Global Warming

book_cover_big.gifRecently the European Commission  (EC) has released a green paper on how to accelerate innovative lighting technologies ( The focus in the entire document is on solid state lighting (SSL) only. About 20% of the world wide total electrical energy generated  is used to generate light. SSL is expected to play a substantial role in an energy efficiency improvement of 20% (EC ambition versus 1990). It is anticipated that SSL (which can be either LED or OLED based technology) can save in combination with smart lighting management systems up to 70% of required electrical energy today. LED’s are expected to convert electrical energy  at an efficiency of about 60%, compare that to incandescent bulbs of only 2% and CFL’s of about 25%.

Looks OK at first sight isn’t ? But it totally overlooks that these new light sources will create new applications and therefore a possible risk that the net result is that we save much less or, even worse, spent even more of our electricity bill on lighting than today. This is comparable to the anticipated reduction in paper use with the arrival of the PC and high quality monitor screens. Well we know how that ended….. look for instance to the amount of junk mail that you find almost daily in your mailbox. Thus we will need to be careful how we apply SSL.

The EC is worried about Europe’s competitive position (quote from the report):

“The USA in 2009 put in place a long-term SSL strategy (from research to commercialisation). China is implementing a municipal showcase programme for LED street lighting involving more than 21 cities; it is granting significant subsidies to LED manufacturing plants and aims to create 1 million related jobs in the next 3 years. South Korea has defined a national LED strategy with the goal to become a top-3 world player in the LED business by 2012”

Two linked objectives are mentioned by the EC: 1) Develop the demand side (European users) and 2) Develop the supply side (role of  the European industry)

One of the problems to overcome is the high price of SSL: a 60W incandescent bulb cost about 1 Euro, a CFL about 5 Euro and a LED about 30 Euro. It is expected that by continuous price erosion in 2015 market share of CFL and SSL will be balanced. Not so far away!

book_cover_big.gifIn an earlier blog[1] I wrote about the connection between the Second Law, the economy  and the problem of a sustainable society. Of course the most important inputs on this topic were provided by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen is his book  in 1971 entitled: The Entropy law and the Economic Process[2]. Georgescu-Roegen stated that the entropy law applies to everything we do, and that with every action that degrades energy (it is never really “used up”) entropy is produced, leaving a smaller entropy budget for future generations. In other words, he made us aware of the entropic constraint on all economic activity. The entropy law simply prevents us from creating a kind of perpetual cycle that would miraculously restore natural resources. Georgescu-Roegen’s main complaint about  economists is that they ignore this fact, and assume that everything in the economic process is cyclic in nature, and that in any case technology will provide us with solutions. However, it can be shown that often each new technology tends to accelerate the entropy production even more.

Interesting in this respect is a very recent publication by the Economics Web Institute: Innovative Economical Policies for Climate Change Mitigation[3]. About 30 economists, managers, consultants and technologists have gathered to describe 20 approaches to mitigate the climate change. Three key transitions (as they coin it) are needed: 

1) Transitions in market structures and firm behaviour

2) Transitions in consumer lifestyles and purchasing rules

3) Transition in government policy making

They argue that economical aspects must play a much stronger role climate change mitigation and that the neoclassical economical model (that reduces all entities to prices and quantities but neglects for instances the extinction of the human race) needs a major revision. Instead they believe that climate mitigation not necessarily must be considered as just a cost factor but merely as an opportunity for innovation, business growth, profit and employment.

The entire book counts more than 350 pages, I will in upcoming blogs zoom in on a few of the articles. In the mean time have a look at the web site of the Economics Web Institute ( as it contains tons of interesting articles, data and tables.

@ 2009 Copyright John Schmitz


                   [2] Georgescu-Roegen, Nicolas, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1971)

[3] Innovative Economic Policies for Climate Change Mitigation

Piana V. (ed.), Aliyev S., Andersen M. M., Banaszak I., Beim M., Kannan B., Kalita B., Bullywon L., Caniëls M., Doon H., Gaurav J., Karbasi A.,  Komalirani Y., Kua H. W., Hussey K., Lee J., Masinde J., Matczak P., Mathew P. , Moghadam Z.  G., Mozafary M. M., Rafieirad S., Romijn H., Oltra V., Schram A., Malik V. S., Stewart G.,  Wagner Z., Weiler R. (2009),,  Economics Web Institute,

book_cover_big.gifRecently a Harvard University scientist, Alex Wissner-Gross, was quoted in TimesOnLine  that each computer search of the internet could produce as much as 7 gram of CO2 (the journalists of TimesOnLine compared that to boiling a kettle of water that would produce about 15 gram of CO2).[1] Google responded that the calculation was not right as an average search would only last about 0.2 second and that that would then equate to about 0.2 gram of CO2.[2] Clarifications later on revealed that Google referred to a one time search hit whereas Wissner-Gross referred to a complete search that encompasses several hits. Further more Google pointed out that the company has several environmental footprint reducing initiatives underway.

But it remains of course interesting to know how much energy the ICT infrastructure needs. It has been suggested[3] that this could be up to 2% of the world’s total greenhouse emissions (comparable to the amount produced by air transportation).

Closer to ourselves: who knows how much energy your PC at home takes up? Well I did not know the answer and I have monitored my PC  for a week. I simply hooked up a kWh meter between the outlet and the PC/printer/external HD/scanner assembly. The lucky number is: 6.3 kWh per week. At night I switch the PC off and during day time I put the PC in standby after 20 minutes of idle time. I also compared this figure with my freezer/fridge combination:

  1.             PC                                 6.3     kWh/week              327 kWh/year
  2.             Freezer/Fridge       38.1   kWh/week           1981  kWh/year

Then also good to know is that the electricity need of an average Belgian family is about 3500kWh per year.[4]

What we conclude from this that indeed PC’s and accessories do require a substantial amount of energy that is not small compared to other household appliances. A critical look at standby regimes and shutting down overnight seems to be wise.

© Copyright John Schmitz




[3] Recent Gartner report, see reference 1


book_cover_big.gifLately the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is strongly recommended to replace the incandescent light bulbs (ILB). The main reason is because CFL’s can save a considerable amount of energy during their lifetime; at least that is what is claimed.

Before scrutenizing that claim closer, first a few facts about the lamps it self. The classical ILB, that has been with us basically since the invention of generating light out of electricity operates through a simple principle. A (tungsten) wire is heated through the passage of current to a temperature of about  3000 °C. At that temperature the wire (acting as a black body) emits almost white light. In contrast, the CFL is much more complicated and operates on the principle of a gas discharge. When a gas at lower pressure is subjected to the passage of a current a complex chain of events takes place that eventually results in the generation of UV radiation. When UV light hits a proper chosen phosphorous layer (coated on the inside of the glass tube) the UV light gets converted in visible light. The phosphorous layers are now so sophisticated that the color of the light of a CFL matches that of an ILB. CFL’s can live 4 times longer than ILB’s.

But there is more to tell. A CFL of  18W generates as much light as an ILB of 100W. Thus the amount of electricity needed to drive the lamp is a factor of 5 lower for the CFL and that is at first sight of course a big advantage. Certainly if you realize that about 25% of the electricity generated in the world is used for lighting purposes! However, if you hold an ILB in one hand and a CFL in the other hand you feel immediately a big difference in weight. This is because a CFL is much more complicated to operate than an ILB. A CFL needs an electronic circuit (called a ballast) to ignite and maintain the gas discharge in the tube. This ballast contains a substantial number of components. Thus the question arises if you take into account all the energy for manufacturing, shipping and dispose a CFL, will the energy balance then still be in favor of this lamp versus that of the ILB?

The answer to such a question can only be obtained by a careful Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). Several LCA’s have been done for CFL’s and ILB’s. A recent one is done by David Parsons[1] from the university of Southern Queensland, Australia. In the rest of this blog I quote a few of his conclusions. In an LCA many energy and environmental aspects of a given product are analyzed:

  • Components, processes, materials and quantities used
  • Manufacturing
  • Packaging
  • Transportation
  • Energy used in retailing and wholesale
  • Energy usage during usage
  • Energy losses in transmission lines
  • Impact assessment on environment
  • Disposal

Parsons does then a careful analysis of the two lamps for the items listed above. His conclusion is straightforward: “CFL’s are a significant better source of light from an environmental point of view than ILB’s maily because of their much more efficient use of energy”. He also touches on the problem that CFL’s contain a bit of mercury (about 3 mg)[2] that may pose a problem during disposal. However, he compares that with the amount of mercury that is emitted to the atmosphere by coal fired power plants. Again he comes to the conclusion that also on this aspect CFL’s outperform IBL’s with a factor of 5 in terms of environmental impact: “This analysis serves to confirm that the claimed environmental benefits of CFL’s over IBL’s is largely true and further that it is true on almost any measure…”

That is good news for the planet I think.

2008 © Copyright John Schmitz

[1] Parsons, David. “The Environmental Impact of Compact Fluorescent Lamps and Incandescent Lamps for Australian Conditions”, The Environmental Engineer 7(2): 8-14 (2006).

A link to this article:

[2] The mercury is needed to facilitate ignition of the gas.

book_cover_big.gifWe all know the facts: the earth is warming up. Al Gore has put quite some convincing facts together in his book “An Inconvenient Truth”. Right?

Mmmmmm…… sometimes you can find some counter arguments from credible scientists[1]. In an article from Salomon Kroonenberg[2], a geologist,  he argues for instance that for the last 10 years the average temperature on earth has not increased. It peaked in 1998, most probably because of an overactive El Nino. However, the CO2 levels did increase in that period but at the same time the activity of the sun was changing as well. And the activity level of the sun is known to have an impact on the temperature of earth. In the period between 1945 and 1975 the average temperature decreased while the concentration of green house gases increased. He brings forward several other examples where there is no correlation between the climate change and the greenhouse gases. For instance he points out periods in history where there have been dramatic changes in climate while the atmosphere did not change. Kroonenberg’s point is that there are many other mechanisms that have changed the climate in the past and at speeds much larger than what we observe now. His advise is therefore that we better adapt to the changing climate and find ways to cope with that.

But what about the average temperature of the earth?  How sure can we be about that crucial parameter? In fact it appears not to be such a trivial job to monitor the average temperature of earth and certainly not when you want to see one degree of difference over a long period. Temperature monitoring of the oceans was done for quit a while from ships. American ships typically measured the temperature of the water sucked into the inlet of the cooling funnels of the ship whereas English ships simply would use buckets to take a sample of the water and stick a thermometer in it. It proved that the American method gave a too high of a value (about 0.3°C ) whereas the English method gave a too low of a value. Temperatures that are measured at the surface of earth can have many flaws such as changing environment (urbanization) or changing station locations. See for more details on this reference.

There are also measurements taken by satellites. Satellite data have the advantage that they are truly covering the entire globe but do span a relatively short period, something like only 30 years. One of the institutes that generates satellites temperature data is the University of  Alabama of Huntsville.[4] In the figure below you can find the temperature recorded at globe level since 1979, I have averaged the monthly numbers per year. The year 1998 looks indeed, as mentioned above, as a maverick year, but let’s for this discussion not spent time on that observation. I believe that it is more important to note that there appears to be two periods of different behavior. The period from 1979 till 1997 seem to be a stable period with an average temperature of -0.027°C and the period from 1999 till 2007 seem to show a still increasing trend with an average temperature in that period of 0.216°C (substantially higher than the previous period). So the claims found in the press today that the temperature of the globe did not increase within the last 10 years is perhaps true but on average the average temperature in the last 10 years is substantially higher then in the previous 20 years. But let’s not forget, the time span we are discussing here is still awfully short at geological timescales.  So be careful drawing conclusions one way or the other would be my advise.



Average Global anual temperature. Data taken from the University of Alabama at Huntsville

Copyright © 2008 John Schmitz







This time I would like to dwell a little bit on energy “consumption” and its relation to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) creation. (In fact, the term “energy consumption” is misleading,  as energy cannot be destroyed nor created, according to the First Law of  – more about that later.)  For this discussion, I’m using data from the 2006 Report of the International Energy Agency. There are several ways to  look at the raw data, three of which are described below.

First, one feels intuitively that the amount of energy that a nation uses is related to its productivity, as expressed in its GDP and its population, which of course drives GDP. Therefore, in order to compare nations with different outputs and populations,  it seems wise to divide both consumed energy and GDP by population. This is expressed in Figure 1 below.




Figure 1. GDP versus energy consumed for selected nations and regions

What we notice is the huge range in power levels (in KW/capita) between the lowest  consumer (India) and the highest (USA). In the USA, each citizen needs an average power level of more than 10KW every second to keep the society going (this includes everything: transportation, work, food, housing, leisure, etc.). But when we look to productivity levels (expressed as GDP/capita), we see that the productivity of the USA (ca. $36,000/capita) is more than 70 times than that of India (ca $500 /capita).  Based on that, the USA is perhaps not such a bad performer in terms of energy efficiency (10KW/capita vs. about 1KW/capita for India), but more on this later. There seems to be a rough overall correlation between GDP/capita and energy/capita. This is understandable, since higher productivity per individual will cause a higher energy need for each.

There is, however, another interesting fact. In the example above, we compared an underdeveloped country with a highly developed one, which may be like comparing apples with oranges. So let’s compare Japan with the USA. The productivity per capita of both countries is comparable and actually are the best in the world, from a productivity point of view. Yet Japan needs only half of the kilowatts that the USA needs! If the USA could be as frugal with energy as Japan, that would instantly solve its dependence on oil imports and vastly decrease the production of greenhouse gases!  On that score, Japan emits 9.5 tons of CO2/capita, whereas the USA emits 19.7 tons per capita, roughly proportional to the energy consumption ratio of the two countries. (For perspective, consider that worldwide per-capita CO2 emission is  only 4 tons (4000 kg) per year!)

Now let’s look at the problem from the angle of energy efficiency, as in Figure 2.





Figure 2. Energy efficiency of selected countries and regions

In this figure, we plotted total primary energy supply (TPES) divided by GDP for several nations and regions. The TPES is a calculated number where factors such as energy production, imports, exports and stock changes are taken into consideration. It is expressed in millions of tons of oil equivalents (MTOE) and can be converted into GWh: 11630MTOE = 1GWh. The more to the right you are in the graph, the better your energy efficiency.

What we notice is that the industrialized countries are working most efficiently, with Japan in the lead. Russia is doing the poorest job in terms of energy efficiency, whereas less industrialized regions are factors lower than the best performers. This is an important fact, because rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India can improve greatly by implementing known methods from the Western nations. However, let’s not fool ourselves. While it’s good to strive for energy-efficient production, the impact on the climate is simply proportional to the absolute amount of energy consumed. Have a look at Figure 3. 

Absolute Energy consumption per Country/Region


Figure 3. Absolute energy “consumption” per nation or region


From Figure 3, I believe the conclusion is clear: global climate change can be addressed only by international measures. And it can be managed only if we humans bring down our total energy requirements. This can be done partly with greater efficiency, and (this is the hard part) by decreasing usage as well. The big users of energy such as the USA, China, and Europe must act together as responsible planetary citizens.

© Copyright 2007, John E.J. Schmitz

book_cover_big.gifOn May 4 this year in Bangkok, the Working Group III achieved agreement on the content of the fourth Action Report  of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is an important milestone as this report is supported by many members of the United Nations. There is a “summary for policy makers” available, that has many concrete mitigations for Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

I have in the table below assembled a selection of possible measures to reduce GHG and grouped them in three categories: reduction of energy needs, alternative energy sources and using the help of natural resources. Three more columns are added that indicate who or what plays a major role to accomplish the measures to be taken: the individual citizen or the governments or whether new technology is needed to get the job done. 

IPCC outcome WGIII

We conclude that a major role is with the governments (that may be bad news knowing how slow these guys are). They can for instance work with tax breaks in the category of reduction of energy needs. But, and let’s not forget, there are also quite some actions implementable by our selves! And, yes we will need from time to time perhaps some new technology as well. This new technology can come  from initiatives started by corporations or from governments (or a combination).

The good news from the Action Report is that we can certainly do something about Global Warming but that time is running out on us.

© Copyright 2007, John E.J. Schmitz

book_cover_big.gifIt sounds like a fantastic deal. Here you are with your 8000 pound car to transport a single 150 pound person. These 8150 pounds need that 6 liter, 300 hp engine to get the thing rolling, burning one gallon every 10 miles or so. Of course in the back of your mind you have this nagging feeling that you contribute with such a car tremendously to the CO2 in the atmosphere. But, hey there is a solution for that too. You can participate in one of these “Carbon Neutral” approaches where you (or a company or organisation for you) plant a bunch of trees that will take up the amount of CO2 that your car generated (read the article of Andrew Revkin in the New York Times of April 29, 2007). Thus, the dilemma is solved, you can drive your car and the world will not suffer. Is it?

Of course planting trees is in itself not a bad thing. But, traffic pollutes the air with many other chemicals than just CO2. For example, there are also massive ammounts of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons (also called Volatile Organic Compounds, VOC’s) released. Under the influence of sunlight,  nitrogen oxides and VOC’s can give smog (increased ground levels of ozone, O3) that can be extremely unhealthy and especially for people that suffer from asthma. In addition to these chemicals there is generation of particles (soot). These particles can block sunlight which in turn can lead to local climate changes (less rain for example).

Hey but wait. Did we forget about the holy grail perhaps? How about these bio-fuels? They are “carbon neutral” too, isn’t? Let’s have a closer look to one of the bio-fuels, ethanol, that can be produced from corn. It is indeed true that corn while growing will fixate an amount of CO2 (from which carbohydrates are synthesized in the photosynthesis process). Of course burning ethanol in the engine will release again the CO2 bound earlier in the atmosphere. Two important aspects need to be considered:

  1. Detailed studies have shown that the energy balance to produce ethanol from corn is negative. It appears that about 30% more fossil fuelis needed than ethanol fuel can produce. Sounds like carrying water to the sea. [Pimentel and Patzek, Nat. Resour. Res., Vol 14, No1, March 2005]
  2. A recent study at Stanford university shows that E85 (a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) generates also other chemicals than just CO2. Among those are aldehydes (compounds that contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) that also contribute to  smog formation. Thus we solve perhaps one problem but get back another one.

The fact that the ethanol production has a net negative energy balance is a serious one. But it is not unexpected if we keep in mind the Second Law of thermodynamics that says us that you will get nothing for free. The production process of ethanol requires at several stages (for instance during the distilling process) energy inputs and those inputs come typically from fossil fuels (used in power plants for instance). The Second Law teaches us that every-time we require energy, that a certain amount of the energy degrades in quality and is no longer available to do work.

Folks, the message is clear. Reducing the fuel needed for traffic can be reduced substantially by some very simple measures: stop driving the 8000 pound vehicles, reduce your speed, keep your tyres properly inflated and make sure your engine is tuned. This will save you money and will reduce the green house gases emissions. But it is us who have to take action, writing checks will just not cut it.

And by the way……. continue to plant trees!

© Copyright 2007, John E.J. Schmitz

book_cover_big.gifAs I said earlier, technology by itself can not solve our global warming problem. On the contrary, sometimes new technologies make things only worse (bio fuels for instance). But there are also many cases where technology certainly can help. A good example is that of solid state lighting (SSL). The light source in SSL is a light emitting diode (LED). Let me explain that a bit.

A LED is a device made out of semiconductor materials (for example Gallium Nitride, chemically noted as GaN). It is basically a diode with which you would normally rectify AC current. But by proper geometrical shaping and the right applied voltages the diode can also generate light. The principle of light generating in the LED (electron-hole recombination) allows that high efficiencies can be achieved because heat generation is strongly reduced compared to gas discharge or incandescent bulbs.

About 20% of all electrical energy is used for lighting. For a very long time we used the incandescent bulbs. They have a very low efficiency of converting the electrical energy into light: less than 2%, thus most of the electrical power going into the lamp is converted into heat. The introduction of fluorescent lamps (where a gas discharge is invoked) improves the efficiency considerable up to about 25% (see for instance  An LED can improve this light/power efficiency with about a factor of two (so up to 50%), but can also exhibit a dramatic increase in life time (say a multiple of 10,000 hours versus 1000 hours for an incandescent bulb). Massive research is still ongoing to improve performance and color characteristics of the LED further. Generally it is expected that in the next 10 to 20 years there will be a major shift towards LED based lighting.

The US Department of Energy hopes that by 2025 the total electrical energy needed for lighting can thus be reduced up to 50%, which is of course a substantial number. This can eventually lead to a 10% reduction in overall electrical power requirement of the society.

book_cover_big.gifRecently Al Gore held a passionate keynote address at a Electrochemical Society Conference which was picked up by a few blogs. Of course a number of comments were placed by both supporters and by critics of Gore’s claims. Personally, I believe that it is not so relevant to discuss whether global warming is caused by human action or not (warming itself is not so much disputed) but how to react to this phenomenon.

Clear is, however, that we humans, are changing the environment in a unprecedented pace. We are exhausting natural resources that are non-renewable and we will reach the moment that everything is gone. And indeed, there is a lot of scientific evidence that global warming is caused because of us using fossil fuels and changing the composition of the air.

Now, there are people that believe that technology will help us here and solve all our problems. Well, bad luck, that will not happen. Technology will certainly be able to help us in certain ways (for example by making solar energy available in a useful form or to make available more energy efficient solid state lighting) but technology alone will never be able to solve our fundamental problem. Why is that? That is directly an outcome of a fundamental law of thermodynamics: the Second Law also called the entropy law. This law tells us that it is impossible to restore previous situations. More about that in the coming weeks.