Posts tagged ‘electric cars’


Though I disagree with McArdle on the magnitude of potential warming, I think her assessment of Waxman-Markey is dead on:

But the real question, I think, is whether the low cost is a feature or a bug.  The only way a bill is going to have an impact is if it causes real financial pain to American households--enough to get them to change their behavior.  Waxman-Markey obviously is not going to do that.  And indeed, the projections of its effect on global warming are entirely negligible.

So the reason to get this mad about Waxman-Markey is either that you think it provides a framework for future action, or that you think it will persuade China and India to get on board.  The latter is, I think, entirely wishful thinking on the part of American environmentalists.  China is not going to let its citizens languish in subsistence farming because 30 years from now, some computer models say there will be some not-well-specified bad effects from high temperatures. Nor is India.  Global warming isn't even high on the list of environmental concerns they'll want to attack as they get rich; local air pollution is far more pressing.  Thinking that we're somehow going to lead them by example is like thinking that poor rural teens are going to buy electric cars because Ed Begley jr. has one.

No, I think the argument has to rest on the notion that Waxman-Markey gives us a framework to advance.  And it might.  But then again, Europe's much-vaunted system has had multiple spectacular failures, and the only reductions it has actually achieved seem to come largely from controversial offsets with large auditing problems.

GM's Design Problems in a Nutshell

Despite years and hundreds of millions of dollars of effort on electric vehicles, competitors are coming out of the woodwork to beat it to market with an all-electric sedan -- and, from the specs, seem to be beating it on price and features as well.

Miles Electric has confirmed that it's working on a family sedan-sized all electric car for release in North America sometime next year. The car -- which will be released under a different, unknown brandname -- will be a first for the company, which specializes in neighborhood cars that only go up to about 25 miles per hour. The sedan will have a top speed of around 80 miles per hour, and a 100 mile range. It will also require 8-12 hours to fully recharge its dead lithium-ion battery. Miles is currently running the vehicle though crash tests, and expects to see about 300 of them on the road in California sometime next year. The going rate for one of these? About $45,000.

Radical shifts in technology often obsolete first mover and scale advantages.  The winners in the market for diesel electric locomotives (GM and GE) were totally different players from those who dominated the steam locomotive market (Alco, Baldwin, Lima and others).  It will be interesting to see if such a change occurs in the auto market.

The Hands That Currently Produce Things People Actually Want Can Also Fix Broken Windows

If you have watched the Olympics at all, you have likely seen the Obama commercial promising:

"The hands that install roofs can also install solar panels. The hands
that build today's cars can also build the next generation of
fuel-efficient vehicles. Barack Obama [will] ... create 5 million jobs developing homegrown energy technologies."

A few reactions:

  • Private individuals, not politicians, create jobs
  • Job promises like this are never incremental, nor can they be.  If the hands that build current SUV's can build electric cars instead, then we haven't added any new hands, we've just changed what they are working on.
  • It strikes me that this is the broken windows fallacy writ large.  In effect, Obama promises to make much of our perfectly-serviceable transportation and electrical generation installed base obsolete, requiring an enormous effort to replace it.  But the resources to fund this huge new investment have to come from somewhere.  Industries that flourish and grow under this government enforced shift in capital will be offset by those that are starved.  Every other part of the economy will slow due either to higher taxes or higher prices (or both) that subsidize this effort.  But since it is harder to find and count the latter than the former, it makes for a good, un-auditable political pledge
  • I'll bet that 5 million number focus groups really well, but does it make any sense at all?  Here are some current employment numbers for the US as of January, 2008:

Construction of power generation facilities:           137,000
Power generation and supply:           399,000
Production of power gen. equipment           105,000
Production of transportation equipment (planes, trains, autos, boats,

OK, so the total employment of all these industries that might be related to an alternate energy effort is about 2.28 million.  So, to add 5 million incremental jobs would require tripling the size of the utility industry, tripling the size of the utility construction and equipment industry, tripling the size of the auto industry, tripling the size of the aircraft industry, and tripling the size of the shipbuilding industry.  And even then we would be a bit short of Obama's number.

First Question: Ask About the Energy Balance

Over the coming months and years, you are going to see a ton of stories like this for somehow storing or reprocessing CO2:


If two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are correct,
people will still be driving gasoline-powered cars 50 years from now,
churning out heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere "” and yet
that carbon dioxide will not contribute to global warming.

The scientists, F. Jeffrey Martin and William L. Kubic Jr., are
proposing a concept, which they have patriotically named Green Freedom,
for removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of
potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon
dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions
that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted,
climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels.
The closed cycle "” equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed
"” would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels
would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a
small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing

You are going to see a ton of stories like this from academia because academics respond to incentives like everyone else -- faced with billions of dollars available for funding research into carbon-neutral technologies, they are going to publicly promote their ideas in an attempt to garner this funding.

The first question you should always ask is about the energy balance.  I am sure that this is technically possible.  Today we can create hydrogen fuel from sea water, but it is atrociously expensive from an energy standpoint.  The problem, then, is whether it makes any sense from a cost and energy balance point of view.  This is a good hint that it does not:

Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline
on a commercial scale "” say, 750,000 gallons a day "” would require a
dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.

We have to be suspicious that the carbon benefits come from the nuclear plant they require, not the process itself.  In fact, one is left to wonder why we would go through so much effort at all rather than just charge electric cars directly from the nuclear plant.  My sense is we are much closer on battery technology than on this stuff.


Virtues of a Carbon Tax

Michael O'Hare and Matt Yglesias (via Megan McArdle subbing at Instapundit) makes this very good point about carbon taxes:

Tragically, if you tell people you're going to tax their ft ossile
fuels, they freak out and your political career dies a swift and
merciless death. But if you tell people you're going to subsidize alternative energy sources
the people will like that. Functionally, however, these are basically
the same thing, except for the fact that the tax method works much,
much better.

This is unfortunately true.  As I have posted a number of times, I am skeptical that man-made global warming and the net of the problems (and opportunities) it brings will be bad enough to justify the economic cost of slowing or reversing CO2 emissions.  However, I can imagine being convinced that efforts to limit CO2 emissions are necessary.

Regulations on emissions, whether to the air or into shared waterways, is one of the few areas of government action that actually facilitate the smooth operation of strong property rights.  As I explained before, one could easily imagine a world of strong property rights bogged down in constant suits and counter-suits, as any property owner could rightfully sue over molecules of emissions that crossed their property line from another.  Certainly I can imagine private solutions and agreements that could have developed in the absence of government to sort this out, but government emissions restrictions, when done well, are not an unreasonable approach.

Of course, there are a lot of bad ways to manage emissions, and the government has tried about all of them.  New source controls, which are still debated and, incredibly, supported, represent all the worst of government hubris in trying to micro-manage solutions and technologies rather than just defining the desired outcome.  If anything, new technology subsidies (think ethanol) have been even worse, acting more like political pork and rent-seeking than intelligent pollution policy.

However, the government, especially the environmental lobby which tends to be full of technocrats and statists, greatly prefer the government micromanagement approach.  The impossibility of the task should be clear.  Take CO2 reduction -- to micromanage the reduction, the government would have to sort through every source of CO2, every available technology, and come up with a prioritized plan for investment to get the most reduction for the least $.  And even if the tried, they would be wrong, because this is a problem with a billion variables.  And even if they happen to get it right, they would not implement it, changing their plans the minute the Archer Daniels Midland lobbyist walked in the door. 

To understand the complexity, take one example: electric cars.  Hey, everyone loves the idea of electric cars -- they are zero emissions, right?  Well, sort of.  Actually they are emissions outsourcing devices, shifting emissions from the individual car's tailpipe to the power plant where the electrical charge is coming from.  Now, that power plant is a lot more efficient at burning fossil fuels, so often the net is better, but what if the marginal electricity production is coming from coal?  Does that net reduce CO2?  And, if electric cars reduce carbon emissions, does $10,000 investing in electric cars reduce more or less carbon emissions than $10,000 in solar?

These decisions are impossible to make, but we don't have to.  Every day, markets and price signals help individuals make such tradeoffs rationally.   That's why a carbon tax, that raises the price of CO2 emissions fairly directly, would be a much more efficient approach to managing emissions.

Update: People have asked about emissions trading.  Emissions trading schemes are OK, in that they help push emissions reductions towards the people who can do it most efficiently.  What I don't like about them is they are a government form of incumbent subsidy - basically industry incumbents get a tradeable asset of value, while new and future entrants do not.