How to make strawberries cheap and ethical

Posted in Liberty at 10:47 by RjZ

NOTE: I wrote this weeks ago and passed it to a few folks, because, frankly, I’m not so sure I’ve thought this one through. Now immigration is in the news, so here goes, anyway. I realize my sixteen or so regular readers may appreciate the travel articles more, but you can tell me by commenting if you think I’m on the right track or not.

I’ve written before that we often don’t recognize the real costs of the things we buy. One example: strawberries would probably cost $10 a tray if it weren’t for the black market of cheap, illegal immigrant labor.

When liberals fight for minimum living wage, are they considering the consequences of actually paying minimum wage for all jobs? That living wage will have to increase significantly if we expect the low-wage earners who pick strawberries to actually be able to afford to eat them. Meanwhile, many conservatives (the President, uncharacteristically, not among them) would have us expel immigrants in order to protect jobs for U. S. citizens. This would be great if it actually would provide jobs, but, in addition to being intractable and horrendously expensive to prosecute, U.S. Americans seem unwilling to perform these jobs, and if they did, how would we afford the products they worked to deliver?

At the same time, we fret about losing more and more quality jobs to foreign countries, but no one steps up to complain about spending $500 on a computer that does more (thanks in no small part to American creativity) than one that used to cost $3000. We don’t seem to mind much getting cheap technical support for that computer, either.

If South Asian Indians really are the best at providing technical support for the money—that is, if going overseas for this labor really is the best value—why wouldn’t we do it? They’ll keep coming here for microchip designs, after all. Politicians often complain that we’re not providing the necessary aid to many nations to foster democracy, but when we provide them with the knowledge of how to fish (jobs) instead of simply a fish dinner (aid), they complain that we’re losing jobs. We might not have to send as much aid to these countries if we were supporting their free-market and democratic policies with our dollars already. If people from all across the planet are willing to come to the U.S. and live in cramped quarters, doing jobs that the people already living here seem unwilling to do, why don’t we start collecting taxes from them as legal immigrants?

Allowing best-of-market practices to include labor ensures that even the lowest earning of our society still have a chance to afford all the products and services they wish. The alternative is a protective tariff, which simply prices us forever out of the world market. It’s clearly too late for that form of isolationism—where would we get our clothing, some of our cars, our computer chips and our cell phones?

Admitting that immigrants are a critical part of our labor force and are here to stay is equally important. The saddest part of our current situation is that immigrants are banished from using some important city services, which makes their lives dangerous and potentially a burden to American society. Moreover, they have access to services for which they do not pay their fair share. What we’re left with is a significant portion of our economy dependent on the suffering of illegal immigrants—suffering they’re glad to endure, by the way, because they feel it’s better than back home.

Some readers are thinking “Great! I agree! Let’s make foreign immigration easier and let’s legalize all these illegals. Life will be better for them, and they’ll start paying taxes to boot!” That’s my point, so I am glad you’re with me so far, but there’s a corollary that may concern you. Minimum wage has got to go (or at least be drastically reduced)! Companies won’t (and can’t) just start paying their workers what they should have been paying them legally all along without raising the prices of those strawberries and chicken parts. We won’t be able to afford those strawberries and chicken parts if they do raise the prices to cover their costs. Homeowners will fire their illegal maids and au pairs because there isn’t enough value in their services any more. Worse still, all these now-legals are out of jobs because there is no market for $10 trays of strawberries, $15/pound chicken and $12/hour maid service.

Our exceptionally high standard of living, held up on by an artificial minimum wage and on the backs of black-market immigrants who don’t get the benefits of the very policy meant to protect them, is part of the reason why many markets have moved to foreign labor in the first place. It should be disturbing to us that all the costs and inefficiencies of having an office of technical support in South Asia is a better deal than employing locals!

It certainly wouldn’t be easy to dismantle minimum wage from one day to the next, and steps toward this would have to be made carefully. In the meantime, politicians can either keep talking out of both sides of their mouths or consider addressing the black-market lie in which we find ourselves.

The fact is that we compete with other countries’ policies whether we like it or not. We can pretend that we live in a vacuum, but unless we close our borders off to these products and services, those places that produce them for the best value will win out. Those nay-sayers who claim that we’re transferring our suffering from our own citizens to the poor, unprotected workers in foreign lands ignore the realities that as workers in those countries earn more money and become aware of those Americans buying all their cheap clothes, they start to want them, too, and they start demanding more for their valuable labor. We raise them up with the power of our dollars, freely traded for the shoes and t-shirts they produced. At the same time, other countries compete with us of for labor and choices. Their citizens can’t always just pick up and leave, but the smartest and most entrepreneurial do somehow figure out a way to do just that. These creative individuals, the proudest Americans in nearly every generation, are what will fuel the next innovations that make the U.S. such a powerhouse. China is growing successful as the quality of life improves. They might have gotten there sooner if it weren’t for the brain-drain that occurred over the last few decades. Ultimately, we can most influence the policies of other nations with whom we have a healthy trade, and that will do more for their citizens and ours in the long run. It is frequently observed that two countries freely trading with each other will not go to war. I won’t defend that statement here, except to say that shooting at your customers is a good way to lose your market. I’d rather we all had strawberries we could afford.

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Religious leaders call for execution

Posted in Society at 11:57 by RjZ

The New York Times, among others, is reporting that Afghan Clerics, in Friday Prayers, Call for Convert’s Execution. It is against Afghanistan’s Islamic Sharia law to convert from Islam to another religion, such as Christianity. The punishment for breaking this law is execution. This case, which was brought against the defendant by family members and not the government, has already created an international furor. Of course, when religious leaders call for execution of citizens, there is much to be concerned about.

That’s why we should be worried right here in the U.S. Pat Robertson supports the death penalty. The nation’s Baptists do, as well. Conservative Christians generally support the states’ right to execute those who break the law: “On the whole, Scripture favors the retention of capital punishment for premeditated murder.”

I, too, am disturbed that religious leaders in Afghanistan would call for execution of a man because he rejected Islam. It saddens me that Islamic religious leaders use the Q’uran to justify the killing of an individual, and that they would urge this action in Mosques and in prayers. It doesn’t surprise me, however. The Q’uran sanctions the killing of infidels—that is, anyone who does not believe in Islam. Before the United States and the rest of the West gets holier than thou, however, we shouldn’t forget that Afghanistan’s leaders, if they proceed with execution, are simply following their theocratic law. U.S. leaders support religious-sanctioned executions as well. Take this quote from Justice Scalia:

“Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.”

In this case, the Afghani leaders may not be behaving much differently than leaders in the U.S., religious or otherwise. Our founding fathers recognized that trying to govern using the dogma of religion was dangerous to the freedom of all of our citizens. Regardless of your view on capital punishment, using scripture, the Bible, the Q’uran, or otherwise, to defend execution is dangerous. Before we condemn the actions of the religious and political leaders in Afghanistan and elsewhere, let’s be sure we’re not doing the same thing. After all, let the country without sin cast the first stone.

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You already know how this will end

Posted in Travel at 13:29 by RjZ

I’ve just downed a delicious espresso from a coffee shop in Boulder. The barista claimed she was professionally trained in an Italian-style coffee house. Not sure what that means, or even if that’s what she said, because she was so nice to look at, but it was an excellent espresso. Music is playing, there is free wireless and attractive, smiling people all around.

Coffee house cappuccino
“Jenny’s” Cappucino. (I had espresso)

I’ve just come back from bouldering all by myself. There was no one else there, and no one with me. At one point, I slipped and landed a bit hard on my heel. If I had slipped wrong, without a crash pad, I probably could have hurt myself pretty badly. Instead, I’m here, writing about relaxing in a coffee shop and how beautiful it was on Flagstaff Mountain, finally completing a bouldering problem I’d tried many times unsuccessfully in the past. (Tree Slab, both directions, for those who know the area.)

