Stupid vs smart solar panels

windows 98Not long ago there was a dumb idea going around: photovoltaic roadways. It was almost impossibly stupid, ignoring the fact that roads need to carry almost unlimited loads, need to be recycled every few years and are often shaded or covered with snow or dirt. Nevertheless, it got $2.2 million from probably well-meaning people on the crowdfunding website IndieGoGo.

There’s a new only slightly less dumb idea going around: photovoltaic building windows. It ignores that almost no windows face the sun directly, for good reason. Unless you are in a truly frigid climate, building windows that directly face the sun waste energy by overheating the space, requiring cooling or (often mechanical) ventilation. In the article at that link, the inventor fantasizes about using a PV film instead of current energy efficiency films on skyscrapers. Builders will have to justify any additional cost for the films and all the wiring through the building to collect all this energy. Adding to the cost is any reduction in operating efficiency of the building — if the PV film is any worse than the fancy efficiency films it displaces, you need to count in the increased energy consumption for the building and the need for bigger chillers, ducts and cool water piping. This starts to look like an awful expensive way to produce a tiny amount of electricity.

If you really want to reduce a building’s net energy consumption, one of the best things is to shade the windows so you get daylight without direct blast of solar gain, at least not in summer. PV windows won’t work if they are shaded.

Both of these clever PV ideas are based on a faulty premise: that the lack of solar power generation is for lack of places to put solar panels. There are plenty of places to put solar panels. If solar panels aren’t being installed in your town, it is probably because the level of insolation is too low to justify it, utility rate structures make it uneconomical, or other energy sources in your area are much cheaper. None of these are affected by clever inventions like solar roads or windows. You need to go back to boring old utility rate regulation, carbon taxes, and the weather.

These newfangled ideas obstinately forget all the lessons from decades past about negawatts. This is the idea that generation is no better, and often worse, than conservation. If you want to overall reduce the amount of fossil fuels being used for energy, you should probably drive less on any kind of road, with or without embedded PV cells. You should shade windows, especially in summer. And yes, you should build more PV installations — at the exact angles best suited to capturing peak solar radiation, in locations with minimal cloud and shade. In other words, make good use of roads and windows. Don’t try to cover over wasteful construction with a coat of PV film.

Aguirre, the Wrath of Petrobras

aguirre_1You can watch the film or you can read the legal brief, in which a modern-day Aguirre sues the king for sending him down a deathtrap Peruvian river. From US District Court for the Southern District of Texas comes the epic drama, “4:14-cv-02155,” starring one J Wilkerson and Petrobras America.

4.1 In February of 2013, Plaintiff was working as a mechanic at Defendant’s facility in Peru, where helicopters delivered supplies and materials in support of Defendant’s oil and gas exploration activities.

4.2 On or about February 13, 2013, when it came time for his work to end, and for Plaintiff to return to the United States, he was unable to depart via aircraft as planned, due to severe rainstorms. Consequently, Defendant provided a small aluminum boat and pilot to transport Plaintiff. The vessel was navigated through waters where there were visible trees rising out of the water, and presumably tree stumps hidden beneath the water. The vessel violently struck something in the water, which caused the vessel to flip, throwing Plaintiff into the water. Plaintiff lost consciousness, and sustained severe and disabling bodily injuries.

4.3 When he regained consciousness, Plaintiff was trapped in an air pocket under the boat. He swam out through a window, and up to the surface. He then began to float down the river. He spotted a small village and was able to make his way to the bank and up onto land. A small fishing boat, passing by, picked him up and took him to a village where he sat for hours, waiting for Defendant’s rescue boatto arrive. Defendant’s rescue boat transported Plaintiff back to Defendant’s work site from which he had departed in the aluminum boat. He was then transported by helicopter to Defendant’s main gas processing plant. From there, Plaintiff was transported by fixed wing aircraft to Lima, Peru, where he was taken by cab to a hotel. Plaintiff stayed at the hotel for roughly 6 hours, before flying by commercial airline back to the United States.

Petrobras America, the named defendant, simply says it’s never owned or operated anything in Peru, so quit bothering the poor saps. Sorry but this story doesn’t have much in the way of a cathartic conclusion. The case is ongoing in Houston.

Another few cents on Latin American memory museums

Lillie, Colin and Otto have commented about how the Econo missed on Latin American memory museums. A year ago, as I was putting together an article about the 40th anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, I had the chance to interview Ricardo Brodsky, executive director of the Museo de la Memoria, Santiago de Chile’s spectacular museum that the Economist says presents a biased version of history.

I understand The Economist’s concern. I had it myself before I learned what the Museum of Memory was. Like the Economist, I thought it was supposed to be a history museum. But it makes no sense to study a coup that was supported by, at least, a sizable minority of the population while ignoring why so many people sided with such a thing. I thought it was bad history-telling.

But as Brodsky explains in this interview, the Museum of Memory isn’t a history museum. For the record, here is my interview with Brodsky, translated by me. Let me know if you want a copy of the tape.

Continue reading

How climate change will kill us: Two things you might not realize

Lives close to the edge. Dying.

Lives close to the edge. Dying.pte

Climate is changing. I think we all get that it’s bad, but a lot of people don’t understand the statistical mechanics of just how it’s going to do us in. Fear not! I explain things very simply.

Climate change shifts the margins. A hotter climate doesn’t affect everything or everyone equally. It hits things, species, and places that live close to the edge.

Species that live in little mountaintops will suffer as their favored temperatures move up to ever smaller zones at the summits and eventually disappear. Sea creatures with shells are already suffering, from ocean acidification. Turns out they had gotten a bit too comfy with the slow-changing acidity levels of the last 300 million years. Little did they know that things could change more quickly, outstripping their ability to adapt. (As they say in South America, chau pescau!) Continue reading

The problem with collaborators (Galt’s Gulch Chile, Argentine dictators, and Derwick Associates, oh my)

Ken Johnson, head of Galt's Gulch Chile, looks at proposed subdivision map at Curacaví city hall.

Ken Johnson, head of Galt’s Gulch Chile, looks at proposed subdivision map at Curacaví city hall.

I’ve been thinking about collaborators: people who go along with situations where they aren’t comfortable. Resisting or opposing would be hard, or cause legal inconveniences, or burn bridges, or ruin the chance of making big bucks. Some are just afraid. Collaborating with misbehavior, from a petty lie up to a major human rights violation, is normal and human. I probably go along to get along 99% of the time. But anyone who counts on reluctant collaborators is taking chances.

One example is Galt’s Gulch Chile (GGC). This is a proposed real estate development in the suburbs of Santiago, Chile, marketed toward libertarians and others who think the US, Canada and Western Europe are likely to collapse. Among its problems are that its managing partner, Ken Johnson, alienated a lot of workers, investors and buyers. By last November, when I visited the place for a Spring Celebration, some of the big names that were promoting the project were already feuding with Johnson over money and employment conditions. I sensed there were some odd personal dynamics but I figured they were the usual things one would get between a bunch of lone wolves trying to work together. Turns out it was worse. A few people have privately complained about Johnson; then a couple weeks ago, an early buyer went public alleging financial malfeasance. That broke the dam.

Suddenly, the interpipes were flooded with people who had been suspicious, those who claim to have warned buyers against the project, and even promoter-in-chief Jeff Berwick, saying that he was hoodwinked. He now claims he was already disillusioned with the project last August but chose to keep going along to get along so as not to cause other people any problems. Lawyer Erin Gallagly (who has never returned my calls seeking comment), in a now-deleted comment on Facebook, said she “witnessed a plethora of horror” in three months at GGC: failure to pay vendors, withholding pay from employees, threatening employees, financial mismanagement, and demanding that salespeople not share information.  Continue reading

Venezuela-China original documents hiding in plain sight

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 12.07.19 PMUPDATE: I learn that The Devil’s Excrement and Armas del Coronel blogs had these documents years ago. I missed them at the time. Credit where due!


Oil geeks and Venezuela-watchers might remember that in early 2010, a delegation of Venezuelans went to China to request a $40 billion loan and came back with a new $4 billion loan. This was the first part of the ongoing lending by China of money to Venezuela to be repaid in crude oil and fuel oil. That in turn led to new agreements in 2011. These deals have gotten a lot of attention, but much of what has been said has been poorly backed by information about the real content of the Venezuela-China deals.

Turns out, a collection of financial documents about these deals has been online since late 2011. Here you go, yours at no extra charge. Most of them appear to be late-phase drafts, rather than signed documents. But they are certainly close enough to final that they can give people discussing these deals a bit of grounding in reality, rather than the just making stuff up.

Included in this collection:

A trip report for President Chávez, describing exactly what happened in Beijing on the trip from February 2 to 4, 2010.  Continue reading

Venezuela recastrates environment ministry

stolen without permission from El Universal

Some oil spill in Venezuela. Stolen without permission from El Universal.

Venezuela. One of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. A place with a nasty heavy-oil industry that produces tremendous quantities of water and spills oil into tropical rivers. And now, a place with no environment ministry.

It was bad enough when the ministry was stupid and weak. Now, it’s been “consolidated” with the housing ministry. In a country where nobody except the government builds homes, the housing ministry has its hands full. It won’t dedicate a whole lot of time or money to the environment.

Lagoon overview

Pond of produced water from oil well in Anzoátegui state, Venezuela, with scum of crude oil in foreground. Open to migrating birds, occasionally “cleaned” by burning off crude. My photo.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, the environment ministry has grown a spine and recently sanctioned Pacific Rubiales Energy Corp for improper water disposal in the llanos. (Funny how the Colombian press and the company have failed to report on that, eh? Thanks to Primera Página, the only real independent biz media in Colombia, for the heads-up on that news item.)

Sure, it’s probably about a decade late to the action, but it shows that a government can occasionally restrain the excesses of the oil industry if it wants to. In Venezuela, that won’t be happening.

Wet savannah near Campo Rubiales

Wet savannah near Campo Rubiales, Colombia. My photo.

I eagerly await the condemnation of Amazon Watch, the International Rivers Network, and other protectors of the environment.