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Thoughts on the New Energy Team

In case you are just venturing out of your cave for the first time in a week, you are probably aware that President-elect Obama has announced his new energy team:

Obama names energy team

The team includes Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, former EPA head Carol Browner to fill the newly-created job of Energy Czar, and Lisa Jackson to head the EPA. The focus of this essay will be on Dr. Chu, but I will comment briefly on the others.

Lisa Jackson is trained as a chemical engineer (as was the outgoing Secretary of Energy Samual Bodman). It should go without saying that I like to see technical people in roles like this, where understanding science and data are both critical. Carol Browner, while not trained as a technical person, has a lot of administrative experience within the EPA. Incidentally, I once met Mrs. Browner, as she was the person who presented my research group with the 1996 Green Chemistry Challenge Award at the National Academy of Sciences.

While I don’t know nearly as much about Browner and Jackson, Dr. Chu has a very long public record. I have been searching through his various publications, speeches, and presentations to get a really good view of the man. Here is what President-elect Obama had to say about Dr. Chu:

“His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science. We will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that facts demand bold action.”

If you asked me for a few characteristics that would top my list of desirables for the spot of Energy Secretary, I would want someone who is 1). Knowledgeable about a broad range of energy technologies; 2). Someone who is passionate about the subject; 3). Someone who isn’t highly partisan, and can work with diverse groups.

Dr. Chu’s record indicates to me that he easily fills these three criteria. Dr. Chu is currently director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Among his accomplishments there was to secure a $500 million partnership with BP to do alternative energy research. (See this story from Salon for more details.) This suggests someone who can work with industry on next generation energy technologies. I am not sure how quickly he feels we can transition away from oil, and therefore whether we need additional exploration and drilling. However, he has been outspoken over his opposition to coal, and his concerns about global warming. Some quotes on these topics from Dr. Chu. First, his position on coal is pretty clear:

“Coal is my worst nightmare.”

He favors nuclear energy over coal (it should come as no suprise that a physicist like Dr. Chu is pro-nuclear):

“The fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this.”

“Coal is very, very bad. Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio.”

Chu, who also is professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, said nuclear is the preferred choice to coal, pointing out that coal releases 50 percent more radioactivity than nuclear power plants.

His concerns over global warming have been well-publicized:

Consider this. There’s about a 50 percent chance, the climate experts tell us, that in this century we will go up in temperature by three degrees Centigrade. Now, three degrees Centigrade doesn’t seem a lot to you, that’s 11° F. Chicago changes by 30° F in half a day. But 5° C means that … it’s the difference between where we are today and where we were in the last ice age. What did that mean? Canada, the United States down to Ohio and Pennsylvania, was covered in ice year round.

So think about what 5° C will mean going the other way. A very different world. So if you’d want that for your kids and grandkids, we can continue what we’re doing. Climate change of that scale will cause enormous resource wars, over water, arable land, and massive population displacements. We’re not talking about ten thousand people. We’re not talking about ten million people, we’re talking about hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out, permanently.

He is no fan of corn ethanol:

We can indeed make fuel out of crops. Corn is not the right crop. The reason it’s not the right crop is because the amount of energy you put into making a fuel and growing the corn and fertilizing the corn fields and plowing the fields is within ten or 20 percent of the amount of energy you get by making it into the ethanol that you can put in your car.

Also, the amount of CO2 you create by growing corn is again within 20 percent of the amount of carbon dioxide you make by drilling and refining oil and putting into your car.

He favors higher gas taxes:

“Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” Source.

From that same article:

Lee Schipper, a project scientist with the Global Metropolitan Studies program at U.C. Berkeley, hailed Obama’s nomination of Chu as Energy Secretary and praised his colleague’s support for higher gasoline taxes.

Schipper thinks Obama’s concerns about not placing additional burdens on America’s families can be addressed by agreeing to rebate all — or close to all — of the money raised by higher fuel taxes. “The answer is: raise the price of gasoline and give all the money back,” said Schipper.

Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

He appreciates the need for greater energy efficiency (and like me, wants to be emperor of the world):

“I cannot impress upon you enough how important energy efficiency is.”

“Just refrigerator efficiency — bigger refrigerators by the way — saves more energy than all we’re generating from renewables [today], excluding hydroelectric power.”

“If I were emperor of the world, I would put the pedal to the floor on energy efficiency and conservation for the next decade.”

And finally recognizes that the U.S. can be a leader in new energy technologies, but are starting to fall behind in some areas.

“We have an option to be a leader in energy technologies, but we are not because our support system for that is on again off again. The future wealth of the United States will come from our ability to invent new technologies.”

“Americans take for granted that the United States leads the world in science. But we’ve lost many of these leads, especially when it comes to energy.”

“The U.S. is making it easier for other countries to catch up and pass us.”

So, let’s see. He has had a career devoted to energy, is clearly passionate about the subject, doesn’t favor making ethanol from corn, thinks we need higher gas taxes, favors nuclear power, favors alternative energy funding, is pro-science, and favors higher energy efficiency. That’s exactly how I would describe myself, so from my perspective he is a very good choice. I like his priorities. He has also been involved in research on cellulosic ethanol, and will likely send more research dollars flowing in that direction.

I think the issue that will generate some controversy is his very strong position on global warming. Not since Al Gore was Vice-President will there be such a staunch proponent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the highest levels of government. Global warming activists will love him. Skeptics probably won’t be quite so enthusiastic.

——————

Here are the quick bios of the rest of the energy/environment team, courtesy of Wired:

Lisa Jackson, EPA head

Quick bio: Trained as a chemical engineer at Princeton, she has spent her entire career with government environmental agencies. She worked her way up through the EPA from 1987-2002, then moved to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, eventually becoming its head in 2006. She was appointed as New Jersey Governor John Corzine’s chief-of-staff less than a month ago.

Carol Browner, energy czar

Quick bio: The longest-serving EPA administrator in the history of the agency, Browner is the non-scientist on the team. She came up through politics, working as Al Gore’s legislative director in the late 1980s, before heading the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. She was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993 to helm the EPA and left in 2001. Since then, she’s been a consultant with The Albright Group.

Her position: The new “energy czar” will coordinate (and politically shepherd) the President-elect’s various proposals around energy and the environment.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, coal, conservation, DOE, energy policy, gas tax, global warming, greenhouse gases, politics, Steven Chu | 40 Comments

Obama Was Right

I was traveling the past couple of days, or I would have been all over this story. As it stands, I certainly won’t be the first one to make this point.

You may know that Barack Obama recently suggested that if all Americans kept their tires properly inflated and their cars correctly maintained, this would save as much oil as we could get from new drilling. Here he is making these comments, courtesy of YouTube. Obama’s critics (and his political opponent) jumped all over this, and are having a field day with it, suggesting that this is Obama’s energy plan, that he said “that’s all we need to do”, or “this will make us energy independent.” That’s not what he said. Time has already weighed in with a definitive rebuttal:

The Bush Administration estimates that expanded offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 bbl. per day by 2030. We use about 20 million bbl. per day, so that would meet about 1% of our demand two decades from now. Meanwhile, efficiency experts say that keeping tires inflated can improve gas mileage 3%, and regular maintenance can add another 4%. Many drivers already follow their advice, but if everyone did, we could immediately reduce demand several percentage points. In other words: Obama is right.

I thought the issue had probably passed, but apparently not. I am presently in the Netherlands, and during my visits here I have a roommate who is very conservative. This morning, he was listening to Fox News, and I overheard Sean Hannity ask “How on earth is keeping your tires inflated going to reduce dependence on foreign oil?” As someone who has long advocated this as a way to reduce gasoline consumption, I had a hard time believing that Hannity had asked that question. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that under-inflated tires alone waste about 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline a year. To put that in perspective, that’s 28 million barrels of gasoline a year, worth over $3 billion that we won’t send out of the country for foreign oil purchases.

Of course I mentioned this to my roommate. I said “You know, Obama is correct about that.” My roommate then said that he has a device in his tires that enables his tire pressure to be monitored remotely. He said – completely tongue in cheek – that we should require this on all new vehicles and have someone in the government monitoring everyone’s tire pressure to make sure they were properly inflated. If not, fine them $25 for being unpatriotic and supporting foreign dictators with their unnecessary gasoline purchases.

Whether it’s a good idea to get government involved in monitoring our tire pressure is beside the point. The bottom line is that the suggestion that this would reduce our dependence on foreign oil is correct. While I have criticisms of some aspects of Obama’s energy plans (McCain’s as well; his gas-tax holiday is a joke) – and I believe he is definitely pandering on this windfall profits issue – his comments here are on the mark.

Further, I have a real problem with people who would ridicule someone for suggesting that we conserve. This sends the wrong message that this is not a serious issue. Our energy problems aren’t going to be completely solved by increasing supplies (drilling our way to independence) or by conservation. It’s going to require both. Let’s keep that in mind, and not suggest that conservation won’t have an important role to play.

August 6, 2008 Posted by | Barack Obama, conservation, oil consumption, oil imports | 53 Comments

Thoughts on a Thought Experiment

As I indicated in the original post – Coping with Gas at $100 a Gallon – here are some of the comments on my thought experiment on $100 gasoline. Comments were varied, ranging from things like “thought-provoking”, “great question”, “a good exercise”, and “interesting” – to “absurd”, “silly”, and finally my personal favorite (from the thread at The Oil Drum) “you have gone off the deep end.”

A number of people clearly didn’t understand the purpose of a thought experiment. For instance, it should have been clear that the $100 cost was not important. It could have been $20 or $1,000. The point is to look around you and see how much fat you could cut if you really had to – by imagining gasoline at an outrageously high price. I wanted to stick the cost out so far that you really have to make difficult choices – but I also wanted to provide a concrete number to think about. I find that people tend to give unreasonable answers if you just ask “What will you do if gasoline gets really expensive?” I get more realistic answers if I put a $ figure on the abstract idea of “really expensive.”

And even though I wrote “in reality the economy would have collapsed under those prices”, a number of people commented along the lines of “That’s unrealistic. The economy would have collapsed.” I can only imagine that these people have a very tough time when someone describes the gravity on Jupiter by using an illustration of how much you would weigh there (2.53 times as much if you are interested). I can hear them now: “That’s dumb. It’s a gas ball and the radiation would kill you anyway.” Yes indeed.

From those who did get the purpose – and even from some who didn’t – I got a lot of interesting comments. Following are excerpts of some:

Personally I could cope with $100/gallon gas (that’s A$27.50/L for Australian readers). I’ve telecommuted for a decade and visited the office so infrequently I’ve moved 800km away from the city office. I have solar hotwater and my daily energy usage is less than 10kWh/day. My late model Euro turbo-diesel does around 5L/100km, so it would cost $1500 to fill but that would drive me more than 1,000km. Most of the neccesities of life (supermarket, school, doctors, hospital etc) are less than 1km away so I can easily walk or bike it.

Problem is, would there be anything on the supermarket shelves? Would the hospital have any medicines or doctors?

Of course that last bit is the part over which we have limited control. We live in a very interdependent world. Rising prices will ripple out, with the impact unknown.

I understand what you are trying to do, but it is making my head spin. First, I live in the northeast and heat with oil. Domestic hot water from oil, too. We use about 600 gallons per year. Obviously we won’t at $100/ gal. Could we use 50 gallons per year, just heating the domestic hot water? That would only cost us a measley $5,000. Of course we wouldn’t have any water at all in the winter, because the pipes would be frozen. And no, burning wood won’t be an option.

This is where I think a lot of people are going to have issues. So what’s the solution for someone living in a cold climate for minimizing their fuel bills as prices climb?

Try not to look at the world through the eyes of the twentysomething. Imagine your your health being bad enough that walking a quarter-mile is a struggle. That using a cart to move your groceries doubles or triples your walking time. Consider being at risk to young criminals who steal your money, maybe even your food, and do you physical harm.

While I have the brain and body of a twenty-something ;-), my birth certificate says I recently became a forty-something. And I agree with your sentiments completely. High prices will be especially difficult as people age.

A comment like “living in an apartment expecting to survive with no real-world skills north of roughly 40° would be impossible” is probably valid. In my case, I learned how to garden, butcher, can and freeze fruits and vegetables, repair almost anything, carpenter, weld, masonry and farm. It’s my kids that would need some very quick education on basic self-sufficiency.

I am going through that education with my kids now. I don’t expect them to have to raise food to survive, but I want them to understand how it’s done.

I would be able to walk the two miles to work (as I do know, when the weather and time constraints permit), since I assume most people wouldn’t be driving anything beyond a scooter, so the road would be safe. No car. I picked my apartment because there is a metro station, and grocery stores within walking distance. Although a metro ride would likely cost $30+ a ride (electricity would cost??).

I’d imagine most of the outer suburbs near here would become small farms, I would bike there to buy a backpack worth of vegetables during growing season.

Even now, because of sky-rocketing food prices, I think gardens are going to start making a big resurgence. That’s going to be driven not by thoughts of survival, but about saving some money on groceries. That’s why we always had a huge garden when I was growing up. Personally, I am going to focus on items that produce a lot in a short period of time. My favorites to have in a garden are probably tomatoes, squash, and okra (although okra can take a lot of room).

Don’t forget about other things you use gasoline for. Right now I can pay a kid $25 to mow my lawn. At $100 for gas, $25 won’t even cover the gas for mowing. So, I would probably have to get a manual push mower. I am not even sure how well those things work, though, so maybe I would get a cow.

So far I am not getting any traction in my own family for my idea of parking a goat in the backyard. 🙂

Robert, if you are concerned about not replacing a new hot water heater, you can get a thermosyphon type or a batch type of water heater. These basically just preheat the water before it goes into your existing tank, so that tank does less work. While probably not as efficient as a pressurized glycerol type of system, they are much cheaper to buy and install. Maybe $2-3k installed before federal/state incentives; less if you do it yourself.

I have thought about that. I need to run the numbers. If I really think prices are going to continue at this pace for the next few years, it would pay out relatively quickly.

The truth is that much of what is being discussed here is the maintenence of a lifestyle, not survival. For example, people did live in TX before air conditioning, and while many may move because they can’t afford it, others will continue to do so.

As for the elderly – elderly people living in isolation from their families probably will suffer a great deal – but there are solutions to that problem – cohabitation with extended family or friends who operate that way.

I grew up in Oklahoma without air conditioning. As a kid, it’s bearable, and I have long suspected this is why I am not very sensitive to the heat even now. But I remember going to my grandparents’ houses, and seeing their misery in the summer. Again, as you say, the problems are worse for the elderly.

I live in a temperate climate in Belgium and commute to work by electric rail. I imagine that my job would continue at the oil company where I am working. No doubt we’d have some new projects implementing tighter security at gas stations or maybe shutting pumps due to lack of volume.

On weekends, I would continue travelling to local shops, theatres, restaurants and museums via electric light rail. I would ride my mountain bike much more often as the traffic on local streets would be reduced. The quietness of empty streets will be a nice side effect of oil shortages.

I believe Europe is in a much better position for handling price shocks. And I agree with your comment on the quietness of the streets. Even now in the Netherlands – on a holiday or Sunday morning – I can often go out and there is absolute silence on the roads. It would be nice if this was always the case.

We have already built a wind generator and use propane for cooking and hot water. We could go off the grid, since TV and internet would be the first two things to go anyway. We don’t need to heat our water since a black hose in the sun works very well; and we could cook over a fire if propane was unavailable.

I have been thinking lately about the practicality and expense of a wind generator. I don’t have a feel for whether it is a realistic option for me. But not the Internet! I can give up TV (I can’t even remember the last time I turned it on), but I think I would give up hot water before I would part with the Internet. Interesting side-note. When I was in India recently, even the slums all had satellite dishes on top. I was also told that most have a small refrigerator. My takeaway lesson from that is that people are going to fight to keep the TVs on.

If telecommuting were not encouraged at work, I would move within bicycling distance of the office.

I planted three apple trees last year, and some vegetables yesterday. The grocery store is within bicycling distance, and yes, I have tried it out shopping and biking those groceries home in my backpack. I would need to go to the grocery store every other day, but the exercise would be healthy.

I think the trend would be the reversal of the suburban expansion. It would take a long time to happen – and I don’t agree with Jim Kunstler’s vision of the suburbs being abandoned. But we are already seeing a rapid slowdown in the present rate of expansion at today’s fuel prices.

I would walk to work (about 4.5 miles). I already do this from time to time and it really isn’t too bad. Groceries and most stores are with in the same distance.

Like you, I think there is a ton of fat that can be cut from the system — hell, even if the work force started riding motorcycles/scooters (as many are), there would be immense savings.

I don’t think we appreciate how creative we can be with price as a driver. That’s one reason I was never in the Doomer camp: While I think we have a potentially difficult stretch, we will adjust our behaviors. The best thing that can happen is that prices continue to rise at a steady pace – in front of peak oil – so we can start making adjustments before they are forced upon us.

There were lots of other good comments, but this is starting to get pretty long (and I want to go see the Open Air Museum today). You can see the entire list of comments following the original essay, and you can find more than 300 additional comments in the same thread at The Oil Drum. Here’s hoping the thought experiment remains just that.

May 31, 2008 Posted by | conservation, fuel efficiency, gas prices | 13 Comments

Coping with Gas at $100 a Gallon

I am fond of thought experiments. I like to ask “What If?” This can help me frame a problem. For instance, if I wonder how much land it would take to generate enough electricity to supply the U.S., that’s a thought experiment. But it is one that may tell me whether the idea is daft from conception, or whether there is a nugget of hope embedded within.

Lately I have been thinking of another thought experiment. What would I, personally, do if gasoline was $100 a gallon? Now that may seem silly. Nobody thinks we are going to have to deal with gasoline at $100 a gallon. But that misses the point of the thought experiment. When I ask people at what point gas prices are going to have a major impact on their lifestyle, that seems to be a moving target. When gas was $2, they said $4. Now that gas is $4, many have realized they won’t make big changes at $10. A friend who drives a Suburban recently told me that he doesn’t care about gas prices; that he is going to keep driving at the same rate regardless.

So the point is to jump so far out there – $100/gal – that there is no question that 99% of us would have to make some serious changes. The thought experiment is mainly designed to flesh out how people might cope as gasoline becomes more expensive. This is already reality for some, as your $100/gal dilemma is someone else’s dilemma at $4/gal.

What I would like is to hear how you would cope with $100 a gallon gasoline. I will post some of the answers later in the week. Let’s presume that gasoline prices increase to $100 at a steady rate over the next 5 years. Because many of our energy sources are interchangeable, let’s assume that other fossil fuel sources (coal, gas, etc.) follow suit. Alternative (non-fossil fuel) energy sources, such as solar and nuclear, would also follow this trend, but not at the same rate since they are less dependent on fossil fuel inputs. So the idea is really, with respect to fossil fuels, “How low can you realistically go?” I don’t want to make any assumptions on what would be happening in the economy as a whole, because in reality the economy would have collapsed under those prices. So my assumption is that life goes on, albeit with very steep fossil fuel prices.

Here is how I think it would affect me. Looking at my own situation, I just bought a house 23.5 miles from my office. However, I did this with my eyes wide open. The fact is, I don’t spend much time in the office. Since I started with my new company on March 1st, I have spent just 4 days in the office. So, a long daily commute is not something I have to deal with. In fact, I have never actually made the commute, as the 4 days I spent in the office preceded the purchase of my house. (Presently I am on site at our factory in the Netherlands, and I ride a bike to work).

But, even when I do have to travel to the office, at $100 a gallon, that 47 mile round trip will add up. Even the most fuel efficient cars in the U.S. are going to cost me around $100 for the trip. If I have to make that trip twice a month – and so far I am averaging less than that – it’s going to cost me $2400 a year – and that’s presuming I have a car that can get 47 miles a gallon.

Clearly, something like an SUV is out of the question. This could cost me $400 every time I had to go to the office. So SUVs, even now in their death throes, will be transportation only for the truly rich. What I really want – unless the cost is prohibitive – is the most fuel efficient car I can find. Today, I think that’s a Toyota Prius, but I am really hoping that an electric car rides to the rescue. (I would definitely choose the public transportation option if available, but right now it isn’t available from my home location to my office).

Even then, $100 to drive in to the office is pretty steep. I want to find a way around that. I am going to lobby my employer for permission to telecommute. At those prices, he is going to get a lot of those requests. When I think about what I do during a typical day, almost everything could be done via telephone, teleconference, webconference, or webcam. And when I do have to go to work, I am going to search for a car pool. At those fuel prices, a lot of people are going to be willing to share rides. I would imagine that new, creative ways of organizing car pools will pop up.

I would completely stop using an auto for short trips, and likely buy a small motorcycle for quick trips within 5 miles. If time is not a factor, I will ride a bike for those short trips. We would have to do a much better job of planning out our groceries, as it won’t be economical to run to the store to pick up a few items. Entertainment options like Netflix will start to look a lot more attractive.

In my home, I would also need to make changes. My wife and I currently fight over the thermostat. When I am alone, I will set it as high as 85. [Edit for clarification: That’s the air conditioning, not the heat setting in the winter]. With the family at home, I will drop it to 78. The wife and kids like it at 75. With gas at $100 a gallon and electricity sharply higher, we are going to have to get used to being less comfortable. 82 degrees inside is a lot better than 105 degrees outside. But even so, I am probably facing $1,500 a month electric bills.

I am going to install (lots of) solar panels, because at these prices the payback period should be very short. Ditto for a solar hot water heater, which keeps beckoning to me, but remains just out of reach. (I have a brand new hot water heater in my new house, and I can’t justify replacing it already). Ground source heat pumps are going to look much more attractive. I will need to identify and track all sorts of transient electricity drains in the house by installing something like the Kill-O-Watt electricity usage monitors.

My business travel would not be sustainable at those rates. For the next 12 months, I am probably looking at 12 trips just to the Netherlands. If those trips are 20 times as expensive, I am going to have to get webcams for everyone on the team, and our “face to face” meetings will happen that way. To me, being on site right now is important, because I get to know people, and they get to know me. I can understand who does what. But after that, I can conduct business remotely. Ultra-expensive fossil fuel prices will force me to see just how effective I can be at doing that.

Other things would obviously be impacted, such as where we decide to vacation, or where I am going to invest any money I have left over. But I think that covers the major items. Have I overlooked anything major?

I am greatly interested in your thoughts.

May 25, 2008 Posted by | conservation, fuel efficiency, gas prices | 67 Comments

Coping with Gas at $100 a Gallon

I am fond of thought experiments. I like to ask “What If?” This can help me frame a problem. For instance, if I wonder how much land it would take to generate enough electricity to supply the U.S., that’s a thought experiment. But it is one that may tell me whether the idea is daft from conception, or whether there is a nugget of hope embedded within.

Lately I have been thinking of another thought experiment. What would I, personally, do if gasoline was $100 a gallon? Now that may seem silly. Nobody thinks we are going to have to deal with gasoline at $100 a gallon. But that misses the point of the thought experiment. When I ask people at what point gas prices are going to have a major impact on their lifestyle, that seems to be a moving target. When gas was $2, they said $4. Now that gas is $4, many have realized they won’t make big changes at $10. A friend who drives a Suburban recently told me that he doesn’t care about gas prices; that he is going to keep driving at the same rate regardless.

So the point is to jump so far out there – $100/gal – that there is no question that 99% of us would have to make some serious changes. The thought experiment is mainly designed to flesh out how people might cope as gasoline becomes more expensive. This is already reality for some, as your $100/gal dilemma is someone else’s dilemma at $4/gal.

What I would like is to hear how you would cope with $100 a gallon gasoline. I will post some of the answers later in the week. Let’s presume that gasoline prices increase to $100 at a steady rate over the next 5 years. Because many of our energy sources are interchangeable, let’s assume that other fossil fuel sources (coal, gas, etc.) follow suit. Alternative (non-fossil fuel) energy sources, such as solar and nuclear, would also follow this trend, but not at the same rate since they are less dependent on fossil fuel inputs. So the idea is really, with respect to fossil fuels, “How low can you realistically go?” I don’t want to make any assumptions on what would be happening in the economy as a whole, because in reality the economy would have collapsed under those prices. So my assumption is that life goes on, albeit with very steep fossil fuel prices.

Here is how I think it would affect me. Looking at my own situation, I just bought a house 23.5 miles from my office. However, I did this with my eyes wide open. The fact is, I don’t spend much time in the office. Since I started with my new company on March 1st, I have spent just 4 days in the office. So, a long daily commute is not something I have to deal with. In fact, I have never actually made the commute, as the 4 days I spent in the office preceded the purchase of my house. (Presently I am on site at our factory in the Netherlands, and I ride a bike to work).

But, even when I do have to travel to the office, at $100 a gallon, that 47 mile round trip will add up. Even the most fuel efficient cars in the U.S. are going to cost me around $100 for the trip. If I have to make that trip twice a month – and so far I am averaging less than that – it’s going to cost me $2400 a year – and that’s presuming I have a car that can get 47 miles a gallon.

Clearly, something like an SUV is out of the question. This could cost me $400 every time I had to go to the office. So SUVs, even now in their death throes, will be transportation only for the truly rich. What I really want – unless the cost is prohibitive – is the most fuel efficient car I can find. Today, I think that’s a Toyota Prius, but I am really hoping that an electric car rides to the rescue. (I would definitely choose the public transportation option if available, but right now it isn’t available from my home location to my office).

Even then, $100 to drive in to the office is pretty steep. I want to find a way around that. I am going to lobby my employer for permission to telecommute. At those prices, he is going to get a lot of those requests. When I think about what I do during a typical day, almost everything could be done via telephone, teleconference, webconference, or webcam. And when I do have to go to work, I am going to search for a car pool. At those fuel prices, a lot of people are going to be willing to share rides. I would imagine that new, creative ways of organizing car pools will pop up.

I would completely stop using an auto for short trips, and likely buy a small motorcycle for quick trips within 5 miles. If time is not a factor, I will ride a bike for those short trips. We would have to do a much better job of planning out our groceries, as it won’t be economical to run to the store to pick up a few items. Entertainment options like Netflix will start to look a lot more attractive.

In my home, I would also need to make changes. My wife and I currently fight over the thermostat. When I am alone, I will set it as high as 85. [Edit for clarification: That’s the air conditioning, not the heat setting in the winter]. With the family at home, I will drop it to 78. The wife and kids like it at 75. With gas at $100 a gallon and electricity sharply higher, we are going to have to get used to being less comfortable. 82 degrees inside is a lot better than 105 degrees outside. But even so, I am probably facing $1,500 a month electric bills.

I am going to install (lots of) solar panels, because at these prices the payback period should be very short. Ditto for a solar hot water heater, which keeps beckoning to me, but remains just out of reach. (I have a brand new hot water heater in my new house, and I can’t justify replacing it already). Ground source heat pumps are going to look much more attractive. I will need to identify and track all sorts of transient electricity drains in the house by installing something like the Kill-O-Watt electricity usage monitors.

My business travel would not be sustainable at those rates. For the next 12 months, I am probably looking at 12 trips just to the Netherlands. If those trips are 20 times as expensive, I am going to have to get webcams for everyone on the team, and our “face to face” meetings will happen that way. To me, being on site right now is important, because I get to know people, and they get to know me. I can understand who does what. But after that, I can conduct business remotely. Ultra-expensive fossil fuel prices will force me to see just how effective I can be at doing that.

Other things would obviously be impacted, such as where we decide to vacation, or where I am going to invest any money I have left over. But I think that covers the major items. Have I overlooked anything major?

I am greatly interested in your thoughts.

May 25, 2008 Posted by | conservation, fuel efficiency, gas prices | 67 Comments

Grading My 2007 Energy Resolutions

At the beginning of 2007, as I was preparing to move to Scotland, I made a number of resolutions:

My Energy Resolutions for 2007

I updated the story once in Walking the Talk.

Time to look back and see how I did.

1). I resolve to get the most fuel-efficient car I can find in Scotland.

While I could have found a more efficient car, I got a Nissan Micra which gets very good fuel efficiency. The cars that were more fuel efficient would not have fared well on my drive to work.

2). I resolve to search for a house that allows me to take public transport or my bike to work.

I consistently considered the public transport options as I looked for a house, but my work location made this difficult. I ended up getting a house not too far from work (4 miles) but there is no public transport available (unless I want to spend an hour and 2 bus changes getting to work). As far as being able to ride my bike to work, 4 miles would be a piece of cake most places. But on the winding, narrow country road I live on, it would have been a death wish. Most parts of Scotland are unfortunately not conducive to getting around by bike.

3). I resolve to place a very high priority on energy efficiency as I search for a new house.

Done. I rented a house with sky lights, a lot of natural lighting throughout, and a lot of southern exposure. During daylight hours, we never have to turn lights on in the house. Our gas and electric usage have both been very low since moving into our house.

4). I resolve to reduce the meat in my diet (it takes much more energy to produce meat than to produce vegetables).

Done. I have almost cut beef completely out of my diet (much to my father’s chagrin, since he raises cattle). I eat a fair amount of fish and chicken, but I probably eat three times as many vegetables as I did a year ago.

5). I resolve to support local farmers’ markets.

While I think there are some farmers’ markets in the downtown part of Aberdeen, I live in the country. So I never did encounter any farmers’ markets this year.

6). I resolve to continue instilling the importance of energy conservation into my family.

This has been a challenge. My daughter proclaims that she is an environmentalist, and then leaves lights, televisions, etc. on all the time and takes 20 minute showers. (She has been learning a lesson while we are on vacation in Oklahoma, because the hot water only lasts 10 minutes). I point out her energy usage, and ask her – tongue in cheek – why she hates the environment so much. It’s an uphill battle with kids (or adults, for that matter) who just can’t connect the dots of their energy usage to the big picture. But I persevere. I did get into composting this year, and I was able to get the kids involved in that. I think they understand the energy savings from doing this.

7). I resolve to get completely out of debt (easy, since my only debt is a mortgage).

Done. No debt at all.

8). I resolve to talk to at least 1 person a month about Peak Oil and/or the importance of living sustainably.

Done. High oil prices have made it very easy to talk with people about Peak Oil. This is especially true for someone working for an oil company, because oil and gas prices are one of the first things people ask me about. I have had Peak Oil conversations this year in the airport, on a bus, in Walmart, in a restaurant, at work (including one with a member of senior management), and sitting around the Christmas tree.

9). I resolve to preach conservation as something each one of us can do to stretch energy supplies and better prepare for Peak Oil.

Done. This resolution goes hand in hand with the previous resolution. Once people hear about Peak Oil, the first thing they ask is what can be done. I explain that the best thing you personally can do is to get out of debt and tailor your lifestyle toward using less energy. That way, if gas prices go to $5 or $10 a gallon, your budget will be less susceptible to these increases (acknowledging that it is impossible to completely inoculate yourself against escalating prices).

10). Not energy related, but I resolve to read at least 40 books in 2007. I read 48 in 2005 and 34 in 2006.

I fell way short on this one. Between my blog, The Oil Drum, starting a new job, an international relocation, and various other projects, something had to give. It was my reading time. I still managed to read 21, but that was far short of my goal. The five best books I read in 2007 were Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Sylvia Nassar’s A Beautiful Mind, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491.

Final grade? I give myself a B+. I would give myself an A if I had found a location that would allow me to bike to work. I know it’s only 4 miles, but I chose to live instead.

For 2008, big changes are in store. More on this during Q1 of 2008.

December 26, 2007 Posted by | book review, composting, conservation, oil prices, Peak Oil | 39 Comments

Grading My 2007 Energy Resolutions

At the beginning of 2007, as I was preparing to move to Scotland, I made a number of resolutions:

My Energy Resolutions for 2007

I updated the story once in Walking the Talk.

Time to look back and see how I did.

1). I resolve to get the most fuel-efficient car I can find in Scotland.

While I could have found a more efficient car, I got a Nissan Micra which gets very good fuel efficiency. The cars that were more fuel efficient would not have fared well on my drive to work.

2). I resolve to search for a house that allows me to take public transport or my bike to work.

I consistently considered the public transport options as I looked for a house, but my work location made this difficult. I ended up getting a house not too far from work (4 miles) but there is no public transport available (unless I want to spend an hour and 2 bus changes getting to work). As far as being able to ride my bike to work, 4 miles would be a piece of cake most places. But on the winding, narrow country road I live on, it would have been a death wish. Most parts of Scotland are unfortunately not conducive to getting around by bike.

3). I resolve to place a very high priority on energy efficiency as I search for a new house.

Done. I rented a house with sky lights, a lot of natural lighting throughout, and a lot of southern exposure. During daylight hours, we never have to turn lights on in the house. Our gas and electric usage have both been very low since moving into our house.

4). I resolve to reduce the meat in my diet (it takes much more energy to produce meat than to produce vegetables).

Done. I have almost cut beef completely out of my diet (much to my father’s chagrin, since he raises cattle). I eat a fair amount of fish and chicken, but I probably eat three times as many vegetables as I did a year ago.

5). I resolve to support local farmers’ markets.

While I think there are some farmers’ markets in the downtown part of Aberdeen, I live in the country. So I never did encounter any farmers’ markets this year.

6). I resolve to continue instilling the importance of energy conservation into my family.

This has been a challenge. My daughter proclaims that she is an environmentalist, and then leaves lights, televisions, etc. on all the time and takes 20 minute showers. (She has been learning a lesson while we are on vacation in Oklahoma, because the hot water only lasts 10 minutes). I point out her energy usage, and ask her – tongue in cheek – why she hates the environment so much. It’s an uphill battle with kids (or adults, for that matter) who just can’t connect the dots of their energy usage to the big picture. But I persevere. I did get into composting this year, and I was able to get the kids involved in that. I think they understand the energy savings from doing this.

7). I resolve to get completely out of debt (easy, since my only debt is a mortgage).

Done. No debt at all.

8). I resolve to talk to at least 1 person a month about Peak Oil and/or the importance of living sustainably.

Done. High oil prices have made it very easy to talk with people about Peak Oil. This is especially true for someone working for an oil company, because oil and gas prices are one of the first things people ask me about. I have had Peak Oil conversations this year in the airport, on a bus, in Walmart, in a restaurant, at work (including one with a member of senior management), and sitting around the Christmas tree.

9). I resolve to preach conservation as something each one of us can do to stretch energy supplies and better prepare for Peak Oil.

Done. This resolution goes hand in hand with the previous resolution. Once people hear about Peak Oil, the first thing they ask is what can be done. I explain that the best thing you personally can do is to get out of debt and tailor your lifestyle toward using less energy. That way, if gas prices go to $5 or $10 a gallon, your budget will be less susceptible to these increases (acknowledging that it is impossible to completely inoculate yourself against escalating prices).

10). Not energy related, but I resolve to read at least 40 books in 2007. I read 48 in 2005 and 34 in 2006.

I fell way short on this one. Between my blog, The Oil Drum, starting a new job, an international relocation, and various other projects, something had to give. It was my reading time. I still managed to read 21, but that was far short of my goal. The five best books I read in 2007 were Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Sylvia Nassar’s A Beautiful Mind, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491.

Final grade? I give myself a B+. I would give myself an A if I had found a location that would allow me to bike to work. I know it’s only 4 miles, but I chose to live instead.

For 2008, big changes are in store. More on this during Q1 of 2008.

December 26, 2007 Posted by | book review, composting, conservation, oil prices, Peak Oil | 39 Comments

Welcome Guardian Readers

Introduction

About a month ago, I was contacted by The Guardian, one of the major newspapers in the U.K. They were launching the Guardian Commercial Partners Network. While there is potentially some ad revenue involved, that wasn’t what interested me. I have never really tried to capture much ad revenue, even though I make a few dollars a month between the Google and Amazon ads. But the reason I started this blog was to make a contribution to energy and sustainability discussions. This is what The Guardian offered:

Exposure – we will promote your website from the Guardian Unlimited homepage, which attracts over 22 million page impressions a month, to send our readers your way.

The more viewers I can reach, the better. I want to influence the way people think about energy. I want to encourage government leaders to support more sustainable options, as our current situation is not remotely sustainable.

Yesterday evening, I noticed traffic coming from The Guardian, so it looks like the program has kicked off. Down on the bottom right of their front page is a rotating blogroll. Because there is no explanation at all for what the link actually is (it just says R-Squared), I thought I should take this opportunity to introduce the blog to readers coming in from the Guardian.

What I Want

You can see my mission statement over on the right sidebar. But I will elaborate. While I am by no means an extremist, I am gravely concerned that we are approaching an energy crisis. I think we are sleep-walking into this situation, because 1). Our political leaders are by and large monumentally ignorant about energy issues; 2). Ditto for the general public; 3). Because of this combination, we don’t adopt the policies that we really need. Therefore, I want to provide a small nudge in that direction.

What do I mean by sustainability? By that, I mean that I don’t want to see us depleting resources and harming the environment in such a way to put future generations at a severe disadvantage. I believe that this is exactly what our current policies are doing. And again, I believe that this is happening because people are misinformed on the potential consequences, and therefore unwilling to make major sacrifices.

Um, Don’t You Work for an Oil Company?

Yes, for the past 6 years I have worked for an oil company. And I think oil companies in general have done a poor job of communicating that we have a problem. For the most part, I think oil companies (but by no means only oil companies) have simply denied that there is a problem. This OP-ED by ExxonMobil is a prime example. I think oil companies have also been very slow to develop next-generation energy solutions. However, not only do the energy policies we have in place often fail to encourage oil companies to move forward, at times they have actually discouraged it.

I also recognize that even though oil companies are widely-hated, we have a society that is entirely dependent on oil. So, while the long-term goal is to move away from unsustainable options like oil, right now we need it during that transition. So, I am helping out with that need, while actively working to eliminate it. Some of the things that I am doing along that front are known, and some will be known within 6 months. One of the things that I have done extensively is to nudge various technologies along with technical input and advice. More on that will come to light in 2008.

My Writing

My writing tends to fall into several categories. The first – and the one the moves me the most – is to debunk misinformation. Sometimes this involves claims that the U.S. can be energy independent by following Brazil’s example. Sometimes I address the uber-optimism of various solutions to our problems. (I see this as very dangerous, as they lull everyone into complacency that everything will be OK. People are led to believe that we just need to give the entrepreneurs more time and money). Sometimes I write to defend the oil industry against various pieces of misinformation. I just feel like we are hated enough without having to put up with false claims, and nobody enjoys being hated.

Other times, I write about conservation, increasing the gas tax, or even things like composting. I have written quite a bit about Peak Oil, and I coined the phrase “Peak Lite” to explain what I think we are actually going to experience – and are currently experiencing. (I also coined the term “XTL”, which I see popping up on a regular basis, to generically categorize GTL, CTL, and BTL).

Yeah, But What Do You Drive?

I was asked this question last week. I was preaching the need to conserve, and someone asked “What kind of car do you drive?” Of course if the answer is a gas-guzzler, my message rings pretty hollow. I would be telling YOU to conserve, but unwilling to make that sacrifice myself. But I despise hypocrisy, so I try hard to walk the talk. This is an issue that I have with Al Gore. While he has served to raise public awareness on very important issues, he has also exposed himself as someone who doesn’t need to make those sacrifices himself. (Ironically, George Bush – who I am no fan of – is the one with an eco-friendly home). Oh, and I drive a Nissan Micra.

Summary

So, that’s my blog in a nutshell. Feel free to jump into the conversation. No level of technical knowledge or expertise is expected. After all, that’s what I am trying to do here: increase knowledge and encourage discussion on energy and sustainability issues. All viewpoints are welcome, and no posts are deleted unless 1). It is an ad; 2). It is a personal attack; 3). It attempts to identify my employer. I have an agreement with my employer with respect to my blog. They don’t have a problem with it, as long as I am not doing it from work and I am not overtly discussing who I work for. They don’t want an impression that they endorse my positions. (Some they would, some they wouldn’t). So, while it is not a secret who I work for, I will delete comments that specifically name my employer.

Oh, and thanks for stopping by.

November 23, 2007 Posted by | conservation, energy policy, Media coverage | 26 Comments

The Positive and Negative of High Oil Prices

Probably the most devastating personal impact if oil goes over $100 is that there won’t be a beer fund for people who stop by and see me in Aberdeen. Therefore, if you come see me you will have to pick up the tab. 🙂

But a MarketWatch story today highlighted that energy stocks were tracking oil prices, which is why I am hedged against rising oil prices:

Energy stocks rise along with oil prices

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Energy stocks moved up Monday along with the overall market after oil futures broke through $93 a barrel for the first time on jitters over a production cut in Mexico on bad weather. Oil futures rose $1 to $92.86 after breaking through $93 for the first time earlier in the day.

For me, that’s mixed news. On the positive side, higher oil prices mean that people will conserve more energy. That is first and foremost, the most important thing. Also, the value of my company stock increases; a good thing for me personally. On the negative side, high oil prices really endanger the economy with a recession. Furthermore, I will soon be relieved of $1,000 if the price rise doesn’t slow down. Of course, forced conservation also means hard times for some people. We must conserve, but there are certainly people suffering at these prices.

On the price issue, I continue to see many analysts reiterate what I have been saying. From the same story:

Natixis Bleichroeder Inc. on Monday said in a note to clients that oil prices above $90 a barrel may not be justified by supply data. “The oil price move to record territory has been accompanied by some geo-political issues, continued inventory draws and very aggressive buying by non-commercial speculators,” Natixis said. “That said, we are less than certain that the fourth-quarter oil market undersupply condition of roughly 1.1 million barrels a day justifies prices above $90 a barrel.”

I firmly believe that oil is overbought. The question is, will it correct before or after it relieves me of $1,000? That is going to depend largely on Wednesday. If the Fed cuts interest rates, and crude inventories drop again, I think we will see $100 oil within a week. I think there is a pretty good chance the Fed will cut rates (although I think that’s a mistake), but I don’t expect that inventories will be down again this week.

For me, the worst case scenario is that oil cracks $100, and then corrects back down to $70. That means it wipes out the beer fund, as well as my company stock value, and conservation efforts will slow.

October 29, 2007 Posted by | conservation, investing | 8 Comments

How to Kill the SUV and Save the World

The UK, which already only uses half the per capita energy of the U.S. (See Note 1), is taking aim at the SUV.

As British taxes target gas guzzlers, sales of greener cars double

London mayor Ken Livingstone intends next year to triple the daily toll on driving in the city for gas guzzlers – or “Chelsea tractors” as they are sniffily known – to $50 a day. He also plans to scrap a residents’ exemption, meaning that instead of paying about $350 annually, locals who drive cars over a certain engine size could be hit for $10,000.

“This new charge will try to affect the choices people make in terms of the cars they are buying,” says a spokesman for Mayor Livingstone.

Interesting concept. Penalize people for driving inefficient vehicles. I wonder if it might work?

Indeed, amid a number of current and planned measures targeting gas guzzlers across Britain, sales of environmentally friendlier cars are rising dramatically. Figures provided by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), an industry association, show that more than 9,500 were sold in the first six months of 2007 – more than for the whole of 2006.

When Carolyn de Pury bought a Mercedes ML320 for her growing family six years ago, it seemed an innocuous beast. Now, however, the growing fixation on climate change – not to mention punitive new taxes and charges on big polluters – are making her think again.

“Even my husband and I, who are full-blown capitalists, feel the pressure of it being an environmentally unfriendly beast,” she says. “Next time it would have to be a car that does everything we want it to, but [is also] environmentally friendly and fuel efficient, in the save-the-world spirit that we are all caught up in.”

The de Purys find themselves at the sharp end of a nascent “buy green” movement in British motoring. Manufacturers say they are struggling in some places to meet demand. Local dealers like Roger Hart say business is booming. At the north London dealership where he heads up Toyota Prius sales, interest in the low-emission hybrid is booming.

“We [sold] 360 cars in March, and 190 were Priuses,” says Mr. Hart. “Interest has grown enormously because of the congestion charge and now also because of things like Westminster not charging for residents parking.

It is my personal belief that it is only a matter of time before the U.S. comes to the realization that punitive measures are needed for curbing energy consumption. Presently, our continued focus is on shirking personal responsibility, and on supply-side solutions. But I don’t believe our (growing) demand-side problem is going to be met with cornucopian supply-side solutions.

Note

1. According to Table E.1c at the EIA (XLS download), total per capita energy consumption for 2004 in the U.S. was 342.7 million BTUs, versus 166.5 million BTUs in the UK. On the low end of the scale, Chad used 0.3 million BTUs per capita. The worldwide average is 70 million BTUs. While I tend to focus a lot on usage in the U.S. due to overall energy consumption, a number of countries had higher per capita consumption, including Canada, Norway, Singapore, Kuwait, Iceland, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

August 11, 2007 Posted by | conservation, fuel efficiency, gas tax, global warming | Comments Off on How to Kill the SUV and Save the World