« Medicare Part D: How To Lie With Statistics | Main | Mary McCarthy »

April 26, 2006

Comments

For those in an energy-related frame of mind today, I recommend Gar Lipow's post at MaxSpeak. (a response to nuclear shill Patrick Moore)

Popular Mechanics, which I remember from my youth as being devoted to discussions of ham radios and how to build your own weather station, has become a remarkably sophisticated science magazine. As Scientific American moves toward Discover, and Discover toward the old Omni magazine, how long before PM is the standard?

Anyway, they have an alt-nrg article that is quite good. Via Instapundit http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/earth/2690341.html

Since everyone with any expertise I've spoken to is dead-certain that ethanol is a bad solution, I've become convinced that the widespread advocacy of it is all about swing-state electoral politics, with a slight case of facile, hand-wavy, clean-air credentialism.

Yeah, I saw that, and meant to include it as a sort of counterpoint. PM, though, doesn't offer anything resembling a detailed breakdown of energy cost, or even any indication of how they arrived at their numbers. Instead, they cite DOE's numbers, which are in turn heavily reliant on optimism.

I'm guessing that if Gar Lipow's excoriation of Patrick Moore is a fair guide, the DOE's estimates can be concluded to be heavily influenced by the corn lobby. Most of the ethanol-from-biomass crowd is currently looking over at cellulose-fermentation, as far as I can tell; sometimes as an augmentation to corn-to-ethanol: fermentation of the corn stover (shocks, etc) can make corn-to-ethanol palatable.

And I think I've now just answered my spoiler hint #1: the thing that makes corn-to-ethanol a positive energy balance is fermentation of the cellulose in the by-products. So, as Engineer-Poet might say, why not simply burn the corn for fuel, and generate ethanol from any and all sources of cellulose?

That's if you want ethanol as a fuel. If not, other things are possible.

Can someone please explain to me how the proposed wind-fall profits tax on oil companies is supposed to help with the cost of gas? All I see it doing is punishing the oil companies for making too much money.

And I find all this bleating about gas prices, from both sides of the aisle, disingenuous. The Republicans* have been the energy companies' biggest friends for decades, doling out tax break after tax break for the oil and gas industry to the point that a leading tax attorney described them as having "their own Code." One would think they would be happy their friends were raking in the cash (I guess they probably are, just not publicly).

Meanwhile, the Democrats,* IIRC, have been jonesing for a large increase in the gas tax for a while in order to promote conservation. But when we get the equivalent through high energy prices, there's all sorts of complaints. This wouldn't be so bad if they would make what, IMHO, is the intellectually honest argument that "we're in favor of high gas prices as a result of a gas tax that flows to the federal government, but not when it is a result of market forces and the benefits flow to oil companies." (Exxon, BTW, paid $14.4 billion in income and excise taxes to the U.S. in 2005 according to their 10K.)

As far as a fix to the problem, a sustained period of high gas prices should produce its own solution, though I heard on the radio (WTOP in DC) that one group estimated gas would have to be $4 per gallon for a year before consumers started seriously conserving.

If people are interested in the history of oil and how powerful the oil companies are, read "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power" by Daniel Yergin.

*Note that I don't mean to group every Republican and every Democrat in my discussion above, just using as shortand.

My understanding is that ethanol is a less noxious replacement for MTBE, which gets into the groundwater and makes water taste nasty. My guess is that using corn oil for bio-diesel is a more practical way to go, but shucks, it would be nice to use the stalks and everything.

We made a punch with Everclear, once. I'm pretty surprised I'm still alive.

A source in the oil industry, a chemical engineer who specializes in regulation compliance, expressed some impatience with the public's understanding of MTBE's noxiousness, calling them "exaggerated" and "very expensive and inefficient to fix for very little trade-off."


_____
(That's my dad, above. I don't remember and never really understood the chemistry arguments, which is why journalistic style seemed appropriate.)

"we're in favor of high gas prices as a result of a gas tax that flows to the federal government, but not when it is a result of market forces and the benefits flow to oil companies."

There's also the issue of the money flowing to the US government as opposed to the Saudi or Iranian governments.

We made a punch with Everclear, once.

buy a watermelon and a bottle of Everclear, cut a hole in the top of the watermelon, scoop out 1/4 of the insides, pour in the Everclear and return as much of the watermelon as will fit. let sit for a bit, then serve. woohoo!

Me, I used to go to the dorm canteen, buy the largest Coke they served, drink about an inch off the top, and fill 'er back up with Everclear. Then, of course, mix to prevent accidental ignition.

This was just to mellow me out while grading papers, mind.

"we're in favor of high gas prices as a result of a gas tax that flows to the federal government, but not when it is a result of market forces and the benefits flow to oil companies."

presumably, additional gas tax money to the govt would be returned to all of us in the form of some benefit to the country (why, we could even write a law that requires a certain amount to go to investigating new energy sources!). additional profits to oil companies, taken off the backs of working folk, go to enriching people who can't possibly need any more money. which benefits society more?

You forgot about the mattresses part. You know, where they take all that money they don't need, and stuff it into a whole warehouse full of mattresses.

is DHMO the newly approved netspeak for h2o?
doesn't everclear have some flavor?

i was going to get huffy about putting ag. waste to economic use until i followed the link to E-P's website and discovered that the efficient conversion of ag. waste to ethanol would add a grand total of 1% to america's gasoline supply.

mtbe tastes really bad at really low concentrations. while the health effects at low concentrations can be disputed (like for perchlorate), the consumer will notice (unlike perchlorate).

is DHMO the newly approved netspeak for h2o?

Uh, it's an old joke. A newer joke would be hydrogen hydroxide. Although Farber will surely correct me as to the exact timing of the two jests.

I went to a cast party for our law school spoof and drank 2 glasses of what I later found out was Kool-aid powder and grain alcohol. I spent much of the rest of the party sitting in a corner saying "Hiiiii!" to anyone who passed.

A friend stayed at the party until I was able to walk to the bus back to our dorm, and while waiting had 6 drinks. He never forgave me for not having a hangover the next day while he did.

