Dow Chemical Finds Free-Market Religion

27 07 2010

I was going to talk about sane solutions for ground transportation this week and I was going to lead with a tidbit, but that snowballed into the entire rant of its own.

Last week I was reading The Wall Street Journal on my 1994 organic cotton-stuffed futon when I had a “Ha!  You scheming, scamming, shysters!” moment.    In Law of Gravity Repealed, I accused for-profit corporations who are in favor of carbon caps of essentially getting in bed with the political hacks in Washington to form the rules of the game such that they come out ahead of their competitors.  First off, this is a really stupid and naïve strategy that has been demonstrated time and again.  The saying goes if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Companies have three choices when a bill that will deeply affect their business is being debated: (1) fight it with everything they’ve got, (2) help form the legislation whether it will be good for them or not, and (3) ignore it and hope for the best.  I would say that most times when they cede power to the government and think they can come out ahead, they get burned badly.  This happened with big pharma and the insurance industry with the recently passed healthcare bill.  Big pharma thought they could greatly increase their sales with 30 million new customers.  What idiots.  Hello?!!  And they suppose Washington is going to let them charge “market” rates for these 30 million new customers carried entirely by the government.  What morons.  With perhaps the exception of utilities that will be able to more easily recover costs due to their monopoly status, other large corporations will get burned in the same way with any cap and trade bill that is passed.  The exception may be General Electric where the pathetic CEO Jeffrey Immelt is putting all the company’s chips on successfully bribing a majority in Washington to save the company.  Otherwise tell me, how is a HUGE energy consumer like Dow Chemical or producer/user like Exxon Mobil going to come out on top.  Don’t mess with Washington.  You’ll get the horns.

To get back on track regarding last week’s WSJ –  [reprinted in this news source because it is no longer available on the WSJ’s website]  Dow Chemical, one of the companies I mentioned a couple months ago has seen the political light, which is actually the dark side because there is no bright side in Washington.

Suddenly when cap and trade was shelved last week and Harry Reid started talking instead of a wimpier policy to encourage the use of natural gas, Dow found free-market religion.  Using natural gas in place of nearly any other fossil fuel will reduce CO2 emissions.  But wait!  Dow is suddenly opposed to reducing greenhouse gasses.  In a letter supported by many companies and other “special interests”, they write to call on the Senate “not to include any provisions in energy legislation that would ‘artificially’ increase demand for natural gas in the power and transportation sectors.”  Let’s see.  Cap and trade; artificial pricing pressure and market manipulation.  Nope, I’m not seeing any difference here.  I don’t understand Dow’s reversal.  What happened to the do-gooder spirit?

Purely guessing, Dow probably has millions of carbon credits that are worthless without cap and trade.  They may also think they can increase their insulation sales with its passage.  I would also like to see the other corporate signatories on that letter.  T Boone is most likely not a signatory.

In another non-irony, the National Corn Growers Association also opposes the “artificially” high priced natural gas.

[Courtesy pause here while you finish laughing out loud]

I cannot think of more manipulated markets than the ones for corn and ethanol.  First, federal programs to pay farmers to NOT produce crops have been around for decades.  I recall as a kid, we had to “divert” xx% of baseline corn acres.  So what did we and everyone else do – diverted the acres where nothing grew (sandy patches) or acres that were at high risk of being flooded.

Second, there is the fattest sacred cow of them all: ethanol.  The ethanol lobby that includes weaklings like Archer Daniels Midland along with the Corn Growers Association has bagged a permanent 50 cent per gallon subsidy courtesy of me and a few million other Americans, the taxpayers.  In addition to this handout, it may be the most trade-protected industry in the country, save for maybe sugar.  Imports would be slapped with an insurmountable 54 cent per gallon tariff so we can’t import cheaper ethanol from places like Brazil where cane-sugar-derived ethanol has allowed them to be energy independent since 2006.  A 50 cent subsidy plus a 54 cent tariff on imports: more than a dollar a gallon direct artificial price manipulation.  I can’t think of a more favorably manipulated market than the one the corn industry has.

