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Archive for January, 2011

Remember when you became an adult?  You reached a steady state in your growth and physical changes didn’t come that fast.  There weren’t that many signs or signals indicating that you were getting older.  Some people even denied that they would ever get old!  Maybe you started gaining some weight.  Then one time you were on your knees painting the baseboard and for the first time in your life you needed assistance getting back up.  Time started going by a lot faster and you were surprised how fast physical and mental changes were becoming evident until finally, before you realized it, you were living in a building with a lot of strange neighbors and a staff of white-coated attendants.   You were confused much of the time and several times when you tried to sit down in your wheelchair the brakes hadn’t been set and you landed hard on the floor.  You thought life went on forever but then your fever turned to pneumonia and it turned out that life really was short.

We can’t see the gases in the atmosphere.  It’s mostly inert nitrogen and thankfully the rest is oxygen.  There are some minor gases, too.  Some of these minor gases like carbon dioxide and methane have been there forever.  Others, like the gases DuPont made for refrigeration, are new.  Because these minor gases are so few, a change in their concentration can have a significant effect on total atmospheric function and balance.  For instance, it was discovered that the DuPont gases were causing a hole in the protective ozone layer.  That fact was of course denied by the company until independent scientists proved it to public officials.  Then DuPont made another refrigeration gas and this one holds heat.  Still, none of this can be seen by our eyes and so for some it’s hard to accept.

Just as large rocks and boulders can hold heat from the sun, any large molecule with three or more atoms can absorb infrared radiation emitted by the Earth.  And as your winter coat keeps you warm, the increasing concentration of these molecules won’t let the Earth cool itself and that destabilizes the atmosphere.  The molecules include: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfurhexoflouride (SF6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).  At the present time, carbon dioxide is the dominant minor gas in the atmosphere and with methane, the two are increasing rapidly.

Through the last million years of cooling and warming, ice core samples show that atmospheric carbon dioxide rose and fell between the limits of 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm).  Back then it took at least a thousand years for a 30 ppm change to occur.  Today, measurements show that carbon dioxide has increased from 260 to nearly 390 ppm in the short period from 1850 to 2010, a mere 160 years.  Even more startling, an increase of 30 ppm has been observed in just the last 18 years.  With these rates of emissions, we are almost certain to pass 400 ppm in this decade and 500 ppm is clearly possible within fifty more years.

This year’s snow and freezes have been welcomed by global warming skeptics.  But as global warming matures we can expect to see unexplained bumps along the road.  The hard knocks that support the theory are water scarcity across Asia, Africa and Latin America while at the same time, global rainfall and fire-igniting, lightning strikes increase; record setting events such as tropical storm Faye crossing Florida four times; permanent drought spreading in Australia and the American Southwest; more jellyfish in warmer oceans; more weather-related disasters around the world; phytoplankton, the oxygen-producing foundation of the marine food web, dramatically reduced by acidic, warmer water.  And some climate scientists now say human-induced, higher Arctic temperatures and sea ice melt alter the northern jet stream forcing more cold air down toward the southern United States.

Carbon dioxide molecules have an extremely long life in the atmosphere.  They can outlive man by a hundred years and more.  That means the effects we’re watching now will still be here in fifty years.  And as humans continue to trash more CO2 into the thin atmosphere surrounding the Earth, we must wonder which forms of life won’t be able to survive.

Sam Kendall

The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, 111th Congress, Final Report.

Thoughts of a Citizen, Scientist and Grandpa on Climate Change, Eric P. Grimsrud, iUniverse, Inc., 2009.

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In his book, Your World Is About To Get a Whole Lot Smaller, Toronto economist Jeff Rubin argues that Americans never pointed their finger at the real cause of the great 2008 recession.  We blame fraudulent credit reporting agencies, unscrupulous mortgage companies, “fat cat” bankers and even the federal government.  All these and more may have played a role in the economic dip, but Rubin argues that the main cause of the down cycle was the high price of oil.  When a barrel of it reached $140 and gasoline topped $4/ gallon in 2008, commerce could barely continue.  Businesses couldn’t afford to deliver their goods.  Shippers couldn’t afford diesel for international trade.  Truckers were clamoring for biodiesel.  The vast American middle class cut back on their favorite activity: driving.  They stopped driving to grandma’s, let alone Disneyworld.  The result: recession.

Was Big Oil manipulating prices?  Maybe.  But what we see is Big Oil now having to share this dwindling resource with a much larger audience, namely, the rest of the world.  In Saudi Arabia, formerly our largest supplier, the expanding middle class is buying and driving automobiles and feels entitled to burn their own oil.  We all know that China and India are trying to copy the American dream with a car for everyone.  Expanding middle classes in countries around the world are now competing for the oil the US depends on.  The result: higher gasoline and diesel prices in the US.  Another result, God forbid: drilling in Arctic waters.

The recession dropped oil to $35 a barrel in 2009, but it hasn’t taken long for the price to rebound.  After all, the American economy depends on oil for commerce.  Economic recovery equals oil consumption equals higher gasoline prices.  By December of 2010, oil had already passed $90 a barrel.  Rubin predicts that it will keep going up to probably $120 by this summer.  Can we have a double dip recession?  Of course, we can.  Can we do worse than that?  What will happen to the economy when oil reaches $150 per barrel?

The recovery from this stubborn downturn is taking longer because more people now understand the cause.  We have to break our bond to oil.  This means gearing up a brand new energy infrastructure.  It means building plants to produce sustainable biofuels and building cars capable of running on these fuels.  It means building electric cars and solar panel factories and wind turbine factories to provide clean and sustainable electricity to charge the EVs.  It means eliminating the inefficiencies in public transportation and building fast rail systems designed for people and not just freight.  Creating the new energy infrastructure is taking time and money, not to mention facing political and regulatory barriers.  We are all going to have to suffer some inconveniences and price swings as new fuels make  their way into the marketplace.  The work force will have to embrace retraining to move employment back to normal levels.

The good news is that new government standards for biofuel production have created new business opportunities.  According to an article in Florida Trend, the Energy and Security Act of 2007 means that 270 million gallons of ethanol is needed in Florida every year.  There are currently no plants producing here.  Scanning Florida newspapers over the last three months, I have found seventeen new companies planning, or already investing in, alternatives to oil.  Others may be out there.  Some of these will come on line in 2011.  Thanks to the determination of Congressman John Mica, Central Florida will soon have a commuter rail system and with Senator Bill Nelson the two successfully pressed for Tampa-Orlando, federal high speed rail money.  We citizens shouldn’t be tempted to go back to the old ways either.  Auto manufacturers are providing flex-fuel, electric, hybrid and higher efficiency vehicles and we all need to make the effort to stay out of the low-mileage, guzzlers of the past.  The time line for success of the transition to sustainable fuels depends on how willingly our society will support these new businesses and vehicles.  This is the beginning of the end of the volatile, oil dependency culture.

Sam Kendall

Alternative Fuel Companies

Southeastern Renewable Fuels, Hendry County, sweet sorghum to ethanol; Clean Fuel Lakeland, Polk County, biodiesel; Highlands Envirofuels, Highlands County, sweet sorghum to ethanol; Agri-Source Fuels, Dade City, biodiesel; Vercipia Ethanol, Highlands County, cellulosic ethanol; Vision/FL, Osceola County, sweet sorghum to ethanol; INEOS Bio, Vero Beach, ethanol from waste; Mad Dog Mulching, Tampa, corn ethanol; Algenol Biofuels, Lee County, algae to ethanol; U of F testing facility, Taylor County, cellulosic ethanol; Wise Gas, Fort Lauderdale, compressed natural gas; Coskata, Hendry County, sugar cane to ethanol; Smart Fuels, Lake County, biodiesel; Energy One, Lake Wales, corn ethanol; LS9, California advanced fuel company with demonstration facility in Florida; Alternative Fuels America, Gainesville, biodiesel; Integrated Energy Partners, Santa Rosa County, biodiesel.

Jeff Rubin BLOG

Florida Trend: Profile on Energy in Florida

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