Entries Tagged as 'environment'

Israel’s New Electric Car Smart Grid

March 16th, 2011 at 7:17 am 9 Comments

Is the gas-powered car on the road to extinction?

FrumForum visited Better Place, a firm based in Tel Aviv that is dedicated to developing an infrastructure to support the use of electric cars, to meet with CEO and Founder Shai Agassi and to test-drive an electric car.

For obvious reasons, Israel is particularly concerned with its oil dependency, and Agassi has been working for the last few years to revolutionize the transportation paradigm.

As he puts it, there are two keys to designing a car that will be successful on the market: convenience and cost. Previous models of electric cars that required a 35 minute charge time were not acceptable compared to the alternative, which is two or three minutes to gas up a car.

On the cost front, Better Place has tried to address the issue by ordering a batch of 100,000 cars, which should hit the market later this year. The higher volume of production than seen before in previous electric car ventures should be able to utilize economies of scale and drive prices down, argues Agassi. In fact, he tells FrumForum that the firm expects an electric car to be priced around $15,000 by 2015, figuring in the projected decline in price for components due to the normal course of innovation in consumer electronics.

Even better, Agassi says that the cost of moving the car – battery depletion, the cost of recharging, and the depreciation of the car – would amount to an equivalent of $1 per gallon of gasoline. Put more spectacularly, this would make the electric car competitive without the need for gasoline taxes.

In order to deal with the convenience issue, Better Place has opted for battery-switching stations rather than battery-charging stations. The battery swapping mechanism that Better Place is using is the same that Israelis use to load bombs onto F-16 fighter jets, and the driver does not have to get out of the car to do it. Under a pilot program currently underway in Tokyo, the automated battery switching process takes less than a minute, while on the other hand electric car models that rely on charging can take upwards of half an hour.

Better Place’s plans are moving forward quickly, it seems. The firm put in an order for 100,000 cars with automaker Renault in September 2009, and Agassi hopes to have the car on the market by the end of the year, along with 40 battery-changing stations in Israel.

The firm has developed some brilliant innovations to counter some of the problems that come with the production of electric cars. One such problem: energy consumption – if every single one of Israel’s 2 million cars were electric and charging at the same time, the country’s electrical grid would fail. So Better Place has developed a system to prioritize customers and spread the load on the country’s grid.

A computer in the car issues a number between one and ten to a network set up to manage a queue of cars waiting to charge at home or work, and this network coordinates with electrical utilities’ ability to handle the load. A certain number of cars are allowed in each neighborhood to charge at certain times during the evening, which spreads the burden on the grid over a longer period of time. Further, the computer notes when the car is typically moving – say it recognizes that the car is driven every Thursday at 4PM – and includes this into the calculation of the car’s queue priority number.

The interest in CEO Shay Agassi, who made Time’s 100 Most Influential People’s List in 2009 and Foreign Policy’s equivalent in 2010, and his company lies in his adept grasp of numbers and the succinct way he addresses challenges to his goals. During an interview with several journalists, of which FrumForum was a part, Agassi kept throwing out statistics to underlie his point.

An important example: the United States spends $8.5 billion dollars a week on gasoline consumption. With this amount, you could set up a network of battery-switching stations that could support 10% of American cars – sufficient to support the first wave of converts.

FrumForum had the opportunity to briefly test-drive a model of the electric car similar to those that will be entering the market by the end of this year. The results were spectacular: an engine that makes virtually no noise – to the point where the guide had to be asked if the car was even on – in addition to the fact that the design of the electric car seems not to have compromised handling, acceleration. The car managed to accelerate quickly to 80 km/hour, the speed limit of the road it was tested on, with ease.

There should not be very much concern about the car’s range – which is only about 100 miles. The GPS built into the car can automatically direct the driver to the nearest battery-swapping location. Further, while at home and at work, the driver can charge the car – providing a range that is more than adequate for typical daily trips.

One problem, however, from the driving experience standpoint. The car employs a system that uses the momentum of the car to recharge its battery when your foot is not on the gas pedal, which makes the battery life last longer. But this process also creates a noticeable drag when the car is not accelerating, something that took me aback when I first drove the car. The guide in the car accompanying FrumForum mentioned that this drag would be minimized in versions of the car that will hit the market late this year.

The future of the electric car is unquestionably bright, especially in Israel. But how will car manufactures and the gasoline industry react to this new competition? By stifling this new development, or rushing to embrace it?

Tim Mak is in Israel as a Media Fellow with the new media organization Act for Israel.


Click here to read Tim’s reports from Israel.

