US Fusion Reactor Plan

10 December, 2020

A while back I mentioned the SPARC fusion reactor, a relatively new design. What about more traditional approaches to fusion? Here’s a good article about the state of funding for these in the US:

• Adrian Cho, U.S. physicists rally around ambitious plan to build fusion power plant, Science, 8 December 2020.

Here’s the start:

U.S. fusion scientists, notorious for squabbling over which projects to fund with their field’s limited budget, have coalesced around an audacious goal. A 10-year plan presented last week to the federal Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee is the first since the community tried to formulate such a road map in 2014 and failed spectacularly. It calls for the Department of Energy (DOE), the main sponsor of U.S. fusion research, to prepare to build a prototype power plant in the 2040s that would produce carbon-free electricity by harnessing the nuclear process that powers the Sun.

The plan formalizes a goal set out 2 years ago by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and embraced in a March report from a 15-month-long fusion community planning process. It also represents a subtle but crucial shift from the basic research that officials in DOE’s Office of Science have favored. “The community urgently wants to move forward with fusion on a time scale that can impact climate change,” says Troy Carter, a fusion physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the planning committee. “We have to get started.”

Impact climate change… with a prototype in the 2040s? Don’t hurry yourselves too much, folks! But you might want to read this:

• Coral Davenport, Major climate report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040, New York Times, 2018 October 7.

INCHEON, South Korea — A landmark report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”

The report, issued on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.

Thanks to Keith Harbaugh for pointing out the article in Science.


US Environmental Policy (Part 2)

12 November, 2020

On his first day in office, President-elect Biden plans to have the US rejoin the Paris climate accord. He has also pledged to sign ten executive orders on his first day in office:

• Requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.

• Using the Federal government procurement system—which spends $500 billion every year—to drive towards 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.

• Ensuring that all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation.

• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation—the fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution—by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles.

• Doubling down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels are now closer than ever as we begin to build the first plants for biofuels, creating jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, ocean-going vessels, and more.

• Saving consumers money and reduce emissions through new, aggressive appliance- and building-efficiency standards.

• Committing that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution, and require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

• Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.

• Protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

• Protecting America’s natural treasures by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.

According to article in today’s Washington Post:

In a sign of how Biden has already elevated the issue, he discussed the topic with every European head of state with whom he spoke on Tuesday, including the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Ireland. Biden has started frequently referring to the climate “crisis,” suggesting a heightened level of urgency.

A team of former Obama administration officials and experts have created a 300-page blueprint laying out a holistic approach to the climate while avoiding some of the pitfalls that hampered President Barack Obama, who shared some of the same goals but was unable to enact all of them. Dubbed the Climate 21 Project, it took a year and a half to develop and was delivered recently to Biden’s transition team. The document outlines how the incoming administration could restructure aspects of the government to move faster on global warming.

For more, see:

Climate 21 Project.


US Environmental Policy (Part 1)

8 November, 2020

This blog does not allow discussion of partisan politics. But I can still list some ways in which US environmental policy will change if Biden becomes president.

First and foremost, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

Besides leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trump administration did many other things that didn’t require approval from Congress:

• Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis, The Trump administration is reversing nearly 100 environmental rules. Here’s the full list, New York Times, 15 October 2020.

Here’s the list. Biden can reverse or halt all these actions without approval from Congress:

Air pollution – completed:

  1. Weakened Obama-era fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks.
    E.P.A. and Transportation Department
  2. Revoked California’s ability to set stricter tailpipe emissions standards than the federal government.
    E.P.A.
  3. Withdrew the legal justification for an Obama-era rule that limited mercury emissions from coal power plants.
    E.P.A.
  4. Replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, with a new version that would let states set their own rules.
    Executive Order; E.P.A.
  5. Canceled a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions.
    E.P.A.
  6. Revised and partially repealed an Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions on public lands, including intentional venting and flaring from drilling operations. A federal court struck down the revision in July 2020, calling the Trump administration’s reasoning “wholly inadequate” and mandating enforcement of the original rule. However, the Obama-era rule was later partially struck down in a separate court case, during which the Trump administration declined to defend it.
    Interior Department
  7. Withdrew a Clinton-era rule designed to limit toxic emissions from major industrial polluters, and later proposed codifying the looser standards.
    E.P.A.
  8. Revised a program designed to safeguard communities from increases in pollution from new power plants to make it easier for facilities to avoid emissions regulations.
    E.P.A.
  9. Amended rules that govern how refineries monitor pollution in surrounding communities.
    E.P.A.
  10. Weakened an Obama-era rule meant to reduce air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas.
    E.P.A.
  11. Weakened oversight of some state plans for reducing air pollution in national parks.
    E.P.A.
  12. Relaxed air pollution regulations for a handful of plants that burn waste coal for electricity.
    E.P.A.
  13. Repealed rules meant to reduce leaking and venting of powerful greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons from large refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
    E.P.A.
  14. Directed agencies to stop using an Obama-era calculation of the social cost of carbon, which rulemakers used to estimate the long-term economic benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
    Executive Order
  15. Withdrew guidance directing federal agencies to include greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews. But several district courts have ruled that emissions must be included in such reviews.
    Executive Order; Council on Environmental Quality
  16. Revoked an Obama executive order that set a goal of cutting the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over 10 years.
    Executive Order
  17. Repealed a requirement that state and regional authorities track tailpipe emissions from vehicles on federal highways.
    Transportation Department
  18. Lifted a summertime ban on the use of E15, a gasoline blend made of 15 percent ethanol. (Burning gasoline with a higher concentration of ethanol in hot conditions increases smog.)
    E.P.A.
  19. Changed rules to allow states and the E.P.A. to take longer to develop and approve plans aimed at cutting methane emissions from existing landfills.
    E.P.A.
  20. Withdrew a proposed rule aimed at reducing pollutants, including air pollution, at sewage treatment plants.
    E.P.A.
  21. Relaxed some Obama-era requirements for companies to monitor and repair leaks at oil and gas facilities, including exempting certain low-production wells – a significant source of methane emissions – from the requirements altogether. (Other leak regulations were eliminated.)
    E.P.A.

Air pollution – in progress:

  1. Eliminated Obama-era methane emissions standards for oil and gas facilities and narrowed standards limiting the release of other polluting chemicals known as “volatile organic compounds” to only certain facilities. A federal court temporarily halted the rollback from going into effect after environmental groups and several states filed suit.
    E.P.A.
  2. Proposed revisions to standards for carbon dioxide emissions from new, modified and reconstructed coal power plants, eliminating Obama-era restrictions that, in effect, required them to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions.
    E.P.A.
  3. Began a review of emissions rules for power plant start-ups, shutdowns and malfunctions. One outcome of that review: In February 2020, E.P.A. reversed a requirement that Texas follow emissions rules during certain malfunction events.
    E.P.A.
  4. Proposed a rule limiting the ability of individuals and communities to challenge E.P.A.-issued pollution permits before a panel of agency judges.
    E.P.A.

Drilling and extraction – completed:

  1. Made significant cuts to the borders of two national monuments in Utah and recommended border and resource-management changes to several more.
    Presidential Proclamation; Interior Department
  2. Lifted an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases on public lands. In April 2019, a judge ruled that the Interior Department could not begin selling new leases without completing an environmental review. In February 2020, the agency published an assessment that concluded restarting federal coal leasing would have little environmental impact.
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  3. Finalized a plan to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development, a move that overturns six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.
    Congress; Interior Department
  4. Approved construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. (The Obama administration had halted the project, with the Army Corps of Engineers saying it would explore alternative routes.) The pipeline is embroiled in a lengthy legal battle, but has been allowed to continue operating by the Army Corps of Engineers even though a federal court reversed the Corps’ decision to allow the pipeline to run along its current path.
    Executive Order; Army
  5. Rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands.
    Interior Department
  6. Scrapped a proposed rule that required mines to prove they could pay to clean up future pollution.
    E.P.A.
  7. Withdrew a requirement that Gulf oil rig owners prove they can cover the costs of removing rigs once they stop producing.
    Interior Department
  8. Moved the permitting process for certain projects that cross international borders, such as oil pipelines, to the office of the president from the State Department, exempting them from environmental review.
    Executive Order
  9. Changed how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers the indirect effects of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews of pipelines.
    Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
  10. Revoked an Obama-era executive order designed to preserve ocean, coastal and Great Lakes waters in favor of a policy focused on energy production and economic growth.
    Executive Order
  11. Loosened offshore drilling safety regulations implemented by the Obama after following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, including reduced testing requirements for blowout prevention systems.
    Interior Department

Drilling and extraction – in progress

  1. Proposed opening most of America’s coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, but delayed the plan after a federal judge in 2019 ruled that reversing a ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans was unlawful. Ahead of the 2020 election, Mr. Trump announced he would exempt from drilling coastal areas around Florida, a crucial battleground state, Georgia and South Carolina.
    Interior Department
  2. Repealed an Obama-era rule governing royalties for oil, gas and coal leases on federal lands, which replaced a 1980s rule that critics said allowed companies to underpay the federal government. A federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s repeal, but another court froze the original rule pending litigation.
    Interior Department
  3. Proposed easing the approval process for oil and gas drilling in national forests by curbing the power of the Forest Service to review and approve leases, among other changes.
    Agriculture Department; Interior Department
  4. Withdrew proposed restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska, despite concerns over environmental impacts on salmon habitat, including a prominent fishery. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has so far denied a permit for a proposed project, known as the Pebble Mine, noting it “could have substantial environmental impacts,” but left the door open for a revised plan.
    E.P.A.; Army
  5. Proposed revising regulations on offshore oil and gas exploration by floating vessels in the Arctic that were developed after a 2013 accident. The Interior Department previously said it was “considering full rescission or revision of this rule.”
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  6. Proposed opening more land for drilling in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a vast swath of public land on the Arctic Ocean. The Obama administration had designated about half of the reserve as a conservation area.
    Interior Department
  7. Finalized a plan to allow logging and road construction in Tongass National Forest, Alaska, by exempting the area from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which applied to much of the national forest system.
    Interior Department
  8. Approved the Keystone XL pipeline rejected by President Barack Obama, but a federal judge blocked the project from going forward without an adequate environmental review process. The Supreme Court in July 2020 upheld that ruling, further delaying construction of the pipeline.
    Executive Order; State Department
  9. Approved the use of seismic air guns for gas and oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. The Obama administration had denied permits for such surveys, which can kill marine life and disrupt fisheries. However, the Trump administration’s permits to allow seismic surveys expired following a protracted lawsuit, ending the possibility of seismic air gun surveys in the Atlantic in the near term. Companies would need to restart the months-long permitting process.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Infrastructure – completed:

