Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources

Biking and Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources21 Aug 2008 06:58 am

Today marks the one year anniversary of when I began biking to work.

I’ve logged about 3500 miles. I’ve had three flats (only one was a blowout; the other two were slow leaks that I could fix the next day at home). I haven’t had any spills or any accidents, though there have been a couple of (kinda) close calls.

Payments for gas, insurance, inspections, and repairs have been quite low  ;-)

My original goal was to get more exercise. While I’m not in any kind of great shape now I’m a good bit healthier than I was a year ago.

And I still love it  :-)

Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Peak Oil02 Jul 2008 10:01 pm

A family member recently pointed me to a clip of Newt Gingrich advocating three ways to lower gas prices. Since I actually took some time to formulate a response, and it may be of broader interest, I thought I’d post it. Here goes:

Newt is a fairly smart guy, but I find some fault with his statements. And while some of his suggestions will pan out into long-term approaches, none of his Three Big Ideas will meaningfully lower the price of gas in the short term.

If you read any one article, it should be this one:

Here’s a good synopsis of our current energy situation:

Big idea 1: Dump large amounts (~one third) of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) to punish speculators.

The short-term effect would be really interesting to see, but I don’t think there would be a big — or beneficial — long term effect.

I completely disagree with Newt’s assessment that speculation accounts for $50 / barrel of oil. I think that he fundamentally doesn’t understand how futures work.

I can’t explain the issue as well as an expert, so I won’t try. Here’s a good article from a guy (Samuelson) who knows the subject:

That said, it’s an interesting idea (forget the fact that Newt is pooping on the concept of letting the market run freely — kinda surprising to hear anti-capitalist rhetoric from him)… But it is pissing in the wind.

As of 6/27 the SPR holds about 280 M barrels of sweet oil and another 420 M barrels of sour. Roughly speaking, 1/3 of this reserve is 10 days worth of US usage (the US consumes ~22 M barrels of crude per day).

Does Newt really believe that dumping a *10 day supply of crude* onto the market would have some kind of lasting effect on crude prices?? I suspect he’s smarter than that, and is just using this as a political gimmick.

Big idea 2: Look for oil where it is.

He has some points, but in these and some subsequent statements, Newt ignores (or maybe is ignorant of) some important facts surrounding shale oil and offshore / wilderness drilling.

In [shale oil reserves] we have three times the oil of Saudi Arabia.

This is the most interesting prospect for future development (but I wasn’t aware that anyone was attempting to stop this effort; last I knew, development was underway). Yes, there is a *lot* of potentially recoverable oil in the western US in shale (mostly Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming). This has been known for decades, but back in the early ’80s all the oil majors stopped trying to get this stuff because at the time it just wasn’t worth the effort. Now Shell has an experimental in-situ process that they think will make extraction economically feasible on a large scale. How environmentally damaging the process is remains to be seen (does oil leach into the groundwater?, etc.). Probably the biggest hurdle is that it requires a *lot* of water input; it would put significant additional strain on the Colorado, which western states are already over-taxing.

Claimed EROI (energy return on investment, or the ratio of energy out to energy expended getting it) for Shell’s new process is somewhere between 3:1 and 7:1. This used to mean it was not worth the trouble to extract (compared to, say, 35:1 for conventional oil at the turn of the century), but of course times have changed.

A government study estimates that we could get 2 M barrels per day of syncrude from shale by 2020. That’s 10% of the current US consumption. Shell’s production won’t scale up until ~2015 at soonest (right now they’re charging ahead with field tests), so it won’t provide any immediate relief. It certainly isn’t a return to lots of cheap oil, but it will help reduce our dependence on imports. And there is enough to supplement our supply for a long time (which sucks for climate change, but hey…). Apparently Shell owns a ton of patents on this new process, which could make for some nice profiteering  ;-)

New discoveries. Drilling off the shores of the US.

Yes, we’re occasionally finding new fields, but so far they are not compensating for the decline of the supergiant fields (Saudi Arabia, Mexico, North Sea) that have been keeping us going so far. And the EROI is much lower than existing fields, meaning the resulting product will be fairly expensive.

Whether opening up offshore US drilling would amount to much is the subject of plenty of debate. We just don’t know at this point, but it’s not likely to be more than 5% or maybe 10% of current US consumption.

The ‘huge’ new Brazilian discovery Newt mentions? If we could extract all of that oil, it amounts to *less than a three year supply* for the world at current consumption rates.

These new discoveries will probably be supplying some fraction of our energy over the longer term, but as far as short term relief goes, they aren’t much help. It typically takes anywhere from 10 to 30 years to bring these new discoveries on line. Of course if we head into a major global recession or depression, all bets are off.

Bottom line is that, while we will undoubtedly start leaning more and more on shale oil, new discoveries, and tar sands, they will not replace conventional crude as it is currently consumed. Nor will they bring back cheap gas. And we’re going to pay environmentally (both from extraction processes and from the resulting carbon emissions).


I think this one is a no-brainer. The relatively modest amount of crude available from there (enough to supply the US for about *5 months*) is not worth the environmental damage that will result. And it would be about 10 years before we brought these fields online, so no short-term relief anyway.

Here’s a quote from Roger Blanchard (from an article in the Energy Bulletin):

Desperate people do desperate things. As Americans become more desperate for oil, I expect that ANWR and offshore areas will be opened for oil development. It will be like burning the furniture to keep the house warm in mid-January. It will be a desperate move that won’t result in much.

IMO, we should be looking at these sources of hydrocarbons as a one-time gift to be used with some discretion, and only for meaningful purposes (manufacturing input to pharmaceuticals, important plastics, etc.). They should be something we try to keep around for our grandchildren, and not waste by powering our SUV down the road to the local 7-11. But humans as a whole have shown they don’t have that sort of self-restraint, so I don’t kid myself  :-/

That said, I’ve heard one interesting argument for drilling now as opposed to waiting: these operations to extract hard-to-reach oil require large, technically challenging infrastructure, and in a few decades we may no longer have the manufacturing capabilities necessary to *ever* extract the oil. Good point but IMO, at the end of the day we’re not going to store away those last wonderful hydrocarbons for future medical or food or life-saving purposes, they will just go into the gasoline tanks of the extremely wealthy. If that’s the case, I think we as a society should decide to keep them in the ground.

Tar sands (oil sands) (Newt didn’t mentioned this, but as long as I’m rambling…).

It is true that producing syncrude from tar sands (which is what Canada has so much of) is economically viable with crude prices where they are. EROI is between 5:1 and 6:1 according to most research. But producing it requires lots of natural gas and water (both will quickly become limiting factors in large-scale production), and it is *very* damaging to the environment (Canadians are increasingly calling for a stop to tar sands extraction, though I don’t think they have much of a chance there). Right now it looks like tar sands will be a small, very messy energy supplement, not a major source.

Here’s Al Gore on getting oil from the tar sands of Canada (Rolling Stone, July 2006):

For every barrel of oil they extract there, they have to use enough natural gas to heat a family’s home for four days. And they have to tear up four tons of landscape, all for one barrel of oil. It is truly nuts. But you know, junkies find veins in their toes. It seems reasonable, to them, because they’ve lost sight of the rest of their lives.

Big idea 3: Maximize use of alternative fuels.

Cool-o technology solutions (trash into fuel, etc.).

Good luck. I don’t have a lot of faith in these efforts. And as far as clever ways to manufacture syncrude, my enthusiasm is tempered by the realization that we are only doing our best to ensure that we cross a tipping point beyond which climate change is irreversible. Excellent.


I generally agree that nuclear will be important in the next few decades, but remember two things: 1) New capacity takes something like 10 – 20 years to come online, and 2) Uranium supplies look like they are going to peak soon too.

Newt is correct that nuclear is a ‘steady state’ (i.e., constant) source of power (as opposed to, say, wind or solar), but his comments about using excess in off hours to create hydrogen for energy storage implies that we will *have an excess* of electrical power. I seriously doubt that will be the case.

Newt is right that a transition to alternative energy is a huge, huge undertaking. My sense is that the energy crunch in the near term is going to hurt the US and global economies enough so that we may not make that massive transition before permanently ‘powering down’. But powering down may not be a bad thing. For one, it just may keep carbon emissions low enough to avoid crossing an environmental tipping point beyond which severe climate changes make things get very ugly. Though we may already be too late for that.

Or in powering down we may rely too much on coal, which may be the worst-case scenario.

Ugh. I dunno.

Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Peak Oil28 Jun 2008 02:20 pm

I’ve heard it said that the cheapest energy is that which you don’t consume at all (or something to that effect). Indeed, better than using energy efficient household devices is not using the devices at all.

This spring I decided to try some sun-blocking window screens for our house. These screens are denser than ordinary window screens, and claim to block far more energy from entering the house (clearly it is better to block it before it enters the house, rather than afterwards, as happens with interior blinds).

Early this year I bought a big roll of the stuff, enough to replace most of the window screens on the house (cost was $165).1 Over several weekends I replaced our conventional window screen (in the winter I take the screens off altogether, to allow in as much sun as possible).

Here’s a pic of the heavy stuff (right) compared to regular screen (left):

Conventional and Sun-blocking screen

How’s it going? Well this wasn’t a properly designed scientific experiment  ;-)   but so far so good. We also changed windows and siding last year, and I hadn’t taken data before the change, so I don’t know just how much improvement is due to the new screens. But as of now we’ve had a number of days in the 95 to 100 degree (F) range, and we haven’t felt the need to turn on the A/C yet.

When it is hot we run a whole house fan for half an hour or so in the morning to get as cool as possible, then close up all the windows for the day. On these hottest of days it gets up to about 81 deg downstairs (where we spend most of our time), and about 84 deg upstairs; we run a few ceiling fans as desired, and we’re fine with those conditions. Then in the late evening after it has cooled down again, the whole house fan comes on for an hour or two.

Last summer (before all our changes) we avoided the A/C most of the time, but IIRC it was running at least part of the day when it got above 90 or so.

Qualitatively, this heavy screen clearly does block quite a bit of heat. If you put your hand in front of a window with no screen, conventional screen, and uber-screen, the difference is immediately noticeable. Conventional screen does block some sun, but the heavy stuff almost feels like you aren’t in front of a window at all. You can get a sense of this from the following pic:

 Sun through conventional and sun-blocking screen

In the foreground the conventional screen of the sliding glass door is partly open. In the background, the windows have the heavy screen, and very little light comes through. [That it also blocks a fair bit of light isn't ideal, but is a price worth paying for keeping the house cooler.]

Here’s to simple, low-tech approaches to energy conservation!

1I got our screen from Arizona Sun Supply (the 80% line). It seems to be high quality, and their service was fine.

Biking and Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Peak Oil22 May 2008 08:30 pm

My daily bike commute takes me from the W&OD biking / walking trail to Pacific Ave. To get from trail to street I have to cross a BMW dealership. For a long time, this didn’t present much of a challenge — I just rode along the big grass patch next to their parking lot.

A few weeks ago, however, the dealership lot started overflowing and they began parking cars up on the grass where I ride. It certainly makes the trip a bit more interesting, having to worry about slipping (on wet grass or muddy track) into a fairly expensive car  :-/

I assume their overflowing inventory is due to decreasing sales (though I have no data to back that up). It wouldn’t be surprising, since you have to question the wisdom of buying a new car at this point in history. The end of the age of oil appears to be upon us, and gasoline prices are likely to be bouncing around — but generally heading upwards — for quite some time. You especially have to question the wisdom of purchasing a new car (or truck, or SUV) that isn’t particularly fuel efficient.

If I had to replace my car right now, I’d be looking around for a small, cheap beater that I could run into the ground over the next several years… or maybe a scooter. I certainly wouldn’t be in the market for something that is likely to be a super-expensive, over-sized paperweight in 5 or 10 years.

Biking and Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Life and Peak Oil17 Apr 2008 11:02 pm


Street Smarts

To the woman in the big black pickup truck who, when passing me on my way home from work today, shouted at me to “Ride on the sidewalk!”:

I tried to catch up to you at the next light so I could explain a few things, but by the time I got there the light had changed and you were gone. So here goes…

As a bicyclist I have the same right to the road that you have. In fact, if I need to take the entire lane for reasons of safety, I am legally entitled to do so. You cannot force me to ride on the sidewalk any more than I can force you to ride a bike.

That said, I’m a nice guy and I try to stay to the right side of the road so that motorists can pass me. But I won’t ride on the shoulder, I won’t hug the cars parked along the side of the road, and I won’t swerve off of and back onto the road every time there’s a break in parked cars. Here’s why:

1. One of the leading types of accidents for bicyclists is when a driver in a car parked on the side of the road opens her door into the path of a cyclist coming from the rear. Any bicyclist who knows how to ride safely will stay about three feet from cars parked on the side of the road.
2. Another common accident for bicyclists is not being seen by a motorist backing out of a driveway or pulling out onto the road from the right. I need to stay a bit in the lane to make sure these guys can see me.
3. If I swerve off and back onto the road whenever there is the opportunity to do so, I increase my chance of surprising an overtaking motorist, and I endanger everyone on the road (because motorists don’t know what to expect of me). On the other hand, if I consistently take the rightmost foot or two of the traffic lane, everyone on the road knows what to expect and how to proceed safely.
4. Whether you are in a car or on a bike, getting a flat is a complete pain in the ass. So I will generally try to avoid riding through debris on the side of the road (much the same as you will try to steer around broken glass in your truck).

The bottom line is that on a one lane road you may be stuck behind me for a short while until conditions are safe to pass. I try to make it as easy as possible for you to get by me, but given a choice between my safety and five or ten seconds of your time, the former trumps the latter (both legally and ethically).

Have a good trip home, and in a few years when you cannot afford the petrol to power your oversized, gas-guzzling truck, I look forward to biking alongside you down the road.

If you’d like to read some more, here are two good resources. And if you want insight into why I ride to work in the first place, check out this older post.

Note (5/22/08): This post was updated to reflect the fact that bicyclists are allowed to ride on the sidewalk in Loudoun County, as long as they slow down for pedestrians. The original version of this post erroneously stated that bicyclists here were required to ride in the road (as they are in some other counties in VA). My bad…

« Previous PageNext Page »