Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

Bulbs

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

I have quite a few posts in the queue that will come out in the next few weeks but this has been my quietest month ever on the blog. One thing I did want to post on, however, came to a head tonight. While working in the basement, I knocked over a basket of bulbs and one shattered. Of course, it was a CFL with mercury in it so I had to follow the EPA’s elaborate instructions for cleaning up. Because it was the basement, I couldn’t take the most important step — airing out the room.

Of course, the amount of mercury in CFL’s is very small — a couple of mg. I probably got ten times the exposure when I dropped and broke a mercury thermometer as a kid and then played with the mercury for a while. But still, these things were foisted on us and encouraged before anyone had really explained the potential danger (in parts of the world, they’re now mandatory). The EPA has done an analysis showing that, on balance, less mercury will be released into the environment because of the decreased amount of coal burnt to power the bulbs. However, I’m not sure this analysis is accurate since 1) history shows that greater energy efficiency mostly results in us using more powered devices: energy use tends to rise or be flat; 2) coal is slowly dying an industry. Powered by gas or nuclear, it’s likely that CFL’s will put more mercury into the environment. It also ignores the aspect that having mercury in the air from power plants is a little different from having it on the floor where your children play.

LED bulbs are better but … they have their own concerns, which no one talks about.

Global warming is real — one of my queued posts is on that subject. But the environmental movement has become fixated on it almost to the exclusion of all else. There is no such thing as perfect technology. Wind and solar require dirty manufacturing techniques and extensive use of rare-earth elements (that have to be mined). Nuclear has its obvious dangers. Fracking is less carbon-intense than coal, but doesn’t come without its own set of risks.

The problem is that we do not talk about these trade-offs. We don’t balance rare-earth mining versus radioactive waste versus carbon emissions. We simply get into tizzies about global warming or nuclear waste and stampede toward something that looks good. And that extends into the home. On balance, I might take an LED or CFL light because it saves money, saved energy and the toxin risk is low. But that choice should not be mandated. People should be free to make their own evaluations of the tradeoffs.

Big Damn Linkorama

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.

  • This article, about the potential for solar-powered roads, reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll. But I am deeply skeptical that the kind of durable materials could be manufactured in the quantities needed. When people talk about alternative energy, they never seem to take into account the expense — financial and environmental — of manufacture and maintenance.
  • See, I told you Christopher Ryan was full of shit. He writes about our bleak future with sexbots taking over (or something). But Maggie McNeill — who knows a thing or two about sex — has frequently pointed out that people want intimacy for sex, not just pleasure. And a device capable of reproducing that would have rights of its own. Masturbation doesn’t cut down on the amount of sex people have. And I also haven’t noticed that the proliferation of dildos, vibrators and fleshlights has remotely cut down on the amount of sex going on (and reminder, dildos date back thousands of years). We have sex for intimacy as well as pleasure.
  • An impressive study reveals the age of the Iliad. Seems it was written about four or five centuries after the events.
  • This study disputes the idea that people’s political preferences change with age. You can clearly see that Democratic/Republic preferences are often based on who was in charge when the voter came of age. This doesn’t surprise me at all. As you can see in the graphs, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Ford, Bush I, Clinton, Obama and Ike were respected and made lifelong supporters. Truman, Johnson, Carter, Nixon, and Bush II were hated and made lifelong opponents. I knew teachers who would never vote Republican because of Nixon. And I know people who will never vote Democrat because of Carter. It will be interesting to see how history judges Obama. I suspect he will create more lifelong supporters than opponents.
  • The opposition to GMO’s grows ever more absurd. We now have a golden rice that could literally save millions per year. And the opposition to them is increasingly based on lies and distortions.
  • The Death of Innovation?

    Sunday, October 9th, 2011

    Someone recently sent me this diatribe from Neal Stephenson on the lack of innovation in recent years.

    Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

    The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 crystallized my feeling that we have lost our ability to get important things done. The OPEC oil shock was in 1973—almost 40 years ago. It was obvious then that it was crazy for the United States to let itself be held economic hostage to the kinds of countries where oil was being produced. It led to Jimmy Carter’s proposal for the development of an enormous synthetic fuels industry on American soil. Whatever one might think of the merits of the Carter presidency or of this particular proposal, it was, at least, a serious effort to come to grips with the problem.

    Little has been heard in that vein since. We’ve been talking about wind farms, tidal power, and solar power for decades. Some progress has been made in those areas, but energy is still all about oil. In my city, Seattle, a 35-year-old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares

    Stephenson goes on to criticize our space program, which threw away shuttle tanks rather than using them to build space stations and has spectacularly failed to produce cheap launch vehicles. He also criticizes the energy industry.

    Both of these are valid criticisms, but something bears pointing out: the industries of which he is the most critical — energy and space — have been under the heavy hand of government. Carter’s Synthetic Fuels Corp was a fiasco, burning tens of billions. The biggest government investment in energy of late is ethanol, an ecological, economic and scientific disaster supported for political reasons. Even their attempts to jumpstart green tech has been stymied by politics, as we’ve seen with Solyndra. And the same goes with the space program. We didn’t turn shuttle tanks into cheap space stations because having an expensive space station was the whole point.

    In industries with less government oversight, we’ve seen spectacular progress in the last 40 years. Medicine and communications have been especially fertile. A heart attack is a recoverable event as is cancer. A host of drugs can treat everything from impotence to Parkinson’s. And I can hold in my hand a device that can communicate with anyone in the world and provides access to the sum total of human knowledge.

    To the extent that government has helped with this, it has been through supporting basic research, keeping taxes low and upholding patent law (although it’s now doing too much of the latter). Whenever it has tried to get its hands dirty with specific technologies, it has inevitably screwed the pooch. The solution to our inadequacies — in space exploration and energy — is not a Manhattan-Project level initiative. It’s a combination of supporting basic research while giving corporations the freedom — economic, scientific and regulatory — to innovate.

    I do think the pace of innovation has slowed and I think it may be inevitable. The things he describes — flight, nuclear power, rocketry — were big straight-forward problems that had big straight-forward solutions. The innovations of the next century — clean energy, fighting antibiotic resistant infections, slowing down aging — are much more complex and detailed.