From the halls of Montezuma, to…

So maybe you noticed the price of gas just went up again? Christine was stonkered enough to post a WTF on Facebook last night: 121.6 cents per liter! The reason is pretty simple: Muammar Qaddafi isn’t busy just murdering his own citizens, markets are worried that he also has his loyalists blowing up pipelines to send a message to Libyans that they face a choice between him and ruin. There isn’t enough spare capacity around to replace a shortfall, so: up goes the price.

A couple of weeks ago I calculated how much a $1,000 e-bike would cost in equivalent fuel consumption, and came up with two years’ worth. That number now stands at one year, nine months and ten days or so. Put another way, at the former price of $1.08 per liter, that e-bike is the equivalent of 926 liters of gasoline. Now it’s only 822 liters. Do I hear 700?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The energy/climate crisis sidles closer…

Well, well. Jeff Rubin, the Globe’s resident energy pessimist, latched on to the same WikiLeaks revelation that I did: the former head of the Saudi oil company, Aramco, told the U.S. embassy that the company has been overstating its estimated oil reserves by around 40 percent. This means that Saudi Arabia is running at maximum oil production now, and has little to no room to maneuver to meet any increase in demand. That is a pretty harsh brake on world economic growth.

And it gets better (and not in the optimistic, Dan Savage sense — no, this is the ‘worse’ kind of ‘better’). Shell Oil has released a world energy-usage forecast that suggests a serious crisis by 2020, in which governments

force their populations to reduce driving, use less electricity, and pay an extremely steep increase for what they do consume. There will be a massive, decade-long economic slowdown, and geopolitical power will shift dramatically to energy-producing nations, the company said.

Read the whole article to get the full effect. Sounds peachy, doesn’t it? For added flavour, take a look at just one of the graphs, taken from the report itself (PDF). The first shows their projection of the total world energy supply, and where it will be coming from:

Notice the ever-increasing amounts of coal, oil and natural gas they think we will be consuming. Now, here’s their estimate for CO2 emissions:

Shell envisions carbon emissions levelling off around 2030 while burning of fossil fuels continues to climb. The secret ingredient is carbon capture, in which CO2 emissions are either pumped into geological or underwater formations, or else mineralized, instead of being dumped into the atmosphere. Doing this with existing coal-fired plants requires expensive retrofitting and transport of the waste carbon, while new plants would likely be built as close as possible to a storage location. In either case, the efficiency of power generation goes down and the price of the energy goes up. What’s more, none of this is likely to happen before a price on carbon, routinely demagogued as “cap and tax”, starts making us deal with the real costs of our activities. I’m afraid the greediest and most short-sighted among us will just have to be mugged by reality before we see any real action.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The new energy crisis is about to go wide

Since moving to my new apartment, I occasionally drive to or from work on the north service road, and there’s an impressive new solar panel out in front of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 773 office, next to the bus depot. About the size of the footprint of a small house tilted on its side, it’s mounted on a frame that lets it swivel around and face the sun at all times of day. I have to wonder how much it cost, whether it returns much electricity to the grid, and whether it will be possible to manufacture many more like it as it becomes increasingly obvious that world petroleum supplies are approximately as high as they are ever going to get, and can only go down from now on. We’d better hope so.

The IBEW’s one solar panel sounds a lot like the ones a developer is planning to emplace out in Woodslee. According to the Star, each of the planned 68 luxury houses in this development will have its own 10-kilowatt sun-tracking solar installation, the same capacity as the IBEW’s, and will sell electricity back to the grid at 80.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Times ten kilowatts, calling an average day 12 hours long, that suggests a ballpark revenue of $96.24 per day (probably less when it’s cloudy) per panel. The article is silent on what percentage of their, no doubt generous, incomes the prospective owners will be spending driving petroleum-fuelled SUVs to and from their fine new exurban McMansions. Of course, they would seem unusually well-placed to drive the new breed of electric or hybrid-electric vehicles instead. It’s a pity they’ll be living on what used to be productive agricultural land, though.

