Get a Grip

10 08 2010

As you may have heard, this year China powered past (cheesy pun warning) the United States in total energy consumption.  Apparently, back in 2007, they surpassed the US in carbon emissions.  This makes sense as almost 70% of China’s electricity is derived from coal as compared to just under 50% in the United States.  In the U.S., nuclear and natural gas make up most of the other 50%, roughly split evenly with renewable energy rounding out the 100%.

In recent years, or especially since President Obama moved into the White House, there have been multiple verbose incomprehensible cap and trade policies drafted, but they are dead for now.  By the way, I maintain my position that substantial nationwide carbon limits are not going to happen in my lifetime.  If it didn’t happen since Obama took office with a filibuster-proof senate and a large majority in the house, it ain’t going to happen anytime soon.  Why?  Democrat senators from Midwestern states where coal is still king (not that this is a good thing) and coal producing states like West Virginia result in filibuster, if not an outright minority.  E.g., Jay Rockefeller will vote party line on everything but carbon caps.

There remains one possibility, however – that carbon caps may be legislated through the courts, which of course is not how things, especially major things like this, should become the law of the land.  In one example, the EPA in 2007 was handed the power to regulate carbon dioxide because it is a “pollutant” per the clean air act.  Again, this is like declaring water, another vital molecule that makes biological life possible, a pollutant because water kills.  Recall, I wrote on the blog a few weeks ago you can die by drinking too much water.  People drown, to the tune of 400,000 deaths worldwide each year[1].  Floods devastate communities – at least $3 trillion per year[2].  Water causes lightning, which kills about 24,000 per year[3].  And heat wave deaths – always have a large component of high humidity.  Aside from illegal activity (human smuggling), when was the last time you heard of heat related deaths in Arizona?  You don’t.  It’s Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Kansas City, Little Rock.  Water is dangerous.

You may be thinking, there’s nothing we can do about water.  Really?  How about banning swimming in rivers, lakes, and oceans and slapping $1,000 fines on people for not WEARING their floatation devices?  Move everything out of the 500 year floodplain.  Mandate air conditioners for every household and if you can’t afford one the federal government will provide one.  Sound familiar?  Thousands of lives would be saved per year.

The bottom line is, 98% of legislators are too cowardly to vote for the right thing, or wrong thing I guess, if it threatens their political career.

Sorry.  I got way off track.  I can’t help but railing against the preposterous.  Life has risk.  Is there anything, ANYTHING, worth doing if there is no risk?  There are costs and there are benefits.

Back to China.  China’s energy consumption has DOUBLED in the past 10 years while the United States’ energy consumption has decreased slightly.  For all intents and purposes, it’s been flat.

Here is something that will knock your socks off – since 1999, China has installed 416 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants.   “So what?”, you may be thinking.  A gigawatt is like a trillion dollars.  To give that perspective, a trillion dollars in $100 bills wouldn’t fit in a three car garage, tightly packed and stacked to the rafters Likewise 416 gigawatts can be generated by 832 large 500 megawatt power plants or 208,000 wind turbines by nameplate capacity.  This is eighty giant coal-fired power plants per year!!  And they have 330 more giant power plants on the drawing board.  Over the same period, the United States has built coal plants totaling 12 GW, or a measly 24 giant power plants.  China is averaging 80 per year, while the U.S. is averaging 2.4 per year.  GET A GRIP!

This is like giving Lance Armstrong a two day lead in the Indy 500 with his bicycle (he would be the US) but China has just taken the lead with the typical 225 mph Indy car.  It’s actually worse than that. It’s more like me running the Indy 500 versus the 225 mph Chinese Indy car passing me by.

In 2006, China generated as much electricity from coal as did the United States.  At the time they had 484 GW of operational coal plants.   Very roughly, they’re adding 10%, at least per year.  This blistering pace will fade with time, but it is fair to say they will have double the coal-fired electricity generation compared to the U.S. within 5 years.

Conclusion:  If we are truly concerned about carbon emissions and climate change, China has to do something.  The reality however is that whatever the U.S. can stomach will be of zero consequence considering the Chinese Indy car.  Unlike the floating continents of garbage that is choking the mighty three gorges dam and the 100 tons of benzene spilled in the Songhua River, carbon dioxide makes its way around the globe.  It doesn’t matter where it comes from.




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

Sane Personal Transportation

3 08 2010

A couple weeks ago I beat up electric automobiles for being overpriced and unpractical due to their short driving ranges and cripplingly long charge times.  This week I present a saner approach to substantial energy and emissions reductions.

The electric car is the equivalent of installing renewable energy sources before making conventional systems and technologies as efficient as possible in buildings.  Like buildings, we can cost effectively cut personal transportation energy consumption substantially, without sacrificing anything with readily available technologies – rather than pouring gobs of money into technologies that are just five years away from prime time; like they have been for the past 30 years.

