Atmospheric Cooling = Strong Tornadoes

31 05 2011

We interrupt this rant for this special announcement.  Our cold spring in the northern plains is wreaking havoc in the form of tornadoes in the southern and middle parts of the country.

I think the weather phenomena had a lot to do with my interest in mechanical engineering.  Growing up on the farm in the flatlands, I had seen a great many black clouds approaching on the horizon.  As they drew closer, they would either brighten to a lighter gray and rain, or they get ugly.  If the approach is led by a dark band of clouds followed by blue-green solid color all the way to the horizon, there would be some serious energy release.  If there is continuous rumbling, it generally means hail – tornadic-type winds aloft.

Weather should marvel any mechanical engineer with interest in the thermal fluids side of the curriculum.  All weather conditions are driven by temperature differences in the atmosphere and it’s influenced heavily by ocean temperatures to the west from which prevailing winds and jet stream flow, at least in the northern hemisphere.  It’s a massive thermodynamic, fluids, and heat transfer model.

What is causing this year’s massive tornadic outbreak?  Unusually cold mid and upper atmosphere derived from cyclically cold Pacific waters.

The two best weather guys I’ve seen in the business are Tom Skilling from WGN and Joe Bastardi from  Bastardi is a historian and doesn’t get whisked away with the hype.  He states the mid levels of the atmosphere have cooled very rapidly in the past year as it did 60 years ago.  Did you know this?  No.  Why?  Because nobody is reporting it.  This makes sense because powerful storms, which are like engines, are driven by great temperature differences; NOT an overheating atmosphere.

Tornadoes form when warm air from the southeast plows into cold air from the northwest.  The warm, moist air rises into the cold mid levels of the atmosphere, and of course what goes up, must come down.  Condensing water vapor turns to rain and if cold and turbulent enough develops hail falling to the ground cooling the air as it falls.  This air flow can become strong enough to cause straight line downdrafts that can flatten buildings and trees like a tornado.  When the warm air channels, it can become like the vortex in your bathtub or sink.  It will start to rotate to form a tornado.  For a great cartoon of this, click here.  For the real deal, see this minute-long video from National Geographic – devastating.

Fortunately, the pattern that set up these storms in the south just broke over the weekend.  Hopefully, we won’t get our turn in the north but it’s certainly possible.  The jet stream, or line between cold and warm air has lifted far north, hence the warmer weather we are experiencing in the north.

All engines, including power plants, your car’s engine, jet engines, are driven by hot and cold sinks.  The greater the temperature difference, the greater the power, and efficiency.  A tornado is an engine. It is driven by temperature differences in the atmosphere and the “load” is the destruction it wreaks on the ground.  When towns like Joplin, MO appear to be run over by a giant lawnmower, the giant lawnmower requires tremendous power, delivered by an F4 or F5 tornado.

This presents an opportunity to generate electricity.  No; not from tornadoes, but from waste heat being dumped from power plants.

I would guess that when anyone thinks of a nuclear plant, they think of these cooling towers.  These towers work on a very simple concept.  Warm water from the power plant is pumped to the top and showered down through the tower.  Openings at the bottom let in cool dry air from the surroundings.  The warming and humidifying of the air causes it to rise and a natural draft occurs.  Therefore, fans are not needed.  Towers need to be tall enough and shaped like they are to generate sufficient air flow via “stack effect” to provide required cooling capacity.

This presents an opportunity to generate electricity.  Not just from the vertical rise in the tower, but all the way to the upper atmosphere.  If rotation were induced, an engine could be developed between the hot exhaust and the always very-cold upper atmosphere – a standing tornado, essentially.

Don’t laugh.  I first came across this in one of the power industry’s trade magazines a year or two ago, and it made a lot of sense.  It’s called an atmospheric vortex engine.  Here is a good paper on the topic from the Canadians, ay?

So I ask, why is the DOE not pursuing something like this, rather than the STUPID electric car?  Silly me.  This is potentially cost effective energy efficiency with huge potential from a ubiquitous plentiful source of free waste energy; not an ALICE IN WONDERLAND pipe dream.  If we can build nuclear reactors and sophisticated huge steam turbines, surely this simple concept can be harnessed.