The peak oil issue has been bubbling along under the surface for a while now, largely the province of cranks and doomers, but my feeling is that it will finally become the front-burner issue that it needs to be before much longer. The latest U.S. diplomatic cable to be released (thanks, WikiLeaks!) makes it clear that the American government is perfectly well aware that oil, or at any rate cheap oil, is going away. The fact that you never hear any of them discuss it tells you all you need to know about the likelihood of a magical solution appearing anytime soon. But it’s simply a fact that just the current, sluggish recovery from the Great Recession has driven oil back up into $100-a-barrel territory. In other words, world oil supplies are so tight that even economic growth as disappointing as we’ve seen has nonetheless pushed the price of oil past the red line. Even today’s supine corporate media, packed from top to bottom with careerists trained from infancy to look out for themselves and not rock the boat, have to get the message sooner or later. They’ll finally start asking the right questions, and government officials will have to act like they have some kind of plan.

To this point, the closest any federal U.S. official seems to come to addressing this deadly serious, looming crisis is Barack Obama’s recent announcement of a push for a $53 billion plan to build high-speed rail. It’s nice to think that the White House is on top of things, that they foresee the sharp reduction of air travel and large-scale motoring that will result from super-expensive oil, and this is their way of getting ahead of the problem. It would be even nicer to think that, after years of delay and denial, this will finally shame Canadian governments into bringing something similar to the Québec City-Windsor corridor. But given today’s political climate of denial, greed, short-term thinking, and relentless partisan chiselling, I’m not expecting spectacular breakthroughs in most people’s understanding of their own, enlightened self-interest.

Just look at who Torontonians voted in as their new mayor. The city and province had come together on a far-sighted plan to ensure mobility in Ontario’s biggest city. Given the realities of our energy future, a commitment to light rail was only sensible and a resident of car-addicted Windsor, where either you own an automobile or you’re a second-class citizen, could only look on with envy. Then Rob Ford was voted into office by the megacity suburbanites with a mandate to stick it to the pinkos, and his very first act was to kill the plan. A generation from now Torontonians will curse his name as they blow out their energy budgets trying to heat and cool their homes and struggling to get around using increasingly unaffordable private vehicles and overburdened public transit. For now, though, they (and we) are stuck with this yahoo.

Economics runs on substitutions: if there aren’t enough trees in the tropics to provide all the rubber you need, you want someone to invent artificial rubber, or plastics, and so forth. The thing is, not only is there is no substitute for energy except more energy, but not all energy is created equal. The solar, wind and even nuclear energy projects going up everywhere nowadays are very nice and all, and we’re certainly better off with the electricity they provide than without, but the fact is that you can’t base an industrial civilization just on electricity. You can’t build bridges, ships or tall buildings without coke to smelt steel. You also can’t do the kind of long-distance shipping the world economy currently relies on without bunker oil. There may be a future for limited-range motoring using electric vehicles, but long-haul trucking and especially aviation need highly energy-dense liquid fuels like diesel, gasoline,  and naphtha- or kerosene-grade jet fuel to get anywhere. (Exactly how would an electric “jet” work, anyway? Jet engines function on combustion, after all. Not to mention that batteries are a lot heavier than jet fuel for the amount of energy they hold. On the other hand, once you packed enough batteries into a plane to fly from, say, Toronto to Vancouver, it would probably run very quietly. I’m sure the passengers would be impressed – both of them.)

What are the realistic prospects for replacing oil as a source of liquid fuel? Corn-based ethanol is a waste of time, an artifact of U.S. agricultural subsidies that in energy terms gives back no more than the fossil fuel inputs needed to produce it. Algae biofuels seem to be a more realistic possibility, with the advantage that they are effectively carbon neutral. Algaculture can use fresh, ocean or waste water (and doesn’t spoil fresh sources), doesn’t need to displace agricultural land, and according to the U.S. DOE could replace the U.S.’s current gasoline consumption using just one-seventh of the land area currently devoted to growing corn. That sounds doable to me.

Whatever the case, we had better get off the stick. We are much closer to the resource limits of our planet than most people realize, and we keep grasping for more. Food hoarding is beginning to be a serious concern, and there’s reason to believe that the main thing that prompted the uprising in Egypt is a renewed spike in the price of food. A lot of the world’s oil supply goes through the Suez Canal, which could turn the Egypt situation into a worldwide resource war very quickly. We’re witnessing the beginning of a situation that is likely to be with us for a very long time, creating the very conditions that will make dealing with it that much harder.

