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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is the Future Ahead of, or Behind, the US?

Two days after Christmas and the front page of the New York Times is the gift that just keeps giving.

In Germany, The Times reports, they are building houses that remain warm simply via passive solar, massive insulation (and heat exchangers, for fresh air) and retaining the heat generated by people and appliances. According to the article, these houses generate all the heat and hot water the occupants need, using about the same energy as a hair dryer. Cost of building isn’t much above standard construction, a premium of between five and seven percent. The European Union (those brazen communist bureaucrats!) is considering making new buildings meet the same passive energy savings standards by 2011.

In the US meanwhile, we get two front page pointers to stories further on which focus on rather more primitive power production issues: one is about a return to heating homes using coal. Cheaper, more plentiful, domestically produced at a more stable price than oil, coal for home heating was up 9% in 2007 and another 10% in the first eight months of 2008. What’s not to like?

In answer to that question—putting aside that pesky global climate change and the spewing of toxic chemicals and fine particulates into the air—there’s another story further on: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has reported the largest coal ash spill in US history. Coal ash sludge, containing thallium and lead, has burst out of a holding pond at a coal fired power plant on the Emory River, about forty miles west of Knoxville, contaminating the river and engulfing nearby roads and railroad lines. Initial reports had the amount in the neighborhood of 1.7 million cubic yards; the update better than triples this to 5.4 million—particularly interesting given that the TVA had previously reported the total contents of the waste pond to be less than half that amount.

Hard to read this little trifecta of articles and not come away thinking that some societies are moving forward, into the post-fossil fuel future. . . while others are sliding (or actively swimming) backward, into the toxic muck of 19th century technology.

Hard not to ask: WHY???

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Dark Side of the Street

We were awakened Thursday night by what sounded like gunfire, and turned out to be tree limbs, and entire trees, coming down in an ice storm. Friday morning we had no electricity, Massachusetts was under a state of emergency, and the governor had called out the National Guard to help clear the streets and give utility workers access to downed power lines.

Driving into Cambridge for meetings that day was like going from Kansas to Oz. It was overcast but fairly balmy; no ice in sight; and the general response was, “Emergency? What emergency?”

Three days later and the Sunday New York Times has nothing to say about Massachusetts, though the NYT Company also owns the Boston Globe (and execrable local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette).

Across the street, the lights are on, as they have been the whole time. My side of the block, however, and the side of the adjacent street that abuts my backyard, remains dark. It’s like one of those Twilight Zone episodes in which the aliens perform psych experiments to see how fast community will break down.

No one on the light side of the street has been across to ask how we’re doing, or perhaps offer us some ice. Instead, I’ve been shoveling ice-encrusted twigs off our driveway, to try to stave off the warming and rotting of the food in our refrigerator.

The next door neighbors we talk to have left for a hotel, as, it seems, have a good number of our other power-starved brethren. We’re sticking it out because of a technological quirk that has kept us warm and supplied with hot water. We have an old steam boiler, retrofitted for natural gas: the only electricity our system needs to run is the DC circuit for the thermostat; there’s no pump or blower to circulate hot air or water, no compressor to inject fuel oil. As long as the gas stays on, we’re okay. Without it, we would have had to drain the pipes and leave.

We broke into one of the emergency supply boxes in the basement: the LED headlamps are goofy but functional; the hand crank radio doesn’t have much range; candles work. My daughter is in something of a panicked and cranky state of tech withdrawal, “I NEED to check my email!!”

So out we went to the local library on Saturday, foraging for wireless, adding a list of local WiFi hotspots to our emergency information list while we were at it.

On the way home I passed a convoy of Humvees, a couple of them jungle-camo green, the rest desert sand. Good to see and yet a little chilling as well.

Not much worth crabbing about global climate change here: it’s December in New England; there’s ice; let’s move on.

But the impact of the storm does point to a couple of matters of energy and economics that bear a little scrutiny.

Our power grids, both local and national are in terrible shape and getting worse.

Part of this is a matter of deregulation: when electricity was a regulated monopoly, the same company that produced your electricity also “transported” it. That company had a vested interest in maintaining the grid. Tighter regulation, moreover, meant that it was compelled to do so by more meaningful oversight. Not so, on either count, anymore.

The grid maintainers now do as little as they can get away with doing. It’s inefficient to keep an overly large supply of repair and maintenance crews on staff when they will “hardly ever” be put to work. That logic works fine right up until the point when rare weather events cause the “statistically insignificant” deaths of the frail and more isolated people whose utilities suddenly stop working for a few days—instead of a few hours—at a time.

The matter of corporate resilience and redundancy begs the question of more local and personal back up systems. I have not yet descended to the 1970s level of survivalist paranoia (a basement bomb shelter stocked with krugerrands, ammunition, and a year’s worth of military rations) but I’ve been trying to be prepared for the advent of less reliable utility systems.

A more decentralized power grid would do a lot in that regard. Never mind my fantasy of a zero energy home; if I had enough of my own electricity to just run my refrigerator, I’d be in much better shape.

To do that via small scale wind or solar, it would be useful to have some kind of storage system, a battery bank or perhaps a tank to store hydrogen. A backup system could also use natural gas to power a fuel cell; the dirty way to do this would be to just have a backup generator, burning gasoline, diesel, or natural gas.

Having alternative power for just a few hours a day would be tremendously useful in an emergency—you can run the fridge for just on hour or two a day and keep things cold; you can recharge batteries.

Building grid resilience and local backups like this might be a good way to jump start a small scale alternative energy infrastructure. Since most states now mandate net-metering, for the 99% of the time when there is no emergency, these small scale projects would be feeding energy back into the grid, reducing the need on the part of the utilities to build more generating facilities, paying consumers a monthly dividend that buffered us against higher energy costs.

