Sunday, April 29, 2018

Are we doomed?

In a recent post, I mentioned that there is a growing body of belief that it is now too late to save ourselves from the disaster that is climate change. This little bit of news made working on a "solution" video incredibly difficult. I should have given examples of this school of thought but right on cue, The Guardian put up a story of someone who is firmly in the "We're doomed" category.

There is much to be valued in the case Mayer Hillman is trying to make. He is a social scientist and anyone looking at the sociology of climate change has more than ample reason to be alarmed. I am constantly distressed at the irrelevant efforts even gifted climate scientists engage in whenever they venture beyond shouted warnings. I shudder to think of the major heel-dragging when the financial sector is told they MUST fund the transition to the solar-powered future. I am amazed at the number of people with fancy degrees from fancy colleges who believe utter nonsense because they never really learned 7th-grade science or the difference between a big number and a very small one.

Hillman is mostly right. But there are reasons to think he maybe looking at the wrong people. There are MANY such reasons but two are most significant to me:

1) In spite of being woefully underfunded, the people who have been beavering away at making solar panels have performed a miracle. Most of the world's populations live in sunny climates. Cheap solar energy will transform their lives. Replacing the fire-based infrastructure in the more "developed" economies will be more difficult, but $.75 a watt with no fuel costs is a POWERFUL argument. Climate change is a Producer-Class problem and they have done well in this esoteric world. Energy is everything—we cannot solve any of the other environmental problems until we solve the energy dilemma. But now we have an incredibly important tool—a working replacement for fire itself.

2) I am incredibly impressed with the net-zero house my brother built for himself. Everything works and since the solar panels are on the backyard side of the roof, there is no way this solar house announces itself. The systems are virtually noiseless and there is plenty of hot water. But this outcome was far from easy. My brother brings a lot of skills to the table along with a lifetime of accumulating tools—he has LOTS of them and knows how to use and maintain them. He always reads the manuals. In short, he is far from being a run-of-the-mill DIY. He more resembles those frontier inventors like the Wright Brothers (and Thorstein Veblen's father who figured out ways to make harsh places like Minnesota habitable.) He subscribes to the first law of Peirce's Pragmatism—if something isn't working, then try something else. So out of the misinformation and boastful claims of the solar world, he was able to distill enough useful information to build his complicated house from parts he could buy online—and make it work. I am not suggesting that anyone could have done this—that is obviously NOT the case. But is demonstrates that it CAN be done and those who think the solar future will be painful and ugly are just wrong.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Building a net-zero house

A couple of days ago, I saw my brother grinning broadly and occasionally giggling. The occasion for this mirth was a recent encounter with his meter-reader for the local utility company—Duke Energy. The news was that last month his photo-voltaic cells had generated roughly 300 kw of electrical power more than he had consumed. While much of this joy is due to the fact that he was billed the $9.86 minimum for being connected to the grid while most of his neighbors were getting $350 bills for homes of similar sizes, the giggling was probably due to the idea that he is "sticking it to the man."

Tony heard this story yesterday and insisted I explain what was involved in producing such a house. So this morning I asked and while his story was hardly complete, it highlighted the parts he thought important. So in no particular order, here they are.

1) His property in the country was large enough so the house's site orientation was pretty much anything he wanted. So the house's ridge line runs east-west, the roof pitch was selected to maximize solar gain, and the overhangs are large enough so the south wall is completely shaded between the equinoxes.

2) The holding tank for the solar hot water heater was located close to the showers so the water used to get hot water on start-up is minimized.

3) The air handler for the air conditioning system was located smack dab in the middle of the house which does wonders for efficiently distributing the cool air.

4) Room for the insulation was designed in from the beginning. The exterior walls were framed with 2 x 6 studs and the roof trusses were scissor-type which made for higher ceilings while provided plenty of space for 16" of insulation.

5) Because excessive heat was the primary problem in Florida, aluminized Mylar was chosen for the moisture barrier.

6) The steel roof was put on sleepers which allowed the underside of the roof to stay cooler and dry.

7) The original air conditioning compressor was a SEER 13, which in 1992 was the most efficient unit one could buy. It was replaced in 2010 with a SEER 18.

And so on. They key to understanding this house is that VERY important decisions that significantly affected long-term performance were made in the planning stage. None of the features mentioned above cost much to implement but have saved thousands in energy costs over the years. As I have said since the 1980s, pollution is a function of design.

Then in 2008, the decision was made that photo-voltaic cells were now inexpensive enough so adding them to the mix should be cost effective. This was pretty easy to do because the roof was already pointed in the right direction. PV cells were still pretty spendy in 2008 so only 5 kw were purchased. By 2011, the costs had dropped significantly so another 5 kw were added which leads to the monthly grinning when the meter is read.

So while the costs of building a solar home from scratch are not much more than conventional construction, retrofitting an existing house is difficult, time-consuming, AND quite expensive—even though the price for PV cells is now lower than $1 per watt.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Looking at America

When I first saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth I had two quite powerful reactions. I loved the excellent first half where he explained the science of climate change. The second half, where he attempts to describe what actions should be taken to mitigate the problem, was just plain awful. I spent much of that time asking rhetorically, "Al, did you really watch the first half of your own movie? Do you REALLY believe you can prevent the ice caps from melting by talking people into hanging their wash out to dry?"

Since then, I have concentrated my efforts on the problem "What can we do to address climate change effectively?" The way I see it, there are at least 50,000 highly qualified scientists working diligently on the science of climate change but almost no one is giving serious consideration to what sort of actions are required to build a society that does not destroy the atmosphere. The reasons for this are complex but they must include examinations of the sociology, economics, engineering, and other social interactions that make it extremely difficult for populations to actually reduce the amounts of greenhouse gasses they generate. So while the climate scientists keep coming up with frightening warnings about what will happen if nothing changes, nothing changes. In fact, the situation continues to worsen.

So when I decided to address climate change, I was determined to concentrate on the solution end of the problem. Spoiler alert—this is a lot harder than it looks. There are excellent reasons why the best minds on the planet go scurrying for cover whenever the talk turns to remediation. But did this stop me? No-o-o-o! And quite honestly, the effort exhausted me.

I have a friend who has been doing video documentaries since the 1970s. One of his core beliefs is that nothing attracts or holds attention like pictures of big equipment doing big jobs. When the subject is the massive amounts of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere, big equipment is just everywhere. After awhile, these pictures—especially the ones showing the Germans strip-mining brown coal—triggered near clinical depression. Here is Germany—arguably the finest example of "green" technologies in action—mining 170 million tons of the dirtiest fuel in 2017 because it is their only fuel source still cheaper than solar.

Staggered by my renewed exposure to the vast, complex, and necessary machinery that produces CO2 in the course of normal operations, I added to my woes by exploring the increasing evidence that there is already so much in the atmosphere that even significant reductions in output wouldn't actually help all that much. For these folks, it's already too late.

And then the weather got very strange. By now, there has probably been more snow in Minneapolis to set new all-time records. Turns out that the same kink in the Jet Stream that almost eliminated winter in Alaska was bringing misery to the lower 48 including 4 Nor'easters in three weeks to New England and points south.

Of course, the government was doing nothing. Trump is struggling to form a government and the Democrats, saddled with an acute case of Trump derangement syndrome, have busied themselves with restarting the Cold War because it is easier to blame Russia for their political woes than to examine the dozens of perfectly valid reasons why they lost the election of 2016.

So I decided to take a road trip to escape the crazy winter and to celebrate the progress I did make on my climate change video. I had few plans but I wanted to see Tony in North Carolina and visit my brother in Florida. By the time I reached Illinois, I had named it my "Chill Out and Lighten Up" tour. Things were going as planned when my fuel pump took a dump just outside of Dayton Ohio—at 3:00 on a Sunday morning. By the time I got back on the road on Monday afternoon, I had managed to blow a $1000 hole in my travel budget.

My stay in Xenia Ohio was an eye-opener. There were no cabs to transport me from my cheap hotel to the shop where my car was to be fixed so I entered the world of Uber. Trust me, no one goes into private transportation unless other better forms of employment have dried up. I said to one driver, "Dayton was a famous and important town while I was growing up. How's it doing now?" I got an earful of the tale of Dayton's deindustrialization. I knew enough about Ohio's role in supplying parts for the auto industry so I took a shot, "Did you even lose Delco (the folks that manufactured the electronic parts for GM)?" He looked like someone who had just lost a child. Tony would later explain that Delco stood for Dayton Electronic Corporation and had been in the GM family from almost the beginning. I didn't know.

Tony was getting ready for the big model engineering show in Detroit. His business has taken a hit in the last few years—probably because the sort of people who make complicated things for fun are dying out. He keeps plugging away and has made significant progress on his book How America was Built. Mebane North Carolina was once the home to runaway textile manufacturing from New England. In the past couple of decades, they kept on running to places like Bangladesh and Vietnam. Developers have turned some of the old mills into housing but the original housing stock for the textile workers was very modest. On the other hand, I visited a niece whose husband is an engineer for AT&T. They live close to the research triangle near Raleigh. That neighborhood had some very nice housing.

