January 30, 2013

Forced to buy imaginary fuel

A circuit court vacated the EPA’s cellulosic ethanol mandate that required firms to blend cellulosic ethanol with gasoline or face fines. The problem with this mandate was that zero cellulosic ethanol was produced and firms could not blend it. They were being fined for not doing what could not be done. Even Kafka would be surprised at the brazenness.

The rule originated in a 2007 law that elevate hope over reality. They wanted a fuel that could be produced inexpensively from a waste product. Who wouldn't.

So they figured that they could mandate into existence by government fiat and ruled that refiners MUST blend cellulosic ethanol into gasoline. They created a market for an unavailable product in the belief that they could call it into existence, more or less in the manner of creating wine from water.

This miracle failed to happen. Lots of people talk about cellulosic ethanol, but nobody has been able to make it in any quantity. Or maybe, put another way, it makes much more sense to blend in Jack Daniels or Jim Beam and burn that in our cars and trucks. At least those products are available.

Cellulosic ethanol has been a big disappointment. It should work. It is such a good idea and it would solve so many of our problems. It is a magical solution to our energy needs. The problem with magic is that there is no such thing.

As a tree farmer, cellulosic ethanol could be a big deal for me and I have studied the cellulosic ethanol equation in significant depth. I don't believe it can EVER work, even if a technology is developed that easily converts wood wastes to ethanol. The problem is physical bulk. Raw materials such as forestry waste and corn husks are bulky and they are spread all over the place. Simply gathering it together is a challenge. The problem is moving them to a plant where they could be converted to ethanol and storing them.

If you want to make energy out of wastes such as this, the solution is to burn them directly. Dominion Power is converting some of their coal burning power stations to accept wood chips. This makes sense and I plan to sell chips. It is not as exciting because it is old tech, but it will always be better to convert to energy with fewer steps.

The problem with government experiments is that they cannot easily admit that the experiment has shown it cannot be done. Ethanol from cellulose was a nice idea that was proven impractical by experiment and experience. Give up and move along. There are things we just cannot have, not matter how much we all agree that it should be possible.

December 30, 2012

Science wins for now

Scientists at FDA say that genetically engineered salmon would not have a significant impact (FONSI) on the U.S. environment and safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon . This should clear the way for the fish to be farmed, adding a less expensive and healthier option to world diets. It will also take some pressure off badly stressed wild fisheries and generally make our environment better than it would have been. It is great that this report finally came out. 

There is lots of similar good news that is not well reported. For example, I think it is remarkable that U.S. CO2 emissions have dropped to twenty year lows and that we have become the world leader in reducing emissions. Few people seem to know these things and I find little in the media. There used to be a lot more when we were not doing as well. Of course, one of the best things in the environment in my lifetimes is the natural gas revolution.

More on fracking.

We are accustomed to bad environmental news and it is easy to provide. Much of it is just plain BS with scary images - like the tap water starting on fire in the pseudo-documentary "Gas Land." A lot of it is based on fear of change. Most of it is true, however, but it is truth out of context. A natural environment is constantly changing, with some things coming and others going.

As trees in a forest grow bigger, the wildlife it supports changes. I remember the controversy on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. It is one of the most studied places in the U.S. because of the interaction of wolves and moose. The different animal populations and the forests are always changing. The wolves wiped out the coyotes and impacted the beaver population. If you wanted to document loss, here it is. On the other hand, the wolves at first prospered, by killing moose. Again, look at the moose herd and you can document loss. The decline of the moose numbers allowed forests to regrow, but you could document the loss of moose forage. You get the point. Change is constant. Change brings losses and gains. If you look at only one side of the equation, you can easily paint the picture you want.

For the U.S. in my lifetime, we have had mostly good ecological news. Lakes are cleaner today than when I was growing up. Forests are healthier. Wildlife is so robust some are even becoming nuisances. Of course, there have been losses. Our task is to judge the balance.

This balance goes for every choice we make. Choices should be informed by information, but there is rarely a choice with only a plus side. This salmon is a good thing, on balance. I like salmon, but it is a little expensive. I look forward to the being able to eat this new salmon.

NB - I posted this on a different site and included some comments that I think make the post better.

More on Biotech here & here, plus a little on bioenergy

November 30, 2012

Unexpected Energy Future

I turned 18 the same year of the Arab oil embargo. Oil prices went way up and we thought the age of inexpensive energy was gone forever. What an unexpected change! The technology of fracking today has essentially created new energy that will last my lifetime and that of my children. And the natural gas is much cleaner than the coal or oil it replaces, a gift from God, with an assist from a stubborn American.

George Mitchell graduated from the Texas A&M as a petroleum engineer. His father was an illiterate Greek goat herder who had the good sense to move to America. George was so poor that he was almost kicked out of school for non-payment of tuition. One of his professors told him that if he wanted to drive a Chevy, he should work for Humble Oil (later Exxon) but if he wanted to drive a Cadillac, he should go into business for himself. George saw himself as more a Cadillac type of guy.

In 1982, Mitchell Energy was in danger of not having enough gas to supply its clients. In those days, experts thought gas would soon run out. Mitchell looked for new sources. He knew there was a lot of gas trapped in the Barrett shale in Texas, but nobody could get it out at a price anybody could pay. He invested $6million and had to put up with twenty years of ridicule from his friends for throwing money away on something that would not work.

It wasn't until 1998 that Mitchell came up with a permutation of hydraulic fracturing that worked. (Fracking was not a new technology; it just had not been applied in this particular way before.) The way was open to the bright, happy future we now see before us.
Mitchell lived to see his dream work. He is still alive, now 93 years old.

You never know what's going to work. Mitchell could have ended up wrong and ridiculed, as many dreamers do. Most big ideas fail. That is why we need lots of options and try lots of things.

Of course, this is not the work of only one man. Lots of researchers, investors and workers were involved. (BTW - Mitchell "gave back" contributing $44.5 million to A&M and $159 million to universities and research organizations.) Government provided incentives to unconventional energy. But I wonder if it would have happened w/o Mitchell. There is no such thing as destiny. Things do not have to happen the way they do. Fracking could have remained a "stupid and impractical" idea. That is what most experts thought at the time.

After the fact lots of things look obvious, but they could have gone other ways. There are myriad examples of people sitting on great opportunities w/o using them, ever. So thank you George. Well done.

November 03, 2012

Saving papers harms forest health

Paper productsSaving paper doesn’t save trees.  This is what I have on the bottom of my emails, “If you feel it necessary to print this message, recall that wood is 100% renewable resource & we grow most of the pulp wood for paper sustainably on American tree farms.”  Some people like it; some are offended; most probably don’t notice.  I put it on there against those silly ones that tell you to be careful not to print in order to save trees.

Saving paper does not save trees because most paper is made from pulp trees grown sustainably on tree farms. 

The trees cut for pulp are usually cut as part of thinning operations.  They CANNOT be saved.  If you do not thin your forests, growth slows; health declines and beetles start to attack all the trees.  You could thin the trees and then just leave them on the ground, but that leads to fire danger and insect infestations.  Thinning trees is good for the health of the forest.  It is also good for wildlife, since the thinning allows sunlight into the woods, encouraging the diverse food supplies wildlife needs.  Forest landowners don’t make much money from thinning operations.  Most of the money they make goes into forest improvement, BUT if there is no profitable market (i.e. paper) for thinned wood most forest landowners cannot afford to do it at all.

The bottom line is that the paper industry contributes to healthy forests.  Forests would be LESS robust w/o paper industry demand for pulpwood.  People should put what I have on the bottom of their emails.  If they want to measure environmental costs, they need to measure energy. Below are some of my sixteen year old loblolly.  They were thinned two year ago. We removed about half the trees. You can see that they have easily grown together.

Thinned trees 16 years old 

The environmental impact of paper on forest health is a net benefit. The place where paper could be a negative is energy cost.  It takes energy to cut trees, process paper and move it to your office.  This means that NOT using paper may be a good thing in some cases, if energy costs outweigh effects on forest health.

What rarely makes sense is recycling small amounts of paper.  Make the distinction. Recycling bulk paper makes sense.  Recycling small batches does not.  Think of the energy costs.  You have to collect paper using trucks and then put it through a similar process as making paper from wood.  The equation involves the energy needed to harvest timber versus the energy required to “harvest” recycling.  Collecting small amounts of paper, especially paper that is soiled, makes no sense.  Recycling that Starbucks cup almost certainly is worse for the environment than would be making paper with newly harvested trees.  The paper plants are probably closer to the forest than they are to the places where you are tossing those cups.  It will cost a lot to clean these things and paper is heavy. It takes a lot of energy to move.

The big problem if you don’t recycle paper is the space it takes in landfills.  This is also not a clear choice.  Wood sequesters carbon until it is burned or decays.  If the paper made from wood sits in landfills, it holds onto that carbon for a long time.  Somebody should do the math on this.

So the common denominator of all this is energy.  Does it take more energy to recycle or make new paper?  Add in the variable that the demand for paper is beneficial to forest health.  Paper making may use trees but it saves forests by increasing forest health.  Speaking of energy, the widespread replacement of paper with electronic files is not ecologically free. 

Data is stored and processed at large computer service farms. Computers in server farms run 24/7, and consume prodigious amounts of electricity, both for the computers and the air conditioning needed to keep them cool.  But this is another story.

The bottom line is that saving paper does not save trees and may actually have negative impacts on forest health.  It MAY save energy and certainly saves money for you or your firm.  We need to balance the needs to have printed materials with ecological and cost concerns.  Just do the right thing for the right reasons.

This brings me to what made me think about this.  In the Atlanta airport I saw the machine pictured above.  This is plain stupid.  It purports to be environmentally benign but it making at least three big mistakes.  It saves paper, which is not needed.  To do that it USES energy. Beyond that, it puts in each bathroom a piece of complicated electronics that inevitably requires maintenance.  Whoever bought this made a mistake from the environmental point of view, although probably not from the PR perspective.   Many people see something like this and feel much better about wiping their hands.  Many of these people will probably put some “save the trees” message on their emails.

October 27, 2012

The energy world turned upside down

I continue to be amazed at how different the energy future is today than it looked only a few years ago. The U.S. could soon become a net exporter of energy and we will almost certainly be the world’s biggest oil & gas producer by 2020. There is even good environmental news in this mix. Our CO2 emissions are dropping. We are beating all those people who gave us a hard time about rejecting Kyoto and doing it with none of the pain they told us we would have to accept.

Just about nobody predicted this happy outcome. (If you claim that you did, you must be very rich by now and if you are not you are lying.) Back in 2000, experts told us that we had around 11 years of natural gas reserves if we continued to use it at the current rate. Now we have a couple centuries of the stuff. There is no such thing as peak oil or peak gas except as a theoretical construction as useful as the number of angels that can dance on a pin head. .

The energy center of gravity is moving to the Americas. I look forward to the day, not far off, when a big Middle Eastern oil producer threatens our energy supply and we tell him to go F himself. I already take pleasure in the disorder and confusion of OPEC.

Americans are lucky people. It has been said that there was a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America. Maybe so. I have found that when people are especially lucky (or unlucky) over an extended period of time, it usually has something to do with their attitudes or behaviors. This energy bonanza is a good example. Although there are plenty of naysayers even in the U.S., Americans generally embrace the progress. We are "lucky" because we are flexible and take advantage of unexpected opportunities. May this national characteristic never change.

This is an unbelievably good situation. All we need do to take advantage of this is to say "yes" and ignore the troglodytes and luddites who want to proclaim the anti-scientific "precautionary principle."

BTW - speaking of anti-scientific activities, did you hear about the pinheads in Italy who sentenced six scientists to prison terms for not predicting a deadly earthquake? You can rest assured that behavior like this makes you unlucky.

September 01, 2012

We Did it Again (Take that you pessimists)

Wood is an excellent building material. It is easy to manipulate, a good insulator and wood is completely renewable as well as biodegradable. It is more environmentally benign than competing materials like concrete or steel in its full lifecycle and wood is always at least carbon neutral & actually removes CO2 from the air. But wood has suffered from a big weakness; it was not strong enough to build tall structures. Until now.   

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) can transform the way in which wood is used. CLT can be used to replace pre-fabricated concrete panels or even steel in building. The Australians are currently building a ten story wood apartment building in Melbourne using CLT and experts believe that building as high as fifteen stories should be possible in the near future. This makes wood a suitable building material in all but the tallest buildings and goes a long way toward a sustainable future. But there is more.

A really exciting new development is nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). You may not have heard of this before because technologies needed to understand it, like electron scanning microscopes, were unavailable until recently. Experts quoted in the link above think that NCC will replace metal and plastic in many applications and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future and the U.S. National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

NCC has mechanical properties comparable to stainless steel or Kevlar and has a strength to weight ratio eight times better than steel. "It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price," according to Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University's NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana.

So the future for wood is bright, which has wonderful consequences for the environment and for America. The U.S. can produce all the wood fiber it needs in completely sustainable and often environmentally positive ways.

The world develops in unexpected ways. We often fear the future because it is unknown. We project our current problems forward and they seem unsolvable. They usually ARE unsolvable given the current state of technolgoy and development. The variables we too often leave out of the equation are human innovation, imagination and intelligence. Our resources are not fixed. They grow larger based on our abilities to use them. I wrote not long ago about the boom in shale oil that has vaulted the U.S. into world leadership in reduction of CO2.

This was predicted by nobody even five or ten years ago. In fact, had you mentioned such a possibility back in 2002 you would have been called all sorts of names, none of them synonyms for honest or intelligence. We are looking at a better than expected future. A related development is the shift of the energy center of gravity from those unstable regions of the Middle East to the Americas and maybe the Atlantic parts of Africa.

Those pessimists who project our problems forward and fear we will never solve them are right. Generally speaking, history shows that we almost never SOLVE problems; we transcend them.

As we replace non-renewable or environmentally unfriendly materials with those sourced in something as abundant and renewable as wood, we are fulfilling the impossible dreams of a previous generation of environmentalists and we are doing while increasing our country's wealth and prosperity. I am fond of the future since I plan to live there for the rest of my life. It looks like it will be much better than the places I used to live.

August 31, 2012

U.S. CO2 Emissions Drop to Twenty Year Low

Mostly as a result of the inexpensive American natural gas, U.S. CO2 emissions dropped to 1992 levels. We are also driving less. We reached “peak gasoline”in 2006 and from now on will use less. See the chart below.  I wrote about this here, here & here, among other places.

The interesting thing is that the U.S. is now the world leader in reducing emissions w/o those muscular measures called for in Kyoto. We are doing better than everybody else because of market forces. They really do work also in environmentalism.  

This is not really new news, but here probably is the first place you are reading about this. Back when the U.S. was the "word's bigger polluter" we had updates every day.

There was an interesting paragraph in the report of the drop. Bold italic are mine. "Many of the world's leading climate scientists didn't see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere." 

Those international experts who claimed that the U.S. "had no plan" just don't understand how planning works. We have the most superb, sublime and subtle planning mechanism in the world - the free market - and we have the we have the worlds most intelligent, involved and imaginative planners too - the American people. That is why we always beat the centralized planners in practice, if not in theory. 

One more thing from the AP article - "How much further the shift from coal to natural gas can go is unclear. Bentek says that power companies plan to retire 175 coal-fired plants over the next five years. That could bring coal's CO2 emissions down to 1980 levels. "

We have achieved in environmentalism much more than I dreamed of when I was a bit of a radical environmentalist in the 1970s. We exceeded all the predictions. If anyone had told me back then of the U.S. in 2012, I would not have believed them. I was similiarly pleasantly surprised by how fast we brought down "acid rain" or closed the "ozone hole". Now we are doing the same with CO2. It is easy to underestimate the imagination and power of freedom. I used to read the writings of the socialists of the early part of the last century. They made bold predictions about how good things could be if we abandoned the free market and went with planning. We have greatly exceeded their slow-moving dreams. We have the best planning system, even if it is too hard for some dreamers to understand.

December 11, 2011

Change comes on little cat feet

I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody saw it coming. It even took a while for people to recognize that it did. It went out with a whimper. But soon, everybody claimed that they had foreseen it. We have a game changing change development in energy happening now. The center of energy production is shifting from the Middle East to the Americas. This will be a change almost as important as the collapse of the Soviet Empire. There are other good things happening.

There is good news on both the supply and demand side. The U.S. reached what might be called "peak demand" in 2005; since that time our consumption of oil and declined and is set to continue to decline, as we become more efficient users of oil and shift to plentiful natural gas for many uses.

On the supply side, I have written about the fantastic amounts of natural gas made available in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Oklahoma by new technologies. Government & industry need to agree on sensible regulations that protect environment while filling our energy needs but we need to move ahead. No more blocking progress w/o giving alternatives.

New technologies are also at work with so called "tight oil". North Dakota has become a major oil producer for that reason. It is a big change.

Beyond that, energy is being discovered or developed in friendly places close to home. Newly developed Canadian oil sands are producing more NEW oil than the total Libyan output BEFORE the revolution. Brazil has discovered vast reserves of oil & gas that may rival that of Saudi Arabia.

