Friday, July 30, 2010

Don't laugh!

The long-anticipated Chevrolet Volt, General Motors' electric car, will cost $41,000, the company announced Tuesday, leaving consumers to decide whether its environmental appeal is worth a price far above that of similarly sized conventional autos.

Electric-car technology has been around for years, but the high cost to make the vehicles has prevented automakers from producing them for the mass market. The price announcements for the Volt and its electric rival, the Nissan Leaf, have been highly anticipated as a result. Nissan, the only other major manufacturer expected to bring such a vehicle to market this year, said the Leaf will cost $32,780.

Although the prices are high, enthusiasts say that electric cars can reach a large, untapped market for vehicles with little or no tailpipe emissions.

The Volt can travel 40 miles on its battery charge and an additional 340 miles on a gasoline-powered generator. The all-electric Leaf has a range of 100 miles.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama pledged to put 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015.

In developing the Volt, GM is seeking to fulfill its promise to Congress during the government bailout to move beyond gas-guzzlers. The company had been planning the Volt long before it neared bankruptcy last year, however, as an attempt to leapfrog Toyota in the quest for fuel-efficient vehicles.

The president has expressed optimism that automakers will be able to lower the price tag of electric-vehicle technology. Earlier this month, he suggested that major reductions in battery costs, one of the primary reasons electric cars are more expensive, are on the horizon.

Price is only one potential barrier to mass adoption, however. Consumers must also get accustomed to plugging the cars in at home. It takes hours to recharge the vehicles, and in the absence of a network of public recharging stations, drivers that run out of juice may need a tow truck.


New Scientist makes things up

How unsurprising

New Scientist has published a rather remarkable leader to go alongside its interview of Phil Jones:
For years, ruthless climate sceptics have harassed scientists, drowning them in freedom of information requests and subjecting them to vicious personal attacks. Climategate was merely the public face of this insurgent war. In that hostile climate, some scientists fired off personal emails that occasionally lacked decorum. The CRU accepts this. When will their opponents apologise for their own excesses?

It would be interesting to see whether the leader writer at New Scientist can explain from where they got the idea that CRU had drowned under FoI requests. This was not the finding of the inquiries. The Information Commissioner specifically told the Parliamentary Inquiry that the level of FoI requests was nothing out of the ordinary:

I am also bound to say that I think a figure of around 60 [requests] has been mentioned. That does not strike me as being an absolutely huge number...I do recall one example—I think it involved Birmingham City Council—where an individual made about 200 requests about a particular allotment site in Birmingham and how that was being developed.

I'd like to invite whoever it is that wrote this column to provide some backing for their claim - perhaps someone who is registered at the New Scientist website can pass the invitation on.


Obama’s Solar Energy Fantasy

In true postmodern fashion, objective facts have vanished in the mist of a progressive wish.

Obama has now committed $2 billion more of the taxpayers’ money to pursue his solar energy fantasy:

"Abound Solar is supposed to create 1,500 “permanent” jobs, while Abengoa Solar is promising just 85 “permanent” jobs, according to the Department of Energy fact sheet, at its plant in Arizona. Add another 3,600 construction jobs, which will disappear after the three plants are built, and the cost per job created still amounts to $386,000 — which is more than seven times the median household income in this country."

Forget for a moment the absurdly high cost of government-created jobs. Forget the boondoggle, the corruption of handing out huge sums to politically connected companies. There are more fundamental problems here.

This is more than a repeat of the 19th century’s error of subsidizing railroad construction. That effort had disastrous results, with huge sums and effort wasted. It led to massive corruption, as congressmen were bribed to continue the subsidies. The roads didn’t pay.

According to Prof. Burton Folsom of Hillsdale College, author of The Myth of the Robber Barons:

"The Union Pacific and Central Pacific were poorly built railroads, they went broke, and both cost the nation over $60,000,000 to build – a sum higher than the total national debt just a decade before they were built."

Here, though, the situation is even worse than simple crony capitalism, given its unique 21st century twist. The wrinkle is that at least in the 1860s it was possible to deploy a technology that could conceivably fulfill its purpose. Trains could potentially deliver freight and passengers from point A to B in a cost-effective way. No such claim can be made for large-scale solar power technology, at present.

It would be bad enough for the federal government to subsidize the construction of solar power projects if they worked. It would still be an inefficient use of resources; it would still exceed its constitutionally enumerated powers; it would still be an immoral redistribution of wealth to politically connected companies. But at least in that case American taxpayers — somewhere — might get a Hoover Dam out of the deal. In this instance, that’s simply impossible.

There is no known solar technology that can reliably deliver large-scale power in a cost-effective way. There is nothing even in the research stages that promises that result anytime soon, if we just throw enough R&D money at the right company. This is nothing less than a sheer waste of public funds to create a mere appearance, a chimera to satisfy the vanity of a powerful Green demagogue longing to appear visionary.

In true postmodern fashion, objective facts have vanished in the mist of a progressive wish.

The projects can’t actually improve the environment through the deployment of huge solar panels. Installing large panels takes large tracts of land in sunny areas, usually far from electricity consumers. That means building more roads, stringing longer cable, and handling more cadmium (a heavy metal needed to produce the panels). That’s before even considering liberal shibboleths like producing copious greenhouse gases and disrupting the habitat of native desert species.

No matter. In the manner of applying failed Keynesian economics to energy production, just build them ever bigger and what seems like a drawback magically becomes an advantage. Parallel to the economic error, such projects look only at the immediately visible effects, not the whole picture.

They can’t actually create power economically. Because of clouds and seasonal variations, all solar power plants require backup from other sources, such as coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plants. That’s solving the problem twice, increasing the costs. And that doesn’t even count the still woefully low efficiency of current solar technology, technology no one yet knows how to radically improve.

No problem, according to the postmodernist. Just pretend. Pretend hard enough and circumstances will comply. No need to feel constrained any longer by objective reality; there’s no such thing. There are only different perspectives. Just wish upon a star and your dreams can come true.

Spot a contradiction in the plan? Just take a “wider perspective” and all contradictions vanish in the haze of “competing narratives.” Hegel’s philosophy has been Disneyfied by Dewey’s followers and the resultant over-made up hag is ravaging American energy policy.

But reality always has the last word and it’s never soft on self-deluded dreamers. Unfortunately for us, it’s even harder on those forced to go along for the ride and pay the fare besides, especially on a train going nowhere.


Sustainability: Not just for environmentalists

Busybodies, left and right, seem extraordinarily talented at coming up with buzzwords to justify imposing their visions of a better world at the cost of our freedom. Environmentalists are a good example.

The latest in environmental buzzwords is “sustainability.” Of every act we take with respect to the natural world we must ask: Is it “sustainable”? My university even has a position devoted to overseeing its environmental sustainability.

Conceptually, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of sustainability. Even though it is rarely defined rigorously by its supporters, it seems to mean something like: “making sure we leave enough for future generations.” That vagueness is a reason why it makes such a good buzzword: Who is against ensuring that we don’t exhaust resources and leave future generations with nothing?

Of course, libertarians have raised a number of objections to the means by which many environmentalists would try to ensure that we treat nature sustainably. It’s not at all clear that free markets are the enemy of the natural world — and even less clear that government is its friend.

What is interesting is that environmentalists who are hostile to markets are blind to how they embody concern with sustainability. In a Freeman article awhile back I made a similar point about how economists and environmentalists talk past each other about the idea of scarcity. Much of that argument applies to sustainability.

Many environmentalists apparently assume that owners of resources in a free market have an incentive to use them up as quickly as possible for short-run profit, with no reason to care about their long-term sustainability. What environmentalists miss is that in a competitive market the price system informs us if we are behaving in an unsustainable way and provides us with the incentive both to restrict our use of resources and to search for substitutes.

When the supply of a resource becomes more scarce relative to demand, its price rises. This signals to users that the good is more scarce and provides an incentive for them to reduce their quantity demanded, which “sustains” the resource in ways that would not happen without the price signal. The rising price also encourages entrepreneurs to look for substitutes, which will also make the original resource use pattern more sustainable.

Beyond that, the process of finding substitutes promotes “sustainability” by providing new ways of solving old problems. One of the problems with the standard environmentalist view of sustainability is that it is overly static and seems to assume that our goal should be to ensure that current patterns of resource use are sustainable into the indefinite future. The only way to achieve that goal would be to limit innovation and thereby dramatically reduce or reverse economic growth, impoverishing billions.

By contrast, the economist’s conception of sustainability is more dynamic and recognizes that the goal is not to sustain a specific pattern of input use, but to create an institutional environment in which human beings can respond to changes in the demand for and supply of resources in ways that ensure their wants can continue to be satisfied at progressively lower cost, leading to the enrichment of all. It is free markets that create exactly this institutional environment.

One last aspect of sustainability has to do with the role of government. Both Ludwig von Mises’s theory of interventionism and the Austrian theory of the business cycle have at their theoretical core the idea that government intervention in the market leads to patterns of activity that are not sustainable.

Intervention creates unintended consequences that tend to lead to more intervention, which itself creates more problems. Inflation creates a pattern of capital use — the boom of the business cycle — that will eventually collapse for lack of real resources. The current recession is the result of government-caused unsustainability.

The lesson for environmentalists is that they should see free markets as friends of sustainability and at least consider that, at both the microeconomic and macroeconomic levels, government intervention is sustainability’s enemy.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Back in time BORAL Ltd was big in auto LPG (BORAL actually stands for Bitumen Oil Refinery Australia Ltd). Some bright spark in HO decided that new cars would be purchased to only run on LPG. It took only two trips for accountants visiting country sites (on the concrete side) to abandon vehicles which ran out of fuel and catch a taxi back home, to have the policy changed to have duel fuel vehicles.
Having a generator for charging batteries is not as efficient as direct coupling the wheels to a motor. It is even worse when the costs of the vehicles which reflect material input are added to the economic equation.