At the other end of the north service road, near Jefferson, is Scooter Pro. Like their competitor, Scoot-A-Long of Windsor, they sell e-bikes that produce zero emissions (other than their manufacture, obviously) and cost about 25 cents worth of electricity for a day’s riding – or would, if my electricity use weren’t included in my monthly rent. Compare that to my car, which consumes 8.8 L of fuel per 100 km (city). That comes to 1.83 L for my daily commute, round trip. At the current price of $1.08 per liter for regular gas, that’s effectively $2 just in gas (not counting insurance and maintenance) to get me to and from work on four wheels. At that rate, a thousand dollar e-bike would pay for itself in under two years, assuming I rode it every day, rain or shine (dubious, I admit). On the other hand, it would extend the life of my car, and give me an alternative while the gasoline side of this equation is only going to get worse. Nothing’s written in stone, but don’t be too surprised to see me tooling around on a shiny new electric bike once the weather warms up!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Sand art is not as easy as this guy makes it look

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Basic, Intermediate, Advanced

Okay, try this:

  1. Go to the Google home page ( Click where it says Advanced Search. You’ll get a bunch of options for the kind of search you want to do.
  2. Look for their new Reading Level feature. Click the dropdown and choose “annotate results with reading levels”.
  3. Then go to the line “Search within a site or domain” and type the address of a site you’re interested in. Let’s start by entering and click the Advanced Search button. Here’s what I got:

Looks pretty reasonable for a general-interest newspaper. What about their main rival, the National Post? Let’s see:

Hmm, ever so slightly more demanding than the Globe? Perhaps that has something to do with their jailbird founder’s well-known fondness for verbal orotundity. Let’s have a look at a couple of sites I frequent, from low:

To high:

There’s a site called arXiv where scientific papers are published. How are they doing?

Whew, 100% advanced! I’d be worried they weren’t doing their job otherwise. Finally, this new version of my blog doesn’t seem to have been counted yet, but how does the old one stack up?

Woo-hoo! Right down the middle, baby! This brow is too high, while this one is too low, but this one is juuust right. 🙂

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Star Trek after dark

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Must Listen – Harry Shearer interviews Yves Smith

I remain obsessed with the story of the continuing financial collapse. And it is continuing… What happens in Ireland today could be knocking down Europe tomorrow, and ruining a lot more people’s lives on this side of the Atlantic next week. This thing ain’t over by a long shot.

Having finished Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, next on my list is ECONned by Yves Smith, proprietor of the blog Naked Capitalism. Her book has been praised by everyone from Nouriel Roubini to Noam Chomsky, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a comprehensive takedown of the failures, inadequacies and plain stupidities of the entire field of economics as practised since the Second World War, and how they led directly to the current mess, written by someone who has worked in the financial industry for over 30 years.

Harry Shearer interviewed her on this week’s edition of Le Show, and it’s required listening. You heard me: required. Click the link and expect me back in an hour, ’cause there will be a test.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Chris Vander Doelen is really becoming a chronic annoyance

The Windsor Star’s Chris Vander Doelen is, to all appearances, highly intelligent and a very clear thinker and writer. He’s also a snotty, short-sighted idiot. Just read his two most recent columns: this one about Ontario’s energy future and this one about, well, about how much he hates those damn hippies.

First, Ontario’s energy future. Yes, electricity rates will be going up in this province. On this one I’d better admit from the start that I won’t be hit directly, at least not right away, since I’m a renter whose utilities are included. Of course, that just means my rent is that much higher than it would otherwise be, and if there’s any slack between my aggregate electricity usage and what my landlord pays to Enwin Utilities, I’m betting it’s not in my favour. At some point everything will probably go to smart metering and we will all have a direct incentive to conserve energy. For now, let’s call it a wash.

That said, CVD’s opinion on the McGuinty government’s plan to invest in clean energy over the next twenty years could not be more predictable: it’s the old market-fundamentalist drill about killing jobs and reducing Ontario’s ‘competitiveness’. (Competitiveness in this context is a dummy term, with no consistent definition. Its role in an opinion column is to be the all-purpose victim of policies promoted by evil and bad people the pundit thinks are trying to pick the pockets of the virtuous.) In the supply-side era, we’re all supposed to be short-term greedy and no one’s supposed to look beyond the end of their nose: because markets are efficient, there’s perfect information and the pricing signal isn’t just everything, it’s the only thing. Under this mentality, all that matters is the up-front price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity or a liter of milk at Wal-Mart. The one and only sensible thing to do is to pay the lowest price and shut up, because the market will provide for all conceivable needs in the most efficient manner possible.

People who have this kind of cargo-cultish belief in the magic of efficient markets get stupefied and obstinate when you point out some of the obvious problems and irrationalities of markets, such as the role that herding behaviour plays in creating bubbles and financial panics (a phenomenon that simply didn’t occur between the 1930s, when financial markets were first regulated in the wake of the Great Depression, and the 1980s, when the deregulation movement started to pick up steam). Another is the existence of negative externalities: costs that are not priced into transactions but instead imposed on others, such as the health-care consequences of pollution caused by burning coal for electricity.

But the other big problem with CVD’s argument is the implicit assumption that tomorrow’s world will look like today’s, only more so: more consumerism, more globalization, more consumption of everything under the sun — and that we can have all this with no consequences. It’s not true: there won’t and we can’t. Let’s leave arguments about clean air and global warming aside. Here’s the other biggie: with the end of cheap oil at hand, energy is going to be much more expensive whether we like it or not, and the implications of this are greater than anything dreamt of in Chris Vander Doelen’s philosophy. Globalization will come to an end on the day when the price of oil drives shipping costs up sufficiently to destroy the advantage of low-wage countries in manufacturing, so we will no longer be competing with China, except maybe for access to food. Even shipping overland within Canada may become prohibitive sooner than we think, and as for a way of life built around endless driving in petroleum-fuelled vehicles, forget it. This is to say nothing of the enormous tracts of suburban real-estate, all of which will rapidly become worthless when no one can afford to drive from there to work and back again, or the social consequences when people’s nest eggs disappear out from under them on a large scale. Mr. Vander Doelen is hardly alone in being in denial about all this, but the fact is, this is the path we’re on. When all this hits home, Ontario had better have some kind of plan, including a home-grown energy industry of some description, or we are going to be in even worse trouble. We can either maintain some control over the process by making investments now, or be hit that much harder when events overtake us.

Then there’s those damn hippies. Now, I’m a rational guy, so when people try to warn me about the hazards of nuclear energy I tend to weigh them against the dangers of not having nuclear energy before I make up my mind. There are legitimate concerns about nuclear safety and public health, and the long-term problem of nuclear waste disposal remains unsolved, but society still needs energy to function, and it has to come from somewhere. What I don’t do is level cheap accusations of hypocrisy, or declare (even half-seriously) that medical imaging or cancer treatment using radiation should be off-limits for anyone who criticizes nuclear energy on any basis at all. Here CVD displays a level of smugness worthy of Michael Moore. I have no doubt that if anyone did display the level of fanatical puritanism he criticizes people for not displaying, his contempt for them would be all the greater. I hope Mr. Vander Doelen will one day realize that people who don’t share his opinions about the choices our society makes, are still entitled to live in that society.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Driveway moment

The scene: Another working day has ended. Motorist is on his way home, a bag of groceries in the seat beside him. A chilly rain falls; it gets dark early come November. On the radio, a newscaster is chattering with someone about UNESCO, followed by the traffic report. Our motorist is nearly home and pulls into the parking lot.

ANNOUNCER: Well, there’s a royal wedding on the way, for those who are interested —

MOTORIST: <changes the station>

The radio now chatters pop music as the motorist looks for a parking spot.

There’s a narrow one, so he starts negotiating his way in. The song ends.

ANNOUNCER #2: That was Arcade Fire, the song is called ‘The Suburbs‘. And, it’s time for a royal wedding! Prince —

MOTORIST: <turns off the radio>

A couple turns of the wheel and the motorist is able to squeeze into the spot. He shuts off the ignition and walks into the building with his groceries.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Third post

Three posts in one night? I’m on a roll!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment