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Monday, July 6, 2009

Efficiency Standards, Unfunded Mandates. . . and Success

Front page of the Business section of the New York Times today notes that old incandescent bulbs aren't fading away; they're. . . evolving.

Why is that? Pressure from CFLs is one piece. But the real push came from the Big Bad Gummint, in the Federal Energy Bill of 2007.

The feds set energy efficiency standards that appeared to make the demise of the incandescent bulb inevitable--starting in 2012, tightening the final screws in 2014. Two years later (and three years early), there's an incandescent bulb on the market that already meets the standard.

This is interesting in that it belies the constant yammering on the right that gummint has no place “interfering in the market.”

Okay, so what what you want is the withdrawal of all subsidies, giveaways, and tax incentives given to the hydrocarbon industries, right?

Hello? Hello? He hung up. I wonder why he hung up.

It's a weird kind of adolescent-doesn't-want-to-clean-her-room argument: “I'll do it as soon as you stop telling me to do it--in my own way, in my own time!”

But when you come back the next day, the pile of damp towels on the floor is even higher.

I don't think regulation is The Answer. But when they talk about “market forces,” a key part of what that means is action to define, and consistently enforce, the parameters of what is and is not acceptable, in both commercial and environmental terms.

I had thought the 2007 bill banned incandescents (and I thought that was the way to go; I stand corrected). Turns out, instead, the bill did what the free marketeers always say they want: set the bar and let the market compete to produce cost-effective solutions.

It has started to do so. Doubtless, we will now begin to see Republicans, en masse, lauding freemarket greentech solutions.

Hello? Hello. . . ?

In other news: I wonder how this happened. It's a mystery. . .

Monday, June 29, 2009

Waxman-Markey Bill Weak and Meaningless

I'd like to find cause for celebration in the recent passage by the House of Representatives of the Waxman-Markey bill (the American Clean Energy and Security Act), but I don't think this is good news. Sadder still, a bad bill is likely to be made worse in the Senate.

Republicans in the House continue their militantly delusional approach to the climate change issue. In today's New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman refers to this as a form of “treason against the planet.”

“If there was a defining moment in Friday’s [Congressional] debate,” he writes, “it was the declaration by Representative Paul Broun of Georgia that climate change is nothing but a 'hoax' that has been 'perpetrated out of the scientific community.' I’d call this a crazy conspiracy theory, but doing so would actually be unfair to crazy conspiracy theorists. After all, to believe that global warming is a hoax you have to believe in a vast cabal consisting of thousands of scientists — a cabal so powerful that it has managed to create false records on everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice.”

This rant, Krugman notes, was met with applause, presumably from most of the 212 representatives who voted against the bill (168 Republicans and 44 Democrats—a few of the latter, presumably voting “no” because the bill was not strong enough). Voting breakdown here.

The Republicans, however, are only half of the sad story.

Writing on the op-ed page of the Financial Times, Clive Crook links together President Obama's approach to both climate change and health care reform, in a piece entitled, “Obama is Choosing to be Weak.”

“The cap-and-trade bill is a travesty,” Crook writes. “Its net effect on short- to medium-term carbon emissions will be small to none. This is by design: a law that really made a difference would make energy dearer, hurt consumers and force an economic restructuring that would be painful for many industries and their workers. Congress cannot contemplate those effects. So the Waxman-Markey bill, while going through the complex motions of creating a carbon abatement regime, takes care to neutralise itself.”

On the opposite page, the editors concur, with an editorial titled “Cap-and-trade mess: The US climate bill might be worse than doing nothing.” I think the title is sufficient. . .

This is not “change you can believe in.” This is not change.

The value of Obama's electoral mandate—and his charisma, and his rhetorical gifts—is that it equips him to tell the American public some Inconvenient Truths (Al Gore, btw is in favor of Waxman-Markey; climate scientist James Hansen is against the bill).

But influence dissipates like smoke.

You use it or you lose it. . . and we all lose.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Steamy Skies Over the Northeast

It's the first day of summer, but it's felt kind of summer-ish, in the Northeast for a while now, at least a few weeks. But it's that freakish new kind of summer I'm still not used to.

We are cautioned not to confuse weather with climate, but for going on three years, what I have been seeing, May through August—in Central Massachusetts!—when I look up in the sky is. . . steam.

Yeah, I get that clouds are steam, but this looks different to me.

Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York City for a seemingly interminable period of time (was it only three terms? It felt like more) was famous, among other things for the locution, “I am not a. . .” and you can put almost anything you want in the blank.

It was a “not that I am qualified to comment on this. . . but let me tell you what I think” intro.

“I am not a quantum physicist, but let me talk to you a little about Schrodinger's cat.”

Which is a long winded way of saying: I am not a climatologist, but Massachusetts (and much of the rest of the American Northeast) is beginning to feel tropical to me.

Gray sky full of roiling clouds for days on end—I am a migraineur, and I could write volumes about the pain of barometric pressure—it rains buckets for an hour, the sun pops out for twenty minutes to steam the water off the streets, then we're back in the gray for another 22+ hours and around we go again.

The 21st of June is a three-fer this year: the first day of summer, Father's Day (the 100th anniversary of Father's Day, in fact), and the second day of the annual Clearwater Festival. And the festival itself has its own triple celebration going on: (1) forty years since, now (2) 90 year-old, Pete Seeger (he's that pink blob on the stage) founded a music festival in support of cleaning up the Hudson River—this year (3) 400 years old.

I grew up sailing on the Hudson, in a fourteen foot sloop that my father built, and I've been going to Clearwater since I was a child. India-print skirts, Birkenstocks, and patchouli oil aside, it always feels to me like an annually reconstituted Utopian village.

The Sloop: Clearwater

I can't say what role the Clearwater festival has played in my interest in the formative function of how we name things, but the festival was an early redoubt of “intentional language.” Volunteers working security have “Peacekeeping” on the backs of their t-shirts; those providing assistance to handicapped attendees or musicians sport the tag “Access.” In a related vein, Clearwater was the first place I saw sign language interpreters made a mandatory adjunct to every concert stage.

Perhaps more relevant to what I usually blather about in this space, the festival has been generating (all of) its own (green) electricity for years; they've been separating and recycling the waste from the festival back into the 1970s dark ages of I-have-to-put-my-can-where? and there's something very moving about seeing Pete Seeger tooling around Croton Point Park in his (solar charged) electric pick-up truck.

(A few years back, I was able to intercept him as he left one of the stages and ask how "All of my brothers" had changed to "my brothers and my sisters" in "The Hammer Song." Little piece of Clearwater in my doctoral dissertation--out in readable form from Temple University Press. . . perhaps next spring.)

Hell or high water, we'll be at Clearwater on Father's Day.

How long we stay is a bit of an open question. I've been watching all week as the chance of rain on that day (like on every other gray steamy day this week) keeps climbing. As of Saturday, it was at 70% and rising. . .

Steam-on-Hudson, 6/21/09

Welcome to summer in the tropical Northeast. Don't forget your malaria prophylaxis.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Michael Moore Says, Make Lemonade from GM Lemons

Here's a "letter from Michigan" on the demise of GM, and re-purposing industrial infrastructure to produce 21st Century mass transit and renewable energy technologies:

Exactly right!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How the US Lost the Second World War

Here’s a short unbalanced history of Chrysler: Founded in 1925 (out of the detritus of Maxwell-Chalmers). Buys a stake in Mitsubishi in the 1970s and responds to the threat of Japanese imports by selling re-badged Japanese imports. Is purchased by the German automotive titan Daimler-Benz in 1998; burped back up in 2007. Effectively taken over by Italy’s Fiat in 2009.

So. . . remind me again, because I’m easily confused these days: Who won World War II?

I don’t ask this out of xenophobic pique. It’s just. . . interesting.

The typical explanation for the post-War industrial success of Germany and Japan is that the war destroyed aging and outdated industrial infrastructure and required companies to start over from scratch. Devastation wrought desperation as well; producing high quality, efficient products was taken to be a matter of personal survival as much as national pride.

The US, meanwhile, brimming with national pride and Victor’s Hubris (cousin of the guy who wrote Le Miz), was spared domestic war damage, chased efficiency experts like W. Edwards Deming out of the country (to Japan, BTW, where he was paid rapt attention) and continued to make cars in Model T barns into the 1970s.

There is ongoing jousting about what killed Chrysler and GM and, to a somewhat lesser degree, lamed Ford: piggy executives, regulatory meddling, the Great Recession, insurmountable “legacy” costs, fat cat unions. My vote goes to “stubborn inefficiency,” on a variety of fronts, with “na├»ve indifference” a close second. European and Japanese auto makers have had a variety of goads to efficiency for decades: from the basic space constraints in “Little Europe” and “Island Japan” to war-ravaged infrastructure to consistently high fuel taxes over a period of many years now.

The Adam Smith purists (who seem to have done a pretty spotty and shoddy job of reading the works of their deity) fulminate about the corrosive effects of industrial policy; that’s silly: Germany, Japan, and South Korea have, for the most part, pursued effective industrial policies; for the past few decades, we have pursued short-sighted, crony-crippled industrial policies.

And the howls of protest from the likes of GM have evolved (one might better say “pirouetted”) more to the tune of momentary convenience than to long term coherence: for most of the 20th Century GM was at the vanguard of fighting off the Stalinist Specter of National Healthcare (The Canadians are coming! The Canadians are coming!); more recently, they’ve stripped their gears shifting into reverse, and started lamenting the competitive disadvantage of being saddled with a workforce with business-supported healthcare and pensions.

It’s a blow to the pride of any (Honda-driving) American, to watch one of our flagship industries finally realize the seriousness of its wounds and fall over. Sadly, I do think that “what’s good for GM is good for America.” And that’s downsizing.

But “good” doesn’t necessarily mean easy. . .

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Zeus, Hera, and the Other Utilities

I've been looking at the swath I tore out of my kitchen ceiling (maybe six feet, by one foot) for more than a week, the underbelly of the house, or of the upstairs bathroom anyway, exposed.

Makes me aware, every day now, of the power of water (and of the odd reticence, where I live anyway, of people to do home repair work, or to give estimates, or to return phone calls. . . But I digress).

In a very real sense, the utilities that residents in advanced industrial countries take for granted, amount to a channeling and a taming of elemental forces: water, fire, energy. Modern life is based on our capacity to bend these forces to our collective will. And that works. . . except when it doesn't.

As when a gas leak takes out a neighborhood or a water main failure turns a Manhattan intersection into Old Faithful or an ice storm snuffs out the electricity for a few days (or weeks).

And of course, there are the smaller scale, end-user issues, little glitches in our own home utility networks. I've become sufficiently respectful of the cost of failure in most of these areas that I don't do much home plumbing work anymore. You only have to be wrong by a drip; add those up and down comes your ceiling (not my fault this time, BTW). I'll do a little home electrical work only under very circumscribed conditions.

(Having checked three times that the circuit is off, having donned rubber-soled shoes and kitchen gloves, my overactive adrenal gland still flinging hot drops into my icy stomach with the precision of a metronome. . . But I digress.)

Americans in particular are generally indifferent to efficiency.

Sometimes we talk about that as the legacy of continental expansion. (Don't like it here? Not enough land/water/oil/gold? Move.)

Sometimes we view it as an artifact of post-WWII boomer hubris. (Limits? Hell, we're not even going to age! Now where did I leave my ginkgo bil-whatever-it's called?)

But it seems to me that there's a moral or spiritual dimension to this as well.

I'm ambivalent writing that.

I more often view religion as a force for oppression than for liberation, for irrational rather than rational behavior. (As an atheist, married to a pagan—“Mommy prays to the shrubbery”—with a militantly anti-religion daughter, well it's complicated.) But wouldn't we slow our resource usage (perhaps drastically) if you had to say grace every time you turned on a faucet, threw a switch, lit a stove—a replacement for the physical penance we had to do when warmth or cooking meant gathering and chopping wood, when water meant a trip to the well and back with a bucket?

I'm not advocating for that, for what would amount to a mass conversion to something close to Greek or Roman polytheism—though the sandals would be cool. But a reduction in resource usage can't be achieved only through efficiency, regulation, and a more rational alignment of economic incentives (all of which we still desperately need).

We need to look inward as well as outward, to recognize our own failings and obligations (no guilt, no shame, just looking, just taking inventory) and our strengths as well. If religion does this for some people, fine by me. I'm more comfortable with behavioral economics, or a sort of secular spirituality, willing to admit that I have a problem, convinced that we are not powerless before our resource addiction.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bigger Better Power Grid? Maybe Not

The US electricity grid has been attracting a lot of attention lately—and even some new funding, including some folded into the recent federal stimulus bill. Why not? It's old, it's creaky, it's unreliable; it's been suffering from insufficient investment for a couple of decades now.

Particularly if we are going to make increased use of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources—like wind and solar—it makes sense that we should be upgrading the ability of the national system to store energy, to move it around efficiently, to enhance real-time communication and meaningful data sharing, between both utilities themselves and between utilities and their customers. The grid needs to be bigger, stronger, and smarter.

Or does it?

Let's start with “bigger.”

I worked in data communications for most of the 1980s, which was a lot like working for a power company. Most of what I did had to do with installing or maintaining terminals that were hardwired to centralized mainframe—Big Iron—computers. When you needed computing power, you plugged in to this utility—and hoped that the system was up, that there weren't too many other users, that no one was doing anything computationally intensive.

Then came the IBM PC, in 1981, and the first Apple Mac, in 1984. Pretty soon, you had more computing power on your desk (in your cell phone, in your watch) than it had taken us to reach the moon.

The build-out of global computer and communication networks has added a huge degree of resilience to our access to computing power. I'm not connected to one machine by one wire. While network problems occur all the time, they are largely invisible to us. The broadband connections that we use are dynamic and, for the most part, “self-healing.” If I have problems with my computer. . . well, we have more computers than people in my house—or there's my office, or the library, or Kinkos.

Mainframe computing hasn't quite died. But it has certainly diminished in importance.

So why should I get my power from a central location?

I would suggest that this has more to do with “installed base,” entrenched interests, and habit, than it does with an objective assessment of how best to provide electricity to the country.

We're told we need a bigger, newer, “reinforced” power grid to do things like move wind energy from the plains and solar energy from the deserts to cities on the coasts. I'm not sure about that. Distributed power production has many of the same benefits inherent in distributed computing. We might do better to have power markets and collectives than to rely on the benevolence of industrial conglomerates (recall Enron and Grandma Millie).

I'd like to see solar shingles—or thin film photovoltaics—as the only thing we ever put on southern facing roofs, going forward; retrofitting, certainly for government buildings, would also make a fine jobs program. For residential power, coastal areas could supplement this with offshore wind and wave energy. Cheap availability of wind power in the middle of the country might be just the incentive we need to revive American industry.

A smarter grid does make sense to me (or a smarter network of smaller power networks, loosely interconnected). Every building ought to be producing, as well as using, energy. A number of systems have been developed to use the batteries in electric cars for energy storage and load balancing. In a system designed at MIT, for example, your car would make ongoing calculations about when to enter the electricity market, as either a buyer or a seller.

It has been said that we are asking a 19th century power grid to deal with 21st century problems, and that the answer is to upgrade this older technology.

Perhaps we should instead adopt, or develop, 21st century solutions.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Judging Hydrocarbon-Americans

I live a block from an urban lake on which “personal water craft” are a regular feature; during the summer, it can be like living within earshot of a motocross arena, the growl and scream of two-stroke engines our constant soundtrack.

I’ve never ridden a Jet-Ski or a Ski-Doo but I can understand the appeal. I like machines; I like speed; I have some residual childhood nostalgia for the perfume of old time bus exhaust, that good sweet, high sulfur, black cloud—a touch of which is the magic ingredient in street food, from New York pretzels to roadside Mexican tacos.

Never dune buggy’ed across the sand or ATV’ed through the woods, and those things seem a little more odd to me somehow, but the basic formula is the same:

Hydrocarbs + Speed = Adrenalin

Of course lots of things make you temporarily feel good—and I'll succumb to PC timidity here and specify no particular act or substance—but, both individually and collectively, we recognize that some of them should be avoided anyway. The downside cost, sometimes to ourselves, often to others as well, is too high.

So, never mind the fact that I may be aging into a Hey-You-Kids-Get-Off-My-Lawn! attitude toward my neighborhood and my neighbors, why isn't there more reaction against forms of recreation that are primarily centered around the burning of hydrocarbons?

Lots of reasons, I suppose.

But it seems to me that one of them is the successful perversion of (or perhaps a basic flaw in) the modern tendency toward (ostensible) relativism: you don't judge me, I don't judge you.

I have yet to see people sporting t-shirts or baseball caps identifying themselves as Hydrocarbon-Americans, but it's just a matter of time. Burning fuel is a necessary evil for some; for others, it's on the continuum between fun (which I get) and a fundamental right (with which I take issue).

Yup, here comes the Nanny State and the dour judgmental Greenie.

Context matters.

If it's 1900 and you want to go out on the arctic tundra with a backpack full of high explosives and spend your weekend blowing holes in the ground, well that's an odd form of recreation but, “to each. . .”

In 2009, it's not too much of a stretch to think of the population of the world as living on a shrinking ice sheet. If your idea of a fun weekend is setting off explosions that cause the space we're all living on to shrink, as pieces calve off and either sink or float away. . . It's not Luddite prissiness to say this is no longer just private business, or a values-neutral argument about “lifestyle,” in which the Green Killjoys are trying to bring down the Speedy Exuberants and who's to say what's really right or wrong?

Yes, I am judging the lifestyle and life choices of the Hydrocarbon-American tribe.

Hey-you-kids stop making a racket out on the water! Wanna burn something on the lake? Get a rowboat, a canoe, or a kayak, and burn some calories!

Am I gonna tell your parents?

No, I'm listening to your children: they're gettin' pissed at you for shrinking their ice sheet.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

This Old Roof: Obstacles Retrofitting

The home energy audit guy never even got to open his magic bag of compact fluorescent light bulbs; the only incandescent we have left is a bathroom heat lamp. And I was able to show *him* a thing or two about LED lighting; the four bulb array over my desk: 160 watts incandescent, 60 watts using compact fluorescents, but only 6 watts of LEDs.

We’ve got an Energy Star clothes washer, fridge, and dishwasher, too.

What he had to offer—what the feds, the state, and my gas company are willing to chip in toward—those things I can’t do.

We could use more attic insulation, for example, and the utility would pick up 75% of the first $2000—which would be most of the cost. But. . .

As a matter of code compliance, they can’t insulate unless the roof has vents, which mine does not and cutting holes in this old roof—due for replacement when we bought the house, almost twenty years ago—would be a BAD idea.

We don’t just need a new layer either—that’s been done and done and done—we need to strip everything off, right down to the older asbestos-laden shingles that would be a hazardous waste disposal issue. A $12,000 job, if we’re lucky, and I’m not aware of programs under which gummint at any level is paying me for that. Same obstacle to installing a solar water heater—the $8000 cost brought down to a tempting $3000 out of pocket, when you add back all the rebates and credits.

The house was built in 1914; the boiler is original equipment. Started out burning coal, was converted to oil, then converted to gas. We could get a good deal on replacing our cast iron snow man. But. . .

That would mean tenting part of the basement, stripping (what else?) asbestos off the boiler and the connecting pipes, then smashing the thing to pieces to get it out of the house.

Unless someone puts cold water in it when it’s hot, and cracks it, moreover, that boiler’s going to outlive me. A newer, somewhat more efficient unit? My plumber gives it, maybe, ten years.

Never mind the US, I’d like my *family* to be energy independent. I’ve won the light bulb game; I’ve got most of the right appliances.

For the bigger items, it’s not the cost of technology that’s holding me back; it’s the cost—and the limitations—of owning a 95 year old house.

The average US house is about 34 years old; just over a quarter of our housing stock is more than fifty years old. If we are really going to push down home energy usage, we’re going to have to more comprehensively address the problems associated with retrofitting.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Can We Just Bury the Carbon Problem?

According to the New York Times, SCS Energy, of Concord, MA is looking to build a coal-fired power plant—in lovely Linden, New Jersey, famously part of the early beats of the Soprano’s title sequence—with the CO2 it emits to be piped out into the ocean, and sequestered beneath the seabed, about a hundred miles off the coast of Atlantic City.

This isn’t so much the stuff of nightmares to me as it is cause for dyspepsia, another irritating, and diversionary, sideshow. Is carbon capture and sequestration possible? I don’t know. It’s being explored in a variety of places, from a variety of angles. For the most part, the research is genuine and the intentions sincere—the article notes that the one seabed project extant has been running for the past thirteen years, 155 miles off the cost of Norway.

The rhetorical use of carbon sequestration, however, strikes me (as almost always) as A Clarion Call to Inaction! of the “Don’t worry, we’ll just. . .” variety. No need to change our lifestyles or our mindsets. More digging (drill, baby, drill!), more burning (burn, baby, burn!), and we’ll all be just fine.

I can’t recall the name of the former US Congressman who died in the last six months or so, famous for saying (surely not uniquely) that “most problems started out as clever solutions of one sort or another.”

Carbon sequestration falls into that category, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not a geologist, so I can’t render a professional judgment of the odds that sequestered CO2 might belch up out of the ocean or other subterranean repositories. But it seems to me like a shaky bet to make in order to extend the life of a fundamentally bad system.

Putting aside what happens when you burn it, there’s just no such thing as “clean coal,” from mountaintop removal mining, to transportation, to coal ash sludge repositories. Oil and gas have their own, rather similar, filthy problems, even before you get to greenhouse gases. As to the “greening” of nukes: fifty years in, we still have no permanent nuclear waste storage solution, and the US is littered with radioactive patches, both military and civilian; the stopgap measure has been to store most waste on-site at generating facilities.

The Times ran another piece (8 April ’09), “Not So Green After All: Alternative Fuel Still a Dalliance for Oil Giants,” which makes an apt bookend to the carbon sequestration piece.

Both articles highlight a trend of longstanding that’s particularly galling because it’s been particularly successful: after fighting the idea of climate change in the eighties and nineties (a misuse of the spirit of the Fairness Doctrine as egregious as that of the tobacco industry), what Old Order Energy Producers have switched to, in the current decade, is the strategy of saying publicly, often, and in dulcet tones that they understand the problem and they’re definitely going to do something about it.

They're banking (not without evidence) that when we wake up from our naps, we won't remember that we were promised ice cream--or, at any rate, we won't be so exercised about it.

Semi-Privately, of course, they lobby on against any kind of change, muddying the water.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Senate Fiddles: The Waters Rise

I was happy to see Cap & Trade prominent on the legislative agenda this year. We need C&T--or a carbon tax (and we can argue about which one)--if we are to use market forces to blunt the impact of climate change; and I don’t see the problem being successfully addressed unless we can get the market to work with, rather than against, a sustainable future.

I wasn’t surprised to see the Republicans come out, full force, against Cap & Trade. I have been perhaps mildly surprised at the level of dishonesty, and also the ineptitude, they bring to the table.

Wanting to let House Republican Leader John Boehner speak for himself, I went directly to his website. Click “Issues,” then click “Environment,” and you get a half dozen blips, mostly on the farm bill, the newest one almost a year old. Reading his website, it would appear that climate change is not an environmental issue on Boehner's radar.

The Republicans have been trumpeting the idea that C&T will cost the average American some $3000 per year—Atlantic editor Jack Beatty, on the NPR program On Point, cited the real figure at closer to $31 per person.

The $3000 figure is extrapolated, erroneously, from the work of John Reilly, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. Reilly has been working to correct the record; Republicans have been diligently repeating the lie.

But wait, there’s more! Boehner is also on the record against frivolous expenditures like spending money to weatherize federal buildings. Hmmm. . . . Jobs during an economic downturn, lower energy costs for the government for the life of the building. Yes, I do see why that would be problematic.

Finally, it’s important to nod in the direction of our friends the Democrats.

On April Fools Day, a majority of Democrats in the Senate (26 of them) went on record AGAINST folding Cap & Trade into the budget reconciliation process—which would have made it filibuster proof. Lotta coal states on that last. Can’t say what the less cynical rationale might be.

Nice to be in the new era of bipartisanship: on both sides of the aisle, the senate fiddles while the waters rise.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Don’t Tell Mom: GM Has Been Drinking from the (Gas) Hose Again

I keep trying to figure out General Motors, and mostly this just makes my head hurt—possibly from gritting my teeth, possibly due to the head-spinning nausea that contemplating the utter collapse of American industry induces.

The new Chevy Camaro Z/28 is the cover story in the April issue of Motor Trend Magazine (the blessing of paltry air miles is abundant magazines you could never justify paying actual money for). And it’s one of those mixed message images: tough looking pony car on the cover—red, with a white stripe down the middle of its bulging hood—a couple of lines in explanation at the lower left, in smaller and smaller type: “The Z/28 Returns: The Ultimate Camaro is ready to go. There’s just one small problem. . .”

And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or even an automotive pr flack) to figure out what that might be.

This *is* a Good Looking Car—not my preference, but I understand the appeal. But. . . It Doesn’t Look Good for GM, tin cup waving tremulously in the direction of Congress, to be launching a project like this at a time like this.

Just a few more gallons and I swear I’ll stop. C’mon, man, look at those fat, low profile tires! It’s a thing of beauty—listen to the engine, *feel it!* Just a few more gallons. . .

It isn’t that “GM insiders” think this is the wrong way to go, as the president of the Maldives begins to make contingency plans for evacuating the entire population of his low lying island nation. It’s that “it doesn’t look good.”

We’ll just let the guy from Motor Trend in on this—who’s he gonna tell, anyway? When we get to DC, we’ll talk about the Volt the Volt the Volt the Chevy Volt the Volt. The Volt is coming! The Volt is coming! Well, a few anyway. . . eventually.

And in the middle of the mag: it’s the Cadillac Converj, a hot looking electric prototype (based on the Volt the Volt the fabulous Volt), which Motor Trend believes would be worth $60K-$70K in 2014.

I don’t expect to have $70K jingling around in my cup holder any time soon. I still don’t understand why the Volt needs a bigger engine to charge its batteries than my car uses to propel the whole machine. And—near as I can tell—the batteries that “will” make the Volt possible still only exist on Sugar Candy Mountain. Just a tiny bit of reality (or response to reality), that’s all I’m asking.

It’s as if cancer-ravaged GM keeps telling us they’re stepping out for their weekly chemo, and instead they sneak down to the tuxedo store at the mall, blow their HMO money, come back with a smart new wedding outfit and try to hide it in the front hall closet—like we’re not going to look there! Like we can’t see that they’re not getting better!

Americans used to build things. Real things. Things that worked.

I miss that. It’s not clear that we can survive without it. Certainly, General Motors can’t.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are We Feeling (Green Energy) Stimulated Yet?

The stimulus package has lurched, slightly damaged but ambulatory, out of the Congressional conference committee and should be signed into law by (or on) President’s Day, as Obama hoped. I haven’t tried to pick through it to figure out how much is left that goes to what might be labeled green energy projects—and numbers in this context demonstrate an unseemly plasticity anyway.

During the (last) Great Depression, one of FDR’s alphabet soup agencies was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the New York area, this “make work” program was responsible for building a lot of the roads, trails, and recreational buildings in the Palisades, on the western side of the Hudson River.

In the 1970’s, during Jimmy Carter’s Great Malaise, I served in the YCC, the Youth Conservation Corps, a summer “make work” program which did painting, trail maintenance and some, literal, bridge building (or throwing new planks across brooks, if precision is important here) in the Palisades.

What I would like to see—in the current stimulus bill or as a freestanding program—is something along the lines of an NCC, a National Caulking Corps.

We often bog down in arguments about what constitutes “real” and worthwhile investment in saving energy, which technologies are worthwhile and can be scaled up, which ones yield net energy gains, which gains are merely illusory. This can be odd, irritating, and (sometimes intentionally) diversionary, which is not to say that such calculations should not be made.

The consensus is pretty clear, however, about the “low hanging fruit” offered by energy conservation. Americans still use roughly twice the energy of people with a similar standard of living in places like Japan and Western Europe.

A Manhattan Project (street to street and building by building) aimed simply at “Bringing America Up to (Green) Code” would generate a large number of jobs and would save a huge amount of energy. You could do this in three layers which would also target several groups of people in need of work:

1. You don’t even need a high school diploma to caulk and weatherstrip.

2. Installation of insulation and replacement windows takes some training (and supervision of new hires) but that training too has a variety of positive multiplier effects.

3. Finally, there is abundant HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) work to be done, overhauling and retro-fitting existing systems, replacing outmoded equipment, designing and installing new heating, cooling, and hot water devices, and—perhaps most crucially—manufacturing these cutting edge devices.

You can’t outsource caulking and insulating. But we are in danger of trading dependence on foreign energy sources for dependence on foreign green technologies. In today’s New York Times, for example, Tom Friedman points to the American and Chinese embassies, across the street from each other in New Delhi. “The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The Chinese Embassy’s roof if loaded with . . . new Chinese-made solar hot-water heaters.”

This is an area in which I support the Nanny State: energy upgrades should be universal and mandatory. As to cost, one approach would be to tax utility bills such that they did not rise but also did not fall (to reflect energy savings) until the upgrades had been paid off.

If that amounts to a thirty year energy mortgage. . . well the government owns plenty of mortgages at this point anyway, and green mortgages would be both a lot less toxic and a lot more reliably profitable in every way.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Carbon Cap & Trade in (Parts of) the US

I didn’t give people greenhouse gas credits as holiday gifts, as in, “Happy Chanukah, I’ve offset your carbon footprint for this week!” or “Merry Christmas, I bought you some methane!” or “A fine Festivus to you and yours; I’m fighting global climate change in your name!”

In theory, this would be a reasonable extension of donating to charities as a non-materialistic holiday gift. In practice, I feel like it would end up sounding more like, “Could we celebrate this year by my ramming my beliefs down your throat?”

It’s a precarious balance.

If you shout at people, you alienate them and they ignore your message; if you whisper, most people can’t hear you.

“We’re doomed!” is excessive (Who knew?).

“Pssst, environmental apocalypse coming soon, pass it on,” seems a tad inadequate.

The Happy New Year news is that ReGGIe is now up and running.

Under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, but Reggie to its friends), as of January 1st, ten mid-Atlantic and northeastern states have implemented the first mandatory greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program in the US.

Straight up the coast, from Maryland to Maine—with Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont in between and with Pennsylvania and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec currently enjoying “observer status,” power companies will have to either reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (for which they will earn salable credits) or pay a fee for every ton of CO2 they emit ($3.38 at the last auction).

The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector by 10% by 2018. The money the states collect from the auctions is to be used for energy efficiency projects, renewable energy, and other clean energy technologies.

This is a welcome step from the states, given that the Bush administration (Bye now, don’t forget to write!) has worked to pillage, rather than to preserve, the environment. Hopefully this will serve as a model for the incoming Obama administration, something that can be rolled out nationwide if it works well.

I’m not convinced that The Market Will Save Us! But it’s clear that sending the right economic signals, and setting up incentive systems that push both companies and people to Do the Right Thing is a crucial part of addressing our environmental problems.

And a Happy Festivus to all!