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The GOP’s Oil Drilling Pipe Dream

March 15th, 2011 at 7:35 am 41 Comments

Here we go again. Every time gasoline prices spike, order no matter the reason, order Republican leaders and talk radio’s libertarian elite reach for the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) latest talking points and crank up the “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric.

The current uptick in the price at the pump is not actually due to a supply crunch. It is due to market speculation that current turmoil in the Middle East will spread and lead to supply problems.

The notion that the U.S., which sits atop less than 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, can drill enough oil to drive down prices if the flow is interrupted from a region with 64 percent of the world’s reserves is a pipedream.

Over the past week a steady stream of Republicans, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (KY), House Speaker John Boehner, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI), have taken to the airwaves to complain that the Administration’s cautious approach to domestic oil drilling has caused this problem.

They are calling on the Administration to tap our nation’s “vast” oil reserves. Vast?

Upton even went so far as to say that high energy prices caused the recession and that the Administration’s cautious approach to domestic drilling will lead to a 1970s style oil crisis.

They all neglect to mention that the U.S. is already disproportionately depleting its scant 3 percent reserves to produce 8 percent of current global production. To get that 8 percent we currently have over 530,000 active wells. Saudi Arabia, by comparison, pulls out more oil with roughly 1,500 wells.

The map below depicts the real problem by sizing countries based on the amount of proven oil reserves they contain.

The GOP’s real energy crisis is one of focus. Republican leaders are focusing their energy on keeping America overly dependent on a resource that is far more plentiful outside our own borders. They largely dismiss the strategy of reducing demand and seem content to have us suck our own limited oil reserves dry as quickly as possible. It is a phony solution that they think will play well politically.

Peddling geologic ignorance may score some points with voters who don’t know any better, but it won’t bring the promised relief at the pump.

Their energy would be better focused on real solutions, such as diversifying our fuel choices, making automobiles go further on a gallon of gas, and finding other innovative ways to use less oil.

Of course it is difficult to offer real solutions when politics trumps reality.

The latest political sleight of hand by GOP leaders is to connect the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) effort to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants with the spike in gas prices.

Taking his cues from Upton, who is trying to pass his legislation to block EPA, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said:

If the White House has its way — and the EPA imposes a backdoor national energy tax — gas prices will only go higher.

Someone might want to inform the Speaker that the gasoline Americans buy at the pump is made from oil, not coal.


A Conservative Case for Farmers’ Markets

March 11th, 2011 at 6:24 pm 27 Comments

Every Thursday evening, view  around 7 p.m., online I begin checking outside my side door to see if the elves have made their delivery yet.

It’s quite amazing: At one moment the brick stoop is empty. In the next, a rustic white-painted wooden box with a black lid sits waiting for me to bring it in to the kitchen.

I open it with an unfailing sense of awe and wonder.  During the previous week, the elves have been traveling all over the countryside, seeking out the freshest and most delicious things to eat. This night’s offering: some fantastically colored carrots, purple and yellow along with the more familiar orange; filets of local wild flounder, packed in ice; two young chickens, frozen. Under these lie a paper sack of all-purpose flour tied with twine; two tubs of hand-churned butter; a brown bag containing handsome-looking green beans; a scattering of full broccoli heads; and a carton of eggs.

My excitement amuses my children.  Jeez mom it’s just a box of groceries. I examine the carrots.  Compared to their ordinary supermarket cousins, they look truly odd: Aside from the strange colors, they are gnarly and thin—or wait, here’s one that is bulgy and fat.  I rinse and taste it over the sink—sweet, earthy, crunchy–the flavor you think a carrot ought to have but never does.  I offer a sample to our small carrot expert:  she agrees and eagerly asks for another.

There’s less enthusiasm for the fish. No matter: When I cook the filets the next day for their Dad and me—dusting the filets with flour, salt and pepper, and doing not much else to them except sautéing them in some butter—they will taste meltingly fresh and tender.   And as I put the two chickens away in the freezer—weekend supper—I explain to the kids that these chickens actually walked in a farmyard amongst other farm animals in real daylight. (When I get around to roasting them, my husband will be impressed that the muscles attaching their legs to their body require vigorous carving to remove.  They don’t just fall apart. “Maybe they were doing walking lunges around the yard…?” he wonders.)  The flour is unbleached and has been freshly ground in a mill, not a factory using a logo of a mill.  And the eggs have come from the same kind of aforementioned chickens.  I’m especially excited about the eggs. I’d tried my first fresh farm egg last summer, bought on vacation at a rural roadside stand:  It was lighter in texture and color than a store-bought egg, and had much more flavor.  Before then, I hadn’t ever thought much about the taste of eggs or their degrees of egginess. I’d immediately scrambled another for my mother, with whom we were staying, and who was raised in small-town Australia. Her family had kept chickens in the backyard and…

“Oh my gosh, this tastes of my childhood!” she exclaimed before gobbling down the rest of the egg.

As I finish unpacking the box, I realize that I have actually stepped back into my mother’s stories of a pre-refrigerated, pre-factory-farm world of food. She was born in 1935. Australia may have been a bit behind the modern curve by urban American standards of the time, but not by much. She remembers waking up from nightmares to the reassuring, early morning clip clop of the milkman’s horse. Like my little farm box, the fresh bottles were left by the side door and the empties removed (or what we now call “recycled”).  You had an “icebox” not a fridge or freezer—something like the ancestor of the Coleman cooler. If a fruit or vegetable wasn’t in season you didn’t eat it unless it came in a can.  Chickens were—as my mother learned—like house pets you put down less sentimentally than the family dog, and then ate. Beef was universally grass-fed and free-range; agricultural scientists hadn’t yet figured out that it would be more efficient and cost-effective to pen thousands of them together, stuff them full of corn and hormones, and let them marinate in their own manure for a few months before grinding them up into mass-produced hamburgers.

I don’t want to sentimentalize this period, obviously.  And nor would my mother.  In a time when cheap cuts of meat were less plentiful than they are today, she and her siblings were never allowed to leave the table until they had choked down their last piece of heart/kidney/liver or worse, rubbery tripe.  There are vegetables to this day I can’t persuade her to eat—squash, for example—because it was served to her as a canned watery mush when she was a child.

And yet–as I wash and put the box’s contents away–I’m struck by how much of what we are calling today the “farm-to-table” movement is really just a modern re-imagining, or re-invention, of a less industrialized time.  The elves (okay full-disclosure: they are not really elves) who deliver my weekly container work for a nascent web-based company, Arganica Food Club.   Like dozens of similar companies now popping up around the country, Arganica organizes food from regional farms for city-dweller consumption.   Every Sunday I am sent an email with a spreadsheet attachment that lists the coming week’s offerings.  Most of it is seasonal produce and locally raised meat, but amongst the suppliers are also artisanal dip- and cracker- makers, bakers, pasta impressarios, and even pre-fab homecooked meals for the time-pressed.  I check off what I want, email it back, and then the order appears on my doorstep a few days later.

These companies are a natural progression from the now ubiquitous urban Farmer’s Market: instead of waiting for the weekend—or whatever day of the week is officially declared Market Day—I can have the farmer’s market brought to me.  Not that I don’t like going to the Farmer’s Market—there are still some products I can get only there that I can’t get online (a local guy makes pastas and sauces that are to die for; ditto another stall that sells delicious cured meats).  But essentially Arganica and others are doing what even Whole Foods is now too big to do: deliver truly fresh, truly local, truly organic foods that still taste of the place they were grown in.

In that sense we have reached maybe the perfect juncture of old and new: We have the technological abilities (read: modern refrigeration, appliances and online shopping) to achieve the maximum benefit—and enjoyment—from locally grown, fresh food.  And the increasing awareness of this type of food’s health benefits have led to a growing consumer demand, one that small companies such as Arganica are scrambling to meet.

But maybe the biggest remaining hurdle fresh food advocates face is the pervasive perception that to eat locally and healthily is somehow “elitist”—not to mention more costly and time-consuming than buying fast or processed meals.   The minute you purchase an organic apple, you are suddenly lumped among NPR-listening, NYT’s crossword-puzzle-doing, out-of-touch-with-the-common-man liberals. As a conservative—in the robust, Teddy Roosevelt tradition—I am perpetually gobsmacked to find myself on the side of the political fence with people who are enraged that Michelle Obama is trying to introduce healthy foods into public schools—or insist that the right to be obese and eat junk food can be found somewhere in the Constitution. When you think about it, these arguments against preparing meals from scratch are nonsense.

Often an example given is the McDonald’s $1 meal, which we are assured is essential to low-income budgets: Imagine a single mother hauling her children in for breakfast before school drop-off, on her way to work.  No food prep needed during the morning madness when she’s trying to get the kids dressed and ready to leave.  If she has two kids, she spends only $3 (plus tax) on breakfast for the whole family.

Now compare the price of the $1 meal—along with its zero-nutritional value and the future health problems it’s going to create—to a box of Cheerios (“Honey Nut” if you prefer the sweet version). An 18-oz box costs approximately $3.00 at a chain supermarket.  One box contains approximately 17 servings–which works out to about 18-cents per serving, not including milk.  So add in a 1/2 cup of milk—priced at an average of $4 per gallon—and that comes to an additional 12-cents per serving, or 30-cents total per breakfast.  The “prep time” to pour cereal and milk (presuming the kids can’t do it themselves?) surely amounts to less time than it takes to go to a restaurant, stand in line, and pay for the meal.  And less money as well when you factor in gas or transportation costs to the restaurant. I could do the same exercise with lunch or dinner.

Then there’s the “time and convenience” excuse.  We are told that working parents these days are too busy to cook.  And even if they have a spare moment or two, they are certainly too exhausted to prepare a meal

But this argument too doesn’t hold up after a few minutes thought: Maybe never in the course of human history has a society had “more time” than ours to prepare and eat food. And yes, I’m including working single mothers and “dual-income earning” families here.  It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t eat a meal without lighting a stove—with firewood or coal.  And back then, it was common for everyone in the household to work and do chores, including children.  There were no microwaves, no electric stoves, no refrigerators, no food processors, no convenience stores or supermarkets. Every single item of food had to be cleaned and prepped from scratch using manual tools. The day ended with lightfall, so you’d better have it all done by then.  And even with the advent of better technology and lighting,  I don’t think an Edwardian or Depression-era household—or a 1950s housewife for that matter—enjoyed  “more time” than we do today. The sheer easiness and convenience of modern life has simply allowed us to busy ourselves in different ways, liberated from the once all-consuming daily tasks of domesticity. And thus we have drifted away from learning very basic, useful household skills.

So while it may seem easier to order in a pizza, or zap a pre-fab mini-meal in the microwave, it’s not really so.  How much extra effort does it really take to get together a bowl of salad (especially given that lettuces now come pre-mixed and pre-washed)?  Or boil fresh beans and toss them with some salt, oil and lemon? Or, as I noted with the fish filet, dust it with some flour and seasoning and fry it or broil it for a minute or two?  You can do the same with simple cuts of chicken and beef. Or put on a pot of pasta and in the space of time it’s cooking whip up very simple homemade sauce.  There’s an app for that.

Then do the economics for dividing the costs of the fresh ingredients among three or four people—for most dishes I doubt it will come out to much more than a large take-out Domino’s pizza.

The problem is that we’ve persuaded ourselves—as we surf the internet, download movies, check our email and play games on our phones—that preparing food from scratch is as awesome and time-consuming as knitting our own sweaters.  Who would even bother to do that?  It’s true that planning fresh meals does take a certain amount of ingenuity and creativity to avoid repetition—moreso than cruising the prepared food aisle or ordering the number 4 with Diet Coke, thanks.  And yet, that’s what makes the emerging farm-to-doorstep market so exciting—and in the end, so easy.

By putting the farm order forms online, you can order your groceries at your convenience—and also have the time to brood over the choices as you check your email or quickly google search a recipe. Arganica, like other sites, even posts fast recipes for that week’s seasonal harvest.  When the food arrives, you’ve already thought the meals through.  And now you don’t need to go to the supermarket for several days. What’s more, everything you make will taste delicious.  Anyone who has grown even so little as a cherry tomato on their patio knows the difference between the fresh-plucked juicy version versus the red cannonballs that fill supermarket bins in January.

I’m wondering, then, if farm marketers haven’t made a mistake by focusing on the homey, nostalgic aesthetic of another era.  At a certain level it makes sense: that customers receive their weekly deliveries hand-packed in wooden crates and paper sacks is a powerful psychological sales tool against the shiny, shrink-wrapped products of mass-produced food.

But I wonder if a better economic strategy wouldn’t be to package fresh farm products in a more contemporary way.  Americans are innately forward-looking.  They want the next good thing, not the good thing of 30 years ago. I’m sure there’s a way to box the food in a “green” container that looks hip and urban—a hint of retro, but not too much. Like the funkily patterned, reusable shopping bags now on sale everywhere—or even something in a smartphone aesthetic: What would an app for a farm-to-table delivery service look like?  Go from there.

Now excuse me while I go trim that broccoli for tonight’s dinner.


Follow Danielle on twitter @DCrittenden1


Why Are the Feds Peddling Light Bulbs?

March 11th, 2011 at 1:34 pm 27 Comments

In a recent piece at FrumForum, David Jenkins criticizes the GOP for looking to undo energy standards on light bulbs.  Jenkins certainly knows a lot more than I do about bulbs.  All I can do is tell a light bulb that allows me to read at night from one that doesn’t. Up until now, traditional light bulbs did their job well, while the new eco-friendly ones tended to turn the room into a North Korean bathroom.

That was the case the first time I tested a tube-like bulb some years ago. I had been told it made financial sense to use them so I tried. I didn’t need the government to tell me so.

Some of the new bulbs (the ones that light up quite like the old ones) are okay.  They seem to last longer than the first generation of eco-friendly ones, which is good because they are about ten times more expensive. The tube-shaped ones are still awful, whatever the package says about the number of “lumens” they produce.

But that is not the issue. The problem is the one Jenkins does not address: why does the government have to step in? Usually, when someone has a good product, he doesn’t need to lobby the government into making it mandatory.

Jenkins has three main arguments, which are:

  • new bulbs work well
  • they are cost-effective
  • the government must force you to use them

It seems to me that one at least must be wrong. And that is why people have all the right to be exasperated. Government intrusion is much more tolerable when its justification makes some sense.


The GOP’s Dim Bulb Bill

March 10th, 2011 at 12:47 am 54 Comments

This week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will have a hearing on Senator Mike Enzi’s “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, rx ” which has also been introduced in the House by Joe Barton (R-TX) along with a similar measure by Michele Bachmann. The legislation seeks to repeal a provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that sets energy efficiency requirements for light bulbs.

Proponents of this assault on energy efficiency claim that the 2007 legislation bans incandescent light bulbs and that their legislation strikes a blow for freedom by protecting consumer choice in lighting.

Don’t be surprised if Glenn Beck dedicates an upcoming blackboard diagram to the great light bulb conspiracy and asserts that the right of Americans to use inefficient lighting is actually spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.

What’s next, a resolution renaming the energy guzzling incandescent as the Freedom Bulb?

Notwithstanding the “bulb ban” rhetoric, the law does not ban incandescent lighting, or any other lighting technology for that matter. Instead, it sets energy efficiency standards for lighting, like the appliance standards in existing federal law that date back to the Reagan administration.

The 2007 law requires that starting next year general purpose 100 watt light bulbs will have to give off an equivalent amount of light (1,500 lumens) using only 72 watts of electricity. While that gives a leg up to energy sipping florescent and LED lighting, the reality is that Phillips already produces a halogen incandescent that exceeds the 2012 standard.

(Note: Senator Enzi and his cohorts can confirm this if they will just trot on over to the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot.)

Similar requirements will take effect in 2013 and 2014 for incandescent bulbs rated for lower levels of light output. Exempt from the requirements are incandescent bulbs used for special applications – refrigerator lights, for example.

Framing the issue in terms of productivity, a conventional incandescent bulb produces about 15 lumens per watt. If the incandescent were a worker, it would be fired for poor productivity. Ninety percent of the input energy that goes into incandescent bulbs produces waste heat.

A 26-watt compact florescent bulb (CFL) will yield a similar amount of light as a 100-watt incandescent, so it’s four times as productive. Newer LED lighting, which is rapidly gaining market share despite being pricey, is even more productive. LED bulbs put out more than 100 lumens per watt.

Lighting productivity is important. We don’t buy electricity for the sake of collecting electrons. We buy electricity for the services it provides – running computers, chilling food, running appliances, and lighting our homes.

The more light you can get per dollar spent on electricity, the better off you will be economically. Not only that, CFLs and LEDs last much longer than incandescent bulbs.

President Reagan obviously thought that efficiency standards made sense. They did not offend his conservative values, nor should they. Can anyone think of anything less conservative than waste? For the same reason conservatives should oppose wasteful spending, they should also oppose wasteful energy use.

So why would anyone be against standards that result in more efficient products that save consumers money, conserve energy, and improve our environment with virtually no real sacrifice?

Of course these libertarian champions of waste who seek to save the inefficient light bulb complain that any standards are symptomatic of an overly intrusive nanny-state.

They also heap all sorts of criticism on CFLs. This is not all that relevant since the standards do not contain any mandate on technology. Odds are that LEDs will dominate the market once prices come down.

Still, it is worth pointing out that the CFL criticism is off the mark too. Typical complaints are that CFLs produce poor lighting quality, cost more, and that they contain dangerous levels of mercury. Most of these criticisms are based on older generations of CFLs. Today’s CFLs, while not perfect, simply don’t have many of the flaws their predecessors did.

As for the mercury issue, each CFL bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury and they do need to be disposed of properly, just like batteries, used motor oil, cell phones etc.

If mercury is the concern, then think about the mercury emitted by all the coal burned to light up those inefficient incandescent bulbs.

Popular Mechanics ran the numbers – one 75-watt incandescent is responsible for nearly four times as much mercury emissions as one 25-watt CFL over the estimated 7,500 hours that a CFL lasts. Even if all the mercury in CFLs were released into the environment, incandescents would still be responsible for more mercury emissions.

It is quite telling how little confidence the sponsors of the “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act” have in American businesses to innovate and produce a product that responds to today’s energy challenges.  If anyone is trying to mandate a specific technology— and an old one at that—it is these misguided Republicans.


Will GOP Give Climate Science a Fair Shake?

March 8th, 2011 at 10:59 am 22 Comments

House Democrats persuaded Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to hold a hearing today on climate science. At a time when bipartisan gestures are hard to come by, I suppose that this hearing should be viewed as a positive development.

It’s too bad that any credible testimony on climate science is likely to fall on deaf ears in a subcommittee that is stacked with a veritable who’s who of GOP climate change skeptics and shills for fossil fuel interests.

Chief among these is Joe Barton (R-TX) who last week summed up his view on carbon emissions by saying:

I expel carbon dioxide at about 40,000 parts per million … so how in the world can that be a pollutant?

Perhaps someone should point out to Congressman Barton that he, like everyone else, also emits methane and fecal coliform bacteria. Would he use the same logic to argue that those are not pollutants?

There will be a few well-respected climate scientists on hand, such as Dr. Richard Somerville and Dr. Christopher Field, who could set Mr. Barton straight—unfortunately they were invited by the Democrats.

The Republican witness list includes two well-worn contrarians, Dr. John Christy and Dr. Roger Pielke, who basically assert that predicting future climate change is a futile and worthless endeavor, or that there is nothing mankind can do to effectively address it. Thankfully their “can’t do” attitude was not shared by scientists of the past who have cured diseases, sent men to the moon, or helped solve past pollution problems.

The GOP list also curiously enough includes Dr. Donald Roberts. Dr. Roberts is not a climate scientist, but rather a professor of tropical medicine who happens to be a huge fan of the pesticide DDT.  He actually wrote a book on DDT called The Excellent Powder and blames the environmental movement for its banning in the U.S. and sparse use around the world.

Ideally, congressional hearings should represent an honest search for facts by open-minded lawmakers who want to make informed policy decisions.

At a House Science Committee hearing last November, then Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) encouraged climate scientists to welcome the coming GOP led hearings, saying:

Those will be difficult hearings…But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.

The only hitch in that wise advice is that teachers need students who are willing to learn.

In all likelihood today’s hearing will be nothing more than an adversarial dog and pony show where scientific facts meet impenetrable hard heads, narrow minds and ill-conceived smoke screens.

For all of the efforts of GOP lawmakers to wrap themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they fail to emulate the resolve for problem solving and thirst for knowledge that led him to heed the warnings of climate scientists and address ozone depletion.

Reagan fully understood his obligations as a public servant and what the stakes were. He articulated this well in his famous 1964 A Time for Choosing speech:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

If the Republicans at today’s climate hearing want to justify their brief moment here, a nice step in the right direction would be to open their minds and learn from the real climate experts in the hearing room—no matter who invited them.


Hands Off Our Oil Reserves

March 6th, 2011 at 7:22 pm 13 Comments

Democrats in Congress are clamoring for President Obama to open the stopcocks at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and let the crude splash into the market in order to drive down pump prices.  It’s a bad idea, for three reasons.

One, the reserve squirreled away in Gulf Coast salt caverns is intended for truly dire energy emergencies. Doing what the Democrats are asking would be like a family raiding its emergency savings account to cover an increase in gasoline prices.

Second, if oil were taken out of the reserve, the withdrawn amount would have to be replaced, probably at higher prices than we paid for stocking the oil in the first place. That’s a bad deal for taxpayers.

Third, taking oil from the reserve would give credence to the notion that there’s nothing wrong with being addicted to oil as long as the liquor cabinet is full when we belly up to the bar for our regular fix.

Since oil markets are prone to charging fear premiums whenever there’s tumult in oil exporting places, then the oil markets are trying to tell us something – conserve now and start thinking rationally about our energy future now, rather than waiting for the good-to-the-last-drop crowd on the Hill to at last wise up.

Breaking our oil addiction will take time, political will, and a balanced energy strategy based on facts, not on ideological hobbyhorses. That baggage should be checked at the door, including the Right’s drill-baby-drill sloganeering and the Left’s utopian fantasies.

Few in D.C. want to talk about it in rational terms these days, but a price on carbon should be the centerpiece of a strategy for weaning the U.S. off oil and giving alternative transportation fuels and drive systems a shot at breaking the petroleum monopoly.

Otherwise, our economy and security will be at the mercy of the next petro-potentate whose people start shooting at him.


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Ex-Governator
Goes Green

March 3rd, 2011 at 8:48 am 7 Comments

In Congress, there are glass-half-empty Republicans who cringe that any effort to cut the apron strings of fossil fuel dependence would result in economic disaster.

Outside Congress, glass-half-full Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is a throwback to an earlier breed of Republican leaders who got big things done for the country without a lot of handwringing.

Like building the Transcontinental Railroad (Lincoln).

And the Panama Canal (Theodore Roosevelt).

And the Interstate Highway System (Eisenhower, who in his previous career smashed the Nazi war machine).

Hell, even in the depths of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover summoned the nation’s energies to start building the huge Colorado River dam that bears his name.

The glass-half-empty Republicans want to rehash the science of climate change – again and again and again.

Glass-half-full Schwarzenegger, in a barnburner speech Tuesday to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy summit, said there are plenty of reasons to make an energy shift that have nothing to do with climate change. Pointless debates with those who will never accept climate change evidence is no longer a good use of time and resources.

Not when 100,000 people die every year as a result of air pollution linked to fossil fuel burning.

Not when turmoil in a “dried up little country like Libya with a crazy dictator” can set off tremors in the world oil market and threaten America’s shaky economic recovery.

Not when there’s money to be made designing, building, and selling energy technologies that won’t kill people or tie the U.S. economy and national security to the vicissitudes of tinhorn autocrats.

Schwarzenegger threw a few ideas on the table for reframing America’s dysfunctional energy debates and building broad support for supplementing our fossil fuel diet with cleaner, healthier energy choices.

First, however, because the question is bound to arise, why would anyone take cues from California? Its economy is weak and the state’s budget gap is a chasm.

California’s energy initiatives did not inflate the real estate bubble that hammered it and other states, nor did it bring about the ghastly political extremism in Sacramento – on the left and right – that was a big factor in putting the state into a fiscal bind.

Imagine how much worse off California’s households would be if they were spending as much money on wasted energy as households in less energy-efficient states.

So, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Schwarzenegger’s energy advice:

Talk about money. California uses electric power 40 percent more efficiently than the rest of the country. If the U.S. used energy as efficiently as the Golden State, households would save $560 on their power bills every year. Fuel efficiency standards modeled on California policies would save motorists $1,300 per year. Together, the savings could be used for purposes more economically productive than throwing it away on wasted energy.

Talk about jobs. A 33 percent renewable energy standard, similar to California’s, would put capital and people to work building squeaky clean new power plants to replace dirty old ones – like the hundreds of coal-fired power plants that lack pollution controls.

Talk about health. In addition to 100,000 deaths, air pollution results in 6.5 million hospital visits every year by people with respiratory disease. Hospitalizations and lost workdays cost money too.

Finally, talk about American leadership. Glass-half-empty worrywarts say the U.S. shouldn’t do anything about cutting fossil fuel use unless China moves first. Glass-half-full American leaders are not in the habit of deferring to foreign countries.

As Schwarzenegger put it: “When we landed on the moon, we didn’t say to the Russians, ‘Why don’t you try it first?’”

No, we didn’t. As history bears out, whenever we take a glass-half-full view of the world, America gets great things done.


Chu’s Energy Research Hijack

February 26th, 2011 at 11:03 am 14 Comments

Nobel Laureate and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu seems to have taken a page from early 20th century labor leader Samuel Gompers:  at every turn he screams for “more.” Even as the Obama administration and both parties in Congress pay lip-service to budget cuts (while doing little to enact them), sickness Chu has taken to running around with a Power Point calling for his department’s budget to grow in almost every area of its operations. For all intents and purposes, order Chu has a proposal to turn his department into a huge government-run research and development firm.  Although intended as an outline for growth, illness Chu’s lucid presentation can also be taken as an outline for slimming his department and cutting government.

The great bulk of Chu’s proposed spending increases and billions of dollars in new loan guarantees (off budget for now, but a taxpayer liability if they’re not repaid) go for applied research and product development. Chu’s department would work to put 1 million electrical vehicles on the road, build new nuclear reactors, establish new “Energy Innovation Hubs,” and open new “Energy Frontier Research Centers.” The Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, which tries to develop innovative new energy-related products would also get a big boost in funding. So would efforts to improve the overall reliability of the electrical gird and weatherize individual homes (states still have millions of leftover dollars from stimulus-related efforts to do this.) Worthwhile or not on their own terms—and, certainly, some of the new technologies proposed for investment seem like decent ideas—there’s little reason to think that the government ought to be doing any of this. Since they have huge theoretical benefits–no fuel price fluctuations and little or no pollution in the traditional sense–any person or company that figured out an efficient, low-cost way to harness any “green” energy source would make billions of dollars.  Many of the nation’s largest and most profitable companies are in the energy business and have enormous incentive to do energy research themselves.

Taxpayer subsidies let the government decide where R&D dollars get spent.  Furthermore, quite simply, the government has never been any good at developing actual consumer products of any kind. While U.S. government labs and projects have helped in developing the underlying technologies that created everything from the Internet to nuclear power, the private sector has always done much better than the government in bringing new fundamental discoveries to market. Government efforts to develop much better, cheaper housing construction methods (Operation Breakthrough), gasoline substitutes (Synfuels), and a “car of the future” (Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles) produced nothing useful at all but ran through millions of dollars. The handful of useful products to come directly out of publically financed institutions, like NCSA-Mosaic, the first useful web browser, have typically come from creative people working on projects they thought were interesting rather than the government-mandated task. Even if Chu’s DOE somehow succeeds in developing useful consumer products, the financial benefits of having created them will accrue only to profit-making corporations, not taxpayers as a whole.

All this isn’t to say that it’s possible or even wise to trim the federal budget by the entire $30 billion DOE spends. When the department secures nuclear facilities, cleans up environmental messes that the government itself has made, and does basic research, it is performing necessary government functions. Nuclear security is certainly a government responsibility and it’s likely that the $11.8 billion in proposed spending is worth it.  Likewise, it seems pretty cut and dry that the government should, indeed, spend most of the $6 billion or so it devotes to cleaning up environmental messes its own work has produced.  Finally, basic research—devoted to understanding the fundamental laws of nature without trying to solve any particular problem—has never been done at a large scale without public sector support. Thus, the $2 billion–a 24 percent increase–proposed for “basic energy research” is probably a decent investment. Of course, none of this spending is beyond question and some might be done better outside of DOE.  But even if one rejects the Obama administration’s proposed increases in all of these “necessary” areas and then cuts spending ten percent, that still leaves somewhere around $17 billion in truly necessary spending on current DOE projects. This is still a huge cut from the $29 billion Chu wants to spend.

A look at Chu’s DOE budget, in short, reveals two things. First, that there is, indeed, plenty of wasteful spending that the country would be better off without. Second, even a hugely bloated agency does carry out some valuable, core functions that probably shouldn’t go away.


Some Truths More Inconvenient than Others?

David Frum September 29th, 2009 at 11:17 am 67 Comments

Here is Paul Krugman this past weekend:

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Let’s test whose ideas are vested here. It ought to be unignorably obvious that the only near-term way to generate sufficient electricity while reducing the use of coal is nuclear power.

And yet… Krugman does ignore that particular inconvenient truth in this column and in so many others. In a 2006 exchange with readers, the Times columnist did have this to say:

William R. Mosby, Salt Lake City: Does nuclear energy have a part to play in mitigating global warming in the long term? Assuming it produces sufficient net energy and that fuel recycling/waste partitioning is used, nuclear energy could be one part of a non-CO2-emitting energy mix that would be sustainable for as long as a few thousand years, using the depleted uranium already in storage in the U.S. A great deal of research has already been done on the type of reactor and fuel recycling facility required to do this — the Integral Fast Reactor — but was canceled for political reasons in 1994.

However, those who see an urgent need to do something about global warming generally don’t talk about nuclear energy as a prominent part of the solution. Do they think that nuclear energy would be a bigger problem than global warming?

Paul Krugman: I was at a reception for Al Gore after a screening of his movie, and he was asked that very question. I thought his answer was very good. He said that yes, nuclear should be part of the mix, but it can’t be the main answer. And there are problems with nuclear we need to resolve: not just disposal of radioactive waste, but vulnerability to terrorist attack. In fact, as nuclear power becomes more common around the world, the possible misuse for weapons, terrorist or otherwise, will be a big problem. So unless there are some breakthroughs, nuclear power is only a piece, and maybe not a big one, of the solution.

But why can’t nuclear be the main answer? After all – there isn’t any other answer! Conservation can be incentivized through higher prices, yes. Solar and wind can contribute in some specialized niches. But remember, half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal.  Only nuclear power is sufficiently cheap and scalable to replace so massive a power source. If your version of environmentalism cannot accept that truth, please kindly refrain from lecturing others about the blinding effects of ideology!