The Ergosphere
Friday, January 26, 2007
 

The art of propaganda

Being sick and somewhat out of sorts, I only half-listened to the SOTU speech (text) on Tuesday.  But what I heard did nothing to change my opinion of our lame duck President.

I heard plenty of weasel-phrases, and the anemic goals reminded me of "the soft bigotry of low expectations".  Twenty percent over ten years?  This is just over three times the rate of last year's 0.6% OECD reduction.  The USA's consumption of petroleum products is roughly 45% gasoline; if the US had eked out the same 0.6% cut from gasoline alone, it would come to a 1.33% cut in gasoline consumption - already 2/3 of Bush's stated goal.  Given gasoline prices in the $3.00 range again, this appears likely to happen all by itself.

We need to aim closer to 50% over 10 years, and 100% over 20.  We can do it, with PHEV's, movement of freight to rail and niche biofuels.  But Bush's map goes straight into the swamp.

The other weasel phrase is "cutting our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East."  Let's examine this phrase in detail:

All in all, this was one for the Hall of Shame.  I would have been even more disappointed than after last year's "addicted to oil" speech... if I'd had any expectations.  He did nothing substantive about the problem before, and I expect nothing better from him unless he has no other options.  (Cynicism has its benefits; you can be pleasantly surprised, but rarely crushed.)

Now it falls to the barely-Democratic Congress to craft the policies we need, the policies we should have had on the "URGENT" list since 9/11/2001.  Will they be able to get around an administration joined at the hips to the oil industry, willing to use executive power to obstruct and even destroy (EPA libraries, NASA earth-observation programs) anything unfriendly to its power base?  Only time will tell.

 
Thursday, January 18, 2007
 

The pols sit still for the message

Maybe there's hope after all.

Via Yahoo news (h/t:  The Oil Drum) comes word that Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets Long Distance, made a presentation on greenhouse-gas abatement to the Vermont legislature.

That the legislature received the presentation is itself progress, but the specifics are noteworthy:

Regular readers will note a strong similarity to the measures I've been advocating.  The only real difference is that the permits would be sold at auction, so the economic benefit of savings fluctuates with the market.  This could lead to slumps in the efficiency industry during economic contractions, with a consequent reduction or halt in improvements.  On the flip side, the permit auction eliminates the protected status of entrenched industry and the net effect on consumers would be small and even positive for low emitters.  It amounts to a tax on "bads", not "goods"; on the whole, it's an excellent idea.

The legislators are not convinced.  State Rep. Albert J. Perry is quoted as saying "I don't see any immediate opportunity in Vermont.  I'd need to see how it's set up, get a more concrete presentation of how it would work."  This was seconded by the executive VP of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association:  "The concept of trading carbon credits is probably something that's in our future.  The $64,000 question is `What's it going to look like?'  Some of the best ideas get lost in translation, between concept and implementation."

Two things are for certain:

  1. Such a program needs to extend beyond Vermont.  No state (or nation) can retain industry if its neighbors do not share the same expenses.
  2. The merit could easily be lost in translation.  For instance, giving free permits to existing emitters (to avoid shifting advantage to a neighboring polity) would eviscerate the incentives.  So would any system of exemptions for certain fuels, or for "the poor".

It's a proposal from a visionary, not a bill submitted by an elected statesman.  But the ideas are a long way from what seems like their natural home in California, which makes it a hopeful beginning.

 
Monday, January 08, 2007
 

Exhausting the non-options

Men will behave reasonably when all other options have been exhausted.

Nowhere does this appear to be more true than in interest-group politics.  Agricultural interests, trying to prop up their commodity prices, may finally create the condition of crop scarcity that they've always sought to secure their profits.  Per the NYTimes, they may also have created a scarcity of the materials for ethanol plants.  Ethanol production may actually turn Iowa into a net importer of corn!  Profits are soaring, for the moment.

It's doubtful that many of these farmers are thinking beyond the next year.  Suppose they succeed?  Suppose that crop prices do rise steeply, and make every year a profitable year no matter what size the harvest?  Would that be nirvana?

More likely, the consequences would lead to all the high-flyers being dragged right back to earth.

As others have noted, one can take a given amount of corn and either feed one person for a year or make one tank of E85 for an SUV.  As fuel ethanol production cuts grain inventories and raises crop prices, food prices (particularly meat) will start to increase with them.

This is almost certainly not politically acceptable.  The last time it happened, crop prices were supported by a system of production set-asides (derided as "paying farmers not to grow things"; without the set-asides, production overwhelmed demand and farmers went broke).  This worked relatively well, until one lean year cut production enough to contract grain supplies to the point that supermarket prices surged.  Consumer outcry led to the end of the set-aside program, farmers planted every acre they had, and the search for ways to solve the problem of surpluses was on once more.

Ethanol for cars was one of those solutions.  But now it's come full circle, and the body politic is about to see it as a problem in its own right.  Given a choice between fueling a 3-ton monster and food, a firm majority is bound to choose food.  The ethanol plants will see their feedstock reserved for an energy chain which ends at tables instead of pumps; a great many may be either cancelled or stand idle unless something inedible can be found to go into their maws.

It's about time this happened.  Ethanol from grain cannot displace petroleum to any great extent; its return on energy invested (EROEI) is perhaps 1.3 by the USDA's numbers, and a pathetic 1.09 by Robert Rapier's correction of their math.  Maybe it can be improved, but nothing will make it good enough to really make a difference.  Getting up to 2:1 would still require half the gross production recycled as feedstock; even if we could make do with 100 billion gallons of ethanol motor fuel, there's no way we'd be able to produce the 200 billion gallons to make the system self-sustaining.

It's time to call grain ethanol what it is.  Failure.  Distraction.  Maybe now, the public will believe it.  Let it die.

That will take one non-option off the table.  The birth defects of cellulosic ethanol may or may not kill it also; let it sink or swim on its own.  Hydrogen still has scarce infrastructure and no reasonable way of producing it from any fuel not already spoken for.  Can the Freedom Car program be long for this world either?

This is starting to look like the blonde joke which ends "... the others don't exist."

The non-options have just been joined by a real one, and from a rather surprising source.  Perhaps the most reactionary auto manufacturer in the industrialized nations has just announced a plug-in series hybrid.  If it gets to production, the Chevy Volt will be the first-ever no-compromises petroleum-optional car.  Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive would require some tweaking to do the same job; Honda's Integrated Motor Assist probably could not do it at all.  GM really deserves kudos for this one.

Those kudos are earned whether the Volt gets to showrooms or not.  It represents an endorsement of the concept, a move that will put the idea into the public consciousness.  No more is freedom from imported oil joined at the hip with agricultural subsidies or held hostage to some future non-fossil source of hydrogen.  With the Volt, GM has promised a return to cheap, carefree motoring at 75¢/gallon equivalent, and to let anyone with a windmill or solar panel produce their own motive power.  No matter who actually makes good on this promise first, it's now been made.

Reason is about to win this one.  Time to move on.

 
Sunday, January 07, 2007
 

2006 post summary

Subject index

Administrivia

2006-01-06   Pleasing the crowd
2006-01-06   And speaking of tip jars....
2006-02-17   Ergosphere subject index, 2005
2006-02-27   Test
2006-03-21   On hiatus
2006-04-13   I have returned
2006-04-25   Coming soon
2006-05-02   Spam attack
2006-06-17   We apologize for the inconvenience
2006-11-22   Worth the wait

Allies

2006-01-07   Thomas Friedman gets on board

Chitchat

2006-01-29   It's a compulsion
2006-02-12   Did you get the message today?
2006-02-14   Better than chocolate
2006-02-26   Just FYI
2006-03-07   Satire snippets
2006-03-14   Happy Pi Day
2006-04-14   I must be coming back as a cockroach
2006-05-14   Who you are
2006-08-14   Due Diligence
2006-08-19   Search me
2006-08-21   The new me
2006-08-21   Another "holy crap!" moment
2006-10-17   Micro-AE experiment
2006-12-16   Very important read
2006-12-19   Why unit analysis matters

Conservation and energy management

2006-02-17   Payback time
2006-03-02   Sustainability, efficiency and Jevons' "Paradox"
2006-05-14   I'd rather switch than pay
2006-07-18   Nothing will be enough if you keep wasting it
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy

Energy supply

2006-01-09   Treating irregularity
2006-01-10   If it doesn't work, then what?
2006-01-27   We could have replaced Iraq
2006-03-02   Sustainability, efficiency and Jevons' "Paradox"
2006-03-11   Blowin' in the wind
2006-04-15   Conservation is not the whole of security
2006-05-14   I'd rather switch than pay
2006-08-21   Signposts
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy
2006-12-16   Very important read

Environment and climate

2006-02-10   Quote without comment
2006-04-26   Braking before the environment crash
2006-08-21   Signposts
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy

Government policy and actions

2006-01-26   EIA putting history down the memory hole
2006-02-05   Hoping it will go away
2006-02-10   Energy tax incentives
2006-05-11   Now if I only had his head for money
2006-08-21   Signposts
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy

Hydrogen and other scams

2006-08-07   Europe passes death sentence on hype-drogen
2006-09-06   Scamwatch: Steorn

Miscellany

2006-01-01   Okay, you got my attention
2006-01-04   Surreality
2006-01-06   Traffic in links
2006-01-08   What kind of humanist are you?
2006-02-02   Never another Sony
2006-02-13   Friendly fire
2006-02-17   The Ergosphere turns 2, and open thread
2006-02-18   Tasteless. Offensive. Funny as all get out.
2006-04-26   They said what's on my mind
2006-04-28   Contribute to the Myths File
2006-12-03   Renewable energy and the auto industry

Politics

2006-05-07   Open letter to US voters (energy policy)
2006-06-18   If it's a conspiracy, why wasn't I notified?
2006-06-26   But consider the source...
2006-07-30   Open letter to Vinod Khosla
2006-08-21   Signposts
2006-09-06   The real scandal
2006-10-15   Open letter about the ethanol lobby
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy
2006-12-07   Open letter to the USA: Be careful what you ask for

Technology

2006-01-30   It only takes one
2006-02-17   Out of town on rails
2006-06-29   Why doesn't Detroit do better?
2006-08-07   Europe passes death sentence on hype-drogen
2006-10-14   Great strides
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy
2006-12-01   It comes almost too fast to keep up
2006-12-04   More progress I just learned about

Chronological index

January

2006-01-01   Okay, you got my attention
2006-01-04   Surreality
2006-01-06   Pleasing the crowd
2006-01-06   And speaking of tip jars....
2006-01-06   Traffic in links
2006-01-07   Thomas Friedman gets on board
2006-01-08   What kind of humanist are you?
2006-01-09   Treating irregularity
2006-01-10   If it doesn't work, then what?
2006-01-26   EIA putting history down the memory hole
2006-01-27   We could have replaced Iraq
2006-01-29   It's a compulsion
2006-01-30   It only takes one

February

2006-02-02   Never another Sony
2006-02-05   Hoping it will go away
2006-02-10   Quote without comment
2006-02-10   Energy tax incentives
2006-02-12   Did you get the message today?
2006-02-13   Friendly fire
2006-02-14   Better than chocolate
2006-02-17   The Ergosphere turns 2, and open thread
2006-02-17   Ergosphere subject index, 2005
2006-02-17   Payback time
2006-02-17   Out of town on rails
2006-02-18   Tasteless. Offensive. Funny as all get out.
2006-02-26   Just FYI
2006-02-27   Test

March

2006-03-02   Sustainability, efficiency and Jevons' "Paradox"
2006-03-07   Satire snippets
2006-03-11   Blowin' in the wind
2006-03-14   Happy Pi Day
2006-03-21   On hiatus

April

2006-04-13   I have returned
2006-04-14   I must be coming back as a cockroach
2006-04-15   Conservation is not the whole of security
2006-04-25   Coming soon
2006-04-26   Braking before the environment crash
2006-04-26   They said what's on my mind
2006-04-28   Contribute to the Myths File

May

2006-05-02   Spam attack
2006-05-07   Open letter to US voters
2006-05-11   Now if I only had his head for money
2006-05-14   I'd rather switch than pay
2006-05-14   Who you are

June

2006-06-17   We apologize for the inconvenience
2006-06-18   If it's a conspiracy, why wasn't I notified?
2006-06-26   But consider the source...
2006-06-29   Why doesn't Detroit do better?

July

2006-07-18   Nothing will be enough if you keep wasting it
2006-07-30   Open letter to Vinod Khosla

August

2006-08-07   Europe passes death sentence on hype-drogen
2006-08-14   Due Diligence
2006-08-19   Search me
2006-08-21   The new me
2006-08-21   Signposts

September

2006-09-06   Scamwatch: Steorn

October

2006-10-05   The real scandal
2006-10-11   Another "holy crap!" moment
2006-10-14   Great strides
2006-10-15   Open letter about the ethanol lobby
2006-10-17   Micro-AE experiment

November

2006-11-22   Worth the wait
2006-11-25   Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy

December

2006-12-01   It comes almost too fast to keep up
2006-12-03   Renewable energy and the auto industry
2006-12-04   More progress I just learned about
2006-12-07   Open letter to the USA: Be careful what you ask for
2006-12-16   Very important read
2006-12-19   Why unit analysis matters
 
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