Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Richard Feynman & The Philosophy of Science

After a series of posts on the topic of energy policy and economics, I thought that it'd be a good time to take a break and delve back into what got me interested in energy policy in the first place: Physics.
So,  I've pieced together some thoughts about the person who captivated me the most during college: Richard Feynman. It's crazy seeing interviews of him on YouTube. During college, all I had were his books. Way back in grad school, I found a few tapes of his lectures series in the school's library. I'm glad that somebody posted interviews with him online. More graduate program classes need to expose students to Feynman. His character shines through in any of these mediums.


    Richard Feynman’s concept of science places physics as the backbone for all other sciences. In his view, all sciences are similar in the fact that the work in each field can be reduced to a set of laws. In the first three lectures from his Lectures on Physics, Feynman makes claims about the nature of science, such as: the laws, the nature of experimentation, the need for predicting, and the relationship between fields of science. Feynman gives insight into the basis for what is a science and what is not a science, but he is vague about how his views conform to or disagree with the the numerous philosophical theories about science. One problem I have with Richard Feynman is that he had virtually no respect for philosophy as a field of study. And so, while I highly respect Richard Feynman as a scientist and a teacher, I think that his view on philosophy is sort of skewed.
   With that having been said, reading the collection of works by Richard Feynman had by far and away the most impact on my decision to study physics in college and graduate school. His way of explaining physics was beautiful and simple. However, I often disagree with his philosophy of life, which I will summarize right now as:  "The goal of life is to discover the laws of the universe."
   The problem I wish to discuss in the post is the following: what is Feynman's justification for his philosophy of life? Is there any physical grounding for this philosophy of life? Is this a good philosophy of life to hold? And why did he have such low respect for philosophers who might not agree with Feynman's philosophy of life, and instead were interested in exploring the logical consequences of other philosophies of life?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Oil Subsidies, Politics, & The Strategic Oil Reserve

This is just a short post before my non-energy post later today on physics, philosophy & Richard Feynman.

I was in abject shock today after hearing that President Obama asked oil producers to increase output after, earlier this morning, he send a letter to Congress asking politicians to remove subsidies from the oil companies. Why would any oil producer increase output if they are going to see increased taxes (due to the removal of subsidies)? How does Obama expect to lower the price of oil if he is threatening to remove the subsidies? Does he expect everybody in the oil industry to starting working twice as hard, or for half the amount of pay? You can't threaten to use the Department of Justice to go after the oil companies, while expecting the oil companies to increase output. There is no conspiracy behind the high oil prices we are seeing today. The high oil prices are due to increased demand (as we are starting to pull out of the recession), due to decreased production in many countries (US gulf, Mexico's Cantarell oil field, North Sea, etc...), due to switching to more expensive summer-grade gasoline (with a higher boiling point), and due to fear of regime change in Saudi Arabia & other Middle Eastern countries.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wisdom of France's Electricity Policy: The Decision to Go Nuclear in France

In a previous post, I discussed Germany's Electricity Follies and talked about how Germany has been making a lot of poor decisions in their electricity policy (such as over-subsidizing solar PV and starting to shut down old nuclear power plants.) These decisions will likely either lead to Germany's increased dependence on foreign natural gas or to Germany's decreased economic output.

On the other hand, I think that France has a rosy future. France decided long ago to stick with nuclear fission power, and I don't think there's any real turning back now. This decision seems extraordinarily wise because France is in a good position to grow in the future. While nuclear power is typically more expensive than fossil fuel power (either coal or natural gas), France's lack of any real reserves of fossil fuels (as opposed to China or the US) means that nuclear power is competitive with other forms of electricity. (So, while I'll argue here that France made the right choice to go nuclear, I don't necessarily believe that it's the right choice for the US or China, but it would have been a good choice for Germany who has already consumed most of the economically recoverable fossil fuels.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Intro to Economics for Physicists: Part 2: Rate of Return & Risk

This is a continuation of the Intro to Economics for Physicists Part 1, which was an introduction to some of the vocabulary used in the study of economics, but given in terms that may have more meaning for those people who consider themselves physicists at heart.

Highlights include: a) there is no reason why we can't use SI units in economics, such as measuring GDP in GW-hr / year. This means that we can get rid of the units of dollars or euros or yen from the study of economics. b) In order to make economics more like a science, we need to de-humanize it. We need to remove the un-quantifiable term "utility" and replace it with a quantity that can be measured, that incorporates our environment, and that should be optimized. That quantity is the "rate of production of entropy" due to all life forms.

This post is devoted to explaining the relationship between the rate of return on investment and risk. One way of calculating the rate of return on investment is to calculate the effective interest rate such that the net present value (NPV) is zero. This is also called the Internal Rate of Return. The IRR is inflation-adjusted and averaged over the lifetime of the project. While rate of return is fairly easy to calculate (given assumptions on capital costs and projected income), it is a lot more difficult to calculate the risk associated with a particular project.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The disconnect between Academia, Government, and Industry: System Efficiency? Cost of Electricity? Rate of Return?

There is currently a large disconnect between academia, government, and industry when it comes to "knowing" what we should be optimizing when we build power plants. Some times, the disconnect makes visible when two people at a conference, even two researchers who may know each outside of the conference, get defensive and verbally combative. That is, they go into fight or flight mood when nobody is holding a gun to our heads. But most of the time, the disconnect never physically materializes because we've learned not to listen to people on the other side of a debate.

We, in the electricity-generating research community, seem to be wasting a lot of time because we are talking over each others heads because we can't agree on a common figure of merit to judge the performance of a power plant. On some days, it feels like we should just stop all our research and just agree on one figure of merit. Some people are trying to minimize water usage per kWh; some are trying to maximize sustainability; some want independence from foreign fuels; some don't care as long as it's "renewable and promotes jobs"; others are trying to minimize greenhouse gas emissions per kWh; some are trying to minimize the levelized cost of efficiency; a few are trying to maximize rate of returns on investment; while most are trying to maximize the system efficiency.

So, this post is devoted to looking at how different groups in the "Energy" field are currently optimizing different figures of merit, and are therefore effectively communicating in different languages.