Monthly Archives: November 2018

It is time to abandon fossil fuels

The transportation sector of our economy has recently become the number one contributor of greenhouse gasses, surpassing electricity production just this year. Oil production is up due to improved recovery methods, essentially fracking. This causes a lowering of the price of gasoline stimulating the purchase of bigger cars and hence more fuel consumption.

Meanwhile, greenhouse gas production from the electricity sector is down because of increases in electricity production from renewables such as wind and solar. Coal-fired plants are on the decline with much of that production being replaced with cleaner-burning natural gas.

The obvious need now is to wean our transportation systems off the use of fossil fuel products such as gasoline and diesel and convert them to electric power. Electric vehicles are inherently more efficient even when charged from the grid. Gasoline and diesel are pure fossil fuel whereas electricity from the grid has contributions from fossil fuel free wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro. Much electricity is produced from natural gas but it is cleaner burning than gasoline and diesel.

Most types of transportation are accessible to electrification. Some rail lines, particularly passenger trains in the east are already electric powered and there are no great impediments to extending this to all rail traffic both freight and passengers. Long-haul trucking will soon see the first generation of electric 18-wheelers. Tesla Motors is currently testing a semi with a 500-mile range. In the wings are delivery vans and pickup trucks.

Several totally electric passenger vehicles are on the market now. Tesla model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt are small sedans showing up across America. They both have a range of about 250 miles and the build-out of rapid charger networks will transform passenger car traffic.

Short range delivery vehicles are ripe for conversion to electric power. They have defined routes and predictable energy needs plus a central location for charging when not in use. Charging delivery vehicles at night is especially beneficial because there is excess generating capacity so rates are lower.

One of if not the best application of electric fleet vehicles are buses. Clean running buses in urban locales can greatly improve air quality over fossil fuel powered buses, even those employing clean burning natural gas. With electric buses there are no local pollution emissions and greatly reduced greenhouse emissions from remote generating plants.

Everyone with a child or grandchild, a niece or neighbor, who rides a school bus daily is exposed to noxious emissions from those buses. The bus that idles while waiting to pick up a load of children at school, the bus that idles while picking up and dropping off children in the community, the bus that runs up and down our highways and byways are all significant sources of pollutants such as fine particulates, carbon monoxide, and the components which form smog and ozone.

And finally, if climate change and the health of children aren’t enough, consider the fact that electric vehicles are cheaper. Electricity as a fuel is one third to one quarter the cost of gasoline and diesel. Maintenance costs are considerably lower for electric vehicles – fewer moving parts, no oil changes, radiator fluids, longer brake life due to regenerative braking, etc.

It’s time to start talking to superintendents, school boards, the PTA – anybody that will listen. Electric school buses are good for both our children and our pocket books.

Voting for Change

The mid-term elections are just about over with mixed results. The Democratic message was one of access to affordable healthcare and human rights. The Republicans argued for the need to protect our southern border from migrants. What wasn’t often discussed was the increasingly loud drumbeat for addressing climate change.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most dire yet. Previous reports have generally given a range of possible effects, be they global warming, ocean acidity, or sea level rise. The essence of this latest report is that the predicted outcomes appear to fall at the extreme end of the range. Basically, it is getting hot even faster, sea levels are rising even faster, etc. The pace of climate change is accelerating and the obvious response should be a more rapid reduction in the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Efforts have been made by some. Seven candidates for governor ran and won promising to support renewable energy solutions. Governors-elect in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, Maine, New Mexico, and Oregon campaigned to expand their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) . The percent capacity for renewable energy has been expanded and target dates for attainment have been shortened.

Governor-elect Jared Polis, Colorado will seek a target of 100% renewable energy by 2040, up from the current RPS of 30 % by 2020. Also with a target of 100% is Connecticut Governor-elect Ned Lamont. The Connecticut target date is 2050. The leader in concern for climate change, California, already has an RPS of 100% BY 2045. The recent wildfires in California have been linked to climate change and only serve to strengthen the resolve of Californians.

Unsurprisingly, all seven are Democrats. This reflects the desires of the party’s membership, where concern for global warming is much higher than among Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 70% of Democrats trust the science of global warming. Compare that with Republican trust at only 15%.

The climate lost in a couple of direct challenges. In ever-so-blue Washington State, a ballot issue to impose a carbon tax failed. Colorado failed to drastically limit drilling for oil and gas on state property. Arizona voters rejected a 50% by 2030 RPS, while Nevada approved the exact same RPS.

Here in Arkansas, we don’t have any RPS. We do have a favorable net metering regulation. Some homes and small businesses have grid-tied renewable energy systems. Using solar panels as an example, such grid-tied systems can send energy to the grid when the sun shines making the meter run backwards. When the sun doesn’t shine the owner draws power from the grid.

Right now the “exchange rate” is neutral. Owners of such systems get paid the same price as they pay when consuming. The cost-effectiveness of renewable systems depends on the rate structure which is determined by the Public Service Commission. Big producers such as Entergy and SWEPCO are lobbying the PSC hard and fast to limit the competition by seeking a rate structure far less favorable to small producers of renewable energy.

Voting – Compassion vs Fear

Most of the campaigns where the race is truly competitive, say within a five-point spread, are making their closing arguments. They are focusing on a message that has been honed over a year or so of campaigning.

In campaigns which involve national issues and even some local ones which have become nationalized a couple of central themes have evolved. Democrats are delivering a more positive message of the importance of compassion, health care, and civil and human rights whereas Republicans operate more on fear, fear of violence, fear of immigrants, and essentially fear of “others.”

Stepping away from the labels of Democrat and Republican and using the proxy of liberal and conservative, there is good evidence from psychological and even neurophysiological data for these different approaches to campaigning. It is not only what you think but actually how you think – how your brain responds to subject matter and what part of the brain is activated.

First the more obvious sources of difference between liberals and conservatives. Upbringing, education and personal experiences all influence our political attitudes. Two of these are easily observed. College students from conservative communities as freshmen in college tend to vote much like their parents. Graduate students from those same communities tend to vote much less conservatively. A liberal education actually does make one more liberal. Buzzwords like egghead, ivory tower and over educated are used almost exclusively by conservative commentators when describing liberals, never visa versa.

Women tend to be more liberal than men most likely due to personal experiences. Women are more likely to support collective actions which protect a broader swath of society such as children, minorities, ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. Conservatives are more of the “rugged individualists” where experience has shown them that personal actions are more important – being the soldier, the protector of the family, the breadwinner.

Of course all of the above are very broad generalizations and exceptions abound but the data are robust and come from very large data sets in well-controlled studies.

These themes are seen clearly in campaign verbiage. No better example is the issue of border protection and immigration. Republicans believe that building a wall at our southern border will protect us from immigrant hordes of murderers, rapists, and drug gangs. A recent twist is that immigrants from Central America will bring disease to our shores. One commentator claimed that they will bring Small Pox, a disease which no longer even exists. It was eradicated by an international vaccination program almost 40 years ago. He also warned of a biblical plague of leprosy, a disease easily treated with antibiotics.

They believe that blocking immigration from predominantly Muslim countries will prevent terrorism in our country while the only real current terrorist threat is from indigenous white nationalists. Recently pipe bombs have been mailed to news agencies and democratic politicians, and a gunman murdered eleven at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Democrats believe in an immigration policy that controls our borders while at the same time recognizing that migrants fleeing violence should be treated with dignity and respect. They don’t believe in open borders, regardless of what Republicans claim.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.