The Capitalism Strain

 


Researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile have developed an insulating material which allows a device to achieve a cooling differential of up to 23 degrees Fahrenheit using no electricity and no moving parts. 23 degrees cooling may not be sufficient on its own in all applications, but it will certainly increase the efficiency of existing devices by assisting them in not working as hard and thereby using less electricity. The useful attributes of the new insulator will help mitigate the climate warming effects of increased use of air conditioning and refrigeration, which in turn can lead to increased climate warming, and on and on.

 


Heating and cooling of indoor spaces accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of energy use worldwide, depending on location and also on who is doing the studies and how. It’s enough to know that indoor climate control is the single biggest factor in energy use around the world. Heating is the larger portion of the 40 to 60 percent of energy use, but that could flip by mid-century as the warming climate increases demand for cooling and lessens demand for heating. Be that as it may, it helps to understand that overall energy use will continue climbing, as it has throughout human history, though perhaps at a lesser rate due to improvements in the efficiency of devices and systems.


'Today capitalism has outlived its usefulness' MLK
A banner outside the August 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, displays an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., along with a quote from him. Though the Reverend Dr. King’s remarks and activism on behalf of civil rights earned the most attention, his beliefs about the evils of unbridled capitalism and militarism were also worrisome to leaders of the nation’s power structure. Photo by Flickr user Liz Mc.


The achievements of researchers and engineers who develop improvements in using energy more efficiently are necessary and helpful in the fight against global warming, and they are to be lauded. It is government and business leaders and ourselves, the users of energy, who deserve condemnation as improvements in energy efficiency come without changes in the overall demand for energy and reduction of its deleterious effects on the climate. Embracing improvements in efficiency without simultaneously reducing our demand for more of a currently harmful thing is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Eliminating the burning of fossil fuels for energy will make the single greatest reduction in the pollutants causing global warming. That seems obvious, and it’s a simple statement to make, but it conflicts with powerful corporate, capitalist interests. Switching energy production entirely to renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric will greatly reduce pollutants, though not eliminate them. That also seems obvious. Ignoring for the moment the fraction of the population who blindly refuse to acknowledge responsibility for what is happening all around them, there is a greater obstructive force standing in the way of reducing carbon emissions enough in the next 10 years to slow – or even halt – climate change, and it is called capitalism.

The Trio of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt sing “After the Gold Rush” on Late Show with David Letterman on March 24, 1999. Neil Young wrote the song for his 1970 solo album, and the lyrics of the final verse dreaming about escape from this planet to a new home are bound to remain a dream for the foreseeable future, despite the efforts of technology capitalist Elon Musk.

At the climax of Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, the team of scientists studying an alien microbe they have dubbed “Andromeda” discover in the nick of time that the destructive microbe would grow out of control if given a nearly limitless source of energy, in this case the detonation of a nuclear device meant to contain it by destroying it. They discover the opposite would happen, that the Andromeda strain would feed greedily on the energy supplied by nuclear fission and would quickly overtake the planet, and in a tense scene during the countdown to detonation, they manage to disarm the research facility’s nuclear device. Capitalism is similarly greedy and destructive. It is a system that needs close watching and regulation, not the rampant deregulation of the past 40 years. Like the unregulated sex urge which has led to global overpopulation and the consequent strain on the earth’s resources, greed is also an innate urge in humans, an urge that has found its closest reflection in capitalism, and unregulated it plunders and eventually destroys the earth’s resources, including its many peoples, rich and poor alike.
— Techly

 

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See You Later

 

The Department of Energy is proposing to change a rule implemented late in the Obama administration that mandated energy guidelines for light bulbs which would have effectively removed all but Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs and Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulbs from the market in January 2020. Since manufacturers are phasing out CFLs, LEDs would have the market to themselves shortly. Even though manufacturers are turning out more LEDs to replace incandescent bulbs, making the old style bulbs less significant in the market with each passing year, they still apparently chafe at the rule and are behind the push to get it changed.

 

There’s no question LEDs save energy over incandescent bulbs, which waste a lot of energy producing heat instead of light. LEDs also last far longer than incandescents. While the retail price for LEDs had been around ten times higher than the price of incandescents, the price has fallen significantly in the past few years as LEDs flood the market. Unlike the light given off by CFLs, the quality of the light given off by LEDs is every bit as good as that from incandescents, and because there are many options for changing the light from LEDs they are better overall. If Americans are serious about saving energy, it’s difficult to imagine a good reason for not switching over to LEDs sooner rather than later.

First Day of Creation
Separation of Light from Darkness, a 1512 fresco by Michelangelo (1475-1564), painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. The Vatican recently completed an eight year project to install LED bulbs and fixtures throughout its facilities, including the Sistine Chapel, cutting their energy use for lighting by 90 percent.

Energy savings from the indoor market for LED bulbs probably will pan out as scientists predict since people will use about as much lighting as they’ve used before, only they will have switched out the type of bulbs they use. Municipal outdoor lighting, on the other hand, has not proved to save energy when switching to LEDs because officials tend to have more of the new lights installed, negating energy savings as well as increasing light pollution. There are compelling reasons for municipalities to increase outdoor lighting, such as fighting crime, but still it seems a terrible waste of resources that may have more to do with bureaucrats defending their turf from budget cuts which might ensue after energy savings. Luckily, private citizens don’t usually control their own budgets in a similarly wasteful manner.

About outdoor lighting at home, it should be noted that scientists don’t know exactly what type of light is most attractive to insects, or to what extent the heat given off by bulbs is a factor. Some types of light are more attractive than others to some kinds of insects and not to others, and most insects are drawn to heat, but not all of them. There is no truth to the rumor that all LEDs, even bright whites, are not attractive to insects. To avoid drawing insects, the best kind of bulb is still an orange one, usually marketed specifically as a “bug light”, though of course it would more accurately be described as a “no bug light” or a “fewer bugs light”. The LED will be more effective than the incandescent because it also takes much of the attractive heat out of the equation. The absolute worst kind of outdoor lighting to get is marketed as a “bug zapper”, for a number of reasons. There are now bug zappers available which use LEDs as their light source, and that makes the least sense of all, except perhaps to someone who with unwarranted satisfaction feels better about saving energy while unnecessarily luring to their deaths any and all bugs.
— Techly

 

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Powering Down

 

A strong nor’easteror northeaster, if you prefer – is causing havoc along the east coast from North Carolina to Maine and into Canada to kick off the first weekend of March 2018. Nor’easters typically occur in the colder months, almost always in the eastern third of the country, though occasionally slightly farther west, as in November 1975 when a storm whipped up Lake Superior, sinking the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, and they can be as destructive as hurricanes when taking into account the wider swath and longer duration of a nor’easter over a hurricane. Blizzards with heavy snowfall, downpours and consequent flooding, beach erosion, and power outages and damage to houses, businesses, and infrastructure from gale force winds, all can be attributed to nor’easters.

 

The winds of a nor’easter never reach the highest speeds of hurricanes, but even 30 and 40 mile per hour winds in winter can cause trees and tree limbs to topple onto overhead power lines. The ground does not dry out as quickly in winter as in summer, and that can make the difference between a tree staying upright in high winds or falling over. Add the weight of snow and sometimes ice, and not only tree limbs and trees fall, but even utility poles may snap off at ground level. It’s not uncommon then to hear reports during a strong nor’easter, such as the one currently blowing along the upper east coast, of millions of utility customers being without power, sometimes for days.

WinslowHomer-Eight Bells 1886
Eight Bells, an 1886 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

After every particularly bad storm that causes massive power outages, many people want to know why in this country most of the power lines are still above ground, where they are vulnerable to storm damage. They want to know why more of the lines aren’t buried, seemingly out of harm’s way. The blizzard of 1888 brought New York City to a standstill, and the effect was that city leaders made a determination afterward to start placing essential services underground, in particular building a subway system to help city inhabitants keep moving no matter what the weather. Putting in new facilities at a time when the city was still in the process of being built out to its full potential turned out to be not as disruptive and expensive as it would be today, now that every square mile of Manhattan real estate has something already built on it.

 

Alley behind Connecticut Avenue, N.W. - Blizzard of 2010
An alley behind Connecticut Avenue, N.W., in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with power lines weighed down by heavy, wet snow from the blizzard of February 2010. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid.

Developers building new upper middle class subdivisions sometimes put the power lines underground because those developments can absorb the extra cost, typically 10 times more than overhead lines, and because the pleasing aesthetics and perceived security of underground lines enhance property values. There are drawbacks, often overlooked, such as the vulnerability of any overhead lines feeding into the new development, and the increased time and expense for power company crews to locate and fix compromised underground lines. One of the ways an underground power line can become compromised is through flooding, in which water or even water vapor will find its way into any vulnerability in the line’s sheathing and short out the line. Lines are usually buried from 24 to 48 inches deep, which in most cases is deep enough to insulate them from digging accidents and the soil water pressure of ordinary rainfall. In floods, however, the soil can become so waterlogged that pressure builds high enough to force its way in toward the power line.

There is no one absolute answer to lessening the risk of losing power during a storm, other than to disengage from the power grid entirely. For those who remain hooked in to the grid, some peace of mind can be had by purchasing a portable generator or installing a standby generator. Power companies should put more of this country’s grid underground in spots where the benefits can be greatest, leaving the rest of it above ground where the costs are prohibitive. Utility customers may wail once again about all the damaged above ground lines once this latest nor’easter has moved on out to the open ocean, but they often quiet down once they hear how much their power bill would have to be hiked and for how long in order to pay for putting the service below ground. The people who have it worst in some ways during a storm and for days or weeks afterward are the power company workers who have to be outside in dreadful conditions doing what is a dangerous job even in sunny, balmy weather, and is many times worse in soaking rain, blowing snow, pelting ice, and winds that could throw anyone off course.
— Vita

 

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All the Time in the World

 

It was a little over 100 years ago when the Germans enacted the first daylight saving time as a measure to conserve energy, and the practice has been part of most of the western world in one form or another ever since. Besides the dubious argument that extending daylight at the end of the day through spring, summer, and early autumn saves energy, it’s hard to rationalize continuing the practice. Continue it will, however, for the time being, as daylight saving time ends on November 5th with the return to standard time over the winter in the United States and much of Europe.

George Pal’s The Time Machine, from 1960, explored questions of altering time and circumstance within a gripping adventure yarn.

Contrary to myth, daylight saving time was never instituted on behalf of farmers. Farmers are generally opposed to the practice. They would rather take back that hour of daylight from the end of the day in summer, when the heat of the day has built up, and return it to the beginning of the day, when the cool of the night lingers. It was office workers and the mercantile concerns that catered to them who had an interest in extending daylight past office hours, thereby opening up more time for shopping and other money-spending activities.


The energy conservation argument for daylight saving time was more valid a century ago, when inefficient electric lighting was a big consumer of power. Air conditioning did not become a factor until the 1930s, and then only for public buildings like theaters, department stores, and office buildings. Home air conditioning did not come into widespread use until the 1960s or 1970s. The situation then by the 1980s was that in the summer people were returning home from work at five, six, or seven o’clock in the late afternoon and early evening, when evening cooling had not begun to overtake the built-up heat of the day. If standard time had been in effect in the summer, those hours would have been closer to sunset by one hour, and therefore cooler.

Big ben closeup
Big Ben in London, England, the most famous public clock in the western world, displays the time on a sunny day in September 2005. Photo by Robin Heymans.

By the late twentieth century, people no longer had to resort to public buildings to enjoy air conditioning. The argument then that people would take advantage of some extra daylight after working hours to circulate among shops and spend money was not as valid as it had been a half century earlier. The energy conservation argument similarly went out the window. People could and did go directly to their own air conditioned homes, where they cranked up the air conditioning to compensate for the day still being hot at five, six, or seven o’clock.

The original three singers of the vocal group Bananarama reunited recently, and in this performance of their 1980s hit “Cruel Summer”, they show great timing 30 years later.

What’s the rationale then for daylight saving time in the new climate, when an hour of summer sunlight at the end of the day is hotter than it used to be? Because we’ve gotten used to extended twilight in the mid-latitudes in summer? Using the extra daylight time at the end of the day can be nice for cutting grass after work, or coaching a children’s soccer game, or socializing with neighbors. People did all those things and more (substitute baseball for soccer) in the past, and life went on. Like farmers, office workers may find it more pleasant to arise a bit earlier to do some chores in the morning. Leaving daylight saving time behind will cost only a little in convenience and schedule readjustment, but the saving in energy will put dollars back in the pockets of everyone but the fossil fuel companies, and may help bring back the cool of the evening.
― Techly

 

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Strange Bedfellows

Trinculo:

Legg’d like a man! and his fins like arms! Warm, o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt. [Thunder.] Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Act II, Scene ii).

After Hurricane Irma tore through Florida earlier this month, some stories surfaced about Florida homeowners with solar panels being unable to use their power in the power grid outages that followed. Like many stories, there was some truth to them, but not the entire truth. Due to intensive lobbying from utility companies, Florida has enacted more obstacles to solar energy than most states, despite the fact that its weather and latitude make it better suited than most to take advantage of solar power. Homeowners with grid-tied solar panel arrays without batteries or transfer switches were legally barred from using their solar power while the grid in their area was off line.


That in itself is not unusual compared to arrangements in other states, and should not have been the source of stories making it sound as if Big Brother was interfering in individual initiative. The problem was the stories focused on that part while at the same time ignoring the real story of how Florida legislators have systematically made business difficult for the solar power industry. It is usual practice to ensure grid-tied systems have safety measures in place such as transfer switches to prevent power from back-feeding on the grid lines and endangering utility workers as they try to restore electrical service. In Florida, however, it appears legislation has been enacted at the behest of the major utilities to go beyond this to ensure that grid-tied solar power systems could not be legally used at any time during a general power outage.

MGMTowersolar
The MGM Tower in Century City, Los Angeles, with solar array atop the adjoining parking garage. Photo by SolarWriter.

So there you are sitting in the dark after Hurricane Irma came through, just like all your neighbors, despite the array of solar panels on your roof. If you had disassociated your solar array from the grid entirely, you might have had better luck, though that would depend on local building codes or homeowners’ association rules. But since you tied into the grid with your solar array out of economic necessity and convenience, you may find out belatedly you signed a bargain with the devil. It’s like that natural gas powered fireplace which turns out to be useless when severe winter weather has cut off all services. Lighting candles won’t do enough to keep you warm.

The invidious corruption of the Florida utility laws, pervaded as they are by money from the Koch Brothers and entrenched fossil fuel interests, has had the unusual effect of forging an unlikely coalition of Tea Party conservatives and environmentalists, known as the “Green Tea” movement. The Tea Partiers are motivated by their distaste for government telling them how they can power their own homes, and tilting the playing field against them should they decide to sell surplus power on the open market, all because of the undue influence of utilities on the government. Environmentalists decry the same government corruption, but see it as unfairly limiting options for homeowners to leave a greener footprint, besides getting in the way of individual exercise of freedom.

The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean and edited by Anne V. Coates, had many great moments, and this match cut from flame to sun is one of the most renowned.

Florida is an excellent test case for how we will cope with a warming climate, much as some people don’t want to look at it that way. Florida is hot and humid. Before the invention and widespread use of air conditioning in the twentieth century, Florida was lightly settled precisely because of its challenging climate. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Florida’s population has boomed. Florida’s energy use is 40% higher than the national average, largely because of the extensive use of air conditioning. Look at Puerto Rico now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That could be Florida in a worst case scenario, which the state dodged as Hurricane Irma played out, as opposed to how an earlier forecast showed it might work out. Considering all that, it seems making solar power easier for all homeowners to implement rather than more difficult is the sensible option, no matter the arrangement of strange bedfellows.
― Izzy

 

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