Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Carbon Conundrum

Miscalculation of carbon content in fuel throws off footprint calculations.

Everyone agrees that we have to reduce the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. Even if you don't believe global warming is an immediate threat, you agree its just a matter of time. No realistic person believes that human beings can continue to consume the earth's energy resources and pump the resulting carbon into the atmosphere indefinitely. No-one has ever questioned Al Gore's carbon concentration in the atmosphere charts showing an exponential increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We all agree on this so why can't we seem to get it together enough to start doing something about it? Those most concerned want a carbon tax because obviously we need to put a price on carbon if we are to move collectively toward a reduced carbon emissions future. Problematically there is usually too high a political cost to enacting carbon tax legislation although it was implemented successfully by Gordon Campbell's Liberal government in British Columbia. He's now had to resign over his implementation of an additional tax that came as a result of harmonizing the federal goods and service tax with the provincial sales tax. British Columbians seemed more concerned about how a tax was implemented than the merits of the change in taxation itself!

Cap and trade it touted as a way to price carbon with less political cost but even cap and trade has little hope of becoming legislation any time soon in North America. The Chicago Carbon Exchange will soon be closed down because with republican control of the senate there is no hope for cap and trade legislation in the US. Similarly in Canada the conservative controlled senate has vetoed against the Climate Accountability Act of 2006, an act that demanded government reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Maybe the right wing isn't so short-sighted. Maybe the conservatives are actually being practical in this case. How on earth can any good liberal think that a cap and trade system could actually be administered fairly without corruption. Looking at the Chicago Carbon Exchange web site we see that there are horrendous multiple levels of impossible legalistic approvals required for anyone to try to sell carbon credits. In that massive bureaucracy there is no establishment of any kind of standard for quantifying how much carbon there is in a gallon of fuel.

Interestingly when we look at carbon footprint calculations everywhere from the iphone app to the carbon equivalent calculation done on a monitored solar energy system we see irreconcilable differences. People do not understand carbon. What is it? Its in the form of carbon dioxide, a harmless weightless gas. How can I possibly be responsible for putting 4 tons of it in the air just from the use of my one vehicle? It doesn't seem right. Its all very mysterious. The scientists are up to something. Citizens the world over are concerned about carbon but their only quantification, their only count is their energy costs. Energy costs are so artificially low that for typical wealthy North Americans these provide almost no motivation to reduce carbon output whatsoever. Furthermore the dollars we pay for energy in different ways do not represent the distribution of carbon. In other words, how much carbon is in the $200 natural gas bill for heating my house in December or heating my pool in April vs how much carbon is in the $200 plane ticket I just bought to fly to Mexico for a vacation. How much carbon is in the gallon of gasoline vs the same $3.00 worth of electricity. What about the transportation of the natural gas to the home or the carbon used refining the propane? Some carbon calculators give the weight of carbon dioxide instead of carbon. Carbon dioxide has two oxygen molecules weighing 16 each compared to that one molecule of carbon weighing 12. Do we care about the oxygen? Is that part of the carbon footprint we should be worried about? I don't think so but I'm not exactly sure and I have a degree in mechanical engineering and 24 years full time doing energy calculations in order to try to sell you a solar swimming pool heater. The point is that we are nowhere near even being able to quantify the carbon that we are all so concerned about. We have to know how much before we can even begin to talk about putting a price on it and maybe we don't even need a price on it. Maybe people will strive to reduce their footprint if they can just figure out what it is.

At Hot Sun we've stumbled upon part of the solution accidentally. We've been developing our own web based solar monitoring and boiler control technology. You can see this in action in real time at Historically solar pool heating has not been done successfully with commercial pools because of setpoint conflicts with boiler controls. We've always needed better boiler controls especially when a solar heater complicates the situation. We've barged ahead in the last few years installing megawatts of solar pool heaters at large commercial facilities like the Coronado High School and they don't work. Monitoring was the key to learning why. Look at the Coronado calendar and notice that the solar was never "firing" Nov 20 through Nov 25, 2010. It should have been but the boiler setpoint hysteresis was a little high and at one point someone turned the boiler up to 92F and forgot to turn it back down. $100 was wasted. Nobody knew. The need for this higher level of sophisticated control of boiler and solar that our new web based monitoring will allow will solve this problem but it opened the doors for solving other bigger and more general problems. Of course we will publish on the web site for the home or business or facility in question the equivalent carbon as well as dollars saved. Its the carbon that became interesting because if we're keeping track of the carbon reduction then it becomes really easy and interesting to keep track of all the carbon used in (for example) the household over time. Plug in odometer readings and dates, data from utility bills once a year, airmiles flown, and suddenly you are aware of your carbon footprint and carbon becomes something measurable and measured. Now it means something to walk the kids to school to school or pay attention to an inefficient boiler. People who want to do something about carbon at a personal level suddenly can see the effect of small changes in terms of carbon instead of dollars. At the end of "An Inconvenient Truth" Al Gore suggested we all change our lightbulbs to compact flourescent and we all did and our electricity bill didn't change. Who can blame us all for losing interest and even turning sceptical on the whole global warming alarmist movement. Hey Al, What about that oversized mansion you call home? For all we know he may use less carbon in his household than someone in a much smaller house. He could defend himself by showing us his carbon footprint. We are all demanding that government do something when we are clearly being wasteful personally and unwilling to accept additional Pigovian taxes to force us to burn less. Stay tuned for online carbon footprint quantifiers. Step one is not to price carbon. Step one is to measure it!

Ken Wright is President of
Hot Sun Industries Inc of
Poway California

Hot Sun implements solar swimming pool heating solutions, the only solar energy solution where we want you to know the numbers!