Rallying for a Carbon Tax 5th June

It’s not that common to have a rally in favor of creating a new tax, but today I attended the Melbourne rally in favor of a “carbon tax” [1], it was the second such event this year. The rally was held in front of the state library, there is a reasonable size park there and it’s a great place for a few hundred people, and a few thousand can squeeze in there without any problem. But according to the best estimates 10,000 people attended and the venue was obviously a bad choice as all available space was used and the crowd was so great that it wasn’t much fun to be there. This was a great contrast to the previous rally in favor of a carbon tax which had maybe about 8,000 people attend and a much larger area [2]. The state library is a great place to hold a small or medium size rally where people can see it, but if you are going to get 10,000 people you need a bigger venue – as the exits were partially blocked by road work I’m sure that the local government wouldn’t have given a permit if so many people were expected.

Usually the city center is very quiet on a Sunday afternoon, but this afternoon everything was packed. An extra 10,000 people really makes a difference – although admittedly sunny weather would have helped. Australia wide there were apparently about 100,000 people attending similar rallies, that’s 0.5% of the population of the country!

The aim of the rally was to advocate a large enough tax on coal, oil, and other energy sources that emit CO2 to provide an economic incentive to minimise use and use alternate energy sources where possible. Currently billions of dollars are being given to polluting industries, instead those industries should be taxed and the money raised given to compensate needy people.

looking north

Looking North towards where I entered.

looking east

Two pictures from slightly different angles that are roughly East from where I was standing in the center of the crowd.

looking east through the bandlooking south

Pictures looking east through the band when people were starting to leave and looking south towards the exit I chose while on the way out.

Ziggy’s Lecture about Nuclear Power

The Event

Dr Ziggy Switkowski giving his lecture

I just attended a lecture by Dr Ziggy Switkowski (see the above picture) on the topic of nuclear power, for a long time Ziggy has been the most prominent advocate of nuclear power in Australia, so naturally the talk was pro-nuclear. The lecture was free for alumni of Swinburne University and introduced by Swinburne’s Chancellor who described Ziggy as a friend.

Before the lecture started I handed out flyers for Beyond Zero Emissions [1] with a plan for zero carbon use in Australia by 2020. That was more difficult than handing out Greens polling cards on election day. The people who attended were there for a purpose and they could see the free food and wine on offer inside the building so getting them to stop and take a brochure wasn’t easy. There were also people from Friends of the Earth [2] and some other anti-nuclear organisations giving out brochures.

specter of nuclear contamination

There were also some anti-nuclear protesters dressed as Uranium miners and the specter of nuclear contamination, they made for an interesting picture (which is amazingly good for a phone camera 20 minutes after sunset), but got in the way when I was handing out brochures. There were a few university security people at the door trying to keep the opposition away who were a bit annoying. There was also one policeman in attendance who was quite friendly, he asked whether there was a competition between the different groups as there is when handing out how-to-vote cards on election day.

15 minutes before the lecture was due to start I quit handing out the brochures and went inside for free food and drink (food always tastes better when the other team pays the bill).

The Lecture

I felt that Ziggy did a poor job of advocating nuclear power. There were a number of gaping flaws in his argument, but I have to commend him for his honesty in his appraisal of how hard it would be to develop a nuclear industry in Australia. Most nuclear advocates are a lot more optimistic about the process of building nuclear power plants and training all the people to run them.

I will write a post tomorrow rebutting some of Ziggy’s arguments.

After the Lecture

Immediately after the lecture the vice-chancellor stated that 500 people registered which made it the best attended such lecture that they have held. I don’t know how many of the 500 attended, but I did notice that about 1/4 of the seats in the lecture hall were empty. It’s rather sad that they can’t get more people to such lectures, is TED.com stealing the audience?

When I got out of the building I started handing out brochures to people as they left. I noticed that they were a lot friendlier than they were on the way in. I believe that people who left the lecture had greater interest in renewable energy because Ziggy just failed to make a good case for nuclear power. I expect that anyone who hadn’t already made up their mind would immediately want to research the alternatives after watching Ziggy’s lecture.

Climate Action Now Rally Melbourne 12th March

This morning I attended the Climate Action Now rally to support a pollution tax [1]. The event was well attended, my personal estimate of the number of people there was there there was definitely more than 3,000 people, and maybe as many as 8,000 or more.

I spoke to an employee of the APS who was on guard duty, he described the event as “big” and said that they don’t usually have events that are so well attended. He gave a personal estimate of 5,000 people. While he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the APS he was presumably more skillful at making such estimations than most people. I expect that he also gave a conservative estimate, so it could have been a lot more than that.

There were some people using comedy to make political points. Below is a picture of the carbon monster, what you can’t see is the man who was handing out coal BBQ fuel for people to feed the monster, children appeared to enjoy that! Also there were three people dressed as Gollum representing the Liberal party (the Australian conservative party), I was unable to get all three in one picture.

Carbon monster with sign saying feed me carbonTwo people dressed as Gollum with Liberal Party badges advocating that we die tax-free and that the Liberal party is for famine, fire, and flood

Some vegans had a banner supporting the VeganEasy.org site [2]. Being vegetarian can make a significant impact on human environmental impact including on the amount of electricity used (from coal or other sources).

Vegans waving a banner for VeganEasy.org

Here are pictures taken looking East over the main part of the rally, looking North towards the building at 3 Treasury place from the other side of the road, looking South over the lawns where people who didn’t like being crowded gathered, and looking West over part of the main crowd. The picture looking South shows another view of the Carbon Monster and his accomplice with a sign “haven’t you had enough dear?“.

Looking East over the main rallyLooking North towards the building across Treasury PlaceLooking south over the lawnLooking west over the crowd

When I first arrived there were two main sections to the rally. They weren’t discrete (there was no empty space between them) but they acted separately because there was no PA system that could make enough noise to be heard in both sections. At one stage the West section was chanting while there were speeches in the East section. Below is a picture looking out over the West section as people had just turned to go home. This area was entirely packed when I first arrived.

The rally was really a family event. There were some grey-haired people wearing t-shirts explaining that they wanted to create a better world for their grand-children and there were also some young children. At the end of the event some children used cardboard signs as toboggans to slide down a steep grassy bank near the main rally area – recycling!!! I deliberately chose my photos to try and avoid including children, but even so you can see a few in the background of some of them.


I have just discovered an innovative Melbourne company that has apparently been running for five years. ReWine is a wine seller that sells bottles of wine and then refills the same bottles for a lower price [1] (a saving of $2 per bottle). There have been many schemes for selling various liquids in reusable bottles, but a major failing of the business models has been the health issues related to cleaning the bottles. If I am going to drink wine from a bottle that some unknown person has used then I want it to be cleaned really well. But when I take back my own bottle for refilling the hygiene requirements are much smaller as I know where it’s been!

ReWine suggest that people rinse each bottle twice with warm water, a fairly simple cleaning process.

The wine that ReWine sells is described in terms of which region of Australia that it comes from and by the variety of grape. They make no claims about the wine being from a single vineyard or that the wine will come from the same vineyards next season. This is fairly common among the less expensive wines.

The prices for the wine are very low. A refill of a 750ml bottle of Chardonnay costs $5.50 and 750ml of Shiraz costs $9.80. 750ml of what is called “Port” in Australia (but is considered to be just a fortified wine in Europe as “Port” is a trademark for the Oporto region of Portugal) costs $5.80 and 750ml of Muscat costs $16.

I have bought bottles of “Port” and Muscat. The port is quite nice, not the greatest – but when considering the fact that any bottle of similar fortified wine costs more than $20 from a liquor store it’s very good value for money. It’s good for a quick night-cap. The Muscat is great! I would pay twice as much for it and still be satisfied that I had got my money’s worth!

I didn’t try the white wines because still white wine is not my thing. I tried the Shiraz, it was quite nice.

The technical aspects of the ReWine operation seem quite sound. The wine is stored in sealed barrels and pressurised nitrogen is used to force the wine out, this keeps out oxygen to avoid spoiling the wine while also allowing the bottles to be rapidly filled.

The business model of ReWine makes a lot of sense, it offers cheaper wine to customers while avoiding all the waste from the production of single-use glass bottles.

One final thing to note is the high quality of the bottles. The screw-top lids are very solidly constructed. A solid glass bottle with a quality lid can be used for many things, so even if you decide not to refill it from ReWine it will probably be handy – and worth $2.

New Lamps for Old – Light Changing and Burglary

A few weeks ago I had a guy from “enviro saver” visit my home to replace incandescent globes with CFLs.  The original plan was to deliver a water-saver shower head as well but he told me that because I have solar hot water there are no renewable energy certificates in installing a shower head so I couldn’t get one.

The brochure they gave me at my local shopping center when I signed up for this claimed that they are “acting on a genuine concern about the
environmental impact of our Australian lifestyle”.  But it seems that renewable energy certificates and up-selling of Photo-Voltaic systems is the real aim. I’ve been planning to get a PV system installed so I’ll be interested to see what they offer me.

The CFLs that they gave me appeared to be very cheap ones.  They take about 500ms to start while the better ones appear to take less than 100ms. It seems to be a reasonable business model to give people a few dollar’s worth of cheap CFL lights in exchange for a good sales opportunity and some renewable energy certificates.

This sort of thing has become popular enough that some thieves are copying the plan. According to the reports people will knock on your door offering free CFL lights, case your home while installing them (got to check every room for old incandescent lights), and then rob it the next week if it looks like there are good things in there.

The companies that offer a legitimate service of replacing lights apparently don’t send people knocking on doors. They have the customers sign up for the service in advance.

But the solution to such problems seems obvious. Firstly get the name of everyone who wants to enter your home. If you signed up for a service then make sure you know who you called. If someone appears on your doorstep then demand photo ID. Camera phones are good things, if someone refuses to adequately identify themself then take their picture, note the number of their car, and give the details to the police.

Keep a log of everything that seems relevant to home security, thieves may attack your home weeks after casing it, so you can’t rely on your memory. Also keep a log in a place where it’s not likely to be stolen, storing it on a computer that is in your home would be a bad idea.

Bad Math at TED

TED.com is a site that is known for very high quality content. Unfortunately on occasion they do get things wrong.

Rob Hopkins in his talk at TED Global 2009 claimed that 1 liter of oil “contains the energy equivalent of five weeks of human labor by 35 strong people” [1]. Now Rob has made a lot of good points and I look forward to watching his lecture when it becomes available, but I can’t let his claim about the energy of oil pass.

First we have to consider the functional usability of the energy. A Prius takes about 5 liters of petrol to drive 100Km and I believe that Toyota is going to improve this in the near future. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that a hypothetical turbo-Diesel Prius based on the yet to be released new Toyota hybrid drive-train would take 3L of Diesel fuel per 100Km (Diesel engines are more efficient and Toyota is continuing to improve their technology). The Prius weighs about 1300Kg so let’s assume for the sake of discussion that 1L of Diesel fuel can move 1500Kg (vehicle plus driver and cargo) a distance of 33Km.

So the question becomes, how long would it take 35 strong people to move 1500Kg a distance of 33Km? 1500/35 gives a mass of 42Kg per person – any strong person can lift 42Kg with ease (it’s less than the mass of a good Trinitron monitor). 5 * 40 hour working weeks gives 200 hours of work, 33Km in 200 hours means an average of 165 meters per hour. I think that I could carry a 42Kg mass more than 165 meters per hour without excessive effort. If I was allowed to use some form of trolley then I could take it a lot further – I have moved monitors much faster than that while balanced on a wheeled chair!

It seems that the Bicycle Rickshaw [2] is one of the most efficient ways of moving passengers and cargo on roads. According to the reports I’ve heard a 100Kg passenger who comes from a first-world country (and can therefore pay well) will be welcomed as a rickshaw passenger. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a rickshaw driver can transport a passenger more than 33Km in one day. So if you had 35 strong rickshaw drivers working for a day they should be able to transport 3,500Kg of passengers and cargo for a distance that is greater than 33Km as opposed to a hypothetical future-technology Prius which can transport 1500Kg for 33Km while using a liter of Diesel fuel!

Now if we consider the fact that the 1500Kg that the Prius moves is comprised of 1300Kg of car and 200Kg of passengers and cargo we have 1 liter of oil in the Prius moving 200Kg a distance of 33Km vs 35 strong people working for a day and moving 3500Kg the same distance.

According to the Human Powered Transport Wikipedia page [3] someone who is “in shape” can produce 200W of cycling energy for more than an hour – that is 720KJ/hour. I wonder how many hours they could do that for in a day. It seems reasonable that a full 8 hour day of work would comprise at least the equivalent of 4 hours work, so that would be 2.88MJ per day or 72MJ for five 40 hour weeks. Therefore for 35 people it would be 2.52GJ of cycling energy over five 40 hour working weeks!

According to the Wikipedia page on Fuel Efficiency [4] one liter of Diesel fuel contains 38.6MJ of energy. If the energy in one liter of Diesel fuel was converted to motion with 100% efficiency then it might be equivalent to one strong person cycling for 13.4 days.

According to the Wikipedia page on Thermal Efficiency [5] the most thermally efficient engine is the Wärtsilä-Sulzer_RTA96-C [6] which can run at 51.7% efficiency which gives 163g of fuel used per KWh. So the RTA96-C could produce just over 22MJ of usable energy for 1 liter of fuel. That’s about equal to one person cycling for 7.6 days. Also note that the RTA96-C is an engine for a very large cargo ship, smaller engines are much less efficient.

There is no doubt that petro-chemicals are a concentrated source of fuel. I can carry a jerry-can which contains usable energy equivalent to more than 6 months of work by a laborer (according to my rough calculations). But there is no way I could carry enough food to keep someone alive and working for 6 months.

I look forward to watching Rob’s talk when it is available for download, I don’t think that getting one point spectacularly wrong reduces the value of his work. The Transition Towns [7] concept has many benefits to offer, even beyond Rob’s initial plans.

The Millennium Seed Bank

Jonathan Drori gave an interesting TED talk about the Millenium Seed Bank [1]. The potential for discovering new uses of plants for food, medicine, and construction is obvious, so it also seems obvious to me that we should preserve as many varieties of plant as possible to allow for future uses. As well as those obvious uses there are other potential uses of plants to cope with the changing climate and new diseases. Seeds from salt-tolerant plants have already been sent to Australia to help deal with the salinity problems related to the ongoing process of desertification and excessive use of bore water.

The seeds are stored in bunkers that are designed to withstand nuclear attack, I doubt that such protection will be necessary – or that it would be successful it it was needed.

Jonathan also gave a TED interview with more detail on this topic [2]. One particularly interesting issue is the work on testing seeds for viability and for developing germination protocols to specify the best combination of changes in temperature, moisture, etc to germinate seeds. This research seems to have a lot of potential to improve crop yields.

He mentioned in passing a project to collect folk-tales related to plants which apparently has led to some scientific discoveries.

A related project is the Norwegian Svalbard seed vault which seems mostly aimed at crop seeds [3]. The main difference is that Svalbard provides black-box storage (like a bank safe-deposit vault) while the Millennium Seed Bank owns the seeds. Incidentally the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides significant support to Svalbard (so Bill does do some good things).

One thing that seems strange to me is the fact that governments are prepared to spend such large amounts of money on anti-terrorism but spend so little on seed banks and other projects that can help protect the food supply. If a country such as Australia (which exports a lot of food) was suddenly unable to produce enough food to even support the local population then the consequences would be much worse than anything Osama could dream up.

The Future of Electric Cars

TED published an interesting interview with Shai Agassi about electric cars [1]. One idea that I hadn’t heard before is that of moving car batteries between regions as they lose capacity. An old battery for an electric car that can only handle short journeys may be useful in a region where journeys are typically short. On a similar note I expect that in a few decades the less prosperous countries will import old electric vehicles and fit them with 4 or more batteries. Last time I checked the Prius battery pack weighed about 120Kg, so the car would be usable with 4 battery packs if driven at low speeds.

Shai Agassi also gave a TED talk on this topic [2]. The real solution for the problem of providing convenient and affordable electric vehicles is to start by recharging the batteries whenever the vehicle is parked (at the office, shopping center, home, etc). Then on the rare occasions when the car is being driven for longer distances and the battery gets flat it can be swapped for a charged battery. They have apparently designed a robot for changing car batteries, so changing the battery would be like driving through a car-wash. He describes this as an economic model that decouples the expensive battery from the car, so you pay for the use of the battery not the ownership – just as with a petrol car you pay for the petrol you use not for a portion of the ownership of an oil well.

He also pointed out that cars produce 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, so his plan for all electric cars everywhere seems to be an essential part of solving the environmental problems. He then compared this to the UK parliamentary discussion on ending slavery, at the time slaves provided 25% of the energy used by the UK. After a month of discussion the decision was made to make the moral choice and end slavery regardless of the cost.

Google Server Design

Cnet has an article on the design of the Google servers [1]. It seems that their main servers are 2RU systems with a custom Gigabyte motherboard that takes only 12V DC input. The PSUs provide 12V DC and each system has a 12V battery backup to keep things running before a generator starts in the event of a power failure. They claim that they get better efficiency with small batteries local to the servers than with a single large battery array.

From inspecting the pictures it seems that the parts most likely to fail are attached by velcro. The battery is at one end, the PSU is at the other, and the hard disks are at one side. It appears that it might be possible to replace the PSU or the battery while the server is operational and in the rack.

The hard disks are separated from the motherboard by what appears to be a small sheet of aluminium which appears to give two paths for air to flow through the system. The thermal characteristics of the motherboard (CPUs) and the hard drives are quite different to having separate air flows seems likely to allow warmer air to be used in cooling the system (thus saving power).

Google boast that their energy efficiency now matches what the rest of the industry aims to do by 2011!

The servers are described as taking up 2RU, which gives a density of one CPU per RU. This surprised me as some companies such as Servers Direct [2] sell 1RU servers that have four CPUs (16 cores). Rackable systems [3] (which just bought the remains of SGI) sells 2RU half-depth systems (which can allow two systems in 2RU of rack space) that have four CPUs and 16 cores (again 4 CPUs per RU). Rackable systems also has a hardware offering designed for Cloud Computing servers, those CloudRack [4] systems have a number of 1RU trays. Each CloudRack tray can have as many as two server boards that has two CPUs (4 CPUs in 1RU) and 8 disks.

While I wouldn’t necessarily expect that Google would have the highest density of CPUs per rack, it did surprise me to see that they have 1/4 the CPU density of some commercial offerings and 1/8 the disk density! I wonder if this was a deliberate decision to use more server room space to allow slower movement of cooling air and thus save energy.

It’s interesting to note that Google have been awarded patents on some of their technology related to the batteries. Are there no journalists reading the new patents? Surely anyone who saw such patents awarded to Google could have published most of this news before Cnet got it.

Now, I wonder how long it will take for IBM, HP, and Dell to start copying some of these design features. Not that I expect them to start selling their systems by the shipping crate.

Inhaling Petrol Fumes

Tonight at 6PM the channel 7 news will have a special report about the dangers of inhaling fumes while filling cars with petrol. I’m blogging now because based on past experience I expect almost no technical content in the report and that the advert for the news show contains everything that is useful.

The advert showed that they had used some film technique to show the fumes leaving the petrol tank while fuel is pumped in. It was obvious that the fumes were rising past the face of the man who was filling the tank. Not that this is really news, if you observe closely when fuel is pumped into a car you can see where the vapor escapes as the slight difference in density causes whatever is behind it to shimmer slightly.

For a long time the Prius has had a bladder inside the fuel tank which expands and contracts to match the fuel volume [1]. This greatly reduces the evaporative loss of fuel when the car is parked and the ambient temperature changes and also when fuel is pumped in. So it seems that in regard to the issue of fuel vapor poisoning the driver, the Prius has been better than other cars for about 10 years. Apparently Toyota have developed a new system that they have implemented in the Hybrid Lexus and the new Hybrid Camry which involves “vapor recovery”, this is supposed to give similar benefits in terms of not releasing petrol fumes into the environment but without limiting the capacity of the fuel tank in cold weather (a common complaint about the Prius). I have not been able to find any technical information on how this works (please let me know if you know a good web page about it).

The next issue is that any car which gives good fuel efficiency and has a reasonable size petrol tank will be better in regard to vapor releases. The less frequently you need to refuel your car the less fuel vapor you will inhale. I predict that channel 7 will not suggest that people drive fuel efficient cars, they are probably more likely to go for hand-wringing about the “inevitable” health problems, or make vague claims that the government should do something about it. The fact that the news show in question is immediately followed by “Today Tonight” (one of the tabloid TV shows) is an indication of the likely quality.

A final issue is the puddles of fuel that you commonly see at petrol stations. People regularly spill reasonable quantities of petrol and Diesel fuel and it just accumulates on the concrete. It’s not uncommon that I will have to drive with my car windows open after buying petrol due to the petrol that I stood in evaporating from my shoes. Apart from training people to not be stupid when refueling their vehicles I can’t think of any way of solving this problem. A petrol station employee once told me that it’s not uncommon for people to refuel cars with their young children standing within splash range of the fuel nozzle. If people can’t manage to avoid splashing their children with fuel then it seems that it will be impossible to get them to do anything reasonable or intelligent regarding the refueling process.