26 December 2002
It's a gas

It's no particular secret that Oklahoma, like many other states, is in dire financial straits this year, no thanks to a stagnant economy and rising expenses.

There is one bright spot on the horizon, though: natural gas prices, while not quite through the roof, are definitely knocking on the ceiling. And Oklahoma, a major producer of the stuff, collects a production tax based upon those prices.

The state budget anticipates $252 million from the tax this coming year, a projection based upon an expected market price of $2.52/mcf (thousand cubic feet). However, the current market price, due to low production and nasty weather, is more than twice that: the closing price Tuesday was $5.15, and most analysts expect the price to hold above $4.00 for at least a year, maybe longer, depending on how much (if any) production increases. At four bucks per mcf, the take from the gas-production tax would be about $147 million higher, which would put a sizable dent in the state's projected $593 million shortfall.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:04 AM)
25 January 2003
Uncontrollable emissions

Keith Bradsher, the New York Times hack who spewed out that anti-SUV book last year, is apparently going wider with his campaign: his publisher has kicked in a few bucks' worth of underwriting to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of Car Talk, the popular NPR radio show. (I caught the first sponsorship announcement on show #304, this weekend.) By no coincidence, the brothers had been conducting a campaign they call Live Large, Drive Small, which needs (and, frankly, deserves) no explanation.

Much is made of the fact that SUVs, being taller, have a higher center of gravity, and therefore are more likely to roll over than real cars. Now real drivers — "On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers," explains Volkswagen — are aware of this and conduct themselves accordingly behind the wheel. Your basic leftist, on the other hand, resents the very idea that different people have different skill levels, and seeks to replace it with criteria of a more political nature. Out here in the Real World, we tend to think that if some idiot goes too fast around a curve and rolls his expensive new toy, well, the word "idiot" is pretty much self-explanatory. Proponents of the Nanny State, however, demand that we be solicitous of idiots, and in fact encourage them to employ solicitors when idiocy produces undesired results.

As usual, most of the proffered "solutions" do nothing for the problems they imagine. Changing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards will have exactly zero effect on the vehicles already on the road. If they seriously wanted people to get into smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles, they would push for a substantial (at least $1.00 per gallon) increase in the gas tax. But they won't do that, because it would affect everyone with a gas tank, including themselves; what they really want to do, of course, is to punish Those Other People.

In the long run, what does all this mean? Backlash, baby, backlash. When all is said and done, Keith Bradsher may wind up selling more sport-utility vehicles than Cal Worthington ever imagined.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:43 PM)
21 March 2003
Pumpwatching

There's a little convenience store on US 62 heading out of Oklahoma City which always seems to be about 12 to 24 hours ahead of the curve on gas prices. This morning, they cut the low-octane stuff I use to $1.459, down three cents.

Some folks may still be unsure of things — Dan Rather's radio commentary this morning went on and on about the grave uncertainty he thinks prevails in Iraq — but the guys who have to make a living off the oil fields have clearly made up their minds already.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:20 AM)
24 March 2003
More pumpwatching

As previously mentioned, it's often possible to see where gas prices are headed by keeping an eye on one particular station out on 62.

This morning, they'd cut the low-suds stuff to $1.389, down seven cents from last report. Higher grades are declining more slowly. Competitors inevitably will follow.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:10 AM)
24 April 2003
Replace the giblets at 30,000 miles

Can we really reprocess organic waste into the functional equivalent of a fossil fuel? Well, sort of, says Greg Hlatky, but don't expect it to Save The World:

You just don't get a lot of energy out of a ton of turkey waste compared to a ton of carbon-based feedstock. A ton of coal produces 20.48 million BTU of energy. A ton of turkey waste (using the man in the story as a benchmark) would produce about 450 pounds of oil, or about 70 gallons, or around 10 million BTU, a figure that agrees well with the DOE figure of 12 million BTU per ton from poultry litter. Why buy a cow when you can get milk at the store? For sheer bang per pound (and dollar), oil, natural gas and coal are hard to beat.

And who knows how the market will respond?

Let's assume that this technology really produces "4 billion barrels of light Texas crude each year." What will dumping that much oil onto the market do to the price? Even producing it at $10 a barrel might not be economical.

From my perch here in the oil patch, I can testify that when the price drops, the drilling stops.

There's some symmetrical appeal here — call it an extension of the proverb "Waste not, want not" — but this particular flavor of biomass isn't going to displace good ol' dinosaur juice any time soon.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:55 PM)
7 June 2003
Lo, these fuelish things

The state of Oregon isn't pulling in enough money from its 24-cent gasoline tax to cover its road-maintenance budget. What to do? Why, spend millions on a GPS-based system to tax motorists by road usage, of course.

To me, the only good reason to have a GPS in your car is to tell you that you're about to drive into the middle of Lake Itasca, a dubious functionality in my view, and there's always the concern about giving Big Brother access to my dashboard. And where will all these black boxes come from? The auto industry is going to be loath to install Oregon-specific equipment in one percent of its vehicles.

What's most annoying about this, I think, is that the state is going through all this folderol because the electorate won't put up with an increase in the gas tax, fully in keeping with today's modern "We want this service but we want someone else to pay for it" attitude. For the amount they'll spend on this, they could buy every driver in the state an early-Seventies Ford LTD or comparable beater that struggles to get 8 mpg when it's in tune, which would increase the take from the gas tax considerably and simultaneously cheese off the Greener Than Thou crowd.

(Muchas gracias: Alexander Craghead.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:35 AM)
4 October 2003
These fuelish things

In days of old when knights were bold and blogging not invented, people would speak of carrying coals to Newcastle, a task not exactly Sisyphean but not particularly useful, either, since Newcastle-upon-Tyne, at least at the time, was up to its presumably-dusty lungs in coal.

Were it not for its war-ravaged infrastructure, shipping oil to Iraq might be considered similarly useless, but until production resumes on something resembling a reasonable scale, petroleum will have to be imported, and Dick Cheney's old friends at Halliburton have drawn this assignment.

And forget about conservation measures: they're regarded with even more suspicion in Baghdad than they are in Amarillo. Cut-rate gas, courtesy of the Oil Ministry, is a tradition that Iraqis aren't anxious to give up. The Coalition Provisional Authority says, perhaps optimistically, that oil production in Iraq will reach three million barrels per day, close to pre-Gulf War levels, by next summer. In the meantime, you and I will contribute a few cents to somebody's Friday drive in the desert.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:04 PM)
24 December 2003
Doing a slow burn

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking public comment on revising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. The most obvious comment, I think, is "What does fuel economy have to do with traffic safety?" Apart from the obvious laws-of-physics considerations — all else being equal, the heavier vehicle, while it uses more fuel, tends to come out better in a crash — the answer would seem to be "Not much."

The real problem for the government here is that they can't very well come out in favor of greater vehicle weight, because the Greener Than Thou folks who begrudge any use of fuel that doesn't strike their fancy will pitch the hissiest of fits, and if NHTSA should choose to embrace economy above all else, there will be hell to pay from the auto industry, which fears consumer rejection if they simplify and add lightness, and from the insurance industry, which fears anything that might cost them a dollar somewhere down the road.

The answer is hidden in their request for comments, but they don't really recognize it as an answer:

[W]e intend to preserve the ability of consumers to obtain vehicles that meet their needs, while providing competitive equity among vehicle manufacturers, improving vehicle safety, and enhancing fuel economy.

The simplest way to do this is to dump the entire concept of CAFE, which so far has produced far more pages of regulation than gallons of gas. If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel. This puts the decision into the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs. If J. Random Driver still wants a Ford Excrescence or whatever that will cost him $100 every fillup, that should be his issue — not yours, not mine, not Washington's, and not the Sierra Club's.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:19 PM)
2 January 2004
When it's easy being green

Oklahoma sits over a huge reservoir of natural gas, there are dozens of oil rigs drilling in the state, and we even have coal mines. Still, we're going to deplete our fossil fuels eventually — the really cheap ones, anyway — so OG&E's Wind Power program, small as it is for now, justifies the amount of hype it's getting.

Of course, there's no way to guarantee that your little segment of the grid is going to be powered strictly by the Woodward turbine farm, and there's no way the utility can serve all of its customers with the 51-mW capacity available now. But if they can sell enough 100-kW units to individual customers to make a few bucks off the system — we're obviously never going to lack for wind in this state — there will be more turbines in the future, and presumably lower prices. And OG&E's nominal surcharge for wind power will largely be offset by a credit against the fuel-adjustment surcharge that's levied on the power they produce from gas or coal.

I did the math, or at least as much math as I could do based on two weeks' worth of billing at the new place, and I decided to buy six of the 100-kW units, which will cost me about $3.60 a month, save me about $2.35 in fuel adjustments at the current rate, and, says the utility, reduce emissions of Nasty Gases by four and a half tons.

It's hard to see any downside to this program. Granted, there are summer days in Oklahoma when the temperature is around 100 degrees and there isn't enough wind to motivate a tumbleweed, let alone spin a turbine, but my A/C doesn't care where the amps come from. And from my political point of view, it's still a boon: it's an environmental gesture that will actually accomplish something without a great deal of lifestyle adjustment, the Saudis don't make a dime off it, and if some passing bird is shredded over Woodward, it will annoy PETA. For a buck and a quarter a month, it's a hell of a deal.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:05 PM)
7 March 2004
Shelling out

Yesterday's price for the lamest grade of unleaded (on which my car returns an honest 24 mpg or so most of the time) was $1.599, up a couple cents from the previous weekend, and allegedly headed still higher.

You'd think this was probably not the best time in the world for the state to contemplate increasing fuel taxes. Still, two measures are in the works: HB 2559 by Rep. Bill Nations (D-Norman), which would increase the gas tax by seven cents and the diesel-fuel tax by nine, and HB 2632 by Rep. Randall Erwin (D-Nashoba) and Sen. Robert Milacek (R-Enid), which calls for five and eight cents respectively, to be phased in over three years. Both bills would require approval by a majority of voters. Nations' measure has already passed the House.

The current tax is 17 cents per gallon on gasoline, 14 cents on diesel, low by regional standards but not exactly chump change. I think, though, that if the state government could persuade the electorate that the tax increase would actually be spent on the state's roads and bridges, which are terrible except when they're absolutely godawful, they could get one of these bills approved in November. Last year, Sen. Mark Snyder (R-Edmond) asserted that there wouldn't be any need for a tax increase if the state would actually allocate all the fuel-tax receipts to roads and bridges, instead of siphoning off some to the General Fund; the Milacek-Erwin bill does earmark the amount of the increase for transportation.

The Oklahoma Trucking Association, of course, objects to this sort of thing, though OTA executive director Dan Case has hinted that he might go along with a smaller diesel increase: "Those highways are our offices," he says, and certainly those offices need a facelift.

Two years ago, I suggested the issuance of wheel stamps to help defray the cost of replacing suspension parts damaged by driving over substandard roads. Obviously this proposal went nowhere. Still, if The Road Information Program has calculated correctly, and each Oklahoma motorist incurs an additional yearly expense of $1053 from "diminished safety, longer delays and increased wear and tear on vehicles," an extra buck at the pump (figuring 12.5 gallons, my usual fillup, at an additional 8 cents per), if it can actually counter most of that expense, strikes me as one hell of a bargain.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:44 AM)
17 March 2004
From Maine to Mexico, almost

Once again, (some of) you will be able to trust your car to the man who wears the star.

The Chevron/Texaco merger in 2001 had scores of conditions attached, mostly due to antitrust considerations. One of those conditions required that the stations operated by a Texaco-Shell joint venture revert to Shell, and that Shell and its partners would retain the Texaco trademark.

But this was a temporary measure only: the ChevronTexaco combine will regain the rights to use the Texaco brand this summer, and will own it exclusively in two years. What this means is a whole new rollout, mostly in Texas and the Southeast, of the Texaco name, which still carries substantial market clout. (For about ten years, I carried exactly one oil-company card: Texaco. It's now, perforce, a Shell card.)

In Oklahoma, this won't have much impact, since ChevronTexaco owns no stations here and doesn't plan to acquire any, though existing Texaco stations will presumably be asked to sign up with the new regime, and I doubt that any independent operator wishing to switch to Texaco will be turned away.

Not all efforts to recycle old brand names have been successful — ask anyone who bought a Packard Bell computer — but I suspect there is still a lot of residual fondness for Texaco. Now if they could be persuaded to continue their sponsorship of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, things will be (almost) back to normal.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:57 PM)
21 April 2004
Fuels rush in where wise men never go

As a person who actually likes cars, as distinguished from the folks who view them as (at best) necessary evils, I tend to take a dim view of the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy scheme. How dim? I wrote this in December:

CAFE...so far has produced far more pages of regulation than gallons of gas. If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel. This puts the decision into the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs.

As an object lesson in how purely arbitrary these so-called "standards" are, the NHTSA announced this week that Nissan will be exempted for the next five years from one of them: the so-called "two-fleet" rule, which specifies that imported models and domestics must meet the standards separately. GM, for instance, can't use the tiny Chevrolet Aveo, produced by what's left of Daewoo in South Korea, to offset an Impala.

In Nissan's case, the small Sentra sedan, assembled in Mexico, has been balancing out Infiniti Q45s and such from Japan. Under the rules of NAFTA, the Sentra will be reclassified as a domestic as of 2005, meaning Nissan's imports will no longer meet CAFE targets. NHTSA's decision, opposed by actual US automakers, means that Nissan can count both imports and domestics in a single fleet.

This is only the second such waiver granted by NHTSA since the beginnings of CAFE. (Volkswagen got the first; it has since expired.) Nissan had threatened to cut production at its two US plants, one in Mississippi, the other in Tennessee, should the waiver not be granted. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) and Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) — what a surprise! — had lobbied NHTSA to cut Nissan some slack.

The two-fleet rule is, of course, rather stupid. So is the rule which counts cars and "light trucks" in separate fleets: to pick just one example of egregiousness, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, which has a removable back seat, is considered a truck — except for its convertible version, whose back seat is not removable, which means it's a car.

There's no justification for this program anymore, if indeed there ever was. The government can publish all the fuel-economy numbers it wants, but buyers have the right to ignore them should they so desire, and manufacturers, once basic safety standards are met, shouldn't have to answer to Washington for their design decisions.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:03 AM)
18 May 2004
We just want to pump you up

Two bucks a gallon, reports Debra Galant:

At least they pump it for you here in New Jersey. But at these prices, I'd kind of like to see it delivered in a crystal decanter.

I paid $1.899 this past weekend over at Ollie Octane's; saints be praised that each of those gallons is propelling me just over twenty-five miles.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:33 AM)
2 June 2004
Tanks a lot

One of the signon screens at AOL last night screamed GAS PRICES AT RECORD HIGHS. Of course, if you apply an inflation adjustment, it would take prices around $3 a gallon to qualify for the "record," but even apart from that matter of economics and/or semantics, the price at the pump has dropped five or six cents here on the Lone Prairie; prices as low as $1.72 have been sighted around town. (Independent reports can be found here.)

This doesn't mean the worst is over by any means, but the AOL report does suggest that Big Media is more interested in scaring up a story by scaring its customers — which, these days, scarcely qualifies as news.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:20 AM)
5 June 2004
Octane's razor

Well, somebody's getting a break at the pumps: the price in Iraq is running around five cents a gallon for the cheap stuff these days.

Iraq being short of refinery capacity at the moment, the US government is buying gas in the region at around a buck-fifty and delivering it to filling stations at further expense. I assume they figure they'll make up the difference in volume.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:12 AM)
28 June 2004
Sweeping down the meter

Back around the first of the year, I mentioned that I'd signed up for OG&E's Wind Power program, which I cited as "an environmental gesture that will actually accomplish something without a great deal of lifestyle adjustment." Actually, the only thing that's changed around here, apart from slightly bigger checks to the utility when it's cold — I bought a flat 600-kW block, which is more than my monthly consumption during the winter — is the little Wind Power sticker in the front-window grid.

FPL Energy, which built the turbine farm that serves OG&E, plans to construct a new 106.5-megawatt farm near Woodward, and Public Service Company of Oklahoma will buy all those watts.

There's just one catch: Congress must act to renew the production tax credit for such facilities, which expired at the end of 2003, or the deal is off. So far, the Senate has voted to extend the credit to 2006, but the House has yet to act. The amount of the credit is 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first ten years of plant operation.

Yeah, I know: tax credits. What this means, of course, is that wind power is not yet fully competitive, pricewise, with fossil fuels. On the other hand, we'll never have to deal with an Organization of Wind-Exporting Countries.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:20 PM)
2 October 2004
Bubbling crude

I was here in Oklahoma in 1982, so I remember the Great Oil Bust entirely too well. Eric Siegmund, who runs the Fire Ant Gazette from Midland, deep in the heart of the Texas oil patch, recalls the days just before:

I remember a chart hanging on my office wall in 1982. It was an extrapolation of predicted oil prices, working off the run-up from the preceding few months. $50 was the cap on that graph; it represented the dreamed-of-but-unobtainable Holy Grail for oil producers everywhere.

Crude oil futures closed at $50.12 Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Of course, fifty bucks today isn't the same as fifty bucks twenty-two years ago, and neither Oklahoma City nor Midland is acting cocky these days:

Producers I know are grateful for the premium, but nobody's actually doing deals based on it, or running economics using it. And thus far, I haven't seen any signs of the telltale oil-boom excesses that accompanied prior run-ups: new Benzes in the high school parking lots; yachts parked out in the horse pasture awaiting transplantation to water, somewhere; Lamborghinis with trailer hitches; signs announcing new private clubs. Sure, there seems to be a few more Hummers tooling around town than usual, but AFAIK, Rolls-Royce isn't planning on re-opening a dealership in Midland.

Jackie Cooper Imports in Oklahoma City used to carry a wide range of high-end motor cars, including both Rolls-Royce and Maserati — it was through their kind indulgence that I actually got some seat time in a Maserati in the early 80s — but today they sell only BMWs and Mini Coopers (Minis Cooper?). Seekers of hyperexpensive sleds must search elsewhere.

The mantra among producers here has been "O Lord, just one more boom, and I promise not to piss it away this time." I believe they were serious.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:56 AM)
10 October 2004
Barrels of fun

Prices for Oklahoma crude oil generally lag behind the oft-quoted New York Mercantile Exchange rates for the OPEC stuff, but $50 a barrel has come to the Oklahoma oil patch, and activity is starting to pick up as a result.

And it's perfectly obvious why: a well capable of producing a mere two barrels a day, about average for the state these days, is good for $3000 a month now, justifying the expense to force it out of the ground. (The standard barrel is 42 gallons.)

The days of the "wild wells," of course, are gone forever; we're not going to see a repeat of the No. 1 Mary Sudik, which blew out in the spring of 1930 and spewed oil all over central Oklahoma for eleven days before being brought under control. No one knows for sure how much "Wild Mary" actually coughed up, but it's estimated she was peaking near 3,000 barrels an hour. Present-day oilfield equipment can handle these higher pressures; of course, with the fields largely played out, it's now necessary to force higher pressures into the wells to squeeze out a barrel or two. It wasn't worth it at $10 or $15 a barrel: the costs exceeded the potential revenue.

The state eventually figured out that its 7-percent Gross Production Tax wasn't helping matters, and in 1998 reset the tax to a variable rate based upon the price of crude. A similar structure applies to natural gas production, and gas prices are similarly high: Oklahoma Natural Gas advises that the stuff they piped into my house this month cost them $6.02 per dekatherm, a dekatherm being equal to 1 million British Thermal Units.

With prices where they've been lately, the state is able to levy the full 7-percent tax; in fiscal year 2004, which ended 30 June, the Gross Production Tax brought in $560 million, about $100 million more than had been projected, a small but definite boon to Oklahoma's ongoing budget woes, and this was before the huge run-up in oil prices. It's this sort of thing that keeps me from gritting my teeth as I spend $24 to fill up my car (figuring 12.9 gallons, at which point the orange Low Fuel light has just come on, at $1.86).

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:21 AM)
15 October 2004
The post-oil economy

If you're an alternative-fuels kind of person, you should be thrilled at $53 oil, says Rammer:

The recent boom in oil prices that has slowed economic recovery somewhat is exactly the best possible thing to both reduce dependence on Middle-Eastern oil and provide the US with alternative sources of energy. The key to the transformation is that with the oil price roughly double its historical level, many other sources of energy become economically competitive. Over time companies and people at large will convert from high-priced oil to other sources and once that infrastructure is built, it will be cheaper to keep it running than to switch back to oil.

OG&E reports that after one year of operation, 3,000 customers are buying 100 percent of their electricity from a wind farm, and 6,000 others are buying a fraction thereof. (Disclosure: I committed to buying 7200 kwh a year; through early October I have used 5600 kwh, which puts me pretty close to the 100-percent mark for the full twelve months.)

Other methods aren't quite so close to competitiveness yet, but:

[S]uffice to say, as you pay twice what you expect to fill your car's tank, realize that you are on the tail end of the oil economy. Don't expect that the replacement for oil will be much cheaper, but it seems clear that it won't be much more expensive than oil is now.

The world moves on, irrespective of cartels or of campaign promises.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:31 PM)
22 October 2004
Save energy or else

Eric Scheie, riffing on this Thomas Sowell column, suggests that maybe mandatory motion sensors and fluorescents aren't enough:

[W]hy stop with electricity? Couldn't body temperature sensors be used to determine how much heat we need? Timers on all faucets so that we don't spend too much time showering or brushing our teeth? A time limit on running all automobile engines, enforced by a shutoff switch after a certain period of time? A limit on how many times a toilet can be flushed during a day?

It might save even more energy to simply have mandatory power blackouts whenever the bureaucrats see fit.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is one step ahead of you, Eric.

Meanwhile, as always, the marketplace is at work. Oklahoma Natural Gas allows customers to hedge a bit by offering to sell them gas for the next 12 months at a fixed price per unit. At the moment, the price offered is higher than the rate being currently charged, but if prices should rise more than 18 percent, not at all implausible in these days of spiraling energy costs, you've beaten the system.

Being the cynical type, I must point out that it's not likely that you'd get the full 18-percent price peak until midwinter at the earliest, by which time you've already "overpaid" for a few zillion Btu, but for someone who has a lot more gas appliances than I have — only my furnace and water heater run on gas — this could be a far better deal later in the year.

I know, I know: "alternative fuels." Hey, I buy wind from OG&E, remember? But as a practical matter, nothing will speed the adoption of alternative fuels quite as efficiently as having to pay through the nose for ordinary fuels.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
16 November 2004
We may as well try and catch the wind

Mike at Okiedoke turns up a tale of turbines and what they can do, and the models suggest that the more we have, the greater the impact on the weather:

For the study, a [virtual] wind farm consisting of an array of 10,000 turbines with rotor blades 50 metres long was set up in a 97 x 97 kilometre area in north-central Oklahoma.

During the course of the experiment, the turbines were seen to trap a cool nocturnal jet of air, present in the Great Plains in Oklahoma, that separated the cool moist air near the ground from the drier, warmer air above.

The bottom line:

During the day, the model suggests that wind farms have very little effect on the climate because the warmth of the sun mixes the lower layers of the atmosphere. But at night, when the atmosphere is stiller, the wind turbines have a significant effect.

At 3 am the average wind speed in Oklahoma is 3.5 metres per second, but it increased to around 5 m/s in the model wind farm. The model also suggested that the temperature would increase by around 2°C underneath the 10,000 turbines. Over the course of a day this averages out to an increase in ground-level wind speed of around 0.6 m/s and a rise in temperature of around 0.7°C.

And without so much as a single extra molecule of carbon dioxide. Imagine that.

Of course, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and some of us are already buying the output from wind turbines. Still: 10,000 of them? OG&E's commercial facility is using a total of thirty-four, and they're smaller than the ones described in the experiment: 34-metre blades, rather than 50. I'm inclined to think we're going to have to see some serious conversions en masse to wind power before we start to see major atmospheric disturbances.

Then again, every air mass in the world passes over Oklahoma, or so it seems; the cumulative effect might be greater somewhere farther away. Further studies will obviously be needed.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:25 PM)
22 December 2004
A greener shade of warm

Old friend Fred in Floyd is much closer to the weather than most of the rest of us:

We heat with wood that we cut ourselves from our valley. We don't have air conditioning. We try to grow our own vegetables as the weather will allow. Our road becomes impassable in flood or blizzard. I suppose some would say we have romantic attachments to a simpler way of living. It is true we do find pleasure in adapting our rhythms to the season's vagaries. We are full-immersion types; a sprinkling of autumn or winter somehow doesn't seem efficacious in our relationship with the land.

But why, in this modern age, should the weather matter? With the exception of natural disasters, most Americans can control their comforts at the flip of a dial and give it not another thought. After all, isn't climate-independence a measure of our civilized victory over the elements and something we have worked long and hard to accomplish for our species?

The elements can give as good as they get, as the thermometer is about to demonstrate here on the Lone Prairie. Where we're getting disconnected, I think, is in our persistence in building big drafty castles on bare land, thinking we'll make up the difference in SEER ratings.

Until the rise of central heat and air, houses, of necessity, were built to minimize the effects of nature. The Criterion Group, a preservationist organization in central Oklahoma City, emphasizes this point:

Preserved historic structures are generally the ultimate in "green" buildings. By adaptively reusing old structures, we reduce the amount of energy and assets needed to create materials for the new structures that may replace them. Most historic structures are designed to passively heat and cool themselves, with high ceilings, southern exposures, and operating windows. More often than not, simply installing additional insulation and weatherstrip to a historic structure will drop those heating and cooling bills dramatically.

Surlywood, built in 1948 before the big switch to central air conditioning, ran up 20 percent less in electricity bills last summer than I spent on average for each of the three preceding summers in my old 1970s-vintage flat, which was 15 percent smaller and had fewer electrical appliances. I have little doubt that with energy monitoring turned up to the next level of finickiness, I could have scraped off another 5 percent or so.

I'm not at all weather-independent; I suffer some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and recent arthritis has made me more sensitive to humidity. Nor do I believe that by spending X number of dollars I can buy myself out of the cycle of the seasons. (This excludes, say, moving to Ecuador, which requires a value for X that isn't even thinkable.) This is not to say I'm in the same league as Fred, who has this mostly-cheerful modern-pioneer vibe that I could seriously envy, but I put some effort into not being isolated from the world around me. Except when it's really, really cold.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:20 PM)
12 January 2005
Greener than thou

In 1999, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power came up with a program called Green Power, whose purpose was "to help us move from polluting power plants to energy generated in a cleaner way by using sources such as the sun, wind, and water."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But participation has stagnated: at one time the DWP reported 100,000 Green Power users, who pay $3 a month to import renewable energy into the city grid, but apparently 60,000 of them were low-income DWP customers who were arbitrarily assigned to Green Power and weren't paying the monthly fee.

Currently, 27,000 of the DWP's 1.4 million electric-power customers are Green.

Meanwhile, out here in flyover country, 9,000 of OG&E's 730,000 customers have signed up for power from the Woodward wind farm, and while this is not quite as high a green percentage as the DWP can boast — 1.2 versus 1.9 percent — after only fifteen months of operation the company is already soliciting proposals for 80 megawatts of wind power to supplement the 50 it already controls. Obviously OG&E thinks it can sell renewable energy, even if the city of Los Angeles and its high-powered PR flacks can't.

(Armstrong Williams Disclosure: I am a voluntary participant in the OG&E Wind Power program; I receive no money from OG&E to promote it.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:23 AM)
13 January 2005
Whatever floats your volts

It's called "Pico Hydro," and it means pretty much what you think it does: hydroelectric power on a very small scale. James at the Alternative Energy Blog explains:

The streams at the bottom of the valleys are powering a low-tech grid for the people of Da Bac [province in northern Vietnam].

Pico Hydro units need only a constant water supply and a slope with a one-metre drop. This produces a flow rate that can drive a turbine fast enough to generate electricity, providing houses with a direct power supply.

In some villages nearly every household has one. Imported 300-watt turbines cost about US$20, and have proved to be the most popular.

Certainly you're not going to run a modern American home on 300 watts, but it's enough for a few lights into the night, and maybe the radio. About 120,000 Pico Hydro units are installed in Vietnam, says James, and while they're not incredibly reliable — obviously you're not getting mil-spec for twenty bucks — they're easy, and cheap, to fix.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:02 PM)
16 January 2005
No charge

OG&E gave a reference to this the prime spot in Currents, the little ad piece that comes with the monthly bill:

Customers will see lower electric bills in 2005 thanks to the OG&E Cogeneration Credit Rider approved recently by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

The average OG&E residential customer will receive an approximate $5 per month reduction in their bill from the Cogeneration Credit Rider, which reduces customer bills by about $80 million. The reductions are due to a renegotiated contract with a power provider and planned reductions in another similar contract being passed on to consumers.

Now I could look at this news this way:

"Dad, who was that masked man who just saved us five whole dollars?"

"Son, that's the Cogeneration Credit Rider. No one knows who he is, or where he comes from, but we know when he's been here. Let's go splurge on some Tater Tots."

Or I could just note that in their haste to stuff this thing into my bloated-by-Christmas-lights bill, they forgot to give me a return envelope in which to send my payment. Won't save them $5, exactly, but maybe they'll make it up in volume.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:25 PM)
10 February 2005
Putting this crap to work

The Oklahoma Department of Commerce has reported that three biomass-processing firms are contemplating facilities in Soonerland.

The companies were not named. One is apparently is targeting slaughterhouse wastes; another is interested in more general livestock waste; a third seeks to recover natural gas from landfill.

Inasmuch as we're not likely to run out of any of this stuff any time soon, I've got to assume that these biomass firms are coming in for a long stay, and, well, we're talking alternative energy here, which is generally considered to be a Good Thing.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:10 AM)
15 March 2005
It's dead, Jim

I pulled into the Batteries Plus store on the way home today in search of a replacement 3.6-volt for my cell phone. As the guy was installing the new one, he offered this bit of pragmatism:

There's a one-year warranty on this, which is about as long as the ones that come in the phones will last.

He looked at the front of my phone, which dates back to the Old Silurian times, and added:

At least, in the new phones. They last just about as long as the contracts.

Now we all learned about planned obsolescence back in the 1950s, when Detroit figured out that annual automobile model changes were good for the bottom line. And really, I can't say I'm too surprised at this, since rather a lot of wireless customers say goodbye after their contracts are up and go to someone else who might have an entirely different technology and almost certainly has an entirely different phone to vend.

Just for the sake of argument, this is the first battery I've bought for this phone since it was new — in May 2001. And technically, the old battery wasn't quite dead; it just wouldn't hold a charge beyond the two-bar (of four) level.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:35 PM)
22 March 2005
Squeeze that fuel

Gas stations with prices under $2 a gallon for the low-suds stuff are few and far between at the moment, and while I have yet to hit that particular threshold myself — I filled up Saturday for $1.979 at a station that has since raised its price two cents — it's just a matter of time, and not much time at that.

Which is the sort of thing that draws attention to a group like 40mpg.org, which is dedicated to "[making] 40 miles per gallon the standard for all automobiles in the United States." All new automobiles, of course; there's no way to retrofit your old clunker for this kind of fuel efficiency no matter what you saw in that infomercial.

The benefits, say the organization, are "obvious":

[W]e reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil, making us more secure; we lower the carbon emissions into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming; and we put America's technology community to work on these important problems, creating jobs, ensuring that the U.S. leads in the development and sale of new technologies.

Apart from my skepticism about global warming — geez, it's cold outside — these would seem to be reasonably sensible goals. That last item, though, implies that "America's technology community" is dragging its high-tech heels, and the list of available vehicles that actually get 40 mpg, lacking a single US nameplate, hammers the point home. Not that anyone will willingly buckle himself into a rolling penalty box like the Honda Insight.

Weight is an enemy of fuel efficiency, and the tendency today is to create ever-more-massive trundlers. I wouldn't mind seeing that trend stopped in its lumbering tracks. But with almost all minivans and most trucks — sixty percent of the American auto market — weighing in at over two tons, getting 40, even 30, mpg is going to be an uphill battle. And I still persist in thinking that it might be easier just to boost the gas tax to horrendous levels.

(Disclosure: My modest little sedan weighs 2960 lb empty and averaged 27.2 mpg on its last 87-octane tankful.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:14 AM)
3 April 2005
Charge!

Toshiba has announced a new lithium-ion battery that can recharge to 80 percent of full capacity in one minute, compared with the hour or longer it takes for present-day batteries of otherwise similar formulation.

According to the company's press release, the new cell can handle up to 1000 charge/discharge cycles with only 1 percent loss of capacity, and can operate at temperatures from -40 to +45 degrees Celsius, making it suitable for motor-vehicle use.

I just hope they remember to make one that fits in my notebook computer.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:14 PM)
23 April 2005
Conspicuous non-consumption

Cost-vs.-benefit ratio, from Undercaffeinated:

Honda Accord LX V-6 - $23,950; average MPG - 25

Honda Accord Hybrid V6 - $30,140; average MPG - 33

If you put 15,000 miles on your car a year, and gas costs about $2 a gallon, the hybrid saves you $300/yr.

It would take over 20 years to make the difference back.

Which is true, though there are other considerations: the Accord Hybrid does have some standard features which are optional on the LX, which narrows the price difference, and unlike Honda's implementation on the Civic, the Accord Hybrid actually offers a performance improvement.

But the numbers speak for themselves, which is why I think the ultimate beneficiary of hybrids will be — turn the Irony knob up to at least 9 — sport-utility vehicles: pushing 12 mpg up to 20 is a lot more of an improvement to one's pocketbook than pushing 25 up to 33. (Over 600 miles, this theoretical hybrid SUV saves 20 gallons of gas; the Accord saves a little less than six.)

Still, if your primary need is to feel clean and green, there's no substitute for the Toyota Prius, which screams "I CARE!" at every gas station it passes, and whose factory FM radio has never been tuned away from NPR.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:20 AM)
22 May 2005
The new OG&E rate case

There's some interesting stuff in the $89 million rate increase sought by OG&E. From the statement filed by CFO James R. Hatfield [requires Adobe Reader]:

Small business drives Oklahoma's economic growth, and it is clear that they have been paying more than their fair share for electricity for far too long.

So they get a rate cut, about seven percent. Not so lucky this bunch:

Large industrial and residential customers have enjoyed artificially low rates for several years, and it is time to bring them in line with what they should be paying.

And Tinker gets a break because it's, well, Tinker:

We are recommending that Tinker Air Force Base receive a special military base tariff that will result in cost savings. We hope this will contribute to efforts to better position Tinker as a critical military installation over the long term.

Take that, BRAC.

Down among the nuts and bolts, Roger Walkingstick, in charge of pricing and revenue analysis, notes the following with regard to the classes of service who are being hardest hit by the proposed new rates:

The existing subsidies among customer classes should be minimized, new rates should reflect a rate design consistent with marginal costs, and additional customer rate options should be offered to our customers.

Since [Residential and Large Power and Light] represent almost 60% of all energy sales in the Oklahoma jurisdiction, this presents a significant problem in rate design. Ideally, both classes should be moved to the average Oklahoma jurisdictional ROR [rate of return] and that is what I am proposing for the LPL class. However, the revenue impact of completely eliminating the subsidy for the Residential class would impose an unacceptable level of customer impact. This group of customers has limited ability to modify their consumption so as to mitigate increases and no way to pass those cost increases on to others.

So customers in the Residential class will still be subsidized, albeit at a lower level.

There's a lot of regulatory jargon in the proposal, of course, but there's a definite trend toward demand-based pricing, with higher rates in the summer (of course). The biggest change? Right now, you pay one rate for the first 600 kWh you use and a lower rate for usage over 600 kWh, except in the summer, when all usage is billed at the same rate. Under the new plan, the rate for summer usage will actually increase at the 1400-kWh point. There is also a new subsidy: customers qualifying under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program will be exempted from the flat $6.50 customer charge that is included in the standard Residential rate during the four-month summer rate period. The net increase to Residential customers, they say, will be about 3.5 percent, around $3 a month.

Those of us who buy OG&E's wind-farm watts, however, get a break. Last month I paid $12 for my 600-kW package, offset by $7.55 in fuel adjustments I didn't have to pay. Under the new rates, if I'm reading this correctly, I wouldn't have any of the fuel adjustments — the new base for computing them would be higher than actual numbers for the month — but the cost of the package itself would drop from $12 to 60 cents, a $3.95 savings overall.

I can't imagine the Corporation Commission raising much of a fuss about this proposal; I expect it will be approved with minor changes at most.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:22 AM)
25 May 2005
In the air tonight

A new survey by Stanford researchers indicates that there are enough sustainable Class 3 winds (15 mph) worldwide to produce as much as 72 terawatts of electricity, assuming most efficient placement of the appropriate hardware. Total worldwide electricity use in 2000 was a bit less than 2 terawatts.

Don't expect things to happen too quickly, at least at first: coastal regions (think ocean breezes) have a higher potential for producing power than areas farther inland, but people who actually live on the coast might be expected to object to this sort of thing. Here's the map of potential locations, coded by measured wind speeds.

(Via the Alternative Energy Blog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:43 AM)
11 June 2005
The Everclearmobile

While Saab continues to throw rebadged Subarus and Chevrolets at its US buyers, it's building a 9-5 BioPower model for the Swedish market that runs on gasoline, on ethanol, or anything in between.

The 2.0-liter turbo four is pretty standard Saab fare; what makes it different is the revised fittings (heavy doses of ethanol play hell with a car's fuel system, proving that cars really do reflect their drivers) and the revised engine-control software to adjust for whatever is coming through the fuel line.

Conventional wisdom holds that ethanol is less desirable as a motor fuel because of its lower energy density; to get the same performance, you'll end up with fewer miles per gallon. The Saab, however, tunes itself to get maximum value out of grain alcohol: while the engine produces a respectable 148 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque on gasoline, feeding it a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, which costs about 25 percent less than straight gasoline in Sweden, yields 180 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, with about the same mileage. (Performance figures from Automobile Magazine, July '05.)

American automakers have turned loose a few fleet cars over the years that run on this same E85 mix, but refueling stations have been few and far between in the Midwest and virtually nonexistent anywhere else. (Gasohol, which is more common, and which I sampled in western Minnesota last year, runs about 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol.) Given the fact that Saab is part of the GM organization — in fact, GM's Brazilian outpost, used to ethanol-based fuels by now, consulted on the Saab BioPower project — it's theoretically possible that this engine, or even this particular model, could end up Stateside, though there'd have to be a lot of them to justify opening up a bunch more E85 pumps. (Yes, it does run on ordinary gasoline, but someone paying $35k for a Saab is, I suspect, not going to tolerate the performance hit.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
18 June 2005
China thinks about wind

The Chinese government reportedly is pouring 8 billion yuan (a shade under $1 billion) into a one-gigawatt wind farm in the northwest province of Gansu.

This is a pretty good-sized plant — about twenty times the size of the wind farm near Woodward that OG&E uses — but it won't make much of a dent in Chinese energy needs. Still, it's a start.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:08 AM)
28 June 2005
Water for North Africa?

This looks promising: General Electric will partner with an Algerian energy company to build a major water desalination plant. The plant, which will cost about $270 million, will provide 53 million gallons of potable water per day from the Mediterranean Sea, enough to serve one-quarter of Algiers' three million residents.

GE entered the desalination business three years ago, and acquired major player Ionics Inc. in 2004 for $1.1 billion; the company sees a $5 billion market growing at 15 percent annually.

The largest such plant in the US, which opened in Tampa in 2003, ran into difficulties early on and is operating only intermittently while system upgrades are performed. GE, with more resources at its disposal than the firms who collaborated on the Tampa project, perhaps can be expected to have fewer problems with the Algiers facility, which could open in 2007.

(Via Matt Rosenberg.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:43 PM)
29 June 2005
Nucularity ensues

I hadn't made up my mind yet about the new International Thermal Energy Reactor, a $12-billion fusion reactor to be built at Cadarache, northwest of Marseilles. The theoretical advantages of fusion are considerable: the energy production is prodigious — pound for pound, about 10 million times more efficient than fossil fuels — and waste products are less hazardous than those produced by contemporary fission reactors. Still, the ITER is only a precursor to commercial fusion-power production, which is at least a decade or two away, maybe more.

It was Greenpeace, though, who finally pushed me off the fence:

"Pursuing nuclear fusion and the ITER project is madness," said Bridget Woodman of Greenpeace. "Nuclear fusion has all the problems of nuclear power, including producing nuclear waste and the risks of a nuclear accident. Why is Europe backing a bad energy option, with no prospect of operation in the near future, when alternative, environmentally acceptable options for electricity generation exist now? Renewable energy has massive potential, yet the EU continues to plough billions of euros in research and development grants into nuclear fusion."

In France, where the ITER will be located, nuclear reactors currently produce more than 75 percent of the country's electrical power. And France isn't exactly teeming with vacant locations where one could locate massive wind farms of the sort Greenpeace envisions.

Given the dichotomy for which Greenpeace argues — you can have fusion, or you can have renewables, but you can't have both — I'm inclined to think more favorably of the ITER, if only because I tend to believe that we're going to need every kilowatt we can get in the years to come. We can have both, and I think we will have both.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:10 AM)
28 July 2005
Low wattage

This new energy bill has something for everyone, except for those poor deluded souls who thought that the Congress might pass something that, you know, actually did something to improve energy supplies.

With the possible exception of the new subsidies for nuclear power, which presumably won't pay off for many years, given the Sisyphean task of actually trying to get a new nuclear power plant approved, let alone built, most of the dollars are being spent on More of the Same, and not necessarily well-spent either: do we really need drilling subsidies when oil is pushing $60 a barrel? Is there any point to pouring more money into the black hole of the ethanol-as-fuel business? And why, pray tell, do we need yet another farging hour of Daylight Savings Time?

"We didn't get into this overnight," points out Scott McClellan, "and we're not going to get out of it overnight." Nothing in this bill makes me think we're going to get out of it at all.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:30 PM)
8 August 2005
Think domestic

Kerr-McGee is selling off its North Sea oil operations, suggesting that the Oklahoma City-based company is planning to restructure itself as purely a domestic producer.

Most of the KMG holdings will be sold to the A.P. Moller-Maersk group of Denmark, with the rest dealt to England's Centrica PLC. The total take is estimated at $3.5 billion; KMG will use the after-tax proceeds to pay down debt.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:50 AM)
11 August 2005
Go away, boy, you bother me

Lynn's son goes looking for CNG-powered vehicles and comes away empty-handed:

He asked one salesman about natural gas powered cars and, after acting as if he had asked for a car that runs on fairy dust, the salesmen went to talk to his manager. My son surreptitiously followed him and evesdropped on the conversation. The manager told the salesman, "We could get him one but it would be a big hassle. Just tell him there's a long waiting list."

We don't have a lot of vehicles that run on natural gas in this country, but a couple of popular models have CNG variants, and I've got to believe that if there were much of a waiting list, there'd be a lot more such on the drawing boards.

And at least CNG refueling stations are relatively easy to find, which is more than you can say for fairy dust.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:11 AM)
15 August 2005
Ask for the Number One

A battery that runs on urine? Absolutely:

Dr Ki Bang Lee, who heads the research team at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, said: "We are striving to develop cheap, disposable, credit-card-sized biochips for disease detection. Our battery can be integrated into such devices, supplying electricity upon contact with biofluids, such as urine."

No, this isn't for your iPod:

The paper-thin device is designed to run cheap, disposable test kits for diseases such as diabetes. Many such tests use the chemical composition of urine to reveal signs of disease.

The new battery will allow the urine being analysed to provide the electricity needed to run the test kit, without having to rely on lithium batteries or external power sources.

Downright ingenious. My congratulations to the whiz kids who thought this up.

(Via Interested-Participant.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:18 AM)
18 August 2005
Down a quart or two

Dayna Shields reports that the current oil crunch is due to our failure to check our oil levels:

The problem is purely geographical. The oil is in Alaska, California and Texas, while our dipsticks are located in Washington.

(Found in The Oklahoma Observer, 10 August, which for some reason just got here today.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:42 PM)
30 August 2005
And add just a pinch of spike

The arrival of Katrina and the approach of Labor Day have had the expected effect at the gas pumps: stations that last week were flirting with the $2.50 mark are now fluttering in the $2.70 range, and only one station along my morning commute was as low as $2.699.

No one's making any noises about supply problems so far: you can have all the gas you want, but it will cost you ten percent more than it did last time. People who think anything over a buck-thirty is gouging, of course, will assume it's all the fault of The Conspiracy™.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:08 AM)
31 August 2005
Top dollar

Reasoning that it wasn't going to get any cheaper in the next couple of days, I pulled into the neighborhood C-store last night to fill up the tank (and the can from which I feed the lawn mower), which at $2.759 a gallon cost me $37 or thereabouts. Cringe-inducing, but not unbearable.

The overnight shipments apparently justified my conclusion: the lowest price I spotted on the way to work today was $2.899 for the cheap stuff. (One station still had $2.70 posted, but he wasn't open yet; his rival across the street was well into the $2.90 range.) The dreaded 3 is appearing on the higher grades.

This particular spike should subside in a week or so, as Gulf operations start to gear up again and post-Labor Day demand slackens, but I'm pretty sure the days when I could fill up for $20 are gone.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:13 AM)
1 September 2005
Believing the guesstimates

Consumer Reports (October) is in a snit about fuel economy, specifically about the government-mandated mpg numbers that appear on the window sticker of new cars. According to CR, 90 percent of vehicles they tested failed to deliver the numbers on the sticker.

One reasonable complaint is that the EPA's test procedure, adopted in the 1970s, hasn't been updated to reflect changing driving conditions: combined fuel-economy ratings are still calculated on a 55-percent city, 45-percent highway mix, which is not always achievable in today's heavier traffic.

On the other hand, a couple pages into the story, they give away the game:

The mpg inflation has allowed automakers to trade fuel economy for performance features that draw buyers. Between 1987 and 2005, car and light-truck manufacturers slashed 0-60 acceleration times by 24 percent and bulked up average vehicle weight by 27 percent. Consequently, these vehicles got 1.1 fewer miles per gallon than they did in 1987.

"Draw buyers"? How dare they.

And if I got 24 percent faster from 0-60 in a car that weighed 27 percent more and it cost me only 1.1 mpg, I'd be delighted.

It gets better:

Automakers have lobbied against tougher standards, saying that higher mpg is technologically difficult to achieve and that they're making vehicles the public wants. If consumer demand were not a consideration, light trucks could be getting 28 mpg and cars, 38, says John German, manager of Honda's environmental and energy analysis. "The role of government is to create mandates or incentives so some of the ongoing engine-technology efficiency gains go to fuel economy and not just more horsepower."

Again with those damned customers.

Elsewhere in this issue, they seemed impressed with their Corvette, which returned "a respectable" 21 mpg. (EPA numbers are 18 city/28 highway with the 6-speed stick; they recorded 14/31.)

Two things:

  1. When you can get 21 mpg out of four hundred horsepower, you probably ought not to complain;

  2. Underpowered cars will not necessarily reward you with greater mileage, inasmuch as you have to rev the living whee out of them to get them motivated.

Then again, I have an underpowered car, out of which I routinely rev the living whee, and I still beat the government numbers. Maybe I should test the farging cars.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:23 PM)
3 September 2005
Warm up the glow plugs

Whatever the difficulties with refining capacity may be, they don't seem to have had quite as much effect on diesel fuel; #2 diesel, which at the beginning of the summer was about twenty cents pricier than regular unleaded, is now about twenty cents cheaper. I didn't see any diesel today priced at more than $2.90, while 87-octane gas at most places is in the general vicinity of $3.10.

The simplest explanation is that the stations don't sell as much diesel, and therefore they're still running on price trends from a week or so ago, but this seems a bit unlikely, especially since truck stops sell plenty of diesel and they're not, for the moment, more expensive. Could it be that most of the refineries that produce diesel, at least for this area, were not located along the coast and therefore didn't suffer storm damage?

I'm guessing that this isn't enough of a price shift to motivate people to go buy diesel-powered cars — it certainly wouldn't be for me — but these days, anything seems possible.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:55 PM)
13 September 2005
I hesitate to call this "renewable"

From Ananova:

A German inventor says he's found a way to make cheap diesel fuel out of dead cats. Dr Christian Koch, 55, from Kleinhartmannsdorf, said his method uses old tyres, weeds and animal cadavers. They are heated up to 300 [degrees] Celsius to filter out hydrocarbon which is then turned into diesel by a catalytic converter.

He said the resulting "high quality bio-diesel" costs just 15 pence per litre. Koch said the cadaver of a fully grown cat can produce 2.5 litres of fuel — meaning around 20 cats are needed for a full tank. He said: "I tank my car with my own diesel mixture and have driven it for 105,000 miles without any problems."

Annelise Krauss of the Dresden Animal Protection Association blasted Koch's new diesel though, saying: "This is as bad as experimenting on animals."

I assume this makes 102.

(By way of "Cosmo" at NRO's The Corner.)

Addendum, 16 September: Dr Koch says his work has been misrepresented:

I've never used cats and would never think of that. At most the odd toad may have jumped in.

Surely not an arroyo toad.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:18 PM)
14 September 2005
Well, duh

Rocket Jones has a message for you, Mr. SUV:

I'm sorry that it now costs you $180.00 every time you need to fill your gas tank, but that's the consequence of your decision to buy that oversized off-road vehicle for your daily commute on the interstate.

$180? Must be some Hummer.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:00 PM)
17 September 2005
Saving a few energy bucks

At what point do renewables become less expensive than fossil fuels? I buy 600 kW from OG&E's wind farm every month at two bucks a 100-kW unit; in exchange, the fuel-adjustment factor is eliminated from the bill.

For the period ending 9/9, the wind option cost me the usual $12; the fuel-adjustment factor came to $11.77.

So with natural-gas prices out of sight for almost half the billing period, the difference between electricity from gas and electricity from wind was a whole twenty-three cents out of a $95 bill. I have to assume that the tipping point is well within reach.

Beyond my reach, but obviously within someone's, is Ideal Homes' prototype Zero Energy Home, funded in part by the Department of Energy with technical assistance from OG&E, and tucked away into the Valencia subdivision at 2508 NW 180th Street. The idea isn't new, but the price point is: this is, says Ideal, the first ZEH in the nation to carry a sub-$200k price tag.

"Zero," of course, is an approximation, but the house is designed to produce about as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year. Climate control comes from a ground-source heat pump, which takes advantage of the fact that ground temperatures vary a lot less than air temperatures. The roof of the south side of the house is fitted with an array of 28 photovoltaic cells, grabbing energy directly from sunlight. The glass is double-pane low-E; the water heater is tankless.

The house will be leased for twelve months, starting around the first of the new year, in testing mode, after which time it will be sold; the target price is $199,000, which is on the high side for a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house with 1650 square feet, but the energy savings should compensate for that, and Ideal has said that the proceeds from the sale will be donated to the local Habitat for Humanity. Two other houses currently in the Valencia development have some of the energy-saving features, but there's only the one full-on Zero Energy Home.

For now.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:30 PM)
30 September 2005
Going nowhere

On the dubious basis that there's no fuel like an old fuel, I long ago got into the habit of combining several short trips into a single longer one, and when I moved two years ago and tripled the length of my commute, it became useful to run errands on the way home. (Running them on the way out is less useful, since it's usually around six-thirty in the morning.)

It didn't dawn on me how much I was relying on this technique until I got home this afternoon, when I noted it was the end of the month and I wasn't going anywhere tonight and duly reset Trip Meter A. (Trip Meter B is reset at every fill-up.) The total for September — the meter was last reset on 31 August — was 610 miles. Twenty-one workdays at 21.2 miles round trip comes to 445 miles and change, which means that I drove only about 165 miles for grocery-getting, Spottings, and other less-than-maximum-imperative trips. At $2.65 a gallon and 24.5 mpg (average for two fills during the month), my non-commuting fuel costs for the month ran less than $18.

I'm sure whatever money I saved got spent on something else, but that's a different issue entirely.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:17 PM)
2 October 2005
One of those alternamantive thingamubobs

So how much gasoline does George W. Bush's pickup truck actually burn?

None, apparently.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:54 PM)
13 October 2005
Breaking even

I said this last month:

At what point do renewables become less expensive than fossil fuels? I buy 600 kW from OG&E's wind farm every month at two bucks a 100-kW unit; in exchange, the fuel-adjustment factor is eliminated from the bill.

And for that month it came close to being an absolute wash:

[W]ith natural-gas prices out of sight for almost half the billing period, the difference between electricity from gas and electricity from wind was a whole twenty-three cents out of a $95 bill. I have to assume that the tipping point is well within reach.

It's here. Knocking off the fuel adjustment this month saved $12.04, which is four cents more than I spent to support the wind farm.

Okay, it isn't enough to retire on, but natural-gas prices aren't exactly headed downward, you know?

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:16 AM)
Who's gouging you?

William Sargent identifies the culprits at The Truth About Cars:

[I]f high gas prices were solely and inexorably linked to the price of oil, why are there still enough cheap plastic toys to keep your local Dollar Store in business? Why have disposable diapers, polyester pillows, Tupperware, hula hoops, toy dump trucks and other petroleum-based products not jumped to three times the price, too? Because they're not subject to the same political and economic pressures affecting gasoline.

When voters elect the latest gladhander to their municipal and state governments, the chemical makeup of the gas down at their local pump is not usually high on their list of priorities. BUT if you're an agricultural activist who wants to sell corn to the government to produce Ethanol, or an environmentalist who believes you possess the magic formula for reducing baby-killing smog in western cities, well, that's a different story. These groups are extremely effective at lobbying government at the state and local level to create a "boutique" gasoline formula to further their cause. As a result, Missouri gas isn?t good enough to burn in California, whose gas cannot legally be sold in New York City or parts of Arizona.

Which, of course, you already knew.

But there's one more factor:

Back when gas was $2.00 a gallon, industry experts speculated that speculation was adding five to seven cents to a gallon of gas. In the wake of hurricanes, the "investor effect" has been both more volatile and more pronounced. Basically, some heavily moneyed folks are betting against The Truth About Oil; they?re making a short-term gamble that the price of oil will keep going up. Because this strategy has been successful in recent years, more commodities investors are doing it, which inflates the demand (and price) of oil (and gas).

Can you say "bubble"? Sargent believes it's about to burst:

Fellow enthusiasts and SUV salesmen fear not: gasoline will be cheap again within a year or two. The price will return to the $1.00-$1.50 range, just like it was back in December of '02.

Suits me. My lawn mower doesn't much like that $2.75 stuff.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:20 PM)
14 October 2005
It's a start

Gary-Williams Energy's Wynnewood Refining Company, the nation's 97th largest, will expand capacity nearly 30 percent over the next two years.

Wynnewood, fifth in size among Oklahoma refineries, will be able to process 70,000 barrels a day, up from 55,000. Alongside the additional capacity, the refinery will add new environmental equipment.

Tax incentives? Well, yeah, there's that.

Gary-Williams acquired the Wynnewood facility in 1995 from Kerr-McGee; it produces gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, solvents and asphalt.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:21 PM)
25 October 2005
Aw, shucks, it's back to $2.05

A reminder from McGehee:

Strategic resource or not, the oil industry is not a public utility. Supply and demand ought to be allowed to operate just as it would in the snack cake industry. Those who want to bring a final end to our dependence on fossil fuels ought to have faith that if supply and demand make fossil fuels no longer economically feasible, alternatives will become available; thus they ought to be perfectly okay with high prices for petroleum-based fuels. And if I were CEO of Conoco-Phillips or BP-Amoco or any of the other oil companies, I'd already be funding research into alternatives. You can't patent gasoline, but a viable gasoline substitute?

(1) Have you seen the prices of snack cakes lately?

(2) Alternatives will suddenly appear at the exact point where they're price-competitive with our old-tech stuff; if there's a stumbling block, it's with the fact that we don't have much of an infrastructure to deal with alt-fuels. (How will we know when the fuel cell has been accepted by the marketplace? When there's a hydrogen-dispensing unit at 7-Eleven.)

(3) It's a shame Scotty never finished up that second transporter.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:50 AM)
9 November 2005
The Gas Game (intro)

Oklahoma Natural Gas Company offered (enrollment is now closed) a Voluntary Fixed-Price Plan which would freeze the price of gas to be delivered at $8.393 per dekatherm over the next year. I opted not to enroll, on the basis that I didn't think the price would be that high over an entire year: I expected a peak above that right away, but reasoned that it would subside in two or three months, as gasoline prices did and as diesel prices are starting to do. And besides, the price on my October bill was a mere $6.985. (The delivery fee is fixed and not included in these calculations.)

For the next twelve months, I'll calculate how much I've made, or lost, by choosing to reject this option. I start out behind:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

We'll pick this up again this time next month. For the record, last winter's peak usage was billed in February: I used 10.4 Dth.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:01 AM)
17 November 2005
They don't always work

Generally, I tend to look favorably upon "renewable" energy sources; while fossil fuels dominate for reasons of cost and simplicity, the cost advantages are gradually eroding away, and some of the alternatives are a bit cleaner in use. (For instance, buying from a wind farm through OG&E is now a smidgen cheaper than buying from their gas-fueled plant, thanks to way-high prices for natural gas.) But sometimes these schemes fall flat, as did this one in Queensland, Australia:

The troubled Rocky Point co-generation plant in the Woongoolba-Jacobs Well area south of Brisbane is expected to be sold at a fraction of its cost.

The power plant — which uses sugarcane and timber waste to produce electricity — has cost its government-owned operator Stanwell Corp tens of millions of dollars since it was commissioned three years ago. It was worth $60 million when it opened in 2002 but is now valued at $7.5 million.

The plant had been forced to write down nearly $48 million, or about 80 per cent of its original value, as Stanwell Corp struggles against operating issues not planned for in the original design.

The Australian dollar, at this writing, is worth $0.734 US.

The technology worked well enough, but it had some unexpected drawbacks:

Stanwell chief executive Gary Humphrys yesterday issued a statement saying the plant's operational problems had to do with the processing of fuel and the disposal of waste water and ash. He said the requirement to store waste water and ash were "not planned in the original project design".

The fuel is obtained largely from a nearby sugar-cane mill; in a nice, symmetrical bit of synergy, the plant supplies the mill with power.

And that waste water?

Rocky Point also faced legal action by environmental authorities over its alleged role in allowing contaminated water to flow into the Logan River, leading to the death of a substantial amount of fish.

Mark this one down as Not Ready For Prime Time. Yet.

(Via John Ray's new Australian Politics blog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:09 PM)
8 December 2005
The Gas Game (December)

In case you missed the introduction, this is an effort to see if I was either prescient or stupid when I opted not to take advantage of Oklahoma Natural Gas's Voluntary Fixed Price rate of $8.393 per dekatherm.

Right now, I'm running closer to the latter:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • Totals: 6.8 used at $11.372; total price $77.33; VFP price $57.07; loss of $20.26.

The really disturbing statistic is the fact that the meter for the December bill was read on the last day of November, before the beginning of the current cold snap.

Still got ten months to take up the slack, though.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:22 PM)
13 December 2005
New Jersey volt fraud

"Hello, this is PSE&G. We've just noticed that we haven't read your electric meter since 1998 and we will be sending you an updated bill just as soon as we possibly can."

And just in time for Christmas, too.

(Via Mister Snitch!)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:45 AM)
22 December 2005
A solid position, sort of

I've mentioned once or twice that buying off OG&E's wind farm was becoming cheaper than buying the regular gridstuff, largely because said regular gridstuff is obtained by burning natural gas, which costs more than a supermodel's body parts these days.

OG&E, in a letter to its wind customers, is now acknowledging this fact, and notes that in its new rate schedule, the $2/100-kw wind price will be lowered by, um, a dollar ninety.

This puts me ahead $11.40 a month before other changes to the rate schedule are figured in, or almost enough to cover what I'm losing on ONG's gas billing.

Addendum: And I'm quite sure that OG&E is serious about this wind business; they've signed on to a deal to build a new 120-megawatt wind farm, which could be on line in a year.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:21 PM)
2 January 2006
Hand over the BTUs and no one gets hurt

Natural gas supplies from a pipeline running from Russia into western Europe have dropped by more than a third, and the Russians claim that Ukraine, whose quota has been cut off by Russia for nonpayment, is stealing the gas.

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, supplies about one-quarter of the gas used in western Europe; Italy, France, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary report they're getting 24 to 40 percent less than expected. Ukraine denies that it's siphoning off the gas, and contends Moscow is trying to punish Kiev for seeking greater ties to the West by quadrupling the price of gas.

Even the higher price — $230 per thousand cubic meters, or about $6.51 per thousand cubic feet — is roughly comparable to the rates paid in the European Union, and a bit lower than the current price in the US.

Update: The US has weighed in on the issue. Says Sean McCormack of State:

Such an abrupt step creates insecurity in the energy sector in the region and raises serious questions about the use of energy to exert political pressure.

As we have told both Russia and Ukraine, we support a move toward market pricing for energy but believe that such a change should be introduced over time rather than suddenly and unilaterally.

McCormack apparently did not define "over time."

Update, 3 January: The Russians aren't backing down, but they've turned the gas back on.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:03 AM)
11 January 2006
The Gas Game (January)

What we're doing here is trying to quantify a decision I made last fall: Oklahoma Natural Gas offered a Voluntary Fixed Price rate of $8.393 per dekatherm for twelve months, which I turned down because gas was rather a lot less than that at the time.

Unfortunately for me, it's rather a lot more than that right now:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • Cumulative: 16.5 used at $11.748; total price $193.85; VFP price $138.48; loss of $55.37.

The February bill is normally the worst of the year anyway, so I'm not exactly looking forward to next month.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:25 PM)
1 February 2006
Might as well face it

"We're addicted to oil," says George W. Bush.

Possible reasons for this statement, per Pudentilla:

  1. he's setting up another effort to drill in alaska; or
  2. he's mindless borrowing democratic rhetoric in an effort to appear thoughtful; or
  3. he knows the iran thing is about to go to hell in a handbasket, sending u.s. oil and gas prices through the roof and wants to be able to claim in retrospect that he was doing "hard work" on the energy issue before the fit hit the shan?; or
  4. something else the dark lord (f.o.a.l.*)'s working on but we can't figure out yet?

* father of a lesbian

I'm thinking one part "b," one part "d," and maybe a side of "Geez, Laura, have you seen this Texaco bill?"

And, now that I think about it, wasn't Rove supposed to be the Dark Lord?

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:20 AM)
8 February 2006
The Gas Game (February)

Regular readers, assuming they haven't fled for places less surly, will remember that last fall I balked at paying Oklahoma Natural Gas $8.393 per dekatherm for a year, on the seemingly-reasonable basis that the price couldn't possibly stay up that high for twelve whole months.

That sound you hear is my wallet flattening. On the upside, usage was way down, what with last month being the second warmest January since 1891, and prices have actually started to slide, though they're still higher than ONG's VFP Plan. Here's my situation, how it really stands:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • Cumulative: 22.9 used at $11.145; total price $255.22; VFP price $192.20; loss of $63.02.

O Spring, where art thou?

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:03 PM)
12 February 2006
Running out of wind

Which of course we're not: blasts from the northwest are, even as I type, ripping through the countryside at a consistent 25 to 35 mph.

OG&E, however, is. From their current bill insert:

Due to the overwhelming response to the energy savings OG&E's Wind Power program provides, OG&E customers have purchased all the wind-generated electricity we have to offer. However, we're putting customer names on a waiting list to receive wind power when it becomes available.

Lower wind prices, coupled with high natural gas prices, have created significant savings to wind power subscribers — as much as 10 percent on monthly bills. Many customers signed up for 100 percent wind-generated electricity, creating demand beyond OG&E's available supply. In fact, the amount of wind energy purchased by OG&E's customers has more than doubled since the first of the year.

Emphasis added. And this is instructive: apparently as late as December, OG&E had sold less than 50 percent of their 50-megawatt capacity, but $12/dekatherm natural gas and a downward adjustment of the wind-power fee (from $2 to $0.10/kw) pushed demand to the max.

And if I needed any more persuasion, I could look at the bill I got Friday, which contains the following item: FINAL WIND OPTION COST -$8.62. That's more than I lost for the month on my gas bill.

The utility is already taking steps to increase its supply, though the new capacity won't be online until the end of 2006 at the earliest.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:12 PM)
9 March 2006
The Gas Game (March)

Spring is almost sprung, and natural-gas prices have receded from Heinous to Marginally Less Heinous. Still, I'm running behind on my goal, which was to spend less than ONG's fixed-for-a-year rate of $8.393/dekatherm, and with the heavy-spending periods now pretty much over, I am forced to concede that I am not going to make it.

Gratuitous statistics:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • March: 7.6 used at $8.455; total price $64.26; VFP price $63.79; loss of $0.47.

  • Cumulative: 30.5 used at $10.475; total price $319.48; VFP price $255.99; loss of $63.49.

It won't take much more of a drop for me to start recording gains — but it's highly unlikely I'll get sixty bucks' worth between now and October.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:48 PM)
11 April 2006
The Gas Game (April)

April is the coolest month, if you ask me: too warm to run the furnace much, not quite warm enough to crank the A/C to the max. Unfortunately, March's gas usage is billed in April, and that means another shot to the wallet, especially because, as you'll remember, I didn't lock in a fixed price of $8.393 last fall and it's been costing me ever since. What's more, the floating price has floated a few cents higher since the previous billing.

The numbers as they stand:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • March: 7.6 used at $8.455; total price $64.26; VFP price $63.79; loss of $0.47.

  • April: 4.6 used at $8.660; total price $39.83; VFP price $38.61; loss of $1.22.

  • Cumulative: 35.1 used at $10.237; total price $359.31; VFP price $294.60; loss of $64.71.

It's things like this that make you wish for May.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:11 AM)
15 April 2006
UCO goes to Full Breeze Mode

I've mentioned before at mind-numbing length the fact that I'm buying juice from OG&E's wind farm out near Woodward, and at current rates it's a tad cheaper than the amps from the utility's gas-fired or coal-burning plants.

In 2004, the University of Central Oklahoma, the largest single customer of Edmond Electric, struck a deal to buy a fraction of its power from Edmond's connection to the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority's wind farm; this month, the University has switched entirely to wind.

UCO executive vice-president Steve Kreidler:

Initially, our goal was to get to using around 50 percent wind or other environmentally friendly power sources. But with the current cost of fuel and the money we can save, and the fact that we're helping to protect Oklahoma's environment, we just think it's the right thing to do.

The school expects to save about $260,000 in energy expenses this year. (I expect to save around $125 myself.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:22 PM)
29 April 2006
More breeze from OG&E

OG&E's wind farm really isn't theirs: the 50-MW facility near Woodward is owned and operated by FPL Energy. (The farm actually produces 100 MW, but the other half is contracted to the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority.)

For the next phase of expansion, OG&E will build its own wind farm, a 120-MW facility in Harper County, north of the existing turbine array. The Corporation Commission gave its official blessing Friday.

The new farm, which should be online by the end of the year, will bring Oklahoma's wind production to nearly 600 MW, fifth highest among the states.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:03 AM)
8 May 2006
The Gas Game (May)

The idea here was that the gas company offered a fixed price for 12 months of $8.393 per dekatherm, and I've been trying to calculate how much it cost me not to sign up. So far, it's been rather a lot.

Current calculations:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • March: 7.6 used at $8.455; total price $64.26; VFP price $63.79; loss of $0.47.

  • April: 4.6 used at $8.660; total price $39.83; VFP price $38.61; loss of $1.22.

  • May: 2.0 used at $8.781; total price $17.56; VFP price $16.79; loss of $0.77.

  • Cumulative: 37.1 used at $10.158; total price $376.87; VFP price $311.39; loss of $65.48.

I think we can safely rule out a break-even point between now and October.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:22 AM)
11 May 2006
Ever so slightly wistful

This is identified as "Abandoned Gas Pumps, Water Valley, MS," by the immensely-talented Bayou, and of course, it captures two different bygone eras at once:

  • A time when the meter mechanism was based on simple, if convoluted, machinery;

  • A time when you couldn't actually put ten bucks' worth of gas into a vehicle.

No points for guessing which I miss more.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:12 PM)
26 May 2006
Time to burn the hydrocarbons

There are two service stations along my daily commute whose prices tend to be a few hours in front of everyone else's, and in the past few weeks those prices have tended to change on Thursday, so with the Memorial Day drivefest coming up, I was wondering yesterday just what sort of unpleasant surprises were in store.

And as I passed by yesterday afternoon, one station had dropped its price by two cents, while the other was unchanged. Curious, I thought. Maybe they're waiting until tomorrow.

Comes the morning. Prices are exactly what they were 14 hours ago.

Surely we're not actually going to catch a break this weekend, are we?

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:26 AM)
Let there be less-expensive light

I am a big fan of compact fluorescent bulbs, even if they do look rather like the wrong end of a glass boa constrictor. The one unsolved problem with them is that they give off a fair amount of heat, to the extent that the packaging now tells you in letters less small than before that you should not install them in closed fixtures, such as the recessed ceiling lights I have in the hallway and the living room.

The answer, or at least an answer, is a lampshade designed to accommodate the twisty tubes of light. I have two such: they're a bit more conservative than these, but they do seem to work, and the meager 22-watt bulbs, once up to speed — they're kind of dim at power-up, but give them a minute — produce plenty of that lovely dark-banishing stuff. Assuming that's what the mood calls for, of course.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:13 PM)
8 June 2006
The Gas Game (June)

For those of you just joining us, Oklahoma Natural Gas pitched a fixed price for 12 months of $8.393 per dekatherm last fall, which I declined on the basis that surely it can't get that high for any length of time. This exhibition shows (sort of) precisely how wrong I was.

Current calculations:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • March: 7.6 used at $8.455; total price $64.26; VFP price $63.79; loss of $0.47.

  • April: 4.6 used at $8.660; total price $39.83; VFP price $38.61; loss of $1.22.

  • May: 2.0 used at $8.781; total price $17.56; VFP price $16.79; loss of $0.77.

  • June: 1.2 used at $8.486; total price $10.19; VFP price $10.07; loss of $0.12.

  • Cumulative: 38.3 used at $10.106; total price $387.06; VFP price $321.45; loss of $65.61.

After this many months, rounding errors start to creep in, though they should still be well below two cents. And obviously I'm not going to come out even two cents ahead this year.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:30 PM)
13 June 2006
Let not thy left hand know, etc.

A New Jersey auto dealer is planning on revising its building for greater energy efficiency, and one thing they're doing is installing a Building-Integrated Photovoltaic System as part of the dealership's new roof. The Garden State will kick in some of the cost: New Jersey offers some significant tax advantages for solar installations.

And what sort of clean-and-green tools for mobility does this dealership sell? Why, Hummers, of course.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:31 AM)
1 July 2006
Just a sip or two

Your friendly neighborhood governmental types say you should never, ever top off your tank, and for the last few years, I have evolved something of a routine: I stop when the pump clicks off, then squeeze in enough to round the price up to the next five cents. Assuming the pumps are calibrated to stop at more or less the same place, and given the fact that a nickel won't buy much gas, I can generally assume that I've reached an acceptable degree of tankfulness, if that's a word, and my gas-mileage computations will benefit, if not from guaranteed accuracy, at least a diminished degree of inaccuracy.

I bought Gwendolyn her first tankful on Day One, observing this protocol, and subsequently watched the gauge with some concern:

I wouldn't call her a two-fisted drinker, exactly: maybe 1.3, 1.4 fists. Of course, this could just be due to some quirk in Japanese fuel-gauge mechanisms that causes them to plummet during the first half of their range and then slow down a bit as the bottom approaches.

Which was a guess, nothing more. However, I filled up last night as the gauge grazed the one-quarter mark. (The 91-octane stuff she prefers was still under three bucks, albeit by a mere tenth of a cent.)

The owner's manual claims a fuel-tank capacity of 18½ gallons or 70 liters; the online service manual at Alldata says, again, 70 liters. The conversion factor is exact enough. The precious fuelstuffs flowed in, dollar by dollar, and then: click. I stared in disbelief at the pump. This can't possibly be correct, I thought: still, the click was indisputable. I went up five cents, then ten, finally fifteen, and quit.

Apparently at the one-quarter mark, Gwendolyn had used just under 10.6 of her allotted 18.5 gallons, 57 percent rather than the expected 75, suggesting that her gas gauge is even more alarmist than I ever imagined. I started her up, and the needle climbed to pretty much where it had last time, a needle's width above the F.

And those 10.6 gallons propelled her 263.7 miles, which means that through my usual around-town driving cycle, she averaged 24.9 miles per gallon.

I don't believe it either. Late June, A/C running more or less non-stop, the odd burst of speed, and still: twenty-four point nine.

Factoring out the World Tours, Sandy's average was twenty-three point nine — and she weighed 350 lb less and had something like three-fifths the horsepower.

Okay, smaller engine works that much harder. I understand that. Still, I have to admit that when I pulled into the station, I was thinking "If I can just get 19, I'll be happy."

And I'm thinking next time I might wait until the scary orange low-fuel light comes on.

(EPA numbers are here.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:32 AM)
10 July 2006
The Gas Game (July)

Last fall, Oklahoma Natural Gas introduced a Voluntary Fixed Price program, which, if you signed on the dotted line, would get you 12 months of gas at $8.393 per dekatherm. (A dekatherm is about how much my water heater uses up in four weeks.) Inasmuch as the price at the time was in the seven-buck range, I decided to pass on this deal, and it's cost me every single month since then — until now.

Where things stand:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • March: 7.6 used at $8.455; total price $64.26; VFP price $63.79; loss of $0.47.

  • April: 4.6 used at $8.660; total price $39.83; VFP price $38.61; loss of $1.22.

  • May: 2.0 used at $8.781; total price $17.56; VFP price $16.79; loss of $0.77.

  • June: 1.2 used at $8.486; total price $10.19; VFP price $10.07; loss of $0.12.

  • July: 1.1 used at $7.520; total price $8.55; VFP price $9.53; gain of $0.98.

  • Cumulative: 39.4 used at $10.031; total price $395.61; VFP price $330.09; loss of $64.63.

This fall? I haven't decided. Why do you ask?

(Note: In July ONG began quoting usage figures to three decimal places, making rounding errors easier than ever. This is especially neat because meter readings are rendered in integers.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:45 PM)
16 July 2006
E85, where are you?

A lot of people are talking up ethanol as a sort of Gasoline Helper in these troubled times, and most contemporary engines can deal with mixing 10 percent ethanol into the mix; I gave Sandy a tankful last time I was in western Minnesota, and she handled it like any other fuelstuff.

Beyond that, there are vehicles already on the road that can handle an 85-percent mix. There are some downsides — lower energy density, hence fewer MPG, is the one most commonly reported — but this one is the one that sticks in my mind:

The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

Points off for the gratuitous mention of the hated letters "SUV" — the equation is no less true for any vehicle with a 25-gallon tank — but this is a heck of a lot of corn we'd be committing.

Still, there's one compelling factor in its favor: there's no Organization of Biomass Exporting Countries.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:24 AM)
24 July 2006
Charge and recharge

This month's electric bill at Surlywood — $116 — was the highest it's ever been, which I attribute to two factors:

  1. It was summer, which means a lot of A/C;
  2. And I was here for almost all of it, which is unusual for me.

Of course, it could be worse. At least I'm not in an area powered by Southern California Edison:

[T]he utility will raise rates Aug. 1 by up to 55 percent.

And the increase is retroactive to January, though Edison, which serves the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, will spread that pain over a year rather than billing a lump sum, spokesman Gil Alexander said Friday.

The rate increase, the third this year, was approved Thursday by the state Public Utilities Commission.

"Retroactive to January"? Must be nice. I ought to ask for a raise retroactive to January. If nothing else, it should pin the laugh meter in the conference room.

I looked at the rate schedule, and it's (presumably) unintentionally hilarious: seven different factors go into the calculation, and there's a bump up at 130 percent of "baseline" usage, another at 200 percent. (Compared to the OG&E rate schedule, which has a summer rate, a winter rate, and a rate for in between, the Edison plan looks like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.)

And it's not so nice, of course, if you're one of the lucky ones who gets to pay it:

Here we are years after the rolling blackouts, and California still hasn't increased electricity production so that there's plenty to go around at reasonable prices. I'm a fourth-generation Californian, but leaving the state looks better all the time. . . .

Meanwhile, on the East Coast:

[W]here I live, the electric company just received approval for a 30% rate hike this year and each of two years after that, which borders on insane not to mention prohibitive. My favorite trick of our G&E company, with charges among the highest in the country, is when they tack on a cute little non-specific charge they call an "access fee". Last summer (anything significant there?), the access fee was three times the bill.

I'm beginning to think that the allegedly roll-over-and-play-dead Oklahoma Corporation Commission isn't quite as feckless as we've come to believe.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:02 AM)
8 August 2006
The Gas Game (August)

Oklahoma Natural Gas's Voluntary Fixed Price program, begun last fall, would contract you to purchase gas for 12 months at a flat rate of $8.393 per dekatherm plus the usual fees and charges. I declined, on the semi-honorable basis that I didn't quite believe it would go that high; since then, I've been charting the cost of this decision.

As of now:

  • November: 2.4 used at $11.044; total price $26.51; VFP price $20.14; loss of $6.37.

  • December: 4.4 used at $11.550; total price $50.82; VFP price $36.93; loss of $13.89.

  • January: 9.7 used at $12.012; total price $116.52; VFP price $81.41; loss of $35.11.

  • February: 6.4 used at $9.589; total price $61.37; VFP price $53.72; loss of $7.65.

  • March: 7.6 used at $8.455; total price $64.26; VFP price $63.79; loss of $0.47.

  • April: 4.6 used at $8.660; total price $39.83; VFP price $38.61; loss of $1.22.

  • May: 2.0 used at $8.781; total price $17.56; VFP price $16.79; loss of $0.77.

  • June: 1.2 used at $8.486; total price $10.19; VFP price $10.07; loss of $0.12.

  • July: 1.1 used at $7.520; total price $8.55; VFP price $9.53; gain of $0.98.

  • August: 1.0 used at $7.566; total price $7.82; VFP price $8.67; gain of $0.85.

  • Cumulative: 40.4 used at $9.986; total price $403.43; VFP price $339.07; loss of $64.36.

(Rounding errors are being ignored.) The new VFP will be announced, they say, next month.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:17 PM)
21 August 2006
The Oracle of Premium Unleaded

Were I the nation's Energy Czar, the first thing I would do, of course, would be to abolish the position of Energy Czar. The second thing I would do is to suggest (since I no longer had any actual, you know, power) that everyone try to be nice to Trilby Lundberg.

The AP has a feature story today on the "guru of gasoline prices," whose biweekly Lundberg Survey is the best-known of all the petroleum indices. She learned this stuff basically by OJT: she was trained as a classical pianist, and wound up with the job when her father, Dan Lundberg, who developed the survey half a century ago, died in 1986.

And, she says, there's no Svengali manipulating the prices behind the scenes:

Are there five oil industry executives someplace deciding the price of gas? "That would be tragic because that would wreck the market," she said. "And it would be a comedy because it is impossible."

Lundberg said oil companies have no interest in helping each other; they want to increase their sales at the expense of the competition. "They all have no mercy," she said.

Oh, and don't ask her about the gas mileage on her Mercedes. She has no idea.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 AM)
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The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

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