Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

I Think We’re Going to Solve Global Warming

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:56 pm, June 3rd, 2017

Several weeks ago I decided that one of this month’s journal entries would be about why I’m optimistic that the problem of climate change is one that the world is going to solve, and the recent announcement from Trump that the US would join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations not to be a part of the Paris Climate accords makes the subject even more appropriate.

To greatly oversimplify the issue of climate change, solving it means that clean energy needs to be a better option than fossil fuels in terms of cost and reliability. Looking at trendlines for both metrics, it seems that the world is underestimating how soon that tipping point is going to arrive.

Cost

In terms of cost, consider the following:

  • Batteries, key to storing renewable energy, are dropping in price by a rate of about 8% per year, meaning a 60 kw/h battery pack that today is a $13,600 component will cost $5880 in a decade, $2580 in twenty years, and $1080 in thirty years – we are fast approaching the point where the cost of the most expensive component of an electric vehicle is more than offset by the savings from not needing a complex engine or transmission, an exhaust system, or any of the other supporting components of a modern gasoline vehicle. Note that the 8% estimates could even be pessimistic – one study reports that electric vehicle battery pack costs dropped from $1000 per kw/h to $227 per kw/h between 2010 and 2016.
  • Solar power is following a similar trajectory, with costs declining 6-7% per year. A 2015 estimate put the cost of solar at $122 MW/h, vs natural gas at $82 MW/h, and coal at $75 MW/h. At a 7% annual improvement, the cost of solar matches that of coal and natural gas by 2022, and by 2030 solar costs would be just $41 MW/h, half that of natural gas.

The health benefits of reducing air pollution from fossil fuels are an indirect cost, but according to the US Department of Energy:

Achieving the SunShot-level solar deployment targets — 14% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar in 2030 and 27% in 2050 — could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% between 2015 and 2050, resulting in savings of $238–$252 billion… This could produce $167 billion in savings from lower future health and environmental damages, or 1.4¢/kWh-solar — while also preventing 25,000–59,000 premature deaths.

Reliability

From the standpoint of reliability, the fatal flaw for renewable energy is that it’s only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, but cheap batteries allow renewable energy to be stored and used whenever needed, and they also provide huge benefits for the grid. Since its inception the electrical grid has required energy to be used as soon as it is produced, so grid operators have had to execute a complex process for matching output to demand, and also have had to ensure that enough generation is available to match the highest possible load, meaning some power plants exist solely to meet demand on those few summer days when everyone is running their air conditioners. As batteries get cheaper, suddenly that’s no longer the case – instead, you store energy to handle peak loads, generation capacity just has to match average load (so inefficient power plants can be retired), and grid reliability is no longer an issue.

Reliability of cars improve when the system goes electric, too. A gasoline engine is about 20% efficient, the electric motor is closer to 75% efficient. The gasoline engine has belts, pistons, and tons of other moving parts that can fail, the electric motor is essentially a simple shaft wrapped in wires that costs far less to produce. A gasoline car requires a complex, multi-speed transmission, an electric car has a simple, single-speed transmission. A gasoline car uses oil, requires an exhaust system, and has tons of belts and hoses, an electric car has none of those things. Twenty years from now, we’ll wonder why anyone ever put up with regular trips to the mechanic.

Finally, consider home solar. Today we accept that a transformer failure or a fallen tree can mean no power for a few hours, and that a natural disaster can mean power outages for days. However, as solar and batteries drop in price, the grid starts to look kind of crazy – why would anyone pay more to have an unreliable grid connection that requires flimsy high voltage wires to be strung through the neighborhood when a system that can generate power from sunlight and store a few days worth of backup energy is available for the same (or less) money?

Why the future is awesome

The timelines above suggest that within the next twenty years a renewable energy world will beat out fossil fuels on both a cost and reliability basis. Stretch that 30-50 years, and all sorts of interesting possibilities occur – to cite one, desalination is cost-prohibitive because it is energy intensive, but if energy is cheap then a city like Los Angeles, located next to the ocean but forced to import freshwater from hundreds of miles away, could conceivably generate more freshwater than it needs and actually start exporting water to the rest of the state. Citing another interesting possibility, cheap energy might make it feasible to begin scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere, so not only would emissions drop as fossil fuels are phased out, but mankind could actually begin to forcibly remove some of the greenhouse gases that we’ve unleashed.

Leaving the Paris Accords seems like an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound for the country, but the rate of technological advance still gives me great hope that the problems the world faces are going to be overcome, with or without support from America’s political leadership.

The World is Still Mostly Awesome

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:59 pm, March 30th, 2017

There seems to be a constant undercurrent of doom and gloom in the world these days, so here are a few developments worth following for those who need reasons for optimism:

  • Today SpaceX re-used a rocket for the first time in history. The launch is a HUGE milestone towards dramatically reducing the cost of spaceflight, and a reason to believe that launch costs will drop by an order of magnitude in the next 5-10 years.
  • The Nature Conservancy recently demonstrated how floodplain restoration along the Truckee River could provide flood control, aquifer recharge, cleaner drinking water, and habitat for wildlife. If they can effectively argue that there are often greater benefits provided by “green” infrastructure instead of “grey” infrastructure then it will be very interesting to see if wetland restoration starts to become a preferred option as the nation deals with aging levees and rising seas.
  • Tesla’s Gigafactory continues to expand on its path towards becoming the world’s largest building. When complete it will produce enough batteries for 500,000 electric cars each year, and they are already producing battery cells and have plans to start churning out drive units for the upcoming Model-3 later this year.
  • I’ve been a frequent critic of Apple’s recent products and corporate decision making, but their new headquarters will be opening in April, and Apple has done an amazing job – it is probably the world’s most impressive corporate campus. The project was the last thing that Steve Jobs worked on, and seeing the finished product is a sad reminder of what the world lost when he died at an early age.
  • California high-speed rail is actually under construction, with viaducts, grade separations, and other major work throughout the Central Valley. Even if it is another decade before trains actually run, some of the improvements being made to roads and bridges as a result of this project will have immediate benefits.
  • The tomb of Jesus Christ recently underwent a lengthy archaeological renovation, with humans viewing the slab on which Jesus was believed to have been laid for the first time since at least 1555 AD. Even for those who aren’t religious, the archaeological value of studying this ancient & revered site has to be exciting.
  • Bloomberg reports that there are now more clean-energy jobs in the United States than oil or coal jobs. The federal government may not be acting to clean up the energy grid, but market forces seem to be betting heavily on clean energy options as prices for solar, wind, and other renewables continue to drop.

There are plenty more reasons not to succumb to despair about the state of the world – the comments link is available for anyone who wants to share any others and thereby help keep the world a slightly more optimistic place.

Seeing this campus nearly complete is a poignant reminder of how much the world misses Steve Jobs; even the parking garages look cool. I worked at this site back in 2001 when it was a Hewlett Packard campus.

Back to the Past

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:20 pm, August 30th, 2015

There are two big ecological restoration projects in the works for the LA Area. The bigger of the two is the restoration of the LA River. Currently the “river” is little more than a concrete culvert through the city, but LA has secured the support of the Army Corps of Engineers for a $1.3 billion plan to restore eleven miles of the river to a more natural state. While there will be some benefits for nature, this project seems mainly to be about about the recreational and economic benefits of revitalizing an eleven-mile long corridor within LA. That’s not a bad thing – I’m visiting San Antonio twice a month right now, and the San Antonio River Walk shows clearly how a river can improve the quality of life in an area. I suspect that environmentalists won’t be satisfied with the eventual plans that emerge in LA, but the reality is that a small river running through a massive city will never again return to a truly natural state, and the best one can hope for is a waterway that provides some benefits for nature while offering significant quality of life improvements for humans.

The second restoration project is the Ballona Wetlands. At the end of this year the Environmental Impact Report will be released, offering options for restoring the remaining 600 undeveloped acres, or about 1% of the historic wetlands area. This project will be far less expensive than the LA River restoration, and while it will offer far fewer economic benefits it will offer some notable environmental benefits. Wetlands are tremendously important to migratory birds who use them as stopover points, fish that use them as spawning grounds, numerous creatures that use them as a food source, and the surrounding area that benefits from their ability to filter pollutants and lessen flood severity. With so many wetlands already lost to development, restoring even a small one has an outsized effect. Perhaps more importantly, residents of LA have little exposure to nature and thus little chance to learn to appreciate its benefits, so creating a destination for school fieldtrips and weekend visits will expose future generations to an environment that they might not have otherwise realized was important to protect.

Both restoration projects still face numerous hurdles, and have already had setbacks. An effort by the Annenberg Foundation to build a $50 million visitor center in the Ballona wetlands was killed by environmentalists who opposed any development at all on the site. While restoring every available acre might be a noble goal, the reality is that 99% of the historic wetland is already gone, and the remaining wetlands probably have more educational value than environmental value. Similarly, draft restoration plans for Ballona have been opposed for not going far enough in returning the area to its original state AND for going too far, thus disrupting the wildlife that is currently present; ongoing arguments could conceivably halt any attempts at restoration and leave the area in a degraded state. While plans for the LA River are still in the very early stages, the involvement of architect Frank Gehry has already been called “the epitome of wrong-ended planning“, and further conflicts will no doubt threaten to derail the project moving forward.

With luck all parties will realize that compromise is necessary, that “perfect” is the enemy of “good”, and in another 5-10 years LA will have a vibrant river corridor that offers habitat for wildlife and revitalized neighborhoods and recreational areas for humans. Additionally, if all parties can find agreement then restoration of Ballona will move forward to create a healthy wetland that can be used to educate future generations about the value of nature while providing food and shelter for species that currently struggle to survive due to the severe loss of their coastal wetland habitat.

Ballona Wetlands restoration proposal

Artist’s rendering of a proposed Ballona restoration. Fill dumped in the wetlands during the creation of Marina del Rey, currently 20 feet deep in some places, has been removed to allow land to again be inundated by the creek and tides. The levees around the creek have also been partially removed to allow a more natural flow. Image from the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project.

More Reasons for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:29 pm, March 29th, 2015

In a continuing campaign to highlight good news in the world, here are a few more reasons to be optimistic:

  • The largest rat eradication program in history – eight times larger than the previous record – finished this month after a five year effort. The hope is that with the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia rat-free for the first time since the 1800s that it will again become the most important seabird breeding site in the world, a home for an estimated 100 million seabirds.
  • In a hopelessly divided Congress, a complex issue that legislators have been unable to permanently solve and that has annually threatened to cause major disruptions to the healthcare system since 1997 somehow finally found a solution and passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 392-37. Democrats got some things they wanted, Republicans got some things they wanted, a long-term problem finally found a solution, and for once Congress worked like it was supposed to.
  • Just a few months after the US created the world’s largest marine reserve at 490,000 square miles, Britain has created the largest contiguous marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands. At 322,000 square miles it is three-and-half times the size of the entire UK and protects some of the most pristine ocean in the world.
  • Closer to home, the largest dam removal in California history is underway. The antiquated San Clemente dam is too full of silt to serve its original purpose as a reservoir, at 94 years old is a hazard in an earthquake prone area, and most importantly has blocked steelhead migrations on the Carmel River for generations. After years of planning it is coming down in 2015, restoring 25 miles of rivers for the fish. Reservoirs are important, and hydroelectric power is a great source of clean energy, but in places where dams have outlived their usefulness, removing them is a tremendous way to revitalize rivers (see also: Elwha River resotation in Washington, Penobscot River restoration in Maine).
  • On a more obscure note, no new antibiotic has been discovered in nearly three decades, and bacteria have been developing immunity to many of the known antibiotics. That changed recently with the discovery of a new type of antibiotic, and the hope that the process used to discover it may yield many more.

Headlines

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:54 pm, May 29th, 2014

Four headlines of note this week:

  • SpaceX announced version two of their Dragon space capsule, this one capable of carrying astronauts. They are on track to be carrying people into space by 2017, and this new capsule is both reusable and capable of landing almost anywhere using maneuvering thrusters. The goal is to be able to fly it back to the launch pad, refuel it, strap it to a rocket, and send it into space again, thus greatly reducing costs and putting all of us space nerds one step closer to a trip into orbit. For anyone still reading who isn’t an engineering geek, this announcement may be considered one of the big moments in the advancement of technology in a few decades.
  • A $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River (yes, there is one) was announced today. LA’s preferred restoration option was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, and eleven miles of concrete will soon be removed and returned to a more natural state. I’m torn on this one – any time we can keep something natural, or fix damage that has been done, I’m a fan, but $1 billion could have been used to restore vastly larger and more important wetlands elsewhere (example). That said, bringing some nature back to the concrete jungle of LA will be a welcome change.
  • In more controversial news, the EPA is about to unveil serious efforts to combat climate change by setting CO2 limits on power plants. It’s highly doubtful that the EPA’s proposals are the best solution to the issue of climate change, but since the Senate killed the Cap & Trade bill in 2010, direct executive action has become the only viable option for addressing a very serious problem. With any luck, once these rules go into effect it will spur Congress to debate a better solution that does more to address the problem while producing less chaos in the marketplace, much like what was originally intended with the 2009 Cap & Trade bill.
  • Apple holds their Worldwide Developer Conference next week, where they are expected to announce a framework for integrating iPads and iPhones with home devices like lights, security systems, etc. They may also announce their rumored health-related watch, and while I’m skeptical about it, if anyone can make a device that promotes healthy living it’s Apple, and the thought of people having something on their wrist that encourages exercise, good eating, and other good behavior while also notifying them of serious health issues, that seems like a big win.

That’s a lot going on all at once, and even without a pressing deadline to get in three journal entries before the end of the month, they seemed significant enough to record for posterity. Ten years from now I’ll either read this while looking at my Apple health-monitoring device and watching the latest space tourist launch into orbit, or I’ll do neither of those things and wonder how I could have ever thought these announcements were significant :-)

More Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:20 pm, October 30th, 2013

I wrote about rat eradication efforts on South Georgia Island back in March. While it is too soon to know for sure what the result of that effort will be (note: things look really good so far), an older effort is worth examining.

Rat Island, a ten square mile island in the Aleutian Islands, has had to be renamed.

Rats arrived on the island during a shipwreck in 1780, and since that time they have wiped out nearly all of the native bird life. In 2008 efforts were made to remove rats from the island, and today a once silent island is described as “…hardly recognizable among the cacophony of birds calling everywhere; it’s alive with bird fledglings – teals, eiders, wrens, sparrows, eagles, peregrine falcons, gulls, sandpipers.

As of today there have been over 1100 successful removals of invasive species from islands, including 500 rat removals, worldwide. I’ve seen firsthand how removal of invasive species impacts the native plants and animals in the Galapagos and on the Channel Islands, and hopefully some day I’ll get to see the results on South Georgia.

We live in a world where news about nature always seems to be negative, but there is reason for optimism. Invasive species removal continues on other islands, governments are beginning to look to things like dune, wetland, and floodplain restoration as a cost-effective way to combat flooding, obsolete dams are being torn down to increase fish stocks, and numerous other positive developments are going on around the world. Not all of the news is good, but there is definitely reason to think that the outlook for our future isn’t as bleak as the news might lead us to believe.

The Nature

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 7:35 pm, May 29th, 2012

This post started out as a brainstorm of “things that matter”, but morphed into one about positive developments in conservation. Apologies in advance if it feels a bit too tree-hugger-ish, but these sorts of things excite me and seem worth writing about from time-to-time.

I’m a longtime member and a big fan of the Nature Conservancy. The group started in 1951 as an organization that purchased land for conservation purposes, and as of 2009 the conservancy’s assets totalled over $5.64 billion with more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers protected worldwide. Over the years, while continuing to buy and conserve land, the conservancy expanded its mission to include scientific research and partnerships with a huge variety of organizations, and today is known for its ability to find ways to bring together individuals who might otherwise be battling one another.

One early example of how the conservancy worked to bring together two very different groups is with ranchers. Historically environmentalists and ranchers haven’t been allies, despite the fact that most ranchers want to see their land kept natural and most environmentalists would far prefer a ranch to a subdivision. The Nature Conservancy wanted to maximize its conservation dollars, and so began experimenting with an arrangement known as “grass banking“, wherein they buy a ranch and allow neighboring ranchers to graze cattle on it in return for agreeing to manage their own lands more sustainably. Quoting a New York Times article on the practice: “A result is that the ranchers get more range than they could otherwise afford, and the conservancy protects more range than it could afford to buy.”

In contrast with the gloom and doom that seems to be the status quo for most of the environmental movement today, here are a small selection of conservancy projects and partnerships that provide reason for optimism:

  • Oyster reef restoration. Scientists have recently been paying more attention to the role that oyster reefs play in creating wildlife habitat. Compared to historic numbers oyster populations have crashed, and as a result the reefs that once protected shorelines and helped to filter sediments out of the water have disappeared in many places, resulting in water that is too murky for plant growth, waves that are stronger and cause more erosion, a smaller food supply for fish and birds, and a major degradation of the local ecosystem. The conservancy has thus been working to restore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast and has already seen noticeable improvement to shoreline wildlife habitat in project areas. In addition to wildlife, beneficiaries of this work include fisherman, who will enjoy improved fish spawning habitat, and land owners, who should see reduced damage from storms.
  • Floodplain restoration. After years of levee building and river straightening, floods today are often increasingly destructive since the entire output of a storm is now forced into a single, narrow channel, instead of being able to spread out in a wider area as would happen naturally. One of the conservancy’s areas of focus is in proving that by selectively removing levees, thus allowing a river to reconnect to portions of its historic floodplain, that flood damage can be reduced while simultaneously improving river health and wildlife habitat. In one example, during a flood in Mississippi when a river prematurely breached a levee that had been scheduled for demolition, the volume of water that entered the adjacent floodplain almost immediately reduced the water level in flooded towns downstream. The hope is that the conservancy’s work will spur government to reconsider floodplains as tools for combating flooding, while simultaneously helping restore natural ecosystems.
  • Migratory bird protection. While areas of high wildlife concentration are obvious targets for protection, the conservancy also began looking into other threats to wildlife. For migratory birds, having “stopover” points during migration is a key to ensuring survival, so the conservancy identified and purchased several sites along the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere that were shown to be important rest stops for birds making long journeys. Even though the species in question might be there only briefly, having places to rest and refuel during migration proved to be vital to the species’ long-term viability.

Oyster reef restoration in Alabama.

Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:05 pm, March 19th, 2012

The sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is one of the world’s most incredible places, and one that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times:

As amazing as it is today, South Georgia was once the most important seabird nesting site in the world, home to over 100 million nesting birds. The arrival of whalers and the introduction of rats to the island changed everything; birds that nest on the ground stand little or no chance against rats, and today it is mostly only the small offshore islands surrounding South Georgia that support large bird colonies.

South Georgia’s future will change dramatically this year. After a successful test run last year, 2013 and 2014 will see the largest rat eradication effort ever undertaken, with the hope of restoring South Georgia to its pre-whaling glory. The effort will be seven times larger than the largest eradication program previously undertaken, which was on Campbell Island in New Zealand.

While there is a lot to be discouraged about in the world today, particularly in the field of conservation, there are also a lot of good things going on. In the case of South Georgia, to know that the natural environment will be even more pristine in the future is a truly rare thing that is extraordinarily exciting to consider.

Grey-headed albatross, South Georgia Island

Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This bird was completely calm the entire time I sat with it, an experience that remains one of my favorite moments in life.