Archive for Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Making Carbon Pricing Work Better

When it comes to the most economically efficient way to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions(GHG), the economic consensus is that a carbon tax, or, failing that, a carbon trading scheme is the best way to go. The idea is that a price for carbon will raise the cost of carbon-producing activities, nudging people and companies towards less harmful behavior.

I have a problem with this line of reasoning, since it rests on the false assumption that price signals are the most effective way to change behavior. That’s true is an economist’s ideal efficient market, but a moment’s reflection shows that the markets we want to affect are far from efficient.

Electric utilities are regulated entities, and hence insulated from market forces. Consumers don’t respond well to price signals either, because most don’t understand where they are wasting energy. If they did, there would be a run on caulk to air seal homes, since the payback from air-sealing can be a matter of weeks. If a 1000% annual return from air sealing is not enough to get people to spend a little time with a caulk gun, is increasing the return to 1200% with a carbon tax really going to make a difference?

Compact fluorescent bulbs are another excellent example of how the energy market often fails to be efficient. The payback on CFLs is usually on the order of months, but uptake was very slow until recently, now that higher wattage incandescent bulbs are being phased out. By regulation.

The adoption of CFLs is a concrete example where the most economically efficient outcome is being achieved by regulation, after years of failure by market forces.

I had just finished making the above case to an economist at a mixer at The Cary Institute in Millbrook, NY when I was asked to write for a public radio program sponsored by the Institute.  Earth Wise logo I had been talking to the Institute’s volunteer coordinator about opportunities that make use of my skills, and she hit on helping them write some segments for Earth Wise, a daily 2 minute radio program on WAMC.

So I went home and wrote up my ideas, outlined above, on carbon pricing.  The first draft did not work for them, since they had aired a program in favor of a carbon tax, so I re-wrote it with a focus on making carbon pricing more effective by making the energy market more efficient.   The result aired on July 3rd, and you can listen to it or read it here:

With only two minutes, it’s an interesting exercise of packing my ideas into just 280 words, especially considering that for me, 600 words is what I consider a short peice, and it’s not unusual for me to write several thousand.

For future episodes, I plan to tackle less complex subjects.

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A Flaw in Most Well-to-Wheel Studies of EVs and PHEVs

A post on 2GreenEnergy inspired me to talk about a flaw in Well to Wheel studies of vehicles that has been bothering me at a low level for years. Such studies attempt to quantify the emissions of vehicles based on the entire life-cycle of the fuel they use. For plug-in vehicles, this requires understanding the source of the electricity they use.

Put simply, every study I’ve read uses the average electricity generation mix. But all good economists think at the margins: The electricity going into EVs will be marginal generation: that which is built (or runs for additional hours) to meet the new source of demand. Since few new coal plants are being built in the US, and those that are here do not have much extra capacity, the marginal new electricity that will be used to power EVs will be mostly Gas, Wind, and Solar, since these dominate the mix of new generation being built, and among existing plants, only Gas has the ability to increase existing capacity factors substantially.

Since all these sources of electricity are cleaner than the average mix, studies that focus on the average utility mix understate the emissions reduction benefits of EVs. The answer may be different in China, where they are still building coal (as well as nuclear and renewable) generation at a breakneck pace.

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Poster Boy For Unintended Consequences: Rewarding Green with Air Miles

Tyler Hamilton writes about the use of Air Miles to encourage green behavior in Canada. Although the website has a section where the miles can be redeemed for eco-friendly products, most people use Air Miles for free plane trips.

Does that strike anyone else as odd?

To me, it sounds like saying “If you recycle, buy green electricity, and change your lightbulbs, I’ll help you get a free plane flight, which could easily erase the gains from your green behavior change.”

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The Cost of Transmission

Tom Konrad, Ph.D.

I’ve been reading a report out of the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office called The REDI Report: Connecting Colorado’s Renewable Resources to the Markets in a Carbon-Constrained Electricity Sector.  I summarized the REDI report’s main conclusions and drew some conclusions for stock market investors here.

I found the report’s discussion of transmission costs particularly interesting, because I’ve had trouble finding numbers for the cost of transmission in the past.  I once resorted to Wikipedia in order to find costs for transmission when comparing them to the costs of large scale electricity storage.  If you don’t think that the two are comparable, consider that long distance transmission can reduce the net variability of wind and solar, making it possible to integrate these renewable forms of generation without the cost of expensive storage.  That’s why even net-zero electricity homes are connected to the grid: it’s prohibitively expensive to buy enough batteries to keep the lights on 24/7.

