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Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Taxed October 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, taxes, weird.
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One of my favorite parts of my temporary new job is the commute. It’s between 30 and 40 minutes each way, but all on public transportation. This not only gives me the moral authority to browbeat people about their energy consumption—I’m not part of the problem! I use public transportation! My carbon footprint is only 12 times that of an average Indian, not 14 times!—it also gives me time to read in relative peace and while I am more or less awake. In fact, I am somewhat surprised by the relatively small number of people that read on the Metro. On any given day, I would say that fewer than 20% of the people on the Metro are reading, and most of those are reading that free magazine you can get as you come into the station. What are the other 80% doing? 20% are texting. 20% are listening to iPods. 20% are staring blankly into space. 19% staring blankly into space, listening to their iPods, texting in one hand, and holding the Metro newspaper in the other. 1% are trying to extricate themselves from the Metro doors.

The first book I read entirely on the Metro was Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” I won’t rehash Friedman’s thesis—the best thing America can do for itself and the world is to go seriously Green—Friedman does that just fine. I did want to say three things about the book though. First, I love that the cover is sampled from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch. Look no further than GoED for proof that they had very good psychotropes even in the 15th century! With publishing margins as slim as they are these days—although perhaps not for bankable stars like Friedman—why pay for cover art? Sample a renaissance painting for free!

Second, one of the things that struck me about “World Is Flat”—HF&C’s predecessor—was Friedman’s own itinerary. Bangalore. Shanghai. Doha. Copenhagen. Sao Paolo. Back to Bangalore. The most frequent refrain in WiF is “I just kept on moving.” Readers of Philly Bluejay know how I feel about business air travel. Friedman may fly more than any person on the planet! This was bad in an absolute sense but not hypocritical in the context of the book—WiF is about globalization. But HF&C is about climate and the Energy Era and yet the itinerary is similar. London. Mumbai. Dalian. Multiple visits to every continent except for Antarctica. I hope Mr. Friedman purchased carbon offsets for all of those air miles! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fly to San Francisco. For business. Tom, I kid because I love. And because I am a hypocrite.

Third and finally, I want to elaborate on Friedman’s point about the necessity of a carbon tax. One of Friedman’s sub-points is that a clean energy revolution will never truly take off without a clear, loud, consistent and projectable price signal on carbon. The market will not move away from carbon—at least not efficiently and at scale—unless they know what staying with carbon will cost and unless that price is sufficiently high. Short of privatizing the atmosphere, the fastest way to create this signal is by government regulation. And here he advocates a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Friedman views cap-and-trade as a kind of “hidden ball” trick—a way for the government to limit emissions in a way that does not result in direct costs for consumers or a direct trail of money back to itself. In a perfect world, the government hands out emissions credits, electric utilities buy and sell them amongst themselves and customers don’t see increased rates, and when they do, they don’t see that money going to the government. Friedman claims that this kind of shenanigan hides the true urgency of the problem from people—people are not going to change their habits unless they see how their actions translate directly into costs. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But I think that a better and more accurate way to state this problem is that a cap-and-trade system isn’t an effective price signaling mechanism because it doesn’t behave like a traditional price!

A price is a constant. The price of the first unit of is the price of the millionth unit. With a price, cost is always proportional to consumption and you can safely map out the future. Not so with cap-and-trade. With cap-and-trade, the price of a unit purchased under the cap is far less—perhaps infinitely less—than that of a unit purchased over the cap. And whether a unit is over or under depends on overall demand, not on your demand. Which system do you reckon would be more conducive to economic growth? “Neither” is not an option!

Meanwhile, the real commodity here is not electricity—or even coal—it’s CO2. It’s easy enough to create a cap-and-trade system for coal or electricity. A CO2-emissions-from-coal exchange would consist of a relatively small number of individually large participants. A cap-and-trade makes some sense in this case. But oil companies do not operate like utilities and so the CO2-emissions-from-gasoline effectively consists of millions of small participants. Cap-and-trade is logistically much more difficult here! And remember, if cap-and-trade were a true pricing mechanism than it would be possible to trade gasoline emissions for electricity emissions. Anything short of a holistic economy-wide cap-and-trade will effectively create a market distortion, effectively subsidizing uncapped sources of emissions at the expense of capped ones. Market distortion—specifically, implicit subsidies for carbon emissions—is how we got ourselves in this mess to begin with!

Perhaps Tom and I can discuss these points en route to Sacramento. Or maybe at the checkout counter at the Whole Foods on River Road. Tom, Text me!

P.S. The cover art of HF&C contains several images from the Paradise and Earth panels of GoED, but none—as far as I can tell—from the Hell panel. Was this intentional? A better cover would have had a sample from “Paradise” on top and “Hell” on the bottom. No?

P.P.S. Another suitable cover for HF&C—although not renaissance and likely not royalty free either—would have been a pair of paintings by neo-Bosch Salvador Dali. Butterfly windmills on top and that-painting-with-a-giraffe-on-fire-which-I-swear-is-by-Dali-but-I-can’t-find-a-link-for-so-now-I-don’t-know on the bottom.

P.P.P.S. Wonder if the Taliban puts this on their recruiting posters.

