Monday, December 15, 2008

New Report on Corporate GHG Policy

A report issued last week compared 63 well-known companies for the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with some surprising results. Apple’s bad rating surprised me, for example. Few companies seem to be taking it seriously, though there are commendable and already well-known efforts from companies like WalMart.

Companies were scored based upon their performance in five areas: board of director oversight; management execution; public disclosure; emissions accounting; and strategic planning and performance. The detailed criteria are quite complicated, and the authors warn against comparing scores of companies in different sectors. Winners and losers in some of the sectors studied are as follows (all scores being out of 100):

· IBM with 79 vs. Apple with 28
· Tesco with 78 vs. CVS with 12
· Intel with 72 vs. Texas Instruments with 28
· Nike with 71 vs. Abercrombie and Fitch with 0
· Johnson and Johnson with 71 vs. Roche with 49
· WalMart with 69 vs. Bed Bath & Beyond with 10
· Coca-Cola with 65 vs. Anheuser Busch with 38
· L’Oreal with 54 vs. Estee lauder with 24
· Marriott with 53 vs. Las Vegas Sands with 7
· Starbucks with 52 vs. Burger King with 6

The report was commissioned by Ceres from RiskMetrics Group. For more information click here where you can also download the full 316-page report.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

USPS Should Embrace Electric Vehicles.

As posted before, the United States Postal Service has been required to use so called Flex-Fuel vehicles even in places where E85 is not available. There is an interesting report on various trials of alternative-fuel vehicles available on the web at

On the face of it, local mail delivery is an ideal application for electric vehicles. The USPS calls the current vehicles LLVs or Long Life Vehicles. They average just 16 miles per day and do about 10 miles to the gallon. True to their name, the average age is about 16 years, but as there are 140,000 of them this still implies that they get replaced at about 9,000 a year. Also, since the fleet comprises only a few different vehicle types, and since they typically get through a couple of engines and transmissions during their lives, a mass retrofit might be feasible.

Electric vehicles seem well suited to a number of local delivery jobs, and also maintenance vans which may do few miles and spend most of their lives waiting at worksites. In London I noticed that stores like Tesco used electric delivery vehicles, which are readily available in Europe.

The USPS last tested pure electric vehicles, supplied by Ford, in 2001. It is not clear why they did not expand the program, as the vehicles seem to have performed well. They said they were unsure of long-term battery viability, but that surely is changed by the availability of lithium ion technology.

So, how about it, USPS?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Flex-Fuel Scandal

The Washington Post has an article ( exposing the waste inherent in the Federal Government’s usage of alternative fuel vehicles. These vehicles can in theory run either on regular gas or on an 85% ethanol blend known as E85. Years ago GM had obtained concessions on the CAFE standards in return for producing these vehicles, even though there was nothing to require owners to use E85. Indeed, for many years GM did not even identify the fact that the vehicle was able to use E85, the only way an owner would know being to look up the VIN number somewhere. And of course, E85 is not available everywhere.

To make matters worse, the Flex-Fuel vehicles are invariably big V8s like the Cadillac Escalade.
Leaving aside the doubtful benefit of using corn-based ethanol anyway, this meant that most Flex-Fuel vehicles are run mostly on gasoline and the net effect on greenhouse gas emissions is positive rather than negative.

The Post article reveals that even in the government’s own program, many such vehicles are in areas where they don’t have access to E85 and that 92% of them are run on gasoline. Furthermore, the vehicles could have been replaced by more economical conventional vehicles.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Poznan: Why Meet Now?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meets today in Poznan to try to hammer out a new global climate change pact to replace the Kyoto Treaty, which expires in 2012. Over the next 12 days, some 10,000 representatives will negotiate a new pact aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions to be signed next year in Copenhagen.

My question is: would it not have been better to have waited a couple of months so that the U.S. could be seriously represented by an administration that actually cares?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Disappointing Tesla Roadster

I was invited to California this week to test drive a Tesla electric roadster on a closed course. A short course was marked out with cones at a small general aviation airport, and drivers got to try the car out one at a time, each driver getting five runs.

Early cars had two forward speeds, perhaps to reduce noise at speed, but they had clutch problems so now there is just one forward gear. (Electric motors give maximum torque from 0 rpm, so neither a clutch nor multiple gears are necessary.) With no gear box, there was nothing to do but hang on and steer. And of course accelerate and brake.

Acceleration was impressive, all the more so because it required no skill and was accompanied by almost no noise. The brakes were strong but the ABS seemed to allow enough slippage to induce violent squeals from the tires and for me to wonder whether it was actually functioning. While on the subject of brakes, Tesla claim that the car has regenerative braking but it really doesn’t, at least not as normally understood. When you lift off, there is some engine braking effect, as the motor functions as a generator, but there is no attempt to capture energy from actual braking. I did not consciously test how great the engine breaking effect was, but it did not seem any more than a normal car to me, suggesting that one would probably have to be very gentle on the brakes to get the advertised range of 240 miles out of the batteries. Which is not the way one normally drives a sports car.

Unlike the ABS, the traction control is very obtrusive, and unfortunately the track layout made this shortcoming very obvious. It incorporated a long 180-degree bend during which the car would understeer violently. At least, the Tesla engineer blamed this behavior on the traction control, which in theory can be switched off though we were not allowed to do so for this test. I suspect there might be more to it than that. In any case, it defeats the object of traction control if you have to switch it off to make the car safe.

These shortcomings may be less obvious in daily use, though this is not the sort of car in which one is likely to be doing a lot of motorway cruising. The car has more or less zero luggage space, so can be regarded only as a toy or maybe a commuter car. Given its price ($109,000) and heritage (it is built by Lotus on a stretched Elise chassis) one would hope that it would be fun to drive, but from my short test I think a Honda Fit might be more enjoyable. Everyone I met from Tesla was friendly and appeared knowledgeable, and I wish them well, but somehow I feel that the company at its core doesn’t quite get it. Not that there is anything about the car which could not be fixed, especially if they could involve Lotus in developing out the flaws.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

TightWatt Pool Pump Controller

I told myself I would post regularly from London during my summer sojourn there, but you know what they say about good intentions. I am now back in Houston and am glad to report no damage from the hurricane. None except for the pool, that is. I am not sure about the exact order of events, but the large amount of tree debris in the pool combined with the lack of electricity for a couple of days triggered a visit from the pool guy. He could not get the TightWatt pool controller (see my blog in February) to work and bypassed it. I emailed the manufacturers, Allen Concepts, and was given instructions to “reboot” it by switching off the power and removing the battery. This worked a treat, but the pump itself was still not working properly so the pool guy came out again, after which I found the TightWatt was not working again. This time the reboot did not work, but Steve Allen of Allen Concepts offered to replace the unit. So I just wanted to publicly commend the company for its customer service.

The product itself worked faultlessly for about a year prior to the hurricane and credit it with saving me in the region of $900 per year. (Say a reduction in usage of 4 hours per day on a 4kW motor, at 16 cents per kWH.) Check it out at, and btw I do not have any affiliation with the company other than as a satisfied customer.

Friday, August 22, 2008

2,000 Watt Society

We are getting towards the end of our summer sojourn in London and I was hoping I would have an electricity bill to compare with our life in Houston. But they bill only quarterly here – which itself may be a commentary on how much less they use! – and so the only bill I have to hand is for the period from early March until early June when my tenant was in the flat. Total usage was 724 kWh, less than I have ever used in a single month in Houston. Bear in mind that the Houston house has gas for cooking and heating, whereas the London flat has only electricity, and the contrast is even more remarkable. The price by the way was about 12 pence per kWh, about 50% more than in Houston.

All this remind me of the 2,000 Watt Society, so-called because that is what the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology believes is sustainable. If each of us consumed 2000 watts continuously, this would amount to 17,520 (2000 times 265 times 24 divided by 1000) kilowatt hours per year. The typical American or Canadian uses about 6 that.

Of course this is meant to cover ALL our energy usage; not just electricity but natural gas, gasoline, and all the energy content in the things we buy. Nevertheless, our electricity consumption is a major element and it is interesting to find that in London my wife and I are running on the equivalent of about 330 watts, whereas in Houston it’s over 2200 watts. (This is based on the calendar year 2007 when we used about 19,400 kWh. With new double glazing and insulation we are looking forward to a lower number for 2008.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vertical Farming & Climate Change

There was an interesting program on BBC radio this morning about technological solutions to the problem of feeding a growing world population. Among other things, it dealt with vertical farming. The idea is to grow crops – and even small animals and ultimately maybe cultured meat – in high rise urban buildings. A quick Google found this site which is well worth a look:

Of course, efficient land use is the main objective, but some of the of the other advantages of vertical farming listed on the site may surprise. For example, the absence of pests would make organic farming the norm. More obviously, it brings the food production closer to the market, saving transport costs and making urban living even more eco-friendly than it already is. By drastically reducing the competition for land it might even make bio-fuels a viable solution to our transportation needs.

