Mr Creosote from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Reasoning about Consumption and Energy

I try to present facts and logic and solutions rather than just opinions.

Contact me If your facts and logic are convincing, I'll change my mind !

Problems caused by our current consumption habits and fuel use

  • Pollution.
  • Increasing costs, due to increasing demand and limited supply.
  • Global climate change (not just "warming").
  • Environmental impact of fuel production (pollution, habitat destruction, etc).
  • Environmental impact of accidents (oil spills, nuclear accidents, coal-ash dam bursts, etc).
  • Waste disposal problems (pollution from landfills, costs of disposal, nuclear exposure to terrorists).
  • Political hassles (dependence on foreign oil).

From Aarian Marshall's "It's Not Just Clean Air: Electric Cars Can Save the US Billions":
According to a new report from the American Lung Association of California, cars are responsible for $37 billion in health and climate costs each year.

That's just for California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont - the 10 states that have zero emission vehicle sales programs. The price tag includes the economic costs of 220,000 days of missed work, 109,000 asthma-related attacks, and 2,580 premature deaths per annum.

Even if you don't have asthma, you're getting hit: The report estimates that every tank of gasoline you combust adds $18.42 to public health and climate bills - bills your taxes pay off.

We seem have jumped straight to "switching from oil to ethanol will fix everything". This is not true. It doesn't address most of the problems. And there are better ways to fix the problems. Same for the "just remove all limits on domestic oil drilling" argument.

Strategies to fix the problems (starting with the quickest, easiest and most effective)

  1. Conservation.
    Easy to do and quick to implement.
    Carpooling, better public transit, gasoline tax, household trash tax. Less use of air-conditioning. Better home insulation, and eventually better home design. Clotheslines instead of clothes-dryers.

  2. Efficiency.
    Better appliances and lightbulbs. Heating, air-conditioning, lighting applied only where needed (don't light the whole room if you're just reading in one chair).

    From article by David Owen in 20 Dec 2010 issue of The New Yorker magazine:
    [In the USA,] we now throw away forty per cent of all the edible food we produce. And when we throw away food we don't just throw away nutrients; we also throw away the energy we used in keeping it cold as we lost interest in it, as well as the energy that went into growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting it, along with its proportional share of our staggering national consumption of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water, packaging, and landfill capacity. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of US freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded.
    Jonathan Bloom's "Wasted Food"
    Lindsay Abrams' "Shameful: Up to a third of the world's food is wasted"
    Chris Arsenault's "Thirty percent of the world's food wasted"
    The Straight Dope's "Is 5 percent of U.S. energy wasted on food that gets thrown away?"

    From Straight Dope article:
    The incandescent light bulb, ... is one of the least efficient devices you'll ever lay hands on, converting just 5 to 8 percent of the energy it uses into light, with the rest thrown off as heat.

    From Brad Plumer's "How air conditioning transformed the U.S. economy":
    The amount of energy consumed by U.S. homes for air conditioning has doubled in the past 12 years, according to Stan Cox, and now accounts for nearly 20 percent of our electricity use. What's more, developing countries such as China and India want in on what's viewed as an utter necessity. The New York Times recently reported that sales of AC units are rising 20 percent per year in those two nations.

    From Rob Rhinehart's "How I gave up alternating current":
    The grid, smart or not, is wasteful. Power generation produces 32% of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector. Most power in the US is generated by burning coal, immediately squandering 67% of its energy, then run through a steam turbine, losing another 50%, then sent across transmission lines, losing another 5%, then to charge a DC device like a cell phone another 50% is lost in conversion. This means for 100 watts of coal or oil burned my phone gets a mere 16. In this light a solar panel that is 18% efficient doesn't seem that bad.

  3. Recycling.
    And products designed to be easy to recycle.

    Perhaps we could change the regulations about product packaging to make things simpler and easier to recycle. Ban containers made of more than one type of plastic bonded together. Ban multi-material layered packaging (foil/plastic/paper/wax containers). Require the package to be brand-neutral (a solid color, no stamped printing that identifies manufacturer or product) and the label to be easy to remove, so it can be re-used for something else later. Instead of caps on bottles, have a sealed top that gets punctured by a re-usable "tap" owned by the consumer. Standardize sizes and shapes of containers. Force all producers to adhere to the same regulations, use the same sizes and shapes, etc.

