The Ergosphere
Saturday, March 20, 2004

There's a sucker society born every generation

Randall Parker opines that the solution to the population crisis in the developed nations is a radical extension of human lifespans.
Meanwhile, in another thread, he mentions the impending bankruptcy of both Social Security and Medicare due in no small part to... extension of human lifespans.
I see no small amount of cognitive dissonance here.  Parker's utopian vision appears to be of people giving up government benefits and perhaps even tax-favored pensions in order to keep working tens or hundreds of years beyond the time when people are normally worm food.  I can just as easily see a dystopian vision, where the growing class of seniors who are either part of or about to enter a priviledged class with an ever-growing lifelong vacation ahead of them use their voting power to prevent any such thing from happening for as long as they can.  The result:  an acceleration of the coming economic collapse of governments and even whole societies.
I have no doubt that science can bring us wonders which were previously the exclusive province of dreams and fables.  I do have doubts that we have the political maturity to acknowledge and embrace all of their necessary consequences, as earth-shaking as they might be.  The pyramid schemes of the newly-freed ex-Soviet bloc nations may have surprised some of us in the West with the breadth and the depth of the damage they did, and with the number of suckers that the con artists found.  But it's hard to say that they should have known better when our own government-blessed Ponzi schemes are doing the same to us on a longer time scale, and we refuse to muster the political will to fix the problem at its various sources.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Is the tide turning?

One of the more radical dreams of the true environmentalists (as opposed to the anti-humanists who use environmentalism as a cover) is to convert the world economy to renewable energy.  They will not be fulfilled until homes, factories and transport are using no fossil, nuclear or other unclean, depletable energy supplies.

This is a tall order, one that humanity has not met since the discovery of the useful properties of coal.  Yet it remains worthwhile to keep the goal in mind, if not for the environment, then for our political and economic defense in the war declared against us by the Islamofascists.  Randall Parker sets forth a standard by which we can measure our progress in one sense:  when the alternatives to oil are cheaper than oil, the economic power of the Middle East will be beaten.  Technology is unlikely to retreat, while depleted oil fields will never be more full than they are today.

The ideal scheme has always been the most expensive:  the solar-powered car versus the status quo.  Photovoltaic cells are one of the most expensive means of capturing energy from renewable sources, albeit also one of the simplest and lowest-maintenance.  If a car receiving power from solar PV cells can deliver transportation at a lower cost per mile than gasoline, the millennium will have arrived.  But could the millennium have sneaked in while we weren't looking?  Let's take a look at the figures.

The beauty of electric vehicles is that most of the required infrastructure is already in place; we need no filling stations for new fuels or new pipeline networks.  The new vehicle designs are ready to hand:  we already have plug-free hybrid cars which attain 60 MPG and upwards, and if we add bigger batteries to such a hybrid we can make a plug-in hybrid or CalCar.  More batteries does not just mean better acceleration and more efficient regenerative braking, it also means some operation without the need for any energy besides the stored electricity.  We can build these cars today; we could (and should) have been building them ten years ago (but the litany of the sins of the California Air Resources Board is a rant for another day).

Suppose for a moment that we built such cars with today's technology and tried to power them as much as possible with renewable energy.  How much would they cost to run?

The two major costs of the electric portion of such a vehicle are electricity and battery degradation.  Let's start with batteries.

The current price-leader technology for storage batteries is the old, reliable lead-acid chemistry.  It wins no prizes for energy density or lifespan, but it can be made for substantial power density and it is certainly cheap.  Lithium-ion or fuel cells may be the ultimate winner of the technology race forty years hence, but if we can make things work with lead-acid we can get started immediately.  We needed to get started in 1990, so we have no time to lose.

Depending on the chemistry and technology, batteries are limited by both cycle life and calendar life.  If we take 3 years as a reasonable period between battery replacements in a car and assume daily use, we need approximately 1100 cycles from the battery if it is charged once a day and 2200 cycles if it is charged twice a day (say, at home overnight and again at work).  If we refer to the cycle life vs. depth of discharge curve below, we see that if we want 2200 cycles of life we can discharge that model of battery by roughly 40%; if we only need 1100 cycles we can discharge the battery by roughly 50%.

Current electric vehicles consume roughly 200 watt-hours per mile.  This seems to be a reasonable figure for conventional vehicles as well.  If the vehicle is required to operate for 30 miles on electricity alone, it will require 6 KWH of electricity.  At 50% DoD the battery pack would have to store 12 KWH, or 15 KWH at 40% DoD.

A commercially-available deep-cycle battery storing a nominal 1.2 KWH costs approximately $70 US at retail.  If we assume that a battery equivalent to the Yellow Top can be built at this price, plus bulk discounts for production and purchase, we might see that drop to $60 or about $50 per KWH.  A 12 KWH battery would cost $600; a 15 KWH battery would cost $750.  The cost of energy storage for 2200 cycles to 40% DoD would be ($750/2200*6) = 5.7 cents/KWH; for 1100 cycles to 50% DoD, the cost would be ($600/1100*6) = 9.1 cents/KWH.  The corresponding per-mile costs are 1.1 cents/mile and 1.8 cents/mile.

That takes care of the battery costs.  What about the electricity to charge them?  Solar PV panels produce DC, so it seems reasonable to assume a very high potential efficiency if they are being used to charge batteries more or less directly.  Assume the net efficiency of battery plus charger is 80%, which yields 250 WH of PV output per vehicle-mile of travel.

The actual price of solar PV depends on too many factors to account for in an analysis this simple; however, the figure of $.25/KWH seems to be reasonable for the day.  If we assume values from $.30/KWH down to $.20/KWH and run numbers, we get this range of projections:

  • $.30/KWH and 1100 cycles/3 years:  9.3 cents/mile.
  • $.30/KWH and 2200 cycles/3 years:  8.6 cents/mile.
  • $.25/KWH and 1100 cycles/3 years:  8.1 cents/mile.
  • $.25/KWH and 2200 cycles/3 years:  7.4 cents/mile.
  • $.20/KWH and 1100 cycles/3 years:  6.8 cents/mile.
  • $.20/KWH and 2200 cycles/3 years:  6.1 cents/mile.
If we assume wind or hydro power may be available at $.10/KWH retail, the figures look even better:
  • $.10/KWH and 1100 cycles/3 years:  4.3 cents/mile.
  • $.10/KWH and 2200 cycles/3 years:  3.6 cents/mile.
At this writing the retail price of regular unleaded gasoline is pushing $2.20/gallon in California.  If the competition is a conventional internal-combustion engine vehicle burning regular gas at that price, I get the following energy costs for various levels of economy:
  • 12 MPG (typical big SUV):  18.3 cents/mile
  • 16 MPG (typical medium SUV):  13.8 cents/mile
  • 20 MPG (typical small SUV):  11 cents/mile
  • 27.5 MPG (CAFE limit for passenger cars):  8 cents/mile
  • 35 MPG (economy car):  6.3 cents/mile
  • 60 MPG (2004 Toyota Prius, city rating):  3.7 cents/mile
From the look of it, solar PV feeding plug-in hybrid cars can already deliver transportation to Californians more cheaply than any ICE-powered vehicle getting less than 20 MPG.  If solar PV costs 20 cents/KWH and the vehicle runs its batteries for 2200 cycles between replacements, the cost is already par with a 35-MPG economy car.  And if you assume the availability of wind or hydro power at 10 cents/KWH for charging, the plug-in hybrid can push energy-cost parity with the Prius.

It looks like the millenium may already be here.  It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Cycle life vs. depth-of-discharge diagram for Yellow Top batteries.
(Graphic courtesy Optima, via Commuter Cars Corp.  Copyrights NOT mine.)

Links and acknowledgements:

Costs of Oil Dependence: A 2000 Update
EPRI study on plug-in hybrid vehicles

Many thanks to the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, who compiled many of these links and did a fine job of documenting much of what I've been thinking about for the last several years before I found out about them.  Also thanks to Randall Parker, who brought them to my notice.

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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Freedom not to skydive?

Porphyrogenitus writes in response to my letter (reproduced in full below).
I believe that his normally-concise reasoning is falling apart here, due to his antipathy toward government regulation.  (I share this antipathy in most things.  I first made the argument he received from Terrey Cobb well over ten years ago, and I still stand by it.  But that isn't an excuse to stop thinking.)
I believe in liberty, and one's freedom to take damnfool risks ought to extend just as far as one's willingness and ability (backed by insurance, if necessary) to bear the full cost of the results.  But that only extends to risks posed to one's own self.  If you pose a risk to others you give them every right to stop you (else why are we going after bomb-plotters in tribal Pakistan and nuclear proliferators in Iran and N. Korea?).  Choosing to consume nicotine, or skydive, is one thing; forcing others to do it with you, without their permission and contrary to their well-being, is another.
He makes a point about "public space", but what he really means is places of public accomodation.  It's settled law that a place of public accomodation (such as, say, a lunch counter) cannot bar access to people on the basis of skin color.  But what of people whose difference is not visible?  Should businesses be allowed to discriminate against athsmatics by allowing some patrons to maintain conditions harmful or deadly to them?
There are varying claims about smoking bans being bad or good for business.  These are of questionable relevance to arguments about freedom.  The issue Porphyrogenitus does not acknowledge is that the right to wave one's fist ends at another's nose, and while one has the right to consume nicotine (as repulsive as both of us find it), I believe that one does not have the right to heedlessly redistribute the effluent of one's consumption so as to endanger or even inconvenience other people.  Others' right to breathe trumps one's own right to smoke when and how one pleases.
The letter:

Date:  Wed, 10 Mar 2004 16:29:40 -0800 (PST)
From: "Engineer Poet" <>
Subject: Banning, or restricting?


I'm normally a fan of your work (and I will regret the day that you
have to devote most of your blogging time to the Army), but I have a
bone to pick with your writing in

First, you are mis-stating the point of the article you cite.  The
article talks about a ban on smoking in public places, not smoking
in general.  The difference is crucial, because many of the lives
saved (and much of the morbidity prevented) comes from non-smokers
who are currently exposed to smoke in public places.  The comparison
to sky-diving is inapt; skydiving is prohibited over populated areas,
and thus falling skydivers present a negligible threat to the public.

Smoking is a problematic habit because smoke does not respect
boundaries.  One cannot easily choose whether or not to inhale smoke,
and some people's health and wellbeing are threatened by even slight
exposure.  A ban on smoking in public spaces still leaves smokers
with many options, such as smoking in private spaces (smoking booths?),
consuming nicotine in the form of chewing tobacco or gum, or other
options not yet invented (entrepreneurial opportunities).  What it
will do is restrict exposure to people who actually choose it, much
as the threat from falling skydivers is restricted by the geographic
limitations on the sport.  As a libertarian, I believe this is a good

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Wanted: Orbital mechanic. Must have own tools.

Stephen Den Beste writes about the issues of getting something from Luna to a LaGrange point.
In particular, he states:
If rocks flung off the moon approach the L5 point, and are caught by a station there, the total momentum of the station will change. And the only known way to deal with that is to fling mass back off the station in the opposite direction. [1]
It doesn't have to be the same amount of mass, but the momentum (mass times velocity) has to be the same. If it isn't, you get an orbital change. [2]
One way or another, rocks flung off the moon have to be decelerated somehow at the L5 point, and the only way we know of to do that is with rocket engines or some equivalent. The theoretical best case for such a system in terms of propellant efficiency is a particle accelerator which fires mass at nearly the speed of light, but such a system will have a very low thrust. All known high-thrust engines are extremely inefficient in terms of propellant. [3]
Then he reconsidered, and stated:
There are actually two ways to change momentum. The other is to use gravity.
Unfortunately, I believe he missed a number of salient points:
  1. You don't have to fling mass off the station unless the incoming mass has some difference in angular momentum.  If the velocity difference is in the inward or outward direction the push will tend to change the orbital period, but there is an easy remedy for this:  balance the incoming payloads so that their radial momentum is distributed more or less evenly over each full orbit, and the effect is to change the orbital period slightly.  You can balance this with small amounts of delta-V if and when you have to vary the pace of mass delivery.
  2. Even if you do pick up some angular momentum, you can use magsails or the like to offset the change with minimal expenditure of mass.
  3. Why would you need a high-thrust engine?  The whole point of going into space to do your manufacturing is that it is an energy-rich environment.  This is the perfect place for low-thrust, high-impulse engines.  The momentum delivered by the steady arrival of high-mass, low-velocity lumps of regolith that cannot be dissipated against gravity could be thrown away on a much smaller stream of high-velocity material, and the copious solar energy flows could supply the required power.
The sad part about this is that most of the ground work for the transfer of lunar mass (for ore or shielding) had been done in the 1970's and early 1980's, and ought to be well-known by now.  The relative difficulty of transfer to the Lagrange points was the reason for adopting the 2:1 resonant orbit as the preferred orbit for a space construction facility using lunar materials; if I recall correctly a freighter capturing material at L2 (which is not stable, but metastable) would fall naturally into the 2:1 resonant orbit if allowed to fall away from L2.There are further possibilities if you assume that skyhooks are practical; if my old calculations were correct the distance from the Moon to the Earth-Moon L1 point is only about 2000 miles, and the gravitational loads are small enough to allow such a skyhook to be built with graphite (not nanotube) fiber or even sapphire whiskers.  To get mass off Luna using one of those all you would need to do is haul it out some distance beyond L1 and let it go; since the net attraction past L1 is Earthward it might even be feasible to power the entire lift process with gravity, allowing each payload falling toward the construction facility to pull the next one up from the lunar surface.  (Tide gets the regolith out!)
I don't mean to put Stephen down, but he hasn't put as much study into the issue as the extremely acute minds of the Space Studies Institute era.  I stand in awe at some of their work, such as the papers presented at the AAS conference on orbital tethers (volume 61, if you can find it).  When that kind of brainpower has gone before, it behooves one to be careful before pronouncing something impossible.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Starving the beast

