12-31-08 - Nonsense

Things that are nonsense :

Hybrids and plug-in hybrids, etc. We can already easily make regular gasoline cars that get 40 mpg. Let me be very generous and assume that you could get a hybrid that gets 60 mpg (you would need to account for the extra waste making & disposing the battery, the oil used to generate the electricty for a plug-in, etc.). Consider a person who commutes 100 miles a day.

Efficient car uses 100/40 = 2.5 gallons
Hybrid uses 100/60 = 1.67 gallons

Savings = 0.833 gallons

That's okay, but it's an expensive, difficult savings. In fact, we already have the mechanism to save much more. If people just stopped driving ridiculous gas guzzlers it would make a much bigger difference. Say for example someone drives a truck that gets 15 mpg , and they switch to something only slightly better at 20 mpg :

Typical truck uses 100/15 = 6.67 gallons
Better truck uses 100/20 = 5 gallons

Savings = 1.67 gallons

The point is not that hybrids are bad, but that the general political push for "a green mission to the Moon" or Hydrogen cars or the "brightest minds working on transportation" is all a lot of nonsense. What's needed is a *behavior* change for people to give up ridiculously inefficient cars.

Let's look at another example that's more ridiculous but drives the point home more :

Efficient car at 50 mpg uses 100/50 = 2 gallons
Future magic hybrid at 100 mpg = 100/100 = 1 gallon

Savings = 1 gallon

Big SUV at 10 mpg uses 100/10 = 10 gallons
Moderate SUV at 20 mpg = 100/20 = 5 gallons

Savings = 5 gallons

Currently SUVs and light trucks are still around 33% of all vehicles. Getting that down to 5-10% or so is far more important than any advance in technology that makes efficient cars better. Politicians who contend otherwise are simply trying to avoid the unpopular reality that making big changes requires some sacrifice.

A gas tax would change behavior and make people buy more efficient cars. In the long term it might even encourage people to live closer to work, use public transit and simply drive less. It would do far far more to reduce gas consumption than new technology.

Something that actually does make sense is new technology for transportation of goods in trains and large trucks. More efficient deisel engines is a start, but natural gas or hydrogen might be sensible for them. It's a sector that uses far more gas per vehicle, so each vehicle changed makes a bigger difference, they get low MPG - and the low MPG is where the win is. They also can deal with a limited number of refueling stations as they already are accustomed to seeking truck stops, etc.

I'm not even going to really talk about the fact that the excessive fixation on transportation is illogical. Big gains could easily be made in residential power use by simply kicking people out of the fucking desert in Phoenix and the frozen norths where people waste massive amounts of energy on AC in one and heat in the other. (you don't have to literally kick them out, you just raise the cost of fuel and electricity and they move naturally).

Also note that a gas tax is not really a "tax" in the sense of skimming an extra fee - rather it is trying to balance out the massive distortion of the free market by the subsidies that the US government gives to drivers and the auto industry through so many sources (direct tax deductions for trucks, cheap govt leases for petroleum extraction, foreign policy expenditures, bailouts for the oil and auto industries, and of course the huge federal highway spending).

Wikipedia Energy Use Numbers
US Govt Energy use chart
Anti-SUV rant

BTW I do think there's some merit in hybrids, but it's mainly in raising awareness and in making small cars fashionable. It's funny to me that a little Civic is totally uncool, but a Prius is "hip". Whatever, as long as the rubes do the right thing I can't complain about their foolish reasons. (I've written before about how residential recycling is mainly beneficial for the same kind of reason - not because it actually reclaims resources usefully, but because it raises awareness and causes people to reduce consumption and so on).

Next week's episode of Nonsense will debunk the environmental benefit of "locavorism" or "sustainable" food production.


George McBay said...

Hybrid cars are like Xbox Live Achievements for Green-ness. Buying one doesn't necessarily make you any greener than the next guy, but it does give you a badge to show off how "green" you are.

While it would be nice if humans were rational and unselfish enough to make positive changes without such badges to show other people how "noble" they are, by and large they aren't, so I think hybrid cars do serve a useful purpose, albeit one that is a kludgey patch for a common human failing.

cbloom said...

I should say I have no gripe against hybrids.

What bothers me is the political dodge that high technology that's always just over the horizon is going to make a huge difference. The fact is if every current hybrid driver stopped driving completely, it would hardly help at all, but if every current truck driver switched to a Civic it would make a huge difference.

old rants