Automobiles have gotten much more efficient over the past 20-30 years.  However, the miles per gallon have hardly budged.  Automobiles have grown continuously larger and more powerful.  The modern Honda Civic, for example, is much larger and probably heavier than the “larger” Accord from 30 years ago.  The modern version is most likely much more powerful as well.

Public enemy number one on this front is the explosion of the sport utility vehicle, which sort of peaked out just before hurricane Katrina, after which the $3-4 and upward gasoline prices caught peoples’ attention.  SUV buyers can be split into two groups: the family haulers and the egocentric.  A small group of SUV owners actually need it for regularly poor driving conditions (snow for instance) and/or towing.  Maybe we need to make SUV owners pariahs akin to smokers.  We’ll have parking lots, ramps, and garages that ban SUVs.  Or maybe we put scales where you pay the parking attendant and pay a tonnage penalty for overweight vehicles.   Or we could make the entrance to these spaces so small that only a Porsche 911 size car will fit through the gate.  Speaking of Porsche and SUVs, the Cayenne was an awful development.  How about LEED points for a SUV-free workforce?  I’m not so much in favor of these things although the LEED thing is intriguing.

I have been a big advocate of gas-electric hybrids since the beginning, especially for city driving applications where brakes are applied 40 times per mile.  My question though is, why do they make so many of them so goofy looking – like the Prius and the Insight.  Other models include hybrid versions of the common all-gasoline vehicles like the Civic, Camry, and Cadillac Escalade (which is a joke).  How about some sporty smaller cars like the Celica, 240 SX, Prelude, and Integra?  Unfortunately these reasonably-priced snappy fun-to-drive models are all defunct.

As a kid, I remember the late 1970s / early 1980s and the cars of the times.  When I was first old enough to drive, my older brother was nice enough to lend me his relatively new 1979 Mercury Cougar.  Look at that behemoth.   It had rear wheel drive and handled like crap.  The closest I ever came to an accident was driving this thing down a slushy road when I wandered out of the track.  Think of going down a waterslide trying to stop by digging in your fingernails.  The next year the thing was downsized by 50%.  The gas mileage probably doubled.  BTW, I don’t know why they put that woman on there.  The car is already hideous enough.  The last thing it needs is a supermodel next to it to make it look even worse.

Another blow to petroleum consumption could be dealt with the Diesel engine.  All else equal, the Diesel engine is substantially more efficient than the gasoline (Otto) engine.  Why?  It has a higher compression ratio, which generates a higher combustion temperature.  Like steam-driven power plants, efficiency is limited mostly by the highest temperature relatively cheap steel can withstand.

Later, after ditching the Cougar and suffering through three years with a 1983 Ford Mustang, I purchased a 1984 Ford Escort Diesel.  The Focus is the descendant of the Escort.  In fact, I think the big pitch for the Escort (gas version) was its fuel economy.  Most people I’ve talked to regarding the Diesel version are amazed to know there was such a thing.  Yes – 48 miles per gallon – 1984 – 27 years ago in car terms.  We don’t need rocket science or even some mythical magical battery.  We just need somebody with a brain promoting sane solutions to saving personal transportation energy.

Diesels faded from the American auto-makers’ lineups of cars for whatever reason.  General Motors somehow took a gasoline engine and turned it into a Diesel engine for its first shot at Diesel engines for light vehicles.  This was about 1982.  I remember driving my brother-in-law’s Diesel Silverado pickup truck and pulling a trailer.  It would literally take ¾ of a mile on flat terrain with no wind to get up to 55 mph.  It was the most pathetic excuse for a truck I had ever experienced.

I believe Volkswagen has offered diesel vehicles since way back.  To demonstrate how a sane approach to efficient transportation makes the insane look stupid, consider the Diesel versions of the VW Golf, Jetta, and Jetta wagon are rated at about 42 mpg, highway.  The tiny tin can lawnmower on wheels, the “Smart Car,” is rated at a pathetic 41 mpg.  You don’t even have room for an extra pair of shoes in one of those things.  They haul groceries as long as it is limited to Ramen noodles and canned tuna.

So how about these qualities to easily get to 60 mpg with virtually no sacrifice in performance, convenience, or ego:

  • Shrink cars back to where they were in the late 1980s with a proportional shrunken engine
  • Diesel engines
  • Hybrids
  • Styling that that doesn’t scream “I am a snooty college professor and I am better than you”.

These vehicles would result in SUBSTANTIALLY LESS EMISSIONS than a $40,000, 40 mile per charge ELECTRIC VEHICLE.  If you are thinking, “but we can power electric vehicles with windmills”, it doesn’t work that way.  Windmills and other renewable energy will always be fully utilized.  The incremental increase (or decrease) in electric consumption will come from conventional sources regardless of how you want to pretend you’re charging your batteries with a windmill.  In other words, electric cars will be charged with coal, natural gas, or nuclear power.