Taken at its most basic, our energy problem – of which producing food is just a special case – is how to convert enough of the energy arriving from the sun into forms we can use with zero net emissions of greenhouse gases. Skyscrapers growing plants for food and fuel might just be the way to go.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Setbacks in UK

Britain suffered two blows to its climate change credentials today. It looks as if the proposed acquisition of British Energy by the French government-controlled EDF will not go through, leaving a hole in the UK government’s energy plans. British Energy operates eight nuclear power stations in the UK, providing about 20% of the country’s electricity, but several of these need decommissioning over the next few years. The sites of most of these reactors are also on the shortlist for new nuclear power stations, so EDF’s experience (France produces over 70% of its electricity from nuclear sources) would have been very useful in modernizing the UK’s nuclear energy industry.

Meanwhile the government has also got some not entirely warranted bad press concerning its progress on greenhouse gas emissions. It claims a 13% reduction in emission relative to 1990 levels, which puts it well on track to satisfy its Kyoto commitments, but a report by York University suggest that in fact emissions have increased by 13% if the effects of aviation, shipping, and imports are included. Aviation and shipping were excluded from the Kyoto agreement for a number of reasons, while emissions from manufacturing accrue to the manufacturing country rather than the consuming one. Globalization has moved a lot of manufacturing to developing countries, and the associated emissions move with it, thereby making the developed world’s progress seem better than it is. (In addition, industry in the developing world is often less efficient, while transporting these goods around the world adds still more emissions.)

In the UK government’s defense it should I think be pointed out that they are no different from other developed countries in this regard, and that they are merely reporting progress against the yardstick agreed in Kyoto. This progress is I believe better than that of most other developed countries. The government also points out that the report was in fact commissioned by them to point out the problem with that yardstick. Hopefully, 2012 will see a better replacement for Kyoto.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Ads from We Campaign

Al Gore’s “we” campaign plans to run new ads in major newspapers this week, suggesting that three current problems – high gas prices, soft economy, and what they call the “climate crisis” – can best be solved if they are tackled together. Here's a link to the PDF of the ad.

They are also promoting a “remix” of Al Gore's challenge to America and in the last week, and say that over 100,000 people have already watched it. Watch it here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

F1 Goes Green

Formula 1 cars are not known for economy, but the major teams met yesterday at Ferrari headquarters to discuss new rules for the 2010 season. The intention is to limit the amount of fuel which can be used in a race, instead of limiting the capacity of the engines, putting the emphasis on fuel efficiency and encouraging innovation relevant to today’s world. This follows changes for 2009 to allow regenerative braking.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nissan's Electric Car Plans

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, reaffirmed the company’s commitment to pure electric vehicles rather than hybrids in a recent speech marking the opening of Nissan’s new factory in Tennessee. He said he expected to have these on the market by 2010 and that he expected them to be price-competitive and profitable from the outset. I think this is the way to go, because adding a range-extending gasoline motor adds weight, cost, and complication.

It is also a bold move given the current state of battery technology, because the range is likely to be somewhat restrictive. Ghosn said that vehicles would be tailored to individual countries’ needs. He stopped short of saying that the cars would be available in the US, saying only that any car sold in the US would have to have a range of at least 100 miles. He thought some European markets might accept shorter ranges. It seems to me that this is at best acceptable only in a second car. But that would be a good start, and battery technology will surely improve over the next few years.

No doubt sister-company Renault’s deal with the Israeli government to provide the infrastructure to allow quick battery changes at a network of “filling stations” will help provide the volume necessary to be profitable from the outset.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gores' Speech

Al Gore’s much-awaited speech yesterday proposed making US electricity generation entirely carbon-free in ten years. He is right to focus on electricity generation rather than on cars and other transport, if only because the most promising alternatives to gasoline pre-suppose a clean supply of electricity. But one has to doubt the feasibility of making this change so rapidly, especially as he seems to eschew nuclear power as part of the solution.

Gore is also right in saying we need to act now, but that does not mean that we could or should change a whole industry in ten years. Already, most of the new coal fired plants planned in the past few years are on hold and these are unlikely ever to be built. Gore seems to favor clean coal power station, using sequestration, but this is hardly proven technology. We can and should press ahead with wind and solar power, but we still need to solve the problems of storing electricity produced when the sun shines or the wind blows, and of transporting it to where it is needed. Without this, these renewable sources cannot be relied upon for a base load.

In contrast, nuclear energy is a proven technology which can be relied upon to provide clean energy when and where needed. It should be a major part of the solution in the short term, while other technologies are still in the development stages. Meanwhile, the lowest-hanging fruit is energy efficiency, where big improvements could be made very quickly.

A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system is the best way for government to promote all of these efforts: efficiency; nuclear power for base-load power; solar and wind power; and research into sequestration and into new storage and transmission technologies.

Perhaps most importantly, doing more to help the developing nations, especially China, to build clean power stations would be more cost-effective than replacing existing power stations in developed countries like the US. Ratifying Kyoto might be a good start!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ghost Flights

Various UK media report that British Midland, Britain’s third largest airline, plans to fly empty or near- empty planes during next winter in order to retain valuable slots at Heathrow airport. This is just an extreme example of what all airlines expect to be doing; namely not reducing flight schedules in the face of the anticipated reduction in demand. (Some airlines may cancel individual flights, which would be a major inconvenience to the few passengers booked on such flights. And there is a limit to how much they can do this, because a flight must operate at least 80% of the time in order to retain the slot.)

This situation is crazy, both on economic and environmental grounds, but it is difficult to know what to do about it. Some advocate requiring a certain average percentage of seats to be filled, but when this was tried at the much smaller Norwich airport at least one airline responded by hiring actors to fill the seats.

Another suggestion is to change the way airport taxes are charged. Currently, they are charged per passenger, whereas a charge per seat (regardless of whether it is occupied) or per plane, would provide an additional disincentive to flying empty planes. It is not at all clear that this would work, however, as there is already a substantial financial cost to flying empty planes. Indeed it seems doomed to failure; if an airline is prepared to pay an actor to fill an empty seat, and to pay the tax for that actor, it would save money if it were able just to pay the tax on the empty seat.

The real problem is the use-it-or-lose-it policy on slots. This might make sense when slots are at a premium, but if flights are leaving empty in order to retain slots, that is clearly not the case and the policy should be suspended while demand is reduced. Better still, the policy should be abandoned altogether and slots auctioned afresh each year.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Piezoelectric Dance Floor

The BBC and others today report the opening of an allegedly eco-friendly night club in the Kings Cross area of London. This area used to be rather sleazy but is being gentrified, a process stimulated by the new high speed rail line to the channel tunnel. The night club features a piezoelectric dance floor which the owners say will harness the energy of the dancers to provide about half of the club’s electricity. Since the energy has to come from somewhere, I am wondering whether the dancers will tire more quickly than on a regular dance floor. If the idea catches on maybe it could be used in airports; those who eschew the moving walkways could help power those walkways for the less mobile, or more lazy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Car's that run on water!

This is my second post of the day, but I think I need to make a comment about an ad which appears frequently on this blog. (Unfortunately I have no control over the ads except to suppress them altogether.) It's headline is "Run Cars on Hydrogen" but actually claims that cars can run on water. Anyone with any scientific training at all will know that these two conepts are more or less directly opposite to one another; chemical energy is released when hydrogen combines with oxygen (in combustion or otherwise, as in a fuel cell) to produce water, so running a car on water is not a promising idea. As far as I can tell, the proposition is to use the car's battery to produce hydrogen from water and then burn the hydrogen in the engine, which presumably charges the battery. In other words, perpetual motion! Needless to say, this is a scam.

Boris Johnson and London's Congestion Charge

Boris Johnson, London’s new mayor, announced yesterday that he would not implement his predecessor’s plan for a two-tier congestion charge based upon fuel consumption. The current charge, applied in central London between the hours of 7am and 6pm on weekdays, is £8 a day. The proposal was to raise this to £25 for gas-guzzling vehicles and I argued (February 27th) that this was a misuse of a system designed to control congestion. Porsche had also mounted a legal challenge, alleging among other things that the policy was counterproductive insofar as it encouraged people to drive around central London rather than straight through it.

I am not sure I agree with Porsche’s argument, and I am not entirely happy being on the same side as Boris, but I think this is the right decision for reasons expressed in my earlier post. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be addressed at national level – indeed at an international level – rather than in a few square miles of one city.

Perhaps I should ad that I am very much in favor of the original congestion charge which will remain. (Actually I think it should not have been extended to the more residential areas to the west of the city, which I think has been counterproductive for reasons that do not concern us here but that is an entirely different argument.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Honda CR-Z

Last week’s mention of the Honda CFX Clarity Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prompted some controversy over the worth of such technology compared to batteries. To redress the balance a bit, it should be noted that Honda is hedging its bets and is also very active with hybrids. The next generation of Civic hybrids is on the drawing board and expected to reach US shores by 2011. The range should include a sports version based upon last year’s CR-Z concept car, though this may not be called a Civic.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Suburban Slums?

