April 13, 2006
There have been a couple of interesting energy stories in the news for the last few days. First, from BC comes this story, about what happened when the provincial electric utility asked for proposals to ramp up generating capacity in the province:
Green power projects, including small hydro and wind facilities, comprise the overwhelming majority of private-sector bids submitted to BC Hydro in an ambitious call for new sources of electricity for British Columbia...more than twice the amount Hydro was expecting when it issued an open call for tenders last December, and equivalent to about 10 per cent of B.C.'s existing electricity supply.
Now, obviously, not all of that capacity will be built, at least not at first; but it's still a promising development that so many green-power proposals were tendered. The bigger news, perhaps, was that not a single new natural gas power plant was proposed. Not one. Apparently, the high and fluctuating price of natural gas is making it harder for such plants to pencil out. What a change from a few years ago, when, in the wake of the 2001 power crisis -- and despite all the press attention that new wind farms got -- the Pacific NW added 17 times as much generating capacity from natural gas as from wind power.
And then (hat tip to Matt Leber) comes this news: the Seattle Steam company, which generates heat for a number of the buildlings in the downtown core, is planning to switch from natural gas burners to wood. At some level this is troubling; burning wood for energy didn't do the forests of New England any good. But Denmark has had good success with heat & power plants that run from biomass; so perhaps this isn't something to worry about yet. To add to the good news, Seattle Steam is considering adding combined heat-power facility to its other downtown plant. They're massively efficient, since the residual heat that's left over after the electricity is generated is used warm local buildings. If a combined heat-power plant designed right, less than 10 percent of the energy is wasted, compared with 40-65 percent for conventional plants.
April 11, 2006
Driving With Alcohol
Alcohol can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences, but who knew it could lead to energy independence? Apparently, the Brazilians did. Processing sugar cane into ethanol is expected to help Brazil meet its rising energy demands in a big way. According to an article in the New York Times, officials expect that within a year the country will become fully energy self-sufficient thanks largely to putting sugar in gas tanks.
Brazil's story is encouraging, but it's hard to know precisely what conclusions to draw for North Americans.
We can't buy Brazil's success by importing cane-based ethanol because our current policy regime all but disallows it. The US (and Europe too) slaps stiff duties on sugar imports--to the tune of 54 cents a gallon on cane-based ethanol imports, enough to render Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage.
We can't copy Brazil's success because our colder latitudes don't support sugar cane. Even Florida is considered only marginally productive for sugar cane and it comes at a horrific cost to ecological treasures like the Everglades. Hawaii produces sugar too, but its land base is far too small to meet American demand.
We can't imitate Brazil's success with northern crops like corn because producing corn-based ethanol is far too energy intensive.
Under the best conditions, corn ethanol yields only about 1.3 times as much energy as is required to produce it. Brazilian sugar cane, on the other hand, can yield 8 times as much energy; and producers think that efficiency can go to 10 times.
And even if we did somehow have access to Brazil's ethanol, our vehicle fleet couldn't take full advantage of it. But Brazil's can: more than 70 percent of cars sold in Brazil are "flex fuel" allowing drivers to alternate between ethanol and petroleum as price (or conscience) directs. Even better for Brazilian drivers, the flex fuel engines don't cost any more than conventional motors.
Sugar cane production is proving to be a boon to Brazil's economy, not to mention to its ecological footprint. (Nowadays, even the cane waste products are getting recycled back into various manufacturing processes.) But cane is not a free ride either: it's often grown on former pasture land and many fear that this will push livestock owners to clear more Amazon rainforest to make room. And cane growers are now pushing for genetically modified versions that will boost energy output and also resist disease and droughts. But GMO sugar cane may pose other unforeseen ecological problems down the road.
For me, the lesson from Brazil is two-fold. First, solving our biggest environmental problems (e.g. fossil fuel addiction and climate change) often forces us into other environmental compromises like deforestation and genetic crop modification. It's frustrating, of course, but real-world problems like energy consumption rarely offer no-downside solutions.
Second, there is not going to be any one-size-fits-all solution to the world's energy demands. Brazil can use sugar cane, but North Americans will have to figure out something else--something homegrown if independence is important. Conservation surely must be part of our effort to ratchet down reliance on oil, but we also must find local technologies and local resources for our energy needs.
April 10, 2006
Rage Against the (Hybrid) Machine
Some California drivers are getting all steamed up that they have to share the carpool lanes with single-occupant hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic, under a new state program. Some of the complaints, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Said one fumer in an online discussion group: "These [drivers] barely go 65 mph and allow no one to pass them on the right... Talk about road rage!" It's hard to feel much sympathy for someone whining about not being able to exceed the speed limit.
But I do think there's reason to be concerned that extra hybrids in the HOV lanes may be slowing down carpools & buses. From the LA Times article:
"There's not enough excess capacity to absorb the hybrids," said James Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program. "I think the foreseeable outcome here is that the congestion advantage we traditionally attribute to [carpool] lanes will disappear."
Promoting hybrids could help save fuel. But there's plenty of reason to believe that -- looking at overall efficiency of road transport -- filling the HOV lanes with hybrids could do more harm than good. Seems to me that California was smart in limiting the number of hybrids allowed in the carpool lanes, and studying the effects before proceeding.
April 06, 2006
As if global warming weren't bad enough: as this Oregonian story points out, rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are not only heating the climate, they're making seawater more acidic -- which in turn "could wreak profound changes on the diversity and productivity of oceans."
It's an interesting bit of scientific detective work. Some types of ocean plankton are apparently very sensitive to pH: their shells can't form when the water grows too acidic. The oceans have been absorbing a lot of the CO2 that's been emitted by fossil fuel burning, and higher levels of dissolved CO2 have raised the ocean's acidity by 30 percent in the last century or so. The result: the plankton are getting squeezed out, especially from the cool northern Pacific waters that absorb the most CO2. Scientists predict that if CO2 levels continue to rise, the higher acidity could eliminate these plankton, along with shelled sea creatures such as the sea urchin, from polar waters sometime in the next century.
This sort of thing is as fascinating as it is disturbing -- and it should serve as a reminder that, in subtle and often unpredictable ways, our fossil fuel consumption may wind up fraying the earth's ecosystems over the coming century just as much as pollution and habitat loss did in the previous one.
April 05, 2006
What to make of this news from the Eugene, OR Register-Guard?
In a report that's sure to be controversial, CNW Marketing Research of Bandon concludes... that, even though hybrid cars use less fuel, they require more energy - and are therefore worse for the environment - than conventional cars because their design and manufacture are more complex and the costs of disposal or recycling are higher for their batteries, electric motors and other specialized components. [Emphasis added.]
Hybrids use more energy than regular cars? Is this real, or just pro-SUV propaganda?
Now, just to be clear, I haven't reviewed the study myself. But the online materials that's CNW's made publicly available seem serious & fair-minded -- not like a cheap hit-job on hybrids, but rather a sober analysis that reaches some unexpected and counterintuitive conclusions.
That said, I think there's very good reason not to take the study too seriously. Not yet -- and not until the authors can answer some tough questions about what their study implies.
CNW does deserve credit for looking at energy costs over a vehicle's entire life cycle--not just what it consumes on the road, but also what it costs to manufacture, distribute, repair, and dispose of a car. But some of their numbers seem, to put it mildly, a little hard to believe.
According to the study's methods, a Honda Civic (not a hybrid, but a regular model) uses only about 30 percent of its life-cycle energy as gasoline. (See here for the chart.) About 10 percent each go to parts, manufacturing, repair, dissassembly, and replacement; and 20 percent go to other energy costs.
Let's say that's reasonably representative of other models -- that is, gasoline accounts for only about 30 percent or thereabouts of the life-cycle energy costs of owning and operating the average car or light truck. But according to the US Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption accounts for 17 percent of total energy consumption in the US (see here for total consumption, and here for total gasoline). So that would imply that car manufacture, repair, recycling and other energy costs account about 40 percent of the total US energy supply.
Forty percent? That's just plain wrong. The entire US industrial sector only consumes 33 percent of the nation's energy. So the subset devoted to cars has to consume only a fraction of that.
Just so, it seems downright implausible that cars are responsible for some 57 percent of the nation's total energy use (17 percent for gasoline, 40 percent for manufacture, repair, recycling, etc.). Cars use a lot of energy, to be sure -- but I simply can't believe it's that much.
So that means either: the Honda Civic is a vastly atypical car, and uses substantially more manufacturing energy than most other cars; that I've misread the (limited) available data from CNW; or that the study's authors have some explaining to do if they're going to convince me that I should pay much attention to their results.
April 04, 2006
California Rolls its Own Kyoto?
I don't know much about this, really, but the headline alone seems pretty auspicious:
Apparently, advisors to Governor Schwarzenegger--with the backing of California legislators--just came out with a 1,300 page report that details more than 50 strategies for reducing the state's climate-warming emissions. Included among the strategies is a CO2 cap-and-trade system, similar to the European Union's carbon market.
It's hard to overstate how huge a step that would be: without a hard cap, any individual steps to reduce emissions might be offset by increases somewhere else in the state. Plus, tradeable credits help ensure that the least expensive greenhouse gas reductions come first--which is the smartest way to sequence those kinds of investments, since the early steps wind up saving money in short order, which in turn helps finance deeper cuts later on. Of course, if neighboring states don't follow suit, some major CO2 emissions -- particularly for generating electricity -- may just be pushed into a state with no such caps. Still, it's a start.
This is still just a proposal, obviously -- there's a lot of work left to be done before any of it becomes reality. But it's definitely good news.
March 29, 2006
Lipstick on a Pig?
The President famously said in his State of the Union address that the United States is "addicted to oil." We couldn't agree more. Today, his administration issued its treatment plan: abuse oil a tiny bit more slowly, eventually, as the New York Times reports.
The "treatment plan" I'm refering to is the US Department of Transportation's new CAFE standards for light trucks. The department heralded the new standards as the largest boost in efficiency in decades, which is true -- because the standards have been stagnant for decades.
So an 11 percent increase over the next five years, is something. It's more than lipstick on a pig.
But how much more?
The plan covers somewhat larger SUVs than before, which is good, but it still excludes the largest SUVs, such as the Hummer H1. It bases the fuel-economy standard on vehicles' footprint, which is also good. But the plan ignores new technologies sweeping the market that make an 11 percent increase an extremely low bar. Light trucks might well improve by more than that anyway, thanks to high fuel prices and the popularity of hybrid-electric drives.
In a time of soaring oil prices, national insecurity by the barrel, worsening hurricanes and other signs of climate change, I had hoped for better.
The new standards are certainly more than lipstick on a pig. They're lipstick and an evening gown.
(A real treatment plan starts with feebates.)
Car-less in Seattle
Six weeks ago, my 18-year-old son slammed our 19-year-old Volvo stationwagon into the rear of a high-clearance pickup. All the people were fine. So was the pickup.
But the Volvo wasn't, as you can see in this photo. Repairing It would have cost many times the Blue Book value. So we accepted the insurance company's check for $594 and bid farewell to the family car.
Happenstance thus made us car free. But we decided to stay that way . . . at least for a little while. OK, actually, it's more of an experiment, to see whether a middle-class family of five can live a contented life in Cascadia's largest city without owning their own car.
Why are we doing this? Cost, conscience, and capability.
Cost: Owning a car is expensive. Replacing our car with another old Volvo would cost us, well, several thousand dollars up front plus at least $400 a month in fuel, taxes, insurance, and depreciation. Buying a new Prius would cost about $650 a month, including the same things (and more than $1,000 a month during the first year!). (There's an automatic cost calculator at Edmunds.com, a manual one at Seattle's One Less Car Challenge, and a guidebook about car costs--if you want to understand the data--at Todd Litman's invaluable website for Victoria Transport Policy Institute.)
Conscience: As Al Gore said the other day, climate change is not a political issue. It's a moral issue. If I won't give car-less living a try, who will? (And I've ratified Kyoto in my own life, so I was looking for ways to further trim emissions.)
Capability--in other words, because we can. Thanks to past choices plus some good fortune, car-free living is a smaller disruption for us than for most people. Our kids are old enough (the youngest is now 11) to walk or bike unaccompanied to a lot of places. We live in a compact city neighborhood with an abundance of nearby amenities. We've got respectable local transit service and five FlexCars stationed within a mile of our home.
We're only six weeks into this new lifestyle, so I don't want to make too many conclusions. But so far, what's surprised me haven't been the moments of inconvenience (I expected those). It's been two unexpected pleasures: more little adventures every week and fewer backseat arguments to referee.
We're walking more, biking more, planning our activities more thoughtfully, and appreciating the FlexCar when we use it. My 12-year-old daughter said to me the other day, laughing at herself as she said it, "I'm noticing that cars go fast, really, really fast."
It's all very new, so this feeling may dissipate with familiarity. But so far, the biggest bonus of car-free living has been an added increment of mindfulness. Who'd have thought that wrecking the family car would be good for our souls?
There's much more to say about this experiment, but I'll save it for another installment. In the meanwhile, I know there are lots of car-free readers of this blog. I'd welcome your advice, especially if you've got kids.
March 28, 2006
Alan (Heart) This Report
A year ago, Seattle Mayor Gregg Nickels assembled a “Green Ribbon Commission” to advise him on how to keep his trend-setting Kyoto pledge.
Last week, the commission released its report.
The global significance and political symbolism of the event have drawn much well-earned comment. The report itself has not.
How is it? Superb. I’m in love.
It’s well researched, innovative, and (mostly) courageous.
(Full disclosure: the commission is also full of friends and even funders of Northwest Environment Watch. Click through the break, and you'll see I’m not just sucking up.)
It recommends many of the policy solutions that we've become convinced are smart and systemic. A sampling of the 18 highly praiseworthy recommendations:
Lead a regional partnership to develop and implement a road pricing system (about which we’ve written much). Road pricing is the only way to solve congestion, and it’s a potent stimulant for alternatives to driving.
Implement a commercial parking tax (ditto). Taxing parking is a great way to pay for alternatives.
What’s left to say? I’ll stifle a long list of wonkish addenda that I scribbled in the margins (ideas for refrigerator bounties and lightbulb brigades), and limit myself to three things: a curiosity, an observation, and a regret.
My curiosity: The report mentions that 25 percent of Portland’s arterial streets have striped bike lanes, while only 1.5 percent of Seattle’s do. Could those numbers be right?! Wow.
My observation: The report calls for a regional road pricing system – right on! When reading Clark’s post about Stockholm, it occurred to me that the ideal opportunity for a downtown (London-style) tolling anywhere in Cascadia would be when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn down. Whatever it’s ultimately replaced with, construction will take years. And during that period, local leaders will have an unusual degree of political cover to implement ambitious steps such as congestion pricing.
My regret: In a report that’s courageous enough to suggest parking taxes and regionwide tolls, it’s disappointing to see the veil of politeness descend in one case that’s critically important—the case of highways reconstruction.
Early in the report, the commissioners plead for a measly $57-73 million a year extra to fund transit improvements that they call “the keystone for other actions.” Then, on page 21, buried in a discussion of “leveraging state and regional action” the Green Ribboners finally refer to the elephants in the living room—the huge highway rebuilding projects planned for the city:
"For example, decisions on major transportation infrastructure improvements, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the two Lake Washington bridges, must closely consider the climate impacts of investment alternatives."
That statement is true, of course, but it’s awfully mild. It’s a bit like a report on global disarmament only mentioning thermonuclear weapons in a footnote. Here’s what I (the impolitic dreamer) wish the commissioners had said,
"The mere fact that city leaders are seriously considering rebuilding multibillion dollar freeways through our city—while the ice sheets are melting, our snowpack is dwindling, our transit system is starved, our bike lanes are few and glass-strewn, and a quarter of our streets lack even sidewalks—is proof that we still have terribly far to go. Freeways are giant emissions generators. They’re the antithesis of climate leadership. We should never build another one in this or any other city. We should begin to tear them down."
Well, anyway, I’m still in love with this report.
March 23, 2006
Giant Power Sucking Sound
Here's one problem that should be relatively easy to fix: appliances that use power even when they're not in use. The Economist has a nice summary of the problem:
Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle—in “standby” mode—more than 99% of the time.
Apparently, somewhere between 5 and 13 percent of residential power is consumed by appliances that nobody is actually using. Hmph.
Now, the most interesting thing here is that different brands and models of the same kinds of appliance use wildly different amounts of power in standby mode. One compact disc player may draw 1 watt while idling; another might draw 30. Manufacturers have little incentive to improve the situation on their own, since they don't pay the power bills; and while energy wonks are well aware of the problem, few consumers pay much attention.
The solution here -- dare I even say it -- seems to be government intervention. In 2004, California passed a law that imposed limits on standby power consumption. It took effect in January, so that (according to the Economist) "it is now illegal in California to sell a television or DVD player that consumes more than three watts in standby mode." Seems like a pretty reasonable solution to me -- I'll be very interested to see if it works.
(Hat tip to Maarten.)