  1. Weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the country’s most significant environmental laws, in order to expedite the approval of public infrastructure projects, such as roads, pipelines and telecommunications networks. The new rules shorten the time frame for completing environmental studies, limit the types of projects subject to review, and no longer require federal agencies to account for a project’s cumulative effects on the environment, such as climate change.
    Council on Environmental Quality
  2. Revoked Obama-era flood standards for federal infrastructure projects that required the government to account for sea level rise and other climate change effects.
    Executive Order
  3. Relaxed the environmental review process for federal infrastructure projects.
    Executive Order
  4. Overturned an Obama-era guidance that ended U.S. government financing for new coal plants overseas except in rare circumstances.
    Executive Order; Treasury Department
  5. Revoked a directive for federal agencies to minimize impacts on water, wildlife, land and other natural resources when approving development projects.
    Executive Order
  6. Revoked an Obama executive order promoting climate resilience in the northern Bering Sea region of Alaska, which withdrew local waters from oil and gas leasing and established a tribal advisory council to consult on local environmental issues.
    Executive Order
  7. Reversed an update to the Bureau of Land Management’s public land-use planning process.
    Congress
  8. Withdrew an Obama-era order to consider climate change in the management of natural resources in national parks.
    National Park Service
  9. Restricted most Interior Department environmental studies to one year in length and a maximum of 150 pages, citing a need to reduce paperwork.
    Interior Department
  10. Withdrew a number of Obama-era Interior Department climate change and conservation policies that the agency said could “burden the development or utilization of domestically produced energy resources.”
    Interior Department
  11. Eliminated the use of an Obama-era planning system designed to minimize harm from oil and gas activity on sensitive landscapes, such as national parks.
    Interior Department
  12. Withdrew Obama-era policies designed to maintain or, ideally, improve natural resources affected by federal projects.
    Interior Department

Infrastructure – in progress:

  1. Proposed plans to speed up the environmental review process for Forest Service projects.
    Agriculture Department

Animals – completed:

  1. Changed the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it more difficult to protect wildlife from long-term threats posed by climate change.
    Interior Department; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  2. Ended the automatic application of full protections for ‘threatened’ plants and animals, the classification one step below ‘endangered’ in the Endangered Species Act.
    Interior Department
  3. Relaxed environmental protections for salmon and smelt in California’s Central Valley in order to free up water for farmers.
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  4. Overturned a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands.
    Interior Department
  5. Overturned a ban on the hunting of predators in Alaskan wildlife refuges.
    Congress
  6. Reversed an Obama-era rule that barred using bait, such as grease-soaked doughnuts, to lure and kill grizzly bears, among other sport hunting practices that many people consider extreme, on some public lands in Alaska.
    National Park Service; Interior Department
  7. Amended fishing regulations to loosen restrictions on the harvest of a number of species.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  8. Removed restrictions on commercial fishing in a protected marine preserve southeast of Cape Cod that is home to rare corals and a number of endangered sea animals. The Trump administration has suggested changing the management or size of two other marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean.
    Executive Order; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  9. Proposed revising limits on the number of endangered marine mammals and sea turtles that can be unintentionally killed or injured with sword-fishing nets on the West Coast. (The Obama-era rules were initially withdrawn by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but were later finalized following a court order. The agency has said it plans to revise the limits.)
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  10. Loosened fishing restrictions intended to reduce bycatch of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. Nonprofits have filed a lawsuit challenging the rollback.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  11. Overturned a ban on using parts of migratory birds in handicrafts made by Alaskan Natives.
    Interior Department

Animals – in progress:

  1. Proposed weakening critical habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to exclude certain areas, including for public-works projects, such as schools and hospitals, and for public lands leased to non-government businesses.
    Interior Department
  2. Opened nine million acres of Western land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for the sage grouse, an imperiled bird. The Idaho District Court temporarily blocked the measure. The Montana District Court also invalidated the directive, nullifying 440 oil and gas leases, but the ruling is on hold pending appeal.
    Interior Department

Water pollution – completed:

  1. Scaled back pollution protections for certain tributaries and wetlands that were regulated under the Clean Water Act by the Obama administration. (A federal judge in Colorado halted implementation of the rule within the state, but it is in effect elsewhere.)
    E.P.A.; Army
  2. Revoked a rule that prevented coal companies from dumping mining debris into local streams.
    Congress
  3. Weakened a rule that aimed to limit toxic discharge from power plants into public waterways.
    E.P.A.
  4. Weakened a portion of the Clean Water Act to make it easier for federal agencies to issue permits for federal projects over state objections if the projects don’t meet local water quality standards, including for pipelines and other fossil fuel facilities.
    Executive Order; E.P.A. holding areas, which can spill their contents because they lack a protective underlay.
    E.P.A.
  5. Withdrew a proposed rule requiring groundwater protections for certain uranium mines. Recently, the administration’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group proposed opening up 1,500 acres outside the Grand Canyon to nuclear production.
    E.P.A.

Water pollution – in progress:

  1. Proposed doubling the time allowed for utilities to remove lead pipes from water systems with high levels of lead.
    E.P.A.
  2. Attempted to weaken federal rules regulating the disposal and storage of coal ash waste from power plants, but a court determined the original rules were already insufficient to protect the environment. The E.P.A. then proposed a new rule that would allow unlined coal ash ponds, previously deemed unsafe, to continue operating.
    E.P.A.
  3. Proposed a regulation limiting the scope of an Obama-era rule under which companies had to prove that large deposits of recycled coal ash would not harm the environment.
    E.P.A.

