Coal and fossil forests

I spent my lunch hour at an OLLI lunchtime lecture, learning about why we have coal in Illinois, and why sometimes coal formations have fossilized forests on top. The talk by Scott Elrick (of the Illinois State Geological Survey) was absolutely fascinating.

The first part of the talk looked at the history of continental drift, looking at where the land mass that eventually became North America (and the piece of it that became Illinois) was over the last few hundred million years. During the Pennsylvanian period, Illinois was roughly on the equator, which turns out to be important.

To get coal, you need to have lots of plant matter, but very little sediment. If you don’t have the plant material, you’ve got nothing to turn into coal. But even if you have the plant material, if you have any significant amount of sediment—inorganic material washed in by water and deposited on the ground—you don’t end up with coal, you just end up with shale.

There’s an area along the equator called the “convergence zone” where the weather of the northern hemisphere meets the weather of the southern hemisphere. Most of the time, this zone shifts north and south over the course of a year, meaning the tropics experience wet seasons and dry seasons. However, during the period in question there was extensive glaciation, meaning lower sea levels, which turns out to mean much less shifting of the convergence zone. Which means that, for a geologically long period of time, it rained a lot, all year.

That’s the circumstance that lets you get coal. To be more specific, that’s the circumstance that gets you peat.

Lots of plant matter, but very little sediment (because those plants had lots of roots to stabilize the ground, and they never had to die back, because there were no seasons). The plants grow, the plants die, the dead plants end up on the wet ground, they get covered with water, which limits the oxygen that gets to the plant, meaning that more plants can grow on top of them before they decay. Result: peat.

To get coal takes one more thing: Your peat has to get buried. If it gets buried well enough that air never gets in there, and if it ends up buried deep enough that there’s some serious pressure and heat, and stays there for long enough, all the volatile (i.e. non-carbon) elements in the peat get cooked off. Result: coal.

So, in the Pennsylvanian, we had this long period of nothing but rainy season, allowing layers of peat to build up. But eventually the glacial period ended.

It turns out that glacial periods can end really fast. They start slow, with ice building up gradually over decades and centuries. But they can end very quickly, with centuries of ice melting in a matter of years.

The ice melts, the sea levels rise, and the convergence zone starts showing seasonality, moving north and south over the course of the year. Forests full of plants that expected rain every day suddenly had to adapt to tolerate dry seasons.

This produced a lot of changes, of course. The plant species show dramatic shifts. Crucially, they die back during the dry season—meaning that you start to see a lot more sediment.

In the fossil record, you see this as a thick vein of coal with a thick vein of shale on top.

And right here in east-central Illinois, something very interesting happened. Along a fault line, a series of earthquakes caused the ground on one side to sink. In that sunken area the sediment built up even more quickly—quickly enough to cover whole plants. Fallen trees were covered up faster than they could rot away. Branches with leaves were covered before the leaves could fall off.

The result is a thick vein of coal, with a fossil forest on top of it.

Is that cool or what?

This particular forest, near Danville, Illinois, was the first one discovered that was big enough that paleobotanists could study the forest at the level of the forest community. As opposed to just seeing what plants grew near a few other plants, they could see how the plants that grew near one another changed as you moved from one part of the forest to another.

Painting by J. Vriesen and K. Johnson via nature.com

Scott Elrick showed us all kinds of cool stuff. One thing was this artist’s rendition of the forest, showing large, tall trees growing very close to one another, something that would be rare in forest today. Turns out that these trees—Lycopods—had photosynthetic bark, and didn’t grow leaves until they reached their full height. So they didn’t shade out their neighbors the way modern trees do. They also had very long roots that extended many meters from the trunk, but the root systems were quite shallow, going just a few meters down.

He also had pictures taken from within the coal mine, showing the fossils of these trees—trunk and roots—growing right up out of the coal seam: Trees that had been alive when the weather changed and that ended up with a meter or two of sediment covering the bottom of the trunk fast enough that the tree never fell down. It just fossilized in place.

It was a great talk at which I learned all sorts of things about geology and paleobotany. I’m going to have to follow this guy’s work in the future.

What climate change looks like

One of the things I try to do in my fiction is show any collapse scenario as a process.

Your standard “if this goes on” story is all about looking ahead to see the result of current trends. But trying to see the endpoint of climate change, peak oil, habitat destruction, environmental degradation, or any similar process is going to be misleading. There is no endpoint—things keep going on.

I think the destruction wrought by Sandy is a good example. I’ve read a lot of stories set in a world where climate change has inundated the coasts. What aren’t nearly as common are stories set in the world we’re approaching: A world where the coasts are inundated only 1% of the time (or, a bit later, 2% of the time). A world where we see a 100-year storm every 8 or 10 years. A world where all our infrastructure spending is going for repairs, and yet we keep falling behind.

I say this is a world we’re approaching, but we may have already reached it. How many 100-year storms can you have in a decade before you have to admit that it’s not just a statistical anomaly, but rather is the new reality?

Guns versus cars

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.

Electric power

I’m taking a course on electric power. The instructor, Debbie Insana, lived through the blackouts and brownouts in California produced by the intersection of partial deregulation of the energy markets with corrupt individuals at the (also corrupt) Enron corporation. Prompted by that experience, when she moved to Illinois, she wanted a house that required no net energy inputs to function. That was hard to scale for a single house, so she ended up developing a whole subdivision of energy-efficient houses in Urbana. (The instructor’s title was “The Changing World of Electric Power,” but the people administering it decided pimp it up a little and listed it as Shocking Events in the Changing World of Electric Power. )

It’s of particular interest to me, because I’ve studied much of this same material long ago. Back in 1976, when I was in high school, I attended a National Science Foundation workshop on the energy crisis. The physics hasn’t changed, the politics has probably gotten worse, but the technology has changed, and with it the economics. It’s all very interesting.

Yesterday’s session was on wind power. The installed base of wind power is growing very rapidly (albeit from a low base). A good bit of the installation is happening in Illinois—but for an odd reason. As a source of power, the wind here is rated only fair-to-good. The big win is that we have excellent interconnections to the rest of the country, with major transmission lines that let us deliver power to the east coast and to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But Illinois is only slipping in here because of an odd intersection of those grid connections, adequate wind, and tax breaks that encourage building now rather than later. The future of wind power going to be off-shore installations. The wind there is stronger and strong closer to the ground. And, it blows strongly during the daytime, when the power is needed, rather than blowing most strongly at night, the way it does on land.

I’m learning about all kinds of new stuff, from technology such as rare-earth magnets making generators smaller and lighter (easier to install on a wind turbine) to lots of obvious-once-you-think-about-it ideas, such as co-siting a wind farm with a gas turbine generating plant: reliable (gas provides electricity when wind isn’t blowing) and cheap (no fuel needed when the wind blows) and flexible (can operate both to serve peak demand).

Wind turbines only function for a certain range of wind speeds—a minimum speed to begin generating power and a maximum speed beyond which wind load can damage the turbine. In excessive winds, they’re designed to feather the blades, brake to a stop, and then lock in place. The teacher shared a video with us of what happens when these mechanisms fail:

I’m looking forward to the next couple of classes in particular, one on solar and one on balancing power in the grid.

Investing for collapse

There’s a whole genre of collapse-oriented investment writing. I’m something of a connoisseur of the form. But one really needs to treat that sort of literature as pornography—interesting to read, if you’re into that sort of thing, but almost nothing in it is stuff you’d actually want to do.

There are two ways most collapse writers go wrong. One is to assume that keen insight into the nature of the problems we face will allow one to make a bunch of smart investment moves in advance—as if there were some advantage to being the richest guy standing in a post-apocalyptic world.

In his recent post Where Should I Put My Money Before Things Collapse? John Robb avoids that trap pretty well. He understands that the systemic nature of the problem makes attempts to align your investments with the underlying trends pointless:

Looking for a safe asset class today, is like a Soviet bureaucrat in 1989, sensing trouble ahead, looking for the directorate with the safest job.

The other is to assume that there will be a collapse event. Those writers seem to suggest that you can spend your time until collapse behaving much as you do now (with some occasional time off to stock your shelter and practice your marksmanship), and then spend the end times hiding out in your shelter. That’s wrong, because there’s no reason to assume that there will be a collapse event. It’s at least as likely that things’ll go on much as they have been, with occasional points where a bunch of people lose their jobs, yet another class of investments suddenly becomes worthless, and various things (such as food or fuel) spike up in price.

John Robb does pretty well avoiding that trap as well. He understands that the only sensible response is to find a lifestyle that works now, and that will continue to work as collapse proceeds.

Just as he indicates, the right responses to problems like peak oil, peak debt, climate change, environmental degradation, habitat loss, and so forth are going to be community-level responses. With that in mind, he’s putting his money into supporting efforts to create that community response and those communities.

Having said all that, four decades of reading collapse literature have convinced me that collapse happens slowly. Very slowly. Slowly enough that we’re going to need to go on investing in ordinary investments for quite some time to come.

It seems like it would make sense to want those investments to be informed by the societal problems that we face, but my experience has been that an understanding of the sources of impending collapse doesn’t lead to useful investment insights.

There are a lot of reasons. First, as I said, collapse happens slowly, meaning that shorter-term trends will end up dominating. Second, a lot of governmental power will be brought to bear in support of pre-collapse norms, meaning the sort of large profits that might be produced if your investments do align with the large trends are prone to being seized or taxed away. Third, the situation is intractably complex, meaning that even a clear understanding of several of the problems may yield predictions that end up being trumped by other problems—no one can say whether peak debt or peak oil will influence the course of the economy more strongly or more suddenly.

The upshot is that investing for collapse is as pointless as Robb points out; I merely disagree with his analogy. Rather than being like a Soviet bureaucrat in 1989, I figure it’s more like being CEO of a department store chain in 1969. There are still opportunities to get ahead following the old arrangements, but all the most powerful forces of society, human nature, and nature itself are arrayed against you. You’d be much better off charting an entirely new course—and Robb’s suggestions are good ones.

Dmitry Orlov and the iron triangle of House-Car-Job

I’ve already shared this on Google Reader (you can follow my shared items if you’re interested), but I wanted to blog it as well.

The always-interesting Dmitry Orlov is interviewed by Lindsay Curren in Transition Voice. As usual, Orlov is funny, but here he’s hitting on a lot of the same points that I like to hit on—that is, the points that I think are important—and is saying some really interesting stuff:

There’s this iron triangle of House-Car-Job, and the entire landscape is structured so you have to have all three or your life falls apart. People have to be creative in escaping from there.

He has a bit of advice (that I’m living right now): Retire immediately.

. . . make what ever adjustments are needed considering that you’re not going to have much of an income. Have a little bit of an income. But get rid of the mortgage, obviously. Get rid of the car.

He suggests that you shirk off for a couple of years and see where that takes you, then go back to work and earn enough to support the kind of lifestyle that you’ve already adjusted to.

A lot of people have, of necessity, already done this. But a lot have taken the opposite tack: they have abandoned any hope of every retiring. With their retirement savings destroyed and their kids unable to support themselves, they’re figuring that they’re going to have to keep working for years—maybe a decade or more—past what used to be retirement age. But that’s a crappy strategy. (For many reasons, but especially because it may well not be possible. There’s a good chance that your job will go away, even if it seems secure now. And there’s a good chance that your health won’t allow you to maintain your current pace, even if it’s holding up pretty well so far.) Orlov’s suggestion is a much better idea.

Check out the whole interview: No shirt, no shoes, no problem.

Toured National Petascale Computing Facility

Jackie and I got a tour of the NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility at the University of Illinois today, where they’re getting ready to install the Blue Waters supercomputer.

This picture shows just the power stations—all the space between these units will, over the next few months, be filled with rack after rack of water-cooled POWER7 modules. (A big part of the building houses cooling towers to dissipate that heat).

There are a couple of supercomputers already installed at the other end of the room, including the EcoG, designed and built by students to enter into a contest for energy-efficient supercomputers. (It took 3rd place overall , and was declared the “greenest self-built cluster.”)

It was build on ordinary commercial-grade racks, which turned out not to be quite strong enough to support all the hardware they were installing—you can see where they braced it with two-by-fours.

A week earlier, we’d attended a tour of the NCSA’s Data Visualization Lab, where we’d been treated to a bunch of 3D videos (shown on a very large, very high-res screen) produced on various supercomputers. It was pretty cool, but I didn’t get any photos worth sharing.

Because I’m a big geek about security and related topics, I was particularly interested in the facility’s secure entry. Employees need to swipe a proximity card and submit to an iris scan. Only after the cylinder closes behind them does it open in front—and it won’t do that if a weight sensor suggests that there’s more than one person in the cylinder.

Secure entry at the National Petascale Computing Facility

Those of us on the tour just walked in through a door next to the secure entryway.

Nuclear power, terrorism, and accepting baseline risks

People are bad at comparing risks, and people like to point this out by making comparisons to risks that people tolerate on a daily basis. For example, pointing out that many more people die in car accidents than are killed by terrorists, or pointing out that providing electricity by burning coal kills and injures more people than providing electricity by fissioning uranium.

At one level, I find these arguments compelling. I find it preposterous that we spend so much money on homeland security. That money would be much better spent (in terms of lives saved per dollar) on traffic safety, or probably a lot of other things. I gather, based on the fact that people keep pointing this out without producing any visible change in funding priorities, that most people don’t find this a compelling argument.

I’ve always wondered about that, and perhaps I’ve figured out why in the “coal versus nuclear” argument, which I don’t find compelling.

Plenty of people die to provide us with power from coal. Miners die from accidents. People die in road accidents moving coal from the mine to the power plant. Workers die in ordinary industrial accidents at power plants. People die from respiratory problems caused by or exacerbated by pollution from burning coal. People die in severe weather—which is becoming more common, probably because of global warming.

Except for that last, this is our baseline status. We know the costs and risks, and we accept them. Some people work to improve things—better mine safety, better level crossings for trains, lower emissions from coal burning—but the baseline is accepted. Importantly, an individual can do a lot to reduce his or her risk, such as by not making a career in coal mining, by exercising due care at rail crossings, and by living some place with clean air (and not smoking).

With nuclear power, things are different. The baseline status is safer. Deaths in uranium mining are very small, because the volume of uranium ore needed is so small compared to the volume of coal. Deaths from industrial accidents are small, because the number of workers is small (and, perhaps, because some additional attention is paid to safety at a nuclear plant for reasons having to do with greater regulation and particular concerns about public perceptions of safety). Deaths caused by the release of radiation are very, very small, because we go to vast effort and expense to avoid them.

But although the baseline status is relatively safe, the contingent risks are huge. The problems that led to the catastrophe we’re seeing now at the Fukushima Daiichi plants are replicated all over the world. It’s not just plants built on fault lines and plants built places where tsunamis can occur. It’s things like redundant safety systems that aren’t really redundant. Most especially, it’s committing to providing active safety over a period that’s much longer than human institutions reliably persist.

On the former issue, I have an oddly relevant memory. As a boy I attended public hearings in Kalamazoo on the licensing of the nuclear power plant at Palisades. At one hearing, a lawyer opposing licensing pointed out that a line carrying backup power for the plant ran through the same conduit as a line carrying the regular power. In some clever showmanship, he snapped a pencil in two to illustrate the fact that this produced a common point of failure. Learning that the backup generators at Fukushima were in basements where they would be lost in a tsunami produced an odd echo of that memory.

The latter issue is really more to the point. We are relying on corporations to actively manage the safety of these plants and the spent fuel—corporations that will cease to exist if the cost of this management burden ever grows to the point that it consumes the corporation’s profits.

I think the degree to which these safety issues needed to be actively managed has surprised a lot of people. I’ve many times heard people suggest that managing nuclear waste was no big deal—just put the stuff in a concrete vault and put a fence around it with signs saying “If you come in here you’ll probably die.” I always knew that was dumb, but I was mostly worried about people deliberately coming in to use the waste to make dirty bombs and the like. I didn’t quite realize to what an extent the spent fuel rods depended on a whole complex system of cooling equipment to keep them from bursting into flame and spreading radioactive smoke and steam wherever the wind blew.

So that, I think, is why we accept coal power and think of nuclear as dangerous. We could give up coal power anytime we, as a society, decided that the cost was too high. If we were willing to cut way back on air conditioning, electric lighting, and all the other things we run with electricity, we could just quit the whole thing. The only dangers left behind would be some moderately dangerous holes in the ground, some toxic heaps of ash, and the pollutants that are already in the air. With nuclear power that’s very much not true. We could give up nuclear power today and we’d be on the hook for decades of active management of the high-level waste and generations of (mostly passive) management of the low-level waste.

I think maybe the issue with risks from terrorism is the same. People know what the trade-offs are for driving. If we, as a society, decided to give up driving, we could cut deaths from road accidents almost to zero. But terrorism isn’t like that. There’s nothing we could give up to prevent terrorism, and the contingent risks are huge. An endless stream of terrorist acts that killed tens, hundreds, or thousands of people seems very different from the many other activities that we engage in that cost tens, hundreds, or thousands of lives.

It’s a bummer about nuclear power, though. It would be cool if a network of high-speed electric trains could provide transportation in a post-peak oil world, and I’d begun to think it might be a reasonable alternative. A mere twenty-five years with no major nuclear accidents was enough to make nuclear power start seeming pretty safe again. This is a good reminder that it really isn’t—and that we need to think carefully about the difference between accepting risks for ourselves now, and accepting risks for everyone stretching off into the future.

[Update 2011-03-23: There’s a lot of  misinformation about whether very low doses of radiation are harmful. Here’s a paper with a survey of what we actually know about the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation (from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).]

Making doom funny

In my review of Dmitry Orlov’s book Reinventing Collapse, I talk a bit about how everyone says that the book is funny, but no one ever quotes the funny bits. There’s a reason: The humor sneaks up on you, building on previous bits. All the really funny bits are only funny if you’ve read up to them.

For those of you who want to read something really funny about peak oil, but were unconvinced that such humor was worth shelling out the cost of a book (or taking the time to read it), there is now an alternative: Dmitry Orlov’s latest article at Culture Change, Peak Oil is History.

Once again, it’s tough to quote a sentence or a paragraph that’s funny, but that’s okay: Just click on over and read the article. It’s free, and it’s much shorter than a book.

Whether you’re one of the people who understood peak oil some years ago or one of the people who just figured it out, Orlov wants to make sure that you understand that the reality of life on the declining side of the oil production curve won’t look like the mathematically smooth logistic function that’s usually displayed. Rather, it will look something like the front side of the curve, with spikes and dips that map to wars and recessions and other catastrophes. Further, he wants to make sure that you know those little jerks up and down—especially the jerks down—matter to you.

It would be theoretically possible to ride the downward curve of oil production in a fashion that would look like the reverse of riding it up. In fact, if we’d spent the thirty years since Jimmy Carter warned that our “intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation” preparing to do so—improving our rail infrastructure, switching to wind and solar energy, and generally becoming much more efficient—we’d be in a position to do that pretty comfortably.

In practice, though, things are going to suck.

Things will, however, suck rather differently than people expect—which is Orlov’s point. People expect that the rich will go on much as they have, while the poor will get squeezed by high prices—and there will be plenty of that. But after laying out the reasons why it won’t work that way, Orlov concludes by saying, “it becomes difficult to imagine that global oil production could gently waft down from lofty heights in a graceful smooth and continuous curve spanning decades. Rather, the picture that presents itself is one of stepwise declines happening in more and more places, and eventually encompassing the entire planet.” A stepwise decline that quickly results in even rich people having “no access to transportation fuels and severely restricted transportation options.”

Orlov makes doom just about as funny as possible, perhaps even a little funnier.