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Sunday, April 21, 2013

When 'head-on' isn't really

"City tackles climate change head-on" reads a recent article in the La Crosse, Wis., Tribune.  Sounds exciting, doesn't it?  But the story that follows is a letdown--enough so to inspire this brief blog post.

What La Crosse is doing:

- Hosting a climate change workshop "to build consensus about pragmatic adaptations authorities can make to changing weather."  I assume this involved some serious dissemination of information about climate change's impact, so that's a good thing.

- Adding more green spaces on the city's south side to handle the runoff from heavy rain events.

- And ... that's it.  Oh, perhaps not--the story makes a point of noting that La Crosse "made clear in its application that climate change a distinct challenge to [its] future."

And that seems to be the point of the headline: the city actually came right out and said, in effect, that it thinks climate change is real.

That too is a good thing, but in fact, "tackling climate change head-on" means, in the simplest of terms, reducing fossil fuel use.  Everything else is just papering over the problem.  In this instance (the extra green space), it's a little like giving someone with a broken arm aspirin, because his arm hurts.

Energy efficiency and non-fossil energy, as much as possible, as soon as possible, is what we need to do, or as Joe Romm puts it, "deployment, deployment, deployment" of technologies that reduce fossil fuel use.  As Mr. Romm puts it here

"The crucial climate strategy is aggressive deployment of every last bit of available low-carbon technology starting ASAP.  Anyone who isn’t in favor of that strategy understands neither climate science nor the current state of clean energy.  Sadly, that covers most of the traditional media and so-called intelligentsia."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Inferno (the imaginary one)

No, this is not a post about the southern U.S. in ... 2030?  2040?  It's about an enjoyable science fiction (actually, perhaps more fantasy) novel, Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published a number of years ago.

Inferno is about a science fiction writer, Allen Carpenter (who goes by the name Carpentier to lend an air of sophistication).  Carpentier dies falling out of a hotel room window while trying to impress fans at a convention and finds himself in what turns out to be a large bronze bottle.  He's there for a long time, and ultimately screams, "For the love of God, someone help me!"  Presto, he's out of the bottle and in the vestibule of Hell--or rather, Hell as described in Dante's Inferno.  After a lengthy and entertaining journey through its various levels, he helps a fellow resident make his way out, and vows to stay and help others do the same.

So that's a very brief synopsis. Two points about this book come to mind when I think about global warming.

First, at one point, Carpentier encounters a priest who has been in Hell since the Middle Ages, when he was condemned for selling false "indulgences" (essentially, tickets by which the rich could supposedly buy their way into Heaven).  Carpentier stops to talk to the priest, whose punishment is to wear a (massively heavy) solid gold robe.  The priest says little and starts to walk away, whereupon Carpentier asks why he can't stop and sit down.  The priest answers:

"I could fall on you. But it may be that you do not know what you say.  If I stop, this robe grows hot.  It is too hot now.  It grows hot slowly, and it grows cool slowly.  Now, goodbye." [emphasis added]

That's the thing about global warming--the Earth grows hot slowly (the good news). The bad news is that it grows cool slowly as well--it's irreversible, on a time scale of centuries.  Also, the good news is not really that good, in that it has lulled us into a false sense of security--it's been 25 years since the heat wave of 1988, and we are just now beginning to see the weather extremes pile up.

Second, once Carpentier has figured out that Hell is real, and not just a stupendous feat of futuristic engineering, he focuses on a larger question--why does God allow it to exist at all?  People are undergoing infinite torture as punishment for the finite sins, however loathsome, they committed during their lives.  In the end, he finally decides on the answer:

"There's only one possible excuse for Hell, and I almost missed it in the ravings of a crazy psychiatrist.  It has to be the final training ground.  If nothing can get a soul into Heaven in its life, there's still Hell, God's last attempt to get [its] attention.  Like a catatonic in a hotbox, like me in that bottle, if Hell won't make a man yell for help, then it was still worth a try."

Hell, in Inferno, is like the climate.  We can ignore it, deny that it's changing, lose ourselves in sports and celebrities and politics and ethnic/religious hatred and all sorts of other distractions--but the climate doesn't care.  It's just going to keep getting worse and worse, year after year, until we can't look away any longer.  For all our sakes, I hope that day is soon.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Solar system turns 2000! (kWh)

I've been meaning to provide updates on the output of our backyard solar system, but have fallen behind due to the press of other activities (relating to wind power and climate change).

In any event, while the winter months were, predictably, very slow, electricity production has picked up in the past six weeks, and our system currently stands at 2.42 MWh (megawatt-hours), or 2,420 kilowatt-hours).

So, let's run the numbers again.

In terms of energy, it's the equivalent of 72 gallons of gasoline, or enough to drive one of our hybrid autos about 3,200 miles.

In terms of generating electricity, the numbers are bigger, because the combustion process for fossil fuels wastes energy.  2,420 kWh is equivalent to burning about 2,400 pounds (more than a ton) of coal, or 142 gallons of diesel oil (New England, where we are located, still burns plenty of diesel oil to generate electricity).

In terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the New England utility system gives off about 0.9 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity, so our 2,420 kWh means about 2,200 pounds of carbon dioxide has been kept out of the atmosphere.

From February 15 to March 15, our system generated 208 kWh, just over two-thirds as much electricity as we used (308 kWh).  Looking forward to seeing our utility bills dip below zero this month.