Archive for October, 2012

The Short Sightedness of US Energy Policy

October 17, 2012

When was the last time you lost electricity in your home or office? Our household power is “bumped” about once a month and lost for more than an hour about three or four times a year. It should be 3-9’s reliable – on for 99.9% of the time – that allows about 8 hours and 45 minutes of outage time per year. I’ll tolerate about 8 hours of outage a year and a power “bump” about monthly, but not much more. Currently, my power meets my minimum expectations, but it is getting less reliable when the forward march of technological innovation should make it more reliable. Some locations around the country suffer brownouts and blackouts dozens of times during the summer months and outages with winter storms that last days or weeks. The US Government is relatively unconcerned about reliable electricity today. More broadly, I think that the US Government is relatively unconcerned about energy policy today.

I have been looking at fuel cells for my home – not solar panels, and not a windmill, but fuel cells. There are only a few companies in the US that are trying to manufacture affordable fuel cells for residential applications. Fuel cells have been used in highly specialized applications such as space vehicles since the ’60’s. Fuel cells are just now being used on a massive scale by Apple and Google to power data centers, for example. But I am looking at fuel cell applications on a “micro” scale for a home – or, perhaps my car!

The classic approach to fuel cells combines hydrogen and oxygen at a minimum temperature under a minimum pressure in a anode-electrolyte-cathode assembly to produce electricity (the desired output) and water (a byproduct) through a process that is the reverse of electrolysis.

One contemporary approach to fuel cell design passes a hydrocarbon such as natural gas or methane through a catalytic membrane to separate out the hydrogen and produce heat. Oxygen from the normal atmosphere is utilized in the cell to produce electricity. This modern cell yields water and carbon as byproducts, and the carbon accumulation may require periodic removal from the catalytic membrane depending on the cell design.

To make a fuel cell useful for my home, the electricity produced must be “converted” to AC, “conditioned”  to steady the voltage under dynamic power demands, and combined with the electric power infrastructure to sell excess power generated by the cell to other consumers on the “grid” during my low usage conditions and supplement power generated by the cell with power from the “grid” during my high usage conditions.

I am looking for a fuel cell that generates 3KW continuously and accommodates demand spikes as high as 5KW from my home. It would be fed by natural gas, should be about the size a microwave oven, should not be a fire hazard, should pass the water byproduct to a reservoir for household use, and use the waste heat to heat my water and even my home in the winter.

So, why am I even thinking about this? I am concerned that this country’s current energy policy is limited in scope today and likely to become even foolish in the future. The day may come in the not too distant future when the conventional electricity infrastructure (the grid) is so unreliable and so costly that my quality of life will decline. My concern is much broader than electricity – it extends to gasoline, coal, natural gas, nuclear materials, wind, solar, thermal and water – it includes efficiencies – it includes the components to convert and condition electricity to make it useful – it includes how energy is used by society at home, at work, for transportation of goods and people, etc. Energy is critical to our lifestyle here in the US, and it is costly – it will surely become more costly in the future. Today, and in the near term, it is my opinion that natural gas is not only sold through a more reliable residential infrastructure compared to the “grid”, but it may be a generally more efficient energy source for the home, and it is likely to be a less costly energy source to heat and cool my home in the future.

Current US energy policy relies on tax credits to encourage generation diversity and consumption efficiencies, and investments in alternative generation and consumption techniques through grants and loans. On a more global scale, energy policy relies on a “cap and trade” strategy to encourage reduction in emissions (but not necessarily to make better use of energy). I fail to see much attention paid by the US Government to future objectives other than gas mileage for cars, and that disturbs me.

Current political forces I see focus on production strategies – to become less reliant on foreign oil production and more reliant on domestic natural gas and coal production. Coal and petro-deposits are like a savings account in a bank – consume it today, and it is gone forever – you may need it in the future more than you need it today. If its value appreciates over time, it has more value in the future – consume it today, and you sacrifice the future appreciation in value, too. Coal and petro-deposits are nonrenewable – they become scarce goods – when it is all consumed, there is nothing left to put in that “savings account” in the future. When it is all gone or no longer accessible, you are at the mercy of someone else who has the natural resource for sale – you are hostage to the terms and conditions imposed by the other party, and they may not be generous T’s and C’s. The political forces today are encouraging us to “eat our seed corn”, so to speak, to consume our own natural resources today rather than someone else’s, and that is likely to make the future even more uncertain, and that disturbs me.

Me? I am all for using up the petro-deposits in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Venezuela rather than our own deposits here in the US. On that course, when it comes to “crunch time” for global oil supplies to feed the US, European and Asian economies – when supply fails to meet demand, the US would have the advantage of being the most independent country in the world in that respect, rather than the most dependent one. I am all for keeping as much US coal, oil and gas in the ground as possible today by consuming someone else’s for as long as possible to secure our future security. I am afraid that the present course secures a future disadvantage for the US for the sake of a more comfortable present, and that disturbs me.

For now, I like foreign oil in lieu of American oil, but there is much more to the energy equation. So, I am looking at a fuel cell for my home – and perhaps for my car! And I am hopeful that someone more intelligent than I will implement a prudent comprehensive  US energy policy soon.

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A Conversation about the Weather

October 11, 2012

I pulled up to a table at a local Starbucks – I shared a largish table with a stranger who kindly offered to share in the completely full Starbucks with a sea of laptops adjacent to empty coffee cups… I was glad to share this fellow’s table, and he was happy to strike up a conversation about the weather.

“Strange weather out,” he said.

“Yup,” I replied.  “The western storm system is pushing moisture into our region of the country, and a cold front is whizzing through the plains right into Texas.  Strange weather,,,”

“This isn’t global warming, though. That’s nonsense,” he said. “This is just strange weather.”

“You think that global warming is nonsense,” I asked?

“Yes, of course it is,” He said. “Just a conspiracy for someone to get rich off of carbon taxes. Just an excuse to justify more and more Government regulation. People don’t understand that we have bastards all around us who want power and money. They can all go to hell for all I care.”

“Sometime it does seem that we are surrounded by greedy, power hungry people who want all my money – and yours, too.” I retorted.

I am smiling on the inside. I don’t want to offend this gentleman.

“Who is the real expert on global warming,” I ask?

“Well, it’s not Al Gore. Rush Limbaugh says it is all nonsense. So does Glenn Beck,” he pronounced.

I guess that I shifted visibly in my chair.

“You think that global warming is real? Heck, they say the ocean is a half degree warmer than it was fifty years ago. A half of a degree – that’s nothing,” he says. “A half of a degree doesn’t matter at all. The ocean is just absorbing more sunlight, is all.

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

I am thinking to myself that a half degree warmer ocean is pretty significant, and that this fellow should be somewhat alarmed about that if that is indeed the case. But the reality is that a warmer ocean is disputed in scientific circles because the data is largely inconclusive considering other factors such as ocean currents and salinity.

My brain was busy preparing a slew of questions to put this fellow in a corner so he would realize the degree of ignorance he was displaying, but I refrained.

I asked, “What do you think the weather will be like tomorrow?”

This conversation brings me to the point I really want to make: Our society as a whole is terribly ignorant about science. This fellow I was having a cup of coffee with was turning to Limbaugh and Beck for scientific confirmation – two gentlemen who are none too credible in my book for scientific reporting.

More to the point, when a person is ignorant, they are easily manipulated. Extend ignorance to an entire society, and important decisions about policy and priority are easily swayed by a measure of “razzle-dazzle” and a convincing face. Give me facts that I have the knowledge to comprehend, and I will apply them to a relevant context, and I will make better decisions. So will the public – if the public can in fact comprehend the most basic of facts.

My observation is that much of the public is held in ignorance about most things scientific. The average person seems to want the “convincing face” to tell them the answer they want to hear so that they don’t have to think about something they are ignorant about – someone with a good haircut can do a fairly good job as the “convincing face”! I just want the facts (and they can be hard to come by) – and I wish that society as a whole was better educated, particularly in the sciences, than we seem to be.

Oh well… The weather tomorrow will be a little cooler!

It’s a Simpler Balancing Act if You Know the Mission

October 2, 2012

I “run” our neighborhood. I am the HOA president – have been for almost a decade. I manage a non-profit company as a volunteer with an army of volunteers behind me who have my back. Our priorities and initiatives are all a balancing act. Money vs. Impact; Support vs. Opposition. Someone asked me one day,

“Brian, how do you make decisions for the HOA? What are your criterion?”

I replied, “It’s all the mission. Does it add or detract from the mission? It’s all a balancing act.”

“What’s the mission?” he asked.

“Maximizing your home’s resale value – and mine, too,” I replied.

In our HOA, every decision I make adds to my neighbor’s home’s resale value – and mine. Is the neighborhood pretty? Yes. Are we addressing crime in some tangible way? Yes. Do we promote good relationships between neighbors? Yes. Do we promote attractive homes and responsible home ownership? Yes. Do we want children to be able to play safely in our streets? Yes. Do we seek some visual harmony in the neighborhood? And some visual interest in the neighborhood, too? Yes. Do we want wildlife nearby to be visible, but still at arm’s length (we have bobcats and coyotes)? Yes. We wave at our neighbors walking or driving through our neighborhood, and they wave back – this is a genuinely nice neighborhood to live in.

It’s all a balancing act. For precisely $30 per month per homeowner – essentially a dollar per day, I balance all these things with the consensus of our Board, help from homeowner volunteers,  and the services of a small number of companies we contract with. We don’t have a glitzy fountain, a swimming pool, or a clubhouse. Instead, we have more than 6.8 acres of wilderness land that we oversee in the middle of a small metroplex neighborhood with two creeks, canopies of trees, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, beavers, hawks and eagles, rock outcroppings, redbud trees, pecan trees, dogwood trees, tall oaks and elms – this is the eye candy that I appreciate. It’s all a balancing act…

When a realtor friend drove into the neighborhood with me one afternoon, she remarked, “This is beautiful – nice entrances, nice landscaping – it is peaceful.” Walking along one of our streams with a glass of wine in hand, she remarked, “I can sell homes here!” “See the bobcats over there?” I asked. “Oh.” and she turned to leave rather quickly. It’s all a balancing act – I would have sat across the stream from the bobcats…

With elections looming, it is ever more apparent that we are seeing a difficult balancing act unfold before us. And I have to ask, and ask again, because I don’t hear the answer in the Presidential campaign, “What is the mission?” To my mind, it should be “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But that doesn’t  appear to be the mission at all…

If you don’t have a mission, you don’t have any defendable criterion for balancing priorities…