Environment & the World

Thursday, January 25, 2007

State of the Union ’07 & Energy

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:21 pm

I thought it would be worth discussing the President’s take on energy and the environment in his State of the Union speech. Here’s the relevant portion of his speech:

“Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America’s economy running and America’s environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists — who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.

“It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — (applause) — using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

“We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we’ve done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

“To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

“Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

“America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. (Applause.)”

Watching the live delivery and generous applause during this section of the speech was more exciting than processing it and reading all the reactions.

Notable:
-Recognizing “global climate change” and the need to confront it.
-Reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
-Reducing gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.
-Strengthening fuel economy standards.
-Supporting more ethanol, hybrid technology, wind and solar power.

Sticky:
-Clean coal, clean diesel
-Nuclear power
-Doubling capacity of Strategic Petroleum Reserve
-“Alternative fuels” (coal to gas?)
-Not enough decisive action

Some reactions:
The Sierra Club is unimpressed.

 The Union of Concerned Scientists supports the fuel economy proposals, but remains cautious and says more needs to be done to address global warming.

Steven Mufson at the Washington Post and Dave Roberts at Grist examine the energy proposals from the State of the Union ’07 point by point leaving us with little for which to cheer.

With the President increasingly supporting some political action on energy issues and a Democratic majority in Congress there is still a possibility for some positive developments. With the Democrats largely eager to push for progressive energy policies they might meet the President half way this year and finally get something done.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lingering questions about Chp. 2

Filed under: Economics, Reading Group, Transportation — kwolfgan @ 5:51 pm

After all that, I have a few lingering questions (some of them rhetorical, some very serious) about Chapter 2:

1. How will price and availability of hypercars compare to old clunkers like my 1989 Isuzu Trooper?
2. If and when we scrap the old clunkers, what happens to the parts if hypercar materials aren’t remotely related to the old components?
3. Where does carbon fiber come from, anyway?
4. If the transition to hypercars and more integrated communities could happen without new taxes, new standards, or a significant increase in oil prices (26), what exactly is standing in the way of transitioning now? And how can we get around it?

Natural Capitalism, Chp. 2: Karen’s comments

Filed under: Economics, Reading Group, Transportation — kwolfgan @ 5:47 pm

My dad went down to the local Honda dealership a few weeks ago and told the sales associate that he wanted to be first in line for an FCX hydrogen fuel cell car. The Honda sales associate didn’t know what my dad was talking about, so he called in the sales manager; the sales manager said that the FCX wouldn’t roll out till 2008, and even then the vehicles will only be available for lease—they won’t be in full production till 2018. But Dad reiterated his request, and at this point is planning to lease the first publicly available burgundy FCX in the Portland area. I don’t know whether or when that will come to pass, but I do know that my dad is doing his part (through subsequent e-mails to the sales manager and anticipated weekly visits to the dealership) to increase consumer demand for fuel cell cars.

Now, my dad is by no means an environmentalist—for example, he is still not convinced that global warming is a problem. He figures that as soon as he gets his FCX, someone will complain that he is making too much water, and that creates clouds and rain, and that changes weather patterns and causes the sea levels to rise, and that’s bad. Dad got the idea to pre-order a Honda FCX from a listserv he belongs to about innovations in fuel cell technology; the e-mail indicated that the arrangement for the fuel cells used in the Honda concept car had recently been turned around (horizontal → vertical) and that had made the vehicles much more efficient and taken them one step closer to commercial viability. But despite likely ideological differences, Dad heartily agrees with H & the Ls: for years, without ever having read Natural Capitalism, he has been saying that regulatory mandates are not driving innovation (22), and if the U.S. government really wanted to end dependence on foreign oil and make this country the leader in clean energy technology, they would put up a cash prize for the first group of people to design a commercially viable clean car.

As H & the Ls point out, the technology necessary for a total transportation/societal revolution exists—and has existed for quite some time. Getting it on the market on any scale is a matter of time. But it’s also a matter of will: it is going to take a lot more time if the will (politically and among consumers) is perceived to be lacking. I am not aware that anyone else in my acquaintance has been as proactive as my father in terms of demonstrating from the consumer end that people do actually want innovation. I, for example, have hung onto my 1989 Isuzu Trooper through thousands of dollars of maintenance because I cannot afford a Honda hybrid and I feel like junking a car has its own set of environmental…issues. I have not visited a dealership. I have not been agitating for a cost-effective car alternative, just riding my bike and the bus a lot more, complaining all the while about the high price of public transit and TriMet’s ill-conceived expansion plans.

But big changes happen by way of seemingly small decisions. For instance, my experiences in public schools, alternative programs, and private (higher ed) classrooms suggests that when a commitment is made to the students—to fostering relationships, figuring out what they’re good at and developing their skills in those areas, and providing consistent encouragement—learners blossom. Even absent district- or school-wide support, teachers can make that kind of change happen: they can ensure that on the ground a healthy learning environment exists. It frustrates me—as a substitute paraeducator (classroom assistant for special ed kids) in the Portland Public Schools, as a tutor, as an instructor in an outdoor classroom—that not all teachers are able (for whatever reason(s)) to foster a classroom environment of this sort. But I know that it can be done. Maybe it happens in only a small percentage of classrooms, and maybe certain administrative structures are more conducive to making it happen than others; but even under conditions of severe budget shortfall, when more kids than any adult can keep track of are packed into a classroom, some teachers make it work. And what’s more, when those decisions are made, consciously or unconsciously, change moves outward and the school culture changes. It takes time, but it happens.

I use the above close-to-home examples to illustrate the importance of working for change on a small scale. H & the Ls are more policy-focused, as anyone thinking about these issues on a large scale has to be. But even people who aren’t thinking about these issues in the same way are starting to get it, and change things on their own scale. My dad has been telling neighbors and friends about the car he’s going to get; he’ll need to tell those able to buy into the hydrogen car market as soon as it exists to, in the meantime, make their own trips to Honda and do their part to push the fuel cell market forward in PDX. If teachers can make their classrooms work for kids without waiting for an entire district or school system to change, we can make our communities support alternatives without waiting for the federal government to change CAFE standards.

So, changes can happen on the small scale in spite of systemic stagnation. But at the same time more people making their classrooms work (so to speak) makes the district function better, the better a district functions, the better teachers can make their classrooms work. So, I should complement my persistent focus on the small-scale by saying that I do recognize the necessity of large-scale thought and action. I just want to make sure that everyone is doing everything they can, on every scale, to make something like H & the Ls’ vision a reality.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Ch. 2

Filed under: Energy, Oil, Reading Group, Transportation — Cathy @ 11:14 am

There’s way too much in this chapter for me to do justice to in one post.  To give a quick summary of the main ideas, H&L first point out the major inefficiencies of the current automotive industry and then propose their natural capitalism-based solution, the “hypercar” which is significantly more efficient (80-200 mpg) and also leads to a significant reduction in the materials needed in the manufacturing process, while also catalyzing the switch to a fuel cell-based electricity generation system.  They then go on to discuss the problem that hypercars can’t solve: “too much driving by too many people in too many cars.”  They do propose some interesting policy ideas for dealing with this problem, including various methods for encouraging public transit (e.g. having employers charge a yearly parking fee, paying their employees the same amount every year, and letting them pocket the difference if they can find a cheaper way to get to work).

The two key components of the hypercar are its ultra-light weight and its hybrid engine, which H&L predict would evolve into a fuel cell. The hypercar would weigh 2-3 times less than a normal car, by taking advantage of light-weight carbon composites, rather than steel.  This light weight translates into much larger gains in energy efficiency, because, as H&L point out, most of a car’s power goes into moving the car, not the driver.  With an ultra lightweight car body, other components (such as the suspension, engine, etc) can also be smaller and lighter, compounding the efficiency gains.  The reductions in materials use achieved by a hypercar are quite staggering: “92% less iron and steel, 1/3 less aluminum, 3/5 less rubber, and up to 4/5 less platinum.”

They then present a rosy view of the hydrogen economy.  They suggest that fuel cells could be made commercial by widespread deployment in stationary applications, i.e. buildings.  As with other distributed generation systems, this could ultimately be cheaper than constructing new large centralized power plants.  But the key question of course, is where to get the hydrogen for the building and hypercar fuel cells.  Initially they suggest reforming natural gas and sequestering the carbon produced in this process.  Again they are a little vague on the timing of this; from other sources I’ve heard, it sounds like fuel cells won’t be commercially available in the price range they need for hypercars for another 20 years or so.

Unfortunately this is one chapter where the age of the book (1999) starts to show.  I wonder if H&L would be as optimistic about the power of “advanced technology, customer demands, competition, and entrepreneurship” to re-shape the auto industry if they were writing the book today.  In this chapter they mention that the president of Toyota in 1997 “predicted hybrid-electric cars would capture one-third of the world car market by 2005.”  H&L further report that “by the spring of 1998, at least 5 automakers were planning imminent volume
production of cars in the 80 mpg range.”  What happened?  H&L seemed to have neglected the large factor that consumer demand plays in moving a giant and reactionary industry like the automotive industry. It appears that Americans’ love of SUVs can only be curbed by high oil prices, not by more efficient vehicles alone.  Also, the cultural and educational difficulty of convincing the public that an ultra lightweight car is just as safe as an SUV may prove a major hurdle. Instead of H&L’s optimistic view that the “strategic advantages … of saving oil, protecting the climate, and strengthening the economy may justify giving automakers strong incentives to pursue their introduction into the marketplace even more aggressively”, we are still stuck with a government that is too timid to raise the CAFE standards.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Public Transportation in France

Filed under: Transportation — Cathy @ 1:17 am

In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about the advantages of “bus rapid transit” systems, which, if properly designed, can greatly enhance urban mobility at a fraction of the cost of traditional subway systems.  It seems that many French cities are now becoming interested in the idea of surface public transportation – not buses, but trams (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,454517,00.html).  Paris recently unveiled its new tram line, which will carry almost twice as many people every day as the local buses.  Despite the fact that only about 28% of Parisians own cars, the city’s streets are still overcrowded, with an average speed of only 10 mph in the downtown areas.

Already six other French cities have modern tram lines and 3 more cities plan to build them next year.
 

In an interesting twist, not only do the trams make public transportation more convenient, but they also make private transportation less convenient.  One lane of road has been converted to tracks for the train, and traffic lights have been set to give the trams an automatic right-of-way so they never have to brake for red lights.
It would be interesting to understand why the French have chosen to go the tram route rather than making significant improvements to their bus system.  The capital investment for a bus system would be cheaper because there is no need to install rails.  Moreover, the same policies that favor trams – creating designated lanes and setting traffic lights to always give the right-of-way to public transit – could also be applied to buses. Perhaps the impetus for trams is to restore and modernize a historically popular mode of transportation.   After all, streetcars were the first form of urban public transportation, with their use in France dating back to 1853.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

2006 Gas Mileage: U.S. Still Fails

Filed under: Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:16 pm

The EPA and Dept. of Energy yesterday released gas mileage stats for 2007 model vehicles, giving us yet another opportunity to reflect upon the sad state of our nation’s fuel economy. Before delving into the depressing details, here’s the better side of things: the EPA’s top 10 Fuel Economy leaders for 2007.

Rank          Manufacturer/Model                MPG
                                                             city/highway

1              Toyota Prius (hybrid-electric)      60/51
2              Honda Civic Hybrid                      49/51
3              Toyota Camry Hybrid                  40/38
4              Ford Escape Hybrid FWD             36/31
5              Toyota Yaris (manual)                34/40
6              Toyota Yaris (automatic)            34/39
7              Honda Fit (manual)                    33/38
8              Toyota Corolla (manual)             32/41
9              Hyundai Accent (manual)            32/35    
                Kia Rio (manual)                          32/35 
10            Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD              32/29
                Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD      32/29

Source: http://www.epa.gov/fueleconomy/overall-high.htm

While some of us would probably prefer to walk, bike, or take public transportation over driving all the time, we realize that the former are not always possible and therefore applaud Toyota and Honda for bringing to the market cars that can surpass 50 miles per gallon. The rest of the cars in the top 10 also deserve credit, even though the list leaves something to be desired. In an age of complicated petropolitics, rising gas prices, and increasing oil scarcity shouldn’t the top 10 most fuel efficient cars, at the very least, all top 40 miles per gallon? And shouldn’t the best of the best start to approach 100 mpg?

This past July the EPA released a report on fuel economy trends since 1975 which wasn’t exactly full of good news. The estimated national average gas mileage for 2006 was an unimpressive 21.0mpg. Mind you, “This average is the same as last year and in the middle of the 20.6 to 21.4 mpg range that has occurred for the past fifteen years, and five percent below the 1987 to 1988 peak of 22.1 mpg.”

Despite all the technological advances, 20 years have passed since the US reached peak fuel economy, and we can’t even match that level. Shame on us! We now have hybrids, cars that can run on biodiesel and ethanol, and BMW will soon introduce a hydrogen car, but as a nation we’re still guzzling more gas and doing so less efficiently than we did in 1987. For a nation that is bemoaning higher gas prices and whose gas money has financed (and still does) nations that are overtly hostile to it, our behavior is extremely hypocritical.

Aside from financially and politically hurting ourselves, we have also failed to meet our own standards. In 1975 Congress passed legislation that created the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The goal was to double car fuel economy by 1985. That goal was 27.5 mpg. Not only did we fail to reach it in 1985 (remember, peak fuel economy was reached in 1987 at 22.1mpg), more than 30 years after the passage of that legislation and 20 years after our own missed deadline we have still failed ourselves.

Breaking down the 2006 21.0 mpg statistic into its components, we can see what the real culprits are. From the EPA report, “For model year 2006, cars are estimated to average 24.6 mpg, vans 20.6 mpg, SUVs 18.5 mpg, and pickups 17.0 mpg. The increased market share of light trucks, which in recent years have averaged more than six mpg less than cars, accounted for much of the decline in fuel economy of the overall new light-duty vehicle fleet from the peak that occurred in 1987-88.”

We can only blame SUVs, vans, and pickups so much though. Today, thirty years after CAFE, at 24.6 mpg our smaller, lighter, and more fuel-efficient cars have still failed to reach our own gas mileage standards.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Sustainable Urban Transportation

Filed under: China, Transportation — Cathy @ 11:25 am

In my last post, I talked about my own experiences with Beijing’s various means of transportation and concluded that biking could compete fairly well with buses, subway, and cars (and, factoring in the exercise benefits, it’s now my preferred means of transportation).   Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that Beijing has some serious urban transportation problems if biking can compete with other modes of transportation in terms of convenience, at least at certain hours of the day.   But I am somewhat hopeful because the city appears to be moving in the right direction.  A new subway line is being built.   And, as it turns out, a major road near my university is experimenting with designated bus lanes.  Talking to another student, I found that this is a relatively recent development and she thought that this was the only street in Beijing with designated bus lanes.  However, if it works out, hopefully the concept will expand.

My two favorite models for sustainable urban transportation are both in Latin America: Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia.   Curitiba really pioneered the “bus rapid transit” concept in the 1970s – and, importantly, the far-sighted city planners integrated this concept into the design of the city.  So today Curitiba has achieved one of the best public transportation systems in the world, at the fraction of the cost of an underground subway.

Bogota’s foray into sustainable urban transportation is more recent, within the last 10 years or so.  From 1995-2000, Bogota had two far-sighted mayors who paid significant attention to the urban transit problem.  Bogota built it’s own bus rapid transit system within the last ten years.   Part of the financing for this and other public transportation improvements came from a large increase (from 14% to 20%) in the gasoline tax.  Bogota has also encouraged the use of bicycles by building 270 km of bike paths through the city.   And the use of cars has been actively discouraged:

“The Penalosa administration outlined a clear position regarding private automobiles; it regarded them as “the worst threat to quality of life of this city.” One of Mayor Penalosa’s main aims was to get automobile drivers and riders to use public transport. The “pico y placa” program considerably reduced congestion at peak times with a 40% reduction in private automobile use. Twice a week, private automobiles were prohibited from circulating: license plates ending in 1, 2, 3, and 4 were prohibited to circulate on Monday; 5, 6, 7, and 8 on Tuesday; 9, 0, 1, and 2 on Wednesday; 3, 4, 5, and 6 on Thursday; and 7, 8, 9, and 0 on Friday.”

( http://www.globalurban.org/Issue1PIMag05/Montezuma%20article.htm )

I think Bogota is more similar to Beijing, at least to the extent that the city was designed before sustainable transportation became a concern.   Adapting some of Bogota’s policies would be the best way to improve public transit in Beijing.  Although I am glad to see Beijing experimenting with designated bus lanes, a serious push towards bus rapid transit could make a huge improvement.   Beijing could also do a lot to make bike riding more pleasant – bike paths or more tree-lined streets would be most welcome.  As for the concept of a campaign against cars, similar to that of Bogota, it would take a serious educational campaign on the part of the government because the idea of getting rich and buying a car is so ingrained into people’s conceptions of a better life.   However, Bogota faced the same problem:

“Recent educational campaigns to change this perception have had important effects and must be continued to reach more of the population … When Mayor Penalosa and members of his administration periodically rode bicycles to work, they helped to de-stigmatize the bicycle to a large degree.”

 ( http://www.globalurban.org/Issue1PIMag05/Montezuma%20article.htm )

In short, there is no simple fix to Beijing’s transportation problems.  Subway, bus rapid transit, and improved biking facilities are all needed.  And at some point, hopefully soon, the city will have to understand that the American way of everyone owning their own car is not necessarily the best way for Beijing – nor is it for America, either.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Biking in Beijing

Filed under: China, Transportation — Cathy @ 3:50 pm

Having now spent a few weeks in Beijing, I’ve learned that its public transportation system leaves something to be desired.  In the United States, I am mainly familiar with the mass transit systems in Washington DC and New York, so when I arrived in Beijing I assumed that I would primarily be using the subway to get around.  Beijing’s subway is actually extremely nice; in terms of cleanliness, I rate it higher than New York.  For an American, it’s also quite cheap (less than a dollar to get to any stop in the city).  And, unlike in Washington DC, it costs the same amount to get anywhere within the inner city; DC’s subway charges different fares depending on how far you go, which can be unfair to poor people who have a long commute to their work.  The problem is that the subway system just isn’t that big.  Tsinghua University, where I live, is very close to a subway stop, but I found that I often had to walk for half an hour once I got off of the subway to get to my final destination.

As for buses, Beijing’s bus system is much more extensive and, unlike in most cities I’ve visited in the United States, people really do use the buses.  On the weekends (the only times I’ve traveled by bus), they can be jam packed and you are lucky if you have a square foot to stand on, let alone finding a seat.  But, because there are no designated bus lanes, the buses run into the same traffic jams as cars and taxis.  And there are a lot of traffic jams in Beijing.

I’ve decided now that biking is the best way to get around in Beijing.  Factoring in the time it takes to walk from a subway stop to my final destination, biking is sometimes just as fast as the subway.  And, although I’ve never timed it, I suspect that biking may compare favorably to buses as well.  I’ve certainly enjoyed speeding past long traffic jams on my bike.  Even though Beijing’s traffic is just as crazy as New York’s (if not worse), Beijing is actually more bike-friendly than New York or Washington DC in my opinion.  This is largely because most major roads have designated lanes for bicycles.  Also, there are so many people who get around by bike that cars are very used to looking out for cyclists.  At intersections, there are usually at least 5 cyclists crossing the street at any given time, so the cars basically have to stop for them.  Although I am aware of the statistic that China has 600 biking fatalities a day, I still feel safer biking through Beijing than I would in New York.  (And I suspect that a large factor in that statistic is the fact that nobody wears a helmet.  Even the other foreigners I’ve seen have given up on helmets because they look so out of place.  I’m still wearing mine, so I get plenty of weird looks.)

Even though I prefer biking to other means of transportation, I am probably in the minority.  According to a professor I know who has lived here for the last five years, the number of cars has increased noticeably in that amount of time; cars are a big status symbol here.  This is obviously a serious problem, both in terms of air pollution and traffic jams.  It may soon reach the point where owning a car is just as inconvenient as biking everywhere (actually, it seems to me that it has already reached that point – I would never want to own a car here).  But for the majority of people, it seems that the “status symbol” factor is still overwhelming the inconvenience and air pollution factor.

So clearly Beijing has some serious transportation issues.  In my next post, I’ll try to write more of my thoughts for how Beijing might be able to manage some of these problems.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

BMW to Introduce Hydrogen Fuel Technology

Filed under: Energy, Transportation — amirj @ 7:49 pm

BMW announced yesterday that it will introduce hydrogen fuel technology in its 7-Series car in April 2007. Since hydrogen fueling stations are not yet readily available, the car will actually have two separate fuel tanks to enable it switch between regular gasoline and hydrogen. More is available from this Reuters article, including:

“A spokesman said the car would be leased to selected customers rather than sold because of its high price. Leasing rates would be similar to those for a top-end BMW 760LI with a full-service package.”

The Green Car Congress has also picked up on this story. They provide more interesting information about the car, and there’s a lively debate with a healthy dose of skepticism going on there about the car and the technology. From the GCC:

“BMW Group has given preference to the use of liquid hydrogen as the appropriate source of energy for the automobile…

The cruising range in the hydrogen mode is more than 125 miles (200 km), with another 300 miles (500 km) available in the gasoline mode.”

GCC also explains some of the challenges to using liquid hydrogen (as opposed to gas) as a fuel source. I hope I summarize this correctly, but go over there for the details. For one, hydrogen exists in a liquid state at extremely cold temperatures (around -250°C–you won’t want to be dripping any of that stuff at the fuelling station!). Therefore, the car’s fuel tank must be able to keep the liquid hydrogen very well insulated or else it will boil off. When it boils the vapor pressure in the fuel tank increases, and as the pressure increases some vapor must be let off. So essentially as the fuel sits unused over time you’ll eventually start losing it. In fact, GCC writes,

“The period in which a half-full hydrogen tank will be emptied completely in a controlled process is about 9 days, and even then the car is still able to cover approximately 12 miles (20 kilometers) in the hydrogen mode with the fuel remaining in the tank.” 

So beyond the obvious lack of availability of liquid hydrogen fueling stations, another drawback is the loss of fuel. Also, while the hydrogen engine won’t emit carbon mono-/dioxide, it will still emit nitrogen oxides.

Before launching into any further analysis or criticism, I think it’s worth applauding BMW for taking the first step to realize an environmental goal. The Bush administration and the environmental community have largely hailed a hydrogen economy as THE long-term energy solution, and while much thought has gone into that decision some healthy debate and reality checks won’t hurt.

First of all, the advantages of using hydrogen as an alternative to greenhouse gas emitting fuels would be nullified if our source of hydrogen is fossil fuels. Other lingering issues, some of which may be insignificant or easily overcome: pressure release of hydrogen gas from fuel tanks (loss of purchased fuel), hydrogen flammability, problems with water vapor tail pipe emissions (for example, deposition of water vapor onto roads in the winter could create nightmare driving; water vapor as a greenhouse gas/effects of pumping water vapor into the atmosphere on a large scale)?

All this aside, we still have several good years (decades?) to wait until we really start seeing a robust hydrogen economy. Aside from proving that a hydrogen-fueled car can be a reality, the BMW push does little to make it available on a large scale. The price of the car is prohibitively high, and the car will clearly be marketed to high-end customers. In this sense, the BMW initiative probably won’t do for hydrogen what the Prius did for hybrids.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

British Environmental Awareness

Filed under: Transportation, Uncategorized — amirj @ 1:05 pm

Even though it’s common knowledge that most European countries are more conscious and proactive about solving environmental problems, I was quite impressed to learn first-hand what this actually means during my trip to England. The first thing that struck me was the sheer amount of environmental media coverage. Almost every night  I inevitably ran into some sort of TV program related to environmental issues as I casually flipped channels at the end of the day. In my first few days there alone, I came across shows and news segments about gardening, climate change, energy sources, and waste management.

Public transportation in Britain is quite fantastic, and would be even better if it were more affordable. Comfortable and aesthetic trains connect the major cities and even many small towns. Within cities and small towns buses run quite frequently and provide comprehensive coverage. Thanks to its wonderful grid of public transportation, I could travel around Britain quite easily without a car. Moreover, because the public transportation was so good, taking a taxi even seemed like something of a luxury.

 Despite its frequency and great coverage, getting around Britain isn’t cheap. Car-drivers suffer from high gas prices and a daily tax of 5 pounds to drive within the center of London. Public transportation isn’t always too affordable either. Single fare trips on the London Underground can cost 3 pounds (almost $6)–compare that to a single fare of $2 on the NYC subway–and inter-city train tickets that can cost up to nearly 71 pounds (nearly $140). Regular riders can get cheaper deals in bulk, membership, or buying long-term passes, but this is not practical or possible for everyone.  

Returning to the positive aspects, strolling through the cities and smaller towns, I was also very impressed with their gardening/landscaping ethic. While few people there own as much land attached to their house as an average U.S. suburban family does, many make the most of what they do have by planting beautiful flower patches and shrubs. Parks and green corners within cities also don’t seem uncommon. Despite its urban intensity, London for example boasts many large open spaces: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Hampstead Heath, Regents Park, in addition to many green squares in the city.

 London also boasts a new, “environmentally friendly” sky-scraper built to maximize natural light, reduce its energy demand, and is powered mostly by cleaner natural gas.

 Despite the crummy weather, in Britain people walk to get places. They discuss the environment and even though they’re doing much better than us in the USA, they still seem to beat themselves up over how much more they could do. Cheers, mates.

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