Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Energy Supply and Bananas:

A Scary Parallel

I recently came across an article on bananas that reminded me of arguments about the future sources of energy.  If that sounds strange, bear with me.

The article pointed out that our supply of bananas today is virtually a monoculture--almost all the bananas that are commercially marketed are of only one variety.  The article goes into the history of bananas, saying that once before, we had a different monoculture, and it was basically wiped out by a disease that spread internationally.  The threat raised in the article was that we are on the verge of the same thing happening again.  Since I'm not an expert on bananas, I'll leave it to the reader to research the original article if they are interested.

However, what struck me is how so much of the dialogue on our future energy supply proposes to cut down on options and have all our needs met by just a few sources.  I think of all the bold statements I keep seeing:  We have to get rid of coal.  Or all fossil fuels.  Or nuclear power.  Solar and wind power can potentially meet all our needs.

The reality for our energy supply is almost as stark as it is for our banana supply--a monoculture has a lot of potential downsides.  In the energy world, the risks can come not only from something happening to a single source of power, but also from the "fit" of different energy sources into all the varied--and changing--environments and applications in our world.

A few examples come to mind:  While there are multiple sources of fossil fuels, some of the rare earths used for wind power are presently available from limited sources, in particular, China, so a cut-off in supply, whether for political or other reasons, could affect the ability to meet our energy needs with wind power.  Likewise, the identification of a serious design flaw that requires the shutdown of a lot of operating power plants of any one type, or a political reaction, such as shutdowns of nuclear plants in Japan and Germany, can lead to impacts ranging from increased pollution to serious health and safety impacts for vulnerable segments of the population.  And different geographical areas have different wind patterns, different amounts of sunshine, different sources and amounts of cooling water, different population distributions and density, etc., so not all energy sources are equal "fits" to all locations.  

In addition, as Jim Conca points out in Forbes, changing climate and weather patterns can also affect our energy supply.  In recent years, extreme winter weather has stalled the delivery of fossil fuels.  Hydropower is vulnerable to river flows which can be affected by changes in climate and precipitation.  Wind power is affected by temperature changes that result in changes in air pressure, and hence, in wind speeds.  Climate change will also affect cloud cover, and therefore, solar power.  And rises in water temperature affect the efficiency of all water-cooled power plants, including both fossil and nuclear plants.  Over-reliance on any one type of technology will exacerbate any of these effects.

As always, these dire warnings are not a fait accompli.  If we identify and characterize these vulnerabilities in time, we may be able to develop ways to address some of them.  However, we can't count on figuring out every possibility in advance, and we can't count on finding ways to completely address every possible risk.  The simplest and most robust measure society can take is to adopt a policy of developing and using multiple sources of energy.  In this way, the impacts of a short- or long-term cutoff of one source of energy, for any reason, will be limited, and the ability of the overall system to compensate for such cutoffs will be maximized.

After all, a loss of bananas is one thing, but a loss of the energy that powers just about every aspect of our lives is quite another. 


Sunday, November 24, 2019

More Unintended Consequences:

The Complexities of Transportation

I recently came across several articles related to transportation--well, very loosely related, in one case--that once again show why it is so difficult to predict the consequences of new technologies on energy use.

Much of the problem has to do with human behavior.  We often assume that a new technology will take cars off the road, and therefore reduce pollution and congestion.  Wrong!  Some recent articles on autonomous cars and on e-scooters suggest that we are finding otherwise.  Rather than replacing cars, autonomous cars may be taking people out of public transportation, and e-scooters may be attractive mainly to people who would otherwise walk.

One study on autonomous cars was particularly interesting.  The article reports on a survey of commuters done by the University of Adelaide questioning them on vehicle ownership and use, vehicle sharing, etc.  While the people doing the study saw a significant potential for driverless vehicles to reduce traffic congestion in the long term, they discovered that commuter attitudes, the price of new technology, and other factors may make the transition a slow one.  In fact, they initially foresee an adverse impact on public transport, and a likely increase in traffic congestion over the next few decades.

And I note that this article didn't even address another congestion factor that I saw discussed elsewhere.  In cities where parking is difficult to find and expensive, there may be a tendency to let driverless cars just wander around the streets between uses, which would greatly increase traffic congestion.

Another study focused on e-scooters in Paris.  The biggest surprise to me was the statement that the scooters don't replace cars, they "motorize walking trips."  In addition to that, the article noted a slew of of other ecological downsides.  Although they are billed as carbon-free, they still require energy and materials to build, generating carbon in the process, and they have a short life span (due to both wear-and-tear and to vandalism), so must be replaced frequently.  They are being rented out and left in different places, so they have to be gathered up every day and brought to an area for recharging.  A lot are ending up in the river and must be retrieved.

