Thursday, September 29, 2011

Taking Lumps

Much ado has been made of N.C. Governor Bev. Perdue's statement about wanting to suspend congressional elections for two years. The tale of the tape revealed that the statement showed little evidence that it was a joke, hyperbole, or sarcasm as was variously claimed. Some circles have divined a number of things up to and including a certain National-Socialist ring to the statement, an exxageration surely, but it does betray a another certain tendency abroad in Progressive circles to wistfully long for a "wise authoritarian" to cut through the messiness of politics so that that the really important things can just get the heck done already.

Being Progressives this naturally means things that Progressives would like to see happen but are having a hard time selling to more than a minority of the electorate. These things comprise a long laundry list which is pointless to recount here but I think that at the least this wistfulness betrays a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the normal chaotic workings of the democratic process. The 900 pound gorilla on that laundry list is of course the "saving" of the planetary environment. This cause is viewed by some as so utterly paramount that mere niggling considerations of consensual governance should be subordinated to it--whatever the cost. Thus emerges the dreamy notion of the wise authoritarian or intelligent strongman who might take charge and steamroll over the naysayers and foot-draggers.

Progressives can not really point out any current exemplar of such a wise authoritarian, the current lot being such a parade of thuggish sleazeballs, but surely there must be someone out there who might fit the bill. Absent from these yearnings is an apparent lack of cognizance of the hoary adage that "absolute power corrupts absolutely". Unfortunately this adage has a predictive track record of exactly 100 percent and there is not the slightest indication that this record will not continue thusly for, well, ever.

These authoritarian yearnings are inchoate and diffuse to the extent that if pressed Progressives may backpedal and admit that no such personage exists but if they think the thought at all then perforce they must believe that such could exist and most certainly should exist. That the historical record entirely fails to supports such notions is deemed an irrelevancy since the modern academy, with its presumed salutary and consciousness expanding diversity, supposedly has produced an enlightened cadre possessed of vasty reams of "settled" scientific knowledge, a luminous perspicacity, and an honorable intent heretofore undisplayed by our learning benighted forbears. Seen though the gimlet eye of history perhaps this line of thought should be characterized less as wistful yearning and more as, to put it as charitably as possible, blinkered self-aggrandizement

Some call these notions an au-courant manifestation of what is called the "totalitarian impulse" but understandably current Progressives recoil from this. Recoil as it may the self-styled "reality-based community" does not appear to recognize that to achieve their goals supra-politically would require not a wise authoritatian but rather a massively repressive absolute dictatorship which would have no truck with another evergreen Progressive touchstone--dissent. The deep and crushing level of social control required to advance the grand overarching green agenda with no naysaying backtalk would make the depredations of Adolf, Mao, and Stalin look like the smugly feckless edicts of Nanny Bloomberg.

This attitude, however sighingly wistful and unrealistic it might be, does I think tend to inform and strengthen the enthusiasm of the Progressive political class for the next best thing to a wise authoritarianism which is a steady and gradual usurpation of the freedom of action by the lowly messy recalcitrant "people". If a creeping Federalism abetted by similarly inclined regulatory agencies can eventually achieve all that Progressives yearn for then that will just have to do. That is an achievable goal and much "progress" has been made in the last few years.

A pity then that the nasty hateful racist fascist reactionary idiotic conservatives have fully twigged to the scam and are ferociously pushing back. How dare they think that there is any issue more important than "Saving The Planet"! What boobs, what clueless dimwits, what knuckledragging bog-stompers, what heartless vicious defilers of the biosphere these conservatives must be to not promptly and graciously assent to such a manifestly unassailable high nobility of purpose. This puppy-dog rollover has failed to occur however and thus Progressive frustration with the alledgely inefficient and unresponsive democratic process slips out occasionally in the form of such as Perdue's cri-de-coeur.

An additional pity, although obviously not from where I stand, is that these cries of the heart are liable to come more frequently as the conservative pushback accelerates against the truly insane and economically suicidal costs, in every metric, of a wildly hubristic planet saving campaign. The brainless lumpen-proles are beginning to ever more resist climbing on board for a multi-zillion dollar planet saving and freedom abrogating boatride, selfish swine that they are, and the elite un-lumpen may just have to, uh, lump it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Low On Meth

There's been a fair amount of press and bloggy argle-bargle lately about using methanol as an auto fuel. The primary alleged advantage of methanol, as opposed to its chemical cousin ethanol, is that is can be made reasonably cheaply from not only any hydrocarbon source such as coal or natural gas but also that it can be made reasonably cheaply from a wide variey of biomass sources. Divorced from these issues is the fact that methanol has many of the same operational problems that ethanol does. It is highly corrosive, manageable, low in energy content, somewhat less manageable, has cold start problems equal to or worse than ethanol, manageable so far only when combined with gasoline, is even more hydrophilic than ethanol, expensively manageable, and has engine wear problems similar to ethanol, more expensively manageable yet.

Author Robert Zubrin is one of the principal interweb and print cheerleaders for the adoption of methanol as one of our principle fuel choices. His enthusiasm is palpable and his analyses superficially clearheaded but he tends to paper over, as so many alternative fuel enthusiasts do, the significant economic and operational roadblocks presented by these alternatives. Whatever the technical issues are, solvable or not, he and most all other alt-fuel boosters fall prey to the tendency to severly underestimate the various production economic factors as well as the very high infrastructure costs of such adoptions.

Let us consider ethanol which without both massive government coercion on the distribution end and scandalously large subsidies on the manufacturing end would be only a minor corn belt curiosity and play far less a roll than even the small one it does now. The forced adoption of ethanol blended fuels, from the 10-15% ethanol levels in "normal" gasoline to the 85% ethanol/15% gasoline blend known as E85 has always been, and continues to be very near a 100% political enterprise which is entirely divorced from anything resembling normal market factors.

Several decades ago ethanol first gained traction as a way to "oxygenate" gasoline fuels so that they might be less polluting. At first it was only used in areas especially sensitive to the concentration of automotive exhaust such as some areas of the mountain states and of course southern California. This effort may well have had some salutary results when vehicles were still in the carburetor/pre-computer era but things have changed radically in those decades. Now new vehicle exhausts are so incredibly clean that they are significantly past the point of diminishing returns in a technical sense although they are are still relentlessly painted as vile crud spewing monstrosities by anti-pollution zealots.

As this level of cleanliness was being rapidly approached in the last two decades those of a zealous bent found that a new cudgel with which to bash car emissions came conveniently along in the form of a vehicle's "carbon footprint". For the green zealot the only tolerable carbon footprint is zero point zero, that is to say no detectable carbon output whatsoever. Now when new vehicles are compared to their pre-computer ancestors it is easily seen that their carbon feetprints have declined in tandem with large reductions of conventional pollutants while exhibiting large increases in fuel efficiency.

In the current "climate" of global-warming zealotry the fact that new vehicles are amazingly clean devices cuts no ice whatever if they continue to irresponsibly "spew" any sort of carbon compound into the air, regardless of how low that level actually is. The big bad actor is of course carbon dioxide which is unavoidably produced by the combustion of any hydrocarbon product and being a particularly unreactive compound is stupefyingly difficult to catalytically convert to anything less harmful unlike the bugbear of previous eras, carbon monoxide. Reducing CO levels to the near vanishing point proved difficult but possible however that has not been the case with CO2. However vanishingly low CO2 emissions may become, largely as a consequence of increasing fuel efficiency, it will be extraordinarily difficult, read expensive, if not actually impossible to reduce to the zealot preferred level of zero.

As a consequence of this new ideological imperative ethanol morphed from an adjunct to conventional pollution control strategies into a welcome vessel of carbon friendliness since it is a lower carbon containing compound than gasoline. Thus began the push towards high percentage ethanol blends as a way to not only reduce carbon emissions but also to service another dubious ideological imperative, energy "independence". As it has turned out it services the reduction of carbon emissions poorly since modern engines are already fantastically clean and efficient and since ethanol has turned out to require, in even the most optimistic assessments, as much energy to manufacture as it can deliver to an engine the independendence angle has proved to be chimerical as well. In the least optimistic assessments ethanol is deemed to be strongly negative regarding its BTU out to BTU in numbers.

Mr. Zubrin seems convinced that the adoption of methanol can overcome at least some of the principle problems of ethanol. It's true that methanol can be produced from a much wider variety of sources but equally true that hydrocarbon feedstocks inevitably will prove more economically viable than biomass. Zubrin maintains that methanol can be currently produced from natural gas at about $1.38 per gallon which compares favorably to gasoline considering the fact that methanol has about half the energy per gallon. This is a highly dubious line of argument. If methanol were to be produced in the vastly greater amounts needed for any serious penetration of the motor fuels market its pricing structure would have to reflect the addition of yet another distribution and sales infrastructure alreeady burdended by not only ethanol but an unnecessary proliferation of regionally customized gasoline blends. Further if methanol production increased enough to adequately service the motor fuel market it inevitably would become a globalized commodity subject to the vicissitudes of the market and who can predict that?

The unstated, and likely unwarranted, assumption behind this putative pricing seems to be that gasoline pricing must ever continue its steady upward march thereby maintaining methanol's price equivalency. This is the sheerest of speculation at best and fuzzy-headed pipe-dreaming at worst. Even if that turned out to be true methanol pricing would, in the long term, move roughly in tandem with gasoline--Econ 101.

Moving along Zubrin seems to entirely neglect the above mentioned infrastructure costs associated with wide-scale methanol adaptation. Currently E85 is very hard to find outside the corn belt and is hardly ubiquitous at the retail level even in those more psychologically friendly environs. Even in corn-friendly precincts fuel distibutors and retailers much surely view with gimlet eyes the cost of adding yet another seriously costly transportation, tankage, and dispensing system to their sales outlets.

Heading out into the nation at large the adoption of methanol would require this additional costly equipement on a large scale, which might well happen over time, but nationwide retailers would be no less averse to these expenditures than their midwest brethren. This is the chicken/egg conundrum of all alternative fuel projects and, so far, the only "solution" to this issue has been massive government subsidies and a level of coercion that would make the Cosa Nostra blush. Ethanol would disappear from the fuel market at a rapid pace since its "demand" is an artifact of huge subsidies and fuel blending regulations. It is not needed any more as a mitigator of conventional pollution and it is an actual drag on the total energy budget of the country so retailers and consumers alike would let go of the product with both hands in the absence of regulatory coercion and multi-billion dollar midwest agri-bribes. It's true that ethanol subsidies are, er, subsiding but the gummint still holds the whip hand due to its continued insistence on including it in retail fuel blends.

Why methanol would not be subject to similar vicissitudes is left unadressed by its promoters very likely because it would almost certainly be subject to most if not all of those same issues. These days since ethanol subsidies have acquired the status of economic joke at best and outright scam at worst it beggars belief that in this era of spending contraction that methanol would be extended a helping hand of similar magnitude. It might not need a hand nearly as big as ethanol but it would be foolish indeed to assume that the adoption of methanol would any more successful, in any metric, than that of its sister hydrocarbon. If methanol can find a way to stand on its own two low carbon footsies then fine but if it finds it must grasp the dead hand of government coercion and/or lobby for market distorting subsidies and punitive tariffs then it will consign itself to irrelevancy in the long term.

As is currently being proven, with a vengeance in the case of the emerging Solyndra subsidy imbroglio, government is a grimly inept picker of economic and technological winners and for them to pick methanol to expensively chivvy along would a rank absurdity. Of course government specializes in rank absurdities lined up to the horizon but there is no discernable case to be made for adding methanol to that rent-seeking lineup.

Props To The O

Credit where credit is due to the prez--a novelty in these precincts to be sure. Behold a passage from Obama's Excellent Twitter Adventure:

We’re still using the same models for space travel that we used with the Apollo program 30, 40 years ago. And so what we’ve said is, rather than keep on doing the same thing, let’s invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us places faster, allow human space flight to last longer.
And what you’re seeing now is NASA, I think, redefining its mission. And we’ve set a goal to let’s ultimately get to Mars. A good pit stop is an asteroid. I haven’t actually — we haven’t identified the actual asteroid yet, in case people are wondering. [Laughter.] But the point is, let’s start stretching the boundaries, so we’re not doing the same thing over and over again, but rather let’s start thinking about what’s the next horizon, what’s the next frontier out there.
But in order to do that, we’re actually going to need some technological breakthroughs that we don’t have yet. And what we can do is for some of this low-orbit stuff, some of the more routine space travel — obviously no space travel is routine, but it could become more routine over time — let’s allow the private sector to get in so that they can, for example, send these low-Earth-orbit vehicles into space, and we may be able to achieve a point in time where those of you who are just dying to go into space, you can buy a ticket, and a private carrier can potentially take you up there,while the government focuses on the big breakthroughs that require much larger investments and involve much greater risk.

Indeed and huzzah on all counts. Even the Progressive-in-Chief has grokked that the sclerotic centralized control of American space exploration by the horribly bloated NASA apparatus is way overdue for paradigm change. Unfortunately congress refuses to read the wall writing and has actually increased funding for the struggling, years behind, stupefyingly cost-overrun Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle both of which bid fair to make the billion dollar per launch Shuttle program look like a bargain. Getting out of the regulatory way of space privatization efforts is the only sane way forward. Such efforts are progressing very nicely right now but wariness of the heavy bureaucratic hand of the NASA space police should at a keen edge.