The Ergosphere
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

On hiatus

The road show trip means no blogging for about the next 3 weeks.  Unfortunately, the post under construction didn't get finished in time.  I could post it as a work in progress, but that would mean you would all re-read everything when I got finished with it.

Think of it like an omelet; when it's done, it'll be so much better than half-cooked.

UPDATE:  I'm back.  Been back for days, even getting back into substantive stuff.  Why are you looking at this post?  Nothing to see here, move along.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Happy Pi Day

e= -1

(Too cryptic for you?  I hope you pondered it instead of just passing it over, because it deserves some transcendental meditation.)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Blowin' in the wind

The US nuclear industry is getting a long-overdue boost.  Declining supplies of natural gas (accounting for 18% of US generation; stats) plus stiffening prices for coal (which supplies roughly 50%) have driven a surge of interest in new plants.  While coal plants are going to come on-line earlier, nuclear is zero-emission and will be in great demand in a future where the control of greenhouse gases is recognized as a crucial element of ecological, foreign and economic policy.

But the next generation of nuclear plants will not begin delivering power until around 2018, and some parts of the country long ago turned away from coal to reduce pollution.  What's left?  Fortunately, it's the fastest-growing source of electricity in the world:  wind power.

Wind capacity is growing exponentially, and manufacturers are moving aggressively to expand manufacturing.  Installed capacity in the US grew by 35% in 2005, or 2431 megawatts; world capacity grew nearly as fast, with total capacity growing by 25% and installations up 43% over 2004.  Total installations were approximately 11.8 GW; at 30% capacity factor, the new turbines represent about 3.5 GW of average production.  This is small compared to other additions, but the rate of expansion is faster than anything else on earth and the resource is 3 orders of magnitude away from any intrinsic limits.

At the typical 30% capacity factor, the US will receive roughly 740 MW from last year's turbine installations; that's about 3/4 of a large nuclear plant.  But that rate of growth is going through the roof, as both the number of turbines installed and their size increases every year.  If total capacity continues to rise at a compounded 35% per year, the 2006 additions will equal 1 nuclear plant, 2009's will equal 2.5, and the sum from 2006 through 2018 will equal 136 GW of average production or 136 large plants.  By the time the first third-generation nuke comes on line, wind power could be delivering more electrical power than all the nukes currently on the US grid; they would be supplying roughly 30% of 2004's total consumption (up from 0.36%).

But can that rate of growth be maintained at such capacity?  If the only limit on expansion is the capacity left untapped, the future looks quite rosy for at least the next 20 years.  The logistic curve stops accelerating at 50% of its asymptotic value, and 50% of the limit for the continental US is a mighty big number.  The wind potential from the top 20 US states averages about 1.2 TW (may be an underestimate).  At an average production of 139 GW, the US would only be about 12% of the way to full use of the resource.  The logistic curve would still be accelerating strongly at that point, and even at a 35%/year base rate of increase it wouldn't hit the turnover point for another five years or so.

Making effective use of this energy could become a bigger task than generating it.  Piling on another 120 GW of capacity (36 GW average production) each year might be more than either transmission could move or demand could absorb.  This would allow fossil-fired plants to be retired and other users to switch from fossil fuels to electric power during periods of surplus.  Demand-side management is bound to play a huge role over the next couple of decades, coming to be more important than peaking generation.  One of the consequences is likely to be a flattening of the electric price curve, making the off-peak generation of base-load plants even more valuable.  By the time that the new nukes flip on their switches, the world will be a very different place.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Satire snippets

The various anti-science forces in the world continue to be attacked brutally.  No, not with nukes, aircraft or even suicide bombers; they're being ruthlessly assaulted with satire.

I bring you:

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sustainability, efficiency and Jevons' "Paradox"

Jevons' Paradox is a misnomer; it is really no paradox at all.  The idea that it is a paradox assumes that the price-demand curve for product is flat.  This is a notion that most students of economics would laugh at.

This is best illustrated with an example.  Let's suppose that I'm in the widget business.  The old widget-making process uses one hogshead of floo at $10 to make one widget; at $15/widget I can sell 1000 widgets a month and I make $5000.  If I improve my process to use only 1/2 hogshead of floo per widget, I can sell for $10 and still make $5/widget.  Here's the "paradox":  suppose that people will buy 3000 widgets/month at $10 each so my floo consumption goes from 1000 hogsheads/month up to 1500. Floo could go to $15/hogshead and I'd still be making $7500/month compared to my original $5000/month.  Everyone is better off:  I make more money, the floo producers make more money, and the public enjoys 3 times as many widgets.  Even Wikipedia has it right.

Jevons' Paradox only applies where supply is not limited by other factors.  This does not apply to oil; all the money in the world cannot put more in the ground nor change the geological constraints on its rate of production.  Price has some effect on the recovery methods used, but it mostly decides who gets what's produced.  If we doubled our efficiency of using oil, either we could consume twice as much of its products while paying the same price, consume lots more and grab even more of the oil with the higher price we can pay, or hold our consumption to less than double and watch the price of oil go down.

At least it would go down temporarily; depletion will eventually bring the supply back down and cause the price to be bid up once more.  But the ability to pay a greater price has a salutary effect:  it makes other sources competitive.  Suppose that the producer of $10/hogshead floo gets it by mining his raw material and pressing out the liquid; if there is a process for making floo from grape leaves and willow bark at $12.50/hogshead, the improved widget process opens up an entirely new source of supply.  So long as the viniculturists and coppicers can supply the raw material for 1500 hogsheads a month, the price of floo will remain pegged at $12.50 even if the miners go out of business.

This bears a deliberate resemblance to our situation with petroleum and its substitutes.  Biofuels and batteries are expensive, and their production costs have to come down before they're competitive; worse, the further off the prospect of price parity, the less likely people are to invest to make it happen.  But every increase in the price of petroleum brings that point closer.  The cost of alternatives will hit the breakeven point for one use, and then another, and another.  The bigger the industry, the greater the yield from accumulated experience; the greater the cost of petroleum, the faster the investment in new technology will come.  The more efficient the use of the alternatives, the more business they will take away from today's suppliers.

This will work so long as the alternatives do not run into resource constraints of their own.  Corn ethanol is almost there already (it's likely that resource constraints and the consequent price boosts are the entire purpose of the ethanol program), but cellulose resources in garbage and crop and forestry wastes are very under-utilized.  The wind capacity of the United States stands at about 10 GW out of an estimated 1.2 terawatts possible (and another 900 GW on the continental shelves), and solar is barely on the map.

We won't have to worry about competing uses for waste biomass until we're using a lot of the waste.  It would take decades to build out the continental wind resources alone, and I can't see us worrying about competing uses for solar energy for a very long time.

To a first approximation, the likely product of Jevons' Paradox for alternative energy is to make it more attractive and more widely used.  Efficiency is our friend, and as for the paradox, I say bring it on.

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