Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Windsday 2019

Happy Windsday!

It's been years since we've experienced a proper jet stream-induced Windsday.
Consider the jet stream, a fast-moving horizontal river of air at approximately the 300 millibar level (about 30,000 feet above sea level). Bernoulli's principle explains that, where the air is flowing fastest, the air pressure is lowest. It's a positive feedback loop because the jet stream sits over the regions of the lowest pressure and the pressure is lowest where the air is moving fastest. It's like a mountain pass that allows the air to blow through--only this pass can move and change course.

High pressure systems are associated with warm and sunny weather. Low pressure systems are associated with 'disturbed', cloudy and stormy weather.
Last night, I read several tweets from journalists remarking about the ripping Santa Anas. It didn't feel like a Santa Ana--too cold and not dry enough. I quickly took a look at the California Regional Weather Server Jet Stream Analysis webpage.

Universal time/UTC/Z is 7 hours ahead of PDT so this was 23PDT 9 APR 2019.  Note the peak of 136 knots right over LA in the jet stream analysis.
We've lived with the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge for so long, we forgot what it feels like when the jet stream dips south over us.

It seems like the satellite image overlay is no longer active at either CRWS or the Naval Research Lab links I provided earlier.  Research funding scarcity and the privatization of data from public satellites was just too much to overcome.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Towards a better wardrobe

Kate at the Time to Sew blog (@timetosew on IG) asked me what I think about the arguments presented by Nina Marenzi on the Wardrobe Crisis podcast.  I listened to the entire 36 minute podcast just so I can hear a few minutes of scientific tidbits.

(Why are podcasts so popular?  Are we being gas-lit about the popularity of podcasts the same way FB lied about the popularity of video news?  Don't busy people want more info in less time?)

Nina Marenzi made some good points, but, there wasn't an opportunity for her to address the issues deeply in 36 minutes (!) while establishing rapport (talking about childhood pets) and establishing culture cred (music), etc.


In short, she said that we have a crisis of topsoil.  We are in danger of using up all of the world's topsoil in 60 years unless we change the way we do things.  You get no argument from me on that one.

Then we hit an uh-oh, when she segued into organic agriculture and biodynamic farming.  We use labels as cognitive shorthand; organic is supposed to represent a sustainable way of farming.  It's true that, on average, organic farmer tends to be kinder to the environment than conventional agriculture.  But, if you have been reading my blog, you know that organic is no panacea.

One problem is that organic farming does not necessarily preserve topsoil.  The opening chapters of Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, deal with how organic lettuce at Whole Foods is grown in northern California.

 The land is tilled, watered and weeds  are allowed to grow. Then they plow the weeds under and repeat the process. Fewer weeds should sprout the second time.  After plowing the weeds under a second time, they actually grow the lettuce.

They follow this wasteful practice in lieu of hand weeding because they simply do not have enough labor to hand weed the enormous acreage required to feed our demand for organic lettuce.

The damage wrought by that organic lettuce is enormous. They lost topsoil with each tilling. They pumped groundwater from a critically overdrafted aquifer to grow two crops of weeds and one crop of lettuce. Along the way, they used up 57 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of arugula.

(That is not counting the energy for you to go shop for the arugula and get it home.  I sound like a broken record, but the biggest change you can make is how you (and your stuff) get around.  An electric car sitting in traffic is still another car in traffic.  Get out of your car already.)

Read Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron for an idea of what I am talking about. The problem with EWG's Dirty Dozen is that they only test for synthetic pesticides (the ones not used in organic farming.)  No one is routinely testing for pesticides used in organic farming that can be hazardous to the environment, farm workers, and consumers.

Why You Shouldn't Buy Organic Based on the "Dirty Dozen" List [Updated for 2019]
The “Dirty Dozen” list, which aims to rank the fruits with the most pesticide residue, comes from the Environmental Working Group, and they publish their methodology on the report’s website. They basically download the test results from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, which samples produce for pesticide residues, and come up with a ranking score for each fruit or vegetable based on six criteria relating to the number of different pesticide residues seen on produce of that type, the percentage of samples with pesticide residues, and the total amount of pesticide detected.

There’s a problem here. Some pesticides are drastically more toxic than others, but the EWG’s scoring system considers all pesticides to be equal, and they don’t relate the pesticide amounts to known safety standards. Two food scientists did a reality check on the EWG’s numbers from their 2010 list (which uses the same methodology as this year’s). Their analysis was published in the Journal of Toxicology.

They compared the amount of pesticides on each of the Dirty Dozen foods to the chronic reference dose, which is the maximum amount that it’s okay to have if you are eating that food every day of your life. This level, just to be safe, is one hundred times less than the amount that experimental animals were able to consume with no effects. It’s a pretty big safety margin. So how many of the Dirty Dozen exceeded this extremely conservative chronic reference dose? None:
You should read the entire well-researched article.  Author Beth Skwarecki echoes the points chemist and farmer friends have made to me.  It's preferable to buy from a farmer that sprays glyphosate once than from a farmer that sprays organic pesticides repeatedly.  Insects can develop resistance to any pesticide, organic or synthetic.  It's the repeated spraying that breeds pesticide resistance--superbugs and superweeds.

A friend says that he sprays glyphosate once per growing season.  It makes a big difference in his farm's yield and water use.  His orchard is too big to weed manually.  But the glyphosate plus manual weeding of stragglers is working for him, even though he can't sell his fruit as organic.

Did you know that in some parts of India, the chickpea borer has become such a big problem, that farmers cannot grow one of their primary sources of protein?  The best hope for these farmers is to grow BT chickpeas, which are resistant to the borer.  I'm not going to tell a farmer that they are better off starving than using GM technology.

That flexible approach to production that uses technology to improve efficiency while being safer for the environment, the people working in agriculture, and the consumers.

Let's get back to the podcast.  Marenzi made solid points about how we should expand our market basket of fibers beyond cotton and polyester.

She said that polyester makes up 70% of the fiber in global clothing production.  Cotton makes up ~23% and all other fibers make up about 7%.

She said that we should use more linen and hemp, which grow readily with little chemical input and can grow on more marginal land.  One of the big problems with cotton is that it uses up topsoil and water at alarming rates.  It also requires good quality land and fresh water.  GMO cotton can be engineered to grow in soils and with water that contains more salts than organic cotton can tolerate.  In a world with 7 billion people (and growing), we need fiber crops that don't compete with food crops for land and water.

They talked about fiber shedding in laundering and the amount of fibers that end up in the oceans and waterways.  Acrylic sheds the most fibers of all.  I expected cotton and natural fibers to also shed and find their way into the water.  But I did not expect them to persist.  After all, they are biodegradable.  I thought wrong.  The oceans are full of small fibers, natural and synthetic.

This makes me glad that I live in Los Angeles, where our waste water is screened, treated and micro-filtered at a minimum.  Some are even nano-filtered or undergo reverse osmosis and UV treatment to make them potable again.

She mentioned the grave and irreversible damage done by cashmere production that I chronicled in The planetary cost of cashmere.

They discussed problems with viscose/rayon production.  Marenzi noted that viscose/rayon isn't the problem so much as the production process.  You have to soak the cellulosic fibers in strong chemicals to break up the fibers and then use more chemicals to get them to reform into fibers suitable for spinning into yarn.  Wikipedia on rayon has a good summary of the processes.

They mentioned the water use in viscose/rayon production, but didn't mention that the water footprint of viscose/rayon is based on the assumption that the water used in production is released into waterways and diluted to safe levels of toxicity.  That's not what really happens.  No one has uses that much water to dilute the effluent.  Many producers just release it into waterways and let downstream users deal with the pollution.  That happens often in countries with little oversight and laws.

More responsible manufacturers recycle the chemicals and water (with high-tech equipment and applying lots of energy) in a closed loop process.  Manufacturers that use closed loop processes label sell their products under the Lyocell, Tencel or Ecovero labels.  Ambiance Bemberg rayon also uses a closed loop process.  Please support these manufacturers as I do.  They cost a little more for the consumer because they are not foisting the environmental costs to others.

Marenzi also said that 80% of organic cotton grown today is rain-fed.  This is a positive development, but it's too late for the Aral Sea region or the Murray Darling River.
The Aral Sea in 2000 on the left and 2014 on the right. Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA
She also said that organic cotton is a cash crop grown in rotation with food crops by subsistence farmers in many parts of the world.  I wish the higher yields and lower water requirements of GMO cleaner cotton were available to the subsistence farmers.  This could happen if we made GMO seeds less costly and if we as consumers were willing to pay more for cleaner cotton.  (Farmers in poor countries are only being paid more for organic cotton but we can change that.)

I'm encouraged that the Gates Foundation is investing in GMO research so that farmers in poor countries will be able to take advantage of GMO's advantages without having to pay exorbitant and unfair Monsanto prices.

Anyway, I thought the podcast was a long slog and made some good points but it was a poor investment of my time.  For most people, reading is the fastest way to ingest information.

Thank-you for reading and I hope I didn't take up 36 minutes of your life.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Climate Change, Sharknado and the real danger under the Beach Cities

I have a soft spot for Sharknado the movie.  It's just pure, campy fun, especially for meteorologists from Los Angeles.*  I also like that it highlights the relationship between our storm drains and the ocean.

Los Angeles is not as threatened by rising sea levels as other cities because most of the city lies well above projected sea level rise.  We're also mostly safe from tsunamis (except at a few low-lying spots.)

The real danger is underground, from seawater intrusion.

The LA region gets about one third of our water from aquifers fed by rain that falls in the basin and is squeezed out of the sky by the mountain ranges that surround the basin.

Hydrogeologic map of LA
The aquifer is subject to seawater intrusion along the coast and in estuaries further inland.

Seawater intrusion happens underground
In the wild west days, anyone could sink a well and pump groundwater in the LA basin.  This drew the sea water ever inland.  Furthermore, some parts of LA subsided, as the Central Valley is sinking today, from groundwater over pumping.  This was unsustainable.

By the 1960s, the LA region became an adjudicated basin; people agreed who got to pump groundwater and how much.  All pumping has to be publicly logged.

LA also created a ring of barrier injection wells whereby fresh water is pumped into the ground to push the underground toe of seawater back out towards the sea.

Pumping groundwater out draws seawater inland.  Injecting freshwater along the coast pushes the seawater back towards the sea.
We used to do it with imported water from the Colorado River or the California Aqueduct.  Now, we do it with sewage water recycled to drinking water quality at great expense in energy and dollars.  This protects our freshwater supply.  I had previously thought the main danger as sea level rises is that we will need more to put more (scarce/expensive) freshwater into the aquifer to push back the sea.

The Sea Beneath Us brought my attention to a very real horror story:
In a nutshell, as a warming climate raises sea levels, the sea won’t only move inland, flooding low-lying land near the shore; it may also push water up from beneath our feet. That’s because for those of us living near the shore, a sea lurks in the ground—a saltwater water table. On top of that salt water floats a layer of lighter fresh water. As the salt water rises with rising seas, [UC Berkeley professor Kristina] Hill and others think, it will push the fresh water upward. In low-lying areas, that water may emerge from the ground.

The result, Hill explained, will be that in places like Oakland, flooding will occur not just at the shoreline, but inland in areas once considered safe from sea level rise, including the Oakland Coliseum and Jones Avenue, where Hill and her students now stood, more than a mile from San Leandro Bay. In fact, she added, rising groundwater menaces nearly the entire band of low-lying land around San Francisco Bay, as well as many other coastal parts of the U.S.
Most of us (including me, until I read this article) don't pay much attention to the small difference between the specific gravity (weight) of fresh vs seawater.  That 2.5-4% difference in density turns out to matter quite a bit.  If freshwater cannot percolate down through the heavier seawater, then it has no where to go but up.

In the Boulder, Colorado floods of 2013, homes in low-lying places above clay soils had water come up through their foundations and their drains.  The rainwater could not continue to flow downhill on the surface or percolate down through the soil.  If there is enough water and hydrologic pressure, the water will go up.  It came up for days and even weeks as the water flowed downhill underground and got trapped.

Heaven or High Water explains a similar phenomena, Miami's "Sunny Day Flooding."  Building sea walls against rising seas won't help when the water is moving underground.
Since Miami is built on limestone, which soaks up water like a sponge, walls are not very useful. In Miami, sea water will just go under a wall, like a salty ghost. It will come up through the pipes and seep up around the manholes. It will soak into the sand and find its way into caves and get under the water table and push the ground water up. So while walls might keep the clogs of Holland dry, they cannot offer similar protection to the stilettos of Miami Beach.
The horror story gets even worse.  The seawater doesn't just retreat with the tide, it leaves salt in the soil.  Rewet it with rainwater from above and you've made more salt water.  Pour more rainwater on top, and the water has no where to flow underground. It has to come up to the surface.

In the sequel, an atmospheric river strikes the region with intense rain and wind.  Wind-driven waves pound the shore and push the seawater inland both on the surface and underground.  Suppose we're successful in capturing much of the rain in the aquifer instead of letting it flood our streets and flowing out to sea.

The rain water flows slowly downhill underground until it reaches an impenetrable salty layer.  Then the horror movie begins:
In East Oakland, on a residential street in front of a small park, Kristina Hill stopped and got out of her vehicle. She walked to the center of the street as a gaggle of graduate students emerged from their cars and gathered around her. It was midday, early September, the bright, hot sun directly overhead. Hill, a professor of urban and environmental design at UC Berkeley, had chosen the spot because when it rains heavily, water gushes up from storm drains here, forming filthy brown ponds. “That will happen more and more,” Hill said. Then she proceeded to describe a peculiar, almost apocalyptic future.

Water will leach inside homes, she said, through basement cracks. Toilets may become chronically backed up. Raw sewage may seep through manholes. Brackish water will corrode sewer and water pipes and inundate building foundations. And most hazardous of all, water percolating upward may flow through contaminants buried in the soil, spreading them underground and eventually releasing them into people’s homes. The coup de grace will be the earthquakes, which, when they strike, may liquefy the entire toxic mess, pushing it toward the surface.
Residents of Boulder, Colorado lived this nightmare.  To solve the problem, cities dug through the clay layers to give water a way to flow down that did not inundate homes and infrastructure from above or below.  Years later, those homes still suffer with elevated levels of bacteria and mold in their walls and foundations.

People who live along the beaches in California are similarly vulnerable.  Instead of building sea walls like Holland or excavating clay soils like Colorado, we need to push back the underground toe of seawater with as much fresh water underground as we can.

We've built a largely impermeable city where the rainwater flows along the surface and out towards the sea.  Low-lying areas already flood in the current scenario.  Moreover, rain water on the surface does nothing to help push the seawater out.

The more rainwater we can get to soak into the ground, the less (expensive!) water we need to pump into the injection wells.  That will save us all money. It will also prevent rainwater from flushing out into the sea, laden with dog poop and motor oil.

Collecting rainwater and letting it soak into the ground should be a win-win for both the people who live along the shore and the millions of people who rely on the aquifer.  It would also be a win for the marine life that would appreciate us not dumping trash, bacteria and pollution into the bay.

Recognizing that this is both a local and regional problem, the state had committed $3.1M to help our local governments deal with this local pollution hotspot:
The Herondo Drain outfall is the largest storm drain in the South Bay Beach Cities and typically receives an “F” grade during rain events on the Heal the Bay Beach Report Card due to high bacteria levels, resulting in beach closures.

The Hermosa Beach Greenbelt Infiltration Project is the highest priority project identified in the Beach Cities Enhanced Watershed Management Program (EWMP). The project will capture and infiltrate storm water runoff that otherwise flows through the Herondo Drain into Santa Monica Bay. Water quality grades for the Herondo Storm Drain are expected to improve to an “A” grade as a result of the project.

The proposed location for the project is under the greenbelt between Herondo and Second Street. When complete, the project will be contained completely underground and will include the installation of California-friendly plant habitat along the greenbelt.
Here's the map of the watershed and storm drain system that feeds into the troubled storm drain.
A map of the various South Bay sewers that feed into the Herondo venue drain, which lets out at Hermosa’s southern border. Rendering by Geosyntec
Here's a USGS map from 1963 with elevations of the area.  The greenbelt follows the old streetcar right of way a couple of blocks from the beach, north of Herondo (the straight street ending at the north side of the harbor and the border of the cities of Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach).  The map shows the elevation of the greenbelt and park area as 30', but sea level has risen since then.

1963 USGS map of the area with elevation contours and benchmarks.
Notice that the park and greenbelt sit on top of former oil wells.  Imagine what interesting hydrocarbons would percolate up with the groundwater if it can't flow downwards due to encroaching seawater.

The Hermosa Beach staff plan would have screened the trash out of the water from the storm drain, sent the "first flush" of rainwater, which tends to have the heaviest pollutant and bacterial load, to the sewage plant; filtered the remaining rainwater, and then spread it under the greenbelt in a network of pipes.

The entire system would have been built underground and been invisible except for a few maintenance access points.

The rainwater would have served the dual purpose of pushing back against the seawater and watering the landscaping in the greenbelt.  This would have saved the city money in landscaping water and the neighborhood from the horror of watching water and a chemical and bacteria soup percolate up through the ground.

Roughly 100% of the current vegetation is non-native invasive species such as ice plant, mustard, and (highly flammable!) eucalyptus trees.
A peaceful place to jog and walk, but think how much nicer it would look with native plants.  Can you see the yellow mustard blooming amidst the ice plant?  The invasive and flammable eucalyptus tree?

There is even some turf grass if you are playing environmental faux pas bingo.

If the state and a coalition of city governments were willing to pay millions to make your home safer and give you free relandscaping with water, you'd think the neighborhood would support it.

You'd think wrong.  In fact, the opposite happened.
“It looks like we're heading in the right direction to try to get everybody working together rather than having two separate groups to put as much pressure as we can on the City Council to do the right thing, to get it out of the residential area,” said Ira Ellman, who along with Jessica Guheen and Gina DeRosa, facilitated the Sunday meeting.

“It's literally in my backyard,” said DeRosa, about South Park. “But there are more big picture concerns.”

“The more I learn about this, the more I honestly think this is not the right project for Hermosa Beach,” said Guheen, who helped spearhead a 10-year renovation of South Park.

At the study session, the consensus from the crowd was that the “project is important, but the location is wrong.”

Concerns included the removal of a third of the trees on the greenbelt; liquefaction; moving utilities that line the greenbelt; pollutants in the soil; street closures and traffic during construction; odor and noise coming from the system after completed; structural integrity of homes; as well as lawsuits on other projects against Tetra Tech, the project contractor.
Check out this USGS geologic map of the area.  Not only was the neighborhood built on top of the site of former oil wells, but it's built on Qds=loose dune and drift sand.  Yup, those homes you see adjacent to the green belt in the photos above sit on loose sand and they claim this infiltration project will cause ground liquefaction.  The horse is already out of the barn on that one.

On March 26, 2019, the Hermosa Beach city council caved.  They cancelled the entire project, jeopardizing the state funding and trashing years of planning. HB doesn't want the infiltration project anywhere within their city boundaries.

By saying no to infiltration projects, they will continue to use more landscaping water in the short-term.  In the longer-term, HB will have to find the money to build a network of injection wells and pay for the water to put in them on their own.

Redondo Beach is looking at some sites a few blocks away where the project can be built.  Redondo Beach has a history of welcoming infiltration projects such as the NRB library and the next to Aviation Blvd. This would mean more time spent planning another project from the ground up and possibly the loss of state matching funds.

Construction is always painful, but the result will be a cleaner bay and healthier landscape.  It will also protect the neighborhood near the beach as much as possible from sea level rise. We really need this project.

* ~20 years ago,  I went to a mixer for first time attendees of the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting.  Our names and locations were printed on our badges.  Mine said Los Angeles.  All evening long, I heard,

"Florida? Hurricanes! Cool!"

"Oklahoma?  Tornadoes!  Awesome!"

"Los Angeles?  I'm so sorry!"

Friday, March 22, 2019

What does carbon neutral mean?

I'm glad that AOC and her allies are serious about combatting climate change and willing to commit the necessary focus and urgency to one of the biggest challenges we face.  But, I hear people use terms interchangeably that mean very different things to different people.  Here's an explainer to translate.

Let's backtrack to look at the CO2 measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory. The trend is upward, which is what is the main cause of global warming.  Do you see the jagged sawtooth edge?

Full record of CO2 measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory
Let's look at a close-up for the last year.  See the scatter of the real data?  Real data is messy.  They take weekly and monthly averages of the measurements and add them to the long-term plot above.

Mauna Loa CO2 measurements for the last year
The jagged nature of the data means that, for part of the year, roughly May through September, raw CO2 counts are going *down* (net negative).  It's going down because the earth is taking up more CO2 than we are spewing out.  There is more land, vegetation and human activity in the northern hemisphere (NH) than in the southern hemisphere (SH).  During the NH (Boreal) summer, trees and crops are growing and we spew less CO2 because we don't need as much heating and lighting.

September to May, the cycle reverses and the planetary CO2 becomes net positive.  While there are forests and cropland in the SH, there are much fewer.  The trees in the NH slow down or go dormant, NH farms lie fallow,  and carbon sequestration decreases on a global basis. Overall, the trend is up and net positive.

When scientists say that we need to be net zero (aka carbon neutral) and that it is possible to do so, we are not saying we will stop producing CO2 altogether.  We mean we can slow down our generation of CO2 to a sustainable rate that the earth can take up (sequester) in ways that are not harmful.

Carbon neutral and net zero is not zero CO2 emissions.

This is an estimate of the amount of CO2 emitted to generate one million British thermal units (Btu) of energy.  (This is an average of all the plants in operation.  Different plant designs have different efficiencies.), the Energy Information Administration, publishes more detailed statistics by state.
Carbon efficiencies for different types of fuels.
According to an IPCC report in 2018, we can contain the warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius if we halve our CO2 emissions by 2030 and go net zero by 2050.

Pathways to save our skins
We already have the technology to hit our 2030 target.  We just need to quit arguing and do it.  Let me explain.

If we switch off coal to natural gas, we produce half our CO2 emissions right there.  Coal-fueled power plants are closing across the US.  We should replace them with wind and solar power plants wherever it is appropriate.  Some places do not get the right type of winds (too weak or turbulent) or enough sunshine.

We make up the difference with new, highly-efficient natural gas power plants as a bridge to the net zero future in 2050.

Simple cycle gas plants produce electricity by burning natural gas to turn a turbine.  They also send up a lot of waste heat into the environment which has its own problems.

Combined cycle gas plants combine the simple system with a second steam engine that uses the waste heat to generate steam that turns another turbine that also produces electricity.  Combined cycle plants produce roughly 1.5 times as much energy per unit of CO2 as simple ones.  This sounds like another slam dunk, right?

There are a couple of gotchas. "The EIA estimated that for a simple cycle plant the cost is about US$389/kW, whereas combined cycle plants are US$500 – 550/kW."  Would you pay an extra 34% for 50% more CO2 efficiency?  It doesn't make economic sense if we are looking at it purely from the point of cost of energy.  But weigh it against a livable planet, and I think combined cycle is the better choice.

The second gotcha is time.  The wind stops blowing or the sun doesn't shine?  A simple cycle plant can be pulled into production in minutes.  A combined cycle plant takes 30 minutes or more to spin up to full production.

As we deploy more renewables in the form of solar and wind, the greater the instability of our power supply.  That instability can cause major fluctuations of voltage and damage equipment, leading to blackouts.  Ironically, the more we reply on renewables, the more we need power than can be brought on and off-line quickly.  Simple gas plants are being used that way for now.

The real payoff for batteries is to bridge that 30 minutes between when we need the power and when the combined plants are running at full efficiency.  Alternatively, combined plants are run continuously and we can pay someone to take the excess power away in the form of negative costs per kilowatt.  (This actually happens on sunny days in California, to Arizona's delight.)

Take a look at CA renewable electricity production on March 20, 2019.  This is all CA-only info from California ISO.

March 20, 2019 CA renewables
Notice the dips in peaks in the solar PV and wind curves.  That's when the sun didn't shine or the wind didn't blow.  This is averaged over the entire state of California, a large area with a diversified portfolio.  Think what the curves would be like for smaller countries.

Production is only one side.  What about demand?
March 20, 2019 CA electricity demand - renewables
There is a big gap between our current demand and renewable energy supply (the green curve above.) We should be doing much more to reduce our demand and to shift it to times when renewables are available.  We also need to keep developing energy sources that don't spew CO2.

Let's take a look at how CA got its energy on March 20, 2019.
  • Hydro is larger scale hydroelectric not covered under small hydro in the renewables portfolio
  • Imports is electricity imported from out of state and can be generated by any method.  There are some regions in the state, particularly near the boarders that primarily draw electricity from neighboring states.  We also export energy to neighboring states.  Northern (rural) CA imports power from as far away as Utah and Wyoming, which is largely generated with coal (but rapidly changing over to natural gas.)  Norcal also gets power from WA and OR, often hydroelectric.  Southern CA imports electricity from several coal powered plants in Arizona, which are slated to close really soon.  SoCal also imports electricity from a nuclear power plant in AZ.
  • Thermal can be coal or natural gas.  CA has shut down all of our coal power plants so this slice is entirely natural gas from power plants of different designs and efficiencies.  Efficiency can be improved, which can reduce our dependence on imported energy.
  • Nuclear used to supply 20% of California's annual electricity demand just a few years ago.  Now it supplies 8%.  If we don't invest in nuclear, it will soon be 0.  Shutting down nuclear, our primary source of night-time electricity (along with large hydro) is a large reason why we need natural gas plants.
  • Renewables cover solar thermal (currently one plant, which is offline,) solar PV, wind, small hydro, biogas (our collective poop,) biomass and geothermal.
March 20, 2019 CA electricity sources.  Imports are electricity generated outside CA and can be from any source.  Thermal is from natural gas.
The slices that produce CO2 emissions are the light blue natural gas and a portion of the imported energy sources.  Nuclear and hydro also do not spew CO2.

Large hydro has fallen out of favor and is not counted as renewable.  Hydro is the original grid-scale battery.  Water can be released when power is needed.  Since the era when the US built most of our large hydro projects, we have learned a great deal about the harm that it can do.  We have also learned how to mitigate some of the harm.

Climate change is a threat to all river systems, dammed or not.  We should definitely invest in small hydro and also move forward with new large hydro if the environmental and social costs are less than costs of climate change.

Right now, there is simply no way to store enough energy to get us through the night without using natural gas.  There are also environmental problems with batteries.  What happens if lead acid batteries leak?  Lithium batteries are more energy dense, but can spontaneously combust.  Hydrogen is explosive.

We should continue to invest in batteries and battery research but understand that they are not going to solve our night-time energy problem.  We should also invest in making our natural gas plants as efficient as possible and use them as little as possible.

If we demand that there be no new investment in fossil fuel-powered electrical plants, we cannot put scrubbers on coal power plants to remove black carbon (which is extremely warming), replace coal with gas, or upgrade simple gas plants to combined gas plants--all things that would greatly reduce climate change at low cost.

If we stop using nuclear, as Japan and Germany have done, then we can actually increase our CO2 emissions.  All of Germany's gains in renewable energy have been offset by the closing of their nuclear power plants.  They are spewing as much CO2 as ever by replacing nuclear energy with coal.  Is that the model we want to follow?

Coal kills more people every year than nuclear energy in its entire history.  Amongst scientists, support for nuclear energy is much higher than amongst the general populace.

Some existing nuclear power plants were certainly poorly designed or sited (on coastlines or in seismically active areas.)  Now that we no longer use ocean or river water to cool nuclear reactors, they can be sited in much safer areas and away from population centers.  Do we have the political will?

Is nuclear bad?  Possibly.  But I'm sure that climate change is a bigger threat to us right now.  I believe that building new nuclear power plants in geographically safe areas are worth the risk, but can understand why some do not agree with me.

We need to be flexible in our thinking and actions while maintaining a sense of urgency.

For comparison, I'd like to show what happens during extraordinary weather events like the long-duration heat wave we experienced in July 2018.
July 25, 2018 CA renewables
It was relentlessly sunny, so we had plenty of solar PV during the day. Ivanpah was in operation so we also had solar thermal power.  Ivanpah was shut down due to economic reasons even though it generates about 10x the energy per unit of CO2 as old simple cycle gas plants.  Should we make our energy decisions purely on economic factors without factoring the harm of CO2 emissions?

July 25, 2018 CA total electrical sources
Take a look at the scale on the left.  California's electricity demand on July 25, 2018 was roughly double our springtime electricity demand this week.  Renewables made a dent, but supplied only about a quarter of our electricity.  There is more work to do.

Just for fun, I checked California's electricity production and use right now. 61% renewables!  During spring time, for wet years where water is available for hydroelectric, California can approach 100% non CO2-producing electricity sources during the day time.

In closing, let's look at the big picture.  Electricity accounts for 16% (and falling) of CA's CO2 emissions.

A large chunk of the industrial slice is due to cement production, largely to build infrastructure for cars and airplanes. Do we need to drive and fly as much as we do? Do we need as much stuff?

Let's look at agriculture.  Eat less meat and almonds. There is a lot of info about how to reduce the carbon intensity of diet and we'll save that for another day.

The largest component is transportation. We can make huge reductions if we reorganize our society so most people don't need to drive.  Invest in transit and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  Helping people live densely and well is the biggest thing we can do to reduce our carbon emissions.  It would also reduce congestion, air pollution and stress.

Why is it easier to imagine batteries made with unicorn poop than living next door to an apartment complex?

In summary:
  • Net zero for electricity is possible right now, with existing technology.  
    • We just need to deploy more of it, which means investing in more zero CO2 emitting energy sources and modernizing some natural gas plants.  
    • It also requires us to reduce/change our energy consumption habits.
  • We don't need to stop using all fossil fuels today or even in 10-12.  We just need to use a lot less of them and phase it out gradually.  Do what you can today.  Reduce a little bit more each year.  
  • Carbon neutral or net zero is not zero CO2 emissions.  It is only a reduction to the level that the earth can sequester the CO2.  
  • Don't fixate on just electricity production.  Look at all the other slices of our carbon budget.  The biggest and most cost-effective reductions will likely come from the biggest CO2 producing sectors e.g. transportation.
  • Reducing demand is the fastest and most economical way to reduce CO2 emissions.  It's fair to ask the people who are using the most to reduce the most.
  • Market-based solutions are not enough.  We need to add externalities to the equation and ask ourselves moral questions about fairness.
There is much that I like about AOC's GND, but I also have reservations about some of her wording. I worry about getting attacked by zealots.

Let us agree that:
  • Climate change is real
  • It is the biggest global crisis that we face (but not the only one)
  • The time to act is right now
  • We should put a big effort into combatting CC commensurate w/ the size of the problem
  • Reducing green house gases can lead to a more just & equitable society if we approach it thoughtfully
  • Building for climate resilience can lead to a more just & equitable society if we approach it thoughtfully
* This post is part of a series.
  1. Energy and bullshit asymmetry: Mark Jacobson is the Andrew Wakefield of green energy, spreading harmful disinformation to divide us and prevent us from making real progress
  2. Green New Deal Reading Some thoughts by myself and others on what the GND means

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Has it already been 3 years since Nightgown-a-Palooza*? The teen has since declared that she is over nightgowns and wants pajamas.  When we were in Joann's, she fell in love with this Star Wars themed Porg flannel.  We both find porgs adorable so we purchased 2.5 yards, just as the pattern recommended.

Flannel shrinks more than other 100% cotton fabrics due to its loose weave.  I was courting danger by not buying extra to compensate.  Sure enough, the legs of the pajama pants are just a bit short and I added knit cuffs to extend the length and keep out drafts.

Butterick 4483 and porg flannel
I'm going to spare you the sight of the droopy crotch of the PJ pants in OOP Butterick 4483.  It looks indecisive.  Are they MC Hammer pants?  I put them in the out box, but then pulled them out.  I might make the PJ top at a later date.

In looking at the oddly shaped scraps after cutting out the pants, I wondered if I could piece them together into two pieces large enough to cut the torso of a loose T-top like Kwik Sew 3262.  I could.

When people see that I sew with old clothing, they give me bags of old clothing.  (My mother once gave me a bin of 26 T-shirts.)  A mom cleaning out her adult sons' rooms found half a dozen T-shirts for their old baseball league.  They had some rips or stains, but I was able to cut sleeves around the flaws.

I added the same rib knit I used in the PJ pants, purchased at SAS Fabrics in Hawthorne.

Roomy top 
In one item, I used:
  • post-consumer waste (T-shirt, porg scraps)
  • pre-consumer waste (knit ribbing with a few flaws purchased by the pound at an odd-jobber)
It's like I made something out of trash.  Oh, I did.

The complete set also contains new fabric specifically milled for the home sewing market so it spans the whole gamut of material options.  Sewing with old clothes can be disappointing if the worn fabric wears out too quickly. By mixing old and new materials, I can make something that lasts, but minimize the amount of new stuff we consume.  (It's even better if my new material is a flawed mill waste (rib knit) or overstock/deadstock fabric.)

We are consuming several planets worth of stuff.  It is definitely not sustainable or equitable. 

DD wears her clothes for years, until they fall apart.  I sew her sturdy clothes with a mix of new and used materials.  If we all did this, maybe the planet won't burn up.

Anyway, she loved the porg pajama set so much, it was difficult to get it off of her to do laundry.  I had a light purple pair of knit PJ pants that I wasn't wearing.  I wanted to make another flannel top to go with it.

After making a bunch of flannel bathrobes for everyone in my family, I had used up all my flannel.  I stopped by SAS Fabrics and found this overstock/deadstock fabric. The top pattern suggests 2 yards of 60" wide knit fabric.  I though that I could squeak by with 1 yard of 44" wide flannel if I pieced the back and mixed the crosswise and lengthwise grain.  (I preshrank the fabric in a hot wash and dry cycle to reduce puckering from differential shrinkage.)  There was even enough left over to make a pocket for her cell phone or cold hands.

Second sleep set with new top and my underutilized knit pants made years ago.
She liked the pocket so much, she asked me to retrofit the first set with pockets. There were no porg flannel scraps left. I cut up one T-shirt sleeve and then re-seamed it so that the hems fall along the side openings and then topstitched it on the top. It looks really cool.

Improved first set with pocket
* In reading Nightgown-a-Palooza, I realized that there is was one more nightgown that I failed to blog.  I rather like the way that I made do with short yardage for that one so I will post it shortly.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Green New Deal Reading

I volunteered to lead an educational discussion about Green Energy and put it in context for Indivisible Beach Cities on March 27, 2019.  Group members typically do assigned pre-reading and then a member leads the discussion.  Somehow, the organizer advertised that I would be talking about Green Legislation. After some thought and research, I decided to talk about the Green New Deal and how it affects California quickly and then segue into my original topic of electricity fixation.

Firstly, read the resolution on the official house website: H.Res 109 - Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.

It's in committee (House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources) and may change form when it emerges from committee. That's normal and does not necessarily signal anything nefarious.

Many people have written about the Green New Deal. I recommend:
Masochists may want to hate-read The Good News about the GND in the New Yorker.  John Cassidy took Mark Jacobson's comments at face value, with no push-back or evidence.  The Mark Jacobson whose calculations were so wrong and debunked by so many that he had to sue other scientists to shut them up.
“Right now, we have about ninety per cent or ninety-five per cent of the technology we need,” Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, told me.
Yeah, right.  Moving on...

To make climate change less catastrophic, we need to reduce our total green house gas (GHG) emissions.  I've read differing figures for differing outcomes.  For the sake of this discussion, I'm suggesting that the people who are consuming the most make the most drastic reductions so that others may simply live.

I'll use the straw man bandied about of 50% reduction in California, which is feasible if we cut our transportation GHG emissions by drastically changing our housing and transportation policy. It's the only way to get those emissions reductions using the technology we have now.

For California, read the data (optional, link provided for reference):
California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory - 2018 Edition

Note that the largest sector is transportation.  Simply, we need to drive and fly less, a lot less.  The rest is fiddling while the planet burns.

There is a lot of BS talk about  changing our electricity grid to 100% renewable energy without nuclear, large hydro and even biogas.  That was the topic I originally intended to talk about and I'll embed the links as I discuss them instead of in one list like I did for the GND.

David Roberts on Renewable energy power grid architecture: This is long and wonky, but just read the first page or so that describes the miracle of the modern electrical grid (up to the first subheading, What is grid architecture?)
The US power grid is, by some estimates, the largest machine in the world, a continent-spanning wonder of the modern age. And despite its occasional well-publicized failures, it is remarkably reliable, delivering energy to almost every American, almost every second of every day.
If you read way, way down, he discusses DERs
distributed energy resources (DERs): small-scale energy resources often (though not always) found “behind the meter,” on the customer side. Some DERs generate energy, like solar panels, small wind turbines, or combined heat-and-power (CHP) units.

Some DERs store energy, like batteries, fuel cells, or thermal storage like water heaters. And some DERs monitor and manage energy, like smart thermostats, smart meters, smart chargers, and whole-building energy management systems. (The oldest and still most common DER is diesel generators, which are obviously not ideal from a climate standpoint.)
Remember the Enron (and other players) created California electricity crisis of summer of 2000?  Remember the blackouts?  Users around CA responded by installing diesel generators which caused hellacious air pollution and GHG emissions.

This is the future we do not want.  We need electricity to be available at all times to people who need it.  Deciding who needs it and how much is debatable but ensuring the stability of the grid is not.

California and the Feds provide a lot of data for the curious.

For starters, look at the California daily electricity supply for today.
CA renewable and nonrenewable electricity sources for March 7, 2019.
Today was mild and partly sunny.  Check out two days ago, when a big storm blew through.  We had a lot less solar power and more wind in the evening, when the storm came in.
Note that the scales are different from 3/7.  Check out the wind blowing as the storm came in.
The bad news is that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow.
CA is using 28,000 MW at 18:55 on 3/7/19 but renewables provide only 3,651 MW
CA is using 28,000 MW at 18:55 on 3/7/19 but renewables provide only 3,651 MW. It costs $120 Million to buy batteries to provide 100 MW for 3-4 hours. Too bad we have another 12 hours to go until the sun shines brightly again. If, theoretically, you can buy and install this many batteries, this would cost:
(25,000MW/100MW)*(12hrs/3.5hrs)*$120M = $103B

The batteries wear out and need to be replaced/recycled periodically. They are also potential environmental hazards in their own right (i.e. leaking metals like Pb or spontaneously combusting like laptop batteries.)

For context, the CA transportation commission funds about $240M/year for active transportation (walking/bicycling) projects.

This is why I say, invest in renewables, batteries and research, but spend the bulk of your money getting people out of cars.  That's where you will get the most GHG reductions for your buck.  We'll also reduce pollution and health care costs, too.

Think class 1 separated (from cars and pedestrians) bike lanes everywhere so that we can move around quickly and safely.  How about workforce housing so people can live near work and not need a car to get there?

The average road speed of cars in Los Angeles is already slower than an average woman (me) on an e-bike.  Think e-bikes instead of electric cars.  They cost less and require a lot less energy, road and parking space.  They also provide a bit of exercise.


For California, we also need to keep in mind the Water Energy Nexus (optional, link provided for reference); 12% of California's total energy use is related to water.

We've made fantastic strides in reducing our water use and, hence, our energy use. This one is really wonky and optional, but goes through the calculations in detail.  Go, California! (But especially SoCal because SFSV did piddly compared to SoCal.)

The estimated impact of California's urban water conservation mandate on electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

I'm going to talk about energy use and generation related to water in a later post.  This post is already too long.

This post is part of a series.  Also read:

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Deported US Citizen Children

Like most Americans, I have conflicted feelings about immigration rules.  Why do they criminalize some while welcoming others?  Yet, unchecked/unplanned immigration can overwhelm communities.

I got no answers, but I did read a couple of though-provoking pieces lately.  Perhaps you want to read them, too.

The Deported Americans in the California Sunday Magazine (part of LA Times)
The education crisis for children of deported parents in High Country News

Monday, February 11, 2019

Cleaner Cotton

We embrace technology when it comes to our sewing machines and rotary cutters.  Let's embrace technology that brings us cleaner cotton.

Transgenic crops contain genes inserted from another organism with desirable traits.  For instance, Bt cotton and corn contain genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that commonly lives in soil. Cotton engineered with Bt can produce a protein that is toxic to the cotton boll weevil, which means that farmers don't have to spray fields with pesticides that target the boll weevil.  It also means that land and water don't have to be used to grow the biologically-derived pesticides that organic farmers rely on.

In the US, Monsanto sells versions of Bt cotton with and without resistance to RoundUp, a herbicide.  There are valid reasons to be suspicious of heavy reliance on RoundUp that are treated elsewhere.  Monsanto seeds are not cheap and may not be affordable for low-income countries.  However, Brazilian scientists have independently developed a Bt cotton, and I hope that will drive down seed prices.

Bt cotton is not a panacea as cotton is susceptible to pests besides the boll weevil.  However, farmers in both India and the US report a 75% or greater reduction in pesticide use.

Cotton is a thirsty crop.  When I started following GMO cotton news around 2005, GMO cotton used 30% less cotton than organic cotton.  That number is now 50% less.  Not only can GMO cotton be grown with less water, it can be grown with saltier water that is not suitable for other crops.  Water scarcity is the the largest problem for many farmers (intricately tied to climate change) so I look askance at anyone who markets organic cotton as the environmental choice.

I was heartened to read about Cleaner Cotton™ and Sustainable Cotton movements.  Farmers are growing GMO cotton and using integrated pest management and crop rotation to reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides.  It's not organic.  It's better than organic.
The cost to grow organic cotton in California is higher than brands are willing to pay. In organic trials that SCP farmers have run, organic cotton fields yielded as much as 30% less fiber than conventional. Cleaner Cotton™, on average, yields more than 1,250 pounds of cotton per acre compared to average yields of 925 pounds in organic production. Lacking a secure market, farmers are unwilling to risk the lower yields and corresponding decrease in financial return.
quince & co. introduced their Cleaner Cotton™yarn, Willet, in 2015.  It's a start, but it contained some infuriating misinformation.  I'm not referring to the lack of credit given to genetic engineering.

quince & co. Willet Cleaner Cotton
"California is home to the finest cotton growing land in the country" is a lie.  The SJV is a desert; that's why the land was cheap and did not already have boll weevils plaguing the areas that had previously grown cotton.  During WWII, the military needed cotton for uniforms and lacked manpower to deal with pests in the southeast, which did have the water to support cotton.

Pretty cotton field in the desert of SJV shown on quince & co website
Cotton was planted in the SJV and irrigated with spring runoff from the mountains supplemented by fossil water in ancient aquifers.  Those aquifers are now so depleted, that the land has sunk 70-100 feet in 60 years of agriculture! It's time to retire the land and let the desert reclaim most of the southern SJV.

Cotton uses more water in CA than almonds despite smaller acreage
quince & co. also touted the family farm* that grows their cotton, Mari and Gary Martin of Pikalok farms.  They sound like lovely people, very concerned with modern farming and good land stewardship.  But there is no getting around the fact that their farm is in Mendota, a desert climate with only 9 inches of annual rainfall on average and as hot as a blast furnace in the summer.

Moreover, even at $8.50 per 50g skein, the Martins still rely on crop subsidies from the government.  Pikalok Farms received $4,214,481 in Total USDA Subsidies 1995-2017.  That's not including the water subsidies they receive from California.  They are small potatoes.  They received less than 1% of the cotton subsidies in their county over the same time period.

Just in case I've been unclear.  We should not grow cotton in the deserts of California ($3.3 B in USDA crop subsidies) or Arizona ($1.2 B).  Those industries were fed by war-time desperation for cotton and absence of boll weevils in the southwest.  Boll weevils are now endemic in the southwest as well, so there is no reason not to move cotton production back into the southeast.

Pests can be reduced by crop rotation.  GMO cotton, with lower water requirements, can be grown over a greater geographical range.  This also helps pest management.

Room&Board is now selling bedding made from cotton grown on a rain-irrigated farm.  The cotton is grown in Alabama, woven in South Carolina and sewn in Minnesota.
[Red Land Cotton] plant cover crops to reduce erosion and runoff, practice crop rotation and graze cattle on their land. All of this allows them to grow cotton without artificial irrigation—an exception to the norm among cotton farmers.

Sunset at Red Land Cotton

Sewing the bedding in MN

Gorgeous bedding
Even at $270 for a duvet, Red Land Farms still took $4,921,061 in USDA crop subsidies 1995-2017.

Farming is a tough and heartbreaking business and I think that some level of non-market support is needed.  However, we should be able to have rational debates about how much is appropriate and the best way to spend our collective money and effort.

When we talk about sustainable sewing, be prepared to pay more and to take a more nuanced approach to what constitutes "good" and "bad" production.

Since I've started tracking how much I buy and use, I've been buying 2-3x as much as I sew.  So it's time for me to use what I have and to recycle textiles when appropriate.  I'll still buy small amounts of new stuff to help create a market for responsible producers/sellers, but I will need to consume less.

*All farmers belong to a family.  Some families have small farms, some have huge farms.  There is nothing inherently wonderful about small farms, though they tend to be less efficient than large ones.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Energy and Bullshit Asymmetry

Have you heard of the bullshit asymmetry principle (also known as Brandolini's law)?
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
For example, Mark Jacobson et al published in 2015 with great fanfare that the US could meet all of its energy needs reliably with 100% wind, water and solar (WWS) power.  He further claimed that
No natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed. The resulting 2050–2055 US electricity social cost for a full system is much less than for fossil fuels. These results hold for many conditions, suggesting that low-cost, reliable 100% WWS systems should work many places worldwide.
It uses a new grid integration model and finds low-cost, no-load-loss, nonunique solutions to this problem on electrification of all US energy sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) while accounting for wind and solar time series data from a 3D global weather model that simulates extreme events and competition among wind turbines for available kinetic energy.
It sounds fantastic.  Who wouldn't want to go all electric, including vehicles (we can keep our cars!), and produce zero green house gases without nuclear energy?

Many progressives, including Boulder's pro-municipalization* city council, latched on to Jacobson's results. It's a foundation for AOC's Green New Deal (GND).  The California Clean Power Alliance was formed to provide this magical 100% WWS.  Likewise, the City of Los Angeles hired a consulting firm to find out if it is feasible for LADWP to go 100% WWS.

Almost immediately, scientists raised alarm bells over Jacobson's methodology, assumptions and arithmetic errors. But it didn't matter, because bullshit, once it takes hold, is hard to refute.

It took a team of 21 authors a year to refute all the flaws in the original Jacobson paper; you can read Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar yourself.  The biggest source of disagreement is future availability of water for hydropower.  Christopher Clack et al found that 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid was possible at a reasonable cost.

Like climate science, there is broad general consensus.  It's basically Jacobson and his 3 coauthors against thousands of other researchers working in the same arena.  Clack's numbers are in line with the 75-80% of most other studies.  I have studied the issue and believe the consensus.

It got ugly. Letters and papers went back and forth.  Rather than letting peer review and the scientific method sort it out, Jacobson (who was losing in the science arena) took to the courts and sued both the National Academy of Sciences (who published the evaluation) and the lead author of the evaluation, Christopher Clack, in court for libel.

It was a nuisance suit, meant to bankrupt critics in order to silence them.  Thankfully, Jacobson withdrew the suit after much bad press.

Now comes the hard part.

How do we deprogram well-meaning people from repeating Jacobson's lies and dealing with the reality of physical science and available technologies?

It's late and I will deal with the flaws in the Green New Deal another day.  I want to make it clear, I support moving much faster than we have been doing to slow down climate change.  But the GND is not the best way to do it.  We can make some reality-based amendments to the resolution.  We can be a carbon-neutral and fairer society.  We just need to have rational debates on the actual merits of the science and technologies.

* Read some background on Boulder's municipalization effort

** Numerous California cities, including mine, moved all customers into the Clean Power Alliance so we can have the consumer choice of selecting 36%, 50% or 100% clean energy.  LOL.  It's done with smoke and mirrors and paper swaps of electricity source accounting that do nothing about our underlying electricity generating capabilities.

If you want to join me, you can opt out of the Clean Power Alliance here.  Beware, they make you take a push puol meant to make you feel like a monster that wants to scorch the earth just because you don't want to buy into their charade.

*** This is the first post in a series.