Going Green

Transit energy chart updated from latest DoE book

Back in 2008 I wrote a controversial article about whether green transit was a myth in the USA. Today I updated the main chart in that article based on new releases of the Department of Energy Transportation Energy Fact Book 2009 edition. The car and SUV numbers have stayed roughly the same (at about 3500 BTUs/passenger-mile for the average car under average passenger load.)

What’s new?

  • Numbers for buses are now worse at 4300. Source data predates the $4/gallon gas crisis, which probably temporarily improved it.
  • Light (capacity) rail numbers are significantly worse — reason unknown. San Jose’s Light rail shows modest improvement to 5300 but the overall average reported at 7600 is more than twice the energy of cars!
  • Some light rail systems (See Figure 2.3 in Chapter 2) show ridiculously high numbers. Galveston, Texas shows a light rail that takes 8 times as much energy per passenger as the average SUV. Anybody ridden it and care to explain why its ridership is so low?
  • Heavy rail numbers also worsen.
  • Strangely, average rail numbers stay the same. This may indicate an error in the data or a change of methodology, because while Amtrak and commuter rail are mildly better than the average, it’s not enough to reconcile the new average numbers for light and heavy rail with the rail average.
  • I’ve made a note that the electric trike figure is based on today’s best models. Average electric scooters are still very, very good but only half as good as this.
  • I’ve added a figure I found for the East Japan railway system. As expected, this number is very good, twice as good as cars, but suggests an upper bound, as the Japanese are among the best at trains.
  • I removed the oil-fueled-agriculture number for cyclists, as that caused more confusion than it was worth.
  • There is no trolley bus number this year, so I have put a note on the old one.
  • It’s not on the chart, but I am looking into high speed rail. Germany’s ICE reports a number around 1200 BTU/PM. The California HSR project claims they are going to do as well as the German system, which I am skeptical of, since it requires a passenger load of 100M/year, when currently less than 25M fly these routes.

PETA prize should start with eggs and dairy

I have some admiration for the PETA prize for vat-grown chicken. A winner of this prize would strongly promote PETA’s ethical goals, as well as many environmental goals, for the livestock industry is hugely consumptive of land, as it takes far more grain to feed animals than it takes to feed us, per calorie.

One part I admire, in a sardonic way, is the way it will make some people’s heads explode. The environmental destruction of livestock, and the cruelty, are well established. However many of the people who believe that most fervently also are very suspicious of synthetic foods, especially at this level. They would never say it, but they sometimes take actions which amount to choosing the starvation of people over the introduction of GMOs in the food supply. Not that the latter does not have its risks and unanswered questions, but that the costs are so high. PETA’s vat-grown chicken will cause massive debate when it comes.

But the contest is too hard (and has a 2010 deadline that seems designed to be impossible.) It requires a meat that people can’t tell from chicken that matches the market price of chicken and can sell. Oddly, it doesn’t require that the process be more efficient than chicken factory farms in terms of energy or land, though the cost pushes that way. But reproducing the texture and structure of chicken is a hard problem. Current work on vat-grown meat suggests less textured versions (for use in sausage and ground meat forms) will come first.

So I would propose a lesser prize, the production of vat-grown egg white, egg yolk and/or milk. As liquids, the task is probably an easier one. And these products have so many uses in foods, even if you can’t make something that fries up like an egg.

Of course vegetarians (as opposed to vegans) eat eggs and diary, though the PETA variety of vegetarian will insist these products come from humane farms, with free range animals, no hormones and no forced production. The agribusiness dairy and egg farms are not this way, they will point out — and they also consume a lot of land and generate lots of methane. And others will point out that overuse of eggs and dairy has health issues. But it’s a real prize.

The other way I would make their prize more winnable (if that’s their goal) would be to remove the requirement of of being indistinguishable. Instead, I would make the creation of a superior product qualify for victory. Instead of having an independent panel say “I can’t believe it’s not chicken,” I think it would be sufficient to have them say, “This is not chicken, but I like it as much or better than chicken as a meat.” And to prove this the market, where people are buying it instead of the equivalent bird. It’s true that an exact duplicate would have a faster adoption curve, but the wholly new food would get there eventually if people found it tasty. Tofu is tasty but chicken eaters don’t say they prefer it to chicken.

With eggs and dairy I think a perfect reproduction is more possible, in that you “just” have to duplicate the mammary tissue that produces the milk, for example. And this must be living, which may be a lot harder than the vat grown meat which may never fully be classed as living tissue. But my intuition says it will be easier, and fairly dramatic in effect.

Great power graphic tells us -- put solar power in New Mexico, but how?

I’m impressed with a great interactive map of the U.S. power grid produced by NPR. It lets you see the location of existing and proposed grid lines, and all power plants, plus the distribution of power generation in each state.

On this chart you can see which states use coal most heavily — West Virginia at 98%, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, Indiana at 95% and New Mexico at 85%. You can see that California uses very little coal but 47% natural gas, that the NW uses mostly Hydro from places like Grand Coulee and much more. I recommend clicking on the link.

They also have charts of where solar and other renewable plants are (almost nowhere) and the solar radiation values.

Seeing it all together makes something clear that I wrote about earlier. If you want to put up solar panels, the best thing to do is to put them somewhere with good sun and lots of coal burning power plants. That’s places like New Mexico and Utah. Putting up a solar panel in California will give it pretty good sunlight — but will only offset natural gas. A solar panel in the midwest will offset coal but won’t get as much sun. In the Northeast it gets even less sun and offsets less coal.

Much better than putting up solar panels anywhere, howevever, is actually using the money to encourage real conservation in the coal-heavy areas like West Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota or Indiana.

While, as I have written, solar panels are a terrible means of greening the power grid from a cost standpoint, people still want to put them up. If that’s going to happen, what would be great would be a way for those with money and a desire to green the grid to make that money work in the places it will do the best. This is a difficult challenge. People sadly are more interested in feeling they are doing the right thing rather than actually doing it, and they feel good when they see solar panels on their roof, and see their meter going backwards. It makes up for the pain of the giant cheque they wrote, without actually ever recovering the money. Writing that cheque so somebody else’s meter can go backwards (even if you get the savings) just isn’t satisfying to people.

It would make even more sense to put solar-thermal plants (at least at today’s prices,) wind or geothermal in these coal-heavy areas.

It might be interesting to propose a system where rich greens can pay to put solar panels on the roofs of houses where it will do the most good. The homeowner would still pay for power, but at a lower price than they paid before. This money would mostly go to the person who financed the solar panels. The system would include an internet-connected control computer, so the person doing the financing could still watch the meter go backwards, at least virtually, and track power generated and income earned. The only problem is, the return would be sucky, so it’s hard to make this satisfying. To help, the display would also show tons of coal that were not burned, and compare it to what would have happened if they had put the panels on their own roof.

Of course, another counter to this is that California and a few other places have very high tiered electrical rates which may not exist in the coal states. Because of that — essentially a financial incentive set up by the regulators to encourage power conservation — it may be much more cost-effective to have the panels in low-coal California than in high-coal areas, even if it’s not the greenest thing.

An even better plan would be to find a way for “rich greens” (people willing to spend some money to encourage clean power) to finance conservation in coal-heavy areas. To do this, the cooperation of the power companies would be required. For example, one of the best ways to do this would be to replace old fridges with new ones. (Replacing fridges costs $100 per MWH removed from the grid compared to $250 for solar panels.)

  • The rich green would provide money to help buy the new fridge.
  • An inspector comes to see the old fridge and confirms it is really in use as the main fridge. Old receipts may be demanded though these may be rare. A device is connected to assure it is not unplugged, other than in a local power failure.
  • A few months later — to also assure the old fridge was really the one in use — the new fridge would be delivered by a truck that hauls the old one away. Inspectors confirm things and the buyer gets a rebate on their new fridge thanks to the rich green.
  • The new, energy-efficient fridge has built in power monitoring and wireless internet. It reports power usage to the power company.
  • The new fridge owner pays the power company 80% of what they used to pay for power for the old fridge. Ie. they pay more than their actual new power usage.
  • The excess money goes to the rich green who funded the rebate on the fridge, until the rebate plus a decent rate of return is paid back.

To the person with the old fridge, they get a nice new fridge at a discount price — possibly even close to free. Their power bill on the fridge goes down 20%. The rest of the savings (about 30% of the power, typically) goes to the power company and then to the person who financed the rebate.

A number of the steps above are there to minimize fraud. For example, you don’t want people deliberately digging out an ancient fridge and putting it in place to get a false rebate. You also don’t want them taking the old fridge and moving it into the garage as a spare, which would actually make things worse. The latter is easy to assure by having the delivery company haul away the old one. The former is a bit tricky. The above plan at least demands that the old fridge be in place in their kitchen for a couple of months, and there be no obvious signs that it was just put in place. The metering plan demands wireless internet in the home, and the ability to configure the appliance to use it. That’s getting easier to demand, even of poor people with old fridges. Unless the program is wildly popular, this requirement would not be hard to meet.

Instead of wireless internet, the fridge could also just communicate the usage figures to a device the meter-reader carries when she visits the home to read the regular meter. Usage figures for the old fridge would be based on numbers for the model, not the individual unit.

It’s a bit harder to apply this to light bulbs, which are the biggest conservation win. Yes, you could send out crews to replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs, but it is not cost effective to meter them and know how much power they actually saved. For CFLs, the program would have to be simpler with no money going back to the person funding the rebates.

All of this depends on a program which is popular enough to make the power monitoring chips and systems in enough quantity that they don’t add much to the cost of the fridge at all.

On ultralight vehicles vs. large mass transit vehicles

One of the questions raised by the numbers which show that U.S. transit does not compete well on energy-efficiency was how transit can fare so poorly. Our intuition, as well as what we are taught, makes us feel that a shared vehicle must be more efficient than a private vehicle. And indeed a well-shared vehicle certainly is better than a solo driver in one of todays oversized cars and light trucks.

But this is a consequence of many factors, and surprisingly, shared transportation is not an inherent winner. Let’s consider why.

We have tended to build our transit on large, heavy vehicles. This is necessary to have large capacities at rush hour, and to use fewer drivers. But a transit system must serve the public at all times if it is to be effectively. If you ride the transit, you need to know you can get back, and at other than rush hour, without a hugely long wait. The right answer would be to use big vehicles at rush hour and small ones in the off-peak hours, but no transit agency is willing to pay for multiple sets of vehicles. The right answer is to use half-size vehicles twice as often, but again, no agency wants to pay for this or to double the number of drivers. It’s not a cost-effective use of capital or the operating budget, they judge.


The urban vehicle of the future, as I predict it, is a small, one-person vehicle which resembles a modern electric tricycle with fiberglass shell. It will be fancier than that, with nicer seat, better suspension and other amenities, but chances are it only has to weigh very little. Quite possibly it will weigh less than the passenger — 100 to 200lbs.

Transit vehicles weigh a lot. A city bus comes in around 30,000 lbs. At its average load of 9 passengers, that’s over 3,000lbs of bus per passenger. Even full-up with 60 people (standing room) it’s 500lbs per passenger — better than a modern car with its average of 1.5 people, but still much worse than the ultralight.  read more »

Two sources on energy, and using heat

I was reminded yesterday, after posting more on the cost-effectiveness of energy sources, to point out an interesting new book on the economics of energy. The book is Sustainable Energy With the Hot Air by David MacKay, a physics professor from Cambridge University. What’s important about the book is that he pays hard attention to the numbers, and demonstrates that certain types of alternative energy are likely to never make sense, while others are more promising.

I only have a few faults to pick with the book, and he’s not unaware of them. He decides to express energy in the odd unit of “kilowatt-hours per day” as he feels this will make numbers more manageable to the reader. Of course with time in the numerator and denominator, it’s a bit strange to the scientist in me. (It’s the same as about 42 watts.) In a world where we often see people say “kilowatt” when they mean “kilowatt-hour” I suppose one deserves credit for using a correct, if strange unit.

My real quibble is over his decision to measure energy usage at the tank, so that an electric car’s energy usage is measured in the battery, while a gasoline car is measured in the fuel tank. Today we burn fuel to make electricity, and so electric cars actually consume 3 times the energy they put in the batteries. That’s a big factor. MacKay argues that since future energy sources (such as solar) might generate electricity without burning fuel, that this is a fair way to look at it. This is indeed possible but I think it is necessary to look at it both ways — how efficient the vehicles are today (and will be if we still generate electricity from heat) and how they might be in the future. Generating electricity from heat does complicate the math of energy in ways that people can’t agree on, so I understand his temptation.

Yesterday I was also pointed out to a solar power site called SolarBuzz. This is a pro-solar-panel site, and is rare in that it seems to do its math right. I haven’t looked at all the numbers, and I am surprised wthat with the numbers they show that they are such boosters. Their charts of payback times all focus on power costs from 20 to 50 cents/kwh. Those costs are found in Europe, and in the tiers of California, but the U.S. national average is closer to 10 cents, where there is no payback. They also use 5% for their interest rate, a low rate that is only found in strange economic times such as these — but justifiable in a chart today.  read more »

Pure heating is highly wasteful

Is being evangelical about solar the right course?

The earlier post on whether solar gives the best bang per buck in greening our electricity ran into some opposition, as I expected. Let me consider some of the objections and issues.

As a recap, I put forward that if we are going to use our money and time to attain greener electricity, what matters is how many MWH we take off the “dirty” grid (particularly coal plant output.) I measured various ways to do that, both green generation and conservation (which do the exact same thing in terms of grid offset) and worked out their cost, the MWH they take off the grid and thus the cost per MWH. Solar PV fares poorly. Converting incandescent bulbs to fluorescent in your own home or even other people’s homes fares best.

A big part of the blame lies on the fact that crystalline silicon is an expensive way to make solar cells. It is, however, quite common since many PV plants started with technology from semiconductor fabrication.

Evangelical green

One frequent objection is that purchasing expensive solar panels today encourages the market for solar panels, and in particular better solar panels. Indeed, panel makers are generally selling all they can make. Many hope that this demand will encourage financing for the companies who will deliver panels at prices that make sense and compete with other green energy.

I call this being “evangelical green.” Leading by example, and through encouraging markets. While I understand the logic, I am not sure I accept the argument.  read more »

Are Solar Panels a wasteful way to go green?

Last week I wrote about what I consider the main goal of green electricity efforts, namely to stop burning coal. You can do that, to some extent, by removing demand from the grid in places where the grid is coal-heavy. Even in other places, removing demand from the grid will be fairly effective at reducing the production of greenhouse gases.

Update: Since this article a flood of cheap solar panels from China has been changing some of the economics discussed here. I have not altered the article but some of its conclusions deserve adjustment.

No matter what you do — conserve, or put up solar or wind — your goal is to take power off the grid. Many people however, consciously or unconsciously take a different goal — they want to feel that they are doing the green thing. They want their electricity to be clean. This is actually a dangerous idea, I believe. Electrons are electrons. In terms of reducing emissions, you get the exact same result if you put a solar panel on your house than if you put it on your neighbour’s house. You even get a better result if you put it on a house that’s powered by a coal plant, so long as you also reap the benefit (in dollars) of the electricity it makes.

People don’t like to accept this, but it’s much better to put a wind turbine somewhere windy than on your own house. Much better to put a solar panel somewhere sunny than on your own house. And much better in all cases if the power you offset is generated by more by coal than at your house.

However, the real consequences are much deeper. The following numbers reveal it is generally a bad idea to put up solar panels at all, at least right now. That’s because, as you will see below, solar panels are a terrible way to spend money and time to make greener electricity. Absolutely dreadful. Their only attribute is making you feel good because they are on your roof. But you should not feel good, because you could (in theory, and I believe with not much work in practice) have made the planet much greener by using the money you spent on the panels in other ways.

The true goal is to find the method that provides the most bang per buck in removing load from the dirty grid.

Keep reading to see the math and a spreadsheet with some very surprising numbers about what techniques do that the best.  read more »

Stop burning coal

There are many ways to go green, though as I have identified, the vast bulk of the problem is in just a few areas — personal transportation, electrical generation, building design/heating/cooling and agriculture.

While those who focus on CO2 work from the fact that both Natural Gas and Coal, which produce 70% of the USA’s electricity, emit CO2, coal is a much bigger villain.

  • Coal is 50% of the US electricity supply, gas is only 20%.
  • Coal produces all sorts of nasty pollution in addition to CO2, including sulfur products for acid rain, radioactive elements and worst of all, fine particulates, which are major killers of the elderly.
  • Coal mining is highly destructive, and lives are regularly lost.
  • Coal power plants are not as efficient as gas ones. This is both due to the simplicity of gas plants, and the fact that many coal plants are older. The worst coal plants are almost twice as inefficient, and emit more than twice the greenhouse gasses, as gas plants. Some modern coal plants are a bit better, but the gap is still large.
  • Coal plants are slower to turn off and on than gas plants. They are better than nuclear plants.
  • There are lists of more at other web sites.

The problem is that coal is cheaper. Particularly once you have the coal plant. I’ve seen estimates all over the map but many suggest that the fuel cost of coal electricity is in the range of just 2-3 cents per kwh, and 1-2 cents more for gas fired. Hydro doesn’t really have a fuel cost, and while nuclear does, it’s a much harder cost to measure.

That cheaper price has given us a 50% coal electric infrastructure. With hydro, the amount of water that is going to flow through your plant is fixed by the weather. You want to use all of it (ideally at peak times) and keep your reservoirs at the same level each year. Nuclear is hard to start and stop, so you use it for base load. It’s expensive to build, but you want to use the plants you have to their capacity.

So my understanding is that if demand on the grid goes down (say, because somebody puts solar panels on their roof or conserves energy) the first reaction of the power companies is to burn less natural gas, because it’s a bit more expensive, and the easiest thing to cut back on. However, the power grids (there are 3 main ones in the USA and various sub-grids) are not superconductors, so due to line losses, it is cheaper to reduce output on the plants closest to the reduced demand. So the situation varies a lot.

All the power sources have their downsides. Nuclear’s are well known and controversial. Hyrdo is clean but destroys river systems and habitats. Gas emits CO2 but is clean as far as fossil fuels go. (Leaks of it also emit methane.) Oil is barely used. Coal’s only upside is its price, and the existing base of coal plants and mines.

So while it is good to look at reducing all energy production that has problems, right now if you want to do something green, it’s a fair, if broad statement to say that the best way to do it is to stop the burning of coal.

What that means for people who don’t run power companies is that reducing electrical demand in a sub-grid that is heavy with coal (such as Chicago or West Virginia) is a fair bit better than doing it in a coal-light sub-grid like California. And doing it in a place like China would be even better.

There is an irony here. Californians tend, on average, to be more eco-conscious than others. This is the birthplace of the Sierra Club after all. And because it is natural for people to focus on where they live, you see lots of effort to conserve energy or use alternative energy in California. But the same efforts would get 65% more bang for the buck if they took place in the midwest or southwest. This calculator claims to report the CO2 cost of electrical production in each zip code. It uses numbers from the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) for different sub-grids:

NERC region acronym

NERC region name

Average emissions
CO2 (lb/MWh)


Alaska Systems Coordinating Council



Electric Reliability Council of Texas



Florida Reliability Coordinating Council



Hawaiian Islands Coordinating Council



Midwest Reliability Organization



Northeast Power Coordinating Council



Reliability First Corporation



SERC Reliability Corporation



Southwest Power Pool



Western Electricity Coordinating Council



Combined National Average


This conclusion will be disturbing for some. If you’re considering putting a solar panel on your roof in California, you would do 65% better at reducing pollution if you put the panel up on a roof in Arizona. (Actually a little better as Arizona has better sun.) If you are considering putting a solar panel up in Vermont, you would do almost 3 times better to put it in the southwest, since not only is their power twice as dirty, but they get a lot more sun.

What you would not get is the personal satisfaction of seeing panels on your roof and feeling that you personally are green. But there really is no such thing as solar electrons. Electricity is just electricity. There’s a big grid (and not being grid tied is really non-green) and the most you can do is improve how green the grid is. It doesn’t make a difference if you put the solar panels up on your house or a house across town. And it makes a positive difference if you put it up where it will have the best effect. It just doesn’t feel as good.

Now, can you go put panels on another roof? Not at present. But it certainly could be made to happen. In fact, oddly, the tax breaks are better for corporations who put up panels then they are for individuals, though this may change with new laws. Leaving out rebates and credits, a business could be set up to offer people in high-sun, high-coal areas subsidized solar power on their houses. The money they would have paid their power company could go instead to pay your power company as you continue to buy energy from your cleaner grid, having reduced demand in their dirtier grid. This works best when the power prices are similar — with PG&E’s “tiered” pricing in California this may not pan out.

It would also be possible to set up green power companies that put up green power plants in coal-heavy areas. They sell their power there, and the income would flow to investors on greener grids to pay for their grid power.

However, in a future blog post you’re going to learn something even more surprising, if you’ve been a booster of solar. It’s that it is a poor idea to put up solar panels at all, even in the coal-heavy, sunny southwest. In fact, it’s one of the worst ways you could use your money to green the planet. Stay tuned.

The paradox of cheapening solar power

We need renewable energy, such as solar power. Because of that, companies are working hard on making it cheaper. They can do this either by developing new, cheaper to manufacture technologies, cheaper ways of installing or by simply getting economies of scale as demand and production increase. They haven’t managed to follow Moore’s law, though some new-technology developers predict they someday will.

However, there is a disturbing paradox in these activities. Unlike computers, it does not make financial sense to buy solar (or any other low or zero operating cost energy technology) if you have reasonable confidence the price is going to improve at even modest rates.

Imagine you have an energy technology with effectively zero operating cost, like PV panels. Let’s say that it’s reached the point that it can match the price of grid power over a 20 year lifetime. That means that, if it costs $10,000, it costs $72 per month or $872 per year at a 6% cost of funds. (Since $872 buys 9688 kwh at the national average grid price of 9 cents, that means you need a 4800 watt PV system to match the grid which is hard to do for $10,000 but someday it won’t be.)

But here’s the problem? Let’s say that it’s very reasonable to predict that the cost of solar will drop by more than 9% over the coming year. That’s a modest decrease, entirely doable just with increased production, and much less than people hope from new technology. That means that your $10,000 system will cost you $9,100 to buy a year down the road. Since we are talking about a grid-equivalent price system, the cost of grid power in this example is $872. So you can buy the power from the grid, wait a year, and save money. The more you expect the price of solar to drop, the more it makes financial sense to delay. (Note that at this lower price the system is now beating the grid. What matters really is whether the dollar cost reduction of the solar system exceeds the dollar cost of the grid electricity purchased.)

Indeed, if you predict the cost-drops will continue for many years, it sadly does not make sense to buy for a long time. Effectively until your predictions show that the cost decrease of the system no longer exceeds the cost of the power generated by it. That has to eventually come some time, since as it gets very cheap it can’t really drop in price by more than the cost of grid power, especially while there are physical install costs to include in the mix. But it can certainly drop by 6% per year for a decade, which would take it down to half its original cost. Possibly longer.)

Now, you will note I speak of the financial cost. This ignores any motivations based on trying to be greener. This is the analysis that would be done by somebody who is simply looking for the best price on power. This is frankly how most people think. This can be altered by both government incentives to buy solar and by externality taxes on polluting grid power.

This also applies not simply to solar, but any technology where you invest a lot of money up front, and have close to zero operating cost. Thus wind, geothermal and certain other technologies face the same math. Even nuclear to some extent.

All of this also depends in your confidence in your predictions. The more uncertain your predictions of price drops, the more you might be pushed in other directions to obtain certainty.

The paradox is this. We may be in a situation where solar is competing with grid power, and many are poised to buy it. If many do buy it, economies of scale will drive the price down. Thus, nobody should buy it, as they should wait for that price decrease! But if nobody buys it, it won’t decrease in price as much, creating a chaotic system. Some will buy it (to be green, for example) so it’s not a total loss, but it becomes harder to understand.

We’re used to dealing with computers, which reduce in price not just 6% a year but 40 to 50%. We’ve all felt the dilemma over whether to buy a computer or other electronic device that will lose its value so quickly, or whether to wait. However in that case, if we wait, we don’t get our nice new computer or camera, and thus lose out. You can wait forever which makes no sense. This is not the same logic with power. With power, we’re talking about a commodity that you can buy elsewhere, and get all the benefit — for less than the depreciation on what you considered buying.

What can keep the market for solar going if it looks like it will drop in price? Well, first of all, many people want to buy solar other than to save money. (Indeed, only a few people today with high local electricity prices and fat government rebates can save money with it.) Secondly, it seems that few people, even if their goal is to save money, think this way. And if they do, they are uncertain of their predictions, and would rather get the solar now than risk grid power going up or solar going down. But curiously, it remains the case that if people make predictions of cheap solar in the near term, and they are believed, it should kill most sales of solar in the present term.

Pickens Plan -- switch cars to NG, electricity to wind

Last weekend I attended a small gathering in the Grand Tetons where Boone Pickens came to promote his new energy plan. The billionaire oilman is spending $56M of his own money per year on ads for this plan, and you will see them if you watch ads. Otherwise they are at his Pickens Plan web site.

Pickens’ thesis is that the most ruinous thing in energy is the 700 billion dollars per year the USA spends importing oil, a number destined to go up to a trillion. He thinks the price will continue to rise, simply because demand now exceeds supply, and that supply can’t be radically increased — ie. he believes in the Peak Oil thesis. He doesn’t seem to mind burning the fuel so much as importing it, which is giving trillions to other nations at U.S. expense. He is happy to support any domestic oil production, such as offshore, as good because it reduces the import numbers, but doesn’t think these are long term solutions.

His main goal is to get cars off of oil and onto domestic energy. He thinks the best way to do that is with LNG (liquid natural gas) or compressed natural gass cars. He says they have been far cheaper than gasoline for some time — half the cost — but that this was not enough to make people care enough to switch. Any new fuel has a chicken and egg problem when it comes to fueling infrastructure, something that Robocars solve, by the way.

To do that, he needs to take natural gas from the power grid. NG produces 20% of U.S. electricity. So he is promoting wind and solar. The wind in a high-wind corridor that runs up the center of the country, the solar in the sun-belt (the southwest and California.)

It’s an interesting plan, and he points out that whatever flaws you may find in it, at least it is a plan, something that’s been lacking for some time.

That said, some notes:

  • Getting power from the wind belt is not easy. In spite of what you may think, there is no national power grid, and certainly no infrastructure to power the coasts from the middle. This would have to be built, and would be very expensive. Pickens admits this. New technology of high voltage DC transmission could help.
  • I’m not sure that adding wind power would free up NG for cars. I think we would just use more electricity if you increase the supply. That’s what we do.
  • Indeed, from a pollution standpoint, we would be far better to shut down coal plants when the wind/solar comes online, but we won’t, because it’s cheap. Only moving cars to NG (or electric or other domestic energy source) reduces oil imports.
  • Pickens is buying a pretty old-school marketing campaign with his spare millions. We all thought he could have done it for far less with clever use of the internet and a more modest TV budget.
  • The 700 million isn’t all bad, of course. The largest source of imported oil is Canada. Saudis are #2 and Mexico is #3. Venezuela is #4, though it recently switched from from a friendly ally to an unfriendly.

Still, it’s good that Pickens will get people talking about this. NG for cars is already a reasonably popular fleet fuel. New extraction technologies have opened up a lot of new sources of NG of late. Of course, burning NG still emits CO2, though not much else, once refined to more pure methane, it’s the cleanest fossil fuel.

How to be green -- cars, electricity, farms

In light of my recent studies into transportation energy efficiency I’ve learned a lot more about the energy budget of the USA and the world.

One conclusion from those investigations is that if you are serious about greening the world, there are really only a few areas worthy of serious effort. Yes, you can make a difference anywhere, and if all you’re going to make is a personal difference there are scores of things you can change in your life to reduce your own footprint. But if you want to make a real difference, by affecting groups of people and whole sectors, the choices are few and clear.


The footprint of cars and light trucks is so large — 63% of transportation energy — that I am tempted to say that if you’re not working on cars, you’re not working on being green. Freight trucks are another 17% of transportation energy. Transit is in the noise — it only has bearing in that it can, in the rare cases it is done well, take people out of cars to make their travel greener. These numbers are huge, so of course differences can be made in the other transportation areas, but if the question of cars and trucks is not fixed, the rest of transportation barely matters in comparison. The one exception is jet airliners, which at 9% take the next largest shot of the energy budget.

However, transportation is “only” 28.5% of the total U.S. energy budget, so it’s not quite the only place to go. However, adding the energy cost of manufacturing cars bumps them up to around a third.

Electricity Generation

The rest of the energy budget is split 32% industrial (including making cars,) 18% commercial and 21% residential. But 70% of residential energy, 78% of commercial energy and 34% of industrial energy comes from electricity. (Just .3% of transportation energy does, but that will change if we move to electric cars.)

All these energy uses are quite diverse. There are many targets to attack, all worthy within their own scope but there’s only one truly big target, and that’s electricity generation. In the USA that’s currently 50% coal and 20% natural gas. So if you’re working to fix this — with renewable energy or nuclear — then you’re working on one of the big problems. Right now hydro and nuclear are the largest non-fossil power generators. All the other renewables are currently in the noise.


One of the biggest commercial users of energy is agriculture. It’s estimated that the equivalent of 400 gallons of gasoline per person in the USA is used to grow our food. Part of that is that 5% of all natural gas goes into making fertilizer. This makes this a particularly large non-electrical target. In addition, most of the methane we emit comes from livestock. I need to do more research but currently agriculture looks like another big target.

So it’s not quite true that if you’re not working on cars, you’re not working on being green, but it does suggest that projects like the Automotive X-Prize and DARPA Grand Challenge are among the most important projects in the world for going green.

Is Green U.S. Transit a whopping myth?

As part of my research into robotic cars, I’ve been studying the energy efficiency of transit. What I found shocked me, because it turns out that in the USA, our transit systems aren’t green at all. Several of the modes, such as buses, as well as the light rail and subway systems of most towns, consume more energy per passenger-mile than cars do, when averaged out. The better cities and the better modes do beat the cars, but only by a little bit. And new generation efficient cars beat the transit almost every time, and electric scooters beat everything hands down.

I encourage you to read the more detailed essay I have prepared on whether green U.S. transit is a myth. I’ve been very surprised by what I’ve found. It includes links to the sources. To tease you, here’s the chart I have calculated on the energy efficiency of the various modes. Read on, and show me how these numbers are wrong if you can!

I have added a follow-up post on the comparison between lots of small personal ultralight vehicles and larger shared transit vehicles.

Note: If you want to comment on the cyclist figure, there is different thread on the fossil fuel consumption in human food which details these numbers and invites comments.

Moral choice on nuclear vs. coal

A subject of debate in environmental circles revolves around whether the successful 70s opposition to nuclear power was a wise idea. At the time, it was never thought of as a choice between nuclear and coal, it was thought of simply as fear of the dangers of nuclear. Unexpectedly, it ended up being a push for coal, which of course kills far more people and emits more radiation than U.S. nuclear plants ever have.

But today, the big question remains of what to do with the waste. As I wrote earlier, if you accept the most dire global warming predictions, the worst waste predictions are quite tame by comparison.

But here’s another way to examine the question, in terms of moral duty. Nuclear power has a serious waste concern, and it is as yet uncertain how best to deal with it. But now, fossil fuels also have a serious waste concern from both particulates and CO2, and it is also uncertain how to deal with it. However, in many circles, there is very high confidence that there are extreme dangers from CO2.

Here’s the difference: What is done by the CO2 we emit is done to the whole world. The problems caused by it will be borne by the whole world. In fact, there are good arguments that while the USA and developed world produce most of the CO2 emissions, they will suffer a minority of the damage. The problems of nuclear power, however, largely remain within the country. If there is a nuclear waste problem, it’s our problem. If there is a meltdown, it’s our land that is ruined, our people killed. (At least in places like the USA where there are not foreigners living near/downwind from most nuclear reactors.)

Both choices, nuclear and fossil have predicted risks. But very different sets of people who pay the price. This makes it hard to say that the moral choice is fossil fuel over nukes.

Well, of course, the even more moral choice is to cut back on energy use and develop cleaner power. And both of those tasks are being worked hard upon. But it would be foolish to just assume we will reach quick success on this, and not still have to make the nuclear vs. coal/fossil choice for a few decades. Perhaps we won’t, but can we bet on it?

As always, there are some complicating issues. Nuclear power sometimes begets nuclear weapons, so it can’t be used everywhere. And it can certainly be argued that the problems of nuclear waste are visited not upon foreigners, but upon our descendants. But again, they are our descendants, and will still have more right to foist problems on them than we do on remote peoples. This argument could also apply to environmentally destructive hydro power, which again destroys our river valleys and animals, not somebody else’s.

It is, of course, for this very reason that fossil fuels have had some advantages. Almost all pollution has been driven by the fact that you can foist your waste problems off on somebody else. If they lived in the same legal jurisdiction, they eventually got power to stop you, but it always took a while.

Corn is destroying America, and Brazil

It was good to see a major newsmagazine like Time do its cover story on the corn ethanol scam this week. I’ve been worried about corn as a source of biofuel for some time. So far, it makes no sense, and is only used because of the power of the corn lobby and senators from agricultural states. I’ve read various arguments (all with political agendas) about just how much petrofuel is burned in order to make corn based ethanol. Some figures calculate it takes more petrofuel than you get ethanol out — in other words, by putting ethanol in your car, as we all do 10% during the summer in California, you’re actually burning more fossil fuel than you would otherwise. E85 (85% ethanol) is even worse. Other figures, supported by the corn ethanol lobby, say it is not nearly that bad, but even with their best numbers they can only make it a modestly positive gain.

It’s hard to work out who to believe, but the most telling fact I learned was this: None of the corn-ethanol producers run their whole system — tractors, trucks and ethanol conversion plants — on their own product. Since they should be able to get their own product at a discount, this makes no sense.

Adding to the confusion is that a gallon is not a gallon. In particular, a gallon of ethanol has only 70% of the energy of gasoline, so you’ll only get 70% of the mileage. (Diesel has 12% more energy per gallon than gasoline, which is the real reason why diesel cars get better mileage. They aren’t really much better per kg of carbon burnt.)

The only ethanol source that’s provably positive is sugar cane. More on that later. There are a lot of worthwhile efforts to develop ethanol from cellulose (like switchgrass) or algae, and they could make a real difference. The corn lobby is not that excited about those.

In spite of this, we watch ads describing E85 cars as green, when they are anti-green. People see E85 priced 19% cheaper than gasoline (national average) and think it’s some bargain. It isn’t.

Corn for ethanol is driving up the price of corn. That make more land get converted to corn. In turn, Time found, that was making shifts in land use in Brazil, and the result was that more land in the rainforest is being cleared (often by burning) than ever before. But now there’s a horrible irony — all this is happening because people imagine they are doing something green by using corn based ethanol. (Brazil uses sugarcane for its own ethanol production.)

Now on to sugar. In the USA, sugar costs more than twice as much as the rest of the world. That’s why Coke from Mexico has real sugar, because sugar is cheap there. In the USA it has — surprise, surprise — high fructose corn syrup.

Sugar is expensive in the USA because there are import taxes and quotas that benefit a fairly small number of families who are really sugar agribusinesses. Those families love their little monopoly on sugar production of course, and fight to defend the laws that provide it. But the corn lobby joins in to help of course, to sell more high fructose corn syrup. (Though now HFCS has dropped in price to be closer to the world sugar price so we would not entirely get rid of it.)

We need to:

  • Immediately remove laws that require the addition of ethanol to gasoline. Find something besides MTBE or ethanol if need be.
  • Clearly label corn based ethanol and E85 as lower mileage and non-green, punishing those who advertise it as green. Or make them run their machines on their own ethanol and publish the numbers.
  • Put more into research of truly net-positive biofuels that don’t use existing crop-lands or involve clearing of forested land, and use them only if we can show they are net-green.
  • Abandon sugar quota and sugar tarrifs
  • Consider growing more sugar cane if we want biofuels, but again, factor in the cost of the crops displaced or land cleared.

Biofuels are a hard problem. Using recycled veggie oil is great, and we’ve run our Burning Man camp on that, but there is only so much of that out there. Even if we converted all our croplands to biofuels, we would only modestly dent our fuel consumption. This suggests that only solutions like algae or wild grasslands could work.

Holy cow: Walking consumes more gasoline than driving!

Note to new readers: This article explores the consequences of using so much fuel to produce our food. If you come out of it thinking it’s telling you to drive rather than get some exercise, you didn’t read it! But if you like surprising numbers like this, check out the rest of my Going Green section and other sections.

In my growing research on transportation energy economics, I’ve come upon some rather astonishing research. I always enjoy debates on total cost analysis — trying to figure out the true energy cost of things, by adding in the energy spent elsewhere to make things happen. (For example, the energy to smelt the metals in your car adds quite a bit to its energy cost.)

Humans are modestly efficient. Walking, an average person burns about 100 Calories per mile at 3mph, or 300 per hour, while sitting for the same hour burns around 80 Calories just keeping you warm. In other words, the walking 3 miles uses about 220 extra Calories. Calories are kilocalories, and one Calorie/kcal is about 4 BTUs, 4200 joules or 1.63 watt-hours.

While walking 1 mile burns an extra 74 Calories, on a bicycle we’re much better. Biking one mile at 10mph takes about 38 extra calories over sitting. Again, this is the extra calories.

A gallon of gas has about 31,500 Calories in it, so you might imagine that you get 815 “mpg” biking and 400 “mpg” walking. Pretty good. (Unless you compare it to an electric scooter, which turns out to get the equivalent of 1200 mpg from pure electricity if you allow the same perfect conversion.)

But there’s a problem. We eat, on average about 2700 Calories/day in the USA, almost all of it produced by agribusiness. Which runs on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide the fertilizer. They run the machines. The process and transport and refrigerate the food. In many cases our food — cows — eats even more food produced with very high energy costs.

I’ve been digging around estimates, and have found that U.S. agriculture uses about 400 gasoline-gallon equivalents per American. Or 1.1 gallons per day, or about 10 Calories (40 BTU) from oil/gas for every Calorie of food. For beef, it’s far worse, as close to 40 Calories of oil/gas (160 BTU) are used to produce one Calorie of beefy goodness.

You can see where this is going. I’m not the first to figure it out, but it’s worth repeating. Your 3 mile walk burned 220 extra Calories over sitting, but drove the use of 2,200 Calories of fossil fuel. That’s 1/14th of a gallon of gasoline (9oz.) So you’re getting about 42 miles per gas-gallon of fossil fuel.

If you eat a lot of beef or other livestock, and want to consider your incremental food as having come from beef, it’s around 10 miles per gallon. A Hummer does better!

So yes, if you drive your Prius instead of walking it’s going to burn less fossil fuel. If 2 people drive in a more ordinary car it’s going to burn less fossil fuel than both of them walking.

Biking’s better. The average-diet cyclist is getting 85 miles per gallon of fossil fuel. Still better for 2 to share a Prius. The beefeater is, as before only 1/4 as good. At 21mpg he’s better than a Hummer, but not that much better.

This is a fuel to fuel comparison. The fuel burned in the cars is the same sort of fuel burned in the tractors. It has extra energy costs in its extraction and transport, but this applies equally to both cases. And yes, of course, the exercise has other benefits than getting from A to B. And we have not considered a number of the other external costs of the vehicle travel — but they still don’t make this revelation less remarkable. (And neither does this result suggest one should not still walk or bike, rather it suggests we should make our food more efficiently.)

And no, picking transit isn’t going to help. Transit systems, on average, are only mildly greener than cars. City buses, in fact, use the same energy per passenger mile as typical cars. Light rail is sometimes 2 and rarely even 3 times better than cars, but in some cities like San Jose, it uses almost twice as much energy per actual passenger than passenger cars do. Taking existing transit vehicles that are already running is green, of course, but building inefficient lines isn’t.

Many people take this idea as a condemnation of cycling or exercise. It isn’t. Cycling is my favourite exercise. It is a condemnation of how much fossil fuel is used in agriculture. And, to a much lesser extent, a wakeup call to people who eat the average diet that they can’t claim their human-powered travel as good for the planet — just good for them. What would be good for the planet would be to eat a non-agribusiness diet and also walk or bike. How your food is farmed is more important though, than where it comes from. It’s the farming, not the shipping, that’s the big energy eater.

Obviously if you were going to need the exercise anyway, doing it while getting from A to B is not going to burn extra oil. Human powered travel well above the need to exercise is the only thing that would hurt, if fueled by U.S. agriculture. And eating a high calorie diet and not exercising would be just as bad.

Happy eating!

What’s not wrong with these numbers

As I note, since most of us need to exercise anyway, this is not at all a condemnation of walking and cycling, but rather of the amount of fossil fuel that agriculture uses. However, a lot of people still find faults with this analysis that I don’t think are there.

  • No, it doesn’t matter that making the fuel costs energy. It’s (roughly) the same fuel going into the tractors as going into the gas tanks. We’re comparing fuel in tank to fuel in tank. But if you really want to factor that in, about 82% of well energy makes it to the gas tank of the car or tractor.
  • Yes, I do account for the fact that just eating or sitting consumes calories. This calculation is based on the extra calories that biking or walking take, compared to sitting in a car. The base “keep you alive” calories are not counted, but they do require more fossil fuel to create.
  • I don’t include the energy required to make a car, which ranges from 25% (Prius) to 7% (Hummer) of its lifetime energy usage. However, most cyclists and pedestrians still own cars, so this is still spent if it sits in the garage while you walk. And while a 2000lb car may take 60-100 times as much energy to make as a 30lb bike, this is not so large a difference if expressed per lifetime vehicle-mile.
  • This is based on the USA averages. Of course different food means different results, but doesn’t change this story, which is about the average eater.
  • I don’t include the energy needed to build roads for bikes, cars and food delivery trucks. The reality is, we’re not going to build fewer roads because people take some trips walking for exercise. Nor are people going to not buy a car because they do that.

Make gasoline $6/gallon, give everybody $2,000

Burning gasoline is ruining the world. It accounts for 40% of greenhouse emissions, and a large percentage of other nasty emissions including the particulate matter that kills millions each year. Getting it has driven the world to wars. When you burn it, you pollute my air, hurting me, and you owe me something for it, which is a reason that gasoline taxes make sense even in a libertarian context.

So while gas should be taxed to $5 or $6/gallon, the public won’t stand for it. So here’s an alternate idea. Tax gasoline up to $6/gallon in a revenue neutral way. That is to say, figure out how much tax revenue that raises per adult. Americans consume 140 billion gallons/year, so a $3 tax raises 420 billion (before consumption drops.) There are about 200 million adults, so this works out to just over $2,000 per adult. As such, each person (regardless of how much oil they burned) would receive a $2,000 tax credit — a refundable credit payable even if they owe no taxes.

Update: The core idea here came from an earlier comment on this blog, which I forgot about (See comments below for references.)

For people who ride transit or walk or otherwise don’t use cars, this turns into a $2,000 windfall, offset by an increase in the cost of taxis and transit. In theory, for the average gasoline user, it works out to a wash — pay about $2,000 more per year for your gasoline, but get a $2,000 tax refund. At most it’s an enforced savings program.

For heavy gasoline burners — those taking very long commutes, those electing to buy Hummers and Suburbans — it means paying lots more, and subsidizing those who don’t. Those who buy a Prius would be well rewarded, as would those who switch to transit or anything more fuel efficient.

The consequences of this would be:

  • A giant and popular win for non-drivers, and for transit systems, which would get many more passengers to offset their increased costs.
  • Everybody would file a tax return now, even those making little or no money. This would cost the IRS more, but they would probably love it for making everybody file. Not filing would become remarkably suspicious. This is both good and bad, of course.
  • There would probably be some identity theft to try to steal the refunds, this would need to be watched for.
  • It creates a major issue for illegal immigrants. Those who want to cause them trouble would like it for this, as these immigrants would now pay large fees for gas but have no means to get the refund, unless they file tax returns, which of course they are scared to do — and they have no SSNs.
  • Fuel efficient technologies would become very popular and competitive, and the market would immediately start sorting out winners.
  • Fuel consumption would drop, reducing the amount of the credit — or requiring an increase in the tax.
  • Poor people with very long commutes could face serious problems, possibly forcing them to change jobs or homes, or try to carpool.
  • People would drive into Canada and Mexico to get tanks of gas. There would also be a black market in gas smuggled from those countries.

This could be applied to all fuel use, including power plants and factories. In that case many products would increase in price, all offset by the credit.

Aside from the immigrant problem, it is also important to note how bad governments are at restraint, and there would be much temptation to not make the tax revenue neutral, and just make it a tax increase.

Would voters vote for this? Well, designed properly, if we assume that 50% of the gas is used by fewer than 50% of the people, then this is a win for more than 50% of the people, probably more than 70%. And of the top 30% of gasoline users, many of them would intellectually agree with it though it costs them more money. If people realized they would pay less, not more, under the tax, this could win voter support.

This could also be done on a state by state basis in some states. However, it would create problems on the state borders. Border gas stations would die, and need compensation. There would be a lot of smuggling from the other states. More people would risk using purple gas, as well. Enforcing is tough without some draconian system we wouldn’t like so much. It thus would be possible only in states that have few people living on their borders, mostly western rural states. California is not out of the question. It has no large cities on state borders, but does have some decent sized towns.

The positives of this idea are many, as are the negatives. But those positives are pretty valuable. In particular, this system would drive the market to work hard at producing technologies that really reduce fuel consumption, resulting in perhaps the biggest benefits of all.

The end of public transit

I’ve been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there’s a lot of merit to that case.

However, in the wealthy USA, we don’t, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.

Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don’t consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)

However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.  read more »

Hard work for Burning Man to be Green

This year’s theme for Burning Man is “the Green Man.” It represents a lot of things. For many it just is an inspiration for art centered on nature or the environment. Others are taking it as a signal to try to be better environmentally. That’s going to be a very tough road for a festival centered on building a temporary city far from everything and pyrotechnic art.

So I wrote up some thoughts on the challenges involved. The toughest problem is that transporting an entire city to the desert and then taking it back is a great personal and artistic endeavour, but not one that can be considered green. All efforts to reduce the pollution at the event are dwarfed by the fuel burned to get there. So what can be done?

Read about the problems of having a green man.

A solar economics spreadsheet

In light of my recent threads on CitizenRe I built a spreadsheet to do solar energy economic calculations. If you click on that, you can download the spreadsheet to try for yourself. If you don’t have a spreadsheet program (I recommend the free Gnumeric or Open Office) it’s also up as a Google Solar Spreadsheet but you may need a Google account to plug in your own numbers.  read more »

CitizenRe, real or imagined -- a challenge

Recently I opened up a surprising can of worms with a blog post about CitizenRe wondering if they had finally solved the problem of making solar power compete with the electrical grid. At that post you will see a substantial comment thread, including contributions by executives of the firm, which I welcome. At first, I had known little about CitizenRe and the reputation it was building. I thought i should summarize some of the issues I have been considering and other elements I have learned.

CitizenRe’s offer is very appealing. They claim they will build a plant that can make vastly cheaper solar. Once they do, they will install it on your roof and “rent” it to you. You buy all the power it produces from them at a rate that beats your current grid power cost. Your risks are few — you put down a deposit of $500 to $1500 depending on system size, you must cover any damage to the panels, and they offer removal and replacement for a very modest fee if you need to reroof or even move. You lock in your rate, which is good if grid rates go up and bad if grid rates go down or other solar becomes cheaper, but on the whole it’s a balanced offer.

In fact, it seems too good to be true. It’s way, way cheaper than any offering available today. Because it sounds so good, many people are saying “show me.” I want to see just how they are going to pull that off. Many in the existing solar industry are saying that much louder. They are worried that if CitizenRe fails to deliver, all their customers will have been diverted to a pipedream while they suffer financial ruin. Of course, they are also worried that if CitizenRe does deliver, they will be competed out of business, so they do have a conflict of interest.

Here are some of the things to make me skeptical.  read more »

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