Monday, June 9, 2008

Musings: Wake Up Calls

It seemed as if rain was imminent when Koko and I set out on our walk this morning. Dark gray clouds massed in the northeast and clung thickly to Wailaleale and Makaleha, shrouding the summits.

And indeed, some rain did fall, but it was that fine, light, teasing rain that didn’t even dampen my clothes, much less quench the thirsty soil.

Ran into farmer Jerry, smiling as usual on his way to work, and I mentioned that I’d glanced at my neighbor’s newspaper before heading out. The headlines were all about conserving water and the perils of Hawaii’s extreme dependence on imported oil.

“How many more wake-up calls are people going to need?” I asked him.

“A lot,” Jerry answered, as he noted that he’d heard on the news this morning that gas is expected to hit $5 a gallon before the Fourth of July, and diesel has already topped that locally.

Then he added jokingly: “Science will save us.”

“Or government,” I chimed in, and we both laughed, recognizing the fallacy of counting on any such rescues.

For starters, there’s currently no source of alternative energy that can quickly and cheaply replace oil in time to forestall the tremendous social and economic ramifications associated with rapidly escalating oil prices.

And as Jerry noted: “We’re never going to have any more water than what’s on the Earth already.”

We started talking about all the businesses and services that rely heavily on gasoline, ranging from the postal service to the trucks that transport our food and the pumps that power our water wells. The higher prices they’re paying for fuel are going to be passed on to us consumers sooner, rather than later, which means gas pumps aren’t the only place we’re gonna feel the pinch.

According to the Garden Island’s reprint of an Associated Press report of a talk given by Maurice Kaya, who recently retired as the state's energy manager and now works as a strategic energy and management consultant:

“The [energy] crisis is here and it’s going to be a long one. We are well beyond the time to act, and business owners need to be pro-active in demanding clean energy at predictable costs from suppliers."

Kaya also noted that Hawaii now gets 99 percent of its fossil fuels from foreign sources, whereas in the past, Alaskan oil was dominant.

“The status quo carries way too much risk for you and me,” he said.

Kaya went on to address how rising fuel prices will affect Hawaii’s tourism industry:

“The darkest cloud is the immediate impact on discretionary travel,” he said. “You see that happening already — not as many people are flying.”

Like rising fuel costs, the effects of declining tourism will ripple through the state’s entire economy, affecting even those who aren’t directly employed by the visitor industry. So we have the price of everything going up, just as the economy is going down.

Meanwhile, in addition to urging Kauai residents to conserve water, especially in east Kilauea, The Garden Island reported that drought conditions are affecting farmers throughout the state. It included this comment from Faith Shiramizu, the water department’s spokeswoman:

Most of the rain gauges on Kaua‘i along with the rest of the state recorded below normal rain totals for the past couple of years.

So here we are, in a situation where fuel prices keep rising, tourism is declining and agriculture is getting squeezed by a number of factors, including a drought that is impacting even Kauai, home to Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on the planet.

Yet still we see people pretending like everything is hunky dory. They rail against government mandates for solar hot water heaters. They make fun of the “peak oil” theory, ignoring the reality that it doesn’t matter whether the cause is due to greedy oil companies or scarce resources, the effect — rising fuel prices — is the same. They undermine attempts to preserve agricultural land. They mock efforts to achieve sustainability or reduce our near total dependence on outside sources of food and fuel.

Why? Are they oblivious? In denial? Ignorant? Oppositional? Obstructionist? Foolish? Maybe they believe that somebody or something is going to save us before things get too uncomfortable.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say: “Hawaii is too important militarily. Do you really think the government would let us starve?”

Maybe not. But before you start getting complacent, just remember the government “response” to Katrina. Besides, if crises are breaking out all over, how high a priority will Kauai be in the overall scheme of things? And trust me, you do not want to be dining on MREs — the “meals ready to eat” that were the government’s solution to feeding people after Iniki.

I’m not writing this to freak people out or make them shut down. I’m not into fear. I am, however, into realism. And it seems to me that we could go a long way toward addressing some of these looming problems if we simply stopped wasting so much gas, water, food and energy.

As the Garden Island article noted:

Though the county Water Department is asking residents to conserve water this summer, Shiramizu said water conservation should be a way of life.

“Our hope is that everyone will choose to be good stewards of water, which is a very precious resource,” she said. “Water is a resource that none of us can survive without. Although we hope that consumers use water wisely on a daily basis, the dry conditions that we’ve experienced over the last couple of years makes water conservation even more important.”

Yup, that’s pretty basic stuff. Yet daily I see water being wasted. And the same is true of all the other basic commodities that have become so cheap and plentiful that we take them for granted to the point of serious waste. In fact, people have even reached the point where they believe it's their right to be wasteful.

That kind of mentality has got to change, along with our consume madly because the cup is full to overflowing way of life in America.

As Kaya noted:

The most powerful solutions are always local.

And when you come right down to it, ain’t nothing more local than the way we live our daily lives.


Larry said...

Over on my own little blog I've asked several times over the years (even back when gas was cheap) why we don't collect and use rainwater that cascades off our roofs, particularly in rainy areas like the Manoa valley where I used to live. Several millions of gallons come down from the sky whenever it rains. You'd think we would have been using it all along, since water/sewer fees have not been cheap for some time.

Same for other forms of alternative energy. All that sunlight wasted!

Will we start using it now?

My conclusion is that for some reason we are not innovators. I don't think we're waiting for our government to save us, their track record on saving us has been miserable, and I think people know it. As individuals, concerned citizens, entrepreneurs, whatever, we are capable of action when we get busy.

So when do we get started? Why can't we take the initiative? The power companies make huge profits when energy costs are high, so they won't lead us out of this either. Nor will they be happy to see power literally taken out of their hands.

It's up to us to organize locally and join together to find our own solutions.

Anonymous said...

With any luck, Joan, living on Kauai will get too expensive for you and your hippy friends and you'll have to leave for Truk or Myanmar. Please God make peak oil happen sooner!

Joan said...

Take it easy, Tiger. Let's try to contain our free floating fury.

And anyway, don't you know that "hippies" don't need money and God doesn't answer anonymous prayers?

Andy Parx said...

Apropos to nothing other than the “We’re never going to have any more water than what’s on the Earth already.” thought the amount of actual “water” at any given moment changes dramatically as the hydrogen and hydroxide ions combine and separate. One thing I’ve often thought about is that as we “sequester carbon” in the form of sugars starches and cellulose we also sequester water in binding the carbon to hydrogen and hydroxide ions. Essentially the chemical formula for a simple sugar is C(H2O).

Anonymous said...

You're no better chemist than you are a reporter.

The amount of water doesn't change "dramatically" as ions flit back and forth. The average remains pretty constant. Silly on its face. Put some "water" in a glass. Stare at it. For any practical purpose, nothing is going on. Put some scotch in it. Drink it. Might improve your analysis.

And just what is the point of sequestering water in cellulose or sugar structures? It's not like you can get it back. And care to calculate the energy required?

There is way more than enough water on earth. The problem is the amount that is potable or at least clean enough to irrigate crops. With infinite energy, we can desalinate. Suddenly wind farms won't look so ugly after all.

As for Joan's question as to why the geezer brigade resists global warming and peak oil observations.

Politics -- Its a knee jerk reaction against anything that challenges their current comfortable position. They hope they can just run out the clock and die before they have to sacrifice anything. Classic "conservative" approach.

And its not like we're going to run out of oil immediately and the world end up in some Kunstleresque collapse in a decade. The problem is what we'll have to give up in terms of re-allocating money in order to pay for energy. Try walking 5 miles with 10 bags of groceries. You'll give up movies and the cable TV long before you do that again.

It hasn't been that many years since anyone not in a major city probably had outdoor privies instead of running water toilets. Average people didn't have fresh veg in winter nor meat more than 2-3 times/week at best. We've forgotten what it is to be anything other than rich and pampered.

Larry said...

Anonymous know-it-all fails to notice that Europeans have $8+/gallons of gas, cable TV and they still drive to the supermarket. They also walk to the local market and have public toilets.

The trade-in value for our SUVs is dropping at about $1000 per month, roughly. We're making adjustments also, it will just be more painful than for us than for more civilized countries. We may or may not also make the political adjustments necessary to reign in corporate profits and otherwise find ways to both conserve and provide energy better.

