Sunday, April 26, 2009

Running the Numbers

As you're no doubt aware by now I have been trying to use The Missing Piece to further my (and hopefully your) knowledge about various topics that are batted about from day-to-day without being given too much cursory thought: Should I choose paper or plastic? Should I recycle? What is the best horror movie to watch with the family? Some might argue that most of the topics presented here don’t deserve much cursory thought, but that’s another discussion altogether. It has been my goal to discuss varied issues in a way that offers a fresh dose of perspective on topics that are often taken for granted. I believe that sometimes all it takes is putting another set of eyes on something in order to really help get a firm grasp a subject. That’s what I am…another set of eyeballs. I guess eyeballs are better that another set of balls that I am often compared to. Anyway, this week I wanted to take a break from being eyeballs in order to point out a brilliant artist that has created an art form out of offering a fresh perspective. I stumbled across his work on the web accidentally a couple of months ago when I was researching my landfill article. Chris Jordan has turned his unique point of view and exceptional grasp of large numbers into brilliant and poignant pieces of artwork. His pieces capture American and worldwide excess in a way that forces the observer to confront the enormity of the subject matter at hand and entices them to explore it further. This image is composed of one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours. Please check out the links below. I don’t really know what art is, but I do know what I like when I see it. And I think Chris’ work is absolutely brilliant.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is Easter as Strange as I Think it is?

Last week we celebrated the most important Christian religious holiday of the year, Easter. Well, I use the word “we” lightly here. All I did was dye some eggs, eat too much and drink copious amounts of beer. Some people believe that the day is a somber one which marks the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the pinnacle event in the entire religion of Christianity, while others such as I observe the more pagan-oriented themes of the holiday by truly embracing sloth and gluttony. It really seems like two religions just crashed into each other on this one. Hey! You got your pagan on my Christianity! Well, you got your Christianity on my pagan! Hmmm…two great tastes that tastes great together. I am an agnostic (TJ refers to agnostics as being “atheist light”), which makes this holiday all the more confusing to me, since I am essentially looking in from the outside on the entire event. So, I thought I’d try to educate myself a bit about this odd agglomeration of traditions and see where I end up mostly because the whole Easter Bunny thing really creeps me out.

In the Christian tradition, the events that unfolded on the holy week of Easter essentially form the cornerstone of the entire religion. In Western Christianity, Easter marks the ending of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, repentance, moderation, spiritual discipline and general self-flagellation. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer (through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial) for the annual commemoration of the events linked to the torturing death of Jesus and culminates in Easter, the celebration of his resurrection. I guess the idea is that you’ll pretty much believe anything if you give up booze, drugs, food and sex for 40 days. “He did what? Came back from where? Yeah, yeah. Whatever, Mac. Just gimme my smokes back…Jesus.” Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. The holy week includes Maunday Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday or Great and Holy Thursday) which is the day falling on the Thursday before Easter that commemorates the last supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles just before he was sold out by that bastard, Judas. This is immediately followed by Good Friday which I find an odd and marginally disturbing name for a day that memorializes the day someone was beaten to death. On Good Friday Christians commemorate the passion, or suffering, and death on the cross of the Jesus Christ.

Christians believe according to Scripture, that Jesus came back to life, or was raised from the dead, three days after his death on the cross. Through his death, burial and resurrection, Jesus paid the penalty for everybody’s sins, thus purchasing a ticket to eternal life for anyone that believes in him. So, essentially, if the resurrection never took place, then the Christian faith is based on a falsehood, and people have no true hope for life after they die. Apparently this bothers some people, which is why the holy week is so important to so many. Believers are hanging a lot on one small part of a very, very, VERY long book. The biblical account of Jesus' death on the cross, or crucifixion, his burial and his resurrection can be found in the following passages from the Bible: Matthew 27:27-28:8; Mark 15:16-16:19; Luke 23:26-24:35; and John 19:16-20:30.

In Western Christianity, Easter is always celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal full moon. It is rarely on the same date which is why Easter is called a movable feast. Why? Simple. Because they said so. The calculations to determine the date of the Paschal full moon are so easy and uncomplicated that even a child can do them: Nineteen civil calendar years are divided into 235 lunar months of 30 and 29 days each. The period of 19 years is used because it produces a set of civil calendar dates for the full moons that repeats every nineteen years while still providing a reasonable approximation to the astronomical facts. The first day of each of these lunar months is the ecclesiastical new moon. The fourteenth day is the ecclesiastical full moon. Exactly one ecclesiastical new moon in each year falls on a date between March 8 and April 5 (inclusive). This begins the Paschal lunar month for that year, and thirteen days later is the Paschal full moon. Easter is the Sunday following the Paschal full moon. In other words, Easter falls from one to seven days after the Paschal full moon, so that if the Paschal full moon is on Sunday, Easter is the following Sunday. Got it? Quick quiz: When will Easter be in 2015? Yeah, I don’t know either.

So where does the creepy guy in the bunny suit come in? What about the eggs and candy and gorging yourself on ham and potato salad? Mmmm…ham. Well, even the origins of the word “Easter” are all over the shop. I’ve seen it attributed to the goddess Ä’ostre of Anglo-Saxon paganism as well as a host of Norse, Greek and Babylonian gods and goddesses. All of them are gods of fertility and of the spring season, gods of rebirth and hope. In modern times we say that animals that are in estrous are ready to mate. Rabbits (the Easter Bunny) are an obvious sign of fertility as are eggs. It is no coincidence that Easter falls somewhere around the vernal equinox, and it is also no coincidence that the “resurrection of Christ” occurs in the spring – a time all of nature is essentially reborn after being dormant all winter. It’s just good marketing. After all there exist only a finite number of minds to invade in order to reach your prayer quota otherwise you’re out of a job, right? I gotta tell you, though, if a couple of centuries ago someone gave me the choice between celebrating feminine fertility and sex in a pagan feast and celebrating some poor bearded guy that was just trying to be nice who was then beaten to death for his efforts and chucked in a cave, I’d probably pick the former…unless thumbscrews and the rack kindly persuaded me otherwise. Which is probably why of all of the pagan holidays that Christianity has co-opted only Easter still retains many of it’s traditions. So I think we need a more-inclusive, more-modern motto for Easter, don’t you? I prefer: “Jesus dyed (eggs) for your sins!” A little irreverent, sure, but that’s Daniel P. in a nutshell.

Some people cry foul at egg hunting and Easter bunny traditions claiming that it is how the devil has prevailed and is trying to distract us from the real reason for Easter, the resurrection. Well, isn’t that special. Who could be responsible for generations of children being happy on a holy holiday? Oh, I don’t know. Could it be…SATAN?!? In fact a few churches do separate themselves from the pagan aspects of the holiday by banning Easter and the no-so-thinly veiled pagan traditions and calling the holiday Resurrection Day. I say, fine. Do whatever you want with your church, but nobody can deny that the Christian religion has a long and venerable tradition of absorbing the best parts of other religions and assimilating them with Christian orthodoxy. I believe that not only is there nothing wrong with this, but this very practice has made Christianity the diverse and vibrant tradition that it has become some 2000 years after the death of its founding father.

After all do you actually think God is concerned about kids getting together for an Easter egg hunt and getting wacked-up on peeps? If you truly believe that He is, then it’s time to make up another imaginary friend. No offense. I could seriously do without the 8 foot tall pink bunny, though.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Blow Me

Humans have been harnessing the wind’s power with windmills since probably before the ninth century A.D., when we humans built our first windmill to grind grain for making beer. That's not true, but it certainly is a more noble cause than making flour. The new “green” push and all of the economic incentives put forward by the government have made harnessing the wind’s power more attractive as of late. Wind power is currently being touted as the cornerstone of the sustainable energy future of the U.S. because it is cheap; provides jobs and revenue; and doesn’t cause pollution, generate hazardous wastes, or deplete natural the fuel is free. Wind lobbyists and environmentalists would have you believe that all you have to do is throw up a couple of benign and beautiful wind turbines and not only will we become energy independent, but we will be saving the planet to boot. “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up ladies and gents! Be the first in your lovely little community to capture that magical ether and turn it into free energy! It’s true! Wind in a bottle! You can take it home today for the low, low price of 1000$/kW!” As usual after rubbing the shine off of the subject it turns out that things are a bit more complex.

