Dark Snow: Final Phase of 2014 Fieldwork Begins

July 31, 2014

We had a chance to shoot a quick interview this morning, and an ironic visual to place in the background.
Back in 2 weeks.

17 Responses to “Dark Snow: Final Phase of 2014 Fieldwork Begins”

  1. Another irony that strikes me is 10 seconds into the video, where Jason Box is flying on a fossil fuel powered airplane using his laptop computer. Now OK, I’m not making fun of him, or calling him a hypocrite – I’ve flown many times myself, and I’m using a computer at this moment (manufactured and powered chiefly by fossil fuels). Unless you want to live in a cave and gather your own firewood, it’s pretty hard for an individual in modern society to avoid using fossil fuels and thus contributing to AGW.

    But when we talk about solutions, we have to consider such things as how to power our transportation, manufacturing, and how to keep the Internet functioning (so that we can have blogs such as this one).

    I don’t think there’s much hope of powering an airplane by solar or wind (unless it’s a glider – good luck getting to Greenland on that). I’ve made my pro-nuclear stance clear, but I don’t pretend that we can power an aircraft directly with nukes. Possibly indirectly, by manufacturing synthetic kerosene (can be done using hydrogen plus carbon-monoxide, the CO gas still presents an AGW problem). Best low-carbon solution I can think of is to bring back passenger ships, and power them with nuclear. For awhile, there was a small fleet of nuclear-powered cargo ships, but they’ve been put out of service mainly for political reasons, not because they were technical failures).

    Well, I suppose we could go back to wind-powered clipper ships. Would not be terribly fast, convenient or reliable, but in a world without fossil fuels or nukes, transportation across the sea will not be easy. I suppose some of you think we can plug a big battery-powered ship into solar panels for recharging, or even do the same with a battery-powered aircraft. I’ll believe that’s feasible when I see it.

    Have a good time in Greenland, Peter. I’ll be interested to read your report.

    • ppp251 Says:

      Biofuels and hydrogen.

      The challenge is to produce them from carbon free sources.

      Fertilizers are also a problem: we need hydrogen to make fertilizers, but we get it from natural gas.

      It’s an economics problem. The technology exists (power to gas), but because there is no price on carbon it’s cheaper to pollute.

      • Biofuels are no solution; net primary productivity is far too low to replace even a large fraction of fossil fuels, and converting forests into fuel plantations is NOT something I want to see.  Here’s an old post on The Oil Drum showing just how inadequate wood supplies are, able to replace only 5.8% of heating-fuel consumption with sustainable harvests, or alternatively, how profligate our current building stock is—not that we can change that without a lot more energy expenditure.

        • ppp251 Says:

          Your link talks about heating. Heating is actually quite a big part of energy consumption but fortunately it can be done via heat pumps, geothermal heating, cogeneration and improved insulation.

          Transportation is a bit different. A lot of today’s transportation can be electrified but ships and planes will need liquid fuels.

          Second generation biofuels and synthethic fuels (power-to-gas processes) can do the job for ships and planes.

          • Your link talks about heating.

            It’s just one of the issues we need to take care of, and it alone is many times the size of our available fuelwood supply.

            fortunately it can be done via heat pumps, geothermal heating, cogeneration and improved insulation.

            All of which require investment in materials and the energy to produce and install them.  Heat pumps (geothermal or air-source) require electricity.  Even one cold snap without heat can cause major damage to buildings, and your RE with 35% capacity factor is not going to supply it.  You’ll be burning fossil fuel, especially if you use cogeneration.  Cogeneration is a stopgap, not a solution or even part of the solution.

            ships and planes will need liquid fuels.

            Ships work beautifully on nuclear power.  Nuclear submarines now go their entire lifetime on the fuel they launch with.

            Second generation biofuels and synthethic fuels (power-to-gas processes) can do the job for ships and planes.

            Calculate what that power-to-gas fuel is going to cost sometime, given that the RE you intend to make it from needs huge feed-in tariffs to get people to build it.  I’ve done those numbers.  I’d like to see you try.  In my experience, “greens” are either innumerate or willful deniers of what their own numbers tell them.

          • ppp251 Says:

            “Cogeneration is a stopgap, not a solution or even part of the solution.”

            Cogeneration of biomass is part of solution.

            “Calculate what that power-to-gas fuel is going to cost sometime”

            I’ve done that many times: if wind costs 4cents/kWh and power-to-gas efficiency is 50%, then methane (or methanol) costs 8cents/kWh. Give another 2cents for capex costs and there’s your price, about 10cents/kWh.

            Current oil price is about 6 cents/kWh, so in about 10-20years it will become economical.

          • I’m betting on “artificial photosynthesis”.


          • Cogeneration of biomass is part of solution.

            Know what?  I agree.  But when your fuel supply can only replace 5.8% of fuel currently used for heating, it must perforce be a very small part.  Other things must do the heavy lifting.  That means that biomass ceases to be a major consideration one way or the other; if you lose it completely, you just build out your other sources a bit more.

            I would love to have a cogenerating wood stove.  A Stirling-cycle generator running on the heat from the flames would be a geek’s delight.  But I have to assume that the lack of such things on the market has a reason.

            if wind costs 4cents/kWh and power-to-gas efficiency is 50%, then methane (or methanol) costs 8cents/kWh. Give another 2cents for capex costs and there’s your price, about 10cents/kWh.

            Now add the costs of running on highly variable surpluses to immediate needs.  If your system has capex of 2¢/kWh at 95% capacity factor, it is closer to 10¢/kWh at 20%.  O&M can be increased by cycling.

            Consider trying to run this with the current PV payment regime.  A homeowner sells back noontime PV generation at a government-mandated 13¢/kWh, which the utility is then forced to sell to an e-gas business at 4¢/kWh.  How does the utility stay in business when it is mandated by law to take a loss?  It’s not a question of when this breaks something, it’s a question of when the insanity is recognized and removed.  At that point the economics of PV go into the toilet.

          • “Second generation biofuels and synthethic fuels (power-to-gas processes) can do the job for ships and planes.”

            About biofuels…

            I consider first generation biofuels (ie ethanol from corn, palm oil) to be a bad joke. Massive soil loss, a very low EROI, deforestation, conversion of food-producing land to fuel-producing land…just to begin with. In the case of ethanol, there is a 30% lower energy density than what it is intended to replace (gasoline). And then there is simply there isn’t enough suitable farmland to produce sufficient biofuel to meet demand if fossil fuel production is ended.

            The second generation…still very much an experiment. The idea is to use something like switch grass, wood chips and other cellulosic plants. What proponents somehow don’t seem to grasp is that these “waste” products from nature put fertility back into the soil. Take away the grass and wood chips for a few generations, and you’ve got depleted soil which will require artificial fertilizer (made from natural gas, potassium and phosphate mines) to put back what you’ve removed. So, just like fossil fuels, you get impressive production in the beginning, but then it declines.

            There is a Wikipedia page on this topic, listing commercial operators. All but one are using wood chips, straw and corn stalks:


            One company on that list, Fulcrum BioEnergy, is using “municipal solid waste” (ie trash). I’d be interested to know more, but I suspect that the actual amount of energy extracted from an enormous volume of garbage is small. Plus, to increase production, you’d have to make more trash.

            The one biofuel which might have a shot (a long shot) of being successful is that made from algae. Especially if you can do it in sea water, which is where much of the minerals from soil runoff wind up. No worry about deforestation or loss of farmland, or loss of soil fertility, and there’s no shortage of sea water. But my understanding is no one has gotten it to work well enough to be practical.

    • Some years ago, Airbus did a design sketch and published an artist’s conception of an airliner powered by liquid hydrogen.  LH2 is a very low-density material (ρ=0.07) so the fuel tank was enormous and occupied the entire upper half of a vertically-divided double-bubble fuselage.  You can see it here.

      The problem with a nuclear-powered airplane doesn’t seem to be the reactor, it’s keeping carbon-based units alive.  One solution is to make a nuke-powered robot airplane and use it to tow the passenger-carrier at a safe distance (over oceans only, of course).  The passenger plane would only need enough fuel to get to safety if the towplane broke down, meaning half of the trip distance at most.  It wouldn’t need to burn any sort of fuel except for takeoff and climb to the towplane; you can glide to landings, sailplane pilots do it every day.

      Really creative solutions involve things like short-wavelength microwave beams (that don’t penetrate the lower atmosphere) from satellites.

    • otter17 Says:

      See the transportation chapter in Amory Lovins’ book “Reinventing Fire”.

      If that isn’t available at the library, though it is worth owning, check out “Winning the Oil End Game” on the Rocky Mountain Institute website. It is freely available for download, though the information may be a decade dated.

      Bottom line, if humanity wants to use liquid fuels for their portability or necessity in certain transportation modes, it is past time to get crackin’ on finding sustainable, scalable, methods for converting the daily Earth energy budget into liquid fuel. A combination of efficiency engineering, electrification of drivetrains where feasible, agressive battery R&D, and next generation biofuels can go a long way (see Lovins). Next gen nuclear reactors on ships can go a long way as well. Maybe nuclear fusion reactors will be just as scalable, if not more so (cross fingers if this can ever pan out).

  2. redskylite Says:

    Certainly wildfire is on the increase and causing positive feedback in the Arctic circle, and I wish you the very best with the 2014 “Dark Snow” project. Certainly as a staunch nuclear objector (and CND member) back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s I relinquish those sentiments now, however it takes so long to build a nuclear power station, is so expensive , so I welcome Solar, Wind, Tidal, Hydro and Geothermal also, especially for what it can provide for the 1.4 billion less fortunate folk without access to any grid at all. You and the team are doing a fine and worthwhile job and I too look forward to your observations and additions to our knowledge.

  3. jimbills Says:

    I’m looking forward to your reports.

    BTW – really good sound handling with Jason Box’s voice outside – minimal background noise.

  4. rayduray Says:

    Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gives a nice 7 minute summary of the crock that climate science denial is today:

  5. andrewfez Says:

    Pretty good retrofit for existing homes in cold areas. Maybe not as good as a passive house, but you still need a mechanical vent system because the tyvek and other wraps make the home air tight.

    Cuts heating costs and energy use by 50%+


  6. andrewfez Says:

    Let me try again with the right video (though the above video is fun to watch as well):

  7. andrewfez Says:

    Third times a charm:

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