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Burning our food
January 23, 2007 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Tonight, G.W. Bush is expected to announce a major energy proposal, including cutbacks in gas consumption and development of alternative fuels. High on the list is the development and subsidisation of ethanol, primarily as derived from corn. The utility of corn-based ethanol in meeting energy needs is debatable: its probably weakly energy positive, but not very good in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. More immediately, the US drive towards corn based ethanol has had major effects on the price of corn, and has caused the otherwise free market leaning Mexican President Felipe Calderon to introduce price controls on tortillas. Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown: "The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue.". (This post based on a column by Barrie McKenna, unfortunately subscriber only.)
posted by bumpkin (119 comments total)

 
its probably weakly energy positive, but not very good in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Er, all (or most) the Carbon in ethanol was removed from CO2 in the air, so while it emits green house gas when burned, the production of ethanol removes it from the air. And how is it not good in terms of greenhouse gas anyway?

Oh well, most people seem to think it's energy negative, for some strange reason, but that's what happens when one study gets way more publicity then others which later refute it.
posted by delmoi at 11:57 AM on January 23, 2007


Follow the money: Wall Street Is Betting on the Farm. "Wall Street commodity funds that have been investing heavily in energy futures are now loading up on agricultural commodities like corn and livestock futures."
posted by stbalbach at 11:57 AM on January 23, 2007


(Also, if cellulistic ethanol works, the energy balance will go way into the positive)
posted by delmoi at 11:58 AM on January 23, 2007


delmoi, takes oil to grow corn see The Oil We Eat
posted by stbalbach at 12:00 PM on January 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Heh. Wait until everyone finds out that Mexico's ability to produce and export oil to us is decreasing and is very likely to decrease at an alarming rate over the next two years, perhaps as much as 40%.

Calderon is gonna have a rough term in office, and there is a significant possibility that things will get rather ugly, with him being sandwiched between hungry Mexicans and a major loss of PEMEX revenue.

It's going to be an interesting year, this one.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:00 PM on January 23, 2007


delmoi: Er, all (or most) the Carbon in ethanol was removed from CO2 in the air, so while it emits green house gas when burned, the production of ethanol removes it from the air. And how is it not good in terms of greenhouse gas anyway?

Petroleum-based fertilizers.

I like the idea of growing our fuel, but everything I've read says that ethanol is not the answer. I tend to think things like biodiesel made from algae are a lot more promising.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:00 PM on January 23, 2007


delmoi's point about how the production of ethanol removes greenhouse gasses is not one I've heard before, but (to this layman) It makes sense. is there a counter-argument to that point?
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:01 PM on January 23, 2007


Oop, well, in the time it took me to post my question, I got several answers to it. Next time, preview!
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:02 PM on January 23, 2007


MrMoonPie, if no petroleum was being burned in the process of growing the ethanol feedstock crops, then the process would be pretty much carbon-neutral.

Until that happens, the greenhouse picture of using ethanol is unclear, but doesn't seem to be an improvement.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:03 PM on January 23, 2007


I, for one, welcome our new Iowan overlords.
posted by quadog at 12:06 PM on January 23, 2007


I wonder if this will overshadow the SOTU post-game discussion?

"Do You Think Dick Cheney Can Survive This?"
posted by mr.curmudgeon at 12:06 PM on January 23, 2007


Also, while worrying about the greenhouse problem is important, I think the short-term political ramifications of the Mexican government being under severe internal pressures stemming from food shortages and lack of funds are going to be more pressing for the United States.

Where do you think angry, hungry Mexicans will go, eh? And I wouldn't blame them one bit.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:07 PM on January 23, 2007


Oh well, most people seem to think it's energy negative, for some strange reason.

Fertilizer. In particular, the energy to make it, transport it, and use it. Add in the cost of planting, working, and harvesting. Add in the transportation cost of the harvest to the conversion plant.

It is, however, a lovely way to make ADM rich. Why do you think ShrubCo is proposing it?

You might be able to grow sugar cane or beets in a swamp for a few years without fertilizer, but you try that on soybeans in Illinois or corn in Kansas, and you won't replace your own food stock, much less any real amount of gas.
posted by eriko at 12:09 PM on January 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Your post does a nice job of boiling down a complex set of issues involving sustainable fuels and global economics. Thanks for the links.

Personally, I don't see a real 'solution' to our environmental problems that includes every adult US citizen owning and driving a car. Covering the planet in asphalt has it's own set of problems that alternative fuels don't touch. And a cement engeneer recently explained to me that cement production is one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide! (I know, streets are made of asphalt not cement, but our urbanizing world increasingly depends on cement production.) We're going to have to give up a little convenience if we actually want to make a difference.

OK, I'm going to hop in my car now to drive to school. Later!
posted by serazin at 12:12 PM on January 23, 2007


Meh. I never liked corn tortillas anyway. Flour FTW!
posted by Big_B at 12:14 PM on January 23, 2007


From what I hear, sugar ethanol is way better than corn ethanol. Hopefully biotech can change that. Wikipedia on both.
posted by Tlogmer at 12:16 PM on January 23, 2007


Delmoi, I chose to link to the article in Science on the issue of energy balance and GHG. This article is brief and points to the actual study, later in the journal (unfortunately subscriber only). That study seems to be one of the more reliable reviews out there and is very recent. There's a reason I linked to Science, and not, say the Oil Drum (much as like it) or the DOE (much as there's useful data there). Do you know of an equivalently peer-reviewed, more recent study out there that contradicts it? Provide the links or references, I'm interested. GHG gases and corn-based ethanol is not something I claim to be an expert on, but I am educating myself. Finally, I would like to point that much of these debates regard corn-based ethanol only. Sugarcane or cellulosic ethanol would require separate treatment.

What caught my attention, though, was the links between a push towards corn based ethanol and food prices, not just in the Third World. McKenna's column cites Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg as suggesting that this could prove to be a major inflationary pressure. I find it extremely interesting that the inflationary effects of high energy prices could be manifest in this indirect way, through making my breakfast cereal more expensive.
posted by bumpkin at 12:19 PM on January 23, 2007




While doing a research project on biodiesel, I found some papers written by the chemical industry where they indicated they were lobbying governments to not subsidize biodiesel because it would drive up the price of the underlying vegetable oils they rely on to make their products. (I think they were soap companies et al).

Anyway, same thing, different fuel. The real issue is USING LESS GAS not replacing where you get it from.
posted by GuyZero at 12:28 PM on January 23, 2007


One positive: corn syrup will get phased out as a sweetener, making everyone's lives that much better.

I like the idea of growing fuel, be it corn or soy or whatever else. I'd like it more if we could process waste into fuel, not to mention figure out the magic science involved in efficiently collecting all that radiant energy burning away over our heads from that dirty thermonuclear bomb that sustains life on Earth.
posted by linux at 12:30 PM on January 23, 2007


We'll become energy independent and get away from fossil fuels with oil company subsidies, isn't that correct Mr. Bushco?

I second reading "The Oil We Eat" for those who haven't already. Essential reading for understanding the problems we face with our dependency on foreign oil.

