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Aggregating Energy Since 2006


Tax Intl Fuel

If you are shipping a refrigerator from China to the U.S., the fuel used by the ship is not taxed. The International Herald Tribune has a story looking at international transportation.

The lack of taxes on these fuels has helped keep the cost of such shipping quite low, greatly encouraging products to travel further and further from production to consumer. The article points out that this is not always a net loss for those of concerned with using energy efficiently:

Some foods that travel long distances may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy-hungry northern greenhouses.

Another complication is deciding how such a tax would be administered and collected - there is no authority governing all these international shippers.

Nonetheless, it strikes me that when we run into the pollution resulting from all this transportation, it should be taxed.

Prius v. Hummer

I continue to hear claims (even from people who should know better) that the Prius is somehow less energy efficient over its lifetime than the Hummer. This is total BS and Slate explained why the Prius is more efficient and why so many people claim otherwise.

Most of this disinformation comes from a loony report that too many serious people took ... well, seriously. It was not. It was a hack job.

The skeptics' basic argument is that the Prius' battery is irredeemably un-green, mostly because of its high nickel content and complex manufacturing process. As a result, "Dust to Dust" contends that a Prius will consume $3.25 worth of energy per mile over its cradle-to-grave lifetime. A Hummer H2, by contrast, will use $3.03 per mile and the Hummer H3 just $1.95.

It seems that the authors just made a bunch of stuff up and got Rush Limbaugh to do their publicity. When I first looked at this report, my BS-meter went off when I saw their claims that most of the energy in a cradle-to-grave analysis of vehicles comes its production.

"Dust to Dust" also posits that the vast majority of a car's cradle-to-grave energy gets expended during production. That assertion runs contrary to virtually every other analysis of vehicular life cycles, including those conducted by MIT (PDF) and Argonne National Laboratory.

Next time you hear someone spreading this disinformation, send them to the Slate piece. And please stop repeating it.

Eating local - not a panacea (but a good start)

lambs A recent NY Times op-ed pointed out that "eating local" doesn't necessarily yield the smallest carbon footprint. The piece was based on a recent study comparing the carbon footprint of lambs raised in New Zealand to those in Great Britain. The conclusion of the peer-reviewed study was that for UK consumers, the carbon footprint of New Zealand lamb was actually four times lower than British lamb, despite the fact that the NZ lamb must be shipped halfway around the world. The reason has to do with the less favorable climate and growing conditions in GB, which requires farmers to use feed. Similar figures were found for other produce and fruit. The gist of the study is that shipping distance is only one component of the carbon footprint of food. Other factors such as the use of fertilizer, feed, water, and pesticides may be equally or more important. Labeling food with "food miles", as proposed in the European Union, may give consumers misleading information as to the carbon footprint of different foods. A better solution is to use lifecycle analysis and perhaps develop some kind of scoring system. From a practical standpoint, global food networks are not going away. We are always going to want "exotic" spices and food that can't be grown locally. Many areas are simply too arid to be completely self-sufficient. Therefore, we should continue to encourage the growth of local food markets while striving to make our transportation systems more sustainable by increasing efficiencies and using alternative fuels.  

Gas too expensive...and it's someone elses fault

An unsurprising survey was released today that shows that most American's think that gasoline is too expensive. On top of that, they think that it is because of price gouging by the oil companies. As has been commented in the past, the open market trading of oil and gasoline with a number of different players makes the presence of a conspiracy to control prices (otherwise known as a cartel) difficult to manage. The difficulty of OPEC to keep group profits up by keeping renegades from reaping the benefits of lower prices illustrates this well. Ben Stein (yes, of Ferris Bueller fame but now of Yahoo), comments that

“Oil is a world commodity like tin or copper or rubber or coffee,” Stein says in a recent Yahoo Finance article. “The price is set by traders anticipating supply and demand."

 Still, the article is wholly apologetic of an industry that is pulling in incredible profits while the country is feeling the pinch from increased energy prices. The profits are used for little more than lining the pockets of a few majority owners and for increasing the company's ability to continue to make huge profits (including lobbying against legislation aimed at easing our appetite for their products).

“The problem is that if we keep punishing the companies that in good faith give us the energy we need to power our lives at market prices…eventually, they’ll go away,” Stein continues. “Or they won’t have the ability to do their jobs as well because of all the restrictions we’ve put on them.”

In closing, the press release places a call to look at those who are really to blame for the high prices because the poor oil companies have no role,

"...someone had better redirect the American public’s anger toward the deserving parties..."

What is surely an effort by those very oil companies to deflect blame neglects to name any better causes for the high prices. While they likely intend to blame politicians for not giving them the freedom to do what they want with little restriction from those pesky environmental regulations and lease agreements they have unintentionally hit on a root source of, the consumer. In a market system, the demand is the other side of the price equation...the more there is the higher the price. Rather than waste the precious resource we should use it judiciously. Increased auto efficiency is a part of the picture but only a part. We also need to have dramatic increases in R&D and role-out of technologies and lifestyle changes in order to greatly reduce our consumption of liquid transportation fuels.  Hmmmm......maybe they are isn't the oil companies' fault but ours for not going far enough to stop buying so much from them.  

DoC Reports

Rock-Tenn Coverpage

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has two interesting reports on its site in the "What's New" section. One study looks at plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) and the other is a Green Institute report on the potential of biomass fuels to supply the Rock-Tenn plant with energy.

The "Air Emissions Impacts of Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles in Minnesota's Passenger Fleet" report resulted from legislation calling on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) "to evaluate the emissions impacts of incorporating PHEVs into the vehicle fleet."

This study models the environmental impacts, specifically criteria pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions, associated with converting portions of all light-duty vehicles operated in Minnesota to PHEVs. We also evaluate the emission consequences of converting the fleet of light-duty vehicles owned or leased by the State of Minnesota to PHEVs. Light-duty vehicles include compact cars, sedans, and station wagons. Emissions are evaluated for 2020. To understand how PHEVs would affect emissions in 2020, a base-case non-PHEV scenario relying on conventional vehicles operating with standard internal combustion engines (ICE) was developed. As an additional alternative to conventional ICE vehicles, a scenario involving pure hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) was considered.

They examined four future electricity generation scenarios - 100% coal (eek, a bleak future), 80% coal / 20% wind, 60% coal / 40% wind, 100% wind (I'm not sure this is plausible, even in the most blustery days of an autumn with Winney the Pooh).

They also considered different PHEV adoption rates as the cars become available - but if you want to know more about that you'll have to go to the trouble of reading the Executive Summary.

To summarize, generally the use of PHEVs in place of conventional gasoline-driven ICE vehicles will reduce air emissions. The sole exception appears to be SO2 emissions, which rise due to the high sulfur content of coal combusted to generate electricity. The effectiveness of PHEVs depends on the all-electric range capability; a PHEV with a 60 mile range has greater impacts on emissions than a PHEV with a 20 mile range. In comparison to hybrid electric vehicles, PHEVs emit less NOx, VOCs, CO, and particulate matter, but more CO2 and SO2. This results from the high sulfur and carbon content of coal per MMBtu. Depending upon our choices for electricity generation in 2020, it is possible that the impacts on carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide could change.

No real shock that PHEVs will emit more carbon dioxide than convention hybrids in this region given our reliance on coal. The take home message should be that we need to incentivize low carbon options - from increased miles-per-gallon efficiency to mass transit.

The report on the Rock-Tenn plant is particularly interesting to me - we have discussed it previously and I have a neighbor who works there. The report is "Renewing Rock-Tenn: A Biomass Fuels Assessment for Rock-Tenn's St. Paul Recycled Paper Mill."

The Rock-Tenn St. Paul mill is the largest paper recycling plant in the Upper Midwest, recycling 1,000 tons of paper per day and employing approximately 500 people. It is also one of the largest energy users in the Twin Cities. Since the mid-1980s, Rock-Tenn has received its process steam via pipeline from the Xcel Energy High Bridge coal-fired power plant near downtown St. Paul. The High Bridge plant is closing by the end of 2007, to be replaced by an adjacent natural gas-fired power plant currently under construction. Thus this source of steam will no longer be available, and Rock-Tenn must find another energy source.

I poked through the executive summary and it offers some insight into the modern world of biofuels - what is available, what is reliably available, what will be reliably available for 20 years, and the like.

The solution appears to be a microcosm of the world-wide energy challenge posed by climate change ... they may need an amalgamation of several solutions rather than one (struggling NOT to write "silver bullet") all-encompassing solution.

There are sufficient quantities of biomass fuel sources within 75 to 100 miles of Rock-Tenn to provide all of Rock-Tenn’s energy needs. However, considering current and projected future demand for these sources, no single source of biomass considered in this study could supply all of Rock-Tenn’s long-term fuel needs. The one possible exception is agricultural sources, which could be sufficient if a long-term fuel contract were signed with an entity (or entities) with the necessary capabilities and assets to securely back up a 20-year contract.

The Twin Cities Daily Planet recently covered the Rock-Tenn plant with the background behind the study and where the process goes next.

Decision-making rests with several players. Obviously, Rock-Tenn will decide what kind of fuel to use and whether to keep the plant open. The St. Paul Port Authority, Ramsey County, Washington County and the City of St. Paul are among the public entities whose decisions factor in the process, including decisions on financing and public subsidies. District Energy currently has an agreement with Rock-Tenn to build an energy plant on Rock-Tenn's campus, and can decide either to continue or to end this agreement.

Once the various parties have reached a decision, a proposal would need to be made to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) with an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. After the MPCA evaluates this worksheet, it will decide whether a full-scale (time-consuming and expensive) Environmental Impact Statement is necessary.

Community input into the process could happen at community meetings to be scheduled in May, and through a citizen advisory committee still under formation.

Gas Tax Increase in MN

Gas tax graphicThe Star Tribune had an article today about the legislation proposed by Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, to increase sales taxes on gasoline in Minnesota. It has been inserted as part of the transportation bill being voted on by the Senate today. The proposal aims to more than double the state's gasoline tax from the current $0.20/gallon to over $0.40/gallon in 10 years.

The merits of this and increased vehicle efficiency standards have been discussed on this list in the past at:

While I support increasing the cost of doing business as usual as a way to influence consumer behavior I am skeptical about this proposal. First, it contains only a small funding connection to increasing viable alternatives to the behavior being disincentivised. Second, it does not contain provisions to reducing the disparate impacts on those who do not have alternative transportation modes available. For instance, rebates to offset price differentials for higher efficiency vehicles for use by small businesses and in rural areas.

Last, this bill is a huge bucket of new and increased taxes. From the article,

The bill also includes these other levies, all dedicated to roads, bridges and transit:

• Higher registration renewal fees on future new car purchases, but no increases on currently owned vehicles.

• A half-cent rise in the general sales tax in the seven-county Twin Cities area, imposed without a voter referendum, plus a $20 excise tax on new vehicle sales in the metro.

• Local-option authority for half-cent sales-tax increases in the rest of Minnesota, subject to voter approval.

• Authority for all 87 counties in the state to impose a $20-per-vehicle annual wheelage tax. Three suburban counties levied the current maximum of $5 per vehicle last year.

• Increased fees for leased vehicle registrations, license plates, titles and drivers' licenses, plus a $20 reinstatement fee for a license suspended for theft of gasoline.

I think this is ultimately makes it a very difficult bill to swallow politically. The Governor has indicated a willingness to veto increased taxes. The committee vote was split along party lines. Plus, this will make it more difficult for the DFL leadership to pull along support within their own ranks; particularly in the House.

Incidentally, the Governor's proposal is even worse. He wants to borrow more money to fund a more limited number of projects.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's own no-new-tax transportation plan calls for $1.7 billion in borrowing over 10 years to accelerate more than two dozen highway projects. The money would be paid back mostly via a transfer of existing motor vehicle sales taxes to roads and transit authorized by voters in November.

Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Saint Paul Capitol

The Duluth News Tribune reports on efforts by some to establish a state tax credit for alternative fueled vehicles. It references H.F. 1002.

Although we clearly need policies that make alternative fuel vehicles cheaper and more accessible to consumers, I do not think this will be an effective means to that end. We should know by now that people who buy dual-fuel vehicles will not necessarily use the E85 unless that is effectively cheaper than the alternative.

The larger problem with this legislation is that dual-fuel vehicles are not necessarily more efficient than those powered only by petroleum. Is society better served by consumers purchasing a 30 mile-per-gallon (mpg) vehicle because it can run on batteries or E85 when 40+ mpg vehicles are available that run on gasoline.

Any bill like developing tax credits should have a cutoff so that cars that achieve 40mpg or less are not eligible and SUVs/light trucks that achieve less than 30mpg are not eligible. We should not be giving tax credits to people who buy a 19mpg truck instead of 15mpg truck.

Introducing Green Options!

If you are looking for ways to "green the good life," then start today, because you now have a fantastic tool at your fingertips. Green Options is a site that provides practical, personal information on ways we can all live a more efficient, healthy, and eco-friendly lifestyle. I'm blogging daily there as well, covering the national renewable energy scene.

In addition to a blog hosted by a stable of writers covering issues like green business, politics (the site is strictly nonpartisan), and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) posts, Green Options features a Green Life Guide, discussion forums, daily green news, and other tools.

We haven't even been live for a full month yet, but we're adding more tools all the time and still have more to come. In response to suggestions that we cover more geographic areas then just green living in the United States, we've added a blogger from Israel and may be adding more. And stay tuned for more practical, applicable tools coming out in the near future to help you incorporate renewable energy into your life.

The times, they are a changin'

No, hell hasn't frozen over, but Alaska is thawing. Ted Stevens (R-AK) is sponsoring a bill that would raise CAFE standards for cars to 40 mpg, citing the danger posed to his state by global warming. Just two years ago, Stevens voted against the same standards. Stevens isn't the only politician who has changed his tune- former Detroit allies on both sides of the aisle appear willing to back tougher standards in the name of energy security and doing something about global warming.Ted Stevens

Hybrid Buses and Biodiesel

I thought this story was interesting. It comes from the Session Weekly from 2 February, 2007. Session Weekly is a non-partisan publication that covers the Minnesota House.

Metro Transit, the bus service serving much of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, is trying to make its bus exhaust fumes more environmentally friendly.

"We are the largest user of fuel in the state of Minnesota, we we take environmental issuse quite seriously," Peter Bell, Metropolitan Council chairman, told the House Transportation Finance Division Jan. 25. No action was taken.

The system now uses ultra-low sulfur fuel, instead of just low sulfur fuel; since July 2006 it has used 5 percent biodiesel in its buses; and it is testing a fuel that is 20 percent biodiesel.

Currently the system operates three hybrid buses, and Bell said the intent is to purchase 150 more by 2011.

Doing so would likely be more expensive. A 40-foot hybrid bus now has a price tag of about $500,000 but he expects the cost to decrease with improved technology. The current diesel buses cost about $315,000.

However, Bull noted that Metro Transit would use 19,682 fewer gallons of diesel fuel over the 12-year lifespan of a hybrid bus. "The cost savings of the diesel doesn't make up for the $185,000 difference," he said. "But who knows what will happen to the price of fuel."

In addition to running more quietly, Bell said hybrid buses should emit 91 percent less particulate matter, mainly soot, and 85 percent less nitrogen oxide.

Other changes to the current fleet have reduced particulate matter emissions from 85 tons per year in 1995 to a projected 12.8 tons this year and 8 tons by 2011.

Bush acts on energy efficiency and renewable energy

The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office of the US Department of Energy is reporting today that President Bush signed Executive Order 13423 calling for increased energy efficiency in Federal Government operations and increased usage of energy from renewable sources.

Following are summaries of the directives in the order:

  • Agencies must reduce their energy intensity 3% per year or by 30% by 2015 relative to their 2003 baseline.
  • That at least half of mandated renewable energy use come from newer facilities. Agencies are also encouraged to work to have renewable energy sources constructed on agency property.
  • Agencies must reduce their water usage intensity by 2% annually or by 16% by 2015 relative to their 2003 baseline.
  • Requires increased sustainability in goods purchased and used by agencies. This includes requiring paper have at least 20% recycled content, use of bio-based products, and energy efficiency products.
  • Agencies to improve waste management including increasing recycling, reducing use and disposal of toxic materials, and improved waste handling.
  • Ensure that new buildings comply with the Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings. 15% of all Federal buildings are to meet these guidelines by 2015.
  • The fleets reduce petroleum product usage by 2% annually and increase portion of fuel used that is non-petroleum-based (yes, it says non-petroleum instead of renewable) by 10% per year.
  • Increased use of Energy Star products.

Many of the provisions listed above are mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Bush Clueless on Energy

The Star Tribune has an excellent editorial on Bush's energy proposals from his State of the Union address. In short, they will likely encourage continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions and do little to encourage biofuels.

Finally, as he did last year, the president emphasized the need for the development and expansion of alternative fuels. The prospect of expanding corn ethanol production and the development of other biofuels is not only good for energy self-reliance, it's also good for the economies of states like Minnesota, where corn, prairie grasses and other sources of fuel can be grown. Here the president did propose a mandate: the production of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017. But whole-plant or cellulosic ethanol, which would have fewer environmental impacts than corn ethanol, isn't ready for prime time, and Bush has never supported the levels of research necessary to create a working industry.

As is usual for politicians at the national level, Bush used misleading language which may make the uninformed observer think he is encouraging smarter energy policy when he is actually doing the opposite. Indeed, his ideas aren't just bad for energy, they are bad for U.S. companies as well.

Bush advocates changing the fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, but the way in which he wants to change them makes more sense for the sagging auto industry than as a means of reaching his purported goal: getting more miles per gallon of fuel.

A major reason for poor U.S. sales remains the wretched fuel economy of U.S. car companies. They have pushed the most profitable cars - SUVs - without a care for environmental consequences and without increasing the competitiveness of their smaller cars. CAFE is smarter than the execs - it is not often you hear government bureaucrats making better decisions than the market, but we need to go that route unless we really want the market to punish U.S. automakers with continued declining sales.

Coastal Oil Drilling Incentives Offer Little




The New York Times is reporting that a U.S. Department of the Interior report ("Incentives on Oil Barely Help U.S.", delayed for over a year, estimates that off-shore drilling incentives for the Gulf of Mexico do little to induce additional supply.

"But industry analysts who compare oil policies around the world said the United States was much more generous to oil companies than most other countries, demanding a smaller share of revenues than others that let private companies drill on public lands and in public waters. In addition, they said, the United States has sweetened some of its incentives in recent years, while dozens of other countries demanded a bigger share of revenue."


Raise CAFE?

For those unfamiliar: CAFE = Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article encouraging an increased fuel tax rather than increasing the CAFE standards. The point is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Germany found that one way to do that was to impose an "ecotax." To improve fuel economy, Germany simply raised the price of gas with this surcharge.

Countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany already charged around $6 per gallon, but Germany raised the price by an additional 10 cents a year from 1999 to 2003. Germans now pay nearly $6.50 per gallon. The increase was not steep (less than 2 percent per year), but it sent a signal to the market that gas would not be getting any cheaper.

I really like the idea of slowly raising the tax. Schedule it a ways into the future to send messages to the market. Are there major downsides to this approach? The biggest downside may be that the government can always alter the schedule in the future and the market will count on that. Are there other downsides?

By 2004, fuel consumption had dropped by around 7 percent from 1999 levels; 6 percent more Germans were riding public transport; and cars with nearly 80 miles per gallon fuel efficiency hit the market. Yes, 80 mpg. That's not a typo; it's a Volkswagen Lupo. And unlike the two-seater Smart, with 69 mpg, the Lupo (like Audi's classy A2 with 78 mpg) is a four-seater.

Wow. The Lupo seems great. And check out that great green hue.

Of course, many Americans are calling for higher fuel-efficiency standards -- but that's the bad news. These standards are by their very design doomed to failure because efficiency can ironically undercut itself by making consumption cheaper. Think about it: if you could suddenly drive 100 miles longer on one tank of gas, would you drive less or more? When efficiency lowers consumption, demand for energy drops, lowering prices, which in turn undercuts investments in efficiency -- a catch-22 without price mechanisms.

People really don't want to hear about higher prices though. Is there any way to move forward with these policies? I wonder how they did it in Europe ... there can't be an enthusiasm for higher prices there, can there be?

EPA revising fuel efficiency ratings method



The New York Times and NPR are reporting on the EPA's proposed revisions to the vehicle mileage rating methodology that populates the sticker on new cars with city and highway miles-per-gallon (mpg) numbers. The main changes? Faster highway driving and air conditioning.

USAToday reports that it won't affect CAFE standard calculations.

But it's not clear that this will do anything...Do consumers care? The Consumer Federation is convinced they is the Sierra does Jesus. But the Star Tribune reported earlier in November that fuel economy ranked 18th out of 56 things in considering a new car, behind cupholders and the sound system.

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