Entries in energy (4)


The Bumpy Downside

One big debate within the peak oil community is if the world is facing an economic contraction due to scarce energy, will that be a “fast” or a “slow” collapse?  In a fast collapse, failures cascade in a rapid, catastrophic way.  In a slow collapse, there isn’t out-of-control acceleration, but past problems and a shrinking resource base undermine the ability to deal with future problems effectively, so the slide cannot be easily halted.

In 2005, I would have leaned towards “fast”, but I was wrong.  All signs, including the Baltic caviar price curve for oil (instead of the sustained high prices I would have expected) point to slow.

A great case-study for this sort of collapse in modern times is the fall of the Soviet Union, which Dimitri Orlov analyzes in his book, Reinventing Collapse.  So I was struck by a recent blog entry that discusses how Greece is now following a similar pattern:

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia’s life expectancy fell dramatically. It’s birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia […]

An excerpt really doesn’t do it justice, go read the whole thing.

On a similar theme, consider this post on bus fuel efficiency improvements:

Orion buses, by stark contrast, are so far almost doubling the miles a coach can travel on a tank. Thanks to the fact that the diesel engine driving them is half the size of a conventional bus’s, they are also quiet enough for the driver to hold a conversation with a passenger on the freeway without either raising their voices. Oh, and don’t let that small engine fool; they move up hills faster than the conventionals. These buses are nice.

And they are going to be needed. As the financial crisis deepens, more and more are riding the bus. A financial analyst stumbled upon probably the best graph yet for visualizing the present perhaps post-peak world […]

The graph is question is this:

The post goes on to note:

Remember my excitement over the new Orion coaches? One of their chief investors in the hybrid technology, Daimler, has decided that increasing bus fuel mileage is simply not profitable:

Daimler Buses North America no longer will manufacture buses at its Orion facility in the Oneida County Industrial Park, officials announced Wednesday…

“Daimler Buses considered all possible options for reconfiguring our transit bus operations in North America,” said Harmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses. “But at the end of the day, Orion is facing a situation where the cost position is not competitive, the local market is in a continued slump and growth opportunities are not available from selling the product overseas.”

It’s not because these buses won’t prove cost effective in a future with ever-rising fuel costs. That’s not it at all. It’s because an era of ever-rising fuel costs will force everyone to reorganize their expenditures. Businesses that rely upon cheap fuel will cut back or go out of business, and closed and/or downsized businesses can’t pay as much in taxes.

Taxes pay for buses.

So just when they need to cut back on their own travel expenses, many workers will see a shortage of buses available to get them to and from work.

That’s slow collapse for you.  Mundane problems with mundane solutions so close at hand.  And yet…


An Earthquake Energy Crisis

On Friday, Japan experienced the worst earthquake in its recorded history (in world history, the fifth largest since 1900).

One thing getting a lot of attention is the situation at Japan’s nuclear reactors.  11 plants were shut down in the aftermath of the quake.  However, generators one and three Fukushima I have encountering coolant problems post-shutdown, and hydrogen explosions (from vented coolant) have blown off the roofs of the generator buildings (note: not the reactor containment vessels).   There are also worries of a meltdown at Fukushima I-2 and reported problems with several generators Fukushima II.)

Fortunately, those were not problems with the shutdown procedure itself, all the reactors were brought sub-critical.  However, even with no fusion ongoing, the decay of existent radioactive isotopes releases enough heat to require a functioning coolant system for several days to prevent the fuel rods from melting.  (Which would be a disaster: Newer Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) have tertiary containment designed to contain a full meltdown (a “core catcher”), Fukushima I predates that design.)  Unfortunately, venting of coolant steam during emergency cooling can result in the release of some radioisotopes: Some Cesium and Iodine (byproducts from the fuel rods if primary containment (cover on the fuel rods) is breached, Nitrogen-16 (from the oxygen in the water), Tritium (Hydrogen-3; from the decay of Boron-11 or Boron-12, from the boric acid used to suppress the fission reaction), and Carbon-14).

While some prognosticators are predicting none of the 11 reactors will come back online ever (which would mean really interesting things for Japan’s long-term energy situation), I’d bet that all but Fukushima I (and maybe II) will be up again after inspections and repairs.  But that’s “relatively quickly” in nuclear reactor terms, so that still means that 20% of Japan’s current generating capacity is offline for months at least.

Further reading:  Here’s a lengthy description of the sort of safety devices / procedures implemented at a BWR like the ones at Fukushima I.  And here’s a more detailed analysis of the situation at Fukushima I specifically (I can’t verify the author’s identity or expertise, but the article makes some interesting (and specific) predictions; his assumptions about the worst-case scenario are too optimistic, though the post has now been moved to here and edited for correctness).

ETA: I may yet be forced to eat my words.  Units 2 and 4 at Fukushima I have evidently also had explosions, and those have suffered actual breaches to the containment.  Unit 4 wasn’t running before the earthquake, but it’s still filled with spent fuel.  And unit 2 is probably in the middle of a partial meltdown with a ruptured containment vessel.

(Update again: Word now is that the inner reactor vessel is ruptured, not the outer containment.  The design goes something like this:  Fuel rod, casing, reactor vessel (the inner part of the “double boiler”), containment (the outer part of the “double boiler” and the last layer designed to hold in the core), building (not really designed to keep anything in, mostly there to keep the weather out).  The fuel rods and casings are almost certainly damaged in reactors 1-3, the reactor vessel is damaged in 2, and the building is damaged in 1 and 3.)

