October 3, 2012

Can Congress be Bought? - Resistance to Change #10

Yes.  In fact, the Return on Investment can't be beat:

Republican Strength In Congress Aids Super-Rich, President's Affiliation Has No Effect
"According to the study, "The Rise of the Super-Rich: Power Resources, Taxes, Financial Markets, and the Dynamics of the Top 1 Percent, 1949 to 2008," following years of relative stability post World War II, the income share of the top 1 percent grew rapidly after 1980—from 10 percent in 1981 to 23.5 percent in 2007, a 135 percent increase. The income share of the super-rich dropped to about 21 percent in 2008, likely as a result of the financial crisis that had begun, Volscho said. By way of comparison, the income share of the top 1 percent was 11.7 percent in 1949.

"We found evidence that congressional shifts to the Republican Party, diminishing union membership, lower top tax rates, and financial asset bubbles in stock and real estate markets played a strong role in the rise of the 1 percent," said Volscho

... From 1949 through 2008, the impact of a one percentage point increase in the share of seats (just over five seats) held by Republicans in Congress raised the top income share by about .08 percentage points, according to the study.

"At first glance, this might seem negligible, but that's really not the case," said Volscho. "Given that the estimated national income in 2008 was more than $7.8 trillion, an increase of only 1 percent in Republican seat share would raise the income of the top 1 percent by nearly $6.6 billion. That equates to about $6,600 per family in the top 1 percent."

In terms of labor unions, over the course of the study period, Volscho and Kelly found that a one percentage point decrease in union membership among private sector workers was associated with more than a .40 percentage point increase in the income share of the super-rich. According to Volscho, private sector union membership was 34.9 percent in 1949, but had dropped to 7.6 percent by 2008.

Based on the estimated 2008 national income, the effect of a one percentage point drop in private sector union membership would transfer $33.4 billion to the top 1 percent, Volscho said. ...

Study: The Rise of the Super-Rich: Power Resources, Taxes, Financial Markets, and the Dynamics of the Top 1 Percent, 1949 to 2008.

August 7, 2012

Will battery prices continue to fall?

Yes, battery prices appear to be continuing their long-term decline rate of 7-10% per year. The Reuters article below indicates that consumer li-ion is going for $300/kWh: that's 25% less than several years ago. Please note that consumer devices have the advantage of large volumes, but their size is small and costly. For instance, an iPhone has a 5.3 watt hour battery. The Volt's battery pack at 16 kWh is 3,000 times as large. So, when the Volt gets to 25k vehicles per year, that's equivalent to 75M cell phones (a little more than Apple sold in 2011). That's pretty good scale.


On the other hand, individual cells for automotive uses are much larger, which is cheaper to manufacture (per unit capacity) and can use cheaper materials (because weight isn't nearly as critical).

The bottom line: automotive traction batteries will stay cheaper than consumer batteries (which will continue to fall in price, driven by intense pressure from places like Apple).

2) The overall price of an EV is a very complex mix, and can't be reduced to the cost of the battery. Car makers have many costs: drive train; ancillary devices such as steering and braking; suspension/wheels; body (including aerodynamics); etc. Almost all of these have to be redesigned for an electric drive train (which includes EV/HEV/PHEV/EREV) because the design requirements are very different. For instance, ICE vehicle efficiency is dominated by weight. Weight is much less important for EVs because they have regenerative braking, so aerodynamics move strongly to the forefront. Another example: elimination of mechanical control and power transmission (brakes, steering, etc) affects a lot of secondary systems. Heck, window wipers get redesigned!

Battery packs are complex: there are the individual cells; the connections; cooling and heating systems (air and liquid); charge and discharge management systems; temperature sensors, heat insulators and radiators; electronic communications and control, with hardware and software (including 10M lines of code, more than recent fighter jets); containment systems, structural support and crash protection; etc.