There is no one simple solution to our energy needs. It will take many different solutions combined and everyone working together.

Think differenter (you can have that one Georgie, on me.)
posted by nofundy at 12:30 PM on January 23, 2007


A friend of mine who trades ag products shorted corn this month. He's really not happy.
posted by dw at 12:31 PM on January 23, 2007


Isn't most of the corn that would go to ethanol production grade B corn that would otherwise go to feed livestock? Seems like maybe thep price of the beef in the tacos would rise more than the corn in the tortillas.
posted by ubi at 12:33 PM on January 23, 2007


Biomass fuel might be helpful in situations where people have lots of biomass to dispose of, but there's no way it will solve our larger energy dilemma. The environment simply won't support the level of intensive agriculture it would take to provide for our nation's energy needs.

Politicians love ethanol, though, because it's a big winner among beleaguered midwistern farmers and well-meaning environmentalists who don't know any better.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:34 PM on January 23, 2007


So, let's sum up:

--Bush, the most fiscally irresponsible President in history, proposes to balance the budget, starting right after he leaves office.
--Bush, who has repeatedly fought any increase in fuel economy standards throughout his entire Presidency, now proposes that the magical ethanol fairy will come and reduce the amount of gasoline consumed. The process will be to spend lots of money subsidizing the Midwest corn industry in 2007-2008, step 2: ????, and then in 2017 the ethanol fairy appears. (Fuel economy of the average vehicle peaked in 1987 and has been on a steady decline since then - your 2006 car gets worse mileage than your 1987 car did.)
--And of course, Iran (sic) hates our freedom and that's why They attacked Us with nuclear and biological terror weapons and forced us to invade their country.

Same lies, different year.
posted by jellicle at 12:45 PM on January 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Electricity from solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and even nuclear is a much better alternative to biomass, because it's versatile and takes up little space for the relative output. Solar panels on every roof in America would pump an enormous amount of power back into the power grid when it's most needed and take up space already wasted by shingles and tiles.

It's not very efficient to eat electrons, so why put corn in your car?
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:50 PM on January 23, 2007


I suppose the price of corned beef will go up as well? Well I would just assume not live in a world where I can't afford corned beef.
posted by poppo at 12:50 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't know why everyone wants to find one magic solution to the problem.

Why can't it be a unified approach of less consumption, ethanol, bio-diesel, alternative fuels, hybrids, etc etc? We need more solar, more wind, more geothermal, more hydro, more everything.

We don't need ethanol to "fix everything". We just need it to help out a little. Do its part, so to speak.

And that seems reasonable and possible.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:51 PM on January 23, 2007


Stupid corn. It doesn't even self-fertilize and takes tons of fertilizer, making it one of the least efficient food plants. But subsidies mean it's a) fed to cattle who can't digest it, get sick, need antibiotics, create more methane and cause antibiotic resistance, b) used to make corn syrup to keep us from paying for sugar, and also now you'll get corn syrup in a friggin can of green beans if you're not careful, meanwhile diabetes rates soar, c) is being touted for fuel over other sources less expensive and inefficient to grow (algae, switchgrass) but that don't have ADM shaking down our government.

So perhaps the original growers of corn will have their revenge on the European pillagers eventually, when our obese carcasses are carried off by heart disease, superbugs, and global warming.
posted by emjaybee at 12:55 PM on January 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


Same lies, different year.

So I should stop waiting for my hydrogen car and my trip to Mars?
posted by peeedro at 12:55 PM on January 23, 2007


I also wonder wtf we have millions of acres of rooftops that aren't solarized, like CynicalKnight does.

If we had really committed to it back in the 80's, solar roofing panels now would be cheaper than Spanish tile.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:57 PM on January 23, 2007


Here's the problem. There are basically two ways government can deal with problems like this:

1. New regulations/mandates/whatever, or
2. bootstrapping a perceived solution (i.e. spending)

Number 1 usually works very well. If the govt mandated a minimum 30 mpg on all vehicles no exceptions, then every new vehicle would get 30 mpg. It's like magic. Granted, there'd be no SUV's, but in a few years at the rate Americans change cars, you'd have most of the cars be 30 mpg. Also, from a govt spending angle, it's cheap. Just the cost of a new reg.

The problem with this is that companies that spend money lobbying hate it, not because they can't meet the standard (they can, no problem), but because the new products that conform to the new standards would have to be marketed almost oppositely to how the old products were marketed before. Sorry, but a tiny Smartcar does not lend itself to the obvious ego-involvement product desire that a Hummer does.

Number 2 stinks for taxpayers - our money is going to be spent on one particular solution to a problem, which was selected after much lobbying by industry and very little regard to scientific or economic merit. But business loves this, because you can create businesses that have govt mandated customers - it's Wall Street meets socialism.

Notice how the plan is never to just spend $10,00 per household and buy everyone a wind turbine or replace your roof with solar panels. It's always something that you have to keep going back for over and over again. It's the solution that provides the most tax revenue over time and creates the most jobs. God forbid you recharge your car by pluggin it in at your house or office - what will become of all those Exxon stations?
posted by Pastabagel at 1:03 PM on January 23, 2007


There is no single answer and certainly no silver bullet. I'd prefer a pool of money be set aside to investigate all options and solutions inluding ethanol, biodiesel, as well as solar/wind/nuclear.

In my somewhat project management oriented mind we need an options review with a roadmap towards the twin goals of zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% energy independence. I think in the next 5-10 years ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels factor heavily as we transition to a better energy storage system than liquid oil. Later, energy may very well come from multiple places fed into a common portable storage system whatever that maybe.
posted by aaronscool at 1:04 PM on January 23, 2007


One positive: corn syrup will get phased out as a sweetener, making everyone's lives that much better.

Not without the biggest food-related fight we've ever seen in this country. Corn's astoundingly variegated products are completely integral to our food supply. I'd love to see it topple, but that's going to be a gradual process, with big money fighting tooth and nail for every inch.

There's a great summary of the corn-in-our-food situation in The Omnivore's Dilemma
posted by gurple at 1:06 PM on January 23, 2007


stbalbach:

What an interesting and enlightening link. Thanks.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:06 PM on January 23, 2007


To be fair, and in response to CynicalKnight, solar panels stink as a source of electricity. They don't last forever and require batteries, transformers. The manufacturing process is also highly toxic - akin to the semiconductor industry.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:06 PM on January 23, 2007


My 1999 VW Jetta:
BEFORE: Zero ethanol: 27.2 mpg
NOW: With 10% ethanol: 24.7 mpg
That's ~10% worse mileage than before the switch.
How exactly does this help reduce our dependence on foreign oil?
posted by Lord Kinbote at 1:10 PM on January 23, 2007


How exactly does this help reduce our dependence on foreign oil?
posted by Lord Kinbote at 4:10 PM EST on January 23


It doesn't help at all. And it isn't good for the engine either (PDF).

Besides, you should be driving an American car. Commie.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:17 PM on January 23, 2007


"(Fuel economy of the average vehicle peaked in 1987 and has been on a steady decline since then - your 2006 car gets worse mileage than your 1987 car did.)"

Also don't forget that ethanol has something like 2/3 the BTUs-per-volume (or is that mass?) of gasoline - i.e., if one gallon of gas contains the energy to take you 30 miles, a gallon of alcohol only has enough to take you 20.

So, as ethanol mixtures increase, you will get poorer mileage just from that.

on preview: precisely, Lord Kinbote.

Now think of how each gallon of alcohol requires about .8 gallons of petroleum-based products to produce, and let the enlightenment dawn...
posted by zoogleplex at 1:17 PM on January 23, 2007


delmoi, takes oil to grow corn see The Oil We Eat -- stbalbach

No offense, but that article is mostly just an extended, overwrought metaphor. There may be some interesting bits, but you can't really draw any conclusions from it, at least not in the first part. Obviously it requires fuel to run farm equipment, but hopefully the farm equipment can switch over to ethanol itself.

As far as petroleum based fertilizers, I don't know. I would need to see more information about how common they are, but plants normally get Carbon from the air, and other elements, like nitrogen and potasium. According to wikipedia the main components are: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, as well as some calcium, sulfur, magnesium and minor amounts of a few other elements. You don't need hydrocarbons to get those things.
posted by delmoi at 1:19 PM on January 23, 2007


Also don't forget that ethanol has something like 2/3 the BTUs-per-volume (or is that mass?) of gasoline - i.e., if one gallon of gas contains the energy to take you 30 miles, a gallon of alcohol only has enough to take you 20.

That's not exactly true. Ethanol mixed with water will produce steam in the pistons, reducing the temprature and adding more force. So you produce less energy, but the energy you do produce does a better job of moving the car. I'm not sure if you get better millage, but it's not a 30% loss.
posted by delmoi at 1:22 PM on January 23, 2007


And just as a side note— the problem with feeding the starving billions has never been about supply, but rather about distribution. We've got plenty of agricultural production capacity, just very little incentive to give free food to brown people we don't know.
posted by klangklangston at 1:24 PM on January 23, 2007


delmoi:

You have to remember all the ancillary power that's used. Most fertilizer is synthetically synthesized - you need power to run all the manufacturing processes. Fertilizer is made in a factory, not at the farm - so you need to truck it there. Bigger commercial farms require more machinery- you need to power them.

The solution, as I see it, to our energy problems is to make as much of it as decentralized and local as possible. Solar, wind, brown water, etc. at each house. Small area (neighborhood?) sized electricity generation. Local meat and produce. We burn huge amounts of energy transporting stuff around that don't really need to be transported around.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:32 PM on January 23, 2007


errr, grey water
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:33 PM on January 23, 2007


And just as a side note— the problem with feeding the starving billions has never been about supply, but rather about distribution. We've got plenty of agricultural production capacity, just very little incentive to give free food to brown people we don't know.
posted by klangklangston at 4:24 PM EST on January 23 [+]
[!]


"Brown people"? Didn't brown people develop agriculture in the first place? Who's stopping them from growing their own food? Oh, right, white people who are willing to exercise their considerable power to stop brown people from trimming back the jungles in their own countries so they can feed themselves.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:34 PM on January 23, 2007


You have to remember all the ancillary power that's used. Most fertilizer is synthetically synthesized - you need power to run all the manufacturing processes. Fertilizer is made in a factory, not at the farm - so you need to truck it there. Bigger commercial farms require more machinery- you need to power them.

It'll be interesting to see how special interest capitalize on the confusion and ambiguity about ethanol efficiency to their advantage. With oil, it's simple. Stop producing at the well if it takes more than a barrel of oil (with of energy, chemicals, etc) to extract a barrel from the well.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:36 PM on January 23, 2007


I'm amazed you're all able to type so well while the strings are being pulled so tightly.
posted by furtive at 1:39 PM on January 23, 2007


And then think of how farmers all over the world will get more money selling their corn to the US to burn for fuel, as opposed to selling it to their own people so they can eat (whether they get to clear their own jungles or not), and mull over the geopolitics of that.

As bad as the greenhouse thing is, the geopolitical problems will be a lot more immediate.

"I would need to see more information about how common they are, but plants normally get Carbon from the air, and other elements, like nitrogen and potasium."

delmoi, since you don't know, you shouldn't speculate. The information is as close as your Google search button, eh? Plants do not get nitrogen from the air; it must be "fixed" into the soil in some form before the plants can use it - that's why Ammonium Nitrate is a fertilizer, it's got tons of nitrogen in it and plants absorb it nicely. It's made from natural gas these days, and it's used in quantities of TONS per acre of farmland, all over the world.

Phosphorus and potassium and all the rest don't just appear magically in the topsoil, either. All these substances are included in fertilizers to re-enrich the soil, since the plants absorb them all. If we didn't actually eat the plants, and they just fell down and rotted back into the soil, all of this would be returned to the soil.

However, since we eat them, these nutrients go into us, so they don't get back into the soil for quite a while, and besides, we don't bury our dead in farmland.

Another thing to think about is that many of these ethanol-production scenarios involve not only using the parts of the plants we would usually eat, but also the parts that we usually leave in the field and plow back under to help mulch the soil, returning at least a portion of the nutrients.

This means we would actually have to put MORE fertilizer and MORE nutrients back into the soil to grow next year's crop. Corn as grown in America in monoculture (and just about any industrially-farmed crop) relies almost entirely on external fertilizer/nutrient input that is either produced directly from or derived via a process powered by petroleum or coal.

I third the suggestion that you read The Oil We Eat, because by your own admission you don't have enough information about the process to come to an informed opinion.

"That's not exactly true. Ethanol mixed with water will produce steam in the pistons, reducing the temprature and adding more force. So you produce less energy, but the energy you do produce does a better job of moving the car. I'm not sure if you get better millage, but it's not a 30% loss."

I was not referring to motive power imparted by combustion, but to actual heat content in the fuel - an important difference. Physically, when you burn alcohol, you get something like 2/3 of the heat energy out of it as burning the same amount of gasoline. If you take two cars, one set up to burn gas and the other to burn pure alcohol, and 10 gallons of the respective fuels in their tanks, and drive them 'til they run out, you'll only go about 2/3 as far in the gas-powered vehicle.

Heat content of a fuel isn't some changeable number, it's physics. The amount of energy it takes to do the same amount of work doesn't vary.

Gasoline-burning internal combustion engines are only about 15-25% efficient anyway, so we're already wasting the vast majority of our gasoline via engine heat.

However, it's possible to get an alcohol-only-burning engine to run much more efficiently than a gas engine, so we could make up gains there.

Meanwhile, adding alcohol to gasoline is proven to result in poorer mileage in heretofore gas-powered vehicles. I'm also getting poorer mileage from my motorcycle since CA switched from MTBE to ethanol as the oxygenating additive, but not 10% poorer, thankfully. Computer-controlled fuel injection compensates somewhat...
posted by zoogleplex at 1:40 PM on January 23, 2007


You have to remember all the ancillary power that's used. Most fertilizer is synthetically synthesized - you need power to run all the manufacturing processes. Fertilizer is made in a factory, not at the farm - so you need to truck it there. Bigger commercial farms require more machinery- you need to power them.

Yes, but you don't need to use oil for those things, you can use nuclear, wind, solar, or whatever. But for now, you need something to put in cars.
posted by delmoi at 1:40 PM on January 23, 2007


zoogleplex: read what I wrote again, when you burn ethanol in an ICE you get less waste heat, and more kinetic energy in the engine. So while you produce less energy overall, more of that energy can be used to move the car.

The temperature of the exhaust is literally lower.

Why is that? Well, some of the heat created by burning ethanol causes the rapid evaporation of water. The evaporation reduces the temperature, and the newly vaporized water causes higher pressure inside the piston. Higher pressure means more force on the piston.

Meanwhile, adding alcohol to gasoline is proven to result in poorer mileage in heretofore gas-powered vehicles.

Well with the 10% ethanol, 90% gasoline you won't see this vaporization. You need like 90% ethanol with 10% water or something.
posted by delmoi at 1:45 PM on January 23, 2007


Incinerating corn is not the answer.

The answer is incarcerating Bush.
posted by oncogenesis at 1:47 PM on January 23, 2007


And the reason you can't mix water with regular gasoline is that it's not water soluble (as far as I know), but ethanol is.
posted by delmoi at 1:47 PM on January 23, 2007


The bottom line (and likely the truth of the matter) was way up near the top, courtesy of eriko:

Fertilizer. In particular, the energy to make it, transport it, and use it. Add in the cost of planting, working, and harvesting. Add in the transportation cost of the harvest to the conversion plant.

It is, however, a lovely way to make ADM rich. Why do you think ShrubCo is proposing it?

posted by dropkick at 1:47 PM on January 23, 2007


According to wikipedia the main components are: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, as well as some calcium, sulfur, magnesium and minor amounts of a few other elements. You don't need hydrocarbons to get those things.

To get a little more specific about that, let's talk about nitrogen. Plants fix nitrogen biologically. But the nitrogen fixed biologically by crops like corn is miniscule compared to the nitrogen farmers dump on it in the form of fertilizer. Fertilizer is cheap for farmers in terms of $$$, so they're encouraged economically to use a lot, to get their yield up.

However, fertilizer doesn't use biologically-fixed nitrogen. The nitrogen in fertilizer is fixed using the Haber-Bosch process, which needs high pressures and high temperatures. Those temperatures and pressures are achieved by, you guessed it, petroleum-based machines.

We can use processes like this to generate freakish amounts of food, but it only lasts as long as our energy sources do. We need other energy sources, but corn isn't the solution, because it just shoves the problem off further -- how do you get the energy to make the fertilizer to grow the corn?
posted by gurple at 1:47 PM on January 23, 2007


"Yes, but you don't need to use oil for those things, you can use nuclear, wind, solar, or whatever."

You have to use the infrastructure that's already in place to build all those other sources of energy, delmoi. That means burning a lot of oil and coal building solar panels, wind turbines, nuke plants, etc., in locations suitable to replace your manufacturing energy.

Plus there are practicality problems. It would be tough to run a modern strip mine on electricity, for instance. Those big shovels and trucks need mobility, and the mining explosives are made from petroleum (they use a lot of that same ammonium nitrate!).

"But for now, you need something to put in cars."

Perhaps putting something in so many cars is the problem, neh?
posted by zoogleplex at 1:49 PM on January 23, 2007


Can anyone explain why geothermal energy isn't a perfect solution to our energy problems? We're sitting on a ball of molten metal, and if we tapped into even a tiny fraction of the thermal energy down there we should have more energy than we could use for the forseeable future. It makes solar, wind, and nuclear power seem like children's toys.
posted by mullingitover at 1:53 PM on January 23, 2007


Sure, but just try getting to it.
posted by IronLizard at 2:03 PM on January 23, 2007


As a point of interest, Wikipedia estimates that 1% of the global annual energy use goes to the Haber process.

Holy crap.
posted by aramaic at 2:04 PM on January 23, 2007


"zoogleplex: read what I wrote again, when you burn ethanol in an ICE you get less waste heat, and more kinetic energy in the engine. So while you produce less energy overall, more of that energy can be used to move the car."

Yes, you're right, and I did say that an alcohol-fueled engine will be inherently more efficient. No argument there.

So let's agree on an assumption that if we converted over to running all the cars on alcohol, total energy used would remain flat or possibly we'd see a gain, less energy used per vehicle mile. That would be great, and may be the actual case.

Now the problem is, can we produce the same amount of alcohol as we produce gasoline now, to run all these cars - not to mention can we convert them all to run solely on alcohol? That's a lot of manufacturing necessary, possibly good for the economy but requiring a lot of energy expenditure.

Also, where's the infrastructure to distribute all that alcohol? Current gasoline pipelines are not suitable at all for alcohol transport - in fact the pipeline model is probably not usable for alcohol. It would need to be shipped by truck, rail and ship. What's the efficiency loss of having to use the alcohol to move the alcohol around?

This is still ignoring the problems of more people going hungry, of course.

"Can anyone explain why geothermal energy isn't a perfect solution to our energy problems?"

Not all places on earth have sufficient geothermal heat close to the surface. You'd have to drill really far down and circulate a heat-transfer medium (usually water) from surface to heat source. The temperature gradient has to be high enough that the water doesn't lose too much heat on the way up. Also, superheated water under pressure is vicious on metal pipes, and the groundwater itself is full of salts and stuff, so there are problems with corrosion. There are a whole host of major engineering challenges associated with trying to do geothermal anywhere but in a place like Iceland.

Now, there is a corollary that could save us some energy, which is using a ground-cooled water loop to help with air-conditioning, instead of using just plain electricity to run a compressor. That's probably worth pursuing, especially in places like Texas and Arizona.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:04 PM on January 23, 2007


"As a point of interest, Wikipedia estimates that 1% of the global annual energy use goes to the Haber process.

Holy crap."


Since the US uses 25% of global petroleum production, and roughly half that is burned as gasoline in our cars, the United States consumes about 12% of total global petroleum energy (not total global energy, there's a lot of coal being burned to generate electricity) just driving around.

Holy crap indeed.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:10 PM on January 23, 2007


Bush is more concerned with pandering to the base, which can grok 'energy independence' from the hated Moslem. Grokking subtle solutions, with complex long-term effects based upon physics and biology, not so much.

He only has to worry about two more years, then, it will be the Democrats fault.
posted by sfts2 at 2:15 PM on January 23, 2007


""Brown people"? Didn't brown people develop agriculture in the first place? Who's stopping them from growing their own food? Oh, right, white people who are willing to exercise their considerable power to stop brown people from trimming back the jungles in their own countries so they can feed themselves."

Ah yes, the dreaded Ofay Anti-Agriculture Squad. The blunt fact is that for a significant portion of the world, the amount of arable land is insufficient to sustain their population (not just in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa, but also Japan). That means that they have to either import food through trade (which implies that they have something to barter with) or through grants. The specific US agricultural policies that were established after the Great Depression, mostly involving subsidies and the Food Bank, are a disincentive to producing more food (and aimed at keeping prices low here).
But hey, good luck with your bizarro-world "Let's raze the rainforest" thing.
posted by klangklangston at 2:16 PM on January 23, 2007


"The blunt fact is that for a significant portion of the world, the amount of arable land is insufficient to sustain their population (not just in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa, but also Japan). That means that they have to either import food through trade (which implies that they have something to barter with) or through grants."

In other words, the problem could actually be defined as local overpopulation.

One set of opinions (definitely not my own) might say these people were foolish to breed to the point where their local resources were not enough to sustain them.

But this is the situation, and it sucks. Equitable food distribution probably will never happen, and turning food into car fuel is only going to make the problems worse.

As I said, Calderon is going to have a rough time of it, with a major loss of government oil revenue on one side, and an angry, hungry, poverty-stricken mass of Mexican people on the other!

And that means direct effects on the US, too, through both having to import more oil from farther away and illegal immigration problems.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:24 PM on January 23, 2007


solar panels stink as a source of electricity

Agreed. They're also only 10~20% efficient and $4~$5 per watt even after chinese mass production is outrageously expensive.

But, these are temporary problems. Nanotechnology may eventually take a lot of the crude toxins out of the manufacturing process. Efficiency is increasing all the time. Once they fall below $1 per watt a critical mass of buyers will emerge.

That's a lot of maybes, but consider that right now $10~15k can set you up with a system that takes your energy bill almost to zero[pdf file]. Put those across all or just the majority of the roofs in air-conditioning/sunlight heavy California (even without batteries for night-time storage) and their news-grabbing energy woes are history.
posted by CynicalKnight at 2:33 PM on January 23, 2007


gurple: actually, plants do not, themselves, fix nitrogen. Nitrogen fixation goes on in bacteria. Some of these bacteria are specifically associated with crops (e.g., legumes host bacteria that fix nitrogen in their root nodules), but most plants don't have these bacteria and depend on nutrients that are in the soil.

Corn, like most plants, doesn't have nitrogen-fixing bacteria associated with it. A hundred years ago, farmers would have rotated crops in order to preserve soil quality. This generally involved letting fields spend some time lying fallow, and growing legumes as well, to make use of the nitrogen-fixing qualities of their associated bacteria. Today, the industrial farming of corn is done differently. Farmers who grow corn grow only [or mostly] corn. The soil is more or less just a matrix for the plants: all of the required nutrients [including nitrogen compounds] are added as fertilizer, and the nutrients in the fertilizer are derived from industrial processes [the Haber-Bosch process, in the case of nitrogen, which requires temperatures of 450-650C and pressures of 200-300 atm.] Without these hardcore fertilizers, growing corn in the same fields year after year would exhaust the soil.

So this is part of the big problem with ethanol as an energy source: the way we grow corn on an industrial scale is hugely energy intensive, from the fertilizer [dependant on various industrial processes] to the cultivation to the harvesting & transportation [lots of petroleum]. There's a net energy input needed for this system, and as cheap energy becomes harder to come by [oil prices go up and so on], the whole process become less financially practical. Now, scientists are working on many aspects of this [for example, Yandulov and Schrock have been working on catalysts for nitrogen fixation that work at less extreme conditions than the Haber-Bosch process, namely room temperature and pressure], but there're still a lot of unsolved problems. Fueling everything with ethanol isn't a magic answer, unfortunately.
posted by ubersturm at 2:38 PM on January 23, 2007


gurple: actually, plants do not, themselves, fix nitrogen

Heh; I was aware that I was out of my depth, and I thought I had phrased things such that I wasn't technically wrong either way, but it turns out I hadn't. I suck at sucking!
posted by gurple at 2:42 PM on January 23, 2007


I seem to recall hearing that a health-care fix was to be floated to - apparently consisting of taxing employer-provided benefits as income. I had to restrain my self from smashing the radio.
posted by mwhybark at 2:43 PM on January 23, 2007


More immediately, the US drive towards corn based ethanol has had major effects on the price of corn

This is totally backwards, and the difference is fundamental to understanding what's going on here. Rather than the move to ethanol driving down the price of corn, the dropping price of corn is actually driving the move to ethanol.

During the Great Depression, the government starting keeping the price of corn relatively stable by buying up excess corn in plentiful years and selling reserves in low-yield years. In the 1980s, this reserve system was dismantled in the interest of the free market. This turned out to be incredibly profitable for large agribusiness corporations (e.g. ADM and Cargill), but bad for pretty much everyone else.

Without stable corn prices based on a relatively steady supply, farmers began to invest in various ways to increase yield. As yield increased, prices dropped, and farmers have since been in a free fall towards cheaper and cheaper corn and lower and lower profits. Corn was cheap before ethanol. With the market flooded with cheap corn, new industries continue forming looking for profitable ways to use all that cheap corn. Ethanol is just the most attempt at replacing something more expensive with cheaper corn. Pepsi and Coke replaced sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Cattle farmers replaced grass with corn. General Mills replaced nearly everything in cereal with some form of corn. Tyson replaced chicken with chicken-flavored corn. And now ethanol is replacing oil with corn.

Even if no one uses ethanol, corn will remain cheap, and we'll keep replacing better materials with cheaper corn-based materials, until the economic incentives driving corn ever-cheaper are changed.
posted by scottreynen at 2:44 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Chimpy McSmirkalot is going to blather horseshit with an environmental bent in hopes that he can charm him some dumbocrats and stave off impeachment. it'll probably work.
posted by quonsar at 3:04 PM on January 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


From this article on CNN:
President Bush, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, will propose a plan to cut U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent while bolstering inventory in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Republican sources say.

The president's 10-year plan to cut gasoline use includes tightening fuel economy standards on automakers and producing 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel such as ethanol by 2017, according to sources briefed on the speech.
Here's a challenge for you, my fellow Americans; do you think you could cut your gasoline use by 20% right now? How about your total energy usage? Yes, right now, I mean it.

Back when we had our (Enron-engineered) California "energy crisis," people in CA cut our electric usage by as much as 50% by various means. I tried to do a lot of things on my own to contribute; I bought all compact-fluorescent light bulbs (which are only now starting to burn out!), I made sure I shut all my lights off when not in the room, I powered down my (yes, somewhat excessive) 5-computer home network down to one computer at a time and only when I was home, etc. I cut my electric use by almost 90% just by doing those things.

I still do all those things, so I think the only thing I could do to cut back more is to switch to LED lights and make sure to cut power to ALL my electronic equipment when not in use, since most of them draw some small amount even when they're "off." Those little LEDs on their fronts, y'know? Most of probably have a Christmas tree of them, yes?

I also commute on a motorcycle - 40 mpg, total fuel use about 10 gallons per month, somewhat less actually.

I'd like to replace my fridge with an Energy Star, and replace my (natural gas) stove with a pilotless model, but I live in an apartment...

Anyway, what can YOU do to help save gasoline and energy? What are you doing already, if anything? I'm curious.

Good golly, saving gas and energy might just be... patriotic!! Plus, you might help keep some people from starving. That's a nice bonus, yes?
"One official said the moves would be equivalent to taking 26 million vehicles off U.S. roads."
How about we just try to take those vehicles off the road? Even 1/4 of them would help. And the traffic would improve markedly...

"Put those across all or just the majority of the roofs in air-conditioning/sunlight heavy California (even without batteries for night-time storage) and their news-grabbing energy woes are history."

Amen to that. We've got nearly 100,000 sq ft of roof on my apartment building, most of which is in the sun all day even in winter, that could and should be covered with solar panels. I'd be willing to bet we could even replace the entire heating system (which now runs on nat gas) with passive solar using part of that roof area... well, maybe half of it. My neighbors on the top floor would probably be happier, as all that stuff would absorb the heat that currently roasts their apartments in the summer. Of course, I don't own the building... sigh.

We have no air conditioners in the building btw, the electrical wiring is too old to handle the load. I've been lucky, never felt the need for AC in my apartment. I couple of fans and the natural breeze works nicely.
posted by zoogleplex at 3:06 PM on January 23, 2007


Biobutanol seems like a good solution to the problem of the energy deficiency of ethanol compared to petroleum (as butanol produces a similar energy output per unit weight to conventional gasoline- see comparison halfway down the wiki-link).
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 3:26 PM on January 23, 2007


Y'all are making me feel guilty about that lavish 4-cylinder car I'm about to buy.

Here in Alberta it's sunny almost all of the time. I dream about installing solar panels and a mini windfarm on the green roof of the house that I don't have and can't afford on account of our production of oil. The Bush administration, despite our critical labour shortage, wants a fivefold increase in our oil production. Good luck with that.
posted by jimmythefish at 3:39 PM on January 23, 2007


I guess GWB will be sending you lots of people and 5 times the amount of natural gas currently being used to process the tar sands then?

/sarcasm, of course

I think he's been thoroughly briefed on the unfolding PEMEX disaster, if he's asking for that.

Just so we're all clear on something, the countries we import the most oil from are:

#1: Mexico
#2: Canada
#3: Venezuela

Note that #1 and #2 are much easier and cheaper to import from, since we're physically connected and can move the oil via pipeline (which, I believe, we do indeed).

#1 is shortly not going to be able to export as much oil. If #2 and #3 can't make up the difference, more oil will have to be brought in via tanker, which is more expensive.

Asking Canada to multiply production by 5 makes sense in light of the problem in Mexico, eh? But of course, it's ludicrous. It would take many years to ramp up like that, even if all the oil in question was easily-accessible conventionally-drilled oil; there are only so many drill rigs available, only so much production and transportation infrastructure to be wielded.
posted by zoogleplex at 3:51 PM on January 23, 2007


Even if no one uses ethanol, corn will remain cheap

I think you mean only if no one uses (corn-derived) ethanol, corn might remain cheap. Or maybe not. The world has been eating more corn than it grows for years now; eventually that's going to have some effect on the price. There are various things going on besides ethanol that could soon make cereal grains less cheap than they used to be.

"The world failed to produce enough corn to match demand in six of the past seven years, and prices have risen 98 percent in the past 12 months."
posted by sfenders at 4:07 PM on January 23, 2007


I just want OPEC to switch from the dollar to the Euro.

Then all of Bush's blathering will be for shit, because even he knows that that will destroy the U.S. economy faster than any terrorist attack or coffer emptying war.

I don't want to be right on this either.


Oh, and don't forget to get your drink on tonight.
posted by daq at 4:33 PM on January 23, 2007


here comes frankencorn, here comes frankencorn
posted by gorgor_balabala at 4:34 PM on January 23, 2007


That drinking game is a recipe for suicide.
posted by IronLizard at 5:14 PM on January 23, 2007


As one who is anaphylactically allergic to corn, I'd just like to note this entire post gave me hives.
posted by faineant at 5:28 PM on January 23, 2007


Huff Post broke the embargo on the speech--not much on alternative energy at all--very re-run.
posted by amberglow at 6:16 PM on January 23, 2007


the relevant section: ...Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America's economy running and America's environment clean. For too long our Nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists -- who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments ... raise the price of oil ... and do great harm to our economy.
It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply -- and the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power -- by even greater use of clean coal technology ... solar and wind energy ... and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol -- using everything from wood chips, to grasses, to agricultural wastes.
We have made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies in Washington and the strong response of the market. Now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we have done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years -- thereby cutting our total imports by the equivalent of 3/4 of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.
To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory Fuels Standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- this is nearly 5 times the current target. At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks -- and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.
Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but will not eliminate it. So as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must also step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment -- and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. ...

posted by amberglow at 6:18 PM on January 23, 2007


Let us build on the work we have done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years -- thereby cutting our total imports by the equivalent of 3/4 of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.
Just 20 percent ? That means that the whole import from Middle East accounts for only 26,6% of the gasoline usage in U.S. Ok that is close to 30% which is more less 1/3 , but that is ONLY on gasoline ?? I take he is using a rather extensive concept of gasoline ?
posted by elpapacito at 6:39 PM on January 23, 2007


YES WEBB YES SHOW HIM THE WAY!!!!
posted by HyperBlue at 7:24 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


The state of the Democratic response is strong. Haven't felt this good since staying up all night hitting F5 on election return websites for VA watching Webb defeat Allen.
posted by HyperBlue at 7:28 PM on January 23, 2007


have we gone to mars yet?
posted by quonsar at 7:29 PM on January 23, 2007


Webb was amazing! he made Bush seem like the tiny lost boy he is. "We will show him the way" hah!
posted by amberglow at 7:39 PM on January 23, 2007


If you're into mounting devices on your roof that displace centrally generated energy, the most cost-effective one I know of at present is an evacuated-tube solar water heater. You can retrofit these to any existing stored hot water service.

My retrofit cost me AU$2800, is guaranteed for ten years, has an expected service life of twenty, isn't susceptible to damage from freezing or boiling dry, doesn't need glycol, doesn't contain large quantities of dirty-to-produce semiconductor, and is replacing electricity costing AU$270/year at today's off-peak prices.

I'm at latitude -37° and have mounted the heater facing north at 54° above horizontal to optimize its winter performance. I turned off the storage tank's off-peak electricity supply after installing seventeen of the unit's thirty heat absorption tubes. That was two months ago, and I haven't needed to turn it back on (I've since installed the remaining tubes).

If your house is currently heated by oil or gas, or you're contemplating building a new home, it might be worthwhile checking out the economics of using solar-heated stored hot water and hydronic radiator panels instead.
posted by flabdablet at 8:00 PM on January 23, 2007


Bush phoned that one in. It was sort of wierd. There was almost a hint of resignation in his voice. Webb cut through the bullsh*t quite nicely. His straight talking common sense was a relief to hear.
posted by Skygazer at 8:00 PM on January 23, 2007


have we gone to mars yet?

Mars, as far as I can tell, has gone down the memory hole:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/space/index.html
. From this search.
posted by peeedro at 8:18 PM on January 23, 2007


His proposals are all and good, but why on earth didn't he bring up the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007 passed by the House? This thing takes $14 billion worth of subsidies from Big Oil and puts it towards renewables!

"Not to worry, oil companies: you've still got a friend. Make yourselves at home in our national parks, wildlife refuges, on our shores, and in our waters. Bush, not surprisingly, did not offer his blessing to the bill that passed the House last week that repeals tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies and diverts the money to alternative and renewable fuel research and development." -Ryan Thibodaux
posted by greenmolotov at 8:58 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]




1. Build a bunch of these in the Southwest.
2. I mean everywhere. I mean, like, cover Arizona and Nevada in the damn things.
3. Use this to directly power most of the Western U.S.
4. Use leftover energy to produce hydrogen to power fuel cells in trains and buses, as well as smaller power plants in the East.
5. Profit!

To say nothing of the jobs created to build and maintain these power plants.
posted by thecaddy at 9:50 PM on January 23, 2007


Iowa's fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

Holy fucking shit.

Can we maybe harness the plutonium/uranium/etc from our nuclear weapons and use THAT to fuel cars? No? Oh well, it would be pretty great if we could.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:19 PM on January 23, 2007


Been wanting to make a fpp about this for awhile. About an hour long google video presentation explaining that a) even if corn ethanol isn't the long term solution, at current market prices, it's competitive with gasoline, and b) ethanol is just a stepping stone to more energy efficient biofuels.

ABSTRACT On Wednesday, March 29th, by invitation from our co-founders and CEO, our special guest, Vinod Khosla, visited Google to deliver a tech talk about the emergence of ethanol as a viable, market ready, and competitive source of renewable energy.
posted by Nquire at 11:37 PM on January 23, 2007


Can we maybe harness the plutonium/uranium/etc from our nuclear weapons and use THAT to fuel cars? No? Oh well, it would be pretty great if we could.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:19 PM PST on January 23 [+][!]


Nuclear-powered cars, while amusing, may not fare well in head-on collisions.
posted by mek at 2:00 AM on January 24, 2007


Nuclear-powered cars, while amusing, may not fare well in head-on collisions.

It might get rid of shitty drivers though, which might help my car insurance rate. I say we give it the old college try.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:04 AM on January 24, 2007


Not nuclear-powered cars, electric cars and a lot of nuclear power plants. There's no way Average Joe American is going to land a permit for a nuclear fission pile.
posted by tehloki at 3:10 AM on January 24, 2007


Nuclear-powered cars, while amusing, may not fare well in head-on collisions.

Oh pish tosh...nuclear powered cars would rock. It would also be great if they could fly and you could press a button and they folded up into nice portable attache cases.
Like on the Jetsons.
posted by Skygazer at 6:35 AM on January 24, 2007


I was so amused by the episode of Harvey Birdman where the Jetsons sued the past for climate change... pure genius. They were so used to getting shuttled around on moving sidewalks, they were completely unable to walk.
posted by tehloki at 6:59 AM on January 24, 2007


I have passive solar water heating, which provides all the hot water we need for a third of the year and contributes toward another third. The system is a simple array of pipes on a panel which have water and anti-freeze pumped through them when the temperature in the panel is 5C higher than the storage tank, no vacuum tubes which are more expensive. I am at a latitude of 54N. There are grants available from local councils which contribute toward the installation.

I would like to install a ground source heating system, although it currently is too expensive. This would provide heating in the winter and could provide cooling in the summer as alluded to above. I might have to do this at another property though, as it works best with underfloor heating, which works best with near-100% perfect insulation, which I sadly do not have.

The idea of self-sufficiency in power generation and conservation is not a new idea and there are already many examples of successful systems to choose from. Insulation is the key to efficient buildings. Construction in concert with local environmental features would also help.

Adoption of existing technologies would contribute greatly to a reduction in energy usage, but the companies who control lobby governments don't own them, so they are conveniently side-lined for other pie-in-the-sky projects.

I wonder about shit (not to mention piss). If people could get over the immature attitude to human faeces we might have a great source of fertilizer and energy on, er, tap. The way we deal with it at the moment really is nonsense.

A shit powered car! That would be the shit!
posted by asok at 7:21 AM on January 24, 2007


A shit powered car! That would be the shit!

Excellent. One Bush State of the Union Address could power the cars in America for months!
posted by Skygazer at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2007


asok:

I'm too busy to look up cites; it seems you've done a lot of research already, though.

Underfloor heating is a nice perk, and effective in certain situations. The average cost of radiant floor heating is between 6 and 15k, though. Most studies that I've seen have said that that if that money were spend on extra insulation and leak control, in most cases the energy savings would be much greater.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:09 AM on January 24, 2007


I see what you are saying. UF heating is about a third more in cost on a new build or conversion here, providing you do the work yourself as it does take longer to install than a radiator based system. Ground source heating operates at lower temperatures which is why it works well with UF heating. If you are doing a conversion or new build (i.e. you are buying a new heating system) it is definately worth considering in alot of cases, as long as you have maximised the insulation on the property (triple-glazed windows, etc).
I have heard of one place which has passive solar heating which operates at very low temps (15C), but this is in a buillding which has near-100% insulation. The result is that if you put people in the place it heats up anyway, so the heating is there to take the edge off the cold. Many well-insulated builldings will stay a constant 18C all year round with minimal heating and cooling required. Insulation, insulation, insulation.
posted by asok at 9:31 AM on January 24, 2007


At the university of guelph campus, I've noticed something: there are no icicles. I haven't seen a single one all my semesters here. All of the buildings are so efficiently insulated that the snow just doesn't melt on the roof. It's kind of awe-inspiring.

Then again, all the bodies moving in and out probably further reduces heating costs... I doubt they even have to heat some of the larger lecture halls.
posted by tehloki at 9:59 AM on January 24, 2007


"Excellent. One Bush State of the Union Address could power the cars in America for months!"

There, fixed that for ya. GWB has had no monopoly on manure-filled SOTU speeches, so let's be fair. :)

"Not shit! ENERGY!!!"
- Master
posted by zoogleplex at 10:38 AM on January 24, 2007


Bush might not be the only president who delivers horrible state of the union speeches, but he sure does enjoy saying the same things over and over again, while at the same time, making no points at all. Oh wait, never mind... that's what a state of the union is supposed to be.
posted by tehloki at 10:56 AM on January 24, 2007


I wonder about shit (not to mention piss). If people could get over the immature attitude to human faeces we might have a great source of fertilizer and energy on, er, tap.

Asok, allow me to introduce you to Milorganite.
posted by drezdn at 11:09 AM on January 24, 2007


I've heard the problem with human feces as fertilizer is a relatively high heavy metals content, which is bad.

Urine is usable, the urea in it decays to ammonia apparently (saw that on the Mythbusters Pirate special, heh), and that's good for fertilizer.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:49 AM on January 24, 2007


Zoog: "Excellent. One two Bush State of the Union Address presidential terms could power the cars in America for months the rest of our natural lives!"

There, fixed that for ya. GWB has had no monopoly on manure-filled SOTU speeches, so let's be fair. :)


No no no let me fix that for you. GWB may not have a monopoly on manure-filled SOTU speeches, but he is the most incompetent waste of a presidency this country has ever had.

Zoog: I've heard the problem with human feces as fertilizer is a relatively high heavy metals content, which is bad.

Speak for your self WORM! I have high DOOM metals content in mine.

*Turns the DEICIDE up to 11*
posted by Skygazer at 12:53 PM on January 24, 2007


The heavy metals content in sewage sludge doesn't come from the human shit, but from all the industrial waste that's dumped in the sewer along with it. If you run your own composting toilet, and avoid putting anything in there but piss, shit, food scraps, shredded paper and sawdust (from untreated wood!), the resulting compost is 100% safe for your veggie garden.

Unfortunately a typical household can't generate enough methane from its own sewage to justify the cost of a digester. But a pig farm certainly could, and should; methane capture and subsequent conversion to carbon dioxide in a power generator has much less greenhouse impact than releasing the methane to atmosphere.
posted by flabdablet at 1:47 PM on January 24, 2007


Here's a little sober for y'all, courtesy of Bob G at The Oil Drum:
Bush called for consuming 20% less gasoline 10 years from now. He didn't mention the possibility of driving less.

When you make long term plans, you must consider population growth. The US grows at 0.91%/yr. Therefore, for the nation to consume 20% less, Americans of 2017 must consume 27% less PER CAPITA [1].

When you plan changes in fuel efficiency (CAFE standards), you must consider the 8% annual turnover in the vehicle fleet. If we sell improved cars from 2009-2017 (I'm allowing 2 years to develop the improvements), then by 2017 at most 64% of the fleet would be improved. To consume 27% less gasoline, the improvement in the new cars' mileage would have to be 42% [2].

Conclusion: to achieve Bush's 20% goal, vehicles produced from 2009 forward must consume 42% less gasoline, via a combination of efficiency and substituted fuels.

Math footnotes:
[1] 1-.8/(1.0091^10) = .269
[2] .36+.64x=1.27; x=1.42
That's one hell of a change in efficiency, ain't it. This is probably not possible to achieve in terms of manufacturing economy - every car company would have to retool to build only cars that get this better mileage.

Since the current average mileage of all cars in the US is (from Wikipedia) around 17 mpg, that means we'd have to have that average up to something like 40 mpg starting in 2009. And that's not just new cars sold - that's every car on the road, including the crappy old clunkers that a lot of people still drive, meaning that the new cars would need a proportionately higher mileage rating (say, 55-60) to offset the old clunkers.

This is the equivalent of replacing everyone's car with a new Prius. Do you think Toyota can build 243,023,485 (also from Wikipedia) Priuses between 2009 and 2017? (Hint: no, see the Wikipedia article. You couldn't build that many Priuses even if every carmaker was turning out only Priuses at their maximum capacity.)

So, most likely the reality of this is that this gas use reduction is impossible unless people stop driving their cars so much.

You should do some figuring to find out what you'd have to do in order to drive 27% fewer miles than you do now. Given my current situation, I'd have difficulty cutting back, but then again I'm on a 40mpg motorcycle for only 7,500 miles a year, so I'm a bit ahead of the pack.
posted by zoogleplex at 5:08 PM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


zoogleplex: all I can think of to reach these goals is massive rethinking of city planning and micro-urban centralization (peole living in small communities close to where they work) as opposed to giant swaths of commercial next to giant swaths of residential. It could work, if most of the big cities in the U.S. weren't already pretty well-established and impossible to replan.

Driving through Missassauga (it's impossible to walk anywhere) kind of makes me lose hope.
posted by tehloki at 5:59 PM on January 24, 2007


Cheney is amused.
posted by homunculus at 6:43 PM on January 24, 2007


As well as thinking about ways to drive fewer miles, consider simply reducing your habitual driving speed.

My little 3-cylinder '91 Daihatsu Mira gives me something like 6 litres/100km (about 40 of your US miles per gallon) at 100 km/h (62 mph). If I keep the speed down to 80 km/h (50 mph) I get 5 litres/100 km (47 miles per US gallon). That's a 17% fuel saving right there. The 25% increase in highway travel time doesn't make any practical difference unless I'm driving for more than about half an hour, which I rarely do.

Bugs that turn into a windscreen-cleaning job at 100 km/h seem to be able get out of my way pretty easily at 80, too :)
posted by flabdablet at 10:13 PM on January 24, 2007


Anyway, what can YOU do to help save gasoline and energy? What are you doing already, if anything? I'm curious.

I live in US suburbia, and I don't own a car.

Like everyone else here, I don't need a car. Unlike everyone else here, I don't have a deeply ingrained mistaken belief otherwise. I've lived here for years without one.

But I'm going to buy one soon.

Why?

Because people here just can't wrap their heads around the concept that I (and they) don't need a car, and so instead they decide to believe that I'm hiding some terrible flaw - I must be too poor for a car (and are thus a loser), or that I must not have a drivers livense (and are thus a loser), or that I must be some weird activist-freak (and are thus a loser).

I'm sick of being asked "so what do you drive?" in friendly conversation, because the answer is always immediately translated to "Oh - you mean you're a loser. Thanks for the tip-off. Next.", even though I've had a license longer than they have and could buy outright the car they're still making payments on with cash sitting in my bank account.


So yes. I'm going to buy a damn car. The kind of awesome car that people want to own but can't afford.

And then I'm not going to drive it. (much :)

And then when people ask me what I drive, I'll say "Well, I own a [awesome envy-magnet car], but I don't get to drive it much, as there isn't much use for a car in this city." And if I'm feeling irritated and obnoxious, I might add "Unless you're trying to pack lard on your ass"

And you know what? Even though I'll be being more of an asshole in that response to people, even though I really actually am acting like a loser, I'll not only get away with it, I'll be lauded for it, because [awesome envy-magnet car] = winner. There is no point in me fighting it. People here just cannot think otherwise.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:26 PM on January 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Don't do it! Just dump your need for real losers to see you as a winner instead.

Don't get the car. Get better friends.
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 PM on January 25, 2007


I agree. Being ahead of the curve often means that everyone else thinks you're odd. Unless you're in a line of work (like office supply sales or real estate) that depends on everyone perceiving you to be "normal" and "successful," there's no point living your life by other peoples's opinions.

It seems to help generally in life to not give a shit about most of what everyone else thinks about you.

Besides, cars are expensive and an ongoing expense. If you buy a new car, you lose about 30% of the sale price instantly in depreciation as soon as the sale is closed. Between payments and insurance you can easily spend $10,000 a year on a car, which just seems ridiculous to me.
posted by zoogleplex at 6:49 PM on January 25, 2007


Harlequin: damn you.
posted by tehloki at 11:26 PM on January 25, 2007


Harlequin: bless you.
posted by tehloki at 11:26 PM on January 25, 2007


Also, you could try moving to a more accepting location. I know my brother's lived in Vancouver for upwards of 25 years now, and he's never needed a car. It's a lot less "weird" there, considering the density of the urban centres, and the extremely low effectiveness of physically driving and parking anywhere.
posted by tehloki at 11:28 PM on January 25, 2007


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