AFAIK, cellulosic ethanol, DCFC, and thermal zinc do not exist even in pilot-plant form, let alone large scale. This makes them irrelevant for the next 10-15 years. On the other hand, burning cellulose to make steam is easy. Since it can be done locally you also don't have to worry about what you use to truck a billion tons of waste cellulose around the country.

All I see it doing is punishing the oil companies for making too much money.

When did making piles of money become a Constitutional right? Unless profits are being used for investment in additional energy supply, most people who aren't stockholders shouldn't care. Aren't the majors acting more as rent-seekers than capitalists? If there are any economists around join in.

slarti, if we're trying to be thoughtful about this topic, isn't the point of the exercise to look at the country's entire energy budget? having driven by both wind farms and solar farms, i can attest that they are far more polluting, in terms of land impacts, than a well-designed power plant.

knowing almost absolutely nothing about the difficulties in meeting the US's total energy demand and controlling the pollution generated by those processes, it seems to me that we would be far better off spending research dollars on a ZEV coal plant. Why should any plant have a smoke stack? any heat going out the top is lost energy. let's capture it.

You know, where they take all that money they don't need, and stuff it into a whole warehouse full of mattresses

one one hand, an oil exec making $100M. on the other, 2000 blue collar workers making $50K.

which $100M will benefit a town of of 50,000 people better ?

having driven by both wind farms and solar farms, i can attest that they are far more polluting, in terms of land impacts, than a well-designed power plant.

I'm having trouble reconciling this with reality, unless you mean visual pollution.

Bernard & Cleek -

Good points, though I still think the net immediate effect of either, high gas prices being paid by people who can't afford it, will swamp people's view of the good from high-prices through taxes.

Tim -

It's not a constitutional right, I didn't say it was. If people want to repeal all the special tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, that's fine with me (though maybe that's equivalent to a windfall profits tax if its prompted by outrage over high gas prices, though I would say it is just good tax policy), but what's the next industry to be hit with such a tax?

but what's the next industry to be hit with such a tax?

I'd vote for pharmaceuticals, but that's just me.

Ahh that night in the Santa Cruz mountains. After finishing CS Lewis's "Last Battle", I went to the kitchen, filled my mouth with ice chips, spit them into a glass, and started shooting Everclear with the dudes. I remember nothing after the second shot.

The windfall taxes and/or gas taxes are about our bankrupt government and cowardly Congress. Sneaked revenue.

The current high oil/gas prices are more about Bernanke hinting at stopping rate increases than anything else. Ignore both the CPI and core; we are in stagflation.

AFAIK, cellulosic ethanol, DCFC, and thermal zinc do not exist even in pilot-plant form, let alone large scale. This makes them irrelevant for the next 10-15 years.

I see absolutely no reason why we shouldn't have long-term plans.

When did making piles of money become a Constitutional right?

Neither is it prohibited by the Constitution.

isn't the point of the exercise to look at the country's entire energy budget?

I see no reason why we can't consider that, but the original post was prompted by concern over gasoline prices.

Zero thermal emissions (not possible in any event) doesn't equate to zero emission of pulluting gases. Burn coal, and you get airborne oxides of carbon and sulfur, as well as organics and various unpleasant substances like mercury, arsenic and beryllium. Sure, you can try to capture some of these things, but there's not much you can do with the COx other than make CO2.

I see absolutely no reason why we shouldn't have long-term plans.

Quite true, but until there is a working pilot plant you shouldn't even include them in your plans.

one one hand, an oil exec making $100M. on the other, 2000 blue collar workers making $50K.

which $100M will benefit a town of of 50,000 people better ?

Difficult to say, depending on how many of the remaining 48,000 you choose not to consider, but: false dichotomy.

Quite true, but until there is a working pilot plant you shouldn't even include them in your plans.

Good point. I'm wondering if the DOE has a pilot plant and agribusiness put together that's past energy breakeven on the corn->ethanol process?

Difficult to say, depending on how many of the remaining 48,000 you choose not to consider

all. that's why i put the number in there.

how many pizzas will the $100M guy eat in a year? how many will the 2,000 $50K guys eat? they'll buy 2,000x more beers, 2000x more eggs, 2000x more haircuts, 2000x more gallons of milk. there's your mattress.

but: false dichotomy

you brought it up

you brought it up

I brought up a dichotomy? Do tell.

Dantheman - Kool-aid powder and grain alcohol

Ahhh, yes, the patented, oft-regretted Screaming Purple Jesus Punch: Add 4 packs of grape kool-aid mix to a handle of everclear, dump in some sugar to taste, and . . . uh . . . well, I don't really remember what happened next, but that's how it started, anyway.

And don't even ask me about The Chunder(c),(pat. pend.).

I brought up a dichotomy?

sigh

Delong has similar thoughts:

Democrats are (because of the environmentalist wing of the party) generally in favor of higher gasoline taxes and higher gasoline prices--except when gasoline prices are high). Republicans are in favor of letting oil markets "work"--except when gasoline prices are high.

"but what's the next industry to be hit with such a tax?

I'd vote for pharmaceuticals, but that's just me."

I was afraid someone might be proposing that.

When did making piles of money become a Constitutional right?

Er, Slart's understating it. If you're talking about the right to attempt to make piles of money then the answer is December 15, 1791 ;-) I think it's safe to say that it's one of those rights which has been "retained by the people" from day one. Note however that Congress is explicitly permitted to regulate (aggressively, if it so desires) any such attempts which cross state lines.

Slart, I think cleek was suggesting that the "stuffing it into mattresses" comment was where the false dichotomy started out. The oil exec does not have to literally stuff cash into a mattress for it to stagnate and be taken (for all practical purposes) out of circulation.

You seemed to be arguing that if it doesn't go into mattresses then it necessarily recirculates. That is not the case. Whether capital recirculates when it goes to the CEO depends on the economic environment. Large accumulations of capital sometimes function as reservoirs or as bottlenecks but they can also function as cul-de-sacs.

