16 June 2010

The DLS of energy and engineering

Watching the speech given by President Obama (transcript) and the reaction by Gov. Palin seen on Bill O'Reilly's show...

... I was struck first and most seriously by the problems that the President has in understanding just what sort of problem the oil well blowout is and how to deal with it.  So lets start with a bit from that from President Obama:

On April 20th, an explosion ripped through BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana.  Eleven workers lost their lives.  Seventeen others were injured.  And soon, nearly a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, oil began spewing into the water.

Because there has never been a leak this size at this depth, stopping it has tested the limits of human technology.  That’s why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge -- a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s Secretary of Energy.  Scientists at our national labs and experts from academia and other oil companies have also provided ideas and advice.

Deep water drilling is a result of policy set by Congress on restricting shallow water drilling on the continental shelf.  It is far riskier and has more unknowns in it than shallow water drilling due to the depth, pressures and what lies beneath the sea floor is harder to understand due to depth.  By policy set up by multiple administrations and Congresses over the past 30 years, we no longer go after the 'easy' to get at oil on land or near shore waters, even when there are demonstrated safer means to do so (safer meaning that they have fewer unknown risks and means to deal with known risks).  Getting energy from any source is a risk-cost-benefit analysis that requires the full understanding of what the risks and costs are for getting the benefit.  Solar cells need rare earth metals that need to be mined and they tend to be in places where they aren't easy to get at, and yield a low percentage yield of sunlight to electricity.  Algae stations on power plants or industrial facilities are re-capture systems for carbon and heat, and so cannot get more energy from the system than the waste materials allow.  Wind power is limited to a very few areas with relatively constant winds, and require infrastructure outlay and maintenance and result in a larger number of bird kills due to the blades of the devices than in the natural setting.

Each of these have a cost to them, a risk to them, a benefit to them, and an energy conversion or re-capture rate to them.  That is, at best, high school physics at work: the necessary equations of energy output, energy conversion and capture can be done with a decent high school science background that includes electricity, biology, and chemistry.  To make these systems work requires this other field the President lightly touches upon.


Engineering is the Dirty Little Secret of getting energy.

Only at the very far edges of energy production (say magnetically confined fusion or laser fusion) do you get to some advanced physics, and making those systems into something that is feasible to create on a mass scale requires good engineering.  Electrostatic contained fusion holds much and extreme promise, if it can prove itself out as the components are readily available for it.  Scaling it via engineering (up to larger facilities and finding the absolute minimum smallest useful system) requires little to know actual new physics or chemistry, but metallurgy and energy systems engineering.  When you are going through nearly a mile of ocean to dig a well on the bottom of the ocean, you have an engineering problem as the physics is pretty staid and well known.  Once you start drilling you have a geophysical and seismic prospecting venue to add in, but engineering gets you there.

So when you are forming up a 'team of experts' what is the role of a Nobel Winning Physicist?  He may be a great physicist, but what sort of a hands-on engineer is he?  Ken Salazar wrote a report on deep water drilling claiming that a panel of experts backed the report when, in actual fact, they did no such thing (Source: The Times-Picayune, 09 JUN 2010, by David Hammer).  Thus we do not have an expert engineer leading the project and the co-leader is a man who misrepresents deep water drilling experts when writing reports about the subject.

If Ken Salazar can't be bothered to write up the truth about his report on this subject prior to this panel, then what is the chance he will actually do so when heading up the panel?  And even an applied physicist is not the best of all possible individuals for heading up this team, while an oceanographer, geologist, or actual deep water engineer would be.  A Nobel Prize does not bestow deific wisdom outside of your tiny specialty, and for a panel meant to do something it requires experience, not prestige to actually address the problem.

Reading the above, knowing that there are dry land sources to be drilled (North Slope of Alaska, oil fields in the Dakotas, oil shale in Colorado, near shore drilling for California which has oil naturally seeping out from the ocean floor, and near shore areas around the Gulf and Eastern Seaboard),  what comes next I can only classify, at best, as misstatement and, at worse, an outright lie:

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered.  For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.  And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.  Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor. 

