CAFE Standards: Fed Task Force FAIL

The vehicles owned by the Obama administration’s auto team were released in a list today by The Detroit News. While Detroit is focusing on the fact that the “Big Three” are underrepresented amongst the auto-owners on the federal task force, I just did some back-of-the-envelope math and made a shocking discovery.

The federal task force fails CAFE standards.

Admittedly, my statistics might be a bit sloppy, but here’s my basic accounting methods– I punched in each member’s vehicle make and model into fueleconomy.gov and then jotted down the average MPG. After everything, I added up the total from all car drivers and then divided by the total number of car drivers.

The final number = 23.41666

Feel free to double check my work, and leave notes in the comment section. (more…)

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 6:14 pm Comments Off on CAFE Standards: Fed Task Force FAIL

Ice Storms and Blizzards Don’t Mean We’re Cool (Global Warming Still Happening)

Professor Ryan’s ACS contribution emphasized the importance of the new Green Deal for stimulating the economy and saving the planet. However, recent severe winter storms may have some of us wondering, “This can’t be global warming, is the environment okay now?” The February 15 edition of EarthTalk, the question-and-answer column of E-The Environmental Magazine, responded to this question and their answer seems to be that no, the environment is not really okay now. First and foremost, the column explains that no single storm/season/year can serve as a solid indication of where the environment is heading, and that extremes on either end of the thermometer are a bad sign. And, while the reports of destructive ice and snow and plummeting temperatures are distracting, the overall trend over the last few decades has been one of warming. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that January 2009 temperatures are above the long-term average.

Other reports on this topic confirm that the Earth is getting warmer, despite the low temperatures in the headlines. ScienceDaily’s Monday article on the melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet explains the impact warming oceans are having and will continue to have on the ice sheets and, consequentially, on the global sea level. Of course some say that the data on global warming’s cause, even its existence, is not conclusive. There are drastically conflicting views on the issue. Web sites such as the Skeptics Global Warming question the idea, specifically the contention that the earth’s warming is caused by humans. In contrast, a February 10 New Scientist article argues that climate scientists are actually quite certain about global warming and attributes the confusion to inconclusive vocabulary (“virtually certain”, “very likely”, etc.), not inconclusive data.

The cause of global warming, our ability to stop it, and even its existence continue to be debated. However, for those of us who believe that the Earth is in trouble, it is clear that winter storms are not a signal to sleep on global warming.

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Published in: on February 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm Comments Off on Ice Storms and Blizzards Don’t Mean We’re Cool (Global Warming Still Happening)

Breaking Ground on the New Green Deal

Guest post by Prof. Erin Ryan, Associate Professor of Law at William & Mary

Reluctant members of Congress, listen up. You’ve tried bailing out the past. It’s time to bail in the future.

Now that we’ve pumped trillions into failing industries that drove economic growth on little more than a ponzi scheme, it’s time to invest in an economic engine that will propel us toward real progress–creating 

real jobs and alleviating real problems. Recognizing the stakes for our economy, security, and leadership in the world, President Obama campaigned (and won) on a promise to invest $150 billion in a clean-energy economy. Now that his stimulus proposal follows through with billions for electricity industry remodeling and private investment in renewables, it’s time to fall in. The stimulus package you are holding hostage is the down-payment on a new deal with the American public that finally takes on the Gordian knot of climate, energy, and environment. Don’t blow this for us.

Like the old New Deal, this new Green Deal will rescue the free-falling economy by investing in infrastructure that creates jobs and repositions American industry toward new kinds of growth. In the 1930s, FDR built a national network of roads, bridges, and parks, connecting producers and consumers, enhancing national security, and protecting natural resources. Today’s mission is exactly the same, but this time the infrastructure that can accomplish it will enable alternative energy generation, storage, and transmission. Sure, you could pass tax cuts instead, but if they don’t work, we’re left with a fistful of nothing. Investing in infrastructure gets people hired to build it, and the worst case scenario at the end of the day is a tangible bedrock for future economic growth.

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Published in: on February 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm Comments Off on Breaking Ground on the New Green Deal

What to Do with Detroit?

Automakers this week went before Congress to try to convince them that they needed a $25 billion bailout to avoid a massive disaster that would result in the loss of millions of American jobs.  Congress remained unmoved.  Congress gave the executives of these companies a little under two weeks to come up with a plan for the proposed bailout that would inspire confidence that the money they’d receive would be used properly.  We’ll see if the executives are up to the task.

There are a lot of different viewpoints about how best to handle this situation.  There’s the approach advocated by free-marketers that say that letting Detroit automakers fail is the best thing for the economy.  Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy takes this approach, as does David Yermack at the Wall Street Journal.   Their basic contention is that the economic resources tied up in the American auto industry are being inefficiently used and have been since the 1970s.  They contend that letting these companies fail, while initially painful, would free up those resources to be used by more efficient firms in profitable industries.  This would create more jobs long term.  These arguments make intuitive sense.  However, there is a major problem with them.  We as a nation are already faced with the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.  Allowing the Big 3 to fail would result in the loss of MILLIONS of jobs.  Those millions of jobless people aren’t all going to be able to jump into new careers.  Many will need to be re-trained and most companies aren’t hiring right now because of the current economic conditions.  This solution doesn’t seem tenable given today’s economic realities.

Then there’s the solution offered by Robert Reich, an economic adviser to President-elect Obama.  He suggests allowing the Big 3 to reorganize with a bailout, but as a condition of the bailout, the Big 3’s executives, creditors, and shareholders take losses equivalent to what they would suffer under Chapter 11 and that the United Auto Workers take wage and benefit cuts.  The bailout and savings from the aforementioned conditions, he argues, would allow them to retool their production process towards the more fuel efficient cars that are in high demand and are produced cheaper and better by their competitors from Japan (Honda and Toyota).  Todd Zywicki at The Volokh Conspiracy advocates a similar approach, although he argues for an actual Chapter 11 filing and reorganization, and would only allow government funds to be made available after a good-faith effort was made to try to secure private debtor in possession (DIP) financing.

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Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 3:01 pm Comments Off on What to Do with Detroit?
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Blocking of Coal Plant License Could Lead to Saving Our Coral Reefs

A recent decision by The Environmental Appeals Board blocked the EPA from issuing a license for a new coal plant addition in Vernal, Utah, near Salt Lake City. This one decision may seem insignificant on the surface, but it could be the first in a chain of events that could lead to more solar and wind power, as well as salvation for marine life, particularly coral reefs.

The Appeals Board reversed the EPA’s earlier decision to grant a permit to Bonanza Coal Power Plant after a Petition for Review was filed by lawyers of the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates, and Environmental Defense. The original permit did not contain any requirements regarding carbon dioxide emissions, despite the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA (PDF) that granted power to the EPA to make decisions and regulations regarding carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. In its decision on Thursday, the board sent the permit back to the local EPA office for review. The office must consider whether the Bonanza plant must follow the strictest guidelines for carbon dioxide emissions, and explain its decision thoroughly. The decision also warned the EPA that it needs to consider a nationwide standard for CO2 emissions.

The Bonanza plant is not the only plant that will be affected by this decision. “[T]his is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding,” the board wrote. The decision effectively placed over 100 coal plants in question, including two others in Utah: the 270-megawatt Sevier Power coal-fired plant proposed for Sigurd (who’s state license is currently being reviewed by the Utah Supreme Court) and the 900-megawatt Unit 3 of the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta (sent for review to the Utah Air Quality Board).

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Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 10:42 am Comments Off on Blocking of Coal Plant License Could Lead to Saving Our Coral Reefs

From Garbage to Electricity: A Whole New Way to Recycle

Imagine that the banana peel you toss into the garbage can today help power your home in the near future.  It might happen sooner than you think, if it’s not already happening in the landfill nearest you.  Power plants fueled by methane gases from landfills are starting to pop up all over the country.  The I-E landfill in Kearny, New Jersey is one of 21 landfills in that state that pump the methane gas created by decomposing waste to use as fuel to produce electricity.  In addition to pumping methane to use as fuel for electricity, the I-E landfill’s owner, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, has plans to install solar panels in the landfill itself.  This way, space that would normally not be used for anything other than holding garbage can be more useful by providing yet another source of energy.  And New Jersey isn’t the only state that’s looking to benefit from its garbage.  The EPA credits 455 landfills that use methane for generating electricity, and is pursuing over 500 other landfills as potential power plants through its Landfill Methane Outreach Program.

So how does it work?  Landfills produce a significant amount of methane gas due to the breakdown of municipal solid waste by anaerobic microorganisms.  After the gas is produced, it can be collected by a series of connected wells that are drilled into the landfill.  Then, the gas is “dewatered” and cleaned of any trace elements, and after that process is complete, the gas is ready to be used to generate electricity in gas turbines and fuel cells.  Landfill gas can also be collected from small and old landfills no longer in use.  Instead of using huge turbines, microturbines (PDF) are emerging as a way to generate electricity from landfill gas at a much smaller scale, although long-term costs and reliability have not been assessed yet.  If these microturbines are found to be cost-effective, then they provide a great way for old and small landfills to reduce the amount of methane released in the atmosphere.  Because small landfills are not under EPA regulations to curb their methane emissions, they may be responsible for as much as 40 percent of landfill methane gas in the US.

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Published in: on October 27, 2008 at 8:45 pm Comments Off on From Garbage to Electricity: A Whole New Way to Recycle

Economic Worries Affect Renewable Energy Research

As the economy continues to struggle, and news of major world leaders meeting to discuss the crisis, many people wish they could get a break anywhere. At least we can look forward to cheaper renewable energy soon. Both Presidential candidates are offering “green collar” job plans, hoping to grow our economy and our independence from traditional energy sources. The future looks bright for renewable energy. Or at least, it used to.

Renewable energy is facing an uncertain future as the economy continues to struggle. The cost of gas has dropped slightly, but is still higher than most would prefer. With lower gas costs comes American complacency. Soaring prices and concerns over our reliance on foreign oil have caused people on all ends of the political spectrum to demand solutions. Just as in the 70s, interest in renewable energy has surged. What is uncertain is if the near future will turn out like the 80s, where lowered gas and oil prices caused a collapse in the focus on renewable energy.

After the collapse in renewable energy research and interest in the US, Europe overtook the US as the lead in research and development. European governments were eager for the jobs and technology, leading to large amounts of investment that were not present in the US. Only recently has America come back into the picture as a major center of interest, as concerns over high gas prices and our involvement in a war with a major gas producing country have brought the idea of renewable energy back into the forefront of our minds.

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Published in: on October 24, 2008 at 8:29 am Comments Off on Economic Worries Affect Renewable Energy Research

Is Energy Independence a Myth?

“Energy independence” is a buzz phrase that both major party candidates will utter ad infinitum in the run-up to the November presidential election.  Both Barack Obama and John McCain espouse energy independence, but with differing policy points.  The phrase has become associated not only with debate about the economy, but also national security.  But what if energy independence during the next presidency, much less the next decade, is a myth?  The premise of the article The Seven Myths of Energy Independence, by Paul Roberts, posits just that idea.

Contrary to the current political meme of energy independence, Paul Roberts argues that a sustainable global energy future is dependent on foreign oil.  He says, “paradoxically, to build the energy economy that we want, we’re going to lean heavily on the energy economy that we have.”  His criticism begins by arguing that energy independence distracts from the real issue of a global sustainable energy future.  Roberts turns to corn-based ethanol, a subsidized alternative with which there are a multitude of problems associated.  Ethanol pales in comparison to oil with regard to energy equivalents and production costs.  Corn-based ethanol requires land and water resources and affects U.S. and global food supplies.  Other alternative energies have similar costs.  Wind power requires land and many view the turbines as an inconvenience at best.  Nuclear energy is surrounded by fear about safety and environmental concerns.  Furthermore, the industries that offer alternatives to oil stand to gain subsidies and other government funding from supporting the idea of energy independence.

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Published in: on October 14, 2008 at 10:07 pm Comments Off on Is Energy Independence a Myth?

AC/DC

Nikola Tesla

Improving energy efficiency in America is not just a matter of individual habit changes or policy shifts toward renewable sources. Our power grid is not currently equipped to handle the kind of energy innovations that could make us better, faster, stronger.

We’re still operating with a power grid conceived 100 years ago and based on power sharing in small regions. A member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently likened our power grid to interstate roads. What we have is a two laner with occasional stop lights. What we need is an LA-esque eight lane superhighway (without the congestion). Such a superhighway could efficiently deliver solar, wind, geothermal, and other types of renewable energy across the lower 48.

AC/DC

Energy policy makers may also have to revisit the War of Currents, an epic battle between AC and DC in which Nikola Tesla (Wizard of the West ) and Thomas Edison (Wizard of Menlo Park) determined the electrical fate of the country. We currently use AC power lines, which allow energy to dissipate over long distances. If we beefed up our transmission and added DC lines, the power grid could more easily send wind energy from the southwest all the way to the east coast. These efforts may take decades, but they will be worth it. It’s a long way to the top, so let’s rock and roll. (more…)

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 5:55 pm Comments Off on AC/DC

The Silver Lining That Glows in the Dark

As lawmakers search for ways to reduce our national carbon dioxide output, some far out suggestions for cooling the planet have popped up. Have you heard about the sun shade proposal? We would launch a huge sheet of trillions of reflectors into space, giving the Earth some quality shade time. How about the one where we build a volcano that shoots sulfur into the air? Or the one where we build a forest of artificial trees that suck more CO2 out of the air than natural trees? Compared to these, building more nuclear power plants sounds downright sane.

It is true that nuclear power is cleaner in some respects than, say, coal power. But even though nuclear power production is better for our air, its byproducts have the potential to cause us serious problems in the future. Right now, the hot button issue in the nuclear industry is low-level radioactive waste. This is the stuff that power plants and some medical facilities use in their day to day operations, like tools, clothing, and test tubes. These random pieces of radioactive detritus can take up to 500 years to lose their radioactivity.

Right now, low level radioactive waste can either be stored where it’s produced, or shipped to a licensed disposal facility. Here’s the catch– America only has three of these facilities, and one of them just closed. Until this month, Washington, Utah, and South Carolina were home to the only three low level radioactive waste disposal sites in the country. On July 1, after almost 40 years of national junkyard-dom, the disposal site in Barnwell, South Carolina stopped accepting several classes of waste from all states except New Jersey and Connecticut.

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Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 9:38 pm Comments Off on The Silver Lining That Glows in the Dark