Now sometimes you want a bottleneck. Heck sometimes you even want a cul-de-sac. But when financial markets are outperforming industry (as they are now) what you really want is to maximize circulation. (Assuming of course that you care about market stability.) Right now te problem is not that VCs don't have cash on hand, the problem is that they are not (for whatever reasons) investing it in anything physical.

That means, roughly speaking, that most of the cash that goes to the CEO right now might as well be put into a mattress. You make it sound ridiculous (i.e. you create a false dichotomy) by talking about it that way, but it's not ridiculous at all. The point is that the CEO's money will indeed go into the bank, but very little of it will be used to enhance productivity. And that part which is invested will most likely be invested offshore.

It really might as well be stuffed in a mattress.

While raising gas taxes is not my personal favorite way of reducing fuel consumption (regressive, not as good as raising CAFE standards), I'm for it if nothing else will pass. This means that I think there's an upside to higher gas taxes, though I'd much rather the government got the money and used it to retire some teensy fraction of the debt.

I see no reason at all to think that oil company profits are driving higher gas prices just now. If they are, and if that profit seems high enough to enter "gouging" territory, then I'm not opposed to a windfall profit tax on principle. I have no idea whether they are, and suspect political theater.

As always, I'd much prefer a serious attempt to lower our energy usage generally, and our dependence on burning fossil fuels in particular. Serious diplomatic engagement with Iran would help as well.

Slart, I think cleek was suggesting that the "stuffing it into mattresses" comment was where the false dichotomy started out.

Well, I didn't present a dichotomy, or even make a logical point. It was a dig. I mean, what could be more ridiculous than increasing gas taxes even more for the purposes of wealth redistribution? How does that affect the take-home pay of an oil executive? Answer: it doesn't.

tim: wind farms cause substantial visual, noise and biological (dead birds) impacts. mirror farms require substantial buffers, so take up much more land than one might otherwise expect.

slart: last i checked, CO2 was an input in various organic processes, like feeding algae. and the impossibility argument re a ZEV power plant has never much impressed me. It sounds a little too much like auto industry whining about tailpipe emissions. Impractical, sure. But that what's the research is for.

and zev/ulev coals plants would have other benefits, like cutting down on mercury deposition in the great lakes area.

also, you wrote: Consider this an open thread to discuss things related to energy.

High gasoline prices will ensure that refineries dedicate more of their product to those fractions. I was assuming that this would cause shortages in other energy-related areas, so that a smart analysis of the situation would consider total energy demands.

I see no reason at all to think that oil company profits are driving higher gas prices just now.

Well no, its the other way around.

I ought to note that although I think a $400 million dollar paycheck is an absurdly high sum, I think that there's some issues that Enlightened Public Policy simply cannot address all that well. If you really want to discourage such things, disinvest, and advise others to disinvest as well.

It's odd what issues are fertile ground for applying one's moral sensibilities to others, and which are taboo.

wind farms cause substantial visual, noise and biological (dead birds) impacts.

Actually, the new generation of wind farms avoid the latter two problems.

"I see no reason at all to think that oil company profits are driving higher gas prices just now."

I tend to agree. The high profits are the result of oil companies being integrated suppliers -- they have a stake in all steps in the process from owning the land on which the oil is located to digging the wells through refining the oil to running (mostly through franchisees who pay large fees to the oil companies) gas stations. The profits are the result of owning the rights to the oil in the ground. The oil companies' costs to extract the oil haven't changed signifcantly, but the value of the oil extracted has gone up immensely.

A windfall profits tax doesn't seem justified to me. Policies to decrease use of gasoline from increasing CAFE standards to more funding for public transportation to removing incentives in the tax code for SUV's would all help.

slart: last i checked, CO2 was an input in various organic processes, like feeding algae

Well, yes it is. And when that algae dies, it decomposes, producing CO2. That's the problem with sequestering carbon with biomass: unless the biomass is immortal, the carbon eventually comes right back out. In order to increase the carbon sequestration, you have to increase the biomass.

Given that, Dantheman, do you think it'd be better to enforce divestment of the refining companies from the extraction companies from the distribution and sales companies?

Slarti: "I ought to note that although I think a $400 million dollar paycheck is an absurdly high sum, I think that there's some issues that Enlightened Public Policy simply cannot address all that well."

I don't think the government should do things like, oh, forbidding ridiculous salaries, but I'm not sure there's no public policy proposal that would help here. Thinking specifically of things like: ending preferential tax treatment for certain types of compensation, requiring greater transparency about giving options to people, and so on.

I'm not sure, on reflection, that I wouldn't favor (much) higher taxes on compensation for executives in publicly traded companies (in any form) above some level that ought to be ludicrous but isn't, like $100million/year. Or perhaps it should be cast in terms of the multiple between executive salaries and the median salary in the firm. Who knows.

slarti: actually, i was thinking of sending the algae to a biosolids processing facility, like this one.

California wants its power companies to have 20% of their energy coming from renewable sources. Dams kill fish. Wind and solar tend to generate strong local opposition. We should be thinking of carbon (in CO2) plus sunlight as a renewable and close the loop.


Slarti,

"do you think it'd be better to enforce divestment of the refining companies from the extraction companies from the distribution and sales companies"

Not really, for lots of reasons:

1. I don't think breaking up the companies will stick, especially in these days of loose antitrust enforcement.

2. significant savings are present due to the integration, as most refineries do not need to buy oil on the spot market to keep running, but rather have a dedicated supply from the extractor who is a sister company.

3. decoupling refining and retail sales would also have serious costs, as it would be difficult to differentiate the gas sold. The additives that make each brand of gas different are added at the refinery, and if refineries sold to any stations, that would no longer be possible. Instead, the gas quality would be a race to the bottom, as independent stations are now.

4. it still wouldn't reduce the profit, just limit it to the parties doing the extraction (and to a lesser extent, the ones owning the land on which the oil is extracted).

I don't think the government should do things like, oh, forbidding ridiculous salaries, but I'm not sure there's no public policy proposal that would help here.