The disaster is currently rated at INES Level 4 (“accident with local consequences”). Three Mile Island was 5, Chernobyl was 7. Earlier today, Intrade gave 50%, 38%, and 13% odds that it will be raised to 5, 6, and 7, respectively, before the end of March.  Now those odds are at 95%, 46%, and 20%.


America Needs Better Places

This TED Talk given by James Howard Kunstler is fascinating because it goes a long way to explain the problems with suburbia outside of the direct issue of energy efficiency:

The problem of impoverished public spaces has several sources, many self-reinforcing.  If people drive everywhere, they don’t spend a lot of time in between-building public spaces, so there’s no incentive to improve those spaces, and thus no incentive not to drive everywhere.  If culture values private space over public space, the resulting public spaces reinforce those values.  If people have hard jobs and long commutes, they might not want to linger anywhere on their journey back to their family, so even the indoor public spaces put convenience and speed over the friendliness of the space itself.  And after a long drive home to the kids (who have no access to any sort of public space on their own), one might prefer playing in the back yard to driving out to the park (if there is one).  On the architectural side, building one nice building won’t rehabilitate an otherwise unpleasant space, so why bother.  And based on the idea that the right thing to do in public places certainly isn’t “hang out”, architectural fashions have risen disproportionately promoting elements that are intimidating, disorienting, or disconcerting.

A digression on that last point:  It seems almost like America’s wholesale rejection of urban design fundamentals gave American architects a form of Stockholm Syndrome.  These are the people tasked with building good spaces, which is often impossible and requires knowledge that has been largely discarded.  That leads them to make horrible design decisions even in places where good public spaces could be created and the resources are available.  Kunstler uses Boston’s City Hall plaza as an example, and I can see why:

Boston City Hall

Wikipedia’s discussion of the critical response highlights that architects rated the building far more highly than the general public.  Seriously, did the architects actually think, “It would be great if Boston’s City Hall looked like an imposing concrete inverted UFO filled with bureaucrats, surrounded by a vast brick buffer zone where people have no reason to habitually linger, that’s what the face of local democracy and civic engagement in Boston should look like”?  Presumably not.  It’s just that it seems like a cool idea, any sort of cube-dwellers can be installed in any sort of building, the wide-open space makes for some dramatic light and shadow and consequently some pretty interesting photos if you crop them right.


Oil Volcano Apocalypse

The story of the Gulf oil spill have been on my mind a lot lately, I’ve been following it since the initial disaster, and there are some interesting recent developments, so it’s as good a topic as any to start with.

Basic background:  On April 20, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig (belonging to Transocean, leased by BP, operating 80 km off of the Louisiana coast).  The resulting fire could not be extinguished, and after two days, the rig sank.  The disaster killed eleven crew and caused a massive oil spill.

The oil spill should have been stopped by the rig’s blowout preventer device.  It’s unknown if the crew tried to trigger the device manually.  The failsafe dead-man’s switch failed to trigger the device.  Subsequent attempts to activate the device with ROVs failed.  Some countries require an acoustic remote control for the blowout preventer on offshore wells, but BP had successfully lobbied against US regulation that would require that.  It’s not clear that would have helped.  Yesterday, the well casing collapsed.

BP and the Coast Guard have been trying various methods to contain the oil spill, with very limited success.  BP does not appear to have had enough boom on hand to contain a spill of that magnitude (a lot, but still actually rather cheap compared to the cost of operating the rigs, where just the lease is nearly a half-million dollars per day).  The general idea is to use multiple layers of overlapping boom to divert oil to catchment basins.  That way, even though some oil sloshes over and under the booms (and it will), the lion’s share of it can be concentrated and removed from the area.  If you see long parallel lines of boom parallel to the shore, that’s a sign that things are being done wrong.

They’ve also been hitting the spill with chemical dispersants, which have several problems:  They’re toxic.  The metabolism of oil by bacteria, which the dispersants are intended to allow, is also pretty disruptive to ecosystems.  It turns the ocean into a giagantic oil lava lamp, which makes the oil harder to track and more disruptive to ecosystems at all depths.  Not surprisingly, oil is being found at great depths and the media are mostly following the spill at the surface.

BP is also considering implementing a “top kill” (circulating mud and concrete through the well to seal it), but it’s not clear whether that plan will work now that the well has disintegrated further.  Also, if they succeed, they’ll face the question of why they didn’t implement the plan sooner.

The spill has been interesting politically.  BP has claimed that they’ll pay “all legitimate claims” of damages from the spill, but it’s not clear how arduous a process they’ll use for determining “legitimacy”.  If they pay more in civil liabilities than required by law, they might risk shareholder lawsuit.  Republicans have blocked attempts to raise that limit from $75M to $10B, but I don’t know if such a change after the accident would affect BP.  President Barack Obama has talked a good talk about making BP pay, but has done nothing of substance (some possible but implausible options).  Sarah Palin has accused Barack Obama of being in bed with big oil (warning: the preceding sentence may contain a lethal dose of irony).  Libertarian (and now Republican congressional candidate) Rand Paul accused Obama of being “un-American” for merely criticizing BP, seeming to assert that BP’s assurance that they’ll pay civil penalties is more than enough.

It’s also been interesting from a media standpoint.  BP’s been trying to restrict access to spill sites.  On the other hand, they put the live streaming feed from their ROV monitoring the drill site on the internet, though that may now be down.  CNN is curating citizen journalism on the spill on their iReport site.

So, interesting stuff.  What am I still missing about this story?  I’ll probably have some political opinion writing to do on the subject, but I think I’m going to wait a bit given recent developments, and because this post is long enough as it is.