Thursday, 20 November 2014

10:33 – I’m still hard at work on the prepping book, but I need to take some time off to build some science kits. Kit sales this month are running slightly ahead of last November. Two-thirds of the way through the month, we’re at about 80% of last November’s total sales, so if the trend continues we’ll end up at about 120% month-on-month. Then comes December, which is a pretty heavy month, so we need to get finished-goods inventory built up for that.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a good column posted about the US-China climate deal and its effect on the oil industry. I agree with the substance of his arguments, but I think he underestimates the impact of solar on petroleum. Forecasts are nearly always wildly optimistic over the short term and wildly pessimistic over the long term, and I think that’s the case here. The question is, how long a term?

Solar is poised to become a major source of electric power. We’ve known for a long time that this would happen eventually. Insolation on every square meter of the planet’s surface amounts to about a kilowatt. The only questions have always been how to convert that solar energy to a useful form–i.e, electricity–and how to store that electricity.

As to capture, the science is already there. We have the science and increasingly the technology for very high-efficiency solar panels. The real problem has been storage. Back in the 70’s I read a book on storage batteries by a guy named George Vinal. It was published in something like 1907, and the technology had hardly changed during the intervening 70 years. It’s changed massively in the 40 years since I read that book. Revolutionary advances have been made in the labs, and are now working their way into mass production.

So now it’s just a matter of engineering and manufacturing, and we have plenty of good engineers and factories. Even now, you can walk into a Home Depot and buy a pretty impressive solar array. They’ll even send a crew out to install it on your roof and connect it to your battery bank. Costs are plummeting, and more and more people are adopting solar power for part or all of their power needs. In many areas of the US, solar is already at “plug parity” with utility power. As costs continue to drop, solar will continue to displace utility power. My guess is that in 10 years solar will be commonplace, and in twenty it will have largely displaced electric utility power all over the US. The utilities will go down fighting, of course, but down they’ll go.

All of this is to the good. Better that every building is self-sufficient in electric power, including for cooling and heating than that we continue to build large power plants and run millions of miles of wire to distribute that power generated centrally. And far better that we cease consuming fossil fuels and instead leave them as feedstocks for chemical manufacturing.

40 thoughts on “Thursday, 20 November 2014”

  1. Agreed, and cause for optimism, all other things being roughly equal and this gets a chance to develop amid an increasingly uncertain political and economic situation here and internationally. Trigger fingers are getting twitchy between us and the Russians, but more importantly, in Kashmir, a potential flashpoint of no small danger.

    For those interested in wireless, security and password stuff:

  2. I am not as certain about Solar, at least in the near term. Battery technology is nowhere where we need it to be and battery costs are still too high. I estimate that a 3 day battery would be required to go largely off grid. That is cost and size prohibitive right now. On grid results are better, but the grid can only handle about 10% solar supply before the variability starts causing grid disruptions. It works in warm climes for peak load support, but not as well for base load.

    BTW, currently solar PV installations are averaging between 25 and 35% of power rating over the long term.

  3. I read an article a few months ago that said the problem is the batteries. Battery technology hasn’t had a major leap since the Lithium Ion battery was introduced almost 25 years ago.

  4. There are a few problems with solar:
    – keeping them clean and free of snow, leaves, etc. is a major problem. If they are on top of your house, you need to go up there and clean them off. Not easy to do for many people and hazardous in snowy/icy conditions. It will greatly increase health care costs in the US, as ladder falls are one of the most common industrial accidents in the US and a significant hazard in the home.
    – batteries. As others have stated, battery tech has pretty much stalled in the last few years, since Lithium ion batteries. I was involved in the battery system requirements for Orion, and the latest and greatest batteries were a few percent better than the previous generation and the improvement curve was flattening out. DARPA has a challenge out with a $1 million prize for better batteries. LiI batteries also have some really nasty failure modes, including overheating, exploding, emitting toxic fumes, etc. You also need a pretty sophisticated computer to control and manage the charging/discharging cycles and to take bad cells out of the circuit. There are some nanomaterial batteries that may offer the next breakthrough, but they are years from prototypes, they are at the academic lab stage. (Look at high temperature superconductors for a similar breakthrough tech that hasn’t gotten anywhere.)
    – capital costs. Solar systems aren’t cheap. The indigent and much of the middle classes aren’t going to be able to afford such systems. The current grid system allows them to get electricity without upfront capital costs and without paying separately for maintenance. Plus where are they going to put the batteries? Given how expensive they would be, they would be a major theft target, much as copper condensing coils are.

