Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Wichita Lineman


Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”—a poignant song from my college days—has been running through my head. And after ten years working in the electric and gas utility business, back in the 1980s, I still can’t get the inconsistencies out of my mind.

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road,
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.

Where to begin? Well, first, “lineman” is not usually a county function. In most service territories, the line crews are employed by the public utility that owns, operates, and maintains the powerlines. So I thought we had difficulty in the first line. But, on investigation, I found that Wichita is served by the Sedgwick County Electric Cooperative, so in that case the lineman probably does work for the county.

But to continue … In most utilities, the linemen don’t drive around looking for trouble. That job—which is a promotion above the classification of lineman—goes to a “troubleman.” This person works alone, as in the song, and does patrol the distribution and transmission lines. And when the troubleman finds trouble, he—sometimes nowadays, but rarely, a she—calls out a line crew to fix it. Note that while some powerlines, especially distribution lines in neighborhoods, have rights of way along “the main road,” most of the higher-voltage transmission lines cut across country. So the troubleman spends more time on back roads and in the dirt than on easy main roads.

And then, what kind of trouble does this person look for? An “overload” implies a powerline that is carrying too much electricity. That is, the utility is operating it at too high a load for conditions. Electricity passing through a wire creates resistance and sheds this energy in the form of heat. On hot and windless days, the heat can start to melt—or at least soften—a one-inch cable braided from aluminum strands, so that it sags between towers or poles and threatens to touch the trees, brush, or even ground along the right of way. That would be an obvious problem. And maybe in Kansas, in 1968 when the song was written, utility operators wouldn’t know when they were overloading their lines and causing fires. These days, powerlines are monitored by remote sensing equipment and the operator varies the load to match conditions.

What most troublemen are looking for is the location of a known fault. Sometimes, in a high wind, two of the three phases on the line—carried in the three separate wires strung from pole to pole—come together, short out, and cause a fault. Then, in a modern powerline, a device called a “recloser” works like a fuse: it pops, interrupting the flow of current, then tries to close again in case the touch was momentarily. If the fault persists, it stays open. The troubleman finds the hanging recloser, gets out a long extension pole, and closes it. But more often the trouble is a line brought down by someone driving into a pole, or the wind causing a tree branch to fall into the lines and bring them down. Then the troubleman calls out a line crew to fix it.

I hear you singin’ in the wire;
I can hear you through the whine.
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

I understand that you can sometimes hear the wind in the wires and think it’s your loved one singing. If you hear a whine or a buzz, then you’re not dealing with a neighborhood distribution line. More likely it’s a high-voltage transmission line, and the sound is caused by moisture or dust carrying some of that current outside the wire and along its surface, like a giant Tesla coil. And yes, a lineman or troubleman might hear this too.

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain.
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain.
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time.
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.

All right, this one’s a definite no. Well, maybe in Kansas, where the rain comes straight down and the wind doesn’t blow. In California, however, rain means winter storms with lots of wind. That means lines coming down and lots of trouble to repair. You don’t want your troublemen and linemen going on vacation then. You want everyone on call and ready to roll at all hours of the day or night. And maybe, in Kansas on the prairie, you can get so much snow that it weighs down the lines or the towers and causes them to collapse. But if a troubleman knew of a weakened section vulnerable to such weather, he would have put in an order to repair or replace it. Maybe the utility company or cooperative has not yet executed that order, but prudent management suggests you do that while the sun is shining and not wait for the snow to take out part of your system.

And then, this lineman is thinking about his lady love and needing her and wanting her. Some senior member of the crew is going to slap him upside his hardhat and tell him to get his mind on the job and get back to work. That’s the reality.

But then, “Wichita Troubleman” have been a different type of song. And none of it would have rhymed.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

On Abortion

Human embryo

I try not to be too overtly political on these blogs, because I have friends and readers on both sides of the aisle. Also, I am generally in the middle on most issues, polling about three points right of center on a scale of one hundred either way. But this issue has been batting around in my head recently, and writing it down is a way to get it out.

