The problem with heating "efficiency" (CHP critique part 2)

My criticism of various claims about "Combined Heat and Power" (CHP) or cogeneration systems was something I had thought I could keep brief, since the issue was intuitively clear to me. But explaining my understanding of the subject in straightforward non-scientific language has proven trickier than I'd expected. This post constitutes part 2, and will cover problems with many claims of "efficiency" in heating systems; part 3 will be more specifically focused on the several different types of CHP, what is good about them, and what is frequently over-hyped.

Buzz, Neil, and I (and many others) called it! New directions for NASA...

President Obama's new plan for NASA has been much reported on in the last few days, for example in this commentary at the Washington Post. The decision to cancel the "Constellation" program seems to have come as a surprise to many people, but it's exactly the sort of bold move that many of us have been calling for for some time now. In an era where China and Russia have national programs with successful human spaceflight behind them, while India, Japan, Europe, Brazil, some smaller nations and many private companies already have their own orbital or suborbital capabilities some of which could be extended to human spaceflight, some already announced, developing yet another rocket for travel from Earth's surface seemed stupendously pointless for a NASA that could do so much more good elsewhere.

Peer review failures - another example?

I've discussed scientific peer review here before (one more - I really should get those category tags working!) but RealClimate's discussion of Lindzen and Choi (2009) highlights a particular example of recent peer review standards in sufficient

We have no cookies!

My youngest son (4) loves to browse the videos on the Sesame Street website. It's fun to listen in and watch once in a while, to see what amuses him. One of his favorites recently has been Cookie Monster in the Library (I hope that URL is a stable one - click through to see the video).

What scientific journals do

Michael Clarke over at Scholarly Kitchen has an interesting post today Why Hasn't Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?. As he points out, the World Wide Web was invented to help scientists communicate. Shelly and I recognized this the instant we heard about WWW in late 1993 - pretty early in web history - and submitted a proposal to Physical Review Letters at the time to use web technology to put the journals online. So, all that has in fact happened, but without, for the most part, much disruption of the organizations and companies that do scientific publishing. Is it because those organizations are very smart and nimble and have been able to keep up with the times?

It's only the thought that counts

Discovering truths about the world is not a simple thing. Much of our understanding depends on context - what we already know. One of the central facets of human existence is our relationships with other people, and to the degree we accord others respect and trust, we also assign a higher likelihood of truth to the knowledge of the world that they share. This trust in people is not wrong or irrational - it's a perfectly valid way to economize on the time we need to spend trying to understand. Collectively we are far more intelligent then we would be if we tried to find everything out completely for ourselves. But too much trust in others is also what most frequently leads us astray. In the end, for scientific truths, the only thing that matters is the idea in itself, not the people who came up with it.

Useful energy can only be used once

It's understandable that with all the concern about climate change and talk of "peak oil" that the central issue in both cases, our use of energy, has received a lot of attention. It is also understandable that with that attention have come many instances of what may charitably be called "optimistic business plans", acclaimed for some time, even quite lengthy periods of time, as "the" solution, or a "core" solution to our energy problems. There are some real solutions out there; there is also a lot of hype and hucksterism. With this and one or two follow-on articles I hope to help people not so familiar with the underlying science get a better grasp of the distinction.

Open Access - my comment on the federal OSTP blog

The US Office of Science and Technology Policy has been hosting a discussion on federal open-access publishing policy on their blog. A lot of interesting commentary, although a little overly dominated by Stevan Harnad up to now (but this is exactly up his alley). I think the choices that have been largely looked at though, so far, are too narrow in scope - basically doing something like a big "arxiv.org" or PubMed project on the one hand, or fostering institutional repositories on the other, or some sort of combination. What we really want is not just opening future research, but also expanding access to the vast body of existing research articles - and not just for federally funded US research, but as far as possible, for all of it.

Bragging rights

My one or two irregular readers may have noticed a lack of recent posts. I've had rather a lot of other things to keep me busy lately, some work-related, some family, some energy/climate-hobby related, some church. One of which is our new wood stove for home heating. It's good to be off oil, but I'm starting to wonder if this was really such a good idea, with all the work it's taking to gather wood now!

Leprechauns and climate

Near the beginning of J. K. Rowling's 4th Harry Potter novel, Harry and friends attend an exciting international Quidditch match. In an opening ceremony, leprechauns drop heavy gold coins on the crowd. Attendees rush to gather them up, and readers only discover 20 chapters later that leprechaun gold vanishes after a few hours. It's not real gold, it just looks like the real thing for a brief time. Rowling is quite artful here in portraying a sharp distinction between appearance and reality, a common theme in the series. Much of the plot revolved around the difference between the reality the reader knew, of Harry's knowledge of the threat from his enemy Voldemort, and the appearance to the general public, or even to high authorities, that all was well. Denial of the reality of a looming threat was rampant.

Why I care about climate and energy

I have four children. I expect to have at least that many grandchildren one day. I anticipate the world they inherit to be one filled with technical wonders, as mine has been, and also filled with the richness of life and human history. I fully expect their lives to include consumption of energy at a rate an order of magnitude or greater than mine has been; they will travel the world, and perhaps beyond this planet, with a comfort I never knew. They will build and create in both the virtual and physical worlds, they will have freedoms and capabilities beyond our current imaginations. And I know, without a doubt, that fossil fuels cannot sustain this world I envision for my grandchildren - both because the climate and other pollution implications of that level of fossil consumption would be fatal to that future world, and simply because fossil carbon represents a finite resource whose day has been wondrous, but is passing.

Thoughts on ARPA-E award winners

The Department of Energy's new "ARPA-E" program has released the list of winners of their first round of funding for advanced energy projects (note: the link goes to the ARPA-E home page and so will surely change, there doesn't seem to be a better one yet though). A version of the following comment was posted at DotEarth along with some others.

My Letter to the APS Council on the climate change review

In my earlier story I recommended people write to an APS councillor to express their opinions on the matter. I slightly adapted my comments from that article and sent the following. Others should feel free to use some of this as a template if needed.

Dear Dr. XXX,

I'm hoping you'll be attending the Nov. 8 APS Council meeting, or able to forward this along to those who will be there. I'm very concerned about this proposal to "revise" the current statement on climate change. As an APS life member I absolutely support the statement as it stands - it's brief but extremely clear, and based on the science of the IPCC reports (the 2007 assessment in particular, where the analyses of the three working groups seem nicely echoed in the three paragraphs of the current APS statement).

Kreisler at night

And now for something completely different...

I started writing here in an attempt to open up things about my life that have been somewhat private, but in my own self-indulgence I've felt I ought to share a little more. It's not just thoughts on climate or physics or science that I'm trying to put out here. And the tone's been far too serious lately, so for something a bit lighter... Here's what I've been torturing my kids with the last few weeks, as I've taken up a bit more serious violin practice again, something I hadn't done quite as much of in many years.

The Arrogance of Physicists

First, apropos of some of the discussion below but more urgent than any of that, the council of the American Physical Society is considering revising its 2007 statement on climate change. If you are an APS member with an opinion on the issue, write immediately to one of the councillors; they need your input before the November 8th council meeting.

Improving home energy efficiency: removing recessed lighting fixtures

Last year (2008) we were starting to look at alternatives to our oil-fired burner for heating our house. The house is an almost rectangular 35x60 ft ranch a little over 30 years old, and came with a 1000-gallon buried oil tank, no longer allowed in town codes, so we knew we had to at least get rid of that some time. We finally got that taken care of a few weeks ago. How we're going to heat our house this winter we're still not quite sure. Anyway... one of the interesting options then (and now) was a geothermal heat pump system, and we had several contractors come in and give us quotes. Not cheap at all, mainly because we would have to switch from baseboard radiators to forced air, and putting in the ductwork and vents would take a lot of labor. But there's a 30% federal credit available so we may still go that route.

One more reasonable constraint on two-box empirical models of Earth's climate

One of my more recent posts on the two-box model explored the space of possible underlying models for a given empirical fit by fixing heat capacities of the two boxes and varying the heat transfer rate. Keeping the time constants positive restricts the range of allowed heat capacities considerably, while forcing fraction (x) and temperature measurement fraction (y) also provide some constraints given the expectation they must lie between 0 and 1 (and must have actual solutions). Even among solutions satisfying those constraints, there is a further condition that the results look reasonable - as pointed out there and by Lucia here, some of the solutions produce wildly different response levels for the two boxes, which seems unrealistic for systems that should roughly correspond to sub-components of Earth's climate.

How to lose money in the stock market without really trying

Buy high, sell low. Works every time. The other day I sold stock for $1800 that I had originally purchased for $12,000, and was happy to do it. Read on for the details!

Most of our "playground" investment portfolio (as opposed to the serious ones in retirement and college funds) is invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency-related company stocks. It's actually doing pretty well this year, up almost 85%. Of course, that doesn't quite make up for the 55% drop in 2008, but anyway... I'm fairly confident that these companies are doing things that are essential for the future of our nation and our world, so I'm happy to invest in them even when that investment ends up being at a loss. But Daystar Inc (DSTI) was a bit of a special case.

Physics and its mathematical abstractions

I've been discussing in some detail here a mathematical model of the response of Earth's climate to radiative forcings, trying to address some of the concerns expressed elsewhere on the need for such a model to be "physically realistic". In the case of the two-box model, a given fit of the response function to a two-time-constant decay curve could come from one of many different underlying physical models that correspond to a partitioning of Earth's climate system into two parts with different response rates. So the question has been whether any of these possible underlying physical models are in some way "realistic" or not. That essentially reduces to criteria on the magnitude of the various constants and partial outcomes in the model relative to real components of our planet.

Heat transfer in the two-box model

The following proved a little long to be just an update to the previous post; I guess one should never say never. Nevertheless I don't anticipate a need for anything more on this model.

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