Toxic substances and safety – completed:

  1. Rejected a proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to developmental disabilities in children. In 2020, the E.P.A. also rejected its own earlier finding that the pesticide can cause serious health problems. (Several states have banned use of the pesticide and its main manufacturer said it would stop producing the product because of shrinking demand.)
    E.P.A.
  2. Narrowed the scope of a 2016 law mandating safety assessments for potentially toxic chemicals like dry-cleaning solvents. The updated rules allowed the E.P.A. to exclude some chemical uses and types of exposure in the review process. In November 2019, a court of appeals ruled the agency must widen its scope to consider full exposure risks, but watchdog groups say the agency has not done so in some assessments.
    E.P.A.
  3. Reversed an Obama-era rule that required braking system upgrades for “high hazard” trains hauling flammable liquids like oil and ethanol.
    Transportation Department
  4. Changed safety rules to allow for rail transport of highly flammable liquefied natural gas.
    Transportation Department

Toxic substances and safety – in progress:

  1. Proposed limiting pesticide application buffer zones that are intended to protect farmworkers and bystanders from accidental exposure.
    E.P.A.
  2. Announced a review of an Obama-era rule lowering coal dust limits in mines. The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said there were no immediate plans to change the dust limit but has extended a public comment period until 2022.
    Labor Department

Other – completed:

  1. Repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have nearly doubled the number of light bulbs subject to energy-efficiency standards starting in January 2020. The Energy Department also blocked the next phase of efficiency standards for general-purpose bulbs already subject to regulation.
    Energy Department
  2. Changed a 25-year-old policy to allow coastal replenishment projects to use sand from protected ecosystems.
    Interior Department
  3. Limited funding of environmental and community development projects through corporate settlements of federal lawsuits.
    Justice Department
  4. Stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations program to help poorer countries reduce carbon emissions.
    Executive Order
  5. Reversed restrictions on the sale of plastic water bottles in national parks desgined to cut down on litter, despite a Park Service report that the effort worked.
    Interior Department

Other – in progress:

  1. Proposed limiting the studies used by the E.P.A. for rulemaking to only those that make data publicly available. (Scientists widely criticized the proposal, saying it would effectively block the agency from considering landmark research that relies on confidential health data.)
    E.P.A.
  2. Proposed changes to the way cost-benefit analyses are conducted under the Clean Air Act. Similar rules for the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes are in development.
    E.P.A.
  3. Proposed freezing efficiency standards for residential furnaces and commercial water heaters designed to reduce energy use.
    Energy Department
  4. Created a product category that would allow some dishwashers to be exempt from energy efficiency standards.
    Energy Department
  5. Initially withdrew, and then delayed, a proposed rule that would inform car owners about fuel-efficient replacement tires.
    Transportation Department

The SPARC Fusion Reactor

21 October, 2020

There’s a lot of excitement about a new approach to fusion power:

• Henry Fountain, Compact nuclear fusion reactor is ‘very likely to work,’ studies suggest, The New York Times, 29 September 2020.

Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called SPARC, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.

Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.

But fusion has been twenty years off since the 1950s. What’s the evidence that Sparc will work? I guess most of the evidence is here—a series of seven papers, which luckily are available open-access:

Status of the SPARC physics basics, Journal of Plasma Physics 86 (2020).

I have not read these! And even if I did, since I’m not an expert on fusion reactors—obviously a tricky subject—I’m not sure how much my impression would help.

Do you know any commentary on SPARC from other experts on fusion reactors? The more detailed, the better. All I’ve seen so far are very sketchy remarks from people who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.


Vaclav Smil on Growth

22 September, 2019

Yet another interesting book I haven’t read yet:

• Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2019.

As I hope you know, Vaclav Smil is an expert on energy, food, population, and economics, who assembles and analyzes data in fact-filled books like Energy and Civilization: a History.  Bill Gates has said “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next ‘Star Wars’ movie.”

He was interviewed here:

• Jonathan Watts, Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’, 21 September 2019.

The interview begins:

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?

The facts here are fascinating but the question is absurd. Are we really sinking into such anti-intellectualism that a journalist feels the need to start a conversation with a scientist by asking if he sees himself as a “nerd”?

I’d have been tempted to reply “First, can I ask if you see yourself as a twit?” Smil more wisely replied:

Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it.

Here’s why he wrote the book:

I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it–economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.

He advocates degrowth in some places… but growth in others:

[…] it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience. There is this pernicious idea by this [Thomas] Friedman guy that the world is flat and everything is now the same, so what works in one place can work for everyone. But that’s totally wrong. For example, Denmark has nothing in common with Nigeria. What you do in each place will be different. What we need in Nigeria is more food, more growth. In Philippines we need a little more of it. And in Canada and Sweden, we need less of it. We have to look at it from different points of view. In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.

I’m sure his book will be more interesting than these quotes, because it’ll be full of well-organized and important facts—and the questions surrounding growth are some of the most pressing of our age.


Terawatt-Scale Photovoltaics

26 June, 2019

Here’s a cool paper which seems to be freely available:

• Nancy M. Haegel et al., Terawatt-scale photovoltaics: transform global energy, Science 364 (2019), 836–838.

Important topic! Here’s the abstract:

Solar energy has the potential to play a central role in the future global energy system because of the scale of the solar resource, its predictability, and its ubiquitous nature. Global installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity exceeded 500 GW at the end of 2018, and an estimated additional 500 GW of PV capacity is projected to be installed by 2022–2023, bringing us into the era of TW-scale PV. Given the speed of change in the PV industry, both in terms of continued dramatic cost decreases and manufacturing-scale increases, the growth toward TW-scale PV has caught many observers, including many of us (1), by surprise. Two years ago, we focused on the challenges of achieving 3 to 10 TW of PV by 2030. Here, we envision a future with ∼10 TW of PV by 2030 and 30 to 70 TW by 2050, providing a majority of global energy. PV would be not just a key contributor to electricity generation but also a central contributor to all segments of the global energy system. We discuss ramifications and challenges for complementary technologies (e.g., energy storage, power to gas/liquid fuels/chemicals, grid integration, and multiple sector electrification) and summarize what is needed in research in PV performance, reliability, manufacturing, and recycling.

Of course, increased energy storage is needed to take advantage of solar power. Let’s see what they say about that:

Energy storage

At high penetration, increased PV installation is synergistic with increased storage. Tesla recently installed a 100-MW battery in South Australia and in the first 6 months recovered 14% of the capital cost. California is also setting aggressive targets for storage. The price of lithium-ion batteries has decreased by more than 80% in the past 8 years, and improvements are expected to continue through a combination of technological advances and increased manufacturing capacity. To achieve the U.S. Department of Energy target price of U.S. $150/kWh for automotive batteries capable of charging within 15 minutes, research should explore materials with higher energy density to further reduce costs, focusing on nickel-rich, critical-materials–free cathodes and advanced anodes for lithium-ion systems. With further research and cost reduction, flow batteries and sodium-ion and multivalent-ion or conversion systems could also hold the promise of long-term competitors to lithium ion.

An additional approach to battery-based storage is pumped-storage hydropower (pumped hydro). Recent research indicates that there is a substantial technical potential for untapped off-river (closed-loop) pumped hydro and other forms of gravity storage in many parts of the world (9, 10). Pumped hydro has the advantage of being able to provide short-term responsiveness and diurnal-scale storage potentially at low cost.

The biggest challenge may be to meet energy requirements during the winter at high latitudes. However, wind power tends to be more abundant in many of these locations, whereas most of the world’s population lives closer to the equator. Economic development as well as population growth may be dominated by countries within 35° of the equator in the coming decades.


California’s “State of the State”

29 January, 2018

On January 25th, Jerry Brown, governor of California, gave his last annual State of the State speech. It’s about looking forward to the future: tackling hard problems now. I wish more politicians were focused on this.

You can see the whole speech annotated here. Here is the first part. The last line states the vision:

The bolder path is still our way forward.

State of the State (first part)

Good morning. As our Constitution requires, I’m here to report on the condition of our state.

Simply put, California is prospering. While it faces its share of difficulties, we should never forget the bounty and the endless opportunities bestowed on this special place—or the distance we’ve all traveled together these last few years.

It is now hard to visualize—or even remember—the hardships, the bankruptcies and the home foreclosures so many experienced during the Great Recession. Unemployment was above 12 percent and 1.3 million Californians lost their jobs.

The deficit was $27 billion in 2011. The New York Times, they called us: “The Coast of Dystopia.” The Wall Street Journal saw: “The Great California Exodus.” The Economist of London pronounced us: “The Ungovernable State.” And the Business Insider simply said: “California is Doomed.”

Even today, you will find critics who claim that the California dream is dead. But I’m used to that. Back in my first term, a prestigious report told us that California had the worst business climate in America. In point of fact, personal income in 1975, my first year as governor, was $154 billion. Today it has grown to $2.4 trillion. In just the last eight years alone, California’s personal income has grown $845 billion and 2.8 million new jobs have been created. Very few places in the world can match that record.

That is one of the reasons why confidence in the work that you are doing has risen so high. That contrasts sharply with the abysmal approval ratings given to the United States Congress. Certainly our on-time budgets are well received, thanks in large part to the lowering of the two-thirds vote to a simple majority to pass the budget.

But public confidence has also been inspired by your passing—with both Republicans and Democratic votes:

• Pension reform—and don’t minimize that, that was a big pension reform. May not be the final one, but it was there and you did it, Republicans and Democrats;

• Workers’ Compensation reform, another vote with Republicans and Democrats there;

• The Water Bond;

• The Rainy Day Fund; and

• The Cap-and-Trade Program.

And by the way, you Republicans, as I look over here and I look over there, don’t worry, I’ve got your back!

All these programs are big and very important to our future. And their passage demonstrates that some American governments can actually get things done—even in the face of deepening partisan division.

The recent fires and mudslides show us how much we are affected by natural disasters and how we can rise to the occasion—at the local level, at the state level and with major help from the federal government. I want to especially thank all of the firefighters, first responders and volunteers. They answered the call to help their fellow neighbors, in some cases even when their own homes were burning. Here we see an example of people working together irrespective of party.

The president himself has given California substantial assistance and the congressional leadership is now sponsoring legislation to help California, as well as the other states that have suffered major disasters—Texas, Florida and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

In this regard, we should never forget our dependency on the natural environment and the fundamental challenges it presents to the way we live. We can’t fight nature. We have to learn how to get along with her. And I want to say that again: We can’t fight nature. We have to learn how to get along with her.

And that’s not so easy. For thousands of years this land now called California supported no more than 300,000 people. That’s 300,000 people and they did that for thousands and thousands—some people say, as long as 20,000 years. Today, 40 million people live in the same place and their sheer impact on the soils, the forests and the entire ecosystem has no long-term precedent. That’s why we have to innovate constantly and create all manner of shelter, machines and creative technologies. That will continue, but only with ever greater public and private investment.

The devastating forest fires and the mudslides are a profound and growing challenge. Eight of the state’s most destructive fires have occurred in the last five years. Last year’s Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was the largest in recorded history. The mudslides that followed were among the most lethal the state has ever encountered. In 2017, we had the highest average summer temperatures in recorded history. Over the last 40 years, California’s fire season has increased 78 days—and in some places it is nearly year-round.

So we have to be ready with the necessary firefighting capability and communication systems to warn residents of impending danger. We also have to manage our forests—and soils—much more intelligently.

Toward that end, I will convene a task force composed of scientists and knowledgeable forest practitioners to review thoroughly the way our forests are managed and suggest ways to reduce the threat of devastating fires. They will also consider how California can increase resiliency and carbon storage capacity. Trees in California should absorb CO2, not generate huge amounts of black carbon and greenhouse gas as they do today when forest fires rage across the land.

Despite what is widely believed by some of the most powerful people in Washington, the science of climate change is not in doubt. The national academies of science of every major country in the world—including Russia and China—have all endorsed the mainstream view that human caused greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the oceans and in the atmosphere and that action must be taken to avert catastrophic changes in our weather systems. All nations agree except one and that is solely because of one man: our current president.

Here in California, we follow a different path. Enlightened by top scientists at the University of California, Stanford and Caltech, among others, our state has led the way. I’ll enumerate just how:

• Building and appliance efficiency standards;

• Renewable electricity—reaching 50 percent in just a few years;

• A powerful low-carbon fuel standard; incentives for zero-emission vehicles;

• Ambitious policies to reduce short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon;

• A UN sponsored climate summit this September in San Francisco; and

• The nation’s only functioning cap-and-trade system.

I will shortly provide an expenditure plan for the revenues that the cap-and-trade auctions have generated. Your renewing this program on a bipartisan basis was a major achievement and will ensure that we will have substantial sums to invest in communities all across the state—both urban and agricultural.

The goal is to make our neighborhoods and farms healthier, our vehicles cleaner—zero emission the sooner the better—and all our technologies increasingly lowering their carbon output. To meet these ambitious goals, we will need five million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030. And we’re going to get there. Believe me. We only have 350,000 today, so we’ve all got a lot of work. And think of all the jobs and how much cleaner our air will be then.

When you passed cap-and-trade legislation, you also passed a far-reaching air pollution measure that for the first time focuses on pollutants that disproportionately affect specific neighborhoods. Instead of just measuring pollutants over vast swaths of land, regulators will zero in on those communities which are particularly disadvantaged by trains, trucks or factories.

Along with clean air, clean water is a fundamental good that must be protected and made available on a sustainable basis. When droughts occur, conservation measures become imperative. In recent years, you have passed historic legislation to manage California’s groundwater, which local governments are now implementing.

In addition, you passed—and more than two-thirds of voters approved—a water bond that invests in safe drinking water, conservation and storage. As a result, we will soon begin expending funds on some of the storage we’ve needed for decades.

As the climate changes and more water arrives as rain instead of snow, it is crucial that we are able to capture the overflow in a timely and responsible way. That, together with recycling and rainwater recapture will put us in the best position to use water wisely and in the most efficient way possible. We are also restoring the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds to protect water supplies and improve California’s iconic salmon runs.

Finally, we have the California Waterfix, a long studied and carefully designed project to modernize our broken water system. I am convinced that it will conserve water, protect the fish and the habitat in the Delta and ensure the delivery of badly needed water to the millions of people who depend on California’s aqueducts. Local water districts—in both the North and South—are providing the leadership and the financing because they know it is vital for their communities, and for the whole state. That is true, and that is the reason why I have persisted.

Our economy, the sixth largest in the world, depends on mobility, which only a modern and efficient transportation system provides. The vote on the gas tax was not easy but it was essential, given the vast network of roads and bridges on which California depends and the estimated $67 billion in deferred maintenance on our infrastructure. Tens of millions of cars and trucks travel over 330 billion miles a year. The sun’s only 93 million miles away.

The funds that SB 1 makes available are absolutely necessary if we are going to maintain our roads and transit systems in good repair. Twenty-five other states have raised gas taxes. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for a federal gas tax because the highway trust fund is nearly broke.

Government does what individuals can’t do, like build roads and bridges and support local bus and light rail systems. This is our common endeavor by which we pool our resources through the public sector and improve all of our lives. Fighting a gas tax may appear to be good politics, but it isn’t. I will do everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort that gets on the ballot. You can count on that.

I’m looking for that one Republican. A brave, brave man.

Since I have talked about tunnels and transportation, I will bring up one more item of infrastructure: high-speed rail. I make no bones about it. I like trains and I like high-speed trains even better. So did the voters in 2008 when they approved the bond. Look, 11 other countries have high-speed trains. They are now taken for granted all over Europe, in Japan and in China. President Reagan himself said in Japan on November 11, 1983 the following, and I quote: “The State of California is planning to build a rapid speed train that is adapted from your highly successful bullet train.” Yes, we were, and now we are actually building it. Takes a long time.

Like any big project, there are obstacles. There were for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal. I’ll pass over in silence the Bay bridge, that was almost 20 years. And by the way, it was over budget by $6 billion on a $1 billion project. So that happens. But not with the high-speed rail, we’ve got that covered.

But build it they did and build it we will—America’s first high-speed rail system. One link between San Jose and San Francisco—an electrified Caltrain—is financed and ready to go. Another billion, with matching funds, will be invested in Los Angeles to improve Union Station as a major transportation hub and fix the Anaheim corridor.

The next step is completing the Valley segment and getting an operating system connected to San Jose. Yes, it costs lots of money but it is still cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports, which nobody wants to, and building new freeways, which landowners often object to. All of that is to meet the growing demand. It will be fast, quiet and powered by renewable electricity and last for a hundred years. After all you guys are gone.

Already, more than 1,500 construction workers are on the job at 17 sites and hundreds of California businesses are providing services, generating thousands of job years of employment. As the global economy puts more Americans out of work and lowers wages, infrastructure projects like this will be a key source of well-paid California jobs.

Difficulties challenge us but they can’t discourage or stop us. Whether it’s roads or trains or dams or renewable energy installations or zero-emission cars, California is setting the pace for the entire nation. Yes, there are critics, there are lawsuits and there are countless obstacles. But California was built on dreams and perseverance and the bolder path is still our way forward.

What’s next?

On January 26th, the governor’s office made this announcement:

Taking action to further California’s climate leadership, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today signed an executive order to boost the supply of zero-emission vehicles and charging and refueling stations in California. The Governor also detailed the new plan for investing $1.25 billion in cap-and-trade auction proceeds to reduce carbon pollution and improve public health and the environment.

“This executive order aims to curb carbon pollution from cars and trucks and boost the number of zero-emission vehicles driven in California,” said Governor Brown. “In addition, the cap-and-trade investments will, in varying degrees, reduce California’s carbon footprint and improve the quality of life for all.”

Zero-Emission Vehicle Executive Order

California is taking action to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from transportation—a sector that accounts for 50 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent of smog-forming pollutants.

To continue to meet California’s climate goals and clean air standards, California must go even further to accelerate the market for zero-emission vehicles. Today’s executive order implements the Governor’s call for a new target of 5 million ZEVs in California by 2030, announced in his State of the State address yesterday, and will help significantly expand vehicle charging infrastructure.

The Administration is also proposing a new eight-year initiative to continue the state’s clean vehicle rebates and spur more infrastructure investments. This $2.5 billion initiative will help bring 250,000 vehicle charging stations and 200 hydrogen fueling stations to California by 2025.

Today’s action builds on past efforts to boost zero-emission vehicles, including: legislation signed last year and in 2014 and 2013; adopting the 2016 Zero-Emission Vehicle Plan and the Advanced Clean Cars program; hosting a Zero-Emission Vehicle Summit; launching a multi-state ZEV Action Plan; co-founding the International ZEV Alliance; and issuing Executive Order B-16-12 in 2012 to help bring 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles to California by 2025.

In addition to today’s executive order, the Governor also released the 2018 plan for California’s Climate Investments—a statewide initiative that puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment–particularly in disadvantaged communities.

California Climate Investments projects include affordable housing, renewable energy, public transportation, zero-emission vehicles, environmental restoration, more sustainable agriculture and recycling, among other projects. At least 35 percent of these investments are made in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

The $1.25 billion climate investment plan can be found here.


Postdoc in Applied Category Theory

8 September, 2017

guest post by Spencer Breiner

One Year Postdoc Position at Carnegie Mellon/NIST

We are seeking an early-career researcher with a background in category theory, functional programming and/or electrical engineering for a one-year post-doctoral position supported by an Early-concept Grant (EAGER) from the NSF’s Systems Science program. The position will be managed through Carnegie Mellon University (PI: Eswaran Subrahmanian), but the position itself will be located at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), located in Gaithersburg, Maryland outside of Washington, DC.

The project aims to develop a compositional semantics for electrical networks which is suitable for system prediction, analysis and control. This work will extend existing methods for linear circuits (featured on this blog!) to include (i) probabilistic estimates of future consumption and (ii) top-down incentives for load management. We will model a multi-layered system of such “distributed energy resources” including loads and generators (e.g., solar array vs. power plant), different types of resource aggregation (e.g., apartment to apartment building), and across several time scales. We hope to demonstrate that such a system can balance local load and generation in order to minimize expected instability at higher levels of the electrical grid.

This post is available full-time (40 hours/5 days per week) for 12 months, and can begin as early as October 1st.

For more information on this position, please contact Dr. Eswaran Subrahmanian (sub@cmu.edu) or Dr. Spencer Breiner (spencer.breiner@nist.gov).


Wind Energy in Texas

6 November, 2016

Here’s an interesting story about the rise of wind energy in Texas:

• Richard Martin, The one and only Texas wind boom, Technology Review, 3 October 2016.

I’ll quote the start:

Rolan Petty stabbed at the dirt with a boot toe and looked up at the broiling west Texas sun. “I call it farming on faith,” he said of his unirrigated cotton farm. “You just have faith that the rain is gonna come.”

If it doesn’t come, Petty has a backup income stream: leasing fees. All around us, towering 150 feet over Petty’s combine and the scrubby-looking cotton plants in neat rows, stood a forest of wind turbines that stretched to the horizon. Petty’s land on the arid plain of west Texas lies on the edge of the vast Horse Hollow wind farm, with 430 turbines spread over 73 square miles. It was the largest wind farm in the world when it was completed, in 2006. Petty’s family leases land to Horse Hollow and another wind farm in the area, making about $7,500 a year on each of the several dozen turbines on their property. Wind power has become a big windfall for the Pettys, as it has for many landowners in Texas—allowing Rolan and his parents and three brothers to make hundreds of thousands of dollars every year whether the rains come or not. And the Petty farm is just a small player in the largest renewable-energy boom the United States has ever seen.

With nearly 18,000 megawatts of capacity, Texas, if it were a country, would be the sixth-largest generator of wind power in the world, right behind Spain. Now Texas is preparing to add several thousand megawatts more—roughly equal to the wind capacity that can be found in all of California. Most of these turbines are in west Texas, one of the most desolate and windy regions in the continental United States. Fifteen years ago, when the groundwork for this boom was being set, this area had little but cotton and grain farms, oil fields, scrub and dry riverbeds, and small towns that were mostly withering.

Today it’s a land of spindly white turbines that line the highways—and the pockets of landowners. At night, when the wind blows strongest and steadiest, if you stand out in one of the fields you can hear the great blades make a ghostly shoop-shoop sound as they turn. Wind power has brought prosperity to towns that were literally drying up less than a generation ago. “In the 2011 drought a lot of people around here would have filed for bankruptcy if not for the turbines,” said Russ Petty, one of Rolan’s brothers, who was giving me a driving tour of the property. “What it’s done is helped keep this land in the family.”

It has also shown that a big state can get a substantial amount of its power from renewable sources without significant disruptions, given the right policies and the right infrastructure investments. The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 report Wind Vision set a goal of getting 35 percent of all electricity in the country from wind in 2050, up from 4.5 percent today. In Texas, at times, that number has already been exceeded: on several windy days last winter, wind power briefly supplied more than 40 percent of the state’s electricity. For wind power advocates, Texas is a model for the rest of the country.

But it also reveals what wind power can’t achieve. Overall, wind still represents less than 20 percent of the state’s generation capacity—a number that dips into the low single digits on calm, hot summer days. And even with the wind power boom, the state’s total estimated carbon emissions were the highest in the nation in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available—up 5 percent from the previous year.

What’s more, the conditions that have spurred Texas’s boom may not be easily duplicated. Not only is Texas scoured by usually steady winds, but it has something most other places lack: a gigantic transmission system that was built to bring electricity from the desolate western and northern parts of the state to the big cities of the south and east, including Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Under a program known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ, the power lines were approved in 2007 and cost nearly $7 billion to build. They have added a few dollars a month to residential electricity bills, but they now look like a far-sighted infrastructure investment that other states are unwilling or unable to make.

I drove nearly 1,200 miles, from Abilene to Amarillo and many places in between, this summer to explore the wind explosion in Texas. I wanted to understand what was driving this ongoing boom, and what the ultimate limit might be. How much wind power can the Texas grid absorb, economically and physically? And can other states, and other nations, achieve what Texas has, or are there conditions here that will be difficult or impossible to reproduce anywhere else?

Read the rest here.


Renewable Energy News

1 August, 2016

Some good news:

• Ed Crooks, Balance of power tilts from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Financial Times, 26 July 2016.

These are strange days in the energy business. Startling headlines are emerging from the sector that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority said in May it had received bids to develop solar power projects that would deliver electricity costing less than three cents per kilowatt hour. This established a new worldwide low for the contracted cost of delivering solar power to the grid—and is priced well below the benchmark of what the emirate and other countries typically pay for electricity from coal-fired stations.

In the UK, renowned for its miserable overcast weather, solar panels contributed more power to the grid than coal plants for the month of May.

In energy-hungry Los Angeles, the electricity company AES is installing the world’s largest battery, with capacity to power hundreds of thousands of homes at times of high demand, replacing gas-fired plants which are often used at short notice to increase supply to the grid.

Trina Solar, the Chinese company that is the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer, said it had started selling in 20 new markets last year, from Poland to Mauritius and Nepal to Uruguay.

[…]

Some new energy technologies, meanwhile, are not making much progress, such as the development of power plants that capture and store the carbon dioxide they produce. It is commonly assumed among policymakers that carbon capture has become essential if humankind is to enjoy the benefits of fossil fuels while avoiding their polluting effects.

It is clear, too, that the growth of renewables and other low-carbon energy sources will not follow a straight line. Investment in “clean” energy has been faltering this year after hitting a record in 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. For the first half of 2016, it is down 23 per cent from the equivalent period last year.

Even so, the elements are being put in place for what could be a quite sudden and far-reaching energy transition, which could be triggered by an unexpected and sustained surge in oil prices. If China or India were to make large-scale policy commitments to electric vehicles, they would have a dramatic impact on the outlook for oil demand.

I’m also interested in Elon Musk’s Gigafactory: a lithium-ion battery factory in Nevada with a projected capacity of 50 gigawatt-hours/year of battery packs in 2018, ultimately ramping up to 150 GWh/yr. These battery packs are mainly designed for Musk’s electric car company, Tesla.

So far, Tesla is having trouble making lots of cars: its Fremont, California plant theoretically has the capacity to make 500,000 cars per year, but last year it only built 50,000. For some of the reasons, see this:

• Matthew Debord, Tesla has to overcome a major problem for its massive new Gigafactory to succeed, Singapore Business Insider, 1 August 2016.

Basically, it’s hard to make cars as efficiently as traditional auto companies have learned to do, and as long as people don’t buy many electric cars, it’s hard to get better quickly.

Still, Musk has big dreams for his Gigafactory, which I can only applaud. Here’s what it should look like when it’s done: