Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Here comes the Sun

Unlike this post from a couple of days ago, this post is about good news.  And perhaps a constructive follow-up to this one?

What news do I bring to you?
The installed price of solar energy has declined significantly in recent years as policy and market forces have driven more and more solar installations.
You see, I wasn't kidding about the good news and cheer that even General Malaise can occasionally bring ;)

Notice something in the chart below?


To me, the key there is the sharply reducing cost of utility-scale solar power.  We can do bits and pieces with solar panels on our roof tops, but if the utilities are able to get into the act, then that will be a game-changer.  Which is where the best news of all is:
Perhaps the most interesting piece of data to come out in the latest Lawrence Berkeley National Lab reports is the trend in the price of solar power purchase agreements or PPAs. These prices reflect the price paid for long-term contracts for the bulk purchase of solar electricity. The latest data show that the 2015 solar PPA price fell below $50 per megawatt-hour (or 5 cents per kilowatt-hour) in 4 of the 5 regions analyzed. In the power industry, the rule of thumb for the average market price of electricity is about $30 to $40 per megawatt-hour—so solar is poised to match the price of conventional power generation if prices continue to decline.
The market is reacting already and "will certainly be interesting to see what kind of market dynamic develops as solar approaches the tipping point."

That tipping point is also news from Chile:
Solar power just sold for the lowest price ever, in Chile.
The Spanish developer Solarpack Corp. Tecnologica won contracts to sell power from a 120-megawatt solar plant for $29.10 a megawatt-hour at an energy auction this week.
That’s the lowest price on record for electricity from sunshine, surpassing a deal in Dubai in May. It’s the cheapest to date for any kind of renewable energy, and was almost half the price of coal power sold in the same event. According to Solarpack General Director Inigo Malo de Molina, it’s one of the lowest rates ever for any kind of electricity, anywhere.
Again, note that this is the market that is responding.

Now, about the "bits and pieces with solar panels on our roof tops" that I mentioned earlier in the post, the economies of scale might be different with solar:
somewhat counterintuitively, there are no clear economies of scale in utility-scale solar. Bigger plants, represented by bigger circles in the chart, don’t seem to be producing cheaper power. The authors speculate that this is in part due to the increased regulatory and land-use hassles that come with plants over a certain size, which cancel out any savings. (Interestingly, there are economies of scale on the small-solar side. It seems solar power gets cheaper up to the 5 MW to 20 MW range, and then levels out.
Of course, we have a long way to go.  But, it seems like we are on the right path.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Man up. Be a man.

"Anything you can do, I can do better" is rapidly redefining what it means to be a man, and men simply do not know what they are supposed to do about it.

Now, as a man who has never been a macho-man, I have no problems here.  So, do not jump all over me thinking that I am going to engage in griping sad stories.  No woe-is-me here.  I am doing fine, thank you.  But, as I have been blogging for years, and talking about this for even longer time, we live in a world where the old formula for masculinity is being thrown out--which is an awesome thing--but without a replacement formula for what it means to be a man.  This is especially troublesome for young men of today, and for middle-aged and older men who are used to operating in the old ways.

I completely agree with President Obama's bottom-line on twenty-first century feminism: "the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free."  But, ...

This is leaving muddled what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century.
Pandering political rhetoric aside, there is a genuine question here: What is masculinity today? Is it flexing steel pecs and biceps? Is it bringing home the bacon? Is it possessing testicles and a functional urinary tube? Or is it merely the possession of a Y-chromosome in an era when the value of muscles plummets before a digital economy?
I am glad I am not a young man, at least for this reason.  I have had my own share of angst right from my teens, thank you.

It is also getting reflected in the crazy political soap opera theatre:
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are tapping into what I’m calling a “Lean Out” generation of young, discouraged and angry men—men who are feeling abandoned by the thousands of years of history that defined what it meant to be a real man: to be strong; to be a provider; to be in authority; to be the ultimate decision maker; and to be economically, educationally, physically and politically dominant. A growing percentage of young men are being out-earned by young women, as women capture 60% of the higher education degrees required for success in today’s economy.
Maybe you want to counter argue that the Trump and Sanders supporters were/are mainly those who are struggling for what used to be a guaranteed American Middle Class life.  But, ahem, dig deeper and the economic issue is mostly a male problem.

So, any words of wisdom here?
Today’s chorus of angry men might want to revisit Benjamin Franklin. Drawing on the Latin word vir, or virtue, he characterized manliness as tranquillity, resolution and orderliness
Tranquility.
Resolution.
Orderliness.

Hey, young men, listen up: It looks like good ol' Uncle Ben was talking about me after all! I am delighted to be highly masculine, by Franklin's definition.  And I have a manly beard too! ;)


Monday, August 29, 2016

Ducking climate change

(Have sent a version of this to the editor)

An old high school friend, who is a practicing pathologist in India, visited with me in mid-August, just as the temperature started its sharp climb during the dog days of summer. I joked that she brought with her the Indian conditions. Talk about the weather soon morphed into discussing climate change.

My friend, like many hundreds of millions in India, is intensely familiar with the recent unusual meteorological happenings there. Last December, for instance, the city of Chennai--home to both our parents--received rainfall amounts that vastly exceeded all kinds of records and the city was flooded. (I addressed this in a column that was published on January 6, 2016.)

In late spring, more than a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population struggled with drought and water shortage. The conditions worsened in the summer, when the country recorded unbearably hot temperatures, and the heatwave turned out to be a killer as much as the heatwave of 2015 was. Then, when the monsoon arrived after all the heat and dust, it poured and flooded. In Kaziranga National Park in India’s northeast, more than twenty rhinos, which had been making quite a recovery after near extinction, were killed in the monsoon floods.

Most scientists and lay people alike in India are in agreement that these extreme weather episodes, year after year, are a result of climatic conditions that are getting weirder and not predictable as they might have been in the past.

Here in the US too, it is not a mere accident that record-setting rain fell in Louisiana, for instance. Only months before, we witnessed Houston deluged by rains. When records are being shattered in places across the world, across different parameters of heat, rain, drought, and cold, then surely these are not isolated events but a part of a larger story.

When it comes to that larger story of global climate change, it is not a case of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Instead, the cumulative effects of Vegas and everywhere else means that all of us anywhere on the planet are feeling the effects. The more extreme the resulting weather events, the more will be the destruction of life and property as well.

My friend and I got to talking about what can be done. “Look at all the lights here” she remarked. Homes were aglow in my neighborhood from the light inside and from the street lamps. Artificial light is so much in abundance in the US that we are worried about light pollution that prevents most Americans from sighting even our own home galaxy—the Milky Way. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is an abstract idea for many urban kids who rarely see get to see stars in the sky during their everyday lives.

It is quite a contrast in her country. "In India, a large population doesn’t even have electricity in their homes. Turning the lights off won’t help fight climate change" she said.

Developing countries like India have an immense problem to solve. When 300 million people in India lack basic electric light, leave alone air conditioners and refrigerators, the magnitude of the problem is easy to imagine. Even among those who are connected to the electricity grid, the power consumption per person is barely a fifth of the global average. The fulfillment of the dreams of the people will require a whole lot of energy. However, the use of coal and other carbon sources will further accelerate the climate weirding.

While India’s emissions are very low on a per-capita basis—about a tenth of US per capita emissions—it is already the third largest total emitter of carbon dioxide. As India’s economic engines rev up, if it follows the same fossil-fuel path that was traveled most recently by China, and by the developed countries including the US earlier on, then the explosive growth of carbon use will mean “game over”, and we might as well party like there will be no tomorrow.

Thus, as we move into the future, it is India—more than any other developed or developing country—that will practically determine our collective global fates with its decisions on clean and carbon-free energy sources.

It was an unbearably warm evening the day before my friend left. We walked up to the Willamette River and soaked our feet in the cool waters. About thirty young and old ducks floated and quacked all around us. Climate change could prevent future generations from enjoying such blissful nature. Here is to hoping that the natural world of tomorrow will be as good as, or even better than, the wonderful world that we inherited.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena

As a kid, I believed everything my parents said and taught.  My understanding of god and religion came from them.  And then there was school.   Science.  It was awesome.  The scientific explanations were a lot more convincing and beautiful and were, ahem, divine.  The tensions grew within between science and god.  There were plenty of moments when I kept going back and forth,, until I finally broke away from god and religion.  The truth shall set you free, indeed!

Over the decades, I find myself more and more convinced about the vastness of this universe with Carl Sagan's point on there being more stars out there than there are grains of sands on all the beaches on this pale blue dot.  In fact, it boggles my mind even more now than ever before that there could be so many stars out there.  It is way beyond my imagination, it seems like.  Could earth be so unique, so special, that we are the only ones with life, out of a gazillion bodies floating around in this universe that has billions and billions of stars?  It does not appeal to me one bit.  There has to be life elsewhere.

Back when the internet was in its infancy, I naturally signed up my computer's time also to help with the search for extra-terrestrial life.  Remember that project on distributed computing?  Recall Jodie Foster's Contact, adapted from Sagan's novel?

You can, therefore, sense my excitement with the news about a home next door:
A potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth is orbiting the star that is nearest our solar system, according to scientists who describe the find Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The newly discovered planet orbits Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star that's just 4.25 light-years from Earth — about 25 trillion miles away.
Yes, it does not mean anything for our life today and tomorrow.  But, it is yet another step towards understanding who we are and what life is all about.  The greatest mystery ever that haunts us: Where did all these come from?  To those of us who couldn't care about the mumbo-jumbo creation stories that religions offer, this is one awesome mystery to solve.
Were we to go – and were there to be life – there is so much this newly discovered world could potentially tell us about ourselves.
We do not know how life began on Earth. We do not know if life has to be based on DNA. We do not know whether life can only exist in a narrow range of conditions or is resilient to a wide range of extreme environments. If – and it is still a big if – there is even the simplest microbial life on Proxima Centauri b, it would be a real chance to look for these answers.
The next few years are going to see an intense period of activity using ground-based telescopes to learn more about Proxima Centauri b.
Science will not be able to solve the mystery within the two decades that I have left on this pale blue dot.  But, then stranger things have happened in very short periods of time.  We couldn't even predict the Berlin Wall coming down! Heck, a year ago we couldn't even imagine this guy as a presidential candidate! ;)