| This page consists of an assortment of semi-unrelated pieces of information and advocacy all having something to do with energy issues -- from cars of the future to the kind of batteries to use in your Walkman.  This page was split off from my general purpose micro-rants page when I began accumulating a lot of entries on this subject.  That page in turn has been subdivided into separate pages by category: |

The Topics:

I haven't added any new items to this page in about a year and a half.  But here's something... I've discovered that some brands of compact fluorescent light "bulb" are exaggerating quite a bit when they claim to last as long as a dozen incandescent bulbs.  I just had a pair of off-brand compact fluorescents ("super light" or something like that) that were about six months old fail within three days of each other.  They went dim or dark and got scorch marks on the plastic base -- in one case, air got inside the tube.  Then a few weeks later, a Lights of America lamp failed -- it was somewhere between one and two years old.  Another of the same vintage is still running.  These ones had floodlight reflectors on them, a feature that many makers don't offer.  (My living room has this bogus track-lighting installation, where I use four compact fluorescents with reflectors, and two halogen floodlights to fill in the gaps in the color spectrum.)

I had thought Lights of America was a good brand, but this was mainly based on the good light it produced.  Unlike incandescents, the quality of light you get with compact fluorescents varies a lot from one maker to another.  I never bought any GE compact fluorescents, largely because their light just didn't look as good, when I got a chance to compare.  Lights of America is superior in this area (which I suppose is why they can be successful as a smaller independent outfit), but perhaps not in the area of durability.  The one that failed emitted a loud buzz and a stream of smoke.  I'm glad I was home.

My oldest compact fluorescents still running are Philips, and they have a somewhat dim and orangey light.  But the newest pair I have, replacing the off-brand pair, are also Philips, and they are quite bright and not orangey.  Maybe a little yellow, like an incandescent.  Let's hope they last as well as the dim ones do.  Maybe there's a tradeoff -- the bright ones run hotter, or something.  So I guess for now I'm recommending Philips.

Hybrid-electric cars are on their way in significant numbers.  Responding to polls that show that car buyers want cars to stay like they already are, only with a better kind of engine, the three U.S. auto companies are all coming out with hybrid-electric trucks and/or SUVs, and Honda is coming out with a hybrid version of the Civic.  This is a good thing.

President Bush used new hybrid-electric cars as a background prop for making a renewed effort to sell his energy bill, but the bill itself is the same old crap that came out of Ken Lay's instructions to Dick Cheney last year -- the bill that prompted people to call Bush's party "Grand Old Petroleum".

One aspect is that they still want to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and Bush still makes the bogus claim that drilling can be done with no ecological impact at all.  (What he means is that thanks to sideways drilling, the ecological impact is a few miles to one side of where the oil pocket is.)  Don't forget that it's far from certain that oil is there to be had -- many studies indicate there's a good chance of the refuge having little or no oil, and that even if they said oil was virtually certain, it could still be dry.  The most expensive dry oil field in history is not too far west of the refuge... the studies said it was practically a sure thing.

UPDATE:  Consumer Reports notes that the Toyota Prius is the first hybrid that competes well with conventional gasoline cars (whereas the Honda Insight sucks).  But they also note that its mileage is not really much better than the conventionally engined Toyota Echo, which resembles it in design.  Both are representatives of the new trend for higher seating positions.  The Echo in particular has a remarkably high roof for an economy car.  I noted below that this would probably be one of the best things that the car companies could do to wean people away from unnecessary SUVs, and several companies are doing so.  The forthcoming Ford Five Hundred, for instance, emphasizes a high driver's seat.

Consumer Reports found fault with the Prius's regenerative braking -- it made the pedal respond weirdly and oversensitively.  Integrating regenerative and conventional braking on one pedal, with safety in case of a system failure, is a tricky business.  With pure electric cars (though not with hybrids), the future may be to go with the much cleaner and simpler system used by the tzero roadster: use regenerative braking that's active all the time as a simulated "engine braking" effect, activated whenever you take your foot off the accelerator.  The tzero's dash includes a lever that adjusts the amount of "engine braking", and they say at typical settings it's easy and natural to drive with, yet leaves your real brakes almost unused except for slowing from about 10 MPH to zero.

Consumer Reports repeated the canard about electric car prototypes being taken off the market due to lack of consumer interest, and parroted the industry line about the future being with hydrogen fuel cells.

The British government, through their cabinet's Performance and Innovation Unit, commissioned a report on the question of what to do about long term energy needs, given the need to significantly reduce carbon dioxide production.  The nuclear power industry was expecting the report to endorse building new nuclear plants.  But it didn't -- it foresaw nuclear power as having no future at all within the 50 year time horizon they worked in.  Some major innovations on the part of nuclear designers might change that, of course, but the current industry is sticking to "inflexible" plans for old style plants.  If renewable power meets reasonable hopes, the report says, Britain will probably be free of any nuclear power generation once current plants expire.  They expect this to happen even if no government push for renewable energy takes place -- even in a purely market-driven scenario where CO2 production is allowed to spiral up with no limit (which would presumably make fossil fuels steadily more expensive), nuclear power has no role.

The basic reason is that nuclear power is fundamentally more expensive than many other types, both renewable and otherwise.  Public concerns about safety (especially with terrorists afoot) are also a factor.  Wind power is one of the cheaper renewable sources, and the report foresees a huge amount of wind, wave, and tidal power being generated in Scotland.  It also emphasizes conservation as a cost-effective way to reduce CO2 output.  It foresees biomass power (burning quick-growing plants) as a suitable way to meet peak demands.

Wind power is cheap, but the total quantity that is reasonably available is somewhat limited.  It may fill a bigger role than nuclear is filling now, but it can't replace oil by itself.  Augmenting it with ocean power will stretch it considerably further, though.  The British are coming up with a fancy new generator that gets power from underwater currents with a set of flapping vanes like the wings of a WWI biplane.

One scientist who used to work in the nuclear field warns that we might currently be guilty of making over-optimistic projections for renewable power, in the same way we previously did for nuclear power.  If that's true... then, basically, we're screwed.  We won't have any low-cost power option left if renewables don't come through.

A German company called Enginion is making a bid to bring back the steam engine as an alternative to internal combustion.  They think the steam engine can be made competitive again through the use of modern exotic materials.  For instance, they are patenting a material for piston rings and a matching one for cylinder linings which, in combination, have such low friction and such good wear resistance that no oil is needed inside the cylinder.  Plenty of engine makers are going to be interested in that.  They have also created a sort of ceramic sponge in which to burn the fuel, which allows combustion to take place under extremely uniform temperature and mixture conditions.  This makes it a lot easier to control pollution.  Their combustor produces almost no nitrogen oxides, while at the same time avoiding unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.  They expect the fuel efficiency to be about the same as diesel engines -- significantly better than gasoline engines.  It wouldn't be as efficient as the diesel-steam hybrid described below in the following item, but it would have much cleaner exhaust.

Steam engines are good for producing high torque at low speed, including at a complete stop.  Such a car would need few gears, and you wouldn't have to use a clutch when stopping.  In other words, it would drive like an electric car (except maybe during warmup).

The company is years away from producing a car engine, they say.  For now they are concentrating on smaller engines, suitable for such uses as portable generators, power for cargo refrigerators, and perhaps replacing some of the world's millions of small two-stroke engines.  Two-stroke engines are not only very noisy, they are also extremely dirty, since they spew half-burned oil out with the exhaust.  A steam replacement could be clean, quiet, and compact... if they can figure out how to cool the condenser.  Their existing Auxilliary Power Unit engine -- a rotary engine somewhat resembling a Wankel but working a bit differently -- is, they say, one tenth as expensive to operate as a fuel cell or a small gas turbine.  When they do scale up to a car engine size, the current plan is to do it as an electric hybrid -- a "deep hybrid" where the steam generator runs only intermittently to recharge the batteries.

The main problem they're facing is giving the engine a good long lifespan.  Steam at high temperatures -- they're using about 900 C, considerably hotter than the hybrid system described immediately below -- can be very corrosive.  Their early prototype car engine has not yet run for the amount of time a car engine should last without maintenance.

I've written a lot in the entries below about hybrid-electric cars, and it appears that they are gradually catching on with the automakers.  Japan exported the first ones as a demonstration of what high mileage it's possible to get with them, but it appears that Detroit is going to use them mainly to mitigate the awful mileage of their largest and heaviest vehicles.  Both are fine ways to apply the hybrid-electric technique, and they could well meet in the middle a few years later.  And as I've mentioned before, it gets even better when done with a diesel engine (if you can deal with the emissions).

But for the ultimate in mileage, a bet is being missed -- and a guy named Fred Bayley has a design that he thinks will prove it.  It's not a new way to make a hybrid; it's been used before in locomotive engines.  This hybrid is not electrical -- it's a hybrid of diesel power and steam.  By running the diesel's exhaust pipe through a steam boiler, which then feeds a turbine that helps turn the driveshaft, he gets extra power that -- just like the battery power in an electric hybrid -- is available for sudden surges of high torque, greatly increasing the short-term power output of the diesel.  Unlike an electric hybrid, it can also add power all the time, because it runs off of exhaust heat that is otherwise entirely lost to the outside air.  (Stationary electrical generators sometimes often this technique to boost efficiency: the exhaust of a gas turbine is used to power a steam turbine.)  According to Bayley, this is a system that, in terms of mileage, could improve on the electric hybrid as much as the electric hybrid improves on the basic internal combustion engine.  He says that while a car with a diesel-electric hybrid could get 85 miles per gallon -- which is already impressive -- the same car with a diesel-steam hybrid engine could get 140 miles per gallon.

So far, the automakers have given Bayley the cold shoulder.  He's getting some backing now from Sussex University.

There are two main disadvantages to a steam hybrid.  One is that it doesn't start operating until the engine has been running for some time, so it doesn't save any fuel on short errands.  Bayley's prototype uses 100 liters of water and heats it up to 500 degrees centigrade at 100 atmospheres pressure.  Heating that much water that hot with only exhaust gases does not happen quickly.  The other disadvantage is that 100 liters of superheated water at 100 atmospheres is a pretty dangerous explosive if anything breaks -- for instance, if it ruptures in a collision.  The Age of Steam before 1900 was noted, among other things, for the gruesomeness of the accidents that too many people experienced when boilers failed.  (Imagine a combination of being blown up by a hand grenade and being boiled alive.)

