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The Latest on Speeding Neutrinos

Son Jarah was interviewed last week on CRI, China's English-Language equivalent of the BBC. The subject was the possible evidence of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, which came from an experiment at CERN. Here's the show description from CRI:

2011-12-02 Speed of Light
The Speed of light. It's the universal speed limit. A constant that has informed physics since Albert Einstein laid out his theory of special relativity.
But a new experiment may disprove all of that. The OPERA lab in Italy has early results suggesting that sub atomic particles called Neutrinos may travel faster than the speed of light.
Today our panel of experts are taking a look first at the experiment itself, then at the reactions and impacts to the discovery and finally at the outlook of physics in light of these new results.
- Jarah Evslin, Professor at the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
- Alexander Vikman, a CERN Fellow.
- Giovanni Amelino-Camelia, A theoretical Physicist from Sapienza University of Rome.

111202today1[1]>The Interview

When asked about a paper by a Nobel-laureate which says that the CERN results can't be right because they are theoretically impossible, Jarah says "Of course a theoretical argument cannot disprove an experiment, only a failure to repeat the experiment by another group can do that." All three interviewees are thoroughly scientific in both their skepticism about the results of an experiment which has yet to be independently replicated and their willingness to consider that a long-standing interpretation of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity may be wrong despite the fact that it's accepted wisdom.

Jarah actually gives Einstein a hall pass and says that special relativity only claims 1) that nothing can exceed the speed of light IN A VACUUM (the possibly superluminal neutrinos were passing through the very solid crust of the earth); and that no subluminal particle can become superluminal (the neutrinos probably began their journey at - not below - the speed of light).

All three scientists agree that the CERN results are "probably" wrong. However, the last question of the show is "are we on the brink of a major shift in our understanding of the universe?" Only Jarah says "yes".

Jarah's latest paper on what the OPERA experiment might tell us if confirmed is at http://arxiv.org/abs/arXiv:1111.0733.

related post:

v-c: What If It’s Positive?


v-c: What If It’s Positive?

We all know that nothing can travel faster than c, the speed of light in a vacuum; or do we? A recent experiment called OPERA at CERN measured some neutrinos travelling fractionally faster than c. To be precise: (v-c)/c is approximately 3x10-5 where v is the observed velocity of the neutrinos. An earlier experiment called MINOS also appeared to have detected superluminal neutrinos; but this result was largely ignored because the superluminality was less than the error margin of the experiment – and because we all know that nothing can travel faster than c.

Jarah Evslin (full disclosure: he's my son) is delivering a paper today at a conference in Beijing on what it may mean for physics if the OPERA and MINOS results are proven to be correct by further experiments. He's a physicist at the Theoretical Physics Center for Science Facilities, Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Cautiously and correctly, Jarah says:    


"I will not speculate on whether this claim is correct or incorrect. In my opinion this determination can only be made by future experiments, and it will be made by future experiments perhaps within a few months, probably within a few years. Instead I will ask the following question: If neutrino superluminality is confirmed by future experiments, what does it teach us about physics? In other words, what models are consistent both with OPERA's results, and with other known experimental and theoretical constraints?"

Turns out that a dark energy model he and his colleagues have been working on may explain what might have been observed at CERN.

Any explanation for superluminality must also explain why neutrinos from a supernova observed in 1987 (SN1987A) apparently did not travel any faster than the speed of light and may even have been a little slower. (Actually the SN1987A neutrinos did get here a few hours before the light from the event which created them; but the light gets slowed down a little as it travels through cosmic dust, which most neutrinos sail right through without slowing down. When you allow for that, the neutrinos were NOT moving faster than light in a vacuum). If the SN1987A neutrinos were traveling as fast as OPERA would seem to indicate, they should've arrived 4.8 years before the light since both travelled 160,000 light years from the Tarantula Nebula (my calculation).

Jarah lists four differences between the space neutrinos from SN1987A and those produced for the OPERA and MINOS experiments. At least one of them could account for the observed speed difference.

  1. Lepton number: the observed space neutrinos were all antineutrinos. Only 2% of those from OPERA were antineutrinos.
  2. Flavor: the space neutrinos were electron neutrinos; the experiments produced muon neutrinos.
  3. Energy: OPERA neutrinos are a thousand times more energetic than those from SN1987A.
  4. Location: "MINOS and OPERA neutrinos traveled almost entirely through solid rock, while SN1987A neutrinos traveled almost entirely through the interstellar medium."

