Energy at the Crossroads: Global perspectives and uncertainties by Vaclav Smil

Posted in Book, Energy, Pollution, Resources at 11:50 pm by justakim

Save yourself some pain–skip if you can.

In the first two chapters, Smil lays out a whole laundry list of details about energy, how much there is, how efficient it is, how much we use, comparisons, etc. Unfortunately, the textualized spreadsheet goes on for quite some time. It would have been a faster, more pleasant read if the words were omitted and the numbers were left behind.

In the third chapter, Smil demonstrates with a spectacular array of examples that forecasting is wrong unless it just accidentally got it right. Instead of making poor guesses at what might happen and acting on it, we should decide what will happen, and aim for it.

4 and 5 are more details about nonrenewable and renewable energies respectively. He takes the approach of considering overall potentials and constraints, which sadly is not often brought up. For instance, it’s going to take a whole LOT of land for biomass to meet current fuel demands.

Chapter 6 was almost pleasant. Energy efficiency will help us a lot, but not enough. Take care of your planet, you’re stuck with it. Invest in renewables but don’t buy into all the hype. Get real: we won’t last forever on coal.

This book has… grown on me somewhat since I started reading it. There is valuable information in this book, it’s just hard to access, and possibly not worth the trouble to find it. I am adverse to skipping anything and a slow reader, so your mileage may vary here. I have my doubts however, that anyone will read this book unless it’s necessary that they do so. That analogy about not seeing the forest for the trees does not quite fit here. Forget the trees–it’s more like a note was taken down every time two trees’ branches crossed.

I also found out that the speed limit was lowered to 55mph during the Carter administration to conserve energy… That explains a lot.


Adding More Corn Fuel to the Fire

Posted in Energy, Health, Politics, Resources at 10:19 am by justakim

As I guiltily sip my soda, I spied a post by David Reevely over at Ecolibertarian on feeding pigs junk food because of they ‘can’t afford’ to feed them corn anymore, because, get this–the ethanol subsidies on top of the corn farming subsidies. Well, I’ll let him go where I dare to tread.

A Twist in the Allocation of Corn

Posted in Energy, Health, Politics, Resources at 9:27 am by justakim

The Economist explains why high fructose corn syrup is bad for you. Most of this article is about the health effects of high fructose corn syrup and the difference between it and cane and beet sugar. It also explains how the invention of a technique and a corn glut resulted in our switch to corn syrup.

At any rate, it is not just the cost of beef and corn on the cob that will be affected by ethanol production. We use corn byproducts in so many things, both as corn syrup additives, and other uses. If ethanol is the way we’re going, the allocation of corn is going to change.

Trees are Cool

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Health, Resources at 9:07 am by justakim

I saw this while actually taking class outside: parks could lower city temperatures. Putting aside the climate change predictions, it makes a lot of sense that parks and greenery would reduce the temperature of the nearby environment. I can attest to this as I sit under the shade of trees on cool, moist grass on a fairly hot, moderately humid day. But the article says building new parks is not necessary; you can roll out strips of green geraniums on your roofs, and this would make a difference.

If that doesn’t suit your fancy, or you’re having flashbacks of spray-painted grass, asian apartment dwellers have a more aesthetically pleasing alternative. For the many asians living in concrete-lined apartments, having a small garden in their balcony offers many benefits, only part of which is cooling.

Beijing has pledged to add 100,000 square meters of roof gardens every year from 2007-2010. And last month Singapore, the “garden city”, unveiled its first “green” housing estate, with walls of cooling greenery hardwired into its architecture.

“From the scientific point of view, every plant produces a cooling effect,” said Professor Nyuk Hien Wong, of the Department of Building at the National University of Singapore, who designs the green walls.

“The rule of thumb is one degree less is a five percent (energy) saving”.

Against this backdrop, Asia’s apartment gardeners are taking a small, but important, step in the right direction, he said.

“If you look at it as one individual unit doing that, it may not be that significant. But if everybody is doing it, there may be a very big impact”.

If roll-out turf does not appeal to you, or perhaps you have a bank of solar panels already, a garden in a small space can make a difference. You just have to balance out the time required for this hobby, and the cost of watering them potted trees.

Mm, I think the sun had an impact on my post count last week.


Bottled Water: an unlikely case in environmental economics

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Health, Pollution, Resources at 10:09 pm by justakim

With a cough, I took a gulp from my water bottle and coincidentally browsed this article on the externalities of tap water, As one considers the fastest growing beverage market, one can see how it is at the same time, the most ludicrus thing and the most natural outcome of modern tastes.

Water, that is often of no higher quality than local tap water, is bottled in disposable plastic containers, chilled in vending machines, and sold at a price, while at the same time, that much water won’t make a dent in your utility bill.. And don’t forget the cost of transport.

But it makes so much sense! Health-conscious Americans are trying to drink more water and less soda. The bottles provide the conveinience that carrying around your own bottle lacks. And who wants to drink from a public fountain? There’s no telling what people have been doing with the spout. And recycling is just so inconvenient. If one was going to recycle, one would have brought one’s own bottle… And so it goes.

Plus the fancy mineral spring waters, brand names, vintages, what have you. I understand that different water tastes different certainly. But these fancy springs can run dry. They should be demanding fancier prices.

Tap water and bottled water are by no means perfect substitutes. Among other differences, real and perceived, people are willing to pay for the bottle that holds the water, and for the ability to dispose of it.

This problem, this logical culmination of desires and incentives, leads me to two thoughts.

First, perhaps people are not paying enough, either for the bottles or for the delivery.

Second, if it costs more for disposable bottles, we’d be willing to buy better water bottles. Things that are more conveinient to carry around, or store cold better, or weigh less. If it were easier to carry around your own tap water, the appeal of the disposable bottle will diminish. Picture a flask that keeps your water cold all day long, then packs away into a 1″ cube when empty. Who’d pay for these if a cheap one’s just fine?

I don’t know to what extent externalities are generated from bottled water, but I find it unlikely that shipping in someone else’s bottled tap water is the best use of the resources we have. But given current gas prices, disposal costs, and water subsidies, it’s just not worth our while to work out something better yet.


Water Woes: What California and China have in common

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Politics, Pollution, Resources at 8:21 pm by justakim

California could lose a vast amount of its snowpack due to global warming by the end of the century. The percentage ranges are so wide, that I will leave those to the article.

Right on the heels of this interview, with the knowledge of snowpack being at its lowest point in 20 years, Governor Schwarzenegger requests $5.9 billion in bonds for water related projects including two dams.

Where could you possibly put the dams and have them be effective? We’ve damed all the good places where the geography lends itself to a stable structure and an opportunity for hydropower exploitation. Not too long ago, the project to dam the American River was buried. It is hard to believe that there are any better options.

Meanwhile, China is investing a little shy of $4 billion to reinforce reservoirs and improve drinking water while pondering projects to transfer water from the wet south to the parched north. Investing in current dams is a different story. Dams with high levels of siltation may have a lifespan, depending on how fast they can keep up with the dredging. That could obviously be cut short if the dam fails before dredging becomes an issue. The concern for drinking water is a good sign.

It is of little surprise that there are also complaints about dams in recent news as well. For instance, a group lawsuit vs. PacifiCorp over Klamath dams where just about everyone except the farmers have banded together, addressing toxic algae blooms, recreation, and fishing.

The U.S. Department of the Interior last year recommended removing the dams or building “ladders” for the spawning fish if PacifiCorp wants to keep them.

China has its own problems as they encounter problems while trying to protect the endangered Yangtze alligator. The article makes mention of the Yangtze river dolphin, which had been declared functionally extinct. Few of these unique creatures existed even before the Three Gorges Dam was built. That was merely the nail in the coffin.

It feels like we are stuck in some sort of time warp, returning to the days when it was not widely known that all the good dam spots had been taken and additional dams were often not worth the bother. We need to better allocate the water that we have, rather than pretend that if you build [the dam], [water] will come.


Water Scarcity

Posted in Politics, Resources at 10:41 pm by justakim

After my last post on the relining of a canal that would cut Mexico and Mexican wetlands off from leaking water, the scarcity of water has been on my mind.

On Monday, seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water submitted a plan for dealing with water in years of drought. The upper basin states would release less water and the lower basin states will draw water form other sources, under a plan of ‘intentionally created surpluses’.

But what does this mean:

Water for agriculture in Southern California could be “banked” in Lake Mead for future use if farm lands are allowed to go fallow.

What’s that, subsidies for not farming until you’ve built up a reserve?

No mention of Mexico was made in this article. I find it unlikely that the involved states will be more considerate in making sure Mexico gets its fair share of the Colorado.

Meanwhile we hear about investors speculating on water claims as water becomes a greater point of contention.

“Governments globally are reaching a point where they’re not able to finance the delivery of cheap water, which is why the private sector is getting more and more interested,” says a venture capitalist.

While some are banking upon water liabilities, others seem unconcerned with the risks. Water reporting seems to be skimpy and lacking standardization, even in water-heavy industries. This seems to be a strong case of moral hazard, trusting in the government to subsidize their water needs under the assumption that water is a necessity rather than the scarce resource it truly is. Even if water is available at a much cheaper rate than it should be, one would think that keeping tabs on how much water you’re using would be useful information. Can water be so cheap, or so secure, that it doesn’t matter how much is used?

The divergence in approaches to water as a resource may outreach our supply.

I am not advocating that water be simply subject to the market. The demand for water is pretty inelastic after some point; we need it to live. But we can’t ignore the fact that there is a limited supply, and some uses for fresh water are more valuable than others. And if we wanted to make our own, it’s going to require investment, and it’s going to cost.


The Informal Economy Protects Trees: Madagascar’s regenerating tropical dry forests

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Politics, Resources at 8:51 pm by justakim

New Scientist had this article on Madagascar forest regeneration in which cultural customs has led to the regrowth of forests in Madagascar. Satellite imagery revealed that deforestation had more of an impact in unpopulated areas, areas that were outside of the control of local communities.

While the government owns most of the land, local clans have control over its use, and permission is granted only to members. It is in areas where a local group does not have a claim that deforestation becomes a problem. These include areas that once were controlled by clans that have abandoned their territory because of a drought. The concern is that climate change will cause more migration and the loss of informal property claims, which would allow further deforestation. It would help to have more formal property claims so that ownership will be maintained if this were to occur.

In addition, there are taboo forests where no one is supposed to take anything. The punishment for breaking this rule is a cow, which is pretty expensive. It would be relatively easy to change these unspoken rules into real laws so that the forests can be protected beyond the time the locals live there.

Coincidentally, Greg at CES Blog wrote about the further meaning of my last post on the Wollemi pine and the meshing of natural and social worlds. Well, there is further enmeshment for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to mark my territory with a few cacti.


California vs…

Posted in Health, Politics, Resources at 8:30 am by justakim

California seems to be on a roll. Where’s this handbasket going?

One day after Governor Schwarzenegger threatens the EPA with a lawsuit over car regulations, California filed one against the Department of Energy because their request for a waiver that would allow them to have stricter standards for washing machines were denied. The regulation proposed in 2004 would require washing machines to use no more than 8.5 gallons of water by 2007 and even less by 2010 [1].

The DOE said the proposal didn’t qualify for a waiver because it had to be”economically feasible and technologically justified,” [2] Well, perhaps it would have been feasible in 2004, while the latter part could be argued… particularly in California where water is relatively scarce.

In addition, Califronia also set up tougher restrictions on formaldehyde. They claim that this will reduce incidents of cancer caused by vapors.

And then there.s solar. In this article, a correspondent from The Economist runs into the problem of too much shade from her trees. State rebates and federal tax credits are available that can cover up to half the cost of installation, and they will not raise property taxes (whew). Home builders have to offer solar options in California now. But you still need to have light.

I am somewhat concerned to the extent of which California is trying to set itself apart with restrictions that could possibly not be worth the bother, especially in other parts of the country, where resources may be cheaper and utility curves vastly different. If it costs more to have less formaldehyde in your wood to keep it together with another substance or new technology, how much would the added cost to your housing have bought you in health care?

I like requiring thought put into solar panels and think if you have trees in the way, you’re better off with them cooling your home than the panels, don’t know about the formaldehyde, and wish the market would make water-efficient washing machines feasible. Would California have a right to tax washing machines that are not of a certain water efficiency, or would they have to sue someone over that too? It would be a tax to compensate for the subsidies on the cost of water…

1. California washing wachines
2. More on the washing machine situation.
3. Califronia vs. formaldehyde.
4. California solar vs.shade.


In the Name of Conservation: A canal story

Posted in Resources at 10:36 pm by justakim

There is a dispute between Mexico and California over Colorado water (so what’s new?). A project was approved to reline a leaky canal that diverts water from the Colorado to San Diego County.

Accidental runoff from this canal has been used by Mexican farmers since the canal was opened in 1942 and the same runoff also benefits wildlife, including endangered species. Much depends on the water that theoretically shouldn’t have been leaking.

Problem is, the water has theoretically been ‘paid’ for by consumers in San Diego despite the water not getting there. I’m not too sure how that works out since Western water rights are messy, but I think it was a deal to get a certain amount of water, but there are shortages when the Colorado doesn’t put out as much as has been over-allotted (smart) so the people at the end don’t get their allotted share, particularly Mexico where the amount of water in the Colorado that actually passes the border is small enough that the river does not reach the Gulf of Mexico anymore.

The ironic part of this story is that not only did the Mexican border town Mexicali issue a lawsuit, but the town of Calexico on the US side did as well because it depends on Mexicali business…

1. Canal project OK’d
2. Mexicali and Calexico

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