In America today all across the countryside a silent debate is raging in community halls about large-scale wind turbine installations and their benefits, with the lobbyists, environmentalists, and turbine corporations on one side of the fence while property owners sit predictably confused on the other. My curiosity about this subject was peaked by a proposed installation of 151 commercial-scale wind turbines in the sleepy Illinois farming community where Daniel P. Daniel was borned and raised. The press release can be found here. So, I decided to spend a little time trying to figure out what the real deal is with these wind turbine farms. After some extensive research I think I’ve been able to flush out what the actual pros and cons of large-scale wind farms turn out to be.

First, some background information. Much of the confusion and concern over these industrial-scale turbine installations is simply a lack of information about how they work and why they even exist in the first place. The primary reason for their existence is to defray some of the pollution caused by power generation from coal. In the U.S. over 50% of our energy comes from burning coal. Two-thirds of sulfur oxides, 40% of carbon dioxide, 1/3 of mercury and 22% of nitrogen oxides (the brown cloud gas) that are emitted in the U.S. annually come from these plants. In order to meet our energy demands the U.S. burns over 1 billion tons of coal every year (total) in about 500 coal-fired power plants that have an average energy output of 667 megawatts (MW). That’s around three tons of coal per person every year. If you ignore external costs (air pollution, water pollution, health effects, hazardous wastes, and environmental destruction from mining) coal power is cheap, costing less than one cent/kWh. As a reference, wind energy costs 3-6 cents/kWh and solar photovoltaic power costs 14-25 cents/kWh. If you do factor in those external costs, wind power becomes an economic contender which is one reason that it remains an attractive alternative to coal.

About 26,274 megawatts of wind power capacity are currently installed in the U.S. (January 2009), generating over 66 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. That’s as much electricity as about 6.2 million average American households use each year. Considering there are about 117 million households in the U.S. (not to mention business and industrial use), we might as well be pissing in the wind, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Right? In order to displace the energy produced by one average-size coal-fired power plant a wind farm would need about 445 1.5MW wind turbines. In actuality there would have to be close to double that many since turbine capacity is 20-40% of the nominal rating due to variable wind speeds. The capacity is calculated as: actual amount of power produced over time / power that would have been produced if turbine operated at maximum output 100% of the time. So, a turbine that is designed for constant 12mph winds will operate at a lower capacity if the winds die down even if the blades are still turning 60-90% of the time. If the winds speed up then it operates at a higher capacity. The capacity for coal-fired plants is generally 40-80%, but that is usually a function of equipment reliability whereas turbine capacity is mostly a factor of economical turbine design.

Two factors determine how much power a turbine will put out: turbine size and wind speed. As far as turbine size goes, if you double the rotor diameter, you will end up with an area that is four times larger (two squared). This means that you also get four times as much power output (potentially) from the rotor. Utility-scale wind turbines for land-based wind farms come in various sizes, with rotor diameters ranging from about 165-300 feet, and with towers of roughly the same size. Offshore turbine designs will have larger rotors (some have a 360 foot rotor diameter) since it is easier to transport large rotor blades by ship than it is by land. The power available in the wind is proportional to the cube of its velocity, which means that doubling the wind speed increases the available power by a factor of eight (two cubed). Thus, a turbine operating at a site with an average wind speed of 12mph could generate about 1/3 more electricity than one at an 11mph site, because the cube of 12 (1,768) is 1/3 larger than the cube of 11 (1,331). So, what seems like a small difference in wind speed means a large difference in available energy. It follows that there is little energy to be harvested at low wind speeds (6mph winds contain less than 1/8 of the energy of 12mph winds). Not surprisingly, most utility-scale wind farms are placed in areas where the average wind speed is ~13mph. Still with me?

And, obviously, when there is no wind or even low wind the turbines will not spin at all, so they will not generate any power. This brings up an interesting dilemma regarding wind power. With an intermittent and unpredictable fuel source, electricity generation will be intermittent as well. Without some form of energy storage (which does not currently exist) there must be backup power generation. In most instances traditional power plants with capacities equal to 90% of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently on line in order to guarantee power supply at all times. I suppose this is not necessarily bad since we already have the power plants in place, and wind energy is essentially free. However, it does mean that wind power will never be able to completely displace all of our conventional power plants unless some technological battery or energy storage innovation happens in the future.

Wind plants typically cost around $1,000/kW of installed capacity, and they generally pay themselves off after five years of operation. The lifespan of a modern industrial turbine is approximately 20 years. These turbines are designed to work for some 120,000 hours of operation throughout their design lifetime of 20 years. That’s only about 30 times longer than an average automobile engine, and the maintenance costs are in the one cent/kWh range over the lifetime of the machine. They are pretty impressive pieces of equipment. Do they fail? Yes, and when they do it is sometimes spectacular. However, I think the failures are so noticeable because these machines are large and generally running in the non-industrial countryside where the most spectacular failure that is usually seen is Uncle Billy running over a lawn gnome in his riding lawnmower. I think it is important to mention here that not one single member of the public and only a handful of maintenance staff have been killed or injured in a turbine accident. If you compare that to the current power plant (including coal and uranium mining) safety record in the U.S…well let’s be nice and say it’s better.

O.K., I’ve run through a lot of information pretty fast, but I think I’ve hit most of the important facts about wind power generation. Now I’m going to dig a little into the most prevalent arguments for and against these large wind farm installations. I’ll start with the one that seems to be the most prevalent: wind turbines are large and unattractive. Sorry, but "wind turbines are big and scary" is not a good argument against the technology. Hmmm…What else are big and ugly? Buildings, radio towers, cookie-cutter houses, strip malls, and Rosie O’Donnell, maybe? Nobody seems to be too worried about those crashing to the ground or ruining the pastoral view. Well, except Rosie. OSHA had to shut down The View because Rosie wasn’t rigged properly, and they were afraid she might collapse on the studio audience. Anyway, a 1.5MW turbine (the size proposed in the DeKalb farm) would have blades that are approximately 105 feet long with an overall height of ~300-400 feet. The diameter of the swept circle is around the same size as the wingspan of a 747. Admittedly, they are a bit intimidating, but they are safely designed and massively over-engineered. I can understand the argument if the wind farm was proposed in an area of extraordinary beauty (rim of the Grand Canyon, covering the Black Hills, in front of the Statue of Liberty), but in the Midwest the extraordinary geographical feature is…the horizon. Let’s be honest here, anything taller than eye-level blocks the view.

Another argument against turbines is that they kill birds. This one is true. Wind turbines account for around one bird death out of every 10,000 birds that are killed each year in the U.S. That’s .0001%. I know. The horror. The…horror. It’s virtually a slaughter. We should halt all wind power production (which helps the environment, generates jobs, and creates revenue) until this issue is resolved. Or maybe not. ~60% of bird deaths come from collisions with buildings and radio towers. They just fly smack into them. Guess what the second-leading cause of death for birds in the U.S. is. It’s your fekking cats, Jaggoff. Ten percent of the birds that die for anthropogenic reasons in the U.S. are killed by domestic cats. So, before we shut down one turbine we should declare open season on those useless felines. It would help the environment, create recreational opportunities and bolster the faltering cat-skin hat trade. There’s no downside, really.

A third argument against wind power is that it is inefficient. I touched on this one a bit earlier. An average U.S. household uses about 10,655 kWh of electricity each year. One MW of wind energy can generate from 2.4 - 3 million kWh annually. Which means that a MW of wind generates about as much electricity as 225 to 300 average households use. Assume that a 1.5MW turbine can generate 1.8 million kWh of power if it operates at 40% capacity. That’s enough power to run 150 homes. Quick quiz: How many 1.5MW turbines would it take to meet the power needs of, say, the Chicagoland area (pop. 9.5 million)? Did you get 20? WRONG! It’s somewhere in the vicinity of 24,300 turbines, and that’s not counting industrial electric use or businesses. But remember, wind is free and the turbines are relatively inexpensive. So the efficiency argument is really just a mathematical one, since wind power is only intended to be a supplementary power source. As a reference, only about 15% of the energy from the fuel you put in your car’s gas tank gets used to move you down the road (unless you drive a hybrid or electric vehicle). 20-40% for wind power isn’t looking too bad now, eh?

The next argument is valid, but it does have a solution. One item that must be considered when determining the site placement of these turbines is the noise. To be fair, as far as massive pieces of machinery are concerned wind turbines are pretty quiet. You can stand probably beneath one and have a normal conversation...depending on who you are. I’ve heard the sound compared to a flowing river, leaves rustling in the breeze, vehicles traveling down the highway, a gas fireplace running in a living room, the HVAC at your office, etc. However, to me they sound very similar to a slow fetal heartbeat, and it’s that cyclical nature of the noise that I would find particularly annoying. Background white noise can cause all sorts of problems, after all the military does use it to confuse and flush out entrenched combatants. One problem with the noise is that turbines are generally sited in areas where the background noise is near zero. People move to the countryside to get away from noise. Also, these machines run around 90% of the time, day and night, and no amount of complaining to anyone will help after the turbine is installed.

A similar issue with a similar solution is what is called shadow flicker. As the turbine blades spin they create a strobe effect with their shadows that is particularly annoying. If you can imagine a 400 foot hand alternatively covering and uncovering the sun every two seconds or so then you will get the picture. As with the noise issue, the issue with shadow flicker can be resolved with proper placement of the units. Congress tasked the Congressional Research Service to prepare a report on wind power in the U.S., and their recommendation was for a minimum setback of 2640 feet (1/2 mile) to minimize noise and shadow flicker complaints. I’ve also seen the approximation of 10 rotor diameters which is close to ½ mile. The proposed setbacks for the DeKalb wind farm are not posted for obvious corporate B.S. reasons. I will guarantee that they are not ½ mile. Here’s a map of the proposed site. They do say that they will offer $1000/year to anyone that lives within ¾ mile of a turbine. I wonder why they chose ¾ mile? Because they know that even ¾ mile probably isn’t enough separation. As of this writing wind turbine corporations are lobbying congress to eliminate any setback standards for turbines. Typical. I would not want to live within one mile of these things, particularly since as a property owner I would have no recourse for complaint because the turbine owners make property owners sign pretty nasty contracts. So, in my mind we run into a bit of a problem here. The turbines should probably be placed as far as possible from dwellings, but there aren’t too many places you can stick them where there are no houses around for two miles and there is enough infrastructure available to make them functional. As always, it’s the property owners’ responsibility to ensure that what they propose to do on their land doesn’t adversely affect their neighbors, because the turbine corporations certainly don’t give one rat’s ass.

O.K., one more issue, and I’ll let you go. In order to install these massive structures roads must be built that can handle the trucks that haul in the large blades. Also, trenches must be dug to connect the turbines to the power infrastructure. This may be obvious, but I think it comes as a surprise to many when they see their land being broken up to accommodate the heavy equipment. Again, probably just a little awareness of this will go a long way.

So what do you think? Are wind-fueled power plants the panacea that they are touted to be or are they just more corporate greenwashing? My opinion is that they are a little of both, actually. I think at best we are putting a windy green hat on a coal puking monster, but wind farm maintenance and installation costs are low, the fuel cost is zero, and they can be decommissioned safely and cheaply. A 50-MW wind farm can be completed in 18 months to two years, which is much better than the 10-20 years it takes to commission a modern coal or nuclear facility. The main drawback is one of quality of life for people that live near the turbines. The companies that install and maintain the turbines offer some economic incentives to people that are inconvenienced, but I believe that it is imperative that property owners obtain appropriate legal counsel before they agree to sign anything. And a little education on the subject goes a long way, but that’s why you keep Daniel P. around, right?

Thanks, again to Witmo for the article suggestion, and as always if there is anything that you are curious about, just let me know.

Some pertinent wind-power links:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ram It Home

During my trip home last week I had the opportunity to shoot the breeze with family and friends, and occasionally the topic of discussion turned into a bit of a Q and A session about where I live. I am lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful states in the Union, Colorado. Wherever I go it seems that people are generally curious about how it is to live here. So this week I thought that I’d share a personal anecdote that I think pretty much sums up just how interesting life in the Centennial State can be.

A couple of weeks ago I went skiing in Keystone with a friend, and as I was driving early in the morning I recalled an event that happened probably ten or eleven years ago along the same stretch of road. I am pretty much a creature of habit, so I take the same route to the Summit County every time. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising since Colorado only has two roads that go anywhere. Anyway, I usually end up traveling through Golden and buzzing up Clear Creek Canyon to get to I-70. The canyon is often a busy little byway since it takes a load from ski traffic in the winter, sightseers and climbers year-round, and it feeds into the old west gambling towns of Blackhawk and Central City. It has beautiful sheer rock walls that frame both sides of the road, and the sound of the snow-melt creek fills the rock lined halls with the soothing sound of rushing water.

On the day in question I was headed to Vail with a friend of mine, Tiger, (yes, his name is actually Tiger) for a late fall rugby event. As I remember it we had to be there at old man early so we were in the canyon at about sunrise. The morning was cool and crisp. A light frost was on the trees although my breath was barely visible even before sunrise. As is apt to be the case with twenty-something rugby players, we were running a wee bit late, so Tiger was putting his red Mazda Miata through its paces in order to gain a little lost time. We had the top down since my esteemed colleague ate his weight in Mexican food and thought that it would be a good idea to wash it down with a case of Sunshine Wheat the night before, and the interior of that two-seat vehicle would have smelled like a musk ox shat inside someone's fake leg otherwise. It was bad enough with the top down, believe me. So, there we were zipping up the canyon at a good clip with the heater kicking full force whipping around the blind turns making up for lost time. For some reason we had the road to ourselves on that morning which only encouraged Tiger to press the little car into the turns even more.

Somewhere after Huntsman’s Gulch we came around a blind turn, and as I looked down to change the CD I heard the awful screeching of tires that you fear when you’re traveling through a tight canyon. I felt the car lurch to one side in order to avoid a sizable rock that had fallen into our lane. This isn’t too uncommon on the roadways around here, and the Colorado Department of Transportation has gone through extraordinary lengths to prevent rockslides from entering the highways. Several people every year are killed in Colorado from rocks falling onto their cars as they travel down the highway. The rocks on the road weren’t what was unusual. What was unusual was what brought the rocks down in the first place. The likely culprits were standing not a full car length from the Maita’s front bumper, which was now straddling the double-yellow line – two male bighorn sheep in full rut. Generally bighorn sheep are scraggly, mangy-looking animals, but these fellows were in the prime of their life – maybe not trophies, but still excellent specimens. They did not even notice us, and if Tiger’s caffeine fix hadn’t come to the rescue we would have probably had two uninvited passengers for the remainder of our short trip.

As I sat there with my heart racing the two animals took a couple of paces away from each other and then slammed their heads together with such force that the sound they generated in that silent canyon was like a shot going off echoing off the walls all around. Their breath was full of steam and snot as they backed up and raced forward to collide again. Pock! The sound was almost like the sound of ice fracturing across a frozen lake as the morning sun warms it. Their eyes were so wide open that white was visible all around, yet all they could see was the other ram standing in front of them. Pock! Trying desperately not to show any sign of weakness after each deafening impact. Pock! Back and forth they went several more times before a shoving match ensued ending up on the banks of Clear Creek below.

Neither Tiger nor I said a word. We just looked at each other as if to say, “Did that actually just happen?” Somehow it seemed to both of us simultaneously that talking about it until we had reached our destination would take something away from the experience. It wasn’t until we reached Vail (~1.5 hours away) that I finally said, “What the fuck was that, Man?!?” To which Tiger’s response was, “I seriously need to find a bathroom.” It was one of those events that leave a mark on your brain somehow...something unforgettable about witnessing an event first hand that few people ever see except on YouTube. I must have driven that canyon hundreds of times since that cool fall morning, and every time I still expect to see those magnificent sheep doing battle just around the next curve. So far they haven’t been there except in my memory, and that’s how Colorado grabs you and keeps you begging for more.