Machete to Sustainability

7 06 2011

This Geography guy really needs to get out of the classroom and the city for that matter once in a while.  Modern agriculture is probably demagogued and more poorly understood than energy efficiency, and since this opinion piece addresses both I will dispense with its shredding.

I grew up on the farm 30 years ago in southern MN and northern IA, and I stay in touch spending a week each year reliving my childhood farming days.  My elder brothers still run the place.  They grow maybe 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans and raise and market maybe 25,000 hogs per year.  To the ignorant, they would be perceived as ecology-destroying corporate/factory farmers.

Wrong.

When I was a kid, farm chemicals were more dangerous, less effective, and more heavily applied.  Yet since they were so ineffective, noxious weed and grass control was largely provided by tillage which is environmentally unsustainable in two ways.  First, it takes a lot more diesel fuel, obviously.  Second, erosion was rampant.  If there was one thing I always pressed my father to do as a kid it was to reduce tillage to leave more crop residue on the surface to reduce erosion – from both rainwater runoff and wind.

Back in those days, everything was plowed black – as in, all crop residue buried.  Why?  To bury grass and weed seed along with it.  The spring snow melt would leave three inches of topsoil in our grove (where the snow drifts / dirt dunes were) and road ditches.  Who knows how many tons per acre landed in Indiana or Tennessee?  Moreover, in the spring, we would typically have to scramble out to the fields to run rotary hoe to stop blowing dirt from sand blasting the young crop that just broke ground.

In total, we would make about seven or eight trips over the field to till, plant, cultivate (weed), harvest, and plow.  For soybeans, we would actually use machetes to chop weeds during the mid-summer heat.  Find a fourth grader who would do that nowadays.  Parents would be hauled away in handcuffs for child abuse and maybe reckless endangerment.  This one looks just like my Grandmother’s.   My father would sharpen them every morning before we took to the fields.  No sheaths, guards or any of that kind of crap either.

For livestock, we used to raise hogs and cattle in more “humane” ways in the open field.  This makes for a nice image to the Geography professor but in truth what would happen is the sows would root holes in the soil for a nice cool spot in which to snooze.  Soon they would give birth to a litter of pigs.  Then the rains come.  After having lain on and crushed two or three pigs, the remaining ones would be freezing in the cold water and mud.  Ninety degrees is perfect for these little guys – not 60F and mud.

The good old days weren’t so good.

Fast forward thirty years.  Unlike the Geography professor claims, farming has changed, hugely, and in the direction of sustainability AND increased productivity.  Most crops are now Roundup ready, meaning they are genetically modified to withstand Roundup, which otherwise kills everything rooted in the ground.  This may sound horrible but it only kills what it lands on and is benign to soil, doesn’t drift, and doesn’t run off.  What are the implications?  Fuel use is drastically reduced and the minimum soil tillage results in practically no soil erosion, which brings other benefits in addition to being intrinsically sustainable.

First, when I was a kid and everything was plowed black, soil erosion continuously uncovered rocks on hills and hillsides.  We used to spend weeks before and after planting hauling rocks off the fields – more child abuse.  Have you ever had your foot run over by a rock wagon?  Neither have I.  Rocks are not kind to expensive farm equipment.  It would beat the crap out of tillage equipment, planters, and god help you if you ran one into a combine.

Second, water erosion destroys crops.  First, as it washes down from highlands it takes crop along with the soil to the lowland.  In the lowland, crops will survive in standing water from the runoff for just a few hours.  With modern minimum tillage made possible with Roundup, erosion is practically nil.  In addition to preventing runoff, erosion, and associated crop destruction, residue, otherwise known as stover or trash, helps soil retain moisture to carry crops through dry spells.  It would be common to have 10-15% of our crop land flooded every year; now there is practically none.

The Geography professor claims 107 gallons of fuel are burned to produce an acre of crop.  This is crazy.  First, recent conventional thinking was that to break even a Midwest farmer needs about $500 revenue per acre.  That covers seed, rent or farm payments, chemicals, fuel, overhead, this, that, and the other.  Well 107 gallons is not far from $500 alone.  Second, it probably takes about a half gallon of fuel per acre each to plant and harvest and maybe another couple gallons for tillage (minimal) spring and fall .  That’s about three gallons per acre, direct.  Chemicals and fertilizers?  I have my Roundup booklet right next to me and that says it takes about 20 ounces per acre.  That’s a British pint, give or take a spit, per acre.  Does the fertilizer take the other 102 gallons per acre?  I don’t think so.  A ballpark estimate is 100 lbs per acre.  That’s probably in the 10-15 gallon/acre fuel equivalent, ballpark.  So, I’m seeing 20 gallons equivalent, maximum.

Note however, many modern factory farms produce their own fertilizer for free.  The Geography professor may think the factory farmers are ruthless dingbats, thriving on tortured, cramped, sick livestock, quietly dumping manure in the creeks because it’s cheap and easy.

The modern confinement barn where livestock is mass produced is always portrayed as a hellish inhumane place for livestock.  Wrong.  Sick, stressed, uncomfortable livestock does not eat or grow.  Growing is the key to making a profit.  It’s that simple and irrefutable.  The modern farm is as productivity centric and competitive as Wal-Mart is with its supply chain.  Adapt or die.  Everything revolves around keeping livestock healthy, dry, cool/warm, and frisky.  They even get lots of natural ventilation and daylight – how is your work station in this regard, by the way?