It may be that we can design a pressure vessel tough enough to be safe in an accident.  But steam won't help mileage when it's needed most -- in short drives -- unless the vessel is so well insulated that it can retain its heat for days.  That, too, may be achievable, but we still may never see the 140 mile per gallon car in regular use, because of these discouraging difficulties.

But even if we don't, we can still benefit from the lesson it points out.  We can use the exhaust heat to significantly improve the mileage of our existing gasoline cars, using only components that are in regular use now!  What we can do is take a hybrid-electric car and add an exhaust gas turbine -- the same kind used in turbochargers -- and use it to power the electrical generator.  Such turbines can extract many horsepower with only a trivial increase in fuel consumption, and can enable a hybrid-electric car's motor to almost constantly contribute to the vehicle's propulsion, instead of only adding power sometimes and taking it back other times.  The driveshaft motor would act as a generator only rarely, perhaps only during braking.  You could even throw in an electric supercharger, which would be powered by the batteries when you stomp the pedal and would sit idle the rest of the time.  With all this, we might see good sized cars with engines of one liter or less, getting more than double current mileage, without people complaining about performance... or cars with normal-sized engines that win favor with street racers.  And the whole mess might weigh no more than the diesel-steam alternative, even with several lead batteries.

Damn, if I was rich, I think I'd start on a prototype.

In the nineteenth century, an important milestone in chemistry was the synthesis of the first organic chemical by inorganic means.  The chemical was urea.  It is a metabolic waste product present in urine.  It is now manufactured in bulk out of ammonia, as a fertilizer.

Some animals can use urea as a nutrient.  Cattle, it turns out, can live by eating newsprint, if you sprinkle urea on it.  Given a source of nitrogen, such as urea, a cow can synthesize every amino acid and every vitamin it needs, right in its body.  We primates are much more limited, and have to eat a lot of vitamins and amino acids ready-made.  (Primates are among the few animals that can't make their own vitamin C, probably because a fruity diet has plenty already.  When humans shifted their diet more toward meat, vitamin C deficiency became a danger.)

Now there's a new use for urea besides fertilizing plants and trying to raise cattle without grassland:  it turns out that it can clean up the emissions of diesel engines.

Catalytic converters for gasoline engines need to have the amount of oxygen in them very closely regulated.  A little extra and you can't catalyze nitrogen oxides; a little shortage and you can't catalyze carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons.  The nitrogen oxide problem was unsolvable for diesels because they always have far more oxygen than fuel in the mix being burned.  But it turns out that if you squirt urea into the exhaust, a catalytic converter will break the urea down into ammonia, which then cleans up the nitrogen oxides.

This may remove one of the last obstacles to making wide use of turbo-diesel engines in place of gasoline engines, as well as taking a big step to removing a large current source of pollution.  Diesels are especially attractive in hybrid electric engine designs.  It might also help a bit with gasoline catalytic converters, enabling them to be less fussy about oxygen levels, running the engines a touch leaner and using just a little pinch of urea to reduce the nitrogen oxides.

Sumio Iijima of NEC, the co-discoverer of carbon nanotubes, has come up with a way to use them to make a super-duper hydrogen fuel cell.  They've made an experimental cell that can power a laptop computer for days instead of hours, but they apparently haven't really figured out how to recharge or refuel it yet... NEC hopes to be selling it commercially in a few years.  The Japanese government co-funded the research.

Check this out: a hybrid-electric version of a Hummer -- the army's High Mobility Multipurpose Vehicle.  It accelerates and climbs much faster than a standard Hummer while using less fuel.  The heavier duty "tactical" version is the first electric or hybrid vehicle I've seen anyone build that uses a separate motor for each wheel.  I have long thought that this would be the ultimate way to design an electric car, and apparently many other electric car people have had the same idea.  All have ended up dropping it for cost reasons.  But for a military vehicle, this idea works just fine.  I suspect that in the long term future, the better and fancier electric cars will use four motors despite the higher cost, just to be a cut above the ordinary electric cars.  But for now, civilian vehicles had probably better shelve the idea.

I believe that the future of drag racing, especially street racing, is going to be with electric or hybrid vehicles.  No internal combustion engine puts out as much torque from a given supply of energy as an electric motor does, and motors produce that torque instantly from a cold start.  No more smoke-producing clutch pops, trying to balance the need for maximum launch speed against the lifespan of frictional surfaces... with a motor, you just dump in the current and hang on.  (In fact, the lack of smoothness in electric motors' torque changes is one way in which an electric car can be less comfortable than a gasoline car.  You feel every little twitch of the gas pedal as a sudden increase or decrease of acceleration.  This effect was quite noticeable when I rode an electric trolley car today.  Some cars might end up having to install electronics to smooth this out.)  The hot-rodders of the future are not going to be worrying so much about things like cold-air intakes and high-flow mufflers... the way to get speed off the line will be to put in a high-current motor controller.  The motor itself may get left alone in many cases; it might survive double or even triple the rated power, and if it doesn't, it's much cheaper to replace than an engine is.

UPDATE:  General Motors is showing a prototype futuristic fuel cell car using a motor in each hub.

The Japanese are working to develop a tiny, cheap, and hopefully safe nuclear reactor small enough that it could be stuck into the basement of an urban highrise apartment or office building.  These designs would avoid a lot of the engineering complexity of traditional designs, and instead incorporate simple and foolproof failsafe mechanisms.  For instance, instead of control rods to regulate the reaction, there would be neutron-absorbing fluid which would be forced into the fuel area by thermal expansion whenever the reactor got too hot.  The fuel would be pellets dumped into a hopper and drained at the bottom, instead of complex rod structures.  It was originally designed for use in a moon colony, and now they want to use it right inside Tokyo.  Public acceptance, of course, is a very big uncertainty.

This is only one of several efforts to develop future nuclear reactors that would be fundamentally safer than traditional designs.  Some of them might eventually be able to revive nuclear fission as an economically viable way to generate power... if we come up with some answer to the waste disposal problem.

To me what this means is that there is doubly no excuse for us to build more old-style nuclear plants now.  The choice is between some dramatically better design than the ones we're accustomed to, or none.

I recently visited a friend in Seattle who owns an electric car, and attended a local meet of electric car owners called "Gasless at Green Lake".  And I learned something there which my friend, Jay, had been trying to tell me for a long time: lead ain't dead.  I had assumed that electric cars would always be inadequate as long as they relied on lead batteries, which are very heavy for the amount of juice that they hold, and wear out quicker than other types of rechargeable batteries.  But the fact is, they're so cheap that a converted car powered by lead cells can be fairly competitive economically even when built by hand.  Now these cars are limited to about 50 miles of range, and are kind of slow to recharge, but all this means is that you plug them in whenever you get home -- they charge up from regular 110 volt outlets.  You use them for around-town errands and maybe your commute, but not for road trips.  This covers 90% of your driving, simply and cheaply.  For many two car families, this is already good enough to replace one of the two cars.  Those who have done so like the change.

Jay's electric car is a converted Chevy Sprint wagon, powered by twelve 8-volt golf cart batteries.  He bought it used, with dead batteries, and got a good price by replacing the cells himself.  (He's not the only one -- if you ever want a bargain on an electric car, look for somebody who is selling it in disgust after their lead batteries have gone bad.)  It uses a Prestolite DC motor rated at 40 horsepower, and a Curtis motor controller rated at 400 amps.  (This means he can have surges of up to 52 horsepower.)  40 horsepower doesn't sound like much, but an electric motor has far more torque than a similarly powerful gasoline engine has, especially at low speed.  I can tell you that this Sprint wagon, loaded down with batteries as it was, pulled up hills more strongly than his brand new Ford Ranger pickup truck did.  And electric motors can often yield more than twice their rated horsepower if you just do it briefly enough to avoid overheating, so usually the motor controller box is what puts the ceiling on performance, not the horsepower rating of the motor.  Just don't floor it for minutes at a time instead of seconds.

A lot of the cars at this meet used the same model of Prestolite motor.  One car, a converted Nissan 280ZX built for drag racing, used three of them connected with a belt drive, and 36 lead batteries.  With 120 nominal horsepower -- significantly less than you typically see used in a midsized family car -- they could do a 15 second quarter mile.  Think what they could do with decent batteries that don't add half a ton to the car's weight.

(But that's nothing -- another company has built a converted Mazda RX-7 that can do an eleven second quarter mile!  It has so much torque that it pops wheelies.  That one also has heavy batteries.  If electric drag racing gets serious and somebody makes lightweight battery packs with very high current and no range, we could see electrics competing with pro drag strip times.)

There were about a dozen conversion cars here, including a classic Porsche 911, a small BMW, a Nissan Pulsar NX (for sale, with bad batteries), a VW pickup truck, a Subaru wagon, another Sprint wagon, and more.  There were also four or five commercially made electric cars, which unlike the conversions, are generally not available for anyone to actually buy.  There was an electric Toyota RAV4 compact sport-utility, owned by Costco; there were two electric Ford Ranger pickups, owned by the City of Seattle; and there was a Sparrow, a tiny car that carries only one person.  I've mentioned the Sparrow here before.  Here is a picture I took of it.  If you look close you can catch a glimpse of the "golf ball" dimpling on the backs of the fenders.  The Sparrow that was there was another vehicle that someone got cheap when the previous owner let the batteries go bad.  (Handy household tip: don't run lead cells down to low charge and then leave them unused for six months.)

Generally, there are certain differences between the commercially made electric cars and the handmade conversions: the former tend to use AC motors, which requires a much bigger set of high-current electronic components, but allows regenerative braking, which puts power back into the batteries whenever you step on the brake.  The commercial electric vehicles often use nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries, which hold more juice than lead cells, and weigh less and last longer.  (The electric Ranger was made in both lead and NiMH versions; one of each was at the meet.)  The commercial vehicles tend to use fancy charging devices that are not built into the car, so you have to charge at a special charging station, whereas the conversions tend to have built-in chargers so they can plug in anywhere.  The Sparrow is the exception to these trends: it uses the same class of inexpensive DC motor, lead cells, and Curtis "whiner" motor controller that the converted cars use, and it can recharge from 110 or 220 outlets.  This explains why it is the one commercial electric vehicle that you can go to a showroom and actually buy from a company that sells it for profit.

They say the early Sparrows included engineering mistakes that most home hobbyist conversion builders would have known better than to make.  But they're doing much better now.  Corbin Motors will also soon be making a single-seat gasoline car called the Merlin which is built much lower to the ground than the Sparrow, with the driver's seat much more laid back.  The Merlin will also be available in a "roadster" version with no roof and no doors -- you climb in and out over the sides, and have to wear a helmet!  It's powered by what amounts to an oversized motorcycle engine, with two cylinders.   They've announced plans for a variety of single-width cars with this engine: a tiny pickup, a tiny van, a one-passenger taxicab, and the "Liberty car" designed especially for wheelchair users: the back door becomes a ramp and you roll right up to the steering wheel.  They've announced a forthcoming Sparrow II which will have the same laid-back seating as the Merlin, and apparently is going to be made in larger volume.

I sat in the Sparrow and found that it took about five tries to get my knees around the steering wheel.  The seat, being more vertical than that in most cars, does not adjust forward or back.  I thought an adjustable steering wheel would have helped a lot; I now see that the Sparrow website mentions a tilt wheel.  One feature the steering wheel doesn't have is an an airbag -- it's not required since the Sparrow, having only three wheels, is legally a motorcycle.  This legality helped lower their costs.  (It also means you can use the carpool lane.)  I asked about cornering, and was told that because of the batteries, the center of gravity is so low that it corners as well as a regular car, or better.

I came in with the idea that the electric Ranger was a half-assed token gesture for the electric car market, not nearly as well engineered as Honda's or GM's efforts.  Apparently I was mistaken, and it's a sophisticated, high quality electric vehicle.  The folks at the meet thought so, anyway.  It's the only one that has a radiator -- there are so many high-powered boxes of circuitry that it actually uses liquid cooling to keep their temperatures down.  It is probably the biggest and heaviest electric vehicle made for road use, which might help explain why the range is well under 100 miles even with NiMH batteries.  Its motor is rated at 90 horsepower.  Its charger uses the same special plug that the Honda EV+ used.  (The electric Toyota RAV4 uses the GM-style inductive paddle charger.  A Beta-vs.-VHS war may be brewing, but the inductive style is probably doomed to lose, since it lacks the ability to dump power back into the grid, which may become a big selling point for fuel cell cars.)  But apparently Ford's main electric car effort is now aimed at a tiny cheap city car called the "Think City EV", which has been sold in Europe for a few years.  I would consider getting such a thing myself... but I think I'd really prefer a converted conventional car.

The NiMH batteries featured in the better electric vehicles may get a lot cheaper... they currently cost something like ten times as much as nickel-cadmium, which in turn cost four times as much as lead.  But small consumer NiMH batteries (AA size, for instance) only cost about twice as much as nickel-cadmium.  Clearly the larger NiMH cells are overpriced and could come down.  They hold more than twice as much juice as nickel-cadmium or lead, and the ingredients aren't poisonous like cadmium and lead are.  They don't, however, hold as much as lithium batteries, which (so far) are the ultimate cells to use when cost is no object.

There was also the Lee Iacocca electric bike (which will never even begin to redeem Mr. Iacocca's karma from his role in creating the exploding Ford Pinto), and a Taiwanese Vespa-style electric scooter which should be in showrooms later this year.  I gave some serious thought to whether I might want one of those for around-town use, but concluded it couldn't carry groceries well enough.  The Iacocca bike, interestingly, used a small lithium cell.  The bike cost $1300 or so.  There are several other electric bikes available.  There were hybrid cars: the two-seat Honda Insight and the moderate sized Toyota Prius.  The Prius had an interesting feature that I was told is becoming trendy on new car models: a fairly high driver's seat, like you'd expect to find in a more truck-like vehicle.  I pointed out some months ago that this might be a good move to make to get people to buy fewer SUVs.  The Prius had a more roomy and comfortable driver's seat than my larger Ford Contour has.  So did the little Insight.

The meet also had some natural gas powered fleet vehicles, a couple of ethanol-mobiles, and a biodiesel powered Mercedes.  But those were just minor variations of conventional cars.

Speaking of hybrids, Jay told me that the conventional carmakers are thinking of changing the cars' electrical systems from 12 volts to 48 volts.  This would allow them to take various mechanisms that are powered by the engine's accessory belt, like the air conditioner and the power steering, and power them electrically instead.  That way the load on them could be only the amount needed, not an amount proportional to however fast the engine is running at the time.  Despite electrical losses, they figure it could save power.  The interesting part is, if you replace the new expanded alternator with a motor-generator, and maybe enlarge the battery, and add some electronics... you've got a hybrid-electric vehicle.  This hypothetical new 48 volt car is halfway there already.

Another trick you could do with 48 volt electrical systems is make an electric supercharger that is more efficient and less complicated to add in than a driveshaft-powered supercharger is.  By using only the amount of power you actually need, and activating only when you push the pedal fairly hard, it would waste much less power than a conventional supercharger or turbocharger does.  To get some of the additional advantage of turbocharging, you could power a second alternator with an exhaust turbine, reducing the load on the driveshaft powered motor-generator, which would then spend more time motoring and much less time generating.

Holy shit, I finished typing this, turned on the TV, and immediately saw a commercial for Target stores (or something -- it was hard to tell) that featured three guys in green Sparrow cars, to the music of Devo performing "It's a Beautiful World".  Proof that God wants us all to buy them right now?

UPDATE:  A guy I know bought a used Sparrow and I got to take it for a little spin.  It is fairly quick and maneuverable, but its comfort level is something only a motorcyclist could love.  Not only is the ride rough and the seat hard and the legroom cramped and the steering stiff, but the drivetrain is remarkably loud inside.  Let's hope the Sparrow II budgets some sound insulation.  That tightly curved windshield puts a lot of weird reflections in your field of view.

Somebody there said, "Think of the Sparrow's body as a very large motorcycle helmet."

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Jay says that Toyota is going to resume production of their electric RAV4.  It looked like they had been going to do exactly the same as GM, Ford, Honda, and the others: design an electric vehicle, build 100 to 300 copies to meet some legal requirement, and then stonewall on ever making a mass-market version on the grounds that it will never be affordable enough.  Toyota is the first to crack, and that's good.  [Later]  The Electric RAV4 is available as of spring 2002.  I saw one ahead of me in line at a drive-through last week.  Next up may be a Volkswagen using the AC Propulsion drive train (which might be a pretty fast car).

A FURTHER UPDATE:  The latest rumor is that the planned upgrade of cars' electrical systems would be to only 36 volts, not 48.  This is an example of the sort of crap that Microsoft always pulled: they'd see that their old system was outdated and couldn't do the job any more, and they'd upgrade it just enough to meet immediate needs, instead of doing it for keeps... invariably, the job had to be done over again a few years later.  Why don't the car people go for 96 volts or so right from the start?  What possible reason is there for taking half measures?  If you're going to change it at all, there's nothing to be gained by staying in the general ballpark of the low voltages that were selected a lifetime ago.

Ford, in a fit of financial trouble and bad-management fingerpointing, has cut several models from its product line, and dropped the European "Think" electric golf-carts, which nobody wanted.  This move was interpreted by some as hailing the end of battery-powered cars for keeps.  A Ford representative said, "We feel we have given electric our best shot."  That is, of course, an absurd claim; a golf cart is not a best shot for anyone, let alone a top carmaker.  If they'd given it their best shot they wouldn't have come up with something embarrassingly inferior to the efforts of small underfunded companies like Corbin and AC Propulsion.

Corbin Motors' roofless Merlin roadster is now more or less almost available.  They have a bunch of prototypes, but you still have to get on a waiting list if you want one.  It uses a Harley-Davidson engine.  It does have a door of sorts on the right side, so you don't have to climb over the side.  The Merlin Coupe is further away, and the Sparrow II is still apparently just a stack of drawings and a half-finished set of assembly line tools.  But the original Sparrow is now cheaper: about $15,000.  The guy I know with a used one paid well over that price, I think.

A FINAL FURTHER UPDATE ABOUT CORBIN MOTORS:  Corbin went belly-up during the middle of the war with Iraq.  The economy was godawful during this period, of course, but an awful lot of people are saying that the fault is that the top two guys in the company lined their own pockets while being unwilling to pay for real engineers.  So much for the Sparrow II.

I think a two-seat electric car is going to be a bigger win than a single seater.  It doesn't have to cost all that much more and it will reach a significantly bigger market.

Magnetic nuclear fusion power just got a step closer.  Maybe some of the disparaging things I said earlier about the fusion effort are a bit pessimistic now.  Somebody at the US National Fusion Facility in San Diego finally figured out why they couldn't confine the spinning plasma in their tokamak at a good pressure: the cloud was getting unstable and turbulent due to small irregularities in the magnetic field, especially when they spin the plasma at a good speed.  They found they could damp out the instabilities by using small corrective magnetic fields under computer control.  Voila: the pressure in the DIII-D tokamak can now be pumped up twice as high, quadrupling the rate of the fusion reaction.  This discovery may soon allow the Joint European Torus in England to be the first fusion reactor that puts out significantly more energy than it takes in.

The people in the fusion game are saying that there has been a whole flurry of forward steps in the past couple of years, after a long dry spell.

I have a business plan idea for building a successful electric car.  I'll tell you what it is a little further down.

The SF Weekly recently had a cover article about how the large automakers, foreign and domestic, have been lobbying and bribing Sacramento legislators in order to thwart California's imposed mandate to produce zero emission vehicles.  They already beat the main initial deadline that had been imposed on them.  Now, some good came from their efforts, because in order to prove that they shouldn't have to build electric cars or fuel cell cars, they have come up with new ways to significantly lower the emissions of gasoline cars, to the point where -- aside from greenhouse gas -- they practically don't pollute at all.  They have combined this with a PR effort to badmouth electric cars and alternative fuels.  One of the staples of their party line is that not only would electric cars be too expensive, but they would be inferior and people wouldn't like them... and there's hardly any demand for them.

