04.20.08

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.

04.19.08

Old News

Posted in Energy, Politics at 7:58 am by justakim

Ever wake up in the morning with a sinking feeling as something dawns on you? As if the impact of some news a few days ago hadn’t really sunk in?

This morning, I woke up with a delayed reaction to John McCain’s gas tax cut. I merely dismissed it at the time, rather than reacting with appropriate dismay. This news is so old, I can’t find a direct article without putting effort into it.

I love the guy, but what? If gas was elastic (demand is responsive to price) and the price goes up, we’d just drive less. If gas was inelastic (demand not responsive to price) and the price goes up, we’d just complain and drive the same. Now what would the gas companies do if taxes are removed? Charge more, of course! Sometimes it is true that companies pass prices along. Only when we’re willing to suck it up.

So, McCain wants to suspend gas taxes over the summer. Not only is that an unrealistically short time frame for government action, it also doesn’t give much time to react, which means that this idea is a no-go. But the question remains: Does he think that this truly would be good for the country and thinks government should hop to it, or does he just see a harmless opportunity to express sympathy? Neither sounds good.

05.23.07

Biodiesel From Weeds

Posted in Economic Development, Energy at 10:39 am by justakim

While other projects raise corn and sugar beet, Mali villages are gathering the seeds of a common weed to fuel lamp posts, a millet grinder, and a dehusker. While the project is modest, it must be a marked improvement to these people.

This plant is being used at a larger scale in India, and while there have been proposals for private investment and export, Mali seems set on meeting the needs of its rural populations first.

While I have reservations of using an invasive weed, there is no point in not using what you already have. And there are far less efficient means of reaching the same end.

At any rate, using a once-weed seems like a pretty novel example of polyculture!

1. Jatropha in Mali
2. Jatropha curcas
3. When oil grows on trees

05.21.07

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.

05.10.07

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.

05.09.07

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.

05.04.07

Are the Lights Out? Villainizing the Climate Change Debate

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy, Politics at 12:36 pm by justakim

I recently watched The Great Global Warming Swindle courtesy of Google. One of the scenes that really stuck out in my mind was where they went to a clinic with a solar panel. They demonstrated that an alarm would sound if they turned on the CFL bulb and plugged in the refrigerator holding vaccines at the same time. One of the guests called environmentalists ‘anti-human’ while another said to have Africa not to touch their resources is (I assume economic) suicide. Meanwhile Greenpeace was giving out “Climate Criminal” awards in India for selling incandescent light bulbs instead of fluorescent.

Well, I guess they’re even.

Also in India, the UN is subsidizing investment in solar panels. Some solar panel vendors were having trouble selling domestically despite exporting to Germany.

“In 2003, close to 70% of people in India did not have access to electricity,” says Painuly. “Even being connected to the national grid did not ensure power because of frequent power cuts. There might be electricity when you don’t need it and then the power is not there when you do need it.”

While this plan is short-lived, there is hope that this domestic market will be sustained.

[Edit: to add more irony, Patrick Moore, the speaker who called environmentalists anti-human, turned out to be a founding member of Greenpeace.

See, I don’t even like to call it the environmental movement any more, because really it is a political activist movement, and they have become hugely influential at a global level.

Wait wait, when did the environmental movement turn into a political activist movement?]

04.25.07

Clean Air ‘Or Else’

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Politics, Pollution at 8:46 pm by justakim

The climate change debate heats up further as Schwarzenegger threatens EPA with a lawsuit if it does not respond within six months to California’s 2005 request for a Clean Air Act waiver so that it can regulate carbon emissions more aggressively. The EPA says that they were waiting for the recent Supreme Court Ruling earlier this month before tackling the California case. It was a 5-4 decision.

The closeness of the vote makes me uncertain as to the extent of this victory, if the definition of a pollutant lies closely with your political leanings. One would hope that the definition of pollution would not change depending on who the judge is.

Even if the EPA is allowed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, it will still take time to come into effect. Just because the EPA can regulate it doesn’t mean it will, or at least anytime soon.

But at any rate, the California plan seems surprisingly harsh, even from my perspective. Build cars with a quarter less emissions by the 2009 model year, and cut greenhouse gas emissions statewide by a quarter by 2020? Both goals seem unrealistic. At least let the Automotive X Prize play out first!

On the other hand, of the auto manufacturers who claim these regulations will cause them to go bankrupt, I have to wonder if they include Toyota, Honda, and VW.

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