Back to the fertilizer.  The manure produced by the confinement barns provides nearly all fertilizer for the corn crop needed to feed the hogs.  Let me clarify this: the waste displaces an enormous amount of “artificial” petroleum-derived fertilizer – and it’s produced and applied locally.  It is knifed into the soil in the fall in precise quantities to maximize value of all fertilizer needs: potash, phosphate, and nitrogen.  Its nutrient content is better known than it is for a Snickers bar.  Typically, just enough is applied to satisfy the most abundant one of these so as to not over fertilize or waste any of it.  The remainder, which is hardly any, if any is made up by petroleum or natural gas derived fertilizers.

Fields are mapped for soil nutrient levels with GPS positioning systems.  “Fertilizer” application is adjusted continuously as it is spread to provide just enough per the specific needs of each location.  Resources are leveraged to the maximum extent possible.  Like any other business, sustainability, energy efficiency and profit are not exclusive competing interests in Midwest agriculture.

Did I mention, an acre of land today produces about 50% more crop than when I was a kid?  And another thing – crop genetics have improved such that grain drying, often provided by propane, a petroleum derivative, has declined significantly.

Is it perfect?  Heck no, but it’s a world better than most people realize and I could go on for several more pages regarding how much more sustainable and less abusive things are today compared to the “family farms” of the 1970s and earlier.  The only digression I see is the absence of machete wielding 4th graders earning a few bucks for college.

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





Don’t Ask, Don’t Look, Don’t Tell

3 05 2011

It seems like every time I visit my mother, at some point, maybe the night I arrive or the next morning over coffee, she starts dumping the local rubbish on me.  So and so are “separated”.  What’s her name is pregnant.  Jimmy got busted for a DUI.  Ronnie has cancer.  I went to four funerals last week.  And always something about my brothers, who as you may know run a large farming operation, are taking too much risk or can’t possibly afford this or that $300,000 piece of equipment.  Being the anti-gossip and direct guy that I am, I ask, “Mom, why do I need to know these things?” and “You can’t do anything about it anyway, so why bother” and “I’m sure they know what they are doing, having been in the business for thirty years.”  In summary, I don’t need or even want to know.

When I played little league and maybe even high school baseball, we had things like the 10 run rule and the point of that was to cut off the game and get on with something productive because the team getting hammered is never going to come back with any chance to win the game.  It wasn’t for mercy.  It wasn’t to protect the meek from getting clobbered 46-2, which everyone knows would happen if the game continued.

Reality can be unpleasant to painful or underwhelming and I only want to know about it if it affects me and especially if it’s something I can do something about.

The majority of our energy efficiency work includes calculating energy savings and incentives for large commercial and industrial projects and evaluating all kinds (literally) of EE programs.  Here we actually want as much information as we can get to do our jobs because hundreds of thousands of dollars can be in play and we like to get things right, especially when a lot of money is involved.

In some cases, it would be handy if the client accepted what “everything” means.  It’s a little bit like describing what “no” means.  One dictionary defines everything as, “every thing or particular of an aggregate or total; all”.  And we write four memos regarding what “everything” means with respect to what we need.  Everything.  The reports, notes, manufacturer cut sheets, invoices, customer contact information, billing history, the maintenance guy’s favorite past time.

Other times we get a couple pages from a report, which is like grading an engineering exam while being provided with the question, and two equations the student wrote, and no answer.  For example, a project includes the installation of a 500 horse power variable-speed compressor among several other existing compressors.  The duty cycle for the new compressor is provided, but what was going on before the thing was installed?  What other compressors are there now?  Was it just installed to add more capacity?  Answer: “never mind, here is the filtered information we want you to use”.  “The consultant [providing the original study] knows what they are doing.”  Ok.  Let us see how terrifically brilliant they are as we review their work in its entirety.  What’s to hide?  Is this a game?  Is that what this is, Lieutenant Caffey?  Am I funny?  Do I amuse you?  Do I make you laugh?

One of the most important purposes of program evaluations is to provide feedback to improve return on ratepayer investment from the program, an element of which is determining if savings are actually being achieved.  I think everyone has seen sitcoms where the main characters messed something up or broke something and as a result they try to divert attention from it or put a happy face on a troll.  What is the point in that when it comes to evaluation?  I won’t speculate for the answer to that question.  There are many possibilities.

Other times, the findings are plain as the nose on your face – like we metered lighting hours on 25 projects and they indicate an average annual burn time of 2,500 hours and not 4,300 assumed in the program’s deemed savings database.  According to the implementer, the sample was faulty or it was not statistically significant.

We have to face the music at times when others review our calculations.  If something is incorrect or uses inaccurate or non-representative data, or is for some reason generally a mess, we work with the reviewing engineers to make things right and if that means a savings adjustment, so be it.

The bottom line is, there are plenty of opportunities to capture real savings and we as an industry need to ensure we capture these savings rather than manufacturing savings by whatever the motive or reason.

In closing, to quote a guy I agree with 90% of the time, Mark Zweig, a consultant for consultants, “I never wanted to be one of those CONsultants who tells his clients what they want to hear and hopes he never gets fired. I am much more interested in being an INsultant who tells his clients what they need to hear.”

If a client doesn’t want to hear it, it is time for a new client.

Tidbits

Worthless EE tip of the week: disable your auto ice maker in your kitchen refrigerator and save 1% of your home’s electric bill.  I believe there is a heater in the ice cube moulds to melt the ice so it can be flipped out.  Whoopty doo.  Yawn.  If I understand it correctly, they say the ice cube makers pull an extra 84 kWh/year, which is about 10 W.  A refrigerator only averages 50-60W running around the clock.  Have your ice and eat it too.

In this article, we are informed that most consumers have no idea how much energy it takes to ship from factory to store.  So I thought, what are the energy implications of buying local?  How much transportation energy does this save?  I like strawberries from Watsonville, CA.  A truck hauls 60,000 lbs of strawberries 2,100 miles for roughly 350 gallons of diesel fuel.  The diesel fuel it takes for my pound of strawberries would get me 0.17 miles in my thirty-mile-per gallon car.  Worthless information?  You be the judge.

Finally, there is this article on KFC’s  sustainability efforts.  The company rebranded itself because its former name sounded like a premature heart attack.  Now it offers reserved parking for hybrid cars.  First, people who drive hybrid cars would probably rather walk more, not less which leads me to the obvious second point, a Prius and a bucket of the Colonel’s best with a side order of stents  is not a scene I can paint in my mind.  I was going to stereotype and say KFC lots are full of SUVs, Buicks, Chevys, and minivans but I shall refrain and stick to the google street view facts from a Lakeville, MN (suburb of Twin Cities) store:  4 GM cars, 2 GM SUVs, 2 GM pickup trucks, 3 Chrysler minivans, 2 Chrysler cars, 1 Ford car, 1 Nissan SUV, 1 used defribulator, and zero hybrids.

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





Cabbage Patch iPad

26 04 2011

The thing that pushed me over the edge this week was a fine blog  post by Elisa Wood.  My comment was that Gavin Newsom’s list of jobs created by resources including coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and EE, does not include return on investment.  Only EE has return on investment for the end user.  All other sources cost the end user, not save the end user money.  But this is not the topic of the day.

I am not a tech geek.  I just want things that are stable, reliable, and relatively fast and snappy.  I will pay for it.  I have long been out of college and therefore, time is scarcer than money so just give me something “fast” and reliable and I’ll gladly pay for it.

I also do not need, and in fact I do not want the latest and greatest thing.  Take Microsoft, which hasn’t had any substantial improvement to the Office suite for ten years – since they added the right-click menus.  It has become more stable and reliable in the past 15 years as reports we wrote used to become corrupted out of the blue and you couldn’t open them ever again.  Congratulations for this achievement!

I am not a Microsoft basher but I don’t think they have innovated (if I may use that as a verb) hardly a single thing.  Operating systems with graphical interfaces, mice, spreadsheets, word processors, web browsers, databases, and you name it; they didn’t develop any of these things and they comprise their bulk of gazillions in revenue and profit.  Microsoft is good at taking others’ ideas and packaging and marketing them, creating monopolies and crushing any competitors, or simply buying them out.  Like I said, I’m no Microsoft basher.

Apple on the other hand has been a major innovator with the Mac, Mac operating system, the iPod, and then really, really with the iPhone.  When the iPhone first came out, I thought “what is the big deal?”  It doesn’t even have buttons.  Then I experienced it as we work with clients who use them exclusively.  I look at my Microsoft kludge of a phone (again Microsoft following, not innovating) and think, wow, the iPhone is about 100x better.  (I now have a Motorola Droid which in many ways is better than the iPhone if you ask me, so my tech world is whole again)

At an AESP conference, I was fortunate to win an iPod touch, which is essentially the iPhone without the phone.  Other AESP-drawing winners of GPSs wanted to trade and I said get lost.  I’m giving this to my wife to replace her crappy iPod wannabee.  The iPod touch gave me hands-on experience with greatness.

Apple has built such a cult following that if they introduced a turntable, the iTable, people would camp out for a week just to be the first to get their hands on one of these 1960s makeovers.  They have already done this – it’s called the iPad.  It’s a ridiculous widget.  Why is it ridiculous, Jeff?

First, because it isn’t a serious business tool (yes, I will get to the consumer thing later).  Thinking we could use one of these possibly for field work surveys, I asked one of our iEverything business partners what he thought of this.  He said, no, it isn’t going to do well with spreadsheets or databases, if they can even be used at all.  It doesn’t even have ports like a USB connection for goodness sake.

Second, I was on a plane headed for somewhere sitting next to a guy watching a movie on an iPad.  I enlightened him by saying, “You know, they make these things that have a convenient platform to prop the screen up reliably for hands free movie watching.  You could just sit it on your tray and sit back and enjoy the movie.  It’s called a laptop computer.”

It’s a large version of a phone without the phone.  It’s a small computer with no capability.

