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Aggregating Energy Since 2006


Hating Foreign Oil



America! Let’s get our hatred straight. We may very well hate foreign oil but…

#1 Unless you are from Hawaii, electricity is not made from foreign oil in any significant amount! Wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power, nor coal will reduce foreign oil under conventional assumptions. We don’t use oil to make electricity! Period. It’s too expensive. Plug-in hybrids and diesel generators are red herrings...

#2 As much as we hate foreign oil, we should hate Canada the most since they are the top crude oil import supplier, especially in Minnesota. About 60% of the U.S. oil supply is imported and about half of it comes from OPEC, which means about 30% of the total comes from the more objectionable countries we might typically think of from "foreign oil." In a perfectly distributed market, a one gallon reduction in gas use, reduces only 30% of the "problem." This isn't really true in practice, since there are vast differences in the sources of oil by region. Theoretically, the lower the price of oil, the more foreign it becomes, since domestic producers have a higher cost of production and turn off as the price drops below their profitability.

#3 If you really cared about maximizing your foreign oil vanquishing efforts at the minimal cost, you’d focus on national vehicle efficiency standards (aka higher miles-per-gallon) and driving less, not all the new exotica alternatives. Your car is 85% inefficient. Doing one without the other is pouring water into a bucket with a big hole in the bottom.

#4 If we use less oil, it will theoretically lower the world market price for oil, and others will consume more of it, which is fine for domestic security, but means nothing for global warming.

Here are examples of group, jumping on the foreign oil bandwagon...these may very well be worthy endeavors, but A doesn’t necessarily mean B:

1. Partners for Affordable Energy, i.e. coal

2. Americans for Independent Energy, i.e. everything but oil

3. Americans for American Energy, i.e. everything but oil

4. American Energy Now, i.e. renewable energy


Metro Transit

I hope this new program will help encourage more people to get out of their cars and onto public transit.

Metro Transit will expand its testing of the stored value Go-To Card to include an additional 2,500 customers who take Metro Transit buses, regional buses and Hiawatha light-rail trains.

Starting tomorrow, Wednesday, Nov. 15, customers can pick up a Go-To Card at any Metro Transit store and be part of the fare revolution in the Twin Cities. The test will run through Jan. 31, 2007. When the test is over, customers can continue using their Go-To Cards.

This test is different from the one you participated in that there are no ride requirements and error reports will not be collected. If you know of someone who might be interested in the Go-To Card I encourage you to share this information with them or have them got for more information.

Most importantly the back-up payment rules have changed for you. All Metro Transit buses and train platforms have operational card readers. In the unlikely event that you encounter a card reader that is not working, your ride will be free. However, Go-To Card equipment is on back order for about three dozen regional buses. As part of the new test, you will be expected to pay your fare in cash or with a SuperSaver if you travel on one of these buses. You can identify these buses because the card reader will be covered or missing. Routes with missing readers include: 223, 225, 227, 364, 540, 604, 615, 715, 716, 717, 755 and 756.

UK explores way to decrease traffic congestion

Interesting article in the BBC on "How would road charging work?"  This article explains a new program being floated by the British government that would (I think) be similar to smart toll lanes -- drivers pay a changing rate based on how congested the roads are, in order for drivers to begin to understand the true cost of driving.  This system is different from the congestion pricing used in London, which is a flat fee for entering specific parts of the city.

SUV Sales Shoot Skyward

I'm so not going to apologize for that headline. It is the highlight of my day thus far.

CNN Money has an article discussing last month's BOOM in fuel inefficient car sales. You give Americans a couple of weeks of respite from (relatively) high gas prices and they return to 15 mpg.

Sales of big pickup trucks and SUVs went through the roof - doubling from the year before in some cases. Sales of small, fuel-efficient cars, meanwhile, remained stagnant. It is as if all that moaning and groaning about price gouging by oil companies never happened.

Why exactly should American auto manufacturers start producing more efficient vehicles? It seems that the market is clearly showing a preference for vehicles that have terrible fuel efficiency. With the American business obsession with short term gains over long term longevity, we should not be surprised at their lack of progress toward fuel-efficient vehicles.

NYTimes Energy Challenge


Roughly every two weeks, the NY Times has released a new article on various energy topics in what they are dubbing "The Energy Challenge."

Recent Topics:

  • Global Warming
  • Ethanol
  • Nuclear
  • Coal
  • Solar 

News Roundup

Some recent news from area sources.  I continue to support the transit amendment but it looks like it is coming under more opposition.  I really wonder if this would be the case if oil continued at $75 a barrell.  

Refusing to invest in greater transit now will likely be seen as the worst mistake of this time period.  

Kare 11
The Politics of Falling Gas Prices - A somewhat dated piece on gas prices and their non-factor in the upcoming election.
Transportation Amendment - Supporters and opponents of the amendment to dedicate more money to transit and roads.  

Pioneer Press
Editorial against the  traffic amendment

ABC Newspapers
Federals release money for Northstar construction - Some of the money required  ($5 of $80 million) has been released.

Taxi Deregulation!

Mass transit advocates rejoice! Minneapolis is deregulating its taxis! (courtesy of the strib) This may seem like an obscure point, so let me explain.

I've long thought that taxis should be deregulated. To be more specific, since there's multiple types of deregulation, there shouldn't be a limit on the number of taxi licences issued. Why? Its fairly intuitive. Taxi regulation as practiced in most US cities limits the number of taxis on the streets and may raise the cost of the fare. Right out of econ 101. You need a licence to operate a taxi, and the number of licences is strictly limited. This means that if you're lucky enough to have a taxi licence its worth a lot of money. Wonderful for them, but not wonderful for many other people who'd like to make money operating a taxi, and not wonderful for taxi consumers who would benefit from having a lot more taxis on the road because of shorter wait-times and possibly lower fares. Think of the difference between walking outside and flagging a cab vs. having to call one and wait.

But that's the economic inefficiency argument. Here's one that's more relevent to an energy blog. Taxi deregulation can be a crucial part of a mass transit agenda. A problem with mass transit is that it can't take you everywhere and it doesn't operate all the time. Taxis can fill in the gaps. You could take the light rail part way and flag a cab for the last mile. Or you could take the bus to a bar or what-have-you and take a cab home late at night after the transit system shuts down. This strategy is a lot easier if there are more taxis on the roads, and its a lot less painful if they're cheaper. Removing limits on the number of taxi licences can make this a reality, and make it easier for people to function without their cars. More mass transit users=less greenhouse gas emissions, better cities, peace and harmony, blah blah, you catch my drift.

Deregulation can be a mixed bag, but a brief literature review suggests that deregulation of taxi licences results in: 1)more taxis, 2) more small taxi companies (which small-business advocates like), 3) Maybe lowered fares, but not always. Depends on how you do it. 4)The quality of service may improve, or it may get worse.

Here's what the strib says on the subject:

The amended ordinance, which the Minneapolis City Council approved in an 8-4 vote Friday, will allow 45 more cabs each year until 2010 and scraps the limit after that. One of its principal backers, Council Member Gary Schiff, said it's "a significant reform measure" that will end the practice of companies taking advantage of the limited number of licenses by selling them to contract drivers for tens of thousands of dollars.

"No longer will drivers be under the thumb of companies that are making a lot of money at their expense," said Schiff.

And here's some more:

It also requires two less controversial developments: more fuel-efficient taxis and more taxis with wheelchair access.

The main author of the ordinance change, Council Member Paul Ostrow, said he envisions a Minneapolis that in five years will have more minority-owned cab companies, better service and more accessibility.

From my brief literature review, I'm thinking they're right about more taxis, they're right about more minority owners, but the cost may not go down, and the quality of service may not improve. But hey, its still an improvement. Paul Ostrow and Gary Schiff should be commended for promoting a somewhat obscure policy that will make Minneapolis a more transit-oriented city.

Report from U of M Renewable Energy Workshop Oct. 12

I attended the Renewable Energy Workshop today sponsored by the U of MN Electrical Engineering Department. As expected, it was largely technology-focused, with some general discussions of the challenges facing renewable energy here and elsewhere. (And a good buffet style lunch). Here a few salient points of the talks I attended.

A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy - Thomas Overbye, U of Illinois

The speaker talked about his research into superconducting transmission lines. The idea behind the project is to supplement our existing grid with a network of underground high voltage DC transmission lines made with superconducting material. The benefit of using superconductors is that the current density can be much higher, so fewer transmission lines have to be built. Line losses would also be minimized.

Each line would consist of a superconducting core for carrying the electricity with an outer ring of liquid hydrogen, which would act both as a coolant and an energy storage mechanism. During times of low electricity demand, excess electricity from renewable sources would be used to create the hydrogen via electrolysis.

Though such a grid is technically feasible, cost is a major issue, though the speaker was quick to note that anything transmission related is expensive. He quoted a figure of roughly $2.5 million per mile to install these cables. Water scarcity may also be an issue in some places.

Lessons from Norway - an unlisted speaker, didn't get his name

(A grad student actually did this talk in place of his professor, who was scheduled to speak but couldn't make it.)

This talk mainly focused on the challenges facing Norway in meeting its future electrical demand and making use of its vast renewable energy potential (enough to supply twice that of its current annual consumption.) Currently, 99% of Norway's generation comes from low cost hydropower. However, similar to here, demand is outpacing supply. More supply will have to be brought on in coming years.

I was struck by how similar the challenges facing renewable energy are to here - public resistance (in the case of wind), cost (wind energy is still more significantly more expensive than hydropower), and political uncertainty (will subsidies continue?) Norway is also facing transmission limitations, just like here.Especially of note is that public resistance to wind energy projects has increased in recent years, for all the typical reasons - avian mishaps, other wildlife impacts, and aesthetics.

Planning for Renewable Energy at a MN Utility - Glen Skarbakka, Mgr of Resource Planning, Great River Energy

The speaker talked about the challenges of meeting GRE's rapidly growing load (about 100 MW/year) while incorporating renewables. GRE's load is mostly residential, meaning that demand goes way up in the summer, but varies a lot day to day, depending on weather. This makes it a challenge to use wind energy, which is not dispatchable in the traditional sense (though forecasting has gotten highly accurate.)

I was mostly impressed by GRE's goals to reduce its CO2 emissions to 2000 levels by 2020, as well as doubling its renewable objective of 10%. The speaker admitted that meeting the first will be extremely challenging, to say the least.

Wind Energy - Present Projects and Potential in Minnesota - John Dunlop, American Wind Energy Association

The speaker talked about how wind turbine technology has advanced over the last 20 years and how wind energy continues to grow rapidly in the US and elsewhere. He also provided a nice summary of the recent situation with the Dept of Defense blocking new wind farms due to concerns over radar. The report finally came out on Sept. 27, 143 days late. It didn't really say anything that could not have been written in one day - only that wind farms can interfere with radar. It didn't offer any mitigation measures to help current or future projects move forward. Sounded like a great use of taxpayer dollars.

Update on CapX 2020 - Terry Grove, GRE

The CapX project is an ongoing transmission planning project involving all major utiltiies in Minnesota, planning transmission needs through 2020. I already knew how long this process takes, but the uninitiatied would probably be shocked. Though, there are good reasons it takes this long. The Certificate of Need process for the first group of lines, mainly to improve reliability, alone will take through 2008. Then route permits have to be aquired, which will take through 2010. During this time, lots of meetings are held with city governments, landowners, and other agencies. The proposed Brookings -SE Minnesota line alone will require that 200,000 landowners be notified. This is just a massive undertaking.

From what I've heard, the last round of tranmission construction was an extremely drawn out and painful process. It will be even worse this time around, due to the industry restructuring that has occured since then. Now, independent power producers can bid in new projects to the MISO queue. Most of these projects fail to get off the ground, since banks won't supply the financing until a power purchase agreement is signed - a chicken and egg problem - meaning that planners don't know where new generation will actually be.

Results of Research Funded by NSF, Xcel Energy, and ONR - Ned Mohan, Electrical Engineering, U of MN

Ned gave an overview of renewable energy-related research in the EE department, then talked mainly about a matrix converter his research team developed. The converter can be used with any variable speed generator, including wind turbines and will boost power output by 1.5X of nameplate ratings. This would also eliminate the problem of bearing currents in typical motors, which eventually destroy the bearing and represent a major maintenance headache. Ned also talked about the benefits of using silicon carbide (SiC) in power electronics, which improves device performance by 10-100 times over plain silicon (Si). The cost of SiC continues to fall, making the use of this material more feasible.

Local Roundup

In what I hope will be a frequently recurring feature on Energista!, I browsed through the local papers to briefly note a few interesting stories.

Star Tribune

Pioneer Press

I didn't see anything from the local TV stations that was topical, but I would like to include them in these roundups as well. If you have ideas about what sources we should incorporate, comment.

Gas Prices Drop Most in MN

Last week's This Week in Petroleum notes that while every state has experienced a price drop in gas prices, Minnesota has been the greatest. Curious why?

[S]tates in the Midwest region (PADD II) are supplied from refineries within the region as well as by pipelines delivering products refined on the Gulf Coast. It appears that access to such extra supply may be why these states have seen larger price declines recently.

Of course, this assumes the prices are not being actually manipulated by the White House to benefit Republican candidates.

Since we're talking about batteries....

Hey, it's my first post!

I don't know if this prospective battery is any more believable, but since it came in my nanotechnology newsletter I figured I would post it up. Basically, this is a lithium ion battery that not only lasts and lasts, but also retains its charging capacity even as the battery gets old. It also charges to 80% capacity in about 1 minute. The secret is, of course, nanotechnology. Read it here:

The ending paragraph, about the company's financial state, is very interesting.

New Cars

Yet another hard-to-believe claim that borders on the perpetual machine nonsense. New capacitor cars will revolutionize auto transport says CNN in "Gentlemen, stop your engines." Great title.

EEStor's device is not technically a battery because no chemicals are involved. In fact, it contains no hazardous materials whatsoever. Yet it acts like a battery in that it stores electricity. If it works as it's supposed to, it will charge up in five minutes and provide enough energy to drive 500 miles on about $9 worth of electricity. At today's gas prices, covering that distance can cost $60 or more; the EEStor device would power a car for the equivalent of about 45 cents a gallon.

Go back and read that again. Did you see it? "If it works as it's supposed to"

"A four-passenger sedan will drive like a Ferrari," Clifford predicts. In contrast, his first electric car, the Zenn, which debuted in August and is powered by a more conventional battery, can't go much faster than a moped and takes hours to charge.

So this seems to be more in the realm of fantasy than anything else at this point. Nonetheless, I have been following this technology where possible and this is the second company to make similar claims with capacitor technology. I guess this is the age of nanotech.

WCCO on Gas Prices

WCCO looks at whether cheaper gas prices are a result of election season (video). I've often heard people claim that Bush controls the gas prices and lowers them to benefit Republicans around election time.

WCCO interviews a bunch of people who find the current cheaper prices to suspicious but an expert points out that the gas prices come from the world market and says that United States companies only control 15% of the oil on the market.

He goes on to say that if anyone could suddenly play with the market, it would be Saudi Arabia but they haven't changed their output. The low prices are a result of fewer hurricanes and no sanctions on Iran.

If Bush wanted to suddenly drop prices, he would have to open the strategic reserve, and I'm guessing that we would notice. Additionally, if he had done it and no one knew, he would not have done it so far in advance of elections I'm thinking because there is a limited amount of oil in the reserve - it would be a gamble to draw it down so low in the middle of hurricane season.

Gas tax vs. CAFE standards: Which best curbs global warming?

The Union of Concerned Scientists embarked on an action campaign today. UCS asked members to join them in sending our represenatives in Congress gas receipts accompanied by letters demanding better fuel economy.

This reminded me of an article I came across recently that argued fuel efficiency standards like CAFE are economically costly and not very effective in fighting global warming or increasing energy security. Rather, a gas tax is a far more effective and less expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption. There are a few reasons for this:

1. A tax kicks in full force on a chosen date rather than over the time period it takes for a fleet turnover.
2. A gas tax applies to all consumers of gasoline while CAFE standards apply exclusively to those in the newer car market.
3. A gas tax increases the marginal cost of each mile driven and thus reduces miles driven. CAFE standards encourage additional driving since the marginal cost of each additional mile decreases with better fuel efficiency.

So, why don't we increase the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to a dollar per gallon? Or $2 per gallon? The short answer is politics. It has historically been considered political suicide to talk about significantly raising the federal gas tax. (Remember the Bush/Cheney ad:
"Some people have wacky ideas. Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That’s John Kerry. He supported a 50 cent a gallon gas tax. If Kerry’s tax increase were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year.”)

So I think I'll send in my fuel receipt after all, but instead of a plea for higher CAFE standards, I'll write a permission slip that goes something like this:

"Please make me pay at the pump. I want to FEEL it every time I leave the station--it should be me that loses the equivalent weight in gold when I blow through a gallon of gasoline, not my kids or grandkids or my neighbors in China. You can have my 6 or 7 hundred bucks a year. I won't miss it really. But if the Northern forest goes, my children would miss that. And if Shanghai floods, that would be tragic. Give us constituents some credit...if a gas tax is what it will take to turn this thing around, we can handle it!"

Irrational Responses to Gas Prices

People respond irrationally to gas prices. The difference of a few cents per gallon, when filling up your car, rarely amounts to more than a few cents. Yet people obsess over prices.

OmniNerd investigated the irrational consumer price hunting in relation to gasoline. He wrote it up in a rather amusing style.

My wife has a memory that would make a team of Simon-playing elephants jealous. She remembers birthdays like everyone is her favorite aunt and she frequently catches grocery stores overcharging her for food items. Once, while at Wal-Mart, she noticed the red peppers were especially expensive at $2.28. Oddly, Randalls, the typically more pricey venue, had them listed much cheaper at $1.23. Kroger had the cheapest price of all at $0.99 each - more than 55% savings over Wal-Mart.1

But wait, that means that buying just one red pepper at Kroger instead of Wal-Mart would save more money ($1.29) than 25 gallons of gas priced a nickel cheaper. If I buy two red peppers in the same manner, I would save enough money to fill up my Accord with premium (instead of regular) and have enough leftover for a candy bar. Could it be that this American gas-price obsession would be better served on items other than petrol?

He goes through some math and comes out with the obvious conclusion that if you are trying to save money in the United States, hunting around for cheap gas is possibly the dumbest way to do it.

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