Sunday, January 31, 2021

Imagining A New Energy Future

                                                                                                     written 24 January 2021

                                                                                                 published 31 January 2021



            My favorite Mendocino county beer is Anderson Valley Brewing Company's Boont amber.  They advertise as a "solar powered brewery", currently producing 40 percent of their electricity from the sun, and recently announced plans to expand to 100 percent.  The woman running the taproom said the contracts have been signed, the staff had been briefed on the new construction, and the system will include battery storage. 

            Their current solar system is probably grid tied, allowing excess production to be sold back to PG&E, while buying power when needed.  Over the last few decades, such net-metering has boosted the installation of solar arrays by using the grid to deal with renewable power intermittency.  About 20 percent of the electricity generated within California is currently produced by wind or sun, a percentage that is increasing rapidly as costs plummet due to increased efficiencies in the hardware and mass production.  Over the last decade, solar prices dropped 90 percent and wind dropped 70 percent, each now producing power at $40/MWh, making them the most cost-effective sources of new generation.  

            As renewable production grows, the mismatch between when power is produced, and when it is needed, is driving a boom in grid scale energy storage, primarily batteries at the moment.  There are three scales of mismatch to address: daily, seasonal, and year to year.  Batteries are great for addressing the daily day/night cycle, allowing rapid shift from charge to discharge, with a relatively small energy cost for the exchange.  Battery costs have been dropping faster than solar costs, and larger battery storage systems are being constructed every month, threatening to economically replace natural gas "peaker" plants for handling short term load changes.  But the seasonal winter/summer mismatch, and year to year changes, can't be handled with batteries.  This requires storing energy in a fundamentally different form, and the current best candidate is hydrogen.

            All combustion fuels, including carbohydrates in the bodies of humans and animals, firewood, coal, oil, and natural gas, have stored energy as hydrogen in chemical compounds.  The oxidation of hydrogen releases the stored energy into forms that can be utilized by living and social systems.  Oxidizing pure hydrogen releases only energy and water.  Oxidizing anything else produces additional carbon compound residues, which is why fossil fuel combustion is a climate problem.  Because hydrogen is so reactive, there is no free hydrogen, and it must be stripped out of a compound and stored.

            95 percent of the hydrogen produced today is generated from fossil fuels, which still creates the problematic carbon residues.  Hydrogen can be stripped from water using electricity, and if the electricity is from a renewable source, it is called green hydrogen, as it leaves no carbon residue.  The hydrogen must be compressed, or cooled, for efficient long-term storage, and all these steps require equipment and energy, reducing the overall efficiency of the energy stored.

            As humanity begins to deal with the reality of climate change, green hydrogen production and storage is becoming the next "new thing".  Trillions have already been committed in Europe, Japan, and Australia, which will dramatically reduce the cost of this hardware.  As with all renewable systems, the hardware is a scalable fixed cost, and the energy is free

            Now imagine if Anderson Valley Brewing Company wanted to become completely energy sufficient.  The solar array and battery storage must be large enough to handle their electrical needs in the winter minimum, so the summer excess could be converted to hydrogen.  This could be used for all their space heating needs throughout the year, as normal combustion appliances can be converted to burn hydrogen.  It would also supply all their brewing production heating needs.  Electricity needs beyond the array and battery system could be generated using a fuel cell or a hydrogen fueled gas turbine, or the brewery could remain connected to the grid.

            Mercedes, Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, and Nikola, are all working on producing hydrogen fuel cell cars and trucks.  UPS and FedEx expect to shift to hydrogen.  The state of California is subsidizing hydrogen fueling stations.  Having electrical charging and hydrogen fueling available at the brewery would be an economic draw, not only for the brewery, but the entire Anderson valley.  Hydrogen production could use cheaper off-peak grid power, helping the overall economics of the grid.

            What a wonderful world this could be!







Sunday, January 24, 2021

Conspiracy Theories Kill Us

                                                                                                     written 17 January 2021

                                                                                                 published 24 January 2021



            By the time you read this, we will know if domestic terrorists have succeeded in decapitating the government, ending the American democratic republic.  I expect they failed, and Biden was inaugurated, because most Americans still respect the rule of law.  But we are a divided nation, riven by rampant conspiracy theories. 

            From Wikipedia: "A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event that invokes sinister groups, despite more probable explanations.  Conspiracy theories resist falsification because evidence against, and an absence of evidence for, are re-interpreted as evidence of truth, thus, the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith."  