Perhaps most ridiculous, I recall an article in The Wall Street Journal covering the various ways iPad owners can transport their iPads.  One solution was like a fanny pack with a big pouch in which you would carry the iPad along the small of your back.  Good grief!  Don’t use a computer bag.  That would reveal the stupidity of this device.

Conclusion: It’s a clunky, slippery, doohickey that is too large for your pocket, to small for a computer, and you can do little productive work with it.  The second conclusion is, Steve Jobs is a genius for generating a brand that will get people to buy anything with an i in front of it, by the hundreds of millions.

How do we do this with energy efficiency?  It has to have a strong element of “look at how great and cool I am”.  I suggest a web-based application that shows how rich you are becoming, in real time, as a result of your EE genius.  In one pane it would mimic a bank teller slapping down dollar bills as you stuff them in your wallet.  Once you accumulate a bulging wallet full of bills you trade them in for a hundred dollar bill.  You let the hundreds pile up on the counter.  After a while you swap currency for gold bullion and that starts stacking up on the counter.

In another pane you have a lot full of Prius and electric vehicles with dead batteries in front of a big box store called “Renewables R Us”.  As you accumulate enough savings and equivalent emissions of these cars / energy sources, King Kong circa 1976 walks onto the scene thumping his chest and roaring.  He picks up an electric vehicle and tucks it under his harm like a football and stomps off, maybe stepping on a couple screaming shoppers making their way to the store as they drop their iPads.  This would represent the equivalent Priuses taken off the road. Next time, Kong comes by but this time tripping on a Prius and falling face first crushing a dozen Nissan Leafs.  After doing the ceremonial thump and roar, he rips a solar panel off the roof and throws it across town, like the subway cars in the movie… followed by stomping off and squashing a few more shoppers.

The app should be exclusive to new chosen makes and models of devices and they are provided by the EE program as part of the incentive.  The devices are sleek and unique so everyone knows, that guy is cool and smart.  The devices would have functionality of iPods, phones, and laptops so they aren’t just a worthless status symbol.

So the next time you are sitting at the gate or in cattle class, your device is screaming – “look at how cool I am” while the inferior, insecure me-too stooge is gawking on, thinking, “Man that guy has some device!”

Copyright 2011

Tidbits

As gasoline prices are clicking past $4 across the country, citizens are crying to the feds to do something.  So what are both the President and Speaker talking about?  Eliminate subsidies for oil companies – as though this will bring down prices!  Again, politics rather than logic rule in Washington.  Prices are high and therefore the oil companies must be punished and somehow reducing profit will lower prices.  Good Grief! – popular with the lemmings but thinkers know better.

P.S.  I believe the “subsidies” they are talking about are tax breaks for depleting wells, which sounds to me like depreciation for assets of depleting value – like our office furniture and computers.  Anyway, let me say that subsidies should go, across the board, but office furniture and computers are the price of doing business and obviously affect profit so depreciation isn’t a subsidy, unless you’re a political hack.

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





Choose Solutions, Not Facts

19 04 2011

State and federal budgets are headed for the cliff to varying degrees with few exceptions.  Here in Wisconsin, we’ve had the Battle Royale fight to the death cage match with the repubs on one side and the unions on the other while the dems were hiding out in a witness protection plan.

Meanwhile at the federal level, we are on a dangerous trajectory unseen in my lifetime.  People have whined about the deficit and debt since my adolescence – the Miracle on Ice days against the Soviet Union.  I kept saying, “It’s not a problem.  It’s not a problem.”  Why?  Because the debt as a percentage of our economy was reasonable, and flat but very few people consider this metric – the one that matters most.  They just clobber each other over the head and call each other names and we have Jay Leno fodder like “pay-go”.

However, this all changed since the meltdown Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008.  The debt as a percentage of our economy really IS becoming a major concern.  We are staring at $1.6 trillion deficits for as far as the eye can see.  Personally, I think the word trillion should be banned because it sounds inconsequential.  How about $1.6 million million, or $1,600 billion?

Do we cut spending, take away grandma’s pharmaceuticals, sell her home, and set her and her senile dog up in a tent under the bridge, or do we fleece “the rich”.  See, I’ve always believed when politicians talk about “the rich” they mean households with incomes of two freshly college-educated people, say an engineer and a nurse or a school teacher and pharmacist.

As a rational person, I did a little Saturday morning research and some pretty simple math to prove my point.  The chart below containing data from the IRS paints a pretty clear and grim picture for those expecting a free ride from “the rich”.  What it shows is total incomes and numbers of returns (households) by income bracket.  The average income of those in the top 1% is $1.2 million and the next 4% the average drops sharply to $220,000.  My analysis goes like this: suppose we just took everything these people made above $100k, $250k, and so on.  Taking everything in excess of $100k from the top 10% of earners is “only” $2.4 trillion – $800 billion more than the deficit.  I.e., if the government confiscated all household income above $100k, we would have an $800 billion surplus.  But almost no one in this country considers $100k to be wealthy.

