Saturday, January 27, 2018

Okay Windmils, it's Payback Time!

I was reading this upbeat article about the energetic viability of windmills. In other words, the notion that the energy a wind turbine generates while it is in use for many years is greater than the amount of energy used up building it.

...and soon ran into this pessimistic comment below it:


It takes more than a year just to cover making the steel... not counting rolling it into plate, machining, heat treat the specialty steels in the gearbox and generator alone. Figuring there's around 180 tons of steel in the tower and nacelle alone and another 50 tons minimum in the concrete base as rebar. (I'm not sure how much extra weight is added at the top in low grade iron for mass.) At 20 kW-hrs/kg that's 4.6 GW-hrs just for the steel. A 2 MW turbine at the industry average 15% of nameplate generation creates about 2.7 GW-hrs a year so just to make the steel is gonna take a year and 8 months to pay back. Now, there's usually around 1000 tons of concrete in the base of a standard 1.5~2 MW turbine. Add another 1 GW-hr for the concrete and aggregate so just the steel and concrete needs over two years to cover energy wise. This is just the raw materials for two things, no manufacturing costs, just concrete in trucks and steel billet. Then you've got glass, thermoplastics, several tons of rare earth magnets, ultra high grade precision ground gear trains also weighing tons. Many tons of copper, glass and carbon fibers and those are real energy sinks not only to make but to draw. Lets not forget all the oil as well. That's all the time I've got but it doesn't look good for something that usually dies at 8 or 9 years of its supposed 15 year lifetime.

End of quote.

Which is it then, are windmills a futile energy pit or are they a good investment that pays off more than the original energy cost? Not being an expert, I thought I'd attempt some very simple math for some of the elements of a 3MW turbine.

So starting with something simple like concrete, how much so called embodied energy is in that?

It seems concrete requires about 1.1 MJ or mega/million joules per kg, and consequently releases about one kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not the best start to our windmill.  I can see why some point out green energy is not all that green, but that is another issue.

A second source I found ( ) gives these numbers in mega joules aka MJ:

Fibre cement 4.8
Cement 5.6
Insitu Concrete 1.9
Precast tilt-up concrete 1.9
Clay bricks 2.5
Concrete blocks 1.5

I'm guessing in situ means after hauling it to the site which would give us a more realistic real world number, but it makes it a bit harder to cross compare with other which are not stated as in situ.

Back to the math. If we convert 1.1 MJ we get 0.3056 kWh per kg of concrete. Since One metric ton is 1000 kg, and each ton is now 305.5 kwh of embodied energy.

I've seen 800 tons as another estimate for the mass of the concrete foundation, obviously the bigger the wind turbine perched on top the bigger its base needs to be, assuming the same soil conditions. That 800 tons would give us 244,4 MWh for all the concrete in the foundation, but we are not adding in the energy for the many tons of re-bar or anything else like excavating the hole.

Our 3 MW turbine could be calculated at 33% capacity factor because it doesn't run at full tilt all the time. To compare with other places, wind turbines on King Island in Australia are operating at 39% capacity, because they are in a great location on a windy island. In Denmark newer, bigger and higher turbines are getting numbers in the high 40's. Still, at 33% we would need about 10 days to generate the energy embodied in the concrete foundation, without taking into account any power losses involved in sending it back into the electric grid. In other words, this is a more optimistic number.

Even if we acknowledge that not everyone has great locations for their windmills and we use the higher in situ concrete value of 1.9 MJ while dropping the capacity factor to a more pessimistic 17%, we still would only need 35 days or so to recover the energy invested. That now also includes the delivery of the concrete to the site.

How about steel? Steel takes more energy per ton to produce, and we need a lot of it. Starting with 230 tons from the comment above by NielsZoo, and using a basic steel grade with 20.1 MJ of embodied energy per kg we get 5.583 MWh per ton. For all 230 tons ( pretending it is all made of common grade steel which is not accurate ) we get 1284 MWh which our 33% CF turbine would take our about 53.5 days to generate. Our pessimistic 17% scenario would require about 100 days, assuming average wind of course.

So did I get it right? Is my math even close? At first glance it looks to me like those numbers for some of the bigger elements are not horribly of the mark and fit in with other Energy Returned On Energy Invested ( EROEI ) estimates of 18 to 1 or so for wind turbines. I can imagine adding in a multitude of components, some bigger than others, but many getting smaller and smaller as you narrow down the total amount of energy that goes into building, transporting and erecting a windmill.