Here are a couple cost charts from the report:

I took the data from the above table, and plugged it into my spreadsheet comparing the costs of electricity storage.  Below are the updated graphs (click for enlarged versions.)  The notation "2-500 kV AC" means a Double-circuit 500 kV AC line.  As in the storage comparison, I computed the costs and round-trip electricity losses for a 1000 mile line, since that was the example I used in my original Transmission/Storage comparison.


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Clean Energy Needs More Brawn, Less Brains

We’re way behind the curve on climate change.  Only after we have a new President is the US likely to take action to limit greenhouse gasses.  Meanwhile the artic ice sheet is vanishing faster than any of our models predicted, and the world is emitting more carbon than even the most pessimistic IPCC projections.

Given that backdrop, it’s too late to wait for some new technology to come along and save us, be it cellulosic ethanol or carbon capture and storage.  Investors should keep that in mind, too. 
When the world wakes up to the urgency of Climate Change, more money will be spent on near term solutions than research into new technology.  

The scale of the problem is daunting, which is why I believe there is such a temptation to invest our hopes in new technology, as opposed to investing our dollars in the technology we have today, which can take us most of the way we want to go, if only we can muster the political capital (the cost is negligible, because the efficient use of energy almost always than pays for itself and then some.)

That’s why I’m calling for a Clean Energy Marshall Plan.

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Off topic: How Do the Candidates Stack up on Clean Energy?

A trip down to the local national party offices to participate in a press conference asking the presidential candidates to pledge their support for clean energy legislation got me thinking about the candidates… I wasn’t sure which candidate has the best clean energy platfom. So I spent a day reading thorough thier platforms, and came to a surprising (to me answer).2008 Election

You can read how I think the candidates’ platforms compare on clean energy here.

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The Scary Side of Colorado’s “New Energy Economy”

Here’s a disturbing article about how Colorado Governor Ritter, who has done great things revitalizing Colorado’s renewable energy and energy efficiency economy, but is also a fan of Alberta’s Tar Sands, and Shell’s plans for extracting energy from Colorado’s Oil Shale.

If extracting Tar Sands has a massive carbon footprint and environmental impact, the Oil Shale is likely to be much, much worse.

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Economics of Carbon Capture and Storage

Both Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and Enhanced Geothermal Systems need research and development to reach their full pormise of baseload power without significant emissions. What will be the costs of this research, and what will be the costs of the eventual elctricity production?

I take a look at these questions in my AltEnergyStocks column. Given limited funding, what would you choose?

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TXU goes Nuclear- (rant)

A Wall Street Journal article today reports that TXU is planning on using nuclear power to replace the coal plants which they shelved recently.

This drives me batty. I do think that nuclear power is better than coal, and even better than IGCC, but basically substituting nuclear power for coal power is just replacing one nasty externality (CO2 emissions) with another: adding to the risk of nuclear terrorism and waste disposal problems.

When expected costs of CO2 are factored in, the price of nuclear power does looks good. But I ask the same question people are finally asking about global warming: “What’s the business case for destroying the planet?”

Here’s what we should be thinking for our baseload energy needs:

  • Energy Efficiency…. 1-3 cents per kWh
  • Concentrating Solar Power with thermal storage…. 10-15 cents per kWh (and dropping)
  • Wind power, combined with pricing mechanisms to shift demand…. 4-6 cents per kWh
  • And for peaking power:

  • Demand Response
  • Time of Day Pricing
  • Concentrating Solar Power with large scale thermal storage and an oversized turbine
  • Eight steps forward… six steps back. Do we really need to dig up mountains for uranium instead of decapitating them for coal?

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    MIT Study: IGCC may not be better for Carbon Sequestration

    There’s a new study out from MIT which questions the received wisdom that IGCC or “Clean Coal” plants “will make it easier and cheaper to capture carbon dioxide, compared with collecting it from the smokestacks of conventional power plants.” The study calls for “large-scale demonstration programs that would, for the first time, capture carbon dioxide from coal plants, transport it, and store it at a large scale.”

    While I disagree with the assertion that “coal… will continue to be a major source of electricity,” the reason I think that coal will not make the cut when the true costs of the associated emissions and environmental damage from mining are taken into account, the reason I believe this is that the costs of carbon capture and sequestration are likely to be much higher in reality than they are in theory, especially when we are attempting to sequester a “volume of compressed carbon dioxide … similar in scale to the amount of oil consumed in the United States,” and so we will no longer be able to use it only in places where it is actually useful, such as in enchanced oil recovery.