So, economies of scale apply to the whole car, and cost comparisons are complex. That's why I raise the example of the Prius C, which has the advantage of Toyota's economies of scale and willingness/ability to aggressively price a new vehicle based on long-term costs before it has achieved the large sale volumes which will enable those low costs.

A Prius C has both ICE and electric drivetrains, each of which are sufficient to drive the vehicle. That's substantial duplication. And, they have a full battery pack (with battery management), yet they can price the vehicle starting at $19k. We can get a pretty good idea what a small PHEV could cost, based on that. Of course, we have a plug-in Prius for the purpose of analysis, but it's larger, and IMO Toyota isn't pricing it quite as aggressively because it's newer tech (e.g., it uses li-ion), and Toyota is very careful with it's roll-out rampup of new tech (especially lately, with it's recent quality failures).

The Ford quote is a good example of this complexity. Look at the range of costs: 12k-15k! Ford's purchasing guys know the battery cost to the penny, so that tells us that Mulally is including a lot of stuff in that figure, and signalling to us that the line of inclusion is very fuzzy. The alternative is that Mullally doesn't know anything about the EV program, which seems unlikely to me.

3) I think everyone in the car industry is agreed that li-ion is the future. On the other hand, Toyota can be paradoxically conservative, and NIMH has worked quite well for them, so they're going to transition away from it slowly. For instance, the main Prius and the C continue to use NIMH, but some new versions like the plug-in, and the V (in Japan and Europe) are using li-ion.

A final note - I don't think oil prices will stay above $150 for an extended period of time any time soon. I used hyperbole in my last post to point out the cost effectiveness of EVs (including all their variations), so that we can all be clear that suburbia is not threatened by PO (for better or worse).

July 24, 2012

Are EVs affordable in a Post Peak Oil world?


Consider the Prius C: it costs 2/3 as much as the average US new light vehicle($20k vs 30k), and uses 40% as much fuel. If oil prices tripled the cost of fuel per mile in a Prius C would still be no higher than the average US light vehicle. As best I can tell (based on Edmunds data), the C has the lowest total cost of ownership for any light vehicle.

Then, if we add $10k in batteries to the Prius C (20kWh, assuming a conservatively high cost per kWh for cells of $500), bringing the cost only up to that of the average US new light vehicle, we'd have a plug-in with an electric range of 60 miles (3 miles/kWh x 20kWh), reducing fuel consumption to less than 10% of the average US light vehicle. That's a scale small enough to be covered by solely by ethanol.

Electric vehicles of various sorts will work very well (though some people will have to wait for them to become available used). The only thing stopping them now is artificially low fuel prices.

May 18, 2012

Is it easy to forecast oil production and pricing?

No, it's very, very difficult.

Here's an example.

"Bloomberg’s survey of oil analysts and traders, conducted each Thursday, asks for an assessment of whether crude oil futures are likely to rise, fall or remain neutral in the coming week.

...The oil survey has correctly predicted the direction of futures 49 percent of the time since its start in April 2004. "

That means that we could achieve better accuracy by flipping a coin!


April 21, 2012

Is energy progress good for the economy?

It looks that way. Apparently the US states In the Northeast Cap And Trade Program have reduced CO2 20% faster than others, while growing GDP twice as fast as others.... "Northeastern states participating in America’s first carbon cap and trade program have outperformed the rest of the country in GDP growth and reduction in global warming pollution. That’s according to a new report from Environment New Jersey, which examined emissions data and economic growth indicators from 2000 to 2009. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a nine-state cap-and-trade market designed to reduce emissions in the utility sector 10% by 2018. A recent independent analysis showed that the program has already created $1.6 billion in economic value and set the stage for $1.1 billion in ratepayer savings through investments in efficiency and renewable energy. This latest report shows that states under the RGGI program saw a 20% greater reduction in per-capita carbon emissions than non-RGGI states — all while growing per-capita GDP at double the rate of the rest of the country." http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/04/20/468659/states-in-northeast-cap-and-trade-program-reduce-co2-faster-grow-gdp-other-states/

March 27, 2012

What blocks change? Resistance to Change #9

"Why do some nations, such as the United States, become wealthy and powerful, while others remain stuck in poverty? And why do some of those powers, from ancient Rome to the modern Soviet Union, expand and then collapse?

