Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Energy and Obesity

For my project I discussed how obesity levels and current trends relate to levels of energy consumed. Food production and its contribution to obesity were discussed including where energy use is most prevalent. Some of obesity’s other causes were discussed and how these causes contribute to the energy crisis. While the relationship between obesity and energy consumption, in that the more that people weigh, the more food they consume and the more energy it takes to move them around, is clear, the far-reaching consequences are not as clear. Energy is used in food production at every step of the food cycle. Fossil fuels are used to fertilize the crops, power the machines that harvest them, transport the food around, and prepare the food at the users home. When food is eaten in excess of what is needed to maintain a healthy weight or when food is wasted, all the energy mentioned above is lost. Other contributions to obesity such as television watching and exercise use are discussed. With regard to televisions, the type of televisions is changing to a more energy intensive type and the size of televisions is growing. The more time spent watching television, the more likely someone is to be overweight. As people exercise less, obesity rates also increase. As sedentary lifestyles become more common we can expect this trend to continue. At the end of the paper, an analysis is presented which details how much gasoline can be saved with a slight decrease in the weight of the average American. The conclusion was that if the average American can manage to lose 25 pounds, the United States would use 1.3 billion gallons less of gasoline.

Clean Energy in Africa: What can we Learn?

For my individual project I looked at some case studies of clean energy investments in sub-Saharan Africa. The cases are very diverse and really highlight the tragic situation in sub-Saharan Africa but at the same time show how some groups are really making a difference. Different types of investment vehicles are used to provide students in Senegal with light to study or to provide health clinics in Rwanda with power. The case studies provided some lessons that might be very helpful in addressing the climate change issue in the US.

You’re probably asking yourself the question: what does Africa have to do with the US? In fact, Africa and the US, in regards to climate change, don’t have much if anything in common but the African case studies provide an opportunity to look at extremes and extremes are an excellent way to assess something – be it a theory, an equation or an implementation as in this case.

Most clean energy investments in Africa are focused on solar and the logic is that sub-Saharan Africa has no electricity (<5% of the people have access to electricity) so let’s give them electricity. Yes electricity is good and I’m not saying let’s not give them electricity but how many people are asking – what does Africa REALLY need? Perhaps sub-Saharan Africa needs something else. That something else is income generating clean energy like micro and pico hydro or cleaner biomass etc…The main point to get out of this is that not every “clean” option is the right option. Today we are seeing the same thing with corn ethanol in the US!

What does that mean for the US? Well in the US we’re looking at all these different forms of clean energy like wind, solar, ethanol (first and second generation) and the logic is we need to go rid of dirty coal and imported Saudi oil. Billions of dollars are being invested towards that effort and I’m not saying that that is a bad thing. However, maybe that’s not the problem we need to be solving! To me, it seems that we’re doing exactly what the grocery store does: Paper or plastic? Paper is the new clean energy (you fill in whatever new technology you want) and plastic is coal/oil/gas etc… What about the canvas bag?

There is a question that is rarely, if ever asked: why are we searching for alternative fuel sources? Really, what are we trying to do? Most people would say we’re looking for alternative fuels to replace carbon emitting fuels because of the adverse effects of carbon. However, how many people have asked themselves whether we really need all the energy we are currently consuming in the first place. The canvas bag option, in this context, involves a change of how we interact with energy and the role that energy plays in our lives. I use the African case studies to show that in some instances, in the name of doing the right thing, the wrong solution is provided.

Some of the changes that I advocate for in the paper involve a reversal of city expansion into suburbs (basically increased dense urban living – similar to what Austin is doing), home construction using concrete as opposed to wood and sheetrock to increase air tightness and another one involves the design of the electricity system (design for a portion of the peak and not the peak itself – similar to highways). I recognize that these are drastic measures and they’re somewhat different from the basket of solutions that are offered right now but who knows we might not have the luxury to choose whether to do these things or not…

Impact of DTV Transition

I studied the impact of the digital TV transition.  If you're not already familiar, on 2/19/08 all analog TV signals will cease to exist.  The interesting energy impact is that digital TV's, especially HDTV's, and the Digital-to-Analog (DTA) converters are energy hogs.  But the problem with directly correlating the DTV Transition to energy consumption is that research shows that consumer behavior is trending towards DTV and HDTV anyways.  Plus the majority of the population that is only receiving analog signals are predominantly poor, elderly & non-English speaking.  Traditionally these groups are under fixed incomes, leading one to believe it is highly unlikely that they will run out and buy a flat screen TV from Best Buy.  

That said if the 47 million households effected by the transition do purchase the DTA converter, the EPA and Energy Star estimates at least 3 Billion kWh/year.  That's alone is quite a significant increase.  Additionally if only 5 % of the population purchased a new TV, either a plasma, LCD or Rear Projection, the likely outcome would be approximately 3.5-4.5 billion kWh/year.  So we're looking at a reasonably large demand considering our electric grids are already over used so it is fair to question policy that might lead citizens, either directly or indirectly towards consumer products that use more energy.

There is also an interesting environmental impact that I will not get into with any depth here, but do know that the average CRT TV has 4-8 lbs. of lead in it, so please don't just throw it out.  There are recycling options, albeit limited, available so if you find yourself without a TV, take the time to properly dispose of it.  Check out the Electronics Take Back Coalition for more details.

Lastly, there are some energy use benefits of the transition.  First off if the bandwidth is used for what it is intended, a nationwide broadband, there should be additionally opportunities for tele-commuting, decreasing the transportation impact on energy consumption.  Furthermore, digital media is going to become more and more prevalent as downloads, as opposed to a product one drives to the store or has physically delivered to one's home.  Small impact on an individual scale, but again, depending upon consumer behaviors, could create large scale changes on the macro-level.  e-Medicine is certainly a plus that might allow doctors to diagnosis patients from a distance, eliminating the need for patients in rural areas to commute to the doctor or vice versa.

All in all, the policy issue is muddled.  There are certainly pros and there are certainly cons when it comes to the Digital Transition.  From what I can find it is inconclusive although the potential energy impact is undeniable.  I also think the environmental impact, considering the toxicity of the lead in the TV's, is of great concern.  I intend to urge TV manufacturers to follow SONY's lead and institute a take-back program that allows the manufacturer to properly reuse/recycle/dispose of the product once it has reached the end of its usefulness.

And lastly, while this has little to do with the DTV Transition, I couldn't help but share Colbert's take on the ethanol induced food crisis.  Enjoy.

Elementary Environmental Education Resources

Before beginning my topic for this research paper, I thought there wasn't much out there when it came to resources for teaching environmental issues to children. Now that I have finished my research, I realize I was wrong.
There are curricula for basic environmental education, water resource and management education and solar energy education to name a few. There are also grants, called GreenWorks! grants to fund environmentally focused projects for school age children.
Also, magazines and websites are hopping on the green trend too. I think they have finally realized that if the adult population is interested in environmental issues, their kids are going to want to know what is going on as well. National Geographic for Kids has interactive recycling games, and green tips from funny characters. Highlights for Children, that magazine I loved as a child, includes a lot of articles about saving energy and doing your part for the environment.
I am really glad I did research on this topic because it gives me a lot of hope for our future. I know that they will be able to be the generation that takes action on our environmental issues.

The Beginner's Guide to Oil and Gas Investing

For my term paper, I wrote an oil and gas investor's guide geared towards the beginning investor. I thought it would be interesting to inform people on the options available for someone wanting to put money into the oil patch.

It starts by giving background on oil and gas basics, such as petroleum geology, leasing mineral rights, and drilling and producing oil. I felt that an introduction to these concepts and terms would be important so the investor would be able to hold an intelligent conversation with the operations people.

It then goes on to discuss the different types of financing vehicles available, such as energy sector funds, individual stocks, drilling, completion, royalty, and lease acquisistion funds. It then goes on to discuss common financing structures for direct participation such as "third for a quarter" and "an eighth back".

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nuclear Transportion and the Yucca Mountain Repository

Here are the conclusions from my individual research paper. Enjoy

A solution for the long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste continues to be a hotly debated topic. The current projected method of deep burial in the Yucca Mountain would have dramatic impacts to U.S. nuclear waste transportation. A substantial increase in cross-country shipments of spent nuclear fuel would significantly raise the risk exposure of radioactive waste accidents to Americans and the environment. Accordingly, significant levels of political opposition to the proposed plan continue to retard the implementation of a long-term solution. Proponents for the Yucca facility argue that opposition to the plan is based merely on Not-In-My-Backyard politics, rather than scientific assessments. Alternatively, opponents point to scientific studies that indicate an inordinate amount of risk associated with frequent long distance transportation of nuclear waste.

While my paper does not attempt to assess the scientific feasibility of Yucca Mountain, the risks, financial concerns, and politics associated with transportation of spent nuclear fuel is addressed. Under this framework the following recommendations are given:

Thorough assessment of the effects of severe accidents and acts of sabotage/terrorism on the performance of the shipping containers – The global political climate has changed since 9/11. Under this reality a more thorough risk assessment of the ability of shipping containers to perform under a security breach needs to be made.

Assessment of the risk exposure to urban areas – The implementation of a central repository would heavily rely on the nation’s rail system to deliver the nuclear waste thus exposing U.S. urban areas and its residents to potential dangers of radioactive waste. A similar study to that made by The State of Nevada of the SNF transportation risks to Las Vegas needs to be made for all U.S. urban areas potentially affected.

Reevaluation of the financial and budgetary issues – Given continued political opposition, project delays, and public backlash experienced in Europe, the DOE should revise its project budget to consider these possible/likely effects. Additionally, the DOE should consider the drop in property values and ensuing lawsuits that will likely occur once a transportation route structure is agreed upon.

DOE vs Oil & Gas Alternatve Energy Investment Summary

Below is the conclusion from my research paper where I examined the investment strategies for the DOE and private industry in regard to alternative energy technologies. Enjoy.

As we watch energy prices climb to record levels and forecasts of supply and demand predict an oil shortage in the coming decades, the energy industry is approaching an inflection point where currently unviable solutions will soon begin to substitute traditional energy sources in a meaningful way. In order to adapt to this evolving marketplace, both the United States government and large oil and gas companies are well served to begin to develop a knowledge base and infrastructure around these alternative technologies which have the potential to significantly disrupt the existing market. Because many of these technologies are relatively immature and new concepts emerge frequently, companies would be wise to develop a portfolio of alternative energy solutions. Economics will drive any potential energy solution regardless of the excitement and hype that may surround an alternative technology. However, if energy prices continue to rise at their recent pace it will not be long before substitutes will be viable.

To date the government seems to be focusing its attention on the issues whose risk matches the risk tolerance and time horizon for government projects. The best examples are research into very long time-horizon technologies such as fusion and fission, and national-scale infrastructure technologies such as transmission and efficiency. As technologies mature out of the lab and towards commercialization, I believe that the DOE has done a good job of reducing spending and allowing private industry to take the reins and brings these technologies to market. I expect future research spending to correlate to energy prices, as they did in the past 30 years. As the public bears the burden of higher energy prices there has begun to be an outcry for the government to do something to reduce energy related costs. In the face of this political pressure, I expect non-weapons DOE research spending to increase so that elected officials can at least appear to be addressing an important issue to the constituency.

Going forward I predict that the level and breadth of alternative energy technology investments will increase among major oil and gas companies. As previously stated, I believe these companies will do so primarily in anticipation of near-term greenhouse gas regulation by the U.S. government and to attempt to create goodwill with the government and consumer base. Additionally, large oil and gas companies are exploring ways to use these technologies to more cost-effectively run their existing core businesses. Finally, these companies are well served to at least begin to consider how they fit into the macroeconomic landscape in a world that might reduce its dependence on oil and gas. To accomplish these goals I predict a similar pattern of investment to what has been witnessed recently: companies will form strategic alliances and joint ventures to develop and test new technologies, followed by companies going through a wave of acquisitions to bring technologies in-house once they mature and approach viability. This has already been witnessed in the wind and solar areas, and I expect this to one day happen to other technologies as they improve. The culture of each company plays a huge role in their decision to invest in these technologies to date. Companies that view themselves as oil companies, ExxonMobil for example, have refused to invest thus far. On the other end of the spectrum, companies like BP and Shell have made it clear that they view themselves as diversified energy companies and are actively investing over a wide base of technologies and with a large number of partners. Our group predicts that it is only a matter of time until the “oil companies” are forced to diversify in order to remain competitive in the marketplace.

Another reason I predict increased interest and investment into alternative energy technology is due to the fact that the demographics of the engineering and management base in the major oil and gas companies in the U.S. is set to shift dramatically in the near future. Analysts predict that roughly 50% of the engineers and managers at major oil and gas companies will retire within the next decade[1]. Due to the cyclicality of the energy industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s, companies had been hesitant to hire significant numbers of new employees for fear of future lay-offs. Because of the current staffing situation energy companies are hiring furiously. However, because all of the energy companies are in similar situations, the hiring has become more competitive than normal. Companies understand that young engineers are more interested in cutting edge technologies. The result of this is that companies with a presence in the alternative energy space have found they potentially have a competitive advantage in the recruiting process if they can offer young engineers the opportunity to work on these new and exciting projects.

The energy industry is entering period of rapid change due to pricing pressure on traditional fuel sources, the coming viability of substitute fuels, and a major shift in the demographics of the engineering and management ranks. In order to deal with these issues major oil and gas companies are using a variety of corporate structures and vehicles to assist in the development of alternative energy technologies. From successful partnership projects companies are beginning and will continue to institutionalize this knowledge and bring the technology refinement in-house once the technologies mature. Energy companies are beginning to signal through these actions that a major shift in their business will occur at some point, the only remaining question is when.
[1] Crisis in the Oil and Gas Industry by Peter Parry, Varya Davidson, and Andrew Clark.

Oil Shale Developments in Colorado

Worldwide oil shale deposits have been estimated to contain 2.8 trillion barrels of oil. Over half of these known oil shale resources are contained within the Green River Formation in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah; reserves of 1.5 trillion barrels of oil.

As a result of the recent dramatic increases in oil prices, the allure of oil shale resources in the Western United States has increased greatly. The promise an inexpensive energy source, tax revenues, employment, and domestic energy security has long been targeted by producers, consumers and policy makers. Legislation in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 attempts to encourage the development of oil shale resources with provisions to expedite the leasing process.

Four companies have subsequently taken advantage of the new legislation and been granted six RD&D leases; five of which are located in Colorado’s Piceance Basin, the most prospective region containing oil shale resources, and intend to utilize variations on in-situ retorting.

Despite the recent flurry of legislative and leasing activities, oil shale extraction still fails to address the environmental concerns which have historically hindered development. Water is the most integral and controversial aspect of oil shale extraction in the western United States of which the impact from oil shale development reaches far beyond production consumption requirements. Groundwater, surface water, and alternative uses will all be impacted by oil shale development.

Until water issues and the interest of Colorado’s people can be reconciled, oil shale extraction lacks local support; a key provision of the Energy Policy Act for the development of federal lands containing oil shale resources.

How "Dallas" Won the Cold War

Being from Dallas, I thought that this recent Washington Post story was particularly interesting, though the article is about the TV show, not the city (in fact, the television show was actually filmed at Southfork Ranch, not technically Dallas proper).

The article describes how the "cowboy capitalism" of the Texas oil economy, exemplified by the show, had worldwide implications for the spread of capitalism during the Cold War. It is an interesting testament to the impact Texas had, and still has, on the world. Although the Texas Railroad Commission had long since lost its control over world oil prices by the 1980s, the ethos of the Texas oil economy still had a large cultural effect. Hey, "what starts here changes the world," right?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Some Change for Change: Charging for Plastic/Paper Bags

I did a podcast on the harmful effects of plastic/paper bags and how a retailer should get people to switch to canvas bags. It is interesting that the plastic and paper bags are technological improvements over reusable bags. We can go to the store and not have to worry about bringing a reusable bag. Plastic and paper bags provide convenience, but of course at a big price. The question is how do we get people to change their behavior and use the less convenient reusable bags?

I propose the answer is some change. Retail stores should charge people a small fee (~ $0.10) for every plastic and paper bag used at checkout. I think this would provide enough motivation for people to make the switch. To prove this, I surveyed people outside of Barton Creek Square Mall (As a side note, surveying people is very hard. I thought that most people would be willing to take a 30 SEC SURVEY, but most people just gave me a glare like I ran over their family dog)
I would have wanted to conduct the survey ideally outside a grocery store, but both HEB and Randalls refused my request. The mall security guard told me to leave after about an hour when he found out I didn't ask for permission from the mall.

In the survey, I found that 88 % of the people who currently use plastic bags would switch to canvas if charged $0.10. 8 % would continue buying the plastic/paper and 4 % would shop at another store. With numbers like this, I don't see why a store would not charge for plastic/paper bags. It would help the environment and be of economic benefit to the store. As a side note, Ireland charges about $0.25 for plastic and paper bag used at checkout. They cited that this charge has reduced usage by 90 %.

Austin has recently been looking into ways to reduce plastic bag consumption. The city council has decreed that plastic bag consumption will be cut by 50 % by July 2009 or they will take other steps to reduce consumption. They are requiring that six voluntary retailers, who include the big stores HEB and Randells, provide detailed reports of their bag consumption for the next year. I went to the press conference to announce Austin's Bag the Bag campaign and interviewed some of the retailers for my podcast. They basically feel that for now an educational and recycle, not a charge campaign is best to reduce plastic bag consumption.

If we want people to stop using plastic/paper bags, let's MAKE THEM STOP, not pretend to care about the problem by educating people. When I was in first grade I was told how many thousands of dolphins a year are killed by plastic, yet up until about 2 weeks ago I still used plastic bags! I personally think that only until charged will a majority of people be motivated enough to stop using plastic/paper bags. If you want a lot more info I invite you to watch my podcast.

CHP... easy as 1-2-3

Well, maybe not that easy. But certainly more suitable to green building techniques than its relative unpopularity would indicate. CHP stands for Combined Heat and Power, also known as cogeneration. It's pretty rad -- heat waste from on-site power generation is captured and reused to help power heating and cooling systems. In short, it's twice as efficient as separate heat and power systems and reduces carbon footprint. Here's a diagram:

The benefits of CHP are severalfold, broken down like this:

• Efficiency – Captured waste heat can be reused for various applications, including heating and cooling and other on-site energy requirements.
• Flexibility – Systems can be adapted to provide various energy delivery services.
• Reliability – On-site control improves energy delivery, self-sufficiency, and security.
• Environmental benefits – Produces lower emissions than conventional separate systems.

My report uses the local Dell Children's Hospital as a case study, which has been instructive because CHP, although cool and all, does have its drawbacks. In addition to high startup costs, CHP installation requires a crapload of advance planning, tight design integration, on-site expertise, and ongoing optimization. On top off that, the CHP system doesn't provide the cost-savings as advertised -- it costs about the same as a conventional power generator would.

Having said that, the net benefits for CHP are positive, provided a building meets a certain profile -- long hours of operation, desire for 24/7 energy reliability/security, coinciding power and thermal loads -- which makes hospitals a good match.

The Power of the Ocean

Initially, my research project was simply going to only focus on tidal energy but this quickly changed when I begun research on the power of our oceans. I discovered that there is vast potential in power production from waves as well as through tides.

Tidal energy has fascinated me since the beginning of this course because tidal energy is the only form of energy which comes from the gravitational forces by the moon and the rotation of the Earth. Although, even though some small percent of tidal power comes from solar tidal forcing, tidal energy is different from other energy resources because the energy is not derived from the sun. For instance, fossil fuels (yes, even fossil fuels), wind, biofuels, hydroelectric, geothermal, and many more energy sources come from the sun. Therefore, research on tidal power seemed like an area of study that was unique and, like most renewable technologies, still had vast amount of research left to uncover & unveil.

Wave energy is different form tidal energy in that it refers to the energy of ocean surface waves. The energy of the surface waves is largely determined by wave height, wave speed, water density, and wavelength. Buoys are placed offshore and the ocean surface waves make the buoys travel up and down and in a horizontal direction. This motion results in the buoy travelling in an elliptical motion. The energy of the elliptically travelling buoys is captured and converted into useful mechanical energy work, and thereby converted into electricity, all of which is within the buoy. The buoys transmit their electricity by power lines, which lay on the bottom of the ocean floor, to land.

Thus, my research project analyzes tidal energy and wave energy technologies as well as discusses the feasibility of select technologies based upon current energy needs and requirements as well as projects in the future. Conclusions have not yet been made, as I haven’t finished the paper yet, but I will post my findings after Thursday. As of now, I have found many interesting technologies concerning wave energy that are easy to implement from both economic and policy oriented standpoints.

Wind energy: feasibility vs policy issues in the US

Clean energy has been the career option for me ever since I took up Power Engineering for undergrad studies. In my country, India, renewables are getting a fair share of impetus from the government and wind energy company Suzlon has put the country on the world map. Of all the renewables, wind energy is the most cost effective and efficient technology so far and I feel the sector will go a long way in addressing all the energy issues. I decided to do a feasibility study for wind energy sector in US when I came over for grad studies here. Class 4 thru class 6 areas having 16 thru 20miles per hour wind speed, are viable for setting up wind farms. I was glad to find that there are several such areas and wind energy is a highly feasible proposition in US and Texas leads the country in wind energy installations. US Department of Energy studies have concluded wind harvested in just three of the fifty U.S. states could provide enough electricity to power the entire nation, and that offshore wind farms could do the same job.

However, despite all the talk on the energy crunch and the need to reduce dependence on conventional energy sources (on account of their depletion as well as the environmental degradation they cause), the renewable scenario in US has not exhibited the kind of growth it should have. Why hasn’t US replicated the German scenario in the use of renewables? Is the reason lack of comparable technical feasibility or policy issues?

Lack of governmental policy support is indeed the culprit. I researched the scenario in Germany which is the global leader in harnessing wind energy with 32% of the total world capacity and the evidence was conclusive. “In Germany, the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) guarantees for 20 years a specified minimum fee for electricity from renewable energies. This system of feed-in –tariff commits grid operators to the priority purchase of electricity from renewables. The costs of the higher feed-in rates are distributed among all electricity consumers. This system gives incentive to people setting up renewable energy plants. To keep those entrepreneurs on their toes, there are different design options including tariff degression; this reduces the rates each year -- meaning for example that a wind farm gets a lower rate if you install next year than if you install this year. this encourages swift take-up; two, it encourages manufacturers indirectly to increase design efficiency. If you are going to receive a lower rate, you want to generate more electricity. This drives innovation, making renewable energy a more rapidly evolving field”( Miguel Mendonca, World Future Council. Energy, Ethics and Feed-in Tariffs. Available at:
In US, there are a few schemes to promote renewables. One of them is called Purchasing Green Power Products. Many utilities are now offering their customers the ability to support wind power without constructing your own wind turbine. If your power provider offers a "green power" program, for a small surcharge on your monthly utility bill, you can ensure that the utility is purchasing renewable resources . ( On December 13th, the key vote on the Reid Substitute Energy Bill Amendment that would have extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for an additional 2-years and created a small wind tax credit thru the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) fell 1 vote short of reaching the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster[AWEA News releases and Statements (AWEA 3rd quarter 2007 market report). Available at:]. Instead of giving more policy support for renewables, the government is taking away even the little support that exists.
There is quite a lot of awareness generated on the need to amend US energy policies and I’m sure the next president will go the green way, no matter if he/she is a democrat or republican!!

Corn Ethanol Cuts Deeper, Speculation is Rampant

Recently, Japan and the EU met concerning the continuing global food crisis. Among the conclusions were a determination to continue to partner together to work against food shortages. This comes on the wings of a week where the World Food Programme said that it will not have enough food to even match last year's charity food supplies.

I wonder what continued speculation will do to the market. To date, there has been no rice shortage in the U.S., but amazingly, prices have risen and risen. Every time that I read a article like the one linked above, I get frustrated, there's no supply shortage, but since a few people decided to walk in a different direction (enter Costco and Sam's Club) the whole of the New York Stock Exchange Yuppiedum is in a buying frenzy that upsets supply distribution around the world. Are they doing this because they are worried that Americans won't have enough food?

No, they're buying like mad men because they think that on the short they can turn a few dollars and make money off of people's mania. (Exit Supply and Demand Theory) Resource allocation is a one of the most basic elements of a stable society. Just what is it that we're letting those crazies do to people around the world? Sooner or later we'll need to fess up to the fact that turning that cool million on Wall Street has far more dire impact in the world market than the difference we see here in America, like who can afford the Yukon XL vs. who drives the Hummer without a care.

Let's think America. And get to know you Congressmen by the way!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Could Corn Actually Gain Acceptance with the Savvy?

To start, I’ll have to say that I currently side of the arguments against corn-ethanol. In the current times, I’m convinced that the promotion of corn-ethanol is simply a political maneuver to get more votes. However, I believe it is important to continually reevaluate whether or not the corn ethanol industry is worthy of support. One must concede the following thoughts. Because of these political maneuvers, whether vote-motivated or not, a great sum of money is being provided for the research into ethanol related technologies. There are a couple of smart people in the world. New technologies may be found that provide the solutions to making corn ethanol energy positive. If these technologies were realized, there may be more reason to support the new fuel. However, one problem still looming with the idea of using food for fuel is that the two competing markets of the ethanol and food industries will drive the price of corn to higher and higher levels. To put this in perspective, we currently have mandates to displace 30 percent of our gasoline consumption with ethanol (NREL). As research has progressed, the current literature may be suggesting that corn-ethanol in fact is energy positive and that there may be solutions to the competitive industry problems as well.

Many of the qualified analyses report a negative Net Energy Balance for Corn Ethanol. However, various assumptions have to be made during the analysis process. Some values are considered and some aren’t. The USDA article, The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn-Ethanol by Dave Shapouri et al., indicates that the output to input ratio of corn-ethanol is in fact positive. The report compares the most recent literature focused on the plausibility of using corn-ethanol as fuel. The results of this analysis show an output to input ratio of 1.06 without credits. Yet byproducts may be harvested from the manufacturing process of corn-ethanol. With these adjusted credits, the output to input ratio becomes 1.67.

There are other processes being researched that may sway the opinions of the educated. In the report, Recovery of Corn Oil from Ethanol Extracts of Ground Corn Using Membrane Technology by Kwiatkowski et al., the major finding was that, using nanofiltration membranes during the ethanol production permits the ability to recover a large quantity of corn oil and other proteins. As corn oil is a highly valued product in the food industry, this may add anywhere between thirty to fifty cents per bushel of corn.

The above is an important find. Corn-ethanol currently only exists because of a 51 cent per bushel government subsidy. With an added value to the ethanol manufacturing process of 30 to 50 cents could almost wean the corn-ethanol industry off of the subsidy. Simultaneously, that value may be applied to the food industry which would experience a decrease in corn byproducts because of the increased manufacture of the ethanol derived.

Corn-ethanol still has a long way to go before it may be fully accepted as a viable fuel source. However, since research is now producing smart methods to get around our problems, corn-ethanol may soon find it’s acceptance.

Summertime Crude

A piece ran on Reuters this weekend about the different presidential candidates' views on suspending the federal gas tax for the summer to alleviate consumers' fuel price woes. John McCain and Hillary Clinton both are leaning towards suspension, while Barack Obama is wary, claiming suspending the fuel tax will save customers $25 for the entire summer suspension.

Other than scoring points with voters, what effects will a fuel tax suspension actually have?

The federal gas tax serves a pretty important purpose, functioning as a "user fee" for America's highways and roads, where those who use the most gasoline on them contribute the most towards their maintenance. Suspending the gas tax for any period of time means cutting off support for infrastructure at a time when state governments are bemoaning the lack of federal support for highway and bridge renovations. MSNBC ran a story last fall, stating that the Highway Trust Fund, the repository for monies collected from the federal gas tax and which allocates funds for highway projects nationwide, is due to run dry in 2009. While the nominal value of the gas tax has grown four-fold since 1970, the real value of the tax has been declining (i.e., not keeping up with inflation or increased fuel efficiency, which undercuts the mechanism of the tax), currently at about 3/4 its value in 1970.

If Senators McCain and Clinton want to push the U.S. towards a mass transit economy, this feels like a backhanded way to do it, where highways and roads will fall into disrepair and drivers will look for other ways to complete their commutes. If the goal is to save American taxpayers money, it looks like another "rob Paul to pay Peter" example, where taxpayers will save a little money now only to have to pay it later in the form of higher taxes to support infrastructure improvements... ones that will have to be performed as emergencies occur (as with the bridge collapse in Minnesota last year) because repair work wasn't being performed on schedule.

My wife has to gas up our car roughly once a week -- she commutes from East Austin to NW Austin. Given a weekly fill-up for our Honda Civic (which has a 10-gallon tank), costing roughly $3.50/gallon, each fill-up costs us in the neighborhood of $30-35 (assuming current prices). The federal gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon. If the gas tax were lifted for the summer (June-August), we would save $1.84 per fill-up, or $22.08 for three months (12 fill-ups).

Personally, I'd rather the government keep collecting those pennies for infrastructure rehabilitation than granting me savings that will barely cover the cost of a tank of gas. Those pennies will do us all more good in the long run.

New Windmill Desalination Process

A team from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has come up with a way to combine windmills and desalination for a cheaper cost than the currently used process. The current method involves using the windmill to produce electricity, which is then stored and later used to drive a pump for reverse osmosis. Delfts new method involves using the wind power directly to power a high pressure pump to push water through a membrane using 60 bars of pressure. The Delft option is cheaper because of the large cost gap between water storage and electricity storage. The windmills used in the Delft installation are very large and normally used for irrigation purposes. It is estimated that one windmill could produce 5 to 10 m^3 of fresh water a day, enough water for a village of 500.

Lagging, or buying time?

While it may be easy to assume that many of the large oil and gas companies have refused to acknowledge climate change because of the extreme wealth they are generating from hrydrocarbon based fuels, I feel most of them have a better understanding of the situation then they get credit for. Self preservation is a very powerful motivating factor, and these mega corporations are too large, and generate too much wealth to just go quickly into the night. As energy sources change they will find ways to adapt. Either they are already investing in technologies, or they are waiting for the right time to invest. It has been brought up that Exxon should be focusing on renewables as they will be missing long term benefits of not diversifying. Until economics or regulation significantly changes there is no reason companies like Exxon should deter from their core competencies as it is extremely profitable now, and will be for years to come. Additionally, companies like Exxon amass so much capital that they will be able to buy into whatever new technologies gain footing. Additionally, they can buy the expertise to manage such technologies. Much empirical evidence suggests companies often benefit from being fast followers as opposed to first movers. In many cases first mover advantage can be overrated. Learning from you competitors mistakes by taking a fast follower approach can be quite beneficial.

Another reason why Texas lags behind...

Paul Dickerson was wondering why Texas lags behind other states in alternative energies, so I thought I would propose another reason. In class it was stated that there is no reason the oil industry should speculate on alternative energy when its money can make a sure profit in oil today. While this makes some sense, the potential gains in alternative energy far exceeds that of conventional oil over the long term. I believe that an additional reason why the oil and petrochemical industries in Texas are slow to respond is because there is an inertia to their thinking such that many in positions of authority do not even recognize that there is a problem. Beyond this point, many businessmen tend to be aligned against any government intervention or regulation – such people start with this often legitimate value, and then work from there to accepting the “evidence” against climate change, and/or denying peak oil and other energy and environmental problems.

My belief is based on personal communication that I had with the head of research and development at Eastman Corporation, as well as recognition of the amount of funding that companies like ExxonMobile have channeled into “climate change contrarians.” As of last November, the head of R&D at Eastman Corp. did not believe in climate change, stating that he recently saw a talk that suggested that solar flares were largely responsible (somehow ignoring the incredible consensus that exists in the scientific community and focusing on the “evidence” from groups the likes of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine). Eastman management was clearly paying such an institution to help provide “facts” that the company employees could use to maintain their beliefs.

As for ExxonMobile, their tactics in combating climate change to prevent government regulation is well-documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists (please see: Interestingly, in some cases ExxonMobile not only applied the same tactics that Big Tobacco used in denying the link between smoking and cancer, they even employed the same people. How can we expect a wealthy corporation to even think about climate change when they are busy manufacturing evidence against it?

This sort of ideological indoctrination is common in America, though not generally quite so explicit as the two examples above. Together, they suggest a very strong tendency among important decision-makers in Texas to deny the current energy and environmental situation. Creativity and action are difficult in such cases. Hopefully, when the oldest generation of managers retires they will be replaced by those who are more capable of recognizing the problems that exist today and able to respond in ways that generate both profit and social benefit.

don't forget

about stuff like this:

April 23, 2008 -- Pine beetles that have already destroyed huge swathes of Canadian forest are on pace to release 270 megatons of carbon dioxide (C02) into the atmosphere by 2020, says a study released Wednesday.

That is the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions that Canada is committed to reducing by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol, and would effectively doom that effort to failure, the study says.

By the end of 2006, the mountain pine beetle -- Dendroctonus ponderosae -- had ravaged more than 50,000 square miles of forests in western Canada.

While not the first outbreak in the last decade, the latest is 10 times larger than any previous attacks.

The tiny beetle, the shape and size of a grain of rice and native to the western part of North America, lays its eggs under the bark of mature lodge-pole pine and jack pine trees.

Once the insects are embedded, a tree's fate is sealed.

Healthy forests are normally carbon sinks, meaning that they absorb more carbon dioxide -- the number one greenhouse gas -- than they give off.

We know about certain types of positive feedback loops associated with climate change (Snow reflects more energy than water. When snow melts because it warms, warming is more severe. There's others...). But I'm sure there's a host of other positive feedback loops that people either haven't considered, or couldn't possibly predict. Think about these beetles. Maybe the recent 10X worse than normal outbreak is a product of warmer average temperatures in Canada. It will continue to warm and these outbreaks may become more significant and frequent, causing even more warming through the massive CO2 release.

This is just a reminder not to get too comfortable about our energy/global warming problem. As much as the imperfect science bolsters arguments from the global warming nonbelievers, it also presents the dangerous possibility that reality will be much worse than we expect. Read here for more on this subject.

Insufficients New Graduates in the Oil Industry

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the AIPN (Association of International Petroleum Negotiators) conference held in Bapstrop (30 mins from Austin). Every single presentation was very interesting, and particularly one surprised me a lot: Lack of Graduates in the Oil Industry.

Karl McGarvey, Boyden employee, presented the current situation of the Oil Industry. 73% of the people working nowadays is older than 40 years old, and 50% of this group is older than 55 years old. This means that there is a lack of young professionals, and, therefore, future directors are going to be younger than today's.

Also Mr. McGarvey mentioned that according to the surveys, generations between ´77-´94 are orientated to Team Working, Techno-Savvies, Proactive, looking for Instant Gratification, and Working to live.

As consequences, it is thought that salaries and compensation for young professional may increase, trainee programs are going to be a key factor to develop the future directors for the companies.

Allen Demling: a focus on alternative transportation, and a sweet beard

With the Austin city elections coming up, I thought it would be appropriate to use this blog to spotlight Allen Demling, who is running for Austin City Council, Place 1. I do this because a cornerstone of Mr. Demling’s platform is his fixation on improving city transportation through the use of alternatives such as walking, bicycling (especially bicycling), busses, and trains. This ideal translates to Austin becoming a less energy-intensive city, among other positive benefits, which is the focus of this blog entry.

A quick disclaimer: Although I thoroughly agree with Allen Demling’s views on city transportation and many of this other goals for city council, I am still undecided for whom I will vote. Mr. Demling is running for Place 1 against the Lee Leffingwell, who is an experienced, principled incumbent, and I have not yet seen a convincing reason to vote him out of office. Even if I decide to vote against Mr. Leffingwell, the other challenger for this position, Jason Meeker, is a very good candidate in his own regard. There are three good candidates vying for one position. On a more personal note, Allen Demling graduate UT with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, which is something that appeals to me. Furthermore, the guy’s got a sweet beard.

Allen Demling supports the general goal of diversifying transportation in our cities. Currently, our society is centered around the automobile. Just a few of the ramification of this are that (a) automotive traffic and pollution are recurring and growing problems, (b) our productivity and happiness is very sensitive to petroleum prices and availability, and (c) our cities are spread out over large areas to accommodate our automobile-centric lifestyles. If more options existed for transportation, especially in and around downtown, and if people used these options because they were affordable and reasonably convenient, then (a) traffic and pollution would be reduced, (b) our society would better able to absorb high costs of fuel, and (c) our cities would tend to become more concentrated closer to town, resulting in shorter commutes for most people and a less-energy-intensive way of life for the city. The way to achieve this is through the creation of the infrastructure to support various forms of transportation.

Alternative transportation infrastructure includes sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes and paths, innovative bus systems, and well-planned local train systems. This costs money up front, sometimes a huge amount of money, but it has enormous benefits in the long term. Cities grow around transportation, and transportation infrastructure goes a long way to define a society. Allen Demling is one of a rapidly growing group of citizens who realize this and put alternative transportation high on the list of priorities for our government. These are long-term projects that effect the growth of our cities over generations. Our society has neglected transportation diversity for too long, and we are seeing the symptoms of this. It is urgent that our society makes substantial steps towards diversifying our transportation system.

Texas Solar Forum held a few surprises

On Thursday and Friday, the Texas Solar Forum was held at the Capital Auditorium here in Austin. The event targeted a policy-maker audience, and its venue 1 level below the state's capital underscored the important role that policymakers can play in creating the environment needed for the solar industry in Texas to thrive.

There were many speakers and I encourage you to check out any transcripts, presentations, or video that they will eventually put up on the website (

Since I work for a wind developer, I was most interested in the final panel discussion, which featured representatives from Austin Energy, CPS (San Antonio's municipal utility), and executives from major solar manufacturers and developers including industry major First Solar and trailblazing concentrated solar startup Ausra.

I wasn't the only one to raise my eyebrows at hearing that Ausra is now able to offer long-term PPAs for electricity priced at 9 cents/kWh!!! That's on par with peak natural gas prices here in Texas and actually beats Arizona Public Service's peaker prices by a factor of 2...

Key takeaway: solar still has a long way to go, but grid parity is right around the corner for some technologies. And where better to launch a revolution in the U.S. than in the only state that can legally suceed from the union any time it chooses!

Nigerian Oil Strike Ceases Production

This past week, ExxonMobil Nigeria's union workers have gone on strike for four days and counting now, with no immediate resolution in sight. The strike is a result of union leaders demanding better compensation for the employees working on the Nigerian platforms. This has led to a standstill in oil production for Exxon in the country, which translates to roughly 770,000 bbd/day that the company is now not producing.

I find it almost astounding that a deal cannot be struck when the profits from upstream production are so lucrative at the moment. I don't know how much Exxon would stand to lose by giving in to employee demands, but I can't imagine it would be greater than the amount they're losing by not producing in Nigeria at all. It's also interesting how much bigger a deal this is than if it happened a year or two ago- whereas then it would almost be an afterthought with the assumption that something will be worked out eventually, the fact that we're losing that much oil on the market is another factor that I'm sure will lead to an even greater hike in oil prices.

Bike Sharing Program in Washington DC

In the New York Times, I am reading an article titled by Bernie Becker, "Bicycle-Sharing Program to Be First of Kind in U.S." and I am currently thinking, "You, Mr. Becker are incorrect."

The Yellow Bike Project allows you to learn how to build/repair your own bike and provides free bikes for public use. They even have bikes for sale and bikes available at their warehouse to fix. The latter two require a little bit of money, but it is most definitely worth it. If you have the time to dedicate to it, you get the best of both worlds.

The SmartBike DC, "private-public venture," will open up 10 areas around the Washington DC area with bikes which you can check out for 3 hours at a time for a small fee of $40 a year. This is really great idea, but I wonder if it will actually work.

"Similar programs have proved successful in Europe. The Vélib program in Paris and Bicing in Barcelona, Spain, both started around a year ago and already offer thousands of bicycles."

I think this is probably a good way get people into the mode of riding bicycles quickly, but the educational part is lacking. Maybe this company can expand itself to provide what the Yellow Bike Project offers. The capability to fix your own bike is essential, but SmartBike DC rids you of having to worry about the basic problems which arise from owning a bike. I know many people would find this very useful, but I would personally find the 3 hour time limit very inconvenient.

Granted, the Yellow Bike Project is a non-profit and the SmartBike venture is not. Austin did implement the "bicycle-sharing" program before Washington DC. The execution of SmartBike is slightly different from the Austin Yellow Bike Project, but I think credit should be given to the Yellow Bike Austin project.

Nuclear Energy Growth

Even though I believe that there is no one way in solving the energy problem, I see a very great contribution of nuclear energy toward US overall energy use. The main drawback in using nuclear energy as a source of energy is the public perception of this source of energy. At the same time, it offers many advantages. Today, with all the great effort in reduction of CO2, nuclear energy becomes very attractive since it emits no CO2. It is also not dependent on resources from countries who hate us. It can be very reliable in feeding the baseline electricity demand while sources such as wind and solar don’t give the same stability in production. Today, with very high oil prices, electricity generation from nuclear resources hits the record high. According to EIA the total national nuclear electricity generation in 2007 was 2.4 percent higher than in 2006. Today, with even higher energy costs I am expecting even greater use of nuclear energy this year and in coming years. For more information and accessing exact number on nuclear energy generation visit :

Carbon Research

I had the opportunity to attend a field trip to the Pickle Research Center last Friday. I was able to observe the distillation columns, pumps, and exchangers at the CRT laboratory. I learned the university is currently conducting research on carbon sequestration and how to use solvent that feeds into the distillation column and capture carbon dioxide releases from the overhead column. I also learned the University of Texas is the only institution doing research on that topic.

Dr. Eldridge stated while we were in the control room looking at the carbon sequestration computer system, if Obama gets elected, there will be policy on carbon very soon. However, if McCain is elected, we will not know how long it will take to have a policy on carbon. As an engineering student, this is critical for us. Therefore, I am glad I had the opportunity to be in Dr. Webber’s class and learn about energy technology and policy. It broadened my scope of work and I was able to understand the current event of what is happening.

Ouch, gas!

So, I put gas in my car last night. This happens about every 3-4 weeks for me, so each time I fill up it's almost unexpected when I see my total. I remember filling up for about $13 when I got my first car, pre-Bush era, but now it's closer to $50 per tank. While filling up last night, I started talking to the guy filling up next to me. He told me he avoids driving by walking, riding a bike, or taking the bus. He said he heard gas prices are so high due to overspeculation, but thought it would go down soon. I'm not that optimistic. Not only that, but after doing life cycle analysis on algae for biodiesel, and talking with classmates about life cycle assessments for other fuels, I don't think we're soon going to find any comparable replacement for our consumer society.

Although it may be easy for many of us to find alternative means of transportation around campus, it is not representative of our suburban counterparts. My parents live in San Antonio, a city that is growing dramatically in size due to urban sprawl. My mom told me my parents now spend over $400 a month on gas, mostly to commute to and from work. Yikes! During our conversation, I asked her about alternative transportation options. Her solution to the problem, rather than conservation, trip consolidation, or taking the extra time to ride the bus, is to buy a new house in neighborhood closer to their jobs. This sounded ridiculous to me, and after reading Linda Passaniti's blog "Conserve More Consume Less," it really struck me that buying a new house to save money on gas is not only illogical, but ultimately is more harmful than beneficial on a larger scale.

For me, I become more unsatisfied the more I learn about energy. Not just policy, but mostly public opinion and use. Hopefully I'll be less pessimistic next time it's time to hit the pumps.

DOE short-term forecasts analysis

In an article in May’s Energy Economics, a team of two U.S. professors and one energy-trading V.P. publish their findings on the accuracy of the DOE’s short-term supply forecasts. They looked at “one-step-ahead” forecasts of quarterly crude, natural gas, electricity, and coal supplies. Dr. Webber touched on forecasting in some earlier lectures, in a most negative manner. Although these authors spin the tale a bit more positively, you should hear them dance around any negative connotations. Some findings are posted below in “quotes”, with my translation in italics:

“Results suggest the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) supply forecasts for U.S. domestic energy products are generally more accurate than a naïve alternative”

Our numbers show the DOE forecasts are usually better than a 5-year-old’s.

“Across the four markets examined—crude oil, natural gas, coal and electricity—there was not a particular sector where the EIA is clearly excelling or lacking.”

The EIA forecasts may, perhaps, be a waste of time.

“So, it would appear that there is a room for improvement in the crude oil supply forecasts.”

Please learn to do a better job in crude forecasting.

“Overall, the results shed a positive light on the forecasting ability of the EIA.”

The EIA forecasts are not completely useless like we had imagined.

“Indeed, the evidence presented here implies that the EIA generally does an admirable job of forecasting energy supplies at a one-quarter-horizon.”

We can reasonably say with some bit of certainty that the EIA forecasts are somewhat decent enough to rely on for budgeting for your summer vacation.

Source: Sanders, Manfredo and Boris, 2008. Accuracy and efficiency in the U.S. Department of Energy's short-term supply forecasts, Energy Economics 30 (2008), pp. 1192-1207.

It's Their Earth to Inherit

Though I have no children of my own, I am involved with them in many different aspects of my life. So when I read this article with a final sentence that read "It's their earth to inherit" it really hit home with me. Even though I'm only 15 years older than elementary school children I somehow feel that the problems with our environment won't effect me in my lifetime. Kids these days do not feel that way.
This article is only one of many, I am sure, that discusses how kids are getting involved in the green movement. They are even being called generation green. I think it is great because these kids have a huge influence on their parents. What dad is going to throw his coke can in the trash when his children have set up recycling bins in his house? This school the article talks about even has a conservation club set up. The club is in charge of the recycling program at their school. I think the generation coming up through primary schools right now has the ability to do what everyone has been talking about doing. These kids will be the ones to inherit this earth.

Conserve More Consume Less

This article on reducing our environmental impact by actually consuming less and taking reasonable measures to change our daily routine reminds me of one of Dr. Webber’s lectures. Dr. Webber explained the impact we could have on reducing petroleum use by doing a few simple things such as checking tire pressure, driving slower and getting regular oil changes. Taking radical measures and spending a lot of money on new technology and new appliances, cars, etc. is not always necessary.

The article, “The Cheapest Way to Save the Earth” gives examples of how our consumer-oriented society feels it has to buy more things in order to conserve. This may lead some people to feel they can’t contribute to conservation because they can’t afford to. This is actually very counter intuitive. The point of “conservation” should be to conserve – to use less. And even someone on a tight budget can do that. We don’t have to buy organic food or a hybrid car to make a difference. We can turn off lights, take public transportation and take better care of what we already have (like our cars). But if you can afford it, and plan to buy fruits and veggies anyway, you may as well go organic.

I feel the article says something significant about our society. It seems we try to solve a lot of problems by consuming and spending money. It’s probably one reason why our country consumes so much energy.

An Energy Eye on Russia: Week 6/ Japan - Russia Relations and the G8

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda met Russian Presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow yesterday to discuss many issues of interest to Japan. From various news articles, the headlines seem to center on one of two issues:
1) Return of the Kurile Islands taken by Russia in WWII (delicious fish for the Japanese and energy access for the Russians)
2) Backing a better Climate Change initiative at the G8

Most articles seemed to be more interested in the touchy subject of land. But I was interested in the Energy issues, of course. So I found the list of possible issues on Reuters. They listed 7 separate key issues, 4 were fuel related, 2 more were energy related (if you count the islands as being useful for energy) and the final key was Japan's endeavour to make their hosting of the G8 Summit in July a success by creating a successful Kyoto Protocal.

We might remember some of the fuel issues from a previous post I made about pirates. Sakhalin Energy has sold almost 60% of it's energy to Japana, the rest going to the N. American West Coast and South Korea. Reuters says Japan wants more of Sakhalin-2 and Gazprom wants all of the gas export from Sakhalin-1. Both sites are joint projects between Japanese partners and Gazprom as well as companies like Shell and Exxon. However, Russia has already pressured sale of part of the Sakhalin-2 project from Japan and Shell. (I think Gazprom is a big bully. Russia likes to pressure people into selling things. In case you didn't see the latest rule for the Sochi Olympic Games.)

Also, there was mention of Japan is in competition with China for oil to come from Siberia in the next decade. Today, Bloomberg reported that Japan has made a deal to explore and transport the oil from Siberia to East Asia.

Japan said it wanted to strengthen ties with Russia, but it looks fairly tilted towards energy resources. Additionally, in regards to the G8. Japan may just want to cut some pre-deals with Russia. Currently, according to Reuters, Russia has a surplus of carbon credits under the current Kyoto protocol- credits that Japan needs to meet their targets.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Lately I have been seeing a lot of things about the rainforest, and its importance in global warming. The plants in the rainforest consume a lot of carbon dioxide, but the burning of these plants in turn releases carbon dioxide. I saw something recently that the rainforest is actually one of the top carbon dioxide emitters in the world. Of course the rainforest itself isn't doing this -- it the destruction of the rainforest. So it's a bit of a double whammy -- the trees no long have carbon dioxide removing capability, and in fact they are emitting carbon dioxide when they are cut and burned.

There is an article on the WWF website (no, not wresting) about this.

Why are food prices rising?

After watching the news today, I reflected on the four root causes listed for the recent spike in food prices: (1) using food for fuel, (2) the rising price of oil, (3) the low U.S. dollar, and (4) a bad weather season for crops. Note that the order listed doesn’t represent the magnitude of each cause. First, interestingly enough, many people that argue that corn used for ethanol is okay, don’t realize that the surplus of corn grown often results in farmers choosing to plant more corn over soy, wheat, and other staple crops that are vital to the American diet. Rice prices have also started to increase. The Sam’s Club has limited rice purchases to 4 of the 20 lb bags per customer ( Also, when farmers realize that they may reap more profits by selling their corn for ethanol production instead of food, they will be encourage to sell more of their crop for ethanol. This will inevitably result in significantly higher food prices not just for corn, but soy, wheat, and other crops. Second, the rising price of oil, whether by a shortage of crude or a shortage of refined oil, affects the price of food since the transportation of crops and fertilizers consume oil. In addition, tractors and other harvesting machinery consume oil, also contributing to higher food prices. Third, the low U.S. dollar has caused Americans to pay more for food as well as other products. The low dollar has also encouraged many wealthy investors to invest overseas to gain a higher interest rate since the Fed. recently reduced U.S. interest rates. The lower interest rates mean that many U.S. savings accounts and money market accounts are not earning as much in a poor economy as they were in a healthy economy, making it more difficult to compensate for a higher priced economy. Fourth, bad weather has caused an increase in food prices not just in the U.S., but world wide. Riots have broken out in many countries due to food shortages or exuberantly high food prices. Not to say that this scenario may play out in the U.S., but it can’t hurt to stock up the pantry. See “Load up the Pantry” by Brett Arends (

I’m certain that there are other reasons for high food prices in addition to the four listed, and I look forward to reading your comments. In the mean time, I’m going to be stocking up (which will probably, ironically, increase food prices by increasing demand; it’s a full circle, isn’t it?).

How Our Energy Use Affects Policy in Iraq

This past Thursday, April 24, the LBJ School of Public Affairs hosted a brown bag talk by Major Pat Michaelis, Operations Officer, 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT), Major Robin Montgomery, Plans Officer, 1 BCT and Major Luke Calhoun, Intelligence Officer, 1 BCT on their experiences in Iraq. All of the soldiers are currently stationed at Fort Hood and will be going back to Iraq near the end of this year. During the talk, I asked Major Michaelis to what degree actors outside of Iraq affect what happens in Iraq and the efforts of the US Army to bring security and foster economic development. He replied that outside actors were playing a large, mostly negative, role and that the US government should use diplomatic and economic pressure on governments in the region to help the Army do its job in Iraq. My next question was how much influence the US government has in the region when our President is traveling to countries like Saudi Arabia to beg for increased oil production. Major Michaelis agreed that our position in the region would be stronger if we were not so dependent on foreign oil and he specifically stated that CAFE standards should have been raised back in 2001. Drawing a link between US energy use and the actions of foreign actors in Iraq is difficult and non linear but I believe there is a connection and one way to increase our security is to simply use less oil. I wish Vice President Cheney, union autoworkers officials and Detroit automotive executives had the same perspective.

I would specifically like to thank Majors Michaelis, Montgomery and Calhoun for coming to speak with us and their service to our nation.

12 days left...

China uses coal for approximately 70% of its electricity generation.  And it looks like their demand is growing too quickly for their supply.  According to recent reports, their coal supply is down to 12 days fo demand, 3 days less than just last month.  In some highly populated areas, supplies are sitting at less than a week of the regional demand.  At this rate, China will not be able to meet demand by the end of the summer.  Is China going to be able to keep the lights on, and the factories whirring?

Some Carbon With Your Kiwi?

First confession. The title of my bolg entry is taken from an article in the NY Times Business Day section by Elisabeth Rosenthal. The article accompanies another by James Kanter regarding making ships green. The first article goes into some depth about the growing debate over the cost of shipping all those groceries a long way across the globe so consumers can have what they want and when they want it. For example, it points out that Italy has become the leading supplier of New Zealand's national fruit (kiwi), taking over during the Southern Hemisphere's winter. The point is well made that increasingly more efficient transportation networks have lowered the costs and time period to get fruits and vegetables to market.

There is a consequence and link to carbon emissions that the international shippers would like you to not know about. The European Commission announced that freight carrying flights into and out of the EU would be included in the bloc's emissions trading program. This has many in the industry worried and becoming more vocal about costs increases being passed on to the consumer.

Further, as fuel costs go higher, the transporters are having to get more creative in keeping costs down, and the specter of having to use low-sulfur fuel is cause for even more change in the industry. Remember that article about freighters testing giant sails? My guess is we will see a lot more of those "ancient" innovations.

So, there is a link to a local news item I saw this week on television. Local small and mostly organic farmers have become more competitive and are able to make a profit and sell out of their goods nowadays. I can remember going to these markets and thinking the prices were pretty high. But the competitive nature of being local and not having tremendous shipping costs other than having to drive to town from maybe 40 miles away has shifted their fortunes. So, if there is a silver lining in anything happening with higher fuel prices, maybe this is it. If I had the time and did not have finals, I would go down and talk to these guys about their very simple business model that is working. I would also like to know if their's is a business that is thriving and paying off. The number of small farms has dwindled in this country since the 1930s, and perhaps a sea change in that trend is underway. That would certainly change the landscape of agri-business.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Zero-Emissions House: Buy yours here!

Want to live off-grid? Want to reduce your residential carbon footprint to zero? Then the kind folks at ruralZED have designed the perfect modular home for you! These houses are currently being sold in England where it has been mandated that all homes built after 2016 must have zero carbon emissions. Prices ranges from $240 to $280 per square foot depending on how fancy you want to get. The ruralZED sticks to thermally efficient construction materials to eliminate wasted energy. It is framed in lumber , coated with heavy insulation, and the south facing wall is covered with windows. The floors are sealed with a sprayable polymer compound that seals all gaps and leaks, and all water fixtures are super low flow. The roof has also been designed as a huge planter with the vegetation acting as an insulator and water conservation device. But those steps are as far as the company behind the ruralZED travels. In order to actually reach the zero emissions plateau, the homeowner must purchase solar panels that cover the roof as well as a solar water heater. There's also an optional wind turbine that can provide electricity.

This is a huge step in the right direction, but the ruralZED has some big flaws. The price tag associated with a solar array big enough to provide all of a particular house's energy needs is laughable. The optional turbine has a 5 foot diameter, so I can't see much power coming from them. Actually building one of these homes off-grid would be a huge gamble, especially in the not so sunny latitudes of the world. (Maybe I shouldn't take "off-grid" so seriously.) Anyway, it's great that companies are working on these ideas and that they are already making some available now. It seems to me, however, that the money you could invest in a ruralZED would be better spent making energy improvements to your current home. As for the "off-grid" part, I'm not sure that is an attainable reality. What is attainable is the construction of new homes from only thermally efficient materials and polymeric sealants. Improved efficiencies are the key to quick carbon emission decreases. Only after that should we look to completely replace our source of residential power.


I thought I would take this chance to get a class opinion on my individual project topic: CAN BIKES SAVE THE PLANET? I have been interviewing bikers around campus, bike shop owners, and various biking program volunteers all week. Editing that footage today made me think about a valuable group of people I should have asked as well: YOU! So take a minute to answer some of these questions... you'll have an easy blog post this week and you'll be famous in my podcast!

Here are some of the questions I have been asking bike enthusiasts:

How long have you been riding? How many bikes do you own? Do you ride for pleasure or transportation? What are the pros and cons of biking?

How do you think most American's view biking? How about that of most people in the World? Why are these opinions different? How could we change these views?

What would you say to people that claim biking is poor man's transportation? A toy for kids? Impractical and unsafe? If you ever thought these things, what changed your mind?

What do you think of gas prices today? How about climate change? What makes you decide to drive your car over riding your bike?

What do you think of America's obesity problem? Why have kids stopped riding their bikes to school? How safe is your bike when you lock it up in public areas?

What is your view on urban sprawl? Do you think we are entering a natural reversal? Would you be happier living closer to where you work and shop?

Do you think increasing bike use could help answer any of these issues? How do we implement this increase - incentives? fines? programs? education? specific policy? other ideas?

Thank you for your time and consideration :)

A Warm Welcome; Oil and Gas in Peru

From the Economist April 10th

Peru has recently opened its country to oil and gas explorartion granting 80 exploration permits (with many more to come) encompassing an area roughly the size of France. Peru has also encouraged the modernization of a state-owned refinery valued at 1bn and the construction of a new LNG export terminal.

The Economist reports that Peru's President Alan Garcia envisions Peru becoming a net energy exporter and petrochemical industry center. By mid 2011 Garcia hopes that oil and gas industries in Peru will have attracted over 3bn in invenstment and created thousands of new jobs.

Per the norm, the Peruvian government has been accused of cutting corners in its attempt to attract investment, ignoring the environmental risks associated with exploration and development, and clashed with indigenous groups.

Oil at $120/ bbl .... Awesome!

Its great to be in the oil business at this point of time. With the price of crude oil hitting a record high of nearly $120 this week, the oil companies are having a ball. I think we can safely assume that the era of declining oil prices has passed. My belief is that the price of oil is going to skyrocket to a point where we will be forced to resort to other sources to meet our energy supply. Oil will still be around but, it just be too expensive to be our primary fuel source.
The article attached talks about some of the future trends that we could expect in this regard and how are lifestyles would radically change. The IEA reportedly predicts that US oil demand would drop by 2% this year. It goes on to say that even with a possible recession and declining dollar prices, the price of oil is not expected to drop. Quoting Loren Steffy , " $120 isn't a spike, it's just another milestone on oil's upward journey."

Global Warming or the Ozone Hole

In an article posted on they talk about the geoengineering scheme to end global warming by pumping sulfur into the atmosphere. The problem is that this worsen the ozone hole over the arctic and possibly extends the hole to populated areass. Ozone over the Antarctic would not have the same problem because it is gone but it would hinder the redevelopment of the ozone in this area. The article then goes on to say that on the other hand, if the hole over the Antarctic were to completely re-form, the Antarctic would begin to warm because ozone absorbs UV light and would warm the surrounding air.

This study is interesting in that I feel that any geoengineering scheme is completely ludicrous. I really hope that we never come to the point where we are going to try and play god and control the environment. If the earth is warming, we need to adapt like every other animal is trying do and change our habits to reduce our effect on the warming trend. Pumping sulfur into the atmosphere may help lower the temperature of the earth by a degree but what other effects will this have on the earth and on the health of humans? We dont know. No models will be able to tell us. I would rather have the government force me to change my habits than to have a group of scientists try and alter the environment on a large scale. If a volcano explodes and sends a huge plume of sulfur into the atmosphere we deal with it because it is a natural phenomenon. Nobody is to blame if negative consequences emerge from a volcano but if a human causes the consequences, someone is to blame. Can you imagine what the US would do if Russia starts sending plumes of sulfur into the air and American health is endangered? We need to stop doing things that are contributing to the human element of global warming instead engineering the earth to be a perfect place. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, volcanoes, death are all things that are part of life and we cannot and should not try and stop them from happening.

The Power of the Sun(chips)

SunChips has started a promotion of being more green by purchasing green energy credits to offset the electricity that goes into making the snacks. Also, the chips are now being made with solar power in one of their California plants.

SunChips has also teamed up with Wal-Mart for a "commitment to the planet." They support renewable energy and these green energy credits will help more renewable energy development. They claim that if every Wal-Mart customer buys one bag of SunChips, the energy credits produced would match the amount of electricity needed to power over half a million homes in the country for one day. Not bad. Plus, they had an attractive woman pitching the idea in their commercial with a beautiful green meadow and bright sunlight.

Excuse me while I go buy 10 bags.

Texas wanting exemption from biofuels mandate

Saw this today on the Wall Street Journal's site. We're (Texas) trying to be exempted from the Federal mandates of producing 36 B gallons of biofuels in the next decade and a half. The problem, and yes it really is a problem, is that first generation biofuels compete with too many precious resources, namely: food, water, and land.

In particular, the competition with food has been making headlines lately, and we're not immune to this in Texas. The price of feed is going up, which translates to higher costs down the line. Creating fuel from food isn't a smart practice. While the mandate to increase biofuels production is nice, at it's current state, it's not working out.

This is not to say biofuels are a bad idea. I wholeheartedly believe that 2nd and 3rd (yes, we're already talking about those) biofuels will be the interim solution for transportation. Feedstocks such as cellulose for ethanol and algae for pretty much everything (biodiesel, ethanol, JP8, hydrogen,..) will be important in the next few years.

Contrary to what Mr. Dickerson of EERE said yesterday, I believe that food vs. fuel is a real problem, and I laud Gov. Perry for taking this on. This may be one of the few times where I actually agree with Gov. Rick Perry. Go ahead and quote me on that. He was Ag. Commissioner at one time, so it would make sense for him to be on this.

For once it's not California raising a big stink about Federal programs.

Water, water, everwhere and not a drop to drink

My research project is on rainwater harvesting and gray water reuse. As I am going through my project there are some very eye opening numbers that I came across that I thought I would share with you:

1. The United States consumes 408 billion gallons of water per day.

2. In the last 50 years there has been movement toward public supply. In 1950, 62% of US populaiton was served by public supply, while in 2000, 85% of US populaiton was served by public supply.

3. In 2000, 43.5 million people in the US (approx. 15 of the populaiton), supplied their own water.

4. Out of the 50 states, Texas is the 2nd largest water consumer behind California. Texas uses 30 billion gallons of water per day.

5. California, Texas, and Florida consume 25% of the water used by the US.

6. City of Austin uses 140 million gallons of water a day.

7. The per capita water use in austin is about 165 gallons per day.

More on water, next week.

Farm Bill Cuts Ethanol credit

An article from Reuters in the New York Times entitled "Farm Bill Boosts Nutrition And Cuts Ethanol Credit" reviews changes in the country's new farm law. This bill reflects public opinion on the food versus fuel conflict and changing public opinion on biofuels. The bill cuts corn ethanol credits from 51 cents per gallon to 45 cents per gallon. House Democrat Collin Peterson called this move "what the country wants." Peterson also claimed that what citizens really want is the growth of cellulosic ethanol production. To promote this industry, a tax credit of $1.01 a gallon for cellulosic ethanol was recently proposed by the Senate Finance Committee. In addition to ethanol credit cuts, the new farm bill allocates $10.4 billion towards food stamp programs.

The message in this article is that government and the citizenry are concerned about biofuels' effect on food prices and are not prepared to give up nutrition to fill up their gas tank. This is a logical response. Paul Dickerson touched on this issue in his talk in class this Thursday. He seemed to play down people's concerns about the effect of biofuels on the food supply, yet he gave no concrete justification for his belief. Of course their are other events that have compounded the food shortage the world is now facing (such as Australia's drought and decrease of rice production), but I think it is obvious that our first attempts to alter our energy supply from fossil fuels to food based biofuels have caused a disturbance in the world's food balance that cannot be ignored. I really wish Mr. Dickerson could have elaborated on his views in regards to this issue. I am still convinced that the food crisis we are seeing today has a strong correlation with the West's attempts to use food for biofuel production.

Can anyone support Mr. Dickerson's views on this issue?

A few comments on Paul Dickerson’s lecture

On Thursday, Paul Dickerson gave a good talk and I applaud the way in which he engaged the class in a constructive discussion on policies that the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) should explore. Towards the end of class, Mr. Dickerson stated, to some effect, that he is a strong believer in energy efficiency, but not energy conservation. I won’t attempt to reproduce his exact quote, but his comments on conservation made me cringe in my seat. I immediately thought of Vice President Dick Cheney; my opinion of Cheney was formed back in 2001 with the following quote:

"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." –April 30, 2001

I have seen this ‘ethic’ displayed by many Republicans in the past and present, but I simply cannot believe that this is an official party line. I found the following excerpt on energy on the House Republican Conference (GOP) website:

Republicans are committed to a balanced, common sense energy security policy that makes our energy more affordable and reliable. An innovative, 21st century energy policy should make renewable and alternative fuels much more accessible to ordinary Americans, and it should apply cutting-edge technologies to the environmentally conscious exploration of traditional American energy. In expanding the supply of available energy, we must also focus on energy conservation and efficiency, and we should make the necessary long-term investments in the fuels of the future.

The GOP appears to support energy conservation, although this excerpt does emphasize the expansion of domestic energy supplies over energy conservation. Finally, I pulled up the Mission statement of the Office of EERE:

The EERE mission is to strengthen America's energy security, environmental quality, and economic vitality in public-private partnerships that:

Enhance energy efficiency and productivity;

Bring clean, reliable and affordable energy technologies to the marketplace; and

Make a difference in the everyday lives of Americans by enhancing their energy choices and their quality of life.

Suprisingly, the word ‘conservation’ is never mentioned in the mission statement. Expanding renewable energy and improving energy efficiency without conserving energy and reducing overall demand is terrible policy. The age old idea that economic growth is predicated upon increased energy consumption should be laid to rest. Again, I enjoyed Paul’s talk and the way he engaged the class, but his refusal to see the major role that conservation measures should and need to play in solving climate and energy challenges is disappointing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cyanobacteria - Hopeful Biofuel Alternative

I read an article today on the UT College of Natural Sciences website entitled "New Source for Biofuels Discovered", which discusses new research by UT scientists regarding cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. The cyanobacteria microbe uses sunlight to produce cellulose, glucose, and sucrose; the cellulose and sugars from the cyanobacteria are easy to break down unlike other sources of cellulose and may be continually harvested without killing or damaging the bacteria. Breaking down cellulose and sugars from traditional sources such as corn and sugar cane involve expensive mechanical and enzymatic processes which would be eliminated with the use of cyanobacteria. The need for arable land would also be minimized with the use of cyanobacteria if production of the microbe were scaled up since it can be grown on non-agricultural land. There is no mention of what the water requirements are to grow, produce, and harvest the cellulose and sugars would be for the cyanobacteria other than it could use salty water, which in and of itself could be a significant benefit due to growing water demand and shortage. Overall it sounds like a very exciting discovery, especially since it is being done right here at UT.

Another Plant for California's Growing Energy Needs

With the growing demand for electricity in California, there have been several initiatives to relieve this demand, one of which is a 660 MW power plant built in Colusa County. PG & E corporation was given approval yesterday by the California Energy Commission to build this natural gas power plant. This power plant will practice all the new techniques to decrease emissions like dry cooling and less water consumption, actually decrease CO2 emissions by 35% as compared to older power plants. The site will begin to be constructed next spring and is expected to start producing power by summer of 2010. The plant will adhere to all of California's strict energy policies present and future, and will also create many jobs for construction, 650 during peak construction, and not as many for maintaining the plant, with 25 employees.

This plant is a just one of the many which have begun to sprout due to the US's growing energy demand. There will be more in the future unless the US becomes more efficient with its energy uses and/or the US begins to conserve more.