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.


Anonymous said...

Good to see more people thinking about the implications of the end of fossil fuels. I think you give wind a bit of a short shrift in terms of the EROEI. The EROEI of large scale wind is pretty high in most studies I've seen. In fact I recently carried out a study of published figures ( and wind came out very highly, although with a very wide range.

There could be more of an issue once wind gets to very high penetration and storage becomes a major requirement. Charging and discharging batteries has losses associated which would serve to lower the EROEI.

On the upside for electric vehicles is that fact that their batteries could act as some of that storage. Also, electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines.

The downside is the embodied energy of all those batteries. I haven't yet seen a comparative analysis of the life-cycle energy efficiency of electric cars vs regular cars. That would be a really interesting piece of research.

David Veale said...

Don't get me wrong on wind power. I think it's probably got the most potential (particularly in northern latitudes) among the array of alternative energy sources. But (and this is just a gut feeling) I don't see it ever filling more than 10% of our current energy production.

As a long time sailor, I'm fully aware of the capability of wind power, and did a lot of research on it for DC power systems on boats.

Storage is always the achilles heel for wind and solar. I hear Denmark is trying to use car batteries for a widely distributed storage system as you suggested.

I think that's a great idea... but I just don't see it working all that well. I think that economic conditions -- which are closely tied to energy availability -- will make a build out of logical systems like this very difficult in the future.

Credit -- an absolute requirement for something like a major windfarm -- is going to be in increasingly short supply as I see it.

For me, I see our future looking very much like the great depression, or just the time period before the 20th century. People were worried about affording basic necessities, and didn't have money to "invest" in projects like this. But as always, I could be wrong...

xraymike79 said...

Damn good post! You've summed up our predicament better than most. Nice to have found your blog. I'd be interested in more of your views as far as our energy-crunch future goes.

Thanks, Mike

Anonymous said...

I do understand the issue with credit. It's something we need to find a way around as our energy budget is more fundamental than the financial budget to our society. At the moment we're spending our savings (fossil fuel), and wasting most of our income (renewable energy). The trouble is we don't even have the option of borrowing energy.