So let’s move to $250k, which apparently according to the President is the line between the rich and not rich because he’s said ten thousand times he’s not touching the piggy bank of anyone making less than $250k.  Well guess what; if we take everything in excess of $250k, it doesn’t even balance the budget.  Everything!  Of course if we tried this, no one would make more than $250k.  If we took 90%, there would be very little income over $250k and so on.  Lastly, if we take everything in excess of $1 million, you know, stick it to the rich, it has practically a negligible impact on the deficit.  Hello Pesky!  And remember, this is EVERYTHING above $1 million.

I conclude with facts that raising taxes on “the rich” is akin to fixing the weather-stripping on a large commercial building that is hemorrhaging energy waste.

And so it goes for energy savings.  One has to ask themselves, what can I expect for savings to pay for a renovation I want?  Start by considering you can’t save more than the building or a piece of equipment is using.  Sound pretty ridiculously simple?  Some end users could learn from this.

If you are on a buildings and grounds committee, you should know a few basic rules of thumb.  I will use schools as an example here.  New construction costs around $150 per square foot.  The cost of lighting and HVAC for the building is probably 20-30% of that cost with HVAC costing $20-$35 per square foot.  People should consider their own energy costs per square foot, but it’s most likely going to be in the $1-$2 per square foot per year.

So put some numbers together to get a SWAG (scientific wild ass guess) of what your return on investment may be for an HVAC system replacement.  At Michaels we call such a limit of savings or return on investment a bracket or a bracket calculation.  For example, if you are paying $1.50 per square foot per year and a new HVAC system costs $30 per square foot, your best possible return is a 20 year payback – that is if you save ALL the energy being consumed now.  It is safe to say that actual payback is twice that long.  Ditto for adding a variable speed drive to a pump.  One of our engineers may consider a variable speed drive for a pump and I may pull out my calculator and within thirty seconds conclude it’s never going to fly.  The motor uses $750 electricity at most, and installing a drive is going to be at least $2,000.  After screwing around with more detailed data and analysis, it will be a 12 year payback and that’s going nowhere.

Imagine being hired to analyze options for an HVAC replacement, considering several alternative systems.  Wouldn’t you know it! The payback was infinite because the new system would cost more to operate in energy than the 90 year old steam system that provides no ventilation and no air conditioning.  The board is shocked at the price tag and doesn’t want to pay for the study!  They were “misled”.  Wha?  I would call it an introduction to the real world, circa 2011.

This is like going to the optometrist because the patient can’t see very well, thinking they need a $100 pair of glasses.  The doctor does his series of tests and he diagnoses cataracts.  The exam costs $150 and the cataract surgery costs $7,000.  Otherwise, the eyes are fine.  The patient is enraged and refuses to pay for the exam.  The patient still wants the eyeglasses – prescribed by said optometrist!  This is a perfect allegory to a real story.

You may be able to choose among solutions, but you cannot rewrite history, pick your own reality, or defy the arithmetic.

Tidbits

Checking in after my rant No Brazil Syndrome, how many radiation-related deaths have occurred as a result of Fukushima’s damage sustained in March 11’s massive earthquake?  Zero.  Meanwhile, in the same period, probably more than 3,000 Americans have died in car crashes and deaths from the tsunami in Japan alone exceed 13,000.

Like most other things, you (you) have infinitely more control over your well being than that thing poses.  Stay out of the sun or wear strong sunscreen, don’t smoke, keep your BMI within better than recommended limits, skip the red meat, wear your seatbelt/helmet, exercise, don’t break the speed limit, check your cholesterol and blood pressure, get your colonoscopies…

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





B.A.N.A.N.A.S. – Go Bananas

12 04 2011

This was a dopey high school cheer of my older brother’s and sister’s sporting days in high school.  “Go bananas.  B-A-N-A-N-A-S.  Go bananas!”  How lame.  What does it mean?  I much preferred, “Watermelon.  Watermelon.  Watermelon rind.  Look at the scoreboard and see who’s behind.  You! You! You! You!”  This was always led by the rowdy crowd after the opposing team’s cheerleaders would do a dopey skit, like the banana thing.

One of the first posts I wrote was Renewable NIMBY, that people purport to be in favor of renewable energy unless they have to look at it or pay for it.  In case you’ve been cryogenically frozen since the 1950s, NIMBY means “not in my back yard”.  People really like renewable energy so long as somebody else pays for it and it’s installed in North Dakota, where not so incidentally citizens are experiencing a booming economy by exploiting energy production, mostly on private land.

Last week I became mentally unglued upon reading about environmentalists blocking a paper mill in Port Angeles, Washington, from using wood waste for its strong appetite for thermal energy (steam).  Nippon Paper has reduced its fossil fuel consumption by 88% and virtually eliminated the need for petroleum since 2000.  What a smashing success.  This is beyond President Obama’s wildest dreams for clean energy, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported energy.  Yet environmental groups including the Sierra Club are fighting to shut it down and send 200-plus decent people to the unemployment lines.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?  If you’re like me, the answer is, yes but I’m not in the whacko, nut-job category like these Port Angeles protesters are.

Port Angeles is of interest to me as I have visited there several times and I like it.  It’s the last substantial town on the Olympic Peninsula on the way to the Pacific Ocean.  It sits at the base of the Olympic Mountains and rain forests and other fantastic natural beauteous places abound all within an easy day-trip.  It has a fair amount of tourism, but also industry as well and real people.  Like many other industrial cities along the northern tier of states, it is struggling, and this sort of whacko “environmentalism” makes up a good share of the decay.

