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Friday, December 18, 2009

Jim Hansen's Climate Change Solution

Jim Hansen is the chief climatologist for the Goddard Space Institute of NASA. He has done much of the analysis of data showing that the world is warming. He has also suggested a way to reduce green house gases and, therefore, if the green house theory is correct, cool the planet back down. In case you haven't caught up with his suggestion, here it is.

And in case you are a climate change skeptic or even just an anthropogenic skeptic*, there are many other reasons to phase out fossil fuels

*you don't believe we are causing it.

Jim Hansen's solution is as follows. He suggests that fossil fuel should be taxed, initially a little but rising each year. If the coal or oil is produced at home, it is taxed at the extraction point. If it is from overseas, it is taxed as it crosses your border. The tax increments are such that in, say, 10 years it will make electricity generated by coal about equal in price to electricity generated renewably.* At first glance it looks as if this tax would cost each of us by increasing the price of electricity, and goods which are produced using fossil generated electricity (virtually everything) This increase in price would last for a decade or so as we mount the learning and technological curves of renewable energy.  Not so. Here's the good part of Prof Hansen's solution.

*actually we may have nearly gone beyond that point. Estimates for wind generated power run about 8.3c/unit (kWh) NZ.
{2020.  This blog is completely out of date.  New wind and solar is less expensive than even existing coal fired power}

Prof. Hansen proposes that every cent of the tax money collected is divided up equally and sent by electronic mail to the bank account of every legal adult in the country* and a half share per child up to two children per family. Electronic transfer costs virtually nothing.    For the average power user, this will compensate him for the increase in costs. The modest power user will end up with some cash in hand. The excessive power user will end up out-of-pocket.  There are some interesting implications from such a policy.

*An alternate idea would be to send an equal share to every registered tax payer.  The data base already exists and it would encourage anyone who is not a registered tax payer to register.  You don't have to be earning money at the time to get this dividend and in fact, a greater benefit to the economy is gained by unemployed people getting this money.**  Whatever system is adopted it should ensure that the maximum possible portion of the money collected goes to the people and the least to administration. 

{Cheques are expensive to create and send and many banks as of 2020 are phasing them out}

**When the poor get more money they spend it immediately just to keep their heads above water.  This is a much stronger stimulus to the economy that the rich getting this money.

Right at the outset there would be a strong motivation to exchange your SUV for a more modest car and to install LED lights as your incandescent and fluorescent bulbs burn out. You would want to insulate your house, paint the roof white in hot parts of the country and so forth. The more you save on your energy footprint, the more of this money remains in your pocket. In fact, it would be very worthwhile to invest all this money into energy saving measures for a few years to reap the benefits long into the future.

Then we have the effect on investment. Long before the cost of coal-generated and renewably-generated power became equal, in price, investment would start to shift towards renewables. The writing would be on the wall and everyone would want to get out of coal and oil before they lost the value of their investment. The actual amount of the tax is far less important than the inevitability of the increase each year.  The increase can be arithmetic (1,2,3,4,5 etc) or geometric (1,2,4,8,16,32 etc)

With a shift in investment a number of factors cut in. The economy of scale alone will bring down the price of building, installing running and maintaining renewable energy systems and hence the cost of electricity. Then there will be the cost-reducing-effect of competition as more renewable energy companies start up to access this burgeoning market. A great increase in revenue will enable more research and accelerate our climb up the technological and learning curves. All would contribute to the reduction of the cost of renewably generated electricity.

Note that as of today (late 2019) it appears that building and operating wind turbines is less expensive (more profitable) than just operating existing coal powered generators.  Add to this the recent experience with the mega battery that Elon Musk built for a South Australian wind farm.  Half way through it's first year, the battery is on track to earn the wind farm $20m by the end of the first year of operation.  A return of about 30% on the investment.  Do you wonder why we still have coal powered generation.

Since all types of renewable energy are fuel free, renewable generation systems will produce electricity for less than coal or oil generators, especially as coal and oil become ever more expensive. As the initial investment to install renewable energy 'plant' is paid off, the true cost of electricity will continue to fall.

At this point a curious result will occur. With the shift away from coal and oil the price of both coal and oil will decrease (supply and demand) and transport fuel for large trucks and earth moving equipment, which are more difficult to   power by electricity will decrease.* Any factories which use oil or coal as an industrial feed stock will find this resource less expensive.

*(2020) Note the transport truck developed by Elon Musk which only waits on an increase in the output of batteries to be rolled out.

Likewise, air travel with its high fuel cost component will become less expensive.

Air pollution will decrease and with it state financed medical costs. Of course, on the other hand, people will be living longer so the costs of pensions will go up.

A curious effect may be a ramp up of global warming.  With less aerosols going into the atmosphere, the umbrella effect of the aerosols will decrease.

Electric cars will begin to replace petrol driven cars and the ability to charge them when power is available (demand balancing), will help to balance our grids and will even make existing hydro power plants more financially viable. With Demand balancing in place, more water will be sent through the generators, less over the  spillway.

We may even be able to use the cars as a storage system when they are not in use.  Cars can be charged when power is available and hence cheap and feed power back into the grid when outside sources of power are scarce and hence expensive. This would generate a small but much appreciated revenue for the Electric car owner, especially during periods when he didn't need to use his car such as when on vacation overseas.

Another interesting implication of such a system is that it is a serious economic stimulus package.  Since an equal share is going to every tax payer, people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are gaining a nice nest egg.  Since they are generally struggling to put food on the table, they will tend to spend all this windfall.  All companies benefit and the tax take to the government increases.  All at the expense of the carbon polluters.  What the economists call 'velocity' increases and with it revenue to the government*.

*Big business finds ever more inventive ways of avoiding taxes.  The little guy has no choice.  PAYE comes out of his salary before he even sees it.

Incidentally, if the country from which you are getting your fossil fuel itself puts on tax and dividend, you do not tax their goods or fuel as they come into your country.    If there is no tax on carbon in your supply country you may impose such taxes and keep the tax revenue.  Once even one major importing country has put the tax in place, exporting countries will rush to impose it themselves so as to reap this revenue.

ps.  Just recently I have read Jim Hansen's publication, China and the Barbarians.   In it he makes a most interesting statement.  He suggests that China could, all by itself, bring the world to adopt tax and dividend.  He suggests that they introduce the system unilaterally or in concert with whatever other entities could be brought on board.  The European Common  Market was mentioned.  Of course the US of A would not join.  The senate and the congress are in the pocket of the fossil energy  lobby.  Now here is where it gets interesting.  Apparently, due to trade laws, this would entitle China to impose import tax on all goods (not only fossil fuel) from any country which hadn't introduced similar measures.  Go figure???  I don't understand these things but look at the result.  American goods in what is becoming one of its main trading partners and with any other countries which came on board, would become non-competitive.  They would simply be priced out of the market.  America would have the choice of either adopting the measures at the same rate as China and collecting the revenue itself or of sinking even faster into becoming a second or third world country.

So far, I haven't been able to see any down-side to Jim Hansen's solution. Of course, vested interests such as the oil and coal companies will scream their heads off and lobby for all they are worth against the idea. In America, the primary world polluter*, it is very unlikely that The Hansen Solution will be implemented. Big business completely controls the congress and senate and the president. The more money big business puts into lobbying against the Hansen Solution, the surer we can be that we are on the right track. Can anyone suggest a technical down-side to the Hansen solution.

*China has surpassed the USA as the major polluter but is working harder than almost any other country to shift to renewables.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The climate change sceptic

OK, so you are a climate change sceptic. So am I. Have you heard about exposure. No I'm not talking about streaking across a football pitch or being out in the snow without a parka on. I'm talking about what a rock climber/mountaineer calls exposure. Let me give you an example.

First example. You are out with your 10 year old and you take him to a nearby climbing club where he can try bouldering. There is a really difficult pitch he tries. If he falls there is a thick mat a couple of feet below him.

Second example. You are high in the mountains. You are on a very easy path - almost like a sidewalk with your 10 year old skipping along ahead of you. The only problem is that there is a 2000 foot drop on either side just off the path. Which of these situations makes your testicles pull right up into your chest.

The bouldering situation has virtually zero exposure. The mountain walk, huge exposure. The consequences of a slip are not to be countenanced. Climate change is like that. If climate change is a reality, the consequences are enormous and it will effect your 10 year old in just about as disastrously as slipping off the path.

Further more, If we are to believe the scientists who study climate change, sudden catastrophic climate change is not some remote unbelievable happenstance such as aliens coming to earth and wiping us out. We know from various records that rapid severe climate change has happened in the past. The signatures are in rock strata ice cores and ocean bottom mud cores. A couple of pretty relatively mild ones are also contained in our culture in the form of the medieval warm period and the little ice age. The end of the last ice age was another quite severe sudden climate change and it  ended a blink of the eye just 11,000 years ago.

We have sufficiently sophisticated science to know that there are good reasons to believe that we could cause rapid catastrophic climate change. We know, for instance that there are huge reserves of clathrates (methane ice) both in the frozen lands of the Northern Hemisphere and in the mid depths of the oceans of the world that only need a little warming to start them disintegrating. A little warming and they will release their methane at a rapid rate, accelerating the warming and releasing more methane etc. We know that methane is a far more powerful green house gas than carbon dioxide. It could be that it is too late to stop them being released as there are already indications that the tundra is melting and releasing its methane*.

*Since writing this article an item in New Scientist reported that 250 methane seeps have been detected on the ocean bottom around Spitsburgen.

We also know that ice and snow reflect most of the incoming energy from the sun and that open water absorbs most of this energy. If the Arctic ice melts, the heat budget of the world is going to be strongly and suddenly changed. Already,it is reported that the Arctic ocean has heated up about 3 degrees. If the ice disappears as predicted, most of the solar radiation falling on this ocean in the summer, 24 hours a day, will cause a rapid further rise in temperature. Clathrates which have been accumulating on the bottom of the Arctic ocean since the Ermian interglacial, 125,000 years ago will start to break down.

Despite all these logical arguments none of us can be sure that a sudden catastrophic climate change is in our near future. We can not be sure that our release of Carbon dioxide is causing climate change and we can't even be sure that through some as yet undiscovered chain of cause and effect that we may not be about to go into a new ice age. However whatever you believe with regard to climate change, there are some things which are certain unrelated to climate change. In no particular order:

* The EROEI* for new oil discoveries is declining. *Energy returned on energy invested ratio. With early oil discoveries it took the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil to discover, refine and deliver to the petrol station the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil. Now the ratio in the US is around 3:1 and in Saudi Arabia 10:1. Tar sands with advances in production techniques run now at about 5.8:1 (calculating using only direct energy inputs) and the ratio falls (gets worse) sigificantly if you include the true energy inputs). It is clear that that oil is becoming more difficult to find and more energy consuming to bring to the petrol station.

Incidentally, the EROEI for wind turbines is about 20:1

*Peak oil has been reached in many countries. For instance: USA-1970, Indonesia-1997, Australia-2000, UK-1999, Norway-2001, Mexico-2004. Combining all oil producing countries together we have arguably already passed global peak oil production. Peak oil for any country or for the world is only apparent a few years after it has been passed so we will only be wise in hindsight.

*P10's, the carbon particles of less than 10 micron size are serious health hazards. They are produced by internal combustion engines and by the burning of a wide range of fuels in cooking fires. They exist in the air of all countries but are particularly prevalent in Asia, especially where there are high densities of internal combustion engines crowded together into cities and people cooking with wood and kerosine.

*There can be no doubt that we are running out of oil at a rapid rate and coal at a slower but significant rate. Lets look at measures which will ensure us a source of energy long into the future and while we are at it, lets concentrate on measures which will reduce the emissions of Carbon dioxide just in case climate change is a reality. Fortunately many measures we can take which solve the first also solve the second.

First it is a no-brainer that we should put wind turbines in any location where the wind allows. Allowing NIMBY's to block the construction of wind farms is insane. With the exception of solar-electric panels, energy generation by wind has to be about the most ecologically benign form of energy generation ever invented. Yes, you get some bird kills and if you live too close, you may be able to hear them (although they are getting ever quieter and their sound is often masked by the russle of leaves when the wind is blowing). Ironically in areas such as New Zealand where we are worried about the survival of a rare daisy or threatened snail, wind farms can be positively benefical. Once there is a commercial enterprise on a ridge, there is money available to fence in the whole area and eliminate stoats, rats and cats and weed out foreign species of plants. Each wind farm ridge can become an ecological preserve to gladden the heart of the most ecologically conservative preservationist. Instead we allow them to block wind farms. If they continue to succeed and if NIMBI's rule world wide, the various things they are trying to preserve will likely go extinct due to climate change anyway. Wouldn't that be a giggle.

Secondly, all levels of government have to come to the party. There is a huge amount governments can do, primarily by waving their cut, to encourage the uptake of all forms of renewable energy. Without a government bleeding off profit at every turn, many renewable energy projects would cost half as much with the commensurate improvement in the financial viability of these projects. Of course, reasonably priced, sustainable energy would encourage enterprise which would increase the government take. It would create a source of tax revenue so that the MP's could afford to clean the moat.Link

Thirdly, we can put in smart grids which provide price incentives to the consumer such that the grid is demand balanced to a large extent by the customer. At the same time, smart grids should allow a fair profit for the small generator and for the large power company so that the system is in the interest of both. A system which is punitive to any one of the interested parties is doomed to fail.

Fourthly, we can encourage the uptake of electric cars and especially cars which are simple, very well engineered, durable, inexpensive and easily repaired. If you want the car with all the bells and whistles, no problem but you will have to pay for it. The Volkswagen/Deux Cheveaux/Model T Ford of electrics would make a huge contribution to a sustainable future.

Lets put in measures which make us independent of the fossil fuel purveyors of the world and at the same time take out an insurance pollicy, just in case Climate change is a reality.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Legislation for Electric Cars

New Zealand may not be amongst the top countries in electric car technical innovation* but that in no way stops us from introducing the best legislative framework to encourage their uptake. The best time to enact such legislation is right now when there are virtually no electric cars on our roads and the government has not become addicted to a new revenue stream.  The government could gently nudge us toward electric cars and hence away from fossil fuel cars.

* Since writing this blog, Tesla has released all its patents to the world.  If we wanted to, we could produce the affordable electric car (lets call it the Kiwi)

The benefits of a large uptake of electric cars in New Zealand are far too evident to need rehashing here so right into the legislation. At the end of this blog is an Appendix listing the benefits of replacing our fossil fueled cars with electrics.

There are a number of measures which can be taken. Most of them don't involve dipping into the public purse. Institute all of them and we will be the leaders in the world in electric car uptake just as Germany is the leader in the uptake of solar panels. Governing, at it's best doesn't involve doing things but rather in setting the framework so that we do 'the necessary'.   Measures which could be taken include:Italic

1. Wave GST (sales tax) on the purchase of electric cars. This will reduce the price of an electric car by a ninth. The uptake of electric cars is in our National Interest.

2. Do not impose road taxes on electric cars. Here there is no need to do anything. Simply desist from doing anything. There will be no use of gasoline and hence no gas tax and of course no diesel road miles. Avoid the temptation at-all-costs of finding some innovative way of taxing electric cars. Remember this is in the interest of New Zealand as a whole (see appendix below). If you can't resist putting on a road tax, wave it for 20 years from the date of purchase of the vehicle. The uptake of electric cars is in our National Interest.

3. Allow the use of KiwiSaver (pension) funds to purchase an electric car just as is done for a first home. Owning an electric car is the same as getting a pension, except the pension starts immediately at the date of purchase, not at age 65. This is because the cost per km of driving an electric is about a third of the cost of driving a petrol car even when you charge your batteries at the full daytime rate.  The saved money can either fuel the economy directly by daily purchases of other products or go into savings which also power the economy through investment. Electric cars are in New Zealand's national interest.

4. Ensure that there are absolutely no import taxes, stamp duties etc. on electric cars. We don't produce our own electric cars so there is no industry to protect and once again, fight against the temptation to collect money for the government from electric cars. Remember that replacing our fleet of fossil fuel cars with electric vehicles is very much in tada tada tada........... You get the message.

5. Do some bargaining with the manufacturers of electric cars for good prices. Promise them all the government business if they will give good prices. Have all government employees who get cars as part of their package, driving electrics instead of gas guzzlers. Reticulate government parking lots with charging points where you plug in, swipe your credit card and fill up your batteries.

6. When there is a fair penetration of electric cars in the national fleet, institute the system they have in Canada in many places where a special lane is set aside for cars with two or more people in the car. In our case make the special lane for two or more people in an electric car.Link

7. As you take over and upgrade the railways, set up a system whereby you can piggy back your electric car on the train for a reasonable price like you do on the ferry, for long trips between towns. Get some of the rail cars that ply the Chunnel. They are already set up for this. Modify as necessary and then manufacture our own. Make sure you can charge your car on the train so you have a full charge when you reach your destination. Put the cherry on the top and electrify the trains as well and we will really be on our way. Put wind turbines along the easement of the railways wherever technically feasible, especially on scenic routs used by overseas tourists. They will love the thought that the train is running on wind power.Link

8.  Start negotiations with VolksWagen to manufacture the Bulli here in New Zealand when they have it  sorted out or even:::

9. Hire the best, most innovative, small team of engineers available and start a car industry in New Zealand producing an affordable electric car called, of course, the Kiwi. And why not. What Jackson has done for movies, someone could do for electric cars.

Benefits to New Zealand from the uptake of electric cars.

1. Improved balance of payments. The importation of fuel and lubricants is a large expense for our country.

2. Reduction in green house gases. Surprisingly this is so even if coal is used to generate the electricity due to the efficiencies of large coal plants. It becomes doubly so as a country replaces coal generated electricity with renewably generated electricity. This is the rout to zero net emissions.

In the case of New Zealand we already produce half our electricity from hydro, perhaps 20% from geothermal and a bunch more from wind and a tad from solar.   To quite an extent, cars can be charged when electricity is available so we enter the realm of demand balancing rather than supply balancing.

3. Increased profitability of our existing hydro electricity generation plants and of any soon-to-be-built renewable energy plants since, by using demand balancing, excess power can be used to charge electric cars "when available*" rather than letting this power go to waste. (Incidentally, power can be fed back from an electric car, when needed, further increasing the efficiency of the whole system.)

*We need a truly smart grid rather than the pale shadow of one we have now.  It should be possible to vary the price of electricity, making it least expensive when there is an excess available.  Sending water down a slip way rather then through the turbines or letting wind turbines free wheel is a waste.  The signal must come through to the consumer.  The consumer can then set his car charging or water heating to come on when less expensive electricity is available.  This is Demand Balancing.

4. Cheaper travel. Even when charged at the full daytime rate, it costs about a third as much to drive a km in an electric car as for a petrol car. Remember the main function of government is to look after the good of her citizens, not to look after business. Often measures that serve business, serves the needs of the people but this is not axiomatic.  There are many instances where the opposite is true.

5. Reduction in pollution with the reduced emission of oxides of nitrogen, soot and other combustion products. Electric cars will result in reduced public health care costs.

6. Reduction in a our financial obligation under Koyoto/Copenhagen as we use less fossil fuel.

7. Far cheaper repair bills for cars*.

*note a recent small item in the Press reported how European mechanics and car dealers are worried about the advent of electric cars. They realize that it will pretty well put them out of business - much like the harness and carriage makers were put out of business when the motor car replaced the horse.  A DIYer of modest ability should be able to maintain and repair pretty well anything on an electric car.

8. Much longer life for cars (electric motors, by their nature, can be made to virtually last a life time) and hence less mining of minerals, less destruction of the natural environment etc.

9. Possibility of balancing the grid both by charging when electricity is available and even more so by returning electricity to the grid when power is needed.

It is very much in the interest of New Zealand to replace our domestic fleet as quickly as possible so lets be innovative, think outside the box and get it under way.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wood Waste and Urea

There is a pretty wide agreement that if we don't reduce the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are all going to hell in a hand basket. Some people believe that we have already gone too far and no matter what we do, it is too late. Others believe that with the head in the sand attitude of most world leaders, there is very little chance that we will succeed in making any significant reduction in our output of fossil carbon. Assuming that the above is true and the world will not gain control of her carbon emissions, what can New Zealand do about it.

Of course we should take measures which establish our credentials as responsible world citizens and reduce our output of green house gases. Quite cynically, this is important for our marketing.  More important, though, is to future proof New Zealand against the possibility of the break down of the ecology of the rest of the world and with it the demise of their economies. Our main trading partners are in the Northern Hemisphere and their demise is going to impact us severely.  There are many many measures we can take.  Below is one regarding our fertilizer supply which will both bolster our credentials for our export market in the near term and help future proof New Zealand against the likely coming breakdown in the world economy a few decades hence.

Sawdust into urea
It has been proposed by our New Zealand SOE, Solid Energy that they turn their lignite deposits into urea for the farmers. At present we import some of our urea so this would help our balance of payment, provide jobs and enrich holders of shares in Solid Energy (MP's???). So far so good. However, it would become the largest emitter of Carbon Dioxide in the country, even surpassing our large coal fired power station at Huntly. It would increase our atmospheric carbon output by 20%.  Is there another way. Well, yes there is*. You can make urea from almost any carbon based substance from methane to pure carbon. You can also produce urea from wood wastes.

