Monday, March 31, 2008

Independence Day Tripper

Every administration of every president since Nixon has been yammering about the desperate need for an "energy policy" or else whining about "energy independence". Every single attempt to formulate something worthwhile and workable has been an abject failure. And every future attempt will be a failure as well. We might as well carry on about an "eggplant policy" or "silverware independence" for all the difference it will make in the country's future energy situation.

When most hear the cyclical blatherings about energy policy they usually take it to reference some direct federal control of motor fuel prices. We naturally think of our own pocketbooks first and gasoline prices are unquestionably dope-slapping our wallets these days. Many, many folks wonder, as so many do in this age of the ever more cosseting nanny-state, "Why doesn't the government DO something about these awful prices?!!!" Well there is certainly one thing that the government can and has done in the past and that is use the power and creativity of the political class to boldly act thereby making a bad situation immeasurably worse. If there is a more pathetic track record of government failure than the many attempts at "Planning Our Energy Future" I am entirely unaware of it. Further if there is any putative government enterprise more chock-a-block with countless potential unintended consequences than energy policy I am equally unaware of it.

Pop Quiz---From what foreign country do we obtain the largest percentage of oil imported into this country? Saudi Arabia?---not even close. Mexico?---no ceegar senor. Hows about Canada eh? That's right our lovely chilly northern neighbor out does any of the OPEC boogeymen by quite a stretch in terms of how much crude they send our way. This is all just fine and jim dandy but a more important dimension to this situation is the fact that since there is a world market in oil the fact that Canada ships lots of hydrocarbons this way has very little effect on the actual price of a 42 gallon barrel of the stuff. Oil from all the world's producers is sold as futures contracts in the world's commodities markets. The main price variations are far more relevant to the type of crude produced than where it is actually pulled out of the ground. It is a mere convenience that much Canadian oil ships here rather than somewhere else. Significant amounts of Alaskan crude makes its way to Asian markets because it is efficient to ship it there rather than somewhere else. It makes little difference in the price because whether crude is shipped by tanker or pipeline the cost per barrel is a very small portion of its traded price. Canadian proximity might make a big difference in the case of some putative worldwide apocalypse but short of that the current situation will obtain.

The most recent runup of crude prices has finally fully reflected the growing consumption of the Asian market--China and India primarily. The sweet run of low prices in the 80s and 90s has played itself out permanently, most likely, and today's demand picture likely rules out seriouly tumbling crude prices any time soon although anyone would be a fool to say that it is impossible. Like it or not, and few really do, commodity prices are set by world markets which respond poorly if at all to high-minded government meddling. I'm sure many are convinced that a cabal of heartless. international financiers and mean, nasty, greedy, evil oil companies "control" the price of oil to suit their own fell purposes. If so it's an extremely diffuse "conspiracy" involving countless tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries whose aggregate work, research, guesses, and neuroses determine not just the price of crude oil but every other bulk commodity the world consumes.

Equally question begging is why did not this cabal "allowed" the historically low prices of the 1990s when crude hovered at around twenty dollars a barrel? The reason is that the large international energy companies have far far less control over crude prices than the conspiracists happily imagine because they directly control less than ten percent of worlwide production. State run oil companies control the rest but even the supposedly bad-acting middle-eastern oligarchies have limited influence on long term price trends. Short term trends are subject to many factors with emotion not the least of them but long term results are a very good fit with supply and demand realities.

Countering the demand increase from the other side of the globe is the under reported fact that the fleet mileage of the reviled gas-guzzling U.S. automotive fleet is easily double what it was 30 years ago. This is offset by the increased numbers of vehicles on the road but even so the greater efficiency of the U.S. fleet must be factored into oil prices to the extent that they would be even higher if significant advances had not ocurred here. And here we get to the dirty little secret of what will happen if the U.S. fleet significantly increases its fleet mileage. Oil prices will go down of course, or at least they will not go up as much as they would otherwise. Pushing against this happy circumstance is the cruel fact that even if the U.S. fleet were to double its mileage again increasing Asian demand would likely insure that prices would rise, if less than otherwise it's true, but at some point the U.S dog will switch places with the Chinese tail, and become overall less important percentage wise than it is now. Increasingly in years to come oil prices will go their own merry way with the U.S. market having less and less effect. Que sera.

Crude availability and prices will wend their way up and down as per the aggregate actions of billions of people and will take little notice of the foolish bleatings of U.S. presidential candidates--left, right, center, and and otherwise. Woe betide the pols who threaten the public's purse with large fuel tax increases either in the service of energy independence or climate alarmism. They will surely become ex-pols ere long. The U.S. population has not, for any number of good reasons, become as obligingly sheep-like as much of Europe has in terms of how much top-down economic control is politically possible. Aping the European "model" might not be the wisest course now that the Continent is exploring the rather ragged limits of state control with its increasingly unsalutary effects on their economies.

To bluntly invert and paraphrase; To contend against the economic will of 6 billion the world's governments rail in vain. If "Gaia" has a living beating heart it is in the lively world markets in everything from Ipods to hybrids to double-lattes that really and truly represent the "will of the people". The more that governments attempt to impose drastic structural changes in their own markets the greater the outside forces that will countervail. Depend on it. Bet the farm on it. Dredge up every last metaphor you've ever heard on it. We will not be "going it alone" in the world's energy equation and we better get used to it. The world's commodity markets are the real "United Nations" and will affect our lives vastly more than that pathetic husk of a debating society barnacled onto the flank of Manhattan. Revile the market, scream at it, bloodily revolt against it, spout endless anti-capitalist invective against it, strive as you might, it will in the end prevail. Even in the walled-off worker's paradise of North Korea you still have to trade some form of currency for desirable goods and there is a price below which no one will sell you that good. Sounds like a market to me.

As the author Robert Bryce has noted energy independence is not only not possible it is not even a good idea. Nonetheless no pol, national or otherwise, will embrace this reality---not even the hard left which has ludicrously designated itself as a "reality based community". Of course progressives pursue energy independence for entirely different reasons than conservatives. Progressives want less oil imported, and less oil used period, in the service of sundry goals such as "fighting" global warming and efforts at "sustainability" and "renewable" energy sources. Conservatives desire cheap energy prices and dislike lavishing billions on petro-tyrannies with interests frequently at odds with U.S. political and economic goals. Far too often governments and political movements promulgate and encourage policies that do the wrong things for the "right" reasons. Touting energy independence, in any section of the political spectrum, is one of the more spectacular cases of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

If you take the advice of the post below this one and buy a smaller high-mileage vehicle you will be doing your duty to the bloody "Planet" but more importantly you will be fulfilling your tiny but critical part in the decision-making of the world's markets. Good on you. Count your savings. Quit complaining so damn much about how high prices are and do what comes naturally---use less of something and the price will come down. And you can do one other thing as well. Laugh your tookus off when some gormless politician begins pontificating about ENERGY INDEPENDENCE.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hybrid Strain

I suspect that the majority of people who've plopped down upwards of 30K for a Prius feel that they've somehow discharged a big chunk of the "green debt" owed "The Planet". This is of course a heavy smelly load of you-know-what but the Prius phenom has prospered almost entirely as a result of cachet as opposed to any actual lowering of one's "carbon footprint". Green feelgood for yuppies--feh. Not that it doesn't work, exactly, but its fuel savings in the real world have been, big surprise, rather less than its glowing reputation would lead us to expect.

So it does sort of work but its contribution towards abating "climate change" is not microscopic but downright nanoscopic or even picoscopic. What it has been strangely successful at doing is separating dollars from suckers but who could blame Toyota for milking that teat 'till it dries up? Equally strange though has been the relative inability of other manufacturers to derive similar success in the hybrid trade. I suspect that to subtract the cultural phenom cachet of the Prius from the equation is put one rather off the idea altogether.

The marketing thrust of most of the other big boys in the hybrid game has been to present the vehicles so adorned with hybrid drivetrains as examples of how the consumer might have his cake and eat it as well. The electric portions of the dual drivetrains in many models are there more to provide extra acceleration rather than significant fuel savings. The consumer has not been over impressed with this approach and has in great part stayed away. After all who sees the need to spend 8 grand to bump a Tahoe's mileage from 18 to 22? Even the sainted Honda came a cropper with their hybrid Accord which sported a gasoline engine of near 250 horsepower and smallish unimpressive hybrid accoutrement.

