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Why hybrids do it better

February 24, 2021

After the recent power outage, some people have asked how we used our Prius to provide backup power to our house. That is something we have done several times at this point, living in a storm-prone area. Our setup pretty much follows Frank Perkins’s description. I will point the curious to that, because there are some subtleties that deserve a bit of thought before using a hybrid car in this fashion: 1) Whether this will supply enough power for your needs. 2) Whether to run the power through your house’s circuit panel using a cut-over switch, or just run extension cords. 3) If the first, how to acquire or make a one-phase to two-phase adapter that lights up the correct side of your house’s electrical panel, and which of your home circuits can be run safely from that. 4) What inverter to use, and why you likely want a pure sine-wave inverter for this purpose. If, for example, you will be powering circuits with arc-fault circuit breakers. 5) How much current you can draw from your car without frying anything, and where to hook the inverter. 6) How to hook everything up, and how to set up your car for this purpose. It seems quite easy and straightforward to me. But I’m a nerd born and bred. Someone who does something dumb could electrocute themselves. I haven’t read about people doing this with hybrids other than the Prius, so don’t know how well this works with other hybrids or what pitfalls to avoid.

That said, hybrid cars make good backup and field generators, better than the small gasoline generators custom built for that purpose. Let me explain why.

Any planning for a power system should begin by thinking about what needs to be powered. After a hurricane knocks down the local power, we want 1) to keep our refrigerator running, since we like to eat, 2) to keep our lights on, since we like to see, and 3) to charge computers and phones, since we like to communicate. The refrigerator is the large draw. Most of the time, it is just an insulated box consuming only a few watts for control and to light the front panel. Then, its thermostat decides some cooling is needed, and turns on the compressor, spiking its consumption to near 800 watts. Most households will exhibit that kind of variation in load.

The large problem with getting electrical power from an internal combustion engine driving a device to generate current is that the engine runs all the time. Most cars will burn around four gallons a day, at idle. The typical 2kW generator will burn three gallons a day, even under light load. My dutiful brother-in-law, in a small town in northeast Texas, was busy scrounging for gasoline last week to keep the lights on for my sister during the recent blackout. Their little generator is a hungry beast. He gets full credit: the power is back on and my sister is happy.

A hybrid vehicle brings two resources that significantly improve things. First, it has a large capacity battery, which acts as its alternate energy source. Second, it has some power control smarts. When I hook my Prius up to serve as a power source for the house, here is what happens: For a few of hours, it will sit quietly, powering the house through an inverter, draining its lithium battery. In that state, the energy flow is all electric and quite efficient. Eventually, the car’s control system will detect that the lithium battery is low. It then runs the engine for a short period — around 20 or 30 minutes — to charge the battery. Once the battery is adequately charged, it turns the engine off. Which returns the car to the first state, where the lithium battery is providing power. The car will go through that cycle for days on end. How often the engine runs depends on the power demand. Regardless, the engine is running a) only for short periods of time, and b) only under load, while charging the battery. This last blackout, we consumed around a gallon a day. That is just an estimate — we started the blackout with 3/4 tank of fuel, and three days later when grid power returned, had just under a 1/2 tank.

Ford has realized that serving as a field generator is a significant feature for its new hybrid trucks, and includes power outlets in some of them. I hope more hybrid manufacturers move in that direction. Living in a hurricane area, I know I would consider paying for an option or trim upgrade that provides 120V PSW AC power, from a hybrid vehicle I otherwise was looking to buy. I think, today, my sister would, too. I can cobble the system together. But this is an important use case that should be engineered into the vehicle. And yes, please provide numerical watts or horsepower on the energy flow display.

Mules are the ancient hybrid that powered the world for millennia. They are known for their efficiency: they do more work than horses on less food. Muleskinning was a common job with armies and construction companies and other organizations that had the need to pack significant material over ground. George Washington paraded female donkeys to help his royal Spanish stud with the horses. (That sentence previous is one of those that one never dreams one would write until having done so.)

The crazed and the cancelled

February 23, 2021

American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp declares that the theme of this year’s CPAC is “America uncancelled,” and damns “the grossness of our cancel culture.”

CPAC just cancelled planned speaker Young Pharaoh. I suspect he had been attractive to them because of the conspiracy theories he shares with Trump supporters. That also is what makes him reprehensible. They cancelled him only because they just realized some of those are antisemitic.

Mallard Fillmore thinks there is some equivalence between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene. There isn’t. I disagree with some of AOC’s policies. Some might find her personally off-putting. Still, I suspect I could sit down with her and have a serious conversation about policy, tactics, and other matters of politics. However much we disagreed on such issues, we could discuss the why of that and figure out where our commonalities were.

The chief criticism of Greene is different and darker and more fundamental: that she propagates absurd conspiracy theories. That makes her policy views largely irrelevant. There is no reason to think she is capable or interested in thinking about those in any reasonable fashion, or that her views on those wouldn’t turn on a dime from irrational cause. Any conversation I had with her, my chief interest would lie in discovering the extent to which she advocates those conspiracies cynically and dishonestly, and the extent to which she is batshit insane. Honest conservatives recognize that separating themselves from that crazed element now is the chief issue facing them. Which is why they refuse to ally themselves with people like Greene.

CPAC has put itself on the side of Greene and Trump and delusion. I doubt John Thune will be welcome there this year — he has been cancelled.

The perils of the grid

February 22, 2021

A grid distribution system, where a small number of providers supply some important service to millions of consumers over a network, has some significant advantages. It supports variation in demand. It supplies both large and small consumers. It continues to function even when some number of providers fail. It allows existing providers to be taken offline for maintenance or upgrade or decommission, and for new providers to come online, without interrupting service. And it can be made quite efficient. Which explains why it is the model for the variety of services that compose a large part of what we consider developed world infrastructure: electric power, natural gas, cellular bandwidth, and quite a few internet services, including DNS. Many water systems are purely local, but those for larger metropolitan areas also fit this model.

A grid has some risks. Failures by one or two providers can cascade to others. Spikes in demand can interrupt service. Each provider is an exposed point of attack potentially affecting thousands or millions of people. Weather events or terrorist attack can degrade several suppliers simultaneously. And missteps in centralized policy decisions can cause widespread outage. As everyone in Texas should realize today, after the winter storms that recently struck.

The greatest drawback to grids is that failures can be widespread. If your home loses heat because your furnace breaks, your family can stay someplace else warm while solving that problem. The informal network of friends, neighbors, and local businesses provides significant resiliency outside the technology. Things are tougher if all or most of those also are without power. The week past, the outages were not just large parts of cities, but many cities in the entire state.

That highlights the importance of non-grid backup. Living where hurricanes strike, quite a few of my neighbors have generators at the ready. We use our Prius and an inverter for backup power. Some people have solar systems with batteries, for use off the grid.

Which raises the question many have asked: wouldn’t it be better just to be off the power grid, rather than suffer its sometimes large failures? What that overlooks is one of the large advantages of a grid: it is efficient. Of the backup systems I noted, a solar system with battery is the most cost-effective. But if you price it out today, I doubt you will find it worth taking your house off the grid purely on the basis of long-term cost. That may change at some point in the future as the battery technology improves. It might not: the grid also can make use of better battery technology to provide power more efficiently and be made more resilient against cascading failure. 

The interesting thing is that equation is quite a bit different for new housing developments. Someone building a new neighborhood could design the houses from scratch to be off the grid, standardize decisions about the equipment and appliances, purchase the panels and batteries in bulk, make the installations routine. And, thereby avoid the cost of extending the grid. Eliminating power poles and cables not only saves their cost, it also adds some flexibility to neighborhood layout, and improves neighborhood appearance. The efficiency of the grid comes at the expense of planning, installing, maintaining, and operating the interconnecting network. Neighborhoods that are off the grid never will be as efficient at producing energy. But if designed that way from the start, they might be quite cost effective and carry other advantages.

Developers are a conservative lot. Elon Musk wants to sell his Powerwall battery. The retail route for that is a hard row to hoe: the vast majority will look at the conversion cost and not see a benefit for decades. The way to accelerate that technology is to get builder buy-in. Musk now lives in one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. Austin has many upscale consumers who are interested in green technology. And at least this week, in more resilient power. So, I wonder if Musk might hook up with a local builder to create some model neighborhoods that are off the grid? Surprisingly, the hard part of that might be providing for electric vehicles, which want to be charged at night and ready to go in the morning.

The failure of the Texas power grid was caused by bad management and pathological state politics. It had nothing to do with the mix of energy sources. Generating stations of all sorts failed for the simple reason that they were not prepared for a cold snap. It wasn’t even that much of a cold snap: just a short stretch when night-time lows dropped a few degrees below what we see most years. Enough to freeze valves and pipelines that weren’t protected, shutting many gas generators, and taking even a nuclear unit offline due to feedwater issues. 

Despite there being no reason behind it, many people jumped up to attack or praise particular energy sources. I’ve also seen quite a few excuses and deflections for why the outage happened. It is a puzzle that so many will run to exonerate the politics responsible, or to make an unrelated political point, even while they suffer catastrophic failures in our infrastructure. Those doing so should ask themselves what benefit they gain from that? Or what propaganda they are digesting, to cause that peculiar jerk in their knee? The bogus excuse I recently heard is that Texas can’t plan for temperature swings because ours are so much more extreme than other states. Which is silly: everyone who has studied a little geography knows that it is the great middle that has the largest temperature variation, as the map shown demonstrates.

Ob disclaimer: My monthly income still includes a smattering of O&G royalties and dividends. 

A sliver of sympathy for Ted Cruz

February 19, 2021

Ted Cruz earned a modicum of respect from me during the 2016 GOP primary, when alone among the Republicans running, he called out federal ethanol mandates as a sop to the corn industry, and when he damned Trump as a pathological liar. He was quite correct in both cases. He lost that respect in the four years following, when he turned himself into a Trump toady. At the moment, he is catching a lot of flak for bugging out to Cancun during a winter storm that has left many in Texas without power.

It is true that Republican politics in this state fostered power utilities that are managed for short-term profit, that let them duck the cost of preparing for a cold snap, despite decades of warning, and that kept them free from federal oversight which might have prevented that. But, that should make a person pissed at Republican politics in Texas, not at Ted Cruz personally. And he isn’t going to do anything for Texans having returned here, that he couldn’t do while sipping a margarita in a Cancun resort. The image is bad and easily bent to satire. Beyond that, there was no crime, no wrong doing, no real scandal. In that story, the real cad is the anonymous false friend of the Cruz’s who shared Heidi’s text messages with the media. I hope none of my friends would do such a thing for so little reason.

Good riddance

February 18, 2021

It often grates on me when people look to justify someone’s death from the behavior that led to it. We all do things that put our health at some risk, in the pursuit of career or comfort or pleasure or social connection. Addictions and habits are not easily changed. Smoking poses health risks. It doesn’t make you a bad person. I have friends who smoke. I sympathize with someone who dying from emphysema, even if they were a lifetime smoker. And with someone dying from cirrhosis, even if they were a lifetime drinker. 

My sympathy evaporates when people intentionally bullshit about such issues. Rush Limbaugh died from lung cancer after touting his smoking with lies: “There is no conclusive proof that nicotine’s addictive… And the same thing with cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease.” While championing tobacco, and even when himself addicted to pain pills, he damned drug addicts. AIDS was the new disease when he was starting out. And he made fun of those who died from it. His ability to cheerfully feed people’s cultural hates and fears turned him into a popular talk radio personality on the right. The most lasting and most harmful consequence was to expand that branch of the right that thrives on conspiracy theories. No bad intention ascribed to his political targets was too ridiculous: “Feminism was created to force popular culture to accept ugly women.” There was no fact that couldn’t be ignored, and few lies too insane to credit. Though he was sly in doing so, often referencing or spinning against those defamed, while giving a nod to the stories. 

Adam Kinzinger, along with some honest colleagues, are fighting today for a conservatism that doesn’t look like a cult running on conspiracy theories. That difference is enough to split families who otherwise share quite similar religious and political views. That split makes sense to me. It’s one thing to differ on, say, corporate tax rates. There is considerable complexity and a variety of legitimate arguments around that. And most policy issues likewise. It’s something else entirely to propagate conspiracy theories about everything from Vince Foster’s suicide to the results of Georgia’s election in 2020. Rush Limbaugh was one of the driving forces in moving such conspiracies from the edges of the conservative movement to its heart. He has been followed in that by a second generation who studied his work, from Tucker Carlson to Laura Ingraham. Conservatives like Kinzinger who want to lessen the craziness and deceit in their movement need to face such pundits head on.  

Everyone recognizes that the Marlboro man was just a role. When David McLaren was dying of lung cancer, he spoke the truth about his most famous work. For Limbaugh, facing the lies he peddled would undermine his entire life. So he continued his role to the end. Good riddance to bad rubbish. I still don’t believe in karma. I am glad he lived just long enough to see the president who rode his movement to power disgraced and defeated, and that movement at war with the rest of the political party he supported. 

Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2021

Not being religious, I never give up anything for Lent. But presently am under a water boil notice. Which doesn’t seem bad — I spent many days in Mexico City in the later 1970s, and there we boiled water every morning as a matter of course. We still have a trickle of water, which is better than many here who have none. Many of those now without power have no way to make heat, which might make a boil notice seem double insult. And Spectrum still isn’t providing us internet, so I’m burning data on my cell service.

Just north of Mexico

February 16, 2021

About 30% of Texas’s power generation facilities are offline. It’s not clear how much of that is due to gas shortages, to plant failures, or to other causes. Though many will want an answer to that question. The Houston Chronicle explains that Texas has its own power grid largely independent of the rest of the US, to avoid federal regulation. We sometimes get a little help from Mexico. Ted Cruz’s snide tweet to California last year has come back to haunt him.

The power remains out in our neighborhood. A city water main has broken and left us with minimal pressure. And Spectrum is failing to supply internet connectivity. Fortunately, we have a gas cook top, and our Prius keeps the fridge and lights on. We harvested the collards before the winter storm, and are making a pot tonight. They will have to keep us warm. Photo shows Houston’s blackout.

Just fix it!

February 10, 2021

I am not as much a tinkerer as some engineers and sailors. Still, I have more than once cursed with bleeding knuckle, trying to reach some part that needs replacing. So my first thought is to sympathize with France’s move to grade products for their repairability.

But. But… a few caveats come to mind.

First, many electronic gadgets tossed in the trash are fully functional, or easily repaired, but have been made obsolete by the rapid advance in their technical realm. Cellphones and digital cameras just a few years old look relics next to newer ones. Dedicated MP3 players and alarm clocks and even GPS systems seem less necessary as their functions are rolled into the ubiquitous cellphone or tablet. On my last boat delivery, the owner opted not to forego the expense of a chartplotter, using instead his iPad for digital navigation. And it worked well enough. The physical demands of chartplotter displays likely saves the market for them. But many electronic gadgets just a few years old are long past their utility.

Second, most everything these days more complex than a lawnmower has some embedded processor that controls its function and provides instrumentation. For any such device, the ability to update and control that software is as important as the ability to replace the plug or wheel. It is more difficult to specify what it means to give consumers control of that. (See my previous post on OBD for cars.)

Repairability may not be as clear or reachable as a few decades past. And provides only a partial step to the larger goal of sustainable engineering. Still, it makes sense to grade cars and large appliances on that.

Dumping Trump’s attorneys

February 9, 2021

The Biden administration has asked for the resignation of all US attorneys appointed by Trump, except for John Durham, who will get to finish his investigation into the Russia probe at long last, and David C. Weiss, who is investigating Hunter Biden’s taxes. The US would benefit quite a bit from a Justice Department that is more independent of the executive, and fully capable of investigating and prosecuting crimes within it, regardless of who commits them. I’m not sure how to get there, short of Constitutional amendment, something impossible in today’s political environment.

That said, Biden needs to make wholesale replacement of Trump’s appointees, throughout the government. While some may be competent and honest, that will be by accident.

Fools, grifters, and rinos

February 8, 2021

On Facebook, a community post urging people to take Covid-19 precautions regarding Superbowl parties garnered a response that the government was using this epidemic as an excuse to implement tyranny. Which is batshit crazy. And yet so typical, it’s almost as if the right-wing crazies share a magic eight-ball from which they read responses.

What is difficult to know, when seeing someone advocate such, is to tell whether they actually believe something so absurd? Or just see some advantage in parroting it? In short, it’s not easy to tell the fools from the grifters. New congressman Marjory Taylor Greene has been much in the news, for the conspiracy theories she has endorsed. Connie Schultz takes those at face value. That may be the prudent default. Wafi Wahadi, on the other hand, thinks she is calculatedly taking advantage:

Do I believe that Greene actually believes any of this nonsense? Absolutely not! Greene is a well educated woman…

Alas, education doesn’t seem to distinguish those who fall for conspiracy theories. But that is based on what people claim. Wahadi might be right that it tends to distinguish the fools from the grifters. If only we had some independent way of determining that.

The GOP is engaged in an internal civil war over the role that conspiracy theories will play going forward. The fools and grifters want to continue the path Trump trod, campaigning and governing on the basis of conspiracy theories. They want a political party that looks much like a cult. They are opposed by the establishment, represented today by Romney, Sasse, Cheney, and Kinzinger. United in wanting to set aside conspiracy theories, for that, their opposition will label them RINOs, cucks, and supporters of the deep state. McCarthy is trying to act an appeaser, neither giving voice to the conspiracy theories, nor standing to oppose them.

Photo shows Sanford R. Gifford, an embedded artist with the Union army, who would return from the war to paint landscapes, then die from malaria.