Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Self-Driving Automobiles

I admit that I've been a skeptic about self-driving automobiles.  Until this past Sunday, that is, when I found the ideal application for them.

I was driving from my home outside to Denver to my mom's outside Omaha for my annual handyman trip (on the list for this year, in addition to the usual pruning and lifting and moving is some staining and varnishing around the new windows).  The drive is basically all interstate: I-76 northeast out of Denver and then I-80 across Nebraska.  There's never much traffic on I-76 on Sundays and this time was no exception.  I-80 was busier than it's been the last couple of years.  In addition to the standard heavy truck traffic there were quite a lot of people pulling camping trailers of various sizes.

One of my pet peeves about I-80 in western Nebraska over the years has been the driver of the big truck running on cruise control who has crept up behind another big truck on cruise control that's going a half mile-per-hour slower.  So the slightly faster truck pulls out to pass, but doesn't bother to speed up.  Ten minutes or so later they finally get by.  In the meantime, ten or fifteen cars have accumulated in the left lane, waiting to get by, all following too closely.  Some people who aren't paying attention pass the string of cars on the right, suddenly realize they're closing rapidly behind a slow moving truck, and then insist on moving into the already-crowded left lane right now.  Sometimes, it seems, without bothering to look to see if there's any space.

For all practical purposes, I-80 in western Nebraska is a badly-organized train system.  The drive would be much more pleasant if we turned it into an organized system: a faster left lane, a slower right lane, and everyone in each lane runs at precisely the same speed, so the one-truck-crawling-past-the-other situation can't occur.  Lane changes and the resulting acceleration under computer control all done in situations where there's room to merge gracefully.  Ideal for a self-driving automobile.  In fact, I'd go one step farther and mandate autonomous vehicles on those stretches of highway.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Western Fire Danger

This past week, the national news carried stories about Colorado's Black Forest fire.  Properly so, for news organizations, as two people are known to have died and almost 500 homes been destroyed.  Mostly limited to local coverage has been the Big Meadows fire, burning in Rocky Mountain National Park.  U.S. Forest Service policy these days is to let fires in remote parts of the national park system burn.  In the case of the Big Meadows fire, they opted to contain and extinguish it.  This post is about the reasons that they had to make that decision.

To the left is a picture of one edge of the fire early on.  A much larger version of this picture can be found here.  Two features of the forest shown in the picture are relevant.  First, it's crowded.  Trees are jammed in very tightly.  If one of them is on fire, the trees downwind are very likely going to burn also.  Second, most of the trees are dead.  The dead trees are those gray ones [1].  If you look at the larger version of the picture, where you can see all of the individual trunks, you can see just how many of the trees are dead.  The Mountain West is experiencing an epidemic of various bark beetles that are killing large numbers of trees.  In the area of the Big Meadows fire, an estimated 80% of the trees have been killed.  This is the reason that the Forest Service decided to attempt to put this lightning-started fire out: there's an enormous fuel load, and once strongly established, it may not be possible to limit the spread.

Why so many dead trees?  Foresters and ecologists point to two main factors.  Fire is an important part of the ecosystem in forests in the Mountain West.  Periodic ground fires clear the accumulated material (dropped pine needles and dead branches) and kill off bushes and saplings.  Groves of mature trees survive ground fires without difficulty.  In the first half of the 20th century, the Forest Service and its predecessor agencies ignored this reality and adopted a policy of total fire suppression.  With the saplings no longer being killed, overpopulation resulted.  In addition, those dead limbs and pine needles accumulated on the ground.  Overcrowded trees contribute to the beetle epidemic because the trees are weaker and less able to resist the fungus the beetles spread, and make it easier for the beetles to move from tree to tree.

The second contributor to the epidemic is the weather.  No matter what climate change deniers may say, winters in the mountains are not as cold as they used to be.  Because of their peculiar metabolism [2], a five-day stretch with temperatures below -30 °F are necessary to kill the beetle larvae.  That doesn't happen as often or over as wide an area as it used to, so more beetle larvae survive to adulthood.  Colorado now has over two million acres of forest dominated by beetle-killed trees.  Wyoming and Montana have similar amounts.  All three states are dwarfed by the problem in British Columbia and Alberta, where a total of over 40 million forest acres have been affected.

Mitigation is too difficult and expensive to be practical.  It's unlikely that the Forest Service will be able to go back to total fire-suppression as a policy; how much money do you want to spend to protect stands of dead trees?  The Mountain West is largely screwed on this.  Big fires are coming.

[1] Which means they've been dead for three or more years.  More recently dead trees are a sort of red-brown, and bushier, before they finish dropping the dead needles.

[2] Bark beetle cells include glycerol at particular points in their life cycle, which acts as an antifreeze that keeps cells intact to temperatures well below zero.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Let 'Em Go!

Last week, the Denver Post reported a story about eight counties in the northeastern part of Colorado that say they want to secede and form their own state (to be called "North Colorado").  My immediate reaction — and my reaction after further consideration, for that matter — is that this is definitely a case of "be careful what you ask for."  First, some background.

The eight counties are shown in light green in the picture to the left, tucked up under the Nebraska panhandle.  The total population of the eight counties is about 345,000.  76% of the total population lives in Weld county, the one farthest to the west.  Of that population, probably two-thirds lives in a strip 20 miles wide running down the western edge of Weld county (for reference, Weld's northern border is about 75 miles long).  Greeley, the only city of any size contained entirely within the eight counties, is certainly within that strip.

There appear to be three specific complaints these counties have about the legislative session that concluded last month: (1) the General Assembly voted to regulate oil and gas drillers' use of hydraulic fracturing; (2) the General Assembly passed modest expansions of Colorado's gun control law, principally by requiring more extensive use of background checks; and (3) the General Assembly imposed some form of a renewable electricity portfolio on rural electric cooperatives, similar to the requirements that the state's investor-owned utilities already operate under.  Personally, I suspect that this declaration by the counties represents a deeper general resentment.  Decades back, Colorado was a relatively small (in population) relatively poor state with a resource-based economy (agriculture, mining, etc).  Today, it's a medium sized relatively rich state with a tech- and service-based economy.  The large majority of the new population and wealth are located in the urban/suburban areas of the Front Range.

As regular readers know, I spent three years on the staff of the General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee.  Being a state is an expensive business these days, and I suspect that this new state would be bankrupt on day one.  To pick a few examples...