Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How much energy do we use cooking thanksgiving turkey?

Yeah Thanksgiving is here and it is certainly my favorite holiday as it is All American and full of turkey. Folks get to eat well and then sleep well after eating a huge amount of calories. Legend has it that it is this certain protein called tryptophan in the turkey that causes the sleepiness. Tryptophan is a standard and essential amino acid in the diet. It is not true that turkey has more tryptophan than other foods, in fact on a per unit mass basis dried egg whites have four times as much tryptophan than turkey if you eat the same mass of the two foods. Parmesan and cheddar cheese are also richer in tryptophan. My advice is if you really want to sleep well after your Thanksgiving meal sprinkle your turkey with parmesan and have meringues for dessert rather than pumpkin pie. Actually all who eat over 1,000 calories will sleep well no matter what is on the menu.

The Japanese company Showa Denko attempted to produce synthetic tryptophan as a food supplement in 1989. Unfortunately their quality control was terrible and they produced the dimer (two molecules connected) of tryptophan, a poisonous chemical that caused thirty seven deaths and permanent disability to over 1,500 people. Their manufacturing motto must have been kill two birds with one stone.

There are approximately 100 million households in the USA and some 30 million turkeys will be cooked for Thanksgiving dinners. The average mass of a turkey is about 16 pounds. Therefore some 500 million pounds of turkey will be cooked. The amount of gas and electricity needed to roast these birds is not that enormous. If one assumes that the birds take four hours to roast and that the oven uses about .4 kilowatt hours for each hour of cooking, the sum total of energy used in roasting turkeys is 48 million kilowatt hours. The Hoover Dam can produce 48 million kilowatt hours each day so we use one day’s of electric generation of the Hoover Dam to make the majority of citizens in the country very content once a year.

All this talk of fowl makes me sad. We recently had to put our dog Jason down. Jason was thirteen and a half years old and had a wonderful life. He was allergic to many foods and the vets at Alto Tiburon gave us the recommendation of a special diet when Jason was a small pup. His diet consisted of roasted chicken, rice, and fat free cottage cheese. Jason consumed one and a half chickens a week or about seventy five chickens a year. Therefore Jason accounted for the demise of some one thousand chickens during the course of his remarkable life. Only Colonel Saunders did in more of these fine feathered fowl. Jason loved all and was perhaps the easiest going dog on the peninsular. This thanksgiving we are going to miss Jason as he was always happy to substitute turkey for chicken and Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday except for perhaps the Jewish New year when he was given a special treat of chopped chicken liver. Our friend Faye who is Iranian coined the name “shikamoo” for Jason. This Persian word can roughly be translated as glutton. Jason was no glutton for punishment. He was a wonderful dog that my daughter Alexis chose for the family many years ago. We should all give thanks for the Jason’s of this world.

Monday, November 24, 2008

How much energy is used for a 140 degree latte?

We are not talking about the Rio Grande but the mid-size coffee serving at Starbucks. Yes Starbucks has Short, Tall, Grande and Venti sizes for their coffee and lattes. The Grande is a 16 fluid ounce size. I was recently in the Strawberry Starbucks when I overheard the patron in front of me ask for a 140 degree latte. Being a thermodynamics and green expert I of course had to ask the Barista what this meant. The Barista replied that the milk in the 140 degree is warmed less than the normal 160 degrees. Of course my mind started doing mental arithmetic as to how much energy Starbucks could save if all patrons became green and asked for the 140 degree Grande non fat latte with one Splenda and no foam single cupped.

Yes there are over 15,000 Starbucks stores and Starbucks has yearly revenues of nearly ten billion dollars. Soon there will be fewer stores as Strabucks has hit hard times with the terrible global economic downturn. I estimate they must sell something like 3 billion Grande equivalent drinks a year. Twenty degrees difference on a drink that weighs a pound and using a specific heat of 1.0 means 60 billion BTUs could be saved each year by Starbucks moving to the 140 degree latte. Each of the Starbuck espresso machines is powered by electricity. There are 3412 BTUs in a kilowatt hour. The added warmth of the drinks therefore equals 19.096 million kilowatt hours. The average heat rate of a coal fired power plant, the most common form of power plant in the world is about 10,000 BTU per kilowatt hour. This means about 1.25 pounds of coal needs to be burned to generate a kilowatt hour, therefore the 19 million kilowatt hours required 23.870 million pounds of coal. Coal is composed of approximately 50% carbon, the remainder is ash and moisture with a little hydrogen. Therefore 11,935,000 pounds of carbon are emitted each year to increase the temperature of the Grande cups of Starbucks from 140 degrees to 160 degrees. This is almost 6,000 tons of carbon. Expressed as carbon dioxide we have to multiply the amount of carbon by 3.67. Now that I have bored you all with tedious math, we have that Starbucks is emitting and additional 21,881 tons a year of carbon dioxide simple because the average patron did not request their 140 degree Grande non fat latte with one Splenda and no foam in a single cupped option. This is about the same amount of carbon dioxide that 4,000 cars emit in a year. Of course just driving to Starbucks to get the 140 degree Grande non fat latte with one Splenda and no foam single cupped drink causes an untold amount of carbon emissions.

Starbucks will be able to claim a lesser environmental foot print now that their business is stalled and they are closing stores. As for me I have to say I like my non foam Venti soy latte at 150 degrees. The cost of this drink is about half the price of Starbucks stock that now trades at $9.29 a share. Maybe soon Starbucks will give out warrants for their shares instead of coupons and they will change their name to Star with not so many Bucks.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Will GM become a white dwarf?

Today we thank the once biggest general of them all, General Motors, for our episode of Green Machine. Yes GM is the biggest of the once big three. This motor company has managed to loose more than seventy billion dollars since 2004. Not bad, they sold about thirty five million vehicles during this period and only lost two thousand dollars on each vehicle in their effort for us to “see the USA in our Chevrolet”. While GM lost the seventy big boys the global economic crisis has wiped out more than twenty trillion in the collective global wealth. I was thinking about twenty trillion and realized this is a very large number. The second nearest star other than our sun is less than twenty trillion miles away from earth.

The big question for the big three is whether they will become the little two. Stars also go through expansion and contraction and may end up as black holes. The good news about all of this is that it will be billions of years before our sun gives out its last rays. Solar energy is still our major hope for using renewable energy to power the planet. The solar stocks have also been hit by the plunge on Wall Street but their collective future is still brighter than auto stocks, but not by much unlessl the cost of solar cells is reduced by eighty percent. Solar cells now cost approximately $8,000 per kilowatt of installed capacity and only generate energy a quarter of the time when the sun is shining. When and if the installed cost of solar cells drops to around $1,500 per kilowatt this method for abundant electric power generation will really take hold.
There are rumors that the CEO of GM, Rick Wagoner, wants to meet with Toyota in Tokyo. Maybe he read my recent Green Machine article where I postulated the “Toyota Inside” model for affordable, efficient, and high performing future vehicles. Bob Lutz the Vice Chairman of General Motors who often appears on CNBC is still betting on his Chev Volt, the plug in hybrid that will rely on Lithium batteries and is scheduled for commercial launch in 2010. The problem for Lutz is whether GM can survive until then. The US government may well become the largest shareholder in each and every of the three US auto companies long before the Volt draws any juice from the power grid. Perhaps GM with Washington calling the shots will then have a CEO named Klutz and a car named the Revolt.

On an upbeat note, we have a new President with yesterday’s election. As I write the Green Machine articles a week in advance I cannot answer who the new president is, but there is no doubt the new president will have to deal with energy as one of the primary policy issues facing our country in the future. Housing and transportation account for over half of our energy use and both of these sectors require significant funds and attention. I did a quick back of the envelope calculation that transportation including the cost of owning and operating vehicles, maintaining roads and bridges, policing the roads, etc. accounts for approximately twenty per cent of our gross domestic product. I have not performed the calculation on housing but it must be more than thirty percent of GDP.

Maybe I should offer my services to the next administration and show them and the US public, how by being Green Machines we can move the economy forward based on conservation and saving rather than by massive and unsustainable consumption. While it will be painful for the former Big Three stars of the US economy to shrink, they can still have a bright future producing efficient smaller vehicles that could be branded as “white dwarfs” rather than “Super Novas”.

Can nukes save us?

The people have spoken and we have a new government. A new government means a new energy policy. President Elect Obama is less warm to nuclear power than was John McCain. Therefore it is doubtful we will build scores of thermonuclear power plants in the next decade. The new administration has two very important appointments to make. These are the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Energy. I believe energy policy will either support or break our economy and that the secretary of energy will be possibly the single most important appointment that the new President will make.

Barak Obama has committed to increasing funding for alternative energy and has pledged to wean the country off of oil imports from unfriendly countries. This is all election talk and now the real work has to begin. Bio-ethanol is a bust and just this week Verasun, a NYSE traded ethanol company, entered into Chapter 11 of the thermodynamics text book. Many of the other ethanol producers are teetering on bankruptcy and only survive on government subsidies and high tariffs on Brazilian ethanol imports. Had the present Secretary of Energy Dr Sam Bodman heeded my sage advice that Mother Nature did not intend photosynthesis to propel 250 million vehicles in the good old USA we may have embarked on a real and appropriate energy policy a while back and not have to have endured the disaster we are experiencing.

Ethanol, whether corn based, cane based or somehow miraculously cellulose based is a dead end and not the solution to our energy needs. The government should focus on rebuilding a new “Detroit” with auto companies engineering, producing and selling efficient smaller vehicles that are also profitable for the manufacturer. A good way to help kick start this would be for the Feds to provide a $3,000 subsidy to the automakers for each vehicle they produce and sell that achieves more than 35 mpg. The subsidy could be a direct grant or a subsidy toward the pension and medical expenses these companies are liable to their workers by contract. The foreign automakers rely on their governments for national healthcare for their workers, and US automakers suffer a significant cost disadvantage.

My one concern is that the UC Berkeley based academics led by one Prof Kammen are the President Elect’s energy policy gurus. These misguided academics have been on the wrong side of the argument in many instances and in particular on ethanol and hydrogen. Their academic publications have erroneous and often non-thermodynamic claims of how ethanol and hydrogen were the saviours. They have already caused much more harm than good and much money, time and human effort has been expended on these dead ends.

I do feel confident that there has been a sea change in our fellow Americans attitude toward energy and the environment, and that we will not return to the misguided belief that there are inexhaustible and abundant energy and natural resources to drive around in behemoth SUVs. I do hope that we can succeed in mass production of lithium battery systems for hybrids and plug in hybrids and by the end of President Obama’s first term, and that we have a couple of vibrant US based auto companies who can compete on the world stage. As for the Secretary of the Treasury, that person will have to understand the color green as it relates to money.