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Sen. Schumer: New slogan for D party, repudiates Clinton [CNN]

After 6 months of focus-grouping and strategizing, Sen Chuck Schumer presented the new “message” of the Democratic party: “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages”, if I remember it correctly (it’s not actually repeated in the article).

Anyway, that’s not too bad. “Good Jobs for All Americans” may’ve been catchier, IMO, but at least the slogan spells out a specific path. As part of the announcement, Schumer repudiated the previous “I’m with Her” slogan of the party’s 2016 campaign.


My reaction: about 18 months too late. Nevertheless, I applaud the recognition that the 2016 strategy was a complete disaster. At this point, the goal for 2018 for Democrats is to prevent the Republicans from making further gains in the Senate – half a dozen Democrat Senate seats in swing states are in play. Winning back the House is technically possible as well, but a long-shot.

upcoming: US energy topics

I think I’m going to try to do a series of short posts in the next month or two on topics relating to US energy- to expand on a bunch of stuff the electric-vehicle post a couple days ago brings up. The ultimate motivation is the political connection. Some subjects:

  • use patterns of electric and generation-fuel in the US, by region (i.e., where the significant improvements can be made, both in environmental impact and cost)
  • wind vs solar in the US, by region
  • battery storage technology, and when it will become competitive
  • economics of competing power generation – capacity utilization, sunk cost, and conditions for one technology to “knock out” another (regardless of subsidies), applied to: coal, natgas, nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, and battery storage.
  • natural gas in the US – shale, pipelines, export, politics, and permitting (or lack thereof, due to ongoing gridlock in the Trump transition)
  • the timing of coal retirement in the US, and the window of opportunity it creates
  • differences in US vs EU electricity and electric-generation-fuel markets
  • more on electric vehicles
  • where electricity infrastructure subsidies in the US actually go, where they could go for max benefit in terms of: cost, environment, political strategy. impact of pressure on state finances.
  • renewable energy in large relatively poor countries around the world

The New Working Class [Gabriel Winant / Dissent]

Another article (from Jun 27) on the troubled relationship of the Democratic party to the working class.


Electric vehicles & Renewable energy

Lovely summer so far. I want to address a subject that is important and also full of some hype: electric vehicles (especially plug-in electrics), and the energy sources which are to power them. Not sure how deep to go here – there is a lot of arithmetic that was rewarding for me to follow in detail but will probably put most people to sleep.

But it has a political dimension, especially with Trump’s overtly anti-environmental bias. The political dimension is that opponents of Trump’s regressive environmental policies frame the issues in exactly the right way to alienate swing-state voters. So I’m hoping to reach maybe one or two such readers here.

Start with some principles – i’ll grossly oversimplify.

  1. If you want environmentally friendly energy policy, you can’t afford to lose elections in all branches of government.
  2. In US politics, you can’t afford to lose the support of everyone who drives pick-up trucks.
  3. When trying to reach an audience who is skeptical of you, you can’t afford to make exaggerated claims that are easily falsified

Ok great. So obviously I’m implying that there is some of #3 going on.

Technology that is available today makes it possible to drive a fully electric plug-in car for hundreds of miles. They’re pretty sweet, I drove a Nissan Leaf around for a little while. However, widespread adoption of plug-in electrics brings several serious challenges, but before I get to those, lets start with the basics.

Per person, the US burns far more than our fair share of the fuel consumed on planet earth. A little under a quarter of our energy is consumed by transportation (US EIA 2017). That is, motor fuels. Half of that is burned by vehicles classified as “light duty, short wheel base” (meaning any thing the size of a Ford Explorer and smaller) (US DOT 2010). It is this class of vehicle, which has potential to have its energy consumption and carbon consumption greatly reduced by EV or hybrid technology.

Further, within that class of “light duty, short wheel base”, 70% of the miles driven, representing something like 35% of national motor fuel consumption, are classified as “urban” (same source).

So in other words, the use case for EV’s is urban and suburban commuter transport. A simpler solution, mass transit, has existed all along but was not adopted. Person-miles traveled by buses for example, is 10% that of small vehicles. Trains? Forget it. Keep this in mind when making appeals to common sense.

But certainly there is incredible room for improvement there — we burn roughly 35% of our motor fuels on commuter transport, and do it in nearly the most inefficient way possible. Why not plug-in EV’s running on clean carbon-free solar?

First of all, at scale – meaning if you tried to upgraded the bulk of the passenger vehicle fleet – you would have some energy transfer problems. This means EV’s used for commuting get charged at home – other options are not realistic, I’ll skip the math here but the energy transfer rates of an EV gas station are large, and consequently fill times are slow, there would be lines at such a gas station, you wouldn’t be able to leave (unless your car drives itself up the line), and it would take long enough to be a major inconvenience. You would charge your EV at home. That’s fine.

If you have a job you would charge it at night. That is a difficulty for the solar power case. Wind power is possible, however. It is also something that is favored in the center states of the US – an important marketing point.

But the more insidious technical-political difficulty is where the energy comes from, and how you market that. Say half the families in your neighborhood change one of their vehicles to a plug-in EV. Therefore, Evening/Nighttime electric use goes up noticeably. (We’re talking like 10-20% overall increase in electric use if you switched out most of the small-vehicle fleet, depending on the size of the EV’s (are we including midsize SUV’s and small pickups?, and depending on the recharge rates). So we’re talking about adding electric generation and transmission capacity. (while at the same time retiring coal and probably Nuclear due to cost if nothing else). Guess what that means? More natgas. A lot more natgas. This is something we should be upfront about.

Why natgas? Why not solar or wind? Because NG is cheap in the US and at this particular time is plentiful. The shales in PA and OH are limited by pipeline capacity and are thought to be able to supply the entire country for a few decades. Thus far, producers are able to dump the wastewater free of charge (Thanks, NY state highways /sarc).

But, you might say, even if the fuel cost of NG is just a couple cents per kWh, solar is free and wind is free? That’s where it gets interesting. Once the plant is built, yes- wind and solar win every time. But to make the decision to build the plant in the first place, you also have to count interest payments and amortization. Compared to solar, NG has lower upfront costs by 2.5x, lower maintenance costs (EIA 2016 , EIA 2017), and after factoring in NG’s higher capacity utilization due to it always being available, its fuel cost is not much more than just the interest payments on the difference that remain! (And an interesting sideshow to this all is how the fate of renewables in the US is closely tied to interest rates!)

Thus, for renewables, the federal government gives loan guarantees to get the rates down. The amortization of the extra upfront cost for renewables then requires federal and state tax credits to cancel out. Then the renewable plant gets built – and it will then always be used since the incremental cost of operating it is very low.

BUT, even if solar and wind can deliver a lower per-kWh cost than natgas, the NG plant will still get built to exactly match the capacity of the renewable plants! That’s because the renewables are not available 100% of the time, but electricity must always be delivered. Thus renewables will ALWAYS have competition, and it will be super cheap, thus federal government help will ALWAYS be needed. Thus you will need to make a political (i.e., rhetorical) case for why the federal government should do this. And because of swing states, you need to appeal to the pickup-truck drivers of America.

Remember this when when making comparisons to the situation in the EU (or select parts of the US where conditions favor renewables). Don’t Bullshit. The majority of US population is not going to be driving plug-in electric cars powered by solar until major breakthroughs happen in both energy transmission and energy storage.

A more realistic thing to promote are hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids as an added bonus. When plugged in, half the electricity may someday come from wind (higher availability than solar, better use of limited resources). Can use regular fuels, don’t inconvenience the drivers. Are able to provide the wishes of US car buyers — namely, a vehicle that can transport a bunch of stuff, produce 200-300 hp to accelerate and climb hills at 70mph (electrics peak at low speeds), and has okay mileage.

All this is possible more or less right now with a turbocharged hybrid, with the electric systems set up primarily to harvest energy for regenerative braking – to boost the mpg but generally consume a liquid fuel at a steady pace with optimal engine conditions, rather than to be used in pure battery-powered mode. It can be made affordable. It can be used for vehicles the size of a midsize family SUV:  2 ton vehicle powered by 2.0L turbo in the 200hp range at full speed, 40mpg, could be 50 mpg if fuels were high octane or diesel (at scale, may incur cost penalty in refineries due to to domestic oil production becoming lighter grade from shale). Anyway… family SUV with 50-100% increase in gas mileage. Get that image in your head. I’m pretty sure the arithmetic says changing all the 20 mpg cars to 40 mpg would be more helpful than changing the 40mpg cars to 100mpg.

Not a good enough solution for suburban cummuters (representing the vast majority of person-miles in the US)? Ok, here’s one that is effectively 300 mpg:

A park-and ride and light rail. Beats EV’s and hybrids every time.

Happy 4th of July!


Qatar: A war over two irreconcilable narratives? [Andreas Krieg / Defence In Depth]

A little more geopolitics for a lushly humid and rainy day.

I recently scanned through a bunch of Wikipedia bios of the many Saudi Princes, trying to glean some insight into what might be going on with the recent reorganization in the succession – and the situation with Qatar. Unfortunately, the history of the Saudi Royal family tree is extensive and therefore bewilderingly confusing, with the cast of characters (princes in charge of key ministries) changing every few years as the crown itself has passed from brother to brother in the royal family. One has better things to do than research the alliances and intrigues of the court, which anyway would not be available to the public.

So instead, here is another perspective, which paints Qatar as a nation actively promoting an anti-authoritarian ideology, which several of its GCC neighbors naturally find threatening.

This of course all leads back to an ongoing hobby, trying to guess which country gets invaded next. Trump seems like he could use some more “action” to distract from the daily humiliations in the media and of course his own foot-in-mouth Twitter routine — even if that all is now his job, essentially.

And if Syria ever stabilizes, and ISIS is finally wiped out, we must remember that the seeds planted by the neocons in the Iraq and Libya still continue to bear fruit – probably several thousand new violent extremists minted each year, worldwide. They will have to go somewhere, which presents a problem.

So for the next decent sized benevolent intervention (countries the size of Lebanon or Yemen don’t count for this), my money’s on Egypt. By 2025 let’s say. Maybe with French involvement. But as we’re seeing, the regional powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran – have an agenda of their own. So, confusion on top of confusion. The wave of side effects from the Iraq thing is still spreading through the world, so this stuff matters.

Germany: Bundestag legalizes same-sex marriage []

In a move that was hoped for by the majority of the population, but unexpected at this time – the Bundestag voted to legalize gay marriage. Congrats to all German advocates of same-sex marriage equality!

Also, coverage as it is tangentially related to the upcoming elections there, from – in a sense, this may have been suggested by Merkel to defuse a potential election issue. Regardless of the motivation, it is a clear positive achievement.