Seventy percent of energy required to fuel a thermal power plant (natural gas, coal, nuclear, fuel oil) is dumped to the surroundings.  Think of the potential – and nothing extraordinary is required.  Nature takes care of the vast temperature difference to drive the engine.  The efficiency of this second heat engine would be approximately 30% per the above paper.  This could take conventional power plant efficiency from the standard 30% to roughly 50%, roughly a 70% increase.  This is enormous.


I’ve always considered global warming to be driven by politics and self interest, knowingly or unknowingly – as in, I can make money from this.  It is fanned by sensational films like that described in the aforementioned Dumb Bear post, Al Gore (who’s film the UK banned from its schools) and even National Geographic – it sells – see how it works?  It’s easy.  More below.

The very cold spring and gobs of snow this winter have been devastating.  Dude!  Aspen reopened for skiing over the Memorial Day weekend – with more base now than it had on New Years Day!  This is normal?  It’s insane!  Mammoth Mountain in the Sierras still has 200-plus inches of snow – plan to ski through July 4!

How does paranoia void of logic and reason perpetuate?  The Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School did a survey of 1,200 in-duh-viduals, “Those who felt that the current day was warmer than usual for the time of year were more likely to believe in and worry about global warming than those who thought it was cooler outside. They were also more likely to donate the money they earned from taking the survey to a charity that did work on climate change.”  Even if INDOORS is hotter, people tend to fear global warming more!

In other findings: if you eat soup frequently, check with an emotional counselor; want that job, wash your hands in hot water just prior to interview; worried about crime, get out of dodge when it’s hot outside.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Cabbage Patch iPad

26 04 2011

The thing that pushed me over the edge this week was a fine blog  post by Elisa Wood.  My comment was that Gavin Newsom’s list of jobs created by resources including coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and EE, does not include return on investment.  Only EE has return on investment for the end user.  All other sources cost the end user, not save the end user money.  But this is not the topic of the day.

I am not a tech geek.  I just want things that are stable, reliable, and relatively fast and snappy.  I will pay for it.  I have long been out of college and therefore, time is scarcer than money so just give me something “fast” and reliable and I’ll gladly pay for it.

I also do not need, and in fact I do not want the latest and greatest thing.  Take Microsoft, which hasn’t had any substantial improvement to the Office suite for ten years – since they added the right-click menus.  It has become more stable and reliable in the past 15 years as reports we wrote used to become corrupted out of the blue and you couldn’t open them ever again.  Congratulations for this achievement!

I am not a Microsoft basher but I don’t think they have innovated (if I may use that as a verb) hardly a single thing.  Operating systems with graphical interfaces, mice, spreadsheets, word processors, web browsers, databases, and you name it; they didn’t develop any of these things and they comprise their bulk of gazillions in revenue and profit.  Microsoft is good at taking others’ ideas and packaging and marketing them, creating monopolies and crushing any competitors, or simply buying them out.  Like I said, I’m no Microsoft basher.

Apple on the other hand has been a major innovator with the Mac, Mac operating system, the iPod, and then really, really with the iPhone.  When the iPhone first came out, I thought “what is the big deal?”  It doesn’t even have buttons.  Then I experienced it as we work with clients who use them exclusively.  I look at my Microsoft kludge of a phone (again Microsoft following, not innovating) and think, wow, the iPhone is about 100x better.  (I now have a Motorola Droid which in many ways is better than the iPhone if you ask me, so my tech world is whole again)

At an AESP conference, I was fortunate to win an iPod touch, which is essentially the iPhone without the phone.  Other AESP-drawing winners of GPSs wanted to trade and I said get lost.  I’m giving this to my wife to replace her crappy iPod wannabee.  The iPod touch gave me hands-on experience with greatness.

Apple has built such a cult following that if they introduced a turntable, the iTable, people would camp out for a week just to be the first to get their hands on one of these 1960s makeovers.  They have already done this – it’s called the iPad.  It’s a ridiculous widget.  Why is it ridiculous, Jeff?

First, because it isn’t a serious business tool (yes, I will get to the consumer thing later).  Thinking we could use one of these possibly for field work surveys, I asked one of our iEverything business partners what he thought of this.  He said, no, it isn’t going to do well with spreadsheets or databases, if they can even be used at all.  It doesn’t even have ports like a USB connection for goodness sake.

Second, I was on a plane headed for somewhere sitting next to a guy watching a movie on an iPad.  I enlightened him by saying, “You know, they make these things that have a convenient platform to prop the screen up reliably for hands free movie watching.  You could just sit it on your tray and sit back and enjoy the movie.  It’s called a laptop computer.”

It’s a large version of a phone without the phone.  It’s a small computer with no capability.

Perhaps most ridiculous, I recall an article in The Wall Street Journal covering the various ways iPad owners can transport their iPads.  One solution was like a fanny pack with a big pouch in which you would carry the iPad along the small of your back.  Good grief!  Don’t use a computer bag.  That would reveal the stupidity of this device.

Conclusion: It’s a clunky, slippery, doohickey that is too large for your pocket, to small for a computer, and you can do little productive work with it.  The second conclusion is, Steve Jobs is a genius for generating a brand that will get people to buy anything with an i in front of it, by the hundreds of millions.

How do we do this with energy efficiency?  It has to have a strong element of “look at how great and cool I am”.  I suggest a web-based application that shows how rich you are becoming, in real time, as a result of your EE genius.  In one pane it would mimic a bank teller slapping down dollar bills as you stuff them in your wallet.  Once you accumulate a bulging wallet full of bills you trade them in for a hundred dollar bill.  You let the hundreds pile up on the counter.  After a while you swap currency for gold bullion and that starts stacking up on the counter.

In another pane you have a lot full of Prius and electric vehicles with dead batteries in front of a big box store called “Renewables R Us”.  As you accumulate enough savings and equivalent emissions of these cars / energy sources, King Kong circa 1976 walks onto the scene thumping his chest and roaring.  He picks up an electric vehicle and tucks it under his harm like a football and stomps off, maybe stepping on a couple screaming shoppers making their way to the store as they drop their iPads.  This would represent the equivalent Priuses taken off the road. Next time, Kong comes by but this time tripping on a Prius and falling face first crushing a dozen Nissan Leafs.  After doing the ceremonial thump and roar, he rips a solar panel off the roof and throws it across town, like the subway cars in the movie… followed by stomping off and squashing a few more shoppers.

The app should be exclusive to new chosen makes and models of devices and they are provided by the EE program as part of the incentive.  The devices are sleek and unique so everyone knows, that guy is cool and smart.  The devices would have functionality of iPods, phones, and laptops so they aren’t just a worthless status symbol.

So the next time you are sitting at the gate or in cattle class, your device is screaming – “look at how cool I am” while the inferior, insecure me-too stooge is gawking on, thinking, “Man that guy has some device!”

Copyright 2011


As gasoline prices are clicking past $4 across the country, citizens are crying to the feds to do something.  So what are both the President and Speaker talking about?  Eliminate subsidies for oil companies – as though this will bring down prices!  Again, politics rather than logic rule in Washington.  Prices are high and therefore the oil companies must be punished and somehow reducing profit will lower prices.  Good Grief! – popular with the lemmings but thinkers know better.

P.S.  I believe the “subsidies” they are talking about are tax breaks for depleting wells, which sounds to me like depreciation for assets of depleting value – like our office furniture and computers.  Anyway, let me say that subsidies should go, across the board, but office furniture and computers are the price of doing business and obviously affect profit so depreciation isn’t a subsidy, unless you’re a political hack.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Sane Personal Transportation

3 08 2010

A couple weeks ago I beat up electric automobiles for being overpriced and unpractical due to their short driving ranges and cripplingly long charge times.  This week I present a saner approach to substantial energy and emissions reductions.

The electric car is the equivalent of installing renewable energy sources before making conventional systems and technologies as efficient as possible in buildings.  Like buildings, we can cost effectively cut personal transportation energy consumption substantially, without sacrificing anything with readily available technologies – rather than pouring gobs of money into technologies that are just five years away from prime time; like they have been for the past 30 years.

Automobiles have gotten much more efficient over the past 20-30 years.  However, the miles per gallon have hardly budged.  Automobiles have grown continuously larger and more powerful.  The modern Honda Civic, for example, is much larger and probably heavier than the “larger” Accord from 30 years ago.  The modern version is most likely much more powerful as well.