In February and again in April I posted about the threat to the future of the suburbs caused by higher energy costs, so I felt vindicated by an article in Thursday’s NYT business section taking the same view. (“Fuel Prices Shift Math for Life in Far Suburbs”) According to Moody’s, real estate prices in the suburbs are declining faster than in city centers. The article quotes urban land use expert Christopher B. Leinberger, writing in The Atlantic Monthly that “many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s — slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay.”

With oil recently hitting a new high, and with carbon taxation or trading almost certain within the next few years, I see every likelihood that the trend in fuel prices will continue upwards (though of course there may be temporary dips) unless and until we actually start using a lot less of it.

Meanwhile I am 3 weeks into life in central London, where the population density is such that I can reach almost anything I want on foot and where an abundance of public transport makes the occasional longer journey a breeze. I realize not everyone can live here, but most cities in Europe offer good public transport and America is going to have to follow. According to the NYT article, the average suburban household in America already spends over $3000 a year on gasoline; as this increases the incentive to move inward will increase and the value of the suburban property will decrease.

My message as before is to get out of the suburbs while the getting’s relatively good.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Yesterday I expressed my disbelief that the White House could ignore an EPA report merely by refusing to open the email. Let’s put a little more flesh on the bones of the story. Over a year ago the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA was wrong to refuse to regulate greenhouse gases as had been demanded by a number of States, led by California. (The EPA had said it had no mandate to do this since CO2 is not toxic and therefore was not a pollutant in the normal sense.)

More recently, the Department of the Environment ruled that Polar Bears were an endangered by the loss of habitat due to global warming, which should have required the EPA to act. Apparently the EPA has rather reluctantly agreed that it has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases, and has made some proposals in a report emailed to the White House, but the White House won’t open the email. This strikes me as childish in the extreme, and it is hard to credit that this is happening in the USA and not in a Banana Republic or a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

The same group of States and environmental groups has petitioned the court to force the EPA and the administration to act quickly on the Supreme Court decision of April 2007, but this petition was rejected by a Federal Court of Appeals yesterday. I do not know the next step on this, but presumably it could go to the Supreme Court. It seems to me that we might as well just wait out the remainder of the Bush term and be ready to move ahead in January.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Speechless in London

I am left speechless by a report in the NYT that the White House refused to open an email from the EPA because they didn’t like what it said. Best to read for yourselves:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fuel Cells vs Plug-In Hybrids

The Economist this week has a section on energy and an editorial suggesting that electricity is the only practical solution for transport. They discount hydrogen due to the high cost of providing the infrastructure.

Undaunted by this potential problem, Honda has announced the start of production of its FCX Clarity sedan, powered by Honda’s own hydrogen fuel cells. The car will initially be leased to selected customers in California. Just five cars will be delivered in July, with 200 planned over the next three years. Clearly this is still in the experimental stage, but equally clearly Honda is very committed to the technology. It has a dedicated factory in Japan and a dedicated service center in California. The car itself is a stylish 4-door sedan with a range of up to 280 miles, much more than appears likely from batteries for some time.

Of course, its overall carbon footprint depends upon how the energy to create the free hydrogen is produced -- and therefore could ultimately be zero -- but just based upon energy usage the Clarity is rated at the equivalent of 74 miles per gallon. Apart from the lack of infrastructure, production cost seems like the biggest problem. Honda expects the price to come down to under $100,000 once volume production starts, but this is still way beyond most budgets. My bet is that technology advances – for example, storing hydrogen in some kind of nano-structure instead of having to compress it -- will reduce the price further.

By contrast, others such as GM, Toyota, and Renault/Nissan are backing plug-in hybrids, but only a fool would count Honda’s fuel cell solution out.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Duke Energy

Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, is the subject of an interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. With the objective of eliminating CO2 emissions from electricity generation by 2050, one of his ideas is to install solar panels on customers' roofs free of charge. This presupposes that if he were to buy these in bulk the price would come down enough to make it economically viable, but I am not sure that’s the case. Inevitably however new technology and/or carbon pricing will bring the price down to economic levels within a few years. To read the whole of this interesting article see

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cheap air fares and holiday homes.

Settling into the London apartment and noticing that British TV seems obsessed – even now – with real estate investment. There was a program last night about investing in apartments in Montenegro. Breathtakingly beautiful as it was, it seems to me that the investment potential depends upon two things: the continued desire to vacation in hotter climes; and the continued bargain prices of European air travel. Seems to me both are doubtful. Investing close to where people work makes more sense to me; hence the London apartment.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Price of Oil

I have been “off the air” for some weeks due primarily to the time it has taken to get broadband in the London flat which will be my summer home, but also due to being sick. I woke up this morning to the sound of Malcolm Wicks (UK Minister for Energy) explaining why going to Jeddah to discuss oil prices was not only worthwhile but also consistent with the government’s commitment to reduce Britain's use of fossil fuels. I cannot say it made a lot of sense, but with demonstrations in various parts of Europe about high fuel prices, and discussion on both sides of the Atlantic about reducing or removing fuel taxes, a politician must pander. (To his credit, Obama has not called for a “tax holiday” though he stopped short of giving the real reason.)

The truth is one might as well protest about the color of the sky. The market is sending us a message; our reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable, and the only way we will see prices go down is if we use less. And as the Asian countries increasingly meet their populations’ legitimate aspirations we in the west who can best afford it need to set an example by using much less. As for fuel taxes, this would be a good time (for a suicidal politician!) to increase taxes; in the current supply/demand scenario the money would come almost exclusively out of the producers’ pockets, leaving the consumer price unchanged. Producers would have reduced incentive to develop ever more costly sources of oil, while the extra tax revenue could be used to encourage energy efficiency and clean energy.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Big Hybrids

GM has had disappoining results selling its Tahoe and Yukon hybrid SUVs. It planned to sell 12,000 this year, but so far has sold only 1,100 through May. Fuel consumption is claimed to be 20 mpg vs. 14 mpg for the gasoline versions. Environmentalists may scoff at the idea of a green SUV, but consider this. At 14 mpg it takes a little over 7 gallons to go 100 miles, at 20 mpg this drops to 5 gallons. To get the same saving relative to a small sedan which does 30 mpg (3.33 gallons per 100 miles) you would have to switch to a scooter doing 85 mpg.

It would be nice if SUV drivers could be persuaded to drive smaller cars. For my part I cannot understand why anyone would want to drive one, for many reasons unrelated to gas mileage. But if for some reason people want them, SUVs are the low hanging fruit when it comes to energy saving. We should see a number of diesel SUVs soon, but in the mean time it is a real shame that hybrid SUVs are not selling better; the Prius drivers among us should encourage the SUV guys to go green rather than looking down their noses at them.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Two New Reports

The first is from the Brookings Institution. The report (click here for PDF) quantifies transportation and residential carbon emissions for the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Not surprisingly, the report finds that the carbon footprint of the average city dweller is substantially lower than their rural compatriots. More surprisingly perhaps, the carbon footprint of city dwellers is also increasing more slowly than the national average, 7.5% between 2000 and 2005 compared to 9% nationally. The fact that it is still increasing rather than decreasing is depressing though.

The report also found that per capita emissions vary widely between cities, largely due to the availability of public transport and the fuels used for electricity generation. Each of the 10 metro areas with the lowest per capita electricity usage hailed from states with higher-than-average electricity prices. The report also made the following policy recommendations:

  1. Promote more transportation choices to expand transit and compact development options
  2. Introduce more energy-efficient freight operations with regional freight planning
  3. Require home energy cost disclosure when selling and “on-bill” financing to stimulate and scale up energy-efficient retrofitting of residential housing
  4. Use federal housing policy to create incentives for energy- and location-efficient decisions
  5. Issue a metropolitan challenge to develop innovative solutions that integrate multiple policy areas

The second report was released reluctantly (in fact, in response to a court order) by the federal government and is a summary of recently published research on the effects of climate change on American life, including agriculture. Click here to download the full report, which is about 270 pages long. (I found the 2.75MB download very slow, perhaps because it is a popular download, or perhaps because the government deliberately put it on a slow server. The ability to download just the 17-page executive summary would be welcome.)

After reciting the evidence for climate change, the executive summary refers to the conclusions of previous government reports that “it is very likely that temperature increases, increasing carbon dioxide levels, and altered patterns of precipitation are already affecting U.S. water resources, agriculture, land resources, biodiversity, and human health, among other things” and that “it is very likely that climate change will continue to have significant effects on these resources over the next few decades and beyond.” It then goes into more detail about the effects on agriculture, health etc.

The report identifies benefits as well as costs and some of the conclusions are almost laughably obvious; for example the report predicts a decrease in energy used for heating and an increase in the energy used for cooling and that more people will die from the heat while fewer will die from the cold. (The point about energy use is not entirely trivial however, since while we use electricity for cooling we often use natural gas for heating.) While far from alarmist, the overall picture painted by the executive summary gives ample cause for alarm.