Yet whenever any real electric vehicle becomes available, there's always a waiting list, and those who actually get one usually love it.

When auto companies produce a demo version of an electric car, it is often an extremely wimpy sub-sub-compact -- exactly the kind of car people least want to buy.  Other times they produce a car of more or less normal size but such poor performance that some suspect them of deliberately trying to make electric cars look bad.  Chrysler's recent design, for instance, was so lame that you've never heard of it, with good reason.  If the remaining California mandate holds up and the auto makers can't weasel out of it, GM and Ford are talking about selling "city cars" that aren't even legal for freeway use because they're too slow.  In the longer term, they are apparently planning to concentrate on fuel cells instead of on rechargeable cars.

But GM made the mistake (?) of building a good electric car, their well-known EV1.  Sure, it was kind of cramped and heavy, but it could really go, and people who drove it became devoted to it.  A good many people have wished they could buy an EV1, but GM would not sell them.  They built three hundred and then quit.  Dealers would, in some reported cases, refuse point-blank to sell the car to someone who had their checkbook out and ready, insisting "You don't want that."

GM explains that of course people will love a car that they get for a fraction of what it cost to build.  But the reason it cost six figures to make (as did Honda's EV Plus) is because they only built three hundred of them.  If you're going to get a car built practically by hand, you might as well buy a Lamborghini -- building an ordinary family car that way would not cost all that much less than building an elite sports car.

The EV1 proved that it's possible today to build a pretty good car that runs on batteries.  After the EV1 was gone, AC Propulsion announced their "tzero" (described below), and showed you could make a better one for less money.  The AC Propulsion drive train may soon be the motor of choice for better electric cars, if their claims for it are good.

Some consumer groups are saying that the reason the major carmakers don't want an electric car industry to develop is because they fear losing control of it; they fear new competitors will build electric cars for California in California.  Yet by dragging their heels, they have made this outcome more likely, not less.  And if they think they can erase the problem of legislative mandates by concentrating on California, they may be disappointed, because it's generally considered likely that many other governments around the world are going to declare mandates for nonpolluting vehicles.  I believe that we are only a few years away from the point where some entrepreneur without GM-sized capital shows he can build an electric car and make a profit.  Perhaps it will be Mike Corbin, who is now selling a single-person car called the Sparrow.  It's tiny and looks like a joke, but it's fully usable on the freeway.  He figures this is only logical because most freeway cars have only one person in them anyway.  He designed it specifically for commuting.  I know someone who knows someone who has one.

Why are we constantly told that electric cars have to be tiny and slow?  Whenever someone sets out to build a good electric car, it's fast, despite being not very lightweight.  The thinking is that only by totally minimizing the necessary amount of batteries can a car be made cheap enough to afford.  And that is where I think an opportunity has been overlooked.

So we come to my business plan idea.  I think the tiny-golf-cart approach is backwards.  From an engineering standpoint, a lot of the drawbacks of electric cars can be alleviated by making the car bigger.  A small car is more limited in both speed and range than a larger car is, especially in highway driving -- and a larger car can devote a bigger percentage of its carrying capacity to batteries than a smaller one can, unless the small one only seats two.  (A lot of electric car conversion projects end up turning four-seat compacts into two-seaters.)  And tinyness can be a major marketing drawback.  Why not take advantage of the cleanliness and efficiency of electric drive systems to bring back the big car that many Americans miss?  Or use it in a stretch minivan that seats six or more.

A key factor here is that a cramped uncomfortable car has to compete with the lowest price economy cars, but a big car is competing with luxury models that are considerably more marked up.  The difference in price between an innovative electric design and a commonplace gasoline model is narrower with a big car than with a little car.  Early adopters of electric cars will have to pay a premium, just as early adopters of any new technology do.  So why not offer them a chance to get a lot when they pay a lot?  So I propose that the way to make money in the electric car business is to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln, not with Hyundai.  In time, you would be able to supply more models at lower prices.  The other area where a premium priced car might be successful is in the sports car area... the tzero has the initial edge in that market, but they aren't offering a big car.

UPDATE:  Even when converting a conventional car, unless you want to end up with a two-seater, starting with a big car could be the better way to go.  I am half planning to take this route myself, if I can't find a good ready-made choice when it's time for me to buy my next car.

A researcher named Robert Englar, of Georgia Tech, has apparently invented a way to cut the wind resistance of trucks and buses by a staggering amount -- maybe 65 or 70 percent relative to designs with commonplace streamlining, over 80 percent relative to a design with no streamlining.  He did it using the Coanda effect, which is the phenomenon in which streams of air blown parallel to a surface tend to follow that surface as it curves.  (The effect is named for Henri Coanda, who experimented with an early jet engine for aircraft, and accidentally set his plane on fire when an ad-hoc heat shield unexpectedly caused the jet's exhaust to cling to the plane's sides.)

On large, boxy shapes like heavy trucks (or sport-utility vehicles), most of the drag actually comes from the back end, not from the end facing the wind.  It happens because of all the turbulence in the vehicle's wake.  Traditionally, the only way to avoid it is to give the thing a very long tapered tail, like a fish.  But by putting a suitably curved flange around the back end and blowing a stream of air across it, the Coanda effect can eliminate much of the turbulence and get the air to smoothly converge behind the truck.

To make the Coanda effect work, you need a blower that doesn't produce a lot of pressure but does pump a lot of volume.  The back end of the truck would have slots around the edges, just ahead of the curved flanges, blowing air parallel to the surface.  The extra air flow sort of pulls the existing wind along with it, around the curves.  This means that the blower then uses up some fraction of the saved energy, so mileage gains won't be as dramatic as you might think from the numbers above.  At higher speeds the blower might need a lot of power.  But that is precisely when it helps the most.

The drag reduction, at least on wind tunnel models, is so drastic that they realized they'd need to put in an interlock to shut off the blowers when the driver uses the brake.  Actually, Englar envisions a fancy computerized controller which not only can actually increase drag during braking above what it would be with the system turned off (this happens when the slot on the truck's underside stays on while the top and sides are shut off), but can help stabilize the truck when it encounters crosswinds (by varying the balance between the left and right sides).

Englar has worked out a version for Formula 1 racecars which he hopes will soon be used in a real race.  The details of that design are secret.  But maybe the best news is that a representative of General Motors has said they'll look very hard at using the system on SUVs if it proves itself on freight trucks.  The next step is to build a working system on a full sized eighteen-wheeler and test it out on the road.  Englar hopes to have such a truck rolling by the end of 2001.

The idea of a "hydrogen economy" in which we replace a lot of gasoline and natural gas with hydrogen gas looks a little more feasible now...  because they're developing a way to produce hydrogen from solar power more simply and cheaply than with any kind of electrically powered system of separating water.  It can be done biologically.  Certain algae will produce waste hydrogen instead of oxygen under the right conditions.  With a little gene tinkering, this could probably be made a pretty cost-effective way to mass-produce cheap hydrogen fuel, which can then be used much as we now use natural gas... or could be put into a fuel cell to run a long-range electric car.  Actually, almost any use of it is more efficient if you feed it to a fuel cell than if you burn it.  Even heating your house, if you have an electric heat pump.

Storage and transportation of hydrogen gas is still a big pain, though.  I don't see the huge new infrastructure it would require ever being built.

UPDATE:  The Department of Energy in the George W. Bush administration is using the idea of hydrogen cars, which have to be at least 20 years away if we ever go for them, as an excuse to avoid investing in better mileage and lower emissions today.  It should be noted that Dubya is not much more prone than most politicians to promise one policy and then back another while in office, but if he does flagrantly break a concrete promise (as opposed to a nebulous one like restoring dignity and honor to the White House), it's usually an environmental one.  For instance, he promised during the campaign to take constructive action to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  That promise was repudiated only a few months after his inauguration.  The environment, one must conclude, is one area where he lied about his planned policy in order to get elected.

Holy hell-on-wheels, Batman, look at this car!  Someone finally took real advantage of electric cars' ability to combine high efficiency with high peak horsepower, and has built an electric roadster called the tzero that can out-accelerate Porsches and Corvettes.  Given that performance level, the 100 mile range they claim for it is remarkable... especially since it uses old-fashioned lead batteries to stay affordable.  (Though it's still so expensive that I bet a lot of the people who are willing to buy it would be willing to spend $20K more for longer range NiMH batteries.)  They have proprietary technology that they say gives them better power efficiency than other electric cars.

This company's plan, apparently, is to get people to buy an electric car by making it more fun to drive than most gas cars.  That way those who want a super performance thingy will be willing to pay the tall dollars needed for an early product made in small volume.  Hopefully that can be parlayed later into being able to make more affordable vehicles for the mass market.

The thing is so efficient that they calculate the energy cost of driving it as being equivalent to over 250 miles per gallon. And hell, half the places you recharge it away from home probably won't even ask for money for the electricity, since a full charge is only two or three bucks...  That'll save you at least $1000 per year, but as yet that's a long ways from making the car affordable.  It's an exotic high-performance beast meant for those who would be willing to pay for a prestige sports car anyway.

Yet apparently it was not designed to be high cost.  It sounds like they wanted to get somebody to mass-produce it at an affordable price, and nobody did, so they are making it themselves in small numbers and have to charge a lot.

Apparently it's coming to the retail market sometime in the later part of 2001.  Even if it only sells to a small elite, it might be the most successful and visible electric car yet.  It doesn't hurt that they've eliminated the bulky external charger used by the GM EV and made a charging system that you can plug almost any kind of power into -- the motor itself gets turned into a kind of transformer.

The company's key product is not the car, but the drivetrain assembly, which contains their special compact charging system and various other proprietary advantages not found in other electric vehicles.  It could be built into various different cars, including quite large ones, since it can produce 200 horsepower and enormous amounts of torque over a very wide range of RPMs.  A gasoline engine of equivalent performance would have to be rated at several hundred horsepower.

The funniest feature of this car is that you can convert it into a hybrid electric by buying a little trailer that contains a gasoline powered generator.  Just hitch it up whenever you want to take a long road trip.

UPDATE:  It looks like they have now found a carmaker who wants to do a deal with them and build something for the broader market using their advanced drivetrain: Volkswagen.  Rock!  I'm not sure, but it looks like the New Beetle, the Jetta, and the Golf may all be available in electric versions soon... and they'll be rather fast.

The tzero uses an axle drive ratio of 9:1.  This gives them extreme acceleration but also limits their top speed to 90 MPH.  I predict that the speed limit will reduce interest among the elite sports car market.  But guess what -- it turns out that for a gearbox and differential they're using a Honda transmission with most of the gears taken out.  I predict some tzero buyers will, at some point, tear open that Honda gearbox and put in different gears... either to change the ratio to allow higher speeds with less extreme acceleration, or to kluge up some kind of shifter, maybe with only two speeds or maybe with a whole set of five.  Such a car would beat a regular tzero in a drag race if the shifting is handled well.

The School of Transportation and Society in Borlänge, Sweden has come up with a computerized doodad which coaches you on your driving habits in order to teach you how to get the best mileage.  The habits it encourages do not include using a light right foot.  People have the idea that accelerating really slowly will save gas; actually, engines waste more fuel when you use only a fraction of their horsepower than they do when you use around two thirds of it.  So it might actually tell you to accelerate faster.  The most important things you can do to get better mileage are to upshift at fairly low revs (if you have a stick shift), and to keep your top speeds reasonable.  (At higher speeds where wind resistance is the predominant factor, the power required from your engine is proportional to the cube of your speed.  It takes eight times the engine power to go 140 MPH that it takes to go 70.)

Besides coaching you on things like when to shift, this gizmo is smart enough that if it notices you tapping your brake while travelling quickly, it will suggest you stop tailgating the car in front of you.  In general, it disapproves of drivers who brake hard or often.  It doesn't nag you while driving, it just saves up suggestions to give you later.

A trial group using the device improved their mileage by 16 percent.  A control group, told to just get the best mileage they could manage on their own, saved about half as much.  And the coached group experienced no loss of travel time.  The cool thing is, we can learn from these suggestions without having to necessarily use the device ourselves.

This also tells us about what makes one car use more gas than another.  A car that has a bigger engine than it needs will use gas less efficiently than a car that has just enough engine, because the former is being used at below 50% power more of the time.  (This is the principle behind the Cadillac Northstar system, which saves gas in big engines by temporarily shutting off some of the cylinders when they're not needed, so as to imitate a smaller engine.  Northstar, by the way, was created by a backyard inventor, and shows that the automakers really will buy and use such inventions sometimes.)  The most efficient engine size is such that you can accelerate at a typical rate from a stop light by using about two thirds of full power.  (But if you use a hybrid-electric setup, the engine can be half that size.)

For a given power level, a diesel engine is more efficient than a gasoline engine, and a compact high-output engine (for instance, a turbocharged engine) is more efficient than an old-fashioned big engine.  Turbocharging a diesel helps even more than turbocharging a gasoline engine.

As to the amount of power that's needed for a given car, there are basically two factors: the car's weight, and its drag.  More weight requires more engine power when starting up from a stop; in other words, lighter cars get better city mileage.  More drag requires more engine power when travelling fast; in other words, smoother cars get better highway mileage.  The drag in turn has two components: the shape, and the area of the frontal cross section.  SUVs are bad in all three areas -- they weigh a lot, they are square and boxy instead of streamlined, and they stick up high so that the cross section is large.

And by the way, that is why larger cars generally have higher top speeds: if they weigh twice as much and have twice the engine power, their frontal area is generally much less than twice as big as the smaller car's.  (Of course, this is less true for SUVs.)  So they have more power left for wind resistance than a small car does.  This leads to a simple rule we could apply:  If the engine is not oversized for accelerating your car, but your top speed is far more than you need, then your car is too heavy.  Most cars are.

Incidentally, I've never heard anyone really explain why SUVs suddenly became so popular, but I have my own hypothesis.  I suspect it's largely because, once gas had become cheap for a while, people just got sick of forcing their bodies into cars with low seats and low ceilings.  Cars got increasingly lowered so as to decrease the frontal area.  In hindsight, we would have gotten better fuel conservation if the car makers had just allowed the roofs of their midsize cars to be a couple of inches taller, and allowed the floors of their economy cars to be a couple of inches longer.  Given a choice between a fuel efficient car that is only comfortable for drivers shorter than 5'8", and a wasteful car that's roomy, people have been unwilling to go the efficient route.  We could make our smaller cars dramatically more comfortable for many of us by making them only slightly less efficient.

What we need from the auto industry are reasonably small, light cars that have adequate room.  This is something they have never really been willing to give us.  By using some unconventional materials, we could make a car the size of an Accord that weighs no more than a Metro, or at least, a Taurus with the weight of a New Beetle.  But we keep making midsize cars that weigh over 3000 lbs because it's a little cheaper.  And also because a car that feels heavy and solid inspires buyers to have more confidence that they're getting their money's worth when they pay the extra markup that bigger cars have.  (The US auto industry resists economy cars because the profit margin is narrower.  People pay a good deal more for larger cars without the building costs being much different.)

I have a suggestion: put high-tech computerized shock absorbers into the car, as a feature to make it ride smoother while retaining good handling... and then program them to stiffen up when a sudden weight is added to the car, like someone leaning on the bumper or climbing in the back seat.  That way the car will feel like it's heavier than it really is when it's in the showroom, and buyers won't feel cheated by getting a light car.

Saturn is one car line that has done a good job of keeping the car's weight and power requirements down in a design that isn't all that small.  Let's hope others emulate their success.

I was talking to the president of the company I work for (it's a small company) and he mentioned that he was a fan of building more nuclear plants.  I pointed out that wind power costs a quarter as much.  And then he came up with a great idea:  around here, the very best place to put a bunch of windmills to get lots of power would be on the Golden Gate Bridge.

I looked at a weather service site which had a map of recent wind speeds in the bay area, and sure enough, the strongest winds were blowing right through the golden gate.  And the big engineering effort with windmills is always to get them high enough off the ground.  The higher the tower, the stronger and steadier the wind power.  So the bridge is perfect, especially if we can get turbines up on the suspension cable instead of just on the towers and deck.

Could we ever get people to go for it?  Probably not; they're too attached to the elegant way the bridge looks.  And the power would not be all that much, I suppose.  But it's really not nearly as obnoxious as some proposals -- for instance, the one to build a dam under the bridge to harness tidal power.  Now that might generate plenty of juice.  It might also eliminate a lot of the bay's fish and concentrate a lot more pollutants in it, though.  A scaled-down version that just blocks a fraction of the opening might be doable, though the power per construction dollar might be poor.

I just read an interesting bit about how all the electronic junk they want future soldiers to carry around could be powered.  Currently, the weight of batteries is the single biggest limitation on how much electronic gadgetry soldiers can be equipped with.  So they're thinking hydrogen fuel cells could be the answer.  But carrying a tank of hydrogen into a battle is rather dangerous.  So somebody came up with a compact converter that extracts hydrogen from methanol using a catalyst.  But the catalyst runs at a temperature of 400 centigrade, meaning that whoever carries it is a sitting duck for heat-guided weapons.

At this rate, they may have to end up powering their future wearable electronic gadgetry with hand cranks.

UPDATE:  Don't laugh -- hand crank power for portable electronics is advancing rapidly.  People started using it in the mid-nineties as a way of bringing the usefulness of portable electronics to the poorest countries, where it's a breakthrough in rural areas just to be able to listen to a radio.  And then hand-crank-powered radios and telephones started to catch on in Europe, because it freed people from the limits of battery life.  The usefulness of crank chargers is improving year by year, thanks to such inventions as ultracapacitors.

Addendum:  After soldiers are done worrying about how to power all their electronic laser/video/microwave/etc hardware, there's a bigger power problem coming up: some are starting to work on how to build that famous science fiction gadget, the powered exoskeleton.  No possible electrical storage mechanism we have now can power such a thing... about the best we've got so far is to put, essentially, a one-cylinder gasoline engine in every joint.  The resulting joints emit a tremendous amount of noise and pollution when active -- it would be impossible to use indoors.

The same problems afflict the question of how to make an articulated mobile robot, though not quite as badly.  Sony has built a robot that can walk around and climb stairs and stuff, but its battery life is less than half an hour.  Anything with a reasonably long time between refueling stops will probably have to have something like a gasoline engine in its chest, powering the limbs with hydraulic fluid or compressed air or steam.  A more quiet and compact way to make steam is to feed hydrogen peroxide through a palladium catalyst.  This type of power could easily be used in an indoor environment, as long as you didn't mind paying for exotic fuel.  But if any science fiction writer wants a mobile robot to walk around for months or years between refuelings, as many seem to do, there's probably no alternative to making it nuclear powered, and therefore likely to cause cancer in anyone who stands next to it for too long.

Somebody just took some polls measuring how Californians' attitudes have changed about various subjects related to energy since the electricity blackouts started.  Not surprisingly, the biggest negative swings are in the approval ratings of the politicians involved.  This is justified since it was a legislative error that created the mess -- and the strange media silence about the origins of the crisis is not keeping people from recognizing that, or at least suspecting it.  The governor seems to be suffering in public opinion polls more than the legislature is, though this mess was not created on his watch.  Aside from opinions of people, pollsters found very little change in attitudes toward such things as environmental regulations.  The Republican types (including our "president") who tried to use this as a lever to get people to oppose environmental restrictions, have failed.  People know better than to blame this absurd artificial shortage on rules against smog.

The one area where attitudes have undergone a significant shift is on nuclear power.  People are suddenly deciding that more nuclear plants suddenly don't sound like such a bad idea.  Lots of electricity and no carbon dioxide.  So maybe it's time to review the reasons why we stopped building them twenty years ago.

The main reason is very simple: nuclear power is expensive.  You can't blame it on governmental red tape, either; nuclear power plants are expensive to build and expensive to run, period.  The reason California's residential electric rates before the crisis started were around 13 cents a KWH, while many other areas of the country pay 6 or 8 cents, is because of PG&E's nuclear reactors, according to some industry watchdogs.  Natural gas power plants, the kind that are most commonly built today, are several times cheaper -- up to ten times in some cases.  So is wind power, if you can deal with the irregularity of it.  This is why wind power production is growing more than 20% a year worldwide, while nuclear production appears to be heading into a decline.  Even solar cells don't look too bad, cost-wise, compared to any decently safe nuclear plant.