The fact is, sitting here right now, relaxing and typing about almost hurting myself, is the way that all my stories up until now end. Nothing exciting is ever going to happen in these posts because, in the end, I am sitting in front of my computer, blogging about it.

The time I was knocked out cold in Iceland from wind blowing a door into the side of my head ended with me writing about it (someday) in this blog. Before the Berlin Wall fell, when I was briefly interrogated by the East German police, ended without much drama and me typing on a laptop. Falling, feet flying overhead, while rappelling in South Africa? Still nothing. I righted myself and here I am, enjoying a sunny day in Boulder. (I’ve got video of me doing that one; it’s hilarious.)

I tell a lot of stories. Fortunately for me, they all end the same. No matter how hard I try to inject some drama into them, nothing ever really happens, because by the time I write about it, I am back home, safe and with enough leisure time to write in a blog. I hate to spoil this, but you always know the end of my travel posts before you’ve finished reading them: everything comes out all right. They’re anticlimactic.

When you read about me getting ripped off in Morocco, or seeing the blown-out remnants of the cafe in which I’d had dinner two nights running in Cairo, or hear about the volcano that blew its top five days after I visited it? You can relax. Nothing happened. My story really won’t get any more exciting than that.

Someday, if I am not so lucky, maybe one of my stories will have a truly dramatic ending. Something really will happen. It’s just that I won’t be the one to write about it. Hopefully, someone else will. In the meantime, it’s a shame that everything I write about ends up the same, but I hate to break it to you: you know how this one is going to end, too.

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No one’s forcing you to buy an iPod

Posted in Society at 14:09 by RjZ

Suppose you were working for a company, HoloMedia, that developed a new movie player that stored several movies on little clear, sugar-cube-like media. HoloMedia has developed and patented this technology, which uses holography to store 20 GB on these tiny cubes, which are rugged and handy. Consumers like the idea, and somehow you’ve convinced the folks that have movies and music to offer to let you put their entertainment offerings on your little cubes. HoloMedia is the only company that can make this technology, because it’s patented.

If consumers really do like this, you’ve got a monopoly. Worse, if this technology is better than DVDs and videotapes and movies on demand from digital cable and everything else, then eventually those other technologies might die out, and HoloMedia would become the gatekeeper of movies and music. They could then start raising your prices to pay for all the development you’ve made up until now. That’s the fear that Leander Kelly is promoting in Wired.

Is this OK? Has HoloMedia broken the law? Even if they haven’t broken the law, should there be one keeping them from doing this? The French think so. A law that forces companies to give away their intellectual property is working its way through French parliament right now.

It is possible for this monopoly to occur, for HoloMedia to make this wonderful new technology that’s so good that the entertainment industry is willing to put all their eggs in one basket and that consumers don’t even look for alternatives. It’s possible, but it’s not likely. And if HoloMedia were successful and drove everyone else out of the market, they might be able to raise prices arbitrarily, but at some point the consumers would complain and a new company would come along to compete.

Even Microsoft has experienced this. Unlike the theoretical HoloMedia, Microsoft didn’t just have better technology, they used unfair market practices to force others to use their products and extend their monopoly. That’s illegal. But even though they broke the law, there are still alternatives that survive, such as Apple, Web applications and Linux. If the French law were to be passed, then what HoloMedia developed would be taken from them, patents aside, and given away to their competitors, all in the name of protecting the consumers. What would you do? It’s quite likely they’d not risk giving away this proprietary information, and simply abandon the French market. So a law, presumably intended to protect the French consumer, will simply punish them.