Alternatives are developing rapidly. Wind power, especially when coupled with natural gas, is becoming viable in some markets. Wind power's danger to birds and bats is being addressed. Another promising development is old-fashioned biomass. In some parts of the country, especially the Southeast, wood scraps from forestry and sawmills is already making an important contribution to the energy mix. Research on biofuels is continuing and biodiesel is looking more and more promising.

Many of our new energy sources will be able to hitch rides on rapidly developing techniques in nanotech and biotech. For example, solar panels can be more efficiently made using nanotech, which can allow less expensive materials to be substituted for scarce ones. Biotech will certainly help with things like biodiesel and maybe cellulose ethanol.

I am talking about good news in energy, but there is another area of success ... and challenge. Success always come with challenges, otherwise life would be boring.

The guy who came to fix my furnace a while back told me that he couldn't find a helper willing to train and do the work despite the fact that he could make around $80,000 a year. Now I read about a shortage of skilled blue-collar workers. The American manufacturing-base is twice as big as it was in 1970, but productivity gains mean that many fewer workers are required for the greater production AND the workers left are mostly higher skilled. There just is not much grunt work left.

Since 2009, the number of job openings in manufacturing has been rising, with average annual earnings of $73,000 (reference the above link). Booming American energy production, natural gas in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and oil in unlikely locations such as North Dakota, are already driving a manufacturing renaissance that is putting a strain on available skilled labor sources.

Americans are resilient. We respond to challenges. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in those dark times of the late 1970s. At that time, many of the experts were writing us off. We were running out of everything, they told us. Nobody would have believed back then how much we progressed in the last few decades.

America's best days are ahead of us. We don't need to go back, we can look forward. Despite what the pessimists told me in the late 1970s, my life has been better than my father's. And despite what the pessimists tell me now, I know that my kid's will have more choices than I had. We will get through these hard times and when we do all those pinheads currently crying about the end of prosperity will think that they knew it all the time.

References here & here

My title is inspired by Carl Sandburg's poem, "Fog." I think it accurately describes change.

THE FOG comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

November 06, 2011

Gas: the Simple Answer to Energy & Economy

The simple answer to our energy challenges & our lackluster economic performance are the vast energy reserves in gas and oil that new technologies have recently made available to us right here in America. This will even help keep us safer, since bad guys control much of the exportable oil and gas outside North America; the less we give them the better.

First let's talk about our biggest challenge. Overcoming the old-fashioned ideas we learned in the 1970s. These were pessimistic times of shortages. Experts used pseudo-science terms like "peak oil" that frightened and impressed the credulous. Many thought up plans to "manage our decline." We have less, they told us. President Jimmy Carter put on his sweater and told us to get used to it. 

The pessimists were right in the short term given their unimaginative straight line projections of resources used, obtained & projected. But they lacked the capacity to understand innovation or when they did they thought only in terms of big government investments and a managed energy economy. 

So let's dispense with that. All those energy challenges that defeated Jimmy Carter and perplexed the pessimists have been overcome by human ingenuity. We have access to more oil and natural gas than we did in 1980 and it seems like we will have even more in the future. In the 1970s, government regulators controlled the price of natural gas and then outlawed the building of new power plants that used that clean fuel. This was logical based on their flawed information. As far as they thought, we ran out of natural gas about ten years ago and we would have, had we listened to those experts.

Supposed shortages of gas and oil playing into the world-view of some folks and they will scream when I assert they were way wrong, but they were/are. What we have today is far beyond any best-case energy scenario envisioned by the luddites of the 1970s.

Business Week has a cover story about natural gas and how it could bring the economy out of the doldrums. Cheap AMERICAN energy supplies would provide a real stimulus to the economy, one that will produce tax revenue rather than add to our debts. There are some environmental challenges, but fewer than with any of the other forms of energy we currently use on a large scale. They can be managed. 

The creation of a whole new world of energy using gas is a heroic story of individuals and small firms fighting against the experts, Federal regulators and powerful interests in places like the coal industry. They also had to fight the ridicule of experts who said that it could never be done. It is a story that shows exactly why big government programs in energy fail and often cause harm. They were going to do what they said couldn't be done. And they did. Maybe that is why so many people STILL don't get it. 

So let's sum up. Technological advances have "created" vast new supplies of American natural gas that can stimulate millions of American jobs. The extraction and consumption of this fuel is more ecologically benign than any of the forms of energy it is likely to replace.  Similar technological advances have made available vast amounts of oil in Canada, but also in places like North Dakota, whose economy is booming with full employment. This will give us a North American alternative to oil from unstable places in the Middle East or Africa. So what do we do? We dither and oppose the infrastructure that will bring it to us. 

There may be no easy answers, but there are simple answers. The simple answer is to just say yes to inexpensive, available American energy, which will create American jobs, improve the quality of our air and help us pull free of the doldrums in our economy. What are we waiting for?

I have been noticing this for years. It just keeps getting better.  

May 25, 2011


Bioenergy is part of any energy solution, but it is not THE solution and the idea that bioenergy will soon make a large part of the American fuel mix probably violates the laws of physics and certainly is not justified by our levels of technology or economics. 

Petrobras_ Station Brasilia_Lago_Sul.jpg 

Oil and gas are forms of bioenergy; they are just the fossil forms. Although when we say bioenergy, we almost never mean oil, gas or coal, remembering their ultimate origin helps understand the challenge of bioenergy today.  Coal, gas & oil were once living organisms. For millions of growing seasons, ancient forests laid down these carbon-based energy riches. There is a geological period in deep time called the Carboniferous, because so many of our coal resources were laid down during it roughly sixty million. During this period, vast tropical rain forests expanded and then collapsed due to rapid climate change.  This one period and there are many more millions of years.   

When we are producing bioenergy today, we are using the product of one growing season, or at most that of dozens in the case of wood. You can see how our ephemeral efforts seem feeble in comparison to the millions of years and many trillions of life forms that produced the fossil fuels. Gasoline from fossil fuels is a superb liquid energy source that gives us more energy per gallon than almost anything else.  A gallon of ethanol yields only around 80% of the energy of a gallon of gasoline. A pound of hydrogen contains much more energy than a pound of gasoline, but hydrogen weighs less than air and a pound of hydrogen takes up more than ten times as much space as a pound of gasoline. Even with its greater energy output, a gallon of hydrogen produces only a little more than 25% as much as a gallon of gasoline.

I digress into the geological and physical facts because I enjoy such things and also to explain the origins and weaknesses of biofuels that are often overlooked. To continue with the mainstream article … 

There are many varieties of bioenergies. GMOs promise to deliver biodiesel & other forms of energy from many varieties of plants. We can already produce fuels from things like oil seeds and palm oil. Some of these things have significant ecological costs. For example, rain forests are sometimes removed to plant oil palm. These things can add more greenhouse gases than they remove.   

In the profound understanding that yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, we should be careful, understanding that some of today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.   

The most promising bioenergy that might replace petroleum is not really bioenergy at all, but rather is a byproduct. Much of our modern industrial society is petroleum based and much of that is not the stuff we burn.  Plastics, drugs, fertilizers and many composites even the paving on our streets is petroleum based.  We could replace liquid petroleum fuel a lot easier than we could do without many of these petroleum based products.  But when we recall that petroleum is a biofuel, we can see that we could use bioenergy production to replace petroleum in many of these uses. In fact, Middle Eastern potentates feel more acutely threatened by developments in alternative materials than they do the development of alternative fuels. As long as we need the “byproducts” production of oil etc is assured.  

The most famous liquid bioenergy is ethanol. Ethanol is criticized because its production can be inefficient (i.e. consume as fossil fuel as it replaces) and the feedstock is usually some form of food and/or the production of the crop for ethanol displaces a food crop.  

The first criticism can be valid. You can make ethanol from almost anything that grows in the earth, but some are less efficient than others. You have to look at the precise circumstances. The idea that it displaces food production is one of those things that make intuitive sense, but it not true.  

The displacement argument is based on a zero sum thinking that is rarely valid. A modern diversified agriculture produces a variety of crops in a variety of ways. These crops can complement each other and allow greater productivity. For example, some farmers plant sugarcane (a multiyear crop) followed by corn and then by soybeans.  One crop enriches the soil for the others.  It also can make sense to intersperse crops.  In any case, the U.S. has produced more food and feed in the last five years than in the previous twenty while simultaneously producing a bumper crops for biofuels. It works on the small scale as well. Poor farmers in Tanzania, for example, have had success in producing cassava and sunflowers, used in bioenergy along with the crops they eat. Production in general has increased, while addressing the problem of persistent energy poverty.  

Biofuel is not the same as bioenergy, which is a broader term. This is clear in the production of ethanol.  Ethanol production from sugar cane is very efficient because of the energy potential of the feedstock itself, but also because of the usefulness of the “waste” i.e. the stalks called bagasse. Burning these residues produces enough energy to completely fuel the ethanol production plus surplus energy that can be fed into the national grids. (In 2010, the EPA designated Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel due to its 61% reduction of total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, including direct indirect land use change emissions.) 

All new Brazilian vehicles are flex fuel and Brazilians consumers have the choice of ethanol or gasoline at the pump. They make choices based on the relative prices. When the price of ethanol moves above 80% that of gas, they buy gas. Ethanol prices have been high in recent months and so Brazilian drivers have been opting more and more for gasoline, while Brazil, somewhat ironically, has been importing ethanol from the United States. The United States is both the world’s biggest consumer and producer of ethanol. Brazil is second; between our two countries we account for 87.8% of total world production. Brazil and the United States partnered to share techniques and technologies among themselves and with developing countries in the Caribbean and Africa.  

The Holy Grail of ethanol production is ethanol from cellulose, i.e. wood chips, corn husks, switchgrass etc.  President Bush mentioned this as a goal in his State of the Union speech in 2006. President Obama has reiterated this pledge. Presidents, BTW, have been making similar pledges on various technologies since Richard Nixon. Anyway, they always say the technology will be available about 5-10 years from the time of the speech. It is a good round number that allows them to take credit but largely be out of the way when it doesn’t happen.  

IMO, biofuels will never come close to replacing petroleum as a liquid fuel source. The science is still not available, but as importantly it lacks practical or economic sense. Cellulose is common in farm and forestry wastes and is “available” as a feed stock, but it also has other characteristics. Most notably, cellulose waste is bulking, heavy and it tends to burn well. It will never make practical sense to move all this stuff to factories to be turned into ethanol, a process which will produce relatively little energy in return for the massive input. The most useful alternative is what the Brazilians already do with bagasse and what many pulp, paper and wood mills do with their sawdust and scraps: burn them on site to produce electricity. This is a good use if we remember the more inclusive word bioenergy instead of the narrower biofuel.

This woody biomass is a vastly underutilized bioenergy source. If we use electric cars, it would be good if the electricity is produced from a carbon neutral source such as woody biomass. Why take the expensive and less effective extra step of turning it into ethanol?

Anyway, I see bioenergy as an important part of future energy portfolios, but never anything close to a really major solution. We just do not have enough land to produce enough biofuel for even a small percentage of our vehicles.  On the other hand, bioenergy and byproducts can form an important part of materials we use and additives in other products. For example, using ethanol as an oxygenator in gasoline makes a lot of sense - burning the stuff in pure form, not so much.

In an uncertain world, you have to try all of the above with a wide portfolio of solutions … and be ready to be flexible when some of your favorites don’t work.  

March 09, 2011

Sometimes Too Much, but Never Enough

Department of Energy 

I attended the Washington Energy Seminar at the Department of Energy over the last three days.  We had three days of talks about fossil fuels, alternatives, nuclear and conservation. It was one of the better seminars that I have attended. I wrote us some notes and will put them in later posts, but as an introduction I have to assert my belief that we do not have an energy problem that can be solved by technology, conservation or anything else. Our energy use is based on our collective and individual preferences and the options available. 

Smithsonian castle 

We are constrained in our use of energy almost entirely by its cost. Everything else is just commentary.  As energy becomes more plentiful, we find new uses for it.  A recent study shows that over three centuries individuals have spent about the same amount of money (relative to time and income) over all those years.  In centuries past, we got a lot less for our earnings; put another way, we had to work a lot more for everything.  In terms of light provided, candles, manufactured in the old ways, was a lot more expensive than our modern light bulbs.  People in the old days were very careful with candles.  As artificial light became cheaper, people started to find new places where it was “needed.”   More recently, we see that when cars become more fuel efficient, people drive more.  

Most of us seem to have some kind of mental accounting that tells us how much we should spend on various things. For example, we might think that $25 a week is a good amount to pay for gas.  When gas gets more expensive per gallon, we find ways to use less.  When it gets cheaper, we find reasons to drive more. The behavior change doesn’t come immediately, but it is quick. Economists call this the rebound effect. It can swamp improvements that merely conserve.  (It also, BTW, helps explain why we don’t always feel better off when we are objectively better off.)

The perhaps unwelcome but very simple lesson is that price matters. If the price of gas goes up, people seek out alternatives or cars with better mileage. If the efficiency of cars goes up w/o a price rise, people drive more to make up for it.

The big reason we have trouble conserving energy is that the human habit of mental accounting plays directly into the weaknesses and biases of our politicians, who love to pass new rules that promise cost-free solutions. I have been interested in energy and environmental issues since I was in HS, forty years ago. As long as I can remember, politicians have promised to end the energy “crises” with all sorts of calls for research, standards and breakthroughs.  Actually, whatever happened worked. U.S energy use per unit of GDP (energy intensity) has declined by about 1.7% a year for the last 60 years, better than the world average.  We have all the energy we need, but we will never have enough “affordable” energy.

The picture up top is the Department of Energy, taken from the Smithsonian Garden. It is one of those 1960s buildings. It looks better in the picture than it does in real life. I don't much care for the concrete buildings. I prefer the nicer old brick.  The next photo is from the same spot just looking the other way. Notice it is almost spring time. It will take only one warm or two days to get the magnolias to flower.

November 14, 2010

Town & Country & Transport


I have been getting off the Metro at Ballston and walking from there to FSI. Ballston is part of the suburb of Arlington, but it is much more urban than many areas called cities, with a greater concentration of tall buildings than in a place like downtown Milwaukee, for example.   Many of the Ballston buildings are residential, with retail and offices below.  


Arlington has a good “transit oriented” development, with dense concentrations near the metro stops at Roslyn, Court House, Clarendon, Virginia Square and Ballston.  Ballston is the tail.  When you get into Fairfax, there is a lot less development around the stations in Falls Church or Vienna.  Our own metro stop at Dunn Loring is supposed to be among the more developed ones in Fairfax. I doubt it will ever get as dense as Ballston, but some construction has begun on our “Merrifield Town Center” or “Mosaic” project. The recent downturn slowed it down a bit.


Above is continuing construction near Ballston. Below is the construction near our stop at Dunn Loring. They are going to widen the road and put in a gardened median strip. The areas at the Metro, which you cannot see but is to the right of the photo, will get tall residences along with retail on the ground level. I understand they will have a bakery and a Harris Teeter, among other things. There will be a multiplex cinema down the road. All this stuff will replace the mulch shop, the dumpy buildings, the Anatolian stone yard, the storefront offering legal services to illegal aliens and the various warehouses. The neighborhood is improving.


Below is my new Gold's Gym near Ballston Metro. It has the usual equipment, but a younger crowd than the one near the Capitol. They seem to locate these places in old warehouses and industrial buildings.


I went over to see Alex in Harrisonburg and drove down I-81.  This is the route that trucks use to transport freight up the Eastern Seaboard. It passes through mostly rural areas, but is nevertheless usually crowded.  There has been some talk about building lanes especially for trucks or improving the freight rail to get the goods more effectively transported. 

truck rest stop along I-81 

Above is a rest stop along I-81. Below is Harrisonburg at a strip mall with the Wal-Mart Super Center, Home Depot AND Lowes. It seems to be the happening place. There are the usual couple dozen chain restaurants around there. All of them were crowded when Alex and I went down there at around 6:30.  We ended up at a not-so-good but not-so-crowded Mexican place. The next morning we had breakfast at Bob Evans.


July 26, 2010

Biofuels: Food, Fuel & the Future

Wilson Center  

Biofuels can be a part of our energy future, but are not a solution and they will never play a dominant role.  That one of the big ideas I took away from a talk on biofuels at the Wilson Center, called Biofuels: Food, Fuel & the Future. The reason we use fossil fuels is that they are so wonderfully concentrated. Coal, gas or oil represent millions of years of concentrated power of the sun captured by photosynthesis. Any crop we grow captures only one season of energy or maybe a couple decades in the case of trees. This is a fundamental limit even if we can figure out how to efficiently capture the energy stored in corn, sugar, wood, palm oil or switchgrass.

Outside the Reagan building 

We noticed the BP oil spill because it is quick and compelling, but scientists have long known about the Gulf dead zone, a more persistently serious problem. This is a vast area of the sea near the mouth of the Mississippi where fertilizer runoff (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) have caused extravagant growth of algae. When the algae die back and decompose, it sucks the oxygen out of the water, making life for fish impossible. Much of this fertilizer runs off of corn fields. To the extent we turn more corn into ethanol, we increase this problem. We tend to notice fast developing problems like the BP spill while the slow motions ones, like the dead zones, escape notice. 

