Who killed the firefighters?

Riverside County has put a $100,000 price on the heads of the arsonist[s] who got beered up and set a fire that has killed four or five firefighters (one is hanging by a thread in the hospital, badly burned) and is at 24,000 acres and growing. What they did is certainly murder and they should be prosecuted if we can find them. But just because the arsonists are guilty shouldn’t distract us from all the other things that doomed the firefighters. These fall into three categories, and the second two are people behaving badly:

I. Constraints

(A) The immutable physical linkages among pressure, temperature, and volume in a gas (air) means that when dry air slides down a mountain, usually opposite the prevailing wind direction, it gets hotter and drier. PV=nRT, and the adiabatic lapse rate is about 5 deg. F/1000 ft whether we like it (or believe it) or not. When, not if: places like California (Santa Ana), Provence (Mistral), North Africa (Scirocco), Austria (Foehn) regularly experience this hot, dry wind. Regularly.

(B) Mediterranean climate, meaning long summers with no rain, and a resulting ecology of regular wildfires and plants adapted to them.

(C) Lightning ignites fires.

II. Private choices

(A) People go into environments like the one experiencing this fire, build houses, and live in them.

(B) Other people go into these environments, whether by road or off-road vehicles, with widely varying judgment, experience, and moral fitness to be left unsupervised. Some among them will start fires, on purpose or accidentally.

III. Public policy

(A) Land use, zoning, tax policy, and road construction choices permit and facilitate human habitation of these extremely dangerous places.

(B) Emergency services, especially firefighting, are deployed to protect structures and citizens where possible when (again, not if) the fire occurs.

(C) Insurance companies, though heavily regulated in many ways, are not obliged to charge premiums that reflect the real expected cost of choices like II (A); indeed, they are under heavy political pressure to keep insurance “affordable” for people who enjoy living in dangerous places, and enjoy it even more if they can get everyone else (taxpayers and other policyholders) to pay for their risks.

There’s nothing to be done about category I, and little for II(B). But the firefighters died, heroically, trying to save a house. What was it doing there? The homeowners, whose reckless decision to live in a fire zone of canyons and steep slopes, have not been identified in news stories that treat the arsonists as the unique cause of the tragedy [update 28/X/06: now they have]; neither have the Riverside County supervisors who chose to enable citizen behavior that is certain to lead to outcomes like this, nor the state insurance regulators who enabled a systematic deception of the homeowners about the risks they were creating. Firefighters will die as long as we have buildings, but foolish land use policy will kill a lot more of them.

Fires will be set, by people (accidentally or on purpose) or by lightning. This landscape will burn. Just as surely, as my father used to say, as God made little green apples, beaches and seaside cliffs will erode, hurricanes will blow, flood plains will flood, and living in places like those entails absolutely certain disasters. Some firefighters’ doom was sealed when people moved out into the chaparral canyons, we just didn’t know which ones’.

What about earthquakes? Good question: the answer is that we do a lot better pricing the risk (bought any earthquake insurance in California lately?) than we used to, and it’s much easier to build for personal and building survivability in a seismic zone than to do the same for fires and floods. We built San Francisco in the wrong place before we realized how dangerous it was, but that’s no reason to keep making such mistakes in new hazard zones, especially at public expense.

Trees and chalk dust
    as serious energy conservation

How much energy could we save by planting more trees in urban areas and increasing the albedo of roofs, roadways, and parking lots?
Plenty, it appears, and at modest cost.

“Conservation” as an answer to our energy problems is mostly a dodge. Just how, I’d like to know, are we going to bring about conservation, other than by taxing energy use, for which there’s no substantial political support right now and which most advocates of “conservation,” including St. Albert Gore, don’t explicitly endorse? What are the costs, and the opportunity costs, of the proposed conservation measures? And will they save more than the rounding error in our estimates of future energy consumption?

There are, however, at least two conservation measures that have, as far as I can tell, modest costs (and in one case huge side-benefits) and potentially substantial energy-saving potential. Both have to do with reducing the “heat island” effect that makes cities much hotter than the surrounding countryside, causing discomfort (if not worse) and pushing up air-conditioning usage.

Today’s Washington Posthas a story about tree-planting in urban areas. The numbers are spectacular. In Los Angeles, tree-planting could reduce temperatures by as much as 5 degrees F., in addition to reducing air pollution and improving visibility. Yet apparently the urban, and especially suburban, tree cover ratios have been shrinking severely.

It also turns out that much of the “heat island” effect stems, not from the concentration of heat-producing activities, but from the fact that urban surfaces, especially walls, roofs, roadways, and parking lots, are a lot darker, on average, than rural landscapes. Lower albedo means more retained radiant energy. Replacing a black roof with a white one, or lightening up roadway and parking-lot asphalt by mixing in some chalk dust, could make a substantial difference at a trivial cost.

The problem is organizing to get the trees planted and the surfaces lightened. Giving away seedlings is one way to get homeowners to grow trees; an alternative would be to provide a small reduction in property tax for each tree on a lot. The roof-and-parking-lot problem could be handled with either incentives or building-code modifications; the roadway problem is just a matter of changing the specifications when road-building and repair contracts are let. But of course all that is much easier to write than it is to do in practice. (Not all trees, for example, are created equal.)

Still, compared to other ways of reducing energy use and cleaning urban air, trees and high-albedo surfaces seem ridiculously cheap.

There’s a big political problem here. A candidate who says he’s going to deal with our energy problem by drilling in ANWR will have his opinion taken seriously by reporters and pundits, even though the actual contribution of such drilling to reducing imports is trivial. But a national-level politician who proposed tree-planting or chalk dust would wind up the butt of jokes on late-night TV. Somehow the ideas lack gravitas. I have no clear idea what to do about that.

In the meantime, a Governor or Mayor who wants to hone his environmental credentials on the cheap (fiscally and politically) could do a lot worse than pushing these programs.

Subsidies and green[er] fuels

I’ve published an exquisitely reasoned and balanced discussion – OK, a rant – on subsidies and by extension, minimum fuel content requirements and their whole inefficient, rent-peddling, heavy-handed, intrusive ilk, pant pant pant, in the SF Chronicle this morning. It pleads for a carbon charge:

What we should be doing, instead of the current incredibly complex and ill-targeted package of subsidy programs, is to charge for using the Earth’s limited ability to accept carbon dioxide in the air. A carbon charge (which analysts say should increase gas prices anywhere from a nickel to as much as $1.50 a gallon) would make gasoline, oil, coal and natural gas reflect their true cost. It would make ethanol or biodiesel much more expensive if manufactured with coal, and somewhat more if manufactured with natural gas, than those fuels made with minimal fossil fuels — which is how it should be. And it would set in motion a cascade of adjustments through the economy that wouldn’t have to be coercive (like the current federal fuel economy standards for cars) and wouldn’t have the very expensive errors inevitable with subsidies and regulations.

Ethanol policy for hot weather

This post invites notices of the best ethanol vehicles for a really hot summer afternoon and evening. We know about Sangria, gin and tonic (and that it must be made with Tanqueray), mint julep and rum punch (and that they are very strong and deceptively so), bloody Mary, and thanks to NPR last week, the Pimm’s cocktail. What about more obscure survival potions? Anyone still drink a Southside?

My nomination is Campari and Tonic; substitute Campari for the gin in a gin and tonic, lemon or lime are OK for the squeeze.

What’s a valley worth?

Many years ago, around the time William Mulholland proposed to “stop the waste” by damming Yosemite Valley into a reservoir, the city fathers of San Francisco did exactly that with the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was a comparably beautiful place. It’s now proposed to demolish the dam and “reclaim” the valley, and to do so while preserving a water supply for the Bay Area would cost between three and ten thousand million dollars.

Is this a good idea? It’s hard to think about numbers so large, or unique natural treasures, especially as this is not a question of preserving a going-concern ecology but doing an experiment; no-one really knows what will come back when it’s been under water for seven decades.

If it’s a California resource, we’re talking about spending at least $1000 per person. What would we get for it? Obviously, people would go and visit. Currently Yosemite next door gets more than 3 million visits a year; perhaps as many would also go to Hetch Hetchy, perhaps they would just divide and half go to each. Choosing a price in the middle of the guesstimate range, say seven thousand million, the annual cost would be about $350 million (at 5%); that would be $100 per visit if it matches Yosemite, possibly twice as much if there’s no additional tourism. $100 is the price of two medium seats at the opera or a nice dinner out; it’s neither a ridiculous number that makes the proposal look silly, nor a ridiculous number so low that it’s a gimme. Reducing the $100 per visit are all the benefits people get from just knowing such a wonderful place exists, or reading about it and seeing pictures, benefits no less real because they are received by people who don’t experience it directly.

While I still lived in Boston, Tip O’Neill had the nice idea to give his congressional district, and those around it, a nice retirement present, namely a thousand million federal dollars to bury one of the most ill-conceived, badly designed, blighting, and ugly fruits of the urban freeway era. At the time, a lot of people I knew thought that was a really silly way to spend that much money in Boston. Now that the Big Dig is complete, it’s totally obvious to me, without a doubt, that it would be hard to find a way to improve the quality of life for Bostonians more for a one-time expense of five hundred bucks (the urban area has about two million people in it), even if it were local money. It’s completely transformed a whole swath of the downtown, never mind the millions adjoining landowners have made. Would Paris pay this kind of money for the Champs Elysées? I’m sure, and properly so.

However, the project cost fourteen thousand million and the meter is still running. $7000 per person once; not such an obvious good deal, especially considering that lots of those two million don’t get downtown to enjoy it very often. It’s another awkward number that doesn’t settle the issue either way. $350 per year forever…a dollar a day? Somehow it seems to make more sense that way.

In 1903, a bunch of civic leaders in New York had the insane idea to build a railway under the streets of Manhattan, threaded among existing sewer pipes and building foundations, four tracks wide to allow express service, and extend it way out into the farms of the Bronx three tracks wide (though elevated rather than underground out in the boondocks). It’s hard to justify heavy rail transit investments by the tools of benefit-cost analysis, but it’s obvious to me that this (and the parallel and intersecting lines that followed it) would be a bargain for the city even if it had to buy them again for zillions. Something like this, a serious and comprehensive investment in urban transportation rather than a tentative dabble such as LA is fooling with, changes the whole quality of life of a region. New Yorkers can go where they want, not have to park when they get there, come home at any hour of the night, and do so from childhood (my parents never had to chauffeur me to anything). When they’re not in the train or bus, they’re on their feet encountering their neighbors, not sealed in tin boxes on a freeway. What’s that worth in money? What analysis would be persuasive either way?

Corn stoves (really)

These are backordered all over Minnesota. At current wholesale prices, corn (that’s kernels, not the whole plant) and natural gas cost about the same per unit of available energy as fuel. These stoves have automatic auger feeds and can be left alone for a long time, unlike wood stoves, and can burn pelletized fuel like wood as well.

For some reason, I was appalled to learn about this idea when I first heard it. I have no problem with growing trees as combustion fuel for well-designed equipment that doesn’t pollute the air, indeed I have put many cords of nice hardwood up chimneys. I have no problem growing corn as fuel for people, or as fuel for cows grown as fuel for people. I’m slightly uncomfortable, but only slightly, brewing corn into motor fuel, but it never bothered me that corn (and other grains) go into bourbon and beer.

On reflection, I can’t articulate a rational objection to dumping edible corn into a stove if the price is right, but it still seems vaguely immoral, sort of like Rodolfo and Marcello trying to decide whether to burn Rodolfo’s manuscript or Marcello’s painting to keep warm. Am I having an atavistic refugee-mentality attack?

Is ethanol really green?

Wrong question. Do you mean ethanol made from irrigated corn grown with heavy fertilization and lots of herbicides and pesticides, trucked to a plant that uses coal to distill the beer and to dry the leftover distillers dried grain so it won’t spoil on the way to the cows that eat it? Not very green; you’re not doing the planet much of a favor using it, but you are subsidizing it 50c per gallon. Or did you mean ethanol from low-input corn, brewed up in a plant that sends wet DDG to a feedlot next door and turns the cow poops into methane that runs the plant? That one, about to hit the ground in Nebraska where I just spent the week hanging out with academics and farmers in the corn and ethanol business, will get the same 50c, but it’s a lot better for the planet than gasoline. (You have to like feedlots, which many do not, to feel good about this one.) Both kinds are nice for corn farmers, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland, of course.

Software promised for delivery in six months used to be called “vaporware” in the computer business. Several kinds of vaporol are in the air. One is ethanol from cellulose (grass, wood chips, almost any plant material), which requires another chemical processing step to break the cellulose into pieces yeast considers bite size, but can use whole plants, including varieties that make more sense in many places than corn. Another is butanol, an alcohol that can be transported in pipelines and has more energy per pound than ethanol. Both are between the gleam in the eye stage and real economic products. Going the other way, for simplicity, sugarcane and sweet sorghum produce buckets of sugar water, just what yeast likes, in one mechanical step, and the stalks can be burned or put through a cellulose process. But all of these, like corn, are more complicated than they appear environmentally even though they look like good research and development bets. Sugarcane is actually more of a political than a scientific or engineering issue, having to do with price supports that are Congress’ gift to a few really rich Republicans in Florida (and the corn folks, who sell lots of high-fructose corn syrup that would never survive in a free market against sugar), and import restrictions that forbid the Brazilians to send us cane ethanol at a price that would make us all happy.

Whether it’s petroleum displacement for national security or greenhouse gas emissions you care about, or both, it’s absurd to treat all ethanol the same as a matter of policy. It matters what it’s made from, and how it’s made. Subsidies and regulatory support need to differentiate the good ethanol from bad and mediocre, a task that would be relatively simple if we enact a carbon charge on fossil fuels but will be expensive and complicated if it entails keeping track of multiple streams of ethanol that get mixed together in a commodity market.

In any case, don’t mistake any of this for a solution to the energy crisis, no matter how you understand the latter phrase: if all the corn grown in the US were turned into ethanol, leaving nothing for corn flakes and muffins (but a mountain of DDG for the cows, probably more than they can handle), it would replace less than a fifth of the gasoline we use. Enjoy our current low energy prices while you can, but practice the sure-fire antidote: use less.

Energy Policy

Last week I attended the 2006 Haagen-Smit Symposium, an annual conference on varying issues affecting air quality in California and more broadly, named after the Cal Tech professor who “invented” smog (that is, he figured out what it was and how it was generated, and whipped some up in the laboratory to prove it) and is deservedly a California science hero. The event is laid on by the Air Resources Board, a state agency with the interesting philosophy that public policy outcomes will be constrained by the realities of the physical universe as science reveals them, and that policy and management choices should recognize this.

This year’s meeting was about transportation fuels, and was pervaded necessarily by the political kerfuffle occasioned by $3 gasoline but also by the recent discovery by national politicians of the alternative fuels issue. The presentations were of the usual sort for a meeting of this kind: scientists and engineers presenting research results, staff from NGOs pitching better- and worse-conceived policies and programs, and flacks from oil and car companies with really slick slides telling us in the former case that “we get it, but of course that’s all in the future and now we need to drill and pump and stop subjecting refinery and LNG facilities to all these silly environmental rules” and in the latter, that “we get it, but of course we have to make vehicles people want to buy” and in both cases, “…and please don’t muss up our market with regulations and government meddling.” I should note that the Honda speaker cast a very dark cloud over the GM guy, who of course had a pretty weak hand to play.

It was a very interesting couple of days; I learned a lot and met some very smart folks. The big message for me, and for others as indicated by repeated recitation of the phrase, is that “there’s no silver bullet”: do not expect a one-shot, relatively painless, fix for the intertwined challenges of global warming, international trade balances, and petro-politics. Obviously all the petroleum in the ground, and maybe even all the coal, will be burned; the big task is to burn them much more slowly than we do now, partly so they last longer for what they’re really good for, and partly so the atmosphere can cope with the CO2 releases. No single fuel regime –and we heard about all of them, from hydrogen (made with one or another low-carbon source, like solar or nuclear) to ethanol and biodiesel (essentially biological solar collecting systems), will displace enough petroleum to arrest global warming or disentangle us from the wretched governments endowed with so much of the oil (perhaps the intelligent designer’s laptop had a virus on oil-allocation day?). Every one of these has a really daunting set of problems, whether economic, political, or technical, that will constrain its scope and brake its rollout.

One technology that’s a fur piece down the road but could really change everything is carbon sequestration. If we can catch the CO2 coal burns into and put it somewhere–the bottom of the ocean has some promise here–for a really long time (millenia) at manageable cost we could be in the combustion business (which in turn lets us make almost anything at a manageable price) for generations. But we won’t be in the $75/barrel oil combustion business; convenient energy will cost more than we’re in the habit of paying. Some technical challenges seem to be much more refractory than we expected: a “really good battery”, with two to four times the energy density of current chemistries, continues to be right around the corner as it has been for two or three decades, and one fears, always will be.

I have been looking in on energy issues since I started professing at MIT in the 70s, and a discouraging amount of current debate hasn’t moved far since. I can’t believe it’s still possible for an oil flack to show a slide with “demand” and “supply” represented as two lines diverging into the future, with the space between them labeled ‘shortage’ (and usually colored a scary red) to a roomful of educated adults and not be laughed off the stage. [In case you have been bemused by this intellectually reprehensible trick: demand and supply are not numbers but functions, especially functions of price. It’s meaningless to give “petroleum demand in 2040” as a number without stating the price assumed for it; same for supply.] For some reason, the hundred-odd attendees apparently included almost no economists or policy analysts, and the discussion frequently suffered for it. A lot of the discussion would have made sense if gasoline prices were historically high now, but of course they aren’t, only about where they were in 1980 in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. Which are, of course, the only, um, real kind. Back in the day, we really didn’t know whether there was a price-elasticity of demand for any kind of energy, nor whether the relationship between energy and GNP was absolutely fixed. Now we do, but a surprising amount of the meeting’s policy discussions implicitly assumed (for example) that prices just don’t affect consumption. A big take-away for me was the value of teaching engineers more policy analysis and public sector economics– yes, and teaching my own students more real science. C.P. Snow would still wring his hands at the two-culture gulf.

Two things that oddly never came up were nuclear power, which would seem to be a very important way one might generate hydrogen without putting carbon in the air, and land use and development practice, which is obviously a central driver of vehicle fuel consumption. To live in, heat, and cool a big one-story house on a half-acre of thirsty turf, never encounter anyone you don’t intend to meet, drive alone wherever you’re going, and park free when you get there may or not be a basic human right, and it may or may not be what people [think they] want so badly that higher fuel prices can’t change anything. But they may also be physically inconsistent criteria that cannot be satisfied by building lane-miles or any other government program or private choices. They may also constitute the kind of desire the wise learn not to follow, like another helping of dessert or invading Iraq to prove you’re better than your daddy. In any case we need more public discussion like Joel Kotkin’s (wrong but thoughtful) op-ed linked above before we become really desperately trapped by an installed base of unlivable infrastructure.

Petroleum follies

In my line of work, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about policies that could be a lot better if they were redirected or revised somewhat, even a lot. But the gas price story is unusual in the near unanimity with which public figures and commentators are competing to find a way to make things worse instead of better. I recall few debates in which so nearly everyone isn’t just mistaken, but has the sign wrong, looking for ways to move in precisely the wrong direction.

Aside from the occasional glimmer, like John Tierney’s commendable take in his April 29 column (he proposes a classic Pigovian tax on gasoline returned to “everyone” in a way that doesn’t tangle the scheme up with a zillion other good purposes (for example, per capita checks, or deposit to the Social Security trust fund)), the ideas in play are the most disheartening collection of wrongheaded and ill-informed goofiness I can recall…well, maybe abstinence-only sex education is up there.

I don’t know where to start with this stuff. Hydrogen is not a fuel, and neither is electricity. There’s no mine for either of them; if people start plugging in cars into the wall, power plants of all kinds will just rev up faster and longer, and the marginal electricity is made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that’s only somewhat less greenhousy than oil, though a lot less than coal. These cars have to haul an enormous stack of heavy batteries around, and half the energy that goes into the power plant is lost in the transmission and generation system anyway. “Clean coal” doesn’t mean “coal that doesn’t cause global warming,” it means less pollution of every other kind: coal, clean or not, is the worst greenhouse fuel until we figure out how to capture all the stack gas and put it somewhere (this is called carbon sequestration, and it’s a very long-term, daunting, technological road at this point).

As a piece of social policy, one has to wonder about the wisdom of slapping a big tax on the only people who are providing any of this oil we want so badly. One doesn’t even have to wonder about the whole concept of all the schemes to make oil less expensive; did the demand curve for petroleum suddenly tilt the other way while we weren’t looking? One more time, what’s the logic of subsidizing domestic production and exploration: is there some prize for being the first country to use up its petroleum?

When I did wind tunnel research on how tall buildings affect the street-level winds around them, the architects always asked whether some sort of canopy over the door would help, and we had to explain that the wind is very big, and so is the building, so anything that would change the way the wind blows also has to be very big. The oil system is very big, and poking at it with tiny instruments like deposits to the strategic oil reserve, or rushing to slurp out the two years’ worth of oil imports in ANWR, are not going to make any important difference. Actually, no bullet is silver, even though we desperately want to think wind power, or biofuels, or nuclear, or turning off the lights more carefully, will “solve” the energy crisis. Lots of these will be incrementally helpful, but none of them is as big as the oil flow we’ve become habituated to, and every one has a really sobering social price of one kind or another.

Petroleum is not like solar energy. Fossil fuels are a stock, not a flow, of sunlight that was stored up over millions of years when no-one needed to drive kids to the soccer game. We’ve had a nice century drawing down that bank account, and it’s over. Maybe, as Rick says, not right away, but soon. “Soon” in policy earthquake terms is a few decades. There’s lots of coal, but if we start really playing that game with current technology (that is, burning it into CO2 that goes into the air), a lot if it will be used up (for example) keeping Europeans warm in a subarctic climate when the Gulf Stream stops. Of course the beach will much easier to drive to as it moves inland.

What will make a difference is to use a lot less, and using less oil means real behavioral change on a broad, retail level. It absolutely doesn’t mean making gasoline cheaper! We’re talking about things like living in smaller houses, close enough together to get people out on their feet and bicycles, and into trains and trams. Of course this has all sorts of quality-of-life payoffs in my view, but it’s a hard sell to a society that treats “get in my big car alone, drive where I’m going at 60 mph, and park free when I get there” as some sort of basic moral right. Still, I cannot understand a family that would rather have a house and a big yard that Mom and Dad don’t play with their kids in because they’re on the road commuting three hours a day, than an apartment with a playground nearby that the family can actually occupy and enjoy each other in…

We should be talking about paying a lot of taxes to pay for things like transit and community swimming pools where we can enjoy our neighbors, instead of the thousands of backyard pools that have no-one in them almost all the time, and community soccer fields instead of the ridiculous little patches of green that are useless once the kids are school age. We should be talking about having less stuff, and less house that needs to be filled up with it, and more shopping for it locally, on our feet, with a little wheely shopping cart instead of an SUV. What could possibly make up for having less stuff, though? Well, how about listening to more music and making more of it ourselves? And dinner with friends who come on the bus and don’t have to find a parking place is a pretty low-impact, high-quality life experience…

We’re not talking about those things, though; we’re talking (praying, actually) about making it not so, please. Our politics have a long, toxic tradition of candidates’ and voters’ mutual infantilization. The politicians treat an election, or an office, as the worst thing one can lose, and promise to fix everything with a trick that won’t require any actual work by us; we vote for people who tell us fairy tales that would excuse us from any heavy lifting if they were true, and excuse us from confronting downers and grownup responsibilities if we pretend to believe. This game is being played at a really frenzied level around gas prices, and the mix of ignorance and plain mendacity both parties are wallowing in is–this is really amazing–neck and neck with the immigration performance in the theater next door.