After reading “Energy for Future Presidents”

I’m not sure any more whether I knew of the author before reading this book.  He used to be an elementary particle physicist/astrophysicst or cosmologist before he started the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project.   I’ve only found out from Wikipedia that he actually started the original Berkeley supernova search project which after a couple transformations has led to his graduate student Saul Perlmutter sharing the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

The author had become quite famous when their Berkeley project completed a rigorous analysis, which has used more data and analyzed more thoroughly, and published their result which confirms (to his surprise) global warming.  The author discusses this in Chapter 3.  After their very different and more extensive analysis, they’ve got essentially the same result as summarized by IPCC : a temperature rise of 0.64 oC globally over the past 50 years or 0.9 oC over land.  I didn’t know before I read this book that what people ultimately measure global warming or not is by analyzing the thermometer readings available all over the world in the last hundreds of years.  Their Berkeley project used more readings than previous analyses and applied some methods that they think are ingenious.  The fit of temperature rise to CO2 data curve yielding better fit than any other functions of temperature convinces them that global warming mostly due to human.

Nevertheless, he taught me that this is the only way to find out whether there is global warming.  In US (say), 1/3 of the thermometers have shown temperature drops.  So, as a layman, you can’t easily tell whether there is global warming.  Any temperature rise or drop you feel is probably just due to local fluctuation !   The author then pointed out that all those things such as the number of tornadoes, hurricanes couldn’t realy point to global warming.  ( Eg. people a hundred year ago didn’t measure hurricanes in the middle of the oceans; plotting the number of hurricanes near shore would show no increase at all — the usual “cut” criteria game in physics analyses. )

The most surprising is that even Arctic ice decrease doesn’t prove global warming !   This is interesting to me.  Before the GRACE (“Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment”) measurements, all the climate models predicted that the Antarctica ice would increase as a result of global warming — as warmer oceans have more evaporation => more snow since Antarctica still stays below freezing.  But the GRACE measurement showed that the climate models were all wrong (Antarctica ice has decreased) and the modelers had to make changes to make Antarctica ice decrease 🙂   So, obviously, it’s NOT as simple as y = mx+c such that temperature increases results in ice melting.  It’s more complicated than that.   As a result, even the modelers are correct in Arctic ice decrease, their “theory” has been only 50% correct; and if Relativity or Quantum Mechanics is only 50% of the time  correct, we don’t use iPhone, nor GPS — my words 🙂    Therefore, Arctic ice decrease doesn’t prove global warming and without analyzing all the tens of thousands of thermometer stations, any “feeling” for global warming is only human illusion — that seems to be what he meant.

In a sense, the author acts like a real physicist and different aspects of what he’s  written probably “offend” both environmentalists or anti-environmentalists, everybody !  I’ve never read any book in this kind of subject but since he’s been a particle physicist/cosmologist etc., I think I can read 300 pages of what he has to say in this subject, probably not worse than anyone else’s.  [  I’ve almost never bothered reading scientific books written by scientific journalists as somehow I don’t think they’d give me too much physics insight … ]

The author said that a president shouldn’t close nuclear plant just because of the Fukushima accident.  Nobody has yet died due to radiation leak and the potential death in the future due to cancer (as a result of leaked radiation) is about 100 (using average exposure as he’s shown in the book), much than smaller than ~15000 (or more recent number ~19000 ) deaths in tsunami/earthquake.  Too bad that people can’t complain to Mother Nature (or God ?) and the nuclear plant seems an easy target to blame.  I like this “Denver” standard.

I just took my Radiation Worker challenging exam. at BNL this week (to avoid those several hour training every 2 years).  It’s said that the average background dose in US is 0.36 rem per year (not a number from this book).  Denver has additional 0.3 rem per year (compared to average US).  But the cancer rate in Denver is lower than average US.  ICRP recommends additional radiation < 0.1 rem per year (I guess this applies when people build laboratories etc.).  With this standard, Denver needs to be evacuated.  He mentioned that the highest number from Dick Garwin, 1500 (well above his ~100 but still only 10% of 15000), comes from extrapolation for 70 years assuming radiation not getting covered/cleaned/washed away, and if we use his assumption, it means that there will be a cancer excess of 5000 in Denver !  ( I also learnt from this book that we have ~20% chance of getting cancer naturally due to causes not understood, p. 17, 5thline from the bottom. )

I’m very amused and his next chapter is to analyze and conclude that Gulf oil spill is (by far) not the worst disaster as Obama has claimed etc. etc.  I can see his smug face.  Though he seems to be writing a book for the general public, I can’t help thinking that he probably thinks only physicists or scientists have “brains” to think …. hahaha … he’d certainly deny that but I just couldn’t help thinking of that while reading.   The author does show a lot of calculations and you can see how he gets his final numbers from his assumptions.  This has great education values and the transparency manifests great scientific principle.  A guy in who must like electric car a lot has found a problem with his number (everybody else seems to give 5 stars or at least 4 stars for this book except this guy, 1 star).  He somehow assumes 500 charges and this results in lithium-ion batteries lasting for at most ~36K miles in his examples (Tesla Roadster, Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf).  But now Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt all have 100K (or 8 years) warranties for their batteries.  The electric car may be still more expensive but not as much as what the author has claimed.   I’m not sure why he ignores the warranties (as they seemed to have been around when he was writing this book).  The battery capacity would decreae 70/80% after a few years though, which would further reduce the range.  This is a major problem for me but the author said that this might not be a problem for (Mainland) Chinese as they were not used to long-range driving as Americans (say) have been.

The book has covered all kinds of energy resources, new or old, renewable or not.  The parts which have interested me the most are fission/reactor and fusion.  I’ve learnt that modern reactors use the natural convection of the water to keep the pump circulating and the reactors shouldn’t have the Fukushima Dai-ichi problem.  Another new breed is “small modular nuclear reactor” which are “intrinsically safe” because when things go wrong, chain reactions would gradually stop and excess heat would be removed by natural convection.  “No engineering systems are required to function for the purpose of safety”.  But US can’t use these “intrinsically safe” reactors yet as US laws require “emergency core cooling system”.  But adding the legally required emergency cooling system would make them less safe.  At this moment (after the Fukushima accident), it’s probably very difficult to ask the US regulators to change any nuclear safety laws.  As for fusion, though the author seems optimistic, it’s at least 20 years for fusion to be a viable source and Homi Bhabha said the same thing (ie. “in 20 years”) even in 1955.  ITER (International Tokamak Experimental Reactor) and the linear collider (particle physics facility) were top two big projects in US a few years ago but their popularities have both have subsized since.  The author now talks about the ITER completion in 2038 !  And I’ve never heard of muon fusion myself.

One number is cute and the author mentions many times.   Most of 0.64 oC is due to human => 0.5 oC => (US contributes 20% for global warming) ie. 0.1 oC => (since automobile contributes 25%) => 1/40 oC in the past 50 years.  In the future 50 years, more cars may increase this value but more efficient cars or higher CAFE standard would tend to decrease this number,  So, it may still be more or less 1/40 oC for US automobile’s contribution to global warming in the next 50 years !  Of course, the author reminds us that China’s greenhouse emission is now probably double of that in US.   Even US or Europe keeps emission low, it doesn’t mean too much if China keeps increasing it.

The author does mention “energy productivity” which includes conservation — the cheapest form of energy is energy not used (p. 294).   He points out that efficiency doesn’t save energy if it encourages more use !  The “decoupling plus” scheme for the utilities in CA was quoted as a successful example improving productivity.  The flat CA electricity per capita usage curve is probably one that Steven Chu (Nobel Prize laureate and the present Energy Secretary) has showed us many times.  The small “price” for the decoupling plus scheme seems to be that the utility price increases a little.  I wonder though whether all these small increases contribute at all to the unbearable cost of living in CA.

Though he says that a US President should lead the US population towards the right US energy policy, balancing energy security and global warming, I believe that even the most illusionary Richard Muller doesn’t really think that a US President would read and understand his book in detail.  Muller claims that when his Energy Secretary and Science Advisor disagree, the President needs to be able to make a judgement (reading his book helps in this aspect).    But I think in this democratic society, US President most likely succumbs to the public opinion and emotions.   From the hint of this book, I’ve found out (from Wikipedia) that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry !  So, even she, with much better knowledge in nuclear safety than any US presidents, had to close nuclear plants in order to gain vote from the anti-nuclear voters, I can’t expect any US presidents would really lead to educate the public and change the public’s opinions if there is real strong opposition !   I think the book is probably more usefully/appropriately “Energy for Future open-minded/intelligent Dictators”.

I think scientists often think problems can be solved scientifically and logically or technically.  But I think “emotion” is what many people have missed in their equations (of course nobody knows how to include “emotion” into their equations !).   Passion/emotion has dictated a lot of decision-making in this world, not just reasons and logics.

Not too indirectly and even without reading this book, “natural gas” seems the most hopeful energy source in the coming decades (for US etc.), because it’s the most economical in all the energy arithmetics,  the problem of fracking etc. is the easiest to solve compared to all other energy sources and it produces half the greenhouse gases that coal does.  Even without reading this book, it’s already evident to me that natural gas has been the way to go for US, even though environmentalists are still fighting to slow down fracking beneath our homes.

From time to time, the author’s humor or personal feeling would resonate with me :

p.4: (lines 5-7) “we take energy for granted…If prices rise, someone must be cheating!” and (lines 29-31) “We are told to conserve energy, but physicists tell us that conservation of energy is not a choice but a law of nature.” — hahaha… !

p. 222 (lines 11-13): “annoyed by people who push biodegradable everything with religious fervor, people who want to outlaw everything plastic as it were intrinsically evil” seems to reflect on what I’ve felt all along !   There he pointed out that non-biodegradable substances have the advantage of not giving out CO2 emission.  Similarly for paper, if global warming is the bigger concern, burying paper might be better than recycling paper.  In p. 131, the author claimed “virtually all paper used in the United States comes from trees specifically grown for that purpose, so recycling paper doesn’t save trees”, though I’m not really convinced.

p. 165 (bottom) – 166 (top) : the author points out that some ideas good for combatting global warming may be opposed by other environmentalists for some other reasons (such as wind turbine threatening birds).  I’m “amused” to see environmentalists fighting each other 🙂

Some sloppiness : p. 84 (9th line), “less than 2 months” should probably be “about 2 months” because 727/9 > 80 days > 2 months.  p. 253: The above-mentioned reader points out that even the battery can last only 36500 miles, driving 109500 miles for Nissan Leaf needs 2 replacements, not 3; and of course, with the warranty, replacements are in principle free of charge.

A few typos: p.69 (10th line), “should omitted” should be “should be omitted”.  In the text for Note 59 on 275, it mentioned Table IV.1 but Table IV.1 appears on p. 282, 5 pages after p. 275, which has made it difficult to find !  p. 281 (2nd in the 1st paragraph), “though” in “read though it casuaally” should be “through”.


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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