Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ending ethanol subsidies, still working on the technology

Congress' alleged aversion to subsidies hasn't had much useful results that I can tell, but there is one exception:  the end to three decades of ethanol subsidies, and the massive tariff on imported ethanol.  The environmental impact is less clear because the requirement to oxygenate gas remains, so the ethanol will still get produced - it's just that the oil industry won't be getting a $6 billion annual undeserved tax writeoff.  Still, a good step.

Another longer term possibility is using scientific research to change corn yield to emphasize ethanol production, something that can change a borderline wasteful product into something useful.  We'll see, maybe it'll work.

In other news, the guys at the Breakthrough Institute apparently have a new book arguing the groundbreaking concept that science and technology can be used to solve our environmental problems.  I'm underwhelmed.  I'd be more whelmed though if instead of saying new tech solutions must include nuclear, they said that it could include nuclear, and let the performance of various solutions play themselves out.

To be fair, I haven't read it so maybe there's something interesting there.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

And Matt Yglesias followed it with a post on economic bubbles

I have trouble understanding how a smart guy like Yglesias manages to keep going further down this path, but when I've said that he prefers society to always have more younger people than older people, I meant it as a somewhat joking criticism.

The joke's on me, because he's pretty literal about it now as a path for growth:

 [If immigration and lax land use regulation prime a state for population growth] then you don't need any particularly optimistic beliefs to see that the state is primed for certain kinds of investment. We're going to need new houses for these new people in the short-run, and we'll need new schools & hospitals, new car dealerships, and new highways for them in the medium run. So we're investing. And with that investment happening we need new Whataburger franchises and new H-E-Bs and probably new power plants as well. And now suddenly we're on the high equilibrium. We need more accountants and more wedding planners, we're going to need some fancy restaurants, we'll need hotels, we'll need more of everything. And since we'll need more of everything and the price of new homes will remain moderate, we'll expect the population to keep growing as people from around the country tend to move here in search of work.

As for how long that all is supposed to last, he's silent.  Ironic that the very next (not so good) post was about economic bubbles, so he acknowledges issues of unsustainability, while missing his own huge blind spot.

And yes, population growth can help economic growth, but it's unsustainable in any number of senses of the word.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Been there, didn't do that, but it was still pretty cool

We went there in 2010 and did a little bit of volunteer work with a group focusing on mountain gorilla preservation. We did the one-day hike through Bwindi thing and had what we considered an amazing encounter with a gorilla group, but not like this. I'm just impressed at the relatively calm dominance of the silverback in this video. The silverback we saw was far less tolerant, partway bluff-charging our guides when they walked in a direction that he wanted to go (they bluff-waved their machetes around in response, and everybody settled down).  You're not allowed to approach the baby gorillas but they can approach you.  We had one that came within ten feet of us, and that was pretty amazing to us.

The silverback in this video is calm but not completely, like at minute 2:50 when he pulls an infant away that was intensely scrutinizing the tourist's face.  One interesting speculation is that the silverback may have thought that staring into the man's face would be somewhat threatening, as it would've been to the silverback, but it would be hard to reason all the way through that without using a theory of mind.  And the silverback's quick glance at the man as he left was interesting - somewhat cautious, a bit threatening, and I suspect maybe just as curious as the females and juveniles but constrained by social norms from showing it as openly.  Or maybe I'm just anthropomorphizing, but it all seems plausible.

Only 700 of these guys in the wild, split into two geographically-separated groups.  As we see from the population structure of one male and a number of females, the effective breeding population is far smaller.  These gorillas haven't been bred in captivity.

Here's hoping this video helps raise awareness and maybe some money to keep the species alive.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solar power externality and LCOE

I was talking to a very knowledgeable friend about whether solar power will become cheaper than coal in the next decade, and he pointed out a problem in how solar advocates price their power.  It's well known that you can't just estimate a solar panel's value based on its peak production capability, because much of the time that panel is producing less power or none at all, doing nothing to amortize costs.

Solar advocates admit this, and use Levelized Cost of Energy calculations to divide energy actually produced by all costs involved, over time and with a discount rate. While solar's over twice as expensive as coal now, the advocates project the cost differential to continue to diminish at the rate it has in the past, and to disappear in a decade.

So my friend's problem is this doesn't distinguish peaking power costs.  He's not using the denialist line that baseload power can't include solar at all, but that you still require additional power when solar can't provide it.   That additional power is expensive, and this cost externality isn't included in LCOE calculations.

Mulling this over, I think there's an economic and a political angle to take on it.  The economic angle is that if we want to consider externalities, then let's by all means consider all externalities - coal isn't going to do so well on that basis.

The political angle isn't whether we should consider externalities, but whether we will consider the externalities and which ones.  Greenhouse gas externalities will not be fully priced in for decades, especially for costs imposed on areas outside of the country where the gases are produced (why should we care about those effects?), but they will start to weigh in, a bit, on costs.  The brand new mercury rule shows some of the other externalities of fossil fuels will start getting price tags as well.  Overall, I think the political process will catch up more quickly on fossil fuel externalities, if still very inadequately, than on on LCOE pricing.

One other point my friend made that was a good one - discount rates for future costs mean few companies care about costs more than a decade ahead.  I thought new coal plant starts would be potentially affected by solar price competition, but maybe that price competition is still too far away.

UPDATE:  comments point to a good post at Romm's that discusses the various terms and state of play for solar in the US.  Ignoring environmental issues for a second to focus on economics, I think LCOE is fine for any buyer to use to determine whether solar prices out well, but the overall system has to consider other price issues as well.  The grid parity at the link works when you're buying electricity at the high retail rates, but it will take a lot longer if you're a utility that can buy wholesale.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

NIH recognizes chimps can waive rights

The decision by the National Institute of Health to nearly completely eliminate invasive medical experimentation on chimps has received a medium amount of attention.  Good news, overall, except the advisory committee had no consensus on testing vaccines on chimps.  The testing could accelerate vaccine development but requires infecting chimps with potentially horrible diseases.  The lack of a consensus doesn't mean testing should go forward, but leaves a vacuum.

One intriguing development is that research can continue where chimps voluntarily subject themselves to it.  The chimps are trained to receive treats in return for allowing researchers to take blood samples, and it's up to the chimp to decide whether the research will proceed.  I suppose it's not impossible to do something similar with less intelligent animals, but it would be extremely difficult and not considered ethically important.

The other interesting development was the emphasis on testing on other animals instead of chimps - in other words, there's a moral scale and other animals rank below chimps.  These two developments inch toward the sapientist position I support - not animal rights, but rights based on intelligence.  A long way forward before we get there, though.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Glenn Greenwald is primarily responsible for the failure of progressive legislation since 2008.

The reasoning's simple:  Greenwald's part of the left, just like Obama and the Democrats who controlled the House and had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for a while.  Greenwald's side failed to pass enough progressive legislation, therefore Greenwald's primarily responsible.

If you don't like this reasoning, complain to Greenwald:  he used the same reasoning to say voters will determine that Republicans are not primarily responsible for the failure to pass progressive legislation, laying responsibility instead at Obama's feet, especially with repeated reference to the 60-person Senate majority.  Greenwald does some really good work on civil liberties but mixes it in with this terrible reasoning.  Fault lies primarily with the Republicans, secondarily with the Democratic Senators (and some Representatives) who refuse to vote in defense of the middle class and for scientific reality.  Obama is not a Prime Minister.  Maybe somewhere Greenwald has laid out how he thinks Obama could've pushed legislation through, but he certainly didn't make that point when I listened to him.

That's not to say Obama is blameless - Greenwald rightly points to the HAMP mortgage modification failure as a self-inflicted wound.  On legislation though, he and we have to deal in reality.

Speaking of reality and legislation, we might want to look ahead.  A best-case scenario in 2012 elections will bring Obama back along with marginal control of the Senate and House.  I'm guessing more likely that Obama returns and we only get one of the two congressional houses, and even worse scenarios are very plausible.  The  best case scenario, in other words, still has us in worse position than 2009-2010.  Things generally get worse in mid-term elections for the majority party, and the majority party starts getting tired and often corrupt after many years in office.  

I think the best chance to pass climate legislation for another four years was the one that we had before the 2010 elections.  It really is a shame that many enviros failed to push for cap-and-trade, because as marginally, politically viable as it was, it was the best shot for years to come.  A national carbon tax was not politically meaningful and will take a lot more changes of political fundamentals before it will be.  Some enviros missed the boat last time.  We can still work together though do things on a piecemeal basis and at the state and local level instead, and gradually enforce carbon regulation through the Clean Air Act and other laws.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Obama good, Obama ungood

The good news is decision that gay rights and human rights "are one and the same" in a speech by Hillary Clinton, one that states the Obama administration will work for this concept internationally, and put some money behind it.   They also acknowledge imperfections here in American, while being studiously silent on gay marriage.

The foreign policy realists would say this will cost us internationally, just as any other human rights effort will cost us.  They'd be correct in some areas, although other places like Europe it should actually help our image and soft power.  Long run is a different story though, as history kind of arcs somewhat toward justice.

How this gets reflected in domestic politics will be interesting, because people who are somewhat conservative on gay rights domestically, say hypothetically a political science professor who supports civil unions, would fall on the far left of the spectrum of the countries with the worst discrimination.  The natural Republican reflex of opposing everything Obama does will then start looking pretty awful in the context of horrible abuses overseas. Rick Perry lost no time decrying "special rights" promotion, but the actual Republican nominee will probably lose votes while irresolutely dodging the issue.  Score one for the good guys.

The ungood side is the decision to overrule FDA's authorization of selling the Plan B contraceptive as a standard over the counter item.  Double plus ungood not because of the politics but the false claim that the science gives any reason to do this.  To the FDA's credit, they more or less stated their disagreement and weren't suppressed from doing that.  This is standard, almost, Republican-style War on Science.  Chris Mooney's book on the subject noted the Democrats were guilty too of this offense, but just not nearly to the same extent.  One strike against the Obama Administration in this regard.

I don't want to end on that note, so I'll add another piece of good news.  Younger Americans are significantly more accepting of climate science than older ones.  Now consider that even some Republicans acknowledge their antipathy to gay rights is a dying cause.  The very few scientists who don't accept climate science are also aging out (page 12) and not being replaced by anyone except lawyers, so the younger generation is being educated the right way.  I'm not sure how many demographically-challenged positions the Republicans really want to take, but maybe they should reconsider.

UPDATE:  Chris Mooney on Plan B here.  Similar grasp of the obvious.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Water District reducing GHG emissions and California cap-and-trade

Today's Water District meeting featured an energy usage work study session.  We use a lot of energy moving water across much of the state and then treating it, about 5% of all our costs.  While we also have a policy saying we that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our policy isn't very clear.  I pressed staff on this issue and another director, Linda Lezotte, also followed up:

(Arrgh, something won't let me post more than one video excerpt.  It's here for the December 5 2011 meeting at the 01:11:00 mark, for about 4 minutes.  Two of us seven directors say we need to do more than merely "cost-effective" efforts to reduce GHG emissions, the other five don't say anything.)

We're pretty good overall in our energy usage.  Maybe we can partner with Sonoma County to be better.
We're part of a joint powers authority for buying our power at a rate that's both cheaper and with lower carbon emissions than our local utility provides.  Our CO2 emissions are 435lbs/MWh, one-third the national average (see the first link, Attachment 4, p 17). Not the one-tenth that we need, but pretty good.

While California cap-and-trade doesn't apply directly to us, it does apply to the joint powers authority called PWRPA that we helped establish to get our power, and we may have a chance to sell carbon allowances from environmental improvements that we make:

(UPDATE:  okay, more linkrot, but it's towards the end of the discussion of Item 4.1 at the link above.)

In addition to what you can see on the video is the 3 hours that we spent in closed (confidential) session to discuss internally the negotiations with labor unions for new contracts.  Obviously I can't talk about what happened then, but the financial issues highlight how important the economics of all this is. If doing the right thing environmentally can help us out financially, we're going to do more of the right thing, especially right now when finances are so tight.