The body of the report is packed full of information for those interested in the details, including geographically detailed historical information about changes in precipitation, temperature etc. over the past century.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pressure Sensing Valve Caps

A few months ago I bought my wife a set of pressure-indicating valve caps from TerraPass. These contain a red LED which flashes when the pressure in the tire is more than 4 pounds below the correct pressure, which is preset the first time you attach them to the valve. I bought them primarily because my wife had suffered two flat tires in a short period. Both times the tire was destroyed and she was convinced she had driven a significant distance with them partially deflated. She says she cannot tell whether they are inflated properly or not, and indeed it is impossible to detect under-inflation visually until it is quite extreme. Modern tires have much firmer sidewalls than the cross-ply tires of old, so the pressure has to get down to about 10 pounds per square inch or less before under-inflation is obvious. This is exacerbated in the case of my wife’s Subaru Legend GT Wagon by its low profile (45 series) tires.

Driving with under-inflated tires is dangerous, and – more important at least in the context of this blog -- even a relatively small loss in pressure increases fuel consumption. Fortunately we have not yet had cause to see the new valve caps in action, though I did test one of them by deliberately deflating the tires. They have the potential to pay for themselves quite quickly in saved gasoline.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sign Petition on Gas Tax Holiday

I have blogged before about the gas tax holiday proposed by Clinton and McCain. It sends a bad message but in fact my main objection is that it is stupid; since there is little scope to increase supply, the benefit would go to the oil companies as the price at the pump adjusts to the current price to balance supply and demand. In fact, now would be a good time to increase gas taxes, for the same reason; it would not affect retail prices in the short run, but would send a message that high gas prices are here for the long term.

To sign a petition on this go to

Monday, May 19, 2008

Double Pane Window Update

Just a quick note about the first few weeks with the new windows mentioned last month. The latest electricity bill is 40% less than the average for the same month in the previous 3 years. There is obviously a lot of variability between years due to different weather etc. but I think this is very promising, especially as the bill includes only about 3 weeks with the new windows.

I also think the house is more comfortable; a bigger temperature gradient across the window means smaller temperature gradients inside the house, so the whole house is closer to the temperature at the thermostat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hollow Victory for Polar Bears?

AP reports that the Interior Department has agreed to list the polar bear as an endangered species. It has been widely thought that such a listing would mandate the department to take action against global warming, but Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne does not seem to see it that way. He cited dramatic declines in sea ice over the last three decades and projections of continued losses. These declines, he told a news conference, mean the polar bear is a species likely to be in danger of extinction in the near future.

But he also said that it would be ''inappropriate'' to use the protection of the bear to reduce greenhouse gases, or to broadly address climate change. Reflecting views recently expressed by President Bush, Kempthorne said the Endangered Species Act was ''never meant to regulate global climate change,' and that the decision to list the bear includes administrative actions aimed at limiting the impact of the decision on energy development and other climate related activities. I must say this leaves me confused, and I suspect we will need to wait for the next administration to act.

Nissan Promises Electric Car by 2012

Nissan announced yesterday that it planned to offer electric cars to a small number of fleet users in the US in 2010, followed by full scale sales to the public by 2012. Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of both Nissan and Renault, said that market pressure from consumers for green vehicles was a more powerful influence than government regulation.

Nissan has been perceived to be behind other manufacturers like Toyota and Honda, but no company has made such a clear commitment as Nissan made on Tuesday. It should not be a surprise, though. Nissan’s partner, Renault, had announced its part in an electric car project supported by the government of Israel. (See my posting on February 13th 2008.) The range of the vehicles announced then was only 40 to 70 miles, and the plan was to provide stations where quick battery changes could be made, rather than waiting for them to be charged.

The new news in yesterday’s announcement is therefore that electric cars will be marketed in the US. There was no mention of the range, which I think would need to be quite a bit better than 70 miles for the cars to be generally viable.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Climate Skepticism Increases

On April 25th I posted a comment about how it was going to be difficult to sustain belief in climate change over the next few years because of potential short-term cooling effects due to cyclic factors, namely La Nina and sun spot activity. Today the NYT reports that a recent Pew survey showed belief in global warming slipped from 77% in January 2007 to 71% in April 2007. I am not sure they asked the right question, however. An informed person might well say that he did not believe there was “solid evidence that the earth is warming,” precisely because of the short term effects already mentioned. A better question would be whether there solid evidence that the earth will warm.

Apparently the decline is mainly due to Republicans, among whom affirmative answers to the answer to the question declined from 62 to 49%. I am not sure why this should be a party-political issue, but it is ironic that it came out the same day as John McCain gave his most emphatic support to date for a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Well, the Offshore Technology Conference finished yesterday and I feel slightly less depressed. Offshore generally refers to offshore exploration and production of oil and gas, but it turns out that a lot of the technology is applicable to offshore wind farms and to hydrokinetic sources from waves, currents and tides. The reason for this is that the biggest challenges are not so much the turbines and whatever but the methods used to plant or tether the equipment at sea, and also getting the electricity (as opposed to the oil or gas) to shore. There were conference sessions on renewable energy, “CO2 security” and CO2 sequestration, but these were very much in the minority.

I went to a breakfast session put on by the UK Trade and Investment group and was impressed at all the ideas out there to harness wave power in particular. The Scots in particular have ideal offshore sites for both wind and wave and seem to see these industries replacing employment in the declining North Sea oil wells. They even have a test site where anyone with an idea can not only test it out but plug into the grid and sell the electricity.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Offshore Technology Conference

It’s OTC time in Houston and everyone in the oil business is in town. I went to a welcome reception last night which was preceded by five industry presentations. Most of the presenters started off paying lip-service to climate change and the need for conservation and for renewable energy sources, and also for Houston to become the “Energy Capital” of the world instead of just the “Oil and Gas Capital,” and then went on to say how many billions of barrels of oil there was left to exploit. Quite depressing, and maybe I should give them some slack in view of their target audience, but I have to think the current guard at the oil companies needs to retire.

One presenter described how the next phase in the Gulf of Mexico is Tertiary deposits which are not on the continental shelf but way off shore in water which is 15,000 feet deep and the oil itself another 35,000 below that. It is also at 400 degrees (Fahrenheit or Celsius?) and under unprecedentedly high pressure. In spite of this pressure, they would still need pumps to get it to the surface because of its depth, and all this presented enormous technical problems. For example, new materials will be needed to withstand the temperature and pressure. Then of course there are the hurricanes. One has to wonder whether the billions which will be spent on this technology could be better spent on renewables.

The experience reminded me that high oil prices are a 3-edge sword. On the first two hands, it encourages consumers to conserve and entrepreneurs to come up with alternatives, but on the third hand it makes it economic to pursue more and more inaccessible sources of fossil fuels. Next time someone tells you that wind power is capital intensive, remind them that oil is getting increasing so too.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Voinovich Bill

Senator George Voinovich has introduced a bill to the senate which purports to be a global warming measure but which is a lot weaker than most people think necessary. For more details and to take action see

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why Tax Holiday Won't Work

Both McCain and Clinton have proposed a gasoline tax holiday for the summer. Fortunately for the environment, it won't work.

McCain, whose idea it was first, admits he does not understand economics, but Clinton should know better. There is very little short-term elasticity on the supply side, so the price at the pump is determined by demand. This price won't change much if there is no tax; rather the money which would have gone to the government will go to the oil companies. Which is ironic, given Clinton's idea of a windfall tax on these companies.

So, it's bad for the federal deficit, makes the oil companies richer, and has little or no effect on he price at the pump. And to the extent that it does reduce prices at the pump, it is bad for the environment.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shake-up at Exxon?

Exxon Mobil recently recorded the highest quarterly profit ever made by a US company, so you would think the shareholders would be pleased. Not the Rockefeller family apparently. Reuter’s reports that the family wants to appoint an independent chairman and is holding a press conference tomorrow. Family members have previously been critical of the company’s stance on climate change, which until relatively recently was outright denial, so it will be interesting to see what they propose tomorrow. For the Reuter's story see

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Future of the suburbs.

A couple of months ago, on February 16th, I suggested moving to the city as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint and cost of living. Clearly, we cannot all do that at once, but I suggested that it might be prudent to move sooner rather than later for purely economic reasons. Now it seems it might be too late. NPR and others reported recently that house prices in the suburbs have decreased considerably more than in city centers, where prices are actually still rising in some places. (See for this report and links to earlier related reports.)

It is interesting to me that this is all happening without any government action on climate change, just because of the price of gasoline. (Indeed, the cost of the externality of greenhouse gas emissions, and hence of any likely carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, is only a few cents per gallon, paling into insignificance compared to recent increases in gasoline prices.) With Saudi cancelling plans to expand its output, and Russia and Nigeria both announcing that their supply has peaked (at least in the short run) there seems every likelihood that the price of oil will continue to climb. Meanwhile, a recent study by Rice University indicated that gasoline prices are at a low point in comparison with crude oil prices, so I think we have seen the end of cheap gasoline until such time as we don’t need it any more.

I suspect that prices in the suburbs may never recover (in real terms) from their recent falls. An article in the Atlantic ( even suggests that today’s suburbs may become the slums of 2025, though that seems unlikely to me. If people are moving into the city because suburban life is unsustainable (read “too expensive”) it is hard to imagine that the poor will be able to afford the cost of heating/cooling large family houses or of commuting. I suppose single family houses might get divided into apartments and convenience stores, and maybe occupied by those who don’t need to commute because they don’t have jobs. I think it is more likely that they will continue to be occupied by the relatively well-off, but that the price of houses will decline further and further to compensate their occupants for the high costs of maintaining that life style. Or maybe we will all have hydrogen cars using hydrogen from clean sources, and the suburbs will come back.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Difficult Few Years Ahead for AGW?

I was not going to do much climate change science on this blog, but it has not been lost on me that my recent posting about a climate skeptic provoked more controversy than any other posting. So, I decided to delve a little more into some of the skeptics’ claims. I am not talking about the more mainstream skeptics who accept the science but believe there are better ways to spend our limited resources than on combating climate change, which is a defensible position. Rather I am talking about those who dispute that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is a reality.

The typical claim here is that global warming stopped in 1998, and more recently that January 2008 was actually colder than January 2007. I decided to try to get to the truth behind the truthiness. I think the first thing to point out is that while it is accepted by almost all scientists that greenhouse gases tend to increase the mean temperature of the earth, nobody has suggested that this is the only factor affecting the earth’s temperature. One well-known additional factor is the presence of CFCs and SO2 in the atmosphere, both of which tend to reflect some of the incoming radiation and make the earth cooler, and this tended to counter the effects of greenhouse gases until regulation reduced emissions of these gases in the 1990’s. (Indeed it has been suggested that we may need to create a similar effect deliberately if we fail to act soon enough on greenhouse gases.)

Two other factors are sun spots, and the “Southern Oscillation” between El Nino and La Nina ocean currents and winds. The latter may not seem relevant to the mean temperature of the earth, but it is; as well as I can understand it, La Nina forces more of the heat into the lower depths of the ocean and thus makes the surface temperature (which is what we measure) cooler than it would otherwise be.

The effect of sun spots is also somewhat unintuitive; since they are dark, one might expect then to reduce the irradiance of the sun, but in fact they do the opposite: more sun spots means more radiation from the sun. Sun spot activity is roughly cyclic, increasing for about 4 years and then declining for about 7, though it is not entirely predictable. Since about 2001 we have been in the declining phase of “cycle 23” and we are now just about at the bottom of the cycle. There has been some concern that the start of cycle 24 might be delayed. (But see for the possible first evidence of cycle 24.)

Even if cycle 24 starts on schedule, there will be a couple of years of lower temperatures (than might otherwise pertain) because the earth’s temperature lags the sunspot activity by about 2 years. In addition, we are at the beginning of a La Nina period, which also tends to cool the earth’s surface. What we have is an upward trend due to greenhouse gases superimposed on two somewhat regular cycles both of which are approaching their low points, plus of course quite a bit of noise. The net result is that we probably will not see exceptional temperatures in the next year or so; the skeptics will have a field day and the faithful will be tested. (A good summary of where we are can be found at We can be fairly sure however that by 2012 at the latest we will see new records broken. We must all hope that we don’t have to wait that long for more aggressive action.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Earth Day Surprise from EPA.

Second blog of the day, but it is my car day and this is a car story. The EPA surprised everyone (well, at least me) yesterday by moving to increase fuel efficiency faster than mandated by Congress. Standards will be increased 4.5% a year for the 5 years 2011 to 2015 inclusive, compounding to a 25% increase to 31.5 mpg by 2015. In doing their cost-benefit analysis they also, for the firat time I think, put a price on carbon dioxide emissions -- $7 per ton, which translates to about 2 cents a gallon.

The current law requires an increase to 35 mpg by 2020, but my bet would be that this gets increased over the intervening period; just continuing the 4.5% per annum compound rate would get us to about 40 mpg by 2020. How exactly they will handle plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles, let alone hydrogen vehicles, I do not know.

Cars and Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, I was pleased to see that Autoweek, a weekly car magazine aimed at enthusiasts, devoted most of this week’s edition to green cars. Here are a few highlights.

They point out that the 2008 Honda Fit is a lot less economical than the 1992 Civic, 31 mpg versus 43 mpg, and even the Civic Hybrid at 42 mpg doesn’t quite match the old Civic’s EPA numbers. (These are all EPA combined numbers, using the new-for-2008 test.) Part of the reason is the 17% weight gain in the new car, in turn due to safety features like air bags and improved crash standards. (The 1992 Civic had only one airbag, and prior to 1998 there was no side impact crash test.) Safety is of course a good thing, but it just shows what we are up against when 16 years of “progress” results in a 25% decrease in mpg. (The most economical car back in the nineties was the Geo Metro at 46 mpg using the new test, better than the new Prius. The magazine suggests that the nearest thing today is the Smart ForTwo, rated at only 36 mpg and as it’s name suggests only a two-seater.)

There are also articles on: the ZENN urban electric vehicle (federally mandated maximum speed 25 mph); the Mitsubishi i MiEV 470 kw car, which looks a bit like a Smart car but has four seats; the Chevy Volt; plug-in hybrids; relatively green SUVs (the Ford Escape hybrid achieved 28 mpg, while the Mercedes ML320 CDI achieved 27 mpg on diesel.); and the Audi R8 diesel supercar. Regrettably only the SUVs are available right now.

Perhaps the most interesting article was about new rules for ALMS (American Le Mans Series) sports car racing which will allow hybrids and cellulosic ethanol. They already allow diesels, which have been very successful at Le Mans itself. ALMS also plans a special Green Racing Challenge award, criteria for which are still being worked out with the EPA. Some tree-huggers may scoff at this but think of it this way: the amount of fuel used in the race is small compared to the fuel used by fans to get to the event, so in that respect it is no different from any other sport, and it just might help diesels and hybrids gain greater acceptance.

There’s more on

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Double Pane Windows

As I write this the builders are finishing up the installation of our new double-pane windows. After much research I went with PowerPane3 from Home Craftsman. These windows are slightly less efficient than the same company’s SuperPowerPane product at filtering radiated heat (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient of .2 instead of .18) but transmit more visible light (45% compared to 28%; they are virtually indistinguishable from regular glass) and are slightly more efficient at insulation (U-value of .31 against .32). I will be monitoring the energy bills carefully and will report back.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Surely you’re joking, Mr. Bush.

George Bush presented his climate change plan in a speech yesterday, on the eve of international climate talks in Paris, and it is hard to believe they are meant seriously. He proposes to allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise until 2025, yet he vows to support an international agreement to succeed Kyoto and the administration also said that he had not ruled out endorsing a cap-and-trade scheme. I suppose we should be grateful that at least he accepts that there is a problem, though in reality it does not matter much what he believes any more. Any of the three candidates to replace him will likely take a much more robust stance, though McCain’s recent proposal to temporarily eliminate gasoline tax makes one wonder.

This on the same day that Lord Stern told the Financial Times that he believed he had underestimated climate change risks in last year’s report. (See ) Some skeptics call this report alarmist, but in reality it is a rather low-key document. See to download the whole Stern Review or for a choice of two levels of executive summary.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fisker Karma

Yesterday's post was unexpectedly controversial, so today being car day we get some light relief in the form of another plug-in hybrid which impinged on my consciousness yesterday.

A company called Fisker Coachbuild claims its 4-seat sports sedan, the Fisker Karma, due out in 2010, will do 50 miles on battery power, after which a “small” gasoline engine will charge the battery. They make a lot of rather doubtful claims about the car, and it is difficult to see how they would have the wherewithal to develop such a car so quickly. The powertrain is being developed by a company called Quantum Technologies, an unprofitable but growing public company (Stock symbol QTWW) with 2006 revenues of under $200 million.

There is no indication where the chassis technology will come from. Fisker also claim that they will “initially” produce 15,000 a year at $80,000 a pop, which would suggest revenues of $1.2 billion. Compare Toyota at $200 billion to see how unlikely this scenario is.

But it gets worse; the reason I became aware of Fisker is because it is being sued by Tesla for stealing trade secrets. It is actually quite a good story; see

By the way, Click and Clack of Car Talk fame will be driving the Tesla and other green vehicles in an upcoming Nova program, which I think will be aired next Tuesday on most public television stations.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Krysten Byrnes

I had thought that GW would be the last skeptic standing (see previous post), but they seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately. I reported yesterday about Nigel Lawson’s new book. This morning, NPR did a long piece ( about 16-year-old Kristen Byrnes taking on Climate Scientists with her web site It seems in part to be a way for her to collect donations to her college fund; let’s hope that succeeds because she might learn something. Right now her scientific credentials seem minimal. For example, she said on the show that CO2 does not reflect heat back to earth, which is quite correct but irrelevant; the mechanism of global warming, known since 1850 by the way, is that CO2 absorbs certain frequencies from the earth’s radiation and then radiates energy in all directions.

White House Reversal?