Longer term it could very well be possible to refurbish windmills and keep them producing after their original intended lifespan. This is done with other types of expensive equipment, from locomotives to bridges and ships. Windmills are not the most complex of machines. After twenty years bearings could be replaced, the same with gears, seals and wiring. The concrete foundation is extremely durable and the mast can be maintained for a long time with well established methods to control corrosion. The longer they are kept functioning the better of an investment they become.

The issue with windmills doesn't seem to be the EROEI, but rather their intermittency of electricity production. Yes the price of the electricity they produce sure is cheap, but it is of the lowest grade because you have no idea when you are going to get it. That takes more than a little getting used to, and adds far more to the cost of the electricity coming from windmills that anything else.

That's part of why I'm not the greatest fan of windmills, no pun intended, but I don't hate them either. In a way I see them as among the best of a bad lot, and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of alternatives.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Great Testosterone Implosions of the Western World

Population wide testosterone levels are crashing, but that's okay because we don't really seem to care.

As some of you may be aware, we've known for many years that there has been a drastic and ongoing drop in testosterone levels. Well over 1% per year since the 1980's, even longer according to some researchers. This is seen in people in Europe, Japan and North America mostly. Populations in Africa and South America among other parts of the world are not experiencing this, yet.

At first the very existence of this drop was being debated, but with much better recent studies with larger samples, it's shifting from questioning the existence of the drop, to questioning why it is dropping.

But why care about all this stuff? It's not like it's constantly in the news or anything. Aside from those of us trying to look like Aaanold, ( you know, The Govenaytah ) what difference does it really make?

Anyway, isn't it supposed to be dropping as we age? Actually, no. Researchers were surprised to find that among very healthy men it remains stubbornly high throughout life. What happens to those who are not so lucky?

Low testosterone levels cause all manner of health problems such as cancers, depressed mood, memory impairment, joint pain, low muscle mass and strength, weight gain, bone density loss, insomnia. It goes on and on.  It's not just limited to typical stuff we would think of like low libido, erectile dysfunction and impaired fertility.

To make matters worst health issues are not only limited to men, women are also affected in different ways and it starts at a young age. Some negative effects are being seen in utero and childhood with a flare-up of problems around puberty.

Some are proposing it is having an impact on our society. I've even found a few right leaning articles on the web pushing the idea that this is some kind of leftist anti-male scheme, emasculating men and then claiming that low testosterone levels are either normal or better for society. A recent downward World Health Organization revision of testosterone levels is cited as evidence of our transformation into left-leaning pansies.

Even a new harmonized study of over 9000 healthy American and European men is being used to support this claim. For the first time this study allow doctors to compare against a large accurate sample, but since it is being done after testosterone has been dropping for decades it will obviously be setting standards using an already lowered level. In any case, it's rather expensive to go back in time and get 9000 samples from the late 50's, so this is the best we've got and will have to do for now.

Now that we know all this is real, what is causing all of this? Take your pick: Pesticides, hormone-disrupting chemicals, diet, stress, smoking and obesity are all in the running according to multiple researchers.

Personally I don't know why smoking which has been around for ages would suddenly start causing testosterone to drop, so I'll skip that one for the time being.

Others like diet and stress seem more plausible. We know diets ( Sugar Will Robinson! Sugar! as our friends from Lost in Space might say ) have been going downhill for some time, it's part of what is driving the obesity issue. Intensifying the trend is the unholy dynamic going on with lower physical activity, higher cortisol levels ( aka stress ), insomnia, and lower muscle mass which all shows up with or in close proximity to lower testosterone levels. One of the big indicators of this downward slide is the important increase in depression and anxiety disorders, especially among younger people who in the past were the least likely to suffer from those problems kind. Yup, our modern lifestyle really sucks. Lets move on to the next cheerful bunch of suspects.

Pesticides and hormone-disrupting chemicals, yum! Yes that's right, researchers at Harvard is telling us that people who eat food with higher levels of pesticides have lower sperm counts ( and we can presume lower testosterone since the two are so closely linked ). Surprisingly the higher pesticide food turns out to be stuff like apples, strawberries, spinach, lettuce, things your mama told you to eat because they are good for you. Well they are good for you, but the chems on them... Not so much.

Researchers see pesticides flush out of our body to very low trace amounts within two days after we stop eating fruit or vegetables within legally safe levels. This is done by switching to food lower down on the contamination list or going for organic produce. Two days after resuming consumption of food within the higher ranges of contamination, they can detect them again.

It's not only the food we eat. People who work with or around pesticides are also showing abnormal levels.

More of these so called endocrine disruptors hide in plain sight. Assorted plastics leach them into our food, getting an extra nudge when we microwave something in a plastic lined container. Or through our skin, even in dust we inhale thanks to fire retardant chemicals used in upholstery and fabric.

A couple of links of interest:

A website that lists the "dirty dozen" or most pesticide loaded fruits and vegetables:

How to boost your testosterone levels, The Manly Way:

More about xenoestrogenes:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Minefield of IQ and Ethnic Groups

For many years now we've known there are differences in IQ between various groups of people. It doesn't really matter whether or not we use simple or complex ways to create these different groups, we usually end up with IQ differences.

Even when we insist that IQ is not accurate, very meaningful, or that it is culturally biased and so forth, we still see that groups of people who get a higher number in IQ tests do better in a multitude of ways that matter in the real world than those with lower scores.

All in all, it is one of the most divisive and emotionally charged issues one can find. Unfortunately it is deeply embedded and central to our life outcomes, individually and at a social level.

The core issue that remains after the data tells us there are differences between various people is, what causes those differences?

Years ago we started seeing that IQ test scores were shifting. Slowly year by year they began to drift up, younger people seemly getting smarter with each passing generation. This is known as the Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn who was the first researcher to identify this phenomenon.

Here is James Flynn's very good article on the topic of the possible causes of IQ variations in different ethnic groups in America:

Friday, January 19, 2018

What's in David Bach's Latte Factor?

This morning my wife was talking to me about the latte factor. I remember reading about it years ago in one of David Bach's books, The Automatic Millionaire. The concept is simple, you forgo a simple daily habit such as a little luxury that is not required and over time this money is invested and compounds into a substantial million dollar plus chunk of your retirement fund.

Some people have taken objection to this simple idea. It's been pointed out that
Bach's math isn't the best. He rounds up a few numbers like the cost of the coffee and also the total yearly amount saved, 2000$ versus the actual 1825$. He is rather generous with a 10% compounding rate taken from the historical performance of the stock market over certain decades. Inflation isn't taken into account, or taxes that could apply. Besides, who  goes out and gets a latte 356 days a year for their entire working life?

Now lets be clear. The fundamental concept works. Pinching pennies and socking them away over years does add up. Many people have used this notion, some have pushed it very far and even managed to achieve spectacular results given enough time and dedication.

So what is the problem? Maybe the critics don't clearly grasp the latte factor is only an example being used to illustrate a concept. Bach is attempting to teach a few things like the power and effectiveness of savings and compound interest over time, and that little incremental things that add up to bigger chunks that matter.

Is it possible to drop the coffee and snacks on the days out of the house and replacing them with really good coffee brewed a home and taken along? How much does this kind of habit save over many years? Can that money be used to buy a very good coffee machine? Once that coffee machine is paid for has a new insight been gained into where money is going with a wider variety of little expenses?

The simple truth is each one of us has to think of where we are going with our spending. Yes a few pennies here and there might not seem to add up to much but it is as good a place as any to start. We've heard of so many people getting a lucky break like a huge lottery winning or starting a business with substantial financial backing only to see them a few years later with nothing left to show for it.

How can something like that happen over and over to so many people? Is the root of these spectacular failures nothing more than an inability to see that multiple small choices build up over time and accumulate into large masses of debt or savings depending which direction we nudge things day by day?

I suspect Bach's latte concept strikes a bit of a nerve. It certainly seems to connect with a host of bigger issues and beliefs we have about money. I'm going to have to get back to this and look deeper into the psychology hidden inside a seemingly innocuous debate about whether or not to spend money on coffee when out of the house.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Cotton Candy and GDP

Today I was reading Dr. Tim Morgan's excellent blog, Surplus Energy Economics. Tim Morgan used to work at Tullett Prebon where he was head of research. I get the feeling that means he is really smart or something like that.

His latest post ( no.117 ) is about how inaccurate the established view of economic activity likely is. From 2006 to 2016 USA GDP growth per capita has been a total of 5.8%. No, not per year, but cumulative. That works out to a massive 0.57% of growth per year. Don't blink or you'll miss it. The D in GDP seems to be shifting more and more towards Delusional with each passing year. At what stage to we ditch the economists and hire psychiatrists?

He discusses assorted fudge factors like imputations. For example, in the USA the equivalent cost of renting your own house out to yourself is factored into the GDP. Doesn't that imply real estate bubbles just inflate GDP? How does that help us know where we are headed economically? Or might the goal be to avoid us knowing where we are headed?

Other things he discusses are concepts such as Globally Marketable Output ( GMO ) and Internally Consumed Services ( ICS ). GMO includes things that are priced and traded internationally like oil or new cars, fundamental products that directly build wealth. ICS includes activities that may or may not build much wealth, like mowing someone's lawn or charging for pedicures. Many of these secondary activities are discretionary and may or may not be needed. Either way, the don't add nearly as much wealth to a nation as GMO does.

In any case the serious economic work being doing by GMO activities such as farming and manufacturing have actually shrunk from 2006 to 2016. We are drifting further into the land of fluffy service based economies.

Other examples are things like taxes, which is often moving money around from one person to another. Yes, it may make social or even economic sense, but should it be inflating GDP? Once more we find government spending is one of the activities that has expanded and helped give us the breathtaking per capita growth mentioned above.

On the topic of moving things around, but in ownership title only, this excerpt adds more fuel to the debate:

Then there’s the FIRE sector, comprising finance, insurance and real estate. These are worthwhile services, but we are entitled to wonder quite how much value is actually created by selling houses to each other, paying each other rent, or moving money around. This activity looks a lot like “doing each others’ washing”. Yet increases in FIRE sector activity accounted for more than a quarter (27%) of all growth in the American economy between 2006 and 2016, adding $628bn to GDP. As of 2016, FIRE activities accounted for 21% of the American economy, contributing far more than manufacturing (12%) and construction (4%) put together. Of course, a significant proportion of imputations arise in real estate and finance, which means that these sectors overlap.

End of quote.

Other very important issues brought up are Zero Interest Rate Policy or ZIRP, and it's corrosive effect on pension funds. Are we just cannibalizing our savings to fuel cheap short term growth?

To make matters worst, none of this is exclusive to the USA. It is widespread among most developed economies.

Check it all out here:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Cimate Change or Not to Change

Climate Change or Not to Change?

I find this climate change issue totally exasperating. No, not because I don't believe in climate change and I think we are wasting our time with a silly distraction that is  blunting economic growth. Nor is it because I think it is real, the situation is dire and we should not waste another minute debating.

Rather it is because I can't really tell. Which is it, exactly? Is the climate changing or not?

Here is an example. I start the day assuming climate change is real, but then stumble onto this, a discussion of the Geological Society of London's position on climate change. They are basically saying burning fossil fuels is releasing CO2 into the atmosphere which is allowing more heat to remain trapped on the surface of the planet, warming things up. Nothing controversial there, right?

The discussion is rather logical, many points seem to make sense. For example here is a comment by Euan Mearns:

1) At the glacial inceptions CO2 lags temperature by up to 14,000 years. This is a massive lag where full glacial conditions are established before CO2 begins to fall. This demonstrates that CO2 is not a significant driver of climate change during glacial periods. It simply follows temperature, closely at the terminations but with large time lags at the inceptions. The climate science community, starting with Petit et al, have simply brushed this key information under the carpet. The political, social and economic consequences of this error are too vast to imagine.

2) At the main turning points of the Vostok temperature curve, at the temperature high, CO2 reaches a maximum and albedo a minimum. If these variables were significant drivers it should simply continue to get warmer, but the exact opposite happens. The strong force – obliquity – simply sweeps these weak forces away. At the temperature minima, the opposite occurs. The stage appears set for the whole world to freeze, but what happens next is the ice sheets collapse.

End of quote.

What he is saying is that CO2 levels follow increases in temperature. That implies they can't cause, them but rather are caused by them. The debate goes on quite a bit more in the comments, most of it seems rational and well informed.

