Texas Drought, Global Heat,

This picture is plastered all over the front page of the Austin daily paper, with the caption

“With the Pedernales River nearly empty Thursday at the Texas 71 bridge near Spicewood, a dock is left high and dry.”

The accompanying story is about the difficulty in obtaining drought aid.

On the weather page, meanwhile, is the advice that the high temperature may be below 100 for several days running next week. Around here, of late, this is news!

Austin had its second hottest June on record, and July is also a candidate for record territory.

Globally last June was the second hottest June on record. Meanwhile, no less than Roy Spencer’s group is presenting preliminary advice that the global mean temperature reached its hottest value on record last week.

Remarkably, amid all this swelter, northern North America has been quite cool this summer. True to form, the denial sites are eager to point that out. Shouldn’t the sweltering southwest be getting equal time? What about that global data, hmmm?

Oh, right, you’re an advocate. You get to pick which evidence you like. Sorry. Silly me. I forgot.

Avant Garde Biofuels

An aggie fellow (that is, from Texas A&M, our rivals), Robert Avant is apparently a big player in biofuels. He came and gave a talk today at the Pickle campus on the outlook for biofuels.

He’s the kind of authentic, down-to-earth Texan that I like but it tends not to be mutual. (Think Boone Pickens.) Thick Texas drawl, refering to the “aah” states (meaning Illinois, Indiana, and “Aahwah”, you know, the corn belt states whose names all happen to start with the letter “aah”) when talking about corn ethanol, which he didn’t talk about much. He was wearing beige pants, a pale blue button down shirt, and a loud, wide tie featuring bluebonnets (the state flower) and a huge,lone star flag image, but no jacket. He’s a professional engineer and exudes competence if not exactly sartorial elegance. He said he had recently given a talk in Belgium; I was amused to imagine a roomful of Euros trying to decode his accent.

Avant’s outline slide mentioned carbon benefits but he pretty much avoided the question. His motivation was all “energy security”. When asked about long term climate change he shrugged and said he sure hoped Austin wouldn’t end up lookin’ like El Paso while he was still around to see it, but he made no claim that his efforts might have anything to do with it.

Probably the most interesting thing he said was “I’m an engineer. If you want America to be energy independent I believe we can do it, but you might not like how it would work out.” He referred to ubiquitous windmills and solar installations, nuclear plants, and energy restrictions.

Of course, carbon independent is even harder. Yup. This is not going to be easy.

Avant sees a modestly significant role for biofuels but not a dominant one; perhaps replacing 15% of the oil supply in the US. (He very much has a national focus. The only other country mentioned was Brasil, in admiration of their sugarcane program.)

He was pretty clear that biofuels can’t replace gasoline. He says that nobody will tolerate a new demand on irrigation water, so crops have to grow mostly where there is abundant moisture and sun. His focus then was on east Texas and points east.

He also stressed the enormous scale of the operation. If all the shipments travel by truck, even the 15% replacement would require a fleet of over 100,000 18-wheelers running full time. He seemd to think that was impractical. I wonder how big the truck fleet is now. If I read this right, about 1.5 million tractor-trailer type truck engines, so we’re talking maybe a 10% increase in truck traffic. much of it on remote rural roads. I don;t know if the road quality is a problem. Much as I’d like to see a new freight infrastructure this seems doable.

Avant points out a daunting problem: switchgrass miles (or miles from energy sorghum, pictured, note also pale blue button down shirt with sleeves rolled up) matter a lot. You can’t put so much energy into moving the plants to a processor as to wipe out your energy return. This means in practice that the first stage of processing must be close to the farm, some tens of miles. This is good news and bad news; moving jobs out to rural areas tends to be favored by most sectors, but it means infrasturcture commitment is very localized and thus vulnerable to weather issues and climate shifts not to mention other local issues. This makes for a riskier venture than might otherwise be the case, making financing difficult.

Another interesting business point is that various subsidies now go to landowners who grow food and feed crops. This puts energy crops at a systematic disadvantage. However, this needs to be reconciled with the fact that many people don’t want food crops replaced by energy crops.

No biofuel source is currently price competitive.

As a speculative note, perhaps the most promising thing on the horizon is the prospect for salt-tolerant energy crops. If these can be bioengineered, they can use ground water that other water consumers will not compete for. Of course, in the end this is another nonrenewable energy source, but at least it is a carbon neutral one.

Another exciting prospect is energy from algae farming. There is considerable movement on this front in Texas, since sunlight, a major input, is something we have in ample supply. Many of us will find the world much more appealing if there is carbon neutral jet fuel, which they can now produce in small quantities at outrageous prices. Their production cost needs to fall by a factor of ten to be competitive at foreseeable market conditions. Avant referred to eight technical efforts, five in energy engineering and three in genetic engineering.

All biofuel production is water intensive, on the order of 1400 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline.

On the whole, in short, things are possible but not easy.

Let me make clear that my final thought is not Avant’s, nor probably anyone’s who would wear a Texas flag tie without a hint of irony: many things seem much easier to me if we simply give up eating beef. Most of the “aah” states are covered in cattle feed, you know, not in actual food. If we just eat the soy directly 90% of the time we’d ordinarily have beef, a lot of land would be cleared for biofuels. I understand that it takes 10 calories of cattle feed to produce 1 calorie of beef.

the algae farm from an export promotion site of the Israeli government, though I’m willing to bet the site shown is near El Paso, TX

Sustainable Awesomeness

(Picture: guy in a pink gorilla suit selling some silly thing or other at SXSW;
guy on cellphone at left probably has a more consequential job)

Why am I at SXSWi?

“SXSWi?” regular readers will surely ask. If I tell them it’s locally pronounced “Sowfba enneractive” the confusion may well mount.

“South by Southwest” or “SXSW” (locally pronounced “Sowfba” if you have a sufficently mumbly Texas accent, else “Southbye”) is an annual conference of “indie media” that has turned into one of the main events on the Austin calendar and definitely the biggest thing at the convention center. Next weekend is the culmination, when the musical portion of the event occurs. It’s essentially a meeting of people calling themselves “creatives”. And the “interactive” part is about web professionals, most of them, from the looks of it, about 25, and the seasoned veterans pushing 35 by now.

Why, you ask, would I spend $495 on such an event? The answer is twofold. One is that my usual annual dose of optimism, PyCon, is off the table for this year. (Dang. Last I heard they were using my idea for the T-shirt too!)

Creative professionals, like Python programmers, are an intensely optimistic breed. All my time with doomsters and Fortran programmers tends to make me sour. That, and, the end of the world and stuff. These people come up with lines like “care and feeding of your epic shit” and “sustainable awesomeness”.

This kind of epic shit tends to cheer me up. The amount of creative and fundamentally decent energy in the world is vast. Our only hope is to channel it, but it’s good to remember that it’s there. Admittedly, in this crowd there is a lot of posing to slice through. Fortunately, it’s pretty shallow posing.

The main reason I ponied up for the ticket (aside from it being a local show I could sneak off to without a plane ride, and remember:

) is that I am trying to think about how to become a freelance writer/web content provider/client side web programmer. The logic is inescapable: newspapers are folding, the need for information is expanding, there has to be some way to monetize the demand.

I’m very tired of the science world where the way you prosper is by an endlessly tedious (and increasingly maladaptive) process of going for a sort of collective approval. Yes it’s true, it is still a mostly functioning meritocracy, but my merits don’t map onto it all that well.

I feel that I have something to offer not just as a blogger, but as someone who helps find and implement the business model for the new world, where there is less sharp of a distinction between producer and consumer of intellectual property. We should all be spending more and earning more online. Hey, we could even have “growth” if we did that.

Also, I just need to go to a webby meeting every couple of years lest I lose my edge as someone who understands what is actually going on. But I’m serious. I realize both how big an accomplishment my audience here is and how tiny it is compared to what I would need to make a living freelancing. (Consider: if I could get 100 people to pay a dollar a week to listen to me rant, what a great achievement, and what a feeble income stream!)

So once I had managed to wend my way through the hour-long registration process (almost as miserable an experience as an airport) and started flipping through the over-designed and almost illegible program, I was pleased to see that a session on the future of journalism had just started. I rushed to the session, only to find that the huge (300 people?) room was full and latecomers turned away. Yet this was the event I had come to see.

The speaker of the event was a fellow named Steven B Johnson and I noted he was signing books immediately after, so I decided to say hello and complain about my fate. He is the author of “The Invention of Air”, a book about the discoverer of oxygen, a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism who had a great influence on America’s founders. His talk apparently included “MacWorld mag circa ’87, old-growth forests, 92 election, Obama’s race speech, hyperlocal, and more!” He founded a website called “outside.in” which scrapes the blogs for references to places and aggregates them by locale. All of these imaginative and intelligent achievements are things I can imagine doing. The thing he has done that I can’t conceive of is getting 173,000 followers on Twitter. And yet, that is the scale needed to make writing worth doing as a business rather than as a hobby.

Anyway, Johnson (can I call him Steven on the basis of 37 seconds’ conversation? hell, yes, that’s the way to do it) , Steven I should say, told me he was releasing the talk on the web and I should follow his stream to find out exactly where. Sort of ironic that I paid admission to get that information. And here I am passing it onto you for free.

Update: Here is Steven Johnson’s talk.

Too too contango

The image is lifted from The Oil Drum and shows the progress of oil futures prices over the past couple of months. Normally, future prices are lower than present prices, because of discounting. Discounting amounts to an expectation that you can invest money somewhere else now and buy the commodity at a lower net price because of your profits. So when the curve goes the other way, it’s unusual. According to the site (this is all news to me) this sort of reversal in futures is a prediction of a shortage and is called a “contango”.

This week is apparently the first time ever that all future dates are in contango. There is an expectation of rising prices built into the market even with discounting.

Of course, there’s some sort of tie-in between discounting and the growth imperative, so at some point the whole idea of futures pricing gets a little dicey if you enter a regime where what economists call “growth” is not the normal or long-term condition.

That’s all interesting enough, if a little aside the point of the obsessions of this blog. But there’s this comment from “westexas”:

My 2¢ worth:

In my opinion, we are looking at an accelerating net oil export decline rate, combined with a requirement for an accelerating rate of increase in oil prices, in order to balance supply & demand, as forced energy conservation moves up the food chain.

Let’s take all consumers in all oil importing countries and break them into five groups, and then rank them by income. So, at the bottom of the bottom quintile, we have a poor Third World consumer. At the top of the top quintile, we have Bill Gates. As we go up the income ladder, the cumulative purchasing power vastly increases, which as noted, IMO, suggests a requirement for an accelerating rate of increase in oil prices in order to balance supply & demand.

I think that these two factors will interact–and are interacting–to produce the following oil price trend: $50, $100, $200, $400, $800 . . .

Yeah. This is related to what I am saying about the effectiveness of prices in regulating behavior. We have a world where the distinction between the richest and the poorest is vast. The rich use the vast majority of the resources, and are very price insensitive compared to the poor.

I continue to search for something resembling a decent loaf of bread in Texas, the sort that any average boulangerie in Montreal will sell without a second thought (or a word spoken, but that’s Montreal for you). I don’t know what bread sells for in Montreal these days, but the closest equivalents (usually either too sour and pasty or too grainy and leaden, grumble) sell for almost $4.00 per loaf at Whole Foods or Central Market. (sigh)

Anyway, the cost of the wheat in that bread was what, like two cents. If it doubles to four cents it will not materially affect my decision whether to buy a loaf of somewhat disappointing bread or simply accept the wonderful tortillas on offer and eat tacos instead of sandwiches.

Enough whining. My nostalgia for a decent sandwich is something I can go on endlessly about, but somewhere in the world the difference between two cents and four is making a real impact on the budget of a desperately poor family. Their necessity is impacted long before my discretionary decision is influenced at all.

Similarly, people who can afford Hummers are not the people who care about $4 gas or even, in a lot of cases, $12 gas. I won’t say they dominate fuel usage (there are freight trucks to consider) but they are a major player. High prices don’t change their behavior much.

Families on a tight budget, meanwhile, often have long commutes and their lives are dramatically impacted by these changes.

Putting a price on carbon gives the most wasteful users a pass. When relatively few people were wealthy, when commodities were labor-limited rather than supply-limited, this sort of thing didn’t matter. In the new order, newly-many wealthy people and still-many poor people are bidding on very different uses of the same resources (grain, fuel) that are changing from demand-limited to supply-limited.

I don’t know if anyone saw this particular train wreck coming, but here it is. Commodities rule but prices aren’t effective in reducing demand. This seems madly inflationary to me. It’s also immensely destabilizing since it essentially makes the poor bear the burden of the adjustment, more or less on the grounds that if they wanted that flour badly enough they’d have been willing to bid a dollar on it.

Burnt Orange and Green

A typical Texas intersection
(I’m not exaggerating quite as much as you think I am,
there are literally dozens of intersections on this scale in and around the five biggest cities):

Update on the image above: I should also point out for the non-Texan reader that Texas “urban” (I use the term in its loose southwestern sense) expressways are typically six lanes wide, and paralleled by two-lane one-way commercial streets for a total of ten lanes in four distinct paths. Where two of these expressways cross, it is a requirement that each of the eight crossing paths not only continue but have a path to each of the others for a total of 64 paths; of which twenty-four (the four right turns and the four U turns on the service roads, and all crossings from an express path to an express path) are expected to be unencumbered by stops. In order that I not get too acclimated to this nonsense I insist on calling the U-turns “Texas U-Turns”.

What you see in the picture is the canonical intersection between two large Texas roads. Similar structures are being built and planned daily to replace that hideous inconvenience, the traffic light. For instance, there is currently a vast project to eliminate the embarassment of the possibility of as many as three stops on the stretch of Highway 183 between the airport and I-35. Clearly an expenditure in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars to replace a traffic light is a wise expenditure of funds, which may explain the state of the Texas school system. Not to mention the bike routes. Or not. I’m new here. Who the hell am I to say?

On the plus side my commute to work will only take seven minutes, provided I own a car.

Morning Edition, November 26, 2007 · Texas emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other state. And if Texas were a country, it would be the seventh-largest carbon dioxide polluter in the world. More…

Although second in population to California by a wide margin, Texas has higher emissions.

Texas has a much higher per capita carbon emission rate than other large states, but that is because emissions in mining and refining are attributed to the state with the facility, though they should be charged to the end user of the energy. It’s awfully inefficient here and in some circles conservation is actually frowned upon. Yet it’s not quite as bad as the statistics indicate.

Texas somehow is just an energy nexus. After all that coasting on oil wealth, and the weird Enron incident, now it turns out we are at the continental sweet spot for wind energy, and vast windfarms are sprouting on the high plains.

This proves there’s no justice, I suppose.

A related NPR story goes a long way toward explaining the Texas aesthetic.

Wind energy is transforming the landscape here. Look in nearly any direction from Roscoe and you can see the white towers of wind turbines rising into the cerulean sky like giant candlesticks. The sight of rotating white blades on a distant mesa is now as common as bobbing pump jacks.

Although people in other parts of the nation say the 400-foot-tall structures are unsightly, people around Roscoe have a different view.

“My wife and I talked about this the other day. We were coming in from church, and she said, ‘You know, at first I really thought they were kind of trashy looking,'” says Daylon Althof, a farmer who has one turbine going up on his land. “But she said, ‘The more I see these going up, they’re kind of beautiful because we know what they’re going to provide for the economy around here.'”

I always have found them beautiful.

Nature vs Real estate

Galveston TX is built on a shifting sandbar off the Texas coast, not far from Houston.

Galveston, it appears, is in big trouble even if sea level rise doesn’t accelerate. The Texas Observer has an article called “That Sinking Feeling” detailing how the beach boom town is in denial about the fact that nature trumps real estate. The article only vaguely alludes to the likely outcome, which is that, at least for a while, until some day when the entire enterprise is abandoned, the less well-connected population of the Texas interior will be paying a lot of money to maintain what will essentially become (and is in parts already becoming) a vast and charmless concrete pier.

Texas geophysicists have stirred the pot with an alarming map showing high risk of near-term erosion of large parts of the island.

Geologist John Anderson says he’s tired of explaining the map, and the science behind it, to city officials. “If they do not understand it, they should not be in public office,” he says sternly.

Yet the map is based on an assumption of no acceleration in sea level rise at all.

Unsurprisingly and I think rather poignantly, Galveston real estate interests haven’t really picked up on all the clues we’ve been shipping them. “Global warming, sea-level rise, whether it’s man-made or it’s the natural process we’re going through, that’s to be determined,” one of their leaders, Jerry Mohn, says.

The same issue of the Observer has an unsurprising but remarkably well-stated editorial about climate change. It’s probably worth quoting the juicy bits:

An unassailable majority of the world’s scientists believe that climate change is real, that human activities contribute to it, and that the consequences will be devastating. Yet our president and our governor—such learned men as they are—insist it’s not true. (White House Press Secretary Dana Perino noted last week that global warming has an upside: Fewer people will die from colds. We did not make that up.)

Their flight of fancy might be amusing if they weren’t taking all of us aboard with them. Like many conservatives, they have a curious relationship with science, seeming to believe that adamant ideology can somehow trump empirical data. Perhaps their free-market bent leads them to believe that an invisible hand will hold the polar ice caps together. Or maybe theirs is a faith-based approach: Global warming is a divine creation, or God will come down and make everything all right.

Faulty science is quaint when it’s just a few rubes publishing flat-earth pamphlets. But when their intellectual bedfellows are setting our public policy, things get a bit dicier. Under President Bush, eight years that should have been spent facing up to global warming will have been squandered. Gov. Perry seems to believe that ridiculing the notion of climate change will help win him the second spot on the next GOP ticket or a cabinet post in a future Republican administration.

We don’t have time for this nonsense anymore.