Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gallons per Mile?

Here’s something quick and easy the government could do. The Europeans measure gas mileage in liters per 100 kilometers, which makes a lot of sense. After all, when we set out on a journey we do not decide how much gas to buy and then determine how far to go; the constant is the journey and the variable is the amount of gas we need.

Changing to gallons per 100 miles – I am not bold enough to suggest we go metric! – could also have a serious impact on our perception of fuel economy and thereby on our carbon footprint. The reason is that our brains don’t process reciprocals well. Consider this table comparing the two measures (I have rounded a little in a couple of cases):

12.5 mpg = 8 gallons per 100 miles
14 = 7 gallons per 100 miles
17 = 6 gallons per 100 miles
20 = 5 gallons per 100 miles
25 = 4 gallons per 100 miles
33 = 3 gallons per 100 miles
50 = 2 gallons per 100 miles

Note that replacing a 12.5 mpg gas guzzler with a less profligate17 mpg vehicle saves twice as much as replacing a 33 mpg compact with a 50 mpg hybrid. Not that I am against high-efficiency vehicles, but I wonder whether the emphasis should be at the other end of the scale. If we could get everyone up to say 25 mpg we would be doing an enormous service. Recent legislation to change CAFE standards to an average of 35 mpg will of course help.

That little word “average” invites caution though; you need to average the reciprocals, which is exactly what CAFE does. So, in a way the EPA already uses gallons per mile for its calculations. They just don’t want to tell you. Why not change the way we display it on the new car sticker?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

FutureGen News

OK, I know I promised a piece on gas mileage, but breaking news takes precedence. Yesterday the DoE told Illinois congressmen that it planned to withdraw its financial support for FutureGen, a public/private partnership created to demonstrate a zero-emissions coal-fired power station.

The technology is called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology. Coal is turned into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, the latter combined with steam to create more hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Power is produced by burning the hydrogen, creating water, while the carbon dioxide is sequestered underground.

The industrial partners have committed $400 million, and another $800 million was meant to have come from the DoE. I assume this $1.2 billion was meant to cover the cost, but now the budget seems to have gone up to $1.8 billion. The DoE seems to suggest that the cost increase may be related to the choice of site, in Mattoon, Illinois. Other prospective sites were in Texas.

Withdrawal of DoE support is a blow to our efforts to produce clean electricity. I am not sure that IGCC is the answer, but at least this project would have validated the technology. Don't expect FutureGen to throw in the towel just yet, however; American Industry tends to be more enthusiastic about clean power than the Federel Government. It is possible that the project might get reincarnated in Texas.

See for more information on FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc.

Gas mileage tomorrow, barring the outbreak of World War III.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Financial Crisis?

This might seem a little off-topic, but it is certainly topical in the temporal sense and it gets my new blog off to a controversial start. I promise to get onto more familiar territory tomorrow with a short post on car mileage standards.

With the benefit of hindsight, and in particular with the revelation that Societe Generale were selling 50 million euros worth of securities into a falling market while US markets were closed for Martin Luther King Day, the dramatic Fed action the next morning seems to me like a panic over-reaction. It is not at all clear to me that further action is required this week, but I fear the Feds don't have much choice because that expectation is already factored in. It is not really the Fed’s job to bail out the stock market, though they would probably argue that they need to do so because of the spillover effect on the real economy. All they are doing is putting things off until the next crisis. If investors think the Fed will always bail them out, there is every incentive to bid prices up again.

Nor do I think we need the much-trumpeted and bipartisan agreed stimulus package. I am not an economist, but as I see it the fundamental cause of this is not Societe Generale’s rogue trader, nor their apparent incompetence in first letting it happen and in the way they liquidated the positions, nor the sub-prime mess, nor even the US housing bubble.

The real problem is that Americans consume more than they produce. That being the case, why would we want to encourage them to borrow and spend more? The next crisis may well be a loss of confidence in the dollar, and by then the dollar may well have lost its pre-eminent position as a reserve currency, which will make it much harder to control the consequences.

So, what has this to do with climate change? Well, if we consumed less we would reduce CO2 emissions not just here in the US but also in China and other countries which export to us. We are fond of pointing out that our carbon intensity is going down in the US – that is to say that we emit less CO2 per unit of GDP – but that is because we have moved so much of our manufacturing abroad. We are also fond of pointing to China’s rapidly growing CO2 emissions, but that is because they are making stuff for us! So, all I am asking is: would it be so terrible if we started consuming less, i.e. just consuming what we can afford, and slipped into recession?

I have raised a lot of questions, and maybe hackles. I certainly do not know all the answers. I am not against growth. Indeed growth is necessary to lift billions out of poverty. The question is, where should that growth be? It seems to me that the current situation is unsustainable. There is no reason, morally or economically, why the American worker should live better than his counterpart in China. (It is sometimes claimed that the American worker earns more because he is more productive, but that reverses cause and effect. The American worker is more productive not because of any innate superiority but because more capital is employed to help him, which in turn is because he is more expensive to employ.) There is no way we can prevent wages converging over the globe. Of course, the Chinese standard of living needs to improve, but maybe also the American standard of living needs also to decline. (Note that by “standard of living” I mean per capita GDP, which in my view is very different from “quality of life.” I will come back to that in future postings.)