    For this reason, I totally concur with the conclusion that we need to start doing large scale CO2 sequestration now, so we can decide if there is any hope of it working before we throw tons more money at cola plants (either conventional pulverized or IGCC) in the hope that some time in the future we’ll figure out some economic way to shove the carbon that we should have left underground in the first place back underground.

    On the bright side, it looks like American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP) is trying large scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). I hope they can get it to work at reasonable cost… if CCS could be made to work cheaply, we could start capturing CO2 from biomass power plants, and have carbon-negative electricity.

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    How Your Money Made the TXU deal happen

    Most of the readers of this blog are not investors in the Texas Pacific Group or KKR, but you did have a role in making the private equity deal that has everyone in the environmental community (not to mention the private equity world) talking.

    Here’s what you did: You didn’t invest in TXU Corporation (NYSE:TXU). As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m a big proponent of putting your money where your mouth is, especially when it comes to staying away from companies whose operations would increase the severity of climate change. And, until a couple weeks ago, TXU with their 11 planned pulverized coal plants was public enemy #1 when it came to future carbon emissions.

    My readers, socially responsible mutual funds, other like minded people, and other investors who were worried about carbon risk stayed away from TXU in droves, and because of that, the stock was lower (how much we’ll never know,) which made it easier for Texas Pacific and KKR to offer a 25% premium, which in turn should be enough to entice current TXU investors to give up their stock in the buyout.

    It’s easy to see this deal is a back room affair between a bunch of filthy rich folks, TXU management, and the leaders of a couple national environmental groups, with the little guys (like the New York Times, who originally saw the merger as a private equity endorsement of TXU’s high-carbon generation strategy left in the dark.

    The greatest risk for those of us fighting climate change is despair. Climate change is a giant problem, but we can make big changes if we all pitch in to help. To all of you who did your little part to make the deal happen (even if there are still some doubts as to the final results), I want to say,

    “Thanks, and keep up the good work.”

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    Holistic Approaches to Energy Problems

    H. L. Mencken said, “For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong.”  When it comes to solving the problems of peak oil and global warming, I also think that the loudest barking is up the wrong tree.  We look for the quick fix, trying to find a substitute energy source that allows us to change the way we do things little as possible, when the real problem is actually what we’re doing, not how we’re doing it.   We need holistic solutions, not quick fixes.

    Too abstract?  Here are some concrete examples:

     Problem: Peak Oil

    Quick fixes: Ethanol and slight increases in vehicle efficiency standards.

    Holistic solutions: Change our driving culture and infrastructure, by changing the way car use is priced from fixed charges to a per mile basis (“Pay as you drive”).   Removing subsidies to use cars when other forms of transport are available, and redesigning our cities to make them easier to get around on foot, bike, and public transport.  Like other holistic solution, all these steps increase safety and reduce congestion, reduce obesity and associated health problems, as well as reducing the use of gasoline.

    Problem: Wind and Solar are intermittent resources, but coal produces too much CO2 and natural gas prices are rising rapidly.

    Quick Fixes: Nuclear power and “Clean” Coal.

    Holistic Solutions: Shift our demand for electricity to times when it is available, by using time of use pricing, energy storage and demand alignment, and distributed energy storage such as plug in hybrid vehicles.

    Investing opportunities:On thing that’s striking about these examples is it’s much easier to find investment opportunities in the quick fixes than in the holitistic solutions.  To invest in ethanol, you can just buy ADM or one of the multitude of ethanol stocks that have been going public recently, but I have yet to come up with a satisfactory way to invest in better urban planning (except buy a house in a walkable community, which is something I’m planning on doing this summer.   Stapleton is the community.  I currently live there, but I’ve been renting and waiting for the end of the housing bubble.  I actually don’t think that housing is going to go up again any time soon, but I’m tired of waiting.) 

    The investment landscape is a little better when it comes to energy management.  Itron and Siemens both have divisions that help utilities manage their grids better, and there are many battery and other energy storage companies to choose from.  Still, it’s a lot harder to pick through battery companies than to just buy a nuclear powered utility or uranium miner.

    Holistic solutions, by their nature, have weak boundaries… the benefits tend to be diffuse, and spread over society as a whole, so it is difficult to charge fairly for them.  This, I think, is why there are so few companies pursuing them when they can pursue a quick fix that they can charge for up front.  

