If you want to really feel the difference that economic impact can have on your decision making, go to the casino (without me there, of course, since I am the cooler) and play a few hands of $5 limit poker. Then move up to the $50 limit table and see if there's any change in how you approach your game.
Economic impact is the primary driver of almost every decision we make. And the we in this case is both you and I personally and the institutions that make up our society. I wrote recently about how the desire to be environmentally friendly got driven out of the decision making process because of the difficulty in evaluating how reducing carbon emissions would impact of a university's bottom line. About the existing cap and trade program for other environmental pollutants, I wrote:
This cap and trade program is able to apply a specific dollar amount to
the cost of the emissions. If you want to emit NOx, then you have to
purchase credits on the open market. And the cap ensures that only a
certain number of credits are available. This means only a certain
amount of NOx will be emitted - and its an amount that can be reduced
over time by reducing the number of credits available.
allows the cost of environmental pollution to show up in an economic
analysis of a project.
But no such mechanism for carbon exists. [...] The only way to reduce
carbon emissions is to include the externality cost of these emissions
into the cost of energy.
And here's another case of environmental benefits being overshadowed by hard economic reality. From a recent Cato institute report making the case against rail transit (via my favorite local anti-rail source, Houston Strategies):
This Policy Analysis uses the latest government data on
scores of rail transit systems to evaluate the systems' value and
usefulness to the public using six different tests:
Do rail fares cover operating costs?
Ridership: Do new rail lines significantly increase transit
Cost-Effectiveness: Are new rail lines less expensive to
operate than buses providing service at similar frequencies and speeds?
The "Cable Car" Test: Do rail lines perform as well as or
better than cable cars, the oldest and most expensive form of mechanized
The Economic Development Test: Do new rail lines truly
stimulate economic development?
The Transportation Network Test: Do rail lines add to or
place stresses upon existing transportation networks?
No system passes all of these tests, and
in fact few of them pass any of the tests at all.
25 mpg car: 0.35 metric tons of CO2 per 1000 miles traveled Bus: 0.17 metric tons of CO2 per 1000 miles traveled Rail: 0.10 metric tons of CO2 per 1000 miles traveled
How would a carbon tax change the economics of mass transportation? At what cost per ton would the (economically measurable) environmental savings offset the higher costs of constructing the systems?
I don't have the answer, because I haven't done the math (yet - I'm totally going to). But what I do know is that right now, the decisions that shape a transportation system - not only whether or not to build mass transit systems, but whether or not to allow the sprawl that would make such a system less effective - are not forced to take into account the environmental impact that they have. To get back to my original analogy, we're making decisions like we're sitting at the $5 table, but we're actually at the $50 table and don't know it.
The economic case made against mass transit are 100% correct, but an economic case that doesn't take environmental impacts and energy sustainability into account misses the whole point of building the system in the first place.
I recently sat in a meeting with a group of decision makers at a local university. They were deciding what improvements to make to their thermal distribution system. The tool that a large organization like this uses when deciding between two options for a large capital improvement expense is a Life Cycle Cost Analysis, or LCCA.
One of the people in the room asked me, the person who had done the LCCA, how environmental benefits of the project were figured in.
"Well, the university is currently paying for NOx credits. This project will reduce NOx emissions, so that cost savings was figured into the analysis."
"What about other reduced emissions?"
I shrugged. "While that might have some value to you from a marketing standpoint, no marketing analysis of green benefits was provided, and that is outside our scope, so there is no benefit given in the LCCA."
When we talk about cap and trade programs, this moment is what we are talking about. the moment where decisions are being made about energy projects. I don't know if the man I was talking to was able to put the following thoughts together, but I'm going to spell them out here.
There are already cap and trade programs around the country. Here's one in Texas - specifically, the one I referred to above, when I mentioned NOx credits. NOx - that'd be nitrous oxides - contribute to the formation of ozone in the atmosphere. The effect of high levels of carbon dioxide may be contentious, but nobody argues about the effect of high levels of ozone.
This cap and trade program is able to apply a specific dollar amount to the cost of the emissions. If you want to emit NOx, then you have to purchase credits on the open market. And the cap ensures that only a certain number of credits are available. This means only a certain amount of NOx will be emitted - and its an amount that can be reduced over time by reducing the number of credits available.
This allows the cost of environmental pollution to show up in an economic analysis of a project.
But no such mechanism for carbon exists. And despite all the incentives that exist for alternative energy technology, it turns out that not a single one of them applied to this project that would directly reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Incentives are just the wrong tool to use to get energy efficiency projects implemented. The only way to reduce carbon emissions is to include the externality cost of these emissions into the cost of energy.
The conservative nightmare endgame of environmental politics would be a world in which we are told what lightbulbs, shopping bags, and drink containers we can use; in which the government monitors our waste streams to find improper disposal of batteries or failure to recycle; in which, even inside the supposed safety and privacy of our own homes, our every move is watched and evaluated for conformity to environmental principles.
This is the world that Audi presents us with in its Super Bowl commercial from last night. Green Police are on top of your every move, dragging away otherwise law-abiding citizens for infractions against a strict environmental code. And in this world, the correct car to drive is an Audi TDI. Why does Audi package its environmentally friendly car inside a dystopian enviro-fascist nightmare? Who is it targeting with this ad?
Honestly, I'm not sure. Here's my theory: the commercial is obviously not aimed at you. If you are an environmentalist, than this commercial is openly mocking you. Instead, this commercial is targeting those that think recycling is a waste of time, that climate change is a fraud, and that personally freedom trumps societal needs. In other words: if you were at the Teabaggers Convention (or at least wanted to be), then this commercial was aimed at you. It reflects the world as you see it: an oppressive regime stripping you of your personal freedoms under the (false) guise of environmentalism. And in this world of oppression, the only way to avoid being scrutinized and outcast by society is to conform.
So, uh... I guess Audi figured everybody who actually cared about the environment was already driving a Prius?
The spot: A man is jostled on a crowded city bus. Another man peddles his bicycle in a suit through the driving rain, wiping the dampness out of his eyes and swerving to and fro. A third man, strapped into a helmet, navigates a Segway - a Segway! - through a crowded street. "Many people are trying to do their part," intones the announcer. Then, we see an old station wagon chugging up a mountain road, with a gleaming white car speeding along up behind it. As the white beast tears past the wagon, we get a push in on the wagon's bumper sticker: "Powered by Vegetable Oil." The announcer tells us, "Some just have more fun doing it," as the powerful Audi races by. On screen text informs us that this is the new Audi A3 TDI, which gets 42 mpg and produces 30% fewer emissions. Cut to a screen with the text, "Diesel: its no longer a dirty word. TDI Clean Diesel."
Obviously, I disappeared for about three months, which is what happens when you buy a house. You find a place in June, and suddenly its the middle of September and you don't know what happened to all of your time. And money.
This might be a surprise to some of you, but buying a home costs money. Seriously giant piles of money, even for reasonably priced homes. So one of the things you do while you're trying to recover from the shock that washes over you whenever you realize you just dropped another $250 at Lowe's with practically nothing to show for it is watch television.
You sit and you flip. Law and Order goes by, and then Top Gear and then you stumble upon The Discovery Channel's Planet Green channel. It'll be about five minutes after that revelation that the remote control leaves your hand and, if you're lucky, narrowly misses the television before shattering into the wall. Because if Planet Green is nothing else, it is surely the more irritatingly condescending channel in the history of television. To wit:
1. I think it's great that some people have apparently unlimited financial resources to rebuild their homes from the ground up with various "green" installations. Truly fantastic. Dedicating a weekly show to celebrating their wealth? A bit much, by anybody's standards. They might as well call it Lifestyles of the Rich and Self-Congratulatory.
2. Seriously, there's something deeply offensive about liberal minded people having a network on television for them to gloat about just how much they care about the environment. There are options available of course - not having families of four living in 4500 square feet homes for example. Because lest you forget that green homes aren't nice, the homes featured on this show are, without exception, palatial estates compared with what you and I are living in.
3. Which is probably the reason that the show strays from telling you what, exactly, is being paid for all of this greening. Although some shows will hint around final costs - one woman mentioned a $200,000 home improvement budget, which must be nice - most don't, because they know damned well that the average viewer is going to have the aforementioned remote-chucking response if they knew exactly how much these people are paying to have homes which they can then dangle in front of the rest of us. "Oh, you bought a house? That's great? Is it green? My house is green. Very green. I don't even leave a carbon footprint."
4. Of course, maybe I'm angry because the wooded lot behind my recently purchased home has been bought by a couple planning a green home themselves, a plan that involves cutting down all of the trees and making a huge racket at totally random points during the day.
Sometimes, a technology comes along that is so elegant, simple, and beautiful that it makes the engineer in me swoon like a teenage girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. Last Friday, Volkswagen announced just such a technology. And no, this has nothing to do with electric cars, hybrid cars, or cars at all.