            "Historically, conspiracy theories are linked to prejudice, witch hunts, wars, and terrorist attacks.  Conspiracy theories are obstacles to public health, and have been linked to outbreaks of preventable diseases, reduced trust in scientific evidence, and radicalization of extremist groups, with negative consequences for the economy. "

            " Conspiracy theories have become commonplace in mass media of the early 21st century.  Maintaining an open society and improving the analytical thinking skills of the general public reduce the occurrence of conspiracy beliefs."

            One common element of a person caught up in a conspiracy theory is the feeling of being excluded: that "they" are out to get "me".  Consequently, the more isolated a person is, the more likely they are to be drawn toward conspiracy groups.  But life and reality are inherently inclusive, so conspiracy groups perpetuate a false separation, leading to corrosion of society.

            Trump's most recent big lie, that the election was a fraud, is rooted in the belief that only white votes are valid.  This racist trope, left over from the Civil War, explains the Confederate flags during the terrorist Capitol invasion. While this continues to threaten our democratic institutions, only a few people have died so far.  

            Trump's previous big lie, that Covid-19 is a hoax, rooted in the belief that we aren't all human, has now killed over 400,000 Americans, and reduced American lifespan by one year, mostly in white rural areas.  America has over 24 million cases, more than any other country, yet Republicans still treat Covid-19 as a partisan matter.  

            Since May, eighteen states have experienced per capita Covid-19 deaths more than four times the national level, fifteen of them Republican led.  Recent reports show increased cases in jurisdictions where law enforcement decided not to enforce public health rules.  

            Hospital capacity is stretched everywhere, and hospitals in the Los Angeles area are now in surge mode, rationing care.  The National Guard was called in to help deal with bodies, as mortuary facilities couldn't keep up.  Some hospitals had emergency infrastructure upgrades because their oxygen supply lines froze up due to unexpected volume.  There is still concern another surge in cases will arrive because of New Year holiday social events. 

            But wait, there's more!

            As the global pandemic endures and expands, the virus has more chances to mutate, becoming more efficient.  In the last 13 months, hundreds of minor mutations have been detected, but in December two, more infectious, mutations were reported, one in the UK and a different one in South Africa.  While the current vaccines are still effective, 70 percent of the current cases in the UK are the newer strain, almost overwhelming their health system, forcing the country into lockdown.  This strain has now been detected in the US. 

            Brazilian president Bolsonaro's denial of Covid-19 has allowed the virus to rage out of control.  In Manaus, Brazil, the infection has reached "herd immunity" levels, but cases continue to expand, overwhelming health care facilities.  Even people who have had Covid-19, and recovered, are getting sick again.  Reports now indicate another mutation with a different spike protein, which reduces the protection from previous infection or the current vaccines.  This strain is more contagious and more lethal, and could be considered a whole new disease, Covid-21, requiring a heightened global health response to isolate, test, and quarantine, to limit the spread.  The sooner everyone is vaccinated against Covid-19, the less risk of further mutations.  

            If we survive these two big lies, we might be able to deal with the third big lie, that climate change is a hoax, which is rooted in the idea that humanity is not part of the web of life.  Conspiracy theories divide us, while reality demands we work together.  The choice is ours.


Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Whole World Is Watching

                                                                                                     written 10 January 2021

                                                                                                 published 17 January 2021



            For as long as history has been written, humanity has struggled to evolve society from the tribal to a more inclusive system.  A healthy society nourishes all its members, or it rots from within.  America's experiment with a democratic republic still suffers from tribal exclusivity, where some count more than the rest.  This flaw manifests in capitalism as the illusions of exclusive gain and externalized costs.  The social function of government is to set boundaries on tribalism, and address the needs of the entire society, without exclusion.    

            In 1986, President Reagan claimed the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”  In the decades since, Republicans have relentlessly disparaged government, sowing public distrust, while working to underfund or eliminate essential social services.  This has created massive economic inequity and disenfranchised millions.

            Believing they could control him, Republicans embraced candidate Trump, accepting his incompetence, corruption, and disregard for the rule of law, being more focused on power than integrity.  In 2020, during the pandemic, the 614 American billionaires increased their net worth by $931B while most Americans suffered.  America leads the planet in Covid cases and deaths, due to incompetent federal leadership.

            January 6th was the culmination of Republican anti-governmental sentiment when the mob of Trump supporters, incited by his deranged, self-serving lie about a fraudulent election, invaded Congress to stop the peaceful transfer of power.  The self-proclaimed "patriots" were armed, had explosive devices, and were prepared to take hostages.  This insurrection was coordinated with actions in thirteen state capitals.

            The good news is the attempted coup failed.  The legislators and staff were unharmed by the mob.  Order was restored later that day, Congress returned to business, and Biden was confirmed as the next president.