While both of these reports are from outside the US, the findings appear relevant.  Certainly, Americans are known for their love affair with their automobiles, so I suspect that a survey on autonomous cars in the US would have similar results to the one in Australia.  And the article on e-scooters in Paris also quoted a study in the US that showed that most e-scooters are replacing walking or biking, not automobiles.  In fact, the US study showed that the electricity for charging was only a small percentage of the e-scooter's environmental impact--most of the emissions were from the materials and manufacturing, and from driving around to pick the scooters up.

Obviously, both these studies could--and should--lead to efforts to address at least some of the issues raised.  For example, financial incentives might be possible to counter concerns about the price of autonomous vehicles, and electric vans could be used to pick up e-scooters.  But the articles do highlight the fact that introducing new technologies is not enough to achieve the expected--and desired--outcomes.  Factors such as those identified in the articles need to be raised and addressed.  And even with that, human nature and other factors suggest that we may have to temper our expectations about how much some of the new technologies will reduce pollution, carbon use, congestion, etc. 

The final article I saw recently initially looked to me like it was going to tell a different story.  It addressed the energy uses of streaming videos.  I naturally thought about all the car trips on-demand access is potentially saving compared to the "good old days" when we had to pick up DVDs at Blockbuster.  Therefore, I was surprised at their conclusion that Netflix and its competitors are not as good for the environment as I would have guessed!  What the article made clear was that sitting in our living rooms, we don't see that energy is required for the streaming services.  And the higher the definition of our TV screens, the larger the data files that have to be streamed.  As always, the article notes that there are options--higher efficiencies at the source, convincing users to choose lower resolutions, and having the streaming services use clean energy sources.

While all of this may sound unduly negative, that is not my intention.  My intention is only to point out that the new technologies do not operate in a vacuum, and whether or not they achieve their full potential depends a lot on whether appropriate measures are taken to address human tendencies, comparative costs, convenience, and many other factors. 


Saturday, November 16, 2019

Electricity and Public Health:

A Vital Link

I haven't been blogging for the past month or so, in large part because I was on an extended trip.  The last stop on the trip was to attend a wedding in Half Moon Bay, California in early November.   I had been following the news about the wildfires in California and the deliberate power outages intended to prevent a power line from sparking more fires.  However, I had never thought to check what was happening where I was going, so I was startled when the groom spoke at the reception after the ceremony and mentioned that the power in Half Moon Bay had been cut off by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) until just a couple of days before the wedding!

The bridal couple--and the entire wedding party--was fortunate that the power came back on in time for the festivities, but as the news made clear, the decision whether or not to shut down carried potential negative consequences either way.  I am not questioning the PG&E's decision to cut off power in some areas.  As the 2018 wildfires made clear, fires sparked by downed power lines can be deadly, and the decision to cut power this year may have saved lives and millions of dollars of property. 

But the decision to cut off power was not without some negative consequences of its own.  Other emergencies can occur (including wildfires started by lightning or human activities), and blackouts can make it harder to communicate in such circumstances--either to get information on the path of the fire or evacuation recommendations and routes, or to call for help.  And a loss of power can be deadly to people with health problems.  In addition, there are smaller problems, such as spoilage of food or medications during multi-day outages, that also carry potential health problems. 

The importance of electricity to the well-being of people today was further emphasized in another news item I read the same week on the long-term impacts of the Fukushima accident in Japan.  This article reports on the tentative results from a study that suggests that more people died in the aftermath of the accident, from causes not directly related to the accident or tsunami, than died in the accident itself.  (This is in addition to deaths attributed to the evacuation.)  I should note that this study has not yet been peer reviewed, so I can't attest to the exact numbers.  However, the points addressed correspond well with other articles I've read, so I think it is appropriate to explore the general issues. 

In this case, the concern is not just whether or not electric power is available, it is also how the electric power is being produced, and the cost of that power.  So for the Fukushima accident, the response was the shutdown of nuclear power plants and the replacement of that power by fossil fuel plants.  This created two health risks--first, there was an increase in air pollution, which has a detrimental effect, particularly on the elderly and people with certain illnesses.  Second, these substitute sources of electricity also cost a lot more, and apparently, this resulted in some people not being able to afford the power they needed and dying from exposure to cold.

