Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Energy, etc

So this is a more serious post, well, more serious than the beard post.

Where I work there's a lot of people who know a lot about a lot of different stuff, so I run into some pretty interesting information every now and then. This is the expectoration of that interesting info I heard; I know what adjective I used.

Energy's a hot topic right now. This is because of a fun concoction of high gas prices, instability in the area of the world that provides a lot of that gas (not to mention also literally setting its price), and rising concerns that, indeed, mankind is so dominant a species that it is actually affecting the planet's climate and environment in deleterious and irreversible ways. Enter self-interested politicians, green politicians, lobby firms, NGO's, foreign governments, environmentalists, international treaty bodies, government bureaucracy, corporate interests, and consumer single-mindedness, and you can see how things can get pretty wacky. In fact, considering all these things, it's amazing anything gets done whatsoever. That's nothing to cheer about, but, well, whatever.

It's no secret that Americans epitomize consumption; we're the original consumer economy. Of the 15 terawatts of energy consumed globally every year--this includes fuel for cars, electricity for lights, and batteries for vibrators--fossil fuel use (gas, oil, coal) accounts for 86% of that. Oil, by itself, accounts for 38% of global energy consumption. We (the U.S.) consume 64% of the world's oil production. This oil is used beyond just fuel in your car, it's also converted into jet fuel, plastics, and yes, the petroleum jelly you're so fond of. The large majority of oil is converted to gasoline, however. In the U.S., we use about 64% of our oil to fill our cars with gasoline.

Working our way down all those fun percentages, we wind up figuring out that the U.S. uses about 16% of the world's total total energy consumption for its cars. That's a lot of gas. That's also a good reason for why fuel efficiency has been such a hot topic lately. Americans like to move around so much so that a bit more than a quarter of total U.S. energy consumption is used in the transportation sector. In other words, if you can change how much gas we use, it would have a profound effect on the three points of conflict I originally listed.

So, if, say, in 2006 the U.S. government had raised emissions standards to be comparable to China's--that is, raised it from 25 MPG (miles per gallon) to 35 MPG--we would have saved 28.5 billion gallons of gasoline, or, in other words, we would've used 20% less gasoline. I actually used a figure of 28 MPG for the U.S., since by my fuzzy math it turns out that represents actual consumption.

Below: World fuel economy standards. The y-axis is in MPG.
Now, why the hell have I gone through all the trouble of calculating this? I'm wondering that myself right now, and that's most likely because I'm getting hungry...I need to eat soon, but it's cold outside, so I can't walk too far. Shit.

Anyway, by now it should make sense why energy-conscious individuals think it's important to increase fuel efficiency as a means of better controlling our situation. To give you some perspective on the importance of this subject, the article on Wikipedia I used to reference some of these oil statistics is longer than articles on religion, God, Christianity, democracy, and European history (not combined, though that would be more dramatic, so just pretend I said that). And out of the cacophony of views and ideas people have had for improving this over the years, the U.S government in 1975 enacted the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) "in response to the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo," [this is coming straight off the feds' website] whose goal was to "improve automotive efficiency...for passenger cars and light trucks...The near-term goal was to double new car fuel economy by model year 1985 (to 27.5 MPG)." A laudable goal, surely. Because of some boring bureaucratic tomfoolery, the CAFE (to the cafe!) for cars was lowered during 1986-1989 but then raised back to 27.5 MPG. Not so surprisingly, the price of oil quite literally crashed in 1986 until the Gulf War began in...take a guess...1990. It's just government at work.

This brings me (finally) to the point of this homily. Along comes ethanol. I could write a whole other diatribe about the smoke and mirrors of the ethanol buzz, but I'm going to focus more on a curious piece of legislation enacted in 2000 that includes some language on vehicles that are capable of burning ethanol. This little law says that any automobile that is capable of burning Ethanol 85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) will receive fuel efficiency credits towards its CAFE MPG. This means that if your ("you" meaning Ford in this case) shiny new Ford Focus in 2000 is getting 23 MPG and you need 27.5 MPG to make the cut, you can add the capability to burn E85 to and that'll nudge you up to par. Seems innocent, right? Actually, it doesn't even seem innocent.

It's no stretch to say that increasing a car's fuel efficiency means a lot of money to spend for the car companies (not to mention less oil to sell for the oil industry). They have to retool the entire engine and fuck with its aerodynamics, etc. While for a car to be able to burn E85 it's a pretty straightforward task on the exhaust system; costs about $50-100 per car. I doubt this logic escaped our lawmakers' grasp when writing this legislation. I have a feeling the car industry told them, in fact.
What this means for fuel efficiency is while automobiles are indeed required to meet emission standards, there's this cute little loophole for them all to jump through so as not to actually meet the standards, all the while it looks like the car companies are actually trying to be more green. And if you think, "Oh, but Brice, but if I use E-5 exclusively in my cute Ford Focus then it will actually get 27.5 MPG! LOL!1!" then you are hilariously mistaken. Per unit volume, ethanol gets 30% less energy conversion--i.e., it's 30% less powerful--than gasoline. So, when you burn E85 in your cute Ford Focus, you'll start wondering if there's a leak in your fuel line since you keep having to stop for gas more often. That is, of course, if you can manage to find and pick out from the 200,000 standard gas stations one of the 1,200 stations in the country that has E85.

So why would the government do such a thing? Why would they create a rule to dilute the CAFE's standards? Pressure from the car and oil & gas industries. E.g.: in 2002, the oil and gas industry gave $25,000,000 to Congressional members. That same year, the automobile industry, despite being mired in debt of course, gave over $15,000,000 to Congressional members. Contributions in 2000 were roughly 40 and 20% larger, respectively.
With so much money in its pockets, Congress obviously finds it hard to think green, ironically. It's like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas (thanks to the Economist for that quote).

Or, to put it simply, the car and oil industries paid for a law that would use more oil.
Below: Missourians enjoy an offputting mix of environmentalism and racism.


Eric said...

Wait, so what's your idea for a solution? Or is this just an "investigative" post?

Brice Lord said...

The solution would be to get rid of this ridiculous law (which several reports have called for) so that cars must, in actuality, meet the fuel economy standards. That's what they're there for, right?

Brice Lord said...

"Someloser" gave me his permission to post this comment here, so here it is. I'll respond to it below.

"Good piece on energy...but admittedly, I didn't really read it all. Anyway, the one thing you should consider are the studies that show when CAFE standards are increased, people drive more. It economics, gas becomes cheaper to those people, so they use more of it. This deflects some of the purported savings from those standards. I don't think we can ever curb people's appetite for energy, which I why I tend to support technology into cleaner burning (ethanol? hydrogen?) fuels as opposed to "conservation" efforts. Just a few thoughts. I have a book on some of this stuff if you are interested -- it called "The Bottomless Well." At the very least, there are some interesting and very non-main stream thoughts in there.

Also, do you know why buses can drive on "clean burning natural gas" but cars cannot/do not? "

Brice Lord said...

In response to "someloser"'s question:

I guess the thing i wrote has two main points: one is that there's this ridiculous law that lightens CAFE standards while masquerading as a green law, the second is that improving overall fuel economy is a pretty solid way to decrease our oil use and thus contribute to improving the three main points of conflict i described in the beginning of the post. Sure, there probably is some small effect increasing fuel economy would have on the price and usage of gas, but given the snail's pace CAFE standards would likely increase, and the little to moderate impact those secondary effects may have on drawing fuel consumption up, I doubt it would severely attentuate the benefits produced from increasing overall fuel economy. Lastly, it's my opinion that because the technology is firmly in our grasp and has been rolled down the supply line for years now (see Toyota, Honda, etc), it's a pretty modest effort to increase fuel economy and begin to control our own situation. It's by no means the one and only solution to those three points of conflict, but it's one of many that needs to be addressed and actions need be taken.

After some very brief research, the best answre I can come up with for your second question is that because there is no comparable nationwide infrastructure for the disitribution of natural gas, its use is restricted to vehicles that rely on centralized facilities--such as buses. According to some website, cars that burn natural gas are about $3,000-6,000 more expensive than the standard gas-burning ones, and combined with not being able to find many gas stations with natural gas, it's pretty disuasive to consumers.