For decades we have heard the incantation of 'you can't drill there!' by environmentalists and NIMBYists that have restricted getting to the 'cheap and easily accessible oil'.  Now, when we need those 'cheap and easy' oil fields we are told that you can't drill in them... even with this disaster we have ongoing.  We also have another problem in that we haven't built a new refinery in this country since 1976, so we must pay extra for other Nations to refine our petroleum products for us.  That, too, has been done by politicians citing environmentalists and NIMBYists and appeasing them.  And by now blocking deep water drilling the President is seeking to escalate a crisis based on a false premise.  The risks and mitigation procedures get easier the closer you get to shore and damned easy once you have solid ground under you.  Yet that path has been blocked for decades, not by oil industry lobbyists of which BP has contributed a lot to Obama's past campaigns, but the lack of courage and candor by politicians willing to say that the risk for on-land and shallow water drilling are outweighed by the benefits to the Nation.

Now here I am going to take a swipe at Gov. Palin for mis-stating the triad of energy.  She puts for the triad of energy in America as:

1) Conventional fuels  (oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear)

2) Alternative fuels (wind, solar, biomass)

3) Conservation of energy

The actual triad that keeps the US powered?

1) Petroleum, including natural gas and derivatives

2) Coal

3) Nuclear

While conservation has made us more efficient, it does not contribute one single direct erg of energy to the grid, to your gas tank or to our energy reserves.  It reduces use, it does not increase supply.

Alternative fuels, combined, are in the neighborhood of 5-10% of our energy generation.  That is not a player in the energy game, save as a 'feel good' source to claim you are 'helping the environment'.  Well, good!  And the facilities that made all the solar cells, smelted the ore for the hardware, and transported all those lovely alternative fuel options around?  The actual Triad of energy.  This is a DLS of alternative energy: it isn't cost effective because if it were it would be beating out someone in the Triad.  When alternative fuels or energy sources can actually get into the 20% range of energy production, then it can look to beat out nuclear... although we are, finally, starting to build new nuclear plants of modern design that are far safer than the old style generation 1 and 2 plants.  If we could get some of the regulations out of the way designed for the old style plants, that is.

If you want to be generous you can lump coal in with petroleum, move nuclear up to #2 and put Conservation in the #3 spot... but there is a difference between drilling for oil and mining for coal.  And mining for uranium ore.

To let you know how bad this pipe dream of alternative energy is, you can go to this paragraph by the President:

This is not some distant vision for America.  The transition away from fossil fuels is going to take some time, but over the last year and a half, we’ve already taken unprecedented action to jumpstart the clean energy industry.  As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses are making solar panels.  Consumers are buying more efficient cars and trucks, and families are making their homes more energy-efficient.  Scientists and researchers are discovering clean energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries.

Well GE announced a new wind turbine factory!  And it will create 1,900 jobs!  In the UK (Source: Business Green, 25 MAR 2010, James Murray):

The UK's position as one of the world's leading offshore wind energy markets was forcefully underlined today when General Electric (GE) announced plans to invest €110m to build its first British wind turbine manufacturing plant.

After months of speculation that it was considering locating a manufacturing facility in the UK, the US engineering giant said that it plans to create up to 1,900 new clean energy jobs across both GE and the new factory's related supply chain with the development of a new site on the UK mainland.

Ok not so good, but Ingeteam is opening one in the US along with a solar plant (Source: Renewable Energy World, 26 MAY 2010):

At the Windpower 2010 Conference, Ingeteam, a Spanish renewable energy manufacturing company, unveiled plans for its new US $15 million wind manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. At full capacity, the Milwaukee plant will employee 275 people and supply equipment capable of producing 7,500 megawatts (MW) of wind turbines each year for the U. S. renewable energy market.

And why are they building a power facility in the US?  I mean isn't Spain supposed to be the be-all, end-all of 'green' energy?  Well for that you can look at this from JSONLINE, Tom Daykin, 16 FEB 2010:

Also new: details on the public financing assistance for Ingeteam.

Governor Jim Doyle's office announced that the state is providing $4.5 million in tax credits, and a $500,000 Wisconsin Development Fund loan to Ingeteam. Usually, those loans are forgivable if a company meets job creation goals.

Ingeteam has also received $1.66 million in federal clean technology manufacturing tax credits, and will receive "further assistance" from the city, Doyle's office announced. I'll update that information at JSOnline.com as it becomes available.

Yes 'loans' that don't need to be repaid if they reach employment promises, tax credits which are a form of subsidies, and 'further assistance' from city government.  So for $2.1 million they need to create 275 jobs.  And then get subsidized via tax credits... this is economical how?