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

Law of Gravity, Repealed

18 05 2010

Yay!  I’m outside working on my computer for the first time this year.  Alright, who cares?

Every week I plow through news-clipping services to see what is going on, to build my topic list, which is piling up faster than the weeks pass.  This week I had to shelve 4-5 great topics to again take on the recently arisen climate bill.

Many huge utilities and other giant energy users and associations are lauding the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill.  These institutions include the American Wind Association, Duke Energy, Dow Chemical, Florida Power and Light, T. Boone Pickens, National Resources Defense Council, Steelworkers Union, Shell Oil, and Westinghouse. 

Support from some of these groups is obvious.  What stinks to high heaven though is the for-profit giants who support this bill.  Company motives are driven by profit.  Per news accounts, I’ve read Dow has done a fantastic job at reducing energy consumption.  My guess is they are stockpiling carbon credits, like AEP has been doing.  Buy low and sell high.  A climate bill will greatly increase the value of carbon credits.  Rest assured, I would say these companies are positioning themselves to make a killing, not save the planet.

Florida Power and Light is a major wind power company.  You may not realize it, but a huge portion of the wind energy generation in Iowa, Texas and all over the place is owned by FPL – probably by their unregulated arm.  They aren’t building wind farms in Iowa and Texas at a loss so they are jockeying for more of the same.

Westinghouse is poised to tee off on the nuclear power business.  I support nuclear power as it is the only realistic ultra-low carbon source of electricity.  Did you know Westinghouse is 77% owned by Toshiba of Japan?  I didn’t think so.

General Electric ditto both FPL and Westinghouse.  T. Boone’s mind changes direction with the wind.  I’m not sure whether he thinks or talks first.  He was going to invest a bazillion dollars in wind power and then reneged for some reason.  Perhaps it was because it costs more to produce than it costs from conventional plants and he realized there aren’t enough Volvo/Subaru/Prius driving boutique energy buyers.  I.e., not enough demand.  Or maybe he thinks cap and trade isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

I have no idea what the steelworkers are thinking.  Actually, most likely it isn’t the steelworkers that are behind this.  The union bosses are probably peddling this and it looks like a pure political play.  Like many environmental groups, unions are political first, and serve their members second.  Why in the world would they want to raise the cost of making steel in the U.S.?  It’s not good for the steelworker.  It IS good for crony politics.

The common thread in all this is: if we just enact this federal bill it will generate millions of jobs and the land will flow with milk and honey.  I can see water running uphill again.  Washington now has power to repeal the laws of gravity.  I was always skeptical of Mr. Newton.  He is Gordon Gekko with long hair.  Just look at them.

I can’t disagree that it will create jobs.  We would have thousands of workers building and installing wind turbines and a bunch of other junk.  But on the macro level, capital will be pouring into these projects rather than real wealth-generating enterprises.

Alternative energy costs more than conventional energy sources, but an electron is an electron.  It doesn’t taste better, look better, do more work, last longer, or drive better.  People will be paying more for energy, which takes spending money out of their pockets.  Artificially making a commodity more expensive cannot increase net prosperity.  Why don’t we just turn off all the aqueducts and canals that feed California and drain the reservoirs?  Instead, build desalination plants to make fresh water.  Creates jobs right?  Just ask the pecan and almond farmer in the valley.

At least with energy efficiency, even lousy projects, consumers pay less, not more.  And the same “benefits” of “creating jobs” exist because somebody somewhere is making stuff for and implementing these projects.

Here is something 99% of the populous probably doesn’t know: the free market has done an amazing job with energy efficiency.  From 1990 through 2005, the U.S. economy has increased energy efficiency to produce an equal quantity of goods and services using 44% less energy!  Energy intensity in Btu per dollar of gross domestic product dropped 44%.  You may be thinking, “Well duh, half our manufacturing has moved overseas and we’ve become a service economy.” Moved where overseas?  China, you may be thinking?  China’s economic energy  efficiency has increased by 66%!  Of about 150 countries reporting, only 4 became less efficient over the period: Congo, Haiti, Saudi Arabia and someplace I can’t pronounce.

The world as a whole has increased economic energy efficiency by 39%, in just 15 years.  That’s about 2.2% per year.  Real demand for power isn’t rising that fast (in the US).  I don’t think there’s an energy efficiency program in the country that saves that much.  There’s no question programs contributed to this, but I know of no programs driving savings in China.

Competition with some nudging from utility programs seems to be doing a fine job driving energy efficiency.  We don’t need a bunch of clueless Washington bureaucratic hacks who wouldn’t survive in the private sector for 6 months telling us what is good for us.