And consider sustainability, for which I recently read a good definition [paraphrasing]: leave the environment in as good or better condition than you found it, for future generations.  This Nippon case seems to be a poster child for this.  There is much logging on the Olympic Peninsula, from a renewable resource – trees.  They plant seedlings by the square mile growing into beautiful new forests absorbing tons of carbon dioxide.  Nippon uses the remains of local waste rather than fossil fuel to operate its paper plant.

One local whacko, a psychologist which seems to speak for itself, says the biomass plant is for pure greed at the expense of public health.  News alert: she has no idea what she is talking about.  What would she prefer?  Close the plant and landfill the logging waste?  I can all but promise you the emissions from wood waste will have less impact than using any other reasonable energy source.  It will not be like burning a pile of wet twigs and leaves like we used to for roasting hotdogs and burning our eyes out.  It will be clean.  It’s carbon neutral.  Emissions are regulated by the EPA.  Do you think the EPA, which puts carbon dioxide you are producing right now and every minute of the day in the threat category, is going to allow this or any other manufacturer to emit one billionth of the hazardous emissions required to give a mouse a headache?  I’ll let you know when I think the EPA is getting too slack.  That will happen when I return to earth as a Labrador retriever.

Some carpers on the same side of the political spectrum whine about greedy corporations sending jobs overseas.  Hmm.  I wonder how these Nippon-protesting whackos and their ridiculous protests play into this?  Consider how far into nutland this is.  At the UW-Madison, we just spent millions of dollars to convert a district steam plant from burning coal to biomass – the same sort of thing these people on the Olympic Peninsula are protesting.  If it’s good enough for Madisonians, trust me, it’s good enough anywhere.

NIMBY in some precincts is giving way to BANANA – “build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything”… by whining halfwits and cretins killing our society – WHACKOS©.

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





Dumb Bears

15 02 2011

A senior sales director for MXEnergy, “the fastest growing natural gas and electricity retail provider” states, “As we observe the unrest in Egypt and other parts of the world, we recognize the volatility of the natural gas market.”  What?  He like many others “on both sides of the aisle” use the Middle East and our real dependence on foreign to twang the audience’s emotional strings.

The goings on in Egypt will have nearly zero affect on natural gas prices here in the mainland, U.S.  Why?  Because nearly all of our natural gas is produced here and we import from hostile regimes like Canada.  LOL!  The guy is using Middle East unrest and the threat of rising oil prices to translate to high gas and electricity prices here at home.  I think renewable energy at maybe 1-2% of our electricity supply may produce more electricity than oil does.  C’mon.  Don’t feed me this bull dung.

Then there is Al Gore’s movie the inconvenient truth, lower case on purpose.  The movie is one giant tug at the heart strings with flooding, starvation, cuddly polar bears dying.  In reaction to the movie, the president at Veriform, a steel fabricator, was so moved by the film he reduced his energy bills by 58% by investing $46,000 to save $90,000 annually.  Something tells me there is a little bit of number manufacturing and/or trickery going on here.  This leads the reader to believe that $90,000 is the 58% but it’s a little hard to fathom a steel fabricator with a $160,000 annual energy bill.  And what was the guy doing before?  Heating his facilities with electricity with all the doors and windows open?  He saved this with lighting, heating controls (e.g., thermostats?), and insulation?

One time we had a coworker of my wife’s over for a cookout and he was describing a program on Discovery Channel, if I remember correctly, that chronicles a polar bear that starves to death.  So I mentally roll my eyes and think, I’ve got to see this program.  The next day or next week I tuned in watching the polar bear swimming around in open water, jumping in, climbing out, jumping in, swimming, and at the end he’s on an island with nothing but gigantic walruses, the things with 18 inch tusks.  These things are too huge for a polar bear to take down.  They have skin an inch thick and about three feet of blubber.

The bear is after the cub, calf, pup, piglet, baby, squab or something like that – the little ones.  But the five ton adults are pig piling the little guy like a loose ball at the line of scrimmage in an N.F.L. game.  The bear is jumping on the backs of these school-bus size blubber bags – like a guy trying to tackle a Clydesdale.  He of course gets nowhere and walks away with a dejected look with sad music and depressing voice over.  Who knows if the bear actually died or they just made up the whole story fabricated from lost footage of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, with Marlin Perkins.

The conclusion: global warming was destroying the habitat of the bear’s favorite food, seals, and therefore, the gasoline you are releasing into the air when driving your car, killed the bear in the film.  My conclusion: assuming the bear really starved, what a dumb bear that doesn’t know how to hunt.  What about the seals that were spared?  Somewhere a bunch of seals that would otherwise be dead are basking in the sun.

Back to Al Gore’s film.  When I first saw the film’s promotional poster (you can get an eleven by seventeen keepsake for fifteen dollars) I immediately thought this is fitting and wonderfully ironic.  If you know anything about the weather at all – anything, you know low pressure systems, hurricanes, snow storms, rainstorms, and tornadoes spin counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere.  Yet the hurricane cartoon on the movie poster spins clockwise.  Chances this was intentional to represent a storm in the southern hemisphere: 0%.  All credibility: gone.  If this had one bit of “scientific” “peer review” (aka like-minded conspiring), why couldn’t anybody see this?  Al Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize, while the U.K. has all but banned the film for being full of bull dung.

We don’t need these convenient lies.  Get it?  To sell energy efficiency.  Exaggerating, embellishing, and just plain manufacturing facts catch up with you.  This, like climate gate, does our industry no good.  Just the facts ma’am.

Tidbits

Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, is convinced ever increasing regulation is going to be an economic boom.  Did you know every dollar the EPA levies in regulation returns $40 to the economy?  Wow!  What is the ticker symbol?  I’ll margin my account to the max.

Saying these regs will be a net job generator is ludicrous – like the breaking windows to put people to work parable.  That’s exactly what this is.  Just look at this report, and specifically page 7.  Where is the higher cost of energy factored into the equation?  Somebody has to pay for all this stuff.  Higher energy prices are like higher taxes.  The more that is spent on energy, the less there is left to buy goods and services – that are provided by workers, formerly located in the United States.  This doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

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





Galactically Stupid

1 02 2011

Some weeks I struggle a little to decide on a topic.  It isn’t for lack of topics for they are like natural gas reserves – at one time I wondered whether I’d be able to find a topic every week.  But like natural gas reserves, as I “worry” about running out of topics, the topic list is vastly outstripping demand.  This week it was easy.

I watched the state of the union address last week, or I should say I started watching the state of the union.  It doesn’t matter who is president, from Reagan through Obama, I can only take about 20 minutes before I am forced to turn it off.  I either get nauseous from the rosy talk or disgusted with vague speak of wrong-headed policy.  Luckily, or maybe not so, President Obama talked about “clean energy” in the first twenty minutes – a topic I’m most interested in. 

As he spoke about “investing in” clean energy, something like 80% “clean” by 2035, I kept asking my TV, “what is he talking about?” over and over.  WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT?  As I’ve written many times in this blog, the federal government should get out of picking winners and losers.  Let’s examine an example of the federal government’s brilliance in promoting clean energy. 

Energy Policy Act (EPACT) 2005 issued under 100% Republican power, mandated that 7.5 billion gallons of biofuel – which is essentially 100% corn-based ethanol – be produced annually by 2012, next year.   Last year, the out-of-control EPA declared we should increase the ethanol content in gasoline from 10% to 15%. 

Note what has happened since EPACT 2005.  Due to a combination of easy money, Fannie and Freddie government-backed loans, wild-eyed psychotic institutional investors, hedge fund managers, home flippers, and crap like interest-only mortgages, we experienced a bubble and then a colossal collapse of the housing market but also commodities at the same time. 

The government has a solid track record of screwing up markets and then when the poo hits the fan, there they are, lecturing the private sector and pointing fingers at everyone but themselves, the chief culprits.  The housing collapse fits this model.

The commodity balloon including corn prices that grew in lock step with housing in 2007-2008 put a crushing load on dozens of new ethanol plants that sprouted on the heals of EPACT 2005.  Many bankruptcies ensued. 

As a result of the struggling ethanol industry, the government once again runs to the rescue.  But STOP THE MUSIC!  Think for just a minute.  Let’s establish that ethanol producers are manufacturers.  I think everyone agrees with this.  Manufacturers take commodities, or raw materials like plate steel, bar, ore, grain, sugar, plastic resin and turn them into fasteners, heavy equipment, dipsticks, cereal, Pop Tarts, and ice cream buckets.  They make scarce goods out of less scarce goods, a concept I learned in basic economics in college, or maybe in the third grade when I made cookies from scratch. 

A whopping 40% of our 12 billion bushel annual corn crop goes to ethanol production.  While The Wall Street Journal waxes about food inflation,  which is all too real, what they don’t discuss is this issue of manufacturing the less scarce goods into more scarce and thus more valuable products. 

For the love of Pete, wake up you dunces!  The value of the gasoline the 2.5 gallons of ethanol displaces is worth barely more than the bushel of corn that produced it!  HELLO!  So what’s the response, let’s use even more of the more valuable feedstock for the same old demand of the end product.  This is lunacy; monumentally, gallactically stupid! 

According to the ethanol industry itself,  a bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol, and I’m sure this is the latest, absolute greatest conversion to make ethanol look good.  Current commodity cash prices include $2.40 per gallon of gasoline and $6.25 per bushel of corn.  Do a little math.  The ethanol leaving in tankers is worth barely more than the corn coming in, raw!  This doesn’t include amortization of the plant itself, labor, or the massive amount of energy required to manufacture ethanol. 

The price of corn is elastic.  That is, it’s price changes a lot with demand, especially when the supply of the feedstock is tiny , teeny weeny, itty bitty, compared to the finished product it is displacing.  I.e., if all 12 billion bushels of corn were manufactured into ethanol it would displace four percent (4%) of our petroleum demand!  This is like feeding hogs fois gras so we can reduce our dependence on foreign lard. 

Here is what is going to happen as a result of federal government brilliance pushing this renewable “clean” source of energy – I would say write it down and save it, but I’m doing that for you – the continued easy money, potentially devastating inflation (see Playing with Fire), and massive upward pressure on corn prices is going to ravage the ethanol industry.  It doesn’t take a genius to see this is going to happen, but apparently it takes somebody smarter than a U.S. Senator. 

Meanwhile, most people don’t realize it, but these completely government-induced artificial demands on commodities and resultant high prices are driving farmland prices to the stratosphere.  An acre of decent farmland in Iowa fetches $8,000 and in some places considerably higher.  Say hello to the same wild-eyed crazy speculation we had in the housing market two or three years ago.  Only this is a lot wilder, and the hangover?  It’s too serious to joke about.

The government’s intrusion into renewable fuels is going to bankrupt the ethanol industry.  Once that happens, the house of cards crashes along with grain prices.  Land prices will crash, and like the housing market, there will be a massive farm-country crisis that will make the mid-1980s crisis look like the failure of an eight-year old’s corner lemonade stand.  Land prices will plummet below the principal on outstanding loans, much more so than homes.  I estimate that land prices will crash by about two thirds or maybe only by half if we’re lucky, to somewhere near $3,000 per acre.  When will this happen? I would say for sure in the next 10 years, probably in the next 5 years. 

In a bitter case of irony, government “assistance” for states like Iowa is going to devastate the state.  Thank you Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, and here goes any shred of credibility I would give Newt Gingrich  (I actually wrote this whole thing before this last salvo went to press). 

And on the way to this pandemonium, livestock growers are going to go broke on exorbitantly priced feed.  Some already have per the above WSJ opinion piece.  We’re all paying for soaring food prices but food prices don’t matter to the Ben Bernanke.  It’s not part of “core inflation”, as though nobody eats! 

After the bomb hits, all kinds of suppliers of farm equipment, goods and services are going to get whacked and there will be a swath of bankruptcies again, making 1984 (the year) seem like Little House on the Prairie.  One “solution”, god forbid, is to throw more money at ethanol subsidies.  What’s it going to take? – $2/gallon of federal subsidy?  Is this the kind of “investment” we’re talking about? 

So think about it.  Do you really want the brilliant federal government driving us toward another cliff in renewable energy?  I can’t think of a more devastating outcome than will happen with ethanol, but then I also couldn’t think of a crazy scenario of how saving energy results in greater consumption in “Upside Down Consequence of EE” but then within a week in “The Delectable Light Bulb” a bizarre real example dropped in my lap.  The next government renewable energy drive may not be devastating, but I guarantee it will be a failure by any reasonable measure.  Has the federal government driven the breakthroughs in lighting and other technologies?  Not that I’m aware of.  The private sector has.  What happened to the Bush’s great government hydrogen solution for transportation? – and fuel cells cars?  How about the synthetic fuel godsend from the Carter days?  That was a winner, to be sure.

Renewable energy IS NOT like the development of space exploration leading to satellites for national defense then phones, TV, and GPS – or nuclear power.  In these cases, the features and requirements of the end product were well defined.  It was just a matter of physics and engineering to make it happen.  All known renewable energy today has significant physical barriers to success – like there are only so many acres of tillable soil on the continent.  The yet unknown successful, cost-effective, and plentiful source of renewable energy may be percolating in a lab somewhere or may only be a wild idea in someone’s mind or not even that yet.  I don’t know what it will be, but we aren’t going to ride solar and wind energy to the renewable sunset.

Feds – just defend us from enemies, foreign and domestic, and provide equal opportunity for all.  We will take care of the rest.  And, funny how things like satellites, GPS, internet, lasers, compact discs, DVDs, sonar, and stuff like that are spin offs of what the government is supposed to be doing – protecting us from enemies!

Tidbits

In reply to “Amber Waves of Ethanol” from The Wall Street Journal above, the CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, (lobby) states there is no food-ethanol trade off.  Forty percent of the nation’s corn crop going through ethanol plants is no tradeoff?  Nevermind.  Put down your emotions and think about what he says.  The supply of crops (production) hasn’t changed and “remember, farmers in the U.S. see less than 20 cents on every dollar spent on food.”  What does either of these have to do with pouring 40% of the corn crop down the ethanol hole or changing supply or farmer’s share of the take?  In fact, it actually bolsters the fact that supply isn’t changing while demand is rising and will continue to do so.  You have to be smarter than that, man. 

Lastly, I want to make it clear I am not ranting against the ethanol industry.  As I’ve said before, everyone has to play the game by the rules government puts on us.  However, once this bust happens, everyone involved should have to live with the consequences without bailout.  People need to take responsibility for their own decisions.  I chose not to pursue government ARRA handouts because I considered the red tape, competition for the money, types of clients that would use it, and that it’s a one-time deal, would make for a miserable ROI for us.  If others want to land the money, and then hire us, I may consider it. 

All is not lost for farmers and ethanol-plant owners.  Sell!  Farmers can sell their obscenely overpriced land and lease it back with long term contracts.  When prices crash, take it off the hands of the sucker that bought it from you – at that point it will probably be the bank, but the bank will also be broke – maybe you can take it from bankruptcy court.

P.S.  ACEEE wasn’t fond of the President’s omission of energy efficiency either

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