The drive to central Florida went off without a hitch. My brother's splendid net-zero house is more wonderful than I had expected. In some ways it is like a hippie's dream house except everything works and was carefully and lovingly crafted. The Orlando area, OTOH, is an environmental nightmare—2.4+ million permanent residents and 51 million visitors per year. With no visible signs of central planning, it is a city built by real estate developers who think nothing of putting up 2000 homes on a two lane road with the hope the infrastructure will catch up. Traffic is a nightmare. On his side of town they have opened 3 large high schools in 12 years. Downtown Orlando is a forest of tower cranes. And in all that building in the center of the Sunshine State, there are probably less than 500 solar homes.

My recovery from near exhaustion goes slowly. This little thing took five days to write and I have left out a lot. My brother's house is very impressive and because he built it himself cost less than $150,000 including solar panels when they were still pretty spendy. So in theory, the solar future shouldn't be so difficult or expensive. But watching him in action explains why so little progress gets made—he is very organized, clever, and understands the market for the components of such a complex house. The typical lefty who is confused by any tool more complicated than a fork couldn't build such a dwelling in a hundred years and would still spend bucketloads of money in the process.

Hope to get back to fixing my video soon. Wish me well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Getting serious about climate change

My last post had an embed video that was the second half of the video I have worked so hard on. That post was a mistake. But since Grandpa Smet provided such a serious comment, I decided to post the first half on purpose.

The reason this was so hard is because I am trying to suggest that the only serious route to a climate change solution is to put major resources into putting the Industrial Classes back to work building the new fire-free society. Since most of modern culture barely admits that the Industrial Classes are even a thing, I am sailing in uncharted waters. Fortunately, the evidence for my POV is substantial but it means I must bring clarity and reason to a subject that rarely is treated to either.

Anyway, enjoy this attempt. I am pretty happy with it but there is always room for improvement and the project is still loaded into Final Cut Pro so minor changes are very easy. This video is still unlisted but if you want to pass around the link to your friends, I approve.

I am visiting Tony in North Carolina. The drive down included a fuel pump failure in Xenia Ohio. They still have the sorts of mechanics I associate with Ohio but the Dayton area is still staggering from decades of Industrial job losses. Getting such people back to work seems like the most important task I have left.

Monday, April 9, 2018

News of the real economy

3D printing of parts compared to CNC machining
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers' magazine Machine Design is offering a free download of an article that compares CNC machining with 3D printing, while recognizing that each has its place, and can complement each other in the design and manufacturing workflow.

Nano-based Catalyst Turbocharges Oxygenation in Electric Fuel Cells
A catalyst that increases oxygen processing in fuel cells makes them much more economical for producing electricity. The breakthrough was achieved at the School of Material Science and Engineering at the publicly funded Georgia Institute of Technology.

Malaysia-Singapore consortia selected for Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail line
MYHSR, which is responsible for building the Malaysian portion of the 350km Kuala Lumpur - Singapore high-speed line, has selected two consortia to design and implement the civil works for the project. The HSR line is scheduled to open in 2026. The two consortia comprise Malaysian Resources-Gamuda, which will be responsible for the northern portion of the alignment, and Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay-TH Properties, which will handle the southern portion. The contracts will be awarded when MyHSR concludes negotiations with the consortia.

Ontario committed to funding Toronto-Windsor high-speed rail
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was at Info-Tech in London on April 6 to highlight the Canadian province's initial investment of more than CA$11 billion (US$8.6 billion) to build high-speed rail service between Toronto and Windsor. The 332km (206 miles) route is supposed to be completed by 2025.

Summary of BNSF rail network 2018 operations and service outlook
BNSF is the first Class I railroad to respond to US Surface Transportation Board’s March 16 blanket letter requesting information on each US freight railroad’s 2018 service outlook.

Aviation Week Podcast: How Lockheed's Skunk Works and SpaceX are Pushing the Edge
Listen in as Aviation Week editors discuss the unveiling of Lockheed's tailless UAV and SpaceX’s unique testing strategy.

SpaceX to Debut Falcon 9 Block 5 in April
The upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket--needed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and deliver U.S. national security spacecraft into earth orbit--will make its first flight to launch the first Bangladeshi geostationary satellite. Bangabandhu Satellite-1 was built by Thales Alenia Space for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. The Falcon 9 Block 5 was designed by SpaceX to deliver a 4,020 kg (8,860 lb) payload to Mars.

Friday, April 6, 2018

the money pitch

Whoops. The post of this Youtube was a mistake. It was only a third draft. I was extremely tired when I got done and a foul-up uploading the two videos caused me to do some seriously goofy things. In this case I ask folks to contact a Patron page. Well, we don't even HAVE a Patreon page yet.


In the meantime, I am in North Carolina with Tony and we will try to solve the world's problems together ;-)

Thanks to all those who watched what was there. If I had made the same mistake with the video part 1, I might have even left it up—because it was closer to being done than Part 2.

Actually, I am pretty happy with the work that has already been accomplished.