Of course, it could be argued that we are heading into a period when energy and/or weather related emergencies will be far more prevalent. Which would make alternative sources of energy and better grid resilience that much more crucial. . .

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Auto Chiefs Do DC II

The last time the Auto Chiefs Went to DC they flew in separate private jets, couldn’t explain with any specificity what they were going to do with billions in bailout money (“just fork over the dough and keep quiet and nobody gets hurt”), and while two out of three agreed that taking a salary cut might be reasonable penance for presiding over the meltdown of one of America’s core industries, the third (Ford’s Alan Mulally) told Congress—politely of course—“no, I’m good where I am.” (Where he was being a $2 million annual “base salary,” although CNN reports that when you factor in a variety of bonuses, he was paid $28 million for his first four months at Ford.)

So. . . for “The Auto Chiefs Do DC II,” slated to premiere this week: Chrysler’s Nardelli is walking from Detroit to DC in a brown Franciscan robe with a hemp rope belt, barefoot, of course, with UAW members scattering broken windshield glass in his path; GM’s Rick Wagoner is coming to town having ridden the 500+ miles on a donkey, in farmers overalls with patches on the knees and Depression-era shoes (holes in the soles; no socks); Mulally has chosen to drive (or, rather, be driven) in a Ford Escape hybrid SUV (for which Ford pays technology licensing fees to Toyota, BTW).

I may have some of the details slightly wrong. . . (although not in Mulally’s case). But you get the point. They are REALLY SORRY they gave the impression that they were too big for their britches. And they are strongly committed to giving whatever impression their PR people tell them will get them money.

Oh, and the $25 billion GM needed a few days back? That’s now $34 billion.

And they have a plan too: they’re going to fire lots of people, close lots of factories, cut benefits both for retirees and for people who continue working in the industry, and maybe even build more efficient cars that people want to buy (or import them from their European subsidiaries, sorta like the way Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler from Japanese competition, by importing Mitsubishis and re-badging them as Dodges and Chryslers).

So glad sanity has returned to the American automobile industry.

We can all relax now.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sometimes the Anti-Regulation Crowd Has a Point

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has made a number of admirable stabs in the direction of creating a greener New York. He hasn’t always succeeded and he hasn’t always been helped by the state (which nixed congestion pricing for cars in midtown) or the feds (who just quashed the requirement that we move to hybrid taxis).

The recent experience of the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in Chelsea suggests that Mayor Bloomberg would help his own agenda if he could clear some cobwebs from —and create some efficient interconnections between—a variety of city bureaucracies.

The Seminary has been trying to replace its heating and cooling systems with geothermal power: safe, clean, efficient, and close to free once you’ve paid off the (substantial) capital costs. To do this, they need to drill a number of very deep wells, to tap the groundwater under Manhattan (drill there, drill quick!). The system is online, though not yet complete.

So far, according to the project manager, quoted in the New York Times, they have gone 50% over the initial budget estimate, and taken three times as much time as they should have. They ascribe both of these problems to the inefficiencies of the 10 regulatory agencies from which they required permissions.

I am in favor of the MTA making sure that a drill bit doesn’t tear through the roof of the A Train. And I’m inclined to see most anti-regulatory quailing as the self-interested cant of cynical ideologues (I know, lets deregulate the financial sector! That’ll work out really well!).

But when the response of the city Department of Transportation, after a three month delay, is reported to be (again from the Times) that they can’t report on status, because the project “has no status,” when their answer to what can be done to get the project moving? is, “you can’t get it moving,” well. . . sounds like a regulatory failure to me.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Automotive Bailouts: The Neverending Story

With GM now having elbowed its way to the front of the queue, The Detroit Three—with barely a burp or a thank you for the $25 billion they were just given to cajole them in the direction of cars efficient enough to perhaps help them survive—are back at the government nipple.

GM claims, with some credibility, that it has only months to live if it doesn’t get another cash infusion and fast. The combination of pathos and avarice is fascinating. I’m reminded of that sweet little plant in Little Shop of Horrors—the one that needed human blood (oh just a LITTLE more) to survive.

I don’t think many civilians, myself included, know what the bankruptcy of one or more of the Detroit Three would look like (I’m seeing more and more publications adopt this over Big Three, for obvious reasons).

Speculation ranges from a hardnosed: not much; Toyota would buy the viable factories and the number of vehicles sold, and auto workers employed, in the US would remain more or less the same.

To. . . apocalyptic: The. World. Will. End.

I don’t have any philosophical problem with government intervention. Within reason, and under the right circumstances, I don’t have any problem with government loans or subsidies. I have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of the line workers, both those directly employed by the industry and in the ancillary industries that domestic auto manufacturing supports. All of that said, it isn’t clear to me who, if anyone, would be meaningfully helped by another bailout or series of bailouts.

It has been alleged that almost a third of health care spending in the US every year goes to the last thirty days of life. Granted we don’t have little readouts on our foreheads that tick down those last thirty days; one could go through fifteen days of expensive and intensive intervention and then live another twenty years in decent condition; a good percentage of the time, however, that money and those efforts end up being thrown at people who clearly have no meaningful chance of recovery, and no meaningful chance of a decent quality of life if they do recover.

Similarly. . . Well going back more than thirty years now, the American automobile industry reminds me of those cancer patients still smoking by holding the cigarettes to the holes in their throats. Doesn’t make sense to give them money for cigarettes; not clear that having them on oxygen is good for them or for anyone within the blast zone either.

David Halberstam pointed out one evocative example more than twenty years ago, in “The Reckoning: How Japan Beat the United States in the Auto Industry War and Rewrote the Rules of International Business Competition.”

The short version is: In 1958 Ford invented E-Coat painting technology (give paint a positive charge; give auto body parts a negative charge; you get full coverage in every nook and cranny and substantially increased rust resistance). This quickly became the industry standard, foreign and domestic. Ford, however, took until 1975 to get the technology into *half* of their factories; it wasn’t until 1984—more than 25 years later!—that they finally upgraded every one of their plants.

Can American industry innovate? Yes. Are they willing to invest in the future at the expense of this quarter’s profits? Detroit hasn’t been much inclined in that direction for quite some time now.

Airlines mostly keep flying through bankruptcy; retail chains also, for the most part, remain in business as they work through Chapter 11; not clear why the same would not be true of the Shrinking Three.

I oppose capital punishment and can’t therefore in good conscience advocate for executing a large swath of the American Automotive Nomenklatura (although we might consider this a form of euthanasia). If the federal government is to step in (which seems all but inevitable): 1. Executives should have their epaulettes torn from their shoulders, their ill-gotten gains stripped from their Swiss bank accounts, and be shown the door—Lead Parachutes for Everyone! 2. Everything possible should be done to safeguard the pension and medical benefits of retirees. 3. The government should have its loans secured by the companies’ assets. 4. There should be ironclad fuel economy standards imposed on the industry.

President-Elect Obama says he wants to rejuvenate the American Economy by getting us off imported oil and facilitating the growth of a sustainable transportation and industrial infrastructure. Well, Green Power to him! He’s likely to be involved in an automotive bailout even before he takes office. If he does what he’s said he wants to do, I’ll be very happy.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ban the ‘Vette?

I read a review of the forthcoming 2009 Chevy Corvette ZR1 Sunday morning. A mere $105,000; 638 horsepower; and a side order of GM has been talking about merging with either Chrysler or Ford, as they (pretty much all) burn through their remaining cash at an accelerating rate.

Why combining several hidebound, sclerotic, failing companies into a larger (hidebound, sclerotic) company would be a good idea is a mystery to me.

How producing another gas vaporizing vehicle—turn on the stereo in this thing and you’ve burned at least half a gallon—is going to help one of the Shrinking Three US automakers is also a little opaque.

I do understand the appeal of muscle cars—though more the Mustang than the ‘Vette.

But I have to admit that my first, nanny-state, impulse was “this shouldn’t be legal.”

You could tax the hell out of this car; push it from $100K to $200K.

You could put a governor on it—sell people a muscle-bound, mid-life crisis sports car with the speed capped at 55MPH.

But why not: Just. Say. No.

Kind of un-American, I know.

But we do ban things now and again, and often that’s a matter of degree: most people would put a muzzle-loaded, black powder musket under the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” Very few (there’s a couple in every bunker, of course) would extend this to cover personal ownership of a full auto, sixty caliber machine gun.

I can see why you might want to shoot the occasional goose, using the musket; I don’t recognize the right to shoot down an entire flock of geese (or even the irritating 80s band, A Flock of Seagulls) using the machine gun.

Interestingly (and, as far as I’m concerned, appropriately) there’s more and more regulation of engines on the (very) small end of the spectrum. The EPA is finally going to force lawn mowers and the like to comply with more stringent emissions guidelines. And, in an increasing number of places, gas leaf blowers are being outright banned (more often for noise than for emissions, but both issues are being discussed—as is the banning of gas mowers).

We know, of course, that the best, safest, most efficient thing to do is to regulate markets as little as possible—preferably not at all.

That always yields the greatest result for the greatest number of people right?

Just look at Wall Street!

Oh wait. . .

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Cry for U.S.: We’re Argentina

Through about the middle of the last century, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In the post war period, however, the country went from riches to rags; not the direction you expect, or hope, to see such changes take.

In significant part, this slide was the result of poor economic decisions (too much borrowing, not enough repaying; sound familiar?), a bloody series of coups, and a military more concerned with internal rather than external enemies (they began disappearing and torturing alleged enemies of the state in secret prisons; sound familiar?).

But the other key piece is that the products that had made the country wealthy—the export of beef and grain at the top of the list—slid in value as competition increased. The country needed to diversify and invest in changing key sectors of the economy.

It didn’t.

Not soon enough. Not fast enough.

Sound familiar?

We wrote that $25 billion check to the American automobile industry a few days back—another loan.

But Congress was only able (finally!) to renew the anemic tax breaks that have (intermittently) sustained the alternative energy industry in the US, by folding it into this week’s bailout of Wall Street, and adding a “sweetener” that provides support for “alternative” energy sources like oil sands and liquification of coal.

Meanwhile, Warren Buffet just bought a chunk of a Chinese company that manufactures lithium ion batteries for electric cars. They’re looking to bring both the batteries and the cars here.

I’ll confess that I haven’t read Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” But the subtitle, “Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How it Can Renew America” tells me everything I need to know.

We’ve wasted decades stuck in the idiot conviction that “we can’t afford alternative energy technology.”

Whether that was ever true or not, it’s not true now: we can’t afford not to pursue alternative energy technologies.

And while we dither, squabble, and chant about offshore drilling, China and India are moving to develop these alternatives:

Buffet isn’t investing in China to make a philosophical point; he’s investing to make money.

Our recent appeasement of India’s nuclear industry is unfortunate; China’s rising militarism is worrying; but the greater threat is that we will end up buying rather than selling the technologies that will make possible our surviving (start with that) and hopefully prospering into the next century.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Squirrels Don't Want Solar!

There was a piece in the New York Times this morning: “A Houston Refuge for a Hurricane’s Tiny Victims.”

A heartwarming story about children being taken care of in the wake of hurricane Ike?

Not quite: “Residents are finding tiny refugees in the leafy debris left behind by Hurricane Ike: baby squirrels. More than 1,000 of them, some less than three inches long, have been brought to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has set up the equivalent of a squirrel neonatal unit.”

So. . . let me get this straight.

We can’t care for the HUMANS in New Orleans.

But “Volunteers, who have come from as far away as Los Angeles and Minneapolis to care for animals displaced by the hurricane, sit around a table drawing formula into nipple-tipped syringes, which allow them to deliver a small stream of liquid into the baby squirrels’ mouths.”

Earlier this week, the Times noted, in “Solar Projects Draw New Opposition,” that one obstacle to industrial scale solar facilities in the California desert is—wait for it—opposition by the defenders of the Mojave ground squirrel.

They’re defending more than that, of course—there’s a tortoise and an owl involved as well, a veritable Aesop’s fable worth of endangered species, and the fierce desert dweller’s “why can’t you just leave us alone?”

I’m a little more sympathetic to endangered exotic squirrels than I am to backyard rat variety squirrels. But all of this is more than mildly insane.

I *think* it was New York mayor Ed Koch who came up with the acronym NIMBY (Not in My Backyard!) to describe the problem of where to site important but unpopular facilities. The new acronym—from I know not where—is BANANA (Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).

I get why you would not want a coal company to take off the mountain top next door. I understand why you wouldn’t want an oil refinery on your block. I am less sympathetic to the idea that people don’t want windmills spoiling their view. I can see the need to protect desert habitat, but if we don’t take radical action, and soon, we’re going to have a lot more desert habitat than we know what to do with.

If we maintain this “no one wants to give up anything” attitude, everyone’s going to lose everything.

And then who will take care of the baby squirrels?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Volt is Coming! The Volt is Coming! (Maybe)

General Motors continues to emit a steady stream of—mostly the same—information on the forthcoming (late 2010, they’re still saying) Chevy Volt: four door, plug-in, *“up to”* forty miles on a full charge, pure electric drive train, the onboard gasoline/E85 engine is just a generator to recharge the batteries.

So why am I not happy and excited?

I suppose, first and foremost, I’ll believe it when I see it.

In the software world, you refer to a much promised, oft delayed, product as Vaporware. It’s off there in the mist somewhere, glistening, perfect, and not quite touchable. It seems to be moving toward you, but it’s hard to tell in all that fog.

And GM has fogged us over before.

Paging the EV1! Paging the EV1!

Having a prototype up and running concretizes things a little, but not much: there’s a world of difference between building a $1 million one-off that will run smoothly for a one hour press junket versus building a $20,000 mass market car that a million consumers will still swear by (rather than at) a year after it’s been put into full service.

And in this case, well. . . Show me the battery.

All the hybrids extant run on nickel metal hydride batteries. The Volt is supposed to run on lithium ion packs. Twice the energy in half the weight, and every now and then your laptop bursts into flame—that’s where you’ve heard of lithium ion batteries before. That’s also why a lithium ion pack large and powerful enough to run a car is a little nervous-making. (Not saying this is not a good technology, not saying it won’t eventually be made to work, just saying I don’t know that I want to be the first on my block to test this out and roast the carpool kids, my own included.)

We keep hearing about battery breakthroughs. Again, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile, over at the bank. . . GM is at the front of the line, as the American automobile industry asks Uncle Sugar for $25 billion or so to help break (or is it cushion, or is it continue, I get confused) its addiction to trucks and SUVs.

We need to produce vehicles that get higher mileage! Well who coulda predicted that would ever happen? I mean we’re not clairvoyant here in Detroit, y’know!

In the fine print of the Volt hype, GM has been saying, rather more sotto voce: we’re not really going to make many of these.

Here’s the short answer to bailing out Detroit: no.

The number of auto manufacturing jobs has actually remained relatively stable in the US for several decades. They’ve just shifted from “American” companies (like Ford of Mexico and Korea), to “Japanese” companies (like Honda of Marysville, Ohio).

The Japanese build better cars.

They also pay more, pay more for, (and pay more attention to) engineers instead of the obscenely inflated salaries that American execs pay themselves.

If the Volt eventually appears, is a well made product that works as advertised, I’ll buy one and congrats to GM.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Earth Lessons 101

Galveston, Texas is a skillet-flat island, “protected” by a seawall 10 miles long and 17 feet high. Nestled between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, New Orleans is a bowl, half of it below sea level. Fly into or out of Los Angeles, and look down; what you see is an oven, a desert that is home to more than twelve million people, America’s most populous metropolitan area.

None of these places is really year-round habitable for large populations in any kind of a sustained way.

I grew up taking for granted the idea that we could do whatever we wanted to do: meaning not just Americans, but people in general—or perhaps, more clearly defined, Industreo-Sapiens.

The idea that weather, of whatever kind, would stop us from doing what we felt we needed to do was silly. I can recall one or two blizzards that brought my world to a standstill—a cool kind of snow globe effect—that’s about it.

Wind? Rain? Water?

That was Three Little Pigs stuff.

We didn’t live in houses made out of straw or sticks.

If rivers were in the wrong places, or didn’t behave civilly, they would, of course be moved. If we wanted to live someplace where there wasn’t water, water would be brought to us—endless water at no real cost, gushing from the tap whenever we wanted it.

Roads went over or through mountains or we just took the mountains down.

For a good hundred and fifty years or so, from the end of the Civil War to the end of the 20th Century, industrialized countries had their way with the world, remaking it, just one big sandbox to play in.

And now the world seems inclined to restore (dis)order and go back to business as usual, which is the planet having its way with us.

What allowed us to control the sandbox, of course, was the freewheeling use of relatively cheap energy. That era is coming rapidly to a close. At the same time, the environmental bill is coming due for the atmospheric impact of that energy use:

Galveston’s seawall isn’t going to do well as the oceans rise; ditto New Orleans levees, arrayed against an increasingly surly climate; LA is heading for the opposite problem—it’s going to be drier than prohibition ever made it.

I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the “live in harmony with Mother Earth” strand of environmentalism. It isn’t that I much disagree with the principles; rather, I find it too easily merges into a judgmental stance that treats the way we live as “sinful” rather than “unsustainable.”

We can put together equations to argue about sustainability (I hear LA has five years of water left, then comes the real crisis). Arguing about who or what is sinful is rather more nebulous and a lot more personal.

I’m under no illusion that people are going to begin—calmly, rationally, and in organized fashion—migrating away from the (very popular) parts of the country that are increasingly unsafe or where the population levels are unsustainable.

But part of growing up is learning that you can’t do anything you want to do. And mostly, unfortunately, that’s a lesson learned the hard way.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mayor Bloomberg and the Utility of Futile Proposals

I didn’t start out inclined to like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Billionaire Biz Guy basically buys mayor’s manse—and then doesn’t live there because it isn’t swank enough. What’s to like?

But I’ve come to a position of grudging admiration. He’s a bland technocrat, but he focuses on getting things done. And, unlike his fellow Republicans (elected as a RiNO—a Republican in Name Only—now identifies as an Independent) he actually matches rhetoric about balancing budgets with—gasp!—consistent work to actually balance budgets, including raising taxes (!) when that’s what’s required to provide the services that people demand, without running a deficit.

What I especially admire, however, is Bloomberg’s willingness to move forward in the face of resistance and/or failure, particularly with regard to energy and environmental proposals.

In April of 2007—for Earth Day—he rolled out 127 proposals for “greening” New York City, from Brownfield cleanups to energy efficiency programs to park expansions.

He proposed congestion pricing for automobiles in mid-Manhattan—modeled on the program that London put into place in February 2003, and expanded in February 2007.

Most recently, he has focused on expanding wind energy production in and around New York City, on bridges, skyscrapers, etc.

Congestion pricing was shot down by the politicos in Albany who exercise unconscionable authority over what the city can and cannot do.

In at least some quarters, urban wind energy is being derided as everything from impractical to dangerous.

Bloomberg is right about congestion pricing; and alternative energy sources should be pursued wherever and whenever they can be—if they don’t prove out in certain contexts, they should be abandoned.

But it’s particularly laudable that Bloomberg is willing to FIGHT for things he believes in; it’s easy enough to give people what they want or to do things that enjoy broad and uncritical support. It’s more difficult, particularly for politicians, to buck trends.

American politicians and activists have often been at their best when they took those risky but principled stands: That’s what the anti-slavery movement did for decades; that’s what women’s rights movements have done going back at least as far as the founding of this country; that’s what mainstream politicians today (like Maverick McCain and Changeling Obama) seem to have so much trouble doing.

“We are AGAINST drilling offshore drilling!” they both told us.

Oh. . . public opinion has changed?

In that case. . .

From Obama: We are willing to look at drilling.

From McCain: “Drill Here! Drill Now!” Drill, Drill, Drill!!

Perhaps Bloomberg would be the same (constructively intransigent?) if he were only a millionaire politician—like McBama. But it looks more like it takes billions for a politician to actually stand firm.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

I’d Like to Take the Train, But. . .

I commute by car, a hundred mile round trip—forgive me Mother Earth, for I have sinned. I usually don’t have to do this more than two or three times a week (lots of telecommuting), and I drive the highest mpg car ever offered to consumers. Still. . .

Worcester, Massachusetts where I live, is just over forty miles due west of Boston/Cambridge. And there is a mass transit connection. . . sorta. A little while back, I thought I would take the train in. An experiment, to see how that would work. Because it’s easy to pester people about how “we” need to use mass transit more. Lots of places, when you actually try to use mass transit. . .

Well, here’s how it worked.

I was dropped off at 10AM at Worcester’s Union Station (a gorgeous old building, from the hey day of rail travel, vacant and crumbling for years, then revived in the late 1990s—with mixed results—as an “intermodal transportation center”). Amtrak service is almost nonexistent; the Lake Shore Limited comes through twice a day: heading west, on the way to Chicago; heading east, on the way to Boston. There’s a bus port, served by Greyhound and Trailways. Commuter rail is run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)—or just “The T,” the greater Boston transit system: ten trains in (six before noon) and ten trains out (eight after noon) on weekdays.

How late was the 10:30 train I was trying to catch? It NEVER came.

First there were digital sign updates: Train Late; Track Fire. Then there were public address system announcements to the same effect. After almost an hour, there was an announcement that a bus would be sent to take train passengers to Framingham, about halfway to Boston.

I should pause here to note that, while the early morning trains may be populated by business people commuting in to Boston, the people waiting for the 10:30 train appeared to be mostly poor, a good percentage of them speakers of languages other than English, and a sprinkling of people with physical disabilities. Almost half of the passengers simply wandered away; they didn’t seem to know where they should go or what they should do.

I went downstairs to the bus port, where I assumed the bus would pull in. The long distance bus people yelled at me irritably, said they had no idea what bus I was talking about and it wasn’t their problem anyway.

I tried to find an MBTA employee to ask for information. Couldn’t find one anywhere in the facility.

Finally, I called MBTA Central, in Boston, to ask where I should go. It was news to them that there was any problem with the Worcester train, but they put me on hold and gamely pursued information on my behalf. After ten or fifteen minutes, I was told the MBTA bus would pull up in front of the train station.

Around noon, it did. It took (fewer than half of) us to Framingham, where they were holding a Boston-bound train. Slowed by track work in a few places, the train eventually got us to South Station; from there, I took the subway to Kendall Square; from there, I walked to my office.

Time, door-to-door: four hours. Door-to-door time, on the way home, without incident: two hours. Time, door-to-door, when I drive (off peak, without traffic or weather problems): one hour.

I would like to say “I am sure,” I’ll say instead “I hope” this was a freakishly unusual problem. But it just reinforced my feeling that taking mass transit to work isn’t an option for me right now. I could adjust to a four hour roundtrip commute; I’m not much on working on the train, but I guess I’d have to learn.

But I can’t fail to show up at meetings and classes. How much time would I have to allow to give myself a reasonable margin of error? Three hours each way? On my test trip, four hours would have been just enough.

The MBTA’s Worcester Line has a variety of problems. At the top of the list, the MBTA doesn’t own the tracks. The freight operator CSX does, so their trains have priority. But the frequency and reliability problems feed a vicious cycle that has long crippled mass transit: there aren’t enough trains and they aren’t reliable, so lots of people won’t take them.

Few riders, few trains; few trains, few riders.

Personally, I’d like to see a maglev train from Boston to Albany, along the right of way of the Mass Pike, stopping at rest stop Park & Ride lots, with either buses or light rail creating feeder lines to city centers along the way.

Not holding my breath. . .

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Bizarre and Depressing Politics of Energy Production

Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are in the process of doing a slo-mo cave, on opening up parts of the US continental shelf to oil drilling. John McCain did that reversal sooner, faster, and better, quickly turning his rallies into DrillFest ’08: “We’re gonna drill here! We’re gonna drill now!”

Another nail in the coffin of John McCain the Maverick Truth Teller; the will or capacity of the Democrats to stand up for principle was cremated long ago, a thin envelope of ash on the national mantelpiece.

The reasons for these shifts are not obscure: a majority of Americans turned on a dime as the price of gasoline soared and now (sorta) favor drilling. While we might see the political reaction to this as “responsiveness to the electorate,” however destructive the result, it’s worth noting that the fact that a majority of Americans also favor universal healthcare has not made politicians snap to in quite the same way.

Could this be because when you do what the energy companies want on drilling, you get money, and when you do what the people want on healthcare, you lose money from the insurance, pharmaceutical, and healthcare companies?

It’s almost not worth rehearsing the reasons increased domestic drilling won’t meaningfully impact the price of oil or gasoline (certainly not quickly, likely not ever): it would take a decade, under the best of circumstances, to bring new sources on line; the amount, in relation both to domestic and to (growing) global demand would be trivial.

The arguments for not drilling are also not terribly new or different: despoiling coasts BAD (including the economic danger to fishing and tourist industries); extending and increasing the use of fossil fuels STUPID (if your basement is flooding, it doesn’t make sense to run down there and see how many more spigots you can open).

I apologize for attempting to look at these things with a modicum of logic; I know that’s not cool. The Republicans have built a substantial industry, going back three decades now, of responding to conservation (and other) issues not with measured rational responses but with ridicule. This is the Bully in the High School Cafeteria political strategy.

Jimmy Carter is arguing that we save energy?

Nice sweater Poindexter!

Logging is endangering ecosystems?

Namby Pamby lefties favor owls over jobs!

Obama suggests efficiency measures?

Here’s Obama’s energy policy: a tire gauge!

I’m not much of a (lesser of the two evils) Obama fan; he’s begun to hedge on drilling as well. But it seems (again, I apologize) logical to me, that we would do better to rely on measures that we can take today, on our own, and at no significant net cost, rather than trusting that feeding more of our environment to ExxonMobil and friends will help us on the energy front.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Less Money for Mass Transit?

We’re driving less. And that’s good. This has reduced gas tax revenues. And that’s unfortunate. So the Bush Administration has proposed taking money out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund’s mass transit account to make up the resulting shortfall in the highway account. And that’s insane.

Taking this step would require Congressional approval, so, again, we will see if the Dems have a modicum of spine and can stand up to the president. The house has already passed a bill that would provide $8 billion in general revenue funding for highways—but, of course, the administration is threatening to veto that bill. The president considers that latter alternative irresponsible spending.

Bridges to Nowhere aside, I don’t have a problem with reasonable highway funding. We have ignored our infrastructure to the point where it is literally collapsing. We need a Manhattan Project to blanket the nation in high speed rail, but we will still need roads.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters has said that she will soon announce a plan to fund highways using private capital and increased (and variable) use of tolls. I don’t have a problem with that last part. We ought to pay more to drive; varying that cost, day to day, hour to hour, is a good way to work toward “balancing the load,” encouraging people to drive less at peak times.

Don’t like the smell of “private capital” in this context, though. For a number of years now deals have been both proposed and consummated to give 99 year leases to private road operators in exchange for either cash up front or regular rental fees on highways, bridges, and turnpikes. Foreign companies like the Australian toll-road operator MIG and the Spanish road operator Cintra have been heavily involved in this practice—as have the Iraq War pirates at KBR. This list may be a little out of date, but gives a quick overview.

The idea that “private is always better” has never made sense to me. Paul Krugman has written extensively about the relative efficiency of the VA medical system versus private insurance, for example.

If private companies expect to reap substantial profits by “taxing” drivers and paying for road maintenance, the government should be able to do the same at a significant savings. Market ideology aside, perhaps they are hoping to avoid the backlash that might be expected if governments, local, state, or federal, began routinely charging us to drive.

Given the growing rage at illegal immigration, outsourcing, and matters of national sovereignty, hard to see how there won’t be one helluva backlash from people who have to pay Australians for the right to drive through Indiana.

I’m willing to buy train technology from the Japanese; I don’t like the idea of renting anyone our roads. And the idea that we ought to fund highway projects by further impoverishing our sparse mass transit infrastructure is. . . just insane.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Is Climate Change More Controversial Than Religion?

You may already know that various companies will now let you design and print out your very own, usable-on-letters, US Postage Stamps: pictures of your new baby, your kitten walking the piano keys, your dog playing poker, all of that is fine.

But there are limits.

Turns out—surprise!—I went beyond the limits. I wanted to produce a stamp along the lines of the image on the right margin there—the logo with the green bars on the sides.


The rejection cited alleged federal regs which purport to ban the production of any stamp which, “Incorporates material the primary purpose of which is to advocate or protest any particular religious, social, political, legal or moral agenda of any person or entity.”

Hmmmmm. . . .

That’s kinda funny. Cuz every year, the postal service puts out a Madonna and Child Christmas stamp. Here’s the most recent one:

I will leave aside broader issues of church and state and entanglement and the degree to which this might diminish both government and religion (because that’s not what I am here to rant about).

Having more than a little trouble, though, understanding, how this doesn’t amount to “advocating a particular religious agenda” and how it is a more grave, and therefore impermissible, violation to argue against. . . pollution?

I’m in touch with the USPS Legal Department, the ACLU, both of my senators and my congressman. We’ll see. . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

We Really Do Need Gummint Action

There’s all sorts of stuff we can and should be doing individually to create more sustainable energy systems and lifestyles. But in the end, the important changes that have to take place are systemic. We need gummint.

President Bush, in comments yesterday about the wonderful state to which his policies have brought the US economy said, in response to questions: 1. The government should not interfere in the economy by bailing out private investors, (“If your question is, ‘Should the government bail out private enterprise?’ the answer is no, it shouldn't.”) and; 2. Don’t worry, the FEDERAL Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) will continue to resuscitate failed banks (“My hope is, is that people take a deep breath and realize that their deposits are protected by our government”).

Well, he got that last part right, anyway (even a broken clock is right twice a day).

The VP, Lord Cheney, has famously derided conservation as “personal virtue.” While I applaud his willingness as a politician to publicly come out foursquare against virtue, this says a lot more about the real attitude of the hydrocarbon(aholic) industries than a New York Times full of pious ads about how they are diligently working to transition us off oil, coal, and gas, into a bright, clean, sustainable future.

The allegedly market-driven conservatives (subsidies for me, the bill for you) seem constitutionally unable even to get “incentivizing” right. Attempting to burnish both his green and bidness credentials, John McCain has suggested a $300 million dollar prize for the next gen battery capable of powering a plug-in hybrid.

News Flash: The company that develops this battery is not going to need the money once they succeed!

It would make a lot more sense to parcel this money out for research, cut any way you want. For purposes of comparison, MITs Technology Review reports that, “In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) devoted nearly $50 million to research and development for vehicle-related energy storage.”

We have inflated and popped any number of alternative energy bubbles in the last three decades (recall Uncle Reagan, upon taking office, tearing the solar panels off the White House roof—take that Saudi Arabia!).

We don’t price energy to reflect its true cost; we consistently and heavily subsidize rich, polluting, unsustainable energy companies, and; we turn on and off the trickle of subsidy to alternative energy companies—giving and then taking away tax breaks, for example.

We need government policies that support and help create a sustainable future rather than pouring money down the rat hole of the unsustainable hydrocarbon-based technologies of the past. We need politicians willing to do more than simply mouth supportive but empty platitudes.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Where Have All the Grownups Gone?

I’m a little confused lately about where all the grown ups have gone.

President Bush has, mildly, changed his tune about global climate change. He concedes that it’s a problem; someone needs to do something about it; but, y’know, not him, not now, and not in any way that might be, uhm, burdensome.

John McCain has offered a “gas tax holiday.” We’ll see if Obama caves on this too. . .

Some Congressional Democrats want to break into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in hopes of lowering gas prices (given the possibility that someone might bomb Iran—or Iran might bomb someone—and the Persian Gulf might become “less navigable” that doesn’t sound like a great idea).

And they’re also holding hearings to look into the possibility that high prices are the result of nefarious speculation.

They used to call Social Security “the third rail” of American politics; touch it and you’re dead. Is the third rail now the making of logical connections?

1. We are running out of oil—finite supply; growing demand from China and India, among other places—and 2. If we had an infinite supply, this would only allow us to more quickly and efficiently poison our environment. (I’m sure I’ve mentioned yeast before but they’re worth mentioning again: feed them sugar and they piss out alcohol until they poison themselves; silly yeast; would that we were smarter.)

I don’t hear this leading to, 3. We have to radically and as quickly as possible change our behavior, the way we live, the way we power our lives.

I do see that you can’t buy a Toyota Prius anymore because they’re sold out; I do see that sales of ridiculously large pick ups and SUVs have gone downpossibly taking General Motors down with them; I do see that we are driving fewer miles.

So people are beginning to change in response to economic reality.

But I mostly hear politicians commiserating with how difficult this is (it is and, to some degree, they should) and stopping there. Wouldn’t want to suggest more painful changes. . .

Perhaps the problem is that there has been no Pearl Harbor moment—9/11 would have fit the bill, but we were told that the patriotic thing to do as the towers burned was to go shopping.