            The bad news is that five people died, including one policeman.  Capitol security was easily overwhelmed, perhaps even complicit in the invasion.  Trump's defense department appointees delayed authorizing the Maryland National Guard to enter and restore order.  Six Republican Senators and a majority of Republican House members voted to thwart the will of the electorate.

            Keep in mind, the core of all this is the big lie that the election was stolen and that violence and opposition to the rule of law was somehow patriotic duty.  This lie ignores 60 failed legal challenges, numerous recounts, and the certification by every state governor and secretary of state, a majority Republican-controlled, affirming the election was free and fair.  Trump just got fewer votes.

            The aftermath is still unfolding.  Trump, loyal only to himself, abandoned his supporters and belatedly condemned their actions in a stilted video.  The Wall Street Journal and the National Manufacturers Association, among others, have called for Trump's resignation.  Pence and the cabinet have been requested to invoke the 25th amendment to immediately remove the president from power, but Pence has gone into hiding and some cabinet members have resigned to avoid the issue.  The House has begun presidential impeachment proceedings for sedition and insurrection, which could bar Trump from ever holding public office again.  There are calls for resignation, expulsion, or censure of legislators who participated in attempting to thwart the will of the voters.  Around the country, prosecution of members of the mob are proceeding, based on selfies, cell phone data and social media videos.

            It is understandable that Trump needs to believe in fraud, because he is too mentally damaged to admit that he lost.  He should be pitied and given psychological care in a safe environment with no responsibilities.  But the sad part is the millions of people who have swallowed the big lie, hook, line and sinker, rather than listening to their inner truth. 

            What does it mean to be an American?  Are rich, white, Christians the only people who count?  Or are we truly a land of equal opportunity, open to everyone, without regard to wealth, race, or religion?  The mob invaded Congress wrapped in flags and carrying crosses.  Republicans with integrity need to call out the autocratic faction that has flourished in their party, and excise it like a cancer.  Real Christians, who understand the Golden Rule as the essence of Christ's message, need to reclaim the integrity of their religion.  It is encouraging to see that this process has begun.




Sunday, January 10, 2021

Republican Party Suicide

                                                                                                              written 3 January 2021

                                                                                                        published 10 January 2021



            I write this on January 3rd.  By the time you read it, the two Senate elections in Georgia will be over and the results probably known, determining control of the Senate for the next two years.  The joint session of Congress will have certified the Electoral College votes, but the Trump faction, including 11 Senators and 140 members of Congress, is planning to contest the issue, and invited armed insurrection by white supremacists to force their point.  I expect President Biden will have been confirmed, and that law enforcement contained the domestic terrorists acting as "patriots", but this is a sad time for the American experiment in democracy, and the dissolution of a once great political party.  

            Steve Schmidt, life-long Republican operative and co-founder of The Lincoln Project, believes January 6th will spell doom for the Republican Party as they plunge into a civil war that will pit the authoritarian and anti-authoritarian factions against each other.  This is excerpted from his recent Twitter feed.

            "The poisonous fruit from four years of collaboration and complicity with Trump's insanity, illiberalism and incompetence are ready for harvest.  It will kill the GOP because it’s Pro-Democracy faction and Autocratic factions can no longer exist together.  It won’t happen over-night but the destination is clear.  The Conservative party in America is dead.  It may continue to bear the name “Republican” but it will be no such thing.  Fascism has indeed come to America and as was once predicted, wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.  This movement must be defeated.  It cannot be appeased, accommodated or negotiated with.  We must all recognize the new age of American politics it has wrought.  There are only two sides in American politics now, the American side and the Autocratic side."  

            "2021 will be a hard year in the life of the American nation.  There is a great struggle that lies before us, and our disbelief at its arrival must not blind us to the lethal danger it poses to the American experiment.  The poisonous bounty of Trump's catastrophic presidency is ready for harvest, and the whole world will get to watch his seditious antics play out during a joint session of Congress on January 6th.  It will play out as a farce, and it will fail, but the danger lies in the act, not the outcome." 

            "Before I start, there is an important matter of fact which unfortunately needs restating.  Joe Biden won the presidential election decisively.  The election was free, fair and legitimate.  There is no evidence of any widespread fraud.  Allegations of fraud are premeditated lies being made by a rancid assortment of Trump’s stooges and propagandists.  Every single House Member and every U.S. Senator that participates in denying this reality, and thus the legitimacy of our election, does so as a cynical act, which they know for certain has no legitimate basis.  Such actions are a grievous sin against American democracy and a brutal betrayal of their oaths of office and duty." 

            "They are fighting to maintain the power of a defeated president against the sovereign will of the American people.  They are fighting to establish a tyranny by deliberately poisoning faith and belief in American democracy; a system rooted in the willingness of one side to cede power to another at the will of the people.  The legitimacy of that system is being strangled by Trump's lies and the lies of his movement.  That movement is an autocratic one with fascistic markers, hostile to the American Constitution, the rule of law and the highest ideas and ideals of American liberty."  

            "January 6th will be an historic day in America.  The autocrats will step forward into the light, including a substantial number of GOP Senators, and almost all of the known GOP presidential aspirants.  It must be opposed fiercely, and recognized for what it is; another storm in the constant struggle between liberty and her enemies.  This is a movement that is fueled by lies, conspiracies, corruption, greed, extremism, racism, grievance, resentment, cynicism and a profound absence of love for America.  It is right to feel anger and contempt toward its leaders and enablers.  Sedition is the precise word, and the right word, to describe what we have been witnessing.  Shame on them all."



Sunday, January 3, 2021

Lesson In A Stinging Nettle

                                                                                             written 27 December 2020

                                                                                               published 3 January 2021


            In high school biology, we studied the details of how the stinging nettle defends itself.  The surface is covered with small crystalline spikes: hollow tubes which are capped at the outer end by an offset blob.  At the root of the spike, below the plant surface, is a flexible sack filled with formic acid.  An animal pressing against the spike compresses the acid in the sack.  At some point the pressure exceeds the strength of the spike, shearing away the offset blob, leaving a surgically sharp point.  The compressed acid shoots up the hollow center as the spike tip penetrates the skin of the animal.  The resulting sting encourages the animal to go away, protecting the nettle.

            The elegance of the design struck me even at that young age.  The entire protection system is powered by the aggression of the animal, like an organic Aikido.  Each part is exactly sufficient to its task.  The crystalline material is strong enough to compress the acid, but brittle enough to shear to a functional point.  The sack is flexible, yet sturdy enough to keep the corrosive acid contained, preventing damage to the rest of the plant.  There is no waste, and everything is fabricated in its correct place using sunlight, water, and a few soil minerals.  What magnificent design: in a plant!

            Agricultural science has discovered that a new insecticide gives only short-term relief, as insects begin evolving immunity within a few years.  One grasshopper was found to take this evolution a step further.  It not only developed a metabolic system unaffected by a common insecticide, but used the poison for its own goals.  The insecticide was metabolized and added to the protective foam around the grasshopper egg case, helping to defend the eggs against other insects.  This indicates an awareness and intention of great subtlety: in an insect!

            In 1988, British biologist Dr. John Cairns published results of an experiment on bacteria which showed capacity to selectively repair its own DNA.  They took bacteria that could only metabolize the lactose sugar molecule, and then disabled the gene that expressed the enzyme which breaks up the lactose, providing energy for the bacteria.  The bacteria were then put in an environment with only lactose.  Traditional biological wisdom at the time said mutation was due to random errors during cell division, and cells can't divide without energy, so it was expected they would all die.

            Surprisingly, the colonies thrived, and detailed investigation showed specific mutations in just the genes that had been disabled.  The evidence suggested the bacteria had read the environment and modify its biological hardware appropriately.  This caused quite a stir at the time, being labeled "bad science, if not fraud".  But it has been replicated many times in other labs, validating the conclusions.  The living world is not just a mindless preprogramed machine.  In everything, there is awareness and an ability to respond: even in bacteria!  

            The Church held Europe in philosophic tyranny for ages, killing anyone who questioned their dogma, while preaching Christ's message of love.  But waves of black plague, beginning in 1350, and growing institutional corruption, culminating in Luther's Protestant 1517 challenge, weakened the Church, allowing western science to strike a bargain in the 1600's.  Science investigated the material realm, while leaving consideration of "spirit" and "meaning" to the rigid dogma of the Church.  This birthed the scientific and technological revolution, but at the price of a growing scientific dogma assuming reality is meaningless and consciousness is just a by-product of biochemical activity in the brain.

            A century ago, science experienced a revolution in physics with the rise of quantum mechanics, which showed that consciousness is central to matter.  At the same time the study of psychology arose, recognizing the power of the unconscious mind.  Eastern religious thought continued to make inroads into western thinking, with the understanding of a profound unity.

            There is increased understanding that the foundation of reality is immanent, potent, and wise, something mystical spiritual traditions have always known, but is now entering scientific consideration.  It is time for an evolution of thinking, which recognizes the power of both spirit and matter, but transcends the dogmatic limitations of either science or religion, which have brought the world to the current point of collapse.