Well then. Maybe I should look into the more mainstream position, so I go to

There I'm quickly reassured that climate change is real, it's caused by us burning lots of stuff and cutting down trees. Things make sense and all is right with the world... or is it?

Unfortunately I make couple of mistakes before leaving the site. First I read the article about alternative energy ( The Key To Slowing Global Warming ) and quickly noticed multiple glaring errors. Here is a sample paragraph just oozing with complex issues hopelessly reduced beyond recognition:

The second approach is to replace fossil fuels – used by every country - with energy generated from renewable sources - solar, wind, thermal, tidal and hydro, all of which are free. Solar and wind are available in all countries while thermal, tidal and hydro are available to most others. All offer an alternative to the use of fossil fuels, though at present, only thermal can assure continuity of supply sufficient to meet the growing, though fluctuating demand for electricity for domestic, industry and transport use.

End of quote.

Where to begin? Anyone who has done some serious digging on renewable energy knows renewable are very intermittent. Smoothing out the flow of random pulses of energy into a consistent flow needed to sustain the modern world is no small task. Modest progress is being made on the issue, but it may fundamentally turn out to be physically impossible to replace fossil fuels and still have a constant and predictable energy system like we have with electrical grids today.

To start with, each one of the renewables mentioned above requires massive infrastructure to gather up this free energy. Just saying "free energy" is not an appropriate term. Crude oil and coal is also "free". In some parts of the world both are right there on the surface, you just have to bend down to pick them up.

The real cost is the effort required to gather up the energy, and the price of that equipment and the labour that goes with it. When it comes to renewables, that equipment has to be deployed on a gigantic scale, because the free energy it is gathering is dissipated over a wide area in the form of sunshine or wind for example.

This leads to the next issue, which is the correspondingly massive amount of materials needed to build this infrastructure. Steel, concrete, copper and all other required components have to be found somewhere. There is a very real limit to how much of these materials we can extract and process into wind turbines and solar panels.

Is it even worth it? What if it takes so much energy to build this massive fossil fuel free system that we end up causing as much pollution and CO2 emissions as the system we have now? Some researchers think this is the case but none of that is being addressed in the optimistic paragraph above.

Maybe the nice people at Skeptical Science stepped out of their field of knowledge and we should only consider what they say about climate change, not a fossil fuel free future.

So then I read this article here:

Unfortunately once more some clever people we making seemingly logical counter arguments in the comment section.

Obviously, this topic is going to take a lot more looking into. In the meantime, what position can I take that makes the most sense given that I'm not a climatologist and can't pick apart every little factoid? I think the best I can do is to assume that anthropogenic climate change is probably real, lets say two chances out of three. Computer models may not be all that accurate, but among climatologists the basic elements seem to be well accepted. CO2 is going up, temperature is going up. Climate modeling is better than nothing, even if I can't tell by how much.

Yes, trusting a group of people is never a sure bet. We are after all a herd animal, with a long track record of believing a wide range of obviously false things. If I keep in mind that there is one chance out of three this whole climate change thing might fizzle out I won't be caught completely flat footed.

Monday, January 15, 2018

What. Could. Possibly. Go. Wrong?

This from Nomi Prins in a speech in Tokyo, mid 2017:

President Trump seems to be shying away from multilateral agreements and toward more isolationist ideas. The last time the United States did that was in the 1920s. In fact, isolationist policies were one of the reasons there was such a speculative mood in the United States in the 1920s, and that speculation led to the financial crash of 1929.

End quote.

To get a sense of the speculative mood in the 1920's, we can use the Shiller P/E ratio. From Wikipedia:
The cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio, commonly known as CAPE,[1] Shiller P/E, or P/E 10 ratio,[2] is a valuation measure usually applied to the US S&P 500 equity market. It is defined as price divided by the average of ten years of earnings (moving average), adjusted for inflation.[3] As such, it is principally used to assess likely future returns from equities over timescales of 10 to 20 years, with higher than average CAPE values implying lower than average long-term annual average returns.


Typically, the Shiller P/E moves around 16 or 17. You can find a charted updated regularly here:

The Shiller P/E ratio for the US stock market peek in 1929 was about 30, a tad high no? Now it is only mildly astronomical at 33.8. As Capt. Kirk might say: What. Could. Possibly. Go. Wrong?