We are now belatedly springing into action on the energy front with legislation like the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 which mandates that we get CAFÉ standards up to 35 mpg by 2020—in the last year my family got rid of two cars that got that kind of mileage because it wasn’t enough for us.

Imagine if the response to Pearl Harbor had been a twelve year plan—because politicians felt that the American people couldn’t handle the kind of sacrifice that a faster and more direct response would take. Imagine if the gist of Churchill’s famous “We Will Fight Them on the Beaches” speech, in 1940 had been “we are studying the problem and coming up with a balanced approach and we will fight them in 1952!”

Friday, July 4, 2008

(Energy) Independence Day

As we contemplate, as we attempt to declare, independence from King Carbon, we should keep in mind that there are two kinds of freedom: “freedom to” and “freedom from.”

To be fair, under the reign of King Carbon, we have enjoyed: certain unalienable Rights. . . among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Freedom to. . .

A ’69 Mustang with a 390 engine, cherry red, the hood painted flat black and secured in front by two thin cables—the conceit being that, like a drag race funny car, the engine might blow at any moment and, if the hinges and hood latch didn’t hold, there would still be something to protect you from that slab of steel sailing at you through the windshield. I had a girlfriend in high school who used to drive this car to school on occasion; it was a gift her father had given himself—a classic midlife present.

When you mashed down the accelerator, all the clichés came immediately into force: the car gave a joyous roar, you were pressed back in your seat, and the trees that lined the parkway froze for a moment in your peripheral vision before blurring into a slick, hyper-drive, digital effect.

That was a gorgeous feeling.

And yes, it’s a symbol of American excess and of teenage irresponsibility, an atavistic, hydrocarb-punk infatuation with speed and power and the intoxicating scent of leaded premium. It serves no constructive purpose. And it’s a helluva a lotta fun.

On the other hand, we seek Freedom from. . . The variety of insults King Carbon has inflicted on our environment, which are serious and growing dire.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Can we have “freedom to” along with “freedom from”?

The Tesla is now in production: 0-60 in under four seconds, 256 mpg equivalent, 200 miles+ per charge. Don’t have the $109,000 in my piggybank right now, but maybe if I cut back on fireworks and bratwurst. . .

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Top Ten Reasons to Keep Your Hummer

1. Because you can.
2. Being able to see over those puny SUVs.
3. Faster consumption of those pesky hydrocarbons.
4. The pleasure of driving off-road, up walls, and over those puny SUVs.
5. Because no one’s going to tell you what to do!
6. Collision? You win.
7. Never really liked those polar ice sheets anyway.
8. Provides relief from swollen wallet syndrome.
9. Over, through, around? Through!
10. Strong feelings of sexual inadequacy.

Monday, June 30, 2008

How Green is My Electricity?

I’ve referred several times now to coal powering the internet and my computer.

That’s broadly accurate, given the mix of sources from which the US gets its electricity supply; it provides a good crude reminder of some of the dirtier, heavy industry connections to what we may think of as our cleaner, high tech lives; in theory, for our house, it’s not true.

We participate in a program that our utility, calls “Green Up.” We pay a premium of about ten percent per month on the supply part of our electricity bill (which is split between delivery and supply) and this is supposed to mean that 100% of our electricity comes from either wind energy or small hydro.

Getting hot and sticky now in the Northeast; our basement dehumidifier has kicked on, to draw water out of the air for the next few months (the alternative being to grow less than healthy or aesthetically pleasing black mold on the walls); we have a couple of window air conditioners that are on intermittently as well. July and August will be peak electricity usage months for us, and Green Up makes me feel a little better about this.

But it’s never that simple.

Are we really doing something positive? Helping move the US in the direction of renewable energy? Or is this just a form of Greenwashing, a scam in which I get to feel better (and modify my behavior less) and the utility gets to earn more, look good, and nothing really changes?

Dunno. . .

The supermarket down the hill from us has a “guaranty” that says something like “Monday thru Friday from 5PM to 7PM, all lanes are open!” Fast checkout when you’re rushing through to pick up dinner or dinner ingredients. Okay. . . But there’s an asterisk that says something like “except when operational difficulties intervene.”

So what they are really saying is “We GUARANTY we’ll do this. . . (except, y’know, when we can’t).”

On one level, that’s a reasonable and prudent statement; if half of their crew is stricken by the flu, what can they be expected to do?

But once we provide these reasonable escape clauses, I can’t help feeling that they begin to be used (and expanded) in unreasonable ways.

And I wonder the same about Green Up.

We are all supposed to “read the fine print.” But the reality is that there’s a lot of fine print, there’s not a lot of time, and—very often—there isn’t really any choice. When you install software, do you really read the sixteen pages of the EULA before clicking?

Could you really stop using insert-name-of-software-you-desperately-need because in order to do so you have to agree to arbitrate any disputes you have with the company only in Lithuania on a leap year?

I have to think that Green Up contains similar disclaimers about “exceptional” circumstances. Power production capacity is limited. And don’t we tend to have both less wind and less water when we have more heat and thus greater need for electricity?

For the most part, for me, what this all points back to is the issue of regulation. I am not quite as reflexively anti-corporate as I have been for most of my life, but at best I tend to view large companies the same way that I view teenagers: they’re going to try to push the limits; that’s their nature. And if you don’t rein them in, they’re going to hurt both themselves and others.

So the question becomes, Where are the grown ups?

On the side of the federal government, they’re not home; some state governments and municipalities do better; there are some good non-governmental organizations working on these issues (and then some scam organizations set up as fronts for polluters); there is also free-range info available in the blogosphere that can help clarify things.

We do the best we can with the information we have. . .