Public enemy number one on this front is the explosion of the sport utility vehicle, which sort of peaked out just before hurricane Katrina, after which the $3-4 and upward gasoline prices caught peoples’ attention.  SUV buyers can be split into two groups: the family haulers and the egocentric.  A small group of SUV owners actually need it for regularly poor driving conditions (snow for instance) and/or towing.  Maybe we need to make SUV owners pariahs akin to smokers.  We’ll have parking lots, ramps, and garages that ban SUVs.  Or maybe we put scales where you pay the parking attendant and pay a tonnage penalty for overweight vehicles.   Or we could make the entrance to these spaces so small that only a Porsche 911 size car will fit through the gate.  Speaking of Porsche and SUVs, the Cayenne was an awful development.  How about LEED points for a SUV-free workforce?  I’m not so much in favor of these things although the LEED thing is intriguing.

I have been a big advocate of gas-electric hybrids since the beginning, especially for city driving applications where brakes are applied 40 times per mile.  My question though is, why do they make so many of them so goofy looking – like the Prius and the Insight.  Other models include hybrid versions of the common all-gasoline vehicles like the Civic, Camry, and Cadillac Escalade (which is a joke).  How about some sporty smaller cars like the Celica, 240 SX, Prelude, and Integra?  Unfortunately these reasonably-priced snappy fun-to-drive models are all defunct.

As a kid, I remember the late 1970s / early 1980s and the cars of the times.  When I was first old enough to drive, my older brother was nice enough to lend me his relatively new 1979 Mercury Cougar.  Look at that behemoth.   It had rear wheel drive and handled like crap.  The closest I ever came to an accident was driving this thing down a slushy road when I wandered out of the track.  Think of going down a waterslide trying to stop by digging in your fingernails.  The next year the thing was downsized by 50%.  The gas mileage probably doubled.  BTW, I don’t know why they put that woman on there.  The car is already hideous enough.  The last thing it needs is a supermodel next to it to make it look even worse.

Another blow to petroleum consumption could be dealt with the Diesel engine.  All else equal, the Diesel engine is substantially more efficient than the gasoline (Otto) engine.  Why?  It has a higher compression ratio, which generates a higher combustion temperature.  Like steam-driven power plants, efficiency is limited mostly by the highest temperature relatively cheap steel can withstand.

Later, after ditching the Cougar and suffering through three years with a 1983 Ford Mustang, I purchased a 1984 Ford Escort Diesel.  The Focus is the descendant of the Escort.  In fact, I think the big pitch for the Escort (gas version) was its fuel economy.  Most people I’ve talked to regarding the Diesel version are amazed to know there was such a thing.  Yes – 48 miles per gallon – 1984 – 27 years ago in car terms.  We don’t need rocket science or even some mythical magical battery.  We just need somebody with a brain promoting sane solutions to saving personal transportation energy.

Diesels faded from the American auto-makers’ lineups of cars for whatever reason.  General Motors somehow took a gasoline engine and turned it into a Diesel engine for its first shot at Diesel engines for light vehicles.  This was about 1982.  I remember driving my brother-in-law’s Diesel Silverado pickup truck and pulling a trailer.  It would literally take ¾ of a mile on flat terrain with no wind to get up to 55 mph.  It was the most pathetic excuse for a truck I had ever experienced.

I believe Volkswagen has offered diesel vehicles since way back.  To demonstrate how a sane approach to efficient transportation makes the insane look stupid, consider the Diesel versions of the VW Golf, Jetta, and Jetta wagon are rated at about 42 mpg, highway.  The tiny tin can lawnmower on wheels, the “Smart Car,” is rated at a pathetic 41 mpg.  You don’t even have room for an extra pair of shoes in one of those things.  They haul groceries as long as it is limited to Ramen noodles and canned tuna.

So how about these qualities to easily get to 60 mpg with virtually no sacrifice in performance, convenience, or ego:

  • Shrink cars back to where they were in the late 1980s with a proportional shrunken engine
  • Diesel engines
  • Hybrids
  • Styling that that doesn’t scream “I am a snooty college professor and I am better than you”.

These vehicles would result in SUBSTANTIALLY LESS EMISSIONS than a $40,000, 40 mile per charge ELECTRIC VEHICLE.  If you are thinking, “but we can power electric vehicles with windmills”, it doesn’t work that way.  Windmills and other renewable energy will always be fully utilized.  The incremental increase (or decrease) in electric consumption will come from conventional sources regardless of how you want to pretend you’re charging your batteries with a windmill.  In other words, electric cars will be charged with coal, natural gas, or nuclear power.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Wind Energy and the Utility Business Model

20 04 2010

The masses want power on demand without interruption or failure.  They want it at a practically negligible cost and more so every year, they want it without emissions or other unpleasant byproducts.

In the upper Midwest, energy without emissions means wind energy.  Wind energy sounds great.  It’s “free”.  No emissions.  But it comes with a load of drawbacks compared to conventional sources of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.

First, utilities can’t count on it for peak load generation.  I searched a while for this and found nothing but the bottom line is there is no guarantee there will be any generating capacity from wind on a peak summer day.  Therefore, wind generation offsets zero conventional generating capacity.  It is essentially like buying an electric car for lower emissions but you have to keep your conventional gasoline-powered car for longer trips.

Second, wind generation is expensive.  At a cost of about $2,000 per kW nameplate generating capacity it is very similar to a coal-fired plant.  However, a quick analysis with a reliable online calculator indicates that the capacity factor, which is the average percent output of the turbine, is only about 30%.  (the wind doesn’t always blow 48 miles per hour)  This puts the installed cost of wind generation near triple the cost of conventional coal generation.

Third, the cost of wind energy doesn’t end with the fifty by seven foot deep wad of concrete supporting each turbine.  Wind farms are far from Midwest population centers because that’s where the wind blows and this puts them out of site of the people who want it but don’t want to look at it (or pay for it).  This requires substantial transmission costs with substations to step up voltage and transmission lines that run a minimum of $1 million per mile of transport – and this is for building transmission lines on farmland where it’s physically easy to do and there are no lawsuits because people in these areas have better things to do than file lawsuits to stop transmission construction.

Fourth, on average the wind blows the least when it is needed the most, in July and August.  On average, turbines deliver roughly half the energy in July and August compared to the winter months.

When these unpleasant facts are factored in, wind generation benefits boil down to eliminating fuel costs, which are a tiny fraction of conventional generation, and no emissions or other waste products.

What brings this to mind is this article recently published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  Alliant Energy / Interstate Power and Light has a rate case pending for a 14% rate increase to pay for the added wind generation capacity and the installation of a $188 million nitrogen oxides and mercury scrubbing system for their old Lansing plant.

One guy comments, “but I just don’t understand why you expect us as customers to pay for all these upgrades — the wind farm, all your safety upgrades and so on.”  Well who else is going to pay for them?  It isn’t going to come out of shareholders’ hides.  Utilities don’t build this stuff to make more money!

Utilities are fully regulated monopolies in Iowa and many other states.  Their ability to grow revenue and earnings is very limited.  Essentially, it is limited to load growth within service territory by existing buildings and by attracting new business with new facilities to their service territory.  In exchange for having a captive customer base, regulators, in this case the Iowa Utilities Board must approve changes in rates, which essentially translates directly to regulating profit.

Wind power and pollution controls cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars but add virtually no revenue or profit.  These upgrades wouldn’t occur but for public pressure and policy coming out of Des Moines and other state and federal capitols.

These expenses can’t come out of earnings because utilities need to raise capital to pay for this stuff.  To raise capital, they have to offer a competitive rate of return commensurate with the risk involved; thus, the rate case for higher prices.

Like Tom Aller, President of Interstate Power and Light, I am not denigrating or advocating green power and moratoriums on building conventional generating facilities.  The public just needs to know this stuff adds a lot of operating cost and the business model of utilities requires rate increases to fund these things.  If customers don’t like it, they better get involved in the political process and not let the Sierra Club have a monopoly of political ears.

By the way, the reason environmental organizations like Sierra Club are a big turn off to me is they are often political first and environmentalists second.  They are opposed to this rate increase.  Why?  Their mission is “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”  I don’t see anything in there about controlling income in the private sector.  Moreover, the guy’s statement flies in the face of their mission statement anyway.  Higher prices mean less energy consumption, so why is he opposed?  Could it be… politics?  Or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” greenie?