I think the motoring public has a sense, entirely justified, that many of these hybridizing efforts are much more about public relations than any serious fuel or "planet" saving. Let's face it a massive 6000lb. hybrid Tahoe just isn't going to generate much greenie cachet no matter how many PR bucks GM throws at the public. It might be a different story if the hybrid Tahoe got 35 or 40 mpg but since it does little better than half that just what the heck is the point of coughing up close to ten large for the privilege of hauling around another half ton of parts.

Current hybrids are little better than fads and will contribute squat towards anything but manufacturer profits and as GM is discovering precious little of that. Now lest you think I sneer at the whole idea I hasten to point out that the whole hybrid idea is not without merit. The true merit of the idea will not be realized however by the current half measures being employed by automakers. I'm not even sure that the awkward overlaying of electric and internal combustion systems could be fairly described as a "half" measure--more like a quarter or an eighth. From a maker's standpoint this is inevitable for it allows them to use existing platforms that are familiar to the public and to "simply" overlay a battery-powered electric assist system onto the IC system already in place. This cuts developement costs by using as many off the shelf pieces as possible, perhaps an inevitability in cash-strapped Detroit, but this approach simultaneously renders subsequent vehicles as having a considerably less than "new" feeling.

The true realization of the benefits of the hybrid idea has however appeared on the near horizon. Maximizing the efficiencies of this overall idea will mean ceasing to overlay one heavy expensive mechanical system over another and paring things down to essentials. One major technological enabler of this will be what is called a "wheel motor". These devices, in developement for several years now and approaching mass marketability, incorporate an electric motor directly into the structure of the wheel itself. This has several salient advantages. First of all the much larger diameter of the outer rotor confers a mechanical advantage that a conventional motor gains by having to go through a reduction gear train. This characteristic means that a mechanical connection to the rest of the drivetrain is not needed thereby saving significant amounts of weight and complexity.

Wheel motor technology in one shot allows the hybrid concept to reach its full potential. In this true full hybrid configuration wheel motors are powered directly by a moderately sized battery that is charged by a small onboard IC engine attached to a light high-tech generator. The engine would be sized to provide a reasonably short recharge time for the battery system as well as provide a reasonable highway cruising speed for extended trips. In most cases the engine could be less than half as powerful as a conventional vehicle's and still do a fine job. Most modern aerodynamic passenger vehicles require as little as 12-15 horsepower to maintain 70mph on a flat road.

Putting wheel motors on all four corners of a vehicle gets you all-wheel-drive of course but it also gets you traction control and anti-lock braking as well. Speaking of brakes some wheel motor units use built-in brake rotors but others rely entirely on electrical or so named "dynamic" braking which in addition to slowing the car also puts energy back into the battery.

Taking the Honda Civic as a reasonable mid-sized platform for this system an engine of perhaps 40-50 horsepower might well be all that is needed. In addition to charging and steady-state cruising duties an IC engine confers other benefits such as a power source for air-conditioning and hot water for cabin heat and defrost. The battery in this system would be larger than in current parallel hybrids but smaller than any needed by a "pure" electric vehicle. An efficient battery size would be one that would provide say a 20-40 mile electric-only range which would easily handle the majority of commutes. Plug-in charging is a natural adjunct to this system--leave home charged, charge up at work, drive home, plug back in again. For longer commutes the engine would seamlessly kick in to provide whatever charge or power level needed. It would also automatically provide power for cooling and heating without owner intervention. Additionally this setup gets you plenty of reserve zots for those nuclear level sound systems so popular these days not to mention all the other assorted juice-using gadgets that clutter our existences.

This is hardly a something-for-nothing scenario. In steady state highway travel the mileage might not be significantly better than a standard Civic, which is no slouch, but with ever more impressive IC engine tech appearing all the time I'd be surprised if 50mpg or better would not be quite realistic. And no worries about needing to find a charging outlet. Even in steady-state use the system would keep a decent charge level on the battery to assist with passing and hill-climbing duties. Even in the unlikely event that the battery charge drops to near zero levels or fails entirely the engine/generator system would provide a limp mode that would ensure a return to "civilization". Effective city mileage might well be a multiple of that 50mpg depending on specific conditions.

One additional large advantage of this "strong" hybrid configuration is the elimination of several hundred pounds of mechanical gear, transmissions, driveshafts, CV joints, half-shafts, etc. etc. that are no longer needed allowing the use of a larger battery without a large weight penalty. Current hybrids are porky indeed. The Prius pushes well past 3000lbs which is rather beefy for a small "economy" car. The strong hybrid as described here would hardly need to weigh more than a conventional vehicle. The concept should scale up to virtually any size as well.

This is all well and good but it bothers the hell out of me that the "solution" to getting stellar mileage out of a vehicle keeps staring us in the face but we as consumers refuse to see. To wit: Small cars with small engines.

Grrrr. The 'murkin consumer it seems will not go for small when large is available. I've discussed this with friends and we've decided that gasoline will have to go to at least $5 per gallon before there is any sort of big rush toward small fuel efficient vehicles. We're Americans dammit and we likes our big cars, period, end of discussion. I know plenty of folks that would pay 10 bucks a gallon to be able to drive a Tahoe. After all in Europe there are those already paying $8 plus per gal. to drive big thirsty Benzes and Bimmers so why should we be that different. Consequently there is little incentive for manufacturers to offer small light vehicles with modestly powered drivetrains that get superb mileage.

It's true that in the past 30 years that a huge burden of regulation has increased vehicle weights tremendously. That vehicles are wildly safer as a result is unquestionable but along with such things as ever more sound deadening, creature comforts, and a dizzying array of electronics, they've bulked up substantially. In 1975 I owned a Volkswagen Scirroco which although on the small side was hardly in the midget Smart Car league. It weighed 1900lbs. As a consequence its 70 horsepower engine was more than enough oomph for spirited driving. An equivalently sized vehicle today will weigh, at a minimum, 500lbs more. In the case of the Prius, not that much bigger of a vehicle, the difference is well greater than half a ton. No wonder new cars require so much more powerful and thirstier engines. They need them just to get out of their own way.

A light "low content" minimalist sedan similar in size and weight to an original Scirocco with an ultra-tech Toyota or Honda engine sized to the 70 horsepower range might well get 45-50 m.p.g. Good luck selling that here. The car magazines would savage it for its lackluster performance which ironically would be similar to what those same magazines praised to the heavens in the original Scirocco. I fear that the techno whiz-bangery of the hybrid will be required to overcome this absurd resistance to real efficiency. Pity. As for wishing that the auto makers would hurry the heck up and repeal the laws of physics so they can sell us a 50 mpg SUV---well dream on you moron. Whatever the heck you think of climate change alarmism it certainly wouldn't hurt you, or anyone else, to drive a vehicle that gets decent mileage. If nothing else it'll save you money. Lot easier to relate to that than to wring one's hands over the complexities, confusions, and contradictions of being "green".

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fat Of The Land

It's taken as largely true these days that far more Americans are overweight than is strictly good for the nation's "health". I tend to view the various studies showing this or that trend toward ever greater obesity as a bunch of snuffly camel noses under the tent of gummint intervention. There is a "problem" so the "government" must perforce "do something". Looking to officiary to solve any and all issues is a lamentable and increasingy popular reaction. That this impulse is statist and fascist at its core should go without saying but very few look at it that way. The liberal interventionist approach seems so "normal" to so many these days that always looking to government is as natural as breathing. The idea that the government "should" do something is statist and quite popular. The idea that the government "must" do something is fascist and beloved of activists of all stripes. The idea that the government should as much as possible keep its frickin' hands off "problems" even at peril to the body politic is libertarian--and deeply unpopular.

The observation of a trend potentially deleterious to the public does not automatically require a governmental response. Write that 100 times on the blackboard please. Unless you disagree--in which case you are clearly not self-identifiable as a member of the radical center.

But it's true you whine. People are getting too fat for their own good so someone should do something. And it no doubt is true. The evidence is plain all around. So we simply must do something yes? Hmmm. So how does it feel to be a fascist-i.e. someone who thinks that people should be forced by the state to do what is "good" for them?

The thoroughly modern fascist doesn't dictate what ethnic group we should hate or what countries should be invaded. They are far too busy telling us what we should eat, drive, consume, watch, listen to, speak of, and think about. Fascists are the ultimate busybodies, the ne-plus-ultras of goodie two-shoes, the uber-nannies of the world. Flee from them and rage in anger the next time you hear about what we should do because it is "good" for us, or "the children", the "third world", or for pity's friggin' sake, THE PLANET!!, and if we don't then some governmental entity will force us to do the "right" thing.

I can't argue at all with the fact that the country is getting fatter. In the five decades I have been paying even periperal attention to this phenomenon the number of seriously obese individuals has skyrocketed. When I was in high school in the early sixties there was exactly one person who stood out because they were seriously obese. That's right just one--out of more than 700 in a graduating class. Not that more than a few were somewhat or even considerably overweight but for the most part really obese people stood out in sharp isolated constrast to their generational peers. The same seemed to be true for the adult world as well although we had rather less experience of this of course.

Walk down any street or cruise any supermarket today for 5 minutes and the likelihood of seeing a goodly number of people who are morbidly obese, and then some, is 100 percent. Rampant are immense balloon-like men and vast waddling pig-women who weigh 200-300-400 or more pounds. Big as friggin' houses are some--seemingly moving under their own power only by some miracle of endurance. We're not talking here of folks 20, 30, 40 or even 50 pounds overweight. I'm referring to people anywhere from one to three hundred pounds over any concievable reasonably healthy weight--people not 20-30% overweight but two to three hundred percent over. Even the average person seems to weigh well more than what any "height/weight" chart will infer as "normal". What is quite surprising is to see someone who actually looks significantly under weight-who isn't a teenaged girl.

There is little question that this is an unhealthy state of affairs not to mention unattractiveness sometimes pushed well past grotesquery. What combination of personal and social factors has resulted in all this I leave to others but the fact of it is indisputable. So what "should be done" about it? Not one damn thing. Leave the pudgy populace to binge in peace. Keep your grubby statist mitts off the roly-poly body politic. Watch your own weight you dink. Fix your own life. Leave trans-fat out of your own diet. Go save some whales or polar bears or titmice or something. As long as we leave you to your own obsessive devices then leave the rest of us the hell alone.

Lest conservatives get too smug on this issue I remind them of little things they'd like to have the government ban--recreational drugs, porn, violent flicks, hip-hop "music", morons burning flags, etc. etc. Long way to fall off that high-horse bud.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Plan is There Is No Plan

I have a simple two step plan for U.S. energy independence.

Step One: Buy a car that gets 40 miles-per-gallon or better.

Step Two: Shut the hell up already.

What's that? The big powerful vehicle you want to buy only gets 20mpg? You irresponsible git. Since when does something as tiresome as what your pathetic own-self actually wants matter a tink-damn to those who claim to have the best interests of the PLANET at heart. They know what's best for you bucky and they'll tell any and all who'll listen that anyone who buys one of those catastrophically vile SUV monstrosities is somewhere below child murderers and Republican politicians on the scale of scum-baggery.

So behave yourself and hew faithfully to the diktat of the nanny-state. At least buy a Prius for God's sake even though they're so last-week on the greenie-coolness scale. What's that you say? A Prius costs six or eight grand more than any reasonable equivalent vehicle? So what you ingrate. You should pay you swinish wastrel who is sullying the great Gaia merely by respirating, merely by existing. If you're not going to simply off yourself thereby reducing the load on the biosphere then at the least you can sink into debt far enough to feel its pain.

Of course if you have a bit of difficulty buying the equation, 1 Tahoe = 6 dead polar bears, don't feel alone even if these days "climate change" skeptics are compared to Holocaust deniers--to the advantage of the H-deniers. It does certainly seem that what side you come down on in this "debate" is to great degree determined by your political leanings. To that end we here at The Radical center hereby make this policy statement:

If Global Warming Is Real We Don't Give A Damn

At least it's honest right? It also has the virtue of not getting worked up over the petty details of any particular side of the argument. I'm fairly certain that the human race can adapt to whatever nature throws at us short of a twenty mile-wide asteroid. It always has before and it perforce will again. I'm also fairly confident that the grown-ups in the west's legislatures will not sacrifice all of the west's economies on the altar of Climate Change.

As far as what we do being a beacon and light to the rest of the world I can assure you that whatever level of evironmental sanctimony developed by the west, players such as China will yawn, then go back to work building as many coal plants as they possibly can. Does anyone really think that the Chi-Coms take serious notice of countries that "lead by example". They might take notice of boycotts and heavy tariffs but moral one-upsmanship? Please. Hemp-shirted elitism is about the very last damn thing any arbiter of Chinese/Indian economic policy is likely to count in their calculations.

A policy statement such as that above demands a policy recommendation. To wit:

Buy That Tahoe--It'll Piss Off The Greenies And Won't advance "Global Warming" By As Much As A Nanosecond And Even If It Does How Much Do You Really Care In The Long Run?