An Inconvenient Sequel – A Review

I saw Al Gore’s latest film today. I remember seeing his original film, an Inconvenient Truth about decade ago. In the intervening time I, as well as the world, has changed so much.
While the first film followed the pattern of alternating good news and bad news with a conclusion of how to take action this itteration felt like it focussed more on the direness of the current situation while the good news felt more like an ill-fated attempt at balance. The conclusion was also not a happy ending.

The film was not released in any of the larger cinema chains. I went to see it in a small cinema of one of the smaller, more independent chains. Even so there were only a handful of people at the screening. I’m not sure if weekend morning screening was too early for most people or if that is an indication that the message of the film might not have such a broad appeal anymore.

The film use a similar setup to an Inconvenient Truth, bits of Al Gore’s presentation are interspersed with clips of him traveling around the world meeting with various people on the front lines of the climate change predicament. A large part of the film focuses on the Paris Climate Conference, COP21.

I couldn’t help feeling that if the champion of climate change, Al Gore, is starting to feel the strain that we are in in dire straits. Seeing various of the effect of climate change in quick succession as well as hearing the ardent voices from the denier camp leaves me feeling hopeless. I’m not very optimistic by nature and the existence of this film in itself shows me that in 10 years we have not risen to the occasion and met the climate change predicament head on. If anything we are now worse off with the United States having removed itself from the already tenuous Paris Climate Accords.

In conclusion I think it was a good film, the message was clear and there was no sugarcoating of the solution being just around the corner. I’ve heard the quote that problems have solutions and predicaments have outcomes. Climate change then is most definitely the predicament of our age.

The Age of Consequences – A Review

The Age of Consequences Film Header Image

I recently had the opportunity to see an advanced screening of the film The Age of Consequences. The film is based on a report, of the same name, that was released by CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Using voice overs, interviews, striking visuals and news footage the message is clear: the world is facing serious challenges.

By interviewing mainly retired US armed forces personnel, the film aims to avoid audiences dismissing the climate change issue as a left-wing only concern. I appreciate that the film does not frame the climate change issue as a distant problem, somewhere in the future, but makes it a tangible event in the present. The Age of Consequences is already here.

Judging by the frequent sighs from the audience, this news made people feel very despondent. To counter this collective depression, the film has a scene towards the end that is almost a cliché for films of this nature – sweeping helicopter shots of rows of wind turbines and fields of solar panels. A voice-over states how this is a crisis but also an opportunity.

The film ends, the lights are switched on again, a few people check their phones to see if they missed any important messages. The seriousness of the situation has been firmly impressed on the audience, but there is no clear guidance as to what they should do next.

This is probably one of the biggest flaws of this film and others like it. The problem is clearly outlined along with the long term consequences, but the roadmap of how to navigate away from the crisis doesn’t seem to have been created yet.

Maybe once this film has its mainstream release it can galvanize action on a large scale. Until then, all we can do is try and minimise our own contribution to the problem and sigh for the scale of our predicament.

Book 2 of the Inter States series – “Emergent Disorder”

Book 2 of the Inter States series - "Emergent Disorder"
Cover

I’m not sure if there are any readers here who are fans of speculative fiction dealing with peak-oil, but if there are I can heartily recommend the Inter States series by Ralph Meima. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book Fossil Nation and I am waiting in anticipation for the release of the second book in the series. Here is an idea of what to expect…

A historic migration begins, triggered by Hurricane Rhiannon but accelerated by deeper currents.  With winter approaching, hundreds of thousands take to the road in search of safety, potable water, reliable sources of food, and shelter. Their numbers overwhelm infrastructure and governments, roiling politics and changing the demographic character of regions forever.

With the 2040 election only days away, events whip from one surprise to another.  A dispute flares around disaster relief offered by China and the European Union.  Supporters and opponents dig in along partisan lines.  The President is held in contempt, and arrested by a council of national unity.  Despite an initial spirit of cooperation, multiple competing claims to federal executive authority arise, precipitating a constitutional crisis.  Oligarchs see threats and opportunities in the emerging disorder, and act to protect their interests.

Carried along in the migration are the Trudeau-Kendeil and Daniels families.  They have banded together for a harrowing journey of many days from Washington, D.C. to the homes of charitable relatives in New England, in search of the security a family needs in these lean times.  Their route takes them through communities coping in diverse ways with economic hardship, an unstable climate, and the swelling numbers of migrants.

A colleague from Jack Trudeau’s past appears with an explanation of the unraveling around them.  Grounded in energy science, his letter addresses the federal government’s dysfunction in the face of the crisis, and the new, more assertive role that state governments are quickly assuming.  Prepare for abrupt, discontinuous change, he warns.

Challenges multiply as the families travel north.  Election Day arrives while they are still on the road. Voter turnout is low among populations side-tracked by the storm and migration.  Then, tragedy strikes in the families’ midst, overwhelming plans and driving home a harsh lesson about options and consequences in a world riven by competing realities and relentless resource scarcity.

Hunting Vampires and Phantoms

Hunting

The hunt

The term “vampire power” or “phantom load” have been taken up into the cultural lexicon. For those who have not heard the terms before they refer to the power use in a house by things that aren’t doing anything useful. Like a TV in standby mode.

I used my trusty power meter to check all the power outlets in my apartment in order to calculate my phantom load. Here is what I found:

# Power outlet Power (watt) Notes
1 Living Room (TV) 13 TV, Computer Etc
2 Living Room (Couch) 10.8 Laptop Charger, Routers
3 Kitchen 1 0 Toaster, Kettle
4 Kitchen 2 16.8 Fridge
5 Kitchen 3 0.5 Microwave
6 Kitchen 4 0 Induction Cooktop
7 1st Bedroom 0.4 Chargers
8 Bathroom 1 0.1 Washing Machine, Tumble Drier
9 Bathroom 2 0 Hairdrier
10 2nd Bedroom 9.6 Printers, Laptop

This gives me a total phantom load of 51.2 watt.

Now it might be difficult to place this in context. Lets start by calculating what 1 watt of phantom load would cost me in a year.

\frac{1W}{1000W}\times{24\ Hours}\times{365\ days}=8.76\ kWh

At an electricity price of $0.2376/kWh this single Watt is costing me $2.08 a year. This won’t break the bank but it will add up quickly for more than a single watt. So my total phantom load is costing me $106.57 a year. This money is being wasted since I get nothing in return except for a standby light in some cases.

The Kill

Now that I have found all the vampire draw, how do I get rid of it? The easiest way is to turn the power off at the power point, if that is accessible and convenient. I have started doing this in the 2nd Bedroom with the computer and printers. BAM! Almost 10W saved.

The other weapon in our arsenal is the humble timer plug.

Timer Plug Image
The humble Timer Plug. Image courtesy of bunnings.com.au.

Using this timer set to 50% on and 50% off I was able to cut the phantom draw of the fridge to zero when it was idle.The other major culprits are either too difficult to access or too much hassle to constantly turn off and on. I made a conscious decision to let them waste power.

Due to the nature of modern appliances, phantom draw is a fact of life. The trick is to make yourself aware of how much power is being wasted and to decide if that is OK, rather than just wasting all that money every year.

Happy hunting.

How to set energy use targets

Untitled

Saving energy is a worthy aim but like most goals it is better if you have a measurable target to aim for. How should you go about setting an energy use goal? I am particularly fond of the Wheaton Eco Test.  The test (or target) is really simple. You find out what the average spending is for a particular commodity and then use less than that. If you have time I would recommend that you go and read the essay.

In the past I have received utility bills where the bill includes a little graph showing how much I use in relation to other people in the same area. I was always shocked to see how my two person household uses less than other single person households! I guess it’s easy to waste mindlessly if you aren’t paying attention.

Comparative usage from an electricity bill
Comparative usage from an electricity bill. Note that the usage was in conjunction with gas.
Comparative usage from a water bill
Comparative usage from a water bill

Now I will conceded that it can be difficult to find out what these averages are. Here are some of the values I was able to find for Melbourne and/or Australia.

The point is not the accuracy of the averages, the aim is to find some reasonable average and then aim to use less than that average. Not doing anything less than the average is just kidding yourself.

How to use a plug-in power meter

Energy Meter Header

In my post on Dollars and Fridges I referred to the use of my MS6115 plug-in power meter to measure the power consumption of my fridge. I wanted to discuss this tool as well as it’s advantages and shortcomings.

The MS6115 is a $22 device that is similar to the US Kill-a-Watt. The basic operation is really simple. You plug in the MS6115 into a power outlet and then plug the device you want to investigate into the MS6115. It then tells you the power usage of the connected device. There are a few more advanced features where you can include your electricity price as well as dates and times but the menu’s are difficult to navigate and I prefer to only use the basic features. Let’s have a look at the menu’s

Menus

When you first turn the device on it shows all the display elements at once.

Reset

The different features we have are WATT, kWh, SET, AMP, VOLTac, COST/kWh, some warnings, various date and time related features, POWERFACTOR and Hz (frequency). You cycle through the menus by pressing the FUNC button below the screen.

Voltage

The first page shows your AC line voltage and frequency. This is interesting but does not tell us much regarding the power usage. For more information have a look at Table of mains voltages and frequencies.

AMP

The next page shows us the amperage and power factor. Keep going.

Watt

Here things get interesting. The WATT page shows us the power usage of the connected device.

kWh

Finally we get to the energy used menu, the kWh display.

Price

The last menu before we start at voltage again shows us the total price. This will only show the correct values if you entered the electricity price during the initial setup.

How to perform a measurement

The types of devices we want to measure fall into two rough categories. The one type of device is under our control like a floorlamp or a TV set. The other type of device can turn on and off by itself like a fridge or a electric hot water heater.

For the first type of device it is sufficient to just write down the power usage on the WATT screen. Since we know, or can estimate, the time the device is on we can multiply the power usage with the time in use to obtain the energy usage. So for example:

If we have a floorlamp and we measure its power usage as 120 watt and we know we only use it for about 2 hours per day, we can work out that the floorlamp uses 87.6kWh per year.

87.6\ kWh = \frac{120W}{1000W}\times{2\ hours}\times{365\ days}

For the second type of device I do the following. Firstly plug in the device and then take note of the time, or even better set an alarm for the next day at the same time. Then you let the device run. The next day just navigate to the kWh menu and write down how much energy was used for the past day. So for example:

I measured my fridge and it showed that it used 1.4 kWh  per day. I just multiply it out with the days in the year to determine that it used roughly 511 kWh per year.

511\ kWh = 1.4\ kWh\times{365\ days}

Note that the second method does not account for human behaviour or seasonal changes. For example if you open the fridge more often or if it needs to work harder during the summer. It does however give you a good approximation of the average usage.

Manual

If you are interested in any of the other features have a look at the manual.

MS6115 Manual

Conclusion

The MS6115 is a very cost effective way of getting a handle on the flows of energy in your house. It is simple to use and has very few limitations. It can measure the power usage for any device that has a plug.

Jevon’s Paradox

Jevon's

The Jevon’s Paradox refers to a term in economics whereby an increase in efficiency, with regards to the use of a resource, does not result in reduced use of that resource but an increase. William Stanley Jevons observed this 150 years ago when increases in the efficiency of coal use resulted in increases in the use of coal.

I have some first hand experience with the Jevon’s Paradox. In most modern day homes you will find LED lighting. LED lighting uses a fraction of the energy of an equivalent incandescent light source. In older houses you would usually have a single light source in the centre of the room but with the advent of energy efficient lighting people have started using more of it. These days people appoint a lighting designer, they have main lighting, accent lighting and even lights in cupboards. It feels like the goal is to see how many light fittings you can cram into a room. The rationale for all these lights is that they are energy efficient. This is Jevon’s Paradox.

As soon as something creates the mental impression that it uses less we use it more, negating the effects of any efficiency gains. This is one of the main arguments against the belief that technology will save us regarding resource depletion. The only way to reduce your consumption is to use less. A new technology which will reduce your consumption, will only make you consume more in the end.

 

Book Review: Limits to Growth (1972)

Limits to growth

This book forms part of the Deindustrial Reading List. It is not the first one in the sequence but I thought I would start there since it looked like a quick read.

The Greek tragedy of Cassandra comes to mind when reading this book. Cassandra was cursed both with the gift of prophecy as well as the curse that nobody would believe her. The Limits To Growth was published and controversial before I was born. My understanding is that since then it has been vilified and attacked but not disproved. Its recommendations have obviously not been implemented.

The book discusses the findings of a group of scientists who constructed a computer model of the planet that looked at resource use and population growth. The genesis of this model is discussed as well as the extent to which its findings are accurate. Various models and scenarios are then outlined. These models look at populations growing and stabilising, resource availability doubling, pollution declining and increasing as well as the effect of new technologies. The conclusion that is drawn is that we cannot continue our current way of life without running into limits. Even massive increases in various resources (only a paper exercise) buy a little more time before the limits are reached.

The book does not try and beat you over the head with any facts or conclusions. It just tries to ask you to consider the possible implications of their findings. The book was published in 1972 when there was still a bit of breathing room to implement some of its recommendations. Sadly it seems that we, as a civilisation, have opted to tempt luck and see how far we can kick the can down the road under the “business as usual” scenario.

This is a really good book, written in a easy to understand format that outlines a scientific basis for why we can’t just keep on growing and growing on our planet.

I think I have an inkling as to how Cassandra must have felt.

Dollars and Fridges

Fridge

I’m using a really old fridge/freezer. Really old. I wanted to investigate if it would be worthwhile replacing it with a more energy efficient model. After the hot water heater this is one of the bigger power users in the apartment. I have been measuring the power use over the past few days using an MS6115 plug-in power meter. I will elaborate more on it in a later post.

I worked out the average daily power use for this fridge to be about 1.4 kWh. This does not take into consideration how many times the door was opened, if new items were stored or what the ambient temperature is, but it gives me a good idea to work from.

I received this fridge for free so it cost me nothing apart from transport. If I take a look at a similar fridge a few minutes of research comes up with the Samsung SR227MW. This fridge uses 280 kWh per year, or about 0.8 kWh per day. This is approximately an 80% improvement in efficiency. For this improvement I need to pay $566 and get a 2 year warranty.

Is it worthwhile replacing my fridge with the more efficient new one? I have the following information:

Current fridge usage 1.4 kWh per day
Electricity price 23.8 c per kWh
New fridge usage 0.8 kWh per day
Cost of new fridge 566 Dollars

With this information I can workout the payback period. The formula to determine this is reasonably simple.

Break\, even\,(days) = \frac{Cost\, of\, new\, fridge}{(Current\, fridge \, usage-New\, fridge \,usage)\times Electricity\, Price}

This gives me a total of 3970 days or 10.9 years before the savings of the new fridge have paid for itself. If I consider that my current fridge is possibly older than I am and is still working, compared to a new unit that only has a 2 year warranty this does not seem like a good idea.

What people often don’t realise is that all objects have another energy aspect attributed to them. This is called embedded energy. This refers to the energy needed to manufacture the item in question. The diesel to mine the steel, the coal to melt the steel etc. I will discuss this in a future post.

With all this taken into account replacing my working fridge just does not make sense.