    Companies have an obligation to their shareholders to make money.  It’s our job, as human beings, to work towards regulations that make it easier for companies to make money with holistic solutions that actually solve the problem than it is to make money with quick fixes that just cover the problem up.

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    The Economist on America’s Green Shift: The States Lead

    The greening of America

    I’m compelled to share the cover image of this week’s Economist magazine.   The cover story is on the shift of the US’s shift towards greenery.   It’s an overview article, covering many of the recent political developments.  Their main point is that the current greenery is bottom-up, not top-down imposed by the federal government.

    They feel that the drivers of the political shift are:

    1. Voter reaction to increasingly frequent intense weather events, especially hurricane Katrina.  Climate researchers expect violent and erratic weather due to global warming.
    2. Self preservation on the part of Republicans.  The only Republican who weathered the November elections well was the quite green Governator.
    3. Energy security worries (a two edged sword.)
    4. Businesses, who recognize the inevitability of climate controls, and so want to be part of the process of designing them.

    They seem to expect rapid change due to this state-driven momentum.  Here’s hoping. 

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    Win-Win Auto Insurance

    On Thursday, I attended NREL’s Energy Analysis seminar, which this week featured Todd Littmann of Canada’s Victoria Transport Policy Institute, on Win-Win Transportation Solutions.

    As an economist focused on policy, Todd Littman Photo of Todd Littmanhas done a lot fo thinking about what are the costs to society of transport, and what sorts of perverse incentives are there that are making these costs much higher than they would be otherwise.  He has a ton of extremely interesting ideas which will be useful to reduce transportation energy use for little or no cost, by simply removing perverse incentives.  I’m only going to go into a couple that I thought were most surprising or innovative here, so I urge you to read the whole paper on which his talk was based on

    One surprising result for me was that the greatest costs to from driving may not be the costs of gas, pollution, or global warming, but the cost of accidents, which are infrequent, but can be extremely expensive.  Even before adding in additional costs of congestion, wear on roads, etc., you do not need to be concerned at all about global warming to want to reduce vehicle miles traveled.

     And reducing vehicle miles a is far more effective and quick way of reducing transportation energy use (as well as vehicle accidents) than improving vehicle efficiency.

    He has many ideas on cost neutral ways to reduce vehicle mileage, from broadly discussed ones such as smart growth, price shifting fuel taxes, and road and congestion pricing, and he does analysis on how cost effective all of these are.

    What really got me to sit up and pay attention was an I dea I had heard no where else, which was all the more interesting because he feels it is the most cost effective (in fact, cost-negative: it pays more than it costs) method of reducing vehicle use: Pay-As-You-Drive pricing.  The idea is simple: instead of paying vehicle registration and auto insurance based on how long we have the car, we should pay based on how far we drive it.  

    Since the safest place for out vehicle is in our garage (including theft and hail damage) this makes more economic sense than the current monthly payments for auto insurance, and since the costs we place on the transport system also increase the more we drive, it also makes sense for vehicle registration fees.   Because rich people with fancy cars not only tend to drive more than the poor, but because their registration fees are also already higher than those for inexpensive cars, this may even make the fees more progressive than they currently are, but some fine-tuning may be needed.

    Since this is a purely regulatory reform, costs of implementation are minimal, consisting of only an annual odometer audit after the system is set up; an audit which could easily be combined with other scheduled service to minimize the cost.

    According to his numbers, pay as you drive insurance and registration would average about 21 cents a mile for most people (about twice the cost of gasoline,) which I can easily see as enough to make most people think harder about how to maximize how efficiently they drive, or even consider public transport where it is an option… most public transport would become much more cost effective for people, without adding to their financial burden.

    You might worry that people with long commutes and no public transportation might be unduly burdened by this shift, but we need to remember that they already pay more for auto insurance, because these are questions the auto insurance company asks.  The big difference is that there would be an increased marginal cost of driving, and it is the marginal cost of an activity that has the greatest effect on behavior, not the average or total cost.

    The Vattenfall Institute recently found that the cost of stabilizing the United States’s share of CO2 concentrations at 450 ppm by 2030 would actually be negative, and it’s innovative solutions like those coming out of VTPI that let us get paid to cut emissions.

    What are we waiting for?

    Links: Victoria Transport Planning Institute:

    Win-Win Transportation Solutions

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    Trees and Carbon Offsets

    There’s an article in the Christian Science Monitor by  Moises Velasquez-Manoff discussing attempts to standardize the quality of carbon offsets.  Carbon offsets are a big concern to me, especially when a lot of the offsetting is in the future, as is the case with planting trees.  From the box at the end of the article:

    And unless a forest is permanent (and who can guarantee that?), trees only temporarily sequester atmospheric carbon. When they burn or decompose, the carbon they contain is released back into the atmosphere. In tropical countries, where trees are most effective as a cooling agent, they’re often up against poverty and political instability. “Does some guy wake up and say, ‘Now I’m the dictator of the country. I want a golf course?’ ” says Michael Dorsey, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “There’s the big issue.”

    Another issue is that trees may e like the old saw about the insurers: someone who lends you an umbrella, but takes it away when it starts to rain.   In the Western US and Canada (as well as many other parts of hte world,) our forests are rapidly dying due to a bark beetle infestation brought on by persistent drought and not enough frost… which makes the ultimate cause of the dieback Global Warming.

    My worry is this: you plant a bunch of trees, that are supposed to suck up CO2 and thus slow global warming.  But not enough people are planting trees, etc., so Global Warming continues and the trees die and catch fire due to temperature rises and persistent drought caused by global warming, realeasing any CO2 they have absorbed back into the atmostphere, and compounding the problem.  By counting on trees, we are unintentionally creating a positive feedback loop that could end up accellerating climate change rather than stopping it.

    This is why, rather than buying carbon offsets, I prefer to give away CFLs, and I only count the energy saved in real time as offsetting my own carbon emissions… I may have already given away enough CFLs to reduce future electricity consumption over the next decade or two by 72 GWh, but the number I focus on (and I encourage others to focus on as well) is how many kWhs or tons of carbon emissions you have prevented today not how much you may be responsible in the future.  I can’t just give away a 25W CFL with a rated life of 12,000 hours and say I’ve reduced total electricity used emissions by 900 kWh.  If the person I give it to uses the bulb for only 15 minutes a day, it’s going to take 134 years for that bulb to prevent the use of that much electricity… and long before then, we should be operating on electricity that’s mostly renewable based anyway.   Not to mention that within 10-20 years, I expect that the incandescent lightbulb will be only available in antique shops, so if the bulb I give away is still in use 20 years from now, it’s probably just replacing another CFL, for no net energy savings.

    In short, carbon credits are a good thing, but an offset that pervents carbon from entering the atmosphere is better than one that takes it out and stores it for some unknown period of time, and it’s much better to prevent carbon today than a year from now.  All in all, buying offsets is a good thing, but we shouldn’t be fooled that it’s nearly as good as reducing our own carbon emissions today.

    Further reading:

    Green Wombat: Buyer Beware

    Celias: Carbon Offset Certification

    AutoBlogGreen: REEEP reduces uncertainty

    IREA Voices on IREA’s green tag program

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    My Thoughts on Analysts: Doug Casey

    I first encountered Doug Casey at the 2004 World Gold, PGM, & Diamond Conference in Vancouver.  Around a year before, I became convinced that we were in the early stages of a Gold bull market, partly based on the arguments of Richard Russell, and partly based on my own conviction that people would come to see the world as an increasingly uncertain place in the years to come (a process which, in my opinion, has much farther to go.)  I was dissatisfied with Russell’s picks (his top pick for a gold mining company was Newmont, based on the fact that it was the largest gold company at the time.  NEM has risen about 20% in the three and a half years since Russell first brought it to my attention, which is an uninspiring performance, considering that gold has risen about 70% over the same period.  As I’ve said before, Russell isn’t much of a stock picker… he just has an incredible feel for market and sector moves.) 

    I also have some serious reservations about Gold mining, because of its serious environmental impacts.  This was before it was possible to buy precious metals in the form of ETFs such as IAU, GLD, or SLV, and so I was looking for an analyst who understood mining companies, and might also be able to point me towards companies that mine precious metals relatively responsibly.  No one at the conference was talking about environmental responsibility, but two of the analysts whose talks I attended stood out as having an understanding of how mining companies and the precious metals industry work.  Those two were Paul van Eeden and Doug Casey.  

    Casey in particular caught my attention because he was a big proponent of a type of company he refers to as “Land Banks:” these are companies which do not have any actual mining operations, but rather buy up mineral rights that have already proven.  They hold these mineral rights, doing only exploratory drilling to further prove out their reserves as a speculation on rising prices.  While the intent is always that they will eventually sell the mineral rights to other mining companies, since they are not engaging in current mining operations, they are less harmful to the environment than companies that actually dig the stuff out of the ground.  Silver Standard, SSRI was the company that invented this model buy buying up cheap rights to silver deposits when the metal was cheap in the late 1980s and 1990s, while Vista Gold, VGZ is following in SSRI’s footsteps by investing in gold deposits.  Robert Quartermain, the president of Silver Standard serves on Vista’s board.  (Note: I and some of my clients hold substantial positions in both stocks.)

    Casey is not interested in the land banks because his is an environmentalist (quite the opposite, see below), but because he recognizes that, if you believe that gold (and silver) are “Going to the moon” as he says, then the built in leverage of owning metal in the ground can make more sense than digging the metal up and selling it while the price is still rising.

    After the conference, I bought a 2 year subscription to Casey’sInternational Speculator newsletter (for $299… I note that the price has since risen along with gold.)   Here are a few of my conclusions:

    • He knows the world of junior mining companies backwards and forwards.   Small start up companies are always the most fertile ground for a company analyst, because less is known about them, and because few investors are paying attention, it is much easier to find information or come to conclusions about a company that are not widely recognized by the investing public.  His picks among the large and medium cap companies don’t seem any better than anyone else’s, but his picks among the small and medium cap miners have been excellent.
    • His 7 P’s framework for evaluating resource stocks is an excellent framework for organizing the relevant information about a company.  I have adopted a modified version which I use to evaluate renewable energy and energy efficiency companies.
    • He takes libertarianism to an extreme.  “Wacko” is a word that comes to mind.  But being crazy and being intelligent are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they often seem to go hand in hand.  In my opinion, that’s the case with Casey. 
    • Enough people follow his newsletter that it often was not a good idea to buy a stock right after he recommended it.  I had my best results by waiting a while and buying them a month or two later, if they had not just kept on rising.  For big spenders who want to seriously speculate in resource stocks, the Casey Investment Alert would likely be worth the money, given that they had a few hundred thousand dollars with which to speculate.  For myself, I’m very tight with my money, and I was more interested in understanding his methods than following his advice.  Of the stocks I did buy on pullbacks after he had recommended them, about half have more than doubled, another third are roughly flat, and the rest are down… which works out to be excellent average returns.
    • The only stock of his (other than Vista and Silver Standard) that I made a large investment in was Nevada Geothermal (which I still own… I even bought some more recently, and have recommended it to clients.)  It’s only up slightly since I first bought it, but since it is a renewable energy company, I’m happy to hold it for the long haul.  I’ve also heard some good things about it from other sources.

    I did not renew my Speculator subscription when it lapsed last summer, mainly because I feel that while the precious metals bull market is likely to continue, the risks are much greater than they were when I first started allocating money to the sector.  I am currently slowly reducing my exposure to precious metals, although I still recommend small investments in precious metals (via the GLD, SLV, VGZ, and SSRI) to my less conservative clients.  I also like Rio Tinto for a general exposure to metals, because, in my opinion, RTP the most environmentally responsible miner out there.   I note that the main page of their website says “Rio Tinto supports the main conclusions of the UK’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change.”  (Again, some clients and I have positions in RTP.)

    Back to Casey, after my International Speculator subscription lapsed, I signed up for his free newsletter What We Now Know (WWNK).  Naturally, there aren’t stock tips in WWNK, but I wanted to keep an eye on what Casey thought about the markets and world events in general.  WWNK is a lot more of a political tract than the Speculator (although he often had some rather scathing things to say about the US government, and I could not help but be amused at the way he refers to US citizens as Boobus Americanus.) 

    Casey does not write much of WWNK, but I’m confident that the people who do are on the same wavelength.  The underlying message is that any sort of regulation is evil, an attitude which is unsurprising in an investor in mining companies.  As Jared Diamond outlines in his excellent book Collapse, gold mining companies usually leave environmental problems behind them that are much more costly to clean up than all the profits they ever make from selling their product.  Since Casey primarily analyzes and invests in mining companies, it’s no real surprise that he’s hostile to regulation, since real regulation would bankrupt most of his babies.

    Unlike my previous entries in this series, I was prompted to write this entry in response to an article in WWNKDoug Hornig wrote a diatribe in an attempt to contradict the arguments for global warming.  It’s the usual stuff… “temperatures have not gone up that much”  “there have been previous periods of warming” “evidence for past temperatures is all indirect”… all attempts to muddy the waters, and no mention at all of the massive increase in the main driver of global warming: atmospheric CO2.  I’m not going to bother to deal with all his points… it’s not really a serious fact-based argument, rather a litany of the reasons (some real, some imagined) why there is some doubt about the reality or consequences of global warming, and, as such, just an exercise in obfuscation. 

    It’s unfortunate, but people who want to believe that global warming isn’t happening gravitate towards arguments like these.  It’s not really a logical argument, but rather just people seeking to justify belief in what they want to believe.  I think it’s better perhaps to just make a meta-argument: if global warming is just a figment of liberal’s imaginations, why aren’t there a lot of wackos out there trying to muddy the waters by casting doubt on “the scientific theory of global temperature stability or cooling.”   No one is trying to cast doubt on the theory of “global temperature stability” because there is no such theory… and no evidence that our climate is stable.  It’s getting hotter, and it’s likely to get a lot hotter unless we get serious and do something (actually a lot of somethings) about it. 

    In conclusion, Doug is a great analyst of resource companies, and if you’re interested in investing in those companies, you will do well by giving him a read.  But he also has a political agenda, and his belief that government is always bad is, simply put, wrong.  I wish he and his buddies would stick to their knitting.

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    Conversation with a wind skeptic

    I’ve been having a long conversation with a wind skeptic who responded to my Gust Ceiling entry.    While the rest of us are thinking about ways to overcome the intermittentcy problem with wind, this Rucio is dismissing it out of hand because of that problem. 

     See the comments for our conversation.  We RE enthusiasts need people like this Rucio/Eric Rosenbloom to make sure that we’re not the ones in la-la land.  To paraphrase Paul Newman, if you look around and can’t tell who the lunatic fringe is, you’re it.

    I’d like to point out that I jumped to a couple of conclusions myself, which he points out… I left these comments in, even though they do not make me look great.  They are there because I want people who are trying to make up their mind to know that I have not just invented myself a straw man in order to look good.

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    Clean Coal?

    Coal powered utilities have a “solution” to global warming caused by carbon dioxide, and they call it “Clean Coal” and “Carbon Sequestration.”  To many environmentalists, clean coal is simply an oxymoron.

     Also known by its technical name, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle or IGCC, this new type of electric generator heats coal in the presence of oxygen, producing carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, and leaving a bunch of the nasty stuff found in coal (mercury, sulfur, etc.) which would be released into the air in ordinary coal combustion plants stays (mostly) put.  The hydrogen is separated off by absorbing the carbon dioxide with an amine solution (other methods are in the works, but this is the only one in use now), and the hydrogen is burnt in a modified turbine to produce electricity.

    Compared to conventional pulverized coal plants, this is an elegant solution.  There is much less of a problem with the traditional pollutants associated with coal (mercury, particulates, etc.), the whole process is slightly more efficient than pulverized coal, producing slightly more electricity per ton of coal burned (and carbon dioxide produced), and there is the theoretical possibility of capturing the carbon dioxide and putting it somewhere where it won’t enter the atmosphere and heat our planet (i.e. “sequester” it.)

    On the downside, in the three IGCC plants currently in existence, there has been no attempt to capture CO2, for the simple reason that we don’t have any place good to put it, and any attempt to do so would require a significant portion of the energy output of the plant (I’ve heard numbers ranging from 10% to 30%), meaning that a lot more coal would have to be burnt just to deal with the carbon dioxide emissions.

    FutureGen proposed design renderingXcel Energy, is with grants from the federal govenrment and other partners, is planning a 300 to 350 MW IGCC plant in Colorado, which will be the first in  the United States, as well as the first anywhere in the world to attempt carbon sequestration (most likely by taking some of the carbon dioxide and injecting it down old oil wells, a practicepioneered at the Wyburn oil field in Canada.  Some other methods of sequestering carbon dioxide, such as injecting it in brine formations, have shown the potential to form acid, leading to worries that the acid will breach the geologic formation, leading the carbon dioxide to escape.

    In addition, according to an interesting article Can Coal be Clean? in the Nov 30 Economist, IGCC plants are also much higher maintenance than the old pulverized coal plants.  So is it any surprise that among the 150 new coal plants now being planned, only one or two are IGCC, and of those, only FutureGen is actually planning to test all the technologies that the utilities are holding up as the “solution” to carbon dioxide emissions, while the rest are just more business as usual.

    Should we hold out much hope for IGCC with carbon sequestration?  Maybe in 30 years, after all the kinks have been worked out.  Carbon sequestration today is at a similar level of technological maturity as wind was in 1980.  Now that wind and solar have been generating electricity for 30 years, and are proven to work well, that’s where we should be focusing our efforts. 

    I applaud FutureGen as a research project, but if we’re looking for a carbon neutral place to get our electricity today, IGCC with sequestration is a distraction.  However, if it can be made to work, I hope to be around when we have IGCC with carbon sequestration, fuelled by biomass, for a net carbon-negative power source.

    Some numbers:

    According to this testimony before the US house of Represnetatives, cost of electricity from IGCC without sequestration is $46 to $49 per MWh, and cost to sequester CO2 is estimated at $3-$10 a ton, depending on method an geology.  At treehugger, I found an article which implied that IGCC produces about 1 ton of CO2 per 5 MWh, which would make the cost of sequestration between $.60 and $2.00 per MWh, or .6 to 2 cents per kWh.   We do need to consider the fact that some of that $3-$10 per ton cost comes in the form of cost of electricity, so the calculation of cost of energy becomes depends on the source of electricity for sequestration, and how much of that carbon is sequestered.  None of this includes the cost of carbon capture, which would likely be low if only a fraction of the CO2 were captured, but become more expensive as the 90% or so theoretical limit is approached.  60% capture seems to be a number that the people who study this think would not be onerous in terms of cost.

     There is an incredible pile of information to sort through at

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    Wal-Mart pushes CFLs

    A few months ago I blogged about Wal-Mart‘s energy efficiency push.  I predicted that Wal-Mart would be one of the first mass distributors of E85 ethanol, and I have since noted that compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) have been given increasingly prominent displays in their stores, and that they have an excellent selection of styles.  (When I moved into an new office a couple months ago, one of the first things I did was tell my landlord about how much money he could save by switching to CFLs (about $25 a month for a $70 investment in this case.)  He later asked me where he could find the candelabra bulbs (the ones with the tiny bases shaped like a flame,) and I immediately told him: Wal-Mart.  He’s an employment lawyer, and does not shop at Wal-Mart as a matter of principle… He still has not replaced the candelabra bulbs, so I’m going to give him a pack for Christmas (bought somewhere else.)

     Since I wrote the blog, Wal-Mart has announced that they’re exploring selling E85 (admittedly not the greenest renewable fuel, when made from corn, but rolling out distribution for E85 will make cellulosic ethanol easier to introduce.)

    Now they’ve annouced that they are going to try to sell 100 Million CFLs in 2007.  Considering that replacing wasteful incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs is the best financial investment I know (the money saved on electricity pays for the bulbs many (as much as 25) times over), as well as being the most effective way most people can reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (#2 is using energy efficient transport), I sincerely hope they beat their goal.

    I’m particularly pleased by the fact that they will be introducing interactive displays and educating employees about how to choose.  The number of types and wattages (as well as color temperatures) of CFLs can be baffling to the unitiated, and people should be guided towards buying Energy Star bulbs for their greater reliability (If you have ever had anyone tell you that they tried CFLs but then switched them out because they stopped working, you can be almost certain that they weren’t using Energy Star bulbs.)

    So it sounds like great news.  How great?  It’s hard to know because they’re not saying how many CFLs they were selling before.

     Thanks to Phil van Hake for sending me this article.

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    Vision of a sustainable energy future

    I’ve been meaning to write an article outlining a vision of a sustainable energy future, where biomass is converted into fuel and electricity through pyrolysis and the waste product, carbon is used as a fertilizer a-la terra preta to produce more biomass.  The good news is I don’t have to.  The Engineer Poet did, and it’s just part of a much broader vision you’ll find here.   He also goes into a great discussion of transportation technologies and efficiency which would never have made it into the article I’d write.  I like it when other people crunch numbers, so I don’t have to.

    Give yourself a half hour to read the whole article.  It’s worth it.

    ( Terra Preta: I got a comment from Erich J Knight on terra preta here that went into a lot of depth, but I deleted it by mistake.  Forturnately, he says pretty much the same thing in his blog.  I first heard about terra preta from Ron Larson, chair of the American Solar Energy Society, who is very active in the local (Denver) renewable energy scene.  If you haven’t heard about terra preta, and are concerned about globabl warming or soil fertility without fertilizers from fossil fuels, it’s worth looking into.)

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