... Countries that have what they call “inclusive” political governments — those extending political and property rights as broadly as possible, while enforcing laws and providing some public infrastructure — experience the greatest growth over the long run. By contrast, Acemoglu and Robinson assert, countries with “extractive” political systems — in which power is wielded by a small elite — either fail to grow broadly or wither away after short bursts of economic expansion.

Elites resist innovation because they have a vested interest in resisting change — and new technologies that create growth can alter the balance of economic or political assets in a country.

“Technological innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the replacement of the old with the new, and the destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people,” Acemoglu and Robinson write. Yet when elites temporarily preserve power by preventing innovation, they ultimately impoverish their own states.

... “Most consequential ‘policy mistakes’ are by design,” Acemoglu says. “These leaders are choosing policies that don’t maximize economic prosperity, because their objective is different: to hold onto power or simply enrich themselves.”


A case in point: Fox News is doing it's best to kill the Chevy Volt in it's cradle with relentless attacks, filled with misinformation and cues to it's followers that "we" don't drive EVs.

This despite the fact that Fox News pretends to be patriotic, and the Chevy Volt has a dramatic potential to help the US car industry and reduce US dependence on oil imports.

A wealthy elite is willing to hurt the economy and forego general growth (by preventing a transition away from Fossil Fuels) to preserve it's privileges.

February 22, 2012

Resistance to Change: #8 in a Annoying Series

New book out today:

"The Fox Effect"

"The Fox Effect follows the career of Ailes... consultant for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush... president of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship conservative cable news network... political operative... extraordinary power and influence to spread a partisan political agenda that is at odds with long-established, widely held standards of fairness and objectivity in news reporting."

In the conversations leading to the creation of Fox News, the project was referred to as "GOP T.V.", "Grand Old Party Television".

When talking about any kind of public policy issue with a heavy consumer of Fox product, it is very difficult to agree on matters of simple fact.



February 21, 2012

Are electric trucks now viable?

Yes, it looks that way, after a long period in which very low volumes made costs look high.

Here's an electric truck whose battery must cost less than $500/kWh: 80kWh @$500/kWh gives $40k, more than half of the sales price of $70k. This plumbing company expects their new trucks to reduce operating costs by about $7 per year, and capital costs must be dropping as well, as they last 3x as long:

"It's been a couple years since we first saw the Boulder Electric Vehicle prototype in action but now comes word that the company has delivered its very first production vehicle. The initial DV-500 (as it is affectionately called) has been sold to Denver-area Precision Plumbing,Heating & Cooling who have made a commitment to buy 20 of the all-electrics at a very reasonable-sounding $70,000 apiece.

In addition to obvious changes in appearance, its performance also differs slightly from the original. The production version boasts an 80-kWh battery pack made up of China-sourced lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) cells that weigh in at 1,300 lbs and are said to be good for 120 miles of range. Power comes from an 80-kW AC motor that gives the 7,000-lb truck a 70 mile-per-hour top speed. Charging can take up to eight hours.

Precision Plumbing's Tom Robichaud says that despite the higher up-front costs, he expects to save $6,000 to $8,000 per vehicle per year in lower operating costs and anticipates the trucks to be good for 300,000 miles. Currently, he says, the Sprinter vans he uses now are replaced after 100,000 miles. In anticipation of the electric fleet, the company has also installed a solar array at its facilities.

Boulder Electric Vehicle reportedly has five production lines set up and is busy building the vehicles for Precision and other customers. The company also has plans for a bigger truck that doubles the 500 cubic foot capacity of the DV-500. Hit the jump for a couple clips featuring Mr. Robichaud and his new promotionally wrapped plumbing van."


"electric vehicles can markedly lower the costs of a fleet of delivery trucks. That’s the conclusion of a new MIT study showing that electric vehicles are not just environmentally friendly, but also have a potential economic upside for many kinds of businesses.

The study, conducted by researchers at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL), finds that electric vehicles can cost 9 to 12 percent less to operate than trucks powered by diesel engines, when used to make deliveries on an everyday basis in big cities.

...there have been “no real surprises from a reliability perspective, but I was surprised by the drivers’ acceptance, to the point where they do not ever want to drive a diesel [truck] again.”


“Nearly 20% of our medium-heavy duty delivery trucks in the state of California are slated to be transitioned to all-electric vehicles. We have seen the accelerated growth and acquisition of this innovative technology because of the support from California. It’s these private and public partnerships that create the momentum that alternative fuel vehicles need to become even more competitive.

...In the U.S., Frito-Lay hopes to reduce its total fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020, compared to 2007 baseline. "


February 11, 2012

Are fossil fuels better than wind, solar and nuclear?


Fossil fuels in general, and oil in particular, appeared to be great in their day, but they are much more expensive than they appear (IOW, they have large externalities) and they can and should be replaced ASAP.

So, what's wrong with the common view that they are?

First, green house gas emissions are important. The scientific consensus is that GHGs are a big problem, and there is a large risk that they are a very big problem. That alone would push fossil fuels down below solar, wind and nuclear.

Second, fossil fuels are not reliable. The US is still fighting a $2 trillion war to make access to oil slightly more reliable. An oil shock was a significant contributor to the 2008 recession, and has contributed to many recessions before that.

The US is effectively at war with the Middle East, albeit at a very low level of intensity. That means a war mentality, with circumscribed civil liberties, a vastly expanded military-industrial complex, an enormous diversion of engineering talent away from productive uses towards war technology (UAVs, etc).

Roosevelt struck a Faustian bargain with KSA, and the US has been embroiled in the ME ever since. Look at the US intervention in Iran in 1954, which caused so much grief starting with the anti-US/Shah uprising in 1979. The US has been the Great Satan in Iran ever since, with pretty good justification.

Have you ever wondered why US television is dominated by gory police procedurals (CSI, CSI-Miami, Naval-CIS, Law and Order in many flavors, etc,etc)? Americans live with a strong background anxiety, due to fear of terrorism (aka guerrilla warfare, aka asymmetric warfare), and that kind of programming conveys reassurance that the "authorities" have everything under control.

Third, oil is very, very costly right now. The US, and other oil importers, is transferring vast income and wealth to exporters, every day. The war discussed above costs somewhere above $500B every year: that's around $150 per barrel of imported oil! Just as importantly, the kind of background anxiety discussed above exacts a very, very high cost.

Fourth, the problem of renewable intermittency is not so important. In the medium term Demand Side Management and fossil fuel backup will work just fine. In the long term , overbuilding, and geographic diversity will provide most of what's needed, and synthetic fuels are perfectly viable for the small remaining percentage (they can be produced with current tech, at a price premium).

Fifth, oil isn't hard to replace. Land travel is very straightforward: freight can go to rail and short-haul electric trucks; passenger travel can go to EREVs (with ethanol for the remaining 10% of fuel needed for longer trips) and/or rail with car-shared EVs.

Water shipping and air travel is a small percentage of fuel consumption. They can be made much more efficient; wind and solar can provide a large percentage of water shipping energy; and synthetic fuels and biomass can provide the relatively small amount of fuel still needed.

Sixth, life without fossil fuels will be rather better: cleaner, just as affordable, nicer in many ways. For example, EVs have better handling and performance, are quieter, easier to own and maintain, longer lived and overall rather cheaper. I use relatively little FF, and feel my life is rather better for it. My well insulated house needs less noisy HVAC; my electric train is safer, and has a "chauffeur" who allows me to relax and meditate, work or read for enjoyment.

Perhaps as important, EVs won't require any oil wars, or anti-"terror" campaigns to keep viable. No more screening before flying, or worrying before using the subway. Yay.

Fossil fuels/oil are definitely not superior to the alternatives.

Legacy FF industries are using scare tactics to keep us addicted to FF. The truth is that existing technologies (efficiency; wind, solar and nuclear; rail, EVs, biomass and synthetic fuel) can provide energy that is cleaner, more scalable, more affordable and at least as reliable.

Oil is very costly, right now. We need to replace it ASAP!

January 12, 2012

Will EVs and hybrids take off quickly? (part 2)

Probably not soon. Even though hybrids and EVs are competitive with conventional ICE vehicles, they won't sell well until until they're clearly cheaper. Hybrids and EVs are much cheaper, if we include all of the external costs of oil - oil wars, pollution, etc, etc. But that's not priced into the vehicles:


"The challenge with selling hybrids is that gasoline engines have become more efficient and the cost of hybrids haven't come down fast enough to justify the added expense for many buyers, said David Champion, senior director of the Auto Test Center at the Yonkers, New York, magazine Consumer Reports.

He pointed to Honda Motor Co.'s Civic, which gets 32 mpg in combined city and highway mileage, and the Civic hybrid, which gets 44 mpg. The hybrid version of the car saves a consumer $322 in fuel a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Given the added sticker price, it would take more than six years to get the money back on a similarly equipped car at today's fuel prices.

Mike Jackson, chief executive of Fort Lauderdale, Florida auto retail chain AutoNation Inc., said that 75 percent of customers come into his showrooms and want to talk about hybrids. Only about 2.5 percent of AutoNation sales are hybrids. "What happens from the 75 percent consideration to the 2.5 percent commitment?" Jackson said in an interview. "They look at the price premium for the technology, which is already subsidized and discounted, and say 'the payback period is too long; not for me.' It's a back-of-the envelope conversation on the part of the American consumer."


"The battery in an electric car still adds $10,000 to the price of a car at current technology costs and it will be difficult to reduce that penalty in the near future, he said."


Change is difficult: for most people to move to something new requires a strong incentive, not something that seems roughly as good as what they have now.

An EV will save about $2,000 per year over the average US vehicle - the $20,000 savings over 10 years is clearly worth it, but a 5 year payback just feels too long for the average consumer.

January 9, 2012

What should energy books convey?

They should spend some time discussing markets.

Market critics need to be reminded of the virtues of markets: they're decentralized and can start working very quickly; they process an enormous amount of information into a simple price signal; with time to work, and with proper regulation they're extremely powerful, increasing supply, reducing consumption and implementing alternatives and substitutes; and they prevent the shortages, hoarding and misallocation of investment that can come from price controls, subsidies and rationing.

Market enthusiasts need to be reminded of the failures and shortcomings of unregulated markets: they don't include externalities like pollution (including climate change) and security concerns ($2T oil wars, anyone); price signals can take time to bring a response (i.e., short-term elasticity can be very low, and capital expenditure and turnover takes time); and poor consumers are affected by ability to pay.

Pigovian taxes (like a carbon, or fuel tax) are a marvelous compromise between the extremes of stifling regulation and the excesses of unbridled big business: they use price signals to direct investment where it needs to go.

Unfortunately, Pigovian taxes effectiveness means that the legacy industries that they would hurt fight against them desperately. They much prefer subsidies, and Cap and Trade's slowness and labyrinthian complexity and susceptibility to manipulation suits them just fine.

We need more democracy, to lessen the power of entrenched minorities that fight change behind the scenes. We need better media (internet?) to fight the misinformation broadcast by these minorities and their allies (Fox news, anyone?).

Markets sometimes seem to not work because market participants don't have good information: if communication about energy does nothing else but convince people that high oil prices are here to stay, and that they should move from short-term non-responses to long-term aggressive adaptation, it will have succeeded.