*here is yet another way to obtain our fertilizers.

In New Zealand, we have a number of sources of such wood wastes. This includes the branches cut off pine plantations when they are trimmed to make clear wood (lifts), it includes trimmings during logging, the sawdust and off cuts from lumber mills, the left over wood ends from building construction and furniture manufacture plus wood from demolition sites. In addition, all waste paper and cardboard, which is nearly pure cellulose, can be added into this mix. It is pretty clear what the objection of Solid Energy is. Clearly they want to make profit by the vertical integration of their lignite deposits and a Urea plant. The first objection they will make is that the transportation costs of bringing this material from all over the country to their plant will make the feed stock(wood, paper etc) too expensive. So lets agree that whatever happens, they will pay the same for this material as it would have cost them to mine their lignite and transport it to the urea plant. If necessary, we will use government subsidies to make the use of wood waste instead of lignite, financially neutral.  This may sound counter productive at first but bear with me a moment.

However.............Of course we must take into account the carbon tax they will be charged if they do decide to use their lignite.  We have been generous to a fault by signing up to Koyota and have taken upon ourself the obligation to pay a carbon tax.  The use of lignite will incure an added cost which must be taken into account.  Once the Carbon tax is taken into account it remains to be seen, if a subsidy would still have to be paid for getting the wood waste to the company. Wood and paper have no carbon cost because they are recycled carbon recently removed from the air.   We must also factor in the likely effect on our tourism industry and our food exports of becoming the bad boy of the OECD with respect to our lack of carbon abatement. When all this is taken into consideration, it may well be that the use of wood and paper waste to make urea will be cheaper to New Zealand than using lignite.

Then we come to the effect on our railroads. Rail is the ideal medium for transporting high bulk low value products. What is good about transporting wood waste by rail is it gives them another revenue stream which can be used for maintaining and upgrading their infrastructure. This contributes to making the shipment of all other goods by rail more cost effective. We might even put the wood-transport revenue stream into electrifying our railways, further reducing our carbon footprint and so further increasing New Zealand's financial viability with respect to our carbon output. (not to mention our clean green credentials).

Another important aspect is the greenness of our meat exports.  New Zealand meat is for the most part grass fed.  In so far as this is true, our meat is carbon neutral.  The carbon contained in our meat is carbon recently removed from the air by the grass the animals eat.  At present we use fossil fuel to produce our urea which puts a carbon cost on our meat.  When other countries such as the UK try to interfere with our meat imports to their country, they often quote carbon miles.  In actual fact, the carbon footprint of our meat, even when transport is taken into account, is lower than meat they produce.  If we produce our urea from wood waste, our meat is even more carbon neutral.

There is a desperate need to calculate true costs when making economic policy. In this case, with our blinkers on, the use of lignite might be less expensive than the use of wood waste to produce urea. However, when all the benefits of using wood waste and the costs of using lignite are taken into consideration, the outcome is very likely to be quite the opposite.

ps.  On Jul 26,2011 on morning National Radio there was an announcement of plans to construct a turpentine plant for producing, not surprisingly, turpentine from forest waste.  This points to a couple of things.  First, it is apparently going to be financially feasible to bring the feed stock from the forests to the plant.  This suggests that it also might be feasible to bring wood waste to a urea plant.  The second thing is that as far as I know, after turpentine is distilled out of forest waste, what remains is the wood minus the pitch.  This is cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin which is exactly the feed stock that is needed for a urea plant.  All the other feed stocks mentioned above can also  be fed in.  Some of them, such as the offcuts from lumber mills may also be usable for turpentine production. Right beside the turpentine factory would be the ideal site for a urea factory.   The transport cost to each factory is cut in half.

pps.  If our production of urea from wood and other cellulostic waste exceeds our needs, the possibility opens up to export green urea at a premium.  Of course no nitrogen source is green if it is used in excess such that it contaminates ground water but in so far as it is produced from cellulose rather than fossil fuels, our urea would be completely green.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

German FIT system - Brilliant

You have to admire the German government* and its Tax Department. Not only do they not themselves financially support the introduction of small scale renewable energy in Germany, they manage to tax it 6 or 7 times. This may seem a little surprising to you considering how the German FIT (feed in tariff) system is always held up as an example of how to increase the uptake of small scale solar-electric systems. And, don't misunderstand me. It has been tremendously successful. The generation from small solar electric systems in Germany is now almost equivalent to five large coal powered generating units and is increasing day by day. Lets have a closer look at how it work.

*I have started with the German system as it is the most insidious.  At the bottom there is a link to our New Zealand system.  There are almost an infinitely varied number of systems which can be used in terms of the regulatory framewrod that surrounds it.  Each one has it's own fish hooks.

The German government is not involved in financing solar-electric systems. The money to pay the small generator for every kWh he produces* is raised by the German Power companies charging all its customers a little more for the power they buy. Here is the first level of taxation. German VAT (sales tax) is just under a fifth so when you pay your power bill, a fifth is added to the charge and this goes to the German government. Toooo clever!! Remember, the power company is allowed to charge a little extra to all its customers to pay the FITs so all its customers pay a fifth of this little bit extra as Sales tax. It is only a little per customer but remember that in total it is equal to a fifth of the sale price of the power generated by 5 large coal powered generating stations.

*For the early adopter of a solar electric system, it is fantastic, at least for the first 20 years.  The FIT is over 50c for the first 20 years since installation.  At each year later that you install your panels, the amount you get per kWh over the first 20 years is less.

Then the government insists on double metering. All the power that the small generator/customer produces goes through one meter and everything he uses through the second meter. This seems at first glance to be very beneficial to the small generator. Since he receives approximately three times the rate for the power he produces than for the power he buys he is very pleased that all the power he produces is measured rather than the excess above what he uses. This way he gets the maximum return??? Are you ever suspicious when something seems too good to be true?

Since the small generator/customer is earning revenue from his solar panels and the amount is recorded by the power company, it is visible to the tax office and this amount is added to the income of the small generator. He is than taxed on this revenue at his marginal income tax rate*.  For a really well off German, and with the reunification tax,  this is over 50%. In other words, if a high salaried German earns 200euro per month from his power generation, he gets to keep only 100euro.

In most countries you are taxed at a certain rate for the first part of your income, a larger rate on the next portion and a higher rate on the rest of your income.  Let's say for the sake of the argument that it is 20% on the first thousand, 30% on the next thousand and 40% on anything above 2000 per month.  40% is your marginal tax rate and any additional income you acquire will be taxed at this rate.

Then the tax office looks at how much power the owner of solar panels buys. Remember, this is all the power he uses. Not just the extra he needs to make up his shortfall. Whatever you buy in Germany, including power, has sales tax attached to it and sales tax, as we said, in Germany it is just under a fifth. Suppose our same well off German buys 200euro of power. Once you have added VAT, he has to pay 240euro for it. The 40euro goes to the tax office. So far we are up to 3 taxations on the power produced. Now we come to the power company.