Last year, when Hurricane Ike swept through southeast Texas, one of the most devastating effects it had was on the power transmission grid. Over the course of two months, the local utility had to rebuild 90% of the transmission system. That's nine-zero percent. I was lucky; my power came back on after only two days. Some were not so lucky; if the utility was still working two months later to rebuild the grid, that means some people did not have power for two full months.
Right before and after the storm, there was a rush on generators. You couldn't find one anywhere. And these portable generators generally run on gasoline. This presented two problems. The first was that the storm knocked out refining capacity in the area, resulting in a gasoline shortage. Prices either spiked, or the stations that were open ran out. And this was the second problem; stations without power could not operate their pumps, and were unable to open. People waited in line at operating stations (that had to be guarded by police) for upwards of three hours to get gas for their car and generators, only to find that the well was dry by the time they got their turn.
The reason for the devastation is that the transmission lines are all above ground. But there is a distribution system that is underground: natural gas piping. Natural gas service was uninterrupted during the storm. Many critical facilities that had backup power, such as hospitals and government operations, got that power from natural-gas fired internal combustion (IC) engines. But other than cost and commercial availability, there is no reason why you couldn't have an IC engine providing power at your home for an emergency.
Nobody does this because it isn't worth the cost. In my example, I could have spent thousands of dollars on an engine setup so that I could run it for two whole days. You probably think that's dumb. And it would be. But what if I didn't only run it for two days? What if I ran it all the time, and generated my own power?
If you install a solar panel on your roof, you generate your own power during a non-emergency situation. Why couldn't you do it with an engine? The short answer is that it isn't cost competitive with power purchased over the grid, because unlike a solar panel, you have to pay for the fuel (it actually is cost competitive right now, for reasons we'll get to later). Small IC engines aren't as efficient at converting fuel into electricity as large utility-scale units. If you purchase 10 units of natural gas energy, and get 3 units of electricity out, then the remaining 7 units of energy is waste heat.
Except when you generate the waste heat at your home, it doesn't have to go to waste. You purchase energy to make heat all the time, to heat your home and water. If you captured the wasted heat off of the engine and used it in your house, then you can have a system that is more efficient and, therefore, more cost efficient than what you are doing now.
This is called combined heat and power, or CHP, and is one of the most neglected tools in the fight against global warming. While this type of energy generation still uses fossil fuel, it uses it way more efficiently than we are currently using it now. Combined heat and power can more than double the efficiency of fuel usage.
Okay, so distributed CHP can provide backup power, reduce your energy bills, and reduce your carbon footprint using a mature, readily available technology. But here's the real kicker, and why the Volkswagen concept made me swoon: the wide-scale implementation of residential CHP using IC engines could save the automobile industry.
The IC engine is what powers your car. A car manufacturer is an IC engine manufacturer. Volkswagen is the first company I've read about that has realized this potential. They are teaming up with a German energy company to install 100,000 CHP units with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts (or 20 kW per unit, equal to about 27 horsepower). For comparison, a typical nuclear reactor generates approximately 1,000 megawatts.
There is nothing special about the Volkswagen technology. Cars engines can be modified today to run on compressed natural gas (remember the Pickens Plan?) without significant increases in cost. Volkswagen is simply converting one of their Rabbit assembly lines to make the engines for the CHP units. As the demand for gas-powered cars decreases, Volkswagen has identified a potentially huge market opportunity for their products.
American car companies can do the same.
When T. Boone Pickens unveiled his eponymous plan, the goal was to reduce demand on foreign oil by converting cars to natural gas. Switching cars to electric drives and then charging them at night in your home with an IC engine would have nominally the same effect, except now you could also use the heat and improve the efficiency of the whole cycle. And natural gas is not only readily available domestically, but currently at historically low prices. Advances in natural gas production technology combined with the economic downturn have driven the price of natural gas below $3/MMBtu (or $0.30/therm if that's how you pay for it). If you had a 30% efficient IC engine generating electricity, and ignored the heat, $3/MMBtu for gas would get you electricity at a cost of only 3.4 cents/kWh.
As the automobile industry slowly but surely switches to electric cars, there will be less need for internal combustion engines. But what if they took 100 years of expertise in IC engines and started making distributed CHP units for homes? The auto industry, the economy, the environment, domestic energy production, and power reliability all in one fell swoop.
During my series outlining some of the goals regarding the development of smart grid technology last month, I think, in retrospect, that may have misrepresented the role net metering plays in today's energy markets. In part two, where I discussed the role that the smart grid will play in opening up renewable markets, I touched on the concept:
Instead of a two-way meter, utility companies have the
option of giving the solar panels get a separate meter. At the end of
the month, you get a bill for the electricity you purchased, and you
get a check for the electricity you made. But guess what? The retail
electric providers are under no obligation to purchase this power at
fair market price. They can pay you half, or a quarter, or nothing. They can pay you whatever they feel like.
In fact, some providers (for example, TXU) are looking to charge
customers who have grid-tied systems an extra fee for the trouble!
Here's what I need to clarify. You should not get the same financial benefit for electricity you export as you do for electricity you offset. An explanation of the difference, and the reasons, are after the jump.
Yesterday, after my third consecutive day spent picking apart the Chevy Volt, I promised to provide some insight into how I thought GM could have avoided some of the problems they were having. I planned on explaining that, instead of forcing their electric vehicle to meet the expectations of today's consumers by putting an expensive internal combustion engine on top of an already-expensive battery driven vehicle, they should have modified consumer expectations of what a car should be. They should have gone all electric.
The extra cost and expense of the IC engine could have gone towards increasing the battery capacity, extending the range from 40 miles up to nearly 200. Or, they could have slashed the price of the vehicle instead. Or both! Offer a range of ranges with a range of prices.
Since Chevy announced that the Department of Energy has anointed the forthcoming Volt with an official efficiency rating of 230 MPG, I have been methodically picking apart the methodology by which this rating was determined. By my reckoning, based on information made public by Chevrolet, the most optimistic rating that should be given to the vehicle is 185 MPGe (that Ge is short for gallon of electrons, the unit of energy I invented to compare the efficiency of electrically powered cars to gasoline powered ones.)
By advertising that the vehicle will get 230 MPG, Chevy is obscuring the true cost of operating the vehicle in both environmental and economic terms. More importantly, they are setting themselves up for a public backlash when people actually start driving the thing and find out most determinedly that they will not get 230 MPG. We know this because the same backlash happened with the Toyota Prius. Except instead of seeing a drop from 65 to 40 MPG based on driver behavior, Chevy Volt owners could see a drop from 230 MPG all the way down to 60.
Or maybe not. It's possible that this backlash will not occur, since in order to determine the fuel efficiency, people need to drive in. And in order to drive it, somebody will need to buy it. And the best estimate is that it will cost $40,000.
Forty. Thousand. Dollars.
How many people are going to line up to buy an experimental $40,000 car? I honestly don't know. But here's a question I can answer: if they do buy it, will it be worth it?
So we have a rough idea of what the smart grid is, other than an animated scarecrow attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself off a transmission tower. Now, we need to answer the tougher question: why do I want a smart grid?
There is no simple answer; there are maybe half a dozen compelling reasons why you want one. Over the next few days I'm going to talk about the 3 most important. Here's the first: the smart grid will allow distributed and renewable energy to flourish.
Solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable technologies have been around for four decades or longer. As scientists and, later, society at large, have come to understand the importance of global warming, energy independence, and sustainability, a funny thing has happened: instead of it becoming easier to build renewable technology, it is becoming harder.
An example of the way this is becoming harder is the fight over net metering. In a net-metering setup, when you use electricity, the meter spins one way. When you make electricity, the meter spins backwards. At the end of the month, you might get a bill from the electric company, or you could get a check if you made more than you used.
Other than the worst, most befuddling Super Bowl ad in history, what is this?
When I first saw this ad, I was confused, and I am involved in the industry. The reason I'm writing about it now, seven months later, is that I can actually answer some of the questions this ad posed while refusing to answer. And there is so much to explain that it is going to take a few days. So sit back and relax as we embark on Smart Grid Week here at ObscureCraft.
I can already feel you tingling with excitement.
What is the smart grid?
Plug something into your wall outlet, and it comes on. Magic, right? Sorta. But how did the electricity get there, and where did it come from? This question is at the heart of understanding the smart grid.
Let's compare electricity to another utility, water. Somewhere in your area there is a reservoir filled with water. When you turn on the tap, you are taking a little bit of water out. When it rains, the reservoir fills back up. Because there is a reservoir, it does not have to be raining the instant you want water.
