Disclaimer. After nearly 40 years managing money for some of the largest life offices and investment managers in the world, I think I have something to offer. These days I'm retired, and I can't by law give you advice. While I do make mistakes, I try hard to do my analysis thoroughly, and to make sure my data are correct (old habits die hard!) Also, don't ask me why I called it "Volewica". It's too late, now.

BTW, clicking on most charts will produce the original-sized, i.e., bigger version.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Pollution even gets into the placenta

Source: ZME Science

From ZME Science:

Tiny particles of carbon associated with air pollution can find their way into the placenta of pregnant women, a new paper reports. The findings cast light on the danger air pollution poses on developing fetuses.  

Even unborn babies suffer from the poor quality of our air, new research shows. Previous research has linked complications such as premature birth, low birth weight, infant mortality, and childhood respiratory problems to a pregnant woman’s exposure to air pollution. The present paper adds to that body of evidence, explaining that when pregnant women breathe polluted air, particles of soot are able to travel through the bloodstream to the placenta.
The results form the first solid evidence of soot particles passing from the lungs into the circulatory system and, from there, to the placenta. As of now, the team cannot say for sure whether the particles can also make their way into the fetus, but note that “this is indeed possible” given the current findings. 
The results support previous findings that women living in polluted cities are more prone to pregnancy issues. Furthermore, they suggest that such issues — especially low birth weight — can still happen at pollution levels that are lower than the EU’s recommended annual limit. 

[Read more here]

The study draws on a small sample, and would need to be replicated with a larger one.  However, it is consistent with previous findings, so is likely to be true.

The sooner we move to a 100% green grid and electric vehicles, the better.  If terrorists were killing as many people as air pollution .......

Too much debt

When debt levels are high, even a small downturn cascades into a deeper one.  Debts can't be repaid because income/cash flow deteriorates.  Companies default on their debt.  Banks have to write off bad loans.  This reduces their free capital and their ability to lend even to sound businesses.  Workers get laid off, and the debt burden increases.  The doom loop continues.

The world has been on a massive spending spree.  Outstanding debts levels have more than doubled.  If there is a significant slowdown in the US, there is a high risk that the world economy will have a recession.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

First private astronauts (lots of pictures)

The first private astronauts in space will probably be on SpaceX's BFS (Big Falcon Spaceship) in 2023.  The Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, and six to eight artists he will invite to join him will make that first flight.  What he's paying hasn't been disclosed, but Musk stated that it was a substantial amount.  He also stated that the full development cost of the BFR/BFS combo would be $5 billion.  By comparison, NASA's SLS system, as yet unbuilt, is estimated to cost $1.5 to $2.5 billion per launch.  The BFR and BFS will be re-usable, meaning the per launch costs will be far below this.  Of course, the development costs will be spread over all the BFRs and BFSs built. At present 5% of the company's resources are devoted to the BFR/BFS, but once the first crewed Dragon mission to the International Space Station is completed, more resources will be moved over to the BFR/BFS.  When asked by a reporter about Boeing's vow that the first men on the moon would be in a Boeing space ship, Musk said "Bring it on.  Competition is good.  A race makes it exciting."

When asked when he was going to go to space, he hinted that he might join Maezawa and his guests.  But this was after he had emphasized just how dangerous the mission would be and complimented Maezawa on his bravery!

If this first trip to the moon is successful, SpaceX will have a ready-built rocket to start space tourism.   Maezawa is taking just 12 people.  But Musk said the BFS could carry 100.  The per person cost, even if 20% of those are crew would be affordable to lots of millionaires--all part of the funding that the Mars mission will need.  If successful, the BFR would open up space to human exploration and development.  Musk made it plain it wasn't just Mars and the Moon in SpaceX's sights but also the outer planets' moons.

 As Musk said, why don't we have a base on the moon?  We first visited 50 years ago.  The answer is obvious: we needed re-usable rockets before it could get cheap enough.   SpaceX and Musk delivered that.  But perhaps the second level of the answer is less obvious.  The launch, orbit and especially landing are under the control of very powerful computers and SpaceX's proprietary software.  Re-usability had to wait until computer chips progressed far enough to make such sophisticated controls possible.  Think Tesla's automated driving software.

You can watch the video here.  The actual live-streaming starts about 23 minutes in.

New-look BFS--one third the height of the Empire State building, or, put another way, 60% longer than the A380.  Lower two rear fins are movable to help with landing on Earth and Mars. "Tailplane" is primarily to hold one landing leg for symmetry--it will not be used on re-entry.  Musk said he wanted it to look like the rocket Tintin took to the moon!

Canards (forward fins) also help with landing.  Little man figure gives some idea of just how big the BFS is.

Note addition of aft cargo space round the engines.

BFS under construction.  Yes.  Actual.  See the tent framework?  Huge!  Not only is the BFR/BFS combo 60% longer than the Airbus A380, it's also wider  (9 metres vs 7.1 metres)

BFS orbital trajectory.  Note, no in-orbit refuelling.  In-orbit  needed to actually land on the moon.

BFS/BFR launch from Earth

Booster separates from space ship before going back to land at launch site.  Launch might be from a floating platform, Elon said.
Booster (BFR) firing cold gas thrusters to turn around and head back to launch site.  Note bulges at the tips of the fins containing the landing legs.

Solar panels deployed

Destination moon (Well, Musk did mention Tintin!)

Orbiting the moon

Artist in space (prolly not doable, movements of the arm holding the bow would cause whole body to move in microgravity)

Viewer in space looking through large observation window at Earth

BFS on Mars.  The circumlunar flight's timing (2023) suggests the 2025/27 Mars timetable rather than the 2022/25 one.  But it makes sense to test the BFS in lunar orbits and landings before trying for Mars.  Just as there will be several unmanned test runs of the BFR/BFS around the moon before a manned mission, so practice flying to the moon will teach SpaceX much about the Mars mission and about surviving in space.

Friday, September 14, 2018

New look BFS from SpaceX

SpaceX has announced its first paying passenger for a circumlunar flight.  Well, not quite the first.  There had been plans to do it with the Dragon capsule, but this was cancelled when SpaceX switched to the BFR/BFS as its workhorse rocket.  The flight in a BFS will certainly be much more comfortable than it would have been in the Crew Dragon.

In a recent address to graduate students in Madrid, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's CEO mentioned that the first "hopper" tests of the BFS had slipped from early 2019 towards the end of the year, so the moon trip won't be happening until 2020.  (A reminder of the current Mars timetable:  two cargo vessels for the December 8th 2022 opposition, 2 crewed vessels and two cargo vessels for the January 16th 2025 opposition.  Since oppositions occur only every 2 years, you wouldn't want to miss one.)

When asked about space tourism as a source of revenue for SpaceX she replied   “[Space] tourism is inevitable but [SpaceX] doesn’t want to do it too soon”, the goal is to launch “test pilots before families”, but then added that an announcement was expected soon.

For us SpaceX tragics, however, it's the strong hint of design changes which is much more interesting.

BFS circumnavigating the moon.  Source: SpaceX

Nearly overshadowing SpaceX’s intriguing lunar tourism contract, the photo included with official announcement features a BFR spaceship (BFS for short) that has rather dramatically departed from SpaceX renders of BFR and BFS dating back to late 2017 and early 2018. Most notably, the spaceship’s delta wing has been removed in its entirety, replaced by a triangular layout of three fins and what appear to be forward canards (control surfaces most commonly used to improve aerodynamic stability). Those apparent canards could also potentially act as a sort of stand in to the grid fins present on both BFR and Falcon boosters.

This new render also implies a logical relocation of the ship’s landing legs from external pods to the tips of its new wings, and may even betray some sort of hinge mechanism on the bottom two wings, perhaps meant to allow BFS to safely land on its trio of wingtips while still preserving the inherent aerodynamic stability of BFR 2017’s delta-wing.

Finally, the most significant change is found at the spaceship’s rear, where a new configuration of seven Raptor engines – by all appearances the version of the engine optimized for sea level performance – is surrounded by a mysterious ring of white or grey panels, perhaps a form of heat-shielding or maybe something else entirely. The lack of vacuum-optimized Raptors is arguably the most surprising feature of this unexpected announcement, either pointing to some sort of brash ‘artistic license’ (less likely given Musk’s tweet response) or a drastic departure from traditional rocket design, doing away with expanded vacuum nozzles for some more exotic solution.

[Read more here]

Musk was pretty dismissive about wings/fins in his earliest comments on interplanetary space vehicles, because, he argued, many places we want to visit don't have atmospheres, and so wings would be useless.  On the other hand, Earth and Mars do have atmospheres, and atmospheres also make landing more complicated, so some sort of aerodynamic controls in addition to cold-gas thrusters would be helpful.  In fact, this is what the grid-fins used on the Falcon 9 do.  They would be useless on the moon but are essential on Earth.  Since there will be one basic design of the workhorse BFS with just limited changes between the crewed, fuel and cargo versions, it seems sensible to include fins, even if they can't be used on the moon.  It shows just how driven by facts Musk is that despite his initial opposition he has changed his mind.

In his second presentation about the BFR, at the 2017 International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide, Musk said that a moon landing would require the BFS to be refuelled in orbit.  However, if the ship doesn't actually land on the moon, and has a small payload (one person!) perhaps it can do it from Earth.  The first stage will deliver it to high elliptical orbit orbit and then it will fly to the moon, orbit the moon, and return to earth using its own fuel.  Or maybe, SpaceX intends to refuel it in orbit, which would require constructing one first stage and two second stages, the BFS and its tanker version of the BFS (the BFT?)

People consistently underestimate Musk.  He tends to achieve what he sets out to do--even if it's later than he initially said.  When Shotwell assures us that “something terrible [would] have to happen at SpaceX for us to not be on our way to Mars and back in 10 years,” I believe her.  But that could still mean slippage from the 2022/25 timetable to the 2025/2027 timetable.  SpaceX has lots of experience with the booster (first stage) of  the BFR.  The difficult part will be building the BFS, and making it safe for humans.  

Updated BFS design.  Source: Teslarati

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Oldest Arctic Ice Breaking Up

Arctic sea ice average extent, September

From ZME Science:

For decades, global warming has been slowly chipping away Arctic ice, so much that since 1979, the region lost 620,000 square miles (1.6m square kilometers) of winter sea ice cover —  an area more than twice the size of Texas. September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.2 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. To make matters worse, a new study reports that the Arctic’s thickest and oldest ice is now breaking up due to warming, a “scary” event, one scientist says, that will force us to rethink which parts of the Arctic will (inevitably) melt last.

Since scientists started keeping records, sea ice in the north of Greenland has never broken up — this year it happened twice!

Normally, the sea north of Greenland is so cold that it stays frozen stiff. Scientists have always assumed that if the Arctic ever completely melt — estimated to occur in the late 2030s — then this region will be the last to do so. But this bastion has proven to be far less resilient than some had hoped.

Abnormal heat waves in Europe, such as the temperatures spikes in February and earlier in August, have brought hot winds to Greenland, which have pushed the ice further away from the coast than at any time since satellite imagery began in the 1970s.

[Read more here]

BRIC economies slowing

The BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India & China) together make up as much of the world economy as Europe or the United States.  They are clearly slowing, with the exception (so far) of India.  This is in response to rising interest rates in the USA.

➥ Data sources: various.  My calculations for both BRIC IP (industrial production) and PMI, using World Bank 2007 PPP GDP weights

Victoria's renewables push

There are several ways we could encourage renewables.  One way is legislative fiat.   You pass a law requiring utilities to progressively increase the percentage of electricity they produce from renewable sources.  Another is to give tax credits.  In the US, there is a 30% Federal tax credit for wind and solar (though it's being phased out).  There is a $7500 tax credit for buying an EV, though for Tesla at least, that will fall away over the next 9 months.  Or you can have some sort of cap-and-trade system.  How they work is that a limit for carbon emissions or a minimum for renewable generation is set.  If you are above (in the case of carbon emissions) or below (in the case of renewable generation) you have to buy certificates to cover the cost of your excess (shortfall) from firms which have produced less CO2 (or more renewables.)  Australia's renewable energy target (RET) is of this type.  Or you can set high feed-in-tariffs (FITs) for, say rooftop solar.

Then there are reverse auctions.  The government puts a tender out to the market for supply of renewable electricity at the lowest price, and it accepts the lowest bidders.  But instead of buying electricity from the utilities, the government gives them a "contract for difference".  It sets a maximum (wholesale) price for the electricity output from the wind/solar farm and each entrant to the auction then bids at that price or one below it.  The cheapest bidders win the contract.  If in future the wholesale price for electricity turns out to be higher than  the contract price, the solar/wind farms return that to the government.  If the wholesale price is below the set price, the government pays the wind/solar farm the difference.  Since the contract is with the government, the utilities can borrow at a lower interest rate, which means that the cost of the electricity generated is lower.  This process was first pioneered by the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) in its move towards 100% green energy, and the architect of the ACT's contract for difference auctions is now working for the Victorian government to deliver the same outcome here.

Victoria’s Labor government is to sign contracts for six new wind and solar farms after an overwhelming response to its first, and Australia’s largest, renewable energy auction.

The response was so positive, and the value from the bids so great and the prices so low, that the government has reportedly elected to allocate 928MW of capacity – way more than the 650MW contemplated when the auction was first announced just over a year ago.

Details of the winning bids were released on Tuesday when premier Daniel Andrews and energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio visited the Ararat wind farm.

“This is great value – the bids were lower than what we thought they were going to be,” D’Ambrosio told Reneweconomy. “It just shows you that the market is really ripe for investment ….. when given the policy certainty.”

Not only does the auction result lock in lower power prices for the state, this auction and the recent rooftop solar support scheme also achieves as much in emissions reductions as the federal Coalition government planned to achieve over a whole decade with the defunct National Energy Guarantee. Now, the Morrison government has abandoned any attempts to achieve any emissions cuts.

The projects will not supply electricity to the government, but under an agreement known as a “contract for difference”, the Victoria government will guarantee the projects receive a minimum price.

This was set last November at $56/MWh for wind, $53/MWh for solar PV and $56/MWh for solar PV with tracking. If the actual wholesale price is higher than those numbers (and it has been nearly twice as high as that [$90/MWh] in Victoria for much of this year), then the wind farm owner returns the difference to the government.

If the wholesale price is lower, then the government makes up the difference to the renewable project owners to guarantee them a minimum ongoing income.

But this exposure is capped – and this is where the competition in the auction came from, as it is assumed that bids for a “base payment” came in at zero, at least for the wind farms, and possibly had “negative” prices.

It’s a remarkable outcome for the government. If wholesale prices do fall below $56/MWh, that’s a great result for consumers, and the costs to the government will be capped.
[From RenewEconomy]

The Victorian government hasn't released the detailed pricing but estimates are that wind was effectively contracted at A$50/MWh, and solar below that, which implies that contracts in sunnier places like Queensland and South Australia likely in the the low A$40s/MWh.  These prices are about half the average wholesale price and about 30 to 40% of the cost of new coal power stations.  (Existing coal power stations are probably around A$30-A$50/MWh, because they are fully depreciated, unlike new power stations)

In addition to this auction, the Victorian government has also announced two new initiatives, one a scheme to subsidise rooftop solar for families, and the other to subsidise batteries.  The government will pay half the cost of a 4 kW rooftop system, and lend the balance to the home owner at zero interest, repayable over 4 years.  The battery subsidy is up to $5000, depending on the size of the battery installed.

Together these policies will deliver more than the national (and now defunct) NEG (national energy guarantee).

Source: Simon Holmes à Court 

Australian electricity prices have doubled over the last 10 years, mostly because of privatisation of previously state-owned electricity generators, and poor regulation after privatisation.  Oligopolistic "gentailers" have rorted the system to guarantee large profits for themselves.  This huge rise in electricity prices has become a political hot potato.  The Right blames renewables, which is rubbish.  The Left is doing something about it.  The Labor government in Victoria will at a stroke reduce electricity bills by:

  • expanding the role of renewables, which will produce electricity at nearly half the cost of the current grid
  • increasing competition--these wind and solar farms are not owned by the oligopolists.   
  • Households will be enabled to install rooftop solar and batteries which will substantially reduce household electricity bills.
And, just as good, this will lead to a 40% fall in emissions from electricity.

Way to go.