The power company earns money by selling power. The power it buys from the small generator, it sells on to its other customers. This increases its revenue and it pays tax on this added revenue at its marginal tax rate. It also pays sales tax on power it buys.  The power is taxed once more and since the power company has to make a profit, it passes on this added expense to its customers.  This added cost is also taxed.  We now have a tax on a tax.  (or is it a tax on a tax on a tax.  I am loosing track of all the compounding going on)

As I said, you have to admire the system. At a time when the world is desperate to replace fossil fuel power generation with renewables, the German government has come up with a way to increase the uptake of renewable energy, have a sixtiple dipping system of taxing every kWh of renewable power produced and gain the gratitude of its citizens and the admiration of the world. Machiavelli would be all a twitter. Imagine how much less expensive it would be for the installer of small generation equipment if it wasn't taxed this way; how much more worthwhile it would be to install such a system and how much less expensive power would be for  German consumers that don't have solar panels.  Imagine how much better if the German Government simply put in a system for the benefit of the German citizen.

One wonders what all this extra revenue is used for. If the German government ear-marks (ring fences) this money for installing wind turbines, making home solar equipment less expensive, subsidising house insulation etc. etc. the system would be justified in terms of the big picture of replacing fossil fuel generation by renewables. I wonder. That would be another story.

In another blog, I calculated that the small customer who installs solar panels would have to install a system between 1.7 to 4 times as big as he actually needs  to generate the power he uses if he wanted to end up paying nothing for his electricity.  This is, of course, only if double metering is the law of the land.  The wide range depends to a large extent on your tax status and the tax laws of your country.  Guess what extra you pay when you buy your solar system.  That's right.  GST.  So you pay even more tax to the government in order to buy a system which is far bigger than you actually need.  How many taxations are we up to now.  I have lost track.

Note that in New Zeland we have double metering but it only measures the excess and shorfall after you use your own generated power.  For a look at this system, click here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

American Wars and Wind power

It has often been opined that the real reason America gets involved in so many wars is to secure her energy imports. This always seemed a bit far fetched and I wondered how much extra energy America could have generated if she had used all the wealth expended on wars over the past decade or so to build wind turbines. The results are interesting but I have to depend on whatever information I can glean from the Internet. I'll put down the information I have found and where it comes from and show the calculations. If you have other figures, plug them in and see what you get. But first a word about units.

Two important concepts when you talk about electricity are power and energy. Think of a couple of lads who have to move a pile of bricks up from the ground to, say, the fifth floor. They walk up the stairs with the bricks. One of them is big and strong, the other small and weak. The more powerful chap can take the bricks 10 at a time and finishes the work in half a day. The smaller chap can only carry 5 bricks at a time and takes a full day to finish. When they both have finished, they have expended the same amount of energy (as measured by the weight of bricks times the height they have been moved to), but the big chap is more powerful. He has done the work faster. Power is a rate of expending energy (rate of doing work). In electricity the watt, kilowatt or megawatt is a measure of power. It is the rate at which you are expending energy. The Kilowatt hour is the measure of how much energy you have expended. If you expend energy at a rate of one kilowatt for one hour, you have used one kilowatt hour.
So what information do we have. From this web site, the electrical energy consumption of the United States in 2005 (latest I could find) was 3,816,000,000mWh/y (megawatt hours per year - a megawatt is a million watts). Incidentally, this was one of the few sites that used the correct units so perhaps its information is more trustworthy than some of the others.
From this web site, the cost to the Americans of the wars they have been engaged in since 2001(eight and a half years to August 2009) is $901,386,000,000US. Click on this site and watch the numbers go up.

From information from a friend in the wind turbine business, it costs about $2millionUS per megawatt of wind turbine generating capacity. Just a word here about what this means.

A wind turbine is rated for how much power it will generate when the wind speed is optimal (neither too much or too little). However, the wind does not blow all the time. Wind sites are monitored before a wind farm is constructed to find the capacity factor of the area. Below about 35%, a site is often rejected and a higher capacity factor is, of course, desirable. I will use the 35% figure since it is conservative for our example. What this means is that a one megawatt wind generator in a 35% site will be generating on average over the year just over a third of a megawatt or 350kilowatts of power. Over a year of 365 days of 24 hours this will produce 350 x 365 x 24 = 3066Mwh of electrical energy.

So how many megawatts of electrical generating capacity could we buy for the $901,386,000,000US of wealth that has been expended in the wars from 2001 to Aug. 2009. Dividing this figure by $2mUS per megawatt we get 450693Mw of generating capacity.

Since one megawatt of generating capacity in a 35% site will produce 3066mWh of electricity, 450,693 megawatts of generating capacity will generate 450,693 x 3066 = 1,381,824,738 mWh of electricity per year.

Since the electricity generation of the USA in 2005 was 3,816,000,000mWh/y, this is an extra 36% of the 2005 generation.

How much imported oil would this replace. How much better would the US balance of payments be. How many young lives would have been saved on both sides and would this have been enough to avoid the present economic melt down. How many terrorists would not have had a motivation to pursue their path of destruction. With the American example, how much further ahead would other countries be in their uptake of renewable energy. How much corruption and misery for their own people would have been avoided in the oil rich countries. If America is indeed fighting wars to secure her energy supplies, it is false economy. We should look at Ike's warning about the Industrio-military complex for the real motivation for all these wars the Americans loose.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Terra Preta - how does it work

Some of the following article on why Terra Preta works is speculation. Connecting some dots if you wish so take it with a grain of salt until someone does some definitive research on the subject.

Fairly recently fertile zones along the Amazon river were discovered. These are places which are rich in charred organic material and are fertile zones in an area of very poor soils. The depth of black soil is typically half a metre. In case this sounds strange to you; that the soils of the amazon jungle are poor, perhaps some explanation is in order.

You would think at first glance that the soils of the Amazon must be very rich to support such a large biomass of such rich flora and fauna; a veritable jungle. Apparently not so. If you cut down the jungle or burn a patch of it, you can plant some crops and if you are lucky you will get a couple of crops before you have to move to a new location.

If you do the same thing in the forests of Eastern North America as the Europeans did when they arrived, you could plant crop after crop in the rich deep dark soil before you have to start to fertilize. So what is the explanation for the incredible quantity and richness of flora and fauna in the jungle.

 The explanation is partially in the ability of the trees and plants to recycle all the nutrients that fall on the soil. Animals and plants die, Animals defecate and urinate on the forest floor and with the high rainfall, humidity and temperature. all this material is mineralized (changed back into phosphates, nitrates and all the other ates) and is taken up by the roots of the growing flora. So why isn't there an accumulation of rich dark soil as there is in temperate zones.

The answer apparently is in the relative temperatures of the two areas.

When the temperature of the soil is above 25degrees centigrade, in the presence of moisture, humus breaks down. Humus is the refractory material that is left in temperate soil when organic material breaks down. The humus is the part that doesn't break down.

 It is physically sticky and helps in the  formation of the crumb structure (peds) of soil which allows paths for aeration and water penetration. It holds large quantities of water which plants can draw upon. Of great interest, it chealates (binds loosely) a variety of plant nutrients. If there is a source of nutrients coming from, for instance the breakdown of plants or animals, the humus will hold these nutrients in the upper layers of the soil and keep them from being washed into the subsoil.

Humus is a little like the haemoglobin in our red blood cells. Haemoglobin can hold a lot of Oxygen but not very strongly. In the lungs where the Oxygen concentration is high, it absorbs oxygen and in the body where the oxygen partial pressure is low, it releases it. Humus does the same with water and nutrients. below 25 degrees, humus is very stable.Link

So now we come to Terra preta and why it works. Terra preta has been formed by generations of humans charring organic material and incorporating it into the soil. Along the Amazon, where these soils exist, the black layer is often about half a metre deep. Any of you who have done organic chemistry know how charcoal is used to remove odours and colours from liquids. Charcoal is very good at absorbing molecules on to its surface and releasing them. This is apparently the explanation for why all this char makes the soil so rich.

 It is not that it has much in the way of nutrients itself but it can hold nutrients just as humus does. If the farmers along the Amazon, for instance, net a bunch of fish and dig them into their terra preta, they will break down and the nutrients will be held by the soil instead of being leached out by the rain. And charcoal is very stable at high temperatures unlike humus. One wonders how they arrived at the idea. Perhaps they observed good growth of their yams or whatever in a place where there had been a fire that was put out by the rain. It could be that char also has some of the other properties of humus such as water retention or improvement of soil structure. Some careful work is necessary to tease out the finer details of how charcoal works in warm soils. In a way, char (charcoal) is the humus of the tropics.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Luddites had a point

The Luddites had a point. They were a group of artisans who wove cloth and socks in home industries in the early 1800's. When the mechanized loom was invented which could produce far more cloth with unskilled labour, the artisans formed the Luddite movement and went around destroying the mechanical looms. It became a hanging offence to do this and hence the name Luddite was apparently not the name of their leader although that was what the authorities assumed. Clearly it was not healthy to let the authorities find out who you were. Notably, they only destroyed looms of factories that undercut their prices. Factories that kept prices up to a level that allowed the artisans to compete were left alone. At present the word Luddite is applied perjoritively and rather unjustly to anyone who is against progress of any kind.

So now most of our cars are mainly constructed by robots, any plastic utensil is made by a huge machine with one operator and turns out thousands of items per hour and even the pieces of wooden furniture are to a large extent produced by machine and at the most, assembled by humans. On our road to utopia goods are produced more and more cheaply making them more affordable for us all but.....................

We still need money to buy them. Where do we get the money if none of us has jobs and for that matter, if we can get the money somehow, what are we going to be doing to the environment if everything is cheap. We will be (are) cutting down more and more trees to make furniture that we can all afford, mining more and more irreplacable minerals to produce cheap cars, extracting more oil to burn in our cars and to make our plastics, mining more rare earth metals for our electronics and so forth.

What has actually happened is that most of us have become employed in the service industries. Everyone is servicing everyone else while capital is making the big money. Services include everyone in the tourism business, politicians, writers, sex workers, most government employees soldiers and a raft of others. All of this still leaves a lot of people unemployed or under employeed. What do we do with them. We still have to get money into their hand somehow so that they can buy the products produced by capital and keep the whole system operating.

Some we put some on welfare. They get a dole-out from the state which has got it's money by taxing income from wage earners and from the earnings of capital. From, say, the sale of plastic collanders that have been produced by their tens of thousands from a single maching with a single operator.

Some we put in the army. This is especially valuable to a capital intensive country which can produce far more than they use and produce it very cheaply. The army produces nothing of value, burns up fuel, destroys vehicles and blows up munitions. It keeps the taxes flowing from the government into salaries and back into factories which can continue to produce as the government uses up their production. It necessitates mining more minerals, extracting more oil, carring out research and many more activities to keep the army operating. Of course an army has to have a war from time to time to use up all this excess production and make room for producing more. I have read an estimate that one in every ten dollars in America is earned providing something for the armed services. Imagine if there was no army airforce or navy. Unemployment in America would be huge. Of course an army has the slight dissadvantage that it kills people in far away countries who, with a complete lack of appreciation of the way the world works, object to being killed. They fight back and kill our good old boys both in their country and in ours which is most unfair. Of course this provides employment for a raft of other services such as undertakers, spys, security guards, and the manufacturers of a host of metal and explosive detectors. Full employment for all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Swine Flue - Keep it weak

Medical Officers don't stand a chance. (New Scientist, 20Jan, 2012 p28) If they stop a pandemic dead in its tracks, they will always be accused of overreacting.  If one gets away from them they will be accused of too little too late.  It is very likely that the very act of quarantining flue victims and their contacts is what avoided an H5N1 disaster.  A flue strain is deadly when it attacks the body so quickly that the body doesn't have time to create the appropriate antibody, a process that takes a week or so.  If you quarantine a victim with a deadly flue strain and his contacts as soon as he shows symptoms, he can't pass his variety of flue on to others.  In the mean time, people with more benign mutations of the same H5N1 virus that doesn't create early harsh symptoms and that  the body can handle are infecting others.  Any strain you contract of the same virus gives you immunity to all strains.  The next time the same flue comes around, from the viruses  'point of view', there are far less people for it to infect.  With an effectively reduced population, there is an added selective pressure for flue varieties that are more benign and can infect other victims before symptoms show in the infector.  This is likely the explanation why deadly diseases become less deadly the more time they are in contact with their human population.  We have to stop accusing the authorities of over reacting and continue to quarantine flue carriers and their contacts as soon as they are detected.  The more of us there are and the more crowded together we are, the more important this becomes.

It is reasonable to believe that the actions being taken around the world to limit the spread of swine flue is keeping it from becoming lethal.

When the flue virus enters a new human host, it takes over the genetic replication mechanism of some of the host cells and uses them to produce more virus particles. In the mean time, the body begins to ramp up its immune system to produce antibodies to kill the virus. The virus has to spread to a new host before the host produces enough antibodies to kill it or before the host dies. Typically antibody production takes about a week. The virus is therefore more successful (spreads to more hosts) if it spreads easily and if the host remains infectious and in contact with oters for as long as possible. To remain infectious, the host has to remain alive. Not only do viruses die in a dead host but a dead host is not moving around infecting new hosts.

Once a new virus has mutated to solve the problem of transfer from human to human, it begins to spread. The virus is not consciously motivated, of course and some of the viruses will mutate into a deadlier or less deadly form completely at random. Its chance of mutating depends on how many virus particles there are. If only a few humans are infected, there is less of a chance that a virus will mutate than if there are huge numbers of carriers. This is the first way in which limiting the spread of the virus mitigates against it mutating to a more lethal form. By limiting the number of humans infected, you limit the number of viruses available for mutation and hence you reduce the chance of a lethal form popping up.

However, given time, some viruses will mutate into a deadly form. Lets say for the sake of argument the frequency is one in a billion billion billion viruses. When such a virus infects a person, the symptoms will be severe and the person is likely to die. Here is the second way that slowing down the spread of the virus keeps it weak. If every time someone has visible symptoms, he is isolated, he will get better or die without his variety of the virus spreading to a lot of other hosts. Isolate his contacts and you further limit the chance that a lethal variety will spread. By killing its host the virus "burns itself out". In fact, the only virus that can spread freely is one that is mild enough not to force the host to stay quarantined. The ultimate, genetically successful virus would be completely asymptomatic.

So varieties of the virus which manifest themselves with mild or even no symptoms will stay out there spreading through the population. Here is the next reason why slowing the spread of the virus reduces its lethality. The longer you keep nasty varieties from spreading, the more time there is for the mild varieties and even asymptomatic varieties to spread. Remember that these mild varieties are also imbuing their hosts with immunity to this whole cohort of viruses (in the recent case, the H5N1 of 2009). Here there are two effects. First, a host that has been infected by a mild variety won't later contract a deadly variety and secondly, the more people that are immune, the greater the herd immunity and the slower the virus will spread when it comes through the second time.

In a thin host population, any virus which becomes deadly will burn itself out. By killing it's host, it kills itself. If it is killing the host before it can infect at least one and a bit new hosts, then it will disappear and only more benign forms of the virus will carry on - namely those which allow the host to live long enough to infect more people. In our modern world, we are particularly vulnerable. We are very crowded which gives many opportunities for the virus to spread to new hosts and methods of transport give many opportunities for the establishment of new foci in other geographical locations. Remember, that if the person can be kept isolated for a week or so, they will no longer be infectious. Then another factor comes into play.

Here and there, though, a virus will arise by mutation that is deadly. It will kill its host quickly. If we take no precautions to slow its spread, in a crowded population, a huge number of people can become infected before the first person dies. If, however, we take extraordinary precautions when someone dies from the virus, regardless of what we think of their vulnerability, we will tend to wipe out the deadly form. Extraordinary measures, of course, consist of trying to contact all the contacts of the victim and getting them to isolate themselves for a week. Of course with modern medicine; with life support systems and antibiotics to protect against secondary infections, mortality for the isolated people is much less likely than it once was.

And how about immunization. From the individual persons point of view, this is a good thing since they then can not be infected. From the point of view of the population, the more herd immunity that can be established, the slower the virus spreads, the less chance there is for a deadly form to spread.

I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that the very measures we are taking to slow the spread of the virus are keeping it weak (in terms of its lethality) and that we should continue. The main danger is if we stop the various containment methods. A fast spreading virus, if it become lethal, can kill huge numbers but it can only become fast spreading if we let down our guard. We must also treat any death from the virus as if the virus has become deadly and take extraordinary measures to isolate all contacts of the deceased person. It is counterproductive to hypothesize that the person was particularly vulnerable and that was the cause of death. In this case better to err on the side of caution.

Ocean Recovery

In a recent New Scientist, (May 30, 2009 p8) it was suggested that the human induced demise of fish stocks, both fresh water and oceanic, began long before the modern era. Many lines of enquiry are quoted to support this contention. This may well be so and would parallel the destruction of populations of land animals as humans invaded each new area. Be that as it may, modern humans with their technology have finished off the job quite nicely and we are now in the situation in the oceans that Southern Africa was before the whites woke up to the fact that most of the animals of their forefathers were just about to go extinct. They took the appropriate measures and at least, in reserves which they set aside, the fauna of Africa recovered. (it is now on the way out again)

With respect to the oceans, lets consider the problem from a different perspective; to explore a different way of thinking. We have, at a conservative estimate, destroyed at least 70% of the fish resources of the world that existed at the start of the modern era and in the case of, for instance, the Grand Banks off Newfound Land, even though fishing has been banned for decades, the fish resources are not recovering. Lets look at the problem from the point of view of primary production; from the point of view of phytoplankton.

Ultimately, the productivity of 99.9%+ of biological systems on earth is based on photosynthesis. The ultimate limit to productivity depends on how much sun energy falls on the system. This is something which we can not increase  Ultimately the limit to primary production is sunshine. The more of this sunshine we can absorb by building simple mollecules into more complex mollecules throught he agency of life, the greater the productivity of a system.

There is a principle in the growth of individual animals and plants and in the productivity of ecological systems that says that growth/increase/primary productivity depends on the most limiting factor; that is to say the factor which is in shortest supply in comparison with the amount which would not limit growth. In an ocean system, water is not limited and sunshine is whatever nature provides so the main limiting factor is the availability of nutrients. And the potential for production is enormous.

Look at, for instance, the water off Peru in non-El Ninio years. In these years there is upwelling of nutrient rich waters from the deep ocean. We don't actually see primary production (phytoplankton) or even secondary production (zoo plankton) but only tertiary production which in Peru takes the form of Anchovies. The fisheries is humongous and provides much of the fish meal for the world from this one small patch of ocean. This fish meal is used in feed for most land based domestic animals and in the huge fish farming (feed lot) industry.

Another relevant fact is that only 10% of the material goes from one tropic level to the next. A hundred kg of phytoplankton will make 10kg of zoo plankton and 10 kg of zoo plankton will make 1kg of anchovy. The primary production off Peru must therefore be about 100 times as large as the Anchovy production. Lesson:-- Potential primary production in the oceans is very very large.

So how does this relate to our subject. Lets do a thought exercise with a simple system consisting of phytoplankton, krill, penguin, leopard seal and killer whale. Each feeds on the layer below it. OK so the killer whales sometimes take penguins but lets keep it simple. We'll assume a moderate level of nutrient input from upwelling sea water. Oh and we will need a population of bacteria to recycle carcases and the poop of these various animals.

We start with the water full of nutrients and inoculate with phytoplankton. The phytoplankton starts to grow explosively and remember some algae can double every hour when the sun shines. Sunshine in the Antarctic summer is 24 hours a day. Raise 2 to the 24th power for one day and then add on a couple more days and pretty soon you have masses of algae. The nutrients are quickly used up including the small amount being added and the algae become senescent (old and dying). Primary production slows and dead algae begin to sink to the bottom. A small amount of mineralization by bacteria returns some nutrients to the system. Primary production ticks along at a much reduced level limited by the influx of new nutrients and some bacterial mineralization.

Incidentally, in systems such as coral reefs and tropical jungles the input of nutrients is very low and the whole, incredibly rich system only remains vibrant due to the very tight circulation of nutrients within the system. More on this later.

Drop in some krill. The krill start to eat the phytoplankton. Now remember that only 10% of the eaten phytoplankton becomes krill. The rest is pooped out into the water. This 90% is phytoplankton-nutrient. Even better, not all phytoplankton need completely mineralized nutrients (broken right down into phosphates nitrates and other 'ates') but can use higher molecules much as bacteria do. And you can depend on it that with all these more energetic molecules

The penguins eat krill and poop out nutrients. As with the krill, 90% of what they eat becomes available for the algae. By suppressing the population of krill they delay or might even stop the krill from crashing the system. Unlikely. The system is still too simple. Algae production increases once more. Penguins live longer than krill and boom and bust at a slower rate. Having a longer cycle also avoids resonance which can occur if the eater and the eaten have the same length cycle or a cycle which is a multiple of each other. Note that if there is a standing crop of a million kg of krill, there is likely to be a tenth or less that this of penguins. Less and less biomass as you go up the ladder. The surprise here is that over the long term, there will be more biomass of krill than there was without the penguins and far more total biomass.  More of the available sun energy, which is the ultimate limiting factor, will be used.

Add in the leopard seals which eat penguins and then the killer whales which eat the leopard seals. Each layer is smaller in terms of kilograms than the one before it, each layer poops out (cycles) nutrients for the use of the phytoplankton. Each layer improves stability. Each layer increases total primary production. If the nutrient cycling is very tight (not much exiting the system by, for instance, falling to the bottom and becoming buried), you can get an extremely rich environment such as exists in a tropical forest or a coral reef.

If on the other hand we have a system in which all the nutrients except what is returned by old age, is trapped in a given level, then primary productivity stagnates. It is like money in an economy. It only does its job if it is circulation. If money is put in a bank, it is invested and it continues to work. If it is put under a mattress, it stops enabling the system. The total biomass that can be supported in the system increases as you add an extra layer and by more than just the amount added by that layer. In other words, as you add the leopard seals, the total biomass of algae, krill and penguin increases. Of most importance, the total amount of sun energy which is being captured increases.

This might be the solution to such mysteries as why the grand banks are not recovering as expected. I can think of a few other contributors to that problem but as the cod are removed, which are a third or fourth level predator, nutrients are not being recycled nearly as quickly and primary production is reduced. One wonders what is the effect of the demise of the whales. Remember that some of them, after feeding in the rich arctic or Antarctic oceans, traverse less productive areas and even though they will soon cease to defecate, they will continue to urinate as they use up their stored energy. In the polar regions, they feed at the same level as the penguins and so recycle nutrients very quickly. Some whales hunt at depth and poop on the surface;  a biological upwelling system. What loss to total primary productivity is due to them no longer being extant. And similarly what was the contribution to their environment of the huge schools of tuna that once cruised the oceans.

Going back to our example, if we eliminated all the penguins, leopard seals and killer whales, we would look at the system and see a greatly reduced krill population. We would make our calculations and surmise that we could only support a relatively small population of penguins if we returned them to the system. We forget the lesson of the tropical jungles and the coral reefs. If a system can circulate its nutrients within itself, it can support a huge population on very small net inputs. As long as nutrients are recycled to the photo synthesizers, huge primary production can occur with huge biomass. The populations of lower levels in the chain  depend on higher levels keeping nutrients in circulation.

This brings us to how much we can harvest. If we note that despite the best efforts of the phytoplankton, there is an excess of nutrients in the water, we may be able to mine the system to an extent. As we do, we are removing nutrients from the system like a farmer who takes a sheep or a cow off a field and sells it. We will reach a point where there are just enough nutrients to allow unlimited growth of the photosynthesizers. At that point we can only harvest whatever crop we are after at the rate that nutrients are being added from the outside to the system. In the case of our farmer, this is at the rate that he adds fertilizer back on to his field. In the case of the ocean, it is at the rate of replenishment by upwelling (biological or pysical). If we deplete the system so that photosynthesis is not running at the "sun limit" then we reduce the productivity of the system and hence the amount we can harvest sustainably. In the long term, you can only harvest a system at the rate at which nutrients are being added to the system. Mining a system (taking more than the input) will eventually crash the system.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The demise of Lodge Pole pines in BC

Lodge pole pines, which clad much of the interior of BC, are disappearing. The villain in the piece is a fungus which is transmitted by a beetle.  The beetle and the fungus were always there but harsh winters once knocked the beetle back sufficiently to keep the damage at a tolerable level. If you read Three Against the Wilderness by Eric Collier, in the years from the 30's to the 50's, the temperature regularly fell to around 50 below or less; below the measuring ability of a mercury thermometer. With the demise of pines the woods are changing.

Fall colours in the Chilcoten

As the pines die, poplars are springing up. In a recent trip to BC in the fall, the woods, which formerly would have been dark green, were yellow with the changing leaves of the poplar trees, interspersed with the rusty red of dying pines. This must look like a horrible fungus to the people who make their living from the pine forests. One of two things can be done.

The people of BC can either try to find a way of getting rid of the beetle or at least keeping it under control or they can see what they can salvage from the situation. Getting rid of the beetle seems to be a very hard ask and if past experience with similar problems is any indication, will probably involve the spreading of vast quantities of insecticide over the woods. Not a nice prospect. So before looking at possible solutions to the demise of the existing forests, what are the likely results of the take over by Poplars.

The poplars are probably only the pioneer species. In the fullness of time, other tree species will spread as well. No one can be sure what the natural succession will be but at the very least it will be 'interesting'.

Soils under evergreen trees are generally pretty sour and unfavorable to many herbs and shrubs. Pines even have the ability to kill off other plants. A pine extract developed in New Zealand is used in an organic herbicide. Soil under deciduous forests by contrast are rich and sweet due to the yearly production of leaf mulch and encourage a wide variety of under-story plants. These plants provide food for a wide variety of animals. The woods are likely to become much more ecologically diverse and much more productive as deciduous trees replace evergreens.

With the spread of deciduous trees there will be food and building material for beavers. With the beavers come a whole range of benefits. The people of Williams Lake, right in the heart of the pine forests, know all about this. In the 30's Their own Eric Collier began to rebuild the beaver dams by hand in the head waters of Meldrum Creek and in the 40's obtained two pair of beaver which multiplied and took over the work. The benefits both to his area and for downstream farmers were huge.

Water flowed year round in the creeks instead of mainly in spring, Animals and plants returned, trout and salmon came back to the streams, forest fires greatly decreased. Cattle had sweet water to drink instead of muddy bogs to get stuck in and die. What sort of industry could come out of such an environment.

Eco tourism. Much of the world depends on tourism to top up their GDP. With a hugely enriched environment, the interior of BC could greatly expand this part of their economy with horse trecks, photo tours hiking and so forth.

Hunting. It is likely with increased forage that ungulate populations (deer, moose etc.) will increase and with them the population of wolves, Mountain Lions and bears. Trophy hunting could play an increasing part in the economy of The Chilcotin.

Fishing. If the experience of Eric is anything to go on, the fishing will improve immeasurably when there is a large healthy population of beavers in the area. This also attracts tourism and provides recreation and food for the locals.

Maple Syrup. And how about an experimental planting of sugar maples. The weather should still be harsh enough in the Chilcotin to accommodate the life cycle of these trees. Perhaps Williams Lake could give Eastern Canada a run for their money.

Fur Trapping. Who knows if fur will ever become PC again. If so, beaver dams breed masses of muskrats which have beautiful fur. One warning, though. Leave the beavers alone. They are the goose that lays the golden egg.

Lumber. This may seem a strange suggestion since the lumber industry is disappearing. But how about investigating which trees could be planted that can be used for pulp and which other types of trees could be grown for lumber. It is long term investment but a farmer might plant a few hectares of oaks, black walnut or other prime timber, for instance, and keep them pruned as New Zealanders do with Pinus radiata to make clear wood. Oak will always command a high price and this could be a farmers retirement fund. There must be many other species of valuable trees that would prosper in the new climate of the interior of BC including varieties of nut trees. How about an experimental planting of every species of tree that could conceivably be of economic benefit in the area. Trees already planted in private gardens may already give an indication of which species prosper in the area.

There will be many other opportunities from the change that is occurring. The trick is to find them.