P.P.P.P.S. If you drop something on an escalator, never shoot your hand down to try to catch it while it’s falling. I’m just saying.

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Trifecta September 24, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, football, politics.
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It’s been a good six months. If you took the fossil fuel disaster three team teaser. What? Vegas doesn’t give odds on such things? Are we sure? Each of the big three fossil fuels has experienced a major US calamity in the past six months. April 4th, an explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch coal mine in aptly named Montcoal—that’s coal mountain for the Franco-unwashed—West Virginia kills 25 miners. April 20th, an explosion on the Beyond Petroleum/TransOcean/Halliburton Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles southeast of the Mississippi delta in the Gulf of Mexico kills 11. September 9, a PG&E gas line in San Bruno, California ruptures starting a fire that kills six, including an acquaintance of an acquaintance and her eight year old daughter.

Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster I posted that there are two costs associated with fossil fuels. There is the slow and certain, low-margin-but-high-probability, frog-in-a-boiling-pot-of-water cost of CO2 emissions. This cost is much talked about. But there is also the awful but random, high-margin-but-low-probability, shock-and-awe cost of disasters. This cost is usually much talked about in the immediate aftermath of the disaster—”if it burns, it earns”—but soon forgotten as the “cost of doing business” or the “price of progress.” And it is rarely if ever mentioned in the fossil vs. renewable fuel as a major point for renewables. And why not? Because of the rare and random nature of the disasters themselves and because blame is always assigned to the companies rather than to the fuel. It’s not coal’s fault, Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and preferred to appeal fines than to bring its mines up to code! It’s not oil’s fault, Beyond Petroleum didn’t install the acoustic blowout prevention valve and Halliburton used sub-standard concrete to seal the well! It’s not natural gas’ fault, PG&E didn’t properly inspect the pipes! Well, that may all be true but the deeper truth is that no company, however earnest and by-the-book can avoid disaster indefinitely. Disasters happen. Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place. And to the degree that molecules can be at fault, coal, oil, and natural gas are themselves the problem. The thing that makes fossil fuels useful is that they burn. But this same property is also responsible for disasters—sometimes they burn prematurely and spectacularly. And yes that is the cost of doing business … with fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s time we take our business elsewhere.

The same dichotomy plays out on the grander scale of climate change. The kind of climate change that gets the bulk of the press is the high-probability-but-low-impact kind—and here I am using the adjective low in the relative sense, specifically relative to the climate change not talked about. There is a one hundred percent chance that global average temperature will increase by one degree Celsius by mid-century. A one hundred percent chance that floods, droughts, heatwaves, hurricanes, and wildfires will increase substantially in both frequency, duration, and intensity. A one hundred percent chance that ocean levels will rise by about 20 inches displacing 500 million people and robbing the world of 20% of its food producing river deltas. A one hundred percent chance that we will lose between 10 and 20% of all plant and animal species on earth. A one hundred percent chance that climate change mitigation will eat as much as 3% of world economic output. That’s the climate change most Americans know about and the kind that frankly probably doesn’t sound that bad to most Americans who don’t live in Florida and Louisiana—8% of Florida’s land area and 24% of Louisiana’s is within 20 inches of sea level. But there’s the climate change almost no one talks about, the low-probability-but-high-impact kind. There is a one percent chance that global average temperature rises by five degrees Celsius by midcentury. A one percent chance that we lose all the ice in Greenland and Western Antarctica and sea level rises by 43 feet, displacing two billion people and robbing us of 60% of all arable land. A one percent chance that we lose as many as 50% of all plant and animal species including … maybe … humans. I made up the one percent number. I don’t know what the probability of climate disaster is. No one does. The earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems have too many non-linear feedback loops. But the point is that this kind of climate change—climate disaster—is also part of the equation. The price of progress. The cost of doing business. And while there may be a way to rationalize the risk of the occasional mine explosion, oil spill, and gas main rupture, is there a way to rationalize this kind of risk?

P.S. The DC Metro vs. Philly Bluejay score is now 2-1 Metro. On vacation at my sister’s a few weeks ago and out of reading material, I borrowed her copy of David Sedaris’ “Naked.” I generally do not read fiction—one of my mottos is “real life is fiction enough”—but “Naked” is not really fiction. It’s autobiography. And it’s pretty funny. My favorite short was “A Plague of Tics” or any mention of David’s mother. I was about 20 pages from the end when I left “Naked” by the SmarTrip machine at Friendship Heights. When I returned that evening, it was gone. And so was my faith in mankind.

P.P.S. Speaking of DC Metro. Anyone else notice the geometrical theme of the stations? Federal Triangle. Judiciary Square. Pentagon. Dupont Circle. Ballston.

P.P.P.S. I wasn’t planning on running my streak of sports related items to whatever it is now—four straight posts? five?—but I feel that I have to comment about the situation currently going on with the Philadelphia Eagles. Six months ago, head coach Andy Reid jettisoned 11-year quarterback Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington, largely on the strength of two spot starts by backup Kevin Kolb. This despite repeated proclamations that Donovan would be the Eagles quarterback in 2010. The move was seen as a slap in the face to McNabb—who along with late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson “made” Reid—but not as knee-jerk, or self-serving. After all, Donnie 5 had ample opportunity to get the Eagles a Lombardi trophy. Now, two quarters into the Kevin Kolb era Reid has effectively jettisoned Kolb, largely on the strength of two spot appearances by backup Michael Vick. This despite repeated proclamations that Kolb would be the Eagles quarterback in 2010. This move is a slap in the face to both Kolb and a slap in the face to McNabb and knee-jerk and self-serving. Not to mention self-destructive. Will Kevin Kolb ever be a starter in the NFL? I hope so. He deserves a shot. Can he ever play for Andy Reid? I don’t think so. Would you ever play for someone who threw you under the Liebherr T282B? For that matter, will anyone play for Andy Reid having seen what he’s done to McNabb and Kolb in the span of six months? Andy, this better work or this year will probably be your last coaching in the NFL. Mike Kafka, get your helmet ready!

P.P.P.P.S. Kolb/Vick-gate happened late Tuesday night. Too late for TMQ to weigh in. Tune in next week.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Rumors are flying that Philly Bluejay icon and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may be stepping down after the elections to run for mayor of Chicago. Who will replace him? What about moi? I’m Israeli. I’m a ballbuster. I will cut off my finger if I have to!

Forty Five Minutes To Where? August 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, transportation, Uncategorized.
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It’s summertime. And Philly Bluejay is living it easy. And also has sporadic internet connection other than his iPhone. It’s hard to bang out multi-line email responses on an iPhone, much less 1,200 word blog posts! If only Philly Bluejay was a teenager during the dawn of texting, he would have developed the thumb dexterity necessary to conduct all of his online business on a 2.5″ by 4.5″ touch screen. Alas, club-thumbs relegate Philly Bluejay to the laptop set.

Anywhos, here is a SmartPlanet—not to be confused with SmarterPlanet®—blog post about vactrains. What is a vactrain? It’s a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that travels in an airless—or at least highly depressurized—tube. Because there is no friction with either the rails or the air, vactrains can presumably achieve very high speeds while using relatively little energy. China is currently developing a vactrain that will travel at 600+ mph. That is more than twice as fast as the fastest maglev train—the 268 mph Shanghai line, more than three times faster than the fastest conventional train, and even slightly faster than a jet! Second- and third- generation vactrains could break the sound barrier and reach speeds of 4,000 mph! NY to LA in 45 minutes!

Okay, so a train going 4,000 mph along a relatively straightshot 3,000 mile tube is probably not going to happen—not even with eminent domain—but even a train going 600 mph along a 300 mile tube would be a useful thing. Here is a CNN.com piece about high-speed rail projects in the US. The most interesting parts of the piece are the actual projects as well as the criticisms. The most prevalent criticism is that high speed train travel is less energy efficient than traveling in a small car and that it is not sufficiently faster to forfeit door-to-door convenience. This is a false argument. The competition for high speed trains is not cars—it’s regional jets. Regional jets are the least energy-efficient form of transportation. Jet travel in general is hard to make green because batteries cannot achieve anywhere near the energy density of kerosene-based jet fuel. But regional jets are worse than long-haul jets because they have larger vehicle-to-payload weight ratios and because they fly at lower altitudes where air resistance is higher. When Philly Bluejay and eighteen other people take the 6AM Embraer 170 to Boston—this happens!

Regional jets are ripe to get picked off by high speed trains. Train travel is as convenient as regional jet travel if not more so. There are no long security lines at train stations—although security at train stations should be increased. And most inter-city train stations are located in downtowns—at the hub of the local train system—whereas most airports are not. Philly Bluejay would much prefer to take the 6AM maglev-Acella or vac-Acella—actually, vac-Acella sounds too much like a disease—to Boston and get to the train station at 5:45 than the 6AM United-Express and get to the airport at 5:15.

Which gets us back to the US high-speed rail projects. Most of the projects—northeast corridor, California coast, Miami-Orlando—are sensible. There is a lot of regional jet travel along these routes. But some are pure pork. Is there significant regional air traffic between Cincinnati and Cleveland? Between Milwaukee and St. Paul? High speed track—especially maglev- and vac-tracks—is expensive. From a climate-change/renewable-energy perspective, it only makes sense if it can displace a significant amount of air travel.

P.S. Speaking of the 2.5″ by 4.5″ magic portal, Philly Bluejay recently discovered the rationale behind these magical dimensions! I’m sure you’ve heard of the classic Microsoft interview question: “why are manhole covers round?” The real answer of course is “Duh, because manholes are round and the cover needs to fit the hole!” but the answer Microsoft expects is “So that it can’t fall in.” Well, the reason the second smallest dimension of an iPhone is 2.5″ is so that it doesn’t fall through a sidewalk grating when someone bumps into you while you are trying to take a picture.

P.P.S. If you travel in computer science circles—and who among Philly Bluejay’s four readers doesn’t? except for my mother, hi mom—you know about the recent buzz surrounding the central question of the field—whether P=NP. About two weeks ago, Vinay Deolalikar—a mathematician working at HP—published a 100+ page proof of the widely believed but still not formally proven result that P≠NP. Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, there are 1,000,000 reasons—or maybe 1,166,666.66 now that Grigory Perelman refuses to collect after resolving the Poincare conjecture. After much prodding and pulling on the WordPress-sphere, it now appears that all has been for naught and that Mr. Deolalikar will not be collecting after all. Well, Philly Bluejay has recently proven a somewhat less known but no less important result—sources tell me that it was ranked 1,530 on the list of millenium challenge problems—specifically that YP≠MP. Follow closely. You≠me∴your problem≠my problem. QED. Now, where is my 1,166,666.66 USD?

P.P.P.S. Anyone know the HTML code for the QED “tombstone?”

P.P.P.P.S. A few weeks ago, Baghdad recorded an all time record high temperature of 126 Fahrenheit—it’s a dry heat. Then just this past week, the last US combat troop pulled out of Iraq. Coincidence? Perhaps the US/West strategy against Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran should revolve not around military action but rather around climate change! Humans can’t tolerate prolonged exposure to temperatures higher than 120 Fahrenheit. If we can raise the average summer high temperature in the region to that level—it’s currently about 108 Fahrenheit—I bet the locals would get a lot less feisty. Come on, we can do this!

P.P.P.P.P.S. Philly Bluejay also has a plan for long-haul trans- and inter-continental jet travel. With the shuttle program now retired, NASA needs to develop hybrid jets that fly both in the atmosphere using conventional forced-air jet propulsion and above it using stored oxygen. These hybrid jets would take off from commercial airfields, climb through the atmosphere like conventional jets, transition to shuttle mode, travel the bulk of their route in zero-drag conditions while discharging waste gas outside of the atmosphere, then reenter, transition back to conventional jet mode, then land again at a commercial field.

Shock and Awe June 25, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, politics, war.
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Not in Afghanistan—where Stanley McChrystal is out and David Petraeus is in. Hey, that’s what happens when you badmouth the boss in the open rather than on WikiLeaks. In Canberra, Australia—where prime minister Kevin Rudd is out and form deputy Julia Gillard is in. Rudd is only the first Australian PM to be ousted in his first term since 1930. Gillard is only the first female Australian PM. But the real shock is the reason for the switch and the way it went down.

By most accounts—and, forgive me, but I don’t follow Australian politics closely or even remotely—Rudd’s first two years in office have been successful or at the very least non-disastrous. Hey, Australia is one of the few modernized countries which hasn’t been bludgeoned by the global recession! But Rudd ran on an environmental platform—he promised to be a leader in Copenhagen and to implement aggressive carbon measures at home. And he did neither. Rudd couldn’t have prevented Copenhagen from melting down—pun intended. With only 20 million people, separated by oceans from any other country, and unable to support forests, Australia is simply not a global carbon player of any consequence. But he could have implemented his national environmental strategy, starting with an energy cap-and-trade program. However, after the legislation was defeated in the Senate by a Conservative coalition, Rudd decided to table it until 2013. Infuriated by this “cowardly” political maneuver, many of Rudd’s supporters switched allegiance to the Green party. Rather than facing a humiliating defeat in the next election, Rudd’s own party’s power-brokers forced him out.

Ladies and gentlemen—we are witness to a historic moment. A political head of state has been removed for failing to implement climate change measures. I hope every head of every state was watching.

P.S. If you get a chance to read the The Runaway General—the Rolling Stone piece that got McChrystal “resignated”—you should. Not only to get a picture of McChrystal, but also to get a multi-dimensional view of the War in Afghanistan. First, the man. He’s essentially Jack Bauer. Now that “24” is over, FOX should pilot a follow-on series called “48” starring Stan. Stan could pull it off too—he doesn’t eat, sleeps four hours a night, and runs seven miles a day. Stan’s problem is that he’s a field seargent in a major general’s uniform. He likes the dirty work too much and has too little respect for civilians and politicians—and he resents having to deal with the latter at the expense of the former. He’s not a conventional modern general like Schwartzkopf or Powell or Petraeus—who have field experience, but largely rose up through the ranks of American military colleges. McChrystal is a former ranger and climbed the ladder in the field. He’s a “soldier’s soldier,” not a “politician’s soldier.” He’s trying to carry out his originally stated mission as best as he can—he can’t see that it’s mission impossible. He should never have been in this position in the first place. He’s almost a tragic figure.

As for the war, oy! If you didn’t think it was unwinnable before reading this article, you will afterwards. By the way, did you know that this is now the longest war in US history? We can only hope it doesn’t end up being the longest war in Afghan history too.

P.P.S. One of the few “funny” things in the article? McChrystal’s inner circle calls itself Team America and throws around more F-bombs than Team America does—if that’s possible. This reminds me, one of the saddest days for television in the last 25 years was the day MTV canceled Super Adventure Team. Sigh. At least we’ll always have YouTube.

P.P.S. The equivalent of this in baseball would be a 30-inning game. With no pitching changes.

P.P.P.S. It’s that time. Bluejay Jr. wants to know—”how big is the hole that babies come out of?” What do I say—”It’s small but stretchy, like SillyBandz?”

Pull The Plug On … June 16, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, economy, environment, football, politics, sustainability.
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Did you catch POTUS BO’s Oval Office speech last night? I missed it live, but just saw it on YouTube. I didn’t realize that this was the first Oval Office speech POTUS BO has given—an analysis in the NY Times pointed this out. Strange given how long he’s already been in office and the potentially national course altering agenda items he’s already pushed through or is pushing right now—the Wall Street bailout, the economic stimulus, the troop surge in Afghanistan, the health insurance reform bill. Just shows what a political hot button this disaster has become.

I’m a fan of POTUS BO—he’s center-left on Mount Crushmore—and enjoy his speeches. This one was fine. I would have written a similar speech myself. I wouldn’t have delievered it with that gravitas and that charisma but the contents would have been the same. Mostly. Yes, “we will make BP pay for the damage they have caused.” And yes, we must “seize the moment” and “end our century-long addiction to fossil fuels.” But, do we really “need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of the region?” and do we really have to “make a commitment to the Gulf Coast?” I don’t mean to sound callous, but I hope not.

“The sadness and the anger the [people of the Gulf] feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. It’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.” Technically speaking this is not an anxiety. Anxiety is apprehension about an imagined or intangible threat. This is fear of a known future. 30 years hence, Prince William Sound has not recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill. When it’s all said and done, BP will make EV look like a ketchup stain. Current estimates are that the well is spilling 65,000 barrels a day. That’s just a touch higher than the 15,000 barrels a day that was the official estimate just two weeks ago! We’ve deployed 5,500,000 feet of boom to contain the oil. But the first major storm will spread the oil all over the place, boom or no boom. Shoreline cleanup will be nearly impossible. Cleanup workers essentially “power-washed” the rocky coastline of PWS. The Gulf coast is marshy—power-washing will do more harm than good. And the number of people who make their living off Gulf waters? It’s many times over the number of people that made their living in the sound.

I hate to use this particular figure of speech in this particular case, but it’s time to “pull the plug” on the Gulf coast. The region has been taking a beating for years. Even before the BP spill, the oil and gas industry had robbed it of its “beauty”, “bounty”, and ecological value. As things stand now climate-wise, category 5—or will that be 7—storms will come with enough frequency that even communities that are not perpetually underwater will not be able to recover from one storm before the next one hits. Sustaining a sizeable human population on the Gulf coast—something that will require massive investment, endless cycles of rebuilding, and may not even work—is simply not sound strategy from a resource standpoint. Compensation followed by relocation—they can take the Saints with them wherever they go—and withdrawal is better. Some have suggested that the BP spill is “Obama’s Katrina” or “Obama’s 9/11”. But maybe this crisis will and should become known by another moniker of a famous man-made disaster—maybe this is “Obama’s Chernobyl.” After all, Chernobyl not only turned the world away from nuclear power, it also turned the Soviet Union away from Chernobyl! If I were any more morbid and any less cheap, I would buy the domain name http://www.gulfcoastexclusionzone.gov. Alec Baldwin wants to let BP die. Perhaps we should consider letting the Gulf coast die—at least as the center of human activity we like to pretend it can still be. AIG was too big to fail. But the Gulf coast is smaller than AIG. Maybe it’s time to pull an Aron Ralston on the Gulf coast region—to amputate the already-dead flesh before the rest of us die from blood poisoning and dehydration.

P.S. Pulling the plug on the Gulf coast would have another side benefit—it would pull the plug on nutty first-generation-American Republican politicians. First, “Bobby” Jindal. Now, “Joseph” Cao. What is in the water in Baton Rouge? In case you hadn’t heard, Mr. Cao told BP America chief Lamar McKay to “commit hara-kiri” because “in ‘his’ culture, that’s how anyone who had so dishonored himself would ‘roll.'” By the way, if you have single-quotes inside double-quotes to end a sentence or a clause, does the period appear before both single-and double quotes or between them? Hmmm. Back to Mr. Cao. Evidently, this remark rendered many of his fellow Congressfolk speechless. I suppose that one third was stunned any politician should make such a comment in the first place. On the spectrum of George “makaka” Allen to Randy “baby killer” Neugebauer, to Helen “get the hell out of Palestine and go back to Germany” Thomas, it’s definitely between Neugebauer and Thomas. Another third was aghast that Mr. Cao—being a US Congressman and everything—would play the “Asian Culture” card. Does Mr. Cao suffer from Cultural Identity Disorder (CID)? The remaining third was probably dismayed that Mr. Cao —who is Vietnamese—would claim that Vietnam rolls by Samurai code. Perhaps, Mr. Cao suffers from not one but two cases of CID—dissociative CID (DCID) as it were. Mr. Cao, if I were you, I would put a golf-ball in my mouth and wait patiently for my congressional reprimand.

P.P.S. And for Mr. Boehner—who predictably reacted to POTUS BO’s call to non-inaction with “President Obama should not exploit this crisis to impose a job-killing national energy tax on struggling families and small businesses”—I have only this to say. In Bluejay culture, we would just hand you a knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my two nickels for new offshore drilling regulations—and yes, offshore drilling will continue despite the bad karma now attached to it. My proposal is simple. No deep water well can operate without a ready-to-go relief well. Any existing deep water well without a relief well must suspend extraction until a relief well is drilled. How ’bout them golf-balls?

P.P.P.P.S. How in the name of “Joseph” Cao did North Korea make it into the World Cup tournament? North Koreans have nothing to eat! I suppose “Dear Leader” KJI divides his country’s limited resources exclusively among: i) the nuclear program, ii) the national soccer team, iii) his Courvoisier stash.

Obama’s Katrina June 10, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, crime, drama, environment, politics.
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Several in the media—translation: mostly FOX “news”—have suggested that the BP oil spill is “Obama’s Katrina.” By this they mean that Obama’s milquetoast response to the disaster is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and is a similar indicator of weakness or an inability to lead. By the way, “Obama’s Katrina” is not to be confused with “Obama’s Vietnam” (the War in Afghanistan), “Obama’s Waterloo” (the Health care bill), “Obama’s Watergate” (the alleged White House job offered to Joe Sestak quid pro quo not opposing Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate Primary), “Obama’s New Deal” (ARRA), “Obama’s Hindenburg” (ARRA or Healthcare reform), “Obama’s Rasputin” (first Jeremiah Wright then alternatingly David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel), “Obama’s Ginger Rogers” (first Hilary Clinton then Chris Matthews), or “Obama’s Exxon Valdez” (strangely, Jeremiah Wright and notthe BP spill). It is, however, to be confused with “Obama’s 9/11.

What is the biggest difference between “Obama’s Katrina” and the rest of them? At least the rest of them fit. Kind of. Other than the fact that it is happening in the Gulf, how is the BP spill anything like Katrina? And how is Obama’s response now deficient in a way that Bush’s deficient response then? Different op-eds I have read and watched have accused POTUS BO of: i) not being harsh enough with BP, ii) giving BP too much time to try and fix the problem on its own, iii) not doing enough to help Gulf communities, iv) not being harsh enough with deepwater offshore drilling, v) being too harsh on deepwater offshore drilling, vi) abetting the disaster by not enforcing offshore drilling regulations strictly enough, vii) paying too little attention to the disaster, viii) paying too much attention to it, and ix) not taking sufficient advantage of the disaster to pound the message of alternative energy sources and to push through alternative energy legislation. At least we can all agree that he wasn’t actually on the rig during the explosion.

First, what could POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—have done to prevent this disaster? Yes, they could have regulated offshore drilling more stringently and enforced safety measures more vigilently. But was there an outcry for this prior to the spill? I don’t recall one. Meanwhile, experts for years had warned that NOLA’s levees would not withstand a direct hit by a category 5 hurricane, but those warnings were ignored because that confluence was perceived to be a “100 year event” and 100 year events—perhaps incorrectly interpreted as “events that will only happen 100 years from now”—are a low priority item in the federal budget. Yes, the drilling industry has an overly cozy relationship with its oversight agency—and you can bet this will change—but this wasn’t perceived to be a bigger problem than the relationship any other industry has with its oversight agency. Or with congress for that matter.

Second, what is POTUS BO—and by extension the US government—supposed to do to help plug the leak or mitigate damage to coastal communities? Should POTUS BO don a deep sea diving suit and push golf balls into the leak by hand? Should the US Army Corps of Engineers get involved? Should other companies be allowed to try their hand? Who knows! But seemingly—as incompetent as they may appear—the entity with the best shot of fixing this problem—not to mention the entity most motivated to fix the problem—is still BP! And as for mitigation? There isn’t enough plastic boom to contain the spill and protect all the areas it will affect. Plastic boom doesn’t work in rough seas anyways—just in time for hurricane season! And there is doubt about whether any remediation actions make sense before the flow of new oil is stopped or safely diverted to container ships. In the meantime, all we can do is hose down birds. As for the human inhabitants of coastal Gulf communities? Their lives are not in danger. They have not been rendered homeless. They are not without adequate drinking water or medical supplies. They have lost livelihood and real estate value and for that they should be compensated. By BP! But the US government is not failing these communities now the way the Bush administration and FEMA failed the residents of NOLA in 2005.

And finally, what is to be the economic, regulatory, and political aftermath of this disaster? This is still to be played out of course, but a few outcomes are obvious. BP will emerge significantly diminished, if it emerges at all. You will not see me write a post with the title “BP Doesn’t Deserve This” the way I defended Toyota back in February. The Toyota scandal mushroomed quickly but blew over almost as fast because evidence of criminal negligence or malfeasance on Toyota’s part was scant. Toyota stock is down 20% off its one-year high but Toyota posted record earnings last quarter. I even got new floormats! Meanwhile, evidence that BP is guilty of criminal negligence is accumulating quickly. BP stock has lost over 60% of its value, shareholders have filed suit against the company, and Tony Hayward is holding on to his job simply because no one is willing to take his place—would you take over this mess? would you like to appear before congress to explain how this happened? BP can only hope that its payouts are not proportional to the amount of oil leaked. But things could be worse. If BP were an American company, it would probably ask for—and get—a Federal bailout! Offshore drilling safety should improve significantly. And this should happen with no revamping of the MMS. Eliminating the ridiculous 75,000,000 dollar Federal cap on liability—which may as well be a 75 cent cap for all practical purposes—will do the trick. The real question is will offshore drilling be scaled down in favor of more expensive but less EXPENSIVE energy sources. Moratorium or no moratorium, in the short term the answer is no. His outrage or lack thereof aside, POTUS BO will not pee on the embers of the economy by throwing an oil shortage on top of the current jobs crisis. But in the slightly longer term, one can only hope that this disaster is the final straw that turns the US away from oil and towards clean sustainable energy. That is the only possible silver lining in this brown plume. And it’s the only way in which Obama can detach the monikers of “Katrina” and “9/11” from it and replace them with one of his own choosing.

P.S. My favorite response to the BP oil spill so far has to be Rand Paul’s “accidents happen.” Is this guy really going to be a Senator? I might have to start DVR’ing CSPAN!

P.P.S. First, Al and Tipper call it quits. Now, Karenna and Andrew are on the rocks. At least Rush Limbaugh’s marital life is going well.

P.P.P.S. You know, Joran, you have to kill three people in order to officially be considered a serial killer. Looks like you’re only going to make it as far as “sick freak.”

The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat? May 5, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, environment.
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The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was and will continue to be a disaster. There are no two ways about it. 11 oil workers died. Cleaning up will cost between two and eight billion dollars. Much of the damage that has already done and will continue to be done—stopping the leak will require drilling sideways into the existing well to divert the flow and this will take at least a month—will not be reversed for many years. If ever. Gulf coast communities, human and otherwise, will suffer physically. The Human ones will suffer financially too. BP will bear the bulk of the direct cleanup cost. Fine. It remains to be seen how much of the indirect cost falls on BP. The cynic/realist in me thinks little. Gulf coast residents will bear most. The taxpayers will cover the difference. Don’t worry, it won’t be much compared to the 182,000,000,000 we gave AIG.

As important as the immediate physical and financial effects of the spill, perhaps the more important effects are the political ones, specifically those on future energy policy. Already, several states have placed moratoriums on offshore drilling. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s for the good. However, the other side of that coin is that expanded offshore drilling was presumably to be a (the?) major concession to the right in what I only hope will be an aggressive climate and energy bill. Without offshore drilling to allay their fears about “increased consumer energy costs” (translation: jobs for their states), what new, potentially worse, concession will be required to bring conservative Senators from coastal states aboard?

Here’s what should bring them aboard. The BP oil spill was an accident. But it’s the kind of accident that will probably start happening with greater frequency. Drilling for oil is expensive and there is already talk that BP was taking some shortcuts with its equipment, most infamously by failing to include an acoustic shutoff valve. Is BP the only company taking these shortcuts? On NPR’s Radio Times yesterday, Lisa Margonelli said that the Niger delta—where drilling regulations are more lax—experiences the equivalent of the BP accident every year! The BP accident took place at a well that was gently described as “technically challenging”—the oil is more than three miles below the ocean floor which itself is a mile below the ocean surface and ther rig. Are future drilling sites likely to be more or less technically challenging? Logic dictates that companies explore less challenging locations first and so future drilling is likely to be as challenging if not more so. And finally, are ocean conditions going to be generally less violent and more conducive to drilling or vice versa? Ironically, in part because of drilling, conditions are likely to get worse.

One argument that is strangely dormant in the fossil vs. renewable fuel debate is the increasing risk of disaster associated with extracting fossil fuel. Perhaps this isn’t talked about because the risk is still very low—despite the fact that we have had a both a deadly mine explosion and a deadly oil rig explosion in less than a month, mine and rig explosions are still the exception—and risks that low are seen as “the cost of doing business.” But the costs of fossil fuel disasters, especially oil disasters, are incredibly high. And a low, but non-zero, risk of a disaster with an incredibly high cost is not only a non-negligible average cost, it’s essentially a guarantee that eventually we will experience this disaster and its cost. Yes, wind is expensive and made more so by its own unpredictable nature. But as the BP incident shows, oil can get unpredictable and expensive too. Is any wind farm going to be eight billion dollars expensive? Is any wind farm going to be 11 lives expensive? And yes offshore wind farms kill birds and “ruin” beach vistas, but will any wind farm kill as many birds and ruin as many beach vistas as this accident?

If anything, to me, a spill like this underscores the fact that we need to switch to renewables as quickly as possible. Not only to avoid the chronic and inexorable disaster that is climate change but also to avoid the accidental and acute disasters that are BP. If we don’t, it’s going to be lather, rinse, repeat. Literally.

P.S. God love her, Mrs. Bluejay buys me many books. Almost as many as I buy myself. If you ever feel compelled or obligated to buy me a gift, a good non-fiction book is a safe bet. I am especially partial to social commentary and scientific thought. If you are not sure which social commentary or scientific thought book to get me, just get me an Amazon gift certificate. Or a Kindle. Anyways, one of the best books the Mrs. has gotten me is “What Should I Do With My Life?” by Po Bronson. If you’ve ever asked yourself this question—and let he who has the free hand cast the first stone—you will find this book quite … emotionally liberating.

P.P.S. I know that “let he who has the free hand cast the first stone” is not the appropriate adage there. But I like it and I try to use it wherever it even remotely fits.

Electric Net Neutrality? May 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, economy, taxes.
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The recent developments in the net neutrality battle (see Comcast vs. FCC) and my general interest in clean energy and energy efficiency have led the following idea to kick around in my head for the last few months—does it make sense from both physical and end-goal standpoints to try and enforce some analog of net neutrality on the electric grid? Is it feasible to decouple maintenance and governance of the electric grid itself from electricity production at its edges, thereby opening up electricity production to consumer-facing competition? It appears to me that if this were the setup, then such competition—combined with a price on CO2 emissions—would be the most effective driver of a whole-scale move to clean energy production. Wind or solar clean-energy mini-utility startups would spring up by the thousands and coal-fired power-plants—CCS-enhanced or otherwise—would not survive the twenty-teens. Imagine that you were free to buy your electricity from any provider. Would you buy it from a company that had to pass its CO2 emissions costs to you?

Before I go on—and if you are a Bluejay regular, you know I’m going on—is a neutral grid with consumer-facing competition strictly necessary? Wouldn’t a plain carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system move electricity generation towards clean-energy? Not necessarily. A carbon tax without competition will likely not push a shift towards clean generation, or at least not quickly. Without competition—and many markets aren’t competitive—providers will just pass the tax onto consumers. Consumers in turn may choose to consume less electricity—or to purchase solar panels and water heaters—and the provider may generate less electricity produce less CO2 as a result. And this would be good too. But if the provider were guaranteed some level of consumption, there wouldn’t be much impetus for change. In the absence of competition, cap-and-trade may be similarly ineffective because an unchallenged provider would just pass the cost of CO2 allowances to consumers. Cap-and-trade does have the benefit of a CO2 cap, but providers may choose to meet that cap by producing less electricity rather than by producing additional electricity cleanly if the additional electricity could not be sold at a profit. In a competitive market, providers that did not pay a tax or allowance fees would have a cost advantage they could pass onto consumers. Competition is key. How do we make it pervasive?

For the internet, neutrality means that carriers must treat all traffic equally. Where the rubber meets the road—and where Comcast meets the FCC—they must give equal priority and resource to traffic they don’t profit from as they do to traffic they do profit from. This is the condition in which the internet grew and one of the facilitators of the massive innovation by content and application providers. ISPs charge a monthly fee for access. Content providers duke it out for the rest—sales, payed content, ad dollars, whatever. The problem starts when companies go vertical and provide both access and content, like Comcast. More accurately in the case of Comcast, the problem is when an already vertical access/content company gets into the internet business. Surprisingly, the Federal appeals court recently ruled against net neutrality—actually, it ruled against the FCC’s power to enforce net neutrality—but eventually, net neutrality should and will be placed on a legal footing. And Comcast will either toe the line or have its business broken up into Comcast access and Comcast content. In the electricity business, every company is Comcast. There are no separate electricity content and access providers. Providers provide both content (electrons) and access to it (wires). All companies have a vested interest in selling you their own electricity rather than someone else’s. The electric grid is not neutral because it did not grow up that way. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be regulated into neutrality.

To be sure, electricity is not internet data. Internet data is digital, can be transmitted without loss, and along a variety of media—telephone lines, coaxial cable, optical fiber, airwaves—all of which support wavelength division multiplexing. Electricity requires moving electrons along electrical media, which as far as I know does not support WDM and experiences loss over distance. But this doesn’t matter for neutrality. What matters is that, like the internet, electricity providers and their proprietary grids are interconneted and can pass payload to one another. An electricity provider should not be forced to sell you someone else’s electricity—that may be either impossible or inefficient—but they can be forced to sell you their own electricity at someone else’s price!

Here is the proposed setup. The electricity business gets broken into two pieces— a monthly connection or access fee, and content or usage charges. The access fee is collected by the local provider. The usage charge is collected by whichever provider you sign up with, with your local provider possibly tacking on a small “processing” fee, e.g., $0.0025/kWh. The electricity you get is produced by your local provider, but your contract is with the producer of your choice. The producers simply fulfill each other’s orders as necessary in an electric form of Nader-trading. Of course, producers cannot sell more electricity than they can actually produce. And so initially, not everyone would be able to sign up for green CO2 tax/allowance fee-free electrons. But any and all such electricity that comes online anywhere will be bought immediately—much like it currently is in China by state mandate—and there is nothing like perfectly elastic demand to encourage supply.

What say you, people?

P.S. Temperatures last week in Philadelphia: 60, 40, 50, 70, 90. I don’t think we’ve ever wanted to have the heat on and the A/C on in the same week. Climate change? What climate change?

P.P.P.S. For the past few weeks, I have been working on a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Breugel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel.” I have the sky and ocean part done or about 30% of it. I realized something yesterday that I suppose I should have realized a long time ago—the cuts in jigsaw puzzles are periodic! Entire sections can be exchanged for one another or even checkerboarded. I realized this when I noticed that a 4-piece section of the sky on the right side of the puzzle was slightly off-color relative to its surroundings as was a similarly shaped 4-piece section on the left side. Who knew?

In Conclusion… April 4, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in China, clean energy, environment.
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… either we help China build more wind farms faster, or we get environmental disaster trifectas! Thanks, I’ll take questions now. You, in the back.

P.S. Reader #0, is this what you meant by short?