Saturday, February 25, 2012

Solar and Wind Power:

Materials Issues Emerge

Although it is not my intention to "go after" any energy technology--I continue to believe we need them all--like a lot of people, I continue to be disturbed by the overly simplistic images people have of the different technologies, and the effect these misperceptions have on public opinion.

When people think of windmills and solar collectors, the first images that usually come to mind are those cute wooden structures that once dotted the Dutch landscape or simple greenhouse-like boxes made mostly of glass. Even when we recognize that the modern structures are much different from these iconic images, we still assume that windmills are mostly steel and concrete and photovoltaics must be silicon, which we have in abundance.

Alas, none of these images is correct. I must confess that I myself did not know until recently that modern windmills use large amounts of rare earths, in particular, neodymium to make the lightweight turbine generators needed. Assessing the implications of using rare earths is way out of my field, but among the problems I have seen mentioned are the fact that much of the world's supply of rare earths is in China, that large quantities of neodymium must be mined for each megawatt of generating capacity, and that the "waste" from the mining is thorium! Photovoltaics, too, use a long list of scarce materials, and some publications are beginning to predict trade wars for such materials.

While I am no expert on the supply and demand of these materials, anyone reading the news in recent weeks has seen that rare earths are entering the realm of global trade issues. Perhaps, as some sources suggest, there are other sources of supply, perhaps alternative materials can be developed, perhaps we can reduce the demand. I am certainly going to seek more information in the weeks and months ahead.

In the meantime, my point is not to dismiss wind and solar from the array of options we should explore. Rather, it is a plea to explore these options with a full understanding of all potential impacts. While I have long heard of other potential impacts, such as on grid stability and land use (and I may explore these in more detail in future posts), I think we need to add the issue of materials to the list. The issue of rare earth supply may well turn out to rival--or even exceed--the concerns raised about the worldwide supplies of uranium.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Japanese Personnel Practices and Nuclear Regulation:

More on Amakudari

In the past few days, I had 2 excellent comments on a blog I posted last May on the link between Japanese personnel practices, particularly one called amakudari, or "descent from heaven," and Fukushima. The 2 new comments elaborated on what I had said about the practice of amakudari and provided further information that I thought might be of interest to my readers. I have posted the comments with that blog, but since it is an old blog, I wasn't sure it would be seen by everyone.

Hence, I decided to post both comments as a new blog, hoping that will give the comments a bigger audience. I'd call this a guest blog, but unfortunately, I can't credit my guest, as the author of the comments chose to post them anonymously. Normally, I prefer if people who comment on my blog identify themselves, but I have posted generally anonymous comments, as long as they are constructive, because I realize some people may have constraints on what they can say publicly.

If the author of these comments wishes to be identified, I will gladly add a credit when they come forward, but if they prefer to remain under cover, I will simply say here that I wish to thank Mr. or Ms. Anonymous for a very thoughtful contribution to my blog.

Comments by Anonymous (Message 1):

I think that the statement "The answer is that it is very different" really hits the point. In Japan, amakudari is an integral part of their HR system, and it is not just confined to the bureaucrats but is also practiced by the bankers and the mainstream staff of big corporations.

In those organisations, almost all the staff members are given a guarantee of life-time employment in return for sacrificing their free will and personal development. The life-time employment is closely linked to jinjiidou, i.e., regular personnel reshuffling without any consideration for personal situations, and nenkoujoretsu, i.e., salary based on seniority and not on merit.

The HR system is very much like an ancient guild where the aprenticeship prevailed and the pecking order was a norm. In addition, the life-time employment means that the real structure of the organisation is a "rectangle:, and those who are outside of the formal hierarchy which is a "triangle" need to be taken care of. And that is the reason why amakudari is inevitable.

So amakudari people descend from government to their controlled banks/corporations, and from banks/corporations to their debtors/subsidiaries, etc. The movements are systematically controlled by their personnel departments.

All these things can be done because the people do not sign employment contracts and just follow the unwritten custom. The custom is against the constitution, but nobody will mention it. The education system has brainwashed the people to believe in this anciant custom.

