You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Ethanol – No We Can’t!

Posted in Economics, Environment, Politics by Stacy McMahon on August 22, 2008

In keeping with yesterday’s post on corporate welfare, here’s another of the biggest steaming piles in US energy policy – corn-based ethanol. Like hydrogen, it has a negative rate of return, meaning that it costs more to produce it than you get back by burning it. Unlike hydrogen, corn ethanol has no hope of going positive through technological advancement – corn grows at a certain speed and yields a certain amount per acre, period. There is no benefit for gas mileage, emissions or anything else, and ethanol is a corrosive substance that damages any fuel system it’s introduced into. Your car may be designed to handle a certain amount of ethanol, but how about your lawn tractor? Your boat? The Truth About Cars has an interesting note today:

“Over the first part of 2008, not a single corn-based ethanol plant has started construction, and the biodiesel industry has had only a handful of construction starts.” And then Jay moves quickly on to non-corn ethanol sources. Does this mean U.S. farmers are, you know? Not if their legislators have anything to say about it. And by God, they do.

The entire ethanol industry is an outgrowth of farm subsidies and exists only because of those subsidies, and because the government forces ethanol to be blended into gasoline in certain cities. Let’s hope this boondoggle is actually starting to fall over.

IBM Opens Green Consulting Practice

Posted in Computers and Software, Economics, Environment, Going Green by Stacy McMahon on August 20, 2008

Information Week is reporting that IBM will market consulting services to help companies manage their resource consumption, with an eye to finding ways of both cutting costs and earning “green” PR cred. This is a lot of the same stuff we could all do in our houses, and a lot of it is low-hanging fruit once you make the effort to keep track of what you use and how you use it:

Typically, IBM will use third-party technology to monitor and meter energy and water use, according to Lubowe. The Carbon and Water Management Dashboard, which measures water use and carbon output, can be displayed on anything from an IBM dashboard like WebSphere Monitor or dashboards from IBM’s Cognos to a third-party dashboard, which IBM can interface with through SOA techniques. By using dashboards, companies can pinpoint particular problem areas and start deciding what can be done about them.

IBM will take that data and, along with the client, determine things like where the water is going and how it is used. Then the companies work on solutions: can the water be recycled? Can it be used as gray water for irrigation on campus? What are the 22 places where water is most used in the building and what can be done to cut that usage? At that stage, IBM will present a company with ROI analysis of the possibilities and implement the changes.

Unsurprisingly, this approach fits in pretty well with the similar type of infrastructure monitoring IBM (and others) provide for IT resources. What’s nice about it is that companies have fairly strong economic and image reasons to want to pursue these strategies, and it’s exactly the kind of specialized expertise that makes sense to outsource. And of course, for a large organization the potential savings would cover a nice fee for the consultant!

Don’t Have a Cow, Man…

Posted in Environment, Friends, Going Green, Silly/Funny by Stacy McMahon on August 20, 2008

I’m going to [try to] start a new category for easy and/or cost-effective and sensible ways to “go green” at home. Eventually, whenever I get it done, I’ll post about my rain-gutter irrigation system. For now, though, I can’t imagine a better way to start off than with miniature cows (link via Andrew Sullivan). They give a gallon of milk a day and mow the lawn for you! And unlike the goats Vicky‘s family once owned, they do all this without eating half the rest of the town, your fingernails, and head-butting holes in the walls.

Seriously though, I’m going to be carefully checking the HOA bylaws…


Posted in Books, Environment by Stacy McMahon on June 25, 2007

I read and sometimes respond to books here, and while I know writers have much better ways to spend their time than giving me remedial instruction on what their book was getting at, it’s nice if one does happen to find his/her way here once in awhile. Randall Fitzgerald did that the other day, commenting on my perhaps-a-bit-harsh remarks about his book The Hundred Year Lie: How Food and Medicine are Destroying Your Health. (emphasis mine)

As for your claim about the scientific veracity of my arguments and
data, there has been quite a bit of medical and scientific support
for my thesis emerging. In that regard I point you to the book’s website
at for some of those statements of support,
as well as to the Postscript in the newly released paperback version
of the book which details a long list of peer-reviewed science studies
supporting the contentions in my book

The second part is what I had been looking for when I originally read the book. Yes, I could have gone out and located that stuff myself, or looked at the companion website, but my time for such things is limited and it’s nice to be able to see footnotes or endnotes listing the sources for scientific claims, even those — like Fitzgerald’s claims concerning synthetic chemicals — that strike me as basically plausible on first reading. Anyway, thanks to Randall for taking an interest in responding to someone like me who read his book and had what I hope was constructive criticism, even if it was expressed in internet-standard sarcasm.

Dumbing Down…

Posted in Environment, Snark, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on April 26, 2007

I know that the book says news should be written for consumption by 7th-graders, but come on:

The market share for timber frame construction has more than doubled since 1999 and now stands at 20.5% of all new housing in 2006, although that still only represents around one in five new builds.

Really? 20% = 1 in 5? Wow, who knew? In fairness though, it’s possible the poor reporter just couldn’t help himself after taking down what must have been dozens of quotes like this from his interview subject:

“We expect timber frame housing to expand at about twice the rate of the average for the market, leading to further increases in market share in each of the years to 2009. …

“The recent huge surge in interest from the private housebuilders in low risk, cost effective ways of building zero carbon homes is also likely to enhance the timber frame industry’s prospects in coming years.”

So if the market expands, then the market will expand! Got it, though I’m not sure I get the connection between low carbon homes and woodframe construction. The wood frame by itself has nothing to do with insulating a house — it’s all the other stuff layered over it that does that. Really though, if we want to have the lowest home energy consumption we should all follow Bilbo Baggins’ lifestyle.

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit!” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Carbon Offsets?

Posted in Economics, Environment by Stacy McMahon on March 4, 2007

Donald Sensing argues that Al Gore’s now-infamous electricity hogging isn’t that big a deal, considering things like his secret service detail, running his business out of his home, the guest accommodations that a man in his position makes extensive use of, and so forth (link via Instapundit.) He’s probably right, as far as it goes, though it still makes it hard to take Gore seriously when he tells me to live …as I currently do, while he uses 20 times the electricity of the average American home. Anyway, the more interesting point is Sensing’s discussion of carbon offsets:

Okay, the carbon offset thing seems a shell-game scam to me, and even the vaunted Economist magazine seems to agree. Gerard Van Der Leun appropriately compared offsetting to the pre-Reformation practice of the Catholic Church of selling indulgences. It worked like this: you, a sinner, could pay money to the Church, which would draw from its (claimed) bank of religious virtue and apply it to you personally.

As I argued in the comments to that Economist post, if we assume that a carbon offset actually offsets carbon emissions as advertised, then it will in fact alter the supply-and-demand equation to where the person buying the offsets has incentive to consume less energy. But I was ignoring another aspect that I’m now starting to think is more important. How is the purchase of an offset related to the purchase of energy?

I was assuming that you buy one offset per unit of energy purchased, thus raising the price of a unit of energy to reflect the cost of disposing the emissions. That’s a market-based solution because it internalizes the externality of harmful emissions. The resulting total energy consumption reflects people’s willingness to pay for both producing and using energy, and cleaning up after it.

But as currently available, carbon offsets don’t seem to follow that model. In most cases, they are notionally related to the purchaser’s energy consumption, but are purchased separately and at a different time than the energy. So, you commit the ‘sin’ of consuming carbon-emitting energy, and then ‘cleanse your soul’ later by buying carbon offsets to (theoretically) make up for the emissions. That does indeed resemble the old papal indulgences, in that it gives the buyer only a hazy pricing signal on their energy consumption, while allowing them to feel that they’re on the side of righteousness in the climate change debate.

Yes, in theory the buyer knows when they’re paying at the pump that they’re also going to have to pay more later for offsets, but if you think about, say, people’s attitude toward tax refunds, it’s doubtful there’d be much connection in most minds. The more likely result is that, feeling yourself in a ‘state of grace’ with regard to carbon emissions, you’ll use the same or more energy instead of becoming more efficient.

So to be effective, carbon offsets have to be attached to each unit of energy purchased. That sounds like …a carbon tax. While I’m not a fan of taxes in general, if the voting public chooses to do try to marketize the emissions externality, that seems like the only workable way to do it. And again, none of this addresses the issue of whether emissions are actually being offset. Unless that’s happening, then no money should go to taxes or offsets.

Two Emission Credits for The Road

Posted in Economics, Environment, Four Wheels, Politics by Stacy McMahon on February 20, 2007

The WSJ has a column about California’s recent distribution of stickers to allow hybrid vehicles with single drivers to use HOV lanes during rush hour.

A report determined that California’s HOV lanes were operating only at two-thirds of their capacity and not easing congestion as much as they could; the idea was to stimulate demand for hybrids and thus reduce the emissions of greenhouse pollutants.

Their answer was to distribute enough permits to take up the excess capacity in the HOV lanes, reasoning that moving some traffic from the standard to the HOV lanes would reduce overall congestion. By issuing permits only to hybrid cars, the vehicles moving into the HOV lanes would produce less pollution. In the event, the stickers went out the door quickly, and congested areas saw a spike in purchases of hybrid cars.

The column goes on to suggest that, since the stickers remain with the car, not the owner, used hybrids with stickers will become more valuable than those without. That’s undoubtedly true, but it would make more sense to allow the stickers to be bought and sold freely (with the restriction that they can only be used on a hybrid vehicle) Pollution permit markets built on that exact model have worked very well in reducing industrial air pollution, and are starting to be used for water pollution. There is, at this point, no market incentive at all for individual people to reduce their vehicles’ emissions–and vehicle emissions are something like half of the total CO2 and NOX emissions in North America. Monetizing the use of road networks in congested areas would be an excellent step towards reducing those emissions in the most economically efficient way possible.

This is likely part of a set of initiatives being rolled out by California EPA chief Terry Tamminen. I’ve read about this guy before, and not to put too fine a point on it he’s a socialist treehugger and a crank who hates oil and anyone he sees as being anti-environment, but for all that he’s a talented politician and good at finding or inventing, and selling ways to improve environmental protection without doing unnecessary and politically unacceptable damage to the economy.

Organic Foods Not So Green Afterall

Posted in Economics, Environment, Politics by Stacy McMahon on February 19, 2007

A UK government report (link via Instapundit) says that “organic” food is not always better, and may be worse, in terms of pollution and “footprint” compared to conventional growing methods. That isn’t surprising, since the goal of scientific agriculture has always been to get higher yields per acre of land.

Ken Green, professor of environmental management at MBS, who co-wrote the report, said: “You cannot say that all organic food is better for the environment than all food grown conventionally. If you look carefully at the amount of energy required to produce these foods you get a complicated picture. In some cases, the carbon footprint for organics is larger.”

The study did not take into account factors such as the increased biodiversity created by organic farming or the improved landscape.

No, it didn’t take into account “the improved landscape”, and that’s as it should be. I don’t know when such completely subjective terms crept into scientific analysis, but you seem to hear a lot these days that something or other is statistically better or worse compared to something else, ‘but it looks nicer and that’s worth something!’. Yes, that’s worth something, but that’s for end users of the report to decide.

Anyway, examples of popular but land-hogging organic foods include:


* 122sq m of land is needed to produce a tonne of organic vine tomatoes. The figure for conventionally-grown loose tomatoes is 19sq m.

* Energy needed to grow organic tomatoes is 1.9 times that of conventional methods.

* Organic tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses in Britain generate one hundred times the amount of CO2 per kilogram produced by tomatoes in unheated greenhouses in southern Spain.


* Requires 80 per cent more land to produce per unit than conventional milk.

* Produces nearly 20 per cent more carbon dioxide and almost double the amount of other by-products that can lead to acidification of soil and pollution of water courses.


* Organic birds require 25 per cent more energy to rear and grow than conventional methods.

* The amount of CO2 generated per bird is 6.7kg for organic compared to 4.6kg for conventional battery or barn hens.

* Eutrophication, the potential for nutrient-rich by-products to pollute water courses, is measured at 86 for organic compared to 49 for conventional.

* The depletion of natural resources is measured at 99 for organic birds compared to 29 for battery or barn hens.

More on Green Buildings

Posted in Engineering, Environment, Home Improvement, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 14, 2007

Some of my friends and associates are probably a little bemused by my fascination with “green” buildings, green roofs, and sustainable development. Really though, it all makes perfect sense. Jim Bede once introduced his BD-10J personal supersonic jet with the tag line that he was “tired of 60 years of 130-mph airplanes”. Housing and building is, if this is even possible, even more stuck in the “because we’ve always done it this way” mentality than general aviation, and with even less economic justification.

And that is while the gains in efficiency and savings in utility bills from so-called green design are such low-hanging fruit that it’s silly not to avail yourself. I’ve already replaced most of my light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and I plan to install LED lighting. It’s hard to do more than that since I live in a condo, but if I had a house there are lots of things I could do–everything from a green roof (no more drainage problems in your yard) to placing windows and vents to take advantage of sunlight for heating. Whenever I do have a house, I will do all that stuff. Aside from the financial benefits (I’ve always believed in spending more upfront if it means lower recurring costs in the future) it’s just too appealing as an engineering project.

Anyway, I started this post as a way to link the Green Building Council as well as this Popular Mechanics list of top “green” technologies available today. Forget the hair-shirt version of environmentalism, I prefer this cool-toy version instead 🙂

Green Roofs Making Inroads

Posted in Environment, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 13, 2007

The Pennsylvania Farm News has an article detailing some green roof projects at Penn State. If you’ve never heard the term before, a “green roof” essentially means turning most or all of a building’s roof into a planter box. Once growth takes place, the roof acts as a catchment basin, filtering rainwater and releasing it in a controlled fashion, either to the ground or into the storm sewer system.

What makes the green roof “green” is the dense covering of plants and groundcover-like vegetation placed on top of the building, explains Berghage, associate professor of horticulture. “Typically a flat roof works best,” he says. “To have a green roof, a building must be designed to support the extra weight of the vegetation, 4 to 12 inches of planting medium, a roof membrane and a drainage layer.”

Those preparations were completed last fall on the 4,700-square-foot roof over part of the Forest Resources Building, and on the 4,500-square-foot roof over a root cellar near the greenhouses behind Tyson Building off Eisenhower Boulevard. Runoff from the green roof over the root cellar will be collected and piped to a basin where students in Berghage’s Eco-Roof Technology horticulture class can monitor the water quantity and quality, as well as plant growth and effectiveness of the green roof.

Alexandria’s nearly-complete new high school has an almost identical system, except that in its case the collected rainwater will be recycled into the building’s blackwater (toilet) plumbing. That means some of it will go into the city’s combined sewer system. CSSs are an obsolete type of sewer system where stormwater and sewage go down the same pipes. The problem is that during heavy rainfall, the system can exceed its capacity, causing a “bypass” condition where raw sewage is discharged into waterways.

Green roofs offer a number of benefits, explains Berghage. “Many older cities have sewage-treatment problems, and their sewage systems often overflow with stormwater,” he says. “Green roofs absorb and hold some of that water. Every drop of water that hits a roof must go somewhere, and usually that place is a stormwater basin. Not only do we lose valuable land by setting it aside for stormwater-retention basins, but they become an eyesore and a breeding ground for mosquitoes …”

Alexandria is slowly phasing out its CSS, but it could take literally centuries before the last pipes are separated. In the meantime, green roofs make it almost as if large buildings were actually parkland. Greeny-ness aside, that’s a very slick engineering solution, especially in a city as open space-poor as Alexandria.