complex substances. You can increase the energy density by converting methanol to longer-chain alcohols/acids/esters and increase it again by hydrogenating them to hydrocarbons. Each additional step requires more process equipment and has additional irreversible energy losses.

129:

Here's a hardware manual for utility scale inverters manufactured by ABB, one of the world's leading suppliers of solar inverters. You can find efficiency-vs-load curves starting on page 141. They're measured from 5% load up to 100%. Note that even the lowest points on the curve -- lowest voltage DC input at only 5% load -- don't go below 80%. With 850 volt DC input, every inverter in the manual achieves better than 92% efficiency even at only 5% load.

Here's the test protocol for inverter efficiency developed at Sandia National Laboratories and used by the California Energy Commission. Note that inverters maintain high efficiency over a wide range of loadings.

The idea that 60% efficiency is typical for inverters should immediately set off your sanity check alarm bells: If a solar farm is dissipating megawatts of waste heat through the inverters, where are the inverter cooling towers? And if there are no inverter cooling towers, why don't they overheat?

130:

So, backing up a bit:

Come to think of it ... it may be feasible now to power a suburban house just from rooftop solar cells, but is it feasible to power an urban apartment building that way? Because if it isn't, sustainable power implies the people now living in big cities will have to spread out into the countryside, and a lot of land now uninhabited will have to be developed for human habitation. I rather thought most Greens strenuously opposed that kind of thing, preferring that humans be penned up within cities to leave as much land as possible to wilderness.

Something to remember is that there are many places which might lend themselves to having a solar farm built above them. Parking lots are the main things that spring to mind when I think about american sprawl, as the damn things are colossal. Multilane roads also work well. There are obviously some additional material and construction concerns and the cost will be higher than for ground-mounted panels, but I'm reasonably certain that there are plenty of possibilities that don't involve glassing over green land.

(also, for proper cyberpunk dystopias with giant arcologies, you can put transparent PVs on the sides, but not if the city is filled with smog from ammonia-fuelled combustion engines...)

131:

Transparent PVs harness the same principle as the Invisible Man's retinas, I take it? :)

132:

Stirling went bankrupt due to Chinese subsidies of PVC arrays:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stirling_Energy_Systems#Bankruptcy

It remains the most efficient direct solar energy system:

http://www.sciencealert.com/this-is-the-world-s-most-efficient-solar-electricity-system-swedish-researchers-claim

"This is the only working small-scale concentrated solar energy system of its kind in the world. Thirty-four percent of the Sun’s energy hitting the mirrors is converted directly to grid-available electric power, compared to roughly half that for standard solar panels. Traditional photovoltaic panels are able to turn about 23 percent of the solar energy that strikes them into electricity, but this is cut to around 15 percent before it is usable by the grid."

And apparently you missed my caveat of maintenance being required to prevent wear and tear on a Stirling. The operational lifetime of a PV cell is due to ints intrinsict material characterisics and can only be replaced, not directly maintained.

Cloudy days degrade the efficiency of all solar energy sources.

133:

Been reported. Here, for example:

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/188667-a-fully-transparent-solar-cell-that-could-make-every-window-and-screen-a-power-source

http://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/first-fully-transparent-solar-power-cell/


This one looks too good to be true, in terms of efficiency, but the idea of letting some light through and converting the rest to electricity makes sense in a bright climate:

http://inhabitat.com/revolutionary-transparent-solar-cells-could-produce-50-times-more-energy-than-conventional-solar/


Here's a paper in Nature Photonics that has a bit more details:

Organic solar cells have unique properties that make them very attractive as a renewable energy source. Of particular interest are semi-transparent cells, which have the potential to be integrated into building façades yet not completely block light. However, making organic cells transparent limits the metal electrode thickness to a few nanometres, drastically reducing its reflectivity and the device photon-harvesting capacity. Here, we propose and implement an ad hoc path for light-harvesting recovery to bring the photon-to-charge conversion up to almost 80% that of its opaque counterpart. We report semi-transparent PTB7:PC71BM cells that exhibit 30% visible light transmission and 5.6% power conversion efficiency. Non-periodic photonic crystals are used to trap near-infrared and near-ultraviolet photons. By modifying the layer structure it is possible to tune the device colour without significantly altering cell performance.

http://www.nature.com/nphoton/journal/v7/n12/full/nphoton.2013.276.html


Not as good as regular PV now, but it's early days yet. In sunny climes it makes sense to put opaque PV on roofs and transparent PV on windows.

134:

The low inverter efficiency was a conservative estimate that included less efficient inverter types and less than perfect weather conditions common to northern Europe leading to lower DC generation and lower overall conversion efficiency.

So let's recrunch those numbers for energy loss with a more optimisitc assumption:

a. conversion from DC to AC (90%)
b. latitude (32%)
c. cloud cover (34%)
d. only operating during daylight (50%)
e. battery storage (56%)

This is a total reduction of about 97% instead of 98%

135:

Blaming the failure of Stirling Energy Systems on Chinese subsidies is editorializing by whoever wrote that part of the Wikipedia article. If you follow the citations for that claim, the source articles say nothing about China.

Industry observers thought that SES was in trouble 9 months before it went bankrupt. Falling flat plate PV prices were to blame, but American-based First Solar was actually the aggressively low-cost PV option at the time.

In 2010, the price to build a solar thermal park run by troughs, power towers or dish engines runs between $5.00 and $6.55 per watt. On the other hand, utility-scale PV projects can squeak through at less than $3.50 per watt, as we noted in an article in October. One of the big symbols of this shift came when First Solar, the big PV maker, took over a project from thermal specialist Ausra in 2009 and turned it into a PV project.

By 2020, the thermal solutions are expected to be in the $2.40 to $3.80 per watt range, but by that time, PV plants could be below $2 a watt. Trough and tower plants could conceivably catch up and beat PV in price on large-scale projects, but it would be tough.

Concentrating solar never got that scaling-and-feedback loop going well enough to catch up with flat plate solar PV. The conventional PV price fall has been faster than predicted; in 2015 utility-scale American PV projects with sun tracking fell to $1.54 per watt. Large fixed tilt projects were as low as $1.33.

Non-Chinese PV manufacturers are still in business: REC, Solar Frontier, First Solar, SunPower, Hanwha Q Cells, SolarWorld, Panasonic, Kyocera, LG, SolarCity (near-future; currently building a large factory in Buffalo)... Most manufacturers taking an "unusual" approach did not survive. First Solar and Solar Frontier are the only ones not using a variation on crystalline silicon. The concentrated thermal solar companies have been mostly killed off. So have concentrating photovoltaic companies. CPV achieved even higher efficiencies than solar Stirling devices (40%+ demonstrated multiple times) but it too suffered catastrophic production falloff under non-ideal lighting like CSP. Nobody was going to pay a huge cost premium for CPV any more than they would for CSP. The one market where buyers are willing to pay a significant premium for efficiency is rooftop installations, but CPV and CSP alike are only suited for ground mounting.

136:

Your battery storage efficiency is off too. See e.g. table E.2 in this report. As of 2011 battery storage was 78% for round-trip efficiency of sodium-sulfur or 80% for lithium ion. That includes losses from the charger, inverter, and actual battery chemistry.

Your "conservative" assumptions are consistently over-aggressive if you are trying to bound the maximum annual energy production from PV technology installed on X hectares of land. They are "conservative" if you mean that they would be the sort of thing endorsed by the Heartland Institute. The only way to see what is achieved in practice is to measure what has actually been built. I linked to actual measured monthly generation numbers for Solar Star, a large Californian solar project. The EIA collects that data so you can find monthly numbers from large US solar projects (and other utility scale generation) via their Electricity Data Browser. If you can find similar data for utility scale PV projects in the UK or Germany we can compare apples to apples. I know they'll be significantly worse because no part of the UK or Germany is as sunny as southern California. I won't say how much worse because I'm not willing to elevate guesswork to the level of fact.

137:

http://www.prosun.org/en/fair-competition/trade-distortions/subsidies.html

China’s solar panel industry has become the world’s biggest thanks to a simple formula: Produce in China, sell in Europe. Benefiting from generous financial backing at home—which the U.S. Department of Energy says amounted to $30 billion in state support in 2010—Chinese manufacturers have spent years boosting capacity. Since the domestic market for buying and installing solar power systems was tiny, the Chinese focused on exports, especially to Germany and other European countries where subsidies helped fuel demand for panels Firing Up China's Solar Market, Bloomberg Businessweek March 15, 2012

The plan to fuel China’s export-intensive solar-industry campaign calls for a number of government initiatives, including new policy, financial and price subsidies; more support in industry, financial and tax policy; and further aid with development and production of equipment used to produce polysilicon, silicon ingots, wafers, cells and panels within the crystalline-silicon solar industry. Moreover, the portfolio includes plans to support industrialization of China’s as-yet-undeveloped thin-film industry, specifically harnessing silicon and copper indium gallium diselenide solar technologies Source Wiley Rein Analysis

Bryan Ashley, the Chief Marketing Officer for Suniva doesn't mince words. "The Chinese strategy is very clear. They are engaging in predatory financing and they're trying to drive everybody else out of the market. When you've got free money you can out-dump everybody below cost," Ashley said in an interview with Climate Progress. That "free money" Ashley refers to is the cheap debt provided by the Chinese Development Bank (CDB). Here's how the CDB works its magic. The CDB was originally set up as a "policy bank," to operate as an arm of the Chinese central government, doling out public funding to support central government development programs. Now it is a "joint stock company with limited liability" that often reports to China's national cabinet on certain policy issues. This allows the Chinese government to get involved in CDB activities and direct loans toward projects officials want to support. Unlike most regular commercial banks, CDB raises most of its money via long-term bonds. Funders cannot take that money back out until the term is up, so the bank can make longer-term loans to Chinese companies. CDB also gives borrowers very low interest rates, and, if the borrower cannot pay back the loan, it may be back-stopped by the Chinese government. This makes it easier, cheaper, and a lot less risky for solar companies to obtain financing Source: The Guardian 12 September 2011

The Chinese government has indicated strong support for the solar PV industry, which it considers to be a strategic sector for the country’s further development. In 2010, both Suntech and Trina Solar signed large loan agreements with the China Development Bank. In total, loan guarantees worth US$32.5 billion were offered to 10 domestic manufacturers including LDK Solar, Yingli Green Energy and Suntech. Moreover, in October 2010, the State Council issued a directive on “the acceleration and development of new strategic industries”, which consisted of a package of fiscal and financial measures aimed at supporting a set of selected industries including solar PV.” Source: China and the Future of New Energy Technologies Netherlands Clingendael Institute of International Relations March 2012

138:

OK, let's crunch those numbers for energy loss again:

a. conversion from DC to AC (90%)
b. latitude (32%)
c. cloud cover (34%)
d. only operating during daylight (50%)
e. battery storage (78%)

This is a total reduction of about 96% instead of 98%

139:

"You literally cannot have 7 billion people living like the average American even if you remove energy production from this equation."

OK I get it, lots of people using lots of resources equals ruined planet.

Your solution is that we use less resources per person, in effect reducing our standard of living and becoming less wealthy and thus reduce our demand for resources. However, the trouble with poorer societies is that they makes lots and lots of babies, far more than rich societies. You can see it in the differences in TFR between Japan, Europe, North America and Sub Saharan Africa.

And there are many reasons for this birth rate differential: poorer societies treat women like crap confining them to traditional roles and denying them a life not devoted to raising large numbers of kids, large families being the only safety net for old retirees who can no longer work, etc.

And theses poorer societies do not live in harmony with nature, sitting around singing Kumbaya and living lightly on the land. They do serious damage to Mother Earth. Instead of using methane from fracking or clathrates they gather firewood and spread devastating deforestation and desertification. Forget about protecting water resources because Third Worlders lack even basic sanitation. They don't care about preserving endangered species or habitats, because animals like elephants harm the subsistence crops the need to feed their families - and gorillas are a source of much needed protein.

There is nothing romantic or environmentally superior about living on $1 a day in a dirt floor hut. Poverty sucks, especially for the environment. For your "let's make everyone poor to save the planet" strategy to work you have to kill a few billion people first and make sure most of their children don't live past their first birthday to make sure that the population stays low.

How about another strategy?

One where we maximize wealth, making every human on the planet as prosperous as technology can allow. First off, women are no longer treated like crap in rich societies and they can do other things with their lives instead of being broodmares. The population will slow, peak and then fall like a rock. For example, by mid century there will be 20 million fewer Japanese. Towns and farms get abandoned because they are no longer needed and revert back to natural habitat. The demographics skew older and society becomes less violent since war and crime are things indulged in largely by young males (which is why Afghanistan and the Levant are crazy violent and Sweden and Canada are very peaceful and boring).

In short, our global footprint will actually shrink and the Earth will heal itself even as we all live like royalty.

140:

Um, I think you're confused. If you've got a smart phone, it draws around a watt and has more computing power than an early 1970s Cray supercomputer. The fact that you're only using a watt for supercomputing where before people used megawatts does not mean your standard of living has fallen, nor does the tiny size of your smartphone.

There's a good point in there: when we use water for things like producing food for cattle and salmon (or better yet, growing alfalfa in a desert, so there's high evaporative loss, then transporting it halfway across the world to be sold as animal feed), then there's a lot of waste in the system that can be diminished. This will affect people's standard of living, but then again, it will probably mean they're healthier, more thoughtful, and grumpier, which is generally a good thing (/sarcasm about the benefits of vegetarianism).

Perhaps the confusions is that you're confusing raw resource consumption, finished resource consumption, standard of living, and conversion efficiency?

141:

It's true that the top 5 richest (nominal GDP per capita) countries have a total fertility rate below 2.0 and the bottom 5 have have a high TFR (all above 4.0). But the richest five countries are not the five lowest-fertility countries, and in between the extremes there's a lot of variation.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, Brunei, Canada, Latvia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia all have a TFR of 1.6.

According to the World Bank they have nominal GDP per capita of USD 36609, 43251, 13654, 6440, 5143, and 20713 respectively. Nominal GDP per capita for the whole world is USD 9997. So how much wealth makes a TFR of 1.6 -- 51% of the world average? 64% of average? 433% of average?

142:

First off, women are no longer treated like crap in rich societies and they can do other things with their lives instead of being broodmares.

I don't think it's quite as simple as "allowing" or even "encouraging" women to become engineers or whatever.

In the sub-Saharan African country I lived in, many girls dropped out of school to make babies. I had a girlfriend who had borne her first child at the age of 12. There seemed to be no stigma, though the national record of 9 did cause some comment.

Different discussion, but my impression is that what some people call the American ghetto pattern of reproduction and attribute to bad public morality (eff off Cosby) is not an artifact of slavery but African tradition. What precisely was the slave family life that was devastated in the first place? Around me here I had formal polygamy, massive infidelity and totally accepted early-teenage pregnancy. Selling your tail was universal, it wasn't considered prostitution if you were introduced by a friend of a friend etc., only if you were standing under the streetlamp and doing all comers. About a third of the young female population seemed to be hairdressers, all moonlighting. (Terry Pratchett used the wrong Guild.) Oh, and even middle-class people shut their windows to keep the flying shape-shifting sorcerers out.

I saw no evidence that the parents, boyfriends or anyone else compelled the girls to become baby-factories, but I grew very tired of hearing that "children are a blessing from the Great Sky Fairy". Especially when said children were running around without much socialisation. Since I am an atheist non-breeder and misanthrope, I really don't have any affective understanding of this attitude. What do they actually mean by "blessing" and what are they getting out of it? Future labour? Narcissistic supply? Pass.

By the way, the lady I mentioned lost her daughter in a crash at the age of 16. I couldn't begin to imagine that: since 12 you've been a mother, and now at 28 you're a –– neither English nor French have a word for someone who has lost a child to go together with widow and orphan.

The transition to a society where girls all want to grow up to be engineers or surgeons or spacewomen, bear only 1.8 children and have recreational sex without pecuniary reward, I just don't see that happening. Rather the other way round. It makes me queasy to see how many girls in the West think manicurist is a dignified career, and webcam wanking a viable business model. But hey, I'm a curmudgeon.

143:

You need to understand the underlying social structure from pre-colonial to get a sense of why that was accepted.

* Men don't do survival work unless they have to - men's work provides luxuries only - and are mostly expected to either go to war with neighbouring villages, hunt, or herd cattle to create "wealth". The key here is that a village can lose all its adult men without long-term consequences - and if the village's survival is threatened by drought etc, the men are sent off hunting.

* Women handle survival-grade work - water rights, goats, child rearing, subsidence farming etc. If women do it, it's work towards the survival of the village; you cannot afford to lose a significant fraction of your adult women.

* Women pool their labour within family (genetic) divisions. It tends to be great-grandmothers and grandmothers who look after children and the elderly (those too old to look after themselves), so that young women can farm, dig wells (or organise the men to do it) etc. Children are expected (until puberty) to help the women.

In that setup, the cost of having a child is very low - you have 10 months for pregnancy and recovery from childbirth, then the kid is someone else's problem most of the time (you just provide milk when needed). The benefit is that in about 4 years time, you have extra help with the farming, and a 50/50 chance of having someone who'll add to your labour pool permanently; if you do have a boy, then he gives you labour from early childhood through to puberty, then joins the men, who either get sent off hunting, or who provide luxuries for the village.

Colonization disrupted this in a variety of ways, and the local cultures haven't really adjusted to the new normal yet.

144:
Since we are such gneiss guys, perhaps silting is not such a problem as for dams on sedimentary-rock rivers
That was painful. *applause*
145:

if you do have a boy, then he gives you labour from early childhood through to puberty, then joins the men, who either get sent off hunting, or who provide luxuries for the village.

Good stuff, I have stolen the lot to add to my memoirs. Thanks.

Pushing out the babies to be mother's problem – check, saw plenty of that.

The smallholder agriculture I saw (not subsistence, it was marketed) was absolutely unisex, though. Spent an afternoon myself harvesting cassava, for the experience. Macheting, pulling up and carrying was done by both sexes.

There wasn't any hunting where I was, but colonisation was a long time ago. I doubt there was herding even then, it was rain-forest rather than savannah.

Your definition of providing luxuries should nowadays include becoming a Big Man and ripping off the government for the community, right?

146:

Yeah - I'm describing the oral history of how things were pre-colonialization, so a very long time ago.

Men accumulate wealth (herding, in that region), or provide luxuries. Women worry about survival, and do what it takes to ensure that the village survives even if all the adult men were to die tomorrow.

And yes, Big Man ripping off the government for the benefit of his community is one way that the cultural roles have changed over the years; in the region I was learning about (with the aid of locals), that tended not to happen because it was one of the few regions where government had been allowed to grow out of pre-existing "black" structures, rather than being imposed by the fish people (as happened in South Africa, for example).

147:

I think you need to factor in the effects of immigration, especially immigrants who bring with them the cultural norm of large famiies (at least for the first generation after arrival). Who wants to move to Serbia? Immigrating to Brunei is not high on the "to do list" for non-Muslims.

This is why the US has a TFR almost at replacement level of 2.1, Trump not withstanding we are very immigant friendly (that and the US remains an outlier as both a deeply religious and technologically advanced country).

Those countries that are immigrant un-friendly (I'm looking at you Japan) have collapsing birth rates, rapidly aging populations and are projected to experience actual population decline - slowly at first and then droppig like a rock - by mid century. China is about to become the world's largest old age home (provincial leaders recently begged Beijing to rescind their draconian one baby policy - classic case of too litle too late). By 2050 Russia will have 50 million fewer people (Putin wasn't grabbing Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he was grabbing ethnic Russians).

Generally speaking (allowing for exceptions to the rule):

greater wealth and prosperity
= higher status for women
= fewer babies
= an aging and less violent population
= eventually declining populations
= LESS demand on resources and a smaller impact on the Earth.

Win, win, win.

148:

You want to save the world? Cram every human into cities.

If everyone lived in an urban area with the same population density of Manhattan, Macau or Hong Kong (almost 70,000 people per square mile), all 7 billion of us could live in a single mega-city the size of Colorado. Or the equivalent area taken up by multiple high population density cities. As a bonus, familes in urban areas have fewer kids, further reducing population pressure on resources.

The rest of the planet could revert back to wilderness. Except those areas that need to be farmed.

And it is farming that is doing the most ecological damage today (deforestation of the Amazon, fertilizer laden run-off, acquifer depletion, etc.). Using American agricultural techniques (and assuming equally good soil) each person requires one acre of farmland to provide enough food (and feed for the animals we eat).

At 640 acres per square mile, 7 billion people would require almost 11 million square miles of farmland to provide an American diet. That is an area bigger than Alaska and Canada combined.

But suppose we transitioned to vertical farming and lab grown (cruelty free) meat?

Vertical farming (growing our food in the heart of our expanded mega cities) that utilizes dwarf versions of certain crops (e.g. dwarf wheat developed by NASA, which is smaller in size but richer in nutrients), year-round crops, and "stacker" plant holders, a 30-story building with a base of a building block (5 acres) would yield a yearly crop analogous to that of 2,400 acres of traditional farming. Develop advnaced GMO crops (which even Bill Nye the Science Guy says is safe) to further increase yields.

http://www.gereports.com/post/91250246340/lettuce-see-the-future-japanese-farmer-builds

That is a +90% reduction in area needed for farming, reducing our food footprint to less than 25,000 square miles. Develop vat grown beef and chicken (with steaks, hamburgers and nuggets made by 3d printers), and Humanity's impact on Planet earth is reduced to a fraction of its current load.

And that's a good thing.

You want to ruin the planet. Adopt widespread organic farming which requires twice as many acres for the same yield and further destroys habitat. A farm is no more "natural" than a skycraper. So go ahead and hug that tree, hippie - ironically you are destroying the planet more than a fracking well head.

149:

I know, it was a joke - hence the :) - based on the mismatch between the "obvious" response of "eating 90% of the light will make it really dark" and the reality of the eye's range of sensitivity, with a bit of a dig at the deficiencies of the "Invisible Man's retinas" thing thrown in.

150:

News just in on the previous thread - the energy problem is solved. We don't need heatsinks any more. Fill yer boots, everyone.

151:

But I don't want to fill my boots with ammonia.

I don't even want to run a camping stove on it.

152:

You're trolling, right?

A city without the huge peripheral infrastructure is a death trap. For example, Los Angeles gets some of its water from as far away as the Sacramento Delta and the Colorado, depends on food grown around the world, depends on electricity from Arizona and Oregon as well as California, depends on cars and equipment built around the world, and depends on concrete from all over.

The same is true for every single city, even as trashed a place as Kinshasa, where they're reportedly gardening every vacant lot. Cities are nothing like self sufficient. Rather, they're trading nodes in large networks. Going back to the Bronze Age, if the cities fell, so did the network, and vice versa.

Vertical farming would work wonders if the sun came in horizontally. It does not, and vertical farms are so expensive that it's totally impractical to grow essentials like grain in them (you need at least 1/4 acre of grain farmed per person, per year, and that minimum if you don't eat meat and there are no crop failures). They really only work with high value, resource efficient crops, like basil or marijuana.

The only advantage cities have is that people in American cities tend to use less resources per capita than do people in American suburbs and rural areas, primarily because they can walk to work rather than drive, and they're forced to live in smaller homes due to high density housing. If you want to have a resource-efficient middle-class American lifestyle, a city is the best way to go. HOWEVER, we still have to have some rural population to keep that city fed, and a lot of shipping to get resources into and out of that city. If you have farmers commuting out from the city every day to work in the fields (which was done during the Middle Ages in places like Spain, cities having protective walls and such), the resource efficiencies go entirely away.

As for organic farming, it depends on the practice, but right now, farming methods (like various no-till practices) that capture carbon in the soil are basically our only known effective way of sequestering carbon. I'm strongly in favor of no-till agriculture for this reason. It's not the same as organic agriculture, but there is reasonable overlap.

153:

You forget the other use for dams is flood control. Dams are not going anywhere and while they exist you might as well use them for power.

You mostly can't, because for power you want the dam to be full, or nearly so, while for flood control you want it to be empty. For most other uses (water supply, micro-climate, recreational, decorative) you mostly want the dam to be full, too, which is why dams often aren't all that useful for flood control; the other uses are too useful, so they're kept full...

154:

in the region I was learning about (with the aid of locals), that tended not to happen because it was one of the few regions where government had been allowed to grow out of pre-existing "black" structures

Would you mind saying which region this was? I'm coming late in life to African history, but trying to catch up.

If we're too far off-topic I suppose I could post my addy in munged form.

155:

Nuclear power, city densification, rewilding... You are Stewart Brand and I claim my five pounds.

(Stewart Brand is not necessarily wrong, but it's useful to remember he's immersed in the Californian Ideology in the same way fish are in water.)

156:

While I tend to agree with Frank about cities as fragile death-traps, I will applaud Daniel for his line A farm is no more "natural" than a skyscraper.

The misuse of the term "natural" for purposes of woo-woo is one of my bêtes noires. If I had the resources and the energy, I would market (fake) "organic plutonium" dietary supplements and make my fortune. It's organic, gotta be good for you, innit?

157:

It was the southern end of Botswana - still sub-Saharan, but with some unique politics that come from never actually being under white rule.

158:

Not trolling, just a thought experiment. Though with increased urbanization (for the first time in human history more people are living in urban areas than rural areas) it's not that far fetched.

The key to restoring/saving the planet is to minimize our physical footprint and maximize natural habitat. That includes minimizing farms via vertical farming, ranches via lab grown meat and fisheries via aquaponics. Everyone thinks of pollution assomething industrial, when in fact most damage to the environment is being done by agriculture.

As for vertical farming, it seems to work for leafy greens and other vegetables by use of LED lights that only use the necessary part of the spectum for plant growth at considerable cost and energy savings (though I would like to see an actual VF business plan that takes into account all costs and benefits compared to standard agriculture). It doesn't work well for grain crops yet and that's a major limitation.

But the future looks promising for minimizing the land requirements for food production. And imagine if we could turn most of the land now used for farminng and ranching back to wilderness.

159:

I know it by reputation and the novels of McCall Smith. A Botswanan nurse I sat next to on a plane once claimed they were pretty faithful.

160:

There's a bunch of things wrong in the post.

1. No, coal will not stop. Not unless you don't want to make anything out of steel anymore. The Pennsy RR's Big Thing, to start, was moving coal from central PA to the steel mills in the east.
2. Manufacturing uses truly immense amounts of energy. Back in the beginning of the seventies, a co-worker in the labs I worked at had set up a simulator, and if he cut *all* autos, and supplies for them, it cut energy usage by 10% At least 70% was manufacturing.
3. Ah, yes, the MegaCorp/Agribusiness industry. I've been *terrified* for decades that some asshole twentysomething MBA,in a position of power, will assert that the parts of the farms, etc, were worth more in parts than whole, and break up and sell 'em for housing or manufacture, and over the next two years, there would be worldwide famine, because he took 5% of the world's most productive farmland out of production.
4. Added note to 3): we've been doing that for decades in the east and midwest, with suburban sprawl. How much of your produce, in season, comes from local farms? Growing up in Philly, a very high percentage came from New Jersey and areas surrounding Philly. They're gone.
5. Oil and gas production aren't going all away, either, given that they can be far more useful as feedstocks to chemical processes, rather than burning them.
6. "Raining in the size of government?" RAINING IN THE SIZE OF GOVERNMENT SPENDING?! Go read this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/grief-and-anger-continue-after-dallas-attacks-and-police-shootings-as-debate-rages-over-policing/ Now. Don't say another bloody word until you do. "They don't want to fund mental health, so we have to deal with them. They don't want to fund education, and so there's offficers in the *schools*!!!!! Maybe if we raised taxes and funded HUMAN SERVICES, the cops wouldn't be turning into the Stalinist or Chinese police.

7. Finally, there are *far* too many people who haven't actually lived in a city (never mind the burbs they grew up in were barely over the city limit). Look at metro areas. Now, quick, how much of the population of Britain is in the London metro area? Or France and Paris? Or Mexico and Mexico City? There's nothing wrong in living in higher density areas (WITHIN LIMITS!!!) if you're not afraid of strangers all the time.
7a. And, of course, as just made the US Democratic platform, allow federal funding of birth control and abortion, and maybe we'll have a *controlled* fall in population. (Yes, I *do* object to folks who have to have four, five, six and more kids).

mark

161:

I bollixed the formatting here. Italics were meant to end at "skyscrapers" and then the second "organics" in italics. If a Mod could fix, I would appreciate.

[[ done - mod ]]

162:

You want to save the world? Cram every human into cities.
...
The rest of the planet could revert back to wilderness. Except those areas that need to be farmed.
In some areas, partial rewilding has already happened. Less dense suburbs in e.g. the NE US are a far cry from the deforestation to farmland (or charcoal for Iron production, or ...) that was done by European settlers. The trees in reforested areas i.e. abandoned farms are already well in excess of 50 years old. It's fragmented so species that need large unfragmented wild areas still have issues. (Wildlife corridors can help if very carefully modeled but the detailed observation-driven modeling (for planning corridors) isn't done AFAIK.)

One issue with packing humans into cities is loss of contact with wild fauna/flora (MMORPGs, and VR in general, are a very poor substitute), and potentially, loss of concern for the wildlands.

Just pushing back a little; not sure what exactly would work best.

163:

Coking coal, the kind used to make steel, is about 13% of world coal consumption (in 2012, 0.984 billion tons coking coal produced out of 7.83 billion tons total -- See here). If we did absolutely nothing to reduce the coal intensity of steel production, or to reduce the steel intensity of civilization, the world could still eliminate 87% of coal production and use by ceasing to burn coal for electrical generation and other heat requirements.

76% of US petroleum consumption goes to liquid fuels. Again, you could leave the production of chemicals and structural materials from petroleum untouched yet eliminate the lion's share of demand by attacking combustion-uses first.

As you can see in LLNL's energy flow charts for the United States, industrial demand accounts for about 34% of primary energy demand. Industry's share would have been higher in the early 1970s, when the US was still a net industrial exporter rather than importer, but 70% sounds a bit on the high side. I'd be interested if you could find a citation for that. Transportation presently accounts for 38% of primary energy use in the US, and the majority of that is liquid fuels burned in light duty vehicles.

164:

"but 70% sounds a bit on the high side."

I read that paragraph as meaning "when everything to do with cars was removed from the simulation, 70% of the drop in energy consumption was accounted for by the reduced consumption in manufacturing the cars and their associated gubbins". That doesn't sound too bad: recentish estimates I've seen concerning a European context seem to reckon that about half the total entropy cost of a car is in making the thing rather than driving it; I believe the "new car every year" bug attacked the US rather earlier and more virulently than it did Europe; and we're not just concerned with the cars themselves, but also stuff like tyres and batteries and things that dangle from the rear view mirror.

165:

A couple of notes, the first two in reply:

--Coal is in decline, believe it or not, killed off by natural gas expansion. The decline is easy to search for, but you can read about it in leftie environmentalist rags like, for instance Fortune. There are a bunch of fundamental problems with the industry, from high pollution (not just CO2) emission to less good quality coal going around. Unfortunately for us, the easy way out is for companies to go bankrupt, leaving everyone in coal country to clean up the mess. And it really is a mess, especially when you look at such practices as mountaintop removal (Sierra Club link).

--Jacobson's model is about providing all the energy American society uses in all sectors in the form of renewable electricity. As I and others pointed out, this requires a lot of innovation to pull off, but the only loss of total energy he's assuming is that there's less waste heat produced by switching away from burning things.

--Farms have been sold off for housing for centuries. In California, a retired professor I know (Alan Schoenherr), came up with the mnemonic: "first the cow, then the plow, then the bulldozer," to describe how land use progressed in California. First it's ranched, then it's farmed as the land value increases to make ranching unprofitable, and finally it's sold off for subdivisions when the land value gets too high to justify further farming. A lot of really good farmland is under subdivisions due to this progression, and more vanishes every year.

--As someone noted above, it's the west San Joaquin Valley that has the worst salt and groundwater depletion problems. It's the land of (among other things) the fairly notorious Westlands Water District that gets a chunk of its water from the same aqueduct that feeds LA (and there's some incestuous politics there that you have to read Cadillac Desert to truly appreciate for sleeze--and the current governor's father put it together).

One of the common fears among environmentalists is that when Westlands starts running out of water, they'll just plop a couple of new cities down there and run away. Cities use about 20% of the water as ag does, but the problem is that water has to be supplied all the time, not just during growing season, and if you cut the allotment, you get civil unrest in short order.

The good news on the farmland to suburbs front is that, at least in Detroit, it seems quite possible to turn suburbs back into farmland. That's not so easy in southern California, where the water's piped in, but it might be doable in northern California.

--Note, the east side of California's central valley won't necessarily have enough water. For example, I learned a month ago that, for the last three years, Donner Summit (yes, that's near Donner Pass) has received more precipitation as rain than as snow for the last three years, which is new in its entire measurement history. When precipitation falls as snow, it forms California's biggest reservoir, and it gradually melts in the spring and summer and flows into the lowlands (except when it doesn't, and there are monster floods, monster droughts, etc.). With rain, the water soaks in, and you get it back out as springs. After a while. Hopefully not after 10,000 years, but it takes awhile. The concern is that more rain means less average runoff, but an increased chance of catastrophic floods, which California certainly has experienced several times per century. Fun stuff.

166:

I'm not sure what you mean by "cities use 20% of the water ag does ". In general ag in California uses? California's population uses around 10% of water available

Also the agricultural situation in California itself is an anomaly and should not in any way be generalized

Similarity the last three years of rain/snow are anomalies (2 are drought years one is El Niño). It's stil very much an unknown where the water situation will land

167:

If you want an answer from the horse's orifice, well, actually, from a UC Davis Prof (as cached at the California Air Resources Board), the amount of water used by California agriculture is:

80%: based on the developed water supply
52%: based on the total water supply of a dry year
29%: based on the total water supply of a wet year

(reference (pdf of powerpoint)).

As for Donner Summit, the point isn't just when the rain's arriving, it's how warm the lower atmosphere is, so that precipitation in one of the highest watersheds in California is falling as rain more and falling as snow less. That's awkward, and it's due to climate change, not El Nino.

In any case, no area's agricultural situation should be generalized, but I'm using California as an example, because the system is this fascinating mix of environmentally smart ideas and environmentally idiotic schemes completely intermingled, then both optimized by really skilled professionals trying to keep it all working, and destabilized by the rich and powerful who are implementing their bright ideas. This last group includes everyone from William Mulholland (and some half-forgotten predecessors in the post Civil War Sacramento Valley) to former Gov. Pat Brown, and arguably his son Jerry Brown. That's the point of the political economic analysis.


168:

Quote du jour:

"Public life as it has in fact taken place is formidably untidy, unpredictable, able, filled with chance and surprise. Analytical models are useful, but life is not logical, it is historical. We cannot force it to fit preconceived categories and theories. As Garry Brewer and Peter deLeon have written, 'There is nothing quite so irrational-and misguided-as [analytical] approaches that claim to be rational and then operate as if the world ought to be the same-neat, simple, and orderly.'"

Source: Robert Kelley, Battling the Inland Sea: Floods, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley

169:

With all this talk of "Cadillac Desert" and water engineering projects I'm surprised nobody has mentioned NAWAPA the "North American Water and Power Alliance" - a massive restructuring of all of North America's water systems.

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/vig-engineering-23-greening-of-america.html

And other macro water engineering projects (Warning: the blogger's politics are rather right wing but he provides a fascinating summary for each of these projects) such as...

Flooding the Qattara Depression:

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/big-engineering-52-flooding-qattara.html

Greening Western China:

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2014/06/big-engineering-67-greening-western.html

Widening the Suez Canal:

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/big-engineering-60-widening-suez-canal.html

Hydroponic Floating Gardens:

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2009/04/bif-engineering-31-hydroponic-floating.html

Greening Central Asia:

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/big-engineering-24-greening-central.html

Greening Palestine and the Middle east

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2008/12/big-engineering-27-greening-palestine.html

Greening the Sahara

http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2008/09/big-engineering-8-greening-sahara.html

170:

Three points Frank:

overgeneralizing what is going to happen as a result of climate change based on what has currently happened is bad. Everything could change and change again before things settle into a new steady state

Using California agriculture as an example of anything other then why one should not farm in the desert is a really bad idea.

If you replace farming with cities you can have a LOT of cities. Imagine California doesn't farm anymore and it's water supply halves. You could still double the current population

171:

76% of US petroleum consumption goes to liquid fuels. Again, you could leave the production of chemicals and structural materials from petroleum untouched yet eliminate the lion's share of demand by attacking combustion-uses first.

Unless I misunderstand how refining works (and I admit I might be wrong) you don't just adjust things to get more or less gasoline or diesel fuel out of a barrel of oil.

Refineries are are about separating out various hydrocarbon chains into various useful mixes of stuff. So even if we quit burning all gasoline, kerosene, and diesel today we'd still have a lot of it coming out of refineries until we come up with ways to combine or split the molecules into other stuff we might want to use. Just to keep getting the chemical feed stocks discussed here.

172:

Unless I misunderstand how refining works (and I admit I might be wrong) you don't just adjust things to get more or less gasoline or diesel fuel out of a barrel of oil.

In this instance I think you are, because refineries do exactly that.

173:

I don't understand why cramming people into cities would help. Instead of 1 city of a million people why not 100 towns of ten thousand? It's the same thing, except the city is a bunch of towns all in the same place so the towns on the inside, as you say, have no access to the wilderness (much of which could be park land with paths so people could go in and enjoy it, like the Stadtwalds near most German towns, or like Adirondack Park. The only way cramming people into cities would change things would be by increasing density, that is by getting rid of all the lawns (gardens) and parking lots (car parks) that make things farther apart so people have to drive everywhere (though that spacing out actually is good design since it allows roof for tailpipe exhaust to clear). That and making people live in high rises instead of detached houses. Though vehicles are still indispensable for moving cargo around. You might shop for clothes or groceries on your bicycle or light rail, but a new refrigerator has to be delivered using a truck (lorry) or something. If you made the towns as dense as inner cities by simply having expansion limits then they would leave just aa much wild land as cramming everybody into cities, but would allow more access to nature. But then there's the reason cities came about in the first place. Colocating things allows for more efficient transportation. If the steel and the cars are made in the same place you don't have to haul the steel across the country to get it to the car factory. But those efficiencies aren't being taken advantage of much in the modern economy anyway. In the modern world we ship garbage to China to be sorted for recyclables and then ship the sorted trash back to be processed. The main reason for cities is that they allow access to rare cultural institutions. Each town can't support a large museum, but a big city can, and everybody in the city has access to it. But how often do you really go to the museum? And we have the internet now for cultural stuff.

174:

Edit: close parenthesis--)-- after "Adirondack Park" and replace "roof" with "room".

175:

Refineries can crack and modify long-chain hydrocarbons to produce specific end-products but it takes energy and costs money for the equipment to do so. Refinery operators prefer to use feedstocks that don't require so much processing, hence the different spot prices for sweet and sour crude, the availability of garbage-grade bunker oil for shipping propulsion etc.

It's *complicated*.

176:

Oh yes, I know. The point is that a refinery doesn't only refine (i.e. separate out only what is there in the crude). Cracking has been part of the mix pretty much since it started.

177:
Though vehicles are still indispensable for moving cargo around. You might shop for clothes or groceries on your bicycle or light rail, but a new refrigerator has to be delivered using a truck (lorry) or something

That needn't be the case for a huge number of things. The actual footprint of most appliances in the house isn't that big... there's a local courier company in my neck of the woods that has big tricycles with a flat bed for quite large items of cargo, even refridgerator sized things. I live in flatland, so the muscle power required to move these things isn't excessive, but even in places blessed with a bit more relief such vehicles could be electrified. Light rail systems could have dedicated cargo carriages or services. Hell, if you want something really fancy and frivolous, anything that you could fit onto a standard forklift pallet could conceivably be humped around by small robotic vehicles which have a much smaller footprint than light goods vehicles, and bits of your city could be designed around such things having dedicated routes.

Only the biggest and most inconvenient things really need special treatment... big cooking ranges, grand pianos, industrial equipment and so on, but these aren't things that most people have or need.

178:

I've seen battery powered delivery trucks, just the thing for in metro delivery untainted by Diesel exhaust.
A point worth bearing in mind is we're in transition and still will be for the lifetimes of nearly all who read this and many of the intermediate steps will be immediately beneficial, even to those who aren't "True Believers™" and therefore could use some reassurance now and again.

179:
I've seen battery powered delivery trucks, just the thing for in metro delivery untainted by Diesel exhaust.
I know they've died off a bit since their heyday, but haven't most people - in the British Isles at least?
180:

The question then becomes whether (given battery tech that meets the requirements for trucking more efficiently than today's grid) you'd want to ship batteries, or improve the grid.

Or you could move the data centre?

181:

I'm a few time zones west of there and the Kansas City metro falls somewhat short of the leading edge in some ways, so I only recently saw one. BTW, some of the school bus services are now using LNG.

182:

Milk float innovation mostly happened in the 1930s. Their use case was (is) a sweet spot for battery vehicles: dense housing leading to lots of deliveries close together; milk is pretty heavy so load capacity needed to be high; deliveries were early morning so no engine noise was a boon.
OTOH, they did this in the 30s to 50s with lead-acid batteries, so what's our excuse?

183:

Versatility was likely used to sell IC powered trucks, "Why buy a second for long range when 1 can do it all?", the same logic works in these parts to sell more vehicle than usually required to avoid a rental when the exceptional use case happens. Battery tech is whittling away at this, but not up to crossing "Brownbackistan" on a single charge...

184:

Sorry, you did misunderstand. What I was saying was that some huge percentage - it may have been as high or higher than 70% - of all US energy consumption was by manufacturing, not transportation. Hell, think about how much aluminum we use, and that's *all* smelted by electricity....

Also note that I have no notes, this is from several conversations with a friend/co-worker close to 50 years ago, but I believe I'm remembering pretty much what he was saying.

mark

185:

Then you run into the question of whether you should prefer a more efficient datacentre and energy transport between generation and the DC, or a less efficient DC and energy generation on site.

If you cut the DC's energy needs by 10% by siting it somewhere that's useless for power generation, but then pay a 5% transport cost to move energy from generation to the DC, you're still ahead - instead of a DC drawing 100 MW from on-site generation, you have a DC drawing 90 MW, but you need to generate 94.5 MW to allow for grid losses - that's a 5.5% reduction in energy need instead of a 10% reduction, but it's still a reduction.

186:

Some comments ...

Recently read a bit on PV/solar power and a major recurring theme was that contemporary NA/USian city/housing/building design does not take into account passive energy sources, e.g. sun shining into a room warms it up, therefore less other power needed for heating. There's a list of small/picayune things that people could do to reduce their energy consumption by quite a bit, so not everything depends on a better battery.

Esthetics ... most of the PV panels/modules that I've seen locally (in NA) are monstrous blue or black while at the same time most NA roofs are some other (clashing) color. Considering the impact of iPhone on smartphones (esthetics over function and lower cost), you'd think the PV manufacturers would have figured out that esthetics matter. (BTW, a PV manufacturer recently came out with a Spanish/hacienda brick red panel ... great if you live in Cali, NewMex, Tex or Arizona. Have only seen thin film PV in books/mags/online and not on any real rooftops.)

Consumer/user level product information ... another lesson courtesy of iPhone: keep product decision-making simple especially if the product is inherently complex. Whoever comes up with the first nation-wide PV installation franchise is gonna make big bucks because the install/labor component is such a large part of going solar. Consumers want/need a field-of-the-big-three and not the 1,000s of small installers that no one really knows ... and especially no one knows if these 1,000s of small installers are still going to be around in 10-15 years to honor the product warranty. At a minimum, the residential/small commercial/business solar energy market should be organized like the old-school Detroit big-3 ... showcasing the same range of products, giving folks the same glossy brochures, and giving them tours of the shop where product installations are being designed/configured/pretested so that consumers can both ooh-and-ah as well as get over their fear of this potentially dangerous creature.

Energy ... usage & powering up ... still using the iPhone as the benchmark of convenience. Minimalism in design and power consumption. Don't know the numbers, but feel pretty sure that the newest iPhone has an 'not-too-bad' battery vs. competition. iPhone users have gotten used to plugging in their phone as soon as they get home to recharge ... it's part of their everyday normal. Solar/alternate energy systems need to be equally superficially easy to use/maintain ... and yes there are indeed apps for checking one's solar/energy system.

The under-40 consumers ... this demographic grew up with mobile/smart phones, laptops/tablets, e-readers, etc. Very small, portable, upgradeable/replaceable/disposable personal-usage tech. This segment probably grew up eating about half their meals outside the home. (Don't have the numbers, but am reasonably sure that this demo is also somewhat less likely to own/drive a car vs. previous generation at the same age/life stage. Anyways, do know that this is indeed so in some major international cities.) Consequently, why would this demo all of a sudden decide they want to acquire energy-sucking appliances so that they can be tied down into some monstrous PV system that they can't change/upgrade whenever a newer/better/sexier version comes out. These people are not married to their possessions the same way that earlier generations were/are. (And, no, marriage/parenthood is no longer a sufficient reason to completely alter one's personal lifestyle philosophy.) So, if you're selling solar, you'll have to sell solar via some other route (indirectly via a must-have gizmo) or to some other demographic.


187:

There's another way of saving power requirements and reducing the ecological footprint of datacentres, and it is beginning to be used.

I'm told that a fairly large part of the cost of running a datacentre is cooling and ventilation. Someone spotted this fact, and did the sort of thing that's obvious when someone else has already done it; site a big datacentre in Iceland, where it's fairly cool all year round so the ventilation air doesn't need refrigeration. As a side benefit, nearly all electricity in Iceland is geothermal and thus has near-zero CO2 consequences. (Not quite zero, because the generating machinery has a footprint from its manufacture.)

There is going to have to be a lot more of this sort of lateral thinking.

188:

I know they've died off a bit since their heyday, but haven't most people - in the British Isles at least?

You've given me the galloping nostalgia here. I drove one as a summer job.

I've spent a lot of time in Zermatt, which banned the internal combustion engine way back when. You have a park'n'ride set-up on the railway, though probably most tourists come all the way by train anyway.

The village runs on battery vehicles, which are not at all like Nissan Leafs or Priuses. Describing them to Brits I referred to milk floats, for Murricans I said golf carts. Most of them belonged to hotels, with livery, there were also taxis, and even buses. The only IC vehicles were the garbage trucks, don't ask me why they couldn't be battery too. The police had both types, presumably IC for serious chasing or responding, and battery for routine calls. It tickled me to see this golf-cart thingy in police livery with a blue light. Ambulances, no information.

They were of course silent, everyone drove like pigs, and new arrivals were in acute danger of being run over.


BTW thank you Moderator-sama for de-bollixing my post 156.

189:

Esthetics ... most of the PV panels/modules that I've seen locally (in NA) are monstrous blue or black while at the same time most NA roofs are some other (clashing) color. Considering the impact of iPhone on smartphones (esthetics over function and lower cost), you'd think the PV manufacturers would have figured out that esthetics matter.

PV devices need to absorb light to convert it to electricity. That's why all the devices you see are black, dark blue, or dark brown (the amorphous silicon cells that you see on e.g. small garden lights and calculators). Making the cells a lighter color for aesthetic reasons directly goes against the primary goals of maximizing energy generation per dollar and per unit of rooftop area. Asking for PV modules in light colors is a bit like asking for a wind turbine that's mounted flush with the ground. Making it blend in will severely limit the energy production.

190:

The only IC vehicles were the garbage trucks, don't ask me why they couldn't be battery too.

My guess is that the hydraulic crusher/compactor on most garbage trucks needs more power than a battery can provide in a working day.

191:

Re: Urban gardening ... a possible trend/low-cost hydroponics.

Britta Riley: A garden in my apartment - TED Talk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhvfOlPYifY


There's also solar ovens ... never made one, but looks like fun.


How to make a simple solar cooker to understand the use of solar energy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5CdNH3sQT0

192:

My guess is that the hydraulic crusher/compactor on most garbage trucks needs more power than a battery can provide in a working day.

D'oh, should have thought of that. (Facepalm)

I contradicted myself on IC in Zermatt. Should have said that the only IC vehicles I saw myself were the garbage trucks; the IC police cars I was informed about but never saw, but I did see a cute police golf-cart.

193:

Semiconductors as well as current PV modules are more efficient at colder temps ... so on the one hand, these modules have to be a dark color, yet on the other hand dark surface colors increase the surface temp therefore mess up efficiency. Bit of a poser this.

Regardless, esthetics is a significant barrier ... the PV manufacturers along with housing developers/builders and re-roofers need to sit down with home decor/fashion designers and ad agencies to figure this out.

194:

I did not find ublished figures for the actual production of Hardenberg, as the ownership is a mess (10 different projects). I found data for one sup project on this site: Their part with 22,5 MWp produces about 22.548 MWh/a, equivalent to 2,5 MW continuous (=24/7) power. 11% of peak power is the usual reported number for Ge3rmany and seems plausible.

Spotting the erros in the post I reply to is left as an exercise for the reader.

195:

If someone has an idea how an battery powered excavator might look like, why don't you chip in here: http://engineering.stackexchange.com/questions/10298/how-to-power-a-large-electric-motor-from-a-battery

There are battery powered garbage trucks in operation which is actually not that far from an excavator (200 kWE Garbage truck, 250 for an excavator). Bulldozers are about 650 kW, a different game.
http://www.motivps.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Motiv_AllElectricRefuseTruck_1sheet_06112014.pdf

196:

Now back to the OP, a few thoughts on the cyberpunk side:
One way to balance grids is to have suppliers sell to users on a free market like thing, with the grid provider beeing 'only' an intermediary. I don't think that's a good idea but it gets floated.

So electricity price is higher before and after noon (when people work) etc. The way the Strombörse Leibzig does this is that you trade 1 h blocks consisting of 1MWh (1 MWh between 9:00 and 10:00) and trading for one specific block stops 45 minutes befor it start (at 8:15 in my example) At least that was the system when I read up on it a while back. I guess in The Future it will be alle more fluid and short term.

Now what an enterprising cyber punk can do is to buy power for a certain time block cheaply, hack (physically or otherwise) a segment of the net so e-g- the PV capacity there goes offline at the right moment and make a killing. Or buy options for negative power, then turn off a large factory.

Tis is the downright criminal side. Where thereS' a market there will be speculation and this time the speculation will be done algorithmically. Super fast algorithms trying to outguess each other and the weather. From the perspective of brokers volatility is a good thing because it enables these trades. So there will be a vested interest in keeping the grid prices volatile and the production will follow. Bad for consumers unless they are able to somehow mitigate.

There's also the question what kind of slice of the pie the actual grid provider gets and from whom. A flat fee per kWh on top of the market price, to be paid by the consumer? a commision on the market price? In what way will the grid be corrupt?

Now, waterpunk: wastewater treatment plants make water you can put into a river, not potable water. But any water can be made drinkable if you filter it through enough money. Apparantly some dutch guys recently recycled blackwater and brewed beer with it (I have no idea how it compares to Guinnes). With the rise of membreane technology, I'd expect to see more of this. If the fossile fuel lack hits and we need to decarbonize agriculture, we'll need to recycle as much nitrogen from wastewater as possible.
This combined with the energy demand of desalination (3-5,5 kWh/m³ paid at volatile prices) makes water expensive.
So for our cyberpunk future I'd expect a thriving formal and informal economy of household water recycling and purification gadgets, and a water grey market. Also a market in grey water. There will be some repression against this, as the actors in the informal economy will sell shoddy devices etc. and water borne diseases. Without antibiotics to treat them.

From the whole water recycling angel we get source separation: waer trewatment works best if you separate waster streams as close to the source as possible. Expect three pipes leaving a household in the crushclaves. At the same time separation and on site treatment is still an externality that buisnesses don't want to deal with, so expect also lots of illegal dumping etc. Extraction of stuff (nutrients, metals ...) fgrom wastewater may recover some cost but only if the (CAPEX-intensive!) treatment plants run for a few years, and in the coming turbulent times few will make this bet.

On punk side again, we will have those who will stick it to the man by exposing ecological evildoers or attacking them, while others will the whole eco-regulation as repression and surveillance pure and simple. Both sides have a point - remember those three sewer lines? did I mention the sensors attached to them?

On the ecopunk side we will have aditional fractures along the line of which new normal should we defend? the ecosystem of the 1950ties? of now? Try to import species etc. that will survive the altithermal?


So who wants to refilm Chinatown in this future?

197:

Battery-powered locomotives exist, and have done for ages - eg. for maintenance trains on the London Underground and similar tunnel environments. Can't do maintenance with the juice on, and can't use internal combustion since there's nowhere for the exhaust to go, so batteries are the easiest answer.

A more recent development is battery-powered shunting locomotives with diesel generators on board to recharge.

198:

If someone has an idea how an battery powered excavator might look like, why don't you chip in here: http://engineering.stackexchange.com/questions/10298/how-to-power-a-large-electric-motor-from-a-battery

I have no StackExchange account and don't plan to register one, but...

The poster there asks how you'd supply 250 kW for an excavator. The Model S P85D is supposed to be able to supply 463 horsepower (341 kilowatts) from the rear motor -- the motor is rated for a bit more but the battery can't discharge that fast. Of course the Model S like pretty much all high power battery applications operates its battery system at much higher voltage than a starter battery, 375 volts. The high duty cycle of mining machinery probably renders an onboard battery pack impractical though.

For practical mining machinery you'd tether your unit to a power cable like Hitachi does (video of machine in action here) and connect the other end to a hybrid solar/battery/generator power supply. Hybrid solar systems for reducing diesel consumption are already being built at far-offgrid mining sites like this Australian copper mine.

199:

Sigh late to the party.

Keynote: Biomass isn't necessarily sequestered. It depends on the source. Rotting hay or fermenting poop is going to give off methane. Funneling the poop of a massive feed lot or the fat of a chicken factory into a bioreactor isn't going to change much for the sequestering. (yes yes vat grown meat or a vegan future is arguably better).

Biomass works best with productive waste. My friends do Straight-Vegetable-Oil (SVO) filtered from restaurants. Bit difference that doing corn. Tyson Chicken is using their factory waste to make biodiesel. I know several different projects using waste methane (usually from landfills full of yard waste) to run plants.

Some of the bio-engineered algae proposals are interesting too, since they can act as a carbon neutral stop gap to allow existing engines to work using non-fossil sources of fuel.

For Hydropower: there's actually a good potential for more power and storage, but we have different demands. Look at the California central valley billboards by angry farmers. We do let water go to the sea that could be used for farming. We don't store as much as we could, and have stopped trying to expand most of the engineering projects (especially messing with the Klamath). Butttt some of that is due to political needs of the water. 2 big ones fight the farmers here. Fish and Transport. Fresno is actually a sizable port. Sucking up all the water makes Fresno useless, and makes it harder and more expensive to get crops to market. The second interest of fish is both for ecological reasons and for economic. People like to fish and eat fish. Drain the river, the fish die and people lose jobs.

Lastly: Scale matters.

Putting people in denser cities is generally ecologically more efficient. Especially on coastal cities. SF for example can have a great deal of its food and consumables brought in by relatively cheap and efficient ships. That particular city has also lower heating and cooling bills, making it a cheaper place to house people, if we stack em up. The biggest caveat is its not the best place for all renewable power. However, in the real world, high density housing is a NIMBY problem, unless the entire neighborhood is being bought for luxury condos. Moving everyone in Cali to SF and building huge towers to hold them is a great plan that could never happen. Turning LA into a massive solar farm and powering super SF is also never going to happen.

200:

Interesting that there are so many people in favour of residential towers.

We tried those over here in the 60s, expecting to see much the same sort of benefits. What actually happened was that almost without exception they became epic shitholes. The actual standard of accommodation was OK (for the most part, although some of them were really badly constructed); the problem was that the vertical layout made it impossible to develop any kind of community, and they became the sort of places where you'd try to remain indoors after dark. We've now given up on them as a bad job and pulled most of them down.

201:

Battery-powered locomotives exist, and have done for ages - eg. for maintenance trains on the London Underground and similar tunnel environments.

Yup -- I am aware of an underground gold mine where battery trains were in wide use in the 1905-1907 timeframe, when internal combustion engines were still pretty primitive. These days, underground mines are designed with more robust ventilation, mostly for safety but as a side effect they can and do use IC equipment in there. But originally, the battery trains were used because they were a more practical and robust technology than the still-nascent IC engines.

202:

We've now given up on them as a bad job and pulled most of them down.

Not all of them: the ones where the design and construction cockups could be remediated have been and remain as cheap housing. There's probably a mess of doctorates in pulling together all of the lessons learned, preferably before they fade from the institutional memories of the institutions that learned them.

203:

Where is "over here," white man?

OK, bad reference, the humor won't translate if you're not American.

Anyway, let me just say that I grew up in high rises, some of them owned by the New York City Housing Authority, and they were absolutely fine in terms of "any kind of community." In New York and Bronx counties, such housing tended to be rather more stable and less crime-prone than the surrounding more traditional neighborhoods.

Of course, those refer to the public projects. Middle and upper-income high-rise communities, like Co-op City or Stuyvesant Town or Park West Village or Lefrak City or whatever the hell that group of towers between the LIE and 63rd Road is called were and are very nice places.

There is a type of architectural determinism that is devoid of empirical evidence, except inasmuch that it can be very hard to insure any sort of social integration in high rise housing. The cities that have torn down their high-rise projects, like Chicago or St. Louis, quite deliberately segregated such projects by both race and income. The same bad outcomes occurred in similarly segregated low-rise communities.

In other words, claims that high-rise communities "without exception became epic shitholes" because of their architecture should be held to very high standards of evidence. No aspersions upon you, Pigeon; it's a common claim held by many people despite the lack of evidence. I blame Jane Jacobs.

204:

There's condo towers in Toronto that have been nice places to live for a generation. There are newer towers that are well on their way downhill.

The difference (at least in the ones I'm familiar with) seems to be length of stay of residence. Those where the residents see themselves living there for a long time seem to do OK; those where the residents are there short-term don't develop a sense of community and get run-down quickly.

205:

"The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed."

Portugal recently logged 4 straight days of being powered only by renewables. Being on the western fringe of Europe makes Portugal less likely to be the first to rely on solar and wind for all their needs compared to nations to the east that can import solar electricity from, well, Portugal at the evening.

Yet they did it.

"Insulae", in fhe form of triple-decker apartment buildings, are being built all over greater Boston. While it greatly increases the density of Boston, it still involves a form of the architectural vernacular that's been here for 100 years now.

And while solar is a rebel's choice of energy source, it's also inherently NOT the best source for someone wanting to disconnect from society at large. I am looking for solar for my house, but as far as I can see, I am much better off seeing the excess solar from my house going into the ice cream shop down the block, than spending money on batteries that increase the fire risk in my house. (The delta is low, but it is positive. I much rather have ice cream than a fire hazard.)

So barring the risk of smart grid sabotage, I really don't see this as forming a new and exciting arena for sci-fi swashbuckling and derring do. But if you write it, I'll read it.

206:

Oh well, thanks, that answers the question. Certainly I had accepted without querying it the notion that the vertical layout results in shitholiness by eliminating any sense of community, since it seemed to make perfect sense, especially after living in one (if only for a couple of weeks), which was one of the worst parts of town; a mate has lived in one for several years, and it engenders just the same kind of isolation, although being bang opposite the police station it isn't anything like so crimey.

I think "Jacobin" (in the modern French sense, type 2, per wiki: "...and/or supporters of extensive government intervention to transform society") is a better fit to describe laws against high buildings than "Jacobite"; I can't really see Jane giving a toss about restoring the Stuart line to the British throne :)

(Afraid the humour didn't manage to come over...)

207:

It depends very strongly on the design and running of the tower block. British ones were built as social housing, and generally didn't have enough communal areas, nor the staffing to keep the shared areas in useful state, nor "penthouse" apartments or anything to attract the affluent.

The lack of communal areas with staffing to keep them in a usable state means that you don't interact with your neighbours very often; US blocks tend to avoid this with things like a laundry in the basement (avoiding the need for individual appliances while you're at it), while French ones tend to avoid it by using the ground floor for "convenience" retail and/or child care facilities.

The lack of apartments for the affluent means that you end up with a block full of low income people, and when the recession bites, they're all in trouble together - and the rich, who aren't personally affected by the recession in the same way get to say "blasted poor people. Why can't they behave?" rather than seeing them as neighbours who need some help (e.g. by funding the repairs the building needs to its communal spaces).

208:

when the recession bites, they're all in trouble together

Niggle: That isn't a condition by any means. Perhaps the great invisible truth for the Left is that a proportion of the population is grossly incompetent at the skills needed for communal life, or perhaps any life. And these don't have to be poor, although of course most are, it's chicken-and-egg. If you have a block with people who have never met the concept of taking out the garbage, you're going to have a mess; and likewise for a mansion. Except then the billionaire is "troubled" rather than being "scum".

209:

I was more reaching towards what causes a block that's been working well to fall apart, socially speaking.

When everyone who can cope with communal life has a job (and thus can go to the pub for a beer, or buy in the occasional takeaway), and when the block is dominated by people who are coping, the block as a whole is fine, even if a small number of individual tenants are not. Further, a well-designed block can help those few tenants to either move on or get back on their feet.

Where this fails in a social housing block is when an external event hits, and causes a large number of tenants to suddenly stop coping (which is where the recession comes in - suddenly, many tenants are having trouble, because their life has been made much more uncertain thanks to job losses). The block as a whole can't help those who are having trouble because there's a shortage of people who've got sufficient in life to have a bit of time free to help their neighbours; suddenly, what was a nice place to live becomes a disaster zone.

Further, once this sort of failure mode begins, it accelerates - those who can get out do get out, leaving those who aren't coping behind, resulting in the pressure on the block getting higher. The result is a collapse, and is why a diverse set of residents is better for the block as a whole (because it's less likely that they'll all hit problems at the same time).

210:

I was more reaching towards what causes a block that's been working well to fall apart, socially speaking.

Ah. Sorry to niggle, then.

an external event hits, and causes a large number of tenants to suddenly stop coping

I remember a flat development in Romania, c. 1990. They had a thing that has been thought very progressive and eco in the West, namely district heating. Free, of course. Not so much fun when you suddenly introduce the capitalist idea of paying for hot water, and at the same time half the street is suddenly thrown out of work and can't pay. Result: no one gets hot water.

211:

Going back to the actual title of this post, having just read the current post on Brian Krebs' blog (one of the most knowledgeable and well-respected computer security jounralists, nationally, with police and FBI-acknowledged as credible death threats, swatting... and several high-profile crackers in jail due directly to his investigative reporting), on what the cyber threats are to *organizations*, we've hit cyberpunk 2.0: individual cowboys still out there, but now forming small-to-medium businesses (not counting state actors) whose business is pulling *all* value from breached companies. That is, we've gone from lone actors to medium sized organizations.

mark

212:

Re: urban community architecture

Have mentioned this Danish architect firm before. The project below is in-progress in NYC. Like all their projects, this one is intended to address several issues and acknowledges that it must serve a variety of different users.

http://www.big.dk/#projects-hud

They're also currently working on the NYPD 40th Precinct Building. Again, multiple purposes/goals, users, etc. Meanwhile in Manhattan, BIG is building The Spiral ... a high-rise that looks like blocks of acrylic spiraling upward interspersed with trees/shrubs along its vertical/diagonal axis.

One of my favorites is their 2020 Dubai Expo pavilion ... objective and constraint were: maximum shading, minimum footprint.

213:

Saw this today ... will be interesting to see how this impacts firms trading on the Toronto stock exchange (TSE). On-going trade-off analyses will now have to incorporate how much money can be made as a cog doing business as usual (i..e, base, plus performance bonus, stock options, etc.) vs. how much can be made as an informant/whistle blower.

http://business.financialpost.com/news/fp-street/ontario-securities-commission-will-now-pay-up-to-5-million-for-tips-as-first-in-canada-to-offer-whistleblower-rewards

214:

Now what an enterprising cyber punk can do is to buy power for a certain time block cheaply, hack (physically or otherwise) a segment of the net so e-g- the PV capacity there goes offline at the right moment and make a killing. Or buy options for negative power, then turn off a large factory.

Interesting you should mention that. Just the other week I was reading The Smartest Guys in the Room which in part covered Enron's adventures in the suddenly deregulated California power market. Enron loved the idea of deregulation and the money they could make playing with markets; they mostly avoided actions which were explicitly illegal but found that it was very easy to run scams which got them money at the expense of others.

It was an article of faith that deregulation and a free market would improve everything and lower prices, an assertion not supported by observation as prices soared and rolling blackouts swept the state.

215:

...cyberpunk 2.0: individual cowboys still out there, but now forming small-to-medium businesses (not counting state actors) whose business is pulling *all* value from breached companies. That is, we've gone from lone actors to medium sized organizations.

How efficient is the raiding process? We're all aware of technically legal takeovers that raid, disembowel, and discard existing companies. How much value can be extracted by actors coming in through the net without a protective layer of lawyers?

It's not new that hacker gangs are targeting corporations, though making money at it has always been difficult.

216:

Talking about green scams, this was cute:
The Fake Factory That Pumped Out Real Money

217:

Cyberpunk loves deregulation. And the deregulation leads to megacorps playing games that range from Enron to mafia to United Fruit level.

Honestly, what would happen in the cyber punk future is finding some way to push the external costs on to someone else, like always.

I've got a half baked idea for a novel/screen play for Die Hard in a Fab. Entire point of it is to screw with spot prices and instead of being after ransom or very valuable but hard to liquidate equipment, they want to make the next production cycle in a major fab worthless. Their really intending to make money on a series of options and futures contract.

218:

I've read that Ken Lay continued to hype the benefits of deregulation and marketization even while the national news was full of California's deregulation driven electrical problems. Apparently he had trouble convincing people that doing the thing again would produce effects exactly opposite what doing the thing had had the first time.

219:

Interesting and marginally relevant incident: this week I was on a jury. One of my fellow jurors is a bureaucrat in my local city, and he does a lot of commercial and residential permitting kind of stuff. He's working quite a lot on renewables and electrifying, and in his view, the whole city is trending towards solar and storage over the next 5-10 years. Obviously he's not a prophet, but it's interesting that where I live, where the mayor is a republican, has people like him who think this is the future.

220:

"Since the domestic market for buying and installing solar power systems was tiny, the Chinese focused on exports"

I'd have thought they might have wanted it for themselves, if it was really a practical supply for clean power.

221:

"A more recent development is battery-powered shunting locomotives with diesel generators on board to recharge."

I thought that was how most diesel locomotives had been made since the 1930s, so that slowing down and going in reverse would work easier.

222:

No
Most small "shunting" type diesel-locos are diesel-mechanical (like a car).
The larger ones are usually diesel-electric, where the axles are powered by electric motors, driven from the diesel's output.
The exception is diesel-hydraulic, much used in Germany & on the Western region of BR as was .....

The problem with batteries is that they are heavy.

223:

China is the world's biggest installer of both solar and wind power
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_China

224:

Evidently Mr. Duffy's quote was somewhat dated, the wiki article does show ambitious plan numbers for 2020. Too bad there's no industry standard terminology to compare apples with apples when it comes to output ratings, one based on recent worldwide average power delivery to users, instead of maximum operational capacity like it is for wind and solar. Even the nuclear ratings don't factor in reloading downtime. As it is, for realistic voter approval comparisons in the event of power district bond referendums, you have to do a lot of subjectively biased arithmetic to discount for things like night time, slack wind times, reloading cycles and so forth where vested interests and even reasonable people might disagree. Otherwise you're left with arbitrary rules of thumb like, divide solar by 20, wind by 10 and nuclear take 25% off. By that homemade metric China's plan still favors nuclear ten to one over renewables.

225:

As it is, for realistic voter approval comparisons in the event of power district bond referendums, you have to do a lot of subjectively biased arithmetic to discount for things like night time, slack wind times, reloading cycles and so forth where vested interests and even reasonable people might disagree. Otherwise you're left with arbitrary rules of thumb like, divide solar by 20, wind by 10 and nuclear take 25% off. By that homemade metric China's plan still favors nuclear ten to one over renewables.

Voter approval is not especially relevant in China. For the United States, the Energy Information Agency publishes capacity factors for non-fossil generators here. As you can see, in 2015 nuclear reactor capacity factor was 92.2%, utility scale wind 32.5%, and utility scale solar PV was 28.6%. In terms of annual energy production one gigawatt of nuclear capacity is worth a little less than 3 gigawatts of wind and a little more than 3 gigawatts of large scale PV.

226:

Semi-serious question for the engineers:

About replacing diesel-powered earth moving equipment with electric-powered equivalents. Currently I've been thinking about electric bulldozers. An alternative might be a swarm of thousands of swarmbots that each move a tiny amount of earth, but, ant-like collectively excavate or move as much earth as a bulldozer. All they'd need is a gigantic (giga-ant-ic?) recharging station and a fair number of spares.

Could something like this work? Or more generally, with what big equipment can be usefully replaced with swarms of smaller, electric-powered equipment?

227:

Incidentally, cruising back from gizmodo-linked websites:

--There's a very hot new electric motocross motorcycle that's winning races (http://lanesplitter.jalopnik.com/2016-could-be-the-year-of-the-electric-motorcycle-1749875077)

and

--The Pentagon is looking seriously at stealth electric motorcycles for special forces (http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/the-u-s-military-is-getting-serious-about-stealth-moto-1779663732)

as well as 150 KW lasers on ships (http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/navy-to-test-superlaser-of-truly-terrifying-proportions-1782567733)

Future's getting sparky.

228:

Umm ... probably not, fellows.

Let's go at this three ways.

(1) If correct, the logic of your model should apply to any and all neighborhoods, regardless of architecture. There are a lot of single-family slums in this world, after all.

(2) It is not clear to me that your model is correct. Do recessions cause concentrated poverty or increase anti-social behavior in existing zones of concentrated poverty? These are testable hypotheses. It is wrong, however, to claim that they are facts.

(3) Turning to facts, I am unaware of any empirical support to the notion that the amount of concentrated poverty is related to population density, at least in the United States. The closest would be a 1997 working paper by Glaeser et al, but the conclusion is that correlation is not causation. (If interested in this literature, start with Glaeser et al, then move to Margo and end with Boustan.)

These claims require a high standard of evidence.

229:

There are a lot of situations where you actually need a big heavy bastard of a machine: if you're digging or earthmoving you're almost always building right after and having a 10-15 tonne digger on hand gives you a lot of useful capabilities as regards lifting and shifting pallets of building supplies - seldom less than a tonne, usually more like two - heavy kit and so forth. You'd still need that capability, so why not fit it with a digging bucket?

I suppose a swarm of bots would make sense if you could be sure that the muck to be moved was friable and homogenous. This is almost never the case: tree roots, boulders, hard clay, blasphemous relics of elder times* etc.. Sand lenses nobody suspected were there are a particular hilarity, especially if they give way right when the local building inspector is on site. Big digger can be used as an improvised piledriver to put sheet piles in in a tearing hurry.

Your swarmbots'd also have to be sufficiently ruggedised that they were as OK with digging in freezing clay slurry** as in normal topsoil. Or with an excavation that flooded because nobody knew there was a whole lot of topsoil drainage that the gardener installed fifty years ago and never recorded anywhere so now the entire rainfall of the entire site is in the fucking trench***.

Basically what I'm saying here is that there are enough times when you actually need the mass and leverage that you may as well stick with the big machine rather than a swarm that couldn't be made small, cheap and disposable and still do a useful day's work.

There's a reason that most of the gear for excavation and building is big, heavy and rugged.


* exaggerated only slightly for comic effect.

** A condition which will turn up on site, even if you're digging in a desert in the middle of summer.

** Based on a true story. Said gardener told me about the work he'd put in when I ran into him in the pub next door to the site right at the end of two weeks of trying to excavate footings that flooded overnight every night. I did

230:

Well, that is pretty much how we built the railways: swarms of navvies with picks and shovels to dig things, and horses for locomotion. The "steam navvy" didn't make its appearance until nearly everything had been built already. It was a jolly effective system that generally produced faster results than we see today.

At the same time it depended on an appalling degree of callousness and indifference that allowed the only inputs to the system to be beef and beer, and an effectively inexhaustible supply of new navvies, at zero cost - they just turned up - to replace the ones that got broken. This doesn't really work with machinery; you could supply nothing but energy and just replace machines that break, but they aren't zero cost, far from it.

The difference between a big digger and a small one is almost entirely just plain size; the complexity is the same, only the size of the parts differs. So you'd end up doing a whole lot more maintenance.

There is a certain minimum size for a digger - it has to be large compared with the irregularities in the surface in order to avoid getting stuck. So you can't make "insects", you have to have at least "rabbits". Also, if there is any human involvement - construction workers will break anything, and large size is the only defence.

And ADennis's comments are spot on.

231:

...a swarm of thousands of swarmbots that each move a tiny amount of earth, but, ant-like collectively excavate or move as much earth as a bulldozer...

What ADennis said, basically.

I've thought about this too and there's a lot to be said for having One Big Machine, not the least of which being that even in the future it only needs one brain, sensor array, etc. The exception will be when the person doing the earth moving for some reason doesn't want a huge noisy machine on site. Maybe the site is hard to reach, the neighbors demand quiet, or other people will object to you digging there... While gardeners may be able to rent such things in a few decades, it wouldn't surprise me if there's a DARPA project on 'digging really quietly while not being spotted' that nobody hears about.

232:

Heh. Almost the same reaction I get when people dismiss nuclear because of lack of proven reserves. That, and when they dismiss nuclear over the politics while simultaneously arguing either for solutions that markedly increase the cost of energy or involve significantly cutting per capita energy consumption.

The plan the author cites looks kind of reasonable in terms of average energy generation. Well, excepting the 44% decrease in energy consumption. That said, it doesn't seem to adjust for solar variability. That's a problem, because running out of power kills people and estimated storage costs are modest multiples (~3x) of total expenditures for solar plants. The plan itself claims comparable energy costs, so, probably, it increases energy costs by > 3x-6x. (3x for backup, 2x because energy consumption won't go down that much.) Doable.

After hearing this proposal, if I was trying to avoid some sort of global warming catastrophe or cared about the environment and had large but finite political capital, I'd spend part of it on funding research into low pressure nuclear reactors, part of it on pushing through a completely different set of regulations for low pressure nuclear reactors, and the remainder on starting a carbon tax and tariff regime that reflected public costs of carbon and other particulate emission. Lastly, I'd just wait for people to actually confront the real costs of carbon and watch them switch to whatever worked. Probably, homeowners would tend to switch to solar and electric cars and eventually be kind of disappointed when their 'grid connection fee' barely went down. Major utilities would probably switch mostly to low pressure nuclear.

If I heard something about switching to a low energy sustainable society because solar wouldn't work otherwise and simultaneously heard someone complaining that nuclear was politically unfeasible, I'd tend to look at them funny and walk away.

--Erwin

233:

Heh. Almost the same reaction I get when people dismiss nuclear because of lack of proven reserves. That, and when they dismiss nuclear over the politics while simultaneously arguing either for solutions that markedly increase the cost of energy or involve significantly cutting per capita energy consumption.

FWIW I think that nuclear power is fine on a safety basis and on a fuel-abundance basis. It has long construction lead times even in China (6 years to finish one reactor on average) and high construction costs in most of the world. Around the turn of the millennium I thought that nuclear power was the one source cheap enough and abundant enough to make a significant dent in fossil combustion for electricity generation. You could just look at the capital costs and see that solar was for millionaires; nuclear was the everyman's low-emissions power. But around 10 years ago onshore wind power had reduced costs and increased scale enough to become interesting as a contender, and the same happened with solar PV about 4-5 years ago. In the meanwhile nuclear power construction costs actually went up in the developed world, even in places that welcomed new reactors, even though new standardized designs were suppose to make reactors cheaper and faster to build.

I agree that it's good to keep the nuclear option alive. I don't know if it will be possible to scale renewables and storage well enough to decarbonize the USA's electricity supply fully or if we'll reach e.g. 50% and then find that the marginal costs to go further are unbearable. Perhaps nuclear power will be needed to finish the job. I wouldn't count it obsolete just yet.

I wouldn't bet on nuclear power getting dramatically bigger or more affordable in the next decade either. There are a dozen designs for reactors that look great on paper and their boosters will claim each one is going to make electricity amazingly cheap and clean. They'll be interesting when/if the paper designs actually prove their design numbers in commercial operation. If a new solar cell design that escapes the lab to end up in solar farms and on rooftops is roughly as common as a 4 leaf clover, finding a new reactor design that does the same is only slightly more common than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

234:

In the meanwhile nuclear power construction costs actually went up in the developed world, even in places that welcomed new reactors, even though new standardized designs were suppose to make reactors cheaper and faster to build.

Almost every reactor built since the 1990s has been at least 1GW output* compared to the reactors built in the 1970s which were typically 600MW or thereabouts. They still took about the same amount of time to construct and the newest GenIIa designs are comfortably over 1200MW while requiring less material than the original GenIIs of the 1970s because we know a lot more about building reactors than we did back then. What's been driving reactor costs up and up is the layering of yet more safety features over and above the original incredibly high safety requirements of the GenII and GenIIa designs.

Another detail is that the newest reactors being built today have an expected minimum lifespan of 60 years whereas that's the likely maximum for the original 1970s-vintage GenIIs, absent a complete rebuild which probably won't happen. The Russians are producing reactor vessels for their VVER 1200s with an expected lifespan of a century and that's one of the two components that fixes the manximum lifespan of a reactor (the other being the containment).

*There have been some smaller power reactors built recently but even they are in the 600MW range, something only a top-of-the-range 1970s PWR like Vermont Yankee could produce. Anything smaller is experimental or special-purpose, like naval propulsion reactors.

235:

Also, if there is any human involvement - construction workers will break anything, and large size is the only defence.

This is actually somewhat unfair. Construction workers are generally able to use things within their duty cycles/limits, not least because most of them own their own tools that they'd have to pay for and don't earn if the rented gear goes to bollocks so they take care of that, too.

It's construction work that is hard on the equipment and even the best 'there, I fixed it' talent on site isn't going to get you past the problems of weak kit. Cheap tools are a well-known false economy - DIY-level kit is usually scorned as 'crap for punters'.

The downside is that there's usually That One Guy who will unerringly direct the power and resilience of the equipment at the weakest, most breakable high-value object in the neighbourhood. Telecoms cable, street lights, parked vehicles, prize specimen trees, the foundations of neighbouring buildings ... just to name the things I've personally seen damaged by just one individual. Who I'm related to.

236:
About replacing diesel-powered earth moving equipment with electric-powered equivalents. Currently I've been thinking about electric bulldozers.
Already on the market, if you'll accept "electricity provided to the drivetrain via a tank of diesel and a generator." Diesel-electric isn't ideal, but once you've sold people on the functionality going full electric is "just" an electricity storage or delivery problem (see: the hybrid->plug-in hybrid->electric car progression).
237:

Well, that is pretty much how we built the railways: swarms of navvies with picks and shovels to dig things, and horses for locomotion. The "steam navvy" didn't make its appearance until nearly everything had been built already. It was a jolly effective system that generally produced faster results than we see today.

Pretty much this. Navvies were expensive, though - the big motivator behind mechanisation is that machines are just cheaper - simply because of the amount you have to eat to graft from can to can't. It can't be cheap food, either, it has to be calorie-dense protein rich stuff or you spend all day eating. The period of my life when I was working near - not at! I'd be dead now - that level I was getting 6,000 calories or more in fried meat down my neck every day, and while I wasn't losing weight, I lost a couple of inches of waistline and had to shop for new shirts because of all the muscle I was putting on.

Navvies were very nearly as fast as mechanised construction: the problem is work-space limits. A skilled man digging can muck up faster than the spoil can be carted away: it's motorised muck-away that makes the difference. Delays nowadays tend to be more in the logistics of getting the machines and materials where they need to be: once they're there, the work gets done rapidly.

You also had, indeed, to be callous: "a man a mile" is just about within living memory - certainly within my grandfather's time. That was just fatalities, of course. Career-ending injury was on top of that toll. (It's still dangerous: I only did construction work for a few years and nearly every injury I'm carrying comes from that period.)

This is all ignoring the cost of policing big strong lads who needed to blow off steam after a week of intense physical effort, of course. That wasn't negligible.

238:

Oh, and the other thing: bigger machines are actually easier to operate. Counter-intuitive, I know, but there's a few years of personal experience backing this up on everything from 25-tonne excavators down to a little half-tonner I rented for a weekend of double-digging. The little machine was a LOT trickier to control: it was much livelier under my hands, making accuracy of operation a real challenge and it could't throw mass and power at problems it encountered.

239:

Dangerous, hehe, yes, I spent a few years as the guy who fixes the rented machines after they've been broken (hence my view of construction workers :)) and most of my scars and mechanically dodgy body parts date from that period too. The strange thing, given the way we used to carry on, is that only one of them is a fucking-about injury rather than a genuine work injury - the navvies who dared each other to jump over the mouth of a shaft and occasionally didn't make it? That would definitely have been us. Only we'd also have been shooting at the jumper by way of extra encouragement.

240:

An alternative might be a swarm of thousands of swarmbots that each move a tiny amount of earth, but, ant-like collectively excavate or move as much earth as a bulldozer.

Worked for the Imperial Chinese, didn't it? And the Pharoahs, et cetera et cetera. We seem to be getting the politico-economic structures into place to do this again, even if The Sixty Two still have their childhood attachment to high-technological solutions.

Have Basket, Must Travel.

241:

That would definitely have been us.

Fair brings back some memories, yes... it is from the same period of my life that I know that chainsaw fencing just doesn't work, nailgun nails are ballistically unstable after about two metres of flight, and wheelbarrows don't make very stable boats.

242:

I love the idea of solar. Long-term, satellite-based solar looks like a great solution. Solar cells have progressed amazingly. Solar output fluctuations are probably the remaining issue. Grid-scale storage is an unsolved problem - and not an easy one. For a lot of places, a partial solution in terms of abundant solar cells + fast-starting fossil fuels would make sense. That said, that's probably a 70% reduction in carbon emissions. Given that the number of people with 'developed-world' energy footprints is going to expand amazingly, that won't even keep current emissions stable. (15% in first world...assuming that increases to 60% (China + India + South America - that'd be a 20% increase)... Problem is, I haven't seen a solution to the storage problem whose costs don't make nuclear look like an appreciably better option. From an engineering perspective, the storage problem looks much harder than the low pressure nuclear reactor problem. Still, I could be wrong. OTOH, without solving the storage problem, solar has a limited ROI on carbon emissions. (Carbon backup, still using a real fraction, maybe 30%, nuclear backup, well, might as well just use the nuclear, thermal storage, scale costs by a reasonable multiple, electric storage, scale costs by a larger multiple)* [I'm kind of curious as to whether or not clearing carbon-sequestering areas for solar is actually a net benefit, probably is, but trees are pretty well engineered for efficiency.)

Cheap solar does seem like a good temporary solution for undeveloped regions - where somewhat intermittent power may be preferable to extremely intermittent or no power.

--Erwin
*The argument can be made that all of these solutions work and that it is just a matter of cost. In the developed world, it is plausible that even appreciably more expensive renewables will be selected. In more resource-constrained environments, where energy costs are measurable fractions of family income, that won't fly. Given that most people live in resource-constrained environments and will not agree to limit their energy usage to anything below a first-world footprint, it is important to look for solutions with reasonable timelines that allow for those constraints. Currently, the argument for nuclear is still more plausible than for solar.

243:

Currently, the argument for nuclear is still more plausible than for solar.
Agreed ....
Unless, of course, you are a member of any so-called "green" political party where nuclear power is TOTALLY EVIL & it & all proponents of same must be sent to the gulag for re-education/extermination .....

244:

There is no real problem with storage physically speaking, there are all sorts of ways to store and regenerate electricity or use the stored energy for other purposes (making ammonia for fertiliser, DME for jet fuel etc.) It just costs money to implement storage in the large scale and it wastes some of the stored electricity in the round-trip from input to output.

These costs are not reckoned as part of the price for renewables because they are not yet a majority factor in any nation's grid so storage is not absolutely necessary, when the wind doesn't blow at night the combined-cycle gas turbines take over and the coal plants never stop churning and burning anyway. Conversely the fact nuclear doesn't have to have associated storage for unpredictable downtimes is not considered a financial advantage over renewables because, nuclear.

245:

Well, since I'm somewhat anti-nuclear, I've got to take issue with that.

My problem with nuclear isn't the inherent technology. After all, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers don't routinely blow up and sink to the bottom as toxic wrecks.

No, the problem is that The Simpsons is a wee bit more accurate than I'd like. It's that the people running the power plants seem to be venal, corrupt, and shortsighted, at least in my neck of the woods (I presume that the group that Terry Pratchett worked for is better?), and most people are too freaked out about nuclear waste to either deal with the problem in as reasonable a way as possible (e.g. by finding a deep, dry location and burying it so that it will stay there for 10,000-100,000 years, which is, of course, dead easy to do), OR to understand what the real risks are, as opposed to the stuff they're freaking out about. Yes, anti-nuclear NIMBYs are seriously annoying, but that doesn't mean that the industry is in the right.

Yes, I agree that coal causes more deaths. The point is that solar causes fewer deaths than either. Even wind, with those spectacular blade jumps when the turbine transmission seizes and catches fire and the blades go flying hundreds of meters, is more safe.

The other point is that it seems that we despise boredom. At least on this blog, it seems that people want power to be big and dangerous. People cutting back on their energy usage a bit, putting up solar panels all over the place, and suing each other over casting shade--that's boring as shit. I'll be honest: I wrote about this as a cyberpunk future, not just because it will be one, if everything is wired together and hackable, but also because it seems more acceptable to talk about a dangerous cyberpunk future--did I mention it's solar powered?--than to talk earnestly about a sustainable future powered by wind and sun. The latter seems too be to pollyannish for anyone to actually work towards at the moment. However people are much more interested in talking about it if it's got mirrorshades, some interesting scars, and an attitude. I'm not sure what that says about us, but there you have it.

246:

Much of that is because the governments and contractors are allowed to keep things secret and hush things up - as with (in the UK) CJD, foot and mouth, and other such issues. It's much easier, cheaper and less politically problematic to do that, rather than address the issues.

Solar power per se is a damn-fool idea in the UK, and I have seen reports that it is even less efficient than current methods of burning coal with total carbon capture.

247:

No, the problem is that The Simpsons is a wee bit more accurate than I'd like.

IANAE, but I used to know a fair bit about Chernobyl, and once had dinner with (if I remember the name right after all those years) Vladimir Chernoshenko, presented to me as at one point the chief of the Liquidator team. He was on the roof of the reactor building and wasn't expecting to be alive.

We all know how the night staff decided to run a test on the reactor, disabled the safeties etc. and blew it up. The Wiki page explains the whys and wherefores in detail, but I can't say I understand the reactor control issues. Does everyone?

My big question is how we can be sure that some management-critter won't do this again, in the hope of a bonus, promotion and so on. Do explain to me why our young-enough-to-know-everything business-school types are intrinsically safer hands than the old CPSU hacks. Nobody ran the proposed test past the RMBK designer or the regulator: would we?

Then would we do as good a job of coping as the emergency services and Red Army, better, or worse? They had enormous manpower and the smack of firm government. Oh, and the Soviets also had a lot of relatively empty space. So by all means let's plot the Chernobyl evacuation zones onto a densely populated region of Western Europe. I think you'll find that the no-go area is as big as some of our countries.

You know what St. Terry said about million-to-one-chances. Maybe he got the idea from his power-station job. Chernobyl couldn't happen until it did, Fukushima couldn't happen until it did. What else can't happen?

248:

The back-up & "dead period" problem in the UK can be dealt with by really big tidal power, using a miox of big estuarine barrages & almost-as-big capture pools for powering the grid.
That plus nuclear would certainly cover all our baseline needs.
Anyone actually doing anything about it?
Nah, of course not, it's too boring & "nuclear" that's why ....

249:

As I've mentioned in this thread and previously, residents of the UK have a much worse case for solar than most of the world. It's a country with an exceptionally high population density, exceptionally low sunshine, and exceptionally large seasonal fluctuations in insolation. The world average case resembles California more than the UK. Most of the world's population lives significantly closer to the equator.

Generating from nuclear instead of renewables doesn't get rid of the problem of needing smart grids, conservation, additional regional transmission integration and/or storage. In the UK, over the course of the past week, it looks like electrical demand has gone as low as 20 gigawatts at night up to ~34 for daytime peaks. The difference between the lows of mild summer mid-nights and the peaks of early evening demand during the coldest part of winter is greater. The proposed strike price for electricity from Hinkley Point C, high as it is, assumes that the vast majority of electricity generated finds a willing buyer. Add another third to the strike price if reactors often have to ramp down or dump power at night. Multiply by two or more if reactor capacity is built to handle the highest-consumption day of the year without storage or other options for flexibility. If intermittent supply is the original economic curse of wind and solar generation, intermittent demand is the original economic curse of nuclear generation.

Now if the proposed solution is "we're going to bring nuclear construction costs way down, so a double overbuild of capacity is tolerable" -- I'll believe it when I see it. Back when the EPR was a paper reactor it was supposed to take only 2 Euros per watt-peak to construct and it was supposed to take only 4 years to build. As of this writing Olkiluoto Unit 3 has been under construction for 11 years, commercial operation isn't expected before 2018, and costs have nearly tripled. This isn't just a weird fluke affecting European reactor designs or projects. The Chinese deal with Argentina to build the Antucha 3 reactor estimates 8 years of construction and a $6 billion budget for an 800 megawatt reactor. China is supposed to be the fast, low-cost builder!

250:

I can understand your worries about the Simpsons. I'd argue that venality, et cetera shouldn't be in your top 20 list of worries. The major problem is that agency and collaboration in large organizations are unsolved problems. So, you get large groups of hardworking, well-meaning people agreeing on pure idiocy out of a desire to compromise. (Take the road to the left or the road to the right? Em, let's cut straight up the middle. But...we'll have to tunnel under the dam...) And jousting in non-productive fashions over earnest differences in priority. The idiocy of large organizations is fascinating and scary.

The real problem is that energy isn't an incidental expense for most of the world. That most of the world won't choose an appreciably more expensive solution. So, if your goal is eliminating carbon emissions, or even getting close enough to get a net decline after the developing world is factored in, any solution needs to be comparable in price to the cheapest available while bearing in mind that, for anything less than a 10-20 year outlier, the power needs to keep flowing in amounts sufficient to run an inefficient first world energy footprint.

And, to be productive, in my evaluation, a carbon reduction plan needs to, at the least, openly acknowledge those issues and cost them out. Plans that include mysterious decreases in energy consumption are suspect. I'd guess, probably more suspect than plans assuming the political will to drive regulatory costs for nuclear down when, eg, a carbon tax triples energy costs from coal. Bear in mind that the most important country in this calculation is not currently democratic.

And yes, coal kills more people than nuclear. However, energy costs tend to be regressive. So, increasing the cost of energy is likely to disproportionately kill poor people. Switching exclusively to solar would probably end up costing trillions once you factor in storage. This is a small cost compared to, eg, wrecking the climate. It does, however, assuming one death for every 10 MUSD (it was 5 MUSD last time I checked...but that was ages ago), involve the expected deaths of a few hundred thousand people. (In the US, most other countries probably lose more people per expenditure wasted.)

It isn't, I suspect, a fascination with large dangerous power, just a recognition that, unless some fairly fundamental problems are solved, as they are today, renewables aren't able to offer significant carbon emission reduction in a form that will be politically acceptable to the global population.

No, if someone said, using realistic figures, that they had a solution to the storage issue (several weeks total continental output), then solar looks pretty good in reasonably sunny areas. It is perfectly believable that solar cells will, rather soon, be extremely cheap. And, heck, it is reasonable to believe that we could get the transmission problem appreciably more solved if necessary, so that might end up being the majority of the population.

That said, until something changes, nuclear is still the way to go to reduce carbon emissions. And, I'm still pretty frustrated with people repeating fairly simply disprovable nonsense about proven reserves for nuclear.

Now, there's lifestyle and robustness advantages to solar...if the grid-scale storage issue is solved, for, probably most nations, it may end up being preferable to nuclear simply because a universally productive grid with distributed storage will be very disaster-resilient. Still, pushing solar as a current or even likely solution to global warming doesn't seem productive. As a person in a coastal location who'd rather not need to learn about dikes, I'd rather listen to people who:
(a) Don't complain about solar panel toxicity
(b) Don't complain about proven reserves for nuclear
(c) Don't handwave 50% energy use decreases [I have this one friend, really into energy efficient housing...kind of won't accept that there is no chance of convincing a significant fraction of the global population to rebuild within the next 30 years.]
(d) Don't overdo estimates of solar panel inefficiency [Yes, far north and cloudy does have a problem, but a lot of the world isn't far north] There is probably a reasonable point to be made about solar plant size, but it doesn't look like a dominant issue in sunny locations.
(e) Don't ignore the storage issue for solar... It is a big deal.
(f) Do look at real costs.

That said, grid scale storage for solar may be more plausible than cost effective carbon capture of coal. Not sure.

--Erwin

251:

I'll believe it when I see it.

Well, as I understand it, nuclear power only ever made sense as a way of reconciling the public to, and possibly making an extra buck from, the huge and pretty dirty industry of producing nuclear weapons. I'm old enough to remember "too cheap to meter", of which the sort of pork pies about cost and time you cite are the direct continuation. The lying comes from the historical origin of nuclear power as the fig-leaf of planned megadeath. All the externalities fell under national security. So would you buy a used energy policy from the likes of Curtis LeMay?

OK, so "herbivorous" countries like Finland also have power stations. But would they if the industry had had to be invented from scratch, with all its mining and processing and tailings, by engineers and businessmen with no connections to the military-industrial complex?

252:

Something bad is happening with the EPR builds, plural. I don't know what it is since AREVA aren't talking about it but even the Chinese who have multiple teams of experienced nuclear construction workers aren't completing their own two EPR builds to any sort of a published schedule.

Saying that the Chinese are rolling out established GenIIa reactors like the ACPR1000 from breaking ground to grid connection in about six years total. It's part of that "multiple teams of experienced nuclear construction workers" thing along with established pipelines for components with predictable future orders. The French did the same back in the 1970s stomping out M910 reactors by the handful and decarbonising their grid two generations before the Germans even thought to start. They're reaping the benefits today with large orders for mid-life upgrade components like fifty or so identical steam generators, three or four per reactor.

The Antucha reactor in Argentina is a Chinese-licenced Candu-6 design, not a regular PWR hence its extended build period but it can be dual-used quite easily as all heavy-water reactors can to produce weapons-grade plutonium in a dash for nukes operation after pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is probably why the Argentinians went for it rather than a jelly-bean PWR. In contrast the South Koreans (KEPCO) are building four of their Westinghouse-derived APR-1400 PWRs (each with nearly twice the output of the Antucha reactor) in the UAE and they're on schedule for a five-year construction period between breaking ground and grid connection.

253:

I'm old enough to remember "too cheap to meter", of which the sort of pork pies about cost and time you cite are the direct continuation.

Actually the "too cheap to meter" quote was someone (a PR flack I believe) talking about the idea of fusion power which was going to be even cheaper than fission since seawater was so abundant[1]. This misattributed quote is the sort of porky-pie lie that's been promulgated by anti-nuclear bullshitters over the past sixty years or so to the point that even you mistakenly think it was about fission. As for the rest of your comments, I should point out that nuclear weapons have not caused megadeaths since their invention whereas since 1945 regular chemical-explosive weapons have killed tens of millions in wars and insurrections but no-one cares very much because they're not nuclear. There's also no reason for nuclear power to be any kind of "fig-leaf" any more than fertiliser plants are used to justify the manufacturing of chemical-explosive weapons. Instead nuclear power has been generating about 20% and more of the world's electricity requirement for the past fifty years or so, carbon-free and not subject to the vagaries of weather, tide or the diurnal cycle.

[1]Uranium wasn't mined regularly before the 1940s since there was little demand for it and it wasn't understood just how common it is around the world. It was thought back then that uranium was rare and would be expensive hence the initial interest in fusion before it was discovered just how difficult sustained fusion was to create in containment.

254:

This PR flack (a species whom I guess we would agree in sending somewhere the fires are hot and the coffee is cold), he was talking about fusion as early as the Fifties? Well I never. If that's so I shall repent of making that particular quote and never do it again.

I take your point about non-nuclear deaths. They are no fun for the person concerned. In another context I tend to point out that getting a sharp pointy thing through your guts is no more pleasant than getting killed in a more hi-tech fashion. Dead is dead.

But in return do you take my point that the whole shebang wouldn't exist without planning and arming for the megadeaths that in the end never actually happened? Did chemical fertiliser plants come before explosives or after? (I honestly don't know.) If before, then with respect I suggest the parallel fails. If after – hmm, not sure what to say.

255:

Nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons material production reactors are conflated in many people's minds but they are very different animals, and many of the second type existed long before the first power reactor was ever built.

There was a bullshit article in a magazine (Mother Jones?) a while back about how the construction of uranium power reactors was encouraged to provide material for nuclear weapons and this claim has become absolute truth in a lot of peoples minds. In reality power reactor spent fuel is hopelessly contaminated and the plutonium it contains is useless for weapons. All weapons-grade Pu comes from purpose-built breeders like the ill-fated one at Sellafield which caught fire back in the Fifties as well as ones at Hanford in the US and elsewhere.

By the time the Sixties came along and the first tranche of uranium-fuelled power reactors were being built the Big Five nuclear powers had already made as much weapons-grade Pu as they'd ever need and with the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) and the reduction in stockpiles they all now have a large surplus of such material from decommissioned warheads -- the UK has about 70 tonnes, the US has over a hundred tonnes and the Russians a similar amount. They don't need or want any more, and haven't for fifty years and more. They'd really like to get rid of it in fact as it's expensive to look after given the security aspects of simply having it around.

The first chemical explosive used as a weapon of war was gunpowder, using potassium nitrate which was originally derived from manure piles i.e. fertiliser so it's a bit like the chicken and egg as to which came first. Sources of nitrates such as guano were important strategic resources in the 18th and 19th century for fertiliser but also for making explosives (better than simple gunpowder but potassium nitrate was the energetic molecule that was often the starting material).

256:

There was a bullshit article in a magazine (Mother Jones?) a while back about how the construction of uranium power reactors was encouraged to provide material for nuclear weapons and this claim has become absolute truth in a lot of peoples minds. In reality power reactor spent fuel is hopelessly contaminated and the plutonium it contains is useless for weapons. All weapons-grade Pu comes from purpose-built breeders like the ill-fated one at Sellafield which caught fire back in the Fifties as well as ones at Hanford in the US and elsewhere.

Ha, I didn't know where that particular nonsense originated from but most recently I've heard it spouted by thorium cultists. The Hanford N-Reactor is the only American reactor that ever co-produced electricity and weapons plutonium.

257:

I think I can help sort out how nitrogen played a role in the development of machine guns (or war with huge amounts of ammo) and high explosives.

Machine guns like the gatling gun arguably came first (1862)

High explosives like TNT came second (1863) although TNT wasn't understood as an explosive until 1891.

During the late 19th century, I believe that the global supply of nitrates was fairly sharply limited, and that the source for nitrates for military explosives were places like the Ganges Delta (for the British Empire) and Chilean saltpeter mining (also under control of the British). This lasted until WWI, when the Haber Bosch process allowed the Germans to keep fighting with artificially produced nitrogen, even though the Allies had a blockade on Chile.

So far as I know, the Haber Bosch process (1913) was developed in response to concerns about worldwide limits on fixed nitrogen would lead to widespread famine by the 1920s, since by the 1900s, all natural sources were thought to be in use or close to in use, and existing methods of fixing nitrogen (e.g. Frank-Caro process, 1903) were too inefficient.

So the military tech came first, the perceived need for huge amounts of fertilizer came second, the combination of the fertilizer and the military tech came third, and now the whole system is thoroughly entwined with the continued existence of the majority of our species.

At least some authors seem to believe that a large plurality or a majority of the members of our species get their nitrogen from artificial fixation. If this is the case (it probably is, but I'm not entirely sure), then breakdowns in nitrogen economy are a major problem, although I don't believe it will cause our species to go extinct if it goes away entirely (this is the difference between 90% mortality and 100% mortality, for those who want to think abstractly about it).

258:

The Hanford N-Reactor is the only American reactor that ever co-produced electricity and weapons plutonium.

The British Magnox reactor design could be short-cycled to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is thought by some historians that at least one weapon made from Magnox-derived Pu was tested in the early 1960s but by that time Sellafield had already produced sufficient Pu-239 for Britain's entire weapons programme. The infamous Soviet RMBK-4 had the same capability and again by the time they were being built the Soviets already had more Pu-239 than they could use making its dual-use capability moot.

As for thorium, don't get me started...

259:

The nitrogen economy is fortunately not tied to fossil fuels. The first commercial scale producer of ammonia ran the entire process of a large dam in Norway. Using hydrogen from natural gas is cheaper than electrolysis.. but not very much cheaper. We could phase out all fossil inputs to this production chain by fiat and it wouldn't register on agricultural prices, let alone output at all.

260:

An alternative might be a swarm of thousands of swarmbots that each move a tiny amount of earth, but, ant-like collectively excavate or move as much earth as a bulldozer. All they'd need is a gigantic (giga-ant-ic?) recharging station and a fair number of spares.

Depends on the type of dirt and the amount of rock and/or ledge in place. My yard and most of this area is red clay based. While ants do exist they tend to stay in the loose topsoil. I was moving dirt around my yard and a wheeled 8000 pound WHEELED Bobcat excavator was having a LOT of issues getting a bite past the first few inches. I really needed something tracked so the weight was applied to a larger area. And still I was looking at only about an inch or two at a pass. Battery weight would be nice but I doubt I'd get 10 hours a day out of a battery pack and changing one of these "in the field" would be interesting to say the least.

261:

Or with an excavation that flooded because nobody knew there was a whole lot of topsoil drainage that the gardener installed fifty years ago and never recorded anywhere so now the entire rainfall of the entire site is in the fucking trench

I rented a mini excavator for a week to put in a drain around my foundation a few summers back. About 6000 pounds in weight. Got over 3 inches of rain that week in incredible bursts. I was using the bucket to bail out my trench so I could keep working before it turned to pure goo. After quickly building a diversion wall to try and keep most of the water out of it. And extended the rental another week and we got more rain. In those two weeks we got more rain than in most two month periods.

And it wasn't a steady rain. No, this was in several events where we got over an inch in an hour multiple times. And of course it quit once I returned the excavator.

Oh, and the weather forecast? Mostly no rain before I started.

262:

Oh, yeah. As to swarms of micro earth movers.

They would have all been washing down the street in the gutters then into the storm water drainage system.

263:

Excavations
Look up Forest Hill railway sinkhole ...
Ooops

264:

Here's my prediction for the city of the future, circa 2050...
Every building wrapped in black PV cells. Every cityscape constructed of black monoliths.
Look out over a major city, and imagine everything you see painted black

265:

Not really, I'm sorry to say.

1)there's little point in putting solar panels on the poleward-facing sides of buildings. I don't imagine there will be any solar panels on the north side of London or New York's buildings, for example.

2)there's little point in putting solar panels so far from perpendicular to the sun that they don't pull in much energy.

3) there's little point in putting solar panels in where they're shaded by other buildings, and there will be an uproar around new buildings that shade the solar panels of existing buildings. San Francisco has had a "no new shade" ordinance for decades (mostly because they get so little sun in the summer), and it has resulted in some weird building shapes.

4) if a city has the water, it's valuable to put a lot of street trees in to control air pollution, provide shade, do a bit of carbon sequestration, and humidify the air at street level. If the city doesn't have sufficient water (e.g. it's in a desert), the buildings should be close enough together (as in a Muslim medina) that the buildings are at least shading the streets. Crooked little streets also help this, in that there's no one angle (as in gridded cities) where the sun hits the entire length of the street (as in New York on certain days). Note that medinas were unplanned, but grew in a highly functional way nonetheless.

The upshot is that cities of the future will look more like reefs, and the buildings will look like stealth planes, with their shapes and colors varying dramatically depending on which angle you look at them from. From the equatorial direction (south), the city will be dark with solar panels, but it won't be a row of monoliths, due to shade laws forcing new buildings into ever more complex shapes. As you circle the city, moving from south to north, it will become more and more colorful, as you get away from solar panel black to everything else. Building shapes will change as you get away from the angles holding the solar panels. In cities with airports, there will also be approach paths that the panels are angled away from, so that the pilots can see to land (solar panels tend to be highly reflective), creating systematic distortions in the cityscape as seen from above. Probably the wealthier areas will be marked by more greenery (as now), and probably manufacturing and large-scale commercial areas will be marked by more uniform geometry than will office buildings and residential districts.

266:

Disagree.
When building materials with built in PV costs no more than regular building materials (especially roofing and siding), what do you do?

267:

Maintenance on city-shaped PV seems difficult. I'd guess towards fairly standard highrises with, eventually, the cities being surrounded by vast solar cell farms. (Well, personally, I'm hoping for beamed power from giant satellites...)

268:

You only need roof tiles where they do something, and it's the same with solar. If they're not getting enough energy to do anything, it's better to use something else.

The other non-trivial problem we're already seeing is that firefighters get twitchy around solar panels, because they don't want to get electrocuted hacking through them to get to the fire, and in at least one case, they let a building burn rather than try to go through its solar panels to get at the attic fire under them. No doubt in time they will develop procedures for dealing with this, but I suspect that, even then, there will be good reasons to have roof and wall access that isn't electrified.

269:

Here's the worksheet for San Francisco's existing Shadow Analysis. (pdf file). It turns out that I slightly misspoke, in that the ordinance only asks proposed new buildings over 40 feet tall to not shade existing recreation space. However, they're also considering how this plays out with solar power, as there are already rules stopping people from planting trees in front of their neighbors' solar panels and similar (cf this PDF white paper).

Since the government currently invests in peoples' solar, by paying incentives for people to go solar, they also have the potential to lose out on that investment if people's panels are shaded by new development. Indeed, there are already rules in place in cities like Boulder, Colorado dealing with this problem (their rule is that the shade cast by a building cannot be more than that cast by a new fence adjacent to the property).

We'll see how it plays out, but new highrises in a solar city are going to have problems. One is that their small roofs and vertical walls aren't optimal for intercepting sunlight, except at very high latitudes, so in and of themselves they'll be power sinks. The other is that they cast big, swinging shadows, the more so at high latitudes. Since I've seen how San Francisco's shadow analysis was implemented back in the 1980s (they had a scale model of the city with a spotlight on a track for the sun, and physically analyzed the shadows for any proposed new building. Hopefully it's all computerized now), and I've seen its effects on building shapes (cutouts happened on some buildings, just so parks wouldn't lose sun, I suspect that building shape will get complicated and political.

There are a couple of ways this plays out. One is that new buildings simply won't shade existing buildings, which may mean, in some places, going down rather than going up, or going complicated rather than monolithic, to stay within existing shade zones. In other places, cities will ask highrises to build solar plants outside the city to mitigate for the power lost by the city due to the building. In still others, they may do something like LA County wants to do now with new developments and water, which is to allow the developments to go in, even if there's no piped water available for them, and the homeowners will have to truck in water from elsewhere every week or run dry.* Or they may do some combination of all three, depending on the political pull of the developer, which is why this whole article was about political economics, not just economics.

*That the politicians in LA, home of Chinatown aren't asking where the trucked-in water will come from speaks volumes to their chronic CRIS on the issue of new developments. Still, it's happening, and we can expect politicians there and elsewhere to be equally stupid about the energy needs of their municipalities going forward.

270:

CRIS? (My Google abilities fail me.)

271:

'Cranio-Rectal Inversion Syndrome', I believe.

273:

My personal version is "Cranio-Rectal Insertion Syndrome," but either way works.

274:

Er, yes. ...though that tyop does also represent a sort of scatalogical thinking, I suppose.

275:

Vancouver has something similar — sightline preservation, with provisions that (I believe) you can't cast permanent shade on someone else. They've also got limits on materials and finishes for large buildings, to give the downtown core an aesthetically pleasing appearance.

To the best of my knowledge, only one developer got their permits then ignored the restrictions and just built (until stopped part-way through construction, giving an odd appearance). You Americans are very familiar with this chap, especially now.

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This page contains a single entry by Frank Landis published on July 10, 2016 3:00 PM.

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