They tried this by making any salary above $1 million non-deductible. Of course they then riddled it with so many loopholes as to make it meaningless, such as one that allowed deductions if the amount was paid pursuant to an incentive performance plan, which just made companies switch to options, resulting in the absurdly high payouts to executives we have seen.

slarti: actually, i was thinking of sending the algae to a biosolids processing facility, like this one.

Ok, that'd get us to a point where we could recombust the sequestered carbon. Which would free the CO2, again, which would require more algae to absorb...

I think this absorption-by-algae idea isn't so bad, but I think it takes things like very, very large, covered ponds to make work. And time.

We should be thinking of carbon (in CO2) plus sunlight as a renewable and close the loop.

Why not just sunlight? Pure solar, I mean? Either way of utilizing solar energy takes up acreage, after all.

Thinking specifically of things like: ending preferential tax treatment for certain types of compensation, requiring greater transparency about giving options to people, and so on.

I'm with you there, hilzoy. Actually, I'm all for as much simplification of the tax code as possible, but when I advocate simplification for its own sake, mostly I get accused of borrowing right-wing talking point from fascists. But I'm a pragmatist; whatever it takes.

I'd think that executive compensation would be to a great extent opposed by stockholders, and to an even larger extent opposed by the BODs, but the Board isn't always the advocates of wisdom that we'd like to think they are.

Wind and solar tend to generate strong local opposition. We should be thinking of carbon (in CO2) plus sunlight as a renewable and close the loop.

You can sequester CO2 from a coal plant. No research is needed. Adds about 25-50% to the investment. You can biologically remove CO2 from exhaust gas. IIRC, MIT did a small removal using algae in plastic tubes. The very preliminary estimates are that it would double the investment. This would make the coal plant about 2-3x as expensive as wind. That's why it's never going to happen on new plants. Sequestering maybe, especially if you can use the CO2 for EOR. Besides, people will NIMBY absolutely anything nowadays.

As always, I'd much prefer a serious attempt to lower our energy usage generally, and our dependence on burning fossil fuels in particular.

Easily done. Just mandate maximum engine displacement at 2 liters.

I don't think the government should do things like, oh, forbidding ridiculous salaries, but I'm not sure there's no public policy proposal that would help here. Thinking specifically of things like: ending preferential tax treatment for certain types of compensation, requiring greater transparency about giving options to people, and so on.

OT, but this whole area is a pet peeve of mine. One general thing the government should do is encourage, rather than hinder, market forces that might limit this idiocy. I'm talking about giving shareholders stronger voting rights, holding directors accountable for their actions, requiring mutual funds to vote their shares in the interests of their investors, etc.

Not energy-related. Sorry.

They tried this by making any salary above $1 million non-deductible. Of course they then riddled it with so many loopholes as to make it meaningless, such as one that allowed deductions if the amount was paid pursuant to an incentive performance plan, which just made companies switch to options, resulting in the absurdly high payouts to executives we have seen.

Another case in point for tax code simplification. Make taxes punitive and the tax code ever-changing, and those with the resources are going to apply pressure for change that'll affect them positively. Better to have simple tax codes, IMO.

Slarti,

"I'd think that executive compensation would be to a great extent opposed by stockholders, and to an even larger extent opposed by the BODs, but the Board isn't always the advocates of wisdom that we'd like to think they are."

1. The last 20 years have seen the rise of the phenomenon of CEO superstars, where certain CEO's (Jack Welch at GE being the foremost example) are considered such visionaries that paying extreme amounts to them is seen as desirable. Unfortuantely, rather than creating a stratification in such salaries based on merit, it brought the rest of the market up to the point where we are overpaying for mediocrity (similar to free agency in most sports).

2. the members of the board of directors typically are either company officers, who owe their positions to the CEO and have no incentive to reduce his pay, or CEO's of other companies, who are willing to increase salaries here in exchange for their own salaries being increased by their own companies.

Speaking for myself, I'm in favour of high gas prices all the time. This current political manoeuvering by both Democrats and Republicans is incredibly childish. As far as I can see, Bush's proposals would do nothing about gas prices in the short to medium term and little in the long term, while the Democrats are playing on completely speculative suspicions of price-gouging to advocate a course of action that would harm the environment.

I mean, what could be more ridiculous than increasing gas taxes even more for the purposes of wealth redistribution? How does that affect the take-home pay of an oil executive? Answer: it doesn't.

a couple of mighty big leaps, there.

i'm basically in favor of somewhat higher gas taxes if that tax money can be specifically used to fund alternative energy research - not for simple "wealth distribution". and, i'm personally a bit offended at the idea of oil execs making huge salaries based in multi-year record profits on the backs of the workers in this country; but salaries aren't something i'd be happy to see regulated by law. i'd be happy if shame could do the job, though.

as to how higher taxes affect the take home pay of the oil exec: surely the less money people spend on gas, the lower the profits will be (assuming all other things remain the same). and, if this tax-funded research i hope for turns up some new technology which will reduce our dependence on oil, proftis from oil will also go down.

Slarti -

The tax code was at one time much simpler than it is now. In fact, according to tax attorneys more learned and experienced than I, it was possible for one to have a working knowledge of all the provisions of the Code and regulations up until the early or mid 1970s. No one would ever make that claim today.

The basic provisions of the Code can still be quite simple. For example, section 162 allows "as a deduction all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business...." A simple Code would leave it at that and we would all go on our merry way.

Of course things are not that simple, as that's just the warm-up in section 162(a). Section 162 then goes on for four more pages in 8 point type (at least in my RIA version of the Code), and its regulations encompass 50 additional pages (also in 8 point type). You may ask if all of that extra verbiage is really needed but, at some point, someone decided that yes, it is.

While taxpayers complain all the time about the complexity of the Code they really have no one to blame but themselves, as the source of the majority of such complexity is a result of congress either responding to taxpayer abuses, or to handing out goodies to favored taxpayers. Very little springs up out of whole cloth from the bowels of the Treasury department and IRS.