At American Thinker, Andrew Walden looks at the pirates of wind energy on 15 FEB 2010:

Some say that Ka Le is haunted -- and it is. But it's haunted not by Hawaii's legendary night marchers. The mysterious sounds are "Na leo o Kamaoa"-- the disembodied voices of 37 skeletal wind turbines abandoned to rust on the hundred-acre site of the former Kamaoa Wind Farm.

The voices of Kamaoa cry out their warning as a new batch of colonists, having looted the taxpayers of Spain, Portugal, and Greece, seeks to expand upon their multi-billion-dollar foothold half a world away on the shores of the distant Potomac River. European wind developers are fleeing the EU's expiring wind subsidies, shuttering factories, laying off workers, and leaving billions of Euros of sovereign debt and a continent-wide financial crisis in their wake. But their game is not over. Already they are tapping a new vein of lucre from the taxpayers and ratepayers of the United States.


Built in 1985, at the end of the boom, Kamaoa soon suffered from lack of maintenance. In 1994, the site lease was purchased by Redwood City, CA-based Apollo Energy. 

Cannibalizing parts from the original 37 turbines, Apollo personnel kept the declining facility going with outdated equipment. But even in a place where wind-shaped trees grow sideways, maintenance issues were overwhelming.  By 2004 Kamaoa accounts began to show up on a Hawaii State Department of Finance list of unclaimed properties. In 2006, transmission was finally cut off by Hawaii Electric Company

California's wind farms -- then comprising about 80% of the world's wind generation capacity -- ceased to generate much more quickly than Kamaoa.  In the best wind spots on earth, over 14,000 turbines were simply abandoned.  Spinning, post-industrial junk which generates nothing but bird kills.

The Spanish subsidized 'green' technology went bust when the subsidies disappeared and the investigation into the amount of fraud and corruption is still ongoing in Spain.  Even without that, the subsidies cost tax payers billions for a meager return and NO sustainable energy.  In engineering terms, the cost of building the infrastructure does not get payback fast enough to justify building it without subsidies and the ongoing maintenance costs then eat into revenue.  Plus the winds can be damned unpredictable.

Sustainable?  Really?

And as these manufacturers are already on the move from lack of subsidies, what makes anyone think that the US will do any better?  If you have been running down the US to be 'more like Europe' and Europe is moving away from 'alternative energy' due to it not paying anything back, then how can you support it here?  In fact as this is more engineering than science, and its not profitable, how can anyone justify subsidizing it, anywhere?

There are some places where 'alternative energy' is a great alternative as it is the ONLY alternative, or you can work out the cost/power generation/maintenance schedules to justify it.  That makes it a niche energy source, as the amount of energy to run a modern economy is phenomenal. 

If you want solar, it needs to be built in space where it is reliable, dependable, constant and only orbital mechanics put a facility in Earth's shadow for a few minutes every year.  Best place to get supplies is the low gravity well of the Moon and its resources, not Earth.  Want 'sustainable' energy?  Go to orbit where it is constantly sustained.

I notice that is not on anyone's agenda, but that is only because it is engineering, not rocket science any more.

But the worst part of this speech, and its hard to pick out just what is the worst but I'll give it a shot, is this paragraph where he comes in after wanting 'other approaches' on his road to a quixotic energy future that can't be economical:

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead.  But the one approach I will not accept is inaction.  The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet.  You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II.  The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon.  And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom.  Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.  Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like.  Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there.  We know we’ll get there.  

If he doesn't support inaction, then why didn't he do much of anything for 57 days except finger-point and cast blame around?  That is quintessentially inaction: not doing a damned thing to help the mess.

Then come the strawmen in the wind, that previous challenges to America were 'too difficult to meet'.  I'm afraid that when America had a good half of its industry idle due to the Great Depression it wasn't that we lacked 'industrial capacity' but that we had an insane financial system that was set up by the Federal Reserve and was then getting taxed to death which stalled out the recovery of 1937.  Japan worried that America would awaken from its political torpor and self-destructive finances put in by government.  They bet that we would let our politicians rule us... and that we would ask for an armistice or peace settlement.

As to going to the Moon: that was generally a feat of engineering and applied material sciences, along with the biosciences.  The basics of rocketry had been worked out by the 1930's and was in popular fiction, and then horrific fact with the V-2.  For the most part 'rocket science' was already known, it was just building the systems up around it to make it human friendly and survivable.  It wasn't 'if' it could be done, but 'how much cost and in how much time?'  What President Obama presents is a false representation of what those two achievements represented, and the atomic bomb can be included as it was the creation of nuclear physicists training themselves to become nuclear engineers, the first ever on the planet to successfully move from test reactors to nuclear devices.  The science was known, the engineering was new.

Each of those instances of engineering had a known end state: a goal that could be written down, defined, and have its parameters given.  That creates an engineering feat that can be done.  Goals for the number of aircraft to produce were met and then exceeded by increased worker efficiency as the aircraft were built and then a new set of engineers started designing new aircraft, from scratch, to meet design and threat envelopes, testing them and putting them into the air in weeks... something that would have taken years prior to the war.  And the moon landings were large scale system integration into how many pounds could be lifted from Earth to the Moon and returned, including a human crew.  The ratios were those of lift capacity, consumables, mass, endurance and trying to put in any leeway for contingencies as each ounce counted.  These are not things that can be done with 'alternative energy' as the economics of them are known on the engineering base and that base is slow to change as what is involved are easy to understand physics and chemistry.

This isn't 'conventional wisdom' but hard and fast engineering and known science.

One cannot toss billions of dollars at this and expect it to improve, because the advances necessary are not monetarily driven, but driven by testing and refinement of techniques that are known to get better productivity and marginal increases in energy generation capacity.  This is a huge disconnect between the political elites and their understanding of the actual, physical reality around them: they are so intelligent they aren't smart enough to figure out the basics of how it works.  I really am impressed by the strides made in such things as photovoltaic cell costs as our understanding of fabrication moves from clean-room fabrication plants to roll-to-roll printing on metal substrates.  Bioenergy recapture systems are a nice add-on to generate some fuel from waste heat and effluent, and should be investigated for larger potential.  Whole plant biomass conversion, particularly of pest plants and other non-productive plants, holds some promise at the fringes.  In a decade all of that might even break 5% of our energy needs... unfortunately our needs grow faster than marginal sources can provide.

Wholesale change of the type President Obama wants requires a fundamental restructuring and re-orientation of how we gather and use energy as a system.  Orbital solar power satellites are key to that due to cost efficiencies in orbit.  Electrostatic confinement fusion may play a huge role if it proves out, perhaps even a leading role.  Nuclear fission at generation 3 and 4 style plants will offer a long term shift for electricity production to augment e-stat fusion and sps systems.  If you want your car to be all electric, we need a brand new, from the ground up, electrical distribution system with storage capacity that is slowly coming together.  High density capacitors will play a role, as will superconductive materials as their physics and material properties are understood.  Liquid and solid high density energy sources will remain a staple for decades as we have a good system for gathering, transporting and utilizing them: fossil fuels aren't going away any time soon.

None of this can be subsidized if you want it to work right.  Incentivized, with prizes for given goals and achievements and then handing out production contracts?  Yes, that got us the modern aviation system back in the 1920's via postal contracts for air mail.  A prize scheme backed by actual contracts to do something is worthwhile as long as the prizes push the envelope and the contract work isn't critical... airmail wasn't critical, but helped build a critical part of the economy.  President Obama and the elite political class is unwilling to do that with 'alternative energy' not only because they can't figure it out, but even if they did it requires incremental achievements that lead to long lasting structural changes build by private industry in an economical fashion.  Subsidies don't do that, and can even retard achievement as you get paid off for what you have not what you can make that is better.  Challenging industry isn't bestowing it with gifts and subsidies, but putting down hard goals and prizes to be won... and 'first past the post' should be ditched for 'limited time achievement by anyone' sort of prizes so that multiple different ways of making things work gets rewarded.  Not all will be the best, but you don't know that up front.

Instead of an outward, future oriented programmatic view of energy needs, President Obama is sticking to known failed methods and procedures.

And he still isn't doing all that much to clean up the Gulf.

When our friends from the Netherlands and Norway, and other Nations, asked to help us on the clean up, we should have said YES and THANK YOU.  Instead they got NO and GO AWAY.

That is piss poor diplomacy.

It is worse management of a disaster.

And the job that has that in its purview rests on one person.

The lack of competence is stunning.

The lack of vision is lethal.

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