The price lies

This week in class, we are reading about energy policy and how, in a democracy, policy has to appeal to the majority of people.  This causes a big problem when the majority of people don’t see there being an energy crisis – when we are having one.  And people want cheap gas so much they cannot see the cost.

We trust that there is a market reflecting supply and demand working in the background of our gas purchases.  Our gas prices have remained somewhat steady (or at least only tripled over the last ten years), therefore we must not be facing any shortages.  In reality, there is less and less oil available every day – it is a finite commodity – a fossil fuel.  And, that oil is more and more expensive to get to.  So, why don’t the prices we pay reflect that?

Lopsided subsidies.

Companies get paid ridiculous amounts from the federal government to drill and mine fossil fuels.  They get paid much less to harness cleaner or renewable energies.  (There’s this pesky myth about large solar subsidies circulating that is just plain false.)  They get paid to drill or not drill from their reserves.  They get paid for not shipping oil overseas to refine it and back to the US for sales (an inefficient process), they get paid for every step of the process.  Good Magazine created this image to illustrate the situation.

This graph is only partial, because it doesn’t contain the costs of maintaining our highway and road infrastructure – and doesn’t contain the military costs of assuring international supply.

Confused values

Low gas prices are considered patriotic, a virtue.  This Valentine’s Day, one man was considered a hero for founding a nonprofit with the intent of getting gas stations to sell gas for less – for $2.14 this holiday.  Never mind the fact that station owner’s profit is only pennies on the gallon.  Or that the $.80 per gallon difference may have made more sense being given to someone who truly needed it.  All that matters is low gas prices so we can continue to drive our cars as much as we want.

Eco-modding: the car of tomorrow tomorrow (literally)

I remember when I first heard about car modification.  I was watching the movie Clerks, and heard the customer ask about Mini Trucker Magazine.  I was boggled, what was a mini-truck anyway?  It turns out, there is a wide world of people who love their cars, and people who can improve their cars one piece at a time.

Today, a group of men and women have updated the whole concept with a sustainability twist in Ecomodding.  Ecomodders tinker with and change their cars with an eye for fuel economy instead of speed.

Ecomodders are known for starting with small cars – think Toyota Camry or Geo Metro. The process normally starts with some improvements to aerodynamics, then perhaps a conversion to run on plug-in electricity along with gas.  From there, the sky is the limit.  Perhaps a home ethanol still.

The best thing about it is that anyone with a little bit of either experience or brains can start this hobby with a handful of tools, so owning a sustainable car is not limited to those who can afford the price tag on a new Prius.

I’ve got a 10 year old Ford Escort.  It does well on gas, but I’m certain I could do better.   And I don’t mind (at all) it looking like an art-car.  I wonder where is a good place to start?

1975 Honda Civic met the 1975 U.S. Clean Air Act standards without a catalytic converter and it got 40 mpg.

What risk is enough?

Nulear power arises as a major example of the risk calculation.  Odds are that a nuclear power plant will work forever without any extreme or catastrophic incidents.  However, if something goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong as we have seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi.  Today, the plant is surrounded by The Zone, just like in the Russian movie “The Stalker“.

Image from the Stalker

What lesser risks are still acceptable from our power generation?  I’m ready to cede migratory bird puree as a necessary evil – are you?  (I say this largely because more birds have been killed by coal-fired power plants – and cats – than any wind turbines.)   The textbook I assigned my class has a large graphic that measures the environmental impact of various side effects of energy generation from various fuel sources against the severity and likelihood of problems happening (1).  For coal, global climate change impacts rise to the top of the pack as being both very severe and highly likely.  However, the effects of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other discharges are marked as having very marginal effects in neurological health, particularly among children.  However, these effects are highly likely, especially for fish-eaters, and we know how to fix them.

The chart above says don’t eat any caught fish other than mackerel.   Most bought fish look low in mercury, but you should limit your consumption to less than once per week for the first 6.  

We may have to balance these problems when we have limited money and time to fix the problems – but this balance makes me very uneasy.  For coal, I know the authors are trying to bring attention to impacts that are often ignored because of the very high costs for their remedy.  However, it minimizes very real effects that we can (and should) fix right now.  How do we create a fair, just, and reasonable list of priorities to tackle the work that lies before us?

What we do right now is place the burden on the individual.  I need to research and see how much of which kind of fish I’m comfortable eating.  If I own crop or forest land, I have to budget for productivity losses caused by ozone.  I plan my vacation to avoid polluted places like the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I hope I have enough money and power to avoid living near the power plant with its noise, ugliness, and damage to household items through particulates.

Somehow, this individual maximum-utility balancing doesn’t seem to make much sense – it misses the larger scale.  We rely too much on individual change when only societal change can make a difference.

(1) Lee, R. (2002) Environmental impacts of energy use, Chapter 3 in Energy: Science, Policy, andthe Pursuit of Sustainability, Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr and Randall Baker (eds.) Washington, DC: Island Press.