Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Here's a Great Idea I Haven't Implemented....Yet

Our largest use of fossil fuels was for home heating. The legacy system in our house when we bought it, was oil. With no insulation in the house, we went through a lot of oil! When we moved to our present house in 2000, the price was just over $1/gallon. Last year it was $3.50.

When deciding what to do going forward, we had already purchased a new efficient boiler. This was done by our builder in the early part of our renovation to our house, and when it happened, I was not thinking hard about long-term energy use and the best way to go about it. Some thoughts had crossed my mind regarding solar heating, but with solar, you still need a backup source, for the sun isn't shining all the time, and given the efficiency boost, I was thinking more about the great improvement the new system was going to give instead of dumping the entire technology. With time, we could then implement solar systems to reduce our use of oil. That was plan anyway.

That all changed earlier this year when the decision was made to try to get off of the oil entirely, and in a later post, I'll explain why we went with a geothermal heatpump, but here I want to discuss something we haven't done as yet: the solar wall. Check out this website: www.solarwall.com

The solar wall is brilliant. In its simplest description, it is a black piece of metal, put on a sun-facing side of the building, and it has holes in it to suck in the air heated near the surface of the metal, for the surface becomes hot by exposure to the sun's rays. If you are looking for an inexpensive method of seriously reducing you heating bills, it is worth looking into purchasing a solar wall system.

A really ingenious system is the PV/solarwall "co-gen" unit. Here you put a solar wall in tandem with photovoltaics, so you get power and heat at the same time. The combination is especially powerful, for the PVs are less efficient the hotter they get, and the solar wall can help with that problem by taking the heat away from the PVs, and as the PVs are dark, they are already the right color and produce a lot of heat by themselves. According to the website, payback times can be cut by as much as two-thirds by having the combined unit. I believe this, although it should be pointed out that the main cost of the combined system would be the PV part, and you'd probably get a better return dollar for dollar by just installing the solar wall.

A great critique of solar power is the book The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World by Howard C. Hayden. You can get a copy of this book on Amazon.com. I don't buy all of his arguments, and he definitely has a nuclear bias, but the book is well argued and worth reading.

One of his criticisms of solar-generated electricity is that the efficiency of the solar cells is low (20% or less), and that it isn't likely to increase, due to the inherent physics of converting sunlight into electricity via the photoelectric effect. Technically, Hayden is correct, for there are good physical limits, and so far, all panels that get great efficiency, say 30% or better, all use elements that will probably remain expensive, and none get the 50% or more efficiency one would like.

But this criticism of power conversion is true of most methods of producing electricity or any kind of work (the internal combustion engine is one of the worst!). The problem is that it is easy to convert work to heat, but harder to convert heat back to work. The work-around for all efficient power units is to use the heat for other processes. For example you can use the heat to boil water to make steam that then gets turned into work by turning turbines. The most efficient power plants do that. The solarwall with the PV tie does something similar. It uses both the heat and power, and it is a great piece of engineering.

If your budget is limited, and you really want to do something to reduce your reliance on fossil fuels, definitely check out the solar wall. A properly planned system will save you money and significantly reduce your use of either heating oil or natural gas.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Energy and the Middle East

While campaigning for Republican Senatorial and House candidates during the last elections, George W. Bush made a couple of references to the problem of the United States' dependence on foreign oil. For instance, at the Springfield Exposition Center in Springfield, Mo on Nov 3, 2006, he said the following with regards to his waging of the war on terror (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/11/20061103-1.html):

The consequences of retreat would be felt for generations. I see a lot of young
folks here today. (Applause.) My job is to think not only how to protect you
today, but how to create the conditions for peace in the long run. Retreating
from the Middle East because of the unspeakable violence that the enemy inflicts
on others, as well as their own troops, would create a dangerous world for you
to grow up in. You see, the enemy has made it clear that they expect us to lose
our nerve. They have made it clear that they don't believe America has what it
takes to defend ourselves. They want to topple moderate governments. They want
to be able to use energy as a tool to blackmail the United States.

Imagine the radicals and extremists taking over a country, and they were able to pull millions of barrels of oil off the market, driving the price up to $300 or $400
a barrel, whatever it would be, and saying, okay, we'll reduce the price, all
you've got to do is surrender. All you've got to do is abandon your alliance
with Israel, and we'll lower the price. All you've got to do is retreat. And
couple that with a country which doesn't like us, with a nuclear weapon, and a
generation of Americans will say, what happened to them in 2006? How come they
couldn't see the impending danger? What was it that clouded their vision?

Some pundits have jumped on President Bush's comments as an admission that we went to Iraq because of oil. At the time of the invasion, there were plenty of denials that oil was the reason for the campaign. I specifically remember Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's comments that oil had absolutely nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq. For what it is worth, I didn't believe him then, and I don't believe it now. Sure, you could justify going in for other reasons, but it is now clear the neoconservative agenda of stabilizing the Middle East appears the primary reason, and for what other reason would we do it besides oil? Israel perhaps, but if we were interested in world stability, we'd go into places in Africa first. Anyway, that's an old and tired debate.

I've been thinking about Bush's admission since it hit the news cycle in early November, 2006, and the general reaction of "gotcha" by his critics. What shouldn't be lost in all this is that Bush is in essence right. We cannot find ourselves held hostage because of our oil addiction, I couldn't agree more. But I find myself differing in the approach of the solution. The best way to fix our problem, in my opinion, is to make the Middle East irrelevant, and that means going off oil with sooner being better than later. Nothing will change the attitude towards America better than our statement that we don't want what they have anymore. I think that would do more for our foreign policy state than anything else.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Our Toyota Hybrids

Hearing about the 2007 Toyota Camry back in April, 2006, I decided to pay a visit to the local Toyota dealership to check it out. The reason for the interest is that the Camry was the first full-sized car that was rated at 40 mpg of which I had heard. They didn't have any then, for the production didn't start until May, 2006. As I was there, they suggested I try the Highlander Hybrid, so I did, and of course, we liked it enough that we decided to buy it.

The salesman wanted me to put my name on the waiting list for the Camry for a $500 deposit. I told him to call me when he had one that fit my desires. I didn't want to reserve a car I had never driven before. He called on their second hybrid Camry they got. Apparently the gentlemen who reserved it didn't have the credit, and so the car was available. I drove it, my wife drove it, we bought it.

Prior to the new vehicles, we owned a 1996 Nissan Maxima and a 2002 Subaru Legacy Outback. I usually tracked the Maxima mileage, and it tended to get between 19 and 21 mpg. This is from a car that the EPA rated at 21 city , 28 highway, and 23 combined. Checking with http://www.fueleconomy.gov/, from 6 drivers who registered, they got between 21 and 25 mpg--much better than we averaged. This government site is really good for people interested in comparing the fuel economy of different vehicles. Especially good are the actual mileage rates from actual drivers. (It is on my list of things to do to upload the mileage from our hybrids.)

The Subaru was also in the same range, 22 city and 27 highway with the combined at 24 mpg. We generally got a little better mileage with this car, probably around 23 mpg. This is from memory, for it wasn't tracked as often.

Before replacing the cars, I figured we'd get the Camry to replace the Maxima. After driving the Highlander, I concluded we could replace the Subaru too, although that perhaps wasn't so pressing. Just as an aside, I didn't even consider the Prius. Don't know why exactly. I think it is because I'm looking for the same or improving driving experience and didn't want to down-shift to a smaller car unless it is absolutely necessary.

Driving our new cars has four pleasant advantages over the previous cars. The first is the GPS. This is probably one of the best additions to cars in years, and I highly recommend it, even though it doesn't help with the fuel economy. The second one is the regenerative breaking, i.e. the hybrid nature to the car. You feel good pushing on the brakes on these cars, for you know you are saving energy by doing so.

The third improvement is the pick-up. The best-kept secret of these cars is that they accelerate fast. This is a true advantage of an electric drive, and it represents a real improvement over just internal combustion. The gas only Highlander has 215 horsepower, but the hybrid has a combined value of 268 horsepower, and it gets better gas mileage. The gas-only is rated at 19 city, 25 highway. The hybrid is rated at 31 city, 27 highway. Same for the Camry. The combined output (V-4 plus electric) is higher than the V-6 Camry. These things have great pick-up. There is no contest.

Finally, the best part is that we go farther between fill-ups. Gas mileage is rated at 40 mpg for the Camry. Our mileage, while better than our previous cars, appears to be less than the people who have uploaded their data to http://www.fueleconomy.gov/. Most Camry hybrid drivers are getting between 32 and 42 mpg. We are getting just over 30 mpg. For the Highlander, we are getting just under 25 mpg, while the average on the website is 25.2 and a range of 21-31 mpg. I think the primary reason we aren't doing as well is that our trips are short (under 10 miles most of them), and generally speaking, one gets better mileage on longer commutes, because the mileage improves as the engine heats up. That's my guess. Frankly, I don't really know.

We can estimate what we are saving by a quick gas mileage comparison. The Camry replaced the Maxima, and the Highlander replaced the Subaru. The Camry represents a 50% improvement in mileage [(30 - 20)/20 = 0.5] over the Maxima, but the Highlander represents only a 10% improvement over the Subaru. It wins more in larger space and newer equipment (including the GPS). The third row in the Hylander is a major plus.

Replacing the Maxima was a great idea, but frankly, I like the Highlander better. We are driving the Highlander more than the Camry, but we drove the Subaru more than the Maxima. On average, we are probably using 25% less gas than before, or about 180 gallons a year savings.

No bad? Frankly, I think it is inadequate. We need to use 80% less or even less than that. If only we could plug these vehicles in and use solar, wind, or even nuclear power for that matter. Any would be better than sending the money to people who don't seem to like us.

You Can Pry My Car From My Dead Cold Hands

Is the automobile a bad thing or is it just the fuel? My answer to this question is "yes."

Environmentalists can give you a litany of issues brought on by the automobile from pristine land degradation to air polution to global warming. I'm not going to get into that debate here really, except to say that I do believe it has done a lot of damage as well as facilitated a lot of good. More importantly for the moment, it is unlikely the personal automobile is going to go away soon, and to repeat my personal situation, we aren't giving ours up any time soon.

Sure, we could have more public transportation, and that would probably be a good thing. But, the automobile is too convenient to just go away without a serious world change. Perhaps Peak Oil and all its problems will do it, but I don't think so. Personally, I think the automobile is here as long as humans are.

As I wrote in the last blog, even before the automobile, people of means had wagons or carriages, and some even had rail cars. The truly amazing thing is that in the USA, virtually everybody who wants a car can get one. That's empowerment if ever there was such a thing.

The more pressing problem, in my mind, is the fuel source for the auto, namely gasoline. And what are the problems with that? Well, ok there again is the environmental side which is an issue for another discussion. The bigger problem is where the fuel comes from, and that is not here.

The accompanying graph shows the amount of petroleum supplied since 1949 (light-blue line). These data from from the EIA site at DOE and were from the last Annual Energy Review.
Post WWII, the USA pumped most of its own oil (dark blue). However since the mid-to-late 1980s, our dependence on foreign sources has been steadily increasing (yellow line).
This graph tells many things. It shows the peak in the domestic USA oil production in 1970 (as predicted in the late 1950s by M.King Hubbert), and the peak in Alaskan oil in 1988 (purple line). It has been downhill for domestic production ever since, and despite what the news may tell you, the deepwater Gulf of Mexico oil won't get us back. It could replace Alaskan oil, maybe, but that appears to be about it. Exactly where this foreign oil is coming from and where it is expected to come in the future is an interesting story in itself, and I'll try to post that too.
Another interesting part of this graph are the peaks in consumption in 1973 (the Arab Oil Embargo), in 1978 (the Iranian crisis), and what may be another peak in 2004. The 2005 data are preliminary, but it looks like 2005 and 2006 have less usage than prior years. We can call this the Hurricane Katrina shortage, although that is a bit of a simplification.
A significant fraction of the decline in petroleum supplied post-1978 were demand destruction caused by the federally mandated fuel economy (CAFE) standards and also a significant reduction in the use of oil for electricity production. My take on that aspect is that yes, conservation worked, for it bought us some time, but it hasn't fixed the problem, and we are now more vulnerable to a foreign source disruption (or Peak-Oil for that matter) than ever before.
What we need is a new fuel source for personal transportation needs. There is a new book called Internal Combustion by Edwin Black, and I recommend it for anyone interested in how we got tied to gasoline. It is an interesting story.

In the meantime, I'm in the camp looking for a different fuel source, and I have become convinced that it resides in electricity or a plug-in hybrid. Ethanol has problems (in the USA), and hydrogen isn't here yet (if it ever gets here), but we could get plug-in hybrids today, for the technology exists and is available. By going that route, we would have a chance in becoming self-sufficient again and help the environment at the same time.
Unfortunately, no large automaker is building plug-in hybrids at the moment. Feeling we needed to do something, we bought Toyota Hybrids. My thoughts on those are coming up.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Our Transportation: What Do We Need?

It is interesting to reflect upon what the automobile means to us. For my family and I, it is probably 99% convenience and at most 1% necessity. Could we do without it? Yes, I believe so. Will we? Probably not unless we absolutely have to.

Why is this so? Why don't we need it? The primary reason is that we live on the Eastern Seaboard where public transport is pretty good. There are local buses that service the train to NYC (or New Haven if we need to go that way). I work out of the house, and my wife works about 12 miles from the house. The public transportation, while incredibly inconvenient, would suffice for commuting if it came to that.

Of course the Eastern Seaboard isn't the only place with good public transportation. Many places have it, but the culture clearly in the USA is automobile focused, and that is true also on the East Coast. I'm also guessing that most Americans (i.e. over half) are in a similar situation where the automobile represents an incredible time saver and convenient mode of transportation.

What about needed trips, say to the grocery store and such? The closest store to us is about a mile away. We could do that by bike, although dealing with the traffic is a major deterrent. Our daily habits would have to change considerably if for some reason gasoline became scarce, but it is clear we could cut our consumption by 1/2 and still have a decent lifestyle, but it would be, to borrow a word from our former Vice President, inconvenient.

So there is the contradiction. We use the auto because we can. We burn the gasoline, originating primarily from foreign sources, because it makes live easier. We would like to reduce or eliminate this connection, but, frankly, it isn't going to be easy. Sure, we could go "cold turkey", I'd rather spend time and effort figuring out a different way.

Many vocal critics of the US energy policy attack the automobile, saying it makes sense to invest in public transportation. I don't disagree with a good public transportation system. If I need to go into Manhattan, I take the train probably 90% of the time. That is because it is more convenient to do so. If it is Queens, though, I drive. The extra hour each way for the public transportation is just too much to take--especially with kids.

Yeah, we could give up the cars, but we won't. Looking back to times before the automobile, there also was public and private transportation. You could take the stage coach or you could ride your horse or your personal carriage or wagon. Take away gasoline, and I'm willing to bet you would still see the remnants of what we see now: some public, some private modes of transportation. It has always been that way. Why should it change now?