“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Saving the world ..... again

As mentioned in a previous post, I've restarted my efforts to reduce fuel consumption in the LR3 by driving techniques. When I got the vehicle, I attempted to do so but had little success. Now, however, I've carried it to the next level, the most extreme to which I can safely and practically go. I've managed to get my average m.p.g. to slightly above 19.5 in my five tank moving average.

As I've opined over the last couple of posts, the fossil fuel situation is far too dire for such measures alone to save the day. And I've posted earlier estimates of how much fuel might be saved. But if I assume that what I'm doing now more accurately represents what can be done by the average driver than the extremes I achieved in the Grand Cherokee, what does that indicate can be accomplished?

My current three tank moving average of miles per gallon is at 19.55. The LR3 is rated by the EPA at 14 city, 18 highway. I estimate that 60% of my mileage is highway, 40% city, so the blended average mileage should be 0.4*14+0.6*18=16.4 m.p.g. I exceed this by about 3.15 m.p.g., or 19.2%.

As before, based on the complaints I hear and read, I assume that very few people are getting the mileage estimated for their vehicle by the EPA. I'll guess at 90%. I exceed this estimated average by 119.2/90=1.324, or 32.4%, so I use 1/1.324 or .755 (75.5%)as much fuel as the average person would in my vehicle driving my routes. If everyone did this and achieved the same results, it would be a reduction of 24.5% in transportation fuel usage in the personal vehicle sector.

According to this wonderful web site two thirds of U.S. oil use is in the transportation sector. I have read (I can't find sources right now) that half of transportation fuel use is in private (as opposed to commercial) vehicles. And about 19.5 gallons of gasoline comes from each of the 21 million barrels of oil we use daily. So of the 409,500,000 gallons of gasoline used each day, 24.5% or right at 100 million gallons could be saved. This is the gasoline from 5,145,000 barrels of oil.

Of course, the other 22 or so gallons of product from a barrel of oil aren't thrown away when gasoline is refined, so we wouldn't save that many barrels, but I estimate that well over two million barrels per day could be saved, 10% of our consumption and about 15% of our imports. Obviously, we won't achieve the chimeric goal of energy independence by these measures, but they could buy us some time. A side benefit would be the reduction of our trade deficit by over $4 billion per month.

As I've often pointed out in these articles, these savings won't come free, the payment will be in hours of time spent on the road instead of at work or with family, friends, etc. That price will seem more and more worth paying as scarcity increases and prices rise.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Exponential growth versus exponential decline

I would like to direct my readers' attention to a web site created by an organization called "Negative Population Growth." As its name implies, the organization is devoted to bringing attention to and finding solutions for the problems of humankind caused by overpopulation (pretty much all the problems, as nearly as I can tell). The link above is to a presentation of exponential growth by Dr. Albert Bartlett, who has become famous in peak oil circles and rightly so.

I would direct the reader's attention to section II, subsections IV and V. These address the mathematics of exponential growth of consumption of a finite resource. Obviously, here I'm thinking of growth in energy (specifically, fossil fuel) use versus the finite total of recoverable fossil fuel resources. Dr. Bartlett presents the concept of the "exponential expiration time," a mathematical expression relating the size of a resource, the consumption rate of the resource, and the rate of growth of consumption of the resource.

While none of the numerical quantities involved (population growth, economic growth, total recoverable resources) are known precisely and the growth rates are not constant, the conclusions will hold qualitatively as long as the rates are positive and the resource is finite. Let's calculate a model scenario that doesn't even require an estimate of what is referred to in the peak oil community as "ultimately recoverable resources" or "URR."

The idea is to determine the rate at which so-called "renewable energy" production must increase to make up for a shortfall in availability of energy derived from fossil fuels. I'll make some assumptions, based on the best information at my disposal, regarding rate of growth of demand for fossil fuels, rate of decline of fossil fuel production, and the current rate of fossil fuel consumption. I'll cite the sources of data and the pertinent dates. The reader should keep in mind that experts have done these calculations with better models and more accurate information (not to mention higher IQ's) than I have at my disposal, so my results are meant only to help grasp the magnitude of the dilemma we face.

I found an absolute goldmine of data on energy consumption and production - BP (the old British Petroleum) has a downloadable excel spreadsheet that has a spectacular amount of information. I utilized it to find a trend line for worldwide primary energy consumption and determined that, based on data from 1965 through 2006, we have a doubling time on the order of 36 years at an annual growth rate of 1.9%/year. It's certainly possible that many developed countries could moderate their growth in energy consumption, but India and China combined are exhibiting a growth rate on the order of 5% on a curve form 1965 through 2006, and represent about a third of the world's population. It doesn't look good on the consumption side.

On the "production" side (in quotation marks because energy is never produced, it is only converted) the sum of oil plus natural gas production has every appearance of increasing linearly. The peak oil community contends that this curve will plateau (or has plateaued), but the data I see doesn't show it. Unfortunately, the situation is plenty grim even without the plateau. Assuming present trends continue, we must make up the shortfall between exponentially increasing consumption and linearly increasing production with alternative sources of primary energy (hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, nuclear, etc).

This gap increases exponentially as well, and though energy production through means other than fossil fuels also is increasing exponentially, it is not doing so at a rate that will enable the shortfall to be overcome. I estimate that, in 2010, the shortfall will be on the order of 500 MTOE (million tonnes oil equivalent). In fact, my crude estimates and calculations indicate that alternative sources will be required to be equal to fossil fuel sources in about 2026. If, that is, the plateau and decline don't happen. A mighty big if.

Further, it must be noted that this quick estimate takes no account of the myriad other fossil fuel "sinks" such as plastic products, fertilizer, pharmaceutical products, etc. I believe that the time has come, and possibly gone, for a radical restructuring of how we live our lives. Every assumption and simplification I've made has underestimated the magnitude of the crisis (no other uses of fossil fuel, continuing increase in primary energy production, etc.) I'm neither a socialist nor a utopian, however, every trend I've analyzed indicates that we're whistling past the graveyard and that only the most extreme measures will suffice to avoid catastrophe.

And driving more slowly in an LR3 is not going to get it done.

Y2K was an epic disaster after all

You all remember the approach to Y2K don't you? There were books, magazine articles, web sites, etc. devoted to the inevitability of system wide disaster to be caused by the Y2K bug and to the consequences thereof. Then disaster struck - Y2K came and went and nothing of any consequence happened. Now, there are many explanations. Chief among them is that hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of person-hours were spent and that that expenditure, which for some reason was invisible to the average person, saved us. Therein lies the true disaster.

The Y2K non-event has persuaded many people that predictions of imminent threats to our entire society and way of life are merely the yammerings of wolf-crying doom sayers. In some cases, that may be true. Unfortunately, when it comes to our ability to fuel our society on petroleum products, it is false. This threat is real, and dire consequences are, in fact, unavoidable. The problem is that warnings fall on deaf ears, in part because the average person thinks "yeah yeah, I've heard it all before. They said the same thing about Y2K." One would like to think that a brief application of common sense would cause people to realize that exponentially increasing consumption of a finite resource is a dead-end street, but that brief application is missing.

I live in a so-called "McMansion" (a 2500 square foot four bedroom house) in Anaheim Hills, and as extensively noted in this blog, I drive a 60 mile round trip to work in a segment (inspection and materials testing) of an industry (construction) that will surely go away in the tsunami of economic dislocation caused by the unavailability of imported fossil fuels to "feed the beast." Further, much of my net worth is tied up in the equity in my house and my equity in the company for which I work and in which I am a partner. My vulnerability is huge, I'm a perfect example of what won't work.

The simultaneous trends of exponentially increasing consumption and the peaking of production of fossil fuels would be bad enough. However, quoting the infomercials, "but wait, there's more!" As explained here, as exporting countries' fuel resources begin to suffer the effects of depletion while their citizens demand the things we assume we will always have here (cars, air conditioning, etc.), those countries will divert exports to internal consumption. So even if production doesn't slide as quickly as some predict, oil available for export to the U.S. will decline steeply in the very near future. To call the consequences dire is to understate them dramatically.

Thus, my playing with a Land Rover LR3 to see if I can coax 20 m.p.g. out of it is truly a hobby and almost irrelevant to the fossil fuel situation we face. As far off as James Howard Kunstler was in his Y2K predictions and as bombastic as he is in his prose, I'm afraid that this time he's right. So the true disaster of Y2K was that it blinded many of us to the real doomsday scenario we now face, and prevents us from taking any meaningful steps to mitigate the inevitable tragedy ahead.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Alternative transport redux

In a previous post I discussed the benefits of using an electric scooter for the bulk of my commuting to and from work. The analysis there was based on my fuel use in the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited I had when I started this blog. It should be even more beneficial with the Land Rover LR3 HSE that I'm driving now, since the LR3 achieves about 4 m.p.g. less than the Grand Cherokee.

Further, there's a scooter available from Zap!, called the Zapino that, with their optional 60 volt 40 amp-hour battery, claims a range of "up to 65 miles." My commute, as I would have to ride it on surface streets, is 25.57 miles (according to Google Earth) so, in theory, I could make the round trip on a single charge. I wouldn't do it, because the very last part of my trip home is up a very severe hill. I wouldn't want to try it on a dwindling charge. But if I charge it at work, my hope is that it would have sufficient charge remaining to take me up the hill to my house.

There are various factors to consider, even if I stipulate (I've been around lawyers too much lately) that the Zapino is well-built and reliable and will climb the hill at the end of a workday. Most importantly, I need to know the financial impact (the Zapino retails with the standard battery for $3,495, I can't find the price of the optional battery I'd need), and how much time my commute would take.

I can run the route I'd have to take on the scooter but I think it would be foolish to do it in the LR3 at the speed to which I'd be limited in the scooter. So I'll estimate that it would take about 75 minutes each way. My current commute is about 40 minutes. Am I willing to spend 70 extra minutes per day commuting? I wouldn't be able to listen to books on tape or podcasts or even talk radio - such a vehicle requires close attention in city traffic. It's possible that it could be "reasonably" safe to carry a bluetooth ear piece and do limited cell phone business. In most cases, I think I'd have to pull off the road and consequently increase the commute time. It sounds like a non-starter at this point.

For the financial impact, most of the figures in my previous post can, with slight modification, be applied to the use of the Zapino in lieu of the LR3 for the bulk of my work commutes. Of course, these will only be rough estimates, but they should suffice for a "go/no-go" decision. I calculate that the Zapino should cost about $0.10/mile to operate or about $850/year for 180 commutes versus about $4,700/year to operate the LR3 for those commutes. Thus, the potential cost reduction is $3,850/year.

Combining these figures, I'd spend 210 extra hours per year to save $3,850. This means that I'd be paid at the rate of $3,850/210 or $18.33/hour. Unfortunately for my Company, my hourly rate exceeds this by a considerable margin. Thus, in order to make it attractive, I would have to regard the excess time spent on the scooter as personal time, something like a hobby. I think that, to start, it would feel that way. But that would likely get old quite quickly.

These types of tradeoffs are endemic to alternative transport, or even to adjustment of driving techniques to minimize fuel consumption. Professor Steven Dutch, whom I have cited extensively in this blog, makes a cost benefit analysis of public transportation that makes it clear why, for most people, mass transit is not a compelling choice.

Future economic considerations may change the calculus here, and in fact, may make the choice of commuting in a vehicle like the LR3 impossible at any price. Until then, I'm afraid that I just can't justify alternative transport.