And If Elected, I Promise To ….

My career choices have expanded exponentially. All I have to do now is lie unashamedly and the future is mine as a Republican elected official. It is amazing, you don’t even need to worry about those videos showing your deeds and words, all you need to do is, say, recast those events into more flattering versions of the truth. And to be sure, your version of the truth has just as much merit as any other version that just happens to be backed by video and audio.

So instead of acknowledging the medieval violence perpetrated by those in the vanguard of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, you can portray those inside of the Capitol building as normal tourists, even managing to draw (stay) inside of the lines as they took selfies desecrating congressional spaces. Why, it is impossible for white citizens to have evil intent. We all know it is those others from BLM and Antifa who were the real terrorists. Those Proud Boys and those 3 Percenters? Just patriotic tourists who happened along and shared hugs and kisses with the Capitol police.

If those mean ole Democrats propose any changes to the taxation structure of this country, thereby risking reversal of 40 years of pandering to the rich? Just portray them as unrepentant socialists, who are working at implementing redistributionist policies, taking money away from the hard relaxing billionaires whose spending keeps so many of the little people employed.

If businesses have difficulty hiring people at starvation wages, expound ceaselessly on the dignity of work, and state that America has lost its work ethic. Never worry about the lives of those who have risked their existence by working during this pandemic, just define those who are using what little power they have (their labor) as morally corrupt for not wanting to exchange an hour’s work for 8 federal reserve notes. Of course, we who hold millions of those federal reserve notes have proven our moral integrity and should never be chastised.

Yes, I can lie with the best of them. I can claim no one has ever seen this virus everyone is scared of, and all of the hospitalizations are just efforts at getting the highest reimbursements from our socialized medicine providers. I can claim that since the advice from the scientists has changed from what was given 18 months ago, then all advice from scientists should be ignored, and my anecdotal evidence about efficacy of horse dewormer out trumps your peer reviewed massive trials. I have my rights and you are not about to infringe on them by pansy-assed pleas to consider the public good.

I can even lie about what is going on all around us. Sure, we never used to have these massive fires in Australia, Greece, Portugal, and the US west coast. But it cannot have any relationship to the increase in temperatures we’ve seen across the globe. And those flooding rains we seem prone to now? Has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that higher dew points induced from a warmer climate allows for higher rainfalls. But God would never allow for his infallible creatures to be capable of inflicting harm to the environment. Therefore, all who worry about the coming climate crisis can just go on with their lives (and the campaign contributions of the vested interests keep on rolling in).

I will have to work on my ability to cry crocodile tears at the opposing political party for insisting that we take responsibility for our actions in the past at increasing the deficit. Just as long as I can feign concern for our debt when I didn’t care about increasing deficits as long as the favored classes made out from our tax cuts. I’m not really good at naked hypocrisy, so my acting skills need a little brushing up before I can stand in front of cameras and wail about the reckless spending taking us over Niagara Falls without even a barrel to shield us from the rocks below.

I can if I wish start at the state level. I can say that I’m going to change human nature, and eliminate all rapists from the streets while I prohibit any possibility of abortions. I can insist that all who inhabit our penal systems are deserving of every bad thing they get, and once someone has made a mistake, they forfeit all rights forevermore. I don’t care about offering any rehabilitation programs in prisons, all those who find themselves there are unworthy of anything other than white bread and bologna sandwiches. Bring back Joe Arpaio! He had the right ideas.

Of course, only those who see things the way I do deserve to be placed in positions of public trust. Therefore, I must manipulate the electoral system so that only I and my fellow travelers can win elections from now on. I must pick any remnant of the liberals from my clothing in disgust, so I can remain pure and unblemished.

I can hardly wait. The next election cycle is upon us, so I must hurry so I can establish myself in the minds of those we allow to vote.

Corn? Corn Is Always Good!

Corn Ethanol Plant Craig MO

It is 2021, not 1973 with its Arab oil embargo and lines of cars dancing the slow samba towards the still-working pumps. Nowadays, no one can claim with a straight face of the necessity to grow corn to produce ethanol, thereby increasing domestic energy supply, and loosening the noose of foreign oil producers on the neck of the United States. Yet the mandate to use ethanol in gasoline has become a sacred shibboleth, and its importance gets reinforced each presidential election cycle, where Iowa is the first state to hold a presidential preference event Thus no serious candidate can propose elimination of the ethanol requirement in gasoline. Why? Because the corn industry, and its lobbyists, will whip up the furor of its Iowa farmers to decry any change in policy as being anti-American.

So we are shackled to a policy which doesn’t save energy, causes demand for corn to be well above the market for nutritional usage, increases soil erosion and loss of nutrients to our waterways, and tricks Americans into believing the mantra of energy self-sufficiency. What’s the upside? We no longer have to worry about gas line freeze-up in winter.

There were two chemicals proposed to increase the oxygen concentration in gasoline. One was ethanol, and one was methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Increasing the oxygen concentration in gasoline reduces tailpipe emissions, while reducing engine knock. Thus MTBE was favored initially by gasoline refiners since it was simple to produce in scale, and was inexpensive. It does have one very bad characteristic, though. If it is released into groundwater, it migrates into the water, rather than stay with the organic phase. MTBE soon found its way into ground water, and into drinking water. It is a compound that can cause significant harm to humans over prolonged exposure, so MTBE was phased out of gasoline in the early 2000’s. Ethanol soon took over as the preferred oxygen additive to gasoline, and it had the unexpected benefit of raising the cost of corn for farmers in the Midwest who needed a price boost in order to stay solvent.

Once legislative mandates were in place requiring use of corn ethanol, the investment soon followed. When I graduated college in chemical engineering in Nebraska in the 1970’s, there was essentially zero chemical industry in the region. I had to move to where they made chemicals in order to get a job. Now, there are ethanol refineries dotting the farm landscape throughout the corn belt. You can see the steam plumes from miles away. Corn ethanol is favored legislatively. During the formative years of the corn ethanol industry, there was a $0.50 / gallon tax benefit given to gasoline refiners in order to use the mandated amounts of corn-derived ethanol. Thus US tax policy drove gasoline refiners to select corn-derived ethanol, imposing in essence a tax of 5 cents per gallon on the consumer to enable ethanol to thrive. In fact, the true price to the consumer is even higher, since the demand for corn for ethanol has put a floor on the overall corn price. If you look at food prices, much of that comes from corn, through its value in feeds for meats, or use as sweeteners. So by making the price of corn higher than it would be, the price of all derivatives of corn is higher as well.

One of the most pernicious effects of the legislative mandates for increased use of ethanol in gasoline is increasing corn acreage. Using USDA statistics, the 3-year average of corn acres in 2019-2021 was 91 million, while the 3-year average from 1997-1999 was 79 million. The key difference between the two periods was the increased demand for ethanol from corn. The 15% increase in acreage means that corn has increased its fertilizer demands, and it is no surprise that an ancillary effect of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excess nutrients, that dead zone has also increased in size during the two-decade period in question. Not only that, when all inputs are factored in, ethanol from corn may barely create more energy than it takes to produce. If methanol were allowed as an oxygenate, it could be generated from natural gas and reduce the impact on the land.

So why do we have this policy which seems in opposition to many goals we aspire to as a country?  We say we want to reduce the impact of humanity on the environment, yet we persist with a counter-productive policy mandating the use of corn ethanol in our gasoline supply. Square that requirement for an absolute volume to be blended with the now stated policy of converting half of new vehicles to electric by 2030. Sooner or later, the demand for gasoline will fall to the point that you cannot blend the mandated quantity of ethanol and still stay at a 10% ethanol concentration. When we get to that point, it will be interesting to see how the politicians deal with the physical limitations of the gasoline market. Of course, we could always export more gasoline and fulfill the legislative requirement that way, but I don’t think that will be looked upon favorably.

It is time now to look at the mandated use of corn ethanol and begin to wean the farm sector away from the incremental corn demand brought about by this legislation. Phasing out the requirement over a 10-year period would reduce the effect on any individual farmer, and then only the companies who have invested in corn ethanol production facilities will end up on the short end of the stick.

Do I expect our politicians to have this degree of foresight and begin to reduce the mandated volume? Amazingly, there is a bill stirring in the Senate that would repeal the mandate to use corn ethanol to produce gasoline. Tellingly, none of the Senators mentioned in conjunction with the bill are from major corn-producing states. Given the entrenched opposition towards ending any government quota program, my expectation is that the bill will suffer an ignominious death. But maybe, just maybe, it may be revived in the future, and face a better fate. I’ll believe it has a chance when I see some courageous presidential candidate have the guts to tell Iowa voters that corn ethanol is bad for the climate, and economy, and must go.

Of Thermodynamics, and Sealing Wax, and Other Fancy Stuff

Power plant cooling towers venting waste heat

The gauntlet has been thrown down. The US needs to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2030, starting with a baseline of 2005. In order to accomplish this, real changes in the US economy must occur, along with some sacrifice by US citizens. And, the entrenched interests in continuing the status quo (energy companies, Republicans, utility providers) must be convinced of the necessity of this extreme action. Pretty difficult to do especially since the Republicans have made it their brand to not only dismiss the need for change, but they have proudly waved the banner of climate change hoax / no science to refute the claims of climate scientists. They have waved these banners for generations, and their influence will not go away, especially at the state and local levels.

First, it is necessary to present some simplified discussions of thermodynamics. This is the branch of physics which describes the limits nature imposes upon humanity. The first item needing description is black body radiation. Simply put, it means a body will emit radiation which puts it at equilibrium with the incoming radiation. Any disruption that affects the radiation balance will affect the equilibrium temperature. In our case, radiation from the earth is dispersed into the coldness of space. One is most aware of this phenomena on cold clear nights, but still above the freezing point of water, where frost forms on surfaces that are exposed to the vastness of space. Like, your car windshield which requires scraping when there’s no frost anywhere else.

The increase in carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) in the atmosphere affects this radiation balance. Put simply, CO2 absorbs some of the radiation that is escaping to space, and re-radiates it in all directions. The fraction that is radiated back to earth is radiation that increases the total amount of radiation earth normally receives. It increases the equilibrium temperature of earth, which is global warming. Since CO2 happens to absorb radiation in a range normal atmospheric components do not absorb, this means that CO2 exerts an outsized influence even though it is a minimal component of the atmosphere. Those who say that a small amount of this gas cannot affect the temperature of the globe are ignorant of basic physics and mathematics.

There is a second aspect of thermodynamics that comes into play with fossil fuels. That is the limitation in the amount of useful work that can be extracted from a high-energy fluid. All large-scale power plants depend upon a heat source (burning fossil fuels, nuclear fission, burning biomaterials) to heat and vaporize water to form steam. It is the steam that turns the turbines and results in the generation of electricity. Well, thermodynamics imposes a limit of about 50% peak efficiency for this type of power plant. You’ll have to trust me on this figure, since understanding and calculating the Carnot system efficiency is a staple of college engineering and science courses. There’s only so much explanation you can put into a blog post.

This says that whenever you have a concentrated source of energy being converted to another type of energy (combustion of fuel to electricity), you only get about 50% of the useful energy as an output. The rest is wasted as heat. Any time you convert one type of energy to another, there are losses involved. So why are folks so convinced that renewable energy sources are so necessary? One reason is that the conversion losses from solar and wind energy are much less than from a standard power plant. In the case of solar electricity, there is also much more potential for locating the power generation at the point of consumption. This reduces transmission losses.

The problems with renewable energy production? It’s variable. In the case of solar, it is guaranteed to not produce at least half of the time due to earth’s rotation. In the case of wind, it is at the mercy of the wind. Therefore, you need to either supplement renewables with a concentrated source of production, or you need efficient means of energy storage. While progress in energy storage is impressive, it is still expensive to use either battery storage or capacitors to bridge the gap between availability of renewable energy and consumption of that energy. The second problem with renewables is that you are depending upon a diffuse source of energy. The sun only shines so hard, and even wind turbines can’t compare to the energy density of a classical fossil fuel source.

The other problem with renewables is that they allow the consumer to bypass the utilities and the fossil fuel companies for some of the energy demand. While the prospect of going off the grid is extolled as an ideal, it is not practical for most people. We still need an energy infrastructure to cover those times when energy is required to supplement locally produced electrons. It is expensive to maintain and improve this grid, and what we’ve seen, especially with Texas, is that the grid can fail catastrophically if it is not maintained. So as much as we might want to be rid of giant monopolies governing our energy supplies, we need to construct a future system where they play a role, or else their looming obsolescence will cause them to resist any needed changes.

In my state of West Virginia, we’ve been in denial about the future of coal ever since I moved here in 1986. Coal was the exclusive source of electricity in this state for decades. Only with the increase in natural gas availability due to fracking did anyone in this state seriously doubt the moral goodness of coal, and of those who mined it. So we have suffered as local communities were shattered by the blasting needed to support mountain top removal. This form of mining only employed a small fraction of the workforce needed for an underground mine, but when it is all you know, you put up with a lot. We now have many acres of once pristine woodland and hillside covered in scrub grasses, devoid of topsoil, and unable to sustain much life. Such places would be ideal for solar farms, and slowly this state seems to be growing aware of this possibility.

West Virginia has suffered population loss for decades, ever since the coal mines first became mechanized. What better way to offer hope to the youth who now succumb to opioids than to provide jobs in solar energy? Education to enable people to learn the basics of electrical installations would raise the general education levels in this state. We must resist the siren song of reversing coal’s decline, and embrace the trend towards renewable energy that is the wave of the future. No matter what the Republicans say.