Friday, December 29, 2006

2006 reading list

That last post reminded me that I haven’t mentioned that I enjoy reading science fiction. This year I read nearly 20 well regarded works (and a couple just for fun), mostly in the first half of the year. A few years ago I drew up a list of all Hugo and Nebula award nominees (stretching back 40 years), and I’m working my way down the list as I find the books and the time.

Among those I read this year: The Void Captain’s Tale (by Norman Spinrad), The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester), Sister Light, Sister Dark (Jane Yolen), The Road to Corlay (Richard Cowper), Way Station (Clifford Simak) The Star Fox (Poul Anderson), Omega (Jack McDevitt), Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny), And Choas Died (Joanna Russ), The Escape Orbit (James White), The Wanderer (Fritz Lieber), The Stranger (Gordon Dickson), Diplomatic Immunity (Lois McMaster Bujold), The Year of the Quit Sun (Wilson Tucker), Half Past Human (T.J.Bass), Bug Jack Barron (Norman Spinrad) and several from one of my favorite authors of the last few years…The Moon’s Shadow, Ascendant Sun, The Quantum Rose, Spherical Harmonic, Skyfall (all by Catherine Asaro) and although not precisely science fiction The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown).

Other thought provoking books I read include Solar Revolution, The Great Turning, The Divine Right of Capital and while not yet finished (I’m 60% through) WorldChanging which is quite a resource.

I also read a bunch of magazines from high brow weeklies like the Economist, and Barrons to Rolling Stone, to monthlies Scientific America, National Geographic, Fast Company, Business 2.0, Solar Today, Physics Today, and OPN.

End of the year recollection

Energy matters. It is hard to imagine that only eight years ago, energy was cheap (under $16/bbl) and falling in price due to international economic and currency shocks in Russia, Latin America, and Asia. Oil reached a low of $12/bbl in 1999. Growth in technology especially the Internet, was the only “real” measure of value. I, like others, scoffed at investments in energy utilities as so last century…how quickly times have changed.

I have focused on renewable energy and politics in the last year. The challenges of making changes in both are simply overwhelming when taken en masse. But there is room for hope (and action) in both spheres when you break things down and look issue by issue. As always I’ve done an incredible amount of reading, thinking, idea generation, and have taken a number of actions this year—actions taken is what is different this year for me.

Politically I volunteered with Move-On for at least 40 hours of phone calls to mobilize voters in the last 6 weeks of the election. Throughout the year I also made more (small) contributions to candidates that I agree with than in past elections. I’d guess that I gave $200 (total) to several candidates (in a mid-term) vs. maybe $50 two years ago and nothing before that. This political activism has caused me to get more involved (time wise) in other things like the Chicago chapters of Engineers-Without-Borders (a wonderful concept—I hope it can live up to its potential) and the Sierra Club.

It is a curious thing to find myself becoming an activist…but I guess the whole global climate crisis is turning into what the nuclear arms race was for the boomers (yeah my last overtly political act was marching in the Nuclear Freeze marches of the early eighties). And speaking of…Al Gore’s movie had a definite impact in moving the past the pseudo-false-debate about is it happening, to what can be done. This year, I’ve increased the amount of recycling; mostly paper, aluminum and plastic (and I’ve started buying & using more products with high recycled content like paper towels, TP and printer paper) and I am using rechargeable batteries.

I invested in a number of offset programs to mitigate climate change this year. I bought a Terrapass (~$30/yr) to offset the CO2 produced from my driving. I also bought Native Energy wind power ($4/mth) offsets to offset 400 kWh/month of my electricity use (which I’m pleased to note was only ~300 kWh for my apartment in November—although I don’t know what it was in prior periods). I offset the CO2 from my air & land travel to the Solar Power 2006 conference(~$35). Lastly I bought a months supply (750kWh) of wind offsets ($15/ea) for each of my seven siblings from Renewable Choice Energy for Christmas, as subtle nudge and awareness raising measure. All told just over $200 for the various CO2 offsets.

I also changed about 150 light bulbs to CFLs (swirl bulbs) this year, 85% were at my parents vacation house and the siblings cabins/casitas. I gave a few CFLs to my siblings to try out in their homes (while I know that some have tried them, others I’m not sure about). I’ve given away (freecycled in fact) my 300W halogen lamp/heater and changed five of the six 40W bulbs in my main chandelier light to 7W CFLs (changing the sixth lamp makes my dimmer switch buzz…something that I suspect is bad for the wiring in my 80 year old building). Anyway I’m saving 165W/hr for ~ 6 hours a day (maybe 10 in these dark days of winter) which adds up to a cool 1kWh per day for my chandelier and up to 2kWh for ditching the halogen lamp. Times 365 days in a year and I think I’m using almost 1,000kWh (aka 1 MWh) less energy to illuminate my abode this year. I’ve become much better about switching off lights that are not in use too.

I helped my parents invest in a solar water heater for heating the hot water at their vacation house. Although this was the gloomiest Christmas (but mild) weekend in years, we didn’t get much output from the solar heater (it went back to heating water the day after Christmas). I hope to compare the last 6 months of energy bills soon to see if I can determine the effect of the solar water heater and the CFLs (although since its been a mild winter this may take work to tease out the various effects).

And finally and possibly most significantly, I filed a patent application for a solar panel design that uses 30% less silicon (and is therefore ~15% cheaper) than the standard solar panel design.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A better way to encourage fuel/energy efficiency?

Oversimplifying US oil energy politics, for the past 30 years liberals advocate demand side management while conservatives advocate supply side management. Specifically liberal administrations press for increased/improved government mandated efficiency standards (CAFE) to reduce demand, over the noisy complaints of nearly every participant in the car industry. Government enforces standards. Meanwhile the conservative administrations primarily advocate measures to increase oil supply through drilling anywhere and everywhere. Government is oil pusher.

I’m probably preaching to the choir as most people realize that what may have worked (we managed to get by) over the past 30 years will not work for the next 30 years. Yet what can be done about it? I’ve advocated a carbon tax following Gore’s call for a carbon tax for payroll tax swap. But voters seem to have a counter-rational dislike for taxes: everyone wants the benefit (national security, police protection, working roads, legal system, education etc.) but nobody wants to pay for it. And if voters don’t like it, politicians are loath to enact it.

Perhaps government could offer a big shiny carrot that will motivate private industry to work toward the goal (greater energy efficiency) that actually benefits everyone. For example, with the exception of a handful of automotive executives, everyone understands that we need more efficient cars and we need them yesterday. But these executives only see the cost (lots of R&D expense), not the benefit (reduced spending on oil and less dependence on foreign supply).

I wonder if we could accelerate investment in more efficient vehicles by offering a big tax holiday (say 5-10 years without a corporate tax) to the first major car company (500,000-1M+/yr vehicle sales in the US) that improves vehicle efficiency by a factor of 5-10. Assuming cars now get an average 20mpg (that is about 1 lb carbon emission/vehicle mile), so if an 8x improvement is considered the goal, this could be expressed as the first company that sells 500,000 cars with an average fuel efficiency of 160mpg (0.125lb carbon/mile) gets an 8 year tax holiday.

It seems that this would provide a powerful incentive (imagine the impact on the winning companies share price) to invest in greater efficiency, especially so if competitors start making progress toward the goal. Moreover the cost would not be excessive, lets assume the car company has $10billion/year of profits, and pays a 30% tax rate the cost of the tax holiday would be $3 billion per year (or $24 billion over 8 years).

Monday, December 11, 2006

comments on fair trade

I've written several letters to the editor of the Economist over the years, but they never get published (until now!--meaning right here).

The Economist is a periodical I normally enjoy reading because they cover international news in a broadly clever and cohesive manner. I violently disagree with them about many issues, notably the Iraq War.

I am also a sceptic of "free trade", at least the way it is practiced in the real world (in theory free trade is great, just like communism). My first objection is that trade is never free, it has never been and will never be (in the sense that all parties compete on equal footing). There are a million ways that corporations and governments ensure inequality (usually, but not always, with the hope of benefiting themselves). Secondly, despite the beautiful rhetoric of Adam Smith, I can discern no "invisible hand" guiding markets and market participants to act in ways that benefit all. Rather I see an iron boot of the super wealthy descending on the vast majority of workers, crushing an ever increasing number of people hopes and dreams underfoot.

This week they offered their views on organics, fair trade, and locally grown foods in a leader and special report. Here is my letter in reply:

Economist Editor,

Your recent leader and special report on “ethical food” leaves this reader puzzled. On the one hand there are different (and possibly conflicting) societal goods that organic, fair trade, and locally grown food can provide. You are also right to question (or at any rate ask) what a consumer is getting for the extra cost of any given food label. You note the problem where the meaning or interpretation of “organic” seems to be evolving (some might say devolving) as larger corporations adopt it.

Yet where an NGO has created a clear and transparent (certainly more so than before) set of labor and production standards and built a brand around it as Fair Trade coffee managed, you attack them (wrongly) for misleading consumers and (bizarrely) for preferring co-ops over coffee plantations. You should rather be advocating for greater involvement and competition among international standard setting groups to press for improved labor standards in this and other industries.

While it might be hard to imagine, I’d willingly pay a 10-15% premium for the gasoline I buy, if I could be assured that it was extracted in the most environmentally sensitive manner possible and improving (rather than damaging) the daily lives of those living close by the oil well. Of course I’d prefer if my government enacted a stiff carbon tax to spur private sector investment in alternatives to oil, but alas my preference is being ignored currently.

As with any brand it costs money to build and maintain the brand, if Fair Trade Coffee were a profit maximizing corporation I doubt you would care about “political assumptions about ways of organizing labor”. You have never criticized any traditional corporation’s (non-monopoly) branded product for overcharging consumers, as according to economic theory in a competitive market brands add value up to whatever amount the market will bear. Apparently by your standard one can never pay an oil executive too much or a coffee grower too little.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Local Cooling shout-out

I ran across a post over at terrapass about Local Cooling a tight software applet that makes saving energy fun. I think anything that helps us become more aware of the energy we use, and makes it easier to save energy are gold star products. Local Cooling gets double gold stars.

It is super easy to download (only 2.5 MB in size) and configure in a matter of seconds. Yes, one could use existing Microsquishy energy management tools to achieve the same energy savings, but this is way cooler! In particular, Local Cooling leaves a small post-it sized note on your desktop that tells you how many kwh/trees/barrels of oil equivalent you have cumulatively saved as a result of shutting down the monitor/drive/cpu at whatever interval you specify.

Talk about raising awareness! I've wondered how one even learns how much power my computer uses...Local Cooling has the answer, right down to the power used by the hard drive and the graphics card. 120 W total for my 2 year old Dell Dimension 4600. My goal will be to find out how much my next computer burns (and presumably minimize it) before I get it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bush vs. Carter

It would be almost funny to hear Bush carry on about staying the course in Iraq, if people were not dying by the thousands as we dither.

Yesterday Bush said the US would not make a graceful exit from Iraq. This has been clear to anyone paying attention for years now. The US would stay until the job is done (pause) or the Iraq government asks the US to leave. Furthermore he said Maliki was the right man for the job (obviously in response to the leaked Hadley memo). Recall that Bush fancies himself the Decider! I'd be worried about Bush's deliberate and persistent undermining of all options mooted by the Iraq Study Group (which has not a single Iraq expert on it--of course) except that Bush strongly supported Brownie in New Orleans and was proclaiming that Rummy would never go right up until the Dems won both houses of Congress.

I think this is another moment of clear disconnect from Bush and all sensible advisers (I'm sure he has a couple sensible ones somewhere). Hopefully the fact that the Iraq Study Group (and the wider American public) is looking to disengage will penetrate Bush's thick skull. As long as Bush and Maliki refuse to make difficult choices, we can only achieve a (very very) costly stalemate in Iraq.

On to more uplifting topics, I've seen Carter doing his book circuit (on the topic of Palestine) on CNN. I've ordered a copy of the book and hope it proves as lucid as last year's "Our Endangered Values". In any case, you have to hand it to Carter, he takes on a seriously contentious issue and makes a lot of sense. What Israel has done for the last 40 years has not worked. What it is doing today continues to not work. And yet the American government supports (in every way) without reservation, every action (no matter how outrageous) that Israel takes against Palestine. Arabs no longer see a difference between America and Israel--this is what gave rise to Al Queda. Until the Palestinian question is resolved in an equitable fashion, there will be no peace for Israel or America.