I just heard a report on the radio which says that smog here in the Bay Area has been significantly lessened, and the credit apparently goes to the practice of oxygenating gasoline with MTBE.  Unfortunately MTBE is just replacing air pollution with water pollution, because it is contaminating groundwater in so many areas that we are now in the process of phasing out its use.  There are also those who say that MTBE can rot hoses in your engine and cause breakdowns.  (Some CalTrans engineers who voiced this concern, I recall, got subjected to bizarre bureaucratic punishments and stifling tactics by their bosses -- a reporter who went to interview them had to chase them all the way to rural Arizona as CalTrans kept trying to move them out of reach.)

Is this always the way it's going to be -- we can move pollution around but not get rid of it?

Hell no -- there is, and always was, another option that gave every bit as much benefit as MTBE, without comparable toxicity problems in other areas.  We could have avoided all this trouble if we had simply used ordinary methanol (a.k.a. wood alcohol) as the oxygenating element in gasoline.  There is no possible benefit of MTBE that could not have been accomplished just as well with methanol.  And spilled methanol, though hardly safe to drink, is something the environment can absorb in limited quantities.

So why did the oil industry promote MTBE over methanol?  Probably for the simple reason that they can make it themselves with minimal outside competition.  Any family farm could go into the methanol business.  MTBE is "cheaper" because it doesn't involve your gasoline producer paying anybody else.

The MTBE story is rather like the story of how gasoline came to include tetraethyl lead 65 years ago.  When searching for a way to prevent engine knocking when using cheap low-quality fuel, the oil companies had a choice between a simple chemical that anyone could produce, against a more exotic chemical that they (or a buddy company like DuPont) could own and keep in the family.  The commonplace chemical actually worked as well as tetraethyl lead did -- in fact, it turned out that lead shortened the lifespan of many engine components while the other anti-knock compound did not.  Those 50,000 mile spark plugs and 200,000 mile engines we enjoy today are largely the result of not using lead any more.  But to the corporate minds who made the decision, making consumers buy engines twice as often was hardly a disadvantage, as long as no one caught on.  And the fact that the lead compound was so toxic that there were multiple deaths among the laboratory workers developing it was of no consequence either, as long as it kept quiet.  None of that mattered against the opportunity to set up a single corporation with a monopoly, which then could add a fixed extra price to every tank of gas.  The result was one of the greatest corporate crimes of all time -- the mass distribution of a titanic quantity of cumulative poison into our environment, especially into the air of cities.

We will never know the total health cost inflicted by leaded gasoline... but consider this: one of the symptoms of lead poisoning is impulsive violent behavior.  The unexplained rise of urban crime in the sixties and seventies, and the following decline in the eighties and nineties, correlate with the use of leaded gas one generation earlier, when the criminals were growing up.  There are scientists who are making the case that tetraethyl lead did, in fact, cause a crime wave by poisoning two generations of urban children.  It also probably lowered their IQs and may have caused other neurological disturbances, such as an increased incidence of autism or mood disorders or god knows what else.  It also caused heart disease -- estimated by the EPA to have led to around five thousand deaths a year.

Guess what the other compound was that the oil industry could have used instead of lead... it was ethanol -- common grain alcohol -- the kind of alcohol you drink!

Either of these alcohols could probably substitute well for the other.  For oxygenating, you'd have to use a larger quantity with ethanol than with methanol, but it's probably just as cheap overall, and it's less toxic too.

One further note: besides reducing smog and being useful as an anti-knock treatment, alcohols also reduces carbon dioxide production.  Because it's a fuel in itself, the more alcohol you put in your gas tank, the less gasoline is burned... and since alcohol is made from plant matter, it doesn't add any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere except what was taken out of the atmosphere when the plants grew.

UPDATE:  It has now been mandated that California will add ethanol instead of MTBE to the gas for oxygenation.  Some people are trying to make a stink over the fact that this might, for the short term, increase prices a bit.  I say this change is long overdue, and even if it costs more, it saves us the hidden costs that come from spreading toxins.

LATER UPDATE:  State officials are now charging the Bush administration with forcing ethanol gasoline on California out of political spite instead of for scientific reasons.  They say that the Bush people's real motive is to extract money from democratic California for the benefit of the midwestern states that voted for Bush.  They are suing the Environmental Protection Agency.  The new regulation is insisting that California gasoline be ten percent ethanol, which is the highest amount you can use with current cars.  (If we used methanol, five percent would be plenty.)  The state's oil companies say that they can formulate gasoline to burn that clean with no additives at all, if a few changes are made to car engines.  (I wonder if we can believe them?)  Governor Davis says this new regulation is "not based on science, but on politics, pure and simple," leaving him no choice but to "fight back with both guns blazing."  The EPA's own staff concluded that these objections to forced ethanol use were valid, but they were overruled by their superiors, leaving them "mortified" according to one environmental lobbyist on the scene in Washington.  Some scientists charge that the current process of making ethanol from corn is terribly wasteful, undercutting its supposed advantage of environmental cleanliness.  Others say this group is using exaggerated or outdated figures.  One news report says that it was the National Corn Growers Association, not any environmental group, that got Congress to back this plan.

Just don't forget one thing while all this political stuff is debated: in itself, burning ethanol in place of some part of our gasoline is inarguably a good thing.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Some of the world's poorest countries, mainly in Africa, are still using leaded gasoline.  They import the tetraethyl lead mainly from Britain.  They made this choice because at the time lead was cheaper than ethanol.  Now Valerie Thomas of Princeton University has shown that lead has become more expensive than ethanol -- the process of making ethanol from sugar cane has dropped in cost, while lead is not as cheap as it used to be when it had a bigger market.  Thomas says it's clearly time to phase out the use of tetraethyl lead in Africa and other developing regions, and replace it with locally made ethanol.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE:  In the most absurd twist of the MTBE fiasco, the Methanex Corporation of Vancouver, Canada sued the state of California over its decision to stop using MTBE.  They alleged that it was a violation of free trade rules to ban use of the product.  What it essentially comes down to is that they think it should be illegal for a customer to decide they don't want to buy a seller's product any more!  They asked for $970,000,000 in compensation.  Why did they imagine that such an absurd suit could win?  Because thanks to an "investor rights" clause of the NAFTA agreement, another company had already won one on similar grounds.  The Canadian government had banned a fuel additive called MMT (methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl), on the grounds that it was apparently causing neurological disorders.  The Ethyl Corporation -- the same folks who brought us tetraethyl lead -- sued and won, forcing Canada to overturn the ban!  They even forced the government to make a public announcement that there was no evidence that MMT was harmful!  The only alternative would be for the people of Canada to pay the company all the money they would have made from selling this toxic product.  (California has also banned MMT and the EPA is moving in that direction.)

Methanex later added the claim that California's law was unfairly biased in favor of ethanol over MTBE, which violated the NAFTA rule against preferences for domestic products over imported ones.  They point to Archer Daniels Midland's campaign contributions as the source of this preference for ethanol.  They further claim that banning MTBE was not the "least trade restrictive" way of handling the problem of groundwater contamination.  This brings in the World Trade Organization, which enforces a "least trade restrictive" rule.

The NAFTA rules say that any time a government makes a decision that reduces a company's profits, no matter how valid the grounds are -- even if the product has massively destructive effects -- the company is owed compensation from that government.  In other words, a company that endangers public safety is entitled to be paid to stop doing so -- leaving the door open for deliberate, legal extortion and blackmail.  Anyone who doubts what interests were calling the shots in that deal only has to consider this one clause.  Similar remarks apply to the WTO.  In both cases, disputes are settled by secret tribunal and the only defense has to come from the U.S. Trade Representative.

Another case of this kind forced the Mexican government to pay Metalclad, a California company, $16,600,000 in compensation for refusing to let them build a toxic waste facility near people's homes.  The Mexican federal government had originally issued a permit, then the state and city of Aguascalientes forbade it.  These successes are leading to a proliferation of attacks on environmental regulation under NAFTA.  An even weirder case is when UPS sued the Canadian post office for competing with them -- they want to force the privatization of Canadian package delivery!

And that, children, is why California is still going to be using MTBE years after the original date it was supposed to be phased out -- right up until the switch to ethanol mandated by Bush's EPA, which will be completed in 2004.  Somehow I don't think that Methanex is going to sue George W. Bush, though their grounds are every bit as valid.

YET ANOTHER FURTHER ADDITIONAL UPDATE:  Shell Oil, Lyondell Chemical (formerly Atlantic Richfield Chemical), and Tosco (now part of Phillips Petroleum), have lost a lawsuit brought by the South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District, over pollution of their groundwater by MTBE, which forced them to shut down a third of their drinking water wells.  The jury found that the companies had deliberately withheld knowledge about MTBE's environmental hazards, and that there for had "acted with malice" to sell a "defective product".  This is going to force the companies to pay suits from hundreds of other communities afflicted with MTBE groundwater contamination.

CORRECTION:  Above, I said "in itself, burning ethanol in place of some part of our gasoline is inarguably a good thing."  Well, that may be a lot more arguable than I thought.  Some studies find that burning ethanol increases some pollutants from car exhaust as much as it reduces others.  The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other environmental groups have come out in favor of dropping the federal requirement that gasoline be oxygenated -- they see little or no net benefit to using ethanol instead of plain gasoline with no additives!  The requirement for massive amounts of ethanol to be bought by California is looking more and more like a product of Archer Daniels Midland, which spent $100,000 on George W. Bush's inauguration, let alone on his campaign.  ADM has a very unsavory record as far as corporate ethics are concerned.  They appear to have repeated the accomplishment of Enron in creating a legal formula whereby the state of California can be subjected to a series of expensive shortages, because right now there is no facility to make as much ethanol as the Bush government is mandating that California should buy.

By the way, for those who think it's all just theory and guesswork that greenhouse gases are causing global warming, they recently orbited a satellite with an infrared detector which was able to measure the amount of heat that is currently able to radiate through the atmosphere and escape into space... and compare it with the amount that escaped that way in 1979, as measured by an earlier satellite.  It confirms that manmade global warming is a reality, and found that the part of it being caused by escaped methane (mainly from cattle) is substantially worse than expected -- infrared absorbtion in the frequencies characteristic of methane was 30% higher than predicted.  Methane is much nastier as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is... which means those fires you see at the top of oil wells and refinery towers are actually good for something.

There is talk of fighting global warming by growing trees and then burying them underground... I wonder if the genetic engineers could come up with some kind of tree, or crop plant, that grabs up every trace of methane it can find?  That might do more good.  As far as carbon goes, the cheaper plan to fertilize temporary blooms of ocean plankton, which would then die off and sink to the bottom, is probably the one that the powers would want to go with.  We'd better try it out carefully to see what kind of damage it does to other marine life.

UPDATE:  There is a natural process that gets rid of atmospheric methane: it gets broken down by stray hydroxyl radicals (water molecules with one hydrogen atom missing).  The hydroxyl also helps clear up carbon monoxide.  This is unfortunate because we produce enough carbon monoxide to badly deplete the hydroxyl supply before it can do its job on the methane.  The best thing we can do to cut down atmospheric methane might be to clean up as much carbon monoxide production as possible.  Catalytic converters do a good job on it, so using these in more places would definitely help.

In an odd twist, one form of smog -- nitrogen oxides -- actually helps produce more hydroxyl.  But nitrogen oxides are nothing you want to breathe.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Somebody has started a corporation to go into the business of absorbing carbon dioxide by fertilizing ocean plankton blooms with iron.  The name is Michael Markels and the company is GreenSea Venture.  They're doing a trial run of the process over 13,000 square kilometers of the Pacific next year.

But some scientists are now saying that this plan is a really bad idea.  It could actually increase greenhouse gases, because the plankton bloom, besides absorbing carbon dioxide, would also deoxygenate the water.  This in turn would probably lead to a bloom of anaerobic bacteria, some of which emit methane and nitrous oxide, which are more harmful greenhouse gases than CO2 is.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE:  There are several laws that GreenSea Venture would have to find a way around in order to go ahead with the plan.  Why do I get the impression that GreenSea's business plan might include using significant funds for governmental palm greasing?  Given the scientific questionability of the whole idea, maybe the entire plan is to get a fat government contract for making an empty gesture against global warming.

Other problems bedevil a competing plan to bury excess carbon in the ocean, which is to dissolve carbon dioxide directly into deep water by just bubbling it out of a pipe a kilometer or so below the surface.  It would also need certain disposal laws changed, and it would acidify the water, which would damage any coral reefs in the area.  But now there's a plan that looks like it might be without such drawbacks: mix the gas with crushed limestone before dumping it.  They react to form calcium bicarbonate.  This is what normally happens on the ocean floor, but by doing this step in advance, you get the carbon locked into solid form right away and avoid having to acidify the ocean in between.

YET ANOTHER:  An improved computer model of the ocean fertilization plan shows that not only would it be risky for the ocean and possibly cause methane production, but that at most 11 percent of the carbon that the plankton would take out of the atmosphere would be locked up, the rest going right back to the atmosphere.  This proposal is clearly a loser.  That may not stop it going ahead, though...

MORE ON METHANE:  Atmospheric methane only lasts about ten years, as opposed to the one hundred years or so that excess carbon dioxide sticks around, and some climate scientists are warning that the fine print of the Kyoto protocol is prompting government policies that disregard the effects of methane.  The protocol specifies that countries should minimize the impact over a 100 year period.  This leaves little incentive for reducing methane emissions that have a shorter term effect, even though these are a major global warming contributor.  Fortunately, reduction of methane emissions is not an agenda that puts environmentalists into direct conflict with the energy industry, as carbon dioxide reduction does.  The worst that the energy companies would have to suffer would be a program to fix leaky pipes.  Much of the effort at methane control would be focused on landfills, waste plant matter, and livestock, not on the gas industry.

Just a word about the common habit of leaving computers turned on continuously around the clock, instead of turning them off when you're not going to be using them for long periods.  Many people have been told that computers last longer when they are run constantly than when they are turned on and off frequently.

First, the truth of this is debatable, and if it is true, it's probably only marginally so.  Second, most computers these days are on the cheap and shoddy side, since the main competition is in price rather than durability, and are only built to last 3-5 years anyway.  (The industry has been making some effort to shorten its planned obsolescence cycle to two years, but few are willing to buy hardware that often.)  Anyone who can afford a computer at all can afford to upgrade it every 3-5 years.  Third, monitors should be turned off when you're away even if you leave computers on... particularly because a monitor left on unattended can eventually become a fire hazard as dust gathers inside it.  Fourth, we need to conserve electricity.  The crunch in California is in the future of much of the rest of the USA if present trends continue, and every watt we waste also contributes some extra global warming.  There is no gain that amounts to anything in leaving an idle computer on while you're asleep, while there are significant costs.

Finally... the same people who leave computers on 24 hours will often restart a wedged system by turning its power off and back on with only a couple of seconds in between.  This is exactly the kind of thing you're supposed to avoid if you want your computer to last.  Most computers come with instructions telling you to wait 30 or 45 seconds between turning it off and turning it back on.  But hardly anyone follows this rule.  Also, that's what the reset button is for!  It's amazing how many people who are otherwise quite knowledgeable computer workers will not bother with the front panel reset button and instead use the power switch.  The reset button is not only safer, it actually works better if your computer is one of those where the front power switch doesn't really turn it all the way off.

On that subject...  I am getting way tired of appliances that can't be truly turned off except by unplugging them.  We can only expect this trend to worsen as everything starts getting a wireless network connection in it... yet many appliances sold today do this without even having a reason to.  Certain engineers seem to be just too lazy to use a switch that operates upstream from the main transformer, or certain marketers are just too enamored of soft-touch buttons that can't handle real voltage.

Even if you want that, it's not so damn hard to make a switch that can turn on 115 VAC with a momentary low-voltage signal, while drawing only microwatts in the off state.  For instance: wall voltage -> diode -> fair sized capacitor -> 50 megohm voltage divider -> low voltage momentary switch -> dual transistor -> relay.  But that would cost an extra three dollars -- can't have that.  Better to fill up the atmosphere with a little more CO2 every day.

UPDATE:  A study by Marla Sanchez and others at Lawrence Livermore Labs found that many appliances that continue to draw power in "standby" mode actually consume more energy doing nothing than they do when they are being used, because the time of active usage is typically much less than the time spent sitting around.  They found that some home electronics actually reduce their power consumption by less than half when turned "off".  Often these were appliances that have no actual need to draw any power at all, such as CD players.  One satellite TV system was found to have almost no change in its power use when turned on.  Sanchez concludes that if designers just do their jobs right, most of these devices would draw only a tenth as much power for standby mode.  Small appliances, they say, account for most of the increase in electricity demand, and sometimes they draw more total power than your big obvious usages.

Now even President Bush is talking (inarticulately) about the problem of "vampire" appliances.  Let it be noted that I brought it up before it was in the media... [patting self on back]

While I'm in lecture mode: don't buy Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd) rechargeable batteries, buy Nickel-Metal-Hydride (NiMH).  They hold a lot more juice, and the chargers are just as simple and cheap.  They used to be expensive, but now they cost no more than NiCd batteries used to cost years ago.  In fact, NiMH batteries hold quite a bit more per charge than disposable alkaline batteries do.  They are the kind of batteries that the better electric vehicles use (though the more affordable electric vehicles still use lead batteries).  Anybody who has a digital camera has probably already discovered how wonderful this type of battery is.  Basically, there are no better rechargeable batteries except lithium cells, which are used when you have to get the most possible juice and cost is no object, as in a laptop computer.  That's why to prefer NiMH -- on the other side, the reason to avoid NiCd is because cadmium is poisonous: a heavy metal toxin worse than lead.  If you throw it away it's toxic waste.  There is an industrial system in place for recycling lead batteries, but there's not much public awareness about recycling NiCd batteries.  I just learned myself by accident, after this page was already up, that my local Ace Hardware has a NiCd recycling box.  NiMH batteries avoid the problem because they are not toxic when thrown away.

Unfortunately, a lot of cordless gadgets come with NiCd batteries built in, because it saves a couple bucks for the maker.  Whenever I've bought these things, the batteries have often croaked long before they were supposed to.  And unfortunately, I didn't know back then that dead NiCd batteries are toxic waste.  It now looks likely that many of these early failures are due to the common idea that NiCd cells have "memory", meaning that if you half-discharge them and then recharge them several times, they will forget how to discharge beyond that point, and you get reduced capacity.  The cure is supposedly to periodically drain them all the way before recharging.  We now know that this "memory" idea was greatly exaggerated, and that if you drain them all the way when there's more than one battery in the circuit, the one that gets to the bottom first then gets fucked up by the one next to it that still has a little charge left.  Anyway, HiMH batteries are said to be free of any memory trouble.

The one small disadvantage of NiMH batteries is that if you charge them and then don't use them for a while, they lose a percentage of the charge just sitting on the shelf.  It's worst when they're new; after a few uses the problem declines.  The other disadvantage, for use in things powered by standard consumer batteries, is that they only put out a volt and a quarter instead of a volt and a half.  In this they are the same as NiCd batteries.  If either of these is a problem, there is another option.

In applications where you need a good honest 1.5 volts per cell, you can try rechargeable alkalines.  I use them for things like a Walkman.  Any audio device will benefit from higher voltage; it will let you turn the volume up higher.  Alkalines also hold their charge for years while not in use, which makes these useful for devices where you only change the batteries at long intervals -- like, say, a digital bathroom scale.  But in other ways, alkalines are the least cost-effective of rechargeable batteries.  They require an expensive recharger that is tuned to charge just one brand of batteries.  They can only be recharged about 25 times before they become unusable.  (Their capacity gets smaller, bit by bit, with each charging, until finally they run down so quickly that it's not worth recharging them any more.)  I got these a few years ago when NiMH batteries hadn't hit the consumer market very widely yet, and have gone through about three sets of these batteries.  But I saved buying dozens of sets of single-use alkalines.  I got Ray-o-vac, because it seemed to be the most widely supported in local stores -- remember that the charger ties you to the same brand of battery.  As far as I know the other brands are no better or worse.

The electric car technology that looks most promising to me is not batteries, or hydrogen fuel cells, it's zinc-air cells.  A closed cycle of a metal that takes lots of energy to de-oxidize, like zinc or aluminum, can transport lots of electric power very compactly.  Hydrogen is compact if it's liquified, but generally it's so awkward to store and transport that its advantage in lightness is lost.  See the Metallic Power company site.  Of course, I would love to see someone come up with a better rechargeable battery, but there probably isn't much room to improve on lithium cells for energy density (and at this time lithium cells would give a Chevy a Rolls-Royce price tag).  All present rechargeable cars are pretty limited in the range they can travel between rechargers, whereas a zinc-fueled car could carry all the fuel anyone wanted for long excursions.  It can also be refueled more quickly and conveniently than a battery car can be recharged.

That said, I note that when some car companies made available (or at least promised) some new electric cars using NiMH batteries, there was a huge waiting list to get them, and then they took them off the market saying that they were losing money on each one and there wasn't any justification for the large scale investment that would have brought costs down.

In the meantime, I hope Ford builds a hybrid-electric midsized family car, because I still can't quite trust GM or Chrysler to build anything worth buying.  As long as we generate most of our electricity from fossil fuels anyway, a hybrid-electric might be as good a car as a zincmobile, because current zinc cells lose at least 40% of the energy between the reducing station, where the zinc-oxide sludge is turned back into fuel pellets, and the motor in the car.  (Rechargeable batteries can have a much better cycle efficiency than this, and would therefore save power.  I don't know what the comparable figure is for hydrogen fuel cells.)  But when we generate the power from a non-fossil-fuel source, even a wasteful electric car is better than the best gasoline car.

I am definitely going to get a hybrid-electric for my next car purchase if I can't get a zincmobile, assuming my current car (a '96 Contour) lives out a normal lifespan.  The advantages of the hybrid design are considerable.  There is no waste from idling, and energy expended in braking goes into the battery for reuse when accelerating.  The penalty for using lots of acceleration is minimized, so you don't have to drive like your grandma.  The end result is that city driving gets highway mileage.  Even highway mileage is improved, because an engine big enough for adequate acceleration is typically used in the lower range of its power on the highway, which is less efficient than a smaller engine is.

A Shell Oil study recently produced a comparison of different alternative fuel schemes, using current assumptions about how electricity is generated, giving the total amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the entire manufacturing and consumption path of each fuel option.  Though you have to take an oil company study with ionic crystals of sodium chloride, it does verify that using one kind of fuel to generate another (e.g. natural gas to make liquid hydrogen, or petroleum to make electricity) tends to cancel out a lot of the gains you get by improving efficiency in the car itself.  So a technique that simply boosts mileage of a gas-fueled car, like a hybrid-electric system, competes quite favorably with more exotic options.  That said, though, it showed clearly that running a given fuel through a fuel cell, when possible, is far better than putting it in an internal-combustion engine.  And many of the objections to converting other fuels to electricity will vanish if we generate more of our power from renewable sources.

Another thing the study showed is that you can get a surprising further improvement by running your hybrid-electric vehicle on diesel instead of gasoline.  It's almost as good as running it on natural gas.  Assuming you can keep other pollutants out of the exhaust, a diesel engine makes a lot of sense in this context; the lack of peak power that people object to in normal diesel vehicles is not an issue when you have the electric motor.

Of course, the very best way to improve your gas consumption -- and one of the best things the average citizen can do for the environment -- is simply to drive fewer miles.

UPDATE:  Ford has announced a forthcoming hybrid-electric vehicle.  But it's an SUV.  GM is also going to make a hybrid-electric SUV.  Better than nothing, I guess... and if the technology works out okay there, maybe it will spread.  It's an approach that is suitable for all sizes of car.  Ironically, one case where it may be unsuitable is for off-road use.

It turns out that nickel metal hydride batteries lose as much energy between charge and discharge as zinc cells do.  Lead-acid cells are better; you might get up to three quarters of your power back.

Another random energy issue to worry about...  Some governments have programs to get old cars off the road because they waste gas and pollute.  For example, in California an old clunker that fails its smog check can be bought back by the state for, in many cases, more than it's worth.  A friend of mine is taking advantage of this program to get rid of a shitty old Mazda which, in fact, was mine before she got it as a hand-me-down.  Europe has various incentives to get rid of old cars, and Japan has long had a law that demands frequent unnecessary replacement of the engine.  But guess what -- getting more new cars out there doesn't help nearly so much as you might think... not because so many of them are big grunting sport-utility swinemobiles nowadays, but because the process of manufacturing a new car consumes a gigantic amount of energy.  Some say the amount of fossil fuel it takes to build a car is comparable to the total amount the car will ever burn!  That seems rather extreme -- I can't believe it's quite that bad.  But it is certainly a significant amount.

UPDATE:  A more sober figure for the amount of energy consumed in building a car says that it's about the amount the car burns in two years or less of driving.  A lot, but not really enough to make it worth extending the life of old junkers that flunk smog tests.

I would really like to see a new kind of home light bulb as cool as the new "xenon" car headlights (which actually use xenon only during their warmup phase).  Those things are expensive, but they are almost as efficient and durable as compact flourescents and some say that they have truer color.  (I am not sure how good the color quality really is, but it's certainly bluer than halogen lamps are.)  Halogen lamps are only a hair better than traditional incandescents... and they are commonly sold in such high wattages that they end up using more electricity instead of less.  I would really like some kind of energy efficient replacement for the halogen floor lamp I use in my bedroom, which has no built-in lighting... but so far I have not found one.

My living room has track lighting, installed practically at eye level for some lame reason... in that area I mix halogen floods with compact flourescents and get a pretty good quality of light.  I recommend this halogen mixture trick to anyone who doesn't like the light from compact fluorescents.

Compact fluorescents have much better color quality than traditional fluorescents anyway.  The electronic ballast they use both improves the color and brightness, and eliminates the annoying flicker.  I do not understand why more large-size fluorescent fixtures don't start using the electronic ballasts to improve their quality and efficiency.  New office buildings still mostly get those same old flickery fluorescent tubes, in a choice of pink or blue.

UPDATE:  Forget those dumb "xenon" lights, the color from them isn't all that great.  Phillips has just come up with something much better: a ceiling panel light made of a grid of different colored LEDs.  The previous problem with these had been that small changes of voltage, or gradual failure of individual LEDs, tended to randomly throw off the color balance.  They finally just put in a sensor to measure the output color and automatically correct it.  One thing this means is that if you want, you could have a knob on the wall to adjust the color of your room's lighting.

In a related development, some people have developed "organic" LEDs in the lab that emit bright colors without wasting electricity.  These could lead to computer displays thin enough to roll up like window shades.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  That knob on the wall would let you create whatever color balance you wanted, but it would not give genuinely natural color.  Because all the red, for instance, would be at one frequency only, any particular pigment might look much brigher, or much darker, in the red area than it does in natural light, depending on exactly where its absorbtion bands happen to fall in the color spectrum.  The way to mitigate this would be to mix many shades of LED color: two or more reds, orange, yellow, a couple of different greens, blue-green, etc.  But to the best of my knowledge, there are no multiple shades of blue yet, and no violet at all.

Now that there are blue LEDs (and despite the lawsuit going on in Japan over their invention), LED flashlights are starting to catch on.  These generally use "white" LEDs which are actually blue ones coated with the whitish fluorescent material used in fluorescent tubes.  The light is strongly weighted toward blue shades.  I'm experimentally making myself an LED flashlight using a mixture of red, green, and blue LEDs.  I've got the parts; I just have to figure out how to reassemble the foreshortened head of the flashlight in such a way that it's possible to change the batteries.  When this is ready, I'll be able to report firsthand on what kind of color quality I can get.

The electricity crisis brings back up the longer term question of how we're going to generate electricity several decades from now.  A lot of old-fashioned gearhead types are telling us that the only sources that yield concentrated enough energy are fossil fuels and nuclear reactors.  They dismiss solar power, and solar-derived power sources such as wind or biomass (growing plants and then burning them).  Their high hope for the future is nuclear fusion.  Or if it's solar power, then it's giant orbiting photoelectric power stations in space.

25 years ago, fusion power was 50 years in the future.  Today... it's still 50 years in the future.  It's probably going to keep being 50 years in the future for some time yet.  Foreseeable plants will produce lots of radioactive waste, much like the tons of secondary waste produced by present day fission plants (though nothing as bad as the primary waste from spent fuel).  In a hundred years, reactors burning helium-3 with deuterium may provide the ultimate power supply with a minimum of radiation trouble -- it could be the fuel that opens up the solar system -- yet manufacturing helium-3 on Earth could be a gargantuan ecological hazard.

And solar cell platforms in space?  What the hell are people thinking?  Consider the economics:  solar power in space is good because it's nonstop.  You might get eight times the average power per square meter you get in, say, Kansas.  But how much would a square meter in space cost relative to a square meter of Kansas?  Eight hundred times as much?  Eight thousand?

Solar power on the ground returns real electric power today despite small investments.  Big power companies don't want to do much with it because everybody with a roof would be able to compete with them -- and the supply of roofs is big enough to pretty much cover the home electric power market.  Yet already solar cells are capable of paying for themselves if you're willing to make a long term investment in them, and their economic efficiency can only improve.  The invention of "black silicon" looks like it might double their output, and other innovations will come if we invest sufficiently in R&D.  A little buffer storage and it doesn't matter so much that the output is irregular -- especially since in sunny areas, power consumption tends to peak on hot days.

And as for concentrated energy... the natural phenomenon that packs the highest watt flux per square meter is the jet stream.  We could get tons of power from it with windmills that fly like kites, if we can just work out how to safely keep air traffic away from them.

UPDATE:  After writing the above, I read that Japan has just announced a program to start designing an orbital solar power station.  Maybe for them it makes sense... there's no Kansas there.  With more money than land, the idea starts to look better. I'm sure they could buy the land cheap enough in China, but they like to keep things domestic, even if it costs more.  (For instance, someone estimated some years back that the amount of money they spend subsidizing domestic family rice farming would be enough that in two years, it could buy farmland outside Japan sufficient to raise their entire rice crop on.  In Louisiana.)  Anyway, the solar power plant is something they don't forsee actually building until at least 30 years from now.