Friday, September 18, 2020

A cheer for Ginsburg, and a wish that she retired in 2013

If I thought there were a chance that a relative or friend of RBG would read this, then I'd stop that headline with simply a cheer for her and all the amazing things she's done. I only wish she listened to the advice of many people more prominent than me to retire in 2013. Same for Breyer, and he'll get the chance to fix it next year if the Democrats take the Senate and if a 6-3 Republican Supreme Court doesn't steal the presidency.

As I said in the 2013 post below, it's another excellent reason to have term limits at the Supreme Court. Not only would the Court better reflect the popular vote, limits would mean justices would likely fill regular terms of office and leave in a reasonably orderly fashion. And it's one of the tiny number of reforms that still have bipartisan support.

One more thing: it's not court-packing if you're fixing a stolen seat. Republicans stole Garland's seat, resulting in a two-vote switch. Adding two seats is fixing what Republicans stole, and still leaves Roberts as the decision-maker. Democrats should add two seats to the Court if they win in November.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thanks, Ginsburg, and now please retire. Also, Anthony Kennedy's mixed legacy.

Glad that we got some good court rulings out today on gay rights. Definitely good in a policy sense; I haven't made a deep dive to decide if I completely agree on the law. So thanks to Ginsburg for all her good votes, and as I said after the election, now is the time for the 80-year old, two-time cancer survivor to step aside because it's the best chance in at least 4 years to get a decent nominee through the Senate.

End of Court term is a traditional time to announce resignation. If she waits until next year, it'll be campaign season with even fewer Republican senators willing to vote rationally. In Fall 2014, some 21 Democrats will be up for re-election as opposed to 14 Republicans in an off-year election that usually disfavors the president's party, so the Senate make-up is very likely to get worse. Hopefully the make-up will improve after November 2016 when the ratio for that election is reversed, but whether it will meet or beat what we've got today is unclear (not to mention we don't know who'll be President).

Regardless of whether even a healthy 80-year old has good odds of being to work another 4 years, I can guarantee that a 50-something replacement has better odds, as well as lasting through the contingency of four or more years of a Republican presidency. She should quit.

Hopefully I'll soon look like an idiot for my next statement:  she won't do it. Judges have truly impressive sense of their own importance, and I doubt the Supreme Court reduces that sense.

In my "also" about Kennedy, I think the last two days' ruling against voter rights and for gay rights are a decent example of the mixed legacy I've seen since 2005. While he's responsible for many awful decisions, he also supported human rights on some occasions that came at a personal cost during the Bush administration, losing the chance to be Chief Justice.

Still, if you assume he's acting with a legacy motivation (possibly a motivation for Obama on climate too), then I think he personally comes out better this way. He'll be remembered for making the right decision on social values at a minor personal cost, as opposed to being the Chief Justice who made terrible decisions. Think about that, John Roberts.


UPDATE:  yep, Ginsburg refuses to retire. More proof that the Supreme Court and possibly the appellate courts need term limits.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

My 2019 Op-Ed on California wildfires

Last year the San Jose Mercury News published an op-ed I wrote about California wildfires, then republished by Green Foothills (now my current employer). Seems a bit relevant today, so it's below. I'll add that fighting for better land use will also do a lot to help fight climate change.


As still more wildfires hit California this fall, we remain in denial about the primary cause of our disastrous wildfire risks.

Climate change contributes to wildfire now and will grow even further in importance, but it is not currently the primary risk factor and not subject to denial here in climate-conscious California. Similarly, there’s no denial of the need for certain helpful actions, using different building materials and setting prescribed fires to burn out fuel loads before they get out of control. These acknowledged issues also are not the primary drivers of wildfire risks, although they dominate the discussion and potential actions by government agencies.

The primary factor creating wildfire risk is land use, specifically the extent to which we scatter residential development in wildland areas, like lighter fluid on a bundle of wood. California county and city governments do not acknowledge this fact in their own “mini-constitutions,” their General Plans. Until they do – and then take action to do something about it – wildfire history will continue to tragically repeat itself.

Research has made clear that the greatest risk of losing a home to fire comes from land use decisions that disperse development across the Wildand-Urban Interface, the so-called “WUI”.  You can map this risk rising and falling like a hill on a graph, where risk is low at very low density development in the WUI, rises high in the middle level of density, and then drops low again with increased density approaching suburban lots. Research from Alexandra Syphard of the Conservation Biology Institute, and by many others, has demonstrated the problem.

In wilder areas with few residences, the chances of a human-caused ignition are low, and the space for a fire to burn out without harming anyone are higher. In places with suburban residential densities or greater density, the amount of trees and brush that catch and carry fire are lower, fire stations are closer and quicker to respond, and multiple homes can be protected at the same time. Between the two with the highest level of risk is the worst of all worlds, where residences are scattered liberally as ignition sources with plenty of wildland fuels to threaten life and property. That worst of all worlds is what land use planning for rural areas usually designates in county General Plans, as well as many cities that also oversee undeveloped lands.

Look at the General Plans for Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County, and Sonoma County, and you will not find an acknowledgment of land use patterns as the primary driver of fire risk. At best they have some suggestion of minimizing development in fire hazard areas, not an acknowledgment that this development is the core problem. These three counties are now revising their General Plans, and now is the time to fix this problem.

Counties and cities need first to get over the denial and to expressly acknowledge that scattering new development in the WUI is currently the primary driver of wildfire risk. Then they start doing something about it. Doing something would not mean forcing people out, but it could put strong restrictions on new development and give alternatives to people after a wildfire who do want to leave.

The good news is that while land use planning doesn’t yet acknowledge the problem, recognition is increasing in the media and in public discussion. We need the land use driver of wildfire risk to be acknowledged where it counts most, in county and city General Plans. Just like climate change, we must acknowledge and end this denial in order to have a chance to overcome it.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Democratic Party improvement over the Green New Deal

My usual timeliness here, but I want to highlight this part of the Democratic Party platform:

To reach net-zero emissions as rapidly as possible, Democrats commit to eliminating carbonpollution from power plants by 2035 through technology-neutral standards for clean energy and energy efficiency. We will dramatically expand solar and wind energy deployment through community-based and utility-scale systems, including in rural areas. Within five years, we will install 500 million solar panels, including eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems, and 60,000 wind turbines, and turn American ingenuity into American jobs by leveraging federal policy to manufacture renewable energy solutions in America. Recognizing the urgent need to decarbonize the power sector, our technology-neutral approach is inclusive of all zero-carbon technologies, including hydroelectric power, geothermal, existing and advanced nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.

The emphasis-added is the environmental improvement over the Green New Deal. While GND is somewhat amorphous, the sometimes-explicit rejection of nuclear and carbon storage constituted a policy choice that no matter how much those technologies could help the fight against climate change, GND supporters preferred opposing the technology.

To be fair, nuclear power hasn't done well in say the last 40-plus years, and a technology-neutral approach would price in externalities from nuclear waste and revoke liability limitations for massive accidents. Carbon sequestration similarly has a checkered history, and it's a joke to think coal, which is already noncompetitive with renewables, could handle an additional 30%-40% surcharge to pay for carbon sequestration. Still, other carbon sequestration might be possible, including carbon-negative sequestration from biofuels, and maybe the long-prophesied, new nuclear technologies can occur. Let them compete and see what they can do.

The promises for massive amounts of solar and wind also aren't exactly compatible with the technology-neutral approach, but we can acknowledge the reality that they are going to be main forms of increased renewable power for the next two decades. The numbers they give within the next five years are impossible under normal political conditions, but not impossible under a massive buildout plan. I don't expect that to happen, but there's nothing wrong pushing for it.

Two other notes: first, the platform is treating large-scale hydropower as the equivalent of any other renewable resource. Traditionally that hasn't been the case, with some reason - hydropower used to be so big a source that it would drown out any incentives for budding new technologies like solar and wind. That isn't the case any more. I personally would have an incentive geared to immature renewable technologies that large-scale hydro couldn't access, but I think it's reasonable for large hydro to compete with other mature, near-zero carbon technologies.

Second, there's the whole weirdness of dropping the plank calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Completely unacceptable, especially the obfuscation regarding which individual people's actions resulted in the plank being dropped - shades of the 2016 Republican platform dropping the call to provide military weaponry to Ukraine. Still, as the link notes, Biden's still saying he'll end subsidies, and that's more important than the party platform.

We just need to make sure in November that Trump is gone in January.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Song For Masking

Daniel Kahn brings a century old Yiddish song about the plagues which beset us then and now



Eli, as part of the target group, would like to have a word about masks. Now the Eli is not a virologist or a statistician, or a medical type, but the Bunny does have some opinions.

TL:DR: Masks protect you and those near you

The first part requires explanation, but it's actually quite simple.

We know a few things about the coronavirus 2 [SARS-CoV-2]) and similar viruses

1.  Infection by viruses require a minimum dose. A single or a very small number of virus particles are not infectious.  No one knows what the minimum effective dose is and, of course, this will vary from person to person. There is evidence that the severity of the disease depends on the initial viral load

2.  Hospitals and other places where there people seriously shedding the virus are extremely dangerous and those working in such places require extremely good Personal Protective Equipment including N95 masks.

3.  Places where there is good ventilation (e.g. outdoors) are much less dangerous as long as infectious people are not within some small radius

Points 2 and 3 follow directly from Point 1 and there is good direct and indirect evidence for all of them.

4. People are the vector and reservoir for spreading the disease which is why lockdown, social isolation and masking can eliminate the disease at least locally. That's the old fashioned way of dealing with plagues. At worst it buys time and that is vital as treatments improve with time as the decreasing death rate shows, and like Sartre we are waiting for vaccine.

5, The size of the virus is small (of the order of 100 nm) and the disease can be spread directly as well as in droplets emitted in breath which are a few microns. The latter have a very short lifetime in the air, a few seconds, the former a much longer time.

Now Eli needs to talk a bit about masks. It's well established that they can protect others against you, if you have COVID 19 by capturing droplets as you cough and breath. The question is can they protect you from when others are sharing. Turns out, it's not a one way thing, but the protection is asymmetric.  OTOH, if the amount of viral aerosol is low, non-perfection is better than nothing.

Masks can be extremely simple, a piece of cloth, or very complex, multi-layer engineered devices. The most sophisticated such as surgical masks and N95 ones have a layer with an electrostatic filter that can attract and hold small aerosol particles.  You can also get inserts for cloth masks with electrostatic filters.

Frankly this surprised Eli, but multiple layers in any mask will provide a tortuous path for the particles to pass through so the efficiency of multi-layer masks is much higher than just their pore size would indicate.

Before the last six months or so there actually is not very much information on mask efficiency for various size materials and composites beyond N95 and surgical masks because there was not much need, but, of course, recently, a tsunami. Unfortunately a lot of the tsunami are simply reviews of the tsunami and not so much new work.

Perhaps the best earlier work was Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic? Anna Davies, Katy-Anne Thompson, Karthika Giri, George Kafatos, Jimmy Walker, and Allan Bennett, Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2013 Aug; 7(4): 413–418. which anticipated the need for cloth masks when N95 and surgical mask supply was exhausted by an epidemic. They said, ok, better than nothing against virus and bacteria.


Bacteriophage MS2 is a 28 nm RNA virus, so really small, B atrophaeus is much larger a rod shaped bacterium.  Just looking at the Bacteriophage MS2 results shows that even  single layers of cloth can provide some protection. They conclude that a surgical mask might be 2 or 3 times as effective as a tea towel.  Eli takes this to mean that even simple masks offer some protection in situations where there is not a lot of a virus and can limit infection to below the minimum critical amount. 


Among the new work, the most interesting is maybe Filtration Efficiencies of Nanoscale Aerosol by Cloth Mask Materials Used to Slow the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Christopher D. Zangmeister*, James G. Radney, Edward P. Vicenzi, and Jamie L. Weaver ACS Nano 2020, 14, 7, 9188–9200. So that's in July.  They find that 3 layers (blue line) of a simple cotton poplin cloth had a minimum efficiency of ~40% at 200 nm, but was over 50% efficient for smaller and larger particles.  Weave and mixtures of fabrics didn't appear to make much of a difference, but the number of layers did, They and Eli note that it would not be easy to breathe with more than three layers.

 TL:DR: MIND THE GAP AND WEAR A MASK

There is also Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Masks Abhiteja Kondra et al.  CS Nano 2020, 14, 5, 6339  6347 acs nano but it had a fatal flaw because it measured the airflows established in the apparatus before placing the mask materials. This limited the flow to below the normal breathing rates and there is a correction but there are also 109 citations in 4 months since publication.  Zangmaeister et al found a lot of other problems with the conclusions of that paper. This illustrates the problem of pre-existing post normal science publications where the rush leads to errors that persist on Twitter

So in conclusion fabric masks even simple ones provide some protection (not 100% but what is) to the user where the concentration of virus aerosols is low  even given the Rabett's native skepticism of hot results.

TL:DR: Masks protect you and those near you



Wednesday, August 26, 2020

What T1J says about cancel culture

 

 

It's not helpful that Republican leaders have now added to the repertoire that "social media criticism of Republicans = cancel culture", but just because they're being brainless doesn't mean we should act similarly.

T1J's, somewhat muddled, middle-of-the-road position kind of matches my own, so here it is.

The one thing I'll disagree with is that he attempts a crisp definition of "cancelling" to be completely silencing someone or getting them fired. I think it's broader than that, but also not necessarily a bad thing. JK Rowling still has a platform, but she doesn't have the same ability to reach out and communicate on LGBTQ issues that she did before - and she doesn't deserve the same platform she had before. Richard Dawkins also has less reach, but in his case I'm not so sure the cancelling is deserved.

It's complicated. Anyway, T1J is right, saying people shouldn't be jerks and that should guide their behavior.

(Adding here that the above is Brian's opinion - Eli and John may feel differently on cancelling, the Harper's letter, etc.)

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Dispatchable hydropower versus pumped storage, Round 2

I've been meaning to return to this concept of dispatchable hydropower and distinguishing it from pumped hydropower storage. The tweet above shows how one example of it being used in practice. We could do much more, somewhat to help in energy crises similar to what's happening now in California, and more to smooth out renewable power-based systems generally.

Sammy Roth publishes some great work about climate and energy, and recently published eight low-carbon solutions to variability in renewable power. Pumped hydro was one of them, while dispatchable hydro was not. Glen Canyon Dam suggests it should've been.

Dispatchable hydropower is (mostly) distinguishable from pumped hydro storage in that it makes use of existing dams and reservoirs, and (mostly) doesn't build new infrastructure like pumped hydro does. Its focus is a change in how hydropower is used and released from baseload power that's used constantly, first in line to satisfy demand, to dispatchable power that - subject to other constraints that require release - is conserved and then released when needed.

I previously had some documents that I'll try to dig up from my local Community Choice Energy Aggregator that showed essentially no 24-hour variation in the hydropower they received, and that's the type of baseline use that could be saved, somewhat, for the late afternoon and evening hours when demand is up and solar is down.

I also want to distinguish this from Mark Jacobson's Wind Water Solar system for replacing all fossil fuels. He's proposing something gigantic, I'm discussing something much smaller and therefore able to be implemented much sooner. In particular, what I had read a while back was that he wants to quadruple the dispatchable power from existing dams by rebuilding their outlets. I don't know how well that would work, but I do know it would require dewatering and then mostly or entirely rebuilding the dams themselves. I'm not talking about that.

These ideas do shade into each other a bit. You can't fully turn off and turn on water from dams, they have ecological and water supply reasons for running as well. Some construction might also be helpful for dispatchable hydropower, particularly an afterbay below a dam that stores a tiny percent of the total water, maybe a day's worth or more, and can modulate the downstream releases from the main dam. The expense would be small though compared to other massive projects, or you can just not do it and still use some limited flexibility in water releases to time them for dispatchability.

Using that power in this manner could help in the shortages California is facing now, and maybe elsewhere too, along with batteries and everything else we can do to reach 100% carbon free economies.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Renewables up, gas down, and coal at less than half capacity

Interesting report by think tank Ember on state of energy transition, comparing the first half of 2020 to 2019 and also looking back to 2015. Over five years, solar and wind doubled worldwide from 5 to 10 percent of generation, and coal's share unsurprisingly decreased by 5 percent in that period.

Comparing first halves of 2020 and 2019, solar and wind generation rose 14% despite decreasing electricity demand due to covid, while gas decreased 1.6%. This is an especially early indicator of renewables starting to outcompete and reduce gas generation, not just coal, even without fully pricing carbon. I say "especially early" because I assume gas will bounce back for 5-10 years as electricity demand recovers and gas has more opportunity to replace coal. But as renewables rise into the range of 15-25% of the total, they'll take out some gas generation.

Coal took the biggest hit in generation in 2020, falling 8.3% compared to 2019, again unsurprising that in a period of reduced demand, the most expensive operating-cost input would decrease the most. With that, already somewhat-idle coal plants dropped to now using 47% of their capacity.

Plants straining at 100% capacity are probably not the most efficient, but neither are plants that are mostly unused. In a free market a lot of these plants would probably be closed down permanently. Most places don't have a free market, but they still are influenced by economic forces. If demand for coal doesn't go up after covid, and it's doubtful it will outside of Asia, then I'd expect to eventually see shutdowns.

So good news globally, although as the report says, this decline still isn't fast enough to keep warming to 1.5C. We're really going to have to work on carbon-negative policies.

In the US specifically, a mixed bag: coal's taken a huge hit, generation down 31% and capacity at 32%. OTOH gas generation increased 7% - not as much as solar/wind's 16% but more in overall watts, for now. Still not a bad result with an anti-science, pro-coal administration. Let's look forward to January 2021, hopefully.


Note BTW that I used "renewable" and solar/wind interchangeably for purposes of this discussion although renewables is a bigger/more amorphous category. Also some wags might point out that solar/wind typically operate at significantly less than 47% capacity, but the difference is that they are designed and priced at the level of generation compared to capacity, and coal is not.