Simply put, electricity is central to today's way of life.  It is how many homes are heated; it is how ventilators, dialysis machines, and other lifesaving devices operate; and it is central to how we get news that may be critical to our safety, such as evacuation instructions, and how we let people know where we are.  More and more, such factors need to be taken into account when decisions are made to turn off electric power plants.  Of course, in the longer term, changes may be needed in our infrastructure as well.  But burying power lines and making other such changes is a very expensive and long-term proposition.  Until then, we need to give more thought to the consequences of turning off electric power plants and plan for ways to protect vulnerable population groups and provide backups for critical communications.   


Monday, October 7, 2019

Unintended Consequences:

Good Intentions, Troubling Outcomes

As many of my readers know, I occasionally highlight actions that have been taken or are being considered that have unintended consequences that either undermine the original intent, or that end up trading an improvement in one area for a negative effect on another area.  I perhaps became sensitized to unintended consequences through news items that illustrated the complexity of the energy sector, where replacing one energy source with another has not always yielded the expected benefits.

I recently came across several more examples of the unintended consequences associated with certain decisions or actions, covering some very different areas.  Some report unintended consequences that have already occurred.  Others are forward looking and report on analyses of what might happen, so there might be time to rethink some of the plans and avoid or mitigate the unintended consequences.

The first I found was a study on what could happen with driverless cars when they are not in use, particularly if we move to an economy where we rely on shared vehicles.  Very simply, self-driving cars might stay on the roads and cruise around to avoid paying parking fees!  Clearly, if everyone is left to their own devices, self-interest will rule.  This would increase congestion--possibly a lot--and of course, result in more energy use.  This is a potential scenario that should be addressed before things get out of hand, so the very recognition of the potential problem may avert it, but it is the kind of thing that we do need to think about proactively as new technologies emerge.

The second issue I came across is a harder one to address.  It argues that environmental regulations to protect ecosystems can result in greater carbon emissions.  Here, the problem is that protecting ecosystems may have prevented the development of hydroelectric dams, so power needs have been met by fossil-fired power plants.  In this case, it appears that decisions have been made in some cases, so reversing the problem may be more difficult.  However, the evidence should provide a wake-up call for future preservation efforts.  In particular, when addressing the needs for ecosystem preservation, planners need to look holistically at all the needs of the community and how they can be met.  

Another issue I read about involved the potential for efforts at gender equality to have negative effects for some women.  This report, in Nature magazine, comes from the UK and refers, in part, to something called the Athena SWAN Charter, an initiative designed to encourage and recognize commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.  While this may seem counter-intuitive, the report cites the fact that women make up more than 70% of Athena SWAN champions, a labor-intensive role that takes time away from their research.  

The final issue I want to report about today gave me a laugh, but it may not be funny.  A report in Science magazine tied the legalization of marijuana to potential worsening of air pollution In particular, the article claims that cannabis plants are rich sources of volatile organic compounds that can contribute to smog. There are also concerns about workers' health due to air quality issues.  One recent study suggested the more than 600 indoor pot farms located within Denver could be worsening the city's air pollution, which already violates federal standards. 

The message I draw from all these examples is that almost everything we do has multiple impacts, some good and some not so good.  This includes the many things that we do in an effort to fix some problem, be it gender inequalities or environmental impacts, or to provide society with advanced technological capabilities, like self-driving cars.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't have self-driving cars, or that we shouldn't attempt to address gender inequalities or environmental impacts.  It simply means we need to think more about all the potential ramifications of all such initiatives, and the earlier the better. 


Thursday, September 12, 2019


It's Complicated

Just when you think you know that "everyone" loves renewable energy and hates nuclear power, some news pops up to recalibrate your thinking.

Last week, I saw almost back-to-back news articles that upended the "conventional wisdom."  The first was a report on the opposition of German residents to the installation of new windmills.  The article talks about more than 600 citizen initiatives against the installations, which are central to the German goal of weaning itself from the use of coal and nuclear power.  A classic case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), I thought.

The very next day, a news article arrived in my inbox that announced that government officials in Nye County, New Mexico, were open to discussing the development of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, which is located in their county.  Yucca Mountain, as many people reading this blog will know, was selected decades ago as the site for the disposal of waste from U.S. nuclear power plants, but stalled due to opposition from the State of New Mexico.  Wait, I thought--what about NIMBY?

Now, obviously, both situations are very complicated.  The brief news article on the opposition to new windmills in Germany mentions factors including a drop in government funding and the intervention of a far-right political party of climate skeptics.  These factors could be pumping up the opposition.

In New Mexico, of course, there is a start contrast between the views of the state and the views of the county.  To date, the state views have dominated.  The views of the county, of course, are not motivated by a love for nuclear power so much as they are by the economic benefits such a major facility in their county would bring.  However, it is important to note that they emphasize that they would only approve the facility if the analyses show that it is safe.  What they are asking at this point is only for the assessment to be done.

The message I draw from this is not that the people of Nye County are opportunists.  Far from it.  Rather, they are pragmatists.  They are insisting that safety comes first, but if the safety standards are met, they see benefits that offset the impacts on their community, such as the disruption of construction, the increase in traffic, etc.  And the people of Germany are also being pragmatic.  Nuclear power-related facilities generally bring a lot of high-paying jobs, and wind-power installations generally don't, so in their case, there is little benefit to offset the disruption in their communities.

Admittedly, there have been cases where local communities have opposed a facility, even though it would bring jobs or other benefits, so the issue of public acceptance around any kind of large installations--power plants, waste repositories, factories, or anything else--is complicated, and there is no guarantee that the community reactions we see in these 2 cases will always occur in other cases.

Nevertheless, the contrast in the reactions to the windmills in Germany and the nuclear waste repository in Nye County are instructive.  Most of us tend to think mainly of the big picture, which mainly means that we think of how power plants and other facilities benefit the greater good.  But we have to keep in mind that all such facilities inevitably bring some disruption to a community.  In cases where the only impacts are negative ones, it is quite logical for communities to oppose these facilities.  In cases where there are positive impacts as well, the local communities may be more receptive to hosting such facilities. 

In all cases, of course, the first focus should be on safety.  The second should be on building and operating the installation to minimize any negative impacts on the community.  But those measures alone may not be strong enough to combat the NIMBY factor.  Ultimately, the potential benefits to a community may also be a factor in public acceptance at the local level.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Replacing fossil-fueled automobiles:

Unexpected consequences

I continue to be struck by the number of times I've found reports that reveal an unexpected downside of current technologies--or even more so, of the advanced technologies that are supposed to help us address some of the shortcomings of the current technologies.

I have recently come across several articles that revealed potential issues in the transportation sector that somewhat surprised me.  Now, these are clearly not nuclear issues, so one might wonder why I am writing about them here.  The fact is that the similarity to issues that have come up in the energy industry are striking and suggest that there are lessons that can be learned from other industries.

The first issue I learned about concerns electric-powered automobiles.  Electric vehicles have long been promoted as a transportation alternative that will result in lower vehicle emissions and cleaner air.  I have been aware that this assertion is controversial, but my understanding was that the main concern revolved around the source of the electricity used to charge the batteries of electric cars.  If the source was a fossil-fuel fired electric power plant, at least some of the benefits of not burning gasoline or diesel fuel would be offset by the carbon and other emissions from the power plants.

A recent article, however, points to another potential concern:  particulate matter from electric vehicles.  This article summarizes a literature review that suggests that electric vehicles may not reduce particulate pollution as much as expected.  Electric vehicles weigh more than their non-electric counterparts, and that there is a correlation between weight and non-exhaust particulate emissions.

Another article I came across focused on the pollution from tire wear from all kinds of vehicles.  We all know that tire treads wear down, and as drivers, it is one of the things we have to watch to maintain our vehicles.  We don't often think, however, of what happens to the tire material that wears away.  This article asserts that some of it ends up in particles small enough to circulate in the air we breathe, and that this factor has not been sufficiently recognized and studied.

A third article looked at the impact of electric scooters on reducing emissions.   While it is clear that  that electric scooters use less energy and create less pollution than much larger, fossil-fueled vehicles, this article points out that the real question is what forms of transportation electric scooters replace?  I was surprised that a recent survey of electric scooter riders in several European cities found that a large majority of them would have walked, biked, or taken public transportation if they didn't have an electric scooter.  Only 14% said they would have used an automobile!

After thinking about that, it occurred to me that the proportion of people who would have used a car might be much higher in the United States.  And indeed, the article also cites a report by one of the electric scooter companies that one-third of the electric scooter rides around the world replaces an automobile trip.  Clearly, this number may vary a lot depending on where surveys are done.  That fact alone points out the complexity of predicting how much impact a new technology might have. 

Some of the same uncertainties surround the reports in the other articles.  The article on pollution from tires indicates that the tire manufacturers claim that the tire pollution does not result in health effects.   Therefore, there may be a need to look in more detail at issues of particulate pollution from tires and its health effects.  Likewise, it strikes me that the correlation between vehicle weight and particulate emissions might be complex. 

Clearly, the fact that some issues are beginning to surface about electric scooters or electric automobiles does not suggest that we should abandon these technologies.  Rather, these findings reinforce the concern I have had that it takes time to recognize the full range of impacts, positive and negative, of any new technology, and as we do recognize these impacts, that appropriate responses need to be developed.  These can include further studies in some cases to fully understand and confirm the impacts, and the development of measures to respond appropriately to those impacts.

In fact, most of these articles do propose some next steps.  The article on tires points to an interest in developing biodegradable tires.  While I'm not sure that everything that is biodegradable is healthy to breathe, that may be a step in the right direction.  That same article notes the potential value of longer term efforts to reduce the use of the automobile altogether.  The article on e-scooters also promotes the idea of measures that would encourage people to give up private cars.  And the article on electric cars points out the need to set standards on non-exhaust emissions, and to encourage weight reduction in all types of automobiles, electric and internal combustion.

The analogies to the energy industry are clear.  Probably every technological development in the energy industry, from the introduction of fossil fuels, to nuclear power, to solar, wind, hydro, biofuels, etc., has started with great optimism about all its potential benefits, only to have us discover, as time goes on, that there are negative byproducts as well.  I have written before about many of them. 

Therefore, in identifying and reporting on these types of issues, I am not implying that we should not pursue new and advanced technologies.  Rather, my purpose is to serve as a reminder that every new technology--be it for energy production, transportation, or anything else--has both potential benefits and possible drawbacks.  The technological community and policymakers need to be proactive in identifying and addressing any potential negative impacts of new technologies. 


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Materials Supply in a Global Economy:

Implications for Nuclear and Wind Power

One issue that, until lately, has gotten little attention, is that of the global supply chain for some of the materials that are essential to the continued smooth operation of things that are essential to our well being and our way of life--such as the power plants that supply our electricity.

Recently, people have begun to think more about such issues.  The U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC) has just published a report on developing a strategy to ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical materials.  The report identifies 35 minerals that are viewed as critical to U.S. economic and national security.  The U.S. is currently dependent on other countries for more than 50% of its demand for 29 of the 35 materials.  Among the 29, two are important to the energy industry--uranium for nuclear power plants, and rare earths for wind turbines.

While this initially seems frightening, the situation is really more complex.  Among the issues that need to be considered are whether the minerals come from close allies or from adversaries, whether there are sources in the U.S. that could be developed, or whether there are other alternatives. 

Although uranium is highlighted in the report, at present, 33% of our uranium comes from Canada and 19%, from Australia, both countries with which we have a strong positive relationship.  Therefore, the dependency is not as alarming as for other minerals upon which we depend.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is with the rare earths, where 78% of our supply comes from China.  In fact, recent articles have indicated that China is making it clear that they are contemplating using the threat of cutting exports of rare earths or imposing tariffs on them as a bargaining tool. 

Rare earths are actually not so rare.  Rather, they are highly dispersed, so they are difficult to mine economically in most cases.  And they are used nowadays in more ways than many of us realize, from a variety of consumer products, including smartphones, televisions, cameras and light bulbs, to military equipment, to windmill turbines, so any extended market disruption could have serious effects on many aspects of our economy. 

The USDOC study is looking for ways to address the need for rare earths and other materials.  Some of the measures mentioned in the report include extracting rare earths from coal refuse and acid mine drainage and developing other alloys to replace some rare earths.  Efforts are also underway to explore the possibility of extracting rare earths, as well as uranium and other elements, from seawater. 

In the long run, it may also be possible to develop more mined sources for rare earths outside of China.  One problem in doing this, however, is that the rare earths, because they are so dispersed, produce a lot of mining waste, and many communities will not want such mines near them. 

Some analysts believe that China will not impose restrictions on the supply of rare earths yet, for fear of triggering a global initiative to find and develop alternative supplies.  However, the threat looms, and the search for ways to reduce our vulnerability should be stepped up before we face a crisis. 

In the meantime, what are the implications for nuclear and wind power, and what should we be doing?  In the case of nuclear power, I am not as worried, because so much of our uranium supply comes from strong allies.  Furthermore, some of the advanced nuclear reactor designs that are under development may be able to burn more of the uranium, or may use depleted uranium or thorium.  Nevertheless, efforts to increase uranium production in the U.S. would provide additional assurance of supply. 

In the case of wind turbines, the situation is more complicated, particularly since there is a strong push to increase the use of renewables in the U.S. and elsewhere, and much of that increase is coming from wind power.  One obvious way to address this problem would be to develop alternative alloys for use in wind turbines. 

Another measure is to assure that we do not rely too much on any one technology for our electricity supply.  This is a policy that is beneficial for a number of reasons, and has been discussed before in this blog.  Such a policy means that, as we move toward a cleaner energy supply, we should be sure to keep that energy supply diversified with a balanced mix of solar, wind and nuclear power plants.