The French law “requires companies that sell digital-music files in France to open up their digital rights management systems so that the files can be played on any device.” Right now, this is basically aimed at Apple and the iTunes Music Store. While it is not impossible to download music from Apple and play it on other players, it certainly is inconvenient (actually, about as inconvenient as making a cassette tape used to be, maybe less so). If the law were to pass, Apple would either exit the French music market, or be forced to open up their digital rights management software so that competitors could play music bought from Apple, too. In doing so, their whole business model would fail, and their hard work at developing a distribution network that works and also supports sales of their hardware would be stripped from them by government fiat. Would you want to develop new technology in this atmosphere? Will this foster advancement?

We don’t have to like digital rights management (which I believe, in some cases, violates the fair use clause of the Constitution!) but we are not, at this time, required to buy it. I don’t buy my music from Apple because I don’t find it to be good value. I buy CDs and rip them myself for my iPod or whatever player I prefer. We have a choice. Hopefully Apple leaves the French to their meddling and walks away.

[Update: 23 March 06]
I completely missed a better analogy! Would France’s proposed law require Microsoft to make it’s X-Box games playable on PlayStation? Isn’t that a monopoly? After all, entertainment vendors, other than Microsoft, make games that work only if you buy Microsoft’s hardware… You get the idea.

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Travel tips part 3, or they may not have your chosen addiction where you’re going

Posted in Travel at 14:16 by RjZ

A friend visited me from Holland. The Dutch really like their coffee. He’s been drinking coffee since he was young, so he’s really good at it. Meanwhile, well, I don’t drink coffee. But I do know how to buy those little freeze-dried instant coffee things you just add water to.

He was unimpressed by these, so the first thing we’d have to do every morning is find a coffee. Actually, it was the first thing we’d do, and we’d continue to do this a few times during the day. In Holland, they have koffeetijd (coffee time). It’s just like tea-time, but they stick with coffee, that’s all. In other words, coffee isn’t just for breakfast anymore. All this stopping for coffee was well and good so long as I was showing him around Boulder and Denver. It was during our trip to California that things got interesting, though.

In the desert, camping in the middle of nowhere, he was up early trying to boil water for one of his last freeze-dried packets. At the Grand Canyon, we had to wait until after 9 am to start our hike down because the restaurant wasn’t open until then. It’s not like we could start without coffee. I was almost glad when we stopped in Las Vegas. I knew we would not have to be delayed or go out of our way to get coffee.

Coffee is consumed the world over, but that doesn’t mean you can get it everywhere. If you travel, you’re quite likely to wind up in a place that just doesn’t have any. Before you travel, you might want to start thinking about this. What will you do if you really can’t get coffee?

It’s not just coffee. You’re going to have to be prepared to adapt whereever you go. I wouldn’t even know where they have and don’t have coffee, as I rarely drink it. For me, the big challenge is avoiding meat.

Marrakesh Market, Morocco

Morocco has some of the best vegetarian dishes in the world—except that they always have meat with them. In Islam, meat is considered a gift from God. Refusing to eat it might be insulting to the creator. While having dinner with Moroccans, they would push cubes of meat towards me, in the otherwise untainted and delicious couscous. The dish is served family style, each person reaching in with the right hand to a big platter in the middle. At some point there was no polite way to refuse, and I had a bite, smiling as much as I could.

In Thailand, I learned how to say, “I am a vegetarian, no meat please.” I learned how to say it, but it’s not like the Thais understood me. Once I got a plate with no vegetables on it. Essentially the Thais couldn’t really understand why anyone with enough money to travel from the U.S. to Thailand couldn’t afford meat. “No extra money,” they said sometimes, smiling with pleading eyes.

It’s no surprise that customs are different everywhere. Are you going to be able to have ice in your water? (Not most places, and if you do, your stomach may not approve of you having the tap water, anyway.) Your dessert has arrived; where’s your coffee? (In most European traditions, it comes only after you’ve finished dessert, so while you’re waiting to start, your polite waiter is waiting to bring you your coffee as soon as you’ve finished!) Wouldn’t a beer be great in this heat? (Not even if you can find any in Indonesia; most of it’s pretty terrible there, and often warm. Try their juice drinks, though. They’re wonderful!)

Things are different in other parts of the world, but you might not know what to expect until you get there. It’s much more fun if you can remember, even while shaking from lack of caffeine, or spending some extra time trying to digest the first meat you’ve had in years, that experiencing new things is why you traveled so far from home in the first place. And I hear they have really excellent coffee in lots of places, much better than the usual U.S. American stuff, anyway.

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Bush admits mistakes, for once

Posted in Society at 10:07 by RjZ

Yesterday, President Bush gave an unusual speech in Akron, Ohio. In an effort to regain some credibility, he admitted that, during the execution of the war in Iraq, he and the administration made mistakes.

He told a story of how our forces drove out terrorists in Tal Afar, but they came back only a month later and controlled the city for almost a year.

Tal Afar is a city of more than 200,000 residents, roughly the population of Akron, Ohio. In many ways, Tal Afar is a microcosm of Iraq: It has dozens of tribes of different ethnicity and religion. Most of the city residents are Sunnis of Turkmen origin…

By September 2004, the terrorists and insurgents had basically seized control of Tal Afar.

We recognized the situation was unacceptable. So we launched a military operation against them. After three days of heavy fighting, the terrorists and the insurgents fled the city. Our strategy at the time was to stay after the terrorists and keep them on the run. So coalition forces kept moving, kept pursuing the enemy and routing out the terrorists in other parts of Iraq.

Unfortunately, in 2004 the local security forces there in Tal Afar weren’t able to maintain order, and so the terrorists and the insurgents eventually moved back into the town… By November 2004, two months after our operation to clear the city, the terrorists had returned to continue their brutal campaign of intimidation.

President Bush then observed how Iraqi forces, taking the lead but backed by coalition forces, were able to restore lasting order to Tal Afar. Today, Bush claims, Tal Afar is a safe place with children playing in the streets.

Let’s assume Bush’s success story is true. For the sake of the Iraqi people and our soldiers, I sure hope it is. I am thrilled that we may have discovered, years into the war, a strategy that may finally lead to success.

What concerns me is that the administration has failed so often and almost everywhere else in Iraq and, finally, with one success, Mr. Bush tries to restore confidence in his administration’s ability to execute this war. His speech (finally) admits to failed missions and lack of progress, even if he is trying to show the American people that there has been progress. Admitting mistakes doesn’t erase them. If I accidentally drive into your car because I was playing with my cell phone, I can’t tell my insurance company, “[listen,] strategy that worked so well in Tal Afar [all my other driving] did not emerge overnight — it came only after much trial and error. It took time to understand and adjust to the brutality of the enemy in Iraq [fact that there were other cars on the road]. Yet the strategy is working.” I will still have to pay the deductible and see my insurance bills increase. And we will still pay for the costs of Bush’s mistakes in tax dollars and lost lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter, though, whether Bush acknowledges missteps or not. It doesn’t matter that he is finally getting around to it now. What matters is that, at nearly every point in this war in Iraq, the administration’s lack of planning has resulted in cost overruns, a strengthened insurgency, casualties, and thousands of lost lives.

Many supporters of Bush trust him for his straight talk. Yesterday he actually did start talking straight, admitting failure, even if he was only trying to highlight eventual success. But I am more impressed by his performance than his talk, and my impression is of a president who has mishandled this war. If President Bush learns from his mistakes and we really can leave Iraq a success, I will be thrilled for him. In the meantime, I’ll believe in what happens, not what the administration thinks about it. If he keeps making mistakes, whether he admits them or not, maybe we’ll have to take his license away.

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Everything to fear

Posted in Society at 8:45 by RjZ

My long-time friend and traveling partner, Françoise, and I were hiking a fourteener a couple of years ago. Françoise is deathly afraid of heights, and hiking up a fourteener is more of a mental challenge than a physical one for her.

Above tree-line, the trails become thin, skirting steep talus slopes. Hiking up there is almost nothing but barren landscape and views. There are rugged, low, alpine flowers like old man of the mountain and stone crop, and there are pikas barking “beejer” in defiant warning to the huge mammals invading their territory. Other than that, all Françoise can see is the slope heading down the mountain. She knows that slipping here wouldn’t actually be all that dangerous, but acrophobia isn’t a rational fear, and if she could listen to her brain instead of the adrenaline pumping through her veins, she wouldn’t be scared at all.

She’s been afraid of heights since I’ve known her, and while she never lets it slow her down, she’s cautious stepping on a chair to hang a picture, and she always holds the handrails on stairs. For the longest time, I had absolutely no idea what she was going through. Once, while I was gently prodding her to keep going on the hike, she suddenly got irritated and exclaimed, “You don’t understand, because you’re not scared. You’re never scared!”

I’m never scared? I am some brave warrior? Ridiculous. Except that she’s right. I’d never really thought about it, but I am almost never scared. It’s hardly from courage, though; it’s really out of foolishness. While Françoise is rightfully considering the remote possibility that she wouldn’t be able to regain her footing and would tumble, heels over head, down a 1000-foot talus slope to her death or serious injury, I think simply, “Nah, would never happen.” Of course it could happen, but I am foolish and that just doesn’t register.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado

I understand how Françoise feels now. I understand her because I started leading rock climbs. Rock climbing feels safer to me than mountain biking, because in rock climbing you’ve got a rope. But while leading rock, that life-saving rope is all but uselessly below you. I slip sometimes while climbing, hell, I slip sometimes while walking on the sidewalk! If I were to slip while leading, I could plummet twice the distance between me and the last piece of protection I placed in the wall. I’d fall a little further, too, taking up slack in the system and rope stretch. I’d like to not even think about what happens if I didn’t do a good job placing that last piece of gear.

I slipped the other day on an approach. I bruised my tail bone, and it’s still bothering me. I think that was two weeks ago. How would I fare if I smacked into a cliff after falling 15 to 20 feet? I think about this now. Sometimes, when I am leading, I think about it and I get nervous. I remember once holding on to a not-very-difficult spot and trying to place a piece of protection into the crag. It was taking too long, and my legs were starting to shake. I could feel the fear welling up in me like cement slowing setting up.

I later described this to Françoise, who was, naturally, unimpressed. She claimed that this locking up is exactly what happens to her on those talus slopes. Eventually she’s more afraid that she won’t be able to move any more than that she’ll fall. I also explained to her how, during the 15 to 20 minutes that it takes to climb a pitch, sometimes this heavy, rigid cement would be on the verge of freezing my joints and muscles, and how I would get…angry. I just wanted it to stop. To set up the anchor. To…relax. I remember trying to find which piece would fit in the crag, and having to mentally overpower the growing anxiety. Having to wrestle this anxiety back down and out of my mind. It felt like a physical act, not a mental one, to push it away. I remember setting my jaw and literally straining my muscles to get it out of my mind and to concentrate on placing the piece and climbing on. The sooner I got down to business, the sooner I’d get to relax at the anchor! I was no longer afraid of falling. I was afraid of locking up.

It took a vertical pitch 100 feet high for me to experience the same thing as Françoise, but it’s the same thing. After being so unaware of this mental factor for so long, I am frequently amazed at how much it does affect me. It’s not only fear. Climbing in the rock gym, I notice a significant improvement depending on my mood. I lose a whole grade in climbing when I am angry or upset. Undoubtedly, this has been affecting my life in other endeavors, even if I have been so ignorant of it before.

I must admit, I am disappointed that I don’t have some superhuman power to logically suppress or, better yet, not even have fear. It may sound silly, but that rock pitch I was climbing was the first time I realized what Françoise was going through. I doubt it’s the first time I was ever really afraid, but I guess I have always been too oblivious to appreciate it.

Fear is a normal part of life, and I love it. Climbing is fantastic for me because it brings this unfamiliar fear right to my attention. I can face it and I absolutely must deal with it. Climbing engenders a concentration from me that almost nothing else does. Like a forced meditation, everything unnecessary is cleared from my head, but I must remain aware of everything around me. At the bottom of a climb, I wonder why I am starting it. I remember how much I fear and I dread it, but I know how charged and empowered I will feel at the top, having overcome it. I feel huge at the top, finally safe again. Fear makes me feel alive. No wonder Françoise keeps on climbing fourteeners!

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An IGCC primer — What to do with CO2

Posted in Energy, Society at 17:10 by RjZ

In President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union speech, he said, “To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.” I thought I’d give a lay persons view of what this “zero-emission coal-fired power plant” actually is.

There may be other ways to do this, but in general, when politicians speak about zero-emission from coal, they’re talking about integrated gasification, combined cycle (IGCC) power plants. The whole process by which we get energy out of coal without any emissions at all is complex. There’s lot’s to do, and the details and infrastructure are definitely not completed. The U.S. is a leader in the commercialization of this technology, which is mostly led by GE.

Energy from coal

The first thing is to understand how we typically extract energy from coal. Coal is compressed plants, which are basically stored up solar energy from centuries and millennia. When we burn coal, we break down the hydrocarbon bonds, and the energy released in this reaction heats up steam in tubes lining the coal furnace. The steam then turns a turbine, and this rotating kinetic energy is converted to electricity and sent to the grid for you and me to power our computers and read this blog. A modern coal plant is about 40% efficient, by the way, which, it turns out, is very, very good. The very best solar cells are about 38%, and the photovoltaic kind that normal humans, who are not flying into space, can afford are around 17% (That’s from NREL, but I can’t find the original link)

The key point is that energy is stored in hydrogen-carbon bonds in coal.

Clean it before you burn it

Unfortunately, the black lumps we dig out the ground and call “coal” aren’t strictly hydrocarbons. After being buried for so long, the dried-up plants get mixed up with all manner of dirt. While we’re trying to get energy from the hydrogen-carbon bonds, these trace elements–for example, sulfur–get burnt up, and they form things like SO2 which causes smog and acid rain. There is mercury in there, and even radioactive elements too.

So one strategy, instead of just burning the coal, is to refine it first, like we do with crude oil. This refining process has been around for more than 50 years, but it’s finally becoming commercially feasible to do it for energy generation. The process, gasification, combines a slurry of coal powder with steam at high temperatures and pressures. The result is a thick slurry of everything that isn’t a hydrocarbon pouring out the bottom, and something called synthetic gas, or syngas, coming off the top. (I’m over-simplifying, but not too much…) Syngas is CO+H2. It’s very clean to burn; the result is water and CO2. An IGCC plant burns this syngas in a combustion turbine, which is essentially a jet engine, strapped to the ground. The kinetic energy from the rapidly turning jet engine turbine is converted to electricity and sent to the grid (of course, so that you can read this blog…).

Refining coal actually produces a lot of extra heat. This extra heat is used to produce steam which turns a steam turbine. This way, little of the energy from coal-gasification is wasted. That’s the “combined cycle” part of the process.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas!

We cleaned the coal before burning it, so there were no pollutants. We’ve got turbines turning, so we’re producing energy. Looks like everyone is happy. Not so fast. Burning syngas is clean, but as in any hydrocarbon combustion process, one of the end products is CO2. CO2 isn’t poisonous, and plants enjoy it plenty (They’ll combine it with water and solar energy to make new hydrocarbons.) but, alas, it traps more light than our atmosphere would normally do, if we’d stop fooling with it. Furthermore, loads of scientists now agree that too much CO2 in the air causes the planet to warm up like we’re in a giant greenhouse. So once we’re done commercializing IGCC, we’ve still got to figure out what to do with all the CO2.

It’s important to note here that Mr. Bush and many environmentalists have one thing in common: they all seem to think that because a fuel is renewable, like fuel from corn, that it’s good. Using bio-fuels is no answer to greenhouse gas production. Whether we get energy from burning plant products such as methanol or really old plant products such as coal, we still get CO2 as a by-product. Lots of it! The biggest difference between coal and methanol is that we don’t have to plant the coal.

What to do with the CO2

There’s really no good idea about what to do with all that CO2. Please don’t be disappointed when I tell you what the greatest minds on the planet think we should do with it. It does have a fancy name, though. Maybe that will make us feel better; it’s called CO2 sequestration. Basically we, um, bury it. We pump the CO2 into deep holes in the ground. We don’t know where all these holes are, but we know that we can use it to pump out oil, for example, and then just cap it off. We also think we can pump out huge underground cavities where there is water. We don’t actually know where all these giant aquifers are (because oil companies have spent more time looking for oil than for water, the greedy bastards), but I am sure we can find a few.

So somehow you’ve got to build your IGCC plant near one of these places to put the CO2, or you’ll have to build a pipeline to get it there. And we’ll have to be sure that these things stay tightly capped off, because if the CO2 leaks out, it won’t kill anybody right away, but the planet will warm up and bake just as sure as if we had never tried to get rid of the by-product in the first place. I’ll be honest, I am skeptical about CO2 sequestration. We can do it–we’ll have to–but we better not stop investing in other technology.

Coal-burning cars

It’s good news that we can burn coal and have zero emissions. It’s good news, because as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we have loads of coal in the United States. Amazingly, the syngas that is made in an IGCC plant can even be turned into diesel fuel to power cars, trains and airplanes! Yes, we can even power our existing transportation fleet with coal. The U.S. would be completely independent of foreign oil if we did that! (I should mention that using syngas for transportation does produce CO2, but it still beats being held over a barrel (pun intended) by a government that hates us.)

Except for one problem: we don’t have any IGCC plants right now. (That’s not strictly true, we have a few test plants, about five or so, and nobody is really doing CO2 sequestration yet.) That means we have to build them. Building a power plant isn’t free. Furthermore, IGCC plants aren’t any more efficient than other coal-fired power plants, so not only will we have to build a lot of them, but we won’t be getting any more energy out of each one, so the cost per kilowatt is going to have to go up-up-up. I don’t recall Mr. Bush mentioning this when he said we’ll invest in research.

Research is well and good, but will we and the U.S. or even world economy be able to pay for this zero-emission coal? I think we’ll have to, because the cost of cleaning up after all the hurricanes and floods caused by continued global warming will make up for it anyway, but we should be prepared for this drag on economic growth.

GE has much more information about IGCC, as does the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Check out the EIA. It’s quite a resource. After all, it’s your tax dollars at work!

Where we’re going to get enough energy to keep the lights on is often a very complex issue. Let’s make sure that these important decisions aren’t made, well, in the dark!

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Happy pi day!

Posted in at 13:59 by RjZ

I almost forgot to remind my faithful readers that today is Pi day!

Download this lovely pdf I just made to see pi approximated to 50,000 places! Bask in its glory!

Celebrate 3.14, at 1:59 PM! Don’t miss out!

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Salazar supports nuclear power, sort of

Posted in , Energy at 10:26 by RjZ

In his letter to President Bush, Democratic senator from Colorado Ken Salazar recommends nuclear power for U.S. energy independence.

10. Nuclear Power:
Promote responsible energy technologies that do not contribute to global warming and that do so without compromising safety or security. Nuclear power plants provide roughly 20% of America’s electricity. As our country moves forward with nuclear power, we must ensure that these plants have
the ability to withstand acts of terrorism, and we must ensure that nuclear power technologies do not make it easier for terrorists or nations to acquire material needed to make nuclear weapons. Finally, we must continue to work on providing safe, permanent storage for the resulting radioactive waste.

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but it is a sensible one.

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