  5. Shazammm!

    Dat’s a lotta issues!

    Right here is a game-stopper for lil’ ol’ me:

    “If they are on top of your house, you need to go up there and clean them off. Not easy to do for many people and hazardous in snowy/icy conditions.”

    We gots plenty of leaves and snow and ice here and a fairly steep roof, common in these pahts for obvious reasons, and I’m over sixty now with occasionally rickety joints and clumsiness. Maybe we can get a kid to climb on up there and do it, but then there’s the insurance hassle.

    ” You also need a pretty sophisticated computer…”

    Windows 8 with a big external hard drive?

    “The indigent and much of the middle classes aren’t going to be able to afford such systems.”

    Soon to be identical.

  6. What you’re talking about are mostly engineering/manufacturing issues. The basic science is already there.

    As to snow, leaves, etc. I suspect we’ll see arrays with built-in nozzles to flush the panels with warm water when necessary. Also, the exponential decline in PV cell costs will soon mean that solar capacity is so cheap that no one will bother with mechanical means of tracking the sun. Why bother, if you can install ten or a hundred times the capacity that you really need because it’s so cheap that running at 10% (or 1%) efficiency is a who-cares?

    As to capital costs, a full solar installation may be too expensive right now for many/most middle-class homes, but again the costs are coming down fast. There’s also the new construction versus retrofit issue. You’re limited in what you can do retro-fitting, but new construction raises many interesting possibilities that greatly reduce the need for battery storage. For example, during the day you can run solar electricity into heating coils embedded in a few tons of (very cheap) sodium sulfate to store heat. Overnight (and during the day, if necessary) you can draw on that stored heat. Similarly, during the day you can use some of your solar electricity to drive your air conditioning and the rest of it to freeze water that can be drawn on overnight to cool your home.

    All of this is going to be addressed over the coming decade or so. Most of it is already being addressed now. Yeah, for the next few years those on middle-class incomes may be limited to supplemental solar power, but as the years pass we’re going to see more and more homes going 100% solar.

  7. Cleaning solar panels is often mentioned as a drawback, but I’m pretty sure this is nonsense. As long as they are mounted with a fair bit of slope, most things will fall or blow off. The amount of dust and dirt is self-limiting, because a good, hard rain will take it off periodically.

    Even snow apparently generally just slides off sooner or later, unless you have a particularly unfortunate weather pattern where the underside melts and then refreezes as an anchor. In which case, you are SOL anyway, since you are hardly likely to take an ice-scraper to the panels.

    The real problem is energy storage, and that only becomes a problem if you want to truly be off-grid. Personally, I don’t think storage is a soluble problem for the normal case. Consider:

    – A fairly efficient household uses 20 kwh per day, or 72 megajoules (MJ).

    – The energy density of the best rechargeable batteries is around 0.72 MG/kg (actually slightly better, but I’m aiming for round numbers).

    – Therefore, to store one day’s worth of electricity, a household needs 100kg of top-of-the-line batteries, costing north of $10000. If you really want to be off-grid, even in the worst weather, you need 10 times that to see you through major storms. That’s $10000 to $100,000 worth of batteries to store about $4 worth of electricity, which just makes no economic sense at all.

    I figure we you need at least two orders of magnitude improvement to make this economical. Since battery prices have a hard floor set by the (generally rare and expensive) elements they use, this improvement will have to be in energy density. But a single order of magnitude increase already puts you past the energy density of TNT. Two orders of magnitude puts you beyond any known chemical reaction.

  8. The amount of dust and dirt is self-limiting, because a good, hard rain will take it off periodically.

    Very funny, Mr. Brad, very funny.

  9. I have an account on that sends me reviewed book recommendations. Just thought I’d let you readers know. It may help you winnow out the crap. It even has categories for Mr. OFD like Women’s Fiction, LGBT and Romance. I mean non-fiction, of course.

  10. Brad- I’ve had panels on the roof for ~8 years now, on grid. I clean (scrub) them 3-4 times a year and just hose off a couple of times in between (not many hard rains around here lately in CA). Tracking output shows a 15% increase between dirty and freshly scrubbed at my house.

    I believe Clayton is correct about large scale use and grid variability becoming a problem, I don’t know if 10% is the breaking point, but as an on grid user I do have some concerns down the line.

    My costs reached break even at about 7 years and I’ve got very close to a free ride as I slide into retirement with a guarantee on the panels until I’m 90. A friend just had a larger system installed for significantly less than I paid so it’s only getting better.

  11. The best off-grid energy storage system is a hybrid solar – hydrogen – battery system. It you want the most reliable system there is, hydrogen is the way to go for long term energy storage. The problem is the capital cost, it is easy to spend $100K for a 20 KW (peak) system.

    There are many downsides to the system but it will work and well. The maintenance may eat you alive though if you have to contract it out.

    NRG is renting house solar systems to people and expects this to be a 10 billion $/year business for them in the future:

  12. Maybe I gave the wrong impression: I actually do believe in solar, but only as an on-grid solution, where it is one of many different technologies.

    The 15% improvement after cleaning sounds right if you don’t have all that much rain. Around here, where it rains pretty regularly, I hear figures from 5% to 10%. Just not worth a big effort to clean the panels, unless you need every watt.

  13. I’m just going to add my 2-cents for nuclear power. I have over 30 years in the industry, from the Navy to commercial plants world-wide. There is a lot of nuclear power technology that is being suppressed; like home power plants no bigger than a 55-gallon drum, completely sealed and providing 30+ years of power; town sized plants (50,000 to 100,000 population) that fit into the area now occupied by the electrical distribution substations, again completely sealed and 10 to 20 years of power. This is nothing new, actual demonstration plants have operated for more than 20 years, some in European countries that do not want to admit that they have actual nuclear programs. We have enough used fuel rods waiting to be reprocessed that there is a 100 year supply.

  14. Hey OFD, got looking for a copy of Nicomachean Ethics. Since I don’t read Greek, is there a translation you prefer, or does it matter much?

  15. I’m with DadCooks; bring on the nuke stuff ASAP.

    “… categories for Mr. OFD like Women’s Fiction, LGBT and Romance.”

    Gee thanks. Right up my alley.

    Just back from 90 minutes with the ‘Vietnam Combat Group’ at the VA down in Burlap. Jeezum Crow, some of these guys have problems that make ours look like a day at the beach, although we’ve had our share. At least two or three are suicidal from what I can see. And the holidays are coming up, which is always a problem time. Also, I know there’s at least three of us who are still pissed off about Veterans Day and how all of a sudden veterans are cool, and how there’s gonna be some big celebration down in Mordor soon “honoring our Vietnam veterans.”

    My attitude, poor though it is, is that they can kiss my ass. Too little, too late, and fuck you very much.

    “But Dave, why can’t you just let go of all that anger and move on??”

    Beats me; hey, go ask them Korean and Good War vets over there; the latter are in their 80s and 90s now and still pissed off and having nightmares and crying. This is not encouraging for us baby-killers.

    Temps down to the 20s tonight and we had us some snow flurries while we could see bits of blue sky and sun. Oil delivery just made; firewood delivery scheduled for December 30th. Comcast tech due tomorrow, not today; I keep getting dates screwed up lately.

    Maybe I’ll screw up the date for my funeral, too.

  16. “…Since I don’t read Greek, is there a translation you prefer, or does it matter much?”

    It matters, but not a huge lot. I’m re-learning classical Latin and starting to learn classical Greek so I have the Loeb editions. For an English translation of the Ethics I liked the one in paperback by W.D. Ross. Amazingly, there are also Kindle editions.

  17. like home power plants no bigger than a 55-gallon drum, completely sealed and providing 30+ years of power

    I can see Bubba putting this into his pickup. You know he will do it.

  18. like home power plants no bigger than a 55-gallon drum, completely sealed and providing 30+ years of power

    I assume that this is just a heat source with a cold water pipe inlet and a hot water / steam outlet?

  19. I assume that this is just a heat source with a cold water pipe inlet and a hot water / steam outlet?

    Actually these systems are very similar to the nuclear power packs used on the space probes. There are essentially no moving parts and the output is 220 volts, 200 amps with a 20 KW capacity. The internals are highly classified, but really very simple. When it reaches “end of life” the power unit is just replaced with a new one. The units are made in such a way that any attempt to “break” into it to obtain the nuclear material would be very difficult.

  20. I wonder if an EMP event would nail your solar system?

    BTW, the USA has had an EMP event. Back in 1962, the USA tested a medium sized nuke, 1.4 MT, at 250 miles (400 km) above the earth. It fused streetlights and telephone microwave systems in Hawaii, 900 miles away.

    I am reading another EMP apocalyptic book, “77 days in September”:

    Walking from Houston, Texas to Montana, oh man!

  21. Actually these systems are very similar to the nuclear power packs used on the space probes. There are essentially no moving parts and the output is 220 volts, 200 amps with a 20 KW capacity.

    Ah, probably a thermoelectric generator. Don’t these cost several million dollars each?

    I wonder how they regulate the output?

    Too bad the Europeans did not use one on that comet lander.

    And I still think that Bubba could get one open.

    Yup, Radioisotope thermoelectric generator!

  22. Ah, probably a thermoelectric generator. Don’t these cost several million dollars each? I wonder how they regulate the output?

    Yes, they are “basically” thermoelectric (about 6 generations away from what NASA has used). If they were produced in quantity the cost would be affordable, basically the plan is that the “government” would “own” them and lease them at a rate that is equivalent to your current monthly electric bill.

    Output is regulated by the natural regulating properties of the nuclear chain reaction. The “magic” of the design is that it cannot go prompt or supercritical.

    I forgot to mention, that the nuclear material is very highly enriched. That is part of the “magic” in two ways. Being highly enriched provides a lot of “capacity” but it is also what makes the “core” actually more stable than the the low enrichment of commercial power plants.

  23. If Bubba has an American Pit Bull Terrier, that dawgie will crank it open sooner or later; me and my next-younger brother raised seven of them from pups back in the 80s before they became an apparent necessity for certain trashy types and low-level dope dealers. Best dawgs in the world, when owned/trained by the right owners, with the possible exception of Border Collies who have one main function, let’s face it.

    Gimme one of them drums wid da nuke inside; we’ll power up the ‘hood here and tell Green Mountain Power to go scratch.

    In the ongoing supernatural stuff here I was reading a “popular” history of the Catholic Church and was up to modern times (just post-Good War) where he’d been discussing the diabolical regimes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany when the “album” station started playing the Stones’ “Dancin’ With Mr. D.” Which I hadn’t heard in ages and certainly not on their station.

    But of course they did my favorite thing that they do this afternoon; play one of their station ID/commercials about the blues, and have some blues guy on to give the call letters, etc., and then immediately play a record by a band like Yes or King Crimson. The one chick DJ there never ID’s any of the stuff she plays; her husband gives chapter and verse ad tedium every morning when he’s on; the night guy gives the normal basic stuff, which is all I wanna hear. Hubby obviously cribs a lot of his biographical and historical material from Wikipedia, too. The wife also plays a lotta weird stuff, whereas the night guy usually does a lotta blues and blues-rock.

    They make a big deal at 3PM every day about doing soul music/Motown, for all of three songs, with a ton of Stevie Wonder. And the “British Invasion” on Fridays at 5, a whole half-hour. And then Saturday night “Smokestack Lightnin'” from “the music capital of the American South, Orlando, Florida,” which always cracks us up here. That, and the hour-long Beatles show on Sunday mornings are obviously syndicated nationally.

    Wind still howling outside and ratting these old windows.

  24. Also, the exponential decline in PV cell costs will soon mean that solar capacity is so cheap that no one will bother with mechanical means of tracking the sun.

    From what I have seen, home systems don’t track the sun. Also, the cost decline in solar cells has leveled off, and the other costs (the support equipment, wiring, labor) are dominant.