To demonstrate the damage heavily manipulated markets wreak, many ethanol companies went bust starting a couple years ago as the price of their feedstock, corn, soared to record highs.  Nobody saw those prices coming.  Maybe they should have hedged against the risk of soaring feedstock prices  – whoop!  Can’t do that anymore because of the recently passed financial overhaul.  More manipulation and interference…

Epilog:  I’m practically from Iowa and my family has grown a lot corn for many years.  Even though it is all fed to livestock, the artificial upward pressure on the corn market would seem to help because it makes growing livestock more expensive, driving down meat and poultry supply and improving prices.  But like the tobacco industry that was strictly controlled with government quotas, farmers would benefit from the trashing of government manipulation.  Income rises and surprise!  Farms get smaller – just what everyone seems to want!

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

A Frivolous Novelty

20 07 2010

For this week’s publication, I was trying to think of an expensive, short-lived, duplicative, inconvenient, limited use, frivolous novelty.  Did I mention expensive?  After a half-hour of wonderment, the best I could do is a Homer Simpson bottle opener.   But really the Homer Simpson bottle opener will last longer and at least be useful (note, I didn’t say serve it’s purpose, which is to make people laugh) probably for a far longer period than the electric car.

Twenty years ago “they” were talking about developing electric cars, I guess to save us from carbon dioxide, but I don’t recall the CO2 debate being as intense then as it is now.  I recall arguing with my roommate, who was a perfect match for me (we shared best men duties at each other’s weddings), that the electric car is a stupid idea because once again our friend Pesky Reality will not allow this bad idea to ever go mainstream.  You know, Pesky is going to be our imaginary friend from now on.  I’ve never had one actually so we will see how this goes.

I already have a 20 year winning streak, but “they” are making another futile run at this doomed idea.  Of course this is being served up by the connoisseurs of bad ideas.  The factory of remedies that are worse than the disease: Washington DC.

GW Bush’s dopey idea for the next miracle of personal transportation was the fuel cell.  The only emission would be water vapor – egads! The number one greenhouse gas.  Maybe the next time this stupid idea comes back to life Pesky can start a campaign advertising the greenhouse gas thing and it will crash and burn faster the Hindenburg.   Hmmm.  Hindenburg.  Hydrogen.  Bad idea.  Crashing.  Seventy years later here we are again!  I would call that an overt, as opposed to a subliminal message from Hephaestus, the god of fire.

I’ll just mention a few of Pesky’s problems with the fuel cell.  First consider the fuel, hydrogen.  Where does it come from? Where can I buy it?  How do I store it?  How is transported?  What is the driving range on a full tank?  Answers: splitting the water molecule with electricity (?), ?, ?, ?, and 36 feet.  So there it is.  You can’t mine or drill for hydrogen.  Well, I guess you can, but just not successfully.  As I recall, from what was it, 9th grade chemistry, it is the first element on the periodic table and a mole of any gas takes the space of roughly 1 cubic foot.  In other words, this is an extremely sparse gas and fuel source.  Liquid hydrogen?  Sure, at about minus 270C.  I just pulled that number out of the air but trust me, you won’t be able to make -270C with some standard plumbing pieces parts and household chemicals from Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

Back to the electric car.  I am aware of the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Tesla something or other.  The first two have a driving range of 100 miles.  The Tesla has a more conventional driving range of 300-400 miles.  Price tag: about $100,000.  The Leaf and Volt can be had for a song: $40,000.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  As soon as someone is able to push Pesky aside and develop a long range battery that weighs less than the sculpture of Abe Lincoln in his monument on the national mall, we’ll be home free.  I don’t think so.

The fuel source for electric cars is widely distributed and you can get it pretty much anywhere.  However, Pesky requires a rectifier and transformer to turn AC current delivered over the power lines to DC and then step the voltage down or something like that to “fill” the battery.  Price tag: $2,000.   Ok. Maybe you can buy one of these things and use it until the next ice age.  But it takes 8 HOURS to charge the batteries.  It takes 3 minutes to fill the tank with gasoline.  One hundred miles in 8 hours: 12.5 miles per hour of filling.  Gasoline: 340 miles in 0.05 hour: 6,800 miles per hour.  If I remember correctly, that is roughly Mach 10.  This is like making 30-year aged, single-malt scotch compared to thawing, or as my wife calls it “de-thawing”, a bagel in the microwave.  What happens if you forget to plug in when you get home at night?  Call in to work dead? As in dead battery?

