Friday, July 9, 2010

The Devil and I

It happens all the time.  In conversation, I bring up my plans or goals for minimizing our use of fossil fuels, though I oftentimes wonder why after I've done it.  A skeptic, with a wry twinkle in his eye, says something like "I think you'll really learn to appreciate that <insert any fossil-fueled machine> once you try using a <insert non-fossil fueled equivalent here>."

I think to myself, "Yes, but if we all keep using <insert fossil-fueled machine>, I can kiss my kid's future goodbye.  Thanks for your concern, a--hole!"

In most cases, the "skeptic" is absolutely right.  Using the fossil fueled machine is almost *always* much easier, more effective, more fun, more productive, quicker, safer, and cheaper (at least for now) than the human or animal powered equivalent.  I must be naive to embark on a quixotic quest to avoid them.

So why does this skeptic, and the vast majority of humanity, effectively place their money on anything that uses fossil fuel, when they know what the consequences of that use are?  I think we're in denial.  We're in denial so deep that we refuse to even consider the consequences of our actions.  If we've ever dared to glimpse at the future we know is coming, we shut the door on that thought and throw away the key.  It's a wonderful human survival trait -- this ability to ignore unpleasant images of your own future and hope they never arrive.  Occasionally, we get lucky.  Time takes a turn, and the unpleasant situation is averted.  Then again, ignoring a problem often makes it much worse.

The thing is, I'm one of these skeptics as well.  My problem is that I don't have the ability to forget or deny the consequences of my actions after I've been made aware of them.  I simply can't shrug off the fact that my use of fossil fuels is destroying not only my son's future, but the world I live in here and now.  Even so, I'll probably still be one of the fossil-fuelaholics for quite a while to come.  But I do plan to fight my addiction, for better or worse.  I'll be like the smoker who has quit cigarettes on several occasions.

The differences between fossil fueled machines and the alternatives are really dramatic.  One gallon of gasoline can produce the equivalent amount of work as a person working for three weeks, in one figure I read.  For $2.85 (or about 20 minutes of work at a modestly paid job), I can buy three weeks of work.  What a deal!  It would seem there is a point at which the deal is so incredibly good that it makes sense to just say "Screw the future -- I'm gonna burn me some gasoline!"  Would you sell your soul to the devil if he made you a deal you can't refuse?   It seems most of us already have.  Is it ever a good deal, too!  Heck, if the devil never sweetened the pot, nobody would ever deal with him.

This Fourth of July weekend was one of those times when the deals were just too good to pass up.  For the devil and I, that is.  This was the weekend we put up our second cutting of hay.

It started out well.  Saturday morning, I tedded (that's basically stirring up your hay so it dries faster) one field and raked the second, both done with the horses.  Saturday afternoon, I helped out with our neighbors who were baling one of the fields for us.   I simply don't have the time to get everything done myself with horses, so this was a concession to the devil.  It does beat the alternative of buying hay, since at least some of the work done on this hay was fossil fuel-free. 

Sunday was to be a busy day.  Started out with raking the remaining hayfield into windrows, and then continued with loading the wagon using the hayloader, all done with the horses.  It was hot -- about 90 degrees.  Squadrons of horseflies were out on patrol.  The filtered sunlight seemed to have an orange glow that accentuated the heat.  Doc (one of the draft horses on our team) got pissy and started backing up when he wasn't supposed to, jack-knifing the forecart against the hay wagon while Rachel had the lines. 

We got him calmed down, but the little shot of adrenaline didn't really help out after I'd already spent hours in the hot sun.  After we brought the first wagonload back to the barn, I tied the horses up to a convenient light pole in our yard, still hitched to the forecart.  Something (probably another horsefly) got Doc excited again, so he started running around the pole, dragging the forecart and wrapping the halter ropes for both horses around the pole in a big mess.  So I decided to give them a rest.  That means unhitching each of them, taking off lines and halters, and bringing them in the barn so they could sit at a tie-stall and eat some hay, and then repeating the process in reverse.  That adds another half hour of work to the operation. 

Next, I messed up the grapples as I set them into the hay for unloading.  Everything looked fine, until the trolley was up at the peak of the barn roof, but the trip line wouldn't budge.  We had to bring the hay back down to the wagon to reset everything.  I discovered three unique ways to mess up the grapples, each time requiring a re-do.

After two wagon loads of hay put up with the horses (with three remaining in the field), I was absolutely shot.  Rain appeared in the forecast for the evening, just to make my day a little better.  A quick shower came through, but not enough to hurt the hay.  Knowing that Rachel was only in slightly better shape than I was, I decided to follow her suggestion to use the tractor for the third load.  It was a life-saver.  No time spent to harness up, no need to babysit it, and it didn't get scared by the "BIG SCARY HAY LOADER" the way Doc did when I walked him past it earlier in the day.

I figured that if I was going to make a deal with the devil, I might as well go for the deluxe package. So we used our Honda (a Honda Element) to pull the hay rope. But I didn't just use it to pull the hay rope. It had other fossil fueled amenities that I could partake of, which I did with great zeal. I had that AC cranked on full. Boy did it feel great.

We finished out the remaining two loads the next day using the tractor instead of the horses.  Just avoiding harnessing time saved an hour right off the bat.  Boy, is that tractor a neat tool.  Thank you, Mr. Devil. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Calves, Cars, and Crackpots

Our two cows which were due in June have both calved. Buttercup went first, with a bull calf we dubbed "Brisket" (aka "Limp Brisket"). His front feet were initially curled back a bit from sitting in the womb wrong, which made it impossible for him to stand right away as calves are supposed to. We brought the vet out, who splinted the legs to straighten them out. He was able to stand with the splints, but couldn't get up on his own, and wasn't nursing well, so we had to tube feed him. I didn't like it any more than he did. Finally, after a week, the splints had done their job. He was able to get up on his own and run around, and started nursing on his own.

Josie waited about 10 days before dropping her calf. After closing the chicken coop one evening, I noticed her standing in a corner of the barnyard with a couple hooves sticking out underneath her tail. I ran to go get Rachel.  By the time I'd returned, a nose was out as well. Rachel yelled at me to hurry as I climbed over the barnyard gate, and I ran up to Josie just as "Blossom" plopped out unceremoniously on the dirt before I could catch her.

Buttercup was never a great hand milker, due to her smaller teets. We originally bought her while we were milking goats, and they seemed fine by comparison. However, with a fully engorged udder, the teets shrunk to half their original size, just like you would see the little "nipple" on the end of a balloon disappear as you blow it up. She became the bane of my existence. I had to lube up her micro-teets with udder balm and pinch between thumb and pointer finger, which I would then slide down the half inch that remained of each teet to get the milk out. Frequent resting was required to ease cramps in my thumb.

I resolved to sell her, and found a young guy from Indiana who planned to milk her along with the goats he and his fiancee already have. We sold her along with her calf, as I didn't want to separate the two after they'd already bonded. So now we're down to two adult cows, just Josie and Maggie. Maggie is about to be dried off in anticipation of her new calf due in September, so then we'll be only milking one cow. Might have to buy another, but am not sure yet.

One of the biggest problems we have as hand milkers is teat size. 100 years ago, it would've been no problem. With the advent of machine milking, larger teats have become nothing but a liability (cows sometimes step on their own teats), so the industry has been breeding for small teats ever since.

Though the process is not yet complete, we started pulling the trigger on going to oil-free transportation. Our new driving horse is "Bobby", a standardbred we purchased from an Amish farmer. The Amish use this breed extensively for their buggies, and frequently import them from horse-cart racing tracks, which is where Bobby was originally from. Our buggy and harness are on order, and should be arriving in mid July.

Bobby is a very nice horse, often coming right over to me when I call him. He desperately wants to be part of our existing horse "herd", but Bruce isn't too keen on this new guy, who is the proverbial 90lb weakling compared to the draft horses. He likes to keep Bobby in his place by biting him whenever he gets close enough. Bobby still grazes near them when they're out on pasture, but I have to separate them at night when they're in the barnyard.

We've had a very warm and wet June. Our barnyard blossomed into a muddy pit, which I'm trying to remedy with loads of wood chips. Our garden hasn't needed watering for a month, and my field corn is well ahead of the "knee high by the 4th of July" measurement -- it's already taller than I am. Our second cutting of hay is down and drying now, and will undoubtedly be keeping us busy this weekend.

Bilbo has succumbed to his bird-dog instincts, and has eaten 3 of our young turkeys now. The turkeys were pecking each other's beaks (one now has the soft portion near his nose completely pecked away), so we let them out a little prematurely in hopes of stopping this behavior. The Bourbon Red chicks seem to be especially vicious towards the larger Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys, of which we're down to 3 now.

The herdshare business is going well, with a few new customers signing up in the last month. We might even be edging towards profitability if I ignore capital costs. Keeping Josie's calf on her has definitely cut production -- probably by a couple gallons per day -- so I'm thinking we may need to purchase a new cow to cover the gap when we dry off Maggie here in a couple weeks.

On many of the websites I frequent, I see people singing the praises of "alternative" energy.  Wind, solar, biofuels, electric cars, tidal energy, or energy storage mediums like hydrogen (which is not actually a source of energy) are all touted as saviors.  If only we made the switch, we could all be driving our cars, heating our homes, and running our factories guilt free! (just so long as we ignore embodied energy anyway)  These folks are often mystified (<----this link is definitely worth a watch, btw) by the fact that we haven't embraced these technologies yet.  I agree with them that there are plenty of excellent reasons to wean ourselves of fossil fuels (the near term survival of the human race, for one), but I don't see the panacea that they see just around the corner.  Here's why...

Every source of energy has an EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).  In the 1930's, oil wells often had an EROEI of 100:1.  In 2000, The US  averaged  10:1, and you can bet we've declined significantly since then.  Deepwater wells (like the now famous well that Deepwater Horizon was drilling into the Macondo field) are quite a bit lower -- typicaly less than 5:1.  Not only that, but many of our deepwater fields are producing less than 20% of what they were expected to produce.  The Canadian tar sands -- which I understand are now our leading source of imported oil -- are at 3 or 4:1, depending on the source.  Natural gas -- which is used to cook the oil out of the tar sands -- isn't much better

The Hubbert curve of oil extraction is a symmetrical bell curve, and we're just past the top of the bell.  The downhill slope, however, assumes an EROEI that is equal to the uphill side, which isn't the case.  As EROEI declines, it makes the available energy decline much faster, as is shown in the third chart down on this page.

The natural gas industry seems to enjoy a slightly elevated image when it comes to pollution.  However, with a very small (and relatively unavoidable) percentage of leakage, it can actually be much worse than coal for global warming.  Newly developing gas fields, such as the Marcellus shale, were being touted as a breakthrough source of new energy for the US.  It appears now that the breakthrough was one of duping investors in these fields, as they're not producing nearly what they were reputed to produce.  People are also discovering that the gas extracted through hydrofracking in these fields often leads to poisoned wells, or flammable water in their faucets.

So, suffice to say that our sources of fossil energy are in trouble.  Follow the curve down from 100:1 to 5:1 over the last 80 years, and it doesn't take a genius to see we're not so far away from 1:1.  At an EROEI of 1:1 (and probably long before that), it's time to pack up and go home.  It's also easy to see that each gallon of gasoline we burn in our car today has a much greater carbon footprint than a gallon burned 10 or 20 years ago.   Keep in mind that worldwide consumption, despite the economic downturn (gee, what caused that?), has risen exponentially over the last century, meaning that we're burning through what we've got left at much greater rates than when any of us were born.  Everything is accelerating, driven both by exponential population growth as well as exponential growth in per-capita energy use.

There is always nuclear energy, which many people falsely believe is carbon free.  Fuel supplies are limited -- certainly not enough to satisfy current world energy use.  As it's done currently, nuclear energy is fully reliant upon fossil energy for mining, processing, and reactor construction. The EROEI varies dramatically based upon the process used to enrich the uranium, and is typically better than our current sources of fossil fuel.  But I simply don't trust it (and neither do insurance companies, none of whom are willing to insure a nuclear reactor -- they're all insured by the federal government here in the US).  Why?  Because humans make mistakes.  Lots of them.  We also like to bomb each other every so often, and cause general mayhem (particularly when energy resources become constrained).  Both of these characteristics bode poorly for atomic energy.  It only takes one mistake or act of aggression to poison a region for longer than human civilization has even existed.  In my not so humble opinion, the risks far outweigh the rewards.  In a half century of nuclear energy production in the US, we have yet to come up with a good solution for storing the waste, which is dangerous for 10,000 years.  Is that a problem?

So why not wind?   I like wind power.  I think it's a great idea.  We've used it for centuries to do all sorts of things.  But it has limited usefulness.  The relatively low EROEI makes it viable only in certain areas, and it can be fickle.  Most of these areas tend to be remote, difficult to maintain (particularly in the corrosive environment of marine installations), and far from transmission lines.  The last issue can be resolved, but it's an expensive one.  I think wind should have a place in our energy future, but it will never be able to fill in the massive gap that fossil fuels are soon going to leave us with. 

Solar is also nice.  Like wind, it's only viable in certain areas where it can pay for the solar installations.  As with wind, these locations are often far from large population centers.  It has a role in our future as well, but it would require *massive* installations to meet current worldwide energy needs (which are really just energy wants, btw).  In an energy constrained environment, I don't think we'll have the money to pull it off on a large scale.  The energy density just isn't there as it is with fossil fuel sources.

Biofuels.  For the most part, they're a joke, and fully reliant upon damaging and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices for nearly every crop grown.  Grain based ethanol exists for one reason only -- because we subsidize corn prices with our tax dollars.  The best EROEI numbers I've seen put it around 1.2:1.  Most put it at below 1:1.  Forget about it.   Biodiesel is slightly better, usually producing an EROEI of around 2:1.  It also benefits from massive tax subsidies.  There simply isn't enough land in the world to both feed us and grow our fuel.  Cellulosic ethanol does supposedly beat the EROEI of grain based ethanol, but it's still pathetically low.  The energy used by the tractors and irrigation equipment to grow it, the trucks to haul it, and the energy to manufacture all of this equipment is simply too much to justify creating this stuff. 

What about electric cars?   GM is shipping the Volt this fall.  Nissan has their new "Leaf".  Why won't these take off? 

First of all, electric cars aren't an energy source.  They're simply a different means of energy storage.  The energy still has to come from somewhere else.  In the US, that's typically coal.  You know -- the stuff that we're now destroying entire mountains and watersheds in Appalacia to get.  The stuff that's covered the entire planet with mercury (such that no lake -- even those thousands of miles from coal burning -- has fish that aren't contaminated with mercury).  The same stuff which the EPA now says is at brain damaging levels in 20% of our kids.  It also has the highest carbon output per btu of our common fuels.  We don't want to burn more coal.  "Clean" coal doesn't exist except in PR campaigns from Peabody coal.  It's a theory, and if ever used, would require that we burn much more coal to power the sequestration equipment.  There's plenty of reason to believe that the captured CO2 would eventually leak out anyway.

Another problem with electric cars is that the electric grid is inherently inefficient.  About 7% of the electricity pumped into our grid is lost in the lines that bring it to your home.  Further significant losses are incurred in charging the battery, and there are significant energy costs in producing the batteries, many of which aren't living up to range expectations, and aren't living very long themselves.  The current grid isn't capable of feeding car chargers for everyone anyway.   The money to build a better grid simply won't be there now that our energy sources are drying up.  Have I mentioned that our economy (or lack thereof) is directly tied to our energy use? (our current recession is a permanent result of energy decline, imho) 

Perhaps I'm a pessimist.  I've been accused of it before.  But I do read a lot about energy issues, and that reading has me absolutely convinced that the world my son grows up in will be nothing like the world I grew up in.  The answers to our "energy problem" don't lie in finding elusive new sources of energy, but in finding ways to live without energy, the way 99% of our ancestors lived, and the way much of the world's population still lives.  The sooner we make the change, the easier it will be.