I'm honestly not too hopeful in the short term.

Anonymous said...

Living without electricity in a lean-to in Europe or Asia or the U.S., for that matter, is a hellish experience. Living in a tent in Polynesia is a joy. Why are we so uptight about energy. It's water we need to be concerned about.

Dr. Paradise said...

I was walking through a parking lot the other day and saw all parking lots first becoming little museums for the vehicles that no longer could transport us without our fossil fuel addiction being maintained. Then maybe we rip up all the asphalt and create parks, and yes, catch the rain for the drinking fountain!

The alarm bell is ringing and we are still in bed. Wake up sleepy heads, the time is NOW!

Anonymous said...

"I’m not into fear. I am, however, into realism."
-George W. Bush?

Anonymous said...

We need more bike lanes and buses. The paved roads on Kauai make for excellent biking. As an old fart, I'd appreciate a bus ride up and down the big hills. But it would be cool to cruise around Lihue, Kapaa, Waimea or any other town on this island on a bicycle. I'm telling you, this island is set up nicely for bikes and if we do end up needing alternative transportation, I would be willing to have my real property tax dollars used for more bike lanes and buses. Plus, my doctor says that I need the exercise.

Anonymous said...

another example of empire crumbling. food not fuel,water not war. there's enough for everyone, if we share, be akamai and give back when can. the ways of overthetop consumerism is over.
5:1 baby,1:5 nobody here get's out alive!

Anonymous said...

I thought it interesting that you would devote so much space to this topic; CNN seems to be talking about it 24/7! It's bad all over, though I worry more about Kaua`i, because I think your options are more limited, and your economy is not diversified. Too many tourists is bad; too few tourists is bad. You can't win for losing.

Anonymous said...

Anybody old enough to remember The Population Bomb, the 1968 runaway bestseller by Paul Ehrlich? It predicted near-term disaster for humanity due to the "population explosion" and it had the same impact on the kinds of people who are perennial suckers for this sort of apocolyptic hand wringing as I see in this post and its comments.

Andy Parx said...

I don’t think the problem is as much ionization especially since it usually occur in closed systems like an animal or plant except for the low natural rate of ionization in a glass of water... unless we were to severely alter the [H+] and [OH-] balance which is why I wonder if we really did find a why to build that hydrogen based energy economy where do we sequester all that hydroxide while the hydrogen is in tanks in great supply- most other things hydroxides like to combine with make really toxic bases substances that take equally toxic hydrogen acidic compounds to combine with to neutralize them into salts.

Larry said...

Andy, not to worry. Hydrogen for use as energy is H2, Not H+. There's no hydroxide either. It's O2. With all the vog, I could us some O2 sometimes anyway. Bring it on.

Anonymous said...


What in the hell are you smoking? Go back and look harder at that Chem 101 text

H(+) + OH(-) == H20

the equals sign means they exist in an equilibrium so while some of the molecules are disassociated, some are not. So how many are as ions? The measure of that is pH. At a neutral pH of 7, the concentration of H+ ions and OH- ions are each 1 X 10^^-7 or one part in 10 million. You got some really small tweezers?

To actually get H2, you have to pump energy into the system (electrolysis)

2H2O + energy-->2 H2 + O2.

The reverse is

2H2 +o2--> water + energy

which is the goal of hydrogen burning. To think you can then just take the water and pull out the H2 and burn it again is just the chemical version of a perpetual motion machine. Violates laws that a lawyer can't get a pass on.

your friendly neighborhood troll.

Anonymous said...

That is why the State should back off from killing our waiawi using a bug that might destroy other food plants. We need all the sustainable fruit/food we can get. Josephine

Andy Parx said...

Of course there’s a lot of energy in separating H from O – that’s why the process is not efficient right now unless we find a more efficient way of deriving it. I don’t rally see the relevance of that to the question I’m asking. But that’s why H2 and O2 will naturally ionize and combine without requiring energy input. Put H2 and O2 in a bottle and they will form water. And you can get energy OUT of the combination.

So if we sequester water-source H2 (whether in a diatomic form or not and regardless of how much energy we put in to obtain it) we will in essence create O2 and short ourselves of water. Whether this would happen on a massive scale enough to effect the amount of actual usable water is debatable but it’s certainly possible. It’s not a wild hypothesis unless there’s a reason why it wouldn’t effect the total amount of usable water- whether it’s a substantial enough amount is the question I’m asking. I also wonder if we could negatively effect the O and Nitrogen balance in the atmosphere

Anonymous said...

maybe you should go back to writing about dog poo.
You clearly are pretty ignorant about chemistry or the physical world.

From Wikipedia on "earth's atmosphere":

The average mass of the atmosphere is about 5 quadrillion metric tons or 1/1,200,000 the mass of Earth. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "The total mean mass of the atmosphere is 5.1480×1018 kg with an annual range due to water vapor of 1.2 or 1.5×10^15 kg depending on whether surface pressure or water vapor data are used; somewhat smaller than the previous estimate. The mean mass of water vapor is estimated as 1.27×10^16 kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ±0.0003×10^18 kg."

Dry air mass 5 X 10^18. So oxygen roughly 20% of that or 1 X 10^18.

The total mass of the hydrosphere is about 1.4 × 10^21 kilograms, which is about 0.023% of the Earth's total mass. Less than 2% is freshwater; the rest is saltwater, mostly in the ocean.

there's 1000X more liquid water than 02 in the atmosphere by weight.

The silly thing is you forget that burning the h2 and o2 gives you the water back again. Are you planning to store a few billion years worth of h2 or something? That's the only way you'd change the concentrations much.

Look at the size of those numbers. There are only 6 X 10^9 (6 billion) people on the earth. There's 200 billion Kg of water on the earth per person

1.4 X10^21/6 X 10^9 = 2 X 10^11

....people are so funny thinking we can really change the earth. We can change it enough to screw our speciesand the rest of the major species, but the earth will roll along.

Andy Parx said...

1000x more is not a lot. I’m not quite sure how to calculate wow much H2 would have to be “in tanks” so to speak to serve as an equivalent of the amount of gasoline that is in tanks and being processed at any given moment. There has to be a point at which it would have an effect on but H2O and O2... Perhaps it wouldn’t be enough to make a difference at any level we would accomplish or want to but I’m not so sure. So many time we look at something and underestimate the effect it has on a system- it’s a common neglect in developing theories from hypotheses.

Anonymous said...

good grief man. pick up a calculator. Do some research or can't you get Mickens to figure this one out for you? Paging Sweeney Todd........

You ignored the important figure -- 200 billion kg of water per person as well. You've got maybe 15 gallons of gas in your tank = 100 lbs. I don't think you'll need much of the 200 billion to meet your stored needs.

The USA has about 1.7 billion barrels of oil in storage, including the SPR (from If you assume a middling density of 300 lbs/bbl (water is 350) I get 500 billion lbs or 250 billion kg. that's

2.5 X 10^11 kg. This is an exaggeration as the SPR isn't working storage but a strategic reserve. It's about 40% of the total. But I'll leave it in to be conservative.

Since we use about 1/4 of the worlds oil, lets just quadruple that for a rough approx of what's in storage world wide. Now you're up to 1 X 10^12.

Oil/other liquids is about 1/5th the US's energy source from non renewables/non nuclear.(DOE) Gas and Coal are greater, so thrown them in too as you need storage to cover that energy source as well.

multiply by 10 instead of 5 just to be fat on the figure since I have no idea what the split is globally and I'm too lazy to do much more work on this.

Now we're at 1 X 10^13 kg

You're still 1 X 10^8 away from the mass of all water on earth. Hydrogen is only 1/10th of the mass in water ( MW = 18 of which 16 is O, and 2 is the 2 H's). So knock off another power of 10.

So looks to me, with rounding up aggressively every step of the way, you're still on the order of 1 part in 10 million. (1 X 10^7).

Pardon me if I lose more sleep over global warming flooding us than whether shifting a 0.00001% of the world's water into gaes would make much of a difference. If you believe wikipedia, the 02 concentration in the atmosphere has been as high as 35% in pre-history vs 20% ish now. moving that 20% up by 1 part in 10,000 ish not going to end life as we know it.