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Archive for July 2011

56 mpg? Impossible!

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The debt ceiling is a big fiasco. But other things are going on in the world of US Government. One issue is the proposed increased in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards being pushed by the Obama Administration. The current standard is 34.2 mpg which became the rule in 2009. The new CAFE standard sought by the President would be  in the mid-50s mpg by the year 2025. (I’ve seen a few different numbers for the actual standard, but it ranges right around 54-56).  Since climate change is going to be cause serious harm in the next century, tackling the sources of GHG emissions must happen now. And cars are among our most serious GHG problems.

Naturally, this is causing disdain among many anti-regulation conservatives and consternation among all of the nations auto companies–whose general reaction to any change regarding cars is consternation. It is also being praised by environmental groups and tech-based innovation folks. This is no surprise and is certainly not news. It’s also worth noting that the United Auto Workers support the increase.

Today, I had to read the editorial from Reason.com (Free Minds and Free Markets) written by Shikha Dalmia, titled: The Coming Autopocalypse.* In the piece, Dalmia essentially claims that the auto industry CAN NOT meet these demands, and trying will result in many deaths, lost jobs, wasted money, government bailouts, etc. That might be the case if we continue to seek mpg increases by decreasing auto size (the standard method is to reduce vehicle size and weight).

But Dalmia, in explaining how 56mpg could never be a reality, makes this claim: “The 56-mpg-mandate will require a total, top-to-bottom overhaul of cars. Every part of a vehicle from its transmission to its engine would have to be replaced.”

When I read that, I wanted to say to Dalmia: Yes, this is true. Everything about cars IS going to have to change. Exactly. Spot-on. This is what we need to do if we are going to continue to rely on the single-occupancy vehicle. And we are going to continue our love affair with cars. So what are we going to do? Well, the author seems to know where we should start.

Earlier in the article, Dalmia writes: “Not a single car—big or small, hybrid or non-hybrid—currently delivers this kind of mileage (with the exception of electrics).” Again, exactly. What to Dalmia is just a parenthetical is likely the near-term answer**.

I’m not sure what the best way to go to about re-hauling the American vehicle is, be it CAFE standards, or some other regulatory mechanism, or just letting the auto companies deal with the issue, but it seemed worth addressing the fact that, what Dalmia finds to be the problem-everything must change-might actually be the solution.

*Can we please ban the use of “pocalypse” or “mageddon” as an addition to anything someone might not like? You may not like debt, or increased fuel efficiency, or snow, but it will likely not result in something equivalent to, you know, the apocalypse.

**To which one might say: But where can I charge an electric vehicle in this country? Well, by the end of 2011, you can go to one of the 800 Walgreens that will have EV charging stations. That is a remarkable commitment. I might just have to break something so I can get a prescription filled by my local Walgreens.

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Written by Christopher ZF

July 28, 2011 at 15:21

Medieval Literature jokes never go out of style.

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A new, Hollywood ending has been written for the classic story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It turns out, Sir Gawain crucified the big green fellow on an electrical distribution line. Alas.

From Boing Boing. Vine on Pole Resembles Jesus on Cross

Written by Christopher ZF

July 27, 2011 at 12:54

Protecting Minnesota’s Waters Once More

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I wrote this editorial on sulfide mining last year while in Montana, but unfortunately its wisdom has not yet convinced everyone to stop everything. Today, Don Shelby writes that the former BP CEO Tony Hayward, famous for being terribly insensitive during the worst ecological disaster in US history, has been hired to oversee environment and safety on the new sulfide mining project in northern MN. So I thought I’d try again.

Protecting Minnesota’s Waters Once More:

Minnesota has shown its commitment to clean water. We recognize the importance of protecting our natural resources, and as a result passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to honor and value our waters and wetlands. Our vote to protect our waters passed, but in response, our legislators are finding new ways to harm that which we have voiced a desire to protect. The most serious of these threats regards sulfate contamination and mining.

Several companies, the furthest along of which is the PolyMet Mining Corporation, now propose to open sulfide mines—metal extraction from rocks embedded with sulfide bearing ores—throughout the Arrowhead. Such mines would be the first of the kind in our state. Long have iron ore mines operated in the region, but sulfide mining presents a much more serious problem than rust. Sulfide mining means sulfuric acid and damage to aquatic ecosystems and wildlife–especially our state’s wild rice–as well as pollution of drinking and recreational waters.

Despite the water protections in Minnesota and the assurances of these companies, this pollution will find its way into the natural systems. It always does. It has happened in New Mexico, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota and elsewhere. The examples are readily available, yet we continue along a path that will lead to the contamination of the very resources we have declared our intent to protect.  It would be devastating, for example, to see the mistakes of the Brohm Mine of Deadwood, South Dakota reoccur in Minnesota’s beloved Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest.

After a year of operation, the Brohm mine was ordered by the state of South Dakota to cease its operation due to major cyanide leaks. It was eventually permitted to reopen and spent a decade spilling sulfuric acid into nearby waters. When the location was mined out, the operation closed. S.D. Gov. Bill Janklow sought to hold Dakota Mining financially responsible for cleaning up their mess.  The company’s president, Alan Bell, filed for bankruptcy and avoided any cost to the company for cleanup. The Brohm mine is now a Superfund site, and taxpayers across the U.S. are paying the bill. Shortly after the bankruptcy, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Bell was appointed to board of the Polymet Mining Corporation.

Residents, especially our legislators, should find little common ground in the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment Minnesota has adopted, and these proposed sulfide mines. The citizens of Minnesota have shown we are willing to look beyond ourselves for the good of our state and the future. Minnesota’s government must do the same and keep the terrible legacy of sulfide mining from tarnishing our state.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 26, 2011 at 11:15

The odd circumstance of Debt Ceiling negotiations

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It seems to TRC that the debt ceiling talks are taking a very unusual pattern of negotiating. A normal negotiation would start with two parties staking out claims that are far apart from one another. Each side has a list of negotiating tools, and those things are slowly whittled away until a couple of the things that each side can live with remain, and a compromise is reached. This could be visualized like this:


This does not seem to reflect the debt ceiling negotiations. Here, both sides staked out their positions and made their list of priorities. Then President Obama moved directly to the middle and offered what by many accounts was a very good deal for the Republicans. This was rejected by the Republicans, and ever since things got very strange. Because negotiating ceased. What resulted was the Democrats giving up more and more of their priorities, while the Republicans moved further and further away from their original position.  This looks more like this:

So, what’s going on here? Since when can anything that looks like the bottom be considered negotiations? Turns out it is not negotiating. Because the GOP must work with the Tea Party, and the Tea Party does not want to negotiate with the President. Compromising with the Enemy is a sign of weakness. And yes, President Obama is the capital-E Enemy. Glenn Thrush at Politico gets at the problem: “There’s no guarantee Boehner can get anything through his conference, so skeptical are rank-and-file members of anything Obama could possibly approve.”

Is that where we are now? Where any kind of agreement is a sign of not good enough. If the GOP makes an offer, and Obama takes that offer, well then, it must not have been asking for enough cuts, enough sacred cows, enough hardship for the President. Whatever he will agree to, the Tea Party must have more.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 25, 2011 at 14:43

Earnestness is more fun than cynicism

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Here’s a way to make life more enjoyable: Experience things earnestly and with seriousness, even the silly things, rather than being cynical and filled with negativity.

This post is not about politics, and the potential impending doom of our economy and its credit rating. It’s not about NASA or physics or evolution and the dismal state of Science in the United States, nor any of the things TRC makes a habit ranting about. It is about Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 was released last week. You probably heard. And for me and mine, the release of HP 7.2 was a big deal. It was the culmination of 10 years of fandom and enjoyment and wonder. 10 years of overly intricate discussions about how the world of Harry Potter works, what it means to acknowledge the gravity of a child carrying the fate of the world, what character one would be and why (Neville, obviously), what spell one would use at work or in school if one could (muffliato, of course), and what it means to have evil battle good. To ask ourselves to sacrifice for the greater cause, and what it means to be put in (hypothetical) situations that ask us to give it all up for the friends we love.  This has been my earnest experience of Harry Potter for the past decade.

And I’m grateful for J.K. Rowling and the makers of the Harry Potter films for providing those ten years of absolute joy. (I say 10 knowing Potter actually arrived in the world 14 years ago, but it was not until the first film that I came aboard) . It comes up because now the films are over, the books are written, and no new Potter material will (maybe) be produced and I feel like expressing my appreciation. The cynics have had their say for all these years, but the Potter machine rolled on, and the experience for those of us who chose it was riveting.

There were the literary critics who have spent their hours mocking the books, berating a literary culture where Rowling could have the success she has with such minimal talent. Those of this ilk are always ready to throw cold water over those unwashed readers who love to escape with the ease and fascination of young adult fiction. It seems for many critical literary individuals, Harry Potter reached such heights of popularity that it actually posed a threat to great fiction.

There were those in the Christian Church have worked tirelessly to warn the world of the dangers of witchcraft and the temptations of Satan that are present in the texts, as though children (and adults) lack the imagination to separate the wizarding world of the Durselys and Hogwarts from their world of school and parents.

And there are the hipsters and the keepers of the cool who have always turned their nose up at the pulp and baseness of Rowling’s talents and the eagerness and earnestness with which some of us embraced it.

Cynically, people mocked those who love to escape into the make-believe and spend their lives talking about it. Instead some of these individuals spend their time belittling those who get wrapped up in the silliness, putting down those of us who loved to pick up Potter.

Of course, these are not all people. Millions (and millions and millions) of people around the world-literary critics, conservative Christians and hipster elitists among us-loved and adored the Potter world, and Harry and Ron and Hermione and their journey to defeated He Who Shall Not Be Named.  We ate it up for 10 years or more because taking things up with love is more exciting than putting things down.  This is a change for me. The naysayer of Potter and other pop-culture swill was the role I played for many years. And, at least in part, Harry Potter is among the reasons this started to change.

So for that, I want to say thanks to Harry and his friends. Because it truly is more fun to love something silly, than to be a cynic in the face of something that actually worth the effort.

That’s all. Back to politics, science, and seriousness of the real world.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 24, 2011 at 23:25

Order 1000 voted on by FERC, didn’t you hear?

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Here’s some encouraging news you probably didn’t hear about. The FERC passed order 1000 yesterday, amending and reforming cost allocation methodology for interstate and regional transmission build-out.

Didn’t you hear? Probably not, unless you are a part of the energy and electricity world. Well, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a ruling yesterday that provides a big boost to potential renewable energy development in the United States.

TRC will avoid the technical details, which are essentially everything, but broadly speaking, the rule’s purpose is to create regional guidelines and cost-allocation methods for future build-out of the electrical transmission system. By requiring utilities and transmission providers to consider regional planning processes, as well as state and federal public policy requirements (i.e. renewable portfolio standards), the ruling aims, very obviously, to encourage renewable energy development. Which is a positive result, since adding  megawatts of renewable energy to the grid displaces megawatts of fossil fuels, no matter what the junk science out there says.

The electrical grid in this nation is very old, poorly connected, and maxed out on dirty electrons, making wind and solar development more and more difficult every passing year. Our grid is in a bottle neck: there are great quantities of renewable energy waiting to be developed but no way to send that energy anywhere.

The local nature of the electricity system in the US simply does not work in the 21st century. Occasional piecemeal build-outs needed to support old generators connected to old substations connected to old transmission lines connected to old distribution lines should be the way of the past.

Now, with FERC’s  interstate, regional transmission guidelines and an outline for how those interstate lines should be paid for, new renewable development will (siting and permitting problems not withstanding) be capable of bringing green electrons from the renewable energy zones of rural America to the load centers of urban America.  That is what new transmission should be for. Period. Hopefully the nations utilities and transmission providers comply.

Want to learn more about our electrical grid? Here is a fun map. And here. And here is a good primer.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 22, 2011 at 14:28

No More Sailing on the New Ocean

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Early this morning the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth. It won’t fly again. The era of the shuttle is over, in America, and it is mourned at TRC. But we are optimistic that another program will come, that manned space flight in the United States will return, and we will put ourselves even farther beyond the earth than we already have. The future of Americans in space is hidden for now. But it won’t be forever.

Below a NASA photo of Atlantis touching down at 5:57 am this morning, ending the 30 year shuttle program at NASA.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 21, 2011 at 10:01

Posted in NASA, Space Exploration