A few articles on saving the environment:
Why don’t cars get 50 mpg? Keith Naughton thinks it’s our fault. Well, I can’t disagree with the premise. Americans do like fast cars (when was the last time you heard anybody say they missed the Geo Metro?). And the culture is hesitant to change to older but better technologies, especially when the cost goes up. Diesel actually gets better gas mileage, burns cleaner, and is more fun to drive. (How does it burn cleaner? According to the EPA, modern diesel engines emit 22.2 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas, while gasoline engines emit 19.4 pounds per gallon. However, diesel engines are 20-40% more efficient than gasoline engines. So a gasoline car that travels 100 miles at 25 mpg will output 77.6 pounds of CO2, but that same care with a diesel engine will get 30 – 35 mpg and therefore will only put out 63.4 – 74 pounds of CO2.) Meanwhile, electric cars are quicker than gasoline cars (not sure why we can’t live with 100 mph cars instead of 130 mph cars when the top speed limits in the U.S. are 85 mph or lower), and they not only help the environment by reducing or eliminating emissions but also use home-grown fuel; either coal, natural gas, nuclear, or renewable energy which comes from the States and not Venezuela or Saudi Arabia.
However, I can’t say Detroit is blameless, either. I wouldn’t expect them to market cars that aren’t selling well, except they already are. America has always been the front line in automotive innovation, and Ford and GM have allowed Japan and Europe to take over. And while I hate to say they’re not as good at it as us, um, they’re not as good at it as us. They’ve just been better at it lately because Detroit hasn’t tried too hard. That leads to the third point of the gas-guzzling fire triangle; American business culture. Businesses are so busy looking at next quarter’s earnings that it gets hard to legitimize spending that may not yield profits for a decade; longer than anybody sitting on the Board of Director’s is probably going to be at the company. But in fairness to American businesses, that gets back to the original point; American culture as a whole. If we spent money in ways which forced Detroit to build better vehicles, then eventually we would get them or Detroit would go out of business. We’ve started to do that, and Detroit is suffering badly. Which is why Chevy wants to introduce a 100 mpg car by 2010.
The other edge of that culture sword is it’s hard to get American taxpayers to agree to research which may not yield practical benefits for several years. For example, Europe’s willingness to build the Large Hadron Collider, coupled with spending cuts to Fermilab here in Illinois, means the technology of the future is probably going to be European.
On a related note, the Germans have created the BMW Hydrogen 7, the world’s first production hydrogen vehicle. (“The Right Stuff” made it clear that “our Germans are better than their Germans,” so I’m counting this a win in the U.S. column, too.) And not only is its emission almost entirely pure water, but “my” Argonne scientists have discovered the air it does emit is actually cleaner than the ambient air. The Hydrogen 7 uses liquid hydrogen, and not fuel cells, so it does buck the generally accepted train of thought regarding hydrogen-fueled vehicles. Which means it could either form the market or be squashed by it. But hydrogen, both liquid and fuel cell, is another culture problem. Nobody wants to pay the super-high costs to get it on the market. Understandable, but if a bunch of rich people during the oil crisis of the ‘70’s said they were going to manufacture and purchase fuel cell cars (we’ve actually had the technology since the sixties), then we’d all have them by now. As demand increases, so does the innovation to bring the prices down. (42” plasma TV’s were $10,000 six years ago, now you can get them for less than two grand.) But the biggest problem is the remodeling of the infrastructure to provide hydrogen. Of course, the American government could spend the money to help fund innovation by American companies and employ the masses of workers necessary to create the infrastructure. But that would cost billions of dollars, and we’re far too busy spending much, much, much more than that in Iraq.
Last week Time had a great article on the problems with biofuels. Evidently, when you consider the loss of rain forests and other native vegetation to use the land for growing corn and switch grass, ethanol actually contributes more to global warming than oil. But good news: the problem is easily solved by switching to ethanol produced using sugar. Didn’t sugar used to be the cash crop for the U.S.? Why can’t we spend money to make fuel out of that instead of the corn? There are a lot of problems with the current structure of farming subsidies. (See here. And here. And here.) The biggest problem is that farming subsidies are no longer a way to keep small family farms viable in the face of an ever-changing and dangerous marketplace, but rather a tool for the richest farmers to get free money at the tax payer’s expense. The largest farms in the U.S. make up only 7% of the total farms but get 54% of the subsidies, meaning the theory that subsidies help small farmers survive and compete against big farmers is a complete myth. The mega-farms are in control of the subsidies, and they make sure money goes towards programs that are in their best interests. Ultimately, it’s the corn-subsidy lobby that was at the heart of the ethanol-subsidy boom, not ecologists or environmentalists.
Don’t get me wrong, I support government money being used to support bio-fuels. First, I don’t think all greenhouse gasses are created equal. The earth is not just dirt and water; it’s a living thing that responds to conditions occurring on it. And the carbon present in greenhouse gasses is more easily compensated for by the earth’s ecology if it was produced recently than if it was buried for millions of years. Also, I think it’s folly to consider corn-based ethanol as the end-all of bio-fuels. There is a large matrix of resources which we can use to create biofuels, ranging from algae to garbage. Given enough imagination (and funding) we can stop making biofuels from stuff we eat and start making it from stuff we wouldn’t use, anyway. But that won’t happen if we fund the corn market and then act like everything’s going to be okay. So I think at this moment it’s more important for that money to be used on research than to line the pockets of some of America’s richest individuals.
At any rate, it shocked me that last year less than 2% of U.S. gas stations sold ethanol. In Illinois you’re hard pressed to find a gas station that doesn’t. It’s nice to live in corn country. Californians, who already spent more on gas than Illinoisans, have to spend more on corn so we get our gas even more cheaply. Small price to pay for living on a freakin’ beach while I’m shoveling a foot of snow out of my driveway.