Friday, 20 October 2017

Are renewables helping gas burn, or is gasoline stopping electricity going to cars?

First they ignore you
Then they say you're stupid
Then they say you're wrong
Then they say you have an interesting idea
Then they say they thought so all along

"You have enough electricity to power all the cars in the country if you stop refining gasoline." According to Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk via green transportation. "You take an average of 5 kilowatt hours to refine one gallon of gasoline, something like the Model S can go 20 miles on 5 kilowatt hours."

We often hear complaints about renewable energy not really being renewable, because it uses some fossil fuels to produce the materials. It's interesting to note that the petrol that goes into cars is actually using electricity.

As usually things are much more complicated than it seems. Advocates of renewable energy see a future with 100% renewable energy. Skeptics see the energy costs of producing renewable infrastructure, and the source of that energy, and claim that the march to renewables will produce more carbon emissions so we are better off burning fossil fuels directly.

Some of the nuclear lobby, meanwhile, attack renewables and claim they are just being used as greenwash for the fossil fuel industry, which wants to be there when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. In fact there are many common interests of the nuclear industry and renewable industry. One is electrification. Also, they can also both benefit from increased capacitance in the system: renewable energy because the production is unreliable and may not meet or match peaks in consumption; nuclear for exactly the opposite reason that production is constant and energy storage will mean demand can be met with less plant.

It's very unlikely that burning fossil fuels will lead to a fossil-fuel free future, unless you are cynically hoping that the only realistic fossil-free future is one where they have all been burnt. As a technological development, electrification makes renewables possible since the energy is easy to convert and transfer over large distances. The internal combustion engine has a much more limited diet.

Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes  is a 2015 paper by Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, and Bethany A. Frew from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, and the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

They claim that existing technologies can be used to get the US onto 100% renewable power. The paper has some critics, of course.

This podcast from Science Vs asks whether 100% renewable energy is possible, and features Jacobson and Delucchi as well as some of their critics and more neutral observers. The answer is not exactly yes, and they point out a few areas will be very tricky to get onto renewables, such as iron smelting. But they suggest it's a pretty good direction to think about moving in.

In the conclusion, the podcast suggested people may need to change the way they live, using energy depending on how much is being generated. Use the air conditioning when the sun is shining. Do the washing when the wind is blowing. It's easy to see some logic there. It may be more tricky if people are expected to switch off the heating when there has not been much sunshine, since that's known as winter in several places.

It's interesting to note that at no point did the podcast mention efficiency. Increases in efficiency do not rely on people's behaviour. Also they are cumulative and compounding, so a seven-percent annual improvement in efficiency means half the energy use in ten years. This is certainly a high level of improvement, but the predictions of most of the renewable skeptics assume efficiency improvement of zero. This is also true of fossil fuel advocates and the nuclear industry, whose forecasts are consistently based on increased consumption of energy, and whose forecasts are consistently wrong,. Since they are in the business of selling energy, increased consumptions is in their best interests, and it's not at all surprising that it gets into their forecasts. If I was running a bakery I'd be hoping to increase my sales, and if I was planning for fewer customers in the future, I should probably be taking an early retirement, or at least changing my profession. Even in the paper by Jacobson et al., future energy production is based on the predictions of the IEA, International Energy Agency, who have been predicting the end of solar power growth for fifteen years.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Lesson one take three

The low energy building class is now in its third year, and the make up of the students was much more like one of my regular classes. There were over thirty students, up from seventeen last year and nine the previous year. I think there is only one foreign student this year, where half the class or more has been s is much lower too, with

Around half of the students are architects, again. There are a few from the Faculty of Textile Technology, a biologist, an economist, and others studying education, humanities and American Cinema.

There are also a couple of members of the public taking the class. In the first year I also had two of these students, although they stopped coming after a few weeks. I'm not sure how much this was an indictment of my class or wether they just got too busy in their lives, and could write off the very low fees that the university charges. Anyway, I hope they will stay this year. One of them works for a large supplier of building parts, so I hope to have some time to discuss business with him.

In the first week's online quiz, I asked them what language they wanted to speak, and what language they wanted me to speak. The majority want me to mostly speak in English, and they want to speak some English and some Japanese. Nobody wants to only speak English, and only one person wants me to only speak Japanese. This gives me a mandate to speak some Japanese in class, and also an incentive to add some Japanese to my slides.

The first lesson followed the same plan as before. I gave them a few simple mathematics problems to make sure they will not be too overwhelmed in the rest of the class. They were just designed to check they can manipulate formulae.

I also threw in a different kind of question: How many pencils are in this room?

They were working in groups, but not allowed to talk to other groups. Answers ranged from 12 to 60. The middle answer—30—was remarkably close to the actual number—31. This was an opportunity to introduce guesstimation, and emphasise that usually we need to find answers based on limited information.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Graphs of words show Climate Change is still increasing, while Global Warming has stabilised

According to this graph from Google Ngram, Climate change is still increasing. Ngram measures how often words are used in our language by counting occurrences in a huge swath of publications that have been digitised. This is a form of corpus linguistics, a field of study that goes back to Vedic scholars counting the occurrences of different sounds in Sansrkit holy texts. Arabic scholars also studied the Koran, and back in 1230 Hugo de Saint Cher made a concordance of the Bible, noting where and how often each word appeared in the holy book. Computers have made this a lot easier, and Corpus Linguistics has really taken off since the 1960s.
Ngram opens that door to anyone interested in what people have been writing, and we can see here that climate change, global warming and greenhouse effect all steadily increased until the mid 1980s, where they received a bit of boost. Global warming used to be more commonly used than climate change, but slowed and then plateaued in the early 1990s, slighly increasing since. At about the same time use of the phrase "greenhouse effect" peaked.

A climate denier may be tempted to interpret this as the greenhouse effect peaking in 1992 and decreasing since, and evidence that the data for climate change and global warming have been tampered with by NASA.

My interpretation is that discussion of this topic became increasingly important from the 1970s, initially led by discussion of the greenhouse effect. This is the method by which global warming was
happening, and reliable historical temperature data began to become available from this time.

By the end of the 1980s the discussion of how global warming happened was more or less decided, and we didn't need to talk about the greenhouse effect so much. I suspect discussion of "round earth" peaked shortly into the age of discovery when returning ships removed any serious doubt about the shape of the planet.

Global warming and climate change were discussed equally, and largely synonymously until 1992. It's not clear why this happened, but in 2002 a Republican party memo by Frank Lunz recommended that the term "climate change" was used rather than "global warming", which people found frightening. It seems that George W Bush did respond to the calls to "stop global warming" by not using the phrase any more. This is not exactly what people wanted! (See also Guardian, 4th March 2003).

A more detailed linguistic investigation by Dr. Martin Döring of the Institute for Geography at the University of Hamburg into perceptions of regional climate change in North Frisia found: "six prevailing conceptual metaphors: Climate change is an enemy, preventing climate change is fight/war, climate change is punishment for human sins, climate change is overheating/heat, climate change is hot air/hoax and climate change is eco-dictatorship."

Those of us who want to "fight" climate change need to take account of the last idea: climate change as eco-dictatorship. For some people this may be overwhelming, for examples libertarians who make up the right wing of the US Republican Party, for whom denial of climate change is perhaps primarily a rejection of government intervention.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Just how smart are smart homes?

When I first lived in Tokyo in the mid 1980's I remember being out somewhere and a friend got up to use the telephone. It was a payphone since this was before the age of mobiles. He didn't say anything, but punched in some numbers then put the phone down. He told us he'd just started the bath running at home.

If you don't know what a payphone is,
you probably won't know what this is either
This seemed like science fiction to me with my perspective from the primitive plumbing of England. Indeed it was science fiction compared to the Tokyo flat I was staying in where there was no running hot water, and the bath had to be filled with cold water, then heated by circulating water through a gas burner. Once, after a long day, I got into one such bath while the heater was still on. I dozed off in the bath and woke up very hot, and when I moved I got even hotter since I had been cooling the water immediately around me.

Most bath heaters had simple mechanical timers in the switches, so they would not overheat the bath. Even in the 1980s some of them could be programmed to switch on at a certain time, so the tub would be hot when you got home.

We can't call our bath on the phone, or send it text messages, but it can be programmed to come on at a certain time, and it does know how to say "I'm filling up the bath" and will happily tell us "The bath's ready". Unfortunately it doesn't know how to say "Whoops, I ran out of water so your bath is luke warm." And the phrase, "Hey, you forgot to put the plug in, you idiot" is also missing from its vocabulary. In both cases, the light just goes off and it remains silent. It's really not very smart.

So how smart are smart houses? Not very, is the short answer. Will they help us to save energy? Our bath could have saved us a few hundred litres of hot water if it just knew to tell us that it wasn't filling up and we'd left the plug out. So excuse me if I'm skeptical of the age of the smart house and the brighter future offered us by the internet of things.

If you want energy efficiency, then it is dumb things that will deliver: geometry, wall thickness, window quality, airtightness and attention to detail in the construction.

You can get gadgets if you want, and they may make your life better, but if you want to save energy start with the thermal envelope. You can stick as much as you like onto the envelope later. This applies to solar panels too, which are probably a good idea to add to your house, but they will not make your house more energy efficient. Putting insulation under the roof is a much higher priority than putting solar panels on top of it.

But don't just take my word for it. In Bringing users into building energy performance: Learning to live in a smart home, Tom Hargreaves, Charlie Wilson & Richard Hauxwell-Baldwin tell us that smart home devices are "technically and socially disruptive", are limited by the householder who is using them, and have a steep learning curve with few people to help you climb it. They also find "little evidence that smart home technologies will generate substantial energy savings and, indeed, there is a risk that they may generate forms of energy intensification."

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Low Energy Building Course - Open to the public!

Not only can students at my university take the 15-week Low Energy Building course, it's also open to members of the public!

You can find the syllabus here. And more information about other courses here.

(1)授業のねらいBuildings use over one third of all energy consumed in Japan, as in many other developed countries. In a world of increasing population and limited fossil fuel reserves, reduction in building energy consumption is important. As well as drastically reducing consumption, low energy buildings can be more comfortable, more healthy and less expensive over their lifetime.
This course will introduce students to the principles, the practicalities, and the future of low-energy building.
(2)授業の概要This course will show how simple scientific principles affect buildings, and how insulation, airtightness and good windows can lead to houses with very low energy consumption. We will see how the use of solar power can make buildings that produce energy. We will look at low-energy buildings around the world, including the German Passivhaus standard. We will also consider the design process, including compromise, optimisation and guesstimates.
(4)授業計画1. What is a low-energy building?
2. What is energy?
3. Insulation and thermal envelopes
4. Compound insulation and thermal bridges
5. Why do we feel hot or cold?
6. Air and water
7. Windows
8. Ventilation
9. Windows 2.0
10. Energy standards and low-energy building around the world
11. To zero energy and beyond: Buildings as solar generators
12. Passivhaus
13. Economics and ecology, embodied carbon and life cycle analysis
14. Presentations
15. Review

This plan may change to meet the needs of the class
(5)成績評価の基準Participation: 20%
Online assignments, quizzes, presentations: 80%

Students must complete online activities to pass this course. Students will be expected to participate in class and give presentations.
(6)事前事後学習の内容Additional information will be made available online.
(7)履修上の注意The class will mainly be conducted in English. It will be possible for students to ask questions, complete assignments and give presentations in Japanese.