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Friday, June 27, 2008

We’ve Changed Environmental Attitudes Before

It was a staple of the long distance, family road trip, into the 1960s: someone (usually the father) got exercised about the litter that had swined up the car, furiously collected it all and summarily tossed it out the window.

And. . . We’re Clean!

It’s a weird image to me. Not just because I can’t picture it, either as part of my childhood or now (“Littering Illegal: Fine up to $500”), but because it represents an oddly delimited sense of space and place.

I grew up sailing on the Hudson in a fourteen foot sloop that my father built—he and a bunch of other Bell Labs engineers built several boats simultaneously, in the late 1950s, because the cost of already-built-boats seemed ridiculous to them. (“How hard could this be?”) I am romanticizing my own role here: I grew up mostly begging my father to dock so I could, if not throw up, at least regain some measure of equilibrium.

But I digress.

The Hudson isn’t really a river. It’s an estuary; it’s tidal; the original Mahican name, Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk translates to "the river that flows both ways." And here’s part of my point: it is a very large volume of water (that moves around a lot) and, in complex, precise, and technical terms, we fucked it up.


It never (as far as I know) caught fire, like the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, but it was brimming with raw sewage and PCBs (thank you GE) when I was a kid.

It is a great deal better now—thank you Pete Seeger and Clearwater!

I want to be critical, obviously, about how the river got as bad as it got. But I don’t want to be ahistorical. Plenty of things are better now from an environmental point of view: my grandfather was fond of pointing out that you could step off a curb on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1910 and end up ankle-deep in horse manure; in the New York that I remember as a child, most apartment buildings still had their own incinerators and it wasn’t unusual to see cinders streaming from chimneys or to get ash in your eye as you walked down Broadway (I kind of miss the roasted chestnuts you could buy on the street, infused with just a hint of diesel, but I digress again).

We do what we can with what we know, with the technologies (and the capital) at our disposal, and, perhaps most crucially, with the density we have to deal with. If it’s 1628 and my friend Troy lives upriver from me, he can piss in the water and the river can still be my water source. Lots of water; not so much of him. It’s a sensible thing for him to use the river for various kinds of. . . drainage—though probably best if he not joke about this too much when I invite him over for dinner.

But if the city of Troy (think Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute here, not Big Wooden Horse), with a population of 50,000 is dumping raw sewage into the river seven miles upstream from Albany, and the city of Albany is drawing its drinking water from the river. . . at some point, something’s got to give.

And so to the air.

Lots more air than water. And—in complex, precise, and technical terms—we are continuing to fuck it up.

I’m doing it as I tap away on my coal-fired computer.

We cleaned up our highways (and changed what constituted acceptable trash disposal behavior); we’ve done a great deal to clean up the Hudson and other American waterways; I believe it would be possible for us to halt and then reverse the build up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, though this would be the largest project ever undertaken by humanity.

It is hard to see, from the interior of a nice clean car that (fifteen miles back) we’ve set off a little IED of trash by the side of the road—we are so passed that; and it’s hard to see how beginning the innocuous seeming tradition of doing a little dumping in the river (what else am I supposed to do?!) ends up fouling an immense expanse of water; and it’s hard (it’s impossible!) to see CO2 and methane building up in the atmosphere.

But it’s important to open our eyes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

High Fuel Prices Are. . . good

Doh! Originally Published: Sunday, May 4, 2008

Accidentally deleted (the dog did it!); restored here for posterity.

Gasoline is bumping $4/gallon on the west coast and you can feel the country scream. John McCain and Hilary Clinton have joined hands to propose a Gas Tax Pander Moratorium. Truckers have dieseled into DC to protest the high cost of fuel, which is also blamed for the inexorable rise of prices in general and food prices in particular.

And this is. . . I’ll whisper it from under my bed, where people are less likely to find me: a good thing.

I’m not a disciple of Adam Smith and The Market Triumphant; I don’t believe that free markets solve all problems; but you might as well deny gravity as argue against the way in which prices send signals. We change course—put a greater emphasis on conservation, invest more in alternative means of energy production, shift what we buy and where it comes from—when it becomes too expensive to maintain our present course.

The intersection between environmental policy and energy policy is arguably the greatest market failure of our (or perhaps all) time. It’s been a collision of “fast” signals and “slow” signals: We get sticker shock at the pump and want lower fuel prices NOW; the environmental impact of our (mis)use of energy is TOMORROW. We don’t seem to be wired to deal effectively with slow threats: when a car is coming you jump out of the way; when an iceberg is coming you tend to stand and gawk.

TOMORROW is the hydrocarbonaholic’s friend, as it is the friend of any addict.

Just one more tank, man! Just need it to get going today. Gonna cut back starting tomorrow. Really—c’mon man, I’m hurtin’ here!

I will squeal like a stuck pig at $5/gallon gasoline. It’s going to make me do even more things that will be difficult and expensive. I know it’s going to be worse for people with fewer options: driving older, bigger cars that they can’t afford to trade in; stuck with even longer commutes; mass transit not an option.

We ought to do what we can to buffer the people who will be hit hardest, to give them breathing space, perhaps a five year energy rebate that declines over time, going down fifteen percent a year until it’s phased out, to encourage people to adjust.

Meanwhile, we need to raise the efficiency of our cars (as we become less reliant on them); we need to live in smaller footprint communities that put more of what we need in walking, biking, or busing distance; we need to (re)build mass transit; we need to reconnect to more local products.

And we need a CARBON TAX. . . I’ll stay under my bed while people digest that.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Big Oil Plays Games Online

TheVeryBigOilCo (VBOC) has put a simulation game online so you can supposedly see what it’s like to attempt to power a city of 3.5 million or so (about the population of the city—not the county—of Los Angeles).

You pick energy sources from an available list until you’ve fully powered the city. Your energy mix is rated along three axes, Economic, Environmental, and Security. You then, “watch what happens” over two time periods, the present to 2015 & 2015 to 2030, depending on your energy mix, “events,” and how aggressively you choose to pursue conservation and efficiency measures.

So how does this play out? Here’s what happened when I ran Solahville.

In the first stage, I assembled an energy mix that was 37.5% biomass, 25% solar, and 12.5% each for wind and hydro—maxing out all of those options and producing 88% of Solahville’s energy. At that point a “Petroleum Needed” flag came up and every energy button except petroleum became inoperative. Oh VBOC, say it ain’t so!

The city map showed four areas of deficit: Commercial Buildings had only 87.4% of the power they needed; Vehicles and Office Buildings both had 87.5%; Airplanes had 0%--my airport was shuttered. It was projected that I needed 17 Trillion BTUs for airplanes, some 3% of the city’s total energy needs.

It appears that, almost no matter what you do, you are limited in the number of alternative sources you can bring on line. No matter what set of choices I made, I could never power the city without getting to the “Petroleum Needed” level. You can argue limits make sense for biomass and hydro; there are clear supply issues for both. That’s less true for wind and solar.

I don’t know what assumptions the game makes about energy usage and efficiency; it’s a black box in that regard. But I am comfortable completely ignoring the matter of “underpowering” vehicles and buildings by ten to fifteen percent. Europe and Japan use about half the amount of energy the US uses, on a per capita basis with a comparable standard of living. We have plenty of room there to cut back with little or no pain.

The matter of jet fuel is a bit more difficult; we may need petroleum products there, as a bridge fuel, for some time. Still, we could significantly cut fuel use and ultimately change the fuel source: 1. How many passenger miles are consumed by pleasure trips? (for the record, I am in favor of pleasure but it’s not a noun I’ve lately associated much with air travel); 2. How many trips are of a duration that make them much better suited to high speed intercity rail? 3. How soon before we can scale up projects in which bacteria or algae excrete fuels for us in a carbon-virtuous cycle?

Moving into the future, with an aggressive efficiency and conservation plan in place, the first bump the program throws at me is “Smaller solar panels developed for widespread industrial use prove too costly over the long term, forcing factories to return to traditional sources of electricity.” I’m just going to snicker at that and move on.

The next bump is, “The growing use of ethanol and biodiesel results in higher food prices and shortages of corn, soy and sugar cane.” Can’t really argue with that; we’re mostly there already. If only I had listened to that nice Aaron Sorkin, when The West Wing broke the news that ethanol (corn ethanol anyway) was a scam.

In 2015, when it’s time to reconsider the mix, Solahville is suddenly down from 100% powered to 67% (economic growth?). I add more wind, more solar, more biomass, and (newly available) hydrogen to the mix. I’m fully powered but my “Economic Impact” meter goes into the red.

In 2019, “New technologies to extract oil expand the economically viable resource base.” Well that’s a relief! I was beginning to miss my hydrocarbon fix. And I’m sure those new technologies are completely environmentally friendly, cuz, y’know, they always are.

In 2024, “Dams become more environmentally friendly and powerful,” increasing power production from that source, while decreasing the environmental impact—fish ladders and bigger turbines for everyone! Dunno about this. Riverine ecologies don’t seem to be doing well on multiple fronts. A little skeptical about “low impact,” a little nervous about low flow—given the impact, present and future, of global climate change on snow melt, rain fall, and water usage.

My final score: 617,705,499. Maybe I didn’t look closely enough but I don’t know what that number measures. As a comparative, they provide a (higher is better) score of 622,960,192. Their mix to achieve that higher score was 11.2% petroleum, and included coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and shale oil. Hydrocarbons in aggregate made up 25.1% of the energy mix; nuclear provided 8%.

My mix was 8.3% petroleum (they would simply not allow me to “just say ‘no’ to hydrocarbons,”) with the rest divided between wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and hydrogen.

It’s an interesting, if somewhat opaque, game but my guess is that most people will come out with the same convictions they came in with: my conclusion, after twenty-two years as the energy czar of Solahville, is that we could build a carbon-neutral future; the conclusion of TheVeryBigOilCo remains, of course, Petroleum Needed.