Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cherry-picking 'figures of merit' to suit your argument: On "Power Hungry" By Robert Bryce

This post is a critical (but humorous) analysis of the book Power Hungry by Robert Bryce. My goal with this post is to remind people that:   books like Power Hungry are what happen when we all can't agree on a meaningful figure of merit by which to judge electricity generating power plants. In the words of the Walter Sobchek, "This isn't 'Nam. There are rules, Smokey." There would be a lot more clarity in Robert Bryce's book if he used one simple figure of merit by which to judge all of the competing technologies discussed in this book. Instead, he uses different criteria throughout the book.

I started reading the book because of the catchy title "Power Hungry: The Myths of Green Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future." I thought that it might do a good job attacking the problems of intermittent energy technologies like wind power. However, I feel like I was taken on a roller coaster ride through the land of energy misinformation. Bryce included just enough good points to keep me interested, and just enough junk to make me feel bad for even picking up the book from the library. I feel like I've just been abused by a lot of facts. Like he put a bunch of heavy facts in a sack, and then beat me with the sack repeatedly. Then after the first beating, he stuffed a bunch of 'figures of merit' into another bag, and then hit me with this bag until I was bloody and unconscious. There are over ten different 'figures of merits' that Bryce discusses depending on whether he wants you to 'like' or 'hate' the particular technology he's discussing at the moment. And he often changes his mind on a technology from chapter to chapter. In some chapters, he's pro-solar and, in some chapters, he's anti-solar. He confuses the reader because he cherry-picks his favorite figure of merit from chapter to chapter.

Is the correct figure of merit we care about the 'energy density'?  Or is it the power density?  Or perhaps it's the price/kW-hr? But the price today or the price tomorrow? Or perhaps it's the amount of steel and concrete used? Or perhaps it's the amount of birds killed? Better yet, perhaps it's the ability to scale up the technology in the next decade? Or perhaps it's the efficiency?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Intro to Economics for Physicists Part 3: GDP, Velocity of Money, and Money Supply

In a previous post, I discussed how printing money can be inflationary, if all other things stayed the same in our society. However, as with everything in macroeconomics, nothing stays the same. So, I'll discuss the relationship between the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the Velocity of Money, and the Money Supply. In a work- or electricity-backed currency, the units for these terms are:   Power [GW],  Frequency  [1/yr], and Work [GW-yr], respectively. In these units, it's fairly easy to see the relationship between the terms.

There is a rather famous equation used by economists to describe the relationship between Price, Quantity, Velocity of Money, and Money Supply. This is sometimes called Fisher's Equation. In simple terms, the equation is:

GPD = SUM(P x Q) =  M  x  V

where GPD = the gross domestic product   [$   or  kW-hr  ]
P = the price of a final product                    [$/unit    or   kW-hr/unit ]
Q = the quantity of a final product               [unit]
M = money supply                                    [$       or  GW-hr ]
V = velocity of money                                [1/yr]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Electricity Regulation and Deregulation: The Past and Future

Buried at the end of a previous post, I included a few links to free training on electricity grids and electricity markets that have been graciously placed on online by the PJM, which operates the world's largest competitive wholesale electricity market and North America's largest power grid. For those of you looking for an exciting job in the electricity business, the PJM has job opening at its HQ in Valley Forge, PA. [Note that PJM stands for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, but the actual area covered by this Independent System Operator (ISO) is now much larger than the three states listed in its name.]

While I've talked a lot about electricity-backed currency, I've specifically not discussed the question of regulation vs. deregulation of electricity markets. Mostly, I've avoided this topic because there's already been a lot of discussion on this topic because there's a lot of real world examples of the pro's and con's of electricity deregulation. There are success stories, like England/Wales, and then there are horror stories, like in California. Most countries have tried some form of electricity deregulation by now, and there are a few 'best practices' that are starting to rise to the top. A good review article on this topic can be found online at Paul Joskow's MIT website, and it's called Lessons Learned from Electricity Market Liberalization.

This post is intended to highlight some of the 'lessons learned' in Joskow's article as well as those given by Rothwell & Gomez in their 2003 book Electricity Economics. Some forms of regulations are better than others, so I'll summarize what I can glean from Joskow's article and Rothwell&Gomez's book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Everyday, Ever Changing Social Contract

What is the Social Contract? Is there an unwritten social contract? What are the best forms of government?
These are some of the questions that have bothered philosophers throughout the ages, and in particular, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While most of my posts have avoided questions of politics, there is no way to avoid questions of politics. It's impossible to avoid politics because we make political choices everyday...not just ever two or four years. In my opinion, politics is an everyday things that we all do, regardless of whether we vote in an election. Politics is the term to describe all social interactions that are related to questions of forming human relationships. This includes all of the secular and religious organization we form. Without relationships, there are just the individual humans trying to survive on their own. We are all constantly making guesses about whether to join into new relationships, such as friendship, love, work, location community organizations or national organizations.

In every relationship, there are advantages and disadvantages. We can't predict the future, so we can never know the benefit of joining into a new relationship or in leaving a current relationship. (And this is why I'm interested in this subject. The reason that we can't predict the future of the universe is that the laws of physics are not reversible, and this leads to the second law of thermodynamics. There is an element of uncertainty in any large system. And now getting back to this post...) Humans, like all other living creatures, are ever-changing, naturally-selected life-forms whose goal is to consume as much exergy as possible (such as sunlight, wind, coal, geothermal, oil, biomass, etc...). The question is: how do we consume as much exergy as possible if we can't predict the future?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Popping the Gold Bubble by Selling US Gold Reserves

In earlier posts, I've discussed the topic of backing a nation's currency with something of universal & measurable value, such as electricity. However, nearly every week there are calls for a return to the gold standard (and even Congressional hearing by Rep. Ron Paul on the subject.) Gold does not have a universal value. While I respect the calls to move away from a fiat money supply, returning back to the gold standard would be artificial and potentially dangerous. Here's the problem: gold has very little value in our society, besides as jewelry.

Buying gold and hoping that it will gain value is much like the bubbles we're seen in the past. Examples of bubbles in the past were: the Dutch tulip bubble in 1637, the South Sea Company bubble of 1720, and the housing bubble of pre-2008, to name just a few.

I don't want to speculate on future bubbles, but I want to point out that I think that buying gold and hoping that the price of gold will increase is a very bad idea. Why? I'll take a few sentences to explain the problem of treating gold as an investment.

The US stores on the order of 300 million troy oz of gold in its two main depositories, roughly 140 million troy oz in Fort Knox, and roughly 160 million troy oz near Manhattan. This is roughly 6 years worth of production of gold, given that the world produces ~50 million troy oz of gold each year. And 300 million troy oz is roughly 2.5% of the total world's gold that has already been mined. Using a current estimate of the price of gold of $1600 $/troy oz, this means the the US is storing roughly $480 billion in gold. Some of the stored gold is for other countries or organization, so let's estimate that the US has $400 billion in gold stored at Fort Knox and below Manhattan. Considering that the US currently spends over $2 trillion each year and is over $14 trillion in debt, even if the US were to sell all of its gold reserves, it would barely help the current deficit, let alone help the debt. However, if the US were to sell its reserves, then the price of gold would most likely start plummeting. And here's why.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Problem with Intermittent Sources of Electricity

As I've mentioned in prior posts, we should not compare electricity generating technologies based off of their Levelized Cost of Electricity. The reason is that different types of electricity can sell for different amounts of electricity. The goal of this post is to describe a little bit about how an efficient electricity grid operates, and then one can see the inherent problems of intermittent sources of electricity, especially wind.

There are requirements for the electricity grid to maintain a set AC frequency. The exact requirements vary from region, in most places the frequency is 60 Hz and the variation in the frequency can be no greater than roughly +/- 0.1 Hz. This frequency is maintained as the demand changes through a combination of day-ahead contracts to large power producers (such as nuclear and coal) as well as minute-to-minute contracts to small-scale peak-following power plants (such as hydro-electric and natural gas). In addition, the grid is maintained at 60 Hz through the use of spinning reserve. This is mostly steam and gas turbines that can pick up or take both real and imaginary power (Voltage and Vars) on a second-to-second basis.

This means that a natural gas power plant can generate revenue if it produces no electricity, and vice versa, a wind farm can produce electricity and generate no revenue. This is the main reason why the Rate of Return on Investment is a much better figure of merit when comparing competing electricity generating technologies.

More discussion of the Arrow of Time & the Weak Nuclear Force

This post is a continuation of my previous post on the reason for the direction of the arrow of time. I also  placed a post like this on the Physics Forum because this is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating open questions for science. So, I'm going to continue this discussion here because somebody on the Physic Forum placed a link to a 1-hr long presentation by Sean M Carroll on the Big Bang and the Arrow of Time. The video is quite interesting to watch, and I think that the lecture does a really good job of raising the question: where does the directionality of the arrow of time come from?  My problem is not with his talk per se, but Sean M Carroll seems to be missing something really important. I'll quote a few of his statements below and then discuss the problems with the statements.

--"But the arrow of time is no where to be found in the fundamental laws of physics."

and again:

--"The laws of physics do not point in any direction...they are reversible...
play a movie backwards or forwards, and you won't know which way it goes."

The problem with these statements is that they are not correct. Not all of the equations of physics are reversible. For example, the weak nuclear force does not have a time reflection symmetry operator, and because of this, it is not reversible. A movie run backwards or forwards will look very different when the weak nuclear force is involved.

It appears in fact that the weak nuclear force is the cause of the arrow of time. Knowledge of the exact microstate of the universe decreases with time...i.e. the entropy increases because the weak nuclear force adds in a source of randomization because this force of nature is not time reversible.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What is the source of the directionality of time?

I've been thinking a lot recently about why time only seems to go in one direction. There's still an on-going debate in the scientific community about why (or if) there is a directionality to time. So, I'd like to highlight a few of the opinions in this area. (Other thoughts on this subject can also be found here. And be sure to check out the very end of this post where I discuss research from March 2011 that possible supports the theory that the weak nuclear force is the reason for the directionality of time.)

The directionality of time is an illusion.  As stated by Albert Einstein: "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."  Einstein stated this in part because all of the laws of physics (at that point in time) had time reversal symmetry and in part because special relativity tells us that the lifetime of a unstable particle in our reference frame is a function of how fast it is moving with respect to our reference frame. You can't talk about absolute time if different reference frames can't agree on which event came before another event. (see the barn-door thought experiment.)
The idea of time as an illusion has come under attack from multiple scientific directions; here are a few of the major arguments against time as an illusion.

Prigogine:  The directionality of time is due to the fact that there are many particles, which form resonances and singularities such that the future is not longer predictable from the initial conditions. The generation of entropy in chemical and biological process, according to Prigogine, shows that there is a directionality to time. Even more, Prigogine argues that systems far-from-equilibrium exhibit a 'history.' Examples are system with hysteresis or biological evolution. So, for Prigogine, the directionality of time and the meaning of time stems from systems far-from-equilibrium. The concept of time disappears once the system reaches equilibrium. And interestingly, the entropy of a system (either in equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium) is not a function of position, velocity, or angle at which one views the system. So, entropy and special relativity are not at odds with each other, even though absolute time and special relativity are at odds with each other.