In the electric grid, there is no reservoir.When you turn that TV on and ask for that electricity, somebody, somewhere, at that exact moment, has to make a little more electricity for you. What? Yes. Really. How does that work?
It works through the use of peak load generation equipment. There are types of generators that must be on all the time (like a nuclear power plant) and there are types of generators that you can turn on and off (like a gas turbine). Because there is a minimum amount of electricity that is always being used somewhere, those huge "base load" plants can stay on. Then, when its a hot day and we all start turning on the air conditioning, regulatory agencies that monitor use on the grid can call up the guy with the gas turbine and tell him to fire it up.
This system is riddled with inefficiency. There is a huge time lag between when you turn on the AC, and when the gas turbine finally comes online. The regulators monitor the health of the grid by reading its voltage. As more and more demand occurs, the voltage on the grid drops. Regulators respond to this drop by calling the gas turbine guy. So anytime they call the gas turbine guy, its an emergency. These emergencies happen all the time. Because its an emergency, peaking generation equipment is not held to the same emissions standards that base load equipment is. When you turn on your air conditioner in the afternoon, you are using the dirtiest electricity imaginable.
Furthermore, the laws of supply and demand dictate that, when demand goes up, prices do to. Real-time prices for electricity move during the course of the day - except residential consumers typically have a rate that is locked in during the month. Therefore, the cost of electricity you pay has already factored in that you will use a certain amount of this more expensive electricity.
The smart grid would use digital technology to report on energy supply and demand in real-time. Consumers, producers, and regulators could all act on this information immediately, instead of minutes, hours, or in some cases, days later. The consequences of this change are wide reaching, and will have impacts on renewable energy implementation, efficiency of existing generation assets, and energy costs. How, exactly?
Sorry, this is only part one. Tune in tomorrow for more.
"We can double, triple all the forms of alternative energies in wind
and solar and hydro, and even with doubling and tripling in a
relatively short period of time, we're still going to be on fossil
fuels," said James Mulva*, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips at the
National Summit in Detroit.
An oil executive thinks that the answer to our energy problems is more oil? NO FUCKING WAY.
Renewable energies, which currently account for less than 5% of our total energy production, will need to be more than doubled or tripled to make up the gap caused by reduced fossil fuel use? GET THE FUCK OUT.
[Mulva] referred to unexplored oil and gas in the United States as the country's "inconvenient secret."
The word "inconvenient" has now been taken over by Al Gore. It no longer means something that is not convenient, but instead only exists as a riff on the title of his global warming documentary. Otherexamplesabound.
*James Mulva! If there is a god, his wife is named Delores. And if you don't get that joke, then you should just stop reading my blog. Srsly. GTFO. Because that is just gold.
[Ed. note: This week is turning into advertising week on ObscureBlog. Stay tuned for even more tomorrow!] The spot: Open on a man in his apartment, on his couch, typing on his laptop. He is sweating and hot. He looks at his thermostat; the shadow is stretching out into the shape of a Coca Cola bottle. He steps out of his apartment, and into a bustling streetscape. Everywhere he looks he sees signs of refreshment, as well as that Coca Cola silhouette. A man opens a paint bucket with the "fizz" sound of a bottle opening; children open up a fire hydrant; balloons clink along like ice cubes; water glugs out of a Coke bottle fountain; he bumps into an army of men in short-sleeved white shirts and Coke-shaped ties, each encounter sounding like ice clinking against the side of a glass. The music builds to a crescendo, until he finally arrives at a tiny corner store. He purchases a Coke. Aaaah.
Can someone help me understand how charging an electric car with power generated from a coal-fired plant is a good thing? I understand that CO2 emissions from gasoline internal combustion engines are less than coal-fired power plant emissions. I get the part about buying oil from foreign countries, I'm just talking about net-net emissions.
Ignoring for a moment that this person with an engineering degree was unable to do the math themselves, let's take a look.
As we move through the third month of Barack Obama's administration, I find myself consistently disappointed by his continued failure to deliver even a tiny, incremental amount of change you, I, or anybody can believe in. I should be less hard on him. Look what he is up against!
This video is of Rep. John Shimkus (R - Illinois) speaking at the US House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment last week. He is informing us why, in his opinion, global warming is either not real, or is real but poses no threat. How can he be so sure? The same way that anybody who says absurd things with absolute certainty is sure: because of a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible.
The Bible, which is the absolute and infallible word of God, says that the world will not end in a flood, nor by an act of man. Therefore, global warming poses no threat. PHEW I AM GLAD WE SETTLED THAT JOHN SHIMKUS.
Here is another video of John Shimkus speaking with a man (with an authoritative-sounding British accent, no less!) about something that is at least vaguely science related.
The authoritative British man and Rep. John Shimkus agree: reducing carbon dioxide emissions would starve plants. TO DEATH.
But in truth, John Shimkus does not care for this scientific argument anymore than he cares for the mountains of scientific data testifying to the reality and danger of global warming. Instead, he has found a man with a theory to prove that which he already unfailingly believes: that the world shall not end in a flood, because the Bible says so.
Such certainty makes change impossible, at least for John Shimkus. And as long as Obama must work with the John Shimkuses of the world, change will be much slower in coming than the rest of us would like.
Well, good news, polar bear cubs! I don't have to eat PB&J everyday, and neither do you. The point is that there is anything special or magical about PB&J, but rather that you just avoid eating meat. So any vegetarian meal will do. This week I made curried lentils and vegetables, aka liberal douchebag meal that manages to be enviro-conscious and ethnically diverse at the same time. Enjoy!
As the Fox News helicopter films traffic on a highway west of downtown Houston with a large swath of grass to either side...
"Thanks Don for those images from SkyFox, looks like there's alot of green around those highways if they need to expand them..."
And with that, Erin Anthony, Fox 26 Houston morning traffic reporter, became part of the problem.
What's that you say, Don? There is still some green space left in Houston city-limits? Quick! Call the Mayor! Tell him to get his head out from in between Obama and MLK for a second! Somebody needs to put a highway on that shit! We can't defeat the terrorists until every square inch of America is paved over!
Maybe we should be concerned with more important things, Erin Anthony, like why you feel the need to give us your awful, uninformed opinions on transportation infrastructure. Or lwhy you insist on being a fat unattractive woman on my television in the morning. Why can't you be more like NBC local news anchor Dominique Sachse?
Oh my yes. If her face is pulled that tight, can you imagine the rest of her? And she doesn't have opinions on ANYTHING.
But not you, Erin Anthony. Nothing about you is tight, including your assessment of Houston's infrastructure needs. You are part of the problem, Erin Anthony. You. Are. Part. Of. The. Problem.
(Okay, I have to say one more thing about Dominique. In addition to being a stone-cold news fox, she takes part in what may be the best/worst thing I have ever seen in a local news broadcast. Watch the video below, and skip to the two minute mark. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: THE WHEEL OF JUSTICE. And yes, there is an actual wheel.)
I'd be generous in saying that my car gets 25 mpg on my commute, but it sure makes the math easy. I've saved 40 gallons of gas (a little over 3 tanks). At an average cost of $2/gallon, I've saved nearly $80 in 4 months of biking.
To recoup the entire $2000 investment in the bike (since I'm excluding maintenance savings in the car, I'm also excluding maintenance costs for the bike), I'll need to go 10,000 miles at today's gas prices. So I'm on pace for a payback of between 3 and 4 years. Or gas could go back up to $4/gallon again. That'd be... nice?
Fact: There was more sea ice, measured in total area, in December 2008 than December 1979. Aha! Sea ice has actually increased from December 2008 to December 1979. Therefore, that means that global warming science is wrong, and it was bullshit all along.
But you, dear reader, having a healthy skepticism, suspect there might be some monkey business in these numbers. And you, dear reader, would be right.
What monkey business exactly? This monkey business. I'm not going to even try to summarize that article, because it lays out the embarrassing facts more succinctly than I could ever hope to summarize. Instead, I will say: this is why you should be paying attention in math and science class, boys and girls. Otherwise, you grow up to be a fool.
Greg asks: What's the deal with this guy? I don't know if it's going on everywhere, but he's on DC TV and radio a lot, advertising his plan for energy independence. Is he full of crap? Is he just trying to get people to buy T. Boone Pickens Brand windmills? ObscureCraft readers want to know! (and are too lazy to figure it out on their own).
Greg, what are you doing in here?! You are not the Suze!
I'll answer this question, but only because I never got around to actually sending you your prize for winning the ObscureCraft.net Obamaganda contest. Consider this your winnings.
There are two schools of thought on environmentalism. I'll call the first one the altruistic view; that is, there is not necessarily a personal immediate benefit to making choices that help the environment, but you do it because you feel it is "the right thing to do." Call this the Al Gore school.