Somewhat counter intuitively, Jarah and his colleagues dark energy theory provides a possible explanation for the neutrinos moving more quickly through a dense medium (the earth) than they do through the near vacuum of space. Vastly oversimplifying (so I can understand what I'm writing), there could be a field associated with mass, but which is not gravity, which accelerates the neutrinos to superluminal speeds where the field is strong. Since the field's strength falls off very rapidly with distance, it doesn't significantly accelerate particles in space or even those at any significant distance from the surface of a massy object. So the MINOS and OPERA neutrinos are accelerated as they travel through the earth while the SN1987A neutrinos loaf along at near c in the near vacuum of space.

It helps in understanding all this to remember that neutrinos are so small that they rarely collide with anything even when they pass through very solid matter. From their very tiny PoV, there are huge gaps between the electrons and nuclei which make up the earth. An experiment called IceCube has determined that less than 20% of the neutrinos which enter the earth around the North Pole collide with anything on the way through the earth to the South Pole; the rest go through the earth and keep on going.

One theoretical objection which has been made to the OPERA results is that neutrino superluminality implies electrons also move faster than the speed of light since neutrinos morph into electrons (not exactly what was said but close enough). Jarah points out: "Of course a theoretical argument cannot disprove an experiment, only a failure to repeat the experiment by another group can do that." In other words, if it happened, it happened. But a model like the one Jarah and his colleagues are suggesting must answer theoretical objections.

Electron superluminality appears to be ruled out both by experiments with very high energy electrons and observations of very high energy cosmic electrons. However, these observations all involve electrons in a near vacuum; electrons, like neutrinos may be superluminal only in a very dense medium. If this is the case, unlike neutrinos, the electrons won't stay superluminal very long because, again unlike neutrinos, they interact strongly though the electromagnetic force; and so will quickly lose energy to their surroundings – especially quickly in a dense medium. That would explain why we haven't yet caught any electrons speeding. In fact it might be that all particles can be superluminal in a dense field, although this is not required by the model Jarah is proposing. If this were the case, it would be, he says "a feature of these models which could potentially be in conflict with [the current theory of] big bang nucleosynthesis." That would be almost as big a deal as exceeding Einstein's speed limits!

Fellow physicists have asked Jarah why he is speculating in advance of confirmation of OPERA's startling measurements. His explanation is simple. Speculation by theoretical physicists like him and his colleagues is orders of magnitudes cheaper than experiments – and may well help to better target future experiments and the precious time and resources of the CERN collider. Moreover (my explanation, not his), something is wrong with our current model of the universe and its genesis. We haven't had any new explanations in physics for a while even though our increasing ability to measure forces us to add "fudge factors" like dark energy and dark matter which we haven't directly observed. Physics typically has a breakout when we discover that some accepted bit of wisdom is not actually correct – like the speed of light in a vacuum being an absolute limit. It helps to ask "what if?"

Related post:

Killing Horizons



Two Theories Are Threatened by CERN Experiments

"No theory is carved in stone. Science is merciless when it comes to testing all theories over and over, at any time, in any place. Unlike religion or politics, science is ultimately decided by experiments, done repeatedly in every form. There are no sacred cows. In science, 100 authorities count for nothing. Experiment counts for everything." Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York, writing in the Wall Street Journal about the slim but real possibility that a recent experiment at CERN has caught neutrinos moving faster than Einstein's famous theory of relativity says they are able to.

What about the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warning? What would happen to Dr. Kaku's career if he were writing about the possibility of that being upset despite the current "consensus" of experts? Bill Clinton recently said "If you're an American, the best thing you can do is to make it politically unacceptable for people to engage in denial [of anthropogenic global warming]." Context makes it clear that Clinton considers skepticism to be denial; it's not! Well, as Kaku said, there's a difference between politics and science.

See below for an account of another experiment at CERN which may be more threatening to the theory of anthropogenic warming than the neutrino experiment is to Einstein's speed limit.

Before Einstein postulated the theory of relativity, scientists believed that mass and time were constants and in the Newtonian physics which predicted that, if you continuously apply a force to an object, it will accelerate without limit. Einstein said that, as the object approached what he said was the constant and inviolable speed of light in a vacuum, time would slow down from the object's point of view and the mass of the object would increase from the point of view of an observer who is stationary with respect to the object's initial position.

Physicists did not rush to embrace this strange view of the world, especially given Einstein's poor academic credentials. However, Einstein used his theory both to explain observed anomalies in the orbit of Mercury, which were not explicable with Newtonian physics, and to make some detailed predictions about light bending in the presence of a gravitational force. This prediction was confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919.

Although these observations disproved Newtonian physics, they didn't "prove" Einstein's theory of general relativity. An accumulation of experiments and observations indicated that general relativity is a more useful way to explain how the universe acts in extreme conditions than Newtonian physics. Kaku says Einstein "quipped that you don't need 100 famous intellectuals to disprove his theory. All you need is one simple fact." Perhaps the CERN experiment has uncovered that fact, probably not but perhaps. And scientists are reacting as they should: poring over the data, looking for experimental error, devising more experiments to confirm or invalidate the CERN experiment, and remaining skeptical but open to possibilities.

It is probably true that human activity – specifically the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide – has some effect on climate. Although there are many theories, we don't know how significant that effect is. It's unscientific to deny the POSSIBILTY that the effect is significant; but it's equally unscientific to deny the POSSIBILITY that we are not affecting the climate significantly. Even the extent of warming – independent of cause – is debatable and ought to debated.

So does global warming exist at all? Depends on your timescale. Twelve thousand years ago there was a mile of ice covering the spot in Vermont where I'm writing. It's gotten warmer since then. On the other hand, the planet spent most of its history being hotter than it is now. It's cooled off periodically during glacial ages like the one which we live in. There is evidence that it's warmed some, not a lot, since the beginning of the industrial age. But even that evidence is – and should be – subject to question since our ways of measuring the temperature of the earth have changed a lot recently and don't go back very far. For example, arctic ice is at a "record" low; but the record keeping has changed completely since we've had satellites to measure the extent of the ice. In 1906 a wooden ship transited the Northwest Passage; we know the ice cap retreated then, too; but we have no direct comparison.

There have been lots of temperature oscillations and there is an apparent correlation between them and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now is the only time we as a species could have had any influence; the increase in CO2 could be an effect of the warming rather than the cause; there could be a positive feedback loop between the two. Obviously there are other factors besides human activity which affect climate. It is critical that we understand the interplay between these factors and their relative significance so we can gauge how much of an effect our emissions are having. That investigation must be pursued with an open mind – which means a skeptical mind.

Theories are strengthened (not proved) when they both explain past events and accurately predict future events. The theory of anthropogenic global warming has so far not been impressive in either respect. It is one possible explanation for a recent warming trend; but it gives no guidance as far as the temperature changes and oscillations which clearly occurred before we burned any fossil fuels. In the last decade, even proponents of anthropogenic global warming concede that, although the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has continued to increase, the observed rate of warming has slowed by 50%. This observation invalidates some of the most extreme models of global warming although it doesn't refute the thesis that, over longer periods of time, increases in greenhouse gasses will lead to higher temperatures. Global warming was supposed to lead to droughts; recently more of the world seems to be suffering from flooding than droughts. Does that prove that all theories of global warming are wrong? No, but it shows that the climate is more complex than the models which predicted the droughts… or that those models are simply wrong. No matter how many scientists say that they are "convinced" that anthropogenic global warming is a fact, it is still a theory which, for credibility, needs to make accurate predictions. On the other hand, there is no proof that we are not forcing the climate warmer.

Coincidentally, the results of another experiment at CERN called CLOUD may be more threatening to the theory of anthropogenic global warming than the neutrinos are to the general theory of relativity. It was recently demonstrated that the same particles which are present in cosmic rays lead to cloud formation in lab conditions. The experiment was actually designed to disprove a suspected link between cosmic rays and clouds (good way to design an experiment), but, instead demonstrated that the link is quite credible (but didn't prove it exists). The cloudier the earth is, the cooler it gets since clouds reflect sunlight back into space. Everything being equal, which it certainly isn't, the more cosmic rays that reach our atmosphere, the cloudier and cooler it'll be. It's also known from observation that the solar wind (a stream of particles from the sun) pushes cosmic rays away. The amount of solar wind varies with storms on the sun's surface (sunspots). There seems to be a correlation between sunspot activity and average temperatures; but, until now, there hasn't been a demonstration of a mechanism to explain that correlation. It could be that the temperature of the earth is much more significantly affected by sunspot activity than by human activity. Coincidence or not, the recent deceleration of warming has coincided with a decrease in sunspot activity. Note that this experiment is not nearly sufficient by itself to establish the relative contribution of sunspot activity to climate – or even whether it is significant.

At least in short term, it's much more important for us to understand the mechanisms behind climate change (acknowledging that climate is something that does change) than it is for us to know whether the speed of light is always a constraint. If CO2 emissions are causing rapid climate change, then we need to start a crash program of building nuclear power plants, fracking for relatively low carbon natural gas, and investing billions in clean technologies for abundant coal and CO2 sequestration. Knowing the emergent demand for cheap energy of the developing world, we can't just tinker around the edge of supply with expensive alternative sources – even though we want to keep doing research into making them more effective. If manmade warming is not significant but the climate is warming and likely to continue to warm for other reasons, then we can continue to use our abundant supplies of coal and should do more to reclaim gas and oil. In that case the money which would have gone into developing and deploying low-carbon energy sources will be needed to protect or relocate low-lying populations and deal with climate-induced catastrophes. If the climate is just oscillating (for the moment), then we can use low cost energy to improve standards of living around the world – including creating jobs here at home.

These are huge decisions and we need science to be at its skeptical best in helping us make them. We likely will have to act on incomplete information since theories are much easier to disprove than prove. But we don't have to act on politically-tainted information. Funding for CLOUD was hard to come by –and long delayed. Apparently for reasons of political correctness, CERN was even more circumspect in announcing the results of CLOUD than it was announcing the speeding neutrinos. Press coverage of CLOUD dwindled after a day or two. There haven't been a rush of announcements from labs seeking to duplicate or disprove the CLOUD work – or even to extend it. If you think global warming is a threat, you ought to be adamant that we increase research into its cause – no matter where that research may lead.

Related Posts:

A Question Which Should Be Asked

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The Ice-Free Arctic – Excellent Coverage in the NY Times

How NOT to Convince Anyone about Global Warming

How NOT to Convince Anyone about Global Warming

Obvious spin and propaganda increase skepticism. Two stories published on the eve of COP16, the 16th edition of Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are good illustrations of how NOT to be convincing about climate change or its possible anthropogenic (man-made) causes. (Duly note that clumsy propaganda doesn't prove the opposite of its contentions).

"Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea" is the headline of a front page New York Times story. "As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming," says paragraph 4 (used to be the subhead in the electronic edition but got demoted).

It's not until you get to paragraph six that you find out what actually happened: "Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative [emphasis mine] increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here."

Nowhere in the article does America's newspaper of record attempt to estimate how much of the RELATIVE increase in sea level is due to the sea actually rising and how much due to Norfolk sinking back into the swamp it was built on. In case you're wondering, even using aggressive numbers for rising sea levels from skepticalscience.com (a site devoted to refuting the arguments of climate change skeptics), the sea hasn't actually risen more than six inches since 1930 and hasn't risen at all in the last four years (not significant statistically one way or the other but relevant to a story about Norfolk's current woes).

Blithely ignoring the inconvenient truth that the city is sinking, the story goes on to quote Jim Schultz, a local science and technology writer: ""We are the front lines of climate change. No one who has a house here is a skeptic." The closing paragraph is another quote from Mr. Schultz: ""The fact is that there is not enough engineering to go around to mitigate the rising sea. For us, it is the bitter reality of trying to live in a world that is getting warmer and wetter."

Quite rightly, the readers of the story skewered the Times for its sloppy reporting and repeated use of the phrase "sea-level rising" to describe a city which is sinking.

It fell to the UK Met Office Hadley Center to report the inconvenient truth that observations show that the rate of global warming has slowed by more than 50% in the last decade (their number, not mine). Their lead is "Ahead of the latest UN talks on climate change in Mexico, the Met Office analyses long- and short-term trends in climate and reveals that the evidence for man-made warming has grown even stronger in the last year." Imagine what they would have said if global warming had actually accelerated as predicted and had matched the increase in greenhouse gases during the last decade.

Way down in the article they get around to discussing why warming was less than predicted:

"Natural variability within the climate system could explain all of this recent decrease. Other factors could have contributed.

  • Changes in stratospheric water vapour
  • Solar variability
  • Increased aerosol emissions from Asia"

These speculations raise some interesting questions, especially since they have apparently not been accounted for in apocalyptic climate change models. Could there be a negative feedback loop involving water vapor which damps or even limits warming? Haven't anthropogenic climate change skeptics been pointing to solar cycles as the cause of recent warming? Is increased coal burning and the resulting particulate emissions causing cooling? It would be helpful to have the Met Office follow up on the implications of their own speculations rather than try to spin the data away.

One decade of data does NOT disprove anthropogenic theories of global warming. There is no reason to expect climate change to follow a neat, straight line. But this data does not strengthen faith in the models which tell us that both increased CO2 and positive feedback loops should result in an increase in the rate of global warming. The unscientific attempts to spin instead of analyze the data do weaken faith in the Met Office. The sloppy reporting in the Times makes it seem as if they started with a point to prove rather than a truth to find.

Skepticism, especially about your own theories, is essential to science. Spin is for marketers and politicians.

Related posts:

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Pictures Trump Words

Contrary Views at Telecosm – Part 1

The Ice-Free Arctic – Excellent Coverage in the NY Times

One Nation

Almost very article on solar power concludes with the rather obvious fact that the sun doesn’t shine at night (or even on some days). Almost very article on wind energy gives prominence to the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow. Some articles on electrical production point out that there is almost no remaining opportunity for new dams to generate electricity.

Put those three things together and you have the beginning of the end of our dependence on foreign oil.

One of the wonderful things about being a continent-spanning country is that we are not all under the same weather pattern at the same time. We have a variety of climates that create a variety of opportunities. No one region has to be energy independent in order for the country to be energy independent as a whole. We just have to think out of the silo.

According to the US Department of Energy, about 7% of US energy came from hydropower in 2006. The limiting factor on the amount of energy we can get from hydropower is the amount of water flowing into the impoundments behind the dams. During periods of peak demand, the water is drawn down quickly; when demand slackens, the water can build up again. But, in general, we use the total amount of water available over the course of a year except that a minimum downstream flow has to maintained for ecological reasons and water can only be allowed to build to a certain height behind the dams for safety reasons before it must be released.

Suppose that we had a lot of new solar capacity. We would get our maximum output from that capacity during the day which happens to be the time of peak demand. All things being equal, we would then be able to turn the dams down to minimum flow during the day since the solar energy would meet the demand. Then we’d have more water to use for generation at night when the sun isn’t shining. Note that the effect is that we already have a mechanism which is the equivalent of being able to store solar energy.

Same thing goes for wind: if it’s blowing, the water builds up behind the dams; if it’s not blowing, we release the water from the dams. Effectively we’ve bottled the wind.

In fact, we can hold the water until the time when both the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

In practice we’d run the dams during the day and avoid burning some natural gas (accounted for 20% of our electricity in 2006) and oil (2%). We’d just hold back enough water to meet nighttime demand because that’s when we’ll all be charging our electric and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

All we need is the will to rebuild our national electrical grid so that energy can flow from where it’s currently abundant to where it’s currently needed. We don’t need expensive ways to store solar and wind power to make those technologies practical. Our existing dams are that storage mechanism. Our size and the variability of weather over our expanse are another buffer.

But we need to rebuild the grid and then we need to add regionally appropriate power-generation capability to it. Wind and solar can be done much more quickly than new nuclear capacity (which ought to be built as well for baseline supply).

All of the presidential candidates agree that our dependence on foreign (meaning Middle Eastern) oil is both an economic and a national security danger. To a greater or lesser degree, they think that burning fossil fuels is an environmental threat. One of them should take the bold step of proclaiming that, if he or she is elected president, the nation will be a net exporter of oil in fifteen years. Details to follow – but rebuilding the grid is the immediate first step.

Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles – Readers Add to the Discussion

Lots of good comments from readers that deserve prominence and more discussion.

First from Craig Plunkett:

“PHEV's do exist for the truck market. There is a small company on Long Island producing them. Bucket Trucks and Garbage Trucks are great targets for this technology. The CTO of Odyne at the time came to talk about them to a business group I belong to…”

In his own post about this presentation, Craig points out that PHEV garbage trucks are much quieter than their conventional equivalents. Not only is there not engine roar but the regenerating braking systems don’t make as much noise as truck brakes. I would think that there would also be a market for “pure” electrics in trucks that are heavy anyway (so batteries may not be as much of a problem) and have a predictably short route.

kent beuchert does some useful calculations:

“Actually, if you do the simple math using the DOT's graph of the distribution of commuting trips in the US, you'll find that a 40 mile ranged plug-in like the Volt would achieve 295 MPG in commuting, even without any workplace recharging occurring. This would avoid 93% of gasoline used for commuting. With 1/4 of commuters recharging at work, the fleet's MPG would jump to 397 MPG, avoiding 96% of gasoline usage.”

So why aren’t we (the collective we) doing more to move the world’s ground transportation fleet to PHEV? CJ does point out some practical concerns:

“I almost agree with you on this one. 1) The electric grid is in such poor shape that the added load of charging all these vehicles could put it over the edge. 2) Low temps effect the power output of batteries and 3) Gas electric hybrid's and their massive batteries are dangerous in a crash - both to the occupants and the emergency personnel - because disconnecting the battery no longer eliminates current flowing through the vehicle. As a member of a volunteer fire dept, there is a lot of concern over responding to hybrid's involved in accidents. The special training is just starting to hit small depts such as ours.”

Although CJ is right about the pathetic state of our electrical grid (like much of our infrastructure), I think the fact that PHEVs would be recharged mainly at night when the grid is way below peak usage mitigates this problem to a large extent (see more on this below). Moreover, having more nighttime usage for the grid improves the economics for capital improvements that need to be made anyway. The more kilowatt hours flow through a given segment, the more quickly investment in the segment can be amortized AND the less each kilowatt hour has to be burdened with depreciation.

Batteries do lose effectiveness in cold weather but the availability of the gasoline backup means that the driver isn’t stranded on a low electric mileage day.

The fire problem is an interesting one and CJ is much more qualified to comment on that than I am. Some work needs to be done here to prepare for a PHEV future.

CJ goes on to recommend fuel cell technology:

“However, there is a slightly different twist on your plugin that should be hitting the market soon from Honda (I believe). A fuel cell vehicle that will power the car without need for batteries and a gas engine, but the big advantage is that when you plug these vehicles in, they generate power. A home owner could supply their home electrical needs, or a portion of it, as well as get long range emission free driving. For businesses that have fleet vehicles, the generating benefits increase greatly. As well, small inputs into the existing grid from home power generation make the whole grid a more efficient system.”

The Honda he is talking about is the FCX Clarity which “Honda plans to lease to a limited number of retail consumers in Southern California with the first deliveries taking place in summer 2008.”  The FCX Clarity is NOT rechargeable; it requires a supply of hydrogen which, in turn, requires a delivery infrastructure which doesn’t yet exist. Moreover, although water is the only tailpipe emission from a fuel cell car; hydrocarbons are usually a by product of producing the hydrogen fuel supply just a some hydrocarbons are a by product of some methods of generating electricity. IMHO, fuel cells will be part of the global answer in time, perhaps the major part – but PHEVs are a quicker fix.

In an offline communication, friend Michael Birnbaum pointed to a post on salon.com by Andrew Leonard which talks about a study published in the March issue of Environmental Research Letters which concludes that the current electrical grid in California could support one million PHEVs without additional capacity assuming that they are not recharged in peak hours of peak days.

The study does say, however:

Even with gasoline dear at $4.00/gallon and electricity cheap at $0.05/kWh, vehicle purchasers may only find a compact car plug-in hybrid economical if its cost premium relative to an ordinary hybrid vehicle were under $2000 and if its cost premium relative to a conventional vehicle were under $3500. Such price premiums may require battery pack costs (including electronics, etc) under $650/kWh, while current battery pack prices for plug-in hybrids applications may well be in excess of $1000/kWh.”

Gas isn’t $4.00 gallon (yet) and electricity costs $.20/kWh here in the Northeast. Nevertheless, mass production should bring the cost of the battery pack down quickly to an acceptable level. The trick is to jump start the process so the battery cost can come down.

The Answer Is Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Whether the question is how to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, how to save money spent on transportation, how to reduce CO2 emissions much more quickly than anyone thought possible, or how to accommodate the transportation demands of the fast-developing developing world, the answer is Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV). They’re almost too good to be true; and, in fact, they don’t exist commercially at the moment.

However, late this year Chinese manufacturer BYD plans to start selling its PHEV by the end of 2008; a plug-in Toyota Prius and Chevy’s Volt are scheduled for 2010.

Here’s the trick: theses plug-ins can only go about forty to sixty miles between rechargings. However, the average length of a car trip in the US is less than 10 miles so easily accomplished by even a partially charged car. Sure, we all take long trips at least occasionally; and sometimes we plan a short trip and end up going much further. Not to worry: remember, these are hybrids; they do have gas tanks. Once the battery runs down, the gasoline engine starts up to power the generator as in a conventional hybrid. You keep going; it just costs more per mile than when you’re all-electric but still less than today’s non-hybrid cars.

With current battery technology, the initial cost of an all-electric car with reasonable range for ordinary use is still prohibitive. That’s why these plug-in hybrids are such a good solution. The Chevy Volt is expected to cost about $35,000 and have the pickup and range we are used to in conventional cars.

The Electric Power Research Institute (funded by power companies mainly) and the National Resources Defense Council (funded by green types, mostly) did a joint study which comes out for very favorable for PHEVs. They say that, even if all the electricity for PHEVs came from coal-fired power plants (the dirtiest way to get electricity in terms of CO2 emissions), there’s still a net reduction in GHG (greenhouse gas) if we switch from inefficient gasoline to more efficient electricity for most of our driving.

In real life that wouldn’t happen. PHEVs presumably get recharged mostly at night; a high greater percentage of our night time electricity comes from hydro and nuclear since total demand is much less then. Moreover, we have lots of options including nuclear, wind, solar, and carbon-sequestration at coal plants for increasing electric power generation while decreasing emissions. Notice that most of these sources are domestic!

An article in Harvard Magazine by Michael B. McElroy commenting on the EPRI study says:

“Replacing 90 percent of gasoline consumption by electricity would be equivalent to raising the fleet’s average fuel efficiency from the present level of about 17 miles per gallon to close to 150 miles per gallon. Were we to accomplish this objective, total oil use would be reduced by 36 percent, cutting the demand for imported oil by as much as 60 percent (a savings of $270 billion per year at current prices for oil). ...”

40% of oil use in the US is to power cars and light trucks, obviously a good target for reduction. No way we’re going to replace a substantial part of this with corny ethanol nor should we try. The Harvard article suggests that, even if (or maybe when) biofuels are developed which don’t compete with food, it’d still be more efficient just to burn them (or the plants they come from) in electric generating facilities than to take all the extra steps needed to make them into transportation fuel.

The operating economics are already right thanks to the rising cost of oil. A gallon of gas is the transportation equivalent of 7.5 kWh of electricity. That mean that even at a pretty high rate of $.20/kWh, using electricity is the equivalent of paying $1.50/gallon. Better yet, it’s reasonable to assume that off-peak electricity can be purchased more cheaply and that there is a per unit savings in MORE use of the electric grid and power plants at night. So that price might at least stay reasonably stable even with escalating demand.

The proof should be in the pudding soon. There is no new technology required although there are some engineering problems: Chevy reports trouble getting the electrical budget of things like in car entertainment, air conditioning, and even windshield wipers down far enough to keep the all-electric range of the Volt high enough. Assuming charging mainly at night, we don’t need to rebuild the electrical grid right away (although we should). We don’t need massive new generating capacity; we just run what we have more hours (but we should be building).

This energy stuff really is more an opportunity than a crisis.

Danger: Biofuels Cause Global Warming

The abstract of an article in a recent edition of Science Magazine says:

“Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.

Europeans trying to comply with Kyoto mandates have proposed stipulating that biofuels used to meet their alternative fuel mandates cannot come from land that was previously rain forest. However, the study points out that such restrictions are window dressing. Food, like energy, is fungible. If European biofuels come only from existing agricultural land, the food crops formerly grown there will be grown somewhere else; good chance that somewhere else will be newly cleared.

A New York Times article by Elizabeth Rosenthal about the studies published in Science gives this example:

“…Previously, Midwestern farmers had alternated corn with soy in their fields, one year to the next. Now many grow only corn, meaning that soy has to be grown elsewhere.

“Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that was previously forest or savanna. ‘Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans — and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it,’ he said.”

The studies do point out that biofuels made from agricultural waste (technologies for which are being worked on but have not yet been made remotely economical) and that biofuels from sugar – as made in Brazil and, inexplicably to me, not made in any quantity in Hawaii – would and do have a positive carbon impact.

Defenders of the subsidized biofuels industry are quick to point out that biofuels do help energy independence. On a global basis, use of farmland to “grow energy” diversifies energy sources – a good thing – and increases income to farmers in poor as well as wealthy areas – another good thing. On the other hand, diversion of cropland raises food prices.

The world economy isn’t as complex as the environment but it may be as chaotic and hard to model. Food prices and the amount of land under cultivation would both be going up now even without corn-based ethanol production because the huge number of people escaping poverty in India and China are using some of their new income to eat more and better – as well as to buy motorcycles and cars.

In the long term it seems foolish to use plants to convert sunlight to energy for fuel when solar collectors – after a huge capital outlay and with big infrastructure changes – yields one hundred times more energy per acre than growing corn. Moreover, some of the best places for solar generated electricity are not cropland because they are arid.

But now it seems that corny ethanol may not be a good short term solution either. Suppose, for example, we burn more coal even before we have a way to sequester or divert the atmospheric carbon dioxide produced. Even giving full credit to the most alarming predictions of carbon-based global warming, this may be environmentally more friendly than clearing a rain forest. You can stop burning the coal if you can’t sequester the CO2 or whenever replacement energy comes online; you can’t  replant the rain forest. Hmm…

Some will argue reasonably that discrediting ethanol as a panacea is one more reason why conservation (aka less driving in smaller cars) is the only solution to the twin problems of energy independence and global warming. Trouble with that thinking is that the aforementioned newly unpoor aren’t going to forgo the pleasures of personal transportation which we have long enjoyed. We need more energy sources.

The math behind my claim that solar produces 100 times the yield of corn in net energy per acre at 1800 times the capital cost is here.

A Question Which Should Be Asked

Writing in the New York Times on New Years Day, John Tierney repeats a question asked almost a year ago by Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado on the Prometheus blog:

“What behavior of the climate system could hypothetically be observed over the next 1, 5, 10 years that would be inconsistent with the current consensus on climate change? My focus is on extreme events like floods and hurricanes, so please consider those, but consider any other climate metric or phenomena you think important as well for answering this question. Ideally, a response would focus on more than just sea level rise and global average temperature, but if these are the only metrics that are relevant here that too would be very interesting to know.”

We often hear that warmer temperatures (in some places), rising sea levels, melting ice (in some places), greater weather extremes, and even cold spells are evidence that the “consensus” theory of anthropogenic global warming is correct. It’s a reasonable question – in fact, a very important question from both a scientific and a policy point of view – to ask what would tend to indicate that the theory is incorrect. Note that Pielke is not asking what would “prove” the theory incorrect; in the short term that is as impossible as proving that it is correct; he is asking for indicators which might raise doubts in the same way that many indicators are taken to indicate certainty.

This should be a question which engage climatologists and other scientists. Theories should be challenged; that’s the way we learn more; that’s the way “correct” theories get strengthened and improved; that’s the way errors are uncovered.

Predictably, many of the comments on  Tierney’s column are attacks on both him and Pielke for raising the question. That’s dumb: doesn’t matter what their motives are in asking the question; doesn’t matter whether your own working hypothesis is that the cause of observable recent global warming is anthropogenic or not; the question deserves to be asked.

In a recent comment on a post in which I quoted the skepticism (which is different from disbelief) of John R. Christy, Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and a participant in the IPCC, reader Mark A. York writes:

“It's a pity the top climate scientists on Earth disagree. Why do you think that is? Yeah everyone is crazy but you guys. LOL! Do some homework. www.realclimate.org

Don’t know why Mark reads Christy out of the ranks of top climate scientists and don’t know who “you guys” is either. I’ve never been given my membership in the secret society of doubters.

Action and skepticism aren’t mutually exclusive. Now that I have that off my chest, I’m gonna go out in the seven degree weather (five below windchill) and brush the snow off my solar collectors (really). It’s sunny and I can’t stand to see them ineffectual.


By the time I got there, the sun and wind had done half my job for me (they’re at the winter angle of 80 degrees both to shed snow and to face the low winter sun). When I finished cleaning them off, I had the great pleasure of seeing my electric meter run swiftly backwards.

Cause for Global Warming Discovered

The graphs below from an article by Natural Resources Canada show the movement of the magnetic North Pole. As the article says “The change in velocity of the North Magnetic Pole since the early 1970s has been remarkable – 9 km/yr to 41 km/yr.”


And this graph from the report of the Nobel-sharing International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows an accelerated increase in global warming during exactly the same period (left scale is difference from the 1961-1990 average).


Unfortunately the IPCC was distracted by the coincident rise in certain atmospheric gasses and so missed the true cause of global warming. The Director of Natural Resources Canada is precluded from running for President of the US because he wasn’t born here.

OK. This is all junk science. I admit it. Neither Natural Resources Canada nor anyone else I know of has claimed a link between this accelerated movement of the magnetic pole and global temperatures. We could invent a mechanism for cause and effect, however: the location of the magnetic pole affects the shape and poles of the earth’s magnetic field (obviously) which has an effect on incoming cosmic radiation which has an effect on cloud formation which has an effect on reflectivity which has an effect on temperature. It’s a little harder to do the opposite and imagine how warming caused the pole to move but I’m sure some smart reader’ll do that.

All this is just meant as a warning against taking apparent correlations too seriously.

John R. Christy, Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and a participant in the IPCC (he calculates that he is .0001 of a Nobel Laureate) writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

“I'm sure the majority (but not all) of my IPCC colleagues cringe when I say this, but I see neither the developing catastrophe nor the smoking gun proving that human activity is to blame for most of the warming we see. Rather, I see a reliance on climate models (useful but never "proof") and the coincidence that changes in carbon dioxide and global temperatures have loose similarity over time.

“There are some of us who remain so humbled by the task of measuring and understanding the extraordinarily complex climate system that we are skeptical of our ability to know what it is doing and why. As we build climate data sets from scratch and look into the guts of the climate system, however, we don't find the alarmist theory matching observations….

“It is my turn to cringe when I hear overstated-confidence from those who describe the projected evolution of global weather patterns over the next 100 years, especially when I consider how difficult it is to accurately predict that system's behavior over the next five days.

“Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us. As my high-school physics teacher admonished us in those we-shall-conquer-the-world-with-a-slide-rule days, "Begin all of your scientific pronouncements with 'At our present level of ignorance, we think we know . . .'"”

He’s not saying (and I’m not saying) that anthropogenic activity is NOT causing global warming. He is saying we have less than proof and I’m saying we’ve got to stay skeptical even as we take some obvious actions like reducing our dependence on fossil fuels that we’re running short of anyway. The Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth was deserved since it’s an effective and dramatic polemic; a Nobel Prize for shoddy science seems an inducement to substituting rhetoric for thought in making crucial resource allocation decisions.

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