  4. Reduced Impact for the Same Result.
    If you buy an apple that was grown in the next county, instead of in Chile, you get the same result with far less consumption of energy and resources (not always true; have to figure production impacts, not just impact of transportation of final product).
    If you attend a business meeting via conference-call instead of flying across the country, you achieve the same result with far less impact on the environment.

  5. Persuade rest of world to avoid USA's mistakes.
    Maybe the best way to do this is to export knowledge (about pollution and health) and cleaner technologies to the rest of the world.

  6. Better Consumption Technology.
    Higher fuel-mileage standards for cars and trucks; cleaner-running diesel engines; hybrid cars, more efficient houses and appliances, etc.

  7. Better Energy Technology.
    Safer nuclear power plants, cleaner coal power plants, etc.

  8. Business Incentives.
    A manufacturer should be responsible for the life-cycle costs of a product: when a car is sold, the cost of eventually recycling or disposing of it should be deposited into a protected fund. The money comes back out when the car is disposed of at the end of its life. This will encourage manufacturers to make cars that are more easily recycled, and encourage proper disposal of cars at end of life.

  9. New Energy Sources.
    Solar, wind, tidal, etc.

  10. Alternative Fuels.

  11. Culture Changes.
    Make simplicity "cool".
    Reduce advertising that is intended to whip us into a frenzy of consumption and competition with the neighbors.
    Make population limitation "cool"; why not derive happiness from interacting with other people's children, instead of having your own ?
    Sam Kornell's "Is Overpopulation Really the Problem?"

  12. Avoid Destructive or Pointless Consumption.
    Avoid war, wanton waste (wasted food), stupid consumption (auto racing, air shows).

Article by Matthew Yglesias about fossil fuel subsidies
Wikipedia's "Energy policy of the United States"
John Timmer's "Energy, the long and short of it"

Carbon emission control schemes

  • Carbon tax: at point of origin inside USA (well-head or mine) or point of import, charge $N per ton of carbon content in fuels. Could be made revenue-neutral to overall economy, by giving same total amount of money back to taxpayers on their income tax returns. Government has to set the carbon tax rate, and avoid the tendency to change it frequently; it should be kept fairly stable, so businesses can plan. Probably should apply to exports, too, so we don't just export our dirty coal to be burned elsewhere.
    Sarah Dowdey's "How Carbon Tax Works"
    Jeff Spross's "Why the Green New Deal is more realistic than a carbon tax"

  • Carbon cap-and-trade: businesses who emit carbon have to buy permits to do so. Government sets the overall total emission level allowed, and hands out free permits to existing businesses each year, and may adjust the total emission limit from time to time. Does government sell some permits to businesses each year ? A permit-trading market is used to set prices of permits as they are traded among businesses.
    Sarah Dowdey's "How Carbon Trading Works"

  • Carbon cap-and-dividend: similar to cap-and-trade, except all permits are auctioned by the government, instead of some being free and some prices being set by government ? Also has a permit-trading market.

  • Carbon cap-and-share: Globally, individual consumers are given free rations of carbon-emission units, which they can use to buy energy, or sell on a market. Businesses all have to buy units on the market; nothing free given to them.
    Wikipedia's "Cap and Share"

  • Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs), AKA Domestic Tradable Quotas (DTQs): individual consumers are given free rations of carbon-emission units; businesses have to buy them at weekly govt auction or at the same price from other owners. To purchase carbon-containing fuel or electricity, individual or business must pay both money and ration units. Government sets the overall total number of rations.
    (Scheme is designed not only to limit carbon emissions, but to guarantee energy supplies to individuals, make people think about how much energy they are using, encourage "common purpose" among all energy consumers, reduce consumption while improving quality of life.)
    Shaun Chamberlin's "Tradable Energy Quotas: A policy framework for peak oil and climate change"
    Wikipedia's "Tradable Energy Quotas"
    David Fleming's "Energy and the Common Purpose (PDF)"

Shaun Chamberlin's "TEQs (downstream) or Cap and Dividend (upstream)?"
Wikipedia's "Personal carbon trading"
Wikipedia's "Carbon emission trading"
Wikipedia's "Emissions trading"

Why carbon tax is better than cap-and-trade

  • Predictability: A carbon tax rate will be fairly stable; prices of tradable carbon "permits" could fluctuate wildly. Capital-intensive businesses (power plants, smelters, factories) need predictability so they can make long-term economic decisions.

  • Political influence. A carbon tax is a very simple and hard-to-manipulate mechanism; cap-and-trade involves handing out lots of free "permits" as well as adjusting a cap every year.

  • National boundaries: Pollution and climate change don't respect national boundaries. Unless a cap-and-trade system is a single global market, there will be lots of national markets, each subject to political manipulation. A carbon tax might also have the same national-boundary problem, but at least it's very easy to see that nation A's rate is five times nation B's rate, and apply pressure to equalize them.

  • Less cheating: if the government is collecting carbon tax money, it has a big incentive to catch cheaters. It has much less incentive to check that companies aren't violating their permits in a cap-and-trade system.

Some people argue that cap-and-trade is better because it sets a total emissions limit and guarantees it will be obeyed, while carbon tax doesn't. They're right, but by adjusting the carbon tax rate slowly, every couple of years, we can close in on the total emissions limit we desire.

Some people argue that a global cap-and-trade market would develop, making a simple and consistent mechanism. They're wrong; each nation would never give up control of such a critical and fundamental thing as energy/production/pollution costs. They won't agree to a consistent carbon tax rate across the globe either, but at least it will be easy to compare tax rates and criticize offenders.

From John D. Kelley's "The case for a revenue-neutral carbon tax":
A national carbon tax would be easy to administer. The tax would be charged at first point of sale - the mine, wellhead, or border crossing - and would be collected by the IRS. The funds would be placed in a Carbon Tax Trust Fund and rebated to American households. All adult citizens would receive equal monthly dividends and families would also receive one-half share per child under 18 years old, with a limit of 2 child-shares per family. It is estimated that 70 percent of families would see a net increase in income.

Why people are against both kinds of pollution tax:
People don't want their electric bills to go up. And they see this as another "money grab" by government.

Maybe the solution is to give each household an income tax rebate each year, roughly equal to half the size of the carbon tax, based on the number of people in the household and some average/low figures for electricity use and rates.

Assume a household is paying $900/year for electricity now, from a high-carbon producer, and could find a "greener" producer for the same price. Assume the carbon tax adds $100 to the high-carbon price. So make them eligible for a $50 income-tax rebate. This would encourage them to switch to greener producers, and encourage the producers to put out less pollution. If they stay with the high-carbon producer, they're paying $950/year. If they go greener, they're paying $850/year.

This kind of "revenue-neutral" carbon tax system was enacted by British Columbia in Canada circa 2008: Dan Moutal's "How I lived through a carbon tax and survived to tell the tale" and Jon Walker's "Canada Proves a Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax Can Work".

Revenue-neutral: "We're going to reduce your income tax by $1000, and increase taxes on your gasoline and fossil electricity by $1000. Then it's your choice if you want to keep using same amount of gasoline and fossil electricity, or less, or more."

Being against more taxes is not a good reason to favor cap-and-trade over a carbon tax. The only reason people think that is because some politicians promise to "game" the cap-and-trade system to try to keep prices down. And that system is easier to manipulate politically.

Would a carbon tax be more palatable if the proceeds were directed to the problems ? Maybe we should have THREE carbon taxes:
  1. Carbon tax to adapt to Global Climate Change.
    Funds disaster relief after storms, droughts, heatwaves. Funds coastal relocation.
  2. Carbon tax to fight pollution.
    Funds environmental cleanups.
  3. Carbon tax to fight health effects of carbon emissions.
    Funds treatment of asthma, lung cancer, etc.

Wikipedia's "Carbon tax"
David Kestenbaum's "Economists Have A One-Page Solution To Climate Change"
Tadhg O Laoghaire's "Saving The Planet: Why Cap-and-Trade Is Not Fit For Purpose"
Peter Fairley's "Canada Moves Ahead on Carbon Taxes, Leaving the U.S. Behind"


  • There are serious issues with waste water control and disposal, regulation and transparency of the process, and impacts of a major industrial activity taking place among residential neighborhoods.

  • Several criticisms of fracking seem to be wrong or overblown. The gas is down at 1000-2000 feet or more, while drinking water is tapped at 100-400 feet, so "drilling will contaminate the drinking water" probably is wrong (as I said above, the WASTE water is a different issue). The "burning water in your faucet" thing seems to be wrong (not due to fracking). Letterman's "The Delaware water gap has been ruined. The Hudson Valley has been ruined. Most of Pennsylvania has been ruined. etc" is nonsense. I think his "injecting the substrata of our planet with highly toxic, carcinogenic chemicals" probably is FAR exaggerated; I think most of what they're pumping in is water and sand. But as I said above, we need regulation and transparency.

Wikipedia's "Hydraulic fracturing"
Duncan Clark's "Guardian Guide to Fracking - version 2"
Energy and Climate Change Committee - Fifth Report
Seamus McGraw's "Is Fracking Safe? The Top 10 Controversial Claims About Natural Gas Drilling"
The Straight Dope's "What's the straight dope on fracking?"

From JollyWombat on reddit 6/2014:
Ok, Reddit, it's time we sit down and have a nice talk about our electrical grid.

I know most of you are fiercely liberal, as am I, and you want to support solar power. I get it. I get it so much, that I spent years becoming a Solar PV technician. And those Koch brothers - GRRR! amirite?

But here's what everyone talking about this issue needs to STFU and understand - distributed systems are only really useful if they're taking advantage of already-in-place infrastructure. What's that mean? Well, you've heard of distributed computing maybe, like SETI@home, right? It's cool, because lots of people can share their computers across a broad network and together they can become something much more powerful, like Voltron, right? Well, sort of. It's definitely taking advantage of infrastructure in place, the internet is here, and it's been designed from the ground up to be for the most part a pretty distributed system - websites operate independently and can be located anywhere, we still have bottlenecks for the sake of operability, but for the most part the internet is designed for upstream and downstream traffic. That's great. But at the same time, distributing all those computers, having all those home computers, running their sound cards, and video cards, and monitors, etc, etc, ended up meaning that while individuals were all just donating computer time essentially for free in their minds, if you look at how much total power was consumed to do the amount of processing SETI does, it's kinda horrific. A single supercomputer could do the same job for a fraction of the net energy cost.

That's the first thing you should try to wrap your mind around in this debate: taking all of your resources, and putting them randomly all over the country, instead of a few key places, costs TONS more in materials, in fuel, in power, and maybe more importantly, it requires a network that is designed for that kind of traffic.

You wouldn't try to start sucking other people's waste out of the sewers so you could start charging the utility company for doing their job by treating people's waste would you? Outside of that being disgusting, it's not really, actually, physically possible, because the network wasn't designed for you to be pulling sewage onto your property from other sources, it's physically impossible without you modifying the system. If someday we discover a cheap, easy, compact way to treat waste water, should we force the utility company to rebuild their network to support our capacity to do their job for them? We would be rebuilding the entire network, replacing an entire working system, for an insane cost, to accomplish the same task we already accomplish, for more money.

I helped install a few megawatts of solar, but in retrospect I feel like I was on the wrong side of the fence the entire time. We had rich investors and a city commission that thought it was politically popular to support green initiatives, and with those auspices we forced our public utility to comply with the plans of our mean green investors (over a barrel, was the lead investor's favorite phrase - he was a colorful character who had the cojones to show up in snakeskin boots most days).

The first big meeting we had with the utility engineers, the head engineer was livid. At first I didn't get it, but he laid it out simple enough: For the amount of money the utility company was going to have to be shelling out to these investors for the next 20 years, they could have built a sodium-turbine solar collection plant capable of much higher output for more hours in the day, for less money, less environmental damage, less space. ... One of the main reasons they weren't doing this already was - we didn't need more power. Population growth isn't exploding around here, the plants we have meet demand, and often produce more power than we need anyway. Even if every person in town covered their property in solar pv, we wouldn't produce enough power to shut down any of our power plants. You can't power a whole house on solar unless you forego an AC, a heater, a dryer, or a stove, or you use tons of batteries, which means you aren't contributing to the grid, but it also means you're using thousands of dollars of additional resources to just keep your own lights on.

But the cherry on top of this scheme, for the utility engineer, was that our megawatt system was going into an area that was obviously never wired for a megawatt of power to be running loose. So the utility was forced to rebuild a huge portion of their network, just to make it capable of carrying the juice we were suddenly going to feed into what was always built from the ground up to be a one-way system. This isn't a political problem, it's an engineering problem. If you want to be able to sell power on the grid from anywhere, whenever you want, you need to size the grid the same size everywhere, because who knows where more power will show up? That means those huge power lines you see running down long uninhabited stretches will have to show up everywhere, because what people are insisting on, whether they know it or not, is a completely different power grid from the one that we have always had, one that is massively more expensive to build, maintain, and extend. The panels are all made in China, so that's not helping our economy (Germany, who essentially created the grass-roots PV movement, had shrewdly leveraged their own manufacturing base, while we basically saw our companies either move to China or get clotheslined by cheaper options), the power isn't wanted, the utility passes expenses on to consumers anyway, meaning everyone's bills just go up to reflect the little money you saved, and more likely than not you're not actually making power to share as much as shaving money off your bill, but that doesn't mean the utility might not have to change out some wires and transformers, as even if you're only feeding a little bit of power into the grid, the grid wasn't designed for ANY power to be coming back the other way.

So please, Reddit, and liberals everywhere, stop looking like stupid bastards and insisting it's no big deal if you elbow your way into the energy market, or that it's even a good idea that you do so. It's not. It's a huge waste of resources, and you should probably be punished. If you want to support green energy, invest in green energy power companies, and lobby your local utility to invest in green energy. Thanks for your time.

TL;DR: We never built our electrical grid so that you could play 'slum lord power company', doing so is massively expensive and stupid, liberals need to stop making this a 'thing' they support.


[and later:]

My chief problem with [sell-back-into-grid] is that it's supported by liberal progressives when it's a pretty regressive strategy overall. It allows people with money on hand to invest in a system whereby they'll be allowed to pay much less for their power, and those costs ultimately are subsidized by poorer people who can't afford the same investment, after all, the utility has to pay these people, and then they pass their costs on to their customers. That's without considering the infrastructure changes required to allow for us to just feed power into our grid anywhere, which are impressively expensive and also get passed down to the people who will end up actually paying for their power.
To me, the TLDR for this is: "Sell-back-to-grid is bad; green energy is okay if centrally generated". And I think home generation of green energy will be okay once we have good home energy-storage technology.
Also see Herman K. Trabish's "Why battery storage is 'just about ready to take off'", which includes "if you get storage in the right place, it de-stresses the rest of the grid".

From ConcernedScientists on reddit 10/2014:
> What can we learn from Europe's (specifically Germany)
> utilization and experience with solar power?

I think one of the biggest lessons we have learned from Germany is that you don't have to be an extremely sunny locale to go big on solar. Germany has more installed solar per capita than anywhere else in the world, and it's not exactly known for its tropical weather. Germany proves that electricity grids can handle much higher levels of solar than we see here today in the U.S.

Germany also proves that the more simple and streamlined we can make the contracting and installation of solar, the better. Germany used a feed-in-tariff, which is basically a standard contract for a fixed price. This approach greatly reduces the time and money used to negotiate contracts, and things can move quickly. Some people would disagree that fixing the price of solar does not make sense because it has been changing so dramatically over time, but they definitely got something right by making the process simple.

Also, scale matters. Germans are paying less for solar today because they have been able to reduce the "soft costs" associated with things like sales, permitting, marketing, and labor. The US is making strides in this area too. California just enacted a law that requires local governments to adopt a solar ordinance by September 30, 2015 that will streamline permitting process for small residential rooftop solar systems.

From The Economist's "Nitrogen cycle" 10/2012:
[Re: Hydrogen cars:]

... the plant and equipment needed for producing, distributing and storing hydrogen is hugely expensive. Unlike the industrial hydrogen used to make ammonia fertiliser, or for converting heavy oil fractions into petrol, the hydrogen needed for fuel cells must be 99.999% pure. That rules out all the cheaper ways of making it, other than electrolysis of water.

There are problems on the distribution side, too. Because hydrogen has the smallest molecule of all, it leaks through practically everything. In particular, it embrittles steel and causes corrosion, hastening crack propagation in the process. Pipelines and storage tanks have to be specially lined at additional cost.

Unlike fossil fuels such as petrol or diesel, hydrogen is not a source of energy in its own right. It is merely a means for storing electricity generated in a power station and delivering it to the motor driving the wheels of an electric vehicle - in much the same way as a battery works. And as free hydrogen does not occur in useful quantities in nature, it has to be made by using electricity to crack water into its constituent elements.

In California, despite the many solar installations and wind farms, the electricity coming out of the plug is neither green nor clean, being derived predominantly (ie, 62%) from fossil fuel. During cheap-rate periods at night - when electric vehicles tend to be recharged and electrolysis plants are running flat out - most of California's electricity is imported from coal-fired power stations out of state. Thus, like electric vehicles, hydrogen cars contribute their share of greenhouse gases as well.

Certainly, moving the emissions from the vehicle's exhaust pipe to the power station makes it easier to control the pollution. ...

See my Nuclear Energy page