Peter Shelton

The Curiosity Cousins Come to Visit

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on June 21, 2012

My cousins are like Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Car Guys. Except their areas of expertise are not limited to cars. Or bets between spouses.

They’re interested in everything. Cousin Jay will offer to prove to you that 1+1 is not necessarily 2. Cousin David will challenge the legitimacy of the fossilized dinosaur tooth his brother just paid $49 for at a rock shop in Ouray. Jay carries a Geiger counter with him everywhere; he has a collection of beautiful, greenish-yellow glassware that was colored, in more innocent times, with uranium ore. David will work Google search until he finds the dope on Moroccan fake dino fossils and suggest a test with his penknife to uncover the truth.

These things happened last weekend chez Boulder Rock when the cousins came to visit. Jay teaches physics and chemistry and calculus to teenagers at Santa Fe Prep. David is a geologist by training who prospected for manganese nodules on the sea floor and spent the last big chunk of his career leading the cleanup of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site outside Denver. They’re forever asking questions like: is it more fuel efficient to run the car air conditioner or leave the windows open and increase your drag?

At dinner Ellen brought out her prized bowl of Gros Sel de Camargue, French sea salt. It tastes better, Ellen said. Does it really? Isn’t all salt sodium chloride? Ah, yes, but sea salt is evaporated ocean water: It contains every element on the Periodic Table. Well, except maybe some of the newest ones that don’t actually exist in nature, the ones that were created from nuclear reactions. So, yes, maybe Ellen is tasting a bit of her beloved South of France.

Jay not only bought the dino tooth to take back to his class in the fall, he also bought a few strands of mastodon hair. Both would provide excellent catalyst for the kinds of critical thinking he tries to instill in his kids. But why, David asked, would the mineralization of Jay’s “fossil” not be more uniform? Surely the original calcium in the bone would be replaced with silica or pyrite in a more uniform way, not the old-looking dark stuff on the outside and the fake-looking white stuff on the inside. “Here, Jay, take my knife and try to scratch it.” If it scratches, it’s a fake.

They are intensely curious, and driven by more than skepticism. They want to know what really is significant. Jay is weary of the media hue and cry about ways to save energy. They don’t bother to tell us whether something is significant. Take the admonition to unplug your cell phone charger when not in use – the dreaded “ghost load.” But the impact, Jay said, of a person’s nonchalant plug-in habit over the course of a year is actually equivalent to the carbon footprint of operating a car for one second!

One international round trip flight (or one similar cross-continent round trip) accounts for over 40 percent of a typical Brit’s annual carbon footprint. The number is a little lower for a typical American, maybe 30 percent. Two plane rides!

Jay got these figures from a book by a Brit named David MacKay called Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. Jay admires it because it’s fact-based and looks at the big picture. For example, what would it really take to produce a significant percentage of the world’s electricity, say 50 percent, from solar? MacKay does the math. To supply Europe would take a commitment of sunny Saharan desert equivalent in size to most of New Mexico and Arizona.

Same for the U.S. We could do it, MacKay says, we have the sun, the open desert country, but it would take an area the size of New Mexico and Arizona combined.

What about other renewables? Biomass? There simply isn’t enough of it to contribute importantly to the grid. Wind? Not so much. If you put windmills on every appropriately windy spot on land, Jay said, and across much of the near offshore, you could provide for maybe 10 percent of the planet’s energy consumption. “And you’d have windmills everywhere.” We’ve got to use every source we’ve got, he said: solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, tidal, nuclear.

Storage is the big problem. Delivering the power where and when we need it is difficult with renewables because of fluctuations in sun and wind. Jay’s idea is to decentralize storage into every household’s all-electric car. When there’s juice on the grid, plug the car in and store it in the car’s batteries. But “there may be days in the future when the grid won’t be able to supply enough.”

“Snow day!” I cried.

In the third half of the snow, I brought up the theme of this year’s Mountainfilm festival: population. And the cousins agreed that population is the big wild card, the unspoken undiscussed. “If you improve the efficiency of something by 10 percent, say – which is significant – but you need more of them because the population keeps expanding . . .”

One Response

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  1. Seth Masia said, on June 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Hi, Peter. Jay and his source David McKay are a little behind the curve on renewable-energy technology. We’re closer than that. German had a couple of days in May when solar and wind provided 50% of their energy draw (yes, that was neither heating season nor air-conditioning season. But 50%!). NREL reports this week that with TODAY’s technology we could have 80% renewable electricity in the U.S. by 2050, without spending more than we do now — but we’d have to modernize the transmission grid (we’ll have to do that anyway). The cousins should read Solar Today —

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