People in Glass Houses

VentureBeat, a Silicon Valley-based site that focuses largely on venture capital (and venture capitalists), has been hosting a series of essays on California's Proposition 87, which will be voted on next Tuesday. The owner of Venture Beat, Matt Marshall, recently contacted me and asked if I wanted to provide some "No on 87" essays in response to Vinod Khosla's series of "Yes on 87" essays. My response to Matt was that I am ambivalent about passage, and so would not write a "No" essay. However, he said that if I wanted to write on alleged misinformation coming from the "Yes" camp, then that would be OK as well.
My first essay, Prop 87: Deceptively Marketed, addressed 3 specific claims coming from the proponents, and then I offered up my predictions. In the second essay, I went directly after a number of irresponsible claims that Vinod Khosla made in his second essay. Mr. Khosla is essentially betting people's lives by making the claims he is making. If, ten years down the road, it becomes clear that he can't deliver, we will have lost ten precious years in which we could have embarked upon a massive effort to deal with Peak Oil. But as long as there are Vinod Khoslas out there, naively making promises that everything will be OK, that massive effort will be delayed. Our energy policy is far too important, so I believe Mr. Khosla's promises should be vigorously challenged.

Since there is likely to be little overlap in the readership of TOD and VentureBeat, the TOD staff thought it would be topical material for cross-posting here. Therefore, below is the text of my rebuttal to Vinod Khosla's claims, which can be found in essays that he wrote for VentureBeat and The Huffington Post. Please note that I am not arguing for a "No" vote, nor am I making a blanket defense of the oil industry. I am responding to Mr. Khosla's claims.


Apparently some Proposition 87 proponents have never heard the adage "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." They complain about slimy tactics, while engaging in plenty of slimy tactics and hypocrisy themselves. In this essay, I will address Mr. Khosla's second essay and show that his glass house is vulnerable to my pile of stones. This is also why I become concerned when people with expertise in one field try to influence policy in another. My dentist is a great guy, and very good at what he does, but I wouldn't let him remove my appendix. And while he should certainly be involved in the discourse, he shouldn't receive undue influence on energy policy just because he is a good dentist.

I explained in my previous essay who I am, and that I am not campaigning against Proposition 87. My interest is in raising the level of political discourse with respect to energy policy. My criticisms are aimed at the "Yes on 87" campaign, because much misinformation is being directed at my own industry. I find it very ironic that those who are flying around the country to decry the "evil oil industry" are doing so using jet fuel supplied by the oil industry. They enjoy many conveniences as a result of oil and gas production, but have deluded themselves into believing their lifestyle could be maintained if we all switched to alternative energy.

I don't live in California and have never seen an ad from either side, but I have seen a number of "Yes" essays in the mold of Mr. Khosla's latest missive. So let's dissect his latest entry for some examples of hypocrisy, misinformation, and faulty logic. Mr. Khosla's comments are in quotes.

Given the current oil situation the ONLY way oil prices will go down is if we have alternatives to oil.

Since it doesn't benefit any big business interests, conservation, probably the most valuable "alternative" out there, is mostly overlooked in this debate.

Mr. Khosla: Given the massive profits they make on oil they wouldn't want a cheaper alternative in the marketplace.

I covered profit margins in my previous essay, and noted the hypocrisy coming from an industry that sees double the profit margins of the oil industry. But "they wouldn't want a cheaper alternative" is misinformation. The entry barrier for ethanol production and biodiesel is quite low. If ethanol is ultimately a cheaper option, oil companies will start making ethanol. Right now, most do not see that it is clearly viable in the long-term without subsidies. In fact Mr. Khosla was recently quoted in Red Herring: "Contrary to what you might believe, I think it's extremely unlikely that in 20 years we will be using any ethanol in cars." I think the oil industry shares this view, which is why they aren't rushing out to build ethanol plants.

However, oil companies have made big investments into solar, wind , and biofuels. In fact, Iogen, a company running a large scale cellulosic ethanol trial, is receiving major funding from Shell. Of course this puts oil companies in a "damned either way" position. If they invest in alternatives, critics say it is a token effort, or just for public relations. If they don't, then they are standing in the way of progress.

It is also unfair if they use their political clout to wrangle billions of dollars of subsidies from American taxpayers.

Given that the ethanol industry receives billions in direct subsidies and you are trying to secure even more with Prop 87, I am going to call this a bit of hypocrisy. The ethanol industry is the recipient of $0.51 gallon in direct ethanol subsidies. However, the subsidy is per gallon of ethanol produced, as opposed to actual net energy produced. If the ethanol energy return is 1.3/1, then it takes 3.3 gallons produced to net the energy equivalent of 1 gallon of gasoline. The website Zfacts, strongly supportive of alternative energy, concludes that when all the subsidies are added in, displacing a single gallon of gasoline costs $7.24 in ethanol. Furthermore, the ethanol industry depends on fossil fuels to drive their trucks and tractors, so any oil "subsidy" is also an indirect ethanol subsidy.

Many ethanol advocates claim that the $0.51/gallon subsidy actually benefits the oil industry. Without going into a detailed analysis of why this claim is wrong (it essentially allows ethanol producers to charge $0.51/gal more than market conditions would warrant), ask yourself why it is the ethanol/farm lobby who is fighting to keep this subsidy, and oil interests who are speaking out against it. Note that the executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol vigorously defends the subsidy. Is this a case of oil company benevolence?

And they often make us pay for their R&D.

As compared to making your competitor pay for your R&D? I will admit, it is a brilliant move to force your competitor to fund your own research, but the above statement really takes hypocrisy to a whole new level.

The world uses about 12 billion gallons of ethanol today. If that was removed form the market, oil prices would spike up. If we produce more, oil prices will decline as supply increases.

This one is just faulty logic. Ethanol production in the past few years has exploded. Did oil prices decline?

A few token projects to "sound green" are thrown in but almost no money goes into finding real alternatives to oil.

As I stated earlier: "Damned either way."

Even the small technology oriented Silicon Valley company can spend 20% of its revenue on R&D.

I have an idea then. Since Silicon Valley is so innovative, and we know that companies there are quite profitable, why don't we tax them to fund this measure? That seems like a real win-win solution. The people who most strongly support this proposition will be the ones who will both pay for it, and "benefit" from it.

The oilies are scare mongering with their massive dollars.

We actually prefer our pejoratives to be capitalized. But this is an example of the need to raise the political discourse. Also - and feel free to correct me if I am wrong - the proponents are spending tens of millions of dollars to push this measure, and they are doing it with tactics that have been more along the lines of hate mongering.

President Clinton has said ethanol is 33% cheaper. I know it is cheaper to produce, even with the subsidies oil currently manages to get.

Ignoring the repeated hypocrisy over the subsidies, let's talk about economics. Now, I may not be well-versed in Silicon Valley economics, but here's what I think. If I have a product that I can make for cheaper than the competitor, why would I need mandates, subsidies, and an extortion tax on my competitors in order to compete? I don't really think I would need this, if indeed the claim is true. So, that leaves me to believe that either the claim isn't true, or ethanol companies are worse than oil companies at "ripping people off."

Let's consider the following graph from the official Nebraska government website:

A 25-Year Price Comparison

This is a comparison of the average annual rack price of ethanol versus mid-grade gasoline for the past 25 years. Ethanol, with lower energy content, has been more expensive than gasoline in each of the past 25 years. So there is a track record over a long period of time that suggests that not only do ethanol prices rise and fall in response to gasoline prices (putting a damper on the argument that ethanol is going to drive down gasoline prices) but the price differential is actually greater since most people don't buy the more expensive mid-grade.

Now, if Mr. Khosla is correct, and it is in fact cheaper to produce ethanol than gasoline, it suggests that 1). Ethanol profit margins are far higher than gasoline profit margins; 2). Ethanol producers are "ripping us all off"; and 3). Ethanol producers should have no problem funding their own growth.

I hope that Mr. Khosla can see that his glass house is quite vulnerable. I call on him to raise the level of discourse on our energy policy - regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Another terrific essay, RR!

I am not against funding some ethanol research myself -- and it appears that you agree with funding some ethanol research.  How would that best be done?

I think it is especially good to point out -- as you have done -- that conservation is the most effective strategy with regard to energy.  What would an energy consevation program with regard to liquid fuels look like?

I think it would be good to articulate some clear and attractive alternative proposals to prop 87.  At the very least it would be good to get some public policy discussion of conservation-based energy policy going.

Any thoughts on this?

I think it would be good to articulate some clear and attractive alternative proposals to prop 87.  At the very least it would be good to get some public policy discussion of conservation-based energy policy going.

In my opinion, this could have been sold by just proposing a modest gas tax increase, with the proceeds being directed to alternative energy and rebates for fuel efficient vehicles. I think the public would have bought into this. I don't even think the oil companies would have opposed this, and over a hundred million dollars would not have been spent in this mud-slinging contest.

What we see now is that support is slipping, because many economists have come out and suggested that this will indeed raise gas prices. But the amount is uncertain. It depends on many factors. I think this uncertainty is discomforting to many people, who might have had a much easier time supporting a nickel a gallon tax increase.

Part of the beaut of taxing oil extraction is that California's neighbors have to foot part of the bill.  If California just increases at-the-pump taxes, then only California suffers.  Prop 87 at least has the California benefit of syphoning money from our neighbors to pump up our own economy.
California produces about 730,000 barrels of oil per day, while in 2002 it consumed 980,000 bbl/day of gasoline alone.  As any restriction on California oil production is going to have some small upward influence on the world price of oil, California's net position as an importer means some cash is going to flow out of California as a result of Proposition 87.  The only benefit is part of the zero-sum game of money being collected by the state instead of going to shareholders.  (A motor fuel tax would depress demand and tend to lower world prices slightly, leading to less cash leaving California due to fewer and cheaper imports.)

I hadn't realized that until I looked at the production and consumption numbers.  It looks like Khosla & Co. are wrong, and T. Boone Pickens and the other folks who favor stiff fuel taxes are right.

Thanks for the thoughts, RR.

It will be interesting to see how Californians vote on this. We'll know soon enough!

I do think that a definite tax is smart. A definite amount on gas, for example.  Also it would help to direct the dollars to various efforts to bring about change.

Money directed to transit, fuel-efficient vehicle rebate programs, and perhaps some research might be a better strategy than just subsidizing one silver bullet very heavily.

Prop 87 right now looks very much like one special-interest group demanding more subsidy for themselves while also demanding that "Big Oil" foot the bill.

"Big Oil" is my primary pusher, and as an oil addict I have a strong love/hate relationship with this industry.   But I do not want to "meet the new pusher, same as the old pusher" in "Big Ethanol."

That's where Prop 87 is weakest, in my estimation.

I think it would be good to articulate some clear and attractive alternative proposals to prop 87.

Specal earmark taxes really irk me.  If the government is so incompetent that it can't figure out how to apportion tax revenue appropriately, then that is the primary problem that must be fixed first.

So, how about:  Keep the proposed extra taxes of 87, but put 1/2 the money in the "general fund" and 1/2 the money in a special group that fixes government waste and fixes the government's inability to balance the budget.

If I have a product that I can make for cheaper than the competitor, why would I need mandates, subsidies, and an extortion tax on my competitors in order to compete?

You wouldnt, unless you a) needed someone to pay for the infrastructure to sell your product or b) you realized your product wasnt't too great at present, but smart persuasive people told you to expect your product to dramatically improve in the near future (cellulosic).  At least thats what I would expect Mr. Khosla to say.

The energy return on corn ethanol is very poor, as has much been discussed. The energy return on cellulosic ethanol is higher, by a magnitude of 10-20 (magnitudes are somehwat meaningless when the net energy of something is less than one).  However, as you have oft pointed out, and I will take a step further here, an energy technology is part energy harvesting and part energy conversion.  Energy harvesting of cellulosic material is actually pretty good, but then the embodied energy in the lignin or bagasse is yours to choose what to use it for.

Using it for fermentation to create a product like ethanol (with less than 70% of BTUs per gallon as gasoline) is a poor conversion process. Much better, from a straight energy return standpoint, would be to gasify or burn the cellulose and generate some other form of energy service for society.

This gets at the energy quality issue. Currently electricity is higher in price than oil, per BTU. In a post peak oil world, UNLESS we transform our transportation into more electrical, liquid fuels will be so needed for transportation that the energy quality upgrade from biomass to ethanol may be worth the energy loss. (though if at that point we are still use natural gas at the still, it will be turning gold to lead, and if we use coal we are turning Alaska to Hawaii)

I think the difference in yours and Mr Khoslas position can be summed to this basic point: he BELIEVES that cellulosic ethanol will work for the US and that corn ethanol is priming the pump. You KNOW that corn ethanol is poor idea and are uncertain as to what the future of cellulosic holds, because the past has not produced any miracles.

Nationwide ethanol infrastructure is betting on the come.

You wouldnt, unless you a) needed someone to pay for the infrastructure to sell your product or b) you realized your product wasnt't too great at present, but smart persuasive people told you to expect your product to dramatically improve in the near future (cellulosic).  At least thats what I would expect Mr. Khosla to say.

That's exactly what he and his sycophants say. However, we don't need a massive infrastructure build out. We can't even fill the infrastructure we have. All the vehicles in the country can run on E10. But this would take triple the ethanol that we now make. So, I would suggest that they start building out more infrastructure once they begin to fully utilize what's already in place.

Wouldn't it be much more intelligent to promote diesel vehicles instead of E85-capable ones?  Diesels running B50 or B85 run at just about the same efficiency as straight diesel.  B85 can be pushed through the existing distribution system and burned in existing diesel cars and trucks without modifiction of any sort.

Question:  do manufacturers who make diesel cars also get the CAFE bonus like cars that can burn E85?

Wouldn't it be much more intelligent to promote diesel vehicles instead of E85-capable ones?

Absolutely, and I told Khosla this on the phone. His response was essentially that diesels are dirty, and market penetration is not great enough to make it worth his while. Well, isn't he trying to force market penetration of E85? I think he is just pushing the wrong technology.

Question:  do manufacturers who make diesel cars also get the CAFE bonus like cars that can burn E85?

I don't think so. If they do, I have never heard about it.

I haven't been doing my due diligence on reminding folks to send these pieces to reddit, digg, metafilter, stumbleupon, etc.  Do so with this piece, Nate's yesterday, and all of them you deem worthy!
Have you seen the article in the Nov-Dec Harvard magazine, "The Ethanol Illusion" and the accompanying, more technical discussion, "Ethanol from biomass: can it substitute for gasoline?" The articles are written by Michael McElroy, professor of environmental studies at Harvard and former director of the university's Center for the Environment.

McElroy technical paper discusses some of the criticisms made of Pimentel's work, and develops alternate estimates. McElroy's conclusions about corn ethanol include:

  • Cost: Approximately twice that of gasoline on an equivilent basis ($4.00/gal wholesale in April 2006)
  • EROEI: Estimated at 1.2-1.3; my reading of McElroy's results is that 1.17 is the most likely figure
  • Greenhouse gas reduction: Insignificant
Remember that an EROI of 1.17 means net 'new' energy of .17 units for every 1 full unit of input. So in the case of corn ethanol, we have to use 6.88 units of energy to net out 1 'new' energy unit. (1/.17)+1.

  1. Modern society is run at much higher levels than this. The larger the disparity between a new energy technologies with lower EROI than the high energy average of modern infrastructure, the quicker we borrow from our stocks and deplete. (alternatively 1.17:1 might be ok if we all stayed home and grew root vegetables at 30:1 EROI on human calories expended)
  2. Is the energy quality uptick from the ethanol inputs really worth that type of energy investment???
  3. corn prices have doubled in less than a year
Corn prices rising:

One thing the ethanol bashing community must be aware of:  Almost all the subsidies that corn farmers recieve happen under the historical cheap corn prices we have had.  With corn prices rising like they have, those subsidies go away, and the few remaining ones will most likely be eliminated fairly soon.

I will not disagree that ethanol recieves a 51 cent/gallon subsidy, and that equates to around $1.25-$1.50 per bushel of corn, but to say there are additional subsidies on top of that is to fail to understand how the government backed farm program functions.

The reality is, when oil/gas prices skyrocketed we had just come off record large corn harvests, and therefore cheap corn.  So ethanol plants were basically printing money.  For all the bashing market forces get, they work in this regard.  Massive ethanol investment, driving up the price of corn and  ultimately the price of ethanol down (corn is going up not b/c of tight stocks today, but what the market percieves when the new plants come online in the next 1-2 years).  Ethanol refinerys will be like any other business, marginally profitable with profits flowing to those with some type of competitive edge.  

Once again, not suggesting any of this is good or bad policy, just injecting a little "ground truthed" reality into this debate from a simple Kansas dirt farmer :)

It really annoys me that so many people oppose biofuels on the grounds of how it would work based on current crop varieties.  Corn does not equal biofuel nor vice versa.  Corn was developed as a food crop -- not a fuel crop -- and uses way too much water.

I would love to see ethanol opponents give serious consideration to the contributions that biotech could make in developing new crops designed to produce fuel.

I was very disappointed that there was so little discussion of the Scientific American article a couple of weeks ago on Japan brewer pursues 'Monster Cane' ethanol dream

It is three meters tall and productive even in poor soil, it holds up in droughts and typhoons, and it yields twice as many stems as most sugarcane. No wonder they call it "Monster Cane."
If the claims made in this article are even half true, this report has tremendous potential significance as evidence that technologies that exist now could play a significant role in mitigating an emerging peak oil crisis.

Nature knows how to produce fuel from sunlight in a CO2 neutral way that would not exacerbate global warming.  It's called photosynthesis.

If biotechnology is already capable of breeding new plants specifically designed to produce fuel, isn't it madness to throw this baby out with the bathwater of ethanol produced from current corn  varieties that were BRED TO PRODUCE FOOD, NOT FUEL!

I see no evidence that the biotechnology's potential has been adequately explored in this forum.  If Mr. Rapier disagrees with this, I respectfully challenge him to enlighten us.

I see no evidence that the biotechnology's potential has been adequately explored in this forum.  If Mr. Rapier disagrees with this, I respectfully challenge him to enlighten us.

No, I actually agree with this. My research advisor and I had a disagreement about this in the early 90's. I said that I thought it was going to take some genetic engineering to make cellulosic ethanol viable, but he disagreed.

To be honest, I am a big fan of biotechnology. I think it has great potential in many different areas. I have closely followed Craig Venter's work on identifying genes that might be useful for energy production.

Thank you for replying, Robert.  I would certainly appreciate any links you'd like to share to bring us up to speed on this issue.
I agree that we need to do research in biotechnology to learn if we can better harvest the sun's energy in sustainable ways.

However, I think we ought to continually distinguish such efforts from false promises of technomagic solutions.

It does seem that the corporate world promotes only the notion that we can have our cake and eat it too.  In other words, we will grow ever more wealthy as we solve the energy crisis and address global climate change, while dealing with increasingly volatile geopolitics on an overcrowded planet where we are bumping up against the consequences of population overshoot and overconsumption.

We will never invite most of the world into the lifestyle that has been enjoyed in the USA for some years, and I cannot believe that anyone with any intelligence believes that we can do so, or that anyone seriously intends to do so.

My point is that I hope we can be very clear about this:  there will be no magical solutions to the very real problems that we face, and so we need to transform our culture so that we consume less energy and at the same time turn away from resource wars as a way of solving our problems.

Biotech?  Yes.  Ethanol?  Perhaps -- let's do the reseach.  But in any case, we will need to change ourselves in fundamental ways.

The total population of humanity currently uses about 400 quads of energy per year.

There is an estimated 72 terawatts (~2150 quads/year) of wind energy alone available on Earth.  Then there's solar, which is several orders of magnitude bigger.

We clearly can invite the world's population into a lifestyle which is equal or even superior to that enjoyed now in the USA.  It can't be done the same way, but that's mostly engineering.

Even if it were possible to cover the surface of the earth in windmills. Where will you get the copper from to make the required power cable and turbines.

...right, we all know that copper cannot possibly be recycled...tell that to our local housing project director, who has to constantly guard against the meth addicts ripping the wiring and plumbing out of public buildings to sell to the scrap dealer......

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

And your point is? Are you saying we should take the copper in our houses and use it in windmills?

I work for a company that recycles scrap metal and electronics, and I witness everday at work how a small percentage of the salvaged metals are sent off to a local landfill along with the trash. Presumably never to get recovered again.

As anyone with a basic knowledge of math will know, if you recycle something a 100 times, and loose, say 1%, each time, it's not going to have a happy ending.
So there is no point in telling me everything is going to be fine in our future. I see firsthand at work it most certainly will not.

After the dieoff there should be plenty of free copper to provide for both windmills and houses. And hopefully people then will have the brains to use it in such a way as to allow a 100% recovery rate. But to suggest that there exist enough available copper to provide the infrastructure to cover our present needs is absurd.

Solar and wind will become essential after the dieoff but will remain a niche until then.


And my point is?  Simply this:  That of the many hurdles that renewable energy will have to overcome to be accepted and used on a scale large enough to be viable as a mitigation to oil and gas depletion, a copper shortage is pretty far down the list.  Despite some of the recent price run ups, there is no real indication that the world is "running out" of copper.  Your point that it is getting more expensive to get I think is correct, and your point that the waste of copper and other minerals in lack of recycling, or in sloppy recycling is again correct, however, and this is one more MASSIVE opportunity for energy and resouces conservation.  EVERYTHING IS WASTED, which simply proves how cheap everything has been.

This brings us back to the theory of "peak everything".  I know, form my years on Earth, that every time commodities prices shoot up, it becomes "the theory of everything".  WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF EVERYTHING!!

I also know, from my reading of history, that this has been going on for many, many years before my time on Earth.

The problem with "peak everything" is that on even a small amount of thought, it makes no sense.  Despite the different introduction dates, the different use rates, the rise and fall of commodities usefulness in industry and personal tastes, and the differing amounts of commodities throughout the Earth, and the differing technological rates of changes in extraction, we are to believe that all commodities started to "run out" at the same time , this time interestingly, in about 1999!  Does this seem likely?  

More likely is (a) a normal commodities price cycle (the world has been through many, and everyone admits that commodities had been stupidly cheap and investment in extraction stupidly low for the 20 years preceding 1999) or (b) devaluation currency to buy the commodities with, and or (c) a rise in the cost of a fundamental commoditiy used in the production and processing of almost all major commodities went up price....uh, could we mean oil and natural gas?

One thing that confronts the theory of "peak everything" is that the Earth has to be made out of something!  Yes, much of it is what we would call useless inert matter when it comes to the commodities trade, and there is no doubt that the easiest to get of many commodities has already been extracted (that again would be true of about EVERYTHING, wouldn't it?).  But, the total weight of the minerals in the weight of the rock on Earth having been consumed, and all at almost EXACTLY THE SAME TIME (!) would strike as a contention that must be proven, I would think.  If we wanted to, we could make a case that we should have run out of copper and iron first because humans have been using them for over 4000 years, as opposed to using oil and gas on a large scale for only a century and three quarter or so....but of course, that argument would seem silly....wouldn't it?

My point?  All this talk of "dieoffs" and "peak everything" and "running out" of anything (even the educated class in the peak movement do not accept "running out" of even oil and gas as possible this coming century) makes the whole ideology of "peak" and the real concern and education we MUST develop in the mind of the public concerning resource conservation and reduction of waste seem like it is being pushed forward, at times even led by hysterical chicken littles, and people obviously uneducated in matters of resource history, development, and use.  It seems like doom cult run by amatuers if these types of misrepresentation and wild conjectures are not confronted FAST.  

To use your misquote of what I said "So there is no point in telling me everything is going to be fine in our future."

I would not tell you that.  I am not a prophet.  There is CERTAINLY KNOW WAY TO KNOW THAT.

Your contention,
" I see firsthand at work it most certainly will not."

I cannot agree with that.  I am not a prophet.  I most certainly have no way of knowing that.  You may be right, and it may well not, depending on your own definition of "fine".  In my own case, I can only confront the issues that the so called "facts" seem to give me.  Right now, running out of copper is not at the top of the agenda.  We should not waste it.  We should recycle it.  We should consider the longer term future of it.  It is on the agenda, as all finite resources should be.  Just not at the top of it.
Thank you.

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

Aluminum is an adequate substitute for copper in motors and generators, and as good or better for transmission.  There is also the possibility (when we get good enough) of using carbon nanotubes as wires (better conductors than copper and far stronger).

Aluminum is 8.1% of Earth's crust.  There's about 1.6 kg of carbon above every square meter of the Earth, as 379 ppmv of carbon dioxide.  We cannot run out of either one.

Aluminium requires huge amounts of electricity to process. Also it's difficult to recycle since its not magnetic and unlike copper differs little from garbage in terms of weight.

The only way to separate it is to run it trough a separation machine equipped with metal detectors. But they are few and far between, and the amount of scrap aluminium is just to big.

We do send a lot of non-magnetic metal to China where I have been told it gets sorted by hand. But our primary focus in non-magnetic metal is copper and aluminium is really just a prime landfill candidate.

The only way?

What if we sort it out as we use it and put it in recycle bins?

You are going to have to give me an update on your recent visit to the sugarcane ethanol plant. If you have talked about it yet, I missed it. Do you have a pretty good feel for the process from start to finish? For instance, one of the things I have wondered about is whether any enzymes are required for starch conversion, as is the case with corn ethanol, or whether the simple sugars are already accessible for fermentation.
Robert sorry,

I have been writing a thesis on advanced scope of practice and helping my fiancee translate her thesis into English.

The plant I went to presses the cane through rollers and makes food sugar.  The cane is rinsed with water from a stream not municipal water then some batch tests are done on the mixture and any nutrients the yeast needs are added.  The baggasse from previous batches that has air dried is used to burn for distillation heat.  Some electicity is produced from the burn but not as much as the plant uses overall (my neighbor is still collecting numbers for me on inputs and outputs) no enzymes were mentioned but I'll ask the specific question.  When I made rum I mean ethanol I just used brown sugar and yeast.  So the plant makes a considerable amount of sugar and as a by product makes ethanol and is close to breaking even on electricity.  The sugar is for food but we should consider it since it has value and the process could easily divert more towards ethanol.  Mario (my neighbor) says that some of the plants dont make sugar only ethanol but use lower grade cane fertilized by sewage.

The ash from the baggasse he does not believe is used but that is something they want to capture.  I definatly think it is an efficent process but the numbers need crunching.

I finish my papers for school by the 20th and will put more time on this.

Senoritas and margaritas,



As I understand it, Brazilian electricity regulations don't provide a very good rate for small generators, so the ethanol plants purchase low pressure boilers which cost less and only provide enough power for internal use. I am sure they aim low because it is more cost effective to spend less and pay for the gap from the grid than to spend more and waste it. In Thailand, the rate is more favorable and sugar/ethanol companies produce three times what they need. I did hear Brazil may be changing the regulations.

Most Brazilian ethanol plants run parallel ethanol and sugar operations from the crushing stage onwards, unlike Thailand and India, which are serial. Brazilian plants divert half of the drushing rpocess to sugar and half to ethanol.

In Thailand and India, cane is more expensive and it makes more economic sense to use all of the juice to produce sugar and then distill ethanol from the resulting molasses (about 30% of total volume).

Here are links to some great studies with wonderful detail on Brazil, down to the costs of each stage in the process. They may be helpful if you are planning to look at ethanol further.

1) FO Licht presentation to METI,

2) IEA Automotive Fuels for the Future

3) IEA: Biofuels for Transport

4) Worldwatch Institute & Government of Germany: Biofuels for Transport  (Link to register - study is free)

5) Potential for Biofuels for Transport in Developing Countries 161036/Rendered/PDF/ESM3120PAPER0Biofuels.pdf


I for a time in the middle 90's worked for Butler Macdonald, an Indianapolis based company that had a major contract with AT&T to process out all the Old Stuff they were getting rid of.  The Company had a BIG huge machine that literally they built the building around, to process things.  It was at the time 1 of maybe 5 or 6 in the WHOLE WORLD.  They would load in batches things like phones ( Some never been used still in the factory wrappings ) the big grinder would made it all small pieces.  I saw them feed whole TVs in it, glass and all.  The bits that came out were about the size of half a peanut.  

 AND yes we were sending A LOT of the output to China.  Plastics were sorted, metals were sorted, gold was even sorted.  I don't know how the machine did it all, but I asked as much as I could at the time.  
 I sorted and Handled their HAZ-MAT stuff.  The company had some problems unrelated to the process of the recycling.

 But the Process is out there.  

 We can sort out our trash, we just have not been doing it to the scale we need to do it.  Nothing is going to be easy.
 But I have seen people who have reduced their total family Garbage output to less than handfuls a week.

 We can reduce packaging, we can increase recycling, we can change the metals we use, it is all possible.  We SHOULD NOT be in the mess we are in.  The solutions have been out there for decades now.

 It is like my post above, we let it go to long, we got lazy, we stopped cutting out the coupons and started eating out all the time.  We became our own worst enemies.

 Talk to anyone over the age of 60, ask them how they lived.  Talk to anyone over the age of 70 or 80 and ask them how they lived.  Ask them how their parents lived, they have stories.

 Sure we are 6.5 billion young and old minds, but we have gotten lazy in thinking it will all be a quick fix.  I am still a doomer, but I am more a Practicalist.  I see the problem and find practical solutions for the issue at hand.  My mom is 76, born 1930, my dad is 70 born in 1936, they remember how their parents lived. I am among other things, working on a biography of my mom's father.  He was a Practicalist as I have defined it.  

We can completly do away with the massive landfills we have had to use, but we have to work on a local and global methodology to do this.  WE have to do better than we are now, go back to the old ways of doing things in some cases.

 10,000 things need and could be done.  Getting them started on bigger scales than just one or two people is what we need.  Some People are doing great in this, but if you have not heard of them, then it's still not big enough to matter in the grand scheme of things, but keep doing them.  

Improvement requires making one step forward, even if it is so small no one notices but you.

Charles E. Owens Jr.
Author At Large, aka Dan Ur

Aluminium requires huge amounts of electricity to process.
Fortuitously, the primary product of wind energy is huge amounts of electricity.
Also it's difficult to recycle since its not magnetic and unlike copper differs little from garbage in terms of weight.
It's conductive, and can be pushed out of a stream of mixed waste by inductive repulsion.  Non-mixed waste is far higher; in states with deposit laws, some 80% of aluminum drink containers are recycled.  And if municipal waste was processed by e.g. pyrolysis, the metals would wind up concentrated in the ash.

But the sort of stuff we're mostly talking about is not mixed waste.  Industrial machinery made of steel and other metals can be shredded and separated by magnetic properties and specific gravity (flotation).  Cables are even easier to recycle.  For the inevitable losses, there's always that 8.1% of Earth's crust to fall back on.  That last 1% of needs may be energetically expensive to pull out of clays and the like, but it's not going to have a big impact on the invested energy in a big wind farm.

This changes even more if you go to e.g. magnesium instead of aluminum.  The raw source of magnesium is seawater.  The ultimate reycling method is to throw it someplace where the oxide washes back to the ocean.  And when carbon nanotube production gets cheap enough to use them for wires, the atmosphere is the ultimate "mine".

If we use the right things, we can quite literally never run out.

The only way to separate it is to run it trough a separation machine equipped with metal detectors. But they are few and far between, and the amount of scrap aluminium is just to big.

I know you work in a recycling plant but have you not heard of a) pre-sorting and b) eddy current seperation? I won't disagree with your prognosis for ensuring a steady supply of recycled aluminum - far too much goes into composite and useless products (like domestic aluminum foil) - but surely these problems you cite can be effectively addressed without resorting to big metal detectors (how does that make sorting easier?) and hand sorting by former Chinese farmers.

I've often wondered how much of the world's steel production is consumed or locked up in pipelines, oil and gas well, rigs etc. If we have been capable of producing so much steel to meet the needs of the energy industry "profitably" it seems possible that we could achieve something similar with metals necessary for electrical transmission...

That being said, I think covering the planet in wind turbines is impractical and not so smart. Turbines are expensive (so are the materials to make them) and they are best installed where we'd find the best wind - like in northern Canada. To do that we'll need some very very long transmission lines or, lots and lots of recycled aluminum cans.

Won't bother me when Coke is sold in syrup form in plastic coated corrosion proofed paper bags.

I drink RC.
Best storage for softdrinks is a cardboard Tetra-Pak.

Wind turbines, of differing sizes, will work most places.  The question is whether it is economic, which is a question about wind speed and intensity, cost of connection to the grid consumer, local cost of construction and other factors such as cost of capital.

In developed countries many  of the best locations are on the coastal shelves.  That or ridge and mountain tops.  Even in the US Southeast, which has poor onshore wind resources, there are good to excellent offshore locations.

The technology is (largely) derived from the offshore oil and gas industry.

In emerging markets you have lower cost of labour to erect them, and higher costs of substitutes, so more land locations become feasible.  So India is the third or fourth largest installed wind capacity base (central power is unreliable).  Places like Africa wind is going to be more economic than virtually any competitive technology (given the alternative is fuel oil run through a gas turbine).

It's pretty clear wind can become up to 20% of the power needs of any mature grid.  Whether it can become more than that is an open question.

E.Poet said "It can't be done the same way, but that's mostly engineering. "

Hurin:  Look at that statement.  

 The same old ways of doing things is one of the major paradigms we have to change.

 We change from 50,000 miles of cables, to right here right now.  We CHANGE.

 We don't cover the world with windmills.  We cover the houses and factories.  We use the environment of the places we have our structures now, to get the energy needed for them.  Wind and solar energy conversion devices on the rooftops, ground based temperature exchangers.  We globally set about planning at the local scale any new living-working structures to incorporate the best we can on environmental energy use, ( wind, solar, ground temps, geothermal, whatever else).

I have in the past said I was a doomer.  But I have been passionate about the issue that we can get past this whole mess we find ourselves in if, and it's a big IF we can ALL work toward it, or if not globally at least starting on a large enough scale to get others to notice.  TO WAKE THEM UP AND MAKE THEM THINK!  That they can do this too.

I am a writer, I have a 3 part novel in the works all about the energy problems and the population problems and how they were solved, how we all got past the big bad 1970's to the 2020's.  The story looks back on the life of one of the pioneers in this endeavor.  It is 2063, he is 100 yrs old, and finally writing his Autobiography.  It is science fiction, but the things I used to mitigate the problems of the 1980's ( I have been writting the story for a while, LOL ) and the 1990's most of it is CURRENT Science FACT.  We can do this!

 We just need to DO THIS.  

 Get all the cards out on the table, get some folks together to hash out the details and start doing it.

 What we are fighting against is the Status Quo.  The NIMBYs, No it costs to much, No my political future won't be assured, No I am to selfish, No I can't make a profit on that, AND billions of other NOs.

 In writing Fiction I can bypass the NOs.  I can make it up as I go along, I can make it a rosy future.  It's when taking my ideas of Fiction and trying to push them in real life that I fail.  The real World bites hard at failure.

 We are facing the end of the world as we know it.  We had better just face that fact and get to doing the changes needed or else the world will keep on truckin' and we will be dust blowing in the wind.

 Charles E. Owens Jr.
 Author at Large, aka Dan Ur.

i agree with your main point that its not cellulosic technology (how to better break down cellulose using less energy) that is the question - to develop new crops purposefully that are better for fuel than food certainly is not widely discussed.

Regarding sugar cane in Japan, we already know that sugar cane works in Brazil and does not in the US except in the southern states. Okinawa is same latitude as Bahamas and Florida, so I doubt we could grow this monstercane in the midwest. But perhaps something else...

Maybe one thing missing from this debate is that the corn farmers are so heavily invested in the status quo that they really want a market for their corn, and so ethanol is advocated - but if they were compensated for making the transition to growing switchgrass, etc. things might make more sense.

I still maintain that the cellulosic returns are overestimated, because th energy loss from the lignin is not accounted for. (In other words, there is an energy opportunity cost once you have the biomass out of the ground)

I basically agree, but please notice I was talking about mitigation and not a "technomagic" that would allow us to continue our destructive ways. If we can come up with a suitable techno-Manhattan Project to enable our civilization to slip down a slope rather than fall off a cliff, that's probably worth fighting for.  If biotech is one of the more promising  candidates for such a Project, let's take it very seriously.

Life as we know it may be hosed but we still need to worry hard about how to lessen the shock and the consequent suffering when the Big One gets underway.  That's the mitigation I'm talking about.

we're on the same page then
Right on.  We need to focus resources on the energy issues in an unprecedented way.

Meanwhile, Americans consume more gas every year, and spend relatively little on energy research.

I wonder why?

Oops, that was supposed to be a reply to beggar, not Nate.
Never mind.  Glad we're on the same page.
I still maintain that the cellulosic returns are overestimated, because th energy loss from the lignin is not accounted for. (In other words, there is an energy opportunity cost once you have the biomass out of the ground)
That's why I think the emphasis on ethanol is so misplaced; it's touted so we can continue to run Otto-cycle engines, which are horribly inefficient.  But to the producers, the inefficiency is a feature, not a bug; if production cannot saturate a market, prices cannot crash as a consequence (as they have with food grains).

I think the emphasis on liquid fuels is misguided.  There are schemes to heat homes with e.g. pelletized switchgrass instead of fossil fuels.  Such systems would be much more efficient than producing liquid fuels (even bio-oil) from the biomass.  We should be aiming at systems which produce the greatest amount of useful energy from our production, rather than a specific form.  If we can thermo-crack lignocellulose into charcoal and gas and use the gas in something like SOFC's, we can get ~30% of the energy out as electricity without touching the charcoal (which would be ideal for sequestration).  That's already 3-4 times as good as the field-to-wheels efficiency of cellulosic ethanol.  There are schemes to use algae to create carbohydrates or oils (to be processed into ethanol or biodiesel) from CO2-rich exhausts from powerplants; these would work just as well on the exhaust from SOFCs, yielding liquid biofuel as a secondary rather than primary product.  Why not get two for one?

The "problem" with this is that any system which can restore a situation of cheap, commodity energy can result in the same price-crash economics which plagued grain production for centuries.  The one "market" we cannot saturate for several decades isn't a market as such, but carbon for sequestration (to restore the climate to something close to its historical state).  We should probably be paying farmers a reserve price for sequestration-ready carbon (e.g. charcoal), and let them use that to set a floor price under all the other grains and whatnot they grow.

Why not put a tax on CO2-producers and use that to pay charcoal producers. The charcoal could just be dumped somewhere, or even used as soil improvement and fertilizer if these guys are right.

The tax could be proportional to the ratio of CO2 produced to C02 sequestered, and the entire income from the tax would be distributed proportionally to the amount of CO2 sequestered.

It would have to be phased in gradually, otherwise the initial taxes/credits would be huge.

Of course the question remains what this would do to food prices.

Taxing producers to pay sequesterers is fine, but what happens when there's a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere?  If the effort is going to be compensated, someone's got to pay for it.

I suspect that we're going to have to pull CO2 out of the air down to 350 ppmv or so to stabilize our situation.

The sequesteration credit would peak when there is a carbon balance and then drop from there.

E.g. when the emission to sequesteration ratio is 1/2, a power plant would have to pay X for each ton CO2 emitted, and a charcoal producer would receive X/2 for each ton sequestered. But yes, the system depends on some fossil fuel being burnt, i see it mostly as a transitional tool.

After all, "What do we do when we have carbon balance?", is a really nice problem to have. :)

dont forget we are already past peak land ........... so how smart is it to just keep on converting perfectly good crop land to ethanol production and  vinyl clad  burbs  
While biotech could make improvements in harvestable energy yield from fuel crops, I can't see more than marginal changes.

Why?  A plant has an energy balance - input from solar insolation - output to structure, photosynthetic processes, water/mineral sourcing, anti-predation measures, reproduction.  Some of that budget goes to storage, often as sugars, starches, or oils.

We've been breeding crop varieties for millenia to maximize the net energy storage of food crops.  That has involved replacing some of the "natural" and necessary functions with human energy inputs.  We weed, we propagrate, we water and fertilize, we scare off crows, we even physically support some plants (grapes?).  The vaulted "Green Revolution" was just massive investments in fertilizer and pesticides and the introduction of plants optimized for such heavy external energy inputs.

So what would biotech change?  I'd think it would ultimately require INCREASED human energy inputs.  Those might be some net gains but no revolution - hungry farmers have been looking at this problem for ages.

If we strive for celluose production, how do we better tree farms for paper pulp? That assumes that someone makes ethanol production from celluose to be energy efficient.

I just don't see any miracles here.  Am I missing something?

I wish BOTH sides of this debate could quit the mis-representation of information.  

The 25-year Nebraska/Ethanol price graph is a classic example of bending reality.  As long as the 51 cent a gallon subsidy is exists, that graph showing ethanol prices at a 51 cent premium would actually make for equal prices to the consumer.  

Ethanol to this point has maintained a higher than "energy value" price even after subsidies partly b/c of some useful properties that the public is willing to pay for (octane boost, ect.)  Certianly that will be challenged as production expands to the point of needing to sell the product for it's energy value, but another topic.

And to say that additional ethanol production would not lower gas prices is rejected by fundamental supply/demand.  The two commodities are virtually interchangeable, at least to the 10% additive level.  Increased ethanol production will most certianly displace gasoline use, now that may only be pennies per gallon, but it is real.

Whether it is profitable or wise is another subject entirely, and one I am probably in general agreement with this posts author on.  

However, painting a picture more negative than reality really isn't any better than what the opposition in this debate is doing.

The 25-year Nebraska/Ethanol price graph is a classic example of bending reality.  As long as the 51 cent a gallon subsidy is exists, that graph showing ethanol prices at a 51 cent premium would actually make for equal prices to the consumer.

You have completely missed the point. Khosla claims 1). It is cheaper to produce ethanol; and 2). You are being ripped off at the pump by oil companies. The above graph shows how much ethanol producers are selling their product for. If their costs are lower, you can see that their margins are far fatter.

Of course the subsidy brings the cost of ethanol down to parity. But that doesn't change the analysis in the above paragraph, which was the point of posting the graph.

And to say that additional ethanol production would not lower gas prices is rejected by fundamental supply/demand.

Yet we have an actual case where ethanol production has exploded, and oil prices have gone up sharply during this period. The point is that Khosla's analysis here was very simplistic, and  contradicted by recent history.

Ethanol production has exploded?

Using the numbers I consistantly hear -- US gasoline demand is 140 Billion gallons.  Ethanol production the last 3-4 years has been growing by about 300-500 million gallons/year.  That is less than 1/2 of 1% of total gasoline demand.  And slower than just the rate of gasoline demand growth.  So no, at present ethanol production would have almost no measureable price impact.  

Now IF we can produce ethanol (cellulose-based) any volume at competitive costs, we start to impact gas prices, but ONLY then..

So no, at present ethanol production would have almost no measureable price impact.

And now you start to get to the crux of the matter. The truth is, increasing ethanol production won't make gasoline cheaper, unless you make the huge leap that we can make an enormous amount of cheap ethanol. Just saying that increasing ethanol production will lower gas prices is contradicted by recent history, since production has doubled in the past 5 years.  And yes, I would call that growth rate in ethanol production an explosion.

I dont know if ethanol will be nationally scaled or not, though I certainly hope not. But in a few short years, the debate wont be 'will ethanol make gasoline cheaper?', it will be 'will ethanol make natural gas more expensive?' or worse, 'what will ethanol (steamed by coal if not NG) do to GHG?'. The Harvard study linked above assumes current energy mix when they discuss climate impacts - to scale to Mr Khoslas numbers on ethanol, on a continent where new gas wells are depleting at 60% and the average gas well is depleting at 30%, means much more coal.
But in a few short years, the debate wont be 'will ethanol make gasoline cheaper?', it will be 'will ethanol make natural gas more expensive?' or worse, 'what will ethanol (steamed by coal if not NG) do to GHG?'.

But Nate, don't you know that this is the "wrong question"? The only thing that matters is that petroleum is displaced. At least that's what Khosla argues.

Robert, just wanted to say thank you for all your research, and for civiling answering my points.  Unlike Khosla, I ultimately respect your work, even if we disagree sometimes.

At a humanity level, I hope we can ultimately deal with peak oil with as little pain as possible, although some seems enivitable.  At a personal level, I would love for agriculture  to play some role, whether that is ethanol or something we haven't heard of yet.

Agriculture will play a role, but it is very unlikely in North America to be the provision of alternate liquid fuel.

Solid fuel, such as pellets from switchgrass, for space and water heating can replace high quality resources such as natural gas, oil and electricity. You can read more about this potential use of marginal agriculture land here:

While I'm at it, here is a link to a piece on a stove that allows people in poor countries to switch from forest to agricultural/food processing residues for cooking heat:


I would love for Agriculture to not 'get rolled', in all this.

I think ag does play a vital role, and the move over to harvesting motorfuels is sidelining it.  I don't begrudge the use of all the 'leftovers' for some kind of co-generation, but after liquid fuels declines, we will be facing a critical issue around People-Fuel.  I know that a farmer has to be a Meteorologist, Economist and an Engineer to do that job, (certainly more)  so I'm hoping that enough farmers are looking towards the 2010 and 2020 crops to be figuring out ways to keep the tractors rolling if the tankers stop coming.

I keep getting visions of Tractors with Forklift batteries on board that can switch out for fresh ones at charge stations at the ends of the fields.. Or long, narrow fields along electrified railbeds, where your rolling stock has tools to do the planting/harvesting..   just spitballing from a Yankee Cameraman!

My wife's family is all central Iowan farmers, and they have my deepest respect!

Bob Fiske

I keep getting visions of Tractors with Forklift batteries on board that can switch out for fresh ones at charge stations at the ends of the fields.. Or long, narrow fields along electrified railbeds, where your rolling stock has tools to do the planting/harvesting..   just spitballing from a Yankee Cameraman!

 Bob,  You are discribing the same things used in some spaceship based farming that was famous in the late 70's, and early 80's, as our future.  I have extensive planning of this in my novel "Future Tech an Autobiography of Robert Conner."  

 Send me e.mail.

 We can do a lot of things, we are just not doing them, cause the "market" has not been geared toward them. It is the same old problem.  

I know we can't just go back to hand farming, or animal farming, we have to work out solutions for what we have, or better ways to power the tractors.  

 Solar and wind powered charging stations in every field, smaller fields to utilize the capacity of the charging potential, lighter weight farming tractors to harvest the energy supplied better.   A whole SEA change in how we have done it, a changed methodology to solve the issues at hand.

 Grow food, grow fuels, use the sun and wind where useful for powering the machines of the farm.  Local, Global, Regional Co-Ops banding together to get the job done.  

 Rosy future, Or fictional fodder?

Charles E. Owens Jr.
Author at Large, aka Dan Ur.

  Yeah, there must be far better ways to manage the energies of crop-growing, besides just 'Building a better Mule', right?

I look forward to reading about Connor, and hearing about your own ideas.  Will email you..

Bob Fiske

You are younger and more fit than Mr Khosla (this based on visual physical comparison and I know you go to gym every day). You also have pit bull tendencies.  Mr Khosla on the other hand is taller, more experienced and sneakier.

Therefore in a match with boxing gloves I would make you a 2-1 favorite. Without boxing gloves and no rules, it would be around even money.

In my boondocks area we vote via absentee ballot so I've already voted.  My wife and I both voted no on Prop 87.  There were several reasons.  First, it is a poorly written proposition - far too nebulous.  Second, we felt that any monies should be directed toward conservation and buy-downs on alternative energy projects; especially small-scale ones oriented toward residential units.  I totally disagree that any public funds should be used to subsidize "green" cars including hybrids.  Incidentally, I wouldnot object to offering incentives to companies who totally telecomunte. Finally, it is stupid to use public funds to try to maintain the status quo.

It is, perhaps, the last issue that drives me nuts and further inflames my doomerism.  It's time to get over the idea that the growth economy can be maintained by pissing around the edges.  A sea change in the existing pardigm is needed and things like Prop 87 aren't the way.

Very well put, Todd!

I agree that "a sea change in the existing paradigm is needed."

The question is, will anyone in the so-called "free market" recognise this need and respond with carefully reasoned policies?

Global population overshoot combined with consumption overshoot on the part of a minority of our species: these issues are at the core of the paradigm that needs to change.

We are likley to see many "free market" solutions offered, but none that will address the most important problems.

Meanwhile, American religion seems to be all about developing one's own coccoon of "personal peace and affluence" without regard to one's impact outside of this realm of one's own immediate experience.

It is as though we want to live in Heaven now, even though we subject many others to Hell in order to do so.

Is Prop 87 another way to keep up the illusion that our efforts to consume like we do are in any way sustainable.

Excellent breakdown, thanks for posting this.

As I live in California, I find this very insightful.

Today's WSJ:

But the ethanol industry's continuing expansion and its ravenous appetite for corn are helping ignite the biggest bull market for grain since the 1970s, when the former Soviet Union suddenly emerged as a huge customer.

The price for corn -- the nation's No. 1 crop and one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in the American food supply -- has jumped nearly 55% since mid-September, when U.S. corn farmers began harvesting their third-biggest crop ever. Grain prices usually slump to their lowest levels of the year during the harvest season. Yet the price of corn in recent weeks has shot through the rarely breached $3-a-bushel mark and appears headed higher.

For energy to be on the front pages for the past 2 years and what we get out of California is Prop 87, it's just so damn depressing. The latest Field poll has it down 44-40, which means it's not only going to lose, but could very well go down double digits. That means it will be spun all sorts of ways to show Americans will not do anything, so it's actually caused much greater harm than the simple idiocy of the proposition.

87's proponents were too clever by half from the beginning. Saying we could grow our way out of our oil problem, it wasn't going to cost consumers anything, and finally running some of the worst ads ever(though all 30 second ads are the bane of democracy) which focus not on transportation but solar and wind becuase they both poll well. 87 deserves to lose, but now I'm going to vote for it just to stem the bleeding.

When you get a few wealthy egotists, combine with a corrupted and broken political system, nothing good will come of it. So, we're going to have $60 million wasted and the public no better informed or encouraged to start taking action, but the losing consultants like Mr. Begala and the oil companies are smiling to the bank, everyone else loses.

Brutus said:

That means it will be spun all sorts of ways to show Americans will not do anything, so it's actually caused much greater harm than the simple idiocy of the proposition.

It may be spun but my guess is that a lot of research is going to be done to find out why it failed.  Hopefully this research will determine that a lot of people like my wife and voted against it because it was a bad proposition not because we are against alternatives.

BTW, I wish I could have seen some of the ads but we don't get TV (by choice).  We rely upon the print media and the Internet.

Todd;  a Realist


I spend a lot of time thinking about how you might be wrong. I linked your blog off mine I think a very long time ago. I called you 'Ethanol Expert.' I hated the name you gave it so much, I had to substitute something. I've never changed it. Hahaha. R-Squared. You know what? That was then. It has a different ring to it now. You are as good a writer as Christopher Hitchens. You have mastered the arts of the internet. And you know what you are talking about. So I'll change it to anything you want. You make points and you make them well.
About the only opinion I have regarding California Proposition 87 is that I can't wait till it's all over so I don't have to see this thing discussed ad nauseum.

I know it's selfish of me, but I don't care much either way, because, as some of you of a more redneck pursuasion might say: 'I don't have a dog in that fight.'

Proposition 87, like 99.99% of all politics, ultimately gets down to self interests, pure and simple. The big oil companies obviously don't want to pay additional taxes, nor do they want anything to cramp their style with respect to the status quo. Proponents like Mr. Khosla just want to get their snouts into the ethanol and alternative energy subsidy feeding trough. Can't blame either; and the loser will of course offer up reasons why voting against his position will cause the end of human civilization as we know it.

Mr. Rapier commented that Mr. Khosla, by supporting a highly flawed pathway (i.e., ethanol from corn) is betting peoples lives. Well, that may be or may not be true, but I think the exact same thing could be said about the big oil companies, such as Exxon/Mobil, who have spent millions upon millions in an attempt to refute the very concept of human-caused global warming and to also discredit those highly vocal scientists who have raised concerns over the speed at which global warming appears to be proceeding. Nobody's hands are clean.

I am hardly a fan of either Mr. Khosla or Big Oil, and I can sum up my thoughts on the matter as: A pox on both your houses.

I think the exact same thing could be said about the big oil companies, such as Exxon/Mobil...

I agree with that. Not only on the Global Warming issue, but oil companies who reassure the public that there is plenty of oil are potentially risking lives just like Mr. Khosla is.

When I debated ExxonMobil and Michael Lynch regarding Peak Oil for the PBS program, while talking to the ExxonMobil guy (in the green room), I couldn't' even get him to admit that Cantarell is declining.
Can ethanol be distilled sufficiently for fuel on a small scale?  What is the likely EROI for the old moonshiner with a little patch of organic corn and a wood fired still?  This question is probably irrelevant for 99% of us, but there may be a niche.
150 proof (corn squeazins)  only 75 % alcohol
Some uses would actually work better with 150-190 proof than anhydrous product.  Water is an anti-knock agent too.
seems they are just trying to make a gasoline engine operate like a diesel with spark plugs  i must have missed something  
They're downsizing the engine to slash weight, friction and throttling losses.  If it bears some resemblance to a turbodiesel when running at full boost, I guess it just proves where the thermodynamics work best.
SF, you do NOT want to drink any ethanol even if it has not been denatured.

There is an art(practiced by artisans) to making good moonshine(which is usually referred to as white liquor).

Just running something thru a still and then drinking it can be extremely deadly or cause many health problems.

Bad moonshiners can also produce poison.

However the really well made stuff is indescribable and far far exceeds the quality of the mass produced product by the manufacturers(distilleries). For instance, Makers Mark is pure hogwash. Its all sold because of the marketing hype.

Just like home brew beer that I make. Its all a con game(breweries product)surrounded by bad advertising and marketing. Ask the Germans for they know good bier. We don't know shit here and the "Lite" trash we drink tells you that plainly. For awhile microbreweries were all the fad. That has pretty much faded and its back to the horsepiss and oxidized skunky trash on your alkymarts shelves.

Else stick to very good scotch. Very expensive that however so I usually pass it by. I find Evan Williams to be fair and at a reasonable price. Note that now many of the bourbons are appearing without AGE on the labels. One wonders why.

The Famous Grouse
This seems to be a good article in which to post the following prompt:

How much do you think gasoline(or diesel) prices will have to increase before there will be a large reaction from the general population? What reactions do you anticipate? What do you guess will be the response to the reaction?

I am interested to see your responses.

In a NYT article a few weeks ago on how people responded to higher gasoline prices, by and large only one category of drivers had curtailed their driving:  those who were financially incapable of buying gasoline to continue their driving patterns.  There was one story about a guy who would like to carpool, but he couldn't find anyone to carpool with him.

Even in Europe, Rome for example is choked with traffic all the time--hordes of scooters and fuel efficient vehicles, but traffic choked still the same, with gasoline around $7 a gallon or so if I remember correctly.  However, per capita EU energy consumption is about half of what we use in the US.  

Do you have any idea how that breaks down? First question--is that consumer consumption (excluding industry)? Less driving and AC, probably. Efficiency?
Re:  EU

First and foremost higher energy taxes.  Smaller, more energy efficient housing, lots more mass transit. Something as simple as not nearly as many clothes dryers.

As Jim Kunstler has pointed out, American suburbia was built out based on an assumption of an infinitely expanding energy supply.

Smaller people, less addiction to novelty, shallower discount rates, longer cultural traditions of cooperation vs individualism, central planning on transportation infrastructure, habituation to 60 degree room temperature not being a big deal, to name a few more
I would also add two other things -

  1. Hard, hard experience - Europeans have a lot of experience with bad times - the most recent being during the 1940s.

  2. Decidedly less magical thinking. Most Europeans understand that electrictiy doesn't result from flipping a switch, it is the result of engineering, education, and organized effort. And connecting to point 1 - if you don't work on keeping something working, it stops working. This applies to a number of areas, and while culturally bounded in some ways (Europe has a number of different aspects), the fact remains that most few Europeans don't honestly believe that things are Heaven sent - whereas far too many Americans do.

Let us not even get into the complete and utter inability of Germans to grasp creationism as being anything more than a sign of utter ignorance having no place in a modern industrial society - because then we start getting into the debate of whether America today is actually a modern industrial society, or one sliding from that status into something else over the last generation.
Let us not even get into the complete and utter inability of Germans to grasp creationism as being anything more than a sign of utter ignorance having no place in a modern industrial society...

Funny you should mention that. When I worked in Germany, I tried to explain Creationism to my boss. It was difficult to convince him that I wasn't joking with him. He was dumbfounded.


This gives me hope. Every woman Ive met on is either an astrology freak or a creationist. No agnostics, atheists or plain deists (which I could handle) in the Midwest. Maybe I should sign on to Berlin? no...low WROI...

Well my wife is certainly someone who pays (some) attention to astrology.  And I met her online.

But I would hardly call her an irrationalist, indeed she has a second degree in biology.

The Midwest.  I was hoping that America was still full of plain vanilla Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians?  With maybe some Catholics thrown in.  Even some secular Jews?  You're basically telling me not.

Pity.  Midwesterners seemed such anchored types.

Valuthinker - normally i wouldnt respond but I respect your thinking and your value...;) (I had asked you to email me before...?)

This could be a whole other post but only peripherally related to oil, but:

(I think) You are implying that religion and science can go hand in hand, and that midwesterners, being largely religious (as opposed to southerners being extremely religious) and are anchored and sensible, imply that belief in the irrational can be a positive thing.

I am arguing that irrationally believing in anything, leads down a path of reliance on something other than cold hard facts, which ultimately leads to relying on faith, which is one thing we cannot afford to do in the years ahead.

That being said, George Orwell, wrote "ignorance is strength", and for those who truly have faith, in whatever God it is, who am I to strip that away, with facts that leave one considerably less shielded, less happy, and more concerned.

But lately, this subject has really been a bee in my bonnet.  I guess I have met too many Astrology types that believe in that subject to the detriment of all else. I was born in August, meaning I could never get along with them, etc.  Your neighbor is a scorpio and looks tired - she probably was up all night having sex, etc.

If I wasnt so intent on trying to educate and alert people to the importance of societal decisions  around Peak Oil and Gas in next decade, I would take  Cloningers meta-analysis surveys of personality types (over 12,000) and cross section them by astrological sign, and show that each zodiac had a normal distribution of personality types.

But who knows, maybe I would be wrong.  The analysis would take too much time though - Virgos are perfectionsists, you know...;)


email is lbsgrad2003 (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk

I think a capacity for (and perhaps a need for) for religious belief is fundamental to human beings- -whether that is an evolutionary characteristic or not I remain agnostic on.

Americans take religion seriously: be they Southern Baptists or whacky New Agers.  Maybe because Europe is the land of state religions, religious ritual is formalised into the society (Easter Week in Germany, France, Spain, Italy etc.) but it is not seen as a big issue (except in some political circles, and I believe in Poland).

In the UK we are almost dereligionalised. 30 years of sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland between Protestant and Catholic has helped make religion, on the mainland, almost a taboo subject.

This American trend upset Robert Heinlein (one of the first people, way back in the 60s, to note the rise and rise of horoscopes), and in a different way, Jane Jacobs (in her last book, The Coming Dark Age) noted the decline of scientific rationality.

My own view is this.  It's just as fundamentalist a faith to be an atheist, as it is to be a fire and brimstone southern Baptist.  A rational man is an agnostic one-- he accepts that the universe is both not entirely known, and unknowable.

(I could lapse into Goedel's Incompleteness theorem here, but as you say it is completely off topic ;-).

I agree with you re the micro application of horoscopes to human behaviour, it normally smacks of ex post behaviour although some of the general behaviour traits do seem to come true (suggesting either that behaviour is shaped by the weather conditions when your mother is pregnant, or that we are more sensitive to seasonal cycles than we realise).

If I have a religion of preference (other than my own mild Anglicanism-- which was about growing up  British in a foreign country) it is Judaism: the hand of man is heavy in the faith of the Jews, at least to an outsider. The religion is built around intense debate about what it is to be a good Jew, and what God's will really was: can we use automatic elevators on the Sabaath?  Call it a religion of cultural identification, and belonging.

I can see why a dose of American religiousity could be toxic to the dating ambitions of a rationalist.  As I said, I had kind of assumed this was mainly a southern th'ang, but of course the Midwest is 'flyover' country.

I think a capacity for (and perhaps a need for) for religious belief is fundamental to human beings- -whether that is an evolutionary characteristic or not I remain agnostic on.

I would bet it's evolutionary.  There's evidence that even rats are prone to religious behavior.  Though since they are rats, not people, we call it "superstition."

It's just as fundamentalist a faith to be an atheist, as it is to be a fire and brimstone southern Baptist.

I disagree.  If atheism is a faith, baldness is a hair color.

A rational man is an agnostic one

So if I don't believe in the tooth fairy, I'm irrational?  The only rational belief is, "I don't know if the tooth fairy exists or not?"

he accepts that the universe is both not entirely known, and unknowable.

I accept that.  But I am not agnostic.  The universe can be unknowable without invoking anything supernatural.  IMO, it's only a religious belief that the universe was created as a setting for man that would lead one to believe that man should be able to understand it completely.

Smaller people?!?

You've never been to the Netherlands, have you?  Or are you speaking only of girth?

Netherlands has the tallest population on average, in the world.

This has confounded researchers.  Americans used to be out in front, but their ascendance has stopped.

Researchers have tried to rule out the obvious (ethnicity).  Amazingly, over time, on the same diet, ethnic groups will converge in height.

They still wind up with a distinct tilt away from Americans being the tallest, and towards Netherlands.  Why?  A couple of hypotheses:

  • change in the US diet.  Put simply, American kids eat more and more fast food, and junk food.  This trend is also advanced in other countries (most notably here in the UK) but none so advanced as the US.  Interestingly richer Americans began to deteriorate first: because their kids have the eating habits of the people who look after them (nannies from Central America and the Phillipines)

  • socioeconomic equality.  All things being equal, more equal societies produce greater average heights (we are not entirely sure why, but it may have something to do with the relative amounts of serotonin produced by high and low status males, and the impact of that on growth in adolescence).

As you can imagine, the science on all this is nascent and hotly debated.

I saw that too. I rescind the comment. Or rather modify it to exclude the Dutch (I am Dutch and am 6-5)
That's too funny, I'm 6'5" tall too.  I'm not Dutch, though I married someone with a Dutch background who, though not really tall, is at least enough taller than average that I don't look out of place.

This is definitely getting off topic. :-)

Based on the UK experience, we drive more efficient cars (by about 10mpg ie 12.5 US mpg I think), say 30-40% more efficient.

We drive smaller distances (about half as much, on average, I think) but this is a small island, only just over 700 miles from tip to tip, and 80% of the population lives in the southern and eastern half (ie England).  To go abroad, most people fly.

About 1/12 cars sold here is an SUV, 1/8 in london (where we have lots of snowdrifts ;-).  However our SUVs would mostly classify as your 'crossovers'.  Range Rovers and Porsche Cayennes are in evidence, but also a lot of smaller Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers, RAV4s, CRVs etc.

About half of our new cars are diesel engined, models which aren't sold (by and large) in the US.  Conversely one sees very few hybrids.

We certainly drive (at least as) fast as you do-- 90mph on the motorway is not uncommon.  The biggest brake on cars in the UK is congestion (worst in western Europe) not petrol prices per se.

75% of new cars sold have air conditioning (its really only hot summer in a 'normal' year about 3-4 weeks, but we have had a succession of 'not normal' years).

GDP per head is also only about 60% of the US.

Put it another way, income effects (more money, more driving, more cars) outweigh price substitution (elasticity) effects in car usage, over the long term.

That suggests a government strategy:  choke traffic with electric vehicles so people stop driving their gas-burners.
How much do you think gasoline(or diesel) prices will have to increase before there will be a large reaction from the general population?

I saw a poll earlier in the year that indicated gas prices would have to reach $5/gal before any significant reduction took place.

I find that believable, but somehow strange.

I think we've got the technology we need to make substantial headway in lowering GHGs and reducing fossil fuels consumption while we research like crazy to find sustainable energy harvesting solutions to replace fossil fuels eventually.  

"Roads to rails" (especially electric trains) and biking and walking and telecommuting and relocalizing some agriculture and manufacturing -- all of these require commitment to make the needed changes in the way we live, but no new technology per se.

The problem is that far too few Americans see the need to change. Most Americans remain "intentionally ignorant" -- don't know enough to care and don't care enough to know."  Some Americans who see problems with energy and pollution are not motivated to change the way they live.  A few people are engaged and making changes, but the market and the political realm dominated by the market have successfully innoculated our culture against change.

Even at five bucks a gallon, the response will be infantile rage on the part of most Americans.  Corporations and political leaders will persuade people that we are the innocent victims of Hugo Chavez and those Islamofascists who are withholding our oil from us just because the hate our freedoms.

I doubt that the Democratic leadership will depart significantly from the Corporatist agenda.  Jimmy Carter came closest to it, and was mostly mocked for it.  Al Gore has come close to departing from the Corporatist party line lately, but too late for his Presidential bid.

We need a rapid transformation of our culture.  Here in my part of the country, people are fighting every positive change related to transportation that you can come up with.  So it goes.

See below. Infantile rage may play a part, but it's not as simple as that. Transit and bike advocates tend to model their proposals as if peoples' time is worth nothing, and that is a major reason why their efforts so often come to naught. They also choose to forget that most parts of the country have winter, when bikes are useless and walking to the bus or train stop is hazardous and contrary to doctor's orders for a major chunk of the population. Ever heard of osteoporosis?

And relocalization advocates tend to deliberately forget how awful the wintertime diet was before we had long distance rapid freight. Pink supermarket tomatoes are not the best, but canned vegetables, which were all that there was, were (and are) mostly utterly nauseating. Hence the fat-and-starch diet that damaged (and damages) health far more than "pollution" does. No, I'll take today's overall combination of diet, pollution, medicine, etc. over any combination widely available at any time whatsoever in the past.

I do agree that there could be quite a bit more telecommuting, but I think Hell will freeze over before there is wide agreement on the managerial-control and security-of-information issues. The kind of business people who feel they must spend three days flying halfway around the world in order to listen to one ten minute speech in person are not the kind of people who are likely to trust or tolerate telecommuting arrangements.

Of course, I suppose we could ameliorate many of these issues if all 300 million of us would simply move to that narrow Pacific coastal strip, where it is summer all year round. Bikes would become useful as working transportation, and no one would need to worry about permanently needing a wheelchair as the result of slipping on the ice. Then again, the cost of housing on that coast is already as far out of sight as the first galaxies in the Universe. So in order to live any sort of semi-decent existence, we're just going to have to work on the supply side too, and think more broadly than just in terms of some sort of nostalgic Kunstlerian Medievalization.  

Yeah. I've heard that in impoverished cold climates where they can't afford easy motoring millions of old and infirm people are frozen to death every year at transit stops. A hundred  years ago, before the car's invention people constantly met death from having to face harsh weather outside the protective shell of automobiles. How did they ever live like that?
Well, that skips my need to point out all the old women riding their bikes in the town I live in, even in the cold dark winter time.

But then, Germany is such a primitive, backward place, who is surprised to find 60 year old people still actually walking to the store in the winter time.

Expat, you've hit the nail on the head once again.

Winter?  I've been work-biking here in minneapolis, MN for some 6 years or so -- year round.

Time and energy are a real factor for me, though.  To be effective, I need to work within 4 or 5 miles of home.  The closer to home, the better.

I do more physical work riding and hauling tools each day than most people do in a week.   If I need a tool or a part, it takes me longer to go get it.  There is also no way I can haul as much stuff to have on hand as a 6,000 pound truck.  My worktrike can haul up to 800 pounds, but that is some hard pedaling.  Electric assist looks better all the time.

This is a different way of thinking about things.  There is no way to try to do just what we have been doing with cheap oil, just with alternative fuels or energy sources.  

The technofixes will be real (I hope) and much-needed, but they will not be magical.  

There will be massive unintended negative consequences to every technology we expand to the scale we'd need to support 6 or 10 billion people living "like Americans."

Reduce population, reduce waste, reduce consumption in various ways, and consume more thoughtfully.  Until we get a whole lot better at technology, this will be the way to go.

Another factor to consider is that the planet may not be very hospitible for us for awhile.  This will present interesting challenges for us to adapt to as well.

But most 'muricans are still depending on magic and superstition -- salvation from God, Jesus, Technology, General Motors, or the barrel of a gun.

And so it goes....

It's depressing to watch the Chinese embrace automobiles.

It is really not chic, and a sign of being poor, if you cycle.  And many of the main roads in big cities are now terrifying for cyclists, the traffic is so bad (and the driving so undisciplined).

Some new housing estates are being built without the traditional provisions for cycling.

and the urban Chinese now have a significant overweight problem, for the first time, and complain that their kids are getting overweight from lack of exercise.

It's like when they tear down a 500 year old building as being 'old and shabby'.

They are making all the mistakes we did in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but at an accelerated rate.

I completely agree with the time problem - a car seems such a time saver, and in fact, that is one reason why I will be riding my motorcycle to work in a couple of minutes - though the largest reason is that I enjoy it and it is possible due to a school holiday.

I find time to be one of the more subtle and intricate aspects of peak oil - we are so used to time which has little to do with what is around us that we think how we live is natural, and that the natural rhythms around us are either a problem or simply irrelevant. Much of the debate around wind power hinges on how would it be possible for wind power to fit into an industrial schedule - energy produced on a Sunday is 'wasted' because the factory needs power on a Monday. But changing such fundamental attitudes is unlikely to happen easily.

Anyone who rides year round knows much more about the world around them than someone in a car, though in honesty, there is no way I would ever ride a bicycle in America in traffic - car drivers are truly dangerous. My experiences make it hard for me to ride a bicycle in Germany, where everyone is taught in grade school over days of instruction how to ride a bicycle in traffic, and what the traffic rules are - nobody in Germany is ignorant about the role of bicycles in traffic, and everyone is accustomed to them as part of the traffic mix, in part because almost everyone bicycles at some point during the year.

Cars are not time savers in the urban UK!

Not for any distance less than 5 miles, and maybe for longer than that.

The reality here, at least, is that traffic grows to fill available roadspace.  Build a new road, within 5 years traffic congestion will be back or above to its previous level.  In some areas, it is closer to 18 months.

The only ways of increasing thru put are public transport (all kinds of buts and ifs attached to that) and more bicycling (walking, too).

Transit and bike advocates tend to model their proposals as if peoples' time is worth nothing

Au contraire.  Time spent driving is necessarily not "productive", it is those who advocate driving who do not value that time.

Besides, in non-auto-dependent locations transit service can actually be faster than driving.


  1. you can get more work done on the bus, or a train, than you can driving. One of the reasons I like taking the bus to work, is that I can read and think.

  2. cycling means I don't have to go to the local fitness centre at lunch or after work-- so it saves time.  Indeed one of the more amusing contradictions of the modern era is that we drive to our fitness centres.

Agree that the harshness of the North American climate makes bicycling difficult, but you need to talk to your grandfather.  North Americans used to take the bus and streetcar to work, rather than drive.  It is the spreading out of NA society which has made that more difficult.

At least here (the UK) the traffic congestion is so bad, that there is no way we can get more cars through.  The only solution is to have more transit, and more bicycles.

Experiments and experience have shown that when we open new roads, total congestion increases-- more cars are attracted onto those roads, which then congest existing roads as well.

You say..

And relocalization advocates tend to deliberately forget how awful the wintertime diet was before we had long distance rapid freight. Pink supermarket tomatoes are not the best, but canned vegetables, which were all that there was, were (and are) mostly utterly nauseating. Hence the fat-and-starch diet that damaged (and damages) health far more than "pollution" does. No, I'll take today's overall combination of diet, pollution, medicine, etc. over any combination widely available at any time whatsoever in the past.

I Say..

 Huh?  Ever read the cook books of Rome circa anytime up to the fall of Rome et al.  The middle ages were dark and dreary for most of europe, but the rest of the world food wise was hopping along just fine.  

 1492 rolls around and Europe gets a big shot in the arm and the Variety picks up a notch, Marco Polo helped on the Eastern side of the Dark aged Europe.

 The foods we have, have really been limited in some part by "Marketing them for the masses" Going back to the localized farming and Local trading and Local living, does not mean, corn and beans everyday for 365 days this year and toast the rest of the decade!!

 I don't think any real advocate of Relocalization is talking going back to anything you are discribing.  

 Do you cook?  Just a thought that came to my mind, My sister in law can cook, and so can my brother, and so can my niece,  but when I ask them food questions and try to talk growing foods in the yard, or looking for herbs in the grass out front, I get blank stares.

 Do you know that I can be healthy all winter long in most areas of North America?  How would I do that? I'd Go learn from the native locals, both the ones that have roots back to the dawn of memory and the ones living there now but moved in yesterday.

 Being local just means trying to not ship fresh peaches from Chile or Peru to WalMart Produce bins.  Learn the old methods, not the failed methods, utilize the new methods and the old methods to make a better mix for everyone.  

 Sure mom and dad can't walk to the tram, They get the PediCab ride, with easy step in and out access sides.  They get the help needed, after all they are the ones teaching the little ones that snow is a cool dessert and pink pale tomatoes can be ripened in the hothouse just a little longer before you pick them.

I think Jimmy Carter was way ahead of his time, and his presidency was a lost opportunity.

Al Gore's 'presidency' was another.

I genuinely believe that if we had a major American political leader who believed in Global Warming as an immediate threat, (and possibly in Peak Oil), that something could, and would, be done.

As Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Harry Truman and FDR were each in turn able to articulate a threat, and a crisis, and a response to it.  (and LBJ for that matter, in the question of Civil Rights, even if his political instincts let him down on Vietnam).

However the primary system alone would probably drag that leader down to defeat.

There is one man I see in the US political system now who could break out of the mould*, and, coming from the right, could take the country with him in a way someone on the left could not.  However his voting record is one of absolute conservatism and despite his nonconformist political image, I don't know that he really would effect real change.

I refer of course to Senator John McCain.

* My fear with Hilary Clinton is that, in the end, she would fear being outflanked on the right too much to take dramatic measures.  I don't mind politicians (Churchill and FDR were consummate politicians) but I do worry about her actual depth of ideas.

Chuck Hagel (Sen. R-Nebraska) is the other.  But he is dead on the 'disloyalty' card, with the party faithful.

Depends on what you mean by a large reaction. There's already plenty of anti-corporate political posturing - most of it by people who would be utterly lost without the managerial support provided, like it or not, by large corporate organizations.

If you mean behavior change and "alternative transportation", well, somewhere in today's articles was the notion that voters would change at the magic number of $5. That used to be $3 but when we actually reached $3 nothing much happened, so they upped it to $5. They will be upping it a few more times.

The response of voters to polls provides virtually no information. Usually they will sign up for economically senseless but high-sounding or politically-correct action as long as the parameters are such that they don't expect ever to have to make good on their fine declarations. I doubt that most of the voters polled are expecting gas to be $5 within a time frame they can really wrap their thinking around, especially since prices have settled down lately.

So let's try a really crude econometric analysis instead, for a smaller but growing Midwestern metro area. I'm abstracting and rounding a little here; your mileage may vary. Sorry, European readers, but this will be in US units.

Round trip distance to work: 15 miles (25km)
Cost by car: 50 minutes + $7.50 (using IRS or AAA estimates around 50c/mile)
Marginal cost by car: 50 minutes + $3.75 (25c/mile as a SWAG)
Cost by bike: 100 minutes + 15 minutes to wash up twice + (risk, difficult to monetize)
Cost by bus: 160 minutes + 15 minutes to wash up in summertime + $2.20

By marginal cost I mean that the insurance cost is almost totally insensitive to mileage, and capital and some maintenance costs are fairly insensitive unless one drives a huge amount. Especially in those parts of the country that have winter or have salt-water breezes, many cars still rust out and rot out long before they wear out. (In this context, low-altitude coastal California, Oregon, and Washington, where a number of TOD writers/posters seem to come from, have nothing I would call winter.)

By time to wash up, I simply observe that after standing outside waiting in the heat and humidity for the typical randomly arriving and infrequent bus, or riding a bike, one ends up smelling like something that's not a rose. This is socially absolutely unacceptable, at least in the US.

Note also that bikes are quite useless as working transportation in winter when the roads are icy and slick. Thus, as a practical matter, the "car free" perspective means nothing to me - it is simply another California fantasy.

If your time is worth $15/hour:
Cost by car: $20.00
Marginal cost by car: $16.25
Cost by bike: $28.75 + (cost of risk, difficult to quantify)
Cost by bus: $43.50

If gasoline is raised to $15/gallon and you get 40mpg, which you will if you are still driving when/if gas gets that high, that adds around 30c/mile to both the total and marginal costs of driving. That raises those costs by $4.50. It also raises the bus cost, but the taxpayer pays almost the entire bus cost anyhow so I'll neglect that. The picture becomes:

Cost by car: $24.50
Marginal cost by car: $19.75
Cost by bike: $28.75 + (cost of risk)
Cost by bus: $43.50

And, of course, if gas is $15/gallon and your time is only worth $5/hour (less than the minimum wage of any well-developed country I can think of that has one, including the US):

Cost by car: $16.25
Marginal cost by car: $12.50
Cost by bike: $9.60 + (cost of risk)
Cost by bus: $16

And taxes alter the picture, but they vary all over the lot. Still, the bottom line seems to be that for most people, there would have to be a high enough gasoline (or diesel) price to cause dire national economic upheaval before it would pay to use anything other than a car to get to work, other than in a very few places such as Downtown Manhattan.

The poll-driven notion that the magic number of $5 (or whatever) would cause a mass behavior change looks like sheer fantasy, though it seems like it should cause more people to buy smaller (and less safe) and/or more efficient (and more expensive) cars as their old cars age out. The same point can be seen, for example, in the way that roadways have taken over the Seine embankments in Paris in recent years, despite gas prices north of $6 and, lately, punitive taxes and measures taken by the mayor. The Parisian Metro is much better and more comprehensive (few spots are far from a station) and reliable than anything here in the US, but the sheer time cost of doing anything but driving is prohibitive for any but the least productive workers.

So I conclude that short of a Second Great Depression, the time cost of the likely and technically-feasible alternatives to driving is simply too high for anything much to be likely to happen. For example, even if all the proposed rail lines are built, which will take decades at the customary dilatory pace, that will make only a minute difference in the big picture. (They will be there for you to ride in order to decongest the roads for me - and that is often the political selling point in the referendum.)

I agree that people will not switch to alternatives if they are not competitive with their current system, but do you not think that as costs approach, say $15/gal, people will consider finding work that is closer to their home, or move closer to their place of work?
For that matter, how expensive does commuting have to be before a company considers buying many units in one of the newly built but buyerless developments and offers the housing to employees as a benefit? This would seem to be an interesting solution - the commute becomes cheap and stressfree, coworkers are also neighbors, and everyone continues to live in exurbia. Of course, downsizing would really suck. "You're fired! Also, you're homeless!"
Hmmm, on second thought that sounds pretty dystopian.
Thanks for your reply.
The poll-driven notion that the magic number of $5 (or whatever) would cause a mass behavior change looks like sheer fantasy
You're assuming a false dichotomy:  today's vehicles, or a choice between bicycles and mass transit.  That's not the full list of possibilities.

There's a third major option:  personal cars which use less liquid fuel, or none at all.  At a sustained price of $3/gallon, we'd see demand for SUV's shrink or vanish and hybrid passenger cars explode; at $5/gallon, there would be a substantial market for electric vehicles as well.  Such substitution would go on in parallel to carpooling, living closer to work, telecommuting and a host of other responses.

Public policy should be geared toward making all of these things easier and/or more attractive, instead of favoring one or two to the exclusion of all others.

"At a sustained price of $3/gallon, we'd see demand for SUV's shrink or vanish and hybrid passenger cars explode"

I don't know about "explode," but for the brief spell that prices were that high there did appear to be a shift in buying practices away from SUVs (or at least the larger ones) to more fuel efficient vehicles.  It was a change and in the right direction.

What really riffs me, though, is that as a used car choices in the future are being set now.  Which means there's little choice to be had.

Gasoline is over $6/gal here (UK).

We haven't abolished the SUV.  The estimate is petrol is 20-25% of the lifecycle cost of owning a car.  The big costs are depreciation and insurance.

Probably more of our SUVs are the 'crossover' class, but you see plenty of Porsche Cayennes and Range Rovers.  Very few Hummers (almost none).

About 1/12 cars sold in the UK is an SUV (but gdp/head is only 60% of US level).  In London (which isn't noted for its snowdrifts) its 1/8.

So don't expect high gasoline prices, in and of themselves, to solve the SUV problem.

"By time to wash up, I simply observe that after standing outside waiting in the heat and humidity for the typical randomly arriving and infrequent bus, or riding a bike, one ends up smelling like something that's not a rose. This is socially absolutely unacceptable, at least in the US.

Note also that bikes are quite useless as working transportation in winter when the roads are icy and slick."

Before commenting on the uselessness of your "crude econometric analysis" I should point out that in Ottawa, Ontario, where I live, hundreds of people cycle all through winter.  Granted that this is a fraction of a percent of the total population of commuters in a city of 800,000, but it does show that it can be done. Cycling is not however the principal alternative to motorized individual transportation.

Your analysis is useless because you assume that the changes in the price of gasoline/diesel do not entail a series of other changes.  

If the price of fuel rises because of rising crude prices then you have to account for the inflation of other costs besides fuel and for declining disposable income.  It is not just a matter of marginal trip cost, but of the capacity of people to afford the fixed costs of car ownership. Some people will change golf club memberships, but many will have to abandon car ownership.  At your higher fuel cost scenarios many people would have to abandon car ownership. This of course poses a problem for Kapital which requires mobility of labour and so you can expect the business elite to begin championing better public transportation.

If the price of fuel rises because of fuel taxation, then you have to confront the political reality of the higher taxes. Inflation is not a factor as government recirculates the tax money through the economy and other costs are lowered and/or income increased.  But even if much of the tax money goes to politically popular measures such as socialised medical care, it is reasonable to expect that a consensus in support of the higher fuel tax will not be possible to maintain unless public transportation alternatives provide more than "random and infrequent" buses.

Maybe you can work on an analysis which does not assume that the conditions which exist alongside cheap gasoline continue while gasoline prices surge.  

Ottawa is making an attempt to move people from cars to public transit.  And it is succeeding.  

Transit ridership is steadily climbing in Ottawa such that about 17% of all motorized trips are made on public transit.  About one third of all trips into and out of the city core are made by public transit.  Most buses now have air conditioning, though this does result in more fuel consumed.  Of course the most successful routes have five to ten minute service.  On all routes commuters can phone the number of their stop and be told the arrival time of the next bus.  True they are often early or late, but generally this service works and allows people to avoid long waits.  On a number of key routes, buses have bicycle racks, which allow for loading and unloading in seconds.

We are about to make a major investment in electrified light rail.  There is some controversy, but it is mostly characterised by people wanting light rail service in their end of the city.

There's another model where riding a bike makes sense - a high-value worker who's really only working a few hours a day. Laugh if you like but such workers exist, examples might be a stock trader who's only online a few hours a day, a busker who works the dinner hours downtown and is mainly idle the rest of the time, a phone sex worker who is working intensely the "prime time" hours and has most of the rest of their time off, in the future a lot of home-workers who are making shoes, other things, at home and don't have a commute or that many actual work hours. A bicycle may be combined exercise and transportation, a way to lollygag around and find stuff to sell on Ebay, a way to cover a fairly large "route" and socialize and get new shoe orders, etc. A lot of people use bikes in this way now, and a lot more would if having a car wasn't such a social-class indicator in the US and the riding environment weren't so unfriendly.

We're going to see more people living on partial-hours work, home work, and "unconventional" arrangements, and owning a car does not make a lot of sense for a lot of people even now.

Hmm - I notice you left off the possibility of real rail transit (though that is a fair lack - talking about what could be built is not the same as what is available today).

So, let us use a Northeastern city with a functioning rail/subway system, plus the attendant lack of space for a car - how about, oh, NYC? Millions of people don't use a car, they walk and use mass transit.

Oh wait, those rail systems were ripped up in most places, weren't they? Possibly because they made autos too unattractive on the metrics you are using? No, that can't be the reason why mass transit rail systems were replaced in America by buses, which then proved to be so awful that people bought cars for the most rational reasons in the world.

I fail to se the problems with winter biking. I live in Norway and bike to work (25km round-trip) year round. An essential piece of equipment is the studded tires though. 300 studs in each tire work wonders when it's slippery, even lot's of black ice is no problem at all.

Rim brakes and brake wires can be a problem when it's around freezeing temp (no problem when it's really cold) but if you select your bike carefully and buy hydraulic disc brakes this too is no problem.

We often get below 0F temps here but I am never cold on my way to work. Proper clothing takes care of that.

The only thing that really is problematic is lots of wet, unplowed snow (a foot of "fluff" is easily biked through). Whave lots of bike lanes though and they're usually all plowed at 6am.

So, if bike lanes are built and plowed, winter biking IMHO is no problem at all.

Interesting how a discussion about California's prop 87 turns to deeper issues, such as the paradigm we use to design our human settlement, and the flaws and limitations of that paradigm.

I do believe we need intensive research in the energy field, but at the same time we need to re-examine our assumptions about the way we relate to the planet which has very limited physical resources.

Our habitat is very resilient in some ways, but very fragile in others.  We are pushing the limits very hard, and may have already pushed beyond the point where a soft landing is possible.

As has been pointed out repeatedly, it is unlikely that our "free market" culture which dominates our poltical system will respond with any solutions than those which will benefit a very few at the expense of the vast majority of people and other species.  Of course this unenlightened hubris has a way of defeating itself.

Is prop 87 an example of our culture spinning its wheels in the face of the need to make real change?  Is it a necessary step along the way?   Do others think that our culture is more ready to address the challenges than I percieve?

Good analysis.

Without studying P87 in detail, it strikes me as classic 'have your cake and eat it too'.

Tax oil companies (to no apparent cost to you) to pay for something you should be doing anyways.

Mind you, my understanding of 'government-by-proposition' is this is how CA is now governed, with companies that go around getting signatures for new propositions put forward by different interest groups.

And meanwhile the state government is designed to be gridlocked, so that the Republicans can be really extreme, and never compromise on anything (and if they do, they lose their primaries), and the Democrats can make lots of empty gestures (and complain about the Republicans).

It feels like a (non violent) version of the struggles that tore up Republican Rome.

I think it was Grover Norquist/ Stephen Moore of Club for Growth fame who said 'bipartisanship is a disease we are trying to stamp out in America's state houses'.

R^2, I have a question or two. I have mentioned this before: my organic chemistry prof once said, several decades ago, that the cheapest way to obtain ethanol is to use the ethylene stream from a cracking plant and catalytically add water. Dr. Weller  didn't go into the economics of it, but I think it was something like hundreds-to-one cheaper than grain alcohol in the 1970s (when I took the course).
  1. Do you know if this is being done, or has been done, commercially? The ethylene + water synthesis, I mean.
  2. What does the industrial ethylene flow look like? That is, where is it made, what is the initial feedstock, how is it used?
I suppose most of it is probably used in the same plant where it's made, right? I mean they'd be converting it to high-value, less-dangerous things like polyethylene resin and such. Just thought you might know these things from your real world experience.
I think this is how ethanol used to be made, but they don't get the subsidies for doing it that way. Ethylene is a major byproduct of oil refining. It sells right now for about $0.30/lb. I am not sure what the yields are (i.e. how much ethylene to make a gallon of ethanol) but that will determine whether it is economical. Given that refiners will get a $0.51/gal rebate for ethanol made from corn, but not from ethanol made from ethylene, it would probably be tough to compete.
I just ran across this:

Ethanol can be made in two ways: by fermentation of sugars, or by hydration (adding water) to ethene. Due to the low costs of ethene as a raw material, approximately 95% of the industrial ethanol made in the developed world is produced by the second process.

I suspect that 95% is a bit out of date since grain ethanol production has exploded in the past few years.

Thanks, RR, I have bookmarked that site. That was just about what I wanted to know. They even discuss catalysts.

It says the site was last updated in 2001, and it's an Aussie site. May not be quite true in the USA in 2006, but it's interesting nonetheless.

For me the most valuable piece of information is your $0.30/lb figure for C2H4.

I decided to do a little back-of-the-envelope stoichiometry (hey the corn ethanol people can make facts up, why can't I) to figure out how much a gallon of this ethanol should cost. In the process I ran across the Wikipedia ethanol article, so now I have a few more facts with which to flesh out my cost-per-gallon.

We have the following molecular weights to work with:

  • C2H4 .. 28
  • H2O .. 18
  • C2H5OH .. 46
Density of EtOH: 0.79kg/l
Converting to pounds, gallons etc:
3.8 l/gal * 0.79 kg/l * 2.2 lb/kg -- 6.6lb/gal for EtOH.

Converting (with 100% efficiency) ethylene at a mw of 28 to ethanol at mw 46 (and ignoring the cost of water etc.), the price of ethanol should be:
$0.30/lb * 28/46 * 6.6 lb/gal == $1.205/gal
Yeah, it all depends on conversion. If the conversion is high, costs will be low.

I checked that Wikipedia article. Two of my essays are referenced in that article. I had noticed that I have been getting quite a few Wikipedia referrals.

Like I was saying, the corn ethanol folks make assumptions...

But I suspect the conversion is pretty efficient for this hydration reaction. Just basing this on a year of organic chemistry back in the '70s. You have some condensation reactions (as used in the pharma industry) with just abysmal yields, or a student in the first-year lab might attempt a Grignard reaction and get a yield of precisely zero, but I would expect this simple hydration to have about 85-90% useful output. And the distillation step probably doesn't require the removal of so much water.

Bob Brinker, on his radio show today, called Prop 87 "The dark side of the environmental movement."