The War on New Mexico’s Water

Not so great news out of New Mexico:

Why, when global warming threatens to make scarce water resources even more elusive, would New Mexico’s regulatory agencies stand idly by and watch extractive industries maneuver to destroy our water? Maybe it’s because the oil and gas industry bought Governor Martinez the Governor’s mansion. Maybe it’s because boards and commissions charged with enacting the regulations governing industrial activities are now stacked with current and former industry employees or people closely associated with industry. Maybe it’s to advance a radical ideology where every person (including corporate persons) are free to pollute the commons in pursuit of a buck. Whatever the reasons, the result is that our Governor has declared war on our water. And with New Mexico regulatory agencies, boards and commissions becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of the industries they regulate, the future of New Mexico’s water looks grim.

Read the whole thing on The Range blog at High Country News. I’ll follow this one and let you know how things turn out.

Edison Had it Right: Save the Light Bulb!

“Edison created a time-tested light bulb that is still the best option for its price,” Brandston said. “Consumer choice is an all-American right. The government has created a light bulb cartel, has crammed the CFL down our throats and the citizens have no antitrust protection.”

That’s renowned light designer Howard Brandston speaking a little truth to the not-so-bright powers that be regarding the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). I despise the light bulb ban. CFLs are ugly and expensive, their light is poor, they make me not want to read, and they’ve required me to buy all new light fixtures. But these are minor complaints. Here are three absolutely true arguments against the incandescent light bulb ban, in descending order of my disgust:

First, the effort to ban the incandescent light bulb wasn’t all human goodwill and love of the environment. The ban was the result of a hardcore lobbying effort waged by those who stood to benefit. This included General Electric and other bulb manufacturers. Compared to incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive and carry higher profit margins. And their benefits, like Mark Twain’s death, are greatly exaggerated.

Second, CFLs are not clean energy. They are dirty. They contain mercury, and although I’m sure all of us good people are following the EPA’s instructions (insert EPA joke here) to dispose of CFLs with a dedicated recycler, the truth is most CFLs end up in the landfill, where the mercury is just going to accumulate.

Third and finally, this ban is the small and meaningless, which I despise. A ban on light bulbs? Energy conservation has its value, but its place is at the level of the consumer. This is not a job for the federal government, which has bigger things to do. These energy standards, I’m afraid to say, are a waste of energy. They serve as a convenient excuse for lazy members of congress not to take the big, bold steps that need to happen. Of course, the number of pea-sized brains in congress would make a dinosaur blush. So we are left with bans on light bulbs, while our other environmental challenges (other challenges? says member of congress) are ignored.

Look, goodwill gestures have their place. It’s why you buy popcorn from the Boy Scouts, recycle your newspaper, or run a 5k to support a local charity when you already  run that far every other day for free. These things are all good thing for you to do. These are not things that need to be dictated to you by congress. I can take care of my own light bulbs, thank you, just like you can recycle your own glass. You and I can’t, however, do a lot to clean up a power plant’s mercury emissions, or prevent some mining company from blasting the top off a mountain. Yet it’s our habits, our choices, that draw the attention of congress.

You know, we pay for this government. But like the CFL bulb, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Hat tip Instapundit on the story linked at top.

Ethanol Subsidy Needs to Go. Now.

Another black eye for the Environmental Protection Agency. The news out of Washington, D.C., is that our EPA has denied a request to waive ethanol mandates while the heartland recovers from a terrible drought, and consumers’ wallets seek relief from high food prices. Via the Detroit News (H/T Drudge Report):

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday rejected a request from eight governors and nearly 200 members of Congress to waive requirements for the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline, after last summer’s severe drought wilted much of the nation’s corn crop.

Later in the same article, Michal Rosenoer with Friends of the Earth offers his assessment of EPA’s decision:

“If the worst U.S. drought in more than 50 years and skyrocketing food prices are not enough to make EPA act, it falls to Congress to provide relief from our senseless federal support for corn ethanol,” [Rosenoer] said.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard is a broken policy — rather than giving us clean energy, it’s incentivizing biofuels like corn ethanol that are exacerbating our economic and environmental problems.

“Congress needs to cut corn ethanol from the RFS entirely to protect the economy and the environment from this destructive and dirty fuel.”

Michal Rosenoer is dead on. Washington does a lot of dumb things, but few things are as transparently stupid as the huge subsidy and fuel mandates for ethanol. If I may, I’d like to offer a few points of my own against ethanol:

(1) Ethanol is a waste of energy. Literally. Ethanol supporters can argue all they want, but the science is clear that ethanol is a net-energy loser, and therefore an environmental loser. This fantastic 2005 Slate article on ethanol highlights the relevant arguments (edited for length):

The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there’s a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—requires around 22,000 BTUs.

I can’t say it any clearer myself.

(2) Ethanol harms fuel economy. Because ethanol puts out less energy than gasoline, ethanol blends harm your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. What sense then is raising CAFE standards? Another environmental loss.

(3) It’s all political. If Iowa did not have 6 votes in the Electoral College, the ethanol subsidy would not exist. The farm lobby would either split on the subsidy (corn for/livestock against), or oppose it as it is so narrowly focused. Party politicians support the subsidy because you can’t win the presidency without Iowa. Hell, you can barely win your party’s nomination without Iowa.

(4) Ethanol is starving people. Not only are we converting an important food crop to fuel, the subsidy and artificial demand created by government ethanol requirements results in additional acreage being converted from food crops, like wheat and soybeans, to corn for ethanol.

I could go on. Really. But let’s end with this: Ethanol fails every environmental, agricultural, and geopolitical (it doesn’t make a dent in our reliance on foreign oil) test to which it is put. It is a $6 billion a year waste of good money. The only test ethanol passes is the political test. Well, maybe it’s time to start flunking the test-takers.

I Support (my belly button’s) Biodiversity!

Thanks to the indefatigable Glenn Reynolds, I’ll never look at, or clean, my belly button the same way again:

If you were told you had an ecosystem living in your belly button, it might come as a bit of shock. Well, you probably do. These are just a few of the samples that Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB), a group of scientists from North Carolina University in Raleigh and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, have taken from themselves as well as students, science bloggers and others.

BBB want to strike down the “bad bacteria” stereotype and teach the world that many bacteria are harmless, helpful and a lot of times just hanging around, mooching off your body. The navel is an ideal place for bacteria to thrive because it’s isolated and most people don’t bother to wash it. (ed: ewww!) But what BBB wondered was, do the bacteria change from person to person?

The answer to that last question is yes, everyone has their own unique little navel ecosystem. The point of the research, as far as I can gather, is to teach all the compulsive anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray-using hygiene freaks to lighten up a bit. A little dirt is actually really, really healthy for us. So let’s hear it for the bacteria living in our belly buttons! (but hey, let’s commit to maybe wash it once in a while).

Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.

Of Stardust and Life

We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. We are golden.

-Joni Mitchell

We are beings of the Universe. Composed of elements forged in the massive furnaces of a billion stars. For uncounted aeons we drifted through the black void of space until finding a home on Earth.

And what if we are all there is? What if in all the havoc and energy of the Cosmos, amongst galaxies that number like grains of sand on a beach, we are alone? All the life there is to be found?

What then is our responsibility, our humble obligation, to the stars that gave us birth? Do we not take to our ancient homes, explore and populate the Universe, and bring life to where none exists?

The Universe awaits. Humanity stumbles along pursuing the small and the insignificant. And the Universe awaits.

Jillian Kay Melchior’s a Solar Assassin!

Solar assassin, because Jillian’s killing it today on the solar stories! Here’s her latest. I’ll let it speak for itself, or her speak for herself, whichever may be:

Hawaii’s solar subsidies have been highly effective. Maybe too effective, actually . . .

The Aloha state gives homeowners and businesses tax credits covering 35 percent of the cost of their solar installation. Oh, and that’s on top of the 30 percent federal credit. So faster than you can say “free money,” Hawaiians started tricking out their homes.

Just one problem. The costs to the state are mounting, though Hawaii isn’t really sure how much:

“The unexpected popularity of the solar incentive has opened a hole in the state budget and become a major topic in state politics.

“During the 2010 tax year, Hawaii residents claimed $42.8 million in renewable energy credits, mostly for solar projects. In just six months of 2011, they claimed $54.9 million in credits, according to data provided to Stateline by the Hawaii Department of Taxation. This year, the price will soar to $173.8 million, the state estimates. That’s out of an overall state budget that hovers around $12 billion each year. . . .

“To be clear, $173.8 million is what Hawaii thinks its credit will cost this year. It’s the highest and most recent of several estimates, meant to guide the governor in putting together the state’s next biennial budget. State economists admit there’s no way to be sure of the program’s cost, either for this year or in the future.”

Hawaii isn’t alone, turns out. In Louisiana, which offers a 50 percent tax credit on wind or solar purchases, capped at a whopping $12,500, residents are really, really, really taking advantage of the subsidy:

“Its cost has soared to 18 times the state’s original $500,000 per-year projection, a problem uncovered by a legislative committee that’s reviewing each of the state’s major tax programs. . . .

“‘How do I know how many people would put a solar system on top of their house?” asks Greg Albrecht, chief economist of the Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office. “I’m just guessing.””

Keep up the good work Jillian. We at Free the Commons! see all the promise in the world for solar, but we’ll only be successful if we put the right policies in place. Keep the facts flowing, so that we can recognize, evaluate, and overcome all the obstacles. Nothing stands in the way of success like not knowing, and we are working hard to know it all.