Where are you going to charge once you leave the home-base 30 mile radius?  Who is going to install all $2,000 charging stations for you?  It will be like the Amish when they all get together for their Sunday services.  All the buggies are parked in the yard while the dozens of horses that pulled them there are packed in a shed munching hay, drinking water and lying about for 8 hours.  They are recharging their batteries, man.  That’s beautiful but is the modern American going to put up with 12.5 miles per hour of charging time?  Does anyone root for both the Vikings AND the Packers?  (If so, he/she should be locked up)

Assume engineers are able to speed up the process.  Charge time will still be constrained by the electric “pipes” coming to your home.  An electric water heater or clothes dryer probably pull the greatest demand in a typical house.  The water heater input is limited to 4.5 kW, equivalent of about 6 horsepower.  My lawnmower has at least 3x as much power.  See why it takes such a long time to charge, and it’s not ever going to change without a bazillion dollar modification to the electric grid?

And then there is this little problem:  You probably haven’t thought of it this way but your gasoline-powered automobile is a little and very efficient combined heat and power plant.  That’s right.  I’m going to guess a car is about 20% efficient with maybe 10% burned up in friction and the other 70% dumping heat out the radiator, just like a power plant.  Everyone north of the Florida panhandle needs heat and even if you don’t mind wearing a snow suit and big furry hood, you won’t be able to see where you are going with out lots of heat to keep the windows defrosted or defogged.

Well how much heat does it take?  When I first drove my little (2002) Honda Civic to work in -20F weather, as I coasted down the “big hill” (at least a mile long, maybe 500 feet vertical), the water temperature gage went from “50%” to about “20%”.  I thought crap, the thermostat is probably stuck.  No.  The heater just sucked all waste heat out of the engine while it wasn’t “working” in about 70 seconds.  Where is that kind of heat in an electric car coming from? – from the battery.  But the gas car has 70% of its energy consumption available for space heat.  Once the same heat is extracted from the Abe Lincoln battery, you’re hundred mile range is now down to about 30 miles.  Well guess what the average commute distance is in the U.S., Pesky.  Its 16 miles, 32 round trip.  I guess that car is good for a drive to the convenience store for milk and bread, but just make sure it’s fully charged so you can make it back up the hill.

Recently, Obama has been doing photo ops at an electric delivery truck factory in MO and a battery factory for electric cars in MI, neither of which would be a shadow of themselves without hundreds of millions of free money from the “stimulus”.  I don’t give investment advice but if I were an investment advisor, I would put a strong sell on these stocks.  Then I would short them.  I would buy put options.  If I worked at these places, I would be looking for another job.  The government gave these guys a big push to get going but there is no engine under the hood.

I never like to just thrash things and leave it be without offering alternatives.  Sooner or later we will have no choice but to use alternate fuel sources.  There is no infinite source of oil, although there is probably a 200 year supply if we decided to remove restrictions and technologies allow us to extract oil in more extreme places.  Remember, in the late 1970s we were on the verge of running out of natural gas.  Forty years (40) hence we have a bigger glut of natural gas than ever.

Like efficiency in buildings, in the short term we can make huge gains with existing “technologies” – have heat, have a driving range limited by the driver, and refuel in three minutes every four hours.  In the long term, the alternate fuel source will be in liquid form.  Sources may be algae, wood, (not corn ethanol), garbage or other waste material like dog hair.  I have a bottomless and continuous supply of free dog hair.

Unless something riles me up more in the next week, I will discuss the interim.  Pesky will have the week off because he will have no say in these matters.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

The Nebulous Green Job

13 07 2010

“Green jobs” have been all the buzz for quite some time, probably before Barack Obama was elected president, but I don’t know for sure.  What the heck is a green job anyway?  Some real answers include those like we have at Michaels Engineering with 20+ engineers working full time on real energy-saving projects.  Another example is the guy who operates the humongous crane that helps erect humongous wind turbines.

But politicians and academic eggheads aren’t talking about jobs like we have at Michaels, although they probably do agree the crane driver has a green job, but it goes far beyond that to Alice’s wonderland.  Take this Mark Izeman guy’s interview.   I’ll paraphrase the questions and answers for brevity here.

Q:  What should graduates look for by way of green jobs?

A:  Look into areas of energy efficiency, renewable, cap and trade, and local food, which is a red hot issue.

These are shot gun recommendations for everyone leaving college with cap and gown stuffed in a suit case: physical education, political science, sociology, library science, foreign relations, mass communication majors included.  Quite frankly, I don’t know what people with these sorts of academic backgrounds are going to do unless they want to weld and assemble wind turbines and electric cars.  Otherwise, there are always more PR jobs like the guy being interviewed in the article, but what good does that do?  It’s like hiring cheerleaders to double as special teams experts in the NFL.  What we need is more players and fewer cheerleaders (strictly speaking about the “green jobs” industry and not the NFL).

And then he says buying local food.  What are you going to do with that?  Start your own vegetable farm?  I think there is a lot of cheap land available in Detroit for this.  There are more jobs available working for Dole, which grow strawberries in CA, bananas from Guatemala or Ecuador or someplace like that.  I’m sure there are a lot of management, marketing and sales jobs and stuff like that with these companies.  Oh, I forgot.  These aren’t “green jobs”.  Never mind.

RA (real answer):  Think before selecting a college major.  With an engineering degree you will have the flexibility to fill or create any number of green jobs.  Library science guy?  Not so much, for real anyway.

Q:  Has the stimulus created “green jobs”?

A:  Fifty thousand “green jobs” have been saved or created.

Can we count the 20 plus engineering jobs we “saved” in this total?  Why did “jobs created” morph into “jobs created or saved”?  Obviously, the latter can mean anything.  Since the 4 million jobs have disappeared while the unemployment rate has gone up (down most recently because the workforce is shrinking as people quit looking for work), it’s pretty hard to claim jobs have been created.

Fifty thousand is a pathetic number, even if it represented “created jobs” only.  Here’s a sneaky secret:  you know when you apply for a federal grant, which seems to be part of nearly everyone’s business model nowadays, one of the selection criteria is you guessed it, “jobs created or saved”.  Well my new LED street lighting job is going to create or save at least 200 jobs.  This probably gets as much scrutiny as an Energy Star dust mop.

RA:  Nobody has a clue, really.

Q:  How many “green manufacturing jobs” will replace lost manufacturing jobs?

A:  Lieberman/Kerry cap and trade will create 200,000 jobs per year over the next 10 years.

RA:  In China and India.

Q:  How do you define “green jobs” in the first place?

A:  He doesn’t know but the Bureau of Labor and Statistics is figuring it out.

Why?  A job is a job, so if my job is a green job, I guess that’s one less engineering services job.  It’s one or the other.

RA:  Whatever it takes to capture enough jobs for some political end.

Q:  What is the outlook for “green jobs” sector over the next 40 years?

A:  “Greening the economy and creating new jobs, which will become so plentiful and normal we won’t label them “green jobs”.

RA:  The outlook is good.  I don’t think this will be going away, but let’s dispose with the “green jobs” moniker, which is just political wrapping paper to pass massive spending bills.

Demand for green stuff is growing on its own.  Take LEED, which is run by a non-profit United States Green Building Council.  It has been wildly successful and as far as I know, it has taken very little if any money from federal, state, or local governments.  I don’t see a single government employee on the board of director committees.  Gee.  I wonder if there is a connection between wild success and lack of government bureaucrats??  You don’t suppose.

Wal-Mart has probably produced more “green jobs” per the definition provided in the article/interview noted above than the federal government could ever hope to accomplish.  People buy hybrid cars on their own volition.  Leading hybrid-producing car companies didn’t need any government largess to be successful in this market.  I do think they will need government handouts for development of electric vehicles which, I am guessing will go on the scrap heap of bad ideas, right on top of the fuel cell vehicles that we should have been driving by the thousands by now.  More on this later.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Abracadabra; 10%!

6 07 2010

“Thrown under the bus.”  Now there is a term that has to be going out of style pretty soon.  The phrase is used practically daily by everyone, especially in the news-talk business.  Where did that come from?  Why is it so popular and useable?  Has it ever happened?  It seems it would be very difficult to do.  You would have to take the guy down like roping a calf and somehow stuff them under the cargo hold while the bus is going down the road I guess??  Your timing, strength and technique would have to be impeccable.  It may deserve to be elevated to an Olympic sport. Seems like it would be like trying to stuff a cat into an ice cream bucket.

Some precursors to “thrown under the bus”:  Thrown down the stairs (that’s already been coined but I think it was much underrated); Taken to the woodshed (already coined, gaining traction in politics); Burned at the stake!  Wow, now there’s an old one that probably died at the hands of political correctness; Tarred and feathered; Fed to the lions; Thrown to the wolves.

Some suggested new ones:  Thrown from the train?  Rammed through the wood chipper?  Shoved into the hammer mill?  Sentenced to Oprah?  Boiled in milk?  Shredded with the Sunday paper?  Canned with tuna?  Bagged with the grass clippings?  Thrown in the lake of fire?  Fed to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?  Pitted and stuffed with pimento?

“Low hanging fruit” is another favorite of mine – not.  What does low hanging fruit mean?  Well, everybody has their definition of what they think it is but they are not all the same.  Low hanging fruit to me includes all energy efficiency measures that fit in a four year lumped package.  Low hanging fruit to a firm that does performance contracting may represent a package of measures that has a combined five to seven year payback.

In some, circles low hanging fruit means all the energy savings you (consultant) can generate with your magic wand, while rubbing a rabbits foot and humming the cheesy Steve Miller hit, ♫♪Abracadabra ♪♫. Like politicians who think alternative energy is a low cost, abundant source of energy that we just aren’t trying hard enough to develop, these customers seem to think they can cut their energy bills by 10-15% by spending virtually nothing on consultants, hardware, software, programming or contractors.

You can save a lot of energy, and if/when real time pricing becomes available, a lot of money in your home with behavioral changes.  Turn the thermostat up in hot weather; wash clothes on the weekends or after 9 at night, lock your electric water heater and maybe your dehumidifier out during peak hours, and even turn the lights off when you leave the room!

Which of these sorts of measures are going to be available to commercial and industrial facility managers? – shut the lights out when you leave and maybe they can eek the temperature up a couple degrees in hot weather before people start to howl.  How much will this save? Somewhere between 0.01% and 1.00%.  There it is, your abracadabra free audit.

We are working with customers that have savings goals of 10-15% for huge manufacturing facilities and they plan to start with the “turn out the lights” solution.  This is a potential huge waste of calendar time while they watch their bills roll in over subsequent months.  They won’t see savings because it’s down in the grass and well within the “noise” of typical energy consumption gyrations from month to month and year to year.

Getting to the goal can be done with cost effective measures but cost effective and free are two different things.  Ten to 15% savings isn’t going to happen without spending money on expertise, time, and in many cases some equipment or controls.  There is no magic/free solution and the sooner this is accepted, the sooner customers can get on with achieving their energy goals.


Tidbits provides comment and follow up on recent news and posts to this blog.

I said at least twice that the disaster in the gulf would be underestimated.  Two thousand barrels a day turned into 5,000 and now I think the most recent estimate is 50,000 barrels a day.  Touché.

I also said the robotic government bureaucracy would act like idiots.  Recently, the EPA was threatening to keep the A Whale gigantic skimmer with a capacity of 500,000 barrels of treatment per day from performing because its discharge of cleaned seawater may not meet the EPAs standards.  I hope the EPA isn’t around if I should get in an accident and my arteries are spewing blood all over the road.  They may not allow a good Samaritan doctor from plugging the leak.  The area and the doctor’s instruments may not meet hygiene standards.  What morons.

Thirteen countries offered up ships to help contain the “spilled” oil.  Thanks, but no thanks guys.  We don’t need your help.  The 80 year old (or so) Jones Act in a sop to the unions, prohibits foreign vessels from docking in US ports in consecutive stops.  It’s refreshing to know unions take precedent over beaches, birds, turtles, and fishing and tourism industries.  The only thing worse than bureaucracy is a crony one.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP