Friday, October 31, 2008

Annual Energy Review Graphs

The EIA annual Energy Review has a whole bunch of neat graphs. If they are too small to read, click on them and they grow.

Natural gas in America hasn't peaked in the same way that oil production has. Because there are so many different unconventional sources, it is hard to say if it ever will. This graph though does make our situation look a bit rough though.

This graph of crude oil production, consumption, and imports is mostly just scary because it points out that not only are we more dependent on foreign oil ever, but really the only president that managed to do anything like what he claimed he would was Carter.

You can see why I am taking a wind power course. We doubled the amount of Wind Power we are getting between 2006, and 2008. In the last couple months we passed Germany to be the country that produces the most electricity from wind turbines. Oh, and look at how pathetic solar is next to wind and geothermal. You can't even hardly see it!

So much for us cutting back on our coal use. Our information technology is still being powered with the same energy source that powered the Industrial revolution. Since it is growing much faster than the petroleum curve, and more reasonable alternatives exist, that is where any global warming efforts need to be focused. You wouldn't even notice a change in your life if America stopped using Coal in the next thirty years. There is no easy route to doing the same with oil.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One way to spend $30 000

In any hobby there will be people who you can never match up to. This $30 000, 1200 gallon aquarium is something I won't ever try to compete against.

This needs to be seen in high quality, you may have to go to youtube to switch it. I also rather like the song in that video, Someone Great by LCD soundsystem, which I had never heard before.

This 600 gallon tank is almost in the same league. The intro is annoying though. Skip to 45 seconds into it. Again it must be watched in high quality.

American Per Capita Energy Use

I decided to try to figure out about how much energy the average American uses in a day. As a source I used the EIA Annual Energy Review from 2007. Most of this energy is used to make the food you eat, the metal, plastic, and other things you use in your life. A fair amount runs cars, air conditioners, strip clubs, computers and ovens though.

In 2007 America consumed 1, 128.8 million short tons of coal. This was almost entirely used to make electricity, although some went to Industry. Multiplying by 2000 pounds in a ton, and dividing that by the approximately 300, 000, 000 Americans there are and the 365 days in a year gives the total per capita daily consumption to be: 20.6 pounds of Coal per American, Per day, or 3.8 tons per year.

Natural Gas:
In 2007 America consumed 23, 055 billion cubic feet of natural gas. This primarily went to heating, cooking, fertilizer and provides about 20% of our electricity. Doing the math this works out to: 211 cubic feet of Natural Gas per American per day, or 77, 000 cubic feet a year.

Crude Oil:
In 2007 America used 20,698 thousand barrels of Petroleum per day. Most of this went to transportation, but some finds its way almost everywhere. Remembering that a barrel of oil is 42 gallons, this works out to be: 2.9 Gallons of Crude Oil Per American per day, or 1050 gallons per year.

In 2007 47.2 million pounds of Uranium Oxide was loaded into Nuclear Reactors in America. This was entirely used to create electricity, although some isotopes used in medicine are also created. Most of the Uranium Oxide is U-238 little of which is actually burned in the reactor. Therefore the amount of U-235 burned is about 5% of the following number: 0.00043 pounds(0.2 grams) of Uranium oxide per American per day, or 73 grams per year.

Someday I will give a talk where I show up with a 20 pound rock of coal, three gallons of crude oil, and a helium tank big enough to fill up 210 cubic feet of balloons. I could be wrong, but I don't think many people actually understand the massive scale of this energy use. When you sit and think about every person you are in the room with using this much energy a day the shocking thing is not that we are creating global warming, but that we have managed to use this much energy without killing ourselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New Oil Fields

One of the most common responses from someone hearing about the concept of peak oil is to point to some new exciting oil field and say look, we are still finding all this oil! How can oil production have peaked when there is this huge field in Cuba, or this other huge field in Brazil.

The answer to that question can be easily seen by looking at the History of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in northern Alaska. This field is the largest ever discovered in the United States, originally containing 25 billion barrels of oil. It is twice the size of the second largest oil field in America, the East Texas Oil Field. What makes this oil field particularly relevant to the question of peak oil is the year it was discovered, 1968. Just two years before the United States hit its peak production. Someone in 1968 could be forgiven for reading the news that huge amounts of oil had just been discovered in Alaska and concluding that American oil production could increase forever.

What happened however was quite different. We hit peak oil in 1970, and production coming online in Alaska in 1977 was just running to try to stay in place. If you notice in the graph from yesterday, U.S. oil production did increase a couple of years after 1970 as a result of this oil field. It did not however prove to be enough to stop the forty year long decline in production we have had. We never again reached 1970 production levels.

There could even be news about finding a new field the size of Ghawar, containing 170 billion barrels of oil in the next few years. At a rate of world consumption of around 20 billion barrels a day it would only delay peak oil a couple of years, and might not even do that.

The only real plausible situation for us not being at world peak would come from middle eastern countries containing a lot more oil than we think. The rest of the world has been pretty well explored, but countries like Saudi Arabia have been so secretive that some hold out hope that there can be enough oil to delay the inevitable. Perhaps they could be proven right, but I am not betting on it. I can't see them sitting idly on such resources all this time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Peak Oil, and Oil Companies

The degree with which many people in the oil industry are in denial just hit me. I went to a talk by a Vice President at Exxon. She was actually not willing to admit that the United States had hit peak oil. She made the tired old claim that it was not the geology that was the problem it was the politics and environmental controls banning them from drilling oil. This becomes a pretty laughable case when you think about it. This wasn't the map I was hoping for, but it makes the point pretty clearly:

There are only three major regions off limits to Oil companies. One is off the coast of California, another is off the eastern coast of Florida, and the third is the northeast part of Alaska. Now, looking at the map there is a little gas off the coast of California. But it is insignificant compared to the United States as a whole. There is almost no known oil off the east coast of Florida. The northeastern section of Alaska does have a fair amount of oil, but far less than the much larger parts of Alaska they have been drilling in for decades and not enough to make up for the loss.

Even if they were allowed unlimited access to this resource, what effect does it have on the graph of United States Oil Production? Maybe they could stop the decline for a couple of years, but even bringing production up to 1960 levels is wishful thinking.

Today United States oil production has dropped to the levels it was in the mid 1940s. Since the only region formerly producing oil that the government stopped from drilling was the coast of California it is safe to say that almost all of the drop was good old fashioned resource depletion rather than politics. They can whine about the areas they cannot drill all they want, that wasn't what caused us to hit peak production, and we did hit peak production.

If it was just the United States it might not matter. But we keep adding country after country to this list, Libya(1970), Indonesia(1991), England(1999), Norway(2000), Mexico(2004) and so on. The world is just waiting for peak oil in either Russia, or Saudi Arabia before the countries that haven't hit peak cannot produce enough extra oil to make up for the rapid decline in production from those who have and world output begins to decline. Even if it fails to happen because of some amazing technology(unlikely since the United States has the best technology in the world and still hit peak) since population growth since 1980 has happened faster than oil production has increased we hit peak oil per capita decades ago. We must find a way to maintain civilization off of other resources.

This is a huge opportunity. Fortunes will be made and lost off of bets related to this. Peak oil is almost certain not to be peak energy. We have dozens of options. It will however be the driving force behind some of the biggest changes since we got our oil from Whales. Exxon is paying a shockingly small amount of attention to this however.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wikipedia pages on obscure fish

One of my habits that I haven't decided whether to call a bad habit or a good habit is my tendency to get involved in projects online to either increase the amount of knowledge available on the internet or order it better. There are many examples of me doing this, including: being a top reviewer at, adding close to a hundred varieties of watermelon to Cornell's page on Vegetable Varieties, and getting over 25000 karma on before the fact I spent too much time reading newspaper articles from there drove me to stop going to the site or reading newspapers all together.

One I haven't done much of that might be interesting is writing wikipedia pages. While Physics and Engineering nerds have pretty much completely populated the topics I know anything about the same is not true of biology. For whatever reason Biology nerds have left a lot of room for additions, particularly when it comes to pages for species. I can guarantee that if you walk into an average pet store you will see many species that do not currently have a wikipedia page.

A year or so ago I noticed the lack of red abalone page, so I sat down and made one. Now if you do a search for red abalone on google, that is the third hit. That is probably the most credibility I can hope for in my writing. Today I noticed that there is an almost complete lack of pages for common fish in saltwater aquariums. I made a page for Pseudochromis Fridmani, but found dozens of common fish that completely lack a page. It is actually quite a challenge because most sources give information about how to raise one in an aquarium, and not how they live in the wild. Therefore you have little choice but to focus on those issues. Luckily if you create a page where one did not exist, other people who never would have bothered with the subject come and edit the page. That happened with the red abalone page I wrote quite quickly.

Not even the yellowtail damselfish, Chrysiptera parasema has a page so it will take some time before I get the site to be anything like an authority on the subject. Maybe if I am unemployed for long I will add that to my list of hobbies to take on. It does appear though that they acknowledge the lack of information, and are trying to actively improve the page.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Can we build enough plants?

I was watching a fairly good talk from MIT on our energy problems. Right at the start he pointed out the immense scale of the problem the world faces. As an example he mentions that if we were to use nuclear power to create all of the energy use increase in the next 45 years we would need a 8000 new power plants! That is an immense number, but in a world where china alone is building a coal fired power plant a week I decided to try to calculate if it was the sort of number we could reasonably expect to build, or so huge that we may as well give up and try something else.

First, a bit of history. The United States currently has 104 Reactors out of a world total of 439. These reactors were almost entirely build during the two decades from 1970-1990. So as a rough estimate the United States built reactors at a rate of five a year for twenty years.

Now, the United States is something around 3% of the world's population. So an easy way to see if building this many plants is even possible is to assume the whole world could create power plants at a per capita rate that equals that the United States did in this 20 year period. A rough estimate of the number of plants the world could build in a 45 year period is then (45years)*(5 plants per year/.03 percent of the population = 167 plants per year, or around 7500 plants over the whole 45 year period. Because of population growth, this estimate actually has the world creating plants at something like half the rate America built them for that twenty year period. So, it is safe to say that should the world decide to, we could use nuclear power to cover for the whole increase in world energy use over the next fifty years.

Some of these reactors would probably need to be breeder reactors, or thorium reactors. But as there has been a Russian breeder reactor that has operated for thirty years, and an Indian Reactor will soon be running off Thorium there is every reason to expect the technology can be brought to the level required.

I don't see the political will to do so, but it is at least permitted in the laws of physics and economics. That makes it part of a very short list. Given that even the twelve reactors nearly identical to Chernobyl have been operated safely for the past thirty years I don't see the anti-nuclear movement holding up. It is silly to get half our electricity from coal fired plants which kill tens of thousands of people a year because of the small risk that replacing them with nuclear power plants could kill a similar number of people once every couple decades. The biggest accidents involving power plants have involved dam breaks, and as these are less guarded they are the far greater terrorist attack risk.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

SPS corals

I never quite realized how much more impressive a good Small Stony Polyp reef aquarium could look than the more typical tanks. They make me think real coral reef, rather than a bunch of wierd invertebrates. I doubt it is something I can afford in the next five years though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Choosing between rice

I ran into something the other day that was rather shocking to me, although I always knew it was true. Take a quick look at the following three links showing nutritional information:

Medium Grain White Rice
Medium Grain Brown Rice
Uncle Ben's Whole Grain Brown Ready Rice

A decent case can be made that the pre-packaged brown rice is actually less healthy than the bulk white rice! That seems surprising to me, I could very easily see myself picking the brown rice from Uncle Ben, and assuming that because it is called brown rice it is the same thing as the brown rice I buy in five pound bag. gives white rice a nutrition grade of B, brown rice a grade of A, and the Uncle Ben's rice a grade of C. I am a little unclear as to the entire reason for this, but it is pretty clear they have some justification for this. As an example the fiber in a cup of brown rice is 3.5 grams, while in Uncle Ben's brown rice it is only 1 gram. Clearly some chemical modification of the rice is being done.

This is of course not limited to rice, and I point it out because it illustrates a common trend. Whenever you let a factory touch your food, there is a strong risk that they are doing something like this behind the scenes. Then you wonder why you are gaining weight while eating healthy stuff like brown rice. No one will stop them though since it really does make the food more convenient and taste better. They have every incentive in the world to alter the food, and even those of us who know it will probably give in and eat it whenever someone announces that they have ice cream in their freezer.

Weekly oil price

I found this graph to be pretty shocking. I am not sure if I am happy about it because it will cut the cost of my drive across country in half, or angry because it will make my job hunt more difficult.

It is hard to say what it means in any long term sense. The price of oil has cut in half in about a three month period. I haven't seen much convincing evidence that anything changed on the supply side, so it is probably just panic because of the economy driving down demand. It is also not unusual for the economy to improve before a presidential election. Usually the party in power has a lot of incentive to make sure things are getting better rather than worse on election day. Although given the complete disaster of the past few months that trend does not seem to be going as well as usual.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Purple Carrots

Dropping out of school to become a subsistence farmer is probably not in the cards. I decided to look and see if I had any carrots in my garden. I picked the first couple I saw before I decided this is dumb I will see if they grow any more. On the plus side they taste like carrots and I didn't even weed around them. I really just cleaned the rocks out of the soil, put seeds in the ground and came back four months later. On the minus side they are red, not purple, and remain tiny. So much for Cosmic Purple Carrots. Actually though, looking at their pictures maybe they are the color they were supposed to be and I just didn't buy a purple enough variety. Next time maybe I should try Deep Purple, or perhaps Purple Haze.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Big Coal

I just started the book "big coal" by Jeff Goodell. After finishing the introduction it is clear that either he is full of shit, or this will be one of the best books I have ever read. Here are some quotes from him:

"In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day."

"Since 1900, more than 100, 000 people have been killed in coal mine accidents, many forever entombed by collapsed roofs and tumbling pillars. Black lung, a disease common among miners from inhaling coal dust can be conservatively estimated to have killed another 200,000 workers. And burning coal is even more deadly. In just the bast twenty years, air pollution from coal plants has shortened the lives of more than a half million Americans."

"I spent three years researching and writing this book... During those three years, about 3 billion tons of coal went up in smoke in America. They created light and heat for much of the nation (not to mention the glow on my computer screen even now as I write). But during those years, the American Lung Association calculates, about 72,000 people in the United States died prematurely from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution-more than from AIDS, murder, or drug overdose."

"Although America is a vastly richer country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption of coal is three times higher than China's"

"half of the electricity in Los Angeles, for example, is imported from coal-fired power plants in Nevada and New Mexico"

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Since I am trying to get a job in the field I decided it is very much in my best interest to be able to have an intelligent conversation with anyone over energy technology and policy. I therefore bought a half dozen books that cover the topic from several different viewpoints. I started with Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman.

The following quotes from him pretty much sum up what I have seen in the field:

"For all the talk in magazines and by politicians about the energy issue, if you look at our walk and not at our talk, you would have to conclude that the United States has no sense of urgency when it comes to energy research. It is as if Sputnik has gone up, the nation has been challenged again to reinvent itself, this time in regard to energy, but we're sleepwalking into the future-still quietly hoping that it's all just a bad dream from which we'll soon wake up again, able to fill our tanks with dollar-a-gallon gasoline and drive off with Green Stamps and a set of NFL-logo glasses"

"Even an extra $1billion to $2 billion investment by the federal government in basic science research could make an enormous difference. "the amount of money going into this area for research is a fraction of what is needed," said Alivisatos [a scientist working at LBNL ]. "These days, if you meet a student working in chemistry, physics, or biology and you tell them you want them to work on a solar energy project, their eyes light up. This is what they really want to work on. There are thousands of students who want to work on this problem, but we cannot find the fellowships to support and enable them to do the work that is needed.""

""But let's just remember what happened in the latest budget cycle: Seven hundred research proposals for working on solar energy were turned down for fiscal 2008. The[Department of Energy] put out a call for proposals, the response was overwhelming, scientists all over the U.S. responded with research proposals, and the money did not materialize. The DOE is really trying. They thought they would have $35 million to spend on basic solar research. We got $5 million for our project and we were one of the few to get funded. Think about that potential - think about how many scientists and how many postdoc [students] were ready to work on this problem, and they were all basically turned away. Thousands of scientists who want to work on the energy problem are not able to work on it today.""

"If you add up all the federal dollars going into energy research together- and that would include research on oil, gas, and coal as well as solar- said Daniel M. Kammen the University of California, Berkeley, energy policy expert, it would total around $3 billion in government money and about $5 billion in private sector and venture funds, "which is about nine days of fighting in Iraq." Energy is a $1 trillion-a-year industry and that means reinvesting about $8 billion in R & D constitutes 0.8 percent of revenues."
Some of the brackets are mine, some are his. If it was up to me there would not put the bracket [students] after the term postdoc. These are people who have a PhD, and would be considered full scientists if they had just picked a hotter field.

I certainly can vouch for the armies of graduate students who would prefer to be working on this issue but are not because they can't find a professor in the field who has managed to secure funding to do the work. One of the most frustrating things about reading up on this issue is how long we have known we should be doing something, or even talked about how much we were doing, while we have done almost nothing. It does not seem to be getting better in the Democratic congress, they cut the science budget for the Department of Energy when even Bush wanted it increased. The next president is the only person in the country with any real chance of changing things and with the price of oil tanking I somehow doubt anything will be done.

Monday, October 13, 2008

EIA's magic disappearing oil

A while back I commented that I was surprised that oil prices would increase so much given that oil production finally seemed to be increasing. I now believe that I was wrong. I have now regularly watched EIA oil statistics fairly regularly for about a year. One rather absurd trend seems to have become apparent within the numbers for world oil production. Just about every month the EIA reports that we produced more oil than we ever have. Than they go and lower the estimate again and again over the next six month period.

The most current numbers for world production are:

Thousand Barrels Per day
2005 January- 73,202
February -73,481
March -73,800
April -74,082
May -74,241
June -73,859
July -73,700
August- 73,736
September- 73,301
October -73,396
November- 73,869
December -74,157
2005 Average -73,737

2006 January -73,673
February -73,583
March- 73,419
April- 73,507
May -73,068
June -72,976
July -73,997
August -73,677
September -73,390
October- 73,730
November- 73,362
December -73,141
2006 Average- 73,461

2007 January -72,801
February -73,047
March -72,975
April - 73,220
May -72,744
June -72,348
July -72,869
August -72,224
September -73,028
October -73,689
November -73,395
December -73,873
2007 Average- 73,018

2008 January -73,910
February -74,085
March -74,206
April -73,791
May -74,339
June -74,259
July -75,099
2008 7-Month Average -74,245

You can see from taking a look at that list the maximum production for 2005 was in May with 74, 241 thousand barrels of oil per day produced. In 2006, and 2007 we never managed to produce as much oil as we did in 2005. Then in May 2008 we heroically managed to surpass that production level, again in June, and again by even more in July.

There is only one problem with all of that. The EIA said the same several months back. First in October and November they claimed we finally beat the peak in production that occured in may 2005. Than, quietly, those numbers were lowered a few months later, now they are almost a million barrels a day lower than May 2005. Once again in January, February and March they made the same claim, we finally beat the peak in production that had occured in 2005. Once again, those numbers got subsequently lowered.

Now, I am not saying there is some huge conspiracy here, oil statistics are often not completely accurate for as long as two years. A great deal of guess work goes into producing the numbers since many countries do not publish any production numbers. Still, a really good case can still be made that the world hit peak oil in mid 2005. Even the high prices of 2007 were not enough to break that trend, and the verdict is still out as to whether the prices of 2008 were enough. If that proves to be the case I will be kicking myself for not investing in oil right now when it is down to $80 a barrel.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Why I do disease research

The following graph from the AAAS about what sectors get the most research money does a good job of demonstrating why I am not currently doing energy research, and somehow ended up working on cancer. Despite politicians talking about making us energy independent, energy research is funded with less than half the money that it was in the 70s. The corporate picture looks much the same. At one point the oil companies had huge research institutions. Over the same time period these institutions have decayed significantly. You will know congress takes these issues seriously when the green section of the graph expands to at least the size it was in 1980.

Edit: I just read the small print under the graph. I am not entirely sure anymore it is not complete fiction. It fits with what I have seen at Cornell though. A whole lot of talk, and people interested in doing something relative to the amount of funding to actually do stuff. There was almost no primary energy production research here when I was looking for a lab. Maybe two graduate students doing solar research, and a couple biofuels people.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Above Average!

I have finally succeeded at something in graduate school!

When I was in Junior High, and High School I did four and a half seasons of wrestling. My first season I am pretty sure I was pinned every match and didn't score a single point all season. The second season I was something like 4 and 9 and was probably only pinned half my matches. The third I went up against slightly better competition am pretty sure I was 2 and 12. I don't really remember much about my forth season which was a freestyle season but I am fairly certain that despite beating some redheaded girl and another person with little experience, resulting in my winning the only athletic tournament of my life, it was not a winning season. My fifth season I pinned the first two people I went up against than got ring worm which resulted in me dropping the sport and doing Academic Decathlon instead.

As a grad student I have been taking PE courses though. So far I am taking, or have taken, SCUBA Diving, Beginning Boxing, Mixed Martial Arts, Gymnastics, Swing Dancing, Taekwondo, and Judo. In Mixed Martial Arts, it was pretty clear I was about average. That class however had a fairly intimidating name which resulted in several people with black belts or significant experience in another martial art.

In Judo this semester I have gone up against a total of six people, all about my size, in sparring drills. So far only one put up a real fight, and I suspect would have beat me one out of three matches, the other five I was clearly at an advantage against though. This puts me finally above average at a martial art! Of course this is relative to a much less competitive group of people than being on one of the top high school wrestling teams in the country. Still, I suspect this group of people is more similar to the general public, although most of them were in pretty good shape which is more than I can say for most Americans.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Still no Solar

A few days ago I watched the CEO of Skypoint Solar give a presentation on solar power. It pretty much convinced me solar will not matter for at least a decade, probably two, if then. The following two figures from his presentation pretty much make the case:

(you can click on the first image to get a larger one if you cannot read it)

Solar electricity has been one of the favorite energy topics for researchers for quite some time. The first working prototypes were decades ago. In all of this time solar has only managed to hit .034% of world electricity production. Three hundredths of a percent. Compare that to wind, and geothermal. As best as I can tell have been comparatively ignored by governments yet produce ten times, and twenty times as much electricity as solar respectively. Judging by the huge rates of growth in wind power for the past two years I suspect the numbers are even farther apart today.

That gets worse in the second slide. This figurelists what growth the solar electricity industry would need to maintain to produce 1% on the left, and 10% on the right of our electricity assuming energy use increases by either 175, or 450%. I am unaware of any industry maintaining 30% growth rates over a 17 year period. Yet that is exactly what would need to happen for solar to only produce 1% of the electricity the world uses in 2025! To actually put enough of a dent in coal to actually matter we would need 20-50% of our electricity from solar. Unless something changes in a big way that remains fifty years off. If we dramatically expand nuclear, geothermal, and wind power for the next two decades I don't actually see much remaining for solar to do. Most of our energy problems can be solved before this technology has a chance to get off the ground.

I actually dropped solar power as a field I am looking into on my resume. Once the industry manages to produce 1% of our electricity I will reconsider. The wind industry in America is already at that level, if the wind industry managed to get 30% growth rates over the same time period we would produce something like 50% of our electricity from wind(although practical concerns may limit that at about 20%). I would much rather be in an industry adding full percents to its market share than hundredths of a percent. Geothermal, and nuclear power are in a more similar position to wind than to solar, so those seem like reasonable technologies to work on. I gave up most hope on entering the nuclear power industry though when I looked at a map of where the nuclear power plants in America are located. Out of 104 plants, only 2 are in California and very few are elsewhere on the west coast.

There always is the chance of 40% efficiency solar cells at half the cost of current cells, and there has been 7 years of ~40% growth rates in the industry, so I haven't quite given up hope on the field, but in the next two decades don't expect anything out of it.