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.

Friday, November 2, 2018


I've been wondering why Starlink (SpaceX's plan to create a global high-speed internet using satellites) has been so slow, and with so little publicity, given SpaceX's more usual go-go-go and let-the-world-know proclivities.

From Reuters:

SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk flew to the Seattle area in June for meetings with engineers leading a satellite launch project crucial to his space company’s growth.

Within hours of landing, Musk had fired at least seven members of the program’s senior management team at the Redmond, Washington, office, the culmination of disagreements over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites, according to the two SpaceX employees with direct knowledge of the situation.

Known for pushing aggressive deadlines, Musk quickly brought in new managers from SpaceX headquarters in California to replace a number of the managers he fired. Their mandate: Launch SpaceX’s first batch of U.S.-made satellites by the middle of next year, the sources said.

The management shakeup and the launch timeline, previously unreported, illustrate how quickly Musk wants to bring online SpaceX’s Starlink program, which is competing with OneWeb and Canada’s Telesat to be first to market with a new satellite-based Internet service.

Those services - essentially a constellation of satellites that will bring high-speed Internet to rural and suburban locations globally - are key to generating the cash that privately-held SpaceX needs to fund Musk’s real dream of developing a new rocket capable of flying paying customers to the moon and eventually trying to colonize Mars.

“It would be like rebuilding the Internet in space,” Musk told an audience in 2015 when he unveiled Starlink. “The goal would be to have a majority of long-distance Internet traffic go over this network.”

Among the managers fired from the Redmond office was SpaceX Vice President of Satellites Rajeev Badyal, an engineering and hardware veteran of Microsoft Corp and Hewlett-Packard, and top designer Mark Krebs, who worked in Google’s satellite and aircraft division, the employees said. Krebs declined to comment, and Badyal did not respond to requests for comment.

The management shakeup followed in-fighting over pressure from Musk to speed up satellite testing schedules, one of the sources said. 

Culture was also a challenge for recent hires, a second source said. A number of the managers had been hired from nearby technology giant Microsoft, where workers were more accustomed to longer development schedules than Musk’s famously short deadlines.

“Rajeev wanted three more iterations of test satellites,” one of the sources said. “Elon thinks we can do the job with cheaper and simpler satellites, sooner.”

[Read more here]

Starlink and SpaceX's BFR/BFS go together.  The market for satellite-based broadband and TV services is $128 billion, the satellite launch market is just $5.5 billion.  So this will be a substantial new revenue source for SpaceX, revenue it will need to develop and build the first BFRs and BFSs, whose development costs Musk estimates at $5 billion.  At the same time,  launching 10,000 satellites needs the huge capacity of the BFR/BFS.  Needing to launch so many satellites in fact creates the market for the BFR/BFS.  And using re-usable rockets cuts launch costs by a factor of at least 10. 

The first 900 satellites will have to be launched on the Falcon 9, and even at 10 satellites per launch that will more than double the number of launches globally each year, from 66 to over 150.

Let me say at once that the chances are that I will subscribe to Starlink when it becomes available.  Out in the bundu where I live, the broadband connection to the wider world is pretty feeble.  And not exactly cheap.  An ultra-high-speed connection would be excellent.  Musk is talking of starting the service in mid-2019, but that will prolly be just in the US (though come to think of it, since the satellites orbit the world .....)   What such a network of satellites means is that anywhere in the world--the Sahara, the Amazon, Antarctica, as well as cities and rural backwaters--will be connected to the internet, for phone calls, TV, and everything.  This will be an extraordinary creation.  And in developing countries it will combine with cheap rooftop solar to bring the whole world into the 21st century. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Carbon-friendly jet fuel

Vapour trails.  Source: Transport & Environment

Electricity generation is transitioning to renewables.  Not fast enough, but it is happening.   There are no technological or economic barriers to achieving a 100% green grid--though there are, it's true, technical and organisational issues to be faced.  Similarly, over the next 15 or 20 years, it will be inevitable that our land transportation fleet will be electrified.  I'm not saying we should relax--fossil fuel interests will do their best to delay or prevent these transitions, but the economics has turned (or soon will) unambiguously in favour of the green alternatives.

That leaves air travel, sea transport, iron and steel, cement production, agriculture and land clearing.  Each of these is more complicated and difficult than transitioning generation to renewables and our ICE fleet to EVs.

Aviation is responsible for 5% of global warming and its rapid growth puts it on track to consume a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. There is a way to avoid this outcome but we need to act fast, a green transport NGO has said. By driving out the use of fossil kerosene fuel through carbon pricing and requiring aircraft to switch to synthetic fuels, the climate impact of flying can be reduced dramatically, according to a new report by Transport & Environment (T&E).

While high profile promises such as short-haul electric aircraft or more efficient aircraft designs every 20 years won’t be sufficient to solve aviation’s climate problem, new near-zero-carbon electrofuels can be produced today and deployed immediately using existing engines and infrastructure. Electrofuels are produced by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide, but to do this sustainably the hydrogen must be produced using renewable electricity and the CO2 captured directly from the air.

Synthetic fuels have been used in the past to power aircraft but are significantly more expensive than aviation kerosene, which is tax free. Running aircraft entirely on synthetic fuels would increase the cost of a plane ticket by 58% assuming kerosene remains untaxed, or 23% if a proper carbon price would be levied on kerosene, the report finds. Biofuels produced from wastes and residues can make a limited contribution to replacing fossil kerosene. 

Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at T&E, said: “This report confirms that we need to decarbonise aviation if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming. The good news is that radically cleaner aviation is possible even with today’s technology. Getting to zero starts with properly pricing flying, and progressively increasing the use of sustainable synthetic fuels. There is a cost to this, but in light of how cheap subsidised air travel has become, and the incalculable cost of runaway climate change, it’s a price worth paying.

To facilitate the progressive switch to electrofuels, demand for kerosene must start to be cut and carbon pricing must gradually be increased to the equivalent of €150 a tonne, the report finds. Taxing aircraft kerosene – currently exempt – and a strengthened EU ETS can help achieve this as can strict CO2 efficiency standards for planes and greater incentives for fleet renewal.

A leaked version of the European Commission’s strategy to decarbonise the EU’s economy by 2050 highlighted the potential role of synthetic fuels. Earlier this month the IPCC also emphasised the importance of synthetic jet fuel. Meanwhile, governments are pursuing a controversial UN offsetting scheme for aviation, known as Corsia. There are serious doubts over the environmental effectiveness of carbon offsets and the UN’s plan only caps airlines’ emissions at 2020 levels.

Andrew Murphy concluded: “Putting aviation on a pathway to zero won’t be easy but this report shows it can be done. If we want to succeed we need to stop pursuing false solutions. It’s crystal clear that the UN’s plan to let airlines offset their emissions is a distraction at best. We need governments to focus on the things that matter: proper pricing and cleaner fuels. The European Commission has a unique opportunity to commit to this in its 2050 decarbonisation strategy.”
[Read more here]

If we aimed to transition jetfuel for air travel to 100% synthetic kerosene over 20 years, the cost impact would be spread out and small.  For example, we could require that each year the percentage of synthetic kerosene in the fuel mix could be lifted by 5%.  That would mean that, ceteris paribus, jetfuel prices would rise by just 3% per annum.  And in 20 years, air travel would not be adding any new CO2 to the atmosphere.

There's another consideration.  The synthetic jetfuel would be produced by a variant of the Sabatier reaction.  This takes H2 from electrolysing water  and CO2 from the atmosphere and blends them at high temperatures and pressure in the presence of a catalyst to produce methane.  Once you have methane, other hydro-carbons can be made.  It seems inevitable that we will need to install more renewable capacity than we might on require on average to cater for consecutive days when the wind doesn't blow and the sun isn't shining strongly.  Ensuring grid stability with 100% renewables will likely require excess capacity as well as storage.  But that will mean that on days when the sun is shining and the wind is strong there will be excess electricity potentially available.  To stop the grid burning out, that surplus output will either have to be spilled, or output from wind and solar farms will have to be curtailed.  Which means, in effect, that that electricity will be free.  So the cost of producing synthetic jetfuel and synthetic natural gas could be much lower, given that their costs are high because the process is so energy intensive.  It's a win-win: surplus renewable power could be used to produce carbon-friendly jetfuel.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

SpaceX goes from strength to strength

SpaceX's BFR/BFS at launch.  Source: Teslarati.

Until Spacex's  BFR/BFS is operating, the only rocket which can lift more than 20 tonnes (20,000 kgs, 44,000 pounds) into low earth orbit (LEO) is SpaceX's Falcon heavy, and it is at yet untested.  There was a test launch, when it famously put Elon Musk's old Tesla Roadster on a flight towards Mars, but it hasn't actually launched a "real" cargo to space.  But before the development of the BFR/BFS combo, SpaceX planned to use the Falcon Heavy to get to Mars.

How quickly we forget the technological advances mankind makes: it now seems normal and routine for rocket boosters to land after use, and to then be re-used.  Yet just 3 years ago, it had never been done.  Because the Falcon Heavy has three first stages "bolted" together, all of which are re-usable, it has a higher percentage of re-usable components than the Falcon 9, and because there are economies of scale with respect to the size of a rocket and its launch capability, the cost per tonne launched by the Falcon Heavy should be way below that of its competitors'.  To show the economies of scale, the Falcon 9 can lift 23 tonnes to LEO, and costs $62 million per launch ($2.7 million/tonne), while the Falcon heavy can lift 64 tonnes, and will cost $90 million ($1.4 million/tonne).  Though it consists of three of the tried-and-tested Falcon 9s bolted together, it is still new, and you can understand the reluctance of companies launching satellites to use it, even though it's cheaper.

It's easy to forget, with all the attention being paid to the BFR/BFS and SpaceX's mission to Mars that in fact SpaceX will have to go on making money until the BFR/BFS is working--which is a good 2 years away.   So it's good news that SpaceX is getting contracts to launch satellites using the Falcon Heavy.

From Teslarati:

Major broadband satellite operator Viasat has officially committed to launching one of its powerful next-generation Viasat-3 satellites on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, set to occur sometime between 2020 and 2022.

Nine days after Swedish satellite communications company OvZon made its own announcement of a Falcon Heavy launch contract, Viasat’s Falcon Heavy selection marks SpaceX’s third commercial launch contracted on the nascent heavy-lift rocket.

During Falcon Heavy’s maiden launch, SpaceX took it upon itself to use the unique opportunity – a mission where the only payload at risk was functionally worthless – to test a number of technologies that the company had yet to personally [sic] prove out. In order to place certain payloads in orbits as convenient, efficient, and high-energy as possible, rocket upper stages can sometimes be required to spend hours orbiting Earth between two or more engine ignitions and burns.

Once successfully in orbit, the performance potential of upper stages grows dramatically thanks to the increased efficiency of vacuum-optimized rocket engines and major improvements in thrust-to-weight ratios, having already consumed a majority of the fuel and oxidizer loaded prior to launch. The problem is that keeping a large upper stage alive in orbit – while preserving enough liquid propellant to perform its job – is extraordinarily difficult. Notably, the thermodynamic environment alone is a massive hurdle – aside from expanded power supplies, radiation-hardened or resilient avionics, and multi-engine-restart capabilities, some combination of coolers, insulation, and/or tank stirrers must be involved to prevent SpaceX’s already-supercooled liquid oxygen and kerosene (RP-1) from changing phases into a solid or a gas.

During Falcon Heavy’s debut, SpaceX demonstrated what must have been a nearly flawless six-hour coast of the rocket’s Falcon 9 upper stage – in the last four months alone, SpaceX has officially received three new Falcon Heavy contracts all hoping to take advantage of that long-coast capability. Critically, this allows SpaceX to send large satellites directly or almost directly to geostationary orbits (GEO) instead of a more common transfer orbit (GTO), saving satellites from spending weeks or months completing their own orbit-raising maneuvers and the hundreds or thousands of kilograms of propellant they require.

[Read more here]

Meanwhile, progress on the BFR/BFS continues, with SpaceX confirming that the works at Boca Chica are for tests of the BFS.

Unlike Falcon 9’s Grasshopper and F9R reusability development programs, SpaceX’s BFS hop test campaign is likely going to be much more aggressive in order to gather real flight-test data on new technologies ranging from unfamiliar aerodynamic control surfaces (wings & fins vs. grid fins), all-composite propellant tanks (Falcon uses aluminum-lithium), a 9m-diameter vehicle versus Falcon’s 3.7m, a massive tiled heat-shield likely to require new forms of thermal protection, and entirely new regimes of flight (falling like a skydiver rather than Falcon 9’s javelin-style attitude) – to name just a handful.

To fully prove out or at least demonstrate those new technologies, BFS hop testing is likely to be better described as “flight testing”, whereby the spaceship launches vertically but focused primarily on regimes where horizontal velocity is far more important than vertical velocity.

“But by ‘hopper test,’ I mean it’ll go up several miles and then come down. The ship will – the ship is capable of a single stage to orbit if you fully load the tanks. So we’ll do flights of increasing complexity. We really want to test the heat shield material. So I think we’ll fly out, turn around, accelerate back real hard and come in hot to test the heat shield because we want to have a highly reusable heat shield that’s capable of absorbing the heat from interplanetary entry velocities, which is really tricky.” – CEO Elon Musk, October 2017

SpaceX does has significant familiarity with the general style of testing expected to be used to prove out its next-gen spaceship, a major department from anything the company has yet built or flown. Updated in September 2018 by CEO Elon Musk, the craft’s most recent design iteration is reportedly quite close to being finalized. That near-final design prominently features a trio of new aft fins (two able to actuate as control surfaces), two forward canards, and an updated layout of seven Raptor engines.

Critically, SpaceX has decided to commonize BFR’s main propulsion, choosing to skip the performance benefits of a vacuum-optimized Raptor variant for the simplicity and expediency of exclusively using sea level Raptors on both the booster and spaceship. This decision is ultimately strategic and well-placed: rather than concerning early-stage development with the inclusion of a second major branch of onboard propulsion, the company’s engineers and technicians can place their focus almost entirely on a one-size-fits-all version of BFR with plenty of room for upgrades down the road.

With a rocket as large as BFR and a sea level engine already as efficient as Raptor, the performance downgrade wrought by the initial removal of Raptor Vacuum (RVac) is scarcely more than a theoretical diversion. The specific performance numbers remain to be seen but will likely be greater than 100 metric tons (~220,000 lbs) to low Earth orbit (LEO). Past a certain point, however, the actual performance to LEO and beyond is almost irrelevant, at least from a perspective of individual launches. The paradigm SpaceX is clearly already interrogating is one where the cost of individual launches is so low relative to today’s expendable launch pricing ($5,000-20,000/kg to LEO) that it will almost be anachronistic to design or work with a single-launch-limit in mind, a limit that is just shy of a natural law in the spaceflight industries of today.

In 2016, Musk pegged SpaceX’s cost goals for a BFR-style fully-reusable rocket at less than $1M per launch for booster and spaceship maintenance alone, or $3.3M per launch with amortization (paying for the debt/investment incurred to fund BFR’s development) and propellant estimates included. To realize those ambitious costs, SpaceX will effectively have to beat the expendable but similarly-sized Saturn V’s per-launch costs (~$700M) by a factor of 100 to 200 – more than two orders of magnitude – and SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy launch costs (~$55M to $130M) by 20-50X.

To even approach those targets, SpaceX will need to learn how to launch Falcon and BFR near-autonomously with near-total and refurbishment-free reusability, while also developing and demonstrating orbital refueling capabilities that do not currently exist and rapidly maturing large-scale composite tankage and structures. None of those things require Raptor Vacuum.

[Read more here]

The 2022/25 Mars timetable is probably not attainable, but 2025/27 looks as if it will happen (2025 for unmanned cargo missions, 2027 for the first settlers.)  The circumlunar expedition with Yusaku Maezawa is planned for 2023.  There will likely be several unmanned test missions around the moon before that, to test life support systems and re-entry.  That will give SpaceX the knowhow to do the first Mars launches in 2025.  It is possible that SpaceX could launch cargo missions to Mars in 2022 to test the BFS's  ability to land on the red planet.

Meanwhile, SpaceX will continue to lead the space industry.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

An electric MGB

Because most of you guys and gals are probably too young, you'll not know the glorious beauty and cachet of the MGB, a sports car produced by Britain's MG company between 1962 and 1980. MG stood for 'Morris Garages', because they would take Morris cars and soup them up into classy, fast, sexy sportscars.  The MG company is long gone, alas, but a generation of young men and perhaps many young women too longed to own one and be dashing and glamorous.  (Would that being glamorous were so easy.)

At any rate, the MGB is to be resurrected. 

Source: Green Car Reports

The Jaguar E-type Prince Harry drove at his wedding is a classic car reconstructed to use an electric power-train, from an existing vintage car.  The new MGB will be a new-build car:

First, it was the Porsche 911, then the Jaguar E-Type. Now it's the MGB.

Converting classic old cars into electrics has become the rage across Europe.

The latest comes from RBW Classic Electric Cars in the UK, which isn't taking classic MGBs and modifying them, but recreating new classic MGBs with electric powertrains.

The bodies will come from British Motoring Heritage, which builds replacement parts and body shells for classic British cars.

The powertrain will come from Zytek Automotive, a division of automotive supplier Continental, which provides powertrains for everything from electric Smart cars to Formula E and LeMans racers.

According to third-party sources, the car will have 94 horsepower and will deliver 0-60 mph acceleration of about 8 seconds, and a top speed of 105 mph. Range is estimated at 155 miles.

Pictures show the car with LED headlights with signature rings, and a charge port offset to the side of the rear of the car where the classic MGB's fuel filler was.

RBW is accepting orders for 13 of the $110,000 e-MGBs for 2019.

Buyers can order them in either left- or right-hand drive configuration.

[Read more at Green Car Reports]

At $110K, the MGB will be a lot cheaper than the $500K you'll have to shell out for the electric E-type.   Hint, to millionaire benefactors out there: Christmas is coming up .....

All I shall be able to afford is an electric Morris Minor, that wonderfully economical and underpowered small car from the 50s and 60s.  But it would certainly look like a vintage car, no?  And after all, it was originally produced by a sister company to MG, so it's almost as good, right?

Source: Wikipedia, The Morris Minor

The South Australia duck curve

The continued expansion of rooftop solar in South Australia has produced a "duck curve" like the Californian one we've talked about.

In the chart below, you can see how increasing amounts of rooftop solar on days of low demand has year by year reduced the midday peak until it is now the point of lowest net demand (i.e., demand after rooftop supply).  But notice something unusual about these curves.  Peak demand is at midnight!  When everyone is asleep and most factories and businesses are closed!  What gives? 

Well, years ago, when SA's electricity came solely from black and brown coal-fired power stations, there was surplus power at night.  So to use up this power, which would otherwise have been wasted, the (then) state-owned utility encouraged users to use electricity after midnight heating their geysers (= hot water cylinders, to Americans), by giving them a discount.   Geysers had two elements, a large one at the bottom of the cylinder, which turned on after midnight, and a smaller one about half way up, which only turned on if the water temperature at that point in the cylinder fell below the desired minimum.  This tended not to be used except when you had guests in the house.  Or teenagers.

This suited everyone: baseload power wasn't wasted, and users got cheap electricity to heat their water.  Heating water can take more than 20% of total household electricity usage, so that was an important consideration.  But of course, these days the SA grid is mostly renewables, wind and solar.  And so it would make more sense for geysers to turn on when supply is at its maximum, which is over the period from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  Perhaps that's a clumsy solution, because there are times when wholesale prices go negative because the wind blows strongly, at night.  So the clever solution might be a geyser which checks to see what wholesale electricity prices are doing, and heats the water when they are low.  If prices don't get low enough, then it would default to midday plus or minus 2 hours. On the other hand, the most cost-effective solution for households would be to heat their water between 10 and 3, thus using as much of their own solar power as they can, because the feed-in tariff is way below the tariff we pay to get our electricity back from the grid.

If geyser demand were rescheduled to midday, then there would still be a duck curve as more solar (now increasingly utility-scale) is installed, but it would be smaller.  The morning (net) demand peak would run from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and the evening one from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.   On a very rough calculation, this would mean that 2 hours of storage would be more than enough to fill those demand peaks.  (1.5 hours of storage would equal 6 hours * 1/4 of total demand) .  So SA would need 2.4 GWh of storage, provided geyser demand were rescheduled to the period of maximum daylight.  The big battery cost A$66 million for 126 MWh of storage capacity, so SA would need to spend A$1.3 billion to do this, or about $360 per person. 

Even with enough storage, the interconnector to Victoria would remain very useful for periods of exceptional overdemand or undersupply, as would the new HVDC interconnector to NSW, which the new Liberal  (i.e., right-wing) SA government is in favour of.  The more a grid is connected to its neighbour grids; the more storage it has; and the more diverse its sources of power, the more stable it will be.
Source: Dylan McConnell, from the Climate and Energy College in Melbourne

Sunday, October 21, 2018

US now world's largest oil producer

Source: ClimateCrocks

Thanks to the shale/fracking revolution,  the USA is now once again the world's largest oil producer.  The second and third largest producers are Russia and Saudi Arabia respectively. 

Both countries are dictatorships which murder their own citizens, at home and abroad, and destabilise other countries.  Would it not be wonderful if the US, because of its domestic oil production bonanza, and a rapidly increasing fleet of electric vehicles, could stop kowtowing to these dangerous and vile tyrannies and rely on its own oil production?  Would it not be good if their power to do harm were diminished by falling oil demand and prices?  It is no accident that Russia has influenced US elections, and continues to try to do so.  Its budget receipts are dominated by oil, as are Saudi Arabia's.   They do not want to see the EV revolution succeed, any more than domestic US oil billionaires and companies do. 

But it is too late for them to stop the revolution, because China which produces and buys 1/3rd of the world's cars has set an EV target equal to 10% of sales for 2019, one which will rise each year into the future.  It will be China and India which will drive the EV revolution from now on.  And that will have excellent results, reducing our dependence on these autocracies and reducing their influence on world affairs.