I believe that it is dangerous to leave the HR system as it is while it deals with the modern technologies. Because, in such an HR system, basically nobody will take overall responsibility for any problems such as Fukushima nuclear reactor incident.

Comments by Anonymous (Message 2):
One thing which I forgot to mention is that because the staff are constantly being reshuffled (jinjiidou) in the Japanese HR system, nobody will stay in the same position for more than 2 years (the fast track elite) or for 4-5 years or more (non-elite).

The bureaucrats will say that this constant reshuffling is helping to prevent the corruption, but this is an excuse for dispersing and bluring the responsibility among themselves in case there is any failure or a wrong doing, although it may also means that nobody can be credited for any good achievement.

Hence, at the time of the Fukushima nuclear reactor incident, nobody had an overall view on what was happening, as they were not expected to have such a wide view. Even the prime minister had no clear idea until after the explosions happened.

I believe that this is truly the outcome of the incomplete reforms of the post-WWII US occupation, which was supposed to transform the ancient regime into a democratic one. Unfortunately the virus survived among the bureaucrats during the occupation and it has spread to the banks/corporations under their control - and even schools.

The teachers are being reshuffled within the same prefecture, where the education committee has the HR power. Unlike schools in the US/UK or anywhere else, the headmaster of state schools does not have the power of hiring and firing their teachers.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Clean Fuel:

Is It Always Cleaner?

I was reminded again--as if I needed another reminder--that the supposedly "easy" fixes--just use energy more efficiently or just substitute "cleaner" fuel--doesn't always work.

We've already heard a lot about the downsides of some of these measures. For example, if cars get higher mileage, they are cheaper to run and people tend to drive more.

Another twist on the same theme has come to my attention. Canadian researchers, looking at the results of a program to use "clean fuel" in the form of compressed natural gas in New Delhi, have found that the "clean fuel" was not always successful. A lot of the fuel was used in two-stroke engines, and apparently, the natural gas did not burn properly in these engines, producing high emissions of methane.

The recommendation of the study--"simply" upgrade two-stroke engines to cleaner, more efficient, four-stroke engines.

Hmm. Given the large numbers of two-stroke "auto-rickshaws" that are used largely in poor countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand, it's really hard for me to see individuals, or even governments, making the capital investment necessary to upgrade engines.

This is not to say that there is no other solution to this problem. I hope there is another solution. I simply point out that this example serves as yet another reminder that so many of the grand schemes that are proposed to "solve" our energy problems fall apart in the real world.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fuel from the Middle East:

A Sense of Deja Vu

For those of us old enough to remember the oil embargo of the early 1970s, the various flare-ups in the Middle East over the past year have a familiar ring. The reasons are a little different, but the results are the same--the flow of oil may be at risk. The oil embargo of the early 1970s resulted in long gas lines. So far, the political unrest in the Middle East and the threats and counter-threats between Iran and West have "only" resulted in unstable prices at the gas pump.

Europe is beginning to feel its vulnerability. They have a double threat--dependence on oil from the Middle East and on gas from Russia. The good news is that they have started to take some actions to protect themselves. The European Union is developing a plan to put in place a joint energy market by 2014.

This isn't a done deal yet, and it won't do everything. Interconnecting the European energy supply (electricity grids and gas pipelines) will certainly help the European countries share their resources better, but it won't create new sources of energy. In the current economy, the cost of this venture is likely to be a big issue. And the role of nuclear power, as always, remains controversial. Still, if Europe is successful in getting this started, and if it is accompanied by a European initiative to build more nuclear power plants and other sources of supply that help free them from dependence on other parts of the world, then this initiative is a promising one.

What happens in Europe is not inconsequential. Collectively, the EU is the world's largest regional energy market, serving some 500 million people.

The United States and other countries may not face the same need Europe does to interconnect the grids and pipelines of multiple independent countries, but the rest of the world surely shares the need to assure a supply of energy that is not at risk of disruption from forces outside their control, be they wars, revolts, terrorism, piracy, embargoes, or economic blackmail.

The question is, will this latest crisis galvanize the needed action? Or, will the current problem dissipate, and will we resume business as usual until the next crisis strikes?