The other school is the capitalist view. Can I make money off of being an environmentalist? That isn't to say that you use being "green" as some bullshit marketing campaign, but rather, is there an inherent competitive advantage to being green? An example would be building an electric car. You don't build one because you give a shit about the environment; you build one because people will buy it. This is the T. Boone Pickens school.
Two writer's who do some pretty smart writing on science and the environment, Jonathan Golob of dearscience.org and Jacon Liebenluft, author of Slate.com's The Green Lantern column, have both at various times come out talking some shit about carbon offsets. It is not an uncommon point of view. It is also, one I just do not understand.
I will be starting from the assumption that you, the reader, understand and accept the importance of reducing carbon emissions. It is not my goal to convince you of the truth in global warming science, or the urgency in the matter. If you aren't convinced by now, then I would also probably have a hard time selling you an umbrella in a rainstorm. Instead, it is my goal to convince you that carbon offsets are an important, useful, and valid tool in reducing your personal carbon emissions.
You are panicked. There is only a week left to shop before Christmas, and none of our suggestions have been any good. The people on your list don't like media or clothes or charity. They are wild cards. How are you supposed to know what to get these people unless we help you?
Deep breath. Failure is not yet assured. You may have to dig a little deeper into your pocket, but that is the premium you must pay. Here are the gifts for the wild cards on your list - all for $300 or less.
The Suze asks: Have you noticed since we moved to Houston that every fast food place uses styrofoam cups instead of those wax-coated paper ones? Whataburger, Sonic, and even the little Greek deli down the street uses them. What gives?
What gives is that it is hot as fuck down here most of the time. Styrofoam insulates better than paper. When you go to Whataburger, and you get a hamburger that is so enormous it takes you 45 minutes to eat it, you don't want your drink to be warm by then. So out with the biodegradable but poorly-insulating paper cups, and in with the well-insulated, last-until-the-end-of-time Styrofoam cups.
You and I both figured this was the answer when you asked the question, the Suze, but I decided to do a little research just to make sure. Instead I found this:
"This has nothing to do with the Hurricane. We had a
resident who had an outstanding balance for over a month and no one
could get ahold of her. The Bookkeeper went inside after so many tries
to leave a note and this is what we found.
The pictures do NO justice. There is suppose to be 2 cats living
here but we cant find them (we think they're dead somewhere inside the
apartment-we contacted the SPCA). The place REEKS to say the least, i
gagged non stop."
I am NOT going to put any pictures on my site. If you insist on taking a look at one, this is the least disgusting one. And for the love of God, make sure you didn't just go to lunch and eat a Whataburger Thick & Hearty burger before looking at any of these, because it will make you feel very badly in your tummy.
We are about to take a long, dizzying trip through some current events. We're going to start at oil prices, make our way through fuel conservation, take a brief rest stop at the pork store, and eventually find out way to the auto maker bailout. Does that sound like fun? It doesn't?
But here's the thing: global warming is not the problem, it is a symptom. The fundamental problem is a lack of sustainability. Any activity that relies on fossil fuels is inherently unsustainable, because you cannot infinitely use a finite resource. Put another way: there's only so much stuff, and once you use all the stuff, there ain't no more. So you gotta find a way to not use it in the first place.
Transportation gets much of the global warming press. Every news story about global warming has the stock footage of a traffic jam as seen through the hot, wavy air coming off the pavement. There's something about the price of gas moving up and down that seems to drive people insane. But in reality, transportation is only a part of the picture when it comes to a sustainable world.
People use energy the same as cars do. And just like cars, if the fuel that we use comes from an unsustainable source, then eventually we will be unable to find the fuel to keep us going. Which, finally, brings us back to the peanut butter and jelly.
Do you love music? Do you love music enough to spend three days in the endless Texas sun?
If not, you have no soul and should seek help, perhaps from gypsies. But for those of us less humanity-challenged, every year there's the Austin City Limits music festival. Spun off the legendary 34 season TV program with the same title, it's a nonstop, genre-independent orgy of sweat, song, and insobriety. With eight stages, there's between two and four bands playing at any given time, and the real challenge is trying to squeeze in seeing everyone you already know you want to, to say nothing of the myriad new bands you'll fall in love with.
I'm not quite self-absorbed enough to think anyone actually cares to read about everyone who I saw or detailed reviews, so instead I'll just discuss one of the neater green ideas they had. In addition to the usual overpriced t-shirts, they had even more expensive 'green' shirts with unique designs. However, money wasn't the only way to get one. You could get one for free by redeeming a full trashbag full of recyclables from the festival grounds. The end result: for probably 150 dollars worth of shirts they had a huge team of volunteers circling the park like vultures, pouncing on litter the instant it hit the ground. It got annoying at times since holding a beer in your hand turns you into a magnet for collectors, but it kept the grounds staggeringly clean. Particularly important since there are really only a few hours of daylight in the morning to clean before the doors opened at 11.
Tired of waiting for the electric car that you won't be able to afford anyway? Wanting to start biking around town, but daunted by the distances, physical exhaustion, and buckets of awkward sweat? Ladies and gentlemen, your chariot as arrived.
That, my friends, is an electrical-motor assisted bicycle.
With a twist of the handlebar, the 400 W motor on the back wheel hub scoots you forward at a top speed of 20 miles per hour for up to 20 miles. Want to extend your range? Save the battery and give it a little pedal every now and then.
I racked up nearly 2000 miles on my old bike when I was commuting in
the northeast. When I moved to Texas, I was confronted with two
problems. First, it is pretty much hot as balls here all the time.
It's almost October, and its nearly 90 degrees outside right now. And
second, there are no shower facilities at my current place of
employment. So, I could either show up for work covered head to toe in
sweat, or drive and be covered in shame. Unpleasant as shame is, it
smells much better.
Recently, my commute has become a bit more stressful. Gas is hard to come by these days in southeast Texas. Most of the gas stations in the Houston area are still without power, and the ones that do have power have lines up to 3 hours long. Supplies are tight - 20% of the gas refining capacity in the US is located here, and has been knocked out of operation. Even once the power is back, it will take a week or two for supply to get back to normal.
I've been spending much more time than usual thinking about where the needle on my gas gauge is pointing. Also, I've been thinking about how much it sucks that a huge metropolitan area like Houston has such an embarrassingly sparse mass transit system. How bad is it? Well, according to the Houston Metro trip planner, it would take me almost an hour and half to travel the 8 miles between my office and my apartment by bus. By train... oh right, there is no train. If only I had a car that didn't need gas...
Against this backdrop, Chevy unveiled the production model of the long-awaited Volt. The Volt is another step in the stutter-step evolution of the electric car, some of which has been documented on this site. The short version: GM introduced the EV1 in the 90s, but quickly killed it off to focus their efforts on the production of highly profitable SUVs. As the 00s have progressed and cheap plentiful gas has become a thing of the past, consumers have turned on GM, shunning their SUVs and turning fuel efficient hybrids like the Prius into sensations. Oops!
The Chevy Volt is supposed to correct this mistake, and be the next step forward in the evolution of transportation. A plug-in hybrid, the vehicle has the ability to run for 40 miles without using any gasoline at all. When the batteries are tapped out, the gasoline engine kicks on to charge the batteries and keep you moving.
So, apart from my distaste for zombies, what is my problem with this new electric car? Well, nothing, really - except that by compromising, they've doomed it to failure.
The EV1 had a range of 75 to 150 miles on a single charge, and the estimated sale price was $34,000 for the base model (EV1s were never actually sold - this was the price used to compute the monthly lease price).
The Chevy Volt, on the other hand, will only have a 40 mile range, and retail for $40,000. The problem is the inclusion of a gasoline engine. Electrical energy storage has been sacrificed to make room for the gas tank and engine, and the added complexity of the system is adding to the cost.
The potential for an electric vehicle based on today's battery technology is staggering. A vehicle with the same energy storage as the EV1 would have a range of 180 miles! Or, conversely, put in less batteries, drop the gas engine altogether, and decrease the cost.
The problem is, this calls for a change in how we think about our vehicles. We want the cars we buy to be everything for every occasion - take the kids to soccer, drive it to work, have sex in the back seat with prostitutes, go on vacations, vent your frustrations on the roads at high speeds, get the groceries, and make up for the insufficient size of your genitals.
This is an American attitude. The car, as demonstrated by the success in Europe of Smart Fortwo, does not need to be all things at all times. The Volt is trying to conform to pre-conceived notions of what a car should be, instead of changing them. That's too bad, because the Chevy Volt will likely be just another promising failure.
Obama sez: Drilling = fail, keeps ur tires inflated for gas savings bonanza! McCain sez: LOL, what a joke, drilling FTW!
So, is Obama out of his mind? Can proper tire inflation really save as much oil as we could get from all the proposed offshore drilling?
Recall from the previous Word Problems article you most likely didn't read that, at peak production (which would be anywhere from 10-20 years from now under any reasonable scenario), drilling from both the offshore sites and ANWR would pump about 2 million barrels of oil into the market every day against the 20 million barrels we use.
Now we have our benchmark, time for the hard part: how much oil could we really save with proper tire inflation and regular tune-ups?
This isn't research I'm prepared to do. Thankfully, the good folks over at the Department of Energy have done it for us on this website:
Properly inflating your tires is good for an additional 3% on your vehicle's fuel efficiency. A properly tuned engine is good for another 4%. A clogged air filter could be a 10% hit. And even the wrong motor oil can give you a 2% improvement.
Taken together, these car maintenance conservation techniques could save a worst-case driver 15%. Here, I'll throw a dart at a dartboard and call it at 5% improvement for the average driver.
The savings from tire gauges and car maintenance is slightly smaller than the 10% increase in available oil from the potential drilling, with one little caveat. Inflate your tires now, and you get the savings now. Start drilling right here, right now, and the savings don't start for a decade.
(Can we pause here so I can laugh at the spectacle of politicians insisting that Congress return from vacation to vote on drilling? Yeah, that 5 weeks is really going to make a difference moving forward with an energy plan that has a 10-20 year lead time. Does this bullshit really fool people?)
Unfortunately, it looks like this oil drilling talk is starting to take hold. According to recent surveys, 70% of Americans are in favor of more drilling. While I don't think it will solve any problems, and may result in an environmental disaster in the Gulf and/or the Alaskan wildlife refuge, that really is an environmental question, not an energy question.
Looking at it through the prism of achieving energy sustainability, and putting aside any environmental concerns: I say let 'em drill. Drill to your hearts content, motherfuckers. Drill in the Gulf, drill in ANWR, drill for oil in Teddy Roosevelt's head if you think it's there. Because, eventually, there won't be anymore places to drill for oil in, no more magic beans that would solve everything if mean old Nancy Pelosi would just let the American people have them. The excuses will run out, and the price of gas will be as high as ever. And then maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to make some progress, instead of this childish horseshit.
No matter what position you take or how right it is, there are always a bunch of assholes who agree with you.
I've made no secret of my stance on the wonders of bike commuting. It reduces fuel consumption, carbon emissions, cures cancer, saves money, defeated Communism, increases physical fitness, fights terrorists, saves kittens out of trees, and gives great back rubs. If you want to fight high gas prices, then building bike lanes and constructing public facilities to accommodate bike commuters (i.e. public showers and lockers) should get at least as much public attention as drilling for oil in space and building cars that run on hydrogen/fairy dust.
Instead, the only kind of public attention it gets is horseshit like this.
Critical Mass is a group of bike commuting enthusiasts who take to the road once a month. And when I say take to the road, I mean they take the whole goddamn thing over.
The idea is... fuck, I have no idea what the idea is. To piss people off? To make people think bike commuters are a bunch of traffic-jam causing assholes? Well, mission accomplished, douchebags. The car drivers are fighting back.
From today's Seattle Times: "A melee erupted Friday night in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood
between a motorist and a group of Critical Mass cyclists. The driver
and cyclists blame each other for escalating the incident into a
violent clash that sent two men to local hospitals, two men to jail and
a battered Subaru Impreza to an impound yard with $1,500 in damages. ...
Depending on who you talk to, Mark, a 23-year-old travel agent who
lives on the Eastside, is either the aggressor or the victim at the
center of Friday's altercation. ...
Mark, who asked that his last name not be published because he is
afraid for his safety, said Monday he found himself and a friend in an
unfamiliar part of Seattle about 7 p.m. Friday as they headed to pick
up another friend to go out to dinner.
Mark said Monday that he saw the mass of bicyclists and thought he'd
accidentally driven into the Seafair Torchlight Parade route, so he
pulled into a parking spot along Aloha Street to allow them to pass.
But he said when he tried to pull back into traffic, he was blocked by
cyclists who positioned themselves around his vehicle.
He admits he was angry and frustrated at being delayed -- but panic
and fear soon took over as the cyclists started rocking his car, saying
they were going to tip it over. Mark said he revved his engine but
didn't think his car was in gear. After it stalled, he restarted the
engine in order to get away but says he didn't realize he hit two
Fan-tastic! But if only there were some dramatic video... Oh, right, there's this video of an NYPD officer laying down the law on another CM cyclist:
Back in April, I (and anyone else who could count) just about dropped a brick when Hillary Clinton and John McCain both suggested that the pain of high gas prices could be alleviated if we just stopped taxing the stuff for a little while. It is obvious in retrospect that Hillary was experiencing the death-throes of a presidential campaign, and John McCain... well, I think I've made myself clear on thissubject.
Fortunately, even the most math-challenged among us were able to see that the promise of an extra $30 bucks was not worth the $10 billion shortfall in the fund that finances highway maintenance and repairs.
As it turns out, not only was a gas-tax holiday completely insane, but the gas-tax may actually have to go up:
"As motorists cut back on their driving and buy more fuel-efficient
cars, the government is taking in less money from the federal gasoline
The result: The principal source of funding for highway
projects will soon hit a big financial pothole. The federal highway
trust fund could be in the red by $3.2 billion or more next year."
I'll be the first to admit that any major change in the status quo was bound to have some growing pains, and this looks like a doozy. The federal gasoline tax, as you may recall, is 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents on diesel fuel). So, as we start driving less or switching to more fuel efficient vehicles, the number of gallons consumed goes down, even though the total amount being spent on gas compared to recent years may remain steady or even continue to climb. Because the tax is per gallon, fewer gallons means less taxes, regardless of the total amount spent.
So what are we to do? We're definitely in a tight spot. As a result of decades of car culture, the United States has a vast concrete infrastructure to get those vehicles around. Short term, I don't see anyway around it: bills have got to be paid.
Here's the problem: Should the gas tax be raised? And if so, by how much? Let's break it down.
How much less is everyone driving?
Back in April, we assumed the average American was consuming 500 gallons per year. Obviously, that number has gone down, since, well, that's the whole goddamn problem.
Ignoring the whole diesel thing for simplicity's sake, the gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. If we're $3 billion short, that translates into roughly 16 billion gallons, or about 45 gallons per person. Obviously, some large portion of this money is coming from commercial use. If we assume half, cause I'm too lazy to try to look it up, we'll say every person is using 25 gallons less in the next year. That would translate into a 5% reduction in gasoline consumption. If it's true, that is pretty fantastic. How much would the tax need to be increased to make up the difference?
While I'm all about facing reality, it also seems clear that the only politicians to suggest raising the gas tax at a time when people are absolutely losing their minds every time they fill up are the ones that don't want to be re-elected. Fortunately, I have declared myself ObscureCraft President-For-Life, so I'm free to explore this possibility.
If we assume our 25 gallon per person reduction annually is roughly correct, then we need each person to pay the same on 475 gallons as they would have on 500 gallons at 18.4 cents. This comes out to... 19.4 cents.
Yup, we need to increase the gasoline tax by about a penny to make up the difference. Let's assume a margin of error and that gasoline costs will continue to grow down, and make it 3 cents.
Holy shit, does nobody have the cajones to suggest raising the tax by 3 cents? Or am I just such a tax-and-spend liberal that I can't see the forest for the trees? Somebody please help me out here.
If not the gas tax, then what?
I honestly can't get over the fact we're spending $1 billion a month to fuck up Iraq while we search through the couch cushion for the loose change to keep our country intact.
Irony aside, the money is going to come from somewhere. We're either going to raise the gas-tax, invent a new tax and call it something else, or go into debt to pay for it. Highways don't grow on trees - although they do sometimes collapse onto them.
It occurs to me that the "Word Problems" feature may seem as a way for me to apply my lefty-leaning politics to current issues under the guise of objectiveness, Sophie cheating at battleship notwithstanding. If it appears that way to you, might I suggest: my choice of topic certainly comes out of my tree-hugging commie bias, but numbers be what they be, motherfucker.
So: should we get drillin'?
Guidance from our politicians on this issue is shaky at best. Bush has been pro-drilling for about as long as he's been the son of an oil-millionaire - difficult to accept his opinion on face value, even if he wasn't, you know... stupid.
(Quick aside: I don't think Frank Caliendo is funny, but isn't it amazing that DirecTV is actually using his impression of the president as a fool who is astonished by the functioning of a television remote as a way of promoting their product? Has anything ever happened like that before with a sitting president?)
(Jesus Christ. 2 terms, people. Anyway, where was I...)
So instead of looking to the current pres for guidance, let's look at the stances of the two politicians looking to replace him. John McCain was long an opponent of offshore drilling, but has recently changed his stance to pro-drilling. However, as you heard here first, McCain has recently been dried and hollowed out so that George Bush can crawl inside and control his actions like the alien in the first Men In Black movie. So, we can't trust him.
Obama is anti-drilling, but, as a secret Muslim, he would obviously take that stance since increased oil production stateside would interfere with the operations of his Arab overlords. Can't trust him, either.
No choice - we have to go to the numbers. (Note: if you don't actually want to see the numbers, just skip to the end. Srs bizness!!)
Unless you are an oil company executive, your decision on a pro/anti drilling stance should be made on whether or not you think taking these actions will help bring down the price at the pump. Let's break it down: the question of "should we drill offshore and in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR)" becomes "how much more oil will we get, how much will that bring down the cost of oil, and how much does the price of oil affect the price of gasoline?"
How much more oil will we get?
In the ANWR, about 10.5 billion barrels. Peak oil production would be 800,000-900,000 barrels a day... sometime after 2020.
Offshore, about 16 billion barrels would be opened up. Peak production would be on a similar scale and timeframe.
How much will that bring down the cost of oil?
I'm not an economist, and I don't feel like building a supply-demand curve to figure this out the right way. So, I'm going to fudge a little bit.
The US currently consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day, give or take. Let's give the ANWR and offshore fields the benefit of the doubt, and say we'll get a total of 2 million barrels of oil every day, once they hit peak production - this will happen many years from now, but, again, I'm going to make this simple, so let's assume it happened right now, today. Oil costs $140 per barrel. If there was an extra 2 million barrels on the market, let's say this drops the price of oil by 10%.
How much does the price of oil affect the price of gasoline?
Why, that is an excellent question. Thank you for bringing it up!
To determine this, we will explore some historical prices. Let's look at the national average price of both oil and gasoline today, 5 years ago, and 10 years ago. (Costs are per barrel/per gallon)
2008: $140/$4.12 2003: $28/$1.78 1998: $12/$1.17
From 98-03, oil went up by a factor of 2.3, while gas prices went up by a factor of 1.5. From 98-08, oil went up by a factor of 11.7, while gas only went up by a factor of 3.5.
On other words: the price of oil goes up much faster than the price of gasoline. Whaaa? That's right: there are other factors in the price of gasoline other than how much the oil costs. A 10% reduction in oil cost does NOT translate into a 10% reduction in gasoline costs. Refinery costs and capacity make up a very large part of the cost of a gallon of gasoline (that is why after Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices spiked dramatically - refining capacity nationwide was hit hard by the storm, in addition to some black people.)
From a typical barrel of oil, depending on the refining process used, you get 20 gallons of gasoline (the rest of the oil goes to make jet fuel, heating oil, and the salve Dick Cheney soaks in every night to stay alive). At $140 per 42-gallon barrel, oil costs $3.33 per gallon. Reducing the cost of oil by 10% would result in a per gallon of oil savings of about 33 cents per gallon.
If the ANWR and the Gulf Coast fields were at full capacity today, we'd save something like 30-40 cents on every gallon of gasoline. Of course, full capacity won't be reached for 10 years at the earliest - who knows how high the price of gasoline will be by then. 30-40 cents will be a drop in the bucket against $6-7 per gallon.
At $140 per barrel, though, there is money to be made. Offshore drilling becomes profitable at about $60 per barrel. With a profit of $80 per barrel, the oil in the Gulf alone is worth $1.2 trillion dollars.
Like I said, the choice of whether to drill is up to you. Just know what you are getting out of it (30-40 cents off a gallon of gasoline), and what the cost might be.
Loved reading this article on the proposed carbon tax. Quick primer: a carbon tax is a proposed method of controlling carbon emissions by taxing individuals and corporations for every pound of carbon they emit. A cap-and-trade system institutes caps on how much carbon can be emitted, and people who wish to go over their limits can purchase additional carbon emissions from those who are not using up to their cap. Got it? No? Whatever, you don't need to get it to enjoy the hysterical reaction from this conservative author. Instead of making you read the whole thing, I will instead offer some wonderful quotes:
"The sheer chutzpah it takes to even offer such
a thing is breathtaking, matched only by how frightened we all should be
by the sheer economic destruction it would inevitably cause and the loss
of freedom to which it would directly lead."
"This is simply a direct frontal assault on freedom, standards
of living and America as we have known it. For, you see, this is cloaked
in the cover of "being green," which is the most dangerous movement in
politics today. Why is it the most dangerous? Primarily because it has
no opposition whatsoever, so gutless and cowardly are all politicians in
the face of the Sierra Club and their fellow enviro-wackos."
"No one has the guts to tell these tree-hugging lunatics
where to shove their CF light bulb mandates, their all-consuming hatred
of the car and, most of all, their cult-like blind belief in
non-existent global warming as the universal justification for this
blatant government thuggery."
"When the Cold War had a
lull starting in 1989 - let's disabuse ourselves of the naïve notion
that it ever ended - the remaining believers in Marxism found a home in
the far-left environmental crowd. ... Fast forward to 2008,
and Big Green (or Big Red, if you prefer) is now the monster ready to
swallow the U.S. economy and radically remake society in their
totalitarian and anti-human image."
I don't intend to offer a point by point counterargument to every ridiculous thing he said, since that would be a waste of my precious time. Instead, please enjoy this clip from The Producers - imagine that Zero Mostel is playing the role of environmentalists, and Gene Wilder that of the author.
I'm not usually a big magazine reader, but sometimes you are in an airport for 12 hours and finish the book you brought and are tired of listening to your iPod and your wife has your laptop so she can look endlessly at real estate listings in Texas. Sometimes these things happen. Unsurprisingly, this cover caught my eye.
My immediate thought was: false premise. The two places I see false premises the most are in advice columns and magazine articles. In an advice column, an example of a false-premise question would be: "How much should I tell people to spend on wedding gifts for me in the invitations I send out?" The false premise, of course, is that you should be telling people to spend any amount of money on you at all. (Sidenote: if I wrote an advice column, I would spend half my time screaming at the selfish, selfish people planning their weddings.) In a magazine article, a false premise reads like this: "If you're serious about global warming, only one thing matters: Cutting carbon."
The appropriate phrase that comes to mind is "missing the forest for the trees". Global warming is an important topic, but it is only part of a larger issue: sustainability.
When you go camping, you'll often find signs that say "leave the campsite cleaner than you found it." That is the basic concept of sustainability, except the campsite is, uh, the entire world. If there is to be enough energy, food, water, and raw materials for a growing global population, then you must generate your energy, food, water, and raw materials in such a way that there is as much (or more) of these things left when you are done as when you arrived. How is this possible? By using renewable resources in a renewable way. Overfishing would be an example of using a renewable resource in a non-renewable way: fish are a renewable food resource until you eat them all.
Let's look at some of the assertions that Wired makes, and see how these change when you look through the prism of sustainability instead of just reducing carbon.
A/C IS OKAY
What Wired says: The US uses more energy on heating than it does on cooling every year. Additionally, air conditioning cycles are more efficient than heating cycles; that is, it takes less energy to cool a given volume of air by one degree than it does to heat that same given volume of air by one degree.
All these things are true. My rebuttal: so what? What, exactly, does this do to help anyone understand global warming or shape public policy? Some people live in hot areas, and some people live in cold areas. The carbon-based arguments for living in cold New England vs. hot Arizona are much more complex than heating vs. air conditioning. How much energy is spent delivering food and water and air conditioners to the desert? I don't know, but this is an example of the poorly thought out arguments used by Wired to make controversial statements to sell magazines rather than contribute to the readers understanding of sustainability. Sustainability demands that we reduce the non-renewable energy required for both heating and cooling through use of renewable energy and building efficiency (i.e. better insulation, reduced building heat gain, and maybe wearing a sweater indoors).
BUY USED CARS NOT HYBRIDS
What Wired says: The production of a hybrid car releases so much carbon that it is better to continue driving your old SUV.
Nobody should be making decisions about what car to buy based on carbon emissions. Instead, you should look for the mode of transportation with the highest level of sustainability. The vehicle that uses the least fossil fuel is the one that you should drive. Life cycle analysis of carbon only matters because hybrid vehicles are new enough that there are no used ones available. The sooner we get old gas guzzlers off the road, the better. If you buy a used vehicle now, or buy a new hybrid now and then sell it used down the road, I fail to see the difference in the long view.
The short-term minded approach to reducing carbon output ultimately results in a higher consumption rate of fossil fuels. Instead, you should look to acquire the vehicle that has the most sustainable energy consumption. If you take care of fuel consumption, the rest takes care of itself.
EMBRACE NUCLEAR POWER
What Wired says: Nuclear power emits no carbon.
Again, missing the point of sustainability versus carbon reduction. Until there is a solution of what to do with the nuclear waste, this is not a sustainable option - plain and simple. And as of right now, there is no solution.
The effort and expense that would go into building new power plants could instead be put into the development and production of truly renewable resources, like solar, wind, and wave power. Plus, last I heard, a wind farm never took out an entire region's population when it malfunctioned. I'm just saying.
I don't disagree with every assertion made by Wired. For example, I think intelligent use of forests, genetically engineering food supplies, and living in cities are all important steps towards a sustainable society (even though they got to these conclusions ass backwards). However, if Wired wasn't trying so hard to throw carbon reduction in the face of environmentalists to make a controversial magazine cover, they also would have made the point that riding a bike, buying used everything (not just cars), and being a vegetarian are also ways of reducing carbon out AND building a sustainable society.
But maybe the biggest step we can take as a society towards sustainability, carbon reduction, and reduced natural resource consumption?
[Scene: Suzi and I have arrived at her sister Selma's house. We are sitting in her kitchen when Suzi notices that Selma uses the same type of bag as her to pick up dog poo.]
Suzi: We use these same doggie bags. Did you know they are biodegradable?
Selma: Yeah, they are great. I'm on the green wagon now. They don't sell these in the pet store. We had to get in the boat, drive across the bay, spend $150 a night at the marina, and spend $400 on diesel to get these.
Me: That doesn't sound very green.
Suzi: [finishing her can of soda] Selma, where do you put your cans for recycle?
Selma: Oh, we broke our recycle bin so we had to throw it out.
Today we get follow-ups to two stories that ObscureCraft has been tracking. First, I'm sure you remember reading the first sentence of my "Word Problems" feature on the gas-tax holiday before getting bored, so I'll give you the short version: John McCain wants to suspend the national gas tax for the summer, because he is a stupid old man who can't do math. It turns out that the state of New York is also governed by stupid old men who can't do math.
State senators Andrew Lanza, Charles Fuschillo, and Joe Robach, sponsored a bill to suspend the 32.5 cent per gallon gas between Memorial Day and Labor Day. As a result, I am taking up a collection: if I get $60 in pledges, I will send each of these senators a copy of this book with the following note.
It has come to my attention, based on your recent legislation to suspend the gasoline tax for the summer season, that you are poor at math. Because I feel it is important that our elected officials be able to solve basic math problems, I have sent you the enclosed book. Take the time you would spend today writing horrible legislation and work through this book, and I guarantee that your math skills will greatly improve. Only 20 minutes a day to success! After you are done, your homework is to write a paragraph on why a gas tax holiday is a retarded idea.
I will start the pot with $10. And I don't even have a job! Anybody else in?
And finally: Monday, I brought you up to speed on the Miley Cyrus photo scandal. Well, today, I found this on the internets. That is what I call a photo scandal.
Just click it. Don't make me explain the disturbing, disturbing image found inside. Miley Cyrus may not owe me an apology, but whoever created this Disney-related advertisement does. Because I am upset. I'm going to go take another shower now.
Ethanol sucks. To be more specific, let's explore the effectiveness of ethanol as a renewable resource.
Fundamentally, all energy, except for nuclear energy, comes from the sun (the great nuclear reactor in the sky). Fossil fuels are a means of extracting solar energy that fell on the earth millions of years ago. However, this solar energy reserve is running out. We need to come up with ways of converting the solar energy that is falling onto the earth today into energy we can use without waiting the millions of years it takes for the generation of oil, coal, and natural gas beneath the earth. Here are some numbers to start:
The intensity of solar radiation is 1 kW/m^2. That means, if you had a 100% efficient solar converter, for every square meter of land it covered, you would get one kilowatt of power. If that sunlight was collected for an hour, you would have one kilowatt-hour of energy. Power is a measure of rate - how fast you've gone - and energy is a measure of quantity - how far you've gone. With me so far?
However! This solar radiation is on a surface perpendicular to the sun. If you have your collector on a flat surface at all times, you must correct for the incoming angle of the radiation. This is why you are cold in the winter, when the sun angle is low, and warm in the summer, when the sun angle is high. Science!
In addition to the effect of the angle of the incoming solar rays (called the "cosine effect"), you must also consider the length of each day and the typical amount of cloud cover in the area where your collector is located. Fortunately, there is a government agency whose job it is to determine these things for us - the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Your tax dollars at work.
So, we can get all the information we need to calculate how much solar energy falls on the corn. Now we need to know some things about corn. Specifically:
When is it planted, and how long does it take to grow? It depends on the area. We are going to use Iowa as our test region, so we will say planting day is roughly on April 1st. The time it takes to grow depends on the variety. We will use 80 days as an estimate.
How much land is required to get us a single bushel? In 2007, Iowa farmers harvested 2.5 billion bushels on 13.9 million acres, for a land-usage average of 180 bushels per acre. Doing some math gets us to 1 bushel per 22.5 square meters.
Let me pause here to make an observation. Many people reading this by now will be completely confused; if they aren't confused yet, they will be by the end. That is because energy is complicated unnecessarily. Let's take a quick look at some of the power and energy units we encounter in our daily lives.
* Kilowatt hours (kWh) - this is how you are charged for electricity energy on your utility bill * Therms - this is how you are charged for natural gas energy on your utility bill * British Thermal Units (BTUs) - commonly used as a power rating for air conditioners * Gallons of gasoline - energy you put into your car * Barrels of oil - energy put into gasoline to put into your car * Joules - standard metric unit for energy * Erg - energy unit commonly found in crossword puzzles * Horsepower - a unit of power used to rate car engines * Calorie - energy unit used in food
If you want to be an educated consumer of energy, you should know what these (and other) units mean, and how they compare... I smell another Word Problem. Anyway, moving on.
We will use Des Moines, Iowa as our example location, since we used to only hear about ethanol subsidies at the beginning of each election cycle for the Iowa caucuses. According to data from the Renewable Resource Data Center (a part of NREL), Des Moines, Iowa, typically sees 257.5 kWh per square meter for the 80-day period that starts on April 1st.
All the hard work is done, so let's see what we get:
1 bushel requires 22.5 square meters. If each square meter receives 257.5 kWh worth of solar energy, 1 bushel receives 5800 kWh. From each bushel that is converted into ethanol, we get 60 kWh worth of energy. This is a conversion efficiency of just over 1%. For comparison's sake, the worst solar panels - you know, the ones you refuse to put on your house because they are ugly - get 10%. Corn is 10 times worse at converting sunlight into energy as the worst photovoltaics.
As it turns out, the "Word Problems column is becoming "Hippie Jesse and his Groovetactular Enviro-Mania". Don't worry, I'm sure we'll fix the environment soon and I can move on to another topic to obsess over. As for the question at hand: the answer is yes if you are a corn grower or oil company, no if you enjoy eating food.
Wait, wait, wait. You are saying that if we stop using corn for food, and start using it to drive our trucks around, we're going to run out of corn to eat?
Uh, no shit.
This is where I would usually spend some space doing the math, but a little searching revealed that somebody had already done the work for me - last summer. This excellent Slate article from last June, titled "The Great Corn Con," details everything that is wrong with trying use ethanol to replace oil as a transportation fuel. Here are a few choice details:
"[Last June], the Senate passed an energy bill mandating the production of
36 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022--a sevenfold increase
over current levels."
"According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, distillers can produce about 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. In 2006, U.S. farmers produced about 10.5 billion bushels of the grain. So, even if Congress mandated that all of America's corn be turned into ethanol, it would yield only about 28.3 billion gallons, far less than the mandated volume."
I'm going to briefly pause here to re-iterate the author's point: all the corn in the United States cannot generate enough ethanol to meet the Congressional mandate in the last energy bill. All the corn. ALL OF IT. WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE DOING, EVERYBODY. Continuing:
"Thirty-six billion gallons of ethanol a year sounds like a lot, but
it's only 2.34 million barrels per day. And given ethanol's lower heat
content--about two-thirds that of gasoline--the effective production
would be equivalent to 1.54 million barrels of oil per day. The United
States uses nearly 21 million barrels of oil per day, of which 12.54
million barrels are imported.
Thus, even if American ethanol producers can miraculously achieve the
Senate's goal of 36 billion gallons per year by 2022, they will be
producing the equivalent of just 7.4 percent of America's total current
oil needs and just 12.2 percent of its imports. That quantity of
ethanol will not take America very far toward the oft-repeated goal of
I will repeat again: even IF we took ALL of the goddamn corn and made it into ethanol, we'd still only be displacing 12% of the oil that we import every year. Sometimes I think Congress passes legislation just to fuck with me.
So why does anyone even bother in the first place? What exactly is going on? If you ask me, it looks like a way for politicians to look like they are doing something for the environment without actually risking the status quo. But what do I know, just because I can do basic arithmetic. Let's move on, because there is another important reason that ethanol sucks more balls than the machine at the batting cages.
Oil, as you
should know, is a fossil fuel. There is only a certain amount in the
earth, and once it is gone, it is gone forever. However, ethanol is a
renewable resource. We can keep growing that corn. But where does the
energy in the corn come from? Like all (non-nuclear) energy, it comes from the sun. So when you
grow corn and turn it into ethanol, you are turning your field into a
large solar collector and converting solar energy into stored energy.
But how efficient is it?
Remember in school when you would get questions like this:
train leaves Chicago at 6:45 going 50 miles per hour. Another train
leaves Detroit at 5:15 going 70 miles per hour. If its 400 miles
between the two cities, where do the trains meet? (Answer: Fuck you
Well, turns out, you were right when you said you would never need
to know how to do that. Turns out word problems are much harder than
that. Things are not so simplified; you are not given all the
information; and, most of the time, you don't even know the question
being asked of you is a math problem. This recurring feature will aim
to highlight when a topic in the news is actually a word problem, and
then I will try to solve it.
The answer actually depends on who you are. I will attempt to
answer it from several points of view. Here are some facts that should
be considered with each answer.
The current gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel).
Estimates peg the value of this tax to the US government at $10 billion. As of this writing, the national average cost of gasoline is $3.39. As of this writing, oil costs $113 per barrel.
an average American. I consume 500 gallons of gas per year.
During the summer months, I'll consume roughly 30% of this gasoline, or 150 gallons. Therefore, this tax reduction will personally save me about $27 this
year. Uh, that's pretty good, I guess. Hope the government didn't
need that $10 billion dollarsforanything.
Here is the answer if you are an economist:
The average driver reduces consumption in response to rising prices once prices cross approximately $2.50 per gallon.
Decreasing the price per gallon should result in higher consumption.
Per gallon spending drops, but overall spending on fuel will remain
roughly constant. Therefore, the effect of this tax will be to remove
$10 billion from the federal budget, and transfer those funds to the
gasoline and oil industry.
Here is the answer if you are the gasoline industry:
Tesla Motors made a splash in 2006 with the Tesla Roadster,
an all-electric sports car that was named Best Transportation Invention
of the year by Time Magazine. The good publicity continued when the
Roadster escorted celebrities to the red carpet of the 2007 Oscars as
part of a "green limo" service that included the Toyota Prius and cars
that run on compressed natural gas.
But now, according to the New York Times (them again!), Tesla Motors is suing a rival car company for stealing their designs and trade secrets. It's so tempting to think of people working on alternative energy like this as the good guys, isn't it? But it turns out they can be just as petty, incompetent, and short-sighted as everyone else in the world. Let's recap:
The Tesla Roadster, a sexy little minx with a get-up-and-go that rivals the fastest cars in the world, is a year behind schedule.
The Tesla sedan, codename "Whitestar", is going to cost over $60K and the designer, Henrik Fisker may have botched the job on purpose to sabotage it.
Fisker then took his Tesla earnings and used it to design his own car with the same series electric-gas drive train as Whitestar uses, and called it the Fisker Karma.
Now Fisker and Tesla are in a bitch-slapping match over the designs the Karma. Or, as one of Tesla's lawyers put it,
"I think it's ironic that Fisker chose to name his car the Karma, when what he's done is very bad karma."
Oh snap! Although the lawyer does have a point, naming a car the Fisker I'm A Car Design Stealing Douche doesn't quite have the same ring to it as the Karma, does it.
Ethics has an underrated role in science and engineering. When the Challenger exploded despite advanced knowledge that booster rocket seals could fail in a cold weather launch, that was a clear-cut failure of engineering ethics. While it may be fortunate that every ethical failure doesn't end with a billion dollar rocket exploding with 5 people inside, some that go less noted are even more damaging. I recently watched a documentary of such a failure, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" It turns out I did. And so did you.
The short version: California passed a law in the late 90's requiring a certain percentage of all vehicles sold in California to be zero-emissions vehicles. Faced with fighting the law or complying, American car companies decided to do both. So, while taking the state to court, GM also developed and started leasing the EV1. Other companies began following suit. However, when George W. Bush won the White House, the car companies were able to get the federal government to back them in their lawsuit against California; the state finally caved and scrapped the law. Rather then continue marketing and developing the electric car, which could potentially eat into sales of gas-guzzling, high margin SUVs, GM stopped production, recalled all vehicles when the leases ended, and crushed them into cubes. You have 30 minutes to move your cube.
The irony? The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrid vehicles were a direct result of the Japanese companies playing catch-up to a perceived threat from electric vehicles coming out of Detroit. Instead, the short-sighted brass at GM squandered its technological and development head start with electric vehicles. Now, gas will hit $4 per gallon this summer, "An Inconvenient Truth" is an Oscar-winner, and the Prius is a best-seller.
Instead of acknowledging the necessity of reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality, reducing oil imports from middle eastern autocracies and developing a lead in new technologies, American auto companies spent their money on lawyers and on marketing SUVs to soccer moms in the suburbs, all with the White House's backing.
When the Challenger exploded, the scientists had told NASA management that O-ring seals could fail before the launch took place. Canceling the launch took managerial courage which they did not have. GM could have shown that same courage by sacrificing some short-term profits and pursuing their head start in electric car technology. Remember, not every technical failure is a result of bad engineering, and not every failure ends with an explosion. Don't let this failure slip by you unnoticed just because there is no fireball. If a car company had the vision (and there is one that does) you could be driving an all-electric car to work tomorrow at a fraction of the environmental and economic cost.
I killed the electric car when I didn't apply my technical skills to solving the problems, but instead worked on fuel cells. You killed it when you bought an SUV, or thought an electric car couldn't meet your needs, or if you are Alan Lloyd. Thanks, us.
The spot: medium shot of a man, waist up, wearing a suit and tie, lamenting the price of gas. "That place where gas prices couldn't go any higher meets gas prices just went higher? I'm there." Cut to a wide shot revealing the man standing next to a bicycle, wearing bicycle shorts below his suit and shirt. "That place where four wheels meets two wheels? I'm there." A narrator talks about how State Farm's low prices can help save you money while the cyclist unlocks his bike. The spot ends when a woman walks past in the background and says, "Nice pants, Jim."
State Farm has this new series of commercials called "Intersections." There's one with the young guy getting married, but he's wearing Converse sneakers with his suit, so you know he's a hip cool youth. There's another one where a guy sits in his super-cool loft-style apartment in the city, playing with his baby. In other words, a slightly obnoxious but altogether harmless ad campaign about positioning State Farm as the insurance company for all you hipsters out there. Harmless, until this ad.
Let me start by saying I am a bike commuter. During the spring, summer, and fall, I do 11 miles roundtrip 3-5 times a week. Apparently State Farm thinks I should be mocked and ridiculed for this. Wow, did this ad piss me off. I'm sorry, but so what if rising gas prices has resulted in this guy having to ride his bike to work? Good! GREAT! What is the problem, State Farm? Are we supposed to feel bad for this guy because he can't afford to drive his Hummer to work anymore? If he lives close enough to ride his bike to work, then he should already be biking to work! And who told him to ride in bicycle shorts and a suit jacket? If he wants to look like a fool that's his problem. Oh, and then! And then! That woman walks past and says "Nice shorts!" You are right, horrible woman, he should be ridiculed for finding a way to cope with high energy prices. Lets just annex Iraq and start drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge until our problems go away.
Okay...I'm going to take a deep breath, regain my composure. Now, how about a closer look at what exactly is wrong with this, without the hysterics. I am of the opinion that driving a gasoline-powered car is incredibly cheap. Lets do some math.
According to my bike odometer, I've put approximately 2000 miles on it since I started commuting regularly two summers ago. At 20 miles per gallon, I've saved 100 gallons of gas, at an average of $3 per gallon, or $300. In other words, I have not yet offset the initial investment I made in the bicycle (not to mention my helmet, scalp cap to keep my head warm on cold mornings, my lights to make me more visible at night, the pack to carry my clothes...
So why do it? Even at these prices, there is not a whole lot of economic incentive. Also, I have purchase carbon offsets for my car, so there isn't even much environmental incentive for me to do it. Basically, I do it because I think it is a way for me to set a positive example. If my bike commuting gets others to follow suit, then I feel that it is worth the effort (for the record, I have gotten one other employee at my office to start bike commuting).
And then along comes State Farm, re-enforcing all these horrible notions about bike commuting. You have to wear tight shorts (I don't, by the way). Others will mock you. Its all so very...European. You should do whatever it takes to save money so that you can keep driving that car around. What is next, Hefty trash bags making a commercial about how recycling is for pussies? Is this the way everyone thinks? The fact is, this ad is a reflection of the common perception of commuting on a bike. Rather than help change this view, State Farm reinforces it to sell some insurance policies on the cars that you should keep driving, as is right as an American.