First, let me say that I’m not generally against killing. I mean, we humans do it all the time. I eat meat and feel unashamed. I support war as the last resort of the beset and desperate. War means killing. War means horror. But war is what you do when negotiations break down and surrender is not an option.

Like most Americans, I think, I am not opposed to abortion when it’s done in the first trimester. At that time the embryo is still developing and doesn’t have much of a nervous system, so not a lot of sentience. While I believe life begins at conception, the early-stage fetus is still just the potential for human life. A lot of things can go wrong in a pregnancy and do. And a miscarriage in the first trimester is more a dashing of the parents’ hopes than the destruction of a human person. Still, I don’t like abortion as a birth-control option, because it’s invasive and it seems to teach the woman’s body how to miscarry. But if she is beyond the option of less invasive measures and still wishes not to be pregnant, that will be her choice.

The second and third trimester become, for me, more problematic. The fetus is developing a nervous system, sensation, and—if we can believe the memes that would have you play Bach to your belly, talk to it, and send happy thoughts in that direction—some self-awareness. Destroying a fetus in these circumstances becomes more like the murder of a human person than the destruction of a clump of cells. I have some feelings about that, and so do many Americans, I think.

Abortion at the moment of birth—what “partial-birth” abortion would seem to advocate—is, in my mind, really the killing of a viable human baby. I understand that the birth may be induced for this purpose, but that does not make it better. I also understand that the people who advocate for this are less concerned with the mental or physical health of the mother than they are with the legal standing of the abortion issue. They are absolutists and legal purists: if abortion in principle is not made an absolute right at all stages of a pregnancy, then it can be challenged and overturned at any stage, including the moment of conception.

I am not an absolutist or a purist about anything. So the appeal of this argument leaves me cold. I believe people should be responsible for their actions: if a woman decides she does not want a child, she should make up her mind in the first three or four months, not wait until the baby is almost born. Bending the law and common sense to accommodate her every whim is not good practice.

Also, abortion at the end of a pregnancy crosses a line that, I think, most moral people are unwilling to cross. If it’s acceptable to kill a baby at the moment of birth, then why not two weeks later? Does the child keep you up at night? Do you have regrets about becoming a parent? Smother it! Does your two-year-old daughter throw tantrums and grate on your nerves? Drown her! Did your sixteen-year-old son borrow the car and dent it? Shoot him! Did your sixty-year-old daughter tell you it’s time you were put in the old folks’ home? Stab or poison her!

Again, I’m not completely opposed to killing—at least not when it’s done with cause. But I do believe people should take responsibility for their actions. And their response to pressure, aggravation, and opposition should be proportional to the incident, where casual murder would be an extreme reaction. While I don’t have an absolute respect for life—again, not absolutist about anything—I do believe being careful and respecting the rights of other sentient beings, especially among your own species, is a moral good. It’s something to strive for, even if we cannot always attain it.

Now, many women are also saying, with reason, “My body, my choice.” This is to say that other people, men in particular, and society in general, have no right to an opinion in the matter of abortion, nor should they be allowed to make rules about it. And, in my view, this is true up to a point—that point being somewhere in the second trimester. Until then, the fetus might be considered just a “clump of cells,” not much different from a tumor, and certainly without a separate identity or viability, perhaps with the potential for humanity but not exactly a human being. But after that point—and we can debate where to draw the line—the fetus becomes a separate entity with sensation, some awareness, and more than just potential. At that point, the woman is hosting, sharing her body with, another living being. And whether you like the biological facts or not, that becomes a societal concern.

To say, “My body, my choice” about the entire process, up to and through the stage of actually giving birth, is like someone saying, “My dog, my property.” After all, they own the dog, bought it, fed it, took care of it in their fashion, and can now decide what to do with it. If a dog owner wants to beat it, starve it, leave it out in the cold chained to a tree, or even abandon it alongside the road, then society should have no say in the matter. The dog is a wholly owned possession that may be disposed of at the owner’s whim. Right?

That’s one view of the legal process about ownership and responsibility, but most of us would disagree. A world where such mind-your-own-business callousness is the societal norm would be a cold and unfeeling place, without pity or concern for the weak and defenseless.

That is not a world I want to inhabit.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Unexpected Candidates

Puppet master

Something very strange is going on. Or, put another way with more emphasis, what the hell is going on? Or, as we used to say back in I think it was the 1960s or early ’70s, “Who the hell for President.” Simply stated, the American electorate over the past decade and maybe more has been choosing, or perhaps being offered, the most surprising, least expected, and sometimes least qualified candidates for the highest office in the land.

The Presidency is the most prominent and most powerful popularly elected position in the country. It ranks above Speaker of the House, who is only elected by members of Congress; above Majority Leader in the Senate, who is only elected by members of the majority party in Congress; and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who is appointed by the President and confirmed in the Senate. Of all the key players in our national government, the President is the only one we all get together and choose, first in the primary elections or party caucuses in each state and then in the national election.

Yes, the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have great influence on how the candidates of each major party are chosen. The national committees solicit and direct funding for campaigns and write the rules for party organization and choosing delegates to their national conventions, where input from the primaries are reduced to votes for and against potential candidates. And sometimes the national committees, whose members and influence may not be publicly recognized—that “smoke-filled room” thing—put their fingers on the scale. In both parties, the votes at their national convention include both “pledged” delegates, representing results of the primary election in their state, “unpledged” delegates, who presumably can vote their conscience, or the desires of the party structure, or whatever.

Up until 2018, the Democrats had a large number of “superdelegates” in this position, representing members of Congress, governors, and past Presidents. They could vote however they themselves wanted or at the direction of the party. After 2018, the superdelegates were forbidden to vote on the first ballot of the convention, effectively letting the people decide that much, unless the outcome was beyond doubt. In 2015, the Republicans ruled that unpledged delegates had to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state’s primary election.

And then, there is the matter of whether the state holds an open, semi-open, or closed primary election, reflecting when and how people not registered with a particular party can vote for the candidates of other parties. Only thirteen states and the District of Columbia have closed primaries, where the voter is only offered the choice of candidates within his or her registered party affiliation. Fifteen states have semi-closed primaries, where only independent voters may choose among candidates on any of the affiliated ballots, or may change their registration on election day. Fourteen states have open primaries, where the voter chooses the party ballot on election day. Others, including my own California, have some kind of blanket primary, where the voters choose from a roster of all candidates from all parties.

So how much actual choice any individual voter has in the selection of the final candidates put forward on the November ballot is open to question.

Still … what the hell has been happening? Sometimes, the party’s candidate has been around so long, raised so much money, or tried often enough that the national committee, the primary voters, and the delegates decide that, come what may, “it’s his [or her] time.” This is apparently what happened when the Republicans selected the cold-natured Bob Dole to run in 1996 and Democrats promoted the unlovable and sometimes questionable Hillary Clinton in 2016. In both cases, party loyalists had to grit their teeth and vote the platform. At least, both candidates had solid careers in the Senate, and Clinton had been Secretary of State, a high and influential office in any administration.

But in 2008, the Democrats nominated Barack Obama, a junior senator with limited government experience, with sealed transcripts and a ghost-written autobiography—but selected presumably because he was the only obvious Black candidate, and “it was time”—and the Republicans nominated John McCain, an established senator from Arizona but one who had voted against his party’s interest so often that he felt like an independent.

In 2012, the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, a businessman, son of the former governor of Michigan, and chief executive of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was a nice enough guy, but still not ready for the presidency.1

In 2016, the Democrats finally decided it was Hillary Clinton’s “time,” narrowly excluding the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, whose party affiliation is officially “independent” and unabashedly claims to admire socialism. And the Republicans passed over a dozen able candidates with political experience including governors and senators as well as a nationally prominent businesswoman with executive experience to choose Donald Trump, a real estate magnate and reality-television star with no background in electoral politics.

And then in 2020, we almost got Sanders as the Democratic nominee but he was passed over at the eleventh hour by Joe Biden, a long-time senator, vice president under Obama, previous candidate for president—but also a man of obviously frail and perhaps failing mental and physical health. If it was “his time,” that was sometime in the past. Biden was joined on the Democratic ticket by Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California and former state attorney general, who dropped out of the field of presidential candidates before her first primary. These are hardly charismatic personalities.

It used to be that candidates for the highest office in the land would have extensive political experience, usually as a governor running one of the larger states or as an influential and long-serving member of Congress, at least as a senator. But lately we have seen a parade of candidates chosen for some other reason. And not all of them have outstanding service in some other line of work, such as Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 election after a leadership role in winning World War II.

It is almost as if the parties, or the people themselves, are devaluing the office, saying “Who the hell for President.” And this is at a time when Congress defers more and more of the details in the laws they pass to the judgment of unelected bureaucrats in the Executive branch and lets the legality of those laws be decided in cases before the Supreme Court. You would think that the person who appoints the senior executives in the administration, sets its day-to-day tone, can veto legislation, and nominates the federal judges and Supreme Court justices should be a person of proven capability, probity, and reasonable judgment.

Instead, we seem to get more than our fair share of nonentities and, sometimes, thinly disguised crooks and buffoons. Who chooses these people? What the hell is happening?

1. And it was only in the last year or so that he became the junior senator from Utah, gaining the political experience that he should have had eight years ago.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Electricity's Dirty Secret

Power lines

For the decade of the 1980s I worked in the Corporate Communications department of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, PG&E, one of the largest energy companies in the country, with a service territory covering most of Northern California. One of the biggest things I learned from this time—aside from the fact that your local utility is made up of good people who support their community—is that there are many ways to generate electricity and the key to choosing among them is economics rather than technology.

By a quirk of geography and history, PG&E had—and still has, for all I know—one of the most diversified generating systems in the country, although some of that generating capacity has since been spun off to private owners and suppliers. The company inherited a network of dams and flumes in the Sierra Nevada that provided powerful water jets for hydraulic gold mining in the 19th century, and these were easily converted to run turbines in hydroelectric powerhouses up and down the mountains. It had four large thermal power plants—steam boilers driving turbine generators—that drew on the company’s abundant natural gas supplies for fuel. PG&E also operates smaller units that burn the gas to directly drive turbines, similar to a grounded jet engine attached to a generator. It built a major nuclear power plant at Diablo Cove in San Luis Obispo County, and built almost two dozen generating units drawing on The Geysers geothermal steam field in Sonoma and Lake counties. It draws power from the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant, on the Carrizo Plain, also in San Luis Obispo County, and from the Shiloh wind-power farm in the Montezuma Hills along the Sacramento River in Solano County, among others. The company buys electricity from the Western System Power Pool (WSPP) and the California Independent System Operator (CaISO).

With all of this diversity, PG&E’s energy cost is relatively low, depending on factors like snowfall in the Sierras to feed those dams and the state of the aquifer feeding the steam fields. The company does not draw on enough renewable energy—yet—to be much affected by variations in the wind and sundown over the state.

If the state ever fulfills its promise to get rid of all fossil fuels and provide all power from renewables like wind and solar, the remaining nuclear and geothermal assets will not be able to make up the difference from those abandoned gas-fired power plants.1 There is talk of making up the difference from windless days and dark nights with some kind of energy storage: batteries, compressed air in underground chambers, or superconducting materials that let an electrical charge chase round and round in a donut-like torus. None of these technologies has been tried or proven at any scale needed to supply a utility grid. There is also talk of mandating solar powered roofing in all new housing and retrofitting existing roofs, with transformers to convert the electricity to household current and with batteries to supply energy on dark days and at night. Aside from the initial cost and payback time, generally measured in tens of years, these plans are intended—at least in the promoters’ dreams—to put the local utility entirely out of business.2

The dream of “free electricity” without fuel costs or emissions, using wind and solar power, runs into some basic engineering realities involving energy efficiency and capital cost.

In making these technologies work, the engineer has to move from conceptual design—linking up components, energy flows, and costs in back-of-the-envelope calculations and drawings—to detail design—putting the components in place at the right scale, establishing the true cost of each component, and accounting for variables like heat loss and line losses.3

Engineers constantly work with another variable set, too. For them, there is no such thing as perfection, no solution that is best under all conditions. Everything is a tradeoff in the engineer’s world. Instead of “good” and “bad,” the engineer thinks in terms of “better” and “worse.” You can make electricity with a gasoline generator—if the EPA and county authorities will approve it—or with a hand crank, or by rubbing a silk scarf on a glass rod. The question is always—and this is what I learned at PG&E—at what site, with what investments, and using what fuel supply at what cost? How attractive or interesting or politically correct the technology might be is not a factor.

Solar photovoltaics—generating an electric current by using the energy in sunlight to pass an electron through a semiconductor substrate—is about 20% to 22% efficient, even in cells and panels of the highest quality. This means that three-quarters of the solar energy that falls on them is lost to heat or reflection. And how that efficiency is affected by dust or a layer of snow and ice is still undetermined in large-scale applications, although probably not to good effect. Perhaps, in time, research into new materials can boost that efficiency up to maybe 30%, but much farther than that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Wind turbines have an efficiency of about 50% to 59%. This is comparable to the energy efficiency of a gas turbine or thermal power plant. But wind farms require the right conditions, a place with strong, steady, and predictable winds. Like a geothermal steam field, such locations are a resource that can’t be established by fiat or political rezoning. And wind turbines, like any machine dealing with strong forces, are subject to mechanical stresses on the blades and shafts. Although their energy resource is free, the capital investment to harvest it is expensive, not easy to maintain—that is, a heavy generator on a tall tower, sometimes sited on a hilltop, is harder to fix than a turbine generator under cover in a power plant—and subject to depreciation and eventual replacement.

Either of these fuel-free, renewable resources would require the participating utility to maintain a commensurate amount of “spinning reserve”—an alternate, dispatchable generating resource all fired up and ready to come on line instantly to meet the system load dropped when the wind dies or the sun goes behind a cloud. In most cases, this reserve power would have to come from fossil fuels, because the small amounts of electricity available from hydro and geothermal power, and the supply from an operating nuclear plant, would already be spoken for. And some form of “battery backup” on a systemwide basis is not currently technically or economically feasible.

And finally, fusion—the dream of limitless energy by harvesting hydrogen isotopes from sea water and compressing them with laser blasts or electromagnetic fields—is still ten years away. Always ten years away. Yes, we can make deuterium and tritium fuse with either compression technology; we just can’t make them give off more energy than we must put into the reaction. For now, it seems, the only way to fuse hydrogen into helium reliably is to compress it in a steep gravity field, like the inside of a star. Until we find some magical gravity-manipulation technology, utility-scale fusion is going to remain a dream.

All of these renewable technologies—except for fusion—have their place in a diversified system. None of them is ready, yet, to satisfy all of our energy needs. And a modern economy runs on ready availability of energy the way ancient economies ran on resources of clean water and food. Maybe in a few hundred or a thousand years, when we have run out of conveniently obtained fossil fuels, we will develop efficient and low-cost solar4 or fusion power. But for right now, we run on bulk carbon energy.

And no amount of wishing will make it otherwise.

1. Of all the fossil fuels, natural gas is the most efficient in terms of high energy output with low carbon dioxide emissions. This is because the methane molecule (CH4) burns completely, breaking all of its hydrogen bonds in turning methane into carbon dioxide and water. Other carbon sources like coal and oil either burn incompletely or tend to put soot particles and other contaminants into the atmosphere along with greater amounts of carbon dioxide.

2. Of course, manufacturing plants that need large amounts of electric power to run their operations—more than rooftop solar can supply, like steel mills, auto factories, shipyards, and other heavy industries—can either run their own generating stations or leave the state.

3. Building a solar- or wind-power farm—whose energy resource and efficiencies are generally be weaker than a thermal plant’s, and which will generally have to be sited some distance from the end user—must take into account energy lost to resistance and heat on a transmission line. This is usually accounted as 5% to 15%, depending on distance traveled.

4. Probably from orbit, as in my novel Sunflowers, where sunlight has an energy density of 1,300 watts per square meter instead of the 130 W/m2 that strikes the Earth’s surface.