Don't step on the grass water sign
One of the dangers of something like the BP spill is that people panic and politicians and special interests take advantage. You can see this already in the calls for more biofuels and other alternatives.  Remember the cause of the dead zone in the paragraph above. But it gets worse. The nitrogen fertilizer for the corn is often derived in part from natural gas and we have to account for the fossil fuels that go into planting, moving and refining the 1/3 of the American corn crop that becomes ethanol.
W/o massive government intervention, there would still be an ethanol industry. It would just be a lot smaller. Ethanol has a good use as an oxygenator added to gasoline. It makes gasoline burn more effectively & cleaner. In the early 2000s it replaced MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), which had itself replaced lead as an octane enhancer a generation ago. But a little ethanol is good; a lot is less useful.  Gasoline packs a lot more energy per gallon than ethanol. As you add ethanol beyond a small amount, it begins to decrease mileage. There are also other problems related to corrosion and evaporation, but I will let anybody who cares learn about that elsewhere.
Suffice to say that the push to use more ethanol as transport fuel moved it from being a high end additive to extend gasoline mileage to a low end commodity. Since it is less efficient & more expensive than gas, it raised the prices. Yet the push for more ethanol continues because it is driven by politics, not by economics or common sense.
Let’s digress a little. You can make alcohol from almost anything that grows on earth. You can see that from the vast array of alcoholic beverages available worldwide, made from potatoes, corn, cactus, grapes, apples and even watermelon. But it is easier to make ethanol from some things than it is from others. It is relatively easy to make ethanol from sugar cane. That is why Brazil has an ethanol advantage. It is significantly less efficient to make it from corn and so far prohibitively expensive to make it from cellulous (i.e. switchgrass, wood chips etc).     

The U.S. does not have a competitive advantage in making ethanol. For one thing, corn is not a great feedstock and to make that worse we (the U.S.) has a relative advantage growing corn as food for man and beast, but when we make it into ethanol, we manage to negate our natural advantages, converting a product we do well into a product that we do merely okay. Beyond that, corn ethanol tends to be produced near where corn grows, i.e. in the middle of the country. Much of the demand for liquid fuel is on the coasts.  Ethanol cannot be transported via gasoline pipelines because it is corrosive and tends to create evaporation problems. Transporting ethanol by road and rail is relatively expensive. On the other hand, ethanol from Brazil is cheaper and closer – in terms of transport – because it is produced near ports in Sao Paulo state and can be easily sent via sea transport to places like Norfolk. That is why we have to subsidize ethanol production in the U.S.  by $0.45 a gallon AND put a tariff of $0.54 on ethanol from Brazil.  

In other words, public policy is pushing us toward one of the most expensive energy alternatives made even more expensive by public policy.
What about cellulosic ethanol? This can be made from materials that now go to waste, such as forestry waste or stalks and sticks from crops. We can also easily grow some crops, such as hybrid poplars or switchgrass, specifically for energy. The biggest problem is that we still cannot do it efficiently. Nature has been evolving for millions of years to prevent wood from easily being converted (i.e. fermented or rotted).  There are better alternatives. The more you have to process something, the more costs you add.  Wood chips, for example, CAN be turned into ethanol. But it is a lot easier to make them into pellets or burn them directly to make heat or electricity.

The problem is liquid fuel. Gasoline makes great liquid fuel and alternatives cannot compete. Direct government attempts (such as subsidies and mandates) to change this equation don’t work well for that reason. Beyond that, alternatives and gasoline are locked in a feedback loop. If alternatives, such as biofuels displace a lot of gasoline, the price of gasoline drops relative to the biofuels in question, making them less competitive.

Government has a role, but it is supportive and indirect. Government should not try to pick particular technologies. The ethanol debacle should have taught us that. It can help with infrastructure and basic research. Real, sustainable gains come from increasing productivity that lowers costs or costs of doing business, rather than tries to pay them down with taxpayer money.

A final interesting concept they talked about at the seminar was “peak gasoline.” People talk about peak oil. Peak oil is the theoretical spot where we have used up half of the petroleum available on earth. It is a slippery concept that is meaningless w/o specifying a price. At $5 a barrel, we reached peak oil years ago. We may never reach peak oil at $500 a barrel.  Peak gasoline is an easier concept.  Given the changing nature of our society, our driving habits and mileage efficiency, we probably reached the maximum amount of gasoline we will ever use. We cannot expect consumption to rise forever. Consumption is already dropping. Of course, we have not and may never reach “peak energy.”

There will be no magic solution to the energy problem. We choose our energy portfolio based on cost, convenience, availability and mere preference. This is how it will always be. It is an ongoing situation, not a problem that can be solved. No matter what elegant and wonderful solutions we devise (and we will come up with some) we will still be talking about the same sorts of things fifty years from now.  It is good to remember – despite the current pessimism – that our energy situation is better than that of our ancestors in terms of the amount of work we need to perform for each unit of energy. But as energy gets easier to get, we want more of it.

The picture up top is the inside of the Wilson Center. In the middle is the outside of the of the Reagan building, where the Wilson Center is located. In the lower middle is a sign warning that if you step on the grass, motion activated sprinklers will flow. It is an idle threat. I tested it and stayed dry. 

May 10, 2010

Gassy Good News on Energy

The energy news is so good and so comprehensive that it is hard to believe. The federal Energy Information Administration reported last week that greenhouse gas emissions fell 7% last year—the largest- percentage and absolute decline ever. The U.S. carbon footprint has shrunk in three of the last four years. The bad news is that the recession caused some of last year’s decline. However, we managed a 1.3% decline in 2006, the only time this happened during a time of robust economic growth.

But we can expect more good news. Our energy intensity (i.e. the amount of energy it takes to produce a unit of GDP) has been improving for many years. Last year it improved by 2%. (You probably have not heard about this improvement either, since it didn’t require new legislation to make it happen and much of the media cannot seem to perceive any positive developments that take place w/o government fiat. If the energy bill had passed, you would have heard a lot more, as they would be taking credit for this number.) And carbon intensity will drop even more. Abundant American natural gas supplies are going to help us reduce U.S. CO2 emissions and allow us to give people like Hugo, Mahmoud and Vladimir a good kick in the kiester, just when the international bad guys thought they would be able to set up a gas cartel similar to OPEC.

are subjects I like (so please excuse me if I go back to the same wells) and I am optimistic that we can solve our problems, or more precisely overtake them, since few problems are ever solved and when old problems go away new ones come. The pessimists keep on telling us we are about to hit the wall, but the innovators keep on finding ways around or through the troubles, often despite the experts.

The pessimistic “experts” can create serious problems, however. For example, back in the 1970s experts said we were running out of natural gas, so the Federal government banned new power plants run on gas, in order to save it for home heating etc. (President Reagan repealed the ban in 1987.) Three Mile Island, the disaster that killed nobody, managed almost to kill the nuclear industry. That is why we are behind on gas and nuclear power stations today. Instead of nearly zero carbon emission nuclear power and low carbon emission natural gas, various government agencies and environmental action groups pushed us into using more petroleum and coal. Go figure out the unintended consequences.

But this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed whose program. We have more options than we thought we did and let’s use them wisely.

Natural gas is the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels in terms of CO2 and ordinary pollution. You can understand this when you are cooking your food with gas on your unvented stove. What if your stove and oven ran on coal or oil?

Gas is also relatively clean to extract. A natural gas leak does not spread over the oceans and kill animals and plants. Miners don’t descend into dark pits to pull the stuff out, nor do they remove the tops of mountains in West Virginia to get at gas seams. The environmental danger with natural gas is relatively small. The biggest problem is that gas extraction using the latest techniques requires the use of water and there are some concerns that local water resources could be impacted. So far this has not happened on a large scale, but gas production should be properly regulated.

Maybe it was a divine joke to put most of the world’s exportable oil under unstable and sometimes plain nasty regimes. Or maybe it is just true that the concentration of a resource like oil, which requires little input and almost no actual work from the people under whose land it is found, is the problem. Easy and/or unearned concentrated wealth encourages klepocracies. Maybe the best thing about natural gas is that it is widely distributed and a lot of it is right here in America. While gas won’t put petro-tyrants like Ahmadinejad of Hugo Chavez out of business, it will – it already has – diluted their power.

So let’s get cooking with gas while we develop alternatives to fossil fuels. As long as I can remember, solar and wind alternatives have been “around five years” to viability. It has taken longer than we thought, but progress is being made. The largely unanticipated jump in natural gas reserves has bought us some time. We can meet our environmental goals, while kicking the despots, dictators and jihadist in the keister (as I mentioned above) and do all this w/o crippling our economy.

Gas is not a permanent solution. There are no permanent energy solutions. Our technology and innovations have saved us for another generation and we will live to fight the energy battle another day. By then we will be better equipped to win, but only if we continue to innovate now.

April 29, 2010

Windy Energy Alternatives

windmills on road to Palm 

It has been very windy today and I can understand why they built all the windmills as we drove through the forests of them to get from the coast to Palm Springs. 

Wind power was the topic of NPR’s Science Friday a few weeks ago, this time from Oklahoma. If you read between the lines, you understand why alternative power is still alternative. When one of the producers of wind turbines was asked why he wasn’t selling more in windy Oklahoma, he honestly responded that electricity rates were too low. His turbines couldn’t compete with the stuff from the grid. There’s more.


I generally favor a diverse portfolio of energy. I am especially fond of biomass fuel, specifically wood chips. But I recognize that even with this simple and well-known fuel there are problems. The biggest challenge to almost all fuels is that they are not where you need them to be. I have acres of wood literally rotting away, but gathering it up and transporting it cost more than it is worth.

What annoys me about some of the alternative fuel advocates is their unjustifiably smug attitude that they have found some big thing and that the only reason it is not widely used is because everybody else is stupid or “big companies” are too greedy to allow it. Besides overlooking obvious drawbacks in the fuels themselves, they are almost always overlooking costs and troubles of transport and distribution. They sort of assume these are free or should be covered by someone else.

So let’s talk about wind power. Wind is free; capturing it is not and neither is getting it from where the wind is blowing to where the energy it produces will be used. A caller to the NPR program talked about getting off the grid with wind power. The guy who sells the turbines admitted that you really need the grid. Wind is unreliable and if you wanted to be off the grid, you would have to invest around $100,000 for all the back-up systems you would need to keep the lights on. The grid costs money to build and maintain. If you account only for the cost of the turbines, you are missing the biggest investments. It is like the kid who thinks he pays the whole cost of a car by filling up the gas tank on weekends.

Most people will not have their own wind turbines. That means that the turbines will be some distance from the consumers. The wind blows mostly on the plains and in the ocean, far away from cities and factories. So we need transmission lines. But we need more than the kinds of transmission lines we have already. Big power plants need transmission lines, but they are at least coming from the same place. Wind turbines are by necessity spread out. You need transmission lines from the wind farms to the cities, but you also need lines between and among the turbines.

Transmission lines are not free and they are not 100% ecologically benign. Each time you build transmission lines, you also cut through the environment, across streams and migration routes, to build roads to service the line and you build pylons every 100 yards. That’s a lot of rock, steel and concrete when you add it up over many of miles, not to mention lots of gas burned by crews building, checking and maintaining it all. So when anybody tells you that a wind farm takes up only a couple acres, recall the many miles of transmission lines. I personally have eight acres under power lines. I can't grow trees there and while I think it is good to have it as edge community (it can be managed as excellent quail habitat) too many of these kinds things will fragment environments.

The fact is that we use carbon based fuels because they are cheaper, easier to move and more convenient to use than alternatives. When alternatives get to be cheaper, easier and more convenient, they stop being alternatives and just get to be mainstream. That is what it means to be a viable alternative. As long as earnest advocates have to try to convince skeptics about its virtues, it is not viable. Energy consumer really aren't that dumb. When something really is cheaper and easier it won't take earnest advocates; they try very hard to get more of it.

Wind, solar and other alternatives are indeed getting cheaper. When their time comes, there will be no stopping them.  (I assume that the wind turbines we passed make some money.)  Until that time artificially pumping them up won't really make it happen. And we have to remember that no form of energy is trouble free. There are always trade-offs.

March 09, 2010

Energy: Cheaper in the Long Run

Technology is amazing. In the last few years, new technologies have vastly increased American reserves of natural gas and are making North Dakota a leading oil producer, so much for peak oil. The term “game changers” is thrown around in both these cases. I might paraphrase the Godfather about fossil fuel, “Just when we think we’re out, technology pulls us back in.”

Environmentalists have been predicting the end of the age of hydrocarbons ever since I was a kid. Their predictions have a kind of plaintive, even pathetic tone, sometimes a hopeful one. Actually, the resource depletion prediction is a lot like the old Malthusian predictions and wrong for the same reasons. They have consistently made their predictions by simply projecting past trends forward and assuming limited technological progress.

In other words, they underestimated the power of human intelligence, innovation and imagination. As Yogi Berra used to say, “Predicting is hard, especially about the future.” It is just impossible to predict discontinuous changes but we are usually aware of things that could go wrong with what we already have.

Back in the 1970s experts predicted that by now, or more commonly by around 1980 or 1990. Yet we persist. Usually such successes would be all to the good. We really don’t have to worry about running out of energy and we can probably expect real energy prices to drop in the next decade. What is not to like? Nothing, except the potential problems of global warming.

The problem with switching to alternative energy is price. It has always been price and will always be price. Until people talk about price, it’s only some people talking. As long as fossil fuels are cheaper, they will be preferred. Why would a rational person choose to pay more to get less convenience? Petroleum based fuels such as diesel and gasoline, for example, are nearly perfect fuels for a car. They are very dense (i.e. a lot of energy per gallon. Hydrogen has more energy per pound, but it has such low density that takes up more than three times the space; ethanol is much denser than hydrogen, but not as dense as gasoline and less efficient). Natural gas is great for stationary energy production. It is very clean burning, easily distributed via underground pipes & remarkably efficient.

So let’s be clear. The reason we rely so much on fossil fuels is that they are generally cheaper than the alternatives, convenient to use, easily produced and readily available. When you pit low price, convenience and availability against something that cost more & is harder to use, which do you think wins most of the time?

This is the place for some government intervention in the form of a carbon tax . Prices of carbon based fuels will naturally DECLINE as technology increases exploitable reserves. As the prices of carbon based fuels declines in real dollar terms relative to other products, we should tax them back up. The ratchet is a relatively painless way to phase the tax in.

Lest this become merely another source of tax and government waste, we should make this a revenue neutral venture. A good idea here is tax plus dividend. Whereby ALL of the new taxes collected on carbon would be paid out the individual Americans as dividends. To make it simple, every American man, woman or child alive on Dec 31 would get a check for whatever the tax revenue divided by the population. I would make this clean and honest. Everybody gets an equal piece of the action.  

I  don’t think politicians will go for it, since it cuts out their opportunities to turn the money to their own purposes, but it is a good idea and if we are serious about addressing climate change, raising the price is one of the only things that really work.

February 27, 2010

Information on Energy

I am on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) e-mailing list.  It is the study and statistical section of the U.S. Department of Energy.   They also have a webpage that includes some informative summaries for reasonable well informed non-experts, along with links for further inquiry.   It is the place I usually start when I am trying to understand any energy related issue.

February 13, 2010

National Climate Service

NOAA is establishing a National Climate Service, analogous to the National Weather Service. This is a good step for the very practical reason that it will facilitate planning and adapting to changes in climate. But it also carries with it the legendary pitfalls of prognostication.

You can listen to the NPR story about it at this link.

Weather predictions have become a lot more reliable in the last ten years. You can make reasonable plans based on hours of the day. For example, I was able to make drive across my state ahead of a blizzard because the weather service was able to accurately predict sun in the morning before the blizzard hit in the afternoon. Climate prediction is still not up to the scientific level of weather prediction, but it is getting better. We should soon be able to make reasonable predictions on the regional and sub-regional level.

This brings the obvious blessing that we can take advantage of changes and/or minimize losses. For example, as I have said on many occasions, it is positively insane to rebuild the below-sea-level parts of New Orleans. We should not extend subsidized flood or storm insurance to any new construction on low-lying coastal plains and we should encourage people to move to higher ground, even if that means building higher premiums into insurance policies and mortgages of those who won't.

BTW - we DO NOT have to mandate this, if we just refrain from getting governments to subsidize or require insurance or mortgages be available at "reasonable" rates. The market will sort out which places are too risky. If someone is willing to insure your house on a mud-slope, it is his business and yours. People can build if they want, but we should not become accomplices to stupidity. We might also plan to retire some crops or cropland and get read to move into others. Advanced plant breeding and biotechnology will be a great help here.

Climate change will create winners and losers. Having a reasonable idea of the shape of the changes will make it possible to reap more of the benefits and suffer fewer of the penalties. But think of the troubles along the way.

Somebody today owns valuable land near major ports or in the middle of today’s most productive agricultural land. On the other hand, somebody today owns near worthless land. These might change places. Think of the ports around Hudson Bay. How many of us can even name one? If you look at a globe instead of a flat map, you can see that Hudson Bay is more convenient to many parts of Europe or Asia than is Los Angeles or New Orleans. The problem until now has been ice. The place was locked up most of the year. If this changes, so does the shipping calculation.

Are the current owners of prime real estate and infrastructure going to welcome all the newcomers? Are they going to welcome a study that shows investors and government decision makers a future that makes their wealth creation machines redundant?

Woe to the GS-13 bureaucrat who issues the report proving that no more government aid should go to New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Imagine how much more this will be true of more crucial and expensive infrastructure owned by politically powerful people and interests.

I think the National Climate Service is an excellent and useful idea. It will help us adapt and prosper in the future. But I fear the daunting politics.

I remember talking to a guy from North Carolina during disastrous floods a few years ago. He told me that they had detailed maps that could accurately predict almost the exact shape of a flood, but they couldn’t use them because people objected when the places they wanted to build were shown to be in the middle of seasonal swamps. We have seen this kind of stupidity in New Orleans and continue to see it.

There is a whole genre of literature involved with someone getting a prediction of future events and being unable to do anything about it. Predictors are dismissed (e.g. Cassandra) or often the twist is that the very attempt to stop the predicted event is what brings on the tragedy (e.g. Oedipus Rex). Let’s hope that our prognostication works out better.   

December 11, 2009

So Far, So Good on the Climate Change Negotiations

The Obama Administration is exceeding our expectations at Copenhagen. Todd Stern, our chief negotiator has adroitly thrown cold water on developing county blackmail while our delegation makes the joyous noise with environmentalist. It has been an excellent balance of realism and hype that might actually lead to a workable agreement instead of the usual crap that comes out of these big convocations. So far, so good, let’s keep it up.

Calling their bluffs

Stern has called the climate community’s bluff, as we hoped he would. No more can plaintive voiced people get away with just saying how bad we are, how terrible things might get and – with a tears in their eyes – say that it would all be just great if only the U.S. would do the right thing. Stern pointed out that 97% of the new emissions will come from developing nations. Unless they step up, nothing will work. A little tough love was what they needed and what they are getting. One of our most potent tools is the resort to higher authority. This is something you learn in negotiations 101, but most people hate to use it. It does our egos a lot of good if we can say that we are the final decision makers, but it is a very bad negotiating position. It allows you to get rolled and/or carried away by the tide of events. This is what evidently happened at Kyoto. Otherwise it is hard to explain how our negotiators agreed to such a monumentally stupid agreement.

The negotiator proposes; the Senate disposes

How does the resort to higher authority work in this case? Our negotiators know and they have let other know that no matter what kind of agreement they reach at international venues, the U.S. Senate will have something to say about it when all the dealing is done. If the agreement is too absurd, the Senate will reject it, as the unanimous Senate did with Kyoto. This is a powerful incentive for everyone to be reasonable and not allow the exhilaration of the moment overpower the longer term realities.

Good guys and bad guys

There is another negotiation tactic that it seems that the Obama administration is using. That is the one we all recognize from watching cop shows – good guy/bad guy or good cop/bad cop. It is closely related to the higher authority gambit in that President Obama gets to be the good guy while the vaguely identified opposition plays the villain role. The incentive is to give something to the good guy so as to avoid rewarding or even having to deal with the bad guy. George Bush could never have pulled this off. He would have been undercut by the U.S. environmental community and, anyway, he didn’t have the persona to pull it off. Obama can. We all hope that he can swoop in at the end and scoop up some of the marbles that we otherwise would have lost.

America holds a strong hand this time

Addressing climate change is a big job and it will cost trillions of dollars. We agree on the goal, but there are ways to do it that are more and less effective; more or less costly and more or less costly particularly to the U.S. That is what these negotiations are about. And this is something that those most loudly braying about the need to “save the planet” are often trying to obscure.

U.S. CO2 emissions relative to the rest of the world have been dropping for a long time. The blame America idea is just a non-starter. America is a big part of any solution, but if others, especially developing countries, don’t step up the problem cannot be solved.

Beyond that, everybody knows that the U.S. can more easily adapt to climate change than many others. Another bluff that many developing countries are running goes something like "give us money or we will drown ourselves." That is another bluff we can call.

America has more advantages this time than ever before. We should be fair but also tough. We cannot afford free riders. As we wrote elsewhere, the U.S. is now in a better position in relation to many others. We can plausibly promise real reduction in CO2 emissions, but it is very important how we sell reductions. You don’t give things away in negotiations because you get no credit in the international community if you just do the right thing w/o making a big deal about it. Multilateral negotiations are a kind of kabuki play. You have to scream and grimace at the proper times or else nobody pays attention. You have to call attention and claim credit for good things that just happen. You know that you will be blamed for the bad things.

Climate change talks should be about … climate change

We have to insist that the climate change programs remain about climate change. They cannot be sidetracked into a general push for development aid or some kinds of transfer payments from the rich countries to the poor ones. Many national leaders and NGOs come to climate change talks with the hope of hijacking them precisely in this direction. The threat of climate change has given them a potent weapon, which they are not eager to relinquish. That is why they often reject sensible solutions such as nuclear power or want to concentrate all their efforts on the developed world industries.

Physics doesn’t distinguish among emissions

So let’s keep on task. The job is to mitigate climate change and adapt to what we cannot mitigate. This is a practical problem involving lots of physics and physical infrastructure. The Chinese Ambassador disingenuously called for soul searching when talking about climate. If he can find a place to sequester carbon there, let him search his own soul. Otherwise the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 might just want to do something practical.

You have to be willing to walk away

Finally, the most powerful tool of negotiators is the ability to walk away from a bad deal. Developed countries like the U.S. accounted for most of the historical emissions, but they emit less than half of the GHG today and this percentage will drop now and forever. If current trends continue, China alone will emit more CO2 in the next thirty years than the U.S. did since 1776. China's emissions alone more than swamps any “historical damage” done by us.

Nevertheless, many big and future developing polluters have a big incentive to play the victims. We already hear the silly rhetoric and attempts to guilt us into doing something stupid. (The Sudanese, you recall the guys who brought us the genocide in Darfur, had the guts to ask us to remember the children. Well, we do.) We should not let the idea that we MUST make a deal stand in the way of making a good deal. If many in the developing world have their way, we will send a lot of money with few or no strings attached to countries that historically have not managed their finances well. They will talk a lot about reducing CO2, but not do very much about it. In fact, the big buck infusion will enable them to pollute even more. This deal is worse than no deal and everybody has to understand that we will walk away than accept it.

Climate change is an urgent problem and we need to find solutions. But rushing to do the WRONG thing will just make the whole thing worse. It is like the dishonest salesman who wants you to sign w/o reading the agreement. He tells you that if you don’t act right now, it will be too late. The deal will disappear. It is usually better to let a deal like that disappear. But the funny thing about negations is that if they know you are willing to walk away, the other side usually gets a lot more reasonable. The ABILITY to walk away usually means you don’t have to. The world will get a more effective climate deal if the U.S. is tough and realistic. Let's not let another Kyoto mess things up for another decade.

Below are some sources you might want to consult on the climate debate.



Economist Special Report on the Carbon Economy

Nature Conservancy

Pew Climate Change Center

WSJ on Climate Debate


December 08, 2009

Negotiation 101 and Climate Change

“When you say you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.”* I have limited confidence in the efficacy of big global agreements, but I understand the usefulness of participating and we hope our team will be very forthcoming and aggressive in the COP 15 climate talks.

Forget Kyoto

The Clinton Administration never had any intension of implementing Kyoto. The Senate rejected it 95-0 before even being asked to ratify it. This was a unanimously bipartisan rejection of the climate treaty.  Kyoto was dead on arrival, as the saying goes and it  was indeed a seriously flawed agreement but Clinton was clever. He understood the dynamics of the public relations around climate change.  Nobody really intended to carry out the terms of the treaty beyond the extent to which it was convenient. Most of the climate lobby was perfectly content if the U.S. went along rhetorically.  Most of the major players were going along with the mendacious program.   Bush didn't understand how to play that deceptive game well enough and openly rejected the agreement  & the U.S. got eight years of international crap as a result.

Take credit for what will happen anyway

Kyoto was meaningless. Developing countries got a free ride on the misplaced guilt of the more productive and hence more energy consuming nations (energy consumption is closely related to output). The former Soviet Empire was in the process of shutting down the horribly polluting - and without strong state protection – unprofitable industries built up during the benighted communist era.  Countries in both these camps knew that nothing much would be asked of them and they might even be able to make a little money selling carbon they would not have produced anyway. The Russians were in the now even more enviable position of having been so horribly dirty and inefficient that any approach to normal would be rewarded with unearned credits and cash.

BTW – Russian carbon credits are one of the reasons ostensible carbon reductions in Europe were so cheap and ineffective.The Russians are now lining up to milk what they can out of Copenhagen.

Our European friends also came to the game with a few aces up their sleeves and a lot reductions already cooked into the pie when they signed on to Kyoto. In the British Midlands, they were in the process of converting from dirty coal to much cleaner and less carbon intensive natural gas. The Germans had recently acquired the outdated industry of communist-East Germany.  They were shutting down these inefficient and very polluting industries anyway.  It was sort of like a cash for clunker industries program. 

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was a significant ecological benefit all around. Just bringing industries up to non-communist standards resulted in a big reduction of all sorts of pollution. Beyond all that, they understood that Europe’s generally slower rate of economic growth would slow demand for new uses of carbon.

The U.S., in contrast, didn’t have any big shutdowns on the way and our economy was growing about twice as fast as those in continental Europe which would mean a growing need for energy. 

Progress is on the way; revel in it and don’t sell it cheap

We are now in a better position in relation to many others.   We can plausibly promise real reduction in CO2 emissions, but it is very important how we sell reductions.  You don’t give things away in negotiations because you get no credit in the international community if you just do the right thing w/o making a big deal about it.  Multilateral negotiations are a kind of kabuki play.  You have to scream and grimace at the proper times or else nobody pays attention. You have to call attention and claim credit for good things that just happen.  You know that you will be blamed for the bad things. 

The free market is remarkably adaptive. When the price of gas rose in 2006, Americans used less energy and emissions of CO2 dropped. This is the only time this happened in a major country during a time of robust economic growth. Did we get any credit?  Did anybody even notice?  I had to look hard to find it in the media.  WITHOUT the hyperbolic rhetoric you don’t even get credit for what you REALLY do. WITH rhetoric you can even get credit for things that just happen even if you do nothing.  It takes a little dose of hypocrisy to make the world go around.

Now we’re cooking with gas

U.S. CO2 emissions going down

It gets better.  We will soon be able to reduce carbon emissions w/o working up too much of a sweat. Technological advances in only the last few years have made available vast amounts of natural gas within the U.S. Our recoverable reserves have gone up by 39% in the last two years alone and gas is getting very cheap. As the economics of gas improve, we will switch from coal and oil, which emit much more CO2, to gas in many situations. This will reduce our emissions.

Natural gas is also abundant in areas of the U.S. much in need of jobs and investments.

There is an even better good news story. Last year the U.S. displaced Germany as the world’s largest producer of wind energy. Wind is still no big deal as a % of energy consumption, but the trend is continuing and abundant cheap natural gas can play a role. Wind is unreliable. You have to have a back up capacity. Gas is perfect for this. Unlike a coal plant, a gas generator can be easily turned on and off. On windy days, we would get electricity from wind. When the wind wasn’t blowing, gas would fire up to fill the demand.

Other alternatives plus better quality nuclear power is also coming on line. Match this with the generally slower economic growth we expect to suffer during the next couple of years (there is a silver lining to every black cloud) and you see that U.S. emission growth will slow and we may even have some actual drops. If you look at the chart nearby, you will see that the trend started down in 2006. We expect another huge drop of 5% in 2009.  Notice from the chart that our emissions were a bit lower in 2008 than they were in 2000, w/o the benefit of Kyoto, BTW.

That means we can promise AND the United States can deliver. Delivering is important, but it is the promising that is the key to UN success. You need a lot of sound and fury in the international climate game. If we just deliver, we get no credit (cf. carbon reduction under GW Bush).  In the international negotiating arena, especially international public opinion, what you say and how loudly & passionately you say it is at least as important as what you do.

We don’t have to take it anymore

The U.S. also needs to be in a stronger “moral” position to resist unreasonable demands by less developed countries. In fact, we can turn the tables on them. They always said, or at least implied that they were waiting for us, that if we (the U.S.) reduce our emissions they would do likewise.  We are now holding the cards we need to call their bluff. We doubt  most others will actually come through, but it will at least take some of the wind out of their sails when they make unreasonable demands on us. With our emissions dropping and those from places like China (the world’s largest CO2 emitter since 2006) and other developing countries on the rise, we can throw some of the stink in the other direction for a change.

The U.S. will be a leader in the effective use to climate change technologies

This is potentially a real game changer. With President Obama’s smooth rhetoric and proven ability to promise “change we can believe in” hitched to the real potential of the American market to take advantage of favorable energy trends and the unexpected bonanza of natural gas in the short term, we can cram a sock in the anti-American rhetoric on this topic. Yes we can.

Go boldly; no need to apologize

So let’s play hardball by “playing nice.” No need to apologize or send too much money to contribute to kleopocracies in developing some countries who use the poverty of their people and bad weather as bargaining chips. Instead, shift our weight and do a little international style jujitsu. We have little to lose, since we are on track to succeed anyway in reducing our emissions relative to the rest of the world, if we use the cheap natural gas we have found and ride the wave of innovation already coming our way.  But none of it will count unless we make a big deal of promising.  Posturing, promises & procrastination, that is how they roll at these kinds of international conferences. The rules of the game do not require and do not always even encourage actual success anyway, but we can both talk and do in this case.  

Let’s do it and let’s also be seen to be doing it.  It will benefit neither the environment nor us to allow another Kyoto to be hung around our necks.  But with the proper nudge, maybe something can actually get done ... even really about the environment maybe.

* The saying is attributed to Otto Von Bismarck

June 25, 2009

Too Far Down This Road

My last (for a while) post thinking about global warming.  I just finished a two-day seminar on the subject, which is what made me review.  There is some overlap in the posts (sorry) but they also can stand by themselves.  

Day lillies along the W&OD bike path in Falls Church VA on June 23, 2009.  These flowers bloom for a short time and then they are gone for the year.  

The world cannot & will not reduce CO2 emissions any time soon. CO2 we have already emitted will be around a long time and the world will emit more in 2050 than it does now. Experts disagree about how much the earth will warm or the seas will rise, but they will. It is coming and we can do nothing to stop it. So what do we do?

Solve the right problem

We missed prevention and now are in the mitigation and adaption phase. There never really was a prevention opportunity. Prevention was no longer an option by the time we recognized the problem. As late as the 1980s, scientists still warned about global cooling. The current interglacial period was ending, they said. Aggressive government action to reverse that would have been harmful. Decision makers were naturally skeptical when the new -opposite - threat came along. Besides, they were busy dealing with current life on earth threat, ozone depleting chemicals. Anyway greenhouse gas emitting technologies were (and remain) baked into human systems. Real alternatives never had a real chance. (Kyoto was too late and too lame.) So let’s just move on.

After recognizing the true nature of the problem, we should work to avoid the worst-case scenario and reduce emissions to the extent possible. For example, we need to use more nuclear power and generally encourage higher prices for oil and other fossil fuels to promote alternatives. We also need to concentrate on the places where the greatest amount of NEW emission will originate. Europe and the U.S. can work to limit emissions, but the big growth will come from places like China & India.

Stop moralizing

Then stop the moralizing and the panic. Adapting to climate change is an engineering problem. Global warming is not really a mystery.   Although we don’t understand all the variables, it is a naturally explained process. It is not the retribution for crimes against Gaia or the wrath of angry nature.  Even in its worst-case projections, it is not the biggest change the earth has ever experienced, nor it is the worst human (or hominids) have endured. Our big brains developed in response to earlier episodes of dramatic climate change. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by being stupid and can adapt to this too.

It was warmer before

For most of the history of terrestrial life on earth there were no glaciers at all. Temperate forests grew near the poles and tropical rain forests extended well into the latitudes of Canada or Siberia. By all indications, life was perfuse on the warm globe and successful. The problem of climate change is one of location. Plants, animals and humans are adapted to today's climate. They are not easily moved, but change does not mean immediate destruction. Some forest types in the southern Appalachians or on high ground in the Sonora region, for example, are characteristic very different climates and are relics of conditions long gone. Natural systems can persist for a long time after conditions have changed, but if struck by catastrophes, they may not come back under natural conditions. Human intervention can sometimes create or recreate such ecosystems (if that is desirable).

A tree cannot move, but forests can

Beyond that, most species of plants and most animals are hardy over large ranges. Most species of trees can grow from Florida to Wisconsin and beyond. The mix is different, but you can find many of the same species in both places. As the climate changes, the mix will change too, but people unfamiliar with forest ecology may not be able to tell the difference.

To mitigate this problem we can facilitate movement. For example, avoid using plants near the southern edge of their range. (My pine trees near the northern end of their natural range will probably grow better in greenhouse conditions.) It is also important to leave corridors. North America has more tree species than Europe. Why? It has to do with the direction of the mountain chains. In N America, the Appalachians and Rockies extend north/south. Eurasia has a fairly consistent mountain mass east/west from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. During the last ice age, as forest types retreated south, their seeds ran up against high altitudes in Eurasia and many didn’t survive. In North America, this was not a factor. We need to ensure that natural communities can advance north with the climate.

Nature is resilient. What about us?

Our infrastructure and methods of working are built around current conditions. Some of this is not a real problem. No farmer is growing the same crops using the same methods as his father. These are routine changes. Physical infrastructure is a bigger problem, but it is more political or legal than material. It is costly to change infrastructure, but infrastructure does not last forever and is constantly renewed. The problem is the routing. Roads and railroads run through existing right of ways. Moving them may be very difficult.

Marsh along W&OD bike trail in Arlington VA.  This is part of a series of ponds designed to slow stormwater, catch sediment and facilitate water infiltration.  

Location of cities is an obvious challenge, but in most cases we are not talking wholesale relocation. We could mitigate future problems simply by being smarter today. For example, with satellite mapping, we can tell the elevation of a place within a meter and project how much water it would take to flood it. We would be smart to avoid building permanent structures soggy sites. It doesn’t make sense to build on flood-prone places, whether or not we have climate change.

We also need to look at all the options and we Americans don't have to invent everything.  Let’s look to good practices worldwide. Brazil has been working on alcohol fuel for four decades. Arid Australia is a leader in allocating scarce water resources. Although not currently the world leader, it might be India that soon lead the world in biotechnology.

But in the end we might have some great options from the science of biotechnology. Biotechnology can produce plants that require less water, fertilizer and energy to produce. But the connection is even more direct. Biotechnology is already contributing to the production of biofuels and may soon make the production of ethanol from cellulous faster and easier. Cellulose alcohol is the holy grail of liquid fuels. That would mean we could make fuel out waste products such as wood chips or stalks, or from easily grown and ecologically benign crops such as switchgrass.

Paradigms change and we can make them change. If we think only about how things are today, we can never solve our problems. In fact, it is likely that today's problems CANNOT be solved with today's methods. We can do it. It requires a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith in human intelligence and our ability to learn & adapt.

We are standing at a crossroads where our provision of energy, water and food are radically changed. These three factors will be more completely integrated than ever before. All change is difficult, but if done right this one will make all (or at least most) of us much better off and make our lifestyles more sustainable.

A cooler earth?

But perhaps the greatest mitigating thing we ought to do is one we currently do not understand. Can global warming lead to cooling? As the world was warming up from its last ice age (w/o the help of humans BTW) about 11000 years ago, it suddenly got another cold blast. This is called the Younger Dryas stadial. The cause is thought to have been a sudden influx of fresh water into the Atlantic, which interfered with the heat transfer from the tropics to the poles. Some scientist think this could happen again. Although the Younger Dryas event involved the aburpt breaking of an ice dam and a lot more fresh water in a short time, conditions could be similar if glaciers rapidly melt. It would be nothing like the movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, since RAPID change in the real world means it took place over the course of about 50 years and it was not global, but cold temperatures in Europe and N. America would be a problem. An urgent priority would be to understand this mechanism and - if possible - prevent it from doing damage. But currently anything in this subject area is just speculation. My own take on it is that activists want to cover all the bases so that they can blame any weather scenario on human activity.

Always look at the bright side of life

I would make no investments in beachfront property and inhabitants of low islands may consider seeking higher-level opportunities, but we humans have faced worse. As a matter of fact, the Younger Dryas unpleasantness probably forced our ancestors into inventing cereal agriculture. Anyway, we are too far gone down this road to go back and start over.  Our options only include things we can do now, not what we should have done before.  Whether big events are blessings or curses depends on how you adapt and what happens next.  

June 23, 2009

A New World for Global Warming

The global warming debate has taken a responsible turn.  Talk was cheaper than oil for a long time.  Countries around the world talked a lot and did next to nothing confident that they could blame the U.S. for not taking decisive action.   Domestic opponents had similar opportunities.   They could blame the “naysayers”.   To be a global warming opponent in good standing, all you really needed to do was go to the Al Gore movie and complain about the plight of the polar bears.  

Smithsonian garden   For all the sound and fury about Kyoto, from 2000-2008 greenhouse gas emissions rose in both the EU and the U.S.   Guess emissions went up LESS?  Hint: not Europe. In other words, doing “nothing” worked about as well as doing something.  But our Euro friends got to stand on the moral high ground.  Last year, BTW, U.S. CO2 emission DROPPED by 2.8%, the biggest drop since we started to keep CO2 emission data.

But I should not be too snarky.

Kyoto was and remains a seriously flawed agreement.   There was never any chance that the Senate would ratify it.   In fact, back in the 1990 ALL the Democrats and ALL the Republicans preemptively voted that they would not accept the agreement since it set up all sorts of silly expectations on the part of developing countries giving them a free ride and putting obligations only on the U.S. and other developed countries.  There is no way that we can achieve any serious climate change goals if we leave out the big polluters of the future.  China is the world’s biggest CO2 producer.  India, Indonesia, Brazil and others are growing fast.  You just cannot exempt the future trouble spots. Kyoto was too much about international wealth redistribution and not enough about environmental progress.

Nevertheless, U.S. must be part of a solution. I have been observing European efforts to create a carbon market. It is easy to find fault.  So far, it really doesn't work, but we can learn from their experience.  If the U.S. pushes in the same direction, together we can make it work.

BTW - The French get  78% of their electricity from nuclear, which produces no greenhouse gas. Americans should be able to do as well, but we manage only around 20% and have not authorized & built a new plant since 1973.  We have to put nuclear power back into the mix.  It is safe and clean. Despite all the fears, In its sixty year history, NOBODY has ever died in a U.S. nuclear power accident. 

It cannot be business as usual. Addressing climate change will require lifestyle changes. It will cost money and change comfortable relationships. Nobody wants to take these steps. I know this will come as a surprise, but not everyone is honest in carrying out their promises. Countries will obfuscate and cheat. Many world leaders were happy that the U.S. was not pushing the climate change solution bandwagon. They could make sanctimonious statements of concern and hide behind the U.S. while avoiding the really hard choices. Now we are stripping away this cover.

Just because we cannot do everything does not mean we have an excuse to do nothing. I am not in panic mode. I do not believe that we will cause irreparable damage if we do not address the problem immediately, but we certainly need to do something effective very soon.

Price will be the primary mechanism for sorting out this environmental problem and I have long advocated higher energy prices. Anyone who demands lower energy prices is not serious about solving environmental problems.

There is good news. Our experience with solving environmental problems has been good. We managed to address serious problems such as sewage, particulates, acid rain and CFCs more rapidly and at lower cost than anyone predicted. The proof is that we no longer worry much about these problems and they are no longer subjects of national debate. Climate change is a bigger challenge because it is international and carbon is ubiquitous, but if the U.S. and the EU are on board, it will work. That is the plus side of economy hegemony. We can set the standards that others must follow if they want to participate in world markets. We need to move while we still have such power.

There is lots of money to be made in greenhouse gas markets. We can do well by doing good. My concern is that erstwhile climate activists will stand in the way. You would not guess this from the rhetoric, but if you listen carefully you find the fault lines. Addressing climate change will mean higher energy prices (which "hurt the poor") and job disruption and displacement (which hit union workers hardest).   Some businesses will be nimble enough to take advantage of the changing situation and make money; others not so much. I hear the complaints already. The quick and clever will do well.  Our environment will be better as we develop sustainable solutions, but opponents will only see those “left behind.”

Smithsonian path  

BTW - The picture at top is a garden near Smithsonian now and the picture at the bottom is the same place in early February.   Right after the Obama inauguration, some people claimed that the Mall was damaged and may never recover.  It is hard to see on the sign, but it complains that only time will tell if it will come back.   A few months later, it did.  Nature is resilient.

March 14, 2009

Markets for Environmental Services

We are all excited that natural communities offset some of the carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels, but we have to put it all in context.   We have to recall that carbon offset is only one of the thousands of ecological services performed by natural communities.  I will say more about that below, but let’s start with the carbon.

Below is construction on a Hot-Lane interchange on I 495.  This area used to be covered with trees.  We traded trees for travel time. Everything we do is a tradeoff.  We should just be sure we know what trades we are making and make them well. More on congestion pricing at this link 

Hotline construction on 495 near I 66 and Tysons Corner Virginia on March 11, 2009

Carbon is as necessary to life as oxygen.   Growing plants covert carbon dioxide to biomass and release it when they decompose or respire and this cycle has been going on for billions of years.   The processes have been roughly in balance.  

Carbon cycle, Source: J. Lehmann, “A Handful of Carbon,” 2007. Nature 447, pp. 143-144.They have to be; otherwise all the carbon would have been used up billions of years ago and life on earth would have perished.  This explains why a mature ecosystem absorbs little carbon dioxide.  And this is the problem with offsets.  An established old growth forest doesn’t remove much carbon from the atmosphere.   A rapidly growing new forest soaks up a lot of carbon, and that is what we are growing now, but eventually it becomes a mature forest.   In the short run, offsets can compensate for a small percentage of industrial CO2 emissions but in the long run carbon absorption will balance carbon release.  

The USDA has a good online calculator for how much carbon is sequestered in various types of forests.   Forests can sequester carbon in the branches, roots, soils and understory of living forests, as well as long-lived wood products (the wood that in your house will be around a long time.)   Offsets will buy us some time and they are worth doing for that reason alone, but there are lots of other reasons to preserve natural lands and maintain the ecological services they provide.   

Below is a clearcut.  This was covered by a mixed hardwood forest and I don't know why the owner decided to slick off the trees.  I don't like it, but it is not my business and this is not necessarily the end of the forest.  It can be replanted or grow back naturally, unless it is coverted to other uses.  By the end of the summer, this bare ground will be covered with vegetation and provide good wildlife habitat.  In three years, it will be ideal bobwhite quail habitat, for example.  It looks really ugly to human eyes, however.

Cutover land on SR 623 in Brunswick Co VA on March 6, 2009


Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone

We are used to getting ecological services for free or by imposing costs on others.   Economists call them externalities.   Among ecological services these include things like carbon, sediment removal, water, air, biodiversity, open space and natural beauty.   But it’s getting harder to get these things free and others are increasingly unwilling or unable to provide them as a public service and we are facing a tragedy of the commons.  By 2025 Virginia will probably welcome 3 million new residents and we are projected to lose a million acres of forest land to development.  (When a forest is harvested, it can grow back.  When it is converted to other uses, such as homes or parking lots, it is lost for a long time or essentially forever.) As our populations grow and demands increase, it becomes clearer that we have to find prices for these priceless goods.    Otherwise they will continue to be wasted and abused.

Markets can handle risk, but they do less well with uncertainty.  A market in ecological services requires a lot of the same things as other markets.   It is harder in the ecological services market because definitions and measurements are difficult.  Any measures have to be science-based and compatible with regulations.  Beyond that, markets thrive when transaction costs are low; rules are clear; there are credible measures; an adequate number of buyers and sellers and – perhaps most important , trust – trust that contracts will be honored, goods and services will be more or less as represented and trust that markets will persist for a reasonable amount of time.

Below are matrure beech trees in front of a new pine forest. This is great wildlife habitat, since it combines old woods, young woods and ground vegetation.

Beech trees on Johnson Matel Tree Farm, Chrissy's Pond unit, on March 6, 2009 showing wildlife habitat

Given the unusual nature of ecological service, the dominance of regulation and the need for a long-lived authority to define products and enforce agreements, there is a useful role for government to jump start the creation of a such a market.   Section 2709 of the new Farm Bill gives the USDA the responsibility to study and foster markets for ecosystem services.   In our region we also have things like the Bay Bank  

Markets are usually the best way to aggregate information,  allocate resources and organize diverse needs and contributions.  Now is an exciting time for ecological services markets.    This is how it looks at the early stages of a market formation.   There are lots of entrants, a plethora of good ideas and chaos.  We have to tolerate ambiquity, while reducing it.  From all this ferment I am sure solutions will come.

March 11, 2009

Carbon Tax Shenanigans

John Matel in Hirschhorn glass sculpture on March 11, 2009 

A solution is elegant if it is gracefully concise and simple; admirably succinct.  Elegance also implies beauty and a profound understanding.   The opposite of elegant solutions are clumsy, complicated and cumbersome.  The parts fit together poorly and there are too many of them.  We are working toward this sort of non-elegant solution to our problem of CO2.  

I read today in Scientific American that the EPA will begin a carbon register.  This will be a sort of Doomsday Book of carbon emissions, detailing emissions great and small with the eventual intent of regulating and taxing them.   (You will recall that William the Conqueror commissioned the original Doomsday Book precisely so that he could squeeze the maximum taxes out of the newly subjugated Saxons.) 

William the Conqueror
The announcement of the carbon Doomsday Book was greeted with ecstasy and enthusiasm by the chattering, regulating and taxing classes.   They anticipate this will be as useful to them as the medieval version was to the Norman barons.  If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it and if it stops moving subsidize it.   This becomes much easier if you have detailed records.  

I am not against taxing carbon.  On the contrary, I think we should tax it a lot.  It is the most elegant way of reducing greenhouse emissions and weaning us away from oil, which is often controlled by bad men in unstable places.  (We don't fight wars FOR oil, but we certainly have trouble BECAUSE of it.)  The carbon tax is elegant in its simple form.  It creates the proper incentive and it has a minimal effect on freedom.  It actual solves the problem while letting people and firms use their intelligence, imaginations and energy to find innovative ways to  benefit from the new situation.   That is why we won’t get the simple version.  

Kiosk at Smithsonian across from a bubbler but still with $2.50 water on March 11, 2009
Inelegant solutions persist because they create opportunities for well-placed people to squeeze out fees, skim off profits & collect tolls.   A good metaphor, in fact, is a bumpy, winding toll road full of steep turns and choke points.  Lots of people can collect tolls at these places.  Others exploit the traffic charging higher prices to those who inevitably get stuck on the road.  Garages make money by fixing flat tires and broken axles.  The authorities can reward their friends with permits and special exemptions.  And all the crooks can pretend that they want to fix the problem. They probably hold telethons; celebrities attend; politicians make promises. All this frenetic activity distracts the mass of people like a shinny object.  They may even thank the perps for being inconvenience and ripped off.  Occasionally, someone will smooth down a few bumps or fill some pot holes.  Regulators will force some of the greediest exploiters to lower their prices, and everybody is grateful, but those who could really solve the problem in a systemic way make sure that nobody builds a bypass that will improve conditions at the expense of their sweet deals.
So the carbon Doomsday Book will form the basis of some kind of cap & trade.  Cap & trade can work. It worked beautifully, inexpensively and elegantly to reduce the pollution (SO2, NOX etc) that led to acid rain.  But it requires as preconditions a relatively small number of participants with an easily measured output working under roughly similar conditions enjoying available alternative options all subsumed under a system that can ensure against cheating and/or excessively gaming the system.   Carbon cap & trade meets none of those conditions because carbon is everywhere. 
Every human activity produces CO2.  Notice I did not use the qualifier “almost”, because you are producing CO2 as long as you are breathing and even after you stop doing that, you continue to emit CO2 when you decompose.  When you include other greenhouse gases, such as methane, you covered almost anything you can think of doing beyond breathing.   

Globe sculpture at Hirschhorn on March 11, 2009
CO2 is not pollution.  It is a necessary part of the ecological system.  We just may have added a bit too much of it for the current balance.   That means that regulating this is extremely difficult through anything except a very simple tax on the fossil forms of CO2 (oil, coal, gas etc). 
You can imagine the absurdities & shenanigans that will come from a political interpretation of the cap & trade on ubiqutous carbon.  Politically powerful groups will get exemptions.  Others will figure out elaborate ways to game the system.  Maybe if all our employees just held their breath … I am not completely unbiased.  My forests produce carbon credits, which I could sell to rich celebrities, who can then devastate the atmosphere with guilt-free impunity. I explained how I rationalize this in an earlier post, but you will find people a lot smarter than I am with even better rationalization.  They will all form long lines at the government trough.  Most will get more than the couple hundred dollars a year my forest land earns by doing things less useful than growing trees.  

Cars along the Metro line on I 66 in Fairfax VA on March 11, 2009
The cap & trade will cost us at least $646 billion (yes billion with a b) by 2019.  I think that is a price we must be willing to pay.   Price is the only thing that reliably stimulates conservation and energy innovation.  Experience shows that CAFE standards just make activists feel good and provide political cover.  And all the talk about conservation is just people talking until the prices go up.  In 2006, the U.S. succeeded in reducing its CO2 emission during a time of rapid economic growth.  No other major country had ever done that.  How?  The only thing that was different was price of oil.  

Besides, it doesn’t have to be all downside.  The potential energy solutions are related to some very cool technologies (nanotech, biotech, better materials etc) and the advances might well be worth more than the cost - IF the incentives are right.   We need to keep it simple and elegant.  A simple tax on carbon will do that.    Cap & Trade might work for carbon too, but given the fecklessness of politicians it will probably cost more than it should and produce less innovation than it could.

You can read more about the advantages of a carbon tax v cap & trade at this link.  

February 17, 2009

Changes Takes Time & Energy

Energy transitions take a lot of time and we won’t have that green energy anytime soon.  That was the sobering message I heard at the lecture today by Vaclav Smil, from the University of Manitoba.  I went to hear his talk, Energy Transition: the Time Factor, today at AEI. 

Below are energy saving devices.  I will be riding my real bike soon and I figure that I can walk anyplace that one of these little bikes can take me, but I think that Smartbike is a good idea.

Smart bikes near Farragut Square in Washington DC on February 17, 2009

It took nearly 400 years for England to covert from wood to coal.  The U.S. didn’t get more energy from coal than from wood until 1884,  and still has not really left the age of coal, since more than half of our electricity comes from coal fired thermal plants.  Things take time for a variety of reasons. 

Many enabling factor are necessary for an energy transformation to take place.  A resource that cannot be brought to market is useless and sometimes transport is a limiting factor.  That was the problem for natural gas.   Oil and gas are often found together.   In the old days, the oil could be shipped in tanks or barrels.   There was often nothing they could do with the gas, so they just flared it.  Gas couldn’t be transported until particular alloys and welding techniques developed that could move it under pressure and this didn’t happen until the 1930s.  Even then, it took time to construct the network.    W/o these things gas was useless even if it was essentially free at the well-head, demonstrating once again that a resource is not a resource until the technology is available to make it so.

Seagulls watching the river flow on the Anacostia channel, February 17, 2009

Now You’re Cooking With Gas

Once the pipes were in place, gas became available around the country.  In the 1940s, there was a phrase – “now you’re cooking with gas”– that implied you were up to date.  Gas had been abundantly available for more than fifty years, but not accessible.  Even then, it still took many years for most houses to get hooked up to gas.  Some of our neighbors were still burning coal to heat their houses well into the 1960s. 

Natural gas can now be piped long distances because of better compression engines.   Back in the 1980s, President Reagan tried to block Soviet access to modern compressor technology.  The got the engines in Europe so that today the cappuccino you buy in Italy is probably warmed with Russian natural gas.  

BTW – recent technological improvements allow gas to be more easily shipped in tankers.   Using more gas in place of oil requires less of a shift, so our energy future may be gassier.

BTW 2 – they talked re methane hydrates.  I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up. This is the link.   This is evidently a big potential source of natural gas, although I saw something on the Science Channel talking re how melting of methane on the ocean bottom had caused the great extinction at the end of the Paleozoic Era, so I don’t know.

Below - this and the next picture are union representations near the White House.  Unions are enthusiastic about getting jobs back and counting on the new energy infrastructure to help.

AFofL CIO offices in Washington DC on February 17, 2009

Professor Smil didn’t have much confidence in solar or wind power.  These things, he said, have significant problem with availability (wind doesn’t always blow and he sun doesn’t shine at least half the time.)  But the bigger challenge is transport.   It is analogous to the problem with natural gas.  The wind blows the strongest where there not many people and we don’t have the transmission lines to move the power.  The same goes for surfaces where solar could be placed.   Beyond that, both types of energy are small scale and locally intrusive.  You will need lots of lines and lots of machines. Some of the people who love wind or solar in theory object when it ruins their view, as Edward Kennedy did when he squashed a wind project  near his home in Massachusetts.  Everybody lives somewhere and many places where the wind blows best have some rich guys nearby who can stop the project.

Union offices near Whitehouse on February 17, 2009

We also do not have a real electricity grid in America.  We have separate local grids and the connections go north-south.   This means that Canadian hydropower can move from Ontario to Florida or from British Columbia to California, but you probably could not power your I-pod on the electricity you could move west-east from windy North Dakota to busy New York.

Probably the most significant thing that will slow our energy transition is what we already have.  We have thermal plants.   We have paid the up-front investment costs and the variable costs are a lot lower.   Think of it in terms of your biggest investment – your house.   If you build a new house, you will be wise to incorporate energy saving devices, but it is probably a bad idea to tear your house down and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a new one just to save a couple hundred dollars a year.  You will wait until your house “wears out” and that might be a long time.   What does that say about the speed of transition?

Smil thinks that we will be a fossil fuel society for a long time to come.  The most effective thing we can do in the short run is conservation that makes fossil fuels use more efficient.   We can use more natural gas and we can make engines much more efficient, especially if we switch to diesel engines.  Americans are prejudiced against diesel, but up-to-date engines have greatly improved in terms of performance and pollution and they get much better mileage than their gasoline counterparts.  My first car was a diesel.  We were very happy with it.  

BTW - T Boone Pickens disagrees.  Read re the Pickens Plan at this link.  I like the idea of the Pickens Plan better, but I am afraid I think Smil is probably closer to right for the short and medium-term.

Of course, nuclear energy is very efficient, creates no green house gases and can work with the current electrical infrastructure, but some influential Americans harbor a hateful grudge against nukes.   The French get 75%+ of their electricity from nuclear.   I always figured that if the French could do it, so could we.  Guess not.   Viva la France.

February 03, 2009

Energy, Water & Food/Government, Science & Markets

Icy bench outside Smithsonian castle on January 28 

The U.S. has become the world’s biggest producer of wind energy and will probably be the biggest producer of solar energy by the end of the year, according to Scientific American.    We have lots of land for windmills in America and lots of sunny places for solar, but what we also have in abundance is imagination and innovation.    We are constantly being told that we are falling behind in this or that.   Just a couple years ago, I read that we would be left behind in the renewable energy business.  I know that we can parse the news in many ways, but being first in solar and wind energy means something no matter how you look at it and it doesn't look like being left behind.

And remember that this happened before we made all those green investments the government promised to make. 

Sun over the mountains in Nevada near Las Vegas taken on New Year Eve 2005

Energy, water and food. Providing ourselves with these prosaic necessities is the challenge of the next decade. This is a worldwide challenge, so let’s look to good practices worldwide. Brazil has been working on alcohol fuel for four decades. Arid Australia is a leader in allocating scarce water resources. Although not currently the world leader, it might be India that soon leads the world in biotechnology.

Brazil provides an excellent example of the interaction of market forces, political will and good luck. Brazil's military dictators stared the program back in 1975. There is some doubt whether a non-authoritarian government could have taken the initial steps to make it happen. Even with subsidies, favorable laws and official sponsorship, Brazil's ethanol program languished and almost died in the very low oil price environment in the 1990s. The history of Brazilian ethanol once again confirms the necessity of a higher price of oil to encourage alternatives. When prices rose, the ethanol program once again made economic senses.

Sunset in Arizona taken December 2005

The lesson: Government intervention may be necessary to jump start alternative energy programs. A big change in infrastructure is something individual firms cannot handle alone.   However, it is clear that the government can propose and encourage, but the market ultimately decides. Luck played a big role in Brazil. If the price spikes had come just a few years later, the Brazil energy program may well have been left for dead and very difficult to revive.

Fuel is important, but water is even more crucial to survival.  Ironically, energy solutions such as Brazil's use of sugar cane to make fuel will worsen water shortages. Unlike fuel, however, we do not produce water; we do not use it up. It is the ultimate renewing resource. What matters is quality and location. This renewing aspect has fooled us into thinking water is (or should be) free.  Most water is not really allocated at all. In non-arid areas, we just assume there is enough water and even in arid ones, we generally give precedence to whoever is nearer or who got there first.  This guarentees that water is wasted. We have to stop treating water like a free good and begin to distribute it according to market principles.

This will seem unjust.   A couple years ago, I watched the Milagro Beanfield War, directed by Robert Redford.  It concerns some poor farmer who steals water bought by a rich developer.  It is natural to sympathize with the little guy, but if more people practiced his primitive methods it would drive everyone into poverty. He just wants to grow some beans - in the middle of the desert.  He doesn't know and the plot doesn’t openly reveal it, but he just wants to waste water, increase the salinity of his soil and ultimately make it useless.  Only the free market (including rule of law, reasonable regulation & market mechanisms) will allow diverse decision making can achieve a fair result.  You can still cheer for Joe Mondragon, but recognize that he is part of the problem.

The lesson: We have to look at the bigger picture and think of water as a regional, maybe even a world resource. If done properly, it can be done justly and gradually with most people given choices that improve their lives.  If we pretend we can go on the old fashioned Milagro Beanfield way, everybody suffers and some people die, but somebody gets the satisfaction of “sticking it to the man.”

In the end we might have some great options from the science of biotechnology or nanotechnology.  Biotechnology can produce plants that require less water, fertilizer and energy to produce greater outputs.  But the connection is even more direct. Biotechnology is already contributing to the production of biofuels and may soon make the production of ethanol from cellulous faster and easier. Cellulous alcohol is the holy grail of liquid fuels. That would mean we could make fuel out waste products such as wood chips or stalks, or from easily grown and ecologically benign crops such as switchgrass.  Nanotechnology may produce much better ways to capture, store and transmit energy.

Lesson: Paradigms change and we can make them change. If we think only about how things are today, we can never solve our problems. In fact, it is likely that today's problems CANNOT be solved with today's methods.  We cannot solve problems with the same techniques that got us into them.  Innovative solutions require a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith in human intelligence and our ability to learn & adapt.

We are standing at a crossroads where our provision of energy, water and food are radically changed. These three factors will be more completely integrated than ever before. All change is difficult, but if done right this one will make all (or at least most) of us much better off and make our lifestyles more sustainable.

January 29, 2009

Brazilian Biofuels

Below is Rio.  Chrissy & I went there in August, which was winter there.  It doesn't get cold and the water was pleasantly cool.  It was fun playing in the waves, but I almost got sucked out by a rip tide.  I tried to swim in but found myself farther and farther from land.  Then I remembered to swim parallel to shore.  Rip tides are like rivers; they are long but usually not wide.  We didn't see much of Brazil.  This was our first post and since we were so poor paying off student loans, setting up household etc we only went where the job sent us.  Fortunately, travel was a part of my job.  Brazil is a beautiful and diverse country.

Rio de Janiero beach in 1985

I was in Brazil when the sugar cane alcohol fuel program was just a few years old.   Cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Porto Alegre sort of smelled like a tavern, not a surprise when the cars are essentially running on rum. I was intrigued by the idea of turning sugarcane into fuel, but I admit that I wasn’t very impressed with the application back in 1985/6.   Porto Alegre has a climate like Savannah, Georgia.   It rarely got very cold, but it was cold enough to gum up the engines that ran on alcohol. But the Brazilians have overcome these challenges and their thirty-year experiment with alternative fuels seems to have succeeded. They have gone from importing 70%+ of their fuel for their cars to less around 10%, but there is more to the story.  I went over to AEI to hear Energy Lessons from Brazil to get the update.

Below is Porto Alegre from the window of our apartment there.  Rainbows like that were common.

Porto Alegre rainbow 1985

The speaker explained that the impressive figures were a little deceptive.   The Brazilian success came not only from alternative fuels, but also from a lot of old fashioned oil that they discovered offshore.  And that was the first lesson from Brazil – you have to do all of the above when it comes to energy. 

Brazil has a big advantage in biofuels because the climate is great for growing sugarcane and sugarcane is great for making biofuel.  Making fuel from sugarcane is around 8 times more efficient than from corn.  In fact, corn probably uses as much or more energy to make a gallon of fuel as it yields, so corn ethanol is more just an energy carrier than source.  Beyond that, sugarcane is relatively unmanipulated, i.e. there has been little crop improvement done on cane, so there more scope for easy improvement than there is in corn, which has long been the subject of selection. 

Below is Brasilia.  The picture is within the city.  It was not carved out the jungle, as the myth says.  Brasilia was mowed out of the grass.  The climate is nice, with a dry season when it never rains and a wet season when it rains every day.  I like the rainy season better because it gets very green. There was a lot of space in 1985.  I suppose it has grown.

Brasilia in 1985

Even with all this, however, low oil prices in the 1990s almost killed the sugarcane experiment.  Ethanol from sugarcane is competitive with gas when oil is around $50 a barrel.   When oil gets too cheap, it drives out the alternatives, as I have written before.

Alternatives to oil are good for both political and economic reasons.   Most of the world’s easily exportable oil is under or near unstable countries often in places where democracy is not viewed with particular enthusiasm.   Less dependence on these sorts of places is good.  In the Brazilian case (which probably in applicable generally) having the alternative to oil made the economy more stable.  More than 90% of the cars sold in Brazil are flex fuel, which means drivers can choose the cheaper fuel, which moderates price changes.  Besides that, the alternative fuel employs people within the country, keeping transfers at home instead of bleeding money to various petrostates. 

Below is Gramado, north of Porto Alegre.  Southern Brazil had a lot of immigrants from Germany and N. Italy and had a very European feel, except for the exotic trees.      

Gramado in Rio Grande do Sul Brazil in 1985   

We can learn from what the Brazilians pioneered.  Some of the technologies and techniques can be applied and adapted to American realities.   We need to find a better feedstock than corn for our biofuels, however.  I hold out hope for cellulostic ethanol, but nobody can predict the future.  Ten years ago, the Brazilian ethanol experiment was floundering; today it is flourishing.  In an uncertain world, you have to try all of the above with a wide portfolio of solutions … and be ready to be flexible when some of your favorites don’t work.  

P.S. In the Q&A somebody got up and self righteously asked why America with around 5% of the world population should consume 25% of the world’s energy.  Somebody always “asks” this question, but it is a silly question and the premise is wrong.   Energy consumption is related to output. The U.S. produces around 25% of the world’s output and it consumes a commensurate amount of energy.   We need to be more efficient in our use of energy, but we cannot get down to using the same % of energy as our population unless our economy collapses (and probably brings the world down with us) or others in the world catch up. 

Energy intensity

They call that energy intensity or energy efficiency.  Our energy intensity has been improving for the last 40 years, but our economy is growing even faster.   

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January 22, 2009

Simple, Maybe not Easy

People make the right choices when they have the right incentives and they can do what they say they cannot.   According to articles I read, Americans drove 112 billion FEWER miles over the past thirteen months.  This is way higher than the previous biggest drop of 49.9 billion miles in the 1970s.  The drops in driving are across the U.S., with Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont the top three. Wide open Utah has little in common with compact Rhode Island. The drop is rural and urban.

Below is a picture I took in Germany.  English is not their native language, but I don't think this is coincidence.

Car in Frankfurt

Gas consumption drops when the price rises.  All the rules, CAFÉ standards and exhortations are mostly just feel good palliatives, analogous to all those fad diets beloved by fat people and largely ineffective.  Solutions are simple, just not easy. Higher gas prices lead to less driving. Traffic and parking problems help in the long run. People make logical decisions. When driving in cheap and easy, they drive more.  When conditions change, they do too. Bad economic conditions are evidently extending the demand drop for gasoline. Simple, but not easy - there is no painless way to achieve change.  

And we do need to change. The environmental effects of carbon consumption are bad enough, but we also have the geopolitical considerations. Most of the easily exported oil is under or near countries that are unstable or run by despots and tyrants.    

Anyway, the continuing drop in driving and related drop in oil consumption is a bit of good news, but we have been in this place before.  This time we should do the right thing and get the incentives right.  The time to raise taxes on oil is when prices are low.  I have written about these things many times before.  When gas prices were high, I wrote that they would drop again and that we should raise taxes on oil when they did. The time is now.

January 06, 2009


Traffic on 395 near 9th St in Washington DC January 7 

Energy independence is neither possible nor desirable.    Well … it is possible for the U.S. to become energy independent.   We could do it in short order if we were willing to pay the price in terms of money and environmental degradation.    The U.S. has the world’s largest reserves of coal.  We have the technology to extract natural gas from oil shale in our western states.   Of course, we could burn wood to heat our homes.  

Of course, this is not the first time I wrote about this subject.  Follow this link for some of the older stuff.

The best energy policy is “all of the above.”   We should have a diversity of sources and a wide choice of options.   We lean too heavily on oil and especially imported oil.  But if we are to address this problem, it is probably a good idea to figure out how we got here.

Why do we import oil and other sources of energy?  Because it is cheaper and easier than the alternatives.   It is that simple.  It is not the result of mistakes or stupidity.   Importing cheap oil instead of using dirtier or harder to use domestic energy makes perfect sense.   Except that oil is not really as cheap as it seems.

Economists talk about external costs and benefits.    When I plant trees, I personally get only a part of the benefits.   The cleaner air & water as well as the wildlife & aesthetic benefits are provided free to others.    When I burn a gallon of gas, I personally pay only part of the cost. The air pollution & CO2 are part of the cost I impose on others. But oil has other costs. 

It seems like something of a divine joke that so much of the world’s easily accessed oil lies near or under unstable countries run by despots or other nasties that are not particularly attached to the values we hold dear.   It is just not smart to be too dependent on these sorts.  Oil to despots is like steroids to petty thugs.   It makes them bigger.    What kind of threat would Saddam have been w/o oil?  He would have been a pissant dictator like Robert Mugabe – a very bad man, but just a local menace.    W/o the wealth poured in by oil, most of today’s terrorists would be neighborhood bandits.    W/o oil, Hugo would be a second class stand-up comic. 

Anyway, a gallon of gas would cost a lot more if it included more of the expenses associated with its provision & protection, the costs of encouraging despots and terrorists as well as the pollution and CO2 it produces.  I will say again, that while I am not a big believer in raising taxes, I believe in taxing gas, or more precisely carbon.   This has many good knock off effects.

As I mentioned above, we burn gas for good & logical reasons.  It is cheaper and easier than the alternatives.   You cannot convince most people to use less gas or switch to alternatives because using gas makes sense.    Many alternative fuel enthusiasts seem not to understand this and persist in thinking that they just need to explain things to the ignorant fossil fuel users.   Maybe just a few more public service adverts will do the trick – not.  

If you want to change the fuel mix, you have to change the incentives.   Nothing works faster than price, as we saw in 2006, when gasoline consumption declined and U.S. CO2 emissions overall actually dropped.   This is the first time this ever happened in a time of robust economic growth.   Higher oil prices are an automatic stimulus to alternatives.  Alternatives that are money losers when oil is $40, suddenly look really good when oil reaches $80.  We are now seeing the reverse begin to set in as the price of gas plummets.  Already drivers are putting on more miles and looking at those bigger cars and SUVs.   

We have a another big chance to make a dent in the oil addiction, make our air cleaner, encourage alternatives and screw some international bad guys.   If we blow it, this will be the third time.   In the middle 1980s, the price of oil dropped and wiped out lots of alternative investments.    In 1998, oil was at an all time low in dollars adjusted for inflation.   Instead of taking advantage, we bought the big SUVs.  A year ago, experts told us that we would never again see cheap oil.  They were wrong.  Let’s make sure not to fall into that cheap oil trap again. 

We really cannot have cheap oil in the long run.   The only real question is whether we pay it in American taxes and stabilize prices to some extent or pay to oil producers and tolerate wild swings that preclude the development of viable alternatives and enrich and corrupt people who don't like us.  Let’s not make Hugo, Vlad and Mahmoud any happier than necessary.   Opportunities don’t last forever.  This one won’t last very long. 

September 27, 2008

Electricity in Iraq: Explaining Shortages

CNN ran a report highlighting the failures in Iraq.  It is not hard to find troubles and even easier to imagine various things that COULD go wrong.  I suppose that is the job of journalists, but that is one reason why people are always anxious.  Most of the bad things predicted don’t happen, but by then the journalists are on to the next big potential disaster.    

Below is an Iraq village from the air.  Same scene as Hamurabi could have seen (if he could fly).  Notice the electical lines are not down.  There never were any.  Some things take time.

Iraqi village

I am getting sick of hearing about electrical shortages in Iraq.  Let me give you the ground truth that evidently escapes our intrepid CNN colleagues.  

Iraq will NEVER be able to supply electricity 24/7 until it does something fundamental – charge money for it.   Journalists never mention - maybe they don’t know or care - that electricity from the government grid is usually essentially free.   Even when it is not free, there is rarely a variable price.  No surprise then that electrical demand has skyrocketed.  Saddam didn’t worry about demand.  It was nearly impossible for people to buy new appliances or luxuries.  Since the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi people have installed thousands of air conditioners.  You see big screen TVs in the markets.  People have computers with internet.  All these things drain electricity.   

The grid supplies a little more electricity than it did before the war and it will supply more soon when we and the Iraqis finish fixing all the maintenance problems Saddam left.  It is like buying an old car that is ready to fall apart and then getting blamed for the breakdowns.   But in addition to the grid, there has also been an proliferation of small generation.  Our ePRT helped pay for some of them. With all these things, Iraq generates more electrical power than ever before.  But demand bumps up 12% a year – one of the highest growth rates in the world.   Much of that electricity is free and people feel free to waste it.  

What do you think would happen in the U.S. if you paid $2 a month and there was no additional charge no matter how much you used?  Would anybody turn down their air conditioning or flick off the lights when they left a room?    Do you limit yourself to the least expensive items at the all-you-can-eat buffet? 

When Iraqis and our intrepid CNN journalists (who I did not see during the entire year I spent in Western Anbar) talk about electricity, they usually mean the free stuff.   If you drive through villages at night, you notice that Iraqis have electricity.  Some if free or comes at a low flat-rate from the grid, but some of it they pay for – just like you and I do.   This is what happens: a town might get six hours of grid electricity.  Everybody plugs in everything he owns in anticipation of this happy time.  Why not?  It is free.  When the free electricity is finished and they pay for it people are more careful with the electricity.  

It is really the worst possible system.  What do you expect when something is provided free for a limited time?  Everybody uses as much as they possible can.  

You cannot blame the Iraqis.  We all would behave like this.  If you don’t waste it somebody else will.  If any individual saves power, he just gets less.   

Only one place I know of – Anah – meters and charges for electricity the way we do in the U.S. and  most of the world.  Anah has no significant shortages.  The leaders of nearby towns dislike Anah.  It makes them look bad.  It also proves the point.   

So next time you hear about electricity shortages in Iraq, keep in mind that this is nearly completely an artificial problem caused by what started off as well-meaning and generous government policy.  Well, maybe not that well meaning.  Saddam used free electricity to bribe the people, knowing that the lack of electrical appliances would limit demand.  No reasonable amount of investment will solve this problem because in its current form the problem is not solvable.   It is easy to demand more of something you get free. 

The electricity problem is a classic “hot potato”.  We made the mistake of defining it as OUR problems and took the blame for a stupid system we inherited from the bad old days.  We cannot solve the problem.  Nobody can in its current form.  We have to toss that hot potato back to those who can address the problem in the ways that will work.  And somebody should explain this to CNN.  I suspect somebody has tried.  Not everybody is teachable.  They prefer to look earnestly at the camera and list the failures rather than explain the solution is simple, although not easy.

August 24, 2008

Alternative Energy: A Bridge Too Far?

Below is a contraption powered by an old Ford engine pumping irrigation water from the Eurphrates.   Doing the job for 70+ years.

 old engine

I knew about it & promised myself that I would avoid the trap, but I still fell into it.   In some ways it is the flip side of the confidence and sense of purpose I needed to do the job here.  When you have the power to spend the government's money and the broadly defined duty to help rebuild or even just build a whole region it is easy to use the discretion you have to do what you think it right - and be sure you are right.

Alternative energy has been an interest of mine since I was in high school more than thirty years ago  I really do believe that we have to transition into cleaner non-carbon-based energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear.  When I got to Iraq, I made alternative energy sources a preference.  I always asked if we could use solar or wind.  I was not alone in this.  I think many of us were beguiled by this possibility.   CERP money was spent on solar street lights.  We put extra money into QRF for alternatives.  I think we all felt good about it.  The people back home think it is great, so we get confirmation all around.   We feel virtuous.

But such things are not always appropriate everyplace.  I have begun to notice complaints when I do my foot patrols.  People look with a jaundiced eye on our solar street lights.  They would prefer electricity nearer their homes.   They often know the price of each light.  And the lights are not attractive.  Beyond that, the rapidly developing technologies will probably make them obsolete too soon.  I still believe in alternative energy, but I think we made a mistake in pushing it.  It was the trap of arrogance and the trap of applying my own cultural preferences and prejudices to the problems of people with different priorities and needs.

I am sure that I could make a very logical argument for alternative energy in Western Iraq.   I could win a debate on that position.  I am good with words.  But it just isn't the best solution in this here and now place.   The time is not ripe.   There are practical problems.

We have problems with dust, for example.  We get plenty of sun in Anbar and even more dust.  Dust settles on everything, including solar panels where it tends to stay in the absence of rain to wash it off.   The Anbaris have very little in terms of a maintenance culture.  It is one of the things we are trying to help them with, but they are not there yet.  Solar power is dispersed and decentralized.   It presents a particular maintenance challenge that I don’t think we/they can properly meet, at least in the near term.

The lesson I have learned, or should I say relearned, is that you cannot always get what you want - even if you are convinced it is right.  And having the power of the government to back you up exacerbates the mistakes you can make.   I guess the old saying goes, "To err is human, but to really screw up you need government support."   Fortunately, I don't think it is that bad.  We never pushed this program to the exclusion of everything else.  It was always in the nature of an experiment.   It was maybe even a good idea.   We have some success.  I - we - just got a little too enthusiastic about it and I am a little embarrassed.  Lesson learned - again.

I still think the alternatives are the way of the future.  When I build a new house, I will install solar and use the site to advantage, but I can do that because I have already satisfied other needs.   In many other situations, we will still need to rely on the “old oily energy” as a bridge us to the new.   We will get there faster if we recognize reality.

July 25, 2008

Simple Solutions to Global Warming, the Energy Crisis, Management Malaise and Problems in General

Monkey studying Darwin First ban all leaf blowers.  I went running on a perfect summer morning in N. Virginia, with clear air, green plants and temperatures in the middle 70s.  Into this arcadia intruded a landscape crew of fools with leaf blowers, no doubt paid for with my property tax dollars.  A leaf blower is a small thing, but considering all the impacts and connections it is a metaphor for life's more general conundrums.   

With its inefficient small engine, the average leaf blower makes more pollution than a new SUV.  If you are downwind, you can smell them almost as soon as you can hear them.   Their noise pierces the peace of a leafy neighborhood.  They are almost always operated by low-paid workers, often illegal aliens.  Worst of all, they don’t really work.  The distracted worker walks along the path carelessly spraying air to move leaves and clippings a few feet, while raising dust and disturbing the peace.  If you come back a few hours later, you can see no evidence of their work.  Not all wind is man-made by leaf blowers, after all, and nature redistributes the clippings in relation to prevailing daily wind patterns.  The leaf blowers, in other words, are doing nothing - badly.

What would happen w/o leaf blowers?  Eliminating the noise, fuel waste and pollution is good.  Most of the work need not be done anyway, so there is not much loss.  Landscape firms could hire fewer low paid workers. For those rare times where the leaf blowers do some good, there is nothing that a leaf blower can do that a broom or a rake cannot do better.  It is not like John Henry racing the steam drill.  A leaf blower is a labor saving, not a labor enhancing device.  Burning a few extra calories through added physical effort wouldn’t hurt the operators.  It is good all around. 

How many “leaf blower scenarios” do we have in our society?  Things that we could not only do without, but whose elimination would make us better off? Think of how you have to take a sweatshirt to theaters and grocery stores - in summer because of the excessive air conditioning. We can all think of many.

An active manager looks for things to add to his agenda every day.  A wise leader looks for things on the agenda that can be consolidated or eliminated entirely.  Unfortunately, our bias is to reward senseless activity, even when it is producing no results of even negative ones.   We do not recognize that sometimes we are failing because of and not in spite of our best efforts.  Usually a thoughtful response will do less but accomplish more.

I think the key to understanding what should be done is knowing where you want to be.  It is too easy to identify a problem, propose an inappropriate solution and then blame others when it doesn’t work - what most politicians do most of the time. 

Some problems are not solvable and have to be endured.  Some problems cannot be solved with the tools available. Some problems are not solvable at this time but may be easy to sort out as conditions develop.  Most problems are not problems at all.  They have to be neither endured nor solved and safely can be bypassed or ignored.  They may go away by themselves if left alone or trouble us no more if we make minor adjustments.  BTW, any problem you can easily afford to buy your way out of is not a problem; it is merely an expense and don't spend a dollar fighting a nickel's worth of trouble.  It is useful to think about which are which and allocate time and resources accordingly.

If you think about where you want to be rather than how to solve each problem you encounter, you come up with better solutions… and you understand that inventions such as leaf blowers don’t really get you there.   

My grandiose title may be just a little misleading, but the mind works faster when you are running and the leaf blowing fools stimulate perhaps more lesson than the experience has to teach.

PS - If you want to write to me but not have your response posted as a comment, just make a note at the top that it is just a private note.  I see all the comments before posting.

March 09, 2007

Energy too Good to Be True?

Reposting article from an old blog. Oil shale.

We have more of it than anybody else; much of the rest lies under friendly places like Canada & Brazil. With new innovations it to be produced @$25/barrel w/o a big surface footprint AND it is extracted by injecting CO2 into sequestration right back where the oil came from. How elegant, efficient & perfectly balanced AND it is American. We have found the Tao of energy.   

I am not an engineer, so those who know better please write me back and curb my enthusiasm, but let me summarize. Please listen to the whole thing and make your comments. The Q&A cleared up many of my doubts.

Oil shale is an old resource and extracting it is an old technology. Pioneers heading crossing the vast expanses of the west used the oil for axle grease and we all recall the oil shale related debacles such as Tea Pot Dome in the 1920s and the synfuels program of the late 1970s. Back in those days, there was no way to make the oil shale into useable fuel w/o an unacceptable ecological and economic cost. In 1980, they had to literally dig the shale out of the ground, release the oil with lots of water, then dump the slag all over the previously verdant hills and the dirtywater into the heretofore pristine rivers of the Rocky Mountains. We can all be grateful that synfuels crashed and nothing burned.

Why have we not used oil shale before?

We tried. We did. It used to cost too much and make too much of a mess, but new technologies allow the liquefaction of the oil below ground, producing no slag and requiring no water, AND it requires the injection of CO2. The CO2 stays down there were the oil was. It is more environmentally benign than almost any other extraction method because it not only extracts cleanly, but it also sequesters CO2. Maybe we could even sink more than we bring up.

The other big problem was/is price. Price volatility has always been a problem in an industry where investments must be made based on price estimates 5-7+ years from today. Middle Eastern oil is almost free. There was (and remains) no way that oil shale can compete with oil from the Middle East when they are pumping flat out. There is still the danger that the sheiks, despots, potentates and dictators who control so much of the world’s exportable oil will open the pumps to kill innovations in oil shale before it gets off the ground. Oil shale needs minimum prices about $25/barrel. Big oil producers with lots of fixed cost capacity can undercut that anytime they want. It would not be the first time and the dirty business actually wins them accolades from consumers.

How can we avoid this fate? Keeping the price of oil artificially high is nearly impossible over any long periods of time (and imagine the political problem is high prices became U.S. policy) and it takes only a short time for low prices to destroy alternative investments. It happened in the 1990s and it can happen again. The author suggests a simple expedient. President Bush wants to fill the strategic oil reserve. Why not commit to fill it with oil produced from oil shale. This will provide a market floor to the shale and insure that investments made are not too risky. Once the infrastructure is in place, we can tell those foreign potentates to go to hell, as shale oil can free us from foreign oil for a generation - long enough for us to develop viable alternatives to hydrocarbons.

Here is some more background on oil shale from Rand and a CRS report on oil shale. The Rand report is mildly critical. The author addressed some of the concerns, BTW. Some general industry background on oil shale is here.

Posted by Jack at March 9, 2007 5:30 PM
Comment #211249

Jack, I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve heard an extremely interesting lecture given by a professor Albert Bartlett about energy use and the coming crisis. It is relevant to issues like oil shale development and ethynol production. Neither one is viable from what I have heard, (although I will read the links you have provided). Canada produces @ a million barrels a day from oil shale but it is economical only because they are using on-site natural gas in the process, gas that would otherwise go to waste. It costs energy to produce energy. This equation has nothing to do with the price we pay retail, even if we were able and willing to pay $10 a gallon for fuel produced from shale, if it costs 1.1 units of energy to extract 1 unit net, it’s going to stay in the ground.
Also, estimates in number of years of supply from a given source invariably assumes no growth in demand; very unrealistic.

Posted by: charles Ross at March 9, 2007 6:33 PM
Comment #211253


I think if we do not subsidize it (but give it that floor to protect from wild swings) the market will sort out whether or not it is viable re inputs.

I really do not know. It seemed too good to be true and such things often are. Listen to the lecture. He updates some of the info in the articles. He is talking about a new developing technologies.

Posted by: Jack at March 9, 2007 6:41 PM
Comment #211263

More good reason for a tariff on imported oil to keep the price at about 60$ a barrel. I think it would be a politically viable plan as energy independance is important for geopolitical reasons.
I would rater see the SPR used like the Federal Reservedoes to control inflation. They buy heavily when prices fall and sell heavily when prices inflate.Stability is the key to any alternate industry capitalization. The Saudis have already said they are willing to drop oil prices to fend off alternatives. Our friends.
PS Denmark is getting half their power now from offshore wind. Tidal pumping is getting big in Scotland etc. .

Posted by: BillS at March 9, 2007 7:59 PM
Comment #211394

If we can get enough of our own oil out of the ground to tell the Arabs to shove theirs where the sun don’t shine I’m all for it.
But wouldn’t $25 a barrel compared to $65 a barrel lower gas prices? And sense your for high gas prices why are you for this?

Posted by: Ron Brown at March 10, 2007 8:09 PM
Comment #211402

Oil shale? call me ignorant but that is rock right? Well I guess if you can get it through the hose, y’know..(Second thought, call me beligerant)

self serve shovels? Shale gas station?

Maybe the future is firewood—we got all these damn trees, right? Call Rand about all these freakin’ trees we found.

Posted by: Servitudinal at March 10, 2007 9:16 PM
Comment #211404

Why do republicans hate the bio-deisel idea so much?—is it the messenger (dems)? Or the influential big-oil dinars that flow so rapidly into the RNC warchest that gears you off in such directions? Thine own holy-cow partyline are thine own nemesis.

A year or so back there were a group of highschool kids that created a GTO that ran on refined soy fuel I recall reading. It can be done.

Posted by: Servitudinal at March 10, 2007 9:27 PM
Comment #211406

Another idea—genetically modify insects to give off highly flamable bug-sh*t. Let’s face it thirty years from now we’re friggin’ Amish with the way the two parties are going, I don’t see any avenues of greater advent in the way of motor or energy resource technology.

Posted by: Trident at March 10, 2007 9:48 PM
Comment #211424

Generally, you have to strip mine shale so I’m not sure how viable this will be. Virginia has plenty of shale, Jack. Perhaps you’d like to donate your wooded estate for a good cause. :)

Seriously, I’d rather use the natural gas to provide relatively clean power than to extract carbon-rich (i.e. - dirty) petroleum.

Posted by: American Pundit at March 11, 2007 12:04 AM
Comment #211428


Listen to the talk. That is the big innovation. Back in 1980 you had to bring the shale to the surface. That is what made the big mess. The new system extracts the oil underground AND injects CO2, which sequesters it right when the oil came from. That is what is so interesting.

Presumably if there was oil shale under my working forest, they could extract it w/o significant damage and I could make more money than Jed Clampet. That is not my business, however. My land grows trees and provides wood, clean water, fresh air and wildlife habitat. People really should appreciate tree farmers more.

Posted by: Jack at March 11, 2007 12:34 AM
Comment #211484

your story about the Alberta oil shale and sands is appropriate and timely. As you state correctly, making crude out of shale is nothing new but the economics of the process have always been very unattractive in competition with the exploitation of conventional till recently.
Although I have an engineering background one does not have to be a petroleum engineer to understand the basics of the shale oil or oil sands process to appreciate the industry’s challenges.
It’s my understanding that CO2 has been used in the past as a pressurizing agent to bring oil to the surface, but it’s not the only one. But sequestration is a different issue entirely, as I understand it, because it either needs to bind itself, chemically to some subterranean substance, or it gets stored far below the surface in a salt dome or similar cavity.
These are expensive operations and together with water treatment and waste treatment adds major costs to the process.
But I think you are on the money with a price of $25-30/barrel of crude as a bottom cost to make shale and sand oil economic.
My view about the projected crude oil cost/barrel is that the demand for oil will continue to increase at a good rate, mostly due to China and India growing so rapidly. And since economic development is critically coupled to the cost and availability of energy I see no reason that the cost of oil will drop by anything more than 20 or 25% and then only if we have a serious depression.
The world has enormous remaining reserves of oil but they will not do anybody any good if they cannot be developed because of overly strict or ill conceived environmental constraints. It is really time for the USA to develop the ANWAR deposits more aggressively together with multiple continental shelf options available right now.

Posted by: Fred Engel at March 11, 2007 4:32 PM
Comment #211539

Oil shale — it is too good to be true.

One, the CO2 used does not counterbalance the carbon removed. If the literature is correct, the replacement occurs at around a 1:2 ratio.

Two, Engel brings up the more serious problem (presuming one is interested in reducing atmospheric carbon)—sequestration. The CO2 will slowly rise to ground surface and be released into the atmosphere.

Three, the costs (including energy consumption) required for the industrial production, transportation, and use of CO2 are quite sizeable.

Four, the costs of making oil shale extraction financially viable from a business perspective are not small and would be better invested in the development of non-fossil fuels technologies which can produce more efficient fuels with fewer negative consequences for the atmosphere.

I installed solar panels on my home 4-1/2 years ago. They provide 100% of the electrical power for my all-electric home (with a heat pump for heating & cooling). I broke even at the 3-1/2 year point even though living in Chicago which is not known for an over abundance of sunlight. Of the many benefits, not getting a monthly electric bill is my favorite.

Posted by: Allen at March 12, 2007 10:53 AM
Comment #211717

The CEO of JetBlue has asked that government place a floor on oil, at which point a subsidy would kick in to prevent OPEC from undercutting coal and driving it out of business, as they did once before. That makes more sense that subsidizing farmers to grow corn and grass to inefficiently make ethanol. We have enough coal reserves to satisfy our needs. Why not?

Posted by: Clay Barham at March 13, 2007 12:49 PM
Comment #211942

I certainly agree with you that we should encourage the use of more coal, clean coal that is, slurry and hi-temp combustion, but more importantly we should take the clamps off drilling for more oil in North America, anywhere, and go all out on natural gas and nuclear energy plants. That would transfer a large part of our energy use to electric from particularly oil. What will it take for the country to start doing that very soon? More clear thinking, strong character politicians?

Posted by: Fred Engel at March 14, 2007 1:31 PM
Comment #211964


The environmental impact of oil exploration for extremely narrow returns is why not.


I read up on the shale oil / syncrude plan. It looks like a push by Shell to get corporate welfare to pony up on some far off scheme with a questionable 10+ year ROI. Since big oil and Bush Co has the credibility of Tommy Flanagan, I’ll wait a few years until a truly unbiased and respectable opinion develops.

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at March 14, 2007 3:40 PM
Comment #212066

I can’t quite see it your way and do not consider our modern oil companies as willfully polluting the environment. Some foreign firms is a different kettle of fish. As a matter of fact, the upstream part of the industry is very localized (for instance, at ANWAR they want the equivalent of 2 acres out of 1500 for their drilling and storage activities with everybody looking over rtheir shoulders)but pipelines are vulnerable and downstream refineries occasionally have accidents. Which industry doesn’t have bad days? Furthermore, looking over their annual reports, they are neither undercapitalized nor typically marginal players. Returns are good. What they cannot control is market process, that’s another organization’s privilege.In my view there is no good reason to go slow on the production and use of oil as long as it can we made a readily available. After all, can you think of any other energy source as practical as a gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel?
I am all for growing parallel energy sources and products but carbohydrates will be hard to beat for a long time.

Posted by: Fred at March 15, 2007 9:06 AM
Comment #212089


Sorry for not being thorough. I was not talking profit when I said returns. I meant that my current understanding is the maximum ANWR extraction rate would be pretty small in terms of our overall usage and the environmental impact would huge (e.g Prudhoe had an average reported spill rate of more than one spill a day and the required seismic testing just to verify 10+ year old studies is permanently damaging to the tundra by itself). Saying “bad days” for disasters that impact local conditions for years is unbecoming.

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at March 15, 2007 1:04 PM
Comment #212328

Dave, thanks for your response.
I looked over my own notes and some relevant references (the latest from 2005) and came up with the following:
Alaska produced 315 million barrels of crude that year, or about 860,000 gallons per day. The USA used approximately 20 million gallons per day in toto,two third of which is imported from all kinds of places and total domestic production was about 5 million barrels including Alaska. Hence today, Alaska produces about 4% of our national requirements. But opening the ANWR area judiciously would raise that amount to about 8%, so it’s certainly very worthwhile.

The big stumbling block about ANWR is the concern by environmentalists that the whole ANWR area would be affected. That is patently just not so. The total ANWR area is about, 1,500,000 acres. The oil companies have asked permission for operations in a very small area of 2000 acres, that is the equivalent of 2 acres out of 1500. I do not see that as a problem but some people just don’t want any oil drilling at all. But they do expect somebody to find enough oil to keep their local pumps supplied. Oil, like evrything else that isn’t fruits or nuts, doesn’t grow on trees.
One has to find it and drill holes.

I am sympathetic with anyone’s concern about the environment but people do make a mistake now and then, usually not deliberately either. Sometimes they even lose their lives, like 40,000 people annually lose their lives in car accidents, certainly not deliberately. That’s why I always have a problem with self righteous people immediately claiming conspiracies, malicious intent, careless behavior etc. etc. Nevertheless, none of that should stand in the way of utilizing the earth’s resources in a responsible manner to support our and any other country and its people in a long term attempt to try to see if we can live more humanely together and more so than other societies in the past. But I’m getting off the subject.

As far as oil spills are concerned, I am aware of 3 substantial ones over the past 15 years as far as Alaska is concerned, of which the Exxon Valdez of course was by far the largest. Two of these accidents had nothing to do with oil exploration or processing, or Alaska as far as I remember. The third one was a leak in a pipeline that wasn’t noticed for 5 days. Now that upsets me, because as a former engineer that shows a failure in maintenance procedures and for that a head should roll. But even that is no reason to condemn the use of carbohydrates.

I do not know where one spill/day at Prudhoe Bay comes from but if a gasket is changed in a pipeline or a valve is replaced at a tank and spills 30 or 40 gallons of crude in the process I would call that maintenance and certainly not an oil spill in the same category as accidents. Any more than you would call dropping some gasoline from the hose when you fill your tank is an ecological disaster. In my opinion it is necessary for us to maintain our common sense about things.

But whether we like it or not, we do need more oil and lots of it while it will give us the time to develop better and even more ecologically responsible, energy sources. If we lose the energy supply race our whole country will go down the tubes and not just the USA.

Posted by: Fred at March 16, 2007 2:38 PM

September 20, 2006

Energy, Water & Food/Government, Science & Markets

Energy, water and food. Providing ourselves with these prosaic necessities is the challenge of the next decade. This is a worldwide challenge, so let’s look to good practices worldwide. Brazil has been working on alcohol fuel for four decades. Arid Australia is a leader in allocating scarce water resources. Although not currently the world leader, it might be India that soon leads the world in biotechnology.

Brazil provides an excellent example of the interaction of market forces, political will and good luck. Brazil's military dictators stared the program back in 1975. There is some doubt whether a non-authoritarian government could have taken the initial steps to make it happen. Even with subsidies, favorable laws and official sponsorship, Brazil's ethanol program languished and almost died in the very low oil price environment in the 1990s. The history of Brazilian ethanol once again confirms the necessity of a higher price of oil to encourage alternatives. When prices rose, the ethanol program once again made economic senses.

The lesson: Government intervention may be necessary to jump start an alternative energy program. A big change in infrastructure is something individual firms cannot handle alone. However, it is clear that the government can propose and encourage, but the market ultimately decides. Luck played a big role in Brazil. If the price spikes had come just a few years later, the Brazil energy program may well have been left for dead and very difficult to revive.

Fuel is important, but water is even more crucial to survival. Ironically, energy solutions such as Brazil's use of sugar cane to make fuel will worsen water shortages. Unlike fuel, however, we do not produce water; we do not use it up. It is the ultimate renewing resource. What matters is quality and location. This renewing aspect has fooled us into thinking water is (or should be) free. Most water is not really allocated at all. In non-arid areas, we just assume there is enough water and even in arid ones, we generally give precedence to whoever is nearer or who was there first. This ensures that water is wasted. We have to stop treating water like a free good and begin to distribute it according to market principles.

This will seem very unjust. A long time ago, I watched the Milagro Beanfield War. It is natural to sympathize with the little guy, but if more people practiced his primitive methods it would drive everyone into poverty. He just wants to grow some beans - in the middle of the desert. He doesn't know it, but he just wants to waste water, increase the salinity of his soil and ultimately make it useless. Only the free market (including rule of law, reasonable regulation & market mechanisms) will allow diverse decision making can achieve a fair result. You can still cheer for Joe Mondragon, but recognize that he is part of the problem.

The lesson: We have to look at the bigger picture and think of water as a regional, maybe even a world resource. If done properly, it can be done justly and gradually with most people given choices that improve their lives. If we pretend we can go on the old fashioned Milagro Beanfield way, everybody suffers and some people die.

But in the end we might have some great options from the science of biotechnology. Biotechnology can produce plants that require less water, fertilizer and energy to produce. But the connection is even more direct. Biotechnology is already contributing to the production of biofuels and may soon make the production of ethanol from cellulous faster and easier. Cellulous alcohol is the holy grail of liquid fuels. That would mean we could make fuel out waste products such as wood chips or stalks, or from easily grown and ecologically benign crops such as switchgrass.

Lesson: Paradigms change and we can make them change. If we think only about how things are today, we can never solve our problems. In fact, it is likely that today's problems CANNOT be solved with today's methods. We can do it. It requires a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith in human intelligence and our ability to learn & adapt.

We are standing at a crossroads where our provision of energy, water and food are radically changed. These three factors will be more completely integrated than every before. All change is difficult, but if done right this one will make all (or at least most) of us much better off and make our lifestyles more sustainable.

Posted by Jack at August 20, 2006 09:36 PM

April 13, 2006

Realists, Not Hysterical Hypocrites

The evidence for human induced global warming is less conclusive than proponents say, but it is impressive. Some argue that we need not act until the threat is imminent, but if we wait for it to fully and perhaps suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations may come too late. So what do we do?

If you look at the literature and even entries on other parts of this blog, you will see that a common response to the politics of global warming is to indignantly claim that it is the fault of Bush, Republicans, the U.S. or big corporations. The subtext is, "If only THEY weren’t so greedy, WE could address this problem." The idea seems to be that if we would just sign on to Kyoto, or legislate properly, the problem would go away. It won't.

Proper regulations and government incentives will be required. But these are means, not ends. Legislations by itself will do nothing. What is it that we want the legislation to do? There are several things that are required.

Raise the price of energy. Why do we depend on oil? We use oil because it is cheaper and easier to use than the alternatives. If there was a cheaper alternative, we would already be using it. One of the pernicious effects of cheap oil is that it preempts development of alternatives. Worse, the price of oil tends to drop as soon as alternative look promising and the would-be alternative producers are driven to bankruptcy. We need to guarantee a high price for oil and gas.

A high energy price is the fastest way to encourage conservation. We saw that historically. Energy efficiency increased when prices were high in the 1970s and 1980s and flattened in the late 1980s and 1990s when oil was cheap. The presidents' policies seemed to have little effect. We saw it recently when the prices went up after Katrina. Suddenly SUVs were out and hybrids were in. Price succeeds. Politics fails.

Go nuclear. It is a paradox that so many environmentalists oppose nuclear power. Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gas and no pollution. It is safe (nobody has ever been killed in an American nuclear power accident). And we don’t need to import anything from the Middle East. We can solve the waste problem or at least not using nuclear power is a greater risk.

Beyond that, a revived nuclear industry can be a growth and export industry for us.

Share technologies. The big polluters of the future are China, India and other developing countries. We need to partner with them to make sure they don’t go the dirty route. President Bush’s proposed deal with India and the Asia Pacific Partnership are good steps. Kyoto addressed the problems of the past and was outdated the day it was negotiated and the sooner everybody figures that out the better.

Encourage and protect biotechnology & nanotech. Biotech may make it easier to process cellulose (wood chips, switchgrass etc) into methanol. It may produce other forms of energy. Biotechnology and nanotechnology are the future. Don't let a misguided precaution strangle innovation in the cradle. If/when climate change does occur, biotechnology will allow the rapid development of new varieties of crops suited to the new conditions.

I didn't mention research into alternatives, because I don't have to. If we do the things above, price and the market will encourage the changes. If you insist on putting some government money into R&D, that’s fine. Just don't expect much.

So let's cut the foolishness and get to work. The solution is not easy, but it is simple.

BTW - some of you might recognize the cadence in my initial post. I think the situations are parallel.

Posted by Jack at April 13, 2006 10:29 PM

December 25, 2005

Science Improving Nature

Big changes come on little cat feet to envelop us. Then we forget what life was like before. Polio, the scourge or childhood, disappeared like many other afflictions nobody much remembers. Most American kids don’t get cavities any more - amazing to those of us old enough to recall one cavity per dental visit was a great result. Change often comes in little packages, but it is compounding* and that makes a difference.

One recent great event that happened without our notice is biotechnology. If you are wondering whether you should use biotech products, forget it. I said happened, not happening. Almost all of you have eaten biotech foods, probably today. The cotton in your t-shirt was probably grown with the help of biotech. If you buy a new house you will be living in a partially bioengineered structure. Biotechnology will revolutionize the manufacture of medicines, the production of energy and the preservation of the environment.

We have been cultivating biotech crops commercially for about ten years now. 400 million hectares (hectare = 2.47 acres) of genetically enhanced biotech crops have been grown. Farmers are adopting biotech crops faster than any crop varieties in the history of agriculture. Since their introduction in 1996, genetically enhanced biotech crop use has grown at a rate of more than 10% per year. In 2004 it was up to around 20%. The main crops carrying biotech genes are soybean (56%), maize (14%), cotton (28%), and canola (19%). Percentages are of the worldwide acreage for these crops. In the U.S., biotech soybean (herbicide resistant), maize (herbicide and insect resistant), and cotton (herbicide and insect resistant) account respectively for approximately 85%, 75%, and 45% of total acreage. 

Want renewable energy? We can talk about wind, solar AND biotech. Advances in biotechnology have enabled the production of large amounts of inexpensive cellulases that convert cellulose to simple sugars that that can be fermented into fuels such as ethanol. Biotechnology could enhance biomass yield density, improve processing of biomass feedstock and decrease the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides. In other words, we can literally turn garbage into gasoline substitute.

This is really nothing new. We have been altering plants and animals since before we were fully evolved humans. But biotech can do it faster and with fewer unplanned side effects. We can use less fertilizer, less pesticide and we can do it with less work. Read the story of wheat.

A big innovation comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over our lives on silent haunches and then moves on (with apologies to Carl Sandburg). When it’s over we just think that is how it always was. But we are better off.

* Albert Einstein called compound interest the most powerful force in the universe.

Posted by Jack at December 25, 2005 08:37 PM