The Ergosphere
Sunday, February 05, 2006

Hoping it will go away

I listened to the State of The Union address Tuesday night, and I was very disappointed in the initiatives for energy.  Bush's cronies got theirs; "more research" for clean coal (which others seem ready to build today, judging from the announcements of new IGCC powerplants), and more money for nuclear energy (which has a ten-year lead time and isn't going to start coming on line until a couple of crises from now).  Ho, hum.  He gave token nods to the things that can make a difference fast, and we need now:  hybrid-car batteries and wind plants.  Hydrogen isn't going to be a player for quite a few years, but he increased its already-excessive budget anyway.

With all this money devoted to far-off energy problems, it's significant that he didn't mention one which is looming very close indeed:  natural gas.  Prices skyrocketed along with motor fuel in the aftermath of the hurricanes, and they've not come down very far.  Gas prices have already caused much North American industry to shut down and move overseas, and homeowners have only been spared bills of mammoth proportions by an unusually mild winter.  Had we received the weather that Russia got, we'd have a crisis where we'd have to choose between heating homes, running business and generating electricity because there wouldn't be enough gas to do all three.

Despite the snow falling outside my window as I write this, it appears that we've avoided the crisis that a hard winter would have given us.  But warmth this winter is no guarantee that we'll have it the next, and gas is only going to get more expensive as gas fields get deeper and further out into the water.  Change will take time; if we're going to dodge this problem, we've got to act now.

What could we do in the next 10 months to make things better for next winter?  The simple answer is, anything that makes us need less gas between now and the spring of 2007.  Your summer peaking electricity comes from gas?  Turn up your A/C thermostat and use a fan to maintain your comfort level.  Re-lamp with compact fluorescents and save juice all year.  If you're going to update your windows, do it ASAP.  If you aren't but they're leaky, get some heat-shrink film and put it up as soon as the heating season starts.  Put awnings over the windows that get lots of heat in the summer.  Caulk all those windows and doors, call a contractor to insulate those walls, put another 6" of blown-in in that crawlspace attic.  Dial down the thermostat a few degrees (TODAY) and throw on a heavier shirt and socks; most of us will never notice the difference after a while.  Build some storm windows (I hope to post something on my own simple DIY model before the next heating season).

Notice anything in common about all those ways to avoid a crisis next winter?  Bush didn't endorse or even mention a one of them, explicitly or implicitly.

This administration is a mystery to me.  There are only two possibilties here:  it either recognizes this looming problem or it does not.  If it doesn't, it is grossly inept and incompetent.  The President was smart enough to ask people to drive slower when our gasoline supply was slashed by hurricane damage; this problem is exactly analogous.

If the administration does recognize this problem, its silence must be explained.  The less charitable (some might say cynical, or even paranoid) explanation is that the regime is run by fossil-fuel interests, and the greater the gap between supply and demand the better the price they'll get (or some other personal or political advantage); energy-dependent businesses and families be damned.  In my opinion, this is treason.

The more charitable explanation colors them pathetic rather than treasonous.  This explanation holds that this is a problem that frightens these big, strong people in Washington, and they've decided to hide and hope it goes away.

I see lots of connections, in lots of different directions, but the most important might just be that the administration is connecting with a "hoping it will go away" sentiment in the population.

This is a nation which maintained a negative savings rate for all of 2005, which continues to add to its credit card debt, which burdens itself with ever larger home mortgages to pay for additional luxuries - of which gas guzzlers are just one.

The government is doing what it's people do ... borrow money, spend resources ... I don't know, "hoping" might be too generous. It implies that they are actually thinking about tomorrow.

(I'm not sure how this combines with the large number of "end of world" and "left behind" folks. It would really be bizarre it we had a hedonist-apocalyptic culture going.)
"I'm not sure how this combines with the large number of "end of world" and "left behind" folks"

Reminds me of James Watt (Reagan's Sec of Interior) being quoted as saying publicly "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." Apparently he didn't actually say it, but he did say this:
"That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have: to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns; whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations." -- James G. Watt, testimony before the House Interior Committee, February 1981

Can be interpreted as fine, but a little worrying in a Sec of Interior...

Anyway, E-P, I've been looking for websites that support home efficiency in a detailed way, and haven't quite found them. Know of any?
Not sure how that's worrying in a (former) secretary of the interior--sounds like he was concerned about judiciously managing natural resources to me.
Nice post E-P.

I'd like to echo all of those excellent and simple suggestions for lestening your personal energy consumption around the house. All of those are easy, cheap and will save you plent of money will conserving electricity and natural gas which may save you plenty more come next winter by doing your part to avoid supply shortages.

Sometimes we get very focused on all those far-off technical fixes like hydrogen cars or IGCC coal plants or giant wind farms, etc. and forget that we all have plenty we can do right at home, in our everyday lives, to decrease energy consumption. If we all conciously worked to use 5% less energy each year (likely a feasible goal, for many years in a row at least), our country would be in so much better shape than it is now.

And for the last time, if an of you have still got an incandescent bulb in your house that is on for more than half an hour a day, change it out for a compact flourescent (CFB) for cripes sake! Its practically like writing yourself a check for 20 bucks or more (i.e. the amount of money you'll save on electricity and bulb costs over the CFB's three+ year lifespan)!
Nick, I seem to recall seeing several such sites (including the Department of Energy), but I can't remember any specifics.

Over on Slashdot, there's a thread on that subject (some suggestions quite good), and someone posted a pointer to another thread on
Funny how upset people get at Bush for not pointing out what responsible people can get for themselves.

I just don't understand the reliance on government.

Whatever happened to DIY?

My guess is that the anger stems from a distinct lack of trust that average-Joe-American will do what is good. That has always struck me as extremely patronizing.
Bush found the post-hurricane gasoline shortages important enough to ask people to drive slower to save fuel.  Why isn't a much bigger and longer shortage of natural gas worth so much as one word?

The holder of the bully pulpit has an obligation to use it to bring important matters to the public attention.  This is just such a matter.
Jimmy Carter's sweater address, I think, went down so badly that presidents ever since have been very careful when talking about energy savings, and particularly about putting on an extra sweater in the winter.

Nuclear power can be expanded at short notice through eg power plant uprates. You'll find that in spite of no new build, nuclear power generation in the US has been expanding significantly over the last 15 years (I'd need to check the numbers, but I think that the increase in US nuclear power generation between 1990 and 2005 is something like 3 times as large as total generation from wind turbines worldwide in 2005). Also the lead time is purely a political issue, nuclear power plants could be built much faster, if rational regulations were in place.
50% of America's electricity is generated by coal. That cries out for extra research. Even if it were true that IGCC was already cheaper than the best steam technology (and I don't buy that argument, as you know), making it better still surely ought to be a high priority, not least to provide greater incentives to building them.

I think that consumers are much more aware of how much they can really save than some engineers like yourself give them credit for.

There's a point where reducing air changes in houses impacts the quality of the air inside the home. Together with reduced heating, it can lead to mould. This is a health issue, air changes are needed to clear out allergens and moist air (one way to deal with this is counter-current heat exchangers and forced ventilation, but there's a cost to this).

Putting extra insulation on is often not cheap. For old housing, it's surprisingly easy to get a bill in the tens of thousands of Euros (say for double glazing, new attic insulation and an extra layer of insulation on the outer wall), which will take decades at high energy prices to be worthwhile and may never pay off, if the housing is demolished or completely rebuilt.
I also have to mention again that the heat produced by incandescents can be quite useful. I know that in my small flat that energy is useful for at least half the year. In fact, as I heat electrically, while the heat is useful, there's no saving whatsoever. Darkness and cold go together in Britain. In summer, when the sun's around until 10 in the evening I hardly need lighting, which means that weighted according to use, 90% of the time that my lightbulbs are on, the heat doesn't go to waste. Besides, there's some people who just like the warm light that incandescents provide. It's an esthetic benefit they are willing to pay a few extra pounds for per year.

I am largely happy with Republican energy policy. Gasoline taxes are political suicide and I give them substantial credit for resisting any temptation to lower energy prices via subsidies or price controls, something incidentally, Carter was not very good at in spite of his sweater rhetoric.

I don't see a Crisis with a capital C. The US is a rich nation and energy is only part of the picture. The difference between energy policies will have an impact on American wealth, but I believe that other policies, eg trade, education, are at least as significant, and I also believe that the US can easily afford a poor energy policy.

I think that the ideal policy is something like that of France. Germany say is instead choosing to get rid of nuclear power. The wrong decision in my opinion, but Germany can afford to do that and remain an increasingly wealthy nation.
Ordinary people are surprisingly aware of that fact, which is, I think, one reason why there's so much scaremongering (the lights will go out! we are all going to die when whole towns will die from the next nuclear meltdown!). Without the scaremongering it's hard to get people to be too excited about issues that don't really make that much difference in their lives.

Ordinary people I think are also quite sceptical about the scaremongering, but say with regards to nuclear power, many then think, well, maybe there's at least something to these apocalyptic claims, and it seems we can afford to do without nuclear power, so why bother about it.
As you know, I'm no friend of the Bush administration, and am also puzzled by the apparent weasel-worded SOTU address. Some possible explanations:

1) They don't want to annoy OPEC too much, as they still have to treat with them in the short run (witness the complaining that the Saudis did after the address).

2) There is considerable disagreement about the nearness of the peak, within the administration and without. CERA still claims that peak is a decade or more away, and they are not to be dismissed entirely. The oil business has had many doomsayers who were proven wrong before. This is especially important if you believe, as I do, that Bush fils is a captive of the interests that got him elected and the more powerful elements in the administration (read: Cheney).

3) The Jimmy Carter + sweater = turned out of office equasion looms strong in every pol's mind, as others have stated upthread. That limits what the bully pulpit can accomplish.

My own feeling is that there's no possible way that adjusting your energy use downward is a bad thing, perhaps to a limit.
You can't overestimate the power of self-deception and group-think.

The Whitehouse has been occupied by oil & gas people for 18 of the last 26 years. As hard as it is for us to imagine, they really don't see the world the same way we do. When Cheney mocks conservation, I think he really means it.

They think oil & gas (and nuclear) is the present and future face of energy, and just can't imagine anything else. They know about peak oil, but they just assume that the world will be dependent on the Middle East (which explains why they felt so strongly about protecting Saudia Arabia from Saddam Hussein, and about remaking Iraq). I think the energy stuff in the SOTU was pure political window dressing, and that they see it as a way of co-opting democrats for the upcoming elections.
Heiko:  You've got a near-ideal match between heat demand and lighting needs.  Lucky you.  But you are wrong to generalize this to people who live with less-efficient construction or mismatches between lighting needs and the weather.

Rob writes:
"My own feeling is that there's no possible way that adjusting your energy use downward is a bad thing, perhaps to a limit."

I'm doing it to the limit of my comfort level... and I'm trying to find ways to make things more comfortable at the same level of use, or less consumptive at the same comfort level.  It makes for some interesting problems in practical engineering. ;-)

Nick writes:
"I think the energy stuff in the SOTU was pure political window dressing..."

Absolutely.  Now I intend to use the interest generated by the SOTU to point out how Bush is preventing those changes from happening, and thus his hypocrisy.  I also intend to write my (Republican) rep and ask him why he does not uphold his oath of office (to the Constitution) and write articles of impeachment of Bush and all his cronies.

(Disclaimer:  I voted for Bush in 2000.  I've been regretting it ever since.)
(Disclaimer: I voted for Bush in 2000. I've been regretting it ever since.)

At least you have the gonads to admit the error, but E-P, WTF were you thinking!?
I was thinking that he wasn't a sworn supporter of the positions of pressure groups aimed at oppressing me.  Lesser of two evils, at the moment.

9/11 changed everything.
My situation is special, there are many reasons that make it particlarly unrewarding for me to ditch my incandescents.

The general question is how much consumers can be helped through better education and regulations in the area of energy efficiency. I think there are good argments for both, but I also think it's easy to overestimate the potential savings available at low or no cost to consumers.

I am currently visiting my parents (giving them an opportunity to play with their grandson). You'll remember that they have invested massively in energy efficiency (heavy insulation, a heat pump, solar thermal for water heating).

However, 90% of their lighting is with incandescents. So, I asked them why they didn't have more energy efficient lighting. The answer:
We've chosen our lighting primarily based on esthetics. And in most places, they think that fluorescents are ugly (the only ones they like are metre long fluorscent tubes that are largely out of sight). The light is too pale and clinical and the shape of smaller fluorescents is weird.

They also think that the saving wouldn't be significant and certainly not worth having to put up with lighting they don't like.

While their heating and lighting duties aren't quite a close coupled as mine, it's still the case that a lot of the heat is useful and it's never a problem (they don't have air conditioning).

The heat is also released in rooms that are in use. As the heat pump provideds only low temperature heat, it's difficlt to control the temperature of individual rooms to different levels. Having the light bulbs (and other sources of heat) allows them to to run the heat pump less, giving a lower average temperature across the house, together with just the right temperature in the rooms that are in heaviest use.

Because of this effect, the savings from doing nothing but changing over the light bulbs might be zero, or worse, they might actually consume more electricity (and putting in extra controls to allow the heat pump to heat different rooms to different temperatures by varying the flow through the underfloor coils below each room would be quite expensive).
Now is that generalisable? No, but I do think there are enough instances where incandescents make sense that putting a tax on them, or worse outlawing them, would do little good. Where fluorescents do make most sense (supermarkets, offices with poor natural lighting, particularly so in places where lighting is required simultaneously with air conditioning), they are already used.
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