Perfect the Enemy of the Good

For years, my observation has been that the perfect has been the enemy of the good in energy policy.   Now, I don't support the feds making energy policy at all, but given that they do, too often the government has ignored the 80/20 solution that would get most of the desired benefits for a fraction of the cost of alternatives being considered.

For example, in California, the state could have made a ton more progress reducing vehicle emissions had they  accepted a low emissions standard decades ago that allowed for things like compressed natural gas (CNG) as a vehicle fuel.  However, environmentalists insisted on zero emissions, and thus only electric vehicles passed muster, and the technology simply has not been there  (not to mention that at the margin, new electric vehicles in the state would at best be powered by natural gas and at worst by Arizona and Nevada coal plants, making the very concept of "zero-emissions" crazy).

I am thinking of this by looking at this chart from the EIA of CO2 emissions per BTU for various fuels (pounds per million BTU):

Coal (anthracite) 227
Coal (bituminous) 205
Coal (lignite) 215
Coal (subbituminous) 213
Diesel fuel & heating oil 161
Gasoline 156
Propane 139
Natural gas 117

Looking at this, and given the huge amounts of natural gas in this country, one might reasonably expect that a logical policy suggestion would be to try to provide incentives to substitute natural gas for coal and diesel fuel.  The technology exists right now, today, to produce electricity with gas and to power large vehicles with CNG  (and focusing on truck fleets eases the distribution issues with CNG).

But of course absolutely no one in the global warming movement is suggesting this (except for T. Boone Pickens, and he is involved in climate bills as a rent-seeker, not as an advocate).  You see, we want "renewable" energy, and natural gas does not fit.  Though for some reason ethanol does, despite the fact that ethanol probably creates more CO2 than it reduces.

No point here really, since I am not advocating any sort of energy policy.  But it reinforced to me why no one should claim as a justification for energy policy that somehow the system will be more efficient if a few smart people design it top-down, when one of the most obvious 80/20 solutions to Co2 reduction is not even considered.


  1. DrTorch:

    Agree. People are sold early on that there exists some "perfect" solution, and they should settle for nothing less.

    All too often it's fiction, or it ignores paths that get to solutions faster and cheaper.

  2. Mark ii:

    Or, to tie into your trade articles, if we really want ethanol, why do we prohibit the importation of sugar based ethanol????? There is the "perfect" and then there is the political perfect.

  3. Black on Green:

    By virtue of existing and proposed environmental regulations that will be in place by 2015, there is already a large-scale shift from coal to natural gas as power generation fuels. Many older and smaller coal plants across the country will not be operating after 2015, and natural gas is easily the next most affordable fuel. While "renewables" will also add megawatts of generation, they will not be significant compared to the gas replacing coal based on "soft" energy policy primarily from federal EPA regulations.

  4. David W:

    Then, of course, there's also the next step, nuclear power to replace coal (and nat. gas) - which is also a mature technology, and of course produces next to no CO2 per BTU.

    But that's not only not brought up, it's actively opposed.

  5. Tim: they're bringing on additional consumers of coal and gas fired power plants in the name of electric cars and calling that zero emissions?

    Where do they think electricity comes from?

  6. astonerii:

    Perfect is the enemy of the good. Socialism is the enemy of the good. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Perfect is the friend of any and all people who want to simply harm humans. It really is that simple. A few Malthusians con a bunch of feel gooders into pushing an agenda that has the harm of humans as the end result. No different that all the communists converting the Democrat party into becoming socialists that could not create a business friendly environment even when they try.

  7. Matt:

    "Where do they think electricity comes from?"

    From the wall socket. And ethanol comes from...I dunno...the booze fairy, I guess. But certainly not from nasty factory farms filled with diesel-burning tractors and combines, spraying petroleum-based chemicals everywhere, depleting soil nutrients, aggravating erosion, polluting the water table, and poisoning fish with runoff, to make even bigger profits for a few ginormous megacorporations...

    You seem to be assuming that they're rational people who consider the implications of their ideas. The evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

    If they were such, they'd see the answer staring them in the face. Want to cut CO2 emissions? (They scream "YES!!!") Want to make the US more like Europe, especially France? (They scream "YES!!!! Right now!!!") Simple. Build nuclear power plants. Lots of 'em. (They get a befuddled look, glance around at each other, and go " NUKES! NO NUKES! NO NU...")

  8. marco73:

    Way back in the high polution 1990's, Florida established emissions testing in the 6 highest populated counties in the state. Annually, every car registered in those counties would have to go through a state-run testing facility. If your car failed, you had to go to a state-registered facility for repairs, and after you paid for repairs, then you were good for another year.

    There were many consquences: bribery, clunkers being registered at grandma's house in a non-emission county, and the price of used cars going up in the 6 counties based on their test results. Oh yeah, and no dent was made in pollution levels in those 6 counties.

    A local university professor had a pretty good idea about how to actually decrease pollution: how about the state find the really big polluting clunkers, and either pay to fix them or scrap them. Why should several million cars per year sit and idle to go through a test that 99% passed, but the 1% that didn't pass just became a headache for the owner, and opened up all kinds of cheating. But of couse, the state collected $10 per test, and there were state jobs involved in the testing facilities.

    After several years of accomplishing nothing but increasing the anger of the populace, the entire system was scrapped. Amazingly, we are still able to breathe the air in Florida. The perfect system failed so perfectly, that it is no more.

  9. IgotBupkis:

    > “Where do they think electricity comes from?”

    I've highlighted the flaw in YOUR reasoning. It's sheer presumption, unsupported by facts, that anything of the sort takes place in the libtard mind.


    The truest problem here is, of course, that no one considers total-cycle costs -- manufacture, use, disposal -- in any of this crap.

    Electric cars, with their filthy batteries (which always need to get more and more exotic in order to actually attain ANY legitimately useful level of efficiency) almost certainly do more harm to the environment than pretty much ANY other vaguely competing tech. That they mostly just put "that which is seen" into the category of "that which is unseen" is just one more aspect of their flawed conceptual nature... but which has libtards drooling for them as "perfect".

  10. wilky:

    While I'm definitely a hardcore "denier." This what I like about Pickens fight to get at least our tractor trailers on natural gas.

    I suspect that Edisons observation as to why we went with gas when he was working on an electric car. To paraphrase, they determined that they could get more taxes with gas, has alot to do with it.

  11. another guy named Dan:

    @wilky: It has much more to do with physics, thermodynamics, and energy transport. Put simply, there is more energy in a pound of gasoline than in a pound of battery. until that is overcome, electric cars won't make sense economically. There's also the fact that I can put the energy needed to drive 400 miles in my car in the form of gasoline in about 5 minutes, while it would take many hours using today's battery technologies (generally the more efficient a battery in terms of storage density, the more slowly it must be charged or discharged in order to avoid overheating problems).

    Although some in congress think that the laws of physics can be repealed via legislative action (ditto supply and demand), the next generation personal transport vehicle is still likely to be hydrocarbon based, likely some sort of fuel cell or turbine.

  12. DrTorch:

    Here's an interesting link about electric cars

    "The downside is the battery. Even the most advanced lithium-ion formulations hold only about 1 percent of the energy, by mass, of gasoline. So that limits range and adds weight, the enemy of performance. "

    Nevertheless, there is still a market for electric cars. That's why some neighborhoods use golf carts.

    @IgotBupkis: I don't think the battery as a pollutant is much of a big deal, unless they start using beryllium. Plus batteries have a high liklihood of being recycled.

    Of course CO2 isn't much of a pollutant either.

    @Marco: did the local college prof offer a way to find those 1% of cars? Nice sounding plan, but looks like the devil's in the details.

  13. gadfly:

    And the reason we care about CO2 emissions is ...?

    Do we have East Anglia on the other line?

  14. astonerii:

    Its not a flaw, it is a feature of every single one of these ideas.

    Nuclear is bad, oil is bad, Coal is bad, natural gas is bad, we must go green wind and solar power.
    Lets just ignore the fact that wind and solar are intermittent and look what happens when we authorize and subsidize wind and solar.
    The factories that would create them are hounded by the green fascists to the point they never get built.
    We import the parts from the Chinese and are not ready to install the power base.
    Oh, hell no, not there, nope, not there either, what the hell, there is a turtle that lives there, not in my back yard.

    Do you really think the people pushing for green would ever allow us to supply all our energy from green, even if it did work?

    If so, you are a very gullible smart person.

  15. marco73:

    DrTorch - actually the professor came up with a simple method: just put a couple cameras at major intersections. When a car pulled away from the interesction, if there was a lot of smoke, take a picture of the license plate. If that license plate came up more than X times, then just contact the owner to have them bring the car into the inspection station. The program would have to control for cold mornings when all cars put out harmless steam, but this is hot Florida, so they would just have to shut down the cameras for a few hours until everything warmed up. A pilot program would offer free repair, or if the vehicle was unworthy of repair, offer to buy it outright and scrap it.
    One car with poor emissions puts out more pollution than hundreds of cars that are performing properly. So the cars that were operating correctly were ignored, and the big pollutors were found out and either repaired or removed from the road.
    Of course, such a program wouldn't get EVERY polluting car, and why offer free repairs for polluters, etc.
    If the purpose of the an anti-pollution program was to cut pollution, then find the polluters and fix them or get them off the road. But the purpose of the Florida program was to collect another tax, at $10 per car. Finally the populace got fed up and the whole program went away.

  16. spiro:

    @ Marco73:

    more likely = programs like Onstar installed in cars to monitor emissions on the fly. If the local govts really cared about emissions, they would do this, but it would cut out the $10-25/car/year that they get (on top of registration fees).
    Yes, it would be a huge govt intrusion on personal property, etc, etc, but they could find a legal justification if they wanted. They'd probably use the "driving is a privilege, granted you by the government" line of logic, as well as "think about the children!!!!"

  17. Ignoramus:

    Obama's recent weekly address: Solar Power & a Clean Energy Economy

    "The President points to a revolutionary new solar plant that will employ 1,000 people and power 140,000 homes. The plant is possible because of the President’s investments in the clean energy economy, which Congressional Republicans want to eliminate."


    Is Obama insane, or just totally innumerate?

  18. V:

    All this reminds me of the time I tried to join a supposed "conservation" group when I was in college.

    To sum up shortly... I was thrown out for pointing out that some animals kill other animals to eat, AND
    that there was epidemic deer overpopulation. That's right, there were so many deer they were starving to death.

    So why not hunt them?

    You feed the hungry, cull some deer, and everybody's happy, right?

    Heck, they didn't even want wolves re-introduced. What's up with that?

    (I know this is latter solution has drawbacks... but at least humanity's hands would be clean)

    I was told that any type of top tier carnivore introduced would be too... cruel.
    So I guess starving to death is better than being eaten. Heck... I'd rather be killed and eaten than
    starve to death... but what do I know?

    The problem is, most of those people in that group had apparently never been in the woods, nor even watched those nature programs that were shown in the late 1970's and early 1980's. They know NOTHING of the problems themselves, and apparently don't even care if the solutions they posit even WORK.
    All the evidence to the contrary in the world, and silence... except all the back patting and
    choruses of, "We did it!"

    The real goal is to get their preferred solution into the collective consciousness. It has nothing to do with actual problem-solving. That's too hard. Besides, being that decisive and DOING it means that coalition building and consensus is almost impossible... so why do anything that will affect anything?

    Better to visualize world peace, and make sure the 'bad guys'(read: political opponents) can't do anything, either.

    "Idealism" wins, science looses.

  19. gadfly:


    Pickens wants truck tractors on natural gas because he sells natural gas!

  20. Ted Rado:

    The problem is that nobody does a complete engineering analysis of alternative energy schemes. For example, wind energy analysis should include how do we back up the system on windless days, the cost of such backup, the effect of this backup method on overall energy efficiency, etc., and finally, the total cost of the entire scheme including all of these factors. Any engineer could readily do such a study. The results would make sound decisions possible and avoid spending much money stupidly.

    Instead, we charge off in a state of frenzied zealotry and push the scheme du jour, oblivious to reality.

    All of the popular alternative energy schemes, such as solar, wind, electric cars, hydrogen, biofuels, etc. are badly flawed and incapable of producing substantial amounts of energy. Further, what they can produce is uneconomical, being workable only because of government subsidies.

  21. clean and efficient:

    Looking at the EIA numbers, I would guess that no consideration has been given to the various transformation processes at both the production and end-use levels. Does EIA compare "coal" to "gasoline" without consideration that coal is a raw fuel and gasoline refined? Do the EIA numbers for gasoline include the emissions related to the refining process? Also, do the EIA numbers provide a "clean" comparison of emissions at the end-use level, considering that the efficiency of internal combustion engines continues to be on the order of something like 15%, while new power plants deliver efficiency at 40% and better?

    I would guess again that if EIA did such analysis, for the transportation sector gasoline would be the loser and compressed natural gas the clear winner, and if public policy insists on a creating a price for CO2, electrification of the transportation sector will be coming up fast on the outside.

  22. Balance Sheet:

    I agree with the author with respect to energy that perfect is surely enemy of good.