Random Notes  

Posted by Big Gav

I'll be taking a blogging holiday for the next week (partly because I need a break to get some fresh ideas and partly because I have a lot of real world stuff to catch up on).

In the meantime here are a few links to keep you going - and you can get all the latest news from the "Essential Peak Oil" links in the sidebar.

The Falls Church News Press continues its Peak Oil series with a look at something I wasn't aware of - the North Atlantic Oscillation. It paints a bleak picture for the UK in particular, should a perfect storm of this particular phenomenon and oil and gas shortages occur this coming winter.

And this doesn't even consider the longer term possibility of a shutdown in the north atlantic conveyor current (at least there is no chance that is going to happen this winter). In any case I'm glad I'm not living in London (or New York) this year.

Back in our school days, we all learned how the Gulf Stream sweeps out of the warm Caribbean , flows along our East Coast, and crosses the Atlantic where all that warm water keeps Northern Europe from turning into a giant glacier.

What our teachers didn't tell us, however, is there is a similar and even more potent phenomenon hovering between America and Europe known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Every winter since the last Ice Age, a giant low-pressure area forms over Iceland and a giant high-pressure area over the Azores . The clockwise and counterclockwise circulation around this pair propels vast amounts of warm air out of the southern United States to northern Europe where it plays a major part in keeping the region habitable in the winter.

However, every few decades an unusual phenomenon happens. The pressure difference between the high and low weakens so much, only smaller quantities of America 's southern air are transported straight across the Atlantic towards the Mediterranean . Northern Europe suddenly becomes downright cold. One of the more famous occurrences of this phenomenon happened in the early 1940's when Hitler was invading Russia . Remember those pictures of German troops on the Eastern Front trying to survive 30 degrees below without the proper arctic gear? That was the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Now you may ask, what does all this climatology have to do with peak oil here in America ? The answer, unfortunately, may be more than you really wanted to know. When that big flow of slightly used American air is being sucked by New England on the way to old England , it serves to help block the frigid Canadian air that tries to float down onto the US during the winter. When the trans-Atlantic airflow is reduced our Northeast can get mighty cold too.

Last week, the London Times reported that her Majesty's government had called an emergency meeting of lots of important people. This meeting is to discuss what to do if the country runs out of heating fuel this winter. It seems the British long-range forecasters are now predicting there’s a 2 out of 3 chance the NAO will turn negative this winter and that Britain , and the rest of Northern Europe , will see lots of very cold weather. How harsh? When we had one of these negative oscillations back in the 1970's parts of Europe burned 30 percent more heating fuel to keep going.

Now you may recall that 40 years ago, the British along with the Norwegians discovered lots of oil and gas in the North Sea . Being sensible folks, they promptly shut down lots of their old fashioned mines that produced smoky coal and plumbed themselves up to heat natural gas.

Things went well until a few years ago when the North Sea oil and gas fields went into depletion and are now at the point where the British are close to not producing enough natural gas to cover domestic needs during the winter. This year, they have only 11 day's reserve of natural gas compared to an average of 55 days on the continent. In order to keep people from freezing, the British are making plans to shutdown large industrial gas users if supplies get too low.


In the US however, we face a somewhat different set of circumstances. First, it is only the northeast that would have a problem should the NAO go negative. Second, given the precarious state of our natural gas and gasoline reserves, any official announcement that the east coast just might be an icebox next winter would drive the oil futures market and the price of gasoline through the roof. This in turn would drive down the stock market and the administration's popularity polls.

Given this warning would be based on an experimental climate model, from the government's perspective there really is little harm in waiting until winter to see what happens. We are not going to ration anything before the Congressional elections unless we absolutely have to.
In the meantime, it seems prudent to lay in a good supply of firewood and check the shovels just in case a series of snowstorms hits the east coast this winter. Also keep in mind that if you should hear someone complain about the price of gasoline going to $4 next February, you can now smile knowingly and say "Yes, it was bound to happen once the North Atlantic Oscillation turned negative."

WorldChanging has a piece on a "nanotech solar" breakthrough, which sounds quite promising.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of photovoltaic materials: traditional inorganic solar cells, which are stiff (sometimes to the point of being brittle) and often expensive to make, but have decent efficiency of around 25-35% (with the potential for up to 50-60% with current research); and organic polymer solar cells, which are flexible (sometimes to the point of being able to be sprayed or painted on a surface) and relatively inexpensive to produce, but tend to have relatively short lifespans (generally no more than a couple of years, and sometimes far worse) and very low efficiency of around 3-5%. Ilan Gur, working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, may well have found a best-of-both-worlds solution: nanocrystal solar cells.

In the current Science magazine, Gur (a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate) and his research group report on the development of ultra-thin inorganic photovoltaic semiconductors using nano-scale crystals. The material can be cast from solution, like organic photovoltaics, meaning the nanocrystal solar cells are far less costly to make than traditional silicon cells. Unlike the organic pv materials, however, the nanocrystal solar cells respond to a wide range of light frequencies, and can last for years. In fact, aging seems to increase the performance of the nanocrystal cells, rather than degrade it...

TreeHugger reports that Man City (whose supporters have been known to sing something like this during games "we're crap at home and we're crap away - we lost last week and we'll lose today", obviously having become realists following decades of misery) are considering erecting a large wind turbine to power their stadium. At least they'll be ahead of the rest of the league on Viridian brownie points. Maybe Man U should coat Old Trafford in PV to outdo them ? Although given that the sun rarely shines in Manchester that may not be such a good idea. I wonder what power can be harvested from constant drizzle ?
"A global first in sporting history" is how it is being billed. If Manchester City Football Club get their way and can convince the planners, then their stadium will not only be home to the the largest land-base wind turbine in the UK, but it will also be the world’s first sport stadium to be powered solely by renewable energy.* The idea is to install a 85m (280') high Norman Foster designed turbine, that would also have a viewing platform and education centre. It is envisioned that the energy would be a similar price to current fossil fool costs. And apparently the turbine has the potential to power about 4,000 homes, so locals could purchase their energy from the site too.

On a non-energy related note (unless you consider the potential impacts of peak oil on globalisation), WorldChanging also has a look at some odd noises coming out of WalMart about their responsibility to make sure their suppliers in third-world countries are doing the right thing by the environment and their workforce. Fine sentiments - but why have they started caring now ?
For several years, a broad, diverse, and growing movement has been targeting Wal-Mart, which has become something of a tabula rasa for interest groups. Pick a social issue and you’ll find some group that’s painted a target on Wal-mart: Environmentalists, labor groups, women’s groups, minority groups -- that’s just for starters. There are also small business groups (who complain that Wal-Mart puts them out of business), first amendment groups (who object to Wal-Mart’s censorship of music lyrics and magazine and book covers and content), community activists (for contributing to sprawl), and so on.

I sat in on a meeting last year of a group of environmental activists looking at taking on Wal-Mart as part of a bigger campaign. At the table were environmental groups focusing on mining (Wal-Mart is one of the world’s biggest jewelers, so it buys lots of gold, platinum, silver, and diamonds); trout fishers (run-off from Wal-Mart’s parking lots foul local creeks, streams, and rivers for outdoors types); and forests (how else to target the world’s biggest seller of Pampers and Charmin?).

Labor, for their part, has another whole batch of activists under the name Wal-Mart Watch -- a multimillion dollar campaign funded in large part by the service employees union. (Earlier this year, the union launched PurpleOcean.org, “the world's first Internet-based union membership program.”)

But much like Nike before it, Wal-Mart’s overseas supply-chain challenges have raised the most heat among activists. The issue is both labor and the environment -- the low wages and poor working conditions of workers in Asian factories, and the environmental legacy that comes from practices to cut costs such as clear-cutting of forests and industrial factory farming of seafood.

In recent weeks, the heat has been turned up, as activists have prepared for release on November 13, of WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Price, a documentary by Robert Greenwald, director/producer of last year’s “Outfoxed: Robert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” The week of November 13-19 has been dubbed “Wal-Mart Week,” in which “3000+ screenings in 19 countries and all 50 states are already in the works for the largest grassroots mobilization in movie history,” according to the movie’s official Web site.

Greenwald's "Outfoxed" is a great documentary about the media (focussing on its lowest ebb in the form of Fox "News") so no doubt this new film will be interesting.

I'll close with Mike Carlton taking a look at our new sedition law - one of the amazing things about these laws is that they appear to have been resurrected from some 1914 law put in place for the first world war - the first item is about not criticising "The Sovereign" - so maybe Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello (who support Australia removing the aforesaid sovereign - ie. the Queen of England - as our head of state) and Amanda Vanstone (who recently called Her Majesty "Sweaty Betty") should be worrying about a knock on the door one night...
And in the general hardening of outlook that set in ... practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years - imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages and the deportation of whole populations - not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive. George Orwell, 1984

ORWELL jumped the gun with the date, but everything else is moving along pretty much as he predicted.

John Howard's anti-terrorism bill frogmarches Australia down the road to tyranny, towards an authoritarian state in which the police may arrest people at will, and hold them secretly and indefinitely without charge or trial.

"Suspects" may be questioned by ASIO, on subjects about which they may know nothing, and be jailed for up to five years if officialdom deems their answers unsatisfactory.

For all his trust-me protestations of good faith, this is exactly what Howard is planning. It is there in the draft bill published by the ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, on his website. Its provisions would have delighted General Pinochet.

Whatever Howard is publicly claiming, there is licence for the Federal Police to shoot to kill if a person "cannot be apprehended in any other manner".

If you are detained, you may tell one person only that you are "safe but not able to be contacted for the time being". That someone may tell no one else, least of all the media: penalty, up to five years' jail. On release you must reveal nothing, repeat nothing, about your detention.

And the crime of sedition will include such frightfulness as bringing the Sovereign into hatred or contempt; urging disaffection against either house of Parliament, or - wait for it - promoting feelings of ill will or hostility between different groups.

Malcolm Fraser, bless him, was right to say on Wednesday that "these are powers whose breadth and arbitrary nature, with lack of judicial oversight, should not exist in any democratic country". At some risk of getting arrested for ill will, he urges that these laws be opposed.


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