    Cleaning solar panels is often mentioned as a drawback, but I’m pretty sure this is nonsense. As long as they are mounted with a fair bit of slope, most things will fall or blow off. The amount of dust and dirt is self-limiting, because a good, hard rain will take it off periodically.

    They don’t all come off my roof, which is where I would have panels. My car gets rained on, but still needs to be washed from time to time.

    “You also need a pretty sophisticated computer…”
    Windows 8 with a big external hard drive?”

    Well, we were going to be using a rom-programmed, rad-hard single board computer with ECC memory and a proprietary OS from Honeywell (IIRC) used for avionics in airliners. There are a lot of sensors needed to monitor the batteries, which are not cheap to install.

  25. I was just funnin’ about the computer, Mr. ech.

    I realize it would be specialized and reckon we’ll be hard-pressed to justify an attempt at solar here; not enough sunlight during the year but plenty of ice and snow and blowing leaves. Not to mention flying branches and twigs.

    No, I think we’re gonna go big on wood heat, eschewing the juice if the Grid goes down and living like it was 1900 again, and also getting DadCooks to gin us up one of them nuke drums in the meantime.

  26. schewing the juice if the Grid goes down

    Where I grew up we would lose power for a week at times during the winter months. We were way out in the country and the power lines crossed land that would get too muddy for trucks to get in to repair.

    We were set up for such outages. We had an oil stove, gravity fed, that provided heat for the kitchen and a surface we could use to cook. Fireplace heated the living room. No other rooms were heated. Water was gravity feed from a spring up the hill.

    It was not fun, it was never fun. It was f’ing miserable. No hot water for showers so we had sponge baths. Clothes that could not be washed or dried. Dead of winter and the light faded by 4:37 PM and did not come back until 7:17 in the morning. It was cold and miserable. We had a large stock of canned food, packaged food and other items to eat so food was never a problem.

    Having been through such, in the case of a major upheaval and the failure of civilization requiring an extended loss of infastructure, just shoot me. I am too old to go through that crap. And that is about as prepped as I want to be.

  27. We lived in a small town in south-central MA near the Rhode Island border when the population of the Commonwealth and the nay-shun was less than half what it is now, and also experienced long-term power outages in winter lasting several days to a week and sometimes summuh outages due to thunderstorms. The power company crews would get out there but back then it took longer to get lines back up and connected. Deep snow and ice accumulation would hamper the efforts; we’re sort of back in that same situation here nowadays, small town, rural population, and the chance of major ice storms and blizzards, which have knocked out power on the lake islands for up to two weeks and the interior as well.

    Back then we had a gas stove/oven, “hurricane” lanterns, candles, and I guess probably oil heat. We kids thought it was great fun and spent most of it outdoors in the snow anyway, and there was evidently enough food in the house and NO SKOOL!

    Currently we have the woodstove in the living room, another one out in the studio, and a charcoal grill. Probably a month’s worth of food we can heat or just eat as is. A well for wottuh. Lanterns, candles, blankets, etc. We can easily do a month here off the Grid right now; we’re aiming for first three months, then six, and then a year. If there is a major upheaval and societal collapse we’ll be in pretty tough shape like almost everyone else and dealing with it in our sixties will be even harder. We probably wouldn’t last too long under those conditions.

    Short of that, as in temporary Grid outages, bad weather, economic depression, etc., we can probably manage OK.

    One thing we have to prioritize here is making better and more widespread connections in the local community, which is tough right now while Mrs. OFD is gone half the time and I’m still shy about leaving the house and dealing with people unless I have to, thanks to residual/continuing PTSD issues, as was discussed today at the group. There’s a couple of guys who just won’t, period. And who still wake up in the middle of the night to check doors and windows and the perimeter. Or they’ll jerk awake with nightmares and scare the piss outta the wife and kids. Forty years later.

    In any case, we’re slowing prepping up for just the usual run-of-the-mill disasters while keeping in mind just how dire things could eventually get.

  28. Good one!

    At the other end of the table are Rousseau (though no one knows who the hell he is anymore, but he was the start of all this shit), the Castro brothers, and that NORK dwarf.

    Outside in the parking lot, about 10-million people speaking various dialects of Spanish.

    Overhead, the media blimp, filled with fawning anchor celebs and other libturd rumpswabs.

    Tunneling underneath, a mob of hadji reptiles swollen with corrupted pagan venom.

    DadCooks? We need about a hundred of them drums, armed, dropped on this mess.

  29. Probably along the lines of what DadCooks is referring to: I remember reading about a Japanese company that had self-contained molten-salt reactors they wanted to put into the ground – one for every neighborhood. Lifetime 25-30 years, then you lift it out and replace it. There is so much that could be done with nuclear technology, but the masses will just never accept it – it is just too scary. Sad, but I don’t see that changing.

  30. – it is just too scary. Sad, but I don’t see that changing

    The left has very successfully vilified nuclear power. However, when people flick their light switch on and nothing happens then opinions will change rapidly.

  31. Here’s the problem with people with stupid, destructive ideas having to suffer the consequences of seeing their ideas put into action: I have to suffer along with them.

    If we could make sure the lights stay off for people who vote against nuclear power and in favor of shutting down coal power plants, I’d be all for it. I don’t see any way to make that happen. That leaves us with only one recourse. “Up against the wall, motherfuckers” is not just for lefties anymore.

  32. Agreed. What else can we do with these people? They don’t learn. They use the State to screw things up for the rest of us and then go on their merry way, with zero accountability. This was true of affirmative action, busing, the Voting Rights Act, nuclear power, the list just goes on and on. SteveF is right; the lights don’t go on for them but they don’t go on for us, either. Shouldn’t there be some comeuppance for folks who punch holes in the lifeboat, while telling us it’s gonna be swell?

  33. This just in, from one of my firearms web sites this morning:

    “According to multiple media sources, Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Officer at the center of the Michael Brown shooting is in the final stages of resigning from the Ferguson Police Department,” reports. “An announcement about his status may be made as early as Friday of this week. Which makes perfect sense. Our sources tell us that the Grand Jury will no-bill Wilson on Friday, but release its decision on Sunday. Those who think that the resulting protests (and resulting clashes with police) will be localized to Ferguson or even St. Louis better think again. The website lists planned demos across the U.S., from Tuscon to Bangor, and beyond.””

    I gotta pop out after the Comcast person is done here and grab some Moxie and pretzels; maybe our tee-vee will be hooked up.

  34. What? Are y’all saying the American voter is stupid, ala Gruber?

    Oh, look who they elected – twice.

  35. I don’t have much faith in election outcomes, and haven’t had since they started moving away from paper ballots. How the hell do you verify results or do a recount when all you captured was electronic bits? Replacing punch-card or fill-in-the-circle ballots with electronic ones is the greatest aid to fraud that I can imagine.

  36. Around here you get a choice at the polling place of either electronic or punch card. My own observation is more people choose punch card but that may be because there are many more punch stations than electronic where there is often a line of voters waiting. The electronic prints a paper tape that you can see in a clear window that moves up once you remove the card. Some of it goes by pretty damn fast so it’s hard to review. I wish it produced a voter copy as well.

  37. Here in Retroville we walk in, go to our district table where some old folks are sitting, state our name, and are handed a ballot with the candidates and proposals on them next to little ovals. We then slide on over to these little tables on stands with little black curtains and use the supplied marker pen to fill in whatever little ovals we want. Then we deposit said paper ballet in a machine which sucks it right in as another old person stands by. So far I haven’t seen any New Black Panthers standing around with truncheons and car aerials. They would sorta stick out around here. And not in a good way.

    Then the Secretary of State’s Office gives us the play-by-play on the net at their web site, in real time, from that morning into the next couple of days, and we can slice and dice the info by district, county, whatever, and export it to an Excel spreadsheet should we so wish. If the governor’s race is too close, it goes to the Legislature, which this year is the 23rd time it’s happened, I think. They’ll just confirm Shumlin as the gov, and whatever, it don’t make a dime’s worth of difference, really; he gets an “A” rating from the NRA, like most if not all of the pols here. They know on which side their damn bread is buttered. Every once in a blue moon some cretin pols will try to ram through anti-gun ordinances or laws and their own party nabobs tell them to STFU immediately. On other issues they’re not so great, but I can hardly expect any of them to subscribe to my political beliefs and wishes for the state, can I?

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