In the media

I’m working on a paper on the media debate around an “electricity crisis” in Mid-Norway, which you’ll hear more about soon, but for now take a look at an interview with my advisor in the Norwegian research website It’s in Norwegian, I’m afraid, but the upshot is that the Norwegian electricity system is not capable of handling large fluctuations in electricity demand.

These days, the debate has moved to the situation in Western Norway, which I believe just goes towards strengthening our argument. After all, nothing has yet changed in Mid-Norway…


More of this, please

Another day, another victory for Marxist/Critical culture theory, as seen in this excellent and very grumpy breakdown of a trip to The Crayola Factory: A Hands-On Discovery Center. Not often do you see so many serious theorists being invoked in the analysis of crayon production. But here it is, Marxist alienation, Baudrillardian Spectacle, Debordian Situationism and lots of other nice stuff. Old Frederic Taylor even pops up in some paragraphs:

Kids would take a ball from the bin, and walk it over to a hopper, where it dropped onto a lift, then transferred to a rail high overhead, before dropping back down a pegboard wall into the bin. Then they’d pick the balls back up and start the whole process over again. I noticed kids under 2yo–like K2–really were not following the ball and making the causal connection of their action. The ball would disappear into a box before hitting the elevator; the track was really, really high–like 12 feet high–and bright spotlights made it hard to see the small balls.

Here it was, I thought, the most authentic Factory Experience possible: setting kids to work doing a pointless, repetitive task they didn’t understand for little or no reward. And then just like a Taylorist consultant seeing an inefficient crayonmaking process, I found myself wanting to redesign the ball drop to give these ecstatic little kids a clearer, more immediate, and more visceral sense of accomplishment. In other words, I wanted to alleviate their alienation from the product of their labor.

Great stuff. Good times were had by little people, and equal amounts amusement and disgust was had by bigger people.

The future is tomorrow

I love this technophile stuff: Some scientists are constructing augmented reality contact lenses, Terminator style. As of yet, they’ve only demonstrated the principle (and made some cute little bunnies wear contacts with embedded wiring), but according to the guys themselves, it’s only a question of (little) time before this is a viable technology.

Conventional contact lenses are polymers formed in specific shapes to correct faulty vision. To turn such a lens into a functional system, we integrate control circuits, communication circuits, and miniature antennas into the lens using custom-built optoelectronic components. Those components will eventually include hundreds of LEDs, which will form images in front of the eye, such as words, charts, and photographs. Much of the hardware is semitransparent so that wearers can navigate their surroundings without crashing into them or becoming disoriented. In all likelihood, a separate, portable device will relay displayable information to the lens’s control circuit, which will operate the optoelectronics in the lens.

Looking at some of it, it really seems like the future is already there. They’ve managed to embed LED lights, a small power source (some sort of antenna), and a radio chip into the lenses, and managed to power it wirelessly from a remote source. In the future a small PV panel in the lens itself might provide internal power. All the world’s computer geeks are rubbing their hands, but as usual the major benefits will be in health. A contact lens that checks your blood-sugar, cholesterol, sodium and potassium levels? Yes please.

Conclusion: Go science!

Gender and energy use

Räty & Carlsson-Kanyama show that energy consumption differ according to gender. Not surprisingly, men eat more meat, drink more alcohol and buy and drive more expensive and fuel-intensive cars, and women use more energy on hygiene and clothes. This might not be news, but it’s still nice to have some number on it. Even if those numbers are only (very reasonable!) guesstimations based on a small subset of the population (singles) and inferring energy use from expenditure numbers…

The most interesting finding might actually be that the gender differences in Sweden and Greece are much larger than in Norway and Denmark. I am not surprised that Greece has different consumption patterns from the Scandinavian countries, but why is Sweden so different from its neighbors? It would interesting to see more on this in the future.

Räty, R., & Carlsson-Kanyama, A. (2009). Energy consumption by gender in some European countries Energy Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2009.08.010

It’s nice not to be alone.

Apparently, I’m not the only one currently wrestling Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social. I’m not sure I agree with Scatterplot in their assessment of the French thinker, but it is safe to say that I have some reservations with this work. However, I’m not halfway through yet, so that will have to wait.

Who pays for greenhouse gas emissions?

A story in Scientific American discusses the difficulty of assessing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The oil industry in the United States are as of next year required to report GHG emissions from all their activity, some 13,000 sites. Not surprisingly, the industry organization API (American Petroleum Institute) protests, wanting more lenient regulation:

“We feel that to make this successful, there needs to be some acceptable lead time for facilities, and that should include allowing for best available data … until normal scheduled and planned shutdowns or services at our facilities to install the new monitoring devices,” said API’s Khary Cauthen, who attended the meeting.

Actually, this question is not as simple as it might seem, with the government wanting something and the industry protesting out of old habit. The exact measuring of GHG emissions is a complicated thing, and there might be something in the industry’s claim that “There is not that standard methodology yet”. However, when they want to use “best available data”, isn’t this an exact description of what will be the case under either regime? It would seem to me that normal regulation would require the industry to keep up on the prevailing best way of determining GHG emissions, but allow for some period of adjustment for each new measuring technology. As it is for most of the refinery sites, they have biannual downtime for refitting and upgrades, so the time period wouldn’t be too long.

Furthermore, there is the question of how to define GHG emissions. To quote the article,

The group also argues that the draft rule imposes requirements for reporting on petroleum-products supplies that will result in “significant overstatement” of emissions for some facilities, according to comments that API sent in June to EPA.

This is because some products, such as asphalt and lubricants, are not ultimately burned the group wrote. Also, some products, such as naphtha, require further processing or blending.

“The refinery that processes the feedstock and produces the extra volume of product should be the one that reports,” API wrote. “If a facility has the ability to determine that the stream will not be combusted they should be able to exclude it from their GHG emissions calculations.”

So who should shoulder the burden here? Ideally, some sort of life-cycle analysis of petroleum products should be agreed on, where a form of GHG accounting is set up deciding who takes which expense in a transaction. Example: a refinery receives some crude oil, accounts for their part of the processing of some finished (gasoline) and some half-finished products (naphtha for further refining) and, idunno, half the transporting emission of both kinds to end users (e.g. gas stations) or other refineries. This will be costly and bureaucratic, but that’s the only way to set this up in a just way. Because the API does have some good points. This does not give them carte blanche to dictate terms in all such issues. They can afford this, and they would earn a lot by showing some interest in working with governments in such regulation.

The larger point here is of course the very real problem of having accurate knowledge about human activity. The statistics we have about a large portion of what it is we actually do and buy is simply aggregations and sometimes even just educated guesses. We don’t really know how much traffic there is, we don’t how much is bought and sold of any products (except maybe online goods, but there we have the reporting problems of pirated goods), we don’t know how much money there is in the world, we don’t know how much oil there is and so on and so on. Of course, some of this has to do with surveillance issues, but it also hampers our ability to make efficient policy. A real dilemma, there.

Chinese coal demand will kill us all, maybe

Interesting stuff on China’s coal demand and GDP growth in this article in Energy Policy. Especially interesting are the implications regarding the trustworthiness of the reports and predictions of the large energy institutions of the world. But first, to quote from the abstract:

[T]his paper demonstrates that even with conservative assumptions about Chinese GDP growth and income elasticity of electric demand to 2025, the country will likely experience much higher coal demand and emit much greater volumes of carbon dioxide than forecast by various international energy agencies.

It has a nice slapdown of the International Energy Agency, proving with a few charts that they consistently under-report energy demand for developing countries and are constantly adjusting their forecasts upwards because they refuse to take new numbers into account.

The article also has an interesting discussion of whether or not China misreport their statistics. One is left to wonder where else this could be going on. Oh, Saudi Arabia has been lying about their oil reserves since the 70s (they haven’t changed their projections by a single barrel since 1982, yet have pumped up some 115.000 million barrels of oil since then[1]), we know that, but how much can we trust the US Department of Energy numbers? Or the Norwegian numbers? Of course, they often include the various caveats in their reports, but they are happy to let the projections be reported in the media as absolute truths.

Also, there is a good discussion of the factors that might possibly slow the increase in demand which reminds us of the very physical conditions underlying the somewhat intangible product that is electricity. For example, while use of coal for electricity production has increased from 25% of production to 50%, despite the construction of the Three Gorges dam, this increase might be hampered by the increasing troubles of the Chinese railway system:

China’s railroad cars and tracks are already over-burdened, and a competition for limited rail car capacity has developed among coal, iron ore, steel, grains, and many other commodities, including oil products. The increase in coal transport by rail is outpacing rail track expansion in China, displacing other freight,
and accelerating a shift to less efficient transport by road

But the main point of the article is that the increase in coal use will cause a large increase in carbon emissions. China passed the US in absolute carbon emissions in 2006, but it might increase to double that of the US by 2025 if the increased demand is met. One of the problems, apart from the fact that we will all drown or starve to death when the Climapocolypse comes, is that the leading agencies for energy and climate data keep misreporting or simply omitting these considerations.

PS: In other news, quantum leaps (in the scientific meaning of that expression) are made within quantum computing. Soon, we will be able to shake our heads in wonder at the fantastically weak computers we now use. Soon…

[1] Calculated sloppily from Wikipedia information.

Shealy, M., & Dorian, J. (2009). Growing Chinese coal use: Dramatic resource and environmental implications Energy Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2009.06.051