One of the more interesting phenomena of recent history was part of the fallout of the Asian economic crisis of 1998.  The value of currencies in the region collapsed, and the buying power of all local (as opposed to export) industries fell with them.
The fallout was not limited to improving the competitive position of Taiwanese computer parts manufacturers.  One effect which surprised many at the time was the slump in the price of crude oil; it fell from its previous range of 15-20 USD/bbl to around 10.  Production proved far less elastic than prices.  The production in 1999 fell only slightly compared to 1998 despite much lower prices.  (Production fell again in 2002, the last year on the list - but this time the price rose, indicating that demand had not fallen.  At the time of this writing the dollar price is in territory not seen since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.)
What are the effects of this?  One of them is to pull money out of investment and non-fuel consumption.  The USA is currently using roughly 20 million barrels/day of crude; an increase from $24/bbl to $34/bbl means an extra $200 million/day in cost, or roughly $70 billion per year.  This is small compared to the economy, but it is a large fraction (~1/7) of even this year's bloated US federal budget deficit.  The effect on the oil-producing nations is similar.  At 2002 production levels, OAPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) also produces roughly 20 million barrels per day, and reaps a similar $200 million/day in extra revenue from the price increase.
If that money had remained in the USA it would have been sufficient to create approximately 1.2 million jobs at $50,000 a year plus overhead.  In the OAPEC countries it probably creates fewer jobs, but one cannot help but wonder if some does not go to fundamentalist madrassas and even less savory "charities" in SW Asia and elsewhere.
The USA is now spending over $100 billion per year to fix problems in just one country resulting from the ability of a dictator to monopolize that country's revenue stream from oil.  Even before the 2003 Iraq action, roughly half of our defense budget (call it $180 billion or so per year) was spent to defend against threats from oil dictatorships and theocracies or to protect their product on its way to us (mostly from their immediate neighbors).  They literally got us coming and going.
These threats are financed with the money we send them.  Despite this, the Bush administration pushed faster business tax write-offs for gas-guzzling vehicles like the Hummer and Excursion than for more efficient light trucks and cars.  There is a serious disconnect in Washington, where domestic policy creates effects which frustrate the goals of foreign policy and the need for defense to protect our interests are not counted as a liability of either.
We've created a monster, and the only thing we can do about it is to stop relying on foreign oil in general and Middle East oil in particular.  As most oil goes for transportation, we need to aim at the same cars and trucks which have been fuelling the profits of the auto industry.  This is not going to be an easy thing to do, but there is a point we have to keep in mind:  this is war, and war entails sacrifice.
We are lucky for two reasons:
  1. Transport is one of the least efficient users of energy in our economy.  The whole sector is loaded with low-hanging fruit, fat and ripe.
  2. The US consumption of motor gasoline alone is approximately 90% of the total output of Saudi Arabia.  Changes made in the US have the potential to change oil markets worldwide, even swinging pricing power from producers back to consumers.  Spread of the same technologies around the world could do the same many times over.
When push comes to shove, we really don't care what makes our cars and trucks go.  Aside from gear-heads, most people pay little attention to what's under the hood of their car; some people barely know how their vehicles work, and do little aside from adding fuel.  A shift from oil to some other motive energy for vehicles needn't be any more difficult or traumatic than the shift from spermaceti to kerosene for lighting fuel.The search for the ultimate energy source has for a while been a hobby for some, nearly a religion for others.  However, anything which requires a large change in infrastructure before coming into widespread use is just not going to make a difference soon enough to be useful.  This includes panaceas such as hydrogen and fusion.
I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that our most important immediate goal is to displace petroleum motor fuels, and our best bet is to go partially electric.  CalCars has been suggesting "depletion-mode" hybrids, which carry batteries both for surge power and regenerative braking as well as short-distance driving without using any fuel at all.  If the average daily commute is 20 miles round trip, a mere 20 miles range on electricity would serve to eliminate petroleum consumption on a large fraction of all driving and take a big bite out of the fuel needs for the rest.  Electric load peaks typically occur during the afternoon in most areas and seasons, so vehicles which take charges of a few KWH apiece overnight would require no upgrades of the electrical infrastructure (and increased profits from sales would help finance any which are required).
Consumer acceptance of such cars ought to be good.  I'd want one just because it would be nice to have these features:
The US used about 38 quadrillion BTU of oil in 2002, roughly half of which went for motor gasoline.  If the average efficiency of gasoline-burning vehicles is 17%, that means that a complete replacement of petroleum auto fuel by electricity would require about 3.2 quads of electricity plus losses.  This is a large but not overwhelming requirement.  Some suggestions for getting it will be part of a future entry.

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