That's not to say we couldn't simplify the Code in certain respects. There's no need for the ridiculous variety of deductions, exclusions, credits, phaseouts, AMT complications, etc. that currently apply to individuals, for example. We could replace everything with a single standard deduction for each taxpayer and his/her dependents, shortening the 1040 to a few lines. Similarly, all the credits in the Code for such things as renewable energy, synthetic fuels, R&D expenditures, etc. could also be eliminated.

All that would be chomping at the margins, however. To truly simplify the Code you would have to repeal the corporate income tax and eliminate the ability for people to conduct business as a partnership for tax purposes. I don't see that happening any time soon.

I'll shut up now.

i'm personally a bit offended at the idea of oil execs making huge salaries based in multi-year record profits on the backs of the workers in this country

I'm offended by all ridiculous compensation packages, regardless of where the money comes from. I'm also absolutely offended by abortion, but, you know, I've already said something about that, and my reluctance to legislate so as to minimize my offendedness. Ultimately, if you want to convince me of something, you're going to have to come up with a little more than outrage.

surely the less money people spend on gas

Surely. Always a dangerous thing, surely. Let me know at what price per gallon the net income for a given oil company will begin to taper off, please. Hell, let me know what price will start to see hits to demand. In the meantime, though, you're going to be funding this new research off the backs of the same workers you're upset on behalf of.

Hope I didn't lynch too many participles, there, but I'm in a hurry.

Ultimately, if you want to convince me of something, you're going to have to come up with a little more than outrage.

sigh

i think you're letting your snark get in the way of your reading.

Let me know at what price per gallon the net income for a given oil company will begin to taper off, please. Hell, let me know what price will start to see hits to demand.

to what end ? are you going to claim there's no such price ?

to what end ? are you going to claim there's no such price ?

Of course not, cleek. I'm saying that in order to get to such a price, you're going to be soaking those poor blue-collar workers in order to collect funds to finance R&D to reduce oil profits. Who's going to be hurt the most?

If financing R&D is your end, why not just raise income taxes, and establish a government R&D budget? That, at least, would be an endeavor that doesn't hit poorest people the hardest.

And no, snark's not in the way. If anything, this is the exact opposite of snark: I'm looking for decent, logical arguments.

We made a punch with Everclear, once. I'm pretty surprised I'm still alive.

Lessons learned from freshman year: don't make jello shots with Everclear. The damn jello won't set.

Back to the topic: one way I see ethanol becoming viable would be if we ever got fusion up and running. [I know, I know.] Provided we can get the energy loss of ethanol down to a reasonable margin that can be met by the introduction of straightforward mechanical or electrical energy (i.e. can be supplied by fusion), the ethanol simply becomes an (inefficient) means of distributing "fusion power" to vehicles -- and, AFAIK, a much safer/more cost effective one than the standard hydrogen solutions I've seen.

But on its own rights, I agree: I've seen nothing about ethanol production that indicates it could become a break-even fuel supply, let alone a net gain, with anything like present technology.

I'm saying that in order to get to such a price, you're going to be soaking those poor blue-collar workers in order to collect funds to finance R&D to reduce oil profits.

reducing oil company profits isn't my highest priority. seeing their profits fall because nobody needs their product is much more attractive.

If financing R&D is your end, why not just raise income taxes, and establish a government R&D budget?

or, just use the taxes we're already collecting from gas. or, even a miniscule (per gallon) new tax would go a long ways towards R&D. it doesn't have to be so big as to affect demand (yes, i know in theory any increase affects demand. but in reality, people can absorb a few pennies on something that can vary by $.10/week without a second thought).

Belatedly, comparing the footprint of a solar or wind plant to that of, say, a coal-burning plant is not a fair comparison. It'd be fairer to compare, say, a wind farm to the coal mine, processing facility, transportation system, and thermal plant required to generate the equivalent number of megawatts.

seeing their profits fall because nobody needs their product is much more attractive

If not agreement, then certainly no argument.

Ok, so you're not advocating punitive taxes to reduce oil company income (somehow) and simultaneously fund R&D, but maybe advocating some (modest, perhaps) tax increase that's earmarked for R&D. If so, no quarrel. I don't know if it's the best proposal I'm likely to hear, but I don't think it's a bad one.

It did appear to me that you were proposing the punitive, etc measures, and that's why I responded the way I did. So, any snippiness on my part: retracted, with apologies.

Anarch: Mr Fusion would be nice, I think. OT, I did a term paper back in high school about the prospects of fusion power in the near future; I was optimistic. I did another, similar one a couple of years later in college taking the opposite POV. The former paper I relief heavily (but not exclusively; also used Science News and other sources) on articles in Scientific American (which was, IMO, a better magazine back then). Back then, the prevailing wisdom was that we'd be hitting breakeven within a couple of decades, and with any luck within one.

That was 27 years ago. The latter paper I looked more at what people were focused less on: that H^2=H^2 fusion was potentially pretty clean, but no one was working on reactors that actually did that. People were directed more at things like lithium-boron (IIRC) fusion, which has rather more dirty products than the pretty-picture articles from LLNL in SciAm. And in most cases the neutron flux would do bad things to the reactor walls, which would eventually need to be disposed of as radioactive waste.

So, not all lace and daisies.

So, not all lace and daisies.

Ayup. I'm sitting less than half a mile from one of the largest tokomaks in the US and my friend who used to work there claims that they actually came within spitting distance of break-even -- they might actually have even passed it once or twice -- for, um, around a nanosecond or so. So we're really really close in a way that we weren't 27 years ago... but danged if I know how long the rest of the trip is gonna be.

[I'm fairly sure the reaction they're looking at here is straight-up hydrogen fusion, fwiw, but that's something to happy about once we've actually hit break-even sustainable reactions...]

I think solar and wind have a lot more to add to our national energy budget, but we have to think BIG. Energy can be piped across the country pretty cheap, as Enron showed back when it had a business plan. So let's make a lot of it. People think in terms of solar panels on buildings. All well and good, but tell me, what are we really doing with the Mojave Desert these days? Even a diehard environmentalist might be willing to lose its species in exchange for not polluting the rest of the country with the oil & coal byproducts of creating the equivalent energy of a Mojave-size solar panel array. And then there's the rest of the Southwest -- how many people live there outside of Phoenix & Denver, anyway? (Indian reservations excepted, as that land is not ours to use)

The maintenance costs on a project like this might be prohibitive, but then again there might be economies of scale, and robots can do wonderful things these days.

Similar points re wind farms -- we have lots of open space.

I'm willing to think bigger: orbital solar power factories charging up some sort of fuel storage mechanism or other, at the Earth-Moon L5 (or some other libration) point. Make em out of lunar silicon.

But that's way out, and possibly not even feasible.

Even a diehard environmentalist might be willing to lose its species in exchange for not polluting the rest of the country with the oil & coal byproducts

I always got the feeling that the only species "diehard environmentalists" were willing to lose was homo sapiens. Also that they didn't understand not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but perhaps I am projecting.

trilobyte: Even a diehard environmentalist might be willing to lose its species in exchange for not polluting the rest of the country with the oil & coal byproducts of creating the equivalent energy of a Mojave-size solar panel array.

This sounds like a dreadful idea. Just because the desert isn't terribly habitable for humans doesn't mean it's some empty, dusty corner that isn't being put to any good purpose. Even setting the obvious ecological impacts aside, if you significantly change the albedo of the Mojave, you can count on feeling the effects elsewhere.

Rooftop collection actually makes a lot more sense to me than big solar farms anyway. I mean, the real-estate is already there and you eliminate most of the delivery costs (not to mention eliminating at least some reliance on the power grid). Rooftops already have a negative impact on albedo, so why not put a solar collector up there to reap some benefit. I don't know if it will ever be enough to replace all other sources, but it should make a decent dent.

Slartibartfast: I'm willing to think bigger: orbital solar power factories charging up some sort of fuel storage mechanism or other, at the Earth-Moon L5 (or some other libration) point. Make em out of lunar silicon.

Maybe I don't understand specifically what you have in mind, I can't imagine any remotely efficient delivery mechanism to get energy from orbit to surface that doesn't involve the risk of incinerating a small town.

It's not only coal plants that have smokestacks. Engaging in a research project that leads to any stationary emitter of CO2 to become ULEV should (a) save a lot of energy and (b) cut down on other undesired emissions of nox, sox and vox (NOx, SOx and VOCs). [Nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides and volatile organic compounds, for those not up on their environmental acronyms.]

No one should underestimate the power of local communities and environmental activists to prevent: coastal oil drilling, major expansion of wind farms, major expansion of solar farms, new nuke facilities and/or new refineries. the benefit is dilute and the impact is local, so intense local opposition can be very difficult to overcome.

Hydrogen storage in ammonia looks fairly promising.

orbital solar power: think of the amount of energy it would take to get whatever-it-is into orbit. Not to mention its death ray aspects, and the rather large shadow it might cast.

presumably, additional gas tax money to the govt would be returned to all of us in the form of some benefit to the country (why, we could even write a law that requires a certain amount to go to investigating new energy sources!). additional profits to oil companies, taken off the backs of working folk, go to enriching people who can't possibly need any more money. which benefits society more?

A little late to the game here, but one assumes despite the deck-stacking being proferred here that both "additional gas tax money" and "additional profits to the oil companies" come from the same set of payers: People who buy gasoline. The former is extracted from the pockets of "working folk" just exactly in the same manner and to the same extent that the latter is.

What's more, that "presumably" is about a jillion miles wide, considering how much of the money would go to build bridges in Alaska and the National Ethanol Museum in Nebraska and an 85-ft cornstalk commemorating the invention of ethanol and heaven only knows what else.

That was conceded earlier Phil. The remaining question, though is what the "working folk" get for that money: a tank of gas plus more oil exploration, or a tank of gas plus more renewable energy research.

That was conceded earlier Phil.

And with this, I was referring to your point about the how the working stiff is paying in either case.

and the rather large shadow it might cast

The rest being good points, let's say you have a few square miles (say, 2 miles on a side) of solar panels floating out at the Earth-Moon L4 or L5 points, a quarter of a million miles away. Better would be the Earth-Sun L4/L5 points, but those points are roughly 93 million miles away, on the same orbit. That's going to cast roughly as much shadow as a quarter would at an altitude of ten thousand feet: none that's perceptible. In fact, since the solar disk is actually much larger than anything we could possibly put up there, the only thing that we could possibly manage is to dim the sun just a bit, and that dimming would happen about as often and pervasively as partial lunar eclipses.

As for the rest, I'm not talking about using Saturn V rockets to boost an entire, intact structure of metal off of the Earth's surface. I'm talking more like a hundred years (or more) out. Mine the asteroid belt for metals and the Moon for silicon, and put the whole thing together out at L4 or L5 (or both). For smelting and solar cell manufacture, you've got all this lovely solar fluence to power solar furnaces. By then, of course, we might have space elevators to make those maintenance runs happen more easily.

Oh, and the "death ray": who says you have to beam the energy back? What if you could devise a way to store the energy efficiently, and simply transport the storage medium?

All this is highly speculative, of course; that's the fun part. I ought to have pointed out, though, that this is a completely different conversation than the conversation about immediate energy concerns.

I ought to have mentioned that because of the large distances involved, making the thing two hundred miles on a side would cast as much shadow as a quarter at a distance of a hundred feet. With the sun on the other side, you're not going to be able to see it. It's going to blot out a fraction of a percent of the solar radiation falling on a given point on the earth directly underneath it (which, I might add, is moving along relative to the fairly slow-moving spot at about 1000 miles per hour), once a month.

This is probably the smallest concern involved in an endeavor of this kind.

Did some back of the envelope calculations once and figured if we could launch a solar power satellite using US rockets and sell the energy to Japan at Japanese energy prices, it actually would be cost effective.

I'm looking a lot into biomass and other green energy generating techniques--there are places on Earth that will pay a premium for this, especially if you don't have to worry about nuclear waste.

Japan's got a lot of really good energy-sipping technology that could be introduced into the US; the problem is that I doubt anyone in the US is willing to pay the necessary prices. Energy in the US still isn't expensive enough, unfortunately. In Japan, it makes sense to buy a washer/dryer unit that will last you for 5 years and uses 68% less energy for a cost of $2000.

Generic comments:

1. My understanding is that most of the energy requiored to produce ethanol suitable for mixing with gasoline is the final "stipping"; taking the ethanol from 95% ("pure grain alcohol') to 99+% needed to mix with gasoline. Burn pure ethanol, you don't need the stripping, and the efficiency changes a lot. A bigger problem is the tax situation.

2. Being able to smell/taste ethanol seems to be genitic. I can; a lot of people can't.

3. An oddity in space-based power production is the energy density at the ground "rectanna". Numbers I've seen (not recently) are less than 100W/m^2. The interesting thing is that sunlight provides about 1000W/m^2 (or for you Imperial types, about 1HP/y^2) -- ten times as much. Of course, that's noon on the desert.

4. The "death ray" objection is simply a matter of design. Properly designed, it can't happen, any more than an LED flashlight can turn into a death-ray laser.

My own feeling is that the answer to our energy woes is "all of the above". There's no one "magic bullet".

3. An oddity in space-based power production is the energy density at the ground "rectanna". Numbers I've seen (not recently) are less than 100W/m^2. The interesting thing is that sunlight provides about 1000W/m^2 (or for you Imperial types, about 1HP/y^2) -- ten times as much. Of course, that's noon on the desert.

That'd require 12.1 million square meters to power the time machine; call it three and a half klicks square. Seems excessive.

I think it was Clarke or Heinlein that proposed the rectenna concept, and it was microwave radiation, with a lot of multiply redundant controls and failsafes to make sure no one got cooked.

Current solar cell power density is something like 135-140 W/m^2, so the efficiency is rather low (. I think most of the efficiency loss is due to the fact that solar panels only convert a fraction of the broadband solar influx to electrical power; that problem would be much smaller in the rectenna farm because the influx would be narrowband, and the rectenna would be tuned to that band exactly.

The problem with earthbound solar panels is, of course, multifold: cloud cover and the wee problem of having the sun never being directly overhead except (perhaps, depending on time of year and location) momentarily. None of these problems is present at L4/L5.

Wikipedia says that 85% efficiency at the dipoles and a 14 km by 10 km rectenna farm gives you between 5 and 10 gigawatts. The rectenna farm isn't a solid dish, either, but an array of thin wires strung between poles - you could farm on the same land.
Oh, and for that sort of yield, you need to put on the order of thousands of tonnes of station into GEO. (The accidentally cooking people question is apparently not serious.)
Get launch costs down a bit more and this one could be just about feasible.

Slightly different topic: I had no idea there was a topX list (X being some handy multiple of ten) for PV farms. Here's the 5th largest farm; it's in the US. The four above it on the list are all in Germany, as are 31 others in the top 50.

Germany. Gloomy Germany. Who'd a thunk it?

There are six in the US; all in California and Arizona.

Slartibartfast, my understanding is that we are nearing the theoretical limits of power storage efficiency, and it's not enough to make transport from orbital solar panels efficient. Alas. But my math & data aren't good enuf to do the back-of-the-envelope calculation you say you did. Details? What assumptions are you making?

As noted, the problem with beaming power back is, what happens when the beam drifts off target? (Which it does, this is why SDI keeps not working worth a damn). But again, maybe we can handle that if we're willing to make a Really Big receiver array.

Gromit, changing the albedo of the Mojave is another way of saying that we would turn absorbed and reflected heat into power, which is the whole point of the exercise. As a side-effect, we also cool off the local environment, which means we score two points against global warming for the price of one. So, what's the problem?

Yes, there would be some effect on national weather patterns. Probably not too bad a one, compared with our the results of our contibution to global warming. I'm not a climatologist, so I don't know just what would happen (8th grade science class suggests, rain would move closer in to the affected area, storms would be less energetic). Anybody?

Losing Mojave species would have little if any effect on the larger biosphere; desert biota are relatively self-contained. It's not like the desert is a key migratory pit-stop or something.

Slartibartfast, my understanding is that we are nearing the theoretical limits of power storage efficiency

I have no idea what this means. Are you talking chemical batteries, or is there general theory of power storage that I'm unaware of?

As noted, the problem with beaming power back is, what happens when the beam drifts off target? (Which it does, this is why SDI keeps not working worth a damn).

Already answered upthread. Shorter: nothing special. A hundred watts per square meter is very small, power-density wise. What this has to do with SDI is anyone's guess; anything you can say to clue me in on what you meant by the reference to SDI would be appreciated.

Microwave or x-ray laser, high-intensity or low-intensity, it's hard to keep a beam steady from satellite to ground or near-ground. That's all I meant. The same atmospheric interference that prevents us from shooting down missiles with Buck Rogers space-mounted rayguns also makes it necessary to use a large receiver for solar.

You're right that I forgot the discussion of that upthread, oops. Anyway, it sounds more feasible than I thought. Good.

I'm no expert, but my understanding is that there is a well-worked out theory of how battery storage works, and that there is only so efficient it can get - we've gotten increases in battery efficiency when it has become worthwhile to develop the technology to make purer chemicals and to use different metals, but there isn't a lot of slack left, I hear. So if charging up a shuttlefull of batteries isn't cost-effective now, it probably won't be in the future either.

I'm no expert, but my understanding is that there is a well-worked out theory of how battery storage works, and that there is only so efficient it can get - we've gotten increases in battery efficiency when it has become worthwhile to develop the technology to make purer chemicals and to use different metals, but there isn't a lot of slack left, I hear. So if charging up a shuttlefull of batteries isn't cost-effective now, it probably won't be in the future either.

That's what I thought. But note: "energy storage media" and "chemical batteries" aren't synonymous. Energy can be stored by any number of different mechanisms.

Like what?

trilobite: water uphill. flywheels. hydrogen. my dog's kibble.

(ok, the last one is unlikely to be scalable into commercial use and there's an unfortunate lag [called digestion] before the energy's available. but i'd swear that there's a violation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics based on how little he eats and how much go-go-go he has.)

Those don't fit well into a space shuttle...

Well, maybe your dog's kibble. But if you can make it out of solar energy in a reasonable time with feasibly transportable materials and turn it back into energy at this end cheap, I want to shake your hand. :)

I think Slartibartfast was addressing the point, not making a semantic quibble. Then again, can you really trust a man who puts fjords in Africa?

"Energy can be stored by any number of different mechanisms."

High-temperature super-conductors? Zero resistance equals infinite capacity? You can probably tell I am no physicist, and haven't read SF in a long time.

how much go-go-go he has

Go-go-go he has or go-go-go he does?

lj: he's half akita and half belgian shepherd. (imagine a small german shepherd with a straight back and a big curly tail). so the answer to your question is YES.

(i've been known to dance during american idol, after a long day and a few bourbons. he's been known to join in. my wife? rotflhao.)

water uphill

TVA has a reservoir on top of Raccoon Mtn, or somewhere nearby Chattanooga, that they pump full at night and release thru turbines down by the river 1000 feet below during the daytime to generate electricity.

And the amount of water that goes over Niagara Falls is not all the water that could go over. A lot of it is diverted to generate electricty. The difference this makes to a casual visitor to Niagara Falls is approximately 0%, according to my personal experience.

trilobyte: Gromit, changing the albedo of the Mojave is another way of saying that we would turn absorbed and reflected heat into power, which is the whole point of the exercise. As a side-effect, we also cool off the local environment, which means we score two points against global warming for the price of one. So, what's the problem?

Just off the top of my layman's head: Significant cooling of the local environment could very well turn the desert into not-desert, meaning the clear sky that made it such an attractive site for a massive solar array could be filled with clouds, we could have increased precipitation in a region that's not adapted for rainfall (a lot of desert soil getting dumped into the Pacific, I expect) and that moisture comes from somewhere, meaning other habitats could conceivably be turned into deserts, or at least find that water is a lot more scarce.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but while it gets very hot locally, I doubt the desert warms the planet much on balance, since it is close to the average albedo for the planet (it reflects more light than pretty much any other warm environment) and the air is very dry (H20 being a greenhouse gas and clouds tending to reverse-reflect energy). In any case, the energy being collected by the solar array doesn't just vanish. It, presumably, gets piped all over the continent, where it is ultimately turned into heat. So, the only point scored against global warming is the reduction in CO2 emissions, which we could get more efficiently with rooftop collectors or smaller farms spread out to minimize their impact.

DaveC: TVA has a reservoir on top of Raccoon Mtn, or somewhere nearby Chattanooga, that they pump full at night and release thru turbines down by the river 1000 feet below during the daytime to generate electricity.

Are you sure they pump water into it? That would result in a net loss of energy. Wouldn't it?

High-temperature super-conductors? Zero resistance equals infinite capacity? You can probably tell I am no physicist, and haven't read SF in a long time.

This is more or less along the lines of what I was thinking. Chemical batteries are methods for converting electrical potential to chemical potential and then back. There are other ways of storing energy that don't obey the and back dictate all that well, but still can be useful. You could store the energy as heat, for instance, or use the energy to split chemical bonds that can be remade on Earth, generating power in the process.

Or, you could go with the low-power-density downlink, which I once knew about and had since forgotten. My thanks to ajay for pointing that out. Unfortunately that approach requires that the transmitter be at geosynch, which means that the shadow cast would be much bigger for a given collector-farm size. But as noted, the periods that the satellite farm would be between the Earth and the Sun are quite brief, as are the periods where it's in the shadow of the Earth. This is just a feature (not a bug) resulting from the Earth's axial tilt from the ecliptic. Anything at geosynch has to also be tilted 23 degrees (approximately) from the ecliptic.

Are you sure they pump water into it? That would result in a net loss of energy. Wouldn't it?

Small, due to inefficiencies. What it does accomplish is storing excess capacity during the day for use later on.

Oops, that should have read storing excess capacity at off-peak for use during peak. Which is not the same as day and night, respectively, but the other way around.

I talked to "my source" in fuel engineering yesterday and can now say that I got pretty much everything wrong upthread. It goes something like this:

Congress mandates oxygenates in fuel to reduce carbon monoxycide emissions, which can be very problematic in winter fuels. The oxygenates do little to reduce ozone emissions, which are the major problem in summertime, but the mandate is for year-round fuels.

Industry prefers MTBE because it's more stable and less expensive. Industry engineers warn mangement that the MTBE fuels would have to be absolutely isolated from water supply. Some companies are smart and replace all their storage tanks, etc; other companies wait until the last possible minute and do a poor job of it. Mom and Pop Gas doesn't do it or can't afford it. Inevitably, there are leaks; lawsuits and stricter regulations ensue.

Then, pretty much the only oxygenate additive that makes economic sense is ethanol. The other possible chemical additives have similar downsides that MTBE did, and the other possible alcohols would be more expensive to make and/or ship.

Unfortunately, there's a gigantic infrastructural problem to overcome: because the ethanol bonds with water, separating out from the gasoline, it can create a dangerous vapor pressure in storage. To overcome that problem, the ethanol must be added to the gas at the very last possible transfer point: at the end of the transportation pipeline into the tankers that take the processed gasoline directly to the retail stations. This is a fairly long-term investment, which oil companies were trying to accomplish very quickly.

Suspending the ethanol requirement for the summer fuels, according to my source, makes a lot of sense since ozone rather than carbon monoxyde is the summertime air quality concern, and the ethanol wouldn't do much to abate ozone.

**
Sorry this is so long (and may yet contain errors), but getting it so wrong above bugged me. Perhaps I'm oversensitive to the appearence of Iowan corn-lobbying politics; I blame Pataki!

I should also have apologized for most of my comment's having been already covered.

Fun fact: the reason ethanol in the water supply isn't problematic is because bugs like to eat it!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad