Search the Site

Posts Tagged ‘Clean Energy’

The Prius Driver’s Conundrum

For a singularly grim, if fiercely literary, assessment of the earth’s environmental fate, the grizzled wisdom of Cormac McCarthy is always there to deliver the dark pronouncement that we’re flat-out doomed. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” explains the judge in McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. “[B]ut in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” Darkness, in essence, will fall at the very moment when we think we’re out-of-our-mind brilliant. 

Brilliance in conventional environmentalism has thus far been embodied by the caricature of hybrid-driving solar evangelists with soft spots for local farms, grass-fed beef, and re-useable shopping bags adorned with inscriptions of ecological virtue. Such popular solutions to our environmental quandary come not only with the eager endorsement of a progressive political establishment, but with the added appeal of basic pragmatism. Drive a more fuel-efficient car, eat locally, seek energy-efficient light fixtures, and vote “yes!” for public transit initiatives — such ideas simply make sense. And thus they’ve become the nuts-and-bolts of modern environmentalism.

Why California's Push for Rooftop Solar is a Foggy Idea

Would you trust your neighbors with billions of dollars of public money to invest in a clean energy future? If you live in California, this isn’t a hypothetical question.
California Gov. Jerry Brown last month announced his intention to rely on “tens of thousands of little decisions” by Californians to develop a 12 giga-watt renewable energy infrastructure by 2020. In remarks at a UCLA clean energy conference, Brown embraced distributed solar generation in order to avoid the pitfalls that often encumber large-scale renewable energy projects, including the capital costs of transmitting energy from far-flung deserts and hilltops. Furthermore, rooftop solar panels and Cameron-esque windmills also pose little threat to desert tortoises or sacred Native American sites, so they are less apt to be caught up in the kind of litigation that has delayed major renewable projects.
But energy policy that relies on distributed generation has its drawbacks. Perhaps most notably, it forsakes economies of scale. It also places infrastructure investment decisions in the hands of homeowners, who, as this space has suggested, may not make socially optimal—or even individually rational—choices.

Volvo XC60: A New Green Machine? Not Exactly

I was recently traveling in Europe (including in Switzerland, where 87% of trains are less than 3 minutes late). While I was in Cambridge, England, my old friend and colleague David MacKay, who shares my antipathy to bad numbers, gave me a copy of a recent article in the UK journal Physics World (“Optoelectronics: a green explosion”, May 2011, p. 5 of the optics supplement). The article touted laser-based “green technologies,” including their use in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions:

Volvo’s Johnny Larson says it is possible to shave a few kilograms off the weight of a car’s metal frame by optimizing its design for a laser process. This has knocked up to 2 kg [4.4 lbs] off the XC60, and for every one of these models that clocks up 100,000 km [60,000 miles], 24 kg [53 lbs] of carbon-dioxide emissions will be saved.

So many numbers, so little meaning! Whenever I see so many numbers, I think of what Socrates might have said: “The uncompared number is not worth knowing.” Let’s start with the 2-kg weight reduction.