Associated Press reported late yesterday that the White House has reversed its opposition to a cap-and-trade scheme for greenhouse gases, though it stopped short of support for the Lieberman-Warner bill aimed at reducing emissions by 70% by 2050. See for the full AP story.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Keith Hennessey, domestic policy adviser, presented the new White House view in a meeting with conservative House republicans at a meeting first reported by The Washington Post on Monday. (
Apparently the congressmen were not persuaded.

Whether this is a real change of heart remains to be seen. It could be just a reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision that the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases, or the pressure on the administration to declare polar bears an endangered species which would also require the government to control emissions. Or it could be another attempt by GW to find a positive legacy. Solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict is after all a long shot. And since he knows something will be done under the next president why not take the credit?

Monday, April 14, 2008

An Appeal to Reason

This is the name of a new book by Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. I have yet to read it, but from the reviews suspect it contains similar material to the lecture he gave to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2006. (I suggest a free download of this lecture from rather than spending £10 on the book.)

Billed by the Financial Times’ reviewer as “the climate heretic’s handbook,” it is (if the lecture is anything to go by) actually a lot less controversial than that. He cedes pretty much all the science, and has no exception to a reasonable carbon tax, but claims the best solution is to adapt. Adaptation is of course a major part of any strategy, since we know that there is not much we can do about climate change over the next two decades or so. Nicholas Stern’s review, which Lawson dismisses as “alarmist,” says that “adaptation policy is crucial.”

Perhaps more alarming are some of the reviews. That in the Sunday Times of London ( bemoans the fact that he concedes the science.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Al Gore launched his $300 million advertising campaign yesterday with full page ads in major newspapers. The purpose is to raise awareness of climate change and to encourage people to sign up to indicate their concern. Go to to sign up.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Diesel vs. Hybrid

In several posts I have advocated diesel as a better alternative to hybrid cars. At the risk of being accused of posting another BMW advertisement, here is news which tends to vindicate my position. The Sunday Times of London did a test comparing a Prius with a BMW 520d. The 520d has the regenerative braking system described last Wednesday in relation to the 118d, but is a substantially larger car.

The test comprised a 460-mile drive from London to Geneva, combined with 100 miles of city driving. The BMW won by 41.9 miles per (US) gallon, compared to the Prius at 40.1 mpg. By American standards, this test may seem biased towards long-distance freeway motoring, which would favor the diesel. (In Europe, cars are used less around town because there is good public transport but are more often used as an alternative to short-haul flights.) It should also be noted that a gallon of diesel both costs more and produces slightly more greenhouse gases per gallon burnt. Even so, this is an impressive result. The 5-series is after all the second-largest car in the BMW range, and 500 pounds heavier than the Prius. The BMW driver also reportedly used the radio and A/C while cruising at 75, whereas the Prius driver eschewed these luxuries to save energy. The 118d would surely have been quite a lot more economical.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kyoto Replacement

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and yesterday representatives of 160 countries met in Bangkok to continue discussions, started in Bali last November, about its replacement. At the Bali meeting, the US delegation found itself at odds with most other countries and ended up on the defensive. As the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, spectacularly so on a per capita basis, it is hard to see much progress being made without the US being on board, so I don't expect much to happen. More likely the can will be kicked down the road until a new president is inaugurated next January.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Majority favor Energy Conservation

A recent Gallop poll shows that a plurality of Americans continue to favor protecting the environment over economic growth, in spite of the slow down in the economy. Most expect the US to face energy shortages in the next few years, and a solid majority favor conservation as the best way to counter that. Full survey at

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Green BMW

The BMW 1-series was introduced to the USA recently with 3-liter 6-cylinder engines. Unfortunately we will not get the diesel model, the 118d. As its name suggests, this is powered by a 1.8 liter diesel engine, producing 141 horsepower and 221 pound feet of torque. This is enough to propel it to 60 in 8.8 seconds, which is not exactly blisteringly fast but is fast enough for most people, and a lot better than a Prius. It was also enough to win the World Green Car of the Year award in New York this week.

The car also boasts what BMW calls Efficient Dynamics, which as far as I can ascertain comprises regenerative braking and automatic stop/start. The latter works by switching the engine off when the car is stationary and put in neutral. It restarts when the clutch is disengaged. The regenerative braking is more problematic; the regained energy is used to charge the battery, but since -- unlike a hybrid -- there is no electric motor this can ultimately be used only for the car’s electrical systems. (Which include electric power steering, by the way.) It does however reduce the demands on the alternator, which disengages when the battery is charged thus reducing the drag on the engine. I would have thought the contribution of that feature towards fuel efficiency would be small, but every little helps. And you certainly cannot argue with the overall result. The car is rated at 59mpg on the highway. (An independent test by the German magazine AutoZeitung achieved 47.9 mpg in mixed driving, compared to 39.8 for a Toyota Prius.)

My only concern was that they use low-rolling-resistance tires to squeeze a few extra miles per gallon out of the car. Such tires normally mean low grip, but in this case it seems my concern is misplaced. British magazine Autocar reports great handling and stellar braking performance; 155 feet from 70mph, which is about as good as it gets.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Double-Pane Windows

Yesterday I ordered our new double-paned windows. This is a major investment, but one I expect to pay off in ten years even without factoring in any increase in electricity prices. Selecting the best windows is not easy though. Manufacturers quote U-value, Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC), Visible Light Transmission (VLT), and sometimes R-value and Ultra-Violet Light Transmission. I will try to explain what they all mean, insofar as I understand them myself.

As far as I can make out, the R-values and U-values are reciprocals of each other, so quoting both is redundant. They measure thermal conductivity, and as a general rule it seems that U-values are used for windows and R-values for walls and roofs. A high R-value (i.e. a low U-value) indicates a good insulator. R-values for roof insulation are typically over 10. However, the interpretation of U- or R-values for windows is problematic because heat transfer through the window is not only due to conduction, and indeed maybe not be primarily due to conduction. I think this depends upon the direction of the heat flow; it hot climates when the house is being air conditioned, a lot of the heat coming in is radiated, whereas in colder climates when the house is being heated most of the heat going out is conducted.

Living in Houston, I decided the SHGC number was the one to concentrate on. This measures the proportion of radiant energy falling on the glass which is transmitted rather than being reflected. Good windows by this measure have SHGC of .18 or .2. There is a trade-off however, in that VLT tends to be lower too. VLT numbers are deceptive however; I saw an installed window with an SHGC of .18 and a VLT of .27. It was noticeably different from plain glass, but it did not seem subjectively that only 27% of the visible light was transmitted. Note however, that even plain glass transmits only about 60% of visible light, and I think these numbers do not match our subjective experience. (A bit like decibels and sound sensations.) The glass manufacturer offers an alternative which looks like it might be a better compromise, with SHGC of .2 and VLT of .44. I have left the final decision on this until I speak to a technical expert at the factory next week.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tesla in Production

Tesla announced that they have started series production of their electric car. Rather than duplicate it, here is a link to the press release.

Monday, March 17, 2008

NYMAX Carbon Market and Oil Prices

The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) opened its carbon exchange today, competing with the Chicago Climate Exchange and the markets in London. The Green Exchange, as it is called, offers trading in global carbon-based contracts, such as carbon allowances under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EUAs), carbon credits under the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism, and verified greenhouse gas emission reductions used in accordance with voluntary carbon standards. EUAs closed at 21.90 euros per metric ton.

This seems almost superfluous compared with the price of oil. I think a barrel of crude is equivalent to about 1/3rd of a metric ton of carbon dioxide. And the experts don’t expect that price to come down. For the first time ever, all futures through 2016 are trading at over $100 a barrel. The Financial Times quotes Jeffrey Currie of Goldman Sachs predicting prices as high as $175 a barrel.

Meanwhile Dick Cheney is in Saudi Arabia trying to persuade them to increase their production. This is pure theater, because Cheney is well connected in the oil business and must know the Saudis’ dirty little secret; they are already pumping all they can.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

SmartStrip Saga

As previously posted, my experience with SmartStrips has been mixed. The one controlling my entertainment system seems now to be working reliably, except that there is a delay of about 30 seconds between when I switch off the controlling device (the tuner/amp) and when it shuts down the other devices. (I don't know why this is but it is not important. Maybe the tuner/amp goes thourgh some power-down procedure.)

The other SmartStrip still refuses to respond to switching the printer on and off. As noted before, the printer draws 13 watts even when off, so that would hardly be satisfactory anyway. I ended up replacing the wall socket with one with a switch and a light to indicate when it is on. The wall socket happened to be about waist height, so this just allows me to switch everything on and off without crawling under the desk to get to the power strip.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blue is Green at Mercedes-Benz

On February 20th I mentioned the Mercedes-Benz E-class Bluetec diesel, available now in the US. The company made two more big announcements at the Geneva Motor Show last week. The first was that they are ready to introduce lithium-ion batteries in a hybrid version of its top-of-the-range S-class sedan next year. Dubbed the S400 BlueHybrid, this large sedan uses a 3.5 liter V6 which together with the electric motor delivers about 299 horsepower. The company claims 29.7 mpg, and the car will reach US shores in the third quarter of 2009.

This will be followed by a turbodiesel-electric hybrid version, the S300 Bluetec Hybrid, delivering 221 horsepower and no less than 43.6 mpg. Finally, this same power train will be used in a version of the GLK SUV; the Vision GLK Bluetec Hybrid will deliver 39.7 mpg. The nomenclature is a bit confusing, and I am not sure why blue is the new green in Mercedes-speak, but if verified by independent tests it will be difficult to argue with these impressive results.

Lithium-Ion batteries are used in electronic devices like laptops, where they have been known to catch fire, but this is the first mainstream application for cars. (My Tesla will also have lithium-ion batteries when they finally deliver it, while Chevrolet cites the need to perfect these batteries as the reason the Volt will not be available until 2010.) Mercedes-Benz have integrated the batteries into the cooling system to keep them at an efficient and safe temperature.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Does Daylight Saving Time Waste Energy?

I have always hated daylight saving time, but believed it could be justified on the basis that it saved energy. Now, a new study syggests otherwise.

As reported by NPR and USA Today, the study was done in Indiana where until recently most counties did not observe daylight saving. It seems that the study was based solely upon comparison of domestic electricity bills, comparing those before and after the change in counties applying daylight saving for the first time and using the counties which did not change as a control. Which makes it hard to see how it would have data to justify the conclusion like that while people saved money on lighting they spent more on heating and cooling. The study also did not consider non-domestic consumption, for example in schools and work places, so I would not regard it as definitive.

However, this is an area which warrants further study because it could be one small contribution to energy conservation and hence to combating climate change.

For the full interview with study leader Matthew J. Kotchen in USA Today see

Canada's Letter to Robert Gates

The Financial Times today leads with a story about a letter sent to Robert Gates by the Canadian ambassador about the Energy Independence and Security Act 2007. Signed into law in December, this act requires among other things that government procurement of alternative fuels cannot include those whose lifetime greenhouse gas emissions are no better than that of conventional oil. Canada is concerned about its large reserves of oil sands, which would not qualify. The letter to Gates says that Canada "would not want to see an expansive interpretation" of the act, though it is hard to see how the act could be interpreted to favor the oil sands.

Oil being fungible, it is not clear to me that prohibiting purchases by the federal government would have any effect on the overall usage the oil sands. The provision in the act seems to me to be purely symbolic, since private purchases of oil from the oil sands would reduce price pressure on other sources and the federal government would benefit from this just as if it were buying the Canadian oil itself. Canada is apparently worried that the act may provide a precedent which might be copied by state governments and other countries. I would add environmentally consious corporations.

We should not be using this oil, and Canada and the oil companies should have known this before they embarked on the enormous investment which they are now trying to protect. Unfortunately, since I think all of the major oil companies are heavily invested in the oil sands, there is not much we as consumers can do about it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Kill-a-Watt, SmartStrip, etc.

[Sunday, March 9th. After I posted this last night, I switched off the printer and again the SmartStrip failed to switch the other stuff off, as a reslt of which I have made substantial revisions to the posting.]

I bought a Kill-a-Watt power monitor, among other things to help me work out why the HP printer did not seem to reliably switch the SmartStrip (see last Saturday’s posting). The Kill-a-Watt fits between the outlet and whatever device is plugged into it, allowing one to measure the power used by that device. Unlike the Cent-a-Meter described last week, which measures total household usage and is very useful in its own right, this is not influenced by extraneous factors going on in the house like the refrigerator cycling on and off.

I found that the printer is quite consistent: it uses 7 watts when plugged in but switched off, and after going as high as 37 watts during its power-up sequence it settles at 13 watts when switched on. This seems not to be a large enough difference to make the SmartStrip work reliably. I adjusted it as carefully as I could, and at first it seemed to work, but as noted above it later failed to switch the SmartStrip off. I also wonder why the printer draws any power when switched off; that 7 watts costs $10 a year. Maybe time for a new printer.

I also tried using the DSL controller, which draws only 8 watts when on, as the controlling device. This turned out to be inadequate to switch the SmartStrip on, even when the sensitivity was turned up to he maximum.

I had similar trouble with the entertainment systems being switched by the tuner/amp when this was done using the remote. The unit draws 24 watts when working and 14 when on standby, and again the SmartStrip does not seem to be sensitive enough to detect the difference. If I switch off using the switch on the unit instead of using the remote it works fine, so I guess I will be doing that in future. (Saving that standby power is worth $20 a year, so I should be doing that anyway.)

The Kill-a-Watt is quite expensive at $45.95 (from but it has a number of other features. Most useful, in addition to measuring the rate of power usage in watts, it can be used to integrate that over time to measure kilowatt hours used over a measured time interval. This is perfect for monitoring things like refrigerators which cycle on and off. It can also be used to switch between active power and apparent power readings, and can also display the power factor. These are rather esoteric measures which take account of phase differences between the voltage and current, and I doubt many users will understand or care about them. Other features include monitoring voltage, current, and frequency, and again I am not sure what use these would be put to.

To test the kilowatt hour capability, I turned my attention to our ancient refrigerator and found that it used 0.16 kWh in 2 hours, so averaging about 80 watts. This does not sound much, but it is on 24/7 so over a year this is about 700 kWh. At my price of 16 cents this is $112 a year. According to the energy star site, a typical modern top-freezer 18 cubic feet energy star rated refrigerator consumes about 400 kWh per year, so replacing our old model could save about $50 a year and pay for itself in 9 years. That may not sound like a great return, but what bank is gong to give you 11 percent? And that assumes energy prices do not go up in those 9 years. Bottom line is that old fridge will soon be history.

Finally, I used the Kill-a-Watt to test some chargers. It seems almost a cliché to say one should unplug chargers when not in use, but I found this not to be worthwhile. I tried two Dell computer chargers. Both registered 0 watts when the not plugged into the laptop. When plugged into a fully charged laptop, they registered 1 and 2 watts respectively. I also tried two mobile phone chargers and found that both registered 0 watts when not charging a phone. I also tried an electric toothbrush charger and a cordless phone charger and found that these registered 0 or 1 watt even when they were charging. I therefore think one should not lose sleep over chargers.

Friday, March 7, 2008

New Gadgets at Energy Technology Venture Capital Conference

This conference, organized by the Houston Technology Center, took place yesterday and today. I did not register for the conference because I could not make the first day and today was just a half day, but I was invited to lunch today and to see the exhibits. The lunchtime keynote speaker was John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil. I had heard him give the keynote at another conference last week, and it was essentially the same speech though it seemed more polished this time. (He gave it at least one more time in between also.) It wasn't what most climate change activists would want to hear, but at least he was unequivocal in saying that we needed a cap-and-trade system. He said it was time to stop arguing about whether climate change was real and get on with doing something about it.

More interesting to me were some of the exhibits, which I hope to cover in more detail at a later date. Here are three that caught my attention.

A Company called EnerPlus ( has a new kind of spark plug which utilizes a capacitor to greatly increase the size of the spark, resulting in more complete combustion and a claimed improvement of 6% in economy and up to 12% in power output.

A company called Adaptive-AC allows each room in your house to be controlled by a programmable intelligent thermostat built into the air conditioning outlet. The thermostat adjusts the temperature by opening and closing flaps so as to regulate the air flow, thereby balancing the temperature over the house. (Or not balancing it, if for example you don’t want A/C in the living room when you are asleep in bed.) The unit is powered by a small generator driven from the air flow, and stored in an ultracapacitor for when the A/C is off, so there are no batteries. The product is not in volume production yet. (For technology junkies, the protypes were made with a 3-D printer, which is the first application of this technology I have come across.)

A company called DBLive ( controls sprinkler systems by using the weather forecast to generate soil moisture forecast by location, this information being transmitted along with a local FM radio signal. This product is not in production yet, but will soon be undergoing trial in the Houston area.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Lifecar

In my February 5th post I mentioned a prototype electric car shown at the Detroit Auto Show and based on the Saturn Vue. Its claim to fame was the use of ultracapacitors to store energy recovered from regenerative braking. (Ultracapacitors take advantage of the high surface area to volume ratio of nanomaterials to store energy more compactly than could be done with a conventional capacitor or battery. Capacitors in general have the advantage over batteries of being able to store and release their energy very quickly, making them ideal for regenerative braking.)

The BBC is now reporting that the same idea appears on a hydrogen fuel-cell powered car which will be shown at the Geneva Motor Show which opens tomorrow. Called the Lifecar, and developed by Oxford and Cranfield Universities together with private industry, it is based upon the Morgan Aero 8 sports car. The Morgan’s already light weight is reduced further by removing luxuries and even air bags. Even then, the performance is not sports-car-like. Indeed it is barely adequate for a family sedan, with a top speed of 90 mph and 0-60 time of 7 seconds. (It is not clear whether this is with the aid of the ultracapacitors or not.) A range of 250 miles is claimed, at which point one would have to find a hydrogen station.

See for full story.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Skeptics Conference

[It is now Friday 7th and, although the conference ended on Tuesday, google ads are still appearing for it, for example on this blog. As I say in this posting, they don't seem to be very well organised.]

The International (skeptics) Conference on Climate Change enters its last day today. They seem a bit disorganized, running a 7/8ths-page ad in the NYT only yesterday, the second day of the conference. Speakers include Czech President Vaclav Klaus, and ABC’s resident idiot John Stossel. Vaclav Klaus is not to be confused with his predecessor Vaclav Havel, who has written against climate change for example in a NYT Op-Ed last September ( It is not clear to me why politicians have independent (i.e, not informed by expert opinion) opinions about scientific issues, and in this case I think their opinions are about as useful as Mbeki’s views on HIV.

They claim the conference is sold out, but apparently that is only 500 people. They also say that James Hansen and Al Gore were invited to attend but declined. Even the organizers don’t seem to be saying that climate change is not happening, btw, but rather that it is not a crisis.

The NYT published a story on the conference today. See

For a simple reposte to skeptics on the science see my post yesterday.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dealing with Skeptics

The New York Times reported on Sunday that climate change skeptics are drawing attention to the recent cold weather in China and other places to cast doubt on climate change. (See I have not written on the science before, because I did not think it was necessary, but maybe this is an excuse to rehearse the argument I use on the increasingly rare occasions when I am faced with a skeptic.

Frequently I find there is a misunderstanding that scientists are somehow struggling to explain observed climate change. Nothing could be further than the truth. Climate change due to human activity -- anthropogenic climate change – was predicted by John Tyndall as early as 1860 (see and has been vigorously promoted by James Hansen of NASA (see for example since the 1970’s. In other words the theory preceded the observed effect.

Because of this, the focus over the past decade or so on whether we are actually observing climate change has been a diversion which has had the effect of wasting a lot of time during which we could have been taking action. Of course, the scientific method requires that we test our theories by observation, but there are different kinds of scientific theories. Testing climate change by observation is not a defining moment for science, like for example demonstrating that light gets bent by gravity validating the general theory of relativity. It is more like watching a heated kettle of water in the expectation that steam will appear from the spout. If it does not, we have some serious rethinking to do, but nobody seriously doubts that it will. Arguing about whether we actually can see the first wisp of steam is not very productive.

In the case of climate change, if it did not happen then we would have to rethink a good deal of the physics we thought we have known for over a century. It is a simple energy imbalance due to the absorption spectra of greenhouse gases and the different spectra of incoming radiation from the sun and the outgoing radiation from the earth. More heat comes in than goes out, so the earth warms up until it reaches a new equilibrium. Except that right now we are adding to the greenhouse gases to this equilibrium temperature keeps rising.

(It is perhaps worth noting here the amount of inertia in the system. Even if we could stop all greenhouse gas emissions today, stablizing the current concentration of these gases at 380 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent, the average temperature of the earth would still continue to rise for decades. And then of course there is inertia at the next level down, in that we cannot stop the emissions today. The goal of IPCC efforts is to stabilize the concentration at 450 ppm.)

The precise effects of climate change in specific regions are much less certain, and skeptics often seize on this uncertainty. The reason for the uncertainty is that the heat landing on the earth is concentrated towards the equator, whereas the radiation from the earth is more evenly spread. Heat gets transferred from the equator towards the poles by air and sea currents, and predicting how these will be affected by climate change is much more difficult than the simple energy-balance model which tells us that the average temperature of the earth has to increase. Some places may get wetter, others drier, some may even get colder. There are very complex computer models but they probably cannot be relied upon as definitive. What we can be pretty sure of is that there will be disruptive changes.

If all the above fails to convince a skeptic, one can always fall back on the last resort sometimes known as the precautionary principle. If there is even a significant chance of catastrophic effects of anthropogenic climate change is true, does it not make sense to act as if it is true? If we were in a car heading towards what looks like a concrete wall we would not delay braking because it might be a paper mock-up, still less because we could not predict exactly which bones we would break.

As I write this, NPR is running a story about one example of a possible local effect. The locks on the Panama Canal are being widened and deepened to take larger ships. Its operation is however threatened by climate change because it depends upon rainfall. The canal rises 85 feet above sea level and the water for the locks on both sides is gravity-fed fresh water from artificial lakes. Climate change could reduce rainfall and threaten its operation. Of course, by then the Northwest Passage may be a viable alternative.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Experience with a Smart Power Strip

[Amended March 2nd. It seems the sensitivity problem with the printer, mentioned towards the end of this post, is still an issue. I will investigate further and report back, probably next Saturday.]

I recently tried out a SmartStrip surge protector from Colman Cable Inc. It is a combined power strip and surge protector intended to save electricity by automatically switching off peripheral equipment when one controlling device is switched off. It seems rugged and well made. The model I bought cost $43.95 from (there is a smaller model for $30.95) and has a total of 10 outlets: one for the control device, 6 for controlled devices, and 3 which are always live (unless you switch the power strip off). It has a lighted switch, a light to indicate whether the controlled devices are on and another to indicate that surge protection is working properly. Finally, there is a screw to control its sensitivity.

So, how useful was this in practice? Firstly one has to find a suitable application, and I had two in mind. One was entertainment. In one room I have a TV, satellite receiver, CD player, DVD player, and a tuner/amp used for the sound for everything except the DVD (because I ran out of amplifier inputs and rarely use DVD). All these devices are on standby. I also added a cordless phone charger to the mix, thinking that I listen to the radio enough to keep the phone charged and in any case there is another phone in the house. One hears a lot about not leaving things on standby and not leaving chargers plugged in when not in use, but I was not sure how much electricity was involved. Using the Cent-a-Meter described last Saturday I was unable to measure any difference very reliably – of course there could be other things going on in the house, and I might try again later with a monitor specific to the outlet – but it would seem that all these 6 devices used about 0.1 kW between them. This might not sound much, but at 16 cents per kWh it adds up to about $120 per year if left on when not needed 20 hours a day, which would pay for the SmartStrip in a few months.

I chose the tuner/amp as the control device, for two reasons: firstly, it mostly needs to be on when anything else is in use; and secondly, if it has been switched off (not on standby) it powers up with tuner on. I also found that I could not switch the satellite receiver completely off because when power returns it goes through lengthy signal acquisition process. So, this needs to be plugged into one of the permanently on outlets and the overall saving may therefore be less than 0.1 kW. Incidentally, I found that two of the devices – the tuner/amp and the satellite seem to use more power on standby than when on. I consistently measured a 0.03 kW difference on each. The TV is the only one which had a significant increase in power usage – about .15 kW – when on rather than on standby.

Now for the other case. In another room, I have a computer, external hard drive, printer, DSL internet connection, and wireless network controller. Between them they use about 0.3 kW when on. (Note that this is a case of equipment which in the past we have tended to leave on rather than just on standby. I have a computer in another room, which gets access to the internet though the network.) The internet and wireless network use transformers, and it seems these are not suitable for the controller. Likewise the computer, partly because it may not be needed when the network is and partly because it is a laptop with a charger so power consumption does not correlate well with whether it is on. So, I chose the printer as the controller. I found it quite hard to adjust the sensitivity to cope with the quite small power usage of the printer, but it now seems to be working and based upon the same assumption as above I project savings of about $350 per year.

I started out thinking the benefits would be minor, but overall savings of $470 per year on a total bill of $3000 is not to be sneezed at. Second only to the pool pump controller discussed in an earlier blog, which I estimate to be saving about $900 per year.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Canada's Kyoto Commitments

I am still digesting all I learnt at the conference on Wednesday, but here is a small and self-contained item, namely Canada’s feeble response to its Kyoto commitments. This is not hot news, and frankly I am not sure why this had not come to my attention before.

Unlike the US, Canada ratified the treaty in 2002. In so doing, Canada made a binding commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. In January 2006, Canada elected a conservative government which had opposed Kyoto, but even before that Canada was seriously off-track. GHG emissions rose 27% between 1990 and 2004, whereas in the US (which has never ratified the treaty) they had gone up by ‘only’ 16%.

In 2006, Canada belatedly introduced legislation (Bill C-30, “The Clean Air Act”) to deal with GHG emissions. As far as I can ascertain this bill has still to pass into law, but I think it may be close. For an account of the legislative process through last June (I can find nothing more recent) see

More troubling, it has been amended over time to favor intensity-based targets rather than absolute ones. An intensity-based target limits GHG emissions per $ of GDP, and is ineffective for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it prevents Canadian companies from participating in carbon markets (for example the EU’s Carbon Trading System or buying credits under the Clean Development Mechanism to finance clean projects in China and elsewhere) and thereby getting the biggest bang for their buck. Rather than my repeating all the arguments see for a discussion of what’s wrong with intensity based targets.

(With the recent change in government in Australia, that country became the 107th country to ratify the treaty, which came into effect in 2005. There is a very useful Wikipedia entry on the efforts of various countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol at