Monday, November 24, 2008

the biggest fallacy of efficiency

Most ways to save electricity at home do not save electricity at home.

Those old incandescent bulbs used their electricity 100% efficiently. They used a small portion of the energy to produce visible light and the vast majority of the energy to produce heat. If you heat your home, some portion of the heat comes from your heaters and some comes from your lights (and your electronics, refrigerator, oven, and so on). If you reduce the heating contribution from the lights (and everything else) by investing in expensive high efficiency devices, your heater will have to work harder to pick up the slack, effectively eliminating any possible gains.

If you live in an area where you use A/C most of the year, though, the opposite is true. Any reduction in energy use in the house will be matched by a similar reduction in cooling load, so efficiency improvements will be matched by more efficiency gains.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

why you shouldn't buy a prius - or a volt - or a tesla

Better batteries are coming. Probably sooner than later. They will make today's hybrids look about as cool as Windows 98.

Last week there was a vague announcement in the Korean presses about revolutionary battery technology, that was widely rebroadcast (in the tech gadget community) that I dismissed as unsupported enthusiasm over an unverifiable claim.

Turns out, I was right. Except for the "un" parts.

Their findings have been published in proper scientific journals and referenced somewhat widely.

They know they can build a component that will make batteries much much smaller. The estimate is that the batteries will be 5-10 times smaller.

Roughly speaking, this means replacing a Tesla Roadster's battery pack could give a car that can travel 1500-3000 miles on one charge or the same battery pack could be used to motivate an SUV for 200-400 miles. AKA good enough for 99% of us 99% of the time, AKA the end of petrol.

There are still big challenges to face, but this revelation has the appearance of a major game changer.

the coming plastic scare

Most everyone has heard of BPA by now, (the commonly used plastic additive that can cause fertility problems) but the rule of plurality* is about to turn popular fear against all things plastic in a big way.

* I just made that name up, but the idea is that things usually come in sets of 0, 1, or many. Basically, you can believe that there are no aliens. If you run into one someday, you may believe there is one species of aliens and leave it at that. If you turn around and run into another species of aliens, you have no choice but to assume that there are many, many species of aliens in existence and we just haven't met them yet. It would be very difficult to argue that there are some very specific conditions that led to precisely two or three alien species evolving and no more. Same goes for dangerous plastic. First there were no dangerous plastics, then there was one, and now there is commonly available evidence that there are many.

Science magazine published an article recently about how commonly used plastic equipment is corrupting lab results because of interaction between the plastics and the organic material being used in the study.

Quoth the study:

"...identified the presence of two families of compounds from the plastic that had contaminated their experiments and produced biological effects: quaternary ammonium biocides-anti-bacterial agents that manufacturers add to plastics-and oleamide, as well as related chemicals compounds used to improve the properties of plastics."

(BTW, switching to glass jars or canned foods is of little use - glass jar lids are usually coated in rubberized plastic, and food cans are as well. Otherwise, the food ends up tasting metallic. There probably are safe plastics, but what institution exists today that could be trusted to tell us which ones they are?)

As an aside, I remember reading an article about almost this exact same study published when I was in high school (around 1997, I think). It involved a plastic softening agent acting as an environmental estrogen and interfering with culture growth, I think. A brief search of the interwebs revealed no obvious references to this, but I'm sure I read it. If true, and if people really do get excited about the dangers of food stored in plastic this time, it'd be an interesting study in the propogation of information. Maybe people weren't ready to be alarmed back then. Now that BPA has paved the way, widespread fear of plastic is impending.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

two broken twos

Funny coincidence: two big deal economic indicators are probably gonna break the 2 barrier this month on their way down:

1) Nation median house price fell from $220k to $200k this year

2) National average gallon of regular gas is at $2.05, down from a peak of $4.10 this summer

more evidence that trees are very significant to global warming

Water vapor is apparently a greenhouse gas. Clouds reflect sunlight and promote global cooling. Trees emit chemicals that turn water vapor into clouds. Therefore trees have at least a threefold direct impact on global warming:

1) They promote cloud formation, which reduces the amount of loose atmospheric water vapor.
2) They absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
3) They usually reflect more heat than the ground cover they replace.

The new part of this (for me, anyway) is the second half of number 1. It has been confirmed by atmospheric scientists that water vapor is a significant greenhouse gas:

"Specifically, the team found that if Earth warms 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the associated increase in water vapor will trap an extra 2 Watts of energy per square meter....

'We now think the water vapor feedback is extraordinarily strong, capable of doubling the warming due to carbon dioxide alone.' "

Monday, November 17, 2008

poorly analyzed: the problem of cheap oil

The WSJ recently published a set of opinions about what can be done about oil prices that are too low. As the national average price of gas is about to dip under $2/gallon, there is a real chance that people will forget that more expensive fuel is a nearly inevitable aspect of our future and that these people will make poor decisions that will endanger our collective national energy security.

Most of the commentators decided to pretend that they were politicians in a debate and completely ignored the question of what to do about excessively low oil prices. Instead, they talked about energy policy generally. As much as I think that all new buildings should be required to conform to high energy efficiency standards, most buildings in the US get their energy from electricity from coal, which has very little to do with oil.

If you're talking about oil consumption in the US, you are talking almost exclusively about transport fuels. And, from what we've seen demonstrated so effectively recently, expensive fuels cause conservation.

Of the commentators, only one touched the magic button for oil consumption:

"Increase federal gasoline taxes. Sadly, the easiest way to hold the gains we have made in reducing oil demand in the U.S. would be to raise federal gasoline taxes as prices fall to lock in a floor price that will continue to stimulate conservation. Some portion of the funds could be set aside for research in alternative energy."

And none mentioned the fact that the EPA fuel efficiency policies push customers into larger, heavier "light trucks" (SUVs) by allowing higher emissions and lower fuel economy without having to pay gas guzzler taxes. This distinction between the classes of cars and trucks is an outdated and perverse one that helped put average americans into insecure energy positions.

So, if the WSJ had asked me what to do to address the dangers of excessively low oil prices, these would be my answers:

1) Phase in a federal gas tax of about $1 adjusted annually for inflation. Use the money to fund personal transportation efficiency research, development, & commercialization. At current prices, this would represent a 50% tax. We'd still have the cheapest gas in the industrialized world, especially when expressed as a fraction of median incomes.

2) Eliminate any regulatory distinction between on-road passenger vehicles types - a car is a truck is an SUV is a motorcycle (obviously, motorcycles would be excused from safety regulations). All of them drive down the freeway with one person inside most of the time, why should their fuel efficiency and emissions be regulated differently?

3) Bring back the the national speed limit. I hate this idea from a personal perspective, but the laws of physics are immutable. Energy spent pushing air out of the way increases with a square of speed, so fuel efficiency rapidly falls. Plus, higher speed limits justify big engines and big engines are less efficient at any speed. I think 55 mph is unjistifiably low, but 65 may be a reasonable national limit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paulson: evil or idiotic?

Speaking with reference to the mess that under-regulated financial engineering and blindingly short-sighted Greenspan Fed policy, Paulson said:

"We have in many ways humiliated ourselves as a nation with some of the problems that have taken place here."

Considering that Paulson was CEO of a company that helped produce the bubble and was part of the administration that helped prevent effective regulation, I'd say that Paulson would be correct if he were speaking in the royal "we" and left the nation out of it.

I am unable to imagine that Paulson could possibly think that the nation as a whole played any part in the mess. Sure, lenders, borrowers, agents, and most everybody else involved acted to maximise their own economic interests and the mess couldn't have been made without them. But, that is the whole point of the regulations that Paulson and party fought against - to prevent parties from acting in a way that endangers the whole economy.

And Paulson knows this. Anyone who has taken macroeconomics 101 knows this. It is an economic assumption: individuals act in their own best interest, even if it may be harmful to themselves and others.

So, to get back to Paulson's statement, I don't think "we have humiliated ourselves" at all, I think our regulations have failed.

Also, to be fair, the "as a nation" part is also bunk. The same stupid things that happened in the US happened in most of the rest of the developed and developing nations. "As a people" would be more accurate.

We, as a people, failed to have effective national regulations because of internation competition to juice earnings through the application of shortsightedness. That's how I see things, anyway.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

usage-based car insurance: about freaking time

Available only in Texas today: car insurance by the mile.

Drive half as much, pay half as much. Unlike some silly, overcomplicated approaches to the problem that use far more technology than necessary, you tell them your current odometer reading and how many miles of insurance you want, then they sell you proof of insurance.


If you lie about the number of miles or keep driving without buying more miles of insurance, then you are driving uninsured.

My only question:

What's the hold-up for nationwide implementation?

As little as I drive, I spend more on insurance than I do on gas, which is more than a bit ridiculous.

Can some national insurer please buy this company and offer their coverage nationally already?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

business idea: ways to use free electricity

As more and more of our energy comes from unschedulable sources (like wind), utilities will have no choice but to manage consumption on an hour-to-hour basis. This will mean the price of electricity will fluctuate throughout the day, based on the current system conditions. On a windy night, electricity will be nearly free. On a still, cold day, it may cost significantly more than it does today.

And this is a good thing. It'll give us a chance to make the system smarter and more efficient.

So, the business idea is to come up with ways to take advantage of cheap electricity. Once efficient lighting has been adopted, the next biggest residential/commercial energy use is climate control. The idea is simple enough, move heat energy costs away from the peak energy price times by storing heat for later use.

In the case of a home with central heating, this would mean adding an inline heat supply that uses heated oil. When electricity is cheap, the device heats the oil in the storage tank. When electricity is expensive, the device uses the heat stored the oil instead of using expensive electricity.

In areas that are both cold and sunny at the same time, you could add solar thermal heating to the oil tank. With today's technology, this would result in a far more cost efficient and environmentally friendly way to reduce energy consumption than solar photovoltaic panels. PV panels emit all kinds of nasty chemicals in their production that solar thermal panels don't.

France looks to Obama for leadership

The recent letter from the French president to Obama caught my attention:

"At a time when we must face enormous challenges together, your election raises immense hope in France, Europe and beyond: the hope of an open America, characterized by solidarity and strength, that will once again lead the way, with its partners, through the power of its example and the adherence to its principles.

France and Europe, which have always been bound to the United States through their ties of history, values and friendship, will thus be reenergized to work with America to preserve peace and prosperity in the world. Rest assured that you may count on France and on my personal support."

I agree that the US should lead the way - and that we are uniquely positioned to do so, being the richest, most powerful nation to have ever existed - but part of this belief is a bit of nationalism. I expect that if I were German (or Chinese, Russian, South African, or pretty much anything else), I would think that Germany should be the one leading the way. As president, I expect I would be inviting Obama to join me in my efforts to lead the way, not suggesting that he lead the way and I could possibly be one of his partners in doing so.

I understand that France can't lead the way in nearly everything the way the US does, but the country must have some strong points that it considers world-leading and important, no?

Is there a general sense of helplessness internationally that whatever the US does, that is just the way things are gonna happen? Maybe France will pitch in, maybe not, but who really cares anyway?

Maybe that why there has been so much international celebration about Obama. As a person from an ethnically and culturally diverse background, he is an appropriately international person to lead the culturally and ethnically diverse world.

Friday, November 7, 2008

signs of socialism in "Communist" China

The high point of this entry is that title. The rest is me talking about things I barely understand.

It is commonly observed that China's free-market-based rapid economic growth is decelerating more quickly than most predicted - and that this could possibly lead to social disruptions.

"Analysts worry that a sharp downturn could undermine the country’s already weakening investment climate and impair some of China’s biggest banks, which have bankrolled much of the boom.

Beijing worries that if growth slows to 8 percent or less, not enough jobs will be created in a country that is rapidly urbanizing — and that could lead to social unrest.

To prevent that, the government is preparing a large economic stimulus package, pushing new infrastructure projects, offering aid to exporters and searching for ways to prop up the nation’s severely depressed stock and real estate markets."

For China, which has been communist in name (and frighteningly unpredictable market dictatorship in practice) for decades, this means the billion or so people who have seen precisely zero benefit from the policies so far, who have been politely waiting for their turn to start climbing the economic ladder, may have to adjust their expectations. The kids they sacrificed 60% of their income to send through school so they could get one of the new white collar jobs will have a smaller chance of success.

It is during times of great progress that revolutions happen.

The temporary solution is a bit of socialism - in the form of public works projects much like those that helped bring the US out of the first world depression. This will take cash out of the government coffers. As some have observed, any decline in cash reserves in China is likely to upset US interest rates, since they are the biggest buyer of US treasuries - which help set interest rates. And that would be a bad thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

today's biggest news story

nO, nOt that stOry.

Biodiversity again proved that it is of great worth by giving humanity a fungus that can directly convert cellulose into diesel fuel.

Given that US petrol prices are down below $2/gallon in some cities ($1.92 in Kansas City today, that's $.50/liter for the metrically minded), there may not be much near term interest in fungal diesel in the USA today, but it is good news for any countries with both a large cellulose resource and high fuel prices.

New Zealand, with it's large domestic agroforestry industry and petrol at $2NZD/liter ($4.6USD/gal) could be a good place to incubate the technology.

Monday, November 3, 2008

what if CO2 isn't the most important factor

What if all of our bright climate scientists are stuck in group-think mode and cannot see the possibility that a rise in atmospheric CO2 is correlated with climate change, but not the most important causal factor?

What if the real story is deforestation? What if the complicated climate models underestimated the impact of trees on cloud cover because of cloud-forming factors that they weren't aware of? Scientists recently discovered such a factor.

As a low risk hedge, it would be wise to push for greater global reforestation and afforestation efforts. They will act as carbon sinks, soil stabilizers, sources of revenue, and all sorts of other good things, so little harm can possibly be done by pro-tree policies.

why the rich should pay more

Taken from a purely Market Capitalist perspective:

Because they have the strongest interest in keeping things the way they are.

Sure, in practice, taxes pay for defense, roads, welfare, police, etc. In principle, what this amounts to is the stability of a system. Without a system, we would quickly devolve into a far less economically efficient situation. Those with little income or assets would have little to lose from this change - and some of them would inevitably come out better. The rich and powerful, though, would almost universally become less rich and less powerful.

This principle even works on a marginal basis. If taxes are too low and social welfare program become ineffective, inequality of income and crime will rise - leading to the kidnapping of rich family members that we see in areas with high income disparity and no social welfare. For most, the cost of increased personal and family security would be greater than the cost of increased taxes.

This is such an obvious fact, that I doubt many wealthy people who have actually taken a moment to consider the implications seriously believe that their tax burden should be low.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

petrol prices not crashing for most of the world

Since June, the average price of pump gas in the US has fallen by about 40% from it's high a bit above $4 to the current national average of $2.42, but many nations haven't been so lucky.

As a result of the rapid and massive swings in the values of currencies, many countries are still looking at pump prices near their June highs. In Australia, for example, the crashing price of a barrel of oil has been nearly matched by the 30% crash in the value of their currency relative to the dollar, the price of pump gas has only fallen about 6% from it's June peak (from $6.0AUD to $5.6AUD/gallon today).

Since every major world currency has followed a similar track for the last few months (except for the Yen, which has risen vs the dollar), nobody has seen fuel price declines anywhere close to what we've seen.

The good news is that consistently high prices for a good long time means more people will be convinced that high prices are permanent, which will lead to higher acceptance of fuel efficiency investments and other energy conservation efforts - which should help keep the price of oil on the decline worldwide, allowing us to ridicule petrol conservation efforts and embrace our giant trucks for a few more years.