Saturday, November 30, 2019

Cheap renewables AND expensive electricity? What gives?

Ontario's notoriously renewables-averse Conservative government is using Germany as an object lesson in why NOT to pursue renewable energy.
Now, granted, Energy minister Greg Rickford was caught out in the embarrassing act of using using unreliable stats from climate change-denying website, Climate Change Watch, which he described as one of his "favourite periodicals". But what is the truth behind the great German experiment in Energiewende (energy transition)?
Well, it turns out that Germany, as well as fellow renewables pioneers Denmark and the state of California, are all paying for some of the highest-priced electricity around. This seems irrefutable. But, just as irrefutable, renewable energy from wind and solar is in fact among the cheapest energy options available, and their prices have been plummeting in recent year. So, cheap energy AND expensive electricity? What gives?
The answer is far from simple, but it seems likely that the problem lies in the inherent  unreliability of renewables, the very complaint that opponents have been flinging at the new technologies all along. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine and, when it does blow and shine, it is not necessarily at the time when electricity is most needed. This therefore requires relatively expensive electricity generation from gas (and even coal) plants to take up the slack, as well as the still-expensive option of battery storage. And, if too much renewable energy is produced, it may need to be offloaded on to neighbouring countries, AT A COST rather than at a profit. All this can have the effect of substantially increasing the cost of delivered electricity, and the greater the share of renewables the greater this problem rears its ugly head.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but cheap energy can prove expensive in the end, something that German economist Leon Hirth predicted some years ago. This is not to say that the renewables route should be abandoned. The point is to to generate CLEAN electricity, not necessarily the cheapest electricity. We may need to tone down the "renewables is cheap" rhetoric a little, and clearly much more work needs to be done on how to fix these teething problems (for example, Califormia has already figured out a fix for the complex problem of how the use of batteries can increase carbon emissions). But renewables still remain our best bet for generating electricity in an environmentally sustainable way. That part hasn't changed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Why did Toronto get stuck with the YYZ airport code?

Have you ever wondered why Toronto ended up with such an unmemorable airport code as YYZ? Probably not, but I have. Miami has MIA, Berlin has BER, Vienna has VIE, London Heathrow has LHR, and Toronto has ... YYZ. What gives?
Well, if you look it up, the explanation goes that the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is responsible for such things, decided, in its infinite wisdom, that all Canadian airports should have a code beginning with Y. Thus, Vancouver is YVR, Winnipeg YWG, etc. I have never seen a good explanation for exactly why this first letter requirement applies to Canada, and not to the USA, Spain, Japan, etc. I understand that there are many more countries than the 26 letters of the alphabet, but why Canada should have this stipulation and not other countries, I have no idea.
So, given the initial Y, I can see why YVR works for Vancouver, and YOW for Ottawa. But YYZ? Well, the explanation given is that YZ was the old telegraph identifier for Malton, Ontario, which was the nearest town to where Toronto airport now sits. An explanation perhaps, but not a very convincing one. YTO does exist, but it is the umbrella identifier for all airports in the Toronto area, including Toronto (YYZ), Billy Bishop City Airport (YTZ), Hamilton (YHM), and Waterloo (YKF).
And, in case you were wondering, TOR also exists, and it is the code for Torrington Municipal Airport, which is just outside Torrington, Goshen County, Wyoming! Seems kind of unfair, don't you think?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Leeches, leeches, leeches

In the mid-altitude rainforest of Sinharaja in Sri Lanka, leeches are at the top of the food chain.
We were warned before we came here about the leeches, but we were blasé and heedless. Not for long though. After a quick half-hour birdwatching walk along a paved road in the nearby village, I had already picked up two leech wounds, completely unawares, which proceeded to bleed copiously for the next two hours, all over the lodge bedsheets as well as my clothes.
When we finally entered Sinharaja Rainforest proper the next morning, they were absolutely everywhere - millions of them, probably even billions in total - noodle-thin and only a couple centimetres long in the main, unlike the big fat Canadian leeches we are more used to, but making up for that with sheer numbers.
And by their persistence. You don't even need to be stationary for them to latch on to a boot (and we were stationary much more than I wanted, thanks to some avid, over-achieving birders in the group). If ever we stopped for more than a few seconds, you could see them heading in our direction, like something out of a horror movie. Once given an in, they somersault and cartwheel their way into your socks, or up your pant legs, even all the way up to your stomach, shoulder or neck, in no time at all. Our guide gleefully regaled us with stories of someone who had one attached to his tongue (don't ask me!). Tucking clothing in seems to make little or no difference to them. They even found their way around (through?) the official "leech socks" some people were wearing - yes it's a thing, look it up.
You can pluck them off before they do to much damage if you are quick enough, but then you will find them happily sucking on your fingers, however quick you think you have been. You can end up shaking them off one hand and then the other for some time. The only real way to get rid of them is with a brisk flick of the finger nail, which I soon perfected, although by that time of course two more will have started their journey up your boots... By the end of the day, we were all semi-paranoid, and I must have flicked away many hundreds (even thousands) of them over the day.
And they are nigh on indestructible. I'm not proud of it, but at one point I was desperate enough to set about completely destroying them, rather than just removing them, and believe you me, it's not easy. I ground one under my boot heel for almost a minute, and somehow, inexplicably, it was still wriggling and coming back for more, a little slower perhaps but nevertheless undaunted. I have no idea how that is even possible. I flushed one, which had hitched a ride back to our room, down the toilet: it just effortlessly latched on to the slick, smooth procelain, and then continued its inexorable progress back in the general direction of my blood. It was a depressing sight, and not a little alarming.
I know that leeches are not actually dangerous and do not carry infectious diseases, and they are actually pretty cool animals in their own way. But, by the end of the day, our outdoorsy group of birders and nature-lovers was reduced to a collection of anxious, twitchy, leech-haters. There were barrel-loads of leech jokes and plenty of banter and bravado that night, but pretty much everyone was surreptitiously scratching and checking their ankles. I don't think any of us were sad to leave that beautiful but blighted place the next day.

Birders - a breed apart

The mind of the serious birder is a strange thing.

Birders, Udawalawa National Park
Our current Sri Lanka trip is billed as "Culture and Wildlife", but as two out of the four of our group are pretty serious birdwatchers, birding has become the main (though not sole) focus of the trip. So, I have had plenty of opportunity to observe the mind of the birder in action, as I have on a few other similar trips in recent years.
And a fine mind it is, typically. They are genned up on a myriad small factoids and details concerning bird descriptions, behaviours, habitats and much more. They tend to have an encyclopedic memory, although mainly for bird-related data - birds they have seen (and when and where), birds they want to see, birds that night possibly be found in the particular area of the particular country they happen to find themselves in, etc, etc.
Birding guides are even more finely-tuned data machines, and also have enhanced senses capable of definitively identifying a small bird from a fleeting fly-past or a brief distant snippet of song, or spottong a stationary camouflaged owl in a dead tree. It's really quite extraordinary to observe. Guides, however, at least have the advantage of years of experience with the local bird population, and often higher degrees in the subject. And they are at least principally doing it to earn a living wage. Arguably, they are just doing their job - very well - but for most it is most definitely also an abiding passion.
And single-minded? While we would be taking in a cliff-top view of a sweeping bay, or a two thousand year old temple, the birder is quite likely to be looking the other way with a pair of binoculars glued to his eyes (and yes, it's usually a he). The holiday becomes an exercise in competitiveness and goal attainment: to "get" all 34 endemics, to meet or exceed the total bird count of last year's equivalent trip, etc. Entire expensive vacations are planned around adding to the birder's list of "lifers". I guess it's all harmless enough, admirable even. I'm just not sure I understand that level of single-mindedness.
Don't get me wrong. Birders are, in my experience, "nice people": affable, intelligent, gentle. It's just their intensity and their single-mindedess that slightly worries me. But that's probably becuae I have never had that kind of all-consuming passion for anything. You could consider that a blessing or a curse.

How to drive in Sri Lanka

After almost 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, the local driving habits still give me the willies.
We started off our holiday with a few days in the bustling hectic capital city, Colombo, which, as regards coping with traffic, was something of a baptism of fire. Cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes and the ubiquitous little three-wheeled tuk-tuks, even the occasional horse-and-cart, all vie for dominance in the cut-throat game of chicken that is Colombo traffic. Road markings, where they can be made out, are moot, pedestrian crossings likewise, and many of the traffic lights are not actually working. Vehicles of all kinds nip into any available space, as though to fill a vacuum, and the air resounds with the sounds of horns of various tones and tunes, creating a constant barrage of ambient noise.
At first, we were very tentative pedestrians, scuttling across roads in the shadows of other, more confident, local pedestrians. But, after a while, we realized that, in Colombo at least, fortune favours the brave, and, if you walk out with enough chutzpah, cars and even tuk-tuks will in fact stop to let you cross (buses less so, and you do risk life and limb walking out in front of one).
It was quite noticeable that the various taxi and tuk-tuk drivers we used were remarkably calm and unperturbed by all the chaos around them, and remained zen-like even when cut up unashamedly by a tuk-tuk driver on a mission. All the hooting and horn-blaring is not in anger, but merely to say, "Look out, I'm coming through" or simply, "I am here", or sometimes just, "Hello". The driving appeared aggressive to us, and it is certainly a dog-eat-dog road culture where giving any quarter is clearly seen as mere weakness to. But everyone seems hyper-aware of the vehicles around them, and, improbably enough, I don't think we actually witnessed a single accident the whole time we were in Sri Lanka.
In more rural areas, the traffic moves faster, and appears to the outside eye to be equally aggressive and chaotic. Here the buses, both government and private, rule the roads, and you don't mess with them. Overtaking on blind corners is perfectly normal, and other vehicles just lurch onto the shoulder or grass verge if necessary, with nary a backward look or a bad word. On the many miles of steep, winding, often single-track, roads we traversed, passing (both oncoming and same direction traffic) is achieved by whatever means necessary, and somehow, miraculously, it all seems to work. Wild animals and, particularly, the massive population of stray and feral dogs present added obstacles on rural roads, and drivers have to be constantly on guard for the occasional elephant, water buffalo, wild boar or monitor lizard to amble across the road around any corner. Whole herds of lazy cows wander around on the roads, with no apparent human supervision.
But it was the dogs that really stressed me out. There are thousands of them, mainly around villages, but sometime out in the middle of nowhere. The early mornings are particularly tricky, as most dogs seem to acually sleep on the roads, and only grudgingly move for traffic, if at all. Some dogs appear to be able to continue sleeping while traffic whizzes past within centimetres of them. "Let sleeping dogs lie" seems to be the watchword, and Si Lankans deal with them with great sang-froid.
One particularly bizarre part of the road network is around Hambantota, on the south coast, which is where the current (outgoing) president hails from. He has authorized a huge network of brand new, beautiful, four-lane highways around the town (finished just in time for the November elections) even though the roads see very little traffic. It feels almost spooky to drive over a large clover-leaf intersection - top-notch engineering worthy of North America or Europe - with hardly any vehicles to be seen. The locals, though, particularly motorbikes and tuk-tuks, have already learned to improvise, and now drive both ways down both carriageways. Sri Lankan traffic drives to its own rules.