Archive for the ‘energy’ Category

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Thinking Lincoln: parallels between slavery & cheap energy

February 12, 2009

Hearing Lincoln’s speeches today made me realize how much of President 44’s retoric is an homage to 16’s.  That thought led me to a jaw dropping comparison between the cheap labor aspect of slavery and our current addiction to cheap energy.

I’m not a historian, but I remember reading that in Lincoln’s time, the civil war was fought for mainly economic reasons.  The Southern states believed that an end to their cheap energy source (slaves) would end their way of life.  The economy of the North had already adopted to alternative labor (energy) sources.  The eye of history rightly highlights the principles and freedoms won in the war – the North’s success without slavery created economic capability to eradicate it (in the US, at least).

I see incredible parallels between our current transistion between cheap energy and the Civil war transistion.  We’ve got a tremendous part of the population that clings to an unsustainable consumption model that is both economically and morally flawed.  Eventually, a new energy model must emerge; however, the social turbulence may be equally violent!

This analysis leads to the question – what are the two sides in this battle?  I’m not certain, but I can make some guesses:

  1. US vs. China -> our trade imbalance was a first battle
  2. Oil Producers vs. Oil Consumers -> another Iraq anyone?
  3. Civil Discord (class war) -> foreclosed home owners picking bank CEOs?  It’s happening.
  4. 2nd World vs 1st World -> Terrorist attacks?  Mexico immigration crime waves?  A flood of cheap drugs from South America?

Is there a solution?  Maybe and it’s not a massive stimulous package.  We need to put aggressive incentives (and disincentives) in place that will alter Americans energy signature.  In my neighborhood, people are finding money to buy high MPG Hondas and Toyotas.

We’ve got enough cash to make practical investments that hedge our bets for the future.  I suspect that there are many more people who would spend money to make sound forward looking economic choices.  Houses, cars, and TVs are not selling because no one knows what type to buy!  If President Obama can provide that type of direction, we’ll get on the right course and (maybe) avoid another resources war.

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Could government green buying simulate the economy?

November 21, 2008

The Daily Kos (and other places too) recommended the government replace it’s mamoth fleet of ICE cars with Chevy Volts instead of dumping a huge bailout in their laps.  That would 1) stimulate the demand for US hybrids, 2) support the automaker with legitimate revenue, and 3) improve the government fleet’s MPG.

I’ve an advocate of this approach to promoting green tech (see my earlier post about School Solar) because it allows markets to develop.  Unfortunately, the companies most likely to have solutions are not equipped to navigate the bureaucracy need to do business with the government.  For example, Texas has funds to install solar at school but the money goes unspent because solar installers are not on school bid lists!

Here are 10 programs that would generate more tax revenue (to pay off ill conceived bailouts) and/or simulate critical US technology sectors:

  1. carbon tax (gas is cheap now, let’s act before people forget about high prices)
  2. convert trucks to natural gas (ala T Boone Pickens)
  3. energy neutral for schools and military bases in 5 years
  4. require national time-of-use billing by utilities including tax-by-time-of-use
  5. national passenger rail on dedicated tracks – free up freight lines for freight and make passenger trains faster
  6. nuclear plant design standardization & construction
  7. implement LED lighting in all government buildings (not those toxic CFLs!)
  8. legislate tele-commuting / commuting carbon footprint reduction
  9. enable cities to implement pay for car entry policies
  10. eliminate corn ethanol as a fuel
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Pickens proves yellow, not green

November 14, 2008

I was frustrated to see T Boone Pickens run away from his wind turbines.  It looks like he’s only in favor of green power if there is very short term profit.  He said that he was suspending the project because natural gas prices are low.

This is exactly the type of short term thinking that drives Wall Street greed that over turned our economy.  I thought that Pickens was actually trying to leave a legacy, not just an inheritance.

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What would it take to eliminate imported oil?

November 8, 2008

I was talking with my neighbor about potential increases in gas tax and her initial reaction was a strong “oh no!  That would be horrible for the economy.”  I pointed out that we’re importing 70% of our oil (ref: T. Boone Pickens & Hot, Flat & Crowded) and that means huge amounts of our currency is leaving the US and going to hostile countries.  I was impressed with how much that single point resonated with her.  Just that one item and her attitude completely changed into maybe gas taxes that discouraged use and kept $$ in the US would be a good thing for the economy.

So I started thinking about what life with 80% less* gas would look like for typical American consumers.  We would have to:

  • Work from home 4 days a week (1 vs 5 = 80% saved)
  • Carpool with 4 other people (1 vs 5 = 80% saved)
  • Go shopping twice a month instead of twice a week (2 vs 8 = 75% saved)
  • Car pool 5 kids per car to soccer games / scout trips / etc (3 cars instead of 15 = 66% saved)
  • Kids ride the school bus (fuzzier math, 1 bus = 30 cars but 20% efficient is 1/30/20% = 1/6 = 83% saved)
  • Bike or walk to coffee shop
  • Combine 10 shopping trips into a single trip
  • Drive or train for vacation instead of fly
  • Take a train instead of fly for next business trip
  • Use public transit to attend sports events

So of these changes could be made pretty easy if we slowed down our lifestyle, but telecommuting 80% would be a major change!  One benefit, less traffic!

* I picked 80% gas because some users cannot reduce this radically (like farming) so everyone else has to make up the difference!  80% or a 1/5 is also handy for math.

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T. Boone Pickins makes point, but disappoints

November 3, 2008

Yesterday, I dragged my unwilling kids out to see T. Boone Pickins speak about his energy plan.  I felt like it would be something of a watershed event where they’d look back and say, “wow, that’s when…”  Unfortunately, Boone was not an especially dynamic (or even intelligible) speaker and they did not get much from it.

Here’s what I got from it:

  1. Boone believes our #1 issue is dependence on foreign oil (70% of our oil is imported).
  2. We need to aggressively switch to natural gas as a transportation fuel to replace diesel from imported crude.

That’s it and I’m disappointed.  Boone is correct in both points, but I don’t think that is even close to a complete plan.  Here’s my 10 point energy plan:

  1. Implement an increasing carbon based tax to create incentives to move away from carbon based fuels.  Reducing the total oil used will dramatically impact the import issue.  If natural gas is more efficient, then we’ll use that instead to reduce the carbon tax impact.  Potentially, imported carbon could have additional tariffs.
  2. Require (fund) a standard platform for nuclear plants so that we can have common practices and economies of scale.
  3. Immediately start increasing the efficiency standards for everything (appliances, computers, HVAC, cars) that are sold.  Provide substantial tax incentives for people who replace these items if they also recycle the replaced unit.
  4. Establish a Sustainable Corps to help implement efficiency & green power projects nationwide.
  5. Fund Power Up Our Schools program to make all school districts energy independent in 5 years.
  6. Impose a disposal surcharge on items that cannot be broken down into recyclable components.
  7. Stop all subsidies for production of corn ethanol.
  8. Take away tax breaks for energy companies – they get to keep the money if they were re-investing it into R&D.  If they won’t fund research then the government gets to use the windfall.
  9. Grant right of way for high-speed passenger trains along existing interstate routes.
  10. 55 mile per hour national speed limit and add pay for access inner-city driving – this alone would eliminate the amount of crude that we import from Saudi Arabia.

These 10 items would make an immediate and signficant different.  They leverage people making economic choices and do not restrict personal freedoms.

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You must read Hot, Flat, & Crowded

October 29, 2008

by Thomas Friedman (Amazon).  It’s an excellent discussion about our current challenges with concrete solutions.  I’ll post more about it, but I recommend just reading the source.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

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Now I’m really scared…Financial meltdown foreshadows sustainability crisis

September 20, 2008

I’d been a disappointed proponent of allowing capital markets to place a value on sustainability.  I naively believed that anticipation of rising energy costs and emissions controls would drive investment in alternatives.

Today, it’s obvious that our market system is so greed driven that it can’t plan a quarter ahead let alone build something with returns over several years.  To compond problems, our government is handing out “get of out jail free” cards to Wall Street that further absolve of fatal lacks of strategic sustainable  thinking.

I mostly agree with the Government’s actions but think that we’re entering a era of required external oversight to ensure sustainable business practices. 

If you carry this thinking just a little farther, it’s obvious that the markets are never going to be able to foster sustainable technologies and practices without similar external (governmental) pressure.  I still think that economic incentives are the right approach for changing individual behavior, but short-term profit and entrenched interestes (oil & gas, etc) create too much pressure for the market figure this out alone.

While I would like to see less government involvement, we have to demand legislation that creates “artificial” incentives for sustainablity (alternative energy, recycling, and conservation).   This is our wake up call: the mortgage meltdown is a paper loss because the homes still exist – sustainablity is about real assets being lost forever.