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 AccuWeather.com.  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.

Tidbits

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





Porcupine or Super Bowl, I Doubt It

4 01 2011

Although it’s a bit like the chicken and egg, my most important task is recruiting and retaining top talent.  We have a machine in place to land top talent from college campuses.  I’m quite convinced of that.  But with the sort of growth we are undergoing, we also need to recruit staff, primarily engineers at this point, with substantial experience and expertise in energy-using systems.  This would be easy if there were engineers in the market with 5-10 years experience like guys we have in that range.  It isn’t the case.

I work extensively with a recruiter and I provide constant feedback on candidates she forwards to help her better understand what we are looking for.  I’ve also written rambling explanations of what we are looking for.  Sometimes I get concerned that she thinks we are impossible to satisfy.  Well, we are almost impossible to satisfy.

First, a mini rant on recruiters.  I’ve been told by probably three recruiters that they, unlike their competition, will thoroughly vet candidates, ensure they meet our every qualification and then after a few weeks they will present a miracle list of 4-5 candidates all of whom we would just love to have on staff.  They would be so good, we might take two – even if we only need one and then we would be crying because we’d have to turn the other three down.  Fuggedabahdit!  The recruiter’s selling point is that they are supposed to save me time by not having to wade through a few dozen candidates.  Bull.  All this miracle recruiting service does is delay the process because the dream team they present to me has no more usable talent on average than 50 people a neophyte recruiter fresh out of college could find for us.  Give me the 50.

Back to my recruiting exploits; last week I was writing up a two column table for our recruiter, with one column describing what we want and the other what we want to avoid.  In the “don’t bother” column I essentially concluded we don’t want anyone from the competition, which generally speaking is where one should first look.  I’m talking about competition in the energy efficiency program business.

Why is this?  Quite frankly, because the engineering on average in this industry is poor, but it is also poor to a large extent in the systems design industry.  On the other hand, at least in the design industry, things have to be made to somehow work.  They may work like crap and waste energy up the wazoo but at least there is a required problem “solving” element.  In the EE sector, engineers can operate in a parallel universe their entire career – which brings to mind the myth of experience, a topic of another rant.

How do I know the engineering in the EE industry is poor?  Because we do a lot of program evaluation across the country, from east coast to great lakes to the west coast and beyond  – close to 20 utilities in about a dozen states.  Even stuff that a sociologist should be able to pull off is screwed up – like verifying a variable freq drive has auto controls installed, or knowing the difference between a heat recovery wheel for fresh air and a heat recovery wheel for dehumidification unit installed (unit is a god-awful pick for a northern climate anyway – design engineer should be fined, maybe spend a couple nights in jail too).  The latter resulted in a massive incentive for gas savings in a new construction program.  Uh, ouch!

So what sort of experienced people are we looking for?  Smart engineers with high GPAs but not too much experience; generally engineers who understand how systems work, how they use energy, and how they should be controlled – really understand it.  In general, best candidates come from smaller firms where they have interaction with the guy at the top and mentoring by people who know what they are doing.  On the flip side, competition sets up offices in states where they start running programs and they hire “experienced” engineers to work in those branch offices.  All I’ll say is it’s not worth looking at these candidates.  It’s probably as hard as finding a porcupine in my woods – I did experience a real live (and real big!) porcupine in the wild here in cheesehead land so although not impossible I’m not sure whether I’ll see another one or see the ViQueenies win a super bowl in my lifetime.

Why not too experienced?  Because engineers are either good or crappy and if they are good, they care about what their clients think and after being taken to the woodshed a few times for things the client doesn’t like they become calloused cynical curmudgeons unwilling to bend or change.  They play it safe.  This is typically not conducive to saving energy.  Let me know if you need an explanation as to why experienced but crappy engineers are no good.

To be sure, there are definitely excellent engineers in the industry.  We work for some of them as subs.  Others have reviewed our work for program QC and they are very good.  After throwing stones in my glass house I must break a few windows.  Admittedly, we’ve gotten comments back from outside engineering firms that make me think the guy on the other end must think we’re idiots.  However, rather than whining, crying, and denying, we get the things resolved and take long term corrective action.

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





Soothsayer: Analyze This

7 09 2010

How many times have you read “we can create 40 million jobs and reduce our energy consumption by 90% if only we did x, y, and z.”  Lester in this article says by 2035 we can double our fuel economy.  Well I should hope so!  Lester is actually one guy that is conservative in his estimates/goals.  David Goldstein in the same article says we can decrease our energy consumption by 88% by 2050.  Now where does he or any other egghead come up with these numbers?

I had to laugh out loud regarding the results of an energy efficiency potential study I studied a couple years back.  This expensive study was to be used for energy efficiency program planning for the subsequent five years for a state which shall remain anonymous to protect guilt.  For commercial and industrial (C&I) programs, imagine a graph with two sets of data on it.  The bars represent the programs’ goals for the trailing and forward-looking five years each, and a line represents achieved savings over the trailing five years.  For the trailing five years the savings ran about double the goals, increasing a little each year – something like 5% per year.  Well guess what the goals were going forward – about double where they were at the time increasing about 5% a year.  Stupendously genius!  If I failed to explain clearly, the goals were just an extension of the past 5 years.  You could lay a ruler over the past five years’ points and draw a straight line to get the goals going forward.  Man, I wonder how much they were paid for that report.  At least a half million dollars, I’m sure.

Soothsayers who predict energy savings potential two-three decades out or more must subscribe to the same methodology, otherwise how can you possibly project what the savings potential is beyond ten years.  Engineers, good ones anyway, subscribe to a rule that says extrapolating data beyond the data set – into the future in this case –  is very dangerous.  The further out one gets, the huger the error.

I am confident that the world’s economies will become more efficient with time, if for no other reason, less energy consumption means more profit.  However, the savings curve over time may approach a limit of something like 20%-30% savings compared to today because there is a severe shortage of professionals with degrees in the physical sciences, e.g. engineering, who are knowledgeable regarding C&I energy-using systems and savings potential.

Here is an article that includes 10 ways to improve the energy efficiency of a commercial building.  As I read this typical list, I can tell the author most likely doesn’t know squat about outing real energy-saving opportunities in C&I facilities.  Do energy audits, use more efficient equipment (duh!), maintain equipment efficiency (duh!), insulate, and brainwash occupants.  These things can save substantial energy if the lights are on 24/7 and the chiller was made in the 1960s and it’s plugged with airborne fuzz including dandelion seeds and the like.  This list reads like a good set of tips for homes.

Where are the real savings?  In system design and control.  Heating sources have been approaching 100% efficiency for a long time.  It is also going to be difficult to cost-effectively produce chillers that are much more efficient than you can get on the market today.  You’ve got to pump water, move air, control temperature and humidity, and provide ventilation.  Until humans create artificial intelligence to control systems, these things always waste substantial energy regardless of how efficient, well maintained, how many audits you do, or how “aware” of energy your people are.

Then there are manufacturing facilities, some of which I swear were built by the seat of somebody’s pants and controlled by no one.  Compressors are running at pressures higher than they need to be.  Cooling water and heating water streams are mixed before a portion goes to a cooling tower and the other portion goes to a heat exchanger.  Pumps and fans are grotesquely oversized.  Equipment is controlled in series rather than parallel.  Chilled water is used to cool things to 110F.  Operators’ fault?   Maybe not.  These facilities operate for profit, and productivity including simply keeping the line going, is king.  Staff in these facilities run from one fire to the next.

I don’t know if I have ever seen “green jobs” and “engineer” in the same article.  Green jobs always seem to refer to people who weatherize homes or work at a wind turbine, electric vehicle battery, photovoltaic, or some type of renewable energy plant.  This is fine by me as I really don’t want that moniker.  However, this is symptomatic that at least 50% of energy consumption in all buildings is misunderstood at best and virtually out of control at worst.

Rather than or maybe in addition to job training for the green economy, how about some electives or advanced degrees even for engineering schools?  Six credits of electives or a masters degree in energy efficiency would go a ways.  It wouldn’t take me long to generate a high level curriculum.  Rather than throwing hundreds of billions at technologies and industries that are bad ideas (e.g., food-generated ethanol), how about investing in some smart people who can critically analyze and provide solutions to greatly reduce energy consumption COST EFFECTIVELY WITH NO TAXPAYER SUBSIDIES?!

Tidbits

Here is an all-to-familiar story of misguided priorities.  BWI Airport is spending $21 million on an energy savings performance contract and they are leading off with the installation of a bunch of solar panels.  Meanwhile, they are probably wasting energy as though they want to get their “fair share”.  I also just came off a conversation where a former science teacher at a school district is pressing for a remote, net-metered wind turbine – and they want the utility to pay for it.  Uhuh.  Another LOL moment.  They’ve done a grand total of zilch to optimize their facilities’ energy consumption as well.

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