Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sinn oder Unsinn...

Simon writes each week on international issues relating to energy policy.

Writing in the Financial Times this week, German professor Hans-Werner Sinn describes what he terms "the green paradox" ("a green paradox" might have been more suitable, but that's beside the point). By this, he means the unfortunate consequences of future policy to limit carbon emissions being to encourage producers to extract more oil, gas and coal today, before their costs are increased. His solutions: a perfect, "seamless" global emissions cap (easier said than done) or a punitive tax regime on producers (a Sinn Tax?).

How the latter is supposed to operate is a mystery. Who is going to be able to tell Saudi Arabia to hand over the $69 profit it makes on a $70 barrel of oil as a matter of international law? No organization that currently exists could do it, and can't image one that could without giving rise to very serious concerns about democratic accountability and liberty that would outweigh any environmental benefit. It is also worth noting that, with the price of oil in Sinn's vision still high, temptations to cheat would be rampant. From OPEC through the Iraqi Oil for Food program, history has shown attempts - even internationally sanctioned attempts - to compel countries to stop producing their only revenue source to be destined for failure.

The carbon cap, improbably, seems the more viable of Sinn's proposals. But the only way that it will work is the only way that any demand management strategy (most of which he appears to loath) works. The prices for substitutes have to come down. This straightforward observation is completely absent from his argument, but is crucial to it. Without functional and affordable alternative technologies, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't keep people from wanting energy products, and the countries that have them from supplying them. A cap changes the definition of what's affordable, moving the equilibrium from, nominally, the cost of producing oil to some other, policymaker-set value. But it doesn't change the fundamental; that unless there's some other way of powering the lights, that oil, coal and gas is going to be produced and combusted.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Climate Science, Politics and Kurt Vonnegut

"Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Research in the field of global climate change has made significant strides in the modern era. Paleontologists have used history to test and refine new concepts, advanced spatial and temporal models have allowed us to make long-term predictions, and socio-economic analysis of climate change impacts have all served to bring the issue into the political domain. The role of research (basic and applied) in bringing climate change to the political domain can not be understated. Without trust in the scientific method, climate change would have faltered as environmental propaganda from the get-go. Notice the emphasis on the scientific method and not simply the science or science-based results. More on this in a moment.

And so in time, climate change has been labeled environmental propaganda because the scientific arguments which at first held so much weight, have over-stayed their welcome and been uttered too many times by politicians. Politicians concluded more and new science was needed. In response, a portion of the scientific community and some politicians formed an unwritten agreement that science would attempt to advance a political agenda much as science originally placed the issue on the political agenda. To my mind, this has manifested itself most directly in the pursuit of climate proof, which often takes the form of tying weather events and climate trends to climate change.

Today we see a variety of researchers in the field of global climate change including honest brokers of climate policy alternatives, genuinely pure climate scientists, and issue advocates (both admitting and non-admitting) (see Roger Pielke, Jr. for more). I do not object to advocacy or politics in research as I believe the portrayal of science as objective is an illusion – no scientist operates in a vacuum free of values. What I do object to, and this is my motivation for contributing to this blog, is a failure to recognize the clout science holds lies less in its ability to generate new knowledge or even the purported objectivity of science, and more in the scientific method.

There is no process of truth-seeking more logical than the scientific method. A testable and falsifiable hypothesis is formed, the hypothesis is tested and subsequently refuted or upheld, and an independent researcher reproduces the results. In other words, hypotheses are to be disproved and never proved. To me, the scientific method is holy because it says humans can never know any aspect of nature in its entirety and this is fucking exciting. A scientist seeking to prove a hypothesis simply isn’t using the scientific method and does not have the power of the scientific method on his/her side.

I feel its time to draw some conclusions. 1 – At this stage in the game of climate politics, it seems like only proof will push the boulder over the hill. Don’t be fooled. 2 –The scientific method can’t generate proof, but it garners respect and is not to be ignored. So use it. 3 – Start listening to climate skeptics instead of always convincing them. Become a skeptic yourself on points that don’t sit well. 4 – Scientists and researchers should stop trying to build evidence and proof of climate change and instead cull and refine the hypotheses, models, and predictions already out there. Time should assist in re-evaluating past research, if only we make time (and funding) for it.

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Can lithium aid Bolivia's depression?

Simon writes each week on international issues relating to energy policy.

Twice in the space of the past day, I encountered an energy story I'd never come across before. The story provides a glimpse of a potentially vast revenue stream for a highly impoverished country, but is accompanied by some warnings from history. It features a Latin American nation often overshadowed by its more truculent or troublesome neighbors to the north – Bolivia. It also features the lightest metal in existence, and perhaps the critical ingredient in the electric-car revolution – lithium.

Bolivia is home to the world’s largest salt flats, and these salt flats are in turn home to the world’s largest lithium deposits – by some accounts 50% of all the world’s lithium is located in the high, hot Uyumi plateau. And, as demand for the metal is driven up by battery makers, for use in laptops, longer life AAs, and increasingly by carmakers, the Bolivian government is looking to develop this heretofore-untapped resource. President Evo Morales’ Socialist government has determined that the state will take sole responsibility for the new mining operations, speaking in grandiose terms about being not just the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” – extracting the metal for wholesale – but of becoming the world’s leading battery manufacturer . Such ambitions are bold, but also risky, as many commodity-dependent economies can attest.

The historical record in such situations is not good. The concept of the “Resource Curse” is well established, as the likes of Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier have expounded. Excessive dependence on one industry can skew economic allocations, engender corruption and sometimes violence, and inhibits growth. Still, while the problems are well-known, solutions are hard to find. The alternative, ignoring – or at least underutilizing – natural resources won’t help growth either, and may be morally indefensible in a country where 60% of people already live below the poverty line. The jobs and income quality development would provide would be invaluable, especially among the indigenous communities who inhabit the salt flats, and whose income levels are markedly lower than people in other parts of the country.

As prices continue to rise, it is going to become harder to hold off developing these deposits. It seems inevitable that despite Morales’ ideological hostility, there will have to be some involvement from foreign companies. While he can maintain ownership of the resources and their rents, Bolivia simply lacks the expertise, not to mention the capital, to realize their prospects. The treatment of western oil and gas companies in the last few years, summarily nationalizing and expropriating their assets, will have done little to encourage involvement, though.

Of the possible solutions suggested here, one of the more interesting – and implementable – ideas may be one from close(ish) to home. Privatization is out for the time being, simply because it is incompatible with the current politics of the country. Whether or not it would have much success is also questionable, with instances such as the former USSR showing it to be easy to get devastatingly wrong. Creating a Norway- or Dubai-style sovereign wealth fund to take proceedings and invest them in other sectors, to provide a longer-term and diversified revenue stream. Such funds, though, are only as responsible as their governors, and it is hard to tell how accountable the Bolivian government would be. But the third, slightly familiar idea, that of establishing a revenue distribution fund, similar to Alaska’s program for distributing oil proceeds, may be the most preferable. It reduces the dangers of corruption by putting money in the hands of citizens rather than the government. It helps raise individual incomes, allowing for the expansion of other private enterprises. The risks of inflationary pressures exist, but are probably no worse than other forms of distribution of the revenues, and with this system would have the added advantage of helping less well-off parts of society rather than waiting for a trickle-down from elites (which would have the added risk of capital flight).

There are a lot of ifs to be addressed before we see this experiment take shape – at present prices this windfall is still minor, compared with the lucre that hydrocarbon fields provide (the value of Bolivia’s lithium amounts to about two thirds of its current GDP. By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s proven oil reserve are valued at around 40 times its current GDP, and Venezuela’s at around 20x). However, if electric cars expand their market share, and if lithium batteries remain the technology of choice to power them, the price of their commodity should continue to climb. Bolivia may well provide an interesting test case for a country trying to handle a new bounty of natural resources, using all the experience economists have learned from the previous century.

With energy resources having proven the most egregious contributors to the “resource curse” problem through the years, and with the desire to re-invent the sector potentially generating new demand spikes for previously neglected materials, it behooves policymakers to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the present. Efficient development need not be irresponsible development, and the owners of such resources, be they public or private, can give extractive operations a better reputation in the this century than they had in the last one.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Moores Mill Road Follow-up

On Friday I promised an explanation for the strange behavior of the power lines on Moores Mill Rd. Basically what happened was a malfunction at a transformer substation that is in charge of stepping down the voltage from 34 kV to 14 or 7 kV. The smaller transformers that are hooked onto the telephone poles then perform the subsequent voltage drops before the electricity makes it to homes, where it is finally stepped down to 120/240 V. So rather than delivering electricity at 7 kV (around that) to the transformers, they were getting inputs at 34 kV, the highest voltage considered to be distribution-grade electricity (above that is transmission). One by one the transformers were overloading and exploding (partially due to the insulating oil that is used inside them), and then the electricity would reach the next transformer in sequence.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday YouTube Treat

Good morning energy blogosphere. My post today will be short and sweet. Yesterday I visited a BG&E distribution training center (where they train the people who go out into neighborhoods to put up or repair electric wires). Besides being a national leader in smart grid pilot programs, they have a really well-oiled training system. They show this video to all of their trainees to let them know what happens when multiple things go wrong:

I'll let you mull it over this weekend on what might have caused such a light show, and post an explanation on Monday.


The world's running out of oil (tomorrow). Is your homestead ready? If you're a city person, probably not, but here's what you need to do.

We'll have a real post about Peak Oil sometime in the future, but you should get hopping now just in case!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Carbon Tariffs are not Terrific

For negotiators working on the Doha Round of world trade talks, and the Copenhagen Climate Conference , the links between climate change and trade policy are already apparent, not to mention problematic. In the US, the intersection of these policy areas has added a further political dilemma to the already convoluted Waxman-Markey bill’s progress, creating a further forum for lobbyists of all persuasions to pursue their agendas. At the official level, though, debates about the two issues have descended into trading accusations of protectionism.

The connection between the issues takes two main forms. The first is the more basic: the level of tariffs imposed on traded ‘environmental’ goods and technologies, including for example solar panels or windmill components. The second is more complex: the question of whether countries restricting carbon emissions have a right to charge compensatory tariffs on imports from countries that do not restrict emissions, and whether it is a good idea to do so.

Tariffs on environmental goods are a bad idea. Tariffs on any goods are a bad idea, but tariffs on technologies that can help lower emissions are particularly foolish. The principle value of such technologies (unless you’re an energy independence activist) is to help ameliorate the global issue of climate change. Just as we should be agnostic about where in the world emissions reductions are made, so long as they are made, we should be agnostic about where the technology to help us make those reductions comes from. Be they Korean solar panels, American car batteries or colossal German windmills , anything that encourages their use and transfer is welcome. Which is why removing government levies on their cross-border movement (which raise costs by up to 5.2% in the US, and by up to 35% in China ) should be an easy win. However, even here, domestic politics and interest groups can jam a stick in the spokes.

At the international level, a deal was being negotiated on the fringes of the UN Climate Conference in Bali in December 2007. Led by the Bush administration and with the backing of the EU, it proposed to eliminate such tariffs. It ran aground on the objections of Brazil and India, with Brazil’s complaints focusing on its omission of ethanol as a carbon-cutting technology. Brazil obviously has a great deal of interest in being able to reach new markets with one of its biggest growth sectors. But in one of those target markets – the US – the ethanol sector is already tied up in political favors and long-standing subsidies.

President Obama has lectured extensively on the advantages for job creation of a ‘green revolution’. Specifically, he has spoken of the creation of American green-collar jobs. And here we run into a problem. With the American public still reticent to support carbon-reduction measures for their own sake, the only route to winning the political argument has been to offer other benefits. In many cases he’ll be right – that American ideas and workmanship will lead the market. But in other cases, exposed to global competition, Americans might lose out. Ethanol, regardless of whether or not it is good technology, is one such area where open markets instill fear in the agricultural lobby. Does the White House (or for that matter the Planalto) have the will or the public backing to accomplish even a basic step like this? Because the steps involved in addressing the second trade-climate problem will be much more challenging.

One major fear for countries considering carbon constraints is that heavy industries will ‘leak’ overseas – failing to reduce net carbon emissions (and possibly even increasing them if the new producers’ regulatory systems are more lax), while taking jobs with them. To address this, some politicians have touted the idea of imposing a tariff at the border to bring the price of these goods to what it would/‘should’ be were the carbon generated in manufacture priced. Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested it back in the spring, but was apparently speaking beyond his purview, since US Trade Representative Ron Kirk explained a few days later that carbon tariffs were not currently a preferred method of the administration. European leaders have also raised the issue, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who scarcely met a tariff he didn't like) in the vanguard . The idea was also rejected, by the European Trade Commissioner shortly thereafter.

While appealing from a strictly environmental perspective, carbon tariffs pose enormous problems. The first and most obvious is the likelihood of retaliatory tariffs leading to a trade war. Carbon tariffs have yet to be determined legal by the WTO (although evidence seems to indicate they would be permissible if they were completely non-discriminatory. How easy that benchmark would be to meet, I cannot speculate). If China, for example, began reinstating tariffs on US exports, the value to domestic industry of carbon tariffs could be limited. And, at a time of global recession, anything which serves to depress growth-generating trade is a highly risky proposition. It may also be an environmentally harmful one; after all, China is most likely to engage in carbon-reducing activity if its prosperity continues to increase – reductions in trade volumes would certainly restrict its development.

A second problem arises with the ability of carbon tariffs to impact on the intended sectors and manufacturers. The bulk of Chinese carbon intensive heavy industry produces for domestic consumption . It is not evident that carbon tariffs imposed by the developed world would have a significant effect on manufacturing cleanliness in the developing world.

For now, carbon tariffs are a problem for the future. With policymakers focusing on a worldwide deal at Copenhagen, they could well be made moot by progress in December. Of course, the economists around will have noticed there is nothing here that wouldn’t be solved by a worldwide carbon price. However, if the negotiations do not yield a deal that comprehensive, which seems doubtful, carbon tariff legislation could well make a comeback in the following year. It was a positive development that carbon tariff plans were trimmed from the Waxman-Markey Bill between the March discussion draft and the passed version from June . Those comments at that time were unnecessarily provocative in a fragile world economy and were already prompting diplomatic displeasure. But the politics of the issue, especially in the US, are such that their return has a grim inevitability to it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Field Trip to Calvert Cliffs

Today I had the great opportunity to visit Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Facility on the Chesapeake Bay. Besides being a really interesting bit of engineering (the two pressurized water reactors use 2.3 million lbs/min of bay water for a heat sink, keeping temperature difference between intake and output below 10 F), it gave me pause to think about where baseload power in this country is headed.

Calvert Cliffs Units 1 and 2


The two reactors currently produce about 1750 MWe together (and with a capacity factor of over 100, they are producing at full capacity most of the time besides scheduled maintenance), and provide power to 20% of Maryland homes. Constellation and Areva are in the process of licensing a new unit which would produce 1600 MWe alone, a truly massive reactor. They even have land reserved for reactor #4 when it becomes economically feasible.

When I got home from the field trip, my dad sent me this article about the future of coal power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). One quote caught my eye: "Without a breakthrough on coal plants, it may be impossible to meet emission limits climatologists say are needed." Since I had just gotten back from standing on the working floor (it was about 115 F) of two massive turbine generators (one by Westinghouse and one by GE) powered by nuclear reactors, I thought the author had left out a rather important piece of the pie, that is, the fact that nuclear power provides 20% of electricity in the US virtually carbon-free, and that plant operators and residents near these plants are chomping at the bit for the NRC to let them build more.

So will it be coal with CCS or a nuclear renaissance that gets us out of trouble? Obviously the question is not that simple, and I believe that any real attempt to stem the tide of climate change will take large amounts of both. I'll end this post with some questions and see if I get some interesting comments:

  • I saw the football-field sized area for dry cast storage for the spent fuel rods while I was there. Eventually it will fill up, but plant employees hope that Yucca Mountain will be open for business before it does. Harry Reid says over his dead body. So a permanent and central repository for spent fuel, necessary or not? Or is that point moot since it isn't going to happen?
  • Will there be sufficient transmission lines in place to move electricity from new reactors to markets?
  • Does CCS require a regulatory body similar to the NRC to ensure safe operation of storage sites?
  • Does anyone seriously think that renewables alone could supply all baseload electricity to the US in the next 20 years? (Apparently John Edwards does)
  • What are your impressions on President Obama's commitment to nuclear energy?

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Coolest Electric Car

Over the next couple of years, there will be several electric vehicles hitting the market. This is a good thing. The electricity that powers EVs can come from wind power, clean natural gas, or coal—options which are all cleaner than gasoline. Reducing our dependence on foreign petroleum will give the U.S. more flexibility in its approach to foreign policy. Politicians have been warming up to EVs for these reasons, and most of the major automakers have EVs planned. Of all the EVs planned, my favorite is the Aptera 2e.

Aptera Motors is a Silicon Valley startup that began as an experiment to design the most aerodynamic vehicle possible. That aerodynamics was the primary driver of the Aptera’s shape is, ahem, evident. The car looks like a raindrop, which is unsurprising because a raindrop is the most aerodynamic shape (Drag coefficient of 0.04).

The Aptera will have a Cd of 0.15, making it the most aerodynamic car in history (the EV1 holds the record now at 0.19) and almost twice as aerodynamic as the Prius and Chevy Volt (Cd’s of 0.25).

The entire body is one composite piece, making it very light and strong. The Aptera will weigh in at 1500 lb, less than half the weight of the Volt (3500 lb) and light enough to be manhandled by Dutch hooligans.

The result of the Aptera’s clever design is a car that will use almost FOUR TIMES less energy than a Chevy Volt. This means driving 100 miles will cost $1.13 in an Aptera, compared to $4.52 in a Volt and ~$10 in an average new car today (DC electricity prices).

This is in addition to lots of other cool features, like a PV panel roof that powers the AC so your car is cool when you get in, a built in computer named Eva that "likely has twice the computing power of any machine in your house", and the ability to sell electricity back to the grid when electricity price is high. The Aptera also isn’t as small inside as it looks, with more than twice the storage space of an Accord and more headroom than a Mini.

Unlike the Volt, the Aptera 2e does not have a range extender and will run out of juice after 100 miles. However, I don’t think this will be a problem since 95% of people drive less than 100 miles a day and over 50% of households have more than one car. I see the Aptera as a second family car, used mostly for commuting. (They're working on a range-extended version that will have a 650 mile range and get 300 mpg).

The Aptera will be going on sale later this year for ~$26,000. The Chevy Volt is expected to come in at around $40,000, but qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Aptera won’t qualify for this tax credit because it only has 3 wheels.

I think the Aptera represents a new paradigm in car design. The Aptera was designed with one purpose: get people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Form follows function, and results in a car that is unique and looks cool. This makes me wonder why cars today look the way they do, and why they all look basically the same. Maybe its what consumers are used to, and what car companies think will sell. Hopefully the Aptera will challenge our conceptions of how a car should look and be used.

So, what do you think? Is the Aptera just another silly venture capital idea that consumers will pan, or is there a market for it? Will people buy a car that looks like it’s from Trek and only goes 100 miles between charging? Is the Aptera represent a new era for how we approach the automobile? Jay Leno sure thinks so!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Purple Line Greener Future

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley recently decided that the Purple Line, a planned transit corridor connecting towns in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland, would be light rail transit, rather than the bus rapid transit alternative. This announcement marked the culmination of years of deliberation, community activism, and analysis by residents, local politicians, and even a nationally-recognized environmental organization, the World Resources Institute. Interestingly, WRI submitted a detailed public comment that endorsed the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternative rather than LRT. Let’s examine WRI’s assessment of the Purple Line’s Alternative Analysis/Draft Environmental Impact Statement (AA/DEIS) and why they favored BRT over LRT.

By doing a Monte Carlo sensitivity analysis on the AA/DEIS by creating a scenario where the AA/DEIS projections of ridership and cost are optimistic, WRI found that the LRT option carries more risk of not meeting cost-effectiveness goals, and the BRT option is more robust. In other words, for the expected value of benefits, ridership, and cost-effectiveness based on different scenarios of independent variables, BRT trumps LRT. However, WRI did not add a “pessimistic scenario” where the AA/DEIS actually under-predicts daily ridership. I found this curious, but then looked into projections more and found that Metro ridership projections in 1969 predicted 959000 daily trips in 2004, while the actual figure stood at only 653000 (“The Great Society Subway” by Zachary Schrag). Maybe there is something to Washington area transit planners being overly optimistic.

WRI goes on to analyze the greenhouse gas emissions projections of different scenarios. In the AA/DEIS scenario, the BRT alternatives are the only ones that produce decreases in CO2 emissions. However, WRI points out that the AA/DEIS used an all-Maryland emissions factor for electricity, rather than the finer granularity offered through the EPA’s e-GRID database. They find that by looking at individual zip codes, the LRT alternative is less emissions-intensive but still positive. While WRI mentions potential changes in electricity generation emissions in Maryland through 2030, I think it is important to note that this is where the LRT alternative has a big advantage over the BRT alternative: if steps were taken to connect light rail to a carbon-free electricity source, such as a potential new nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs, the LRT option would become virtually emissions-free, while the BRT option would be locked into whatever type of vehicle (diesel or CNG) is chosen for operation.

For the last year I’ve lived very close to one of the planned future stops of the Purple Line in East Silver Spring. Nearly every day I see the purple “No Train on Wayne” signs planted in front yards interspersed with the less common purple and green “Purple Line/Greener Future” signs. If my condo association allowed signs in windows, I’d have put a few of the “Purple Line/Greener Future” ones there, because I’ve spent the last two years wishing there were a better way to traverse the criss-crossing boulevards connecting Silver Spring and the University of Maryland. A dedicated right-of-way transit route directly linking Silver Spring with Bethesda will be a boon for commuters who today need to bear the congestion on East-West Highway either in cars or on a J2/J4 MetroBus. Personally I’m happy with the governor’s decision because I think the LRT option will, over the lifetime of operation, yield higher emissions reductions and reduce road congestion more than the BRT alternative.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cash for Clunkers: Handout or Good Idea?

Tonight the Senate voted to approve $2 billion in additional funding for the wildly popular 'Cash for Clunkers' program. Sadly, no Senators consulted our expert opinions on the topic before casting their vote. If they had, we would have told them that the program is TERRIBLE way to provide economic stimulus and reduce pollution, and they should only vote on it if they want to get re-elected. Then they would have laughed at us and voted for it anyways.

The goal of cash for clunkers is twofold: provide economic stimulus and reduce emissions. By giving consumers a $4,500 rebate toward a new car with a trade-in, politicians hope consumers will be more likely to cough up some cash, boosting the economy, and finally get rid of that old SUV.

So how about that economic stimulus? Industry analysts have recently forecast that of the 250,000 cars sold under the first version of cash for clunkers, only 40,000 would not have sold this year anyways. There other 210,000 is simply demand that has been pushed forward. Demand that has been pushed forward a few months isn't economic stimulus in my book. Only 16%, or $720 of the $4,500 rebate, is economic stimulus. The other $3,780 is simply a handout for people who were looking to buy cars anyways--it would be easier to just mail them a check.

Well, what about emissions? Clunker emissions come from two main sources: burning gasoline, and the car's construction. Scrapping a car under the program will increase fuel efficiency (from 15.8 mpg to 25.4 mpg on average), but reduce the clunker's operational life (from 193,800 miles to 138,000 miles on average). Therefore, you can expect to save 1,300 gallons of gas by scrapping your clunker early instead of waiting until it finally dies. However, because you scrap the car early, the energy required to make the car is 28% higher on a per-mile basis. Fuel consumption goes down, but manufacturing energy goes up.

Translating this to emissions, scrapping a car will result in 3.6 tons of CO2 less being emitted from burning fuel. However, manufacturing emissions go up by 3.2 tons of CO2 due to scrapping the car early--resulting in net emission reductions of only 0.4 tons of CO2. What a boondoggle.

Remember the $3,780 that wasn't economic stimulus? Perhaps we can say it is investment in clean energy. This translates to a carbon price of $9,450/ton CO2. The EU carbon market is pricing CO2 at ~$20/ton CO2 right now, meaning cash for clunkers is almost FIVE HUNDRED TIMES more expensive than pricing carbon through a market based system.

Cash for clunkers, we here at TPG really wanted to love you. But if any Senators ask us, we'll tell them you suck.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Welcome to The Power Generation!

Welcome to our blog, The Power Generation! In addition to a geeky reference, we will be using this blog as a sounding board for observations about our favorite topic: energy. The sexy energy: wind turbines, solar panels, smart grids. The ugly energy: coal, 3rd world cow dung. The mundane energy: consumer behavior, weatherization.

Not only are we starting a blog about energy, we’re entering a new word into the lexicon: The Power Generation. We’re defining TPG as the first generation to live in a world undergoing climate change (now aged roughly 20-40). This isn’t a problem we caused, but it is a problem that we’re going to have to solve. If we don’t dramatically shift the way we use energy by 2050, we’ll be getting into the thick of Al Gore’s irreversible climate changes, and if you want to know what that entails…talk to Al Gore (I’d rather avoid that too).

White roof, green roof, red roof, blue roof

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appeared on the Daily Show a few weeks ago to plug for the Markey Waxman bill and brought up the subject of weatherization. The Secretary mentioned some research from LBNL (his old stomping ground) that touts the benefits of using white materials on roofs. The reasoning makes sense: the white roofs reflect more sunlight than dark ones, keeping homes cooler in the hot summer months, so that they use less air conditioning and consequently less energy = less carbon = less climate change. There is the added benefit that white roofs increase the amount of energy from the sun that is reflected back into space, thereby decreasing the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere. [An aside: Could this be the administration's proverbial "toe in the water" for testing geoengineering concepts on public opinion? I'll come back to this when they start floating some of the more extreme geoengineering ideas.]
This sounds like a simple, inexpensive way to cut down on energy bills and do something good for the environment. But wasn't it just last year (or last month for that matter) that green roofs were all the rage? Green roofs help the environment by improving runoff problems and mitigating heat island effects in cities, and help would-be LEED certified buildings acheive that silver, gold or platinum star. So what is the confused homeowner, businessowner, or developer to do? Should she buy some grass seed and fertilizer or a bucket or ten of white paint?

It depends. A New York Times article from July 30 cedes that white roofs may make energy bills higher during cold weather in northern climates [Math police: In the same NYT article, Hashem Akbari asserts that since roofs have a lifespan of 20-25 years, if 5% of roofs replaced every year were turned white, the country's transformation (presumably to all white roofs) would be complete in two decades. I'm no mathmatician, but wouldn't fully 5% of all roofs (not just those being replaced anyway) need to be converted each year to get there in 20 years? I welcome corrections.]. Green roofs are likely more expensive ($8-25/sqft according to this source) than white roofs, which range in cost from just buying the paint to replacing the shingles ($2000-3000 for medium sized homes according to this). White roofs are more accessible to a wider range of consumers because green roofs might have weight and drainage restrictions, and might not work on very slanted surfaces (I'm sure there are some green roofies out there who could prove me wrong on that). But more to the point, green roofs and white roofs stemmed from different environmental signals: green roofs were envisaged to help with water issues in cities, white roofs for energy conservation anywhere (there is an oversimplification there - green roofs also mitigate heating and cooling needs, and white roofs could also help mitigate heat island effects). This seems like a situation that calls for using common sense in figuring out which type of roof is best for you. For the indecisive like me, you might want to try combining the two methods.