Friday, 14 December 2012

Global Warming Leads to the death of the Amazon? Not.

So after a genetic survey of Amazon tree species it has been determined that many of the species have survived for a surprisingly long time in the region (over 8 million years in some cases). Previously it had been believed that most tree species originated in the cold Quaternary Period (in which we are now), beginning some 2.6 million years ago.

In fact, of the 12 species surveyed, seven have been around for at least 5.6 million years and three for more than 8 million years.

This means that many of the common amazon tree species were around during previous periods of high temperatures induced by previous instances of rapid CO2 induced climate change such as the early Pliocene (3.6 million years ago to 5 million years ago) which was equivalent to the IPCC's moderate carbon emission scenario. During the highest emission IPCC scenario, temperatures will be equivalent to what they were during the Miocene (5.3 to 11.5 million years ago).

The implications are clear: Amazon tree species can survive extreme temperatures up to and including those predicted for the most extreme emissions scenario.
So no tree dieoff then.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Even I'm Surprised

So I have to say that even though I'm a big fan of electric vehicles I hadn't realized exactly how far along we are.
Allow me to explain:

It seems that a private company in the US (note *not* a subsidized government entity but a private company) has installed more than 10,000 chargepoints all across the USA and Canada. Apparently you can get some kind of payment card and use it to pay for electric charge exactly the same way you would for gas at a gas station.

From the looks of it most of the major metropolitan areas in the Eastern Half of the country are covered. i.e. you can drive from one major city to another no problem as well as drive from the northeast round the lower states and all the way along the bottom to California and up the coast to Vancouver in Canada.

It's pretty light in the mountain time zone region tho so basically I still need a Chevy Volt or a Plug in Prius to get from where I am to the more connected regions and will still need to rely on gasoline for at least 1,000 miles. The rest of the country, however, looks pretty impressive.

The following is the map:

Monday, 10 December 2012

Well There's a Surprise

The draft of the IPCC Global Warning Report for 2013 is circulating (quite why they make a report every year is beyond me, but nevertheless).

Notable take-homes are the following:

There will be no catastrophic increase in hurricanes. Instead tropical storms will increase their wind speed somewhat but the overall number of hurricanes will *decrease*.

Wetter regions will get *wetter* (instead of "turn into deserts" as previously predicted).

Drier regions will allegedly get drier. Interestingly however, measurements in the real world over the last 60 years have shown no such drying trend in regions like Spain or the U.S. South-west in spite of the fact that global temperatures have increase by 1C (a full third of the project increase).

And last the keynote: instead of a few inches, global sealevels will increase by about a meter.

Now the last one is in fact something that needs a resolution, but the answer isn't to funnel money to corrupt third world governments (who will then turn round and park it in swiss bank accounts instead of fixing the problem) nor is the answer to kill the economy. The answer is to continue as we are now, gradually decreasing our carbon content in a drive towards a high percentage of renewable based energy as well as looking at ways to shore up sea-wall defenses.

Here's a prediction: there will be a whole bunch of Dutch companies making plenty money on consulting work.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Synfuel to partly offset Peak Oil declines?

Chris Floudas, a professor of chemical engineering at Princeton, has just published a paper outlining a strategy for replacing the entire U.S. transportation oil supply with synthetic fuels from a feedstock comprised of a combination of non food crops and other (more abundant than oil) fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. The fuel would be competitive at a $/barrel price of between $80-$110. Now, we’ve known for some time (at least the 1930s) that you can convert coal to liquids and natural gas to liquids so this is not new news. What’s different is the persistently high oil prices, which makes the process cost competitive with oil based fuels.

So let’s make a couple of assumptions here:

1. Oil prices stay high because markets are tight due to inability to raise production much
2. Using Prof Floudas’s numbers, 47 large plants would produce 71 percent of the total transportation fuel
3. Although US/Canadian oil production is increasing, globally we see a decline rate
4. We are meeting some (but not all) of the decline rate by a combination of increased fuel efficiency and substitution to electric vehicles.

So what does that look like?

For each percentage point of global decline rate, like for like, we need to replace 1% of the total U.S. fleet, which is 25 million vehicles. Now naturally, the fleet turns over once every 17 years so this gives us 100/17 for a percentage turnover every year which is about 6% of the fleet.

If every single one of those vehicles doubled fuel efficiency from 15 mpg to 30 mpg we could handle a 3% decline. That’s probably unrealistic, however, as Americans are notoriously conservative when it comes to changing their driving habits.
So how many are realistic?

Well right now we are selling about 50,000 priuses a year in the U.S. so let’s make a wild guess and say we sell 100,000 fuel efficient vehicles per year today.
Is it realistic to say in the face of peak oil we might see demand double? So let’s say 200,000 fuel efficient vehicles per year. That’s close to one percent.

So we therefore cover a half percentage point of decline rate with fuel efficient vehicles.

Let’s be super optimistic and say we can cover another half percent by replacing oil consumption all together by selling 100,000 all-electric vehicles per year. So we’ve got x-1 to cover with synthetic fuel (where x is the decline rate).

But let's imagine that we are uber-pessimists. Let's ignore the contribution to covering the decline rate from fuel efficient vehicles and electric vehicles (never mind compressed natural gas vehicles) and instead just look at how many plants we need to build and what it will cost us to do it.

So let’s be super pessimistic and say the decline rate is at the high end (say 10%).
So in the case of the U.S. that’s 1.3 million barrels needs to be replaced every year for transportation.

Using Prof Floudas’s numbers 71 percent of the total transportation requires 47 large plants, so that’s about 2/3 of a percent per plant each year.

So we need 15 large plants per year. That’s a cost of $226 billion per year.

Which is about 700 bucks per U.S. citizen per year or about 60 bucks per month or about 12 bucks per week.

So that’s the pessimistic case.

Now is that going to break the bank? Hmmmm.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Not really a debunking, just an idea for today

Just musing a little. So it seems to me that the critical piece in order to get to escape velocity for abundant energy (read renewable [and to a lesser extent nuclear]) is the batteries. Now you've heard me rant about batteries repeatedly and some may argue that I am in fact a battery nut. Not the case, just I think it's an optimal strategy. So... here's a thought: given that there's a vast number of possible chemical and material configurations for the anodes and cathodes of advanced (cheap!) batteries and a limited number (though still large) of researchers, then why not crowdsource the sifting through the materials? Has anyone else thought of this? Is anyone doing it right now? (I'll have a dig around on the internet to see if I can't come up with a story or two on it...) On the flipside, there's still a non-zero possibility that "peak oil" is way out there due to the continuing and ongoing increases in production from the likes of the Bakken in the U.S. Interesting times...

Monday, 26 November 2012

Renewable Energy getting to escape velocity?

So one of the main objections that the naysayers seem to have is that renewable energy is "too intermittent" and there is no way of overcoming this since the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. In the case of wind it's often said by the naysayers that wind is uselss because you would need to have equivalent capacity of standby fossil-fueled plant in case of a 3-sigma event such as took place in Texas a few years ago where the wind failed for blow for 4 days straight. Well maybe, perhaps. BUT, and it's a very large but, the problem isn't one of intermittency per se because it can be solved by various means. Again, like "peak oil", it's one of expense. Is it cheaper to run on fossil fuel powered plant or is it cheaper to run on renewables? The "no substitute" doomers point of view doesn't even come in to the picture. Quite clearly renewables are a substitute. The intermittency issue, however, is in fact one of expense rather than non-existent technology because you could, for example, distribute wind farms at large distances from each other and cancel out on average the non-wind-blowing days because it's far less likely (a 6-sigma event?) that the wind will fail to blow everywhere. Likewise, you could also "store" electricity in e.g. large groups of refrigerators (such as are found at port facilities) or else use pumped storage such as is used in hydro electric facilities. Batteries don't even come in to it. Not, however, because they don't work. Clearly they work. It's cost. Nobody has considered using batteries for wind farms (or solar farms for that matter) because the cost per kW/h once you factor in up front costs, is prohibitive compared to fossil fuel powered electrical generation. That, however, is on the cusp of being about to change. This: The executive summary of the above link is that mitsubishi heavy is investing in a pilot project using large format li-ion batteries as a backup for a wind farm on some islands in the North of Scotland. Now what's interesting about this is that the wind farm already has a connector to the mainland where electricity is much cheaper. They are just doing this to store electricity from the overflow. That tends to suggest that they are closing in on it being cost-competitive to build wind farms with built in battery storage instead of using a connector link to the main grid. That, if true, opens all sorts of interesting possibilities, not least a further reinforcement and debunking of dieoff.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Death by Desertification

Those who like to predict doom from "global warming" typically say that any increase in temperature will inevitably lead to crop failure, massive storms, more powerful storms, sea level rises, drought and desertification.

In fact in the greatest hothouse epoch of all geological time, the Eocene (caused by a superspike in greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide - and possibly a large pulse or many pulses of methan) where the temperature was as much as 20C in the arctic area, mid and high latitude regions were SIGNIFICANTLY wetter than today.

Here's the proof:
"This increased offset could result from suppression of surface-water δ18O values by a tropical, annual moisture balance substantially wetter than that of today. Results from an atmospheric general circulation model support this interpretation and suggest that Eocene low latitudes were extremely wet."

And warm temperatures + wetter weather = greater productivity of plants.

Greater productivity of plants = higher crop yields.

Higher Crop Yields = larger sustainable human population.

So much for the doom from warming theory.

It's *cooling* we need to worry about.

Oops. Please try harder dear climate modeler "scientists". FAIL.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Further Collapse of the economy due to the increased automation of jobs by software?

Some commentators reckon that many of us will end up put out of work by sofware in the near future and that thus all of the wealth will inevitably end up in the hands of a very few (say the famouse "1%). That sounds plausible but is very simplistic, *Marxist* and not at all taking into account the realities of the situation:

Even today most work is already done by computers.
I doubt that all of the jobs will be eliminated for a simple reason: the banks can't allow it to happen or they will collapse.
More likely we will continue with the scenario we have now of boom and bust and the average knowledge worker fitting the "I will pretend to work and you will pretend to pay me" scenario whereby
they are effectively thinking most of the time then pushing buttons for a small amount of time to produce products/deliverables.
Additionally unless we get strong AI, where is the basic research going to come from to produce new generations of products?
The "rich" can't simply gobble up all manufacturing capacity and that's all there is to the economy.
Even today the vast majority of the economy is in services. Some of that can be further automated but the thinking cannot yet be.
Many companies biggest resource (tired old cliche but still true) is their intellectual property generated by humans.
Are the rich so much smarter than the rest of us that they can generate *all* of the intellectual property all by themselves unassisted?
In the other extreme nightmare scenario where the rich don't give a shit about services and new intellectual property and are interested in shrinking
the economy down to automated manufacturing and high end services with no new intellectual property due to lack of scale (i.e. stagnation) and the rest of us are in blinding poverty:
I reckon that would be a recipe for revolution, never mind the fact that the aggregate economy would shrink and there would be less rich people.
It's not in the interests of the rich to put everyone out of work. We're a "resource" and the more productive we are the richer they are.
I suspect that instead we may just see more booms and busts instead as the only way to drive the fake economy and create jobs will be to print money
and force it through handfuls of pre-picked "winners" like the zombie companies of japan.
On the other hand one other super optimistic scenario might be in the absence of strong AI we simply incrementally upgrade the tools that each worker is using.
We're making the assumption that only university educated people can use automated software or hardware tools.
That's not even true today. Call centers use highly automated systems. Yes we may get to the stage that many of the "scripted" call centers could be
automated and that would thus throw people out of work, right? Well it comes down to a combination of trickle down economics combined with a zero sum game.
If the game is zero sum (i.e. no net new profit caused by further automation) then yes, when their jobs are automated out of existence there will be no new
jobs. In all likelihood, however, the profit margin of companies who use automated software tools instead of people will increase because otherwise why do it?
It doesn't make sense for a company to invest in automated software tools to do a job if humans are cheaper. So we can definitively say that profit margins will
increase. This will means the owners have more money to spend. Now here's a question: Do higher income people or business owners spend most of their money on a. manufactured product
or b. services? Here's a further question: do higher income people spend a higher or lower share of their income on *personal* services?
The answer is of course more. Therefore those displaced from low end service jobs will find themselves doing more personal services which are not automated.

On the other hand, what about the higher end jobs that currently require a university degree or significant training.
Surely some of those jobs will be eliminated by more intelligent automated tools?
Think again. If the tools are semi intelligent themselves then with adequate training even dummies will be able to operate them in all but the most limited set of circumstances since.
Instead the dummies will find themselves enfranchised in much the same way that high paying manufacturing jobs in the city raised the income of poor farm workers
who left the land to find work in factories and in places like Detroit they ended up being middle class instead of working class or poor.

Now you may be sceptical especially if you think that the economy is zero sum. In fact, the economy always has been about the growth of some sectors
of the economy and the collapse of others. That's because of the continual development of new products as scientific research advances.
There is currently massive change in China but apparent stagnation in the Western world. Western commentators seem to think that there
is a global problem of stagnation. There is not. There is a temporary imbalance whereby China and other "developing" countries are cheaper
because of labor and/or better more modern supply chains. That does not mean that the *global* economy is shrinking. On the contrary.
The real challenge facing us in the West is to develop new industries. New industries are based on new products and are created in a process
called "creative destruction" whereby the old non-competitive industries collapse and are replaced by the new. Horse drawn carriages were replaced
by automobiles. How many people can name the most successful manufacturer of horse drawn carriages in the 19th century? Not many. It's gone.
But GM, Ford, Nissan et cetera are here and are shortly to be in fierce competition with Chinese competitors who may or may not be more effective than they are.
Likewise, the likes of Bell and AT&T etc have had to contend with the rise of cellphones and cable companies have had to contend with the rise of the internet.
Telegraph companies had to contend with the telephone before them et cetera et cetera.

Right now the two main risks to the economy growing are nothing to do with the automation of jobs by information enhanced software tools.
Those two risks are the debt overhang from the housing bubble in the western (and especially English speaking) countries as well as shifting growing demand
for transporation away from oil as conventional oil supplies peak and start to decline.

In all cases, the problems need to be solved by *more* innovative products which in turn will generate new industries which we desperately need in order
to replace the industries we cannot compete with against rising stars like China.

Where will these new products come from?
Basic research and design.

In fact in an abstract sense the core of the economy itself *is* is R & D and *everything* else is support for R & D. Let's take a look at how that part of the economy
will be affected by increasing automation:

Those of us who are university educated are in no danger of being automated out of existence, we'll simply be using more and more and more powerful tools and adding much more value
than we currently are. Take a university researcher for example. One researcher is useful, but much of the work is currently spent searching literature and collating and correlating
the existing research. The internet has now enabled lay persons to do the same thing with the use of google and simply doing a mathematical combination of all the relevant keywords.
A layperson could not understand all of the texts thrown up by the correlated keyword searches but could certainly cut down the amount of time spent on this by said researcher.
If that job were automated further so that some semi intelligent tool could correlate successfully and pull up everything specific to what the researcher is looking for,
then they could spend more of their time on the experimentation. The experimentation itself can be speeded up significantly also by automation.
So does that put the researcher out of business? On the contrary. It increases productivity *massively* and the pace of scientific progress will jump by orders of magnitude.
Now could we somehow find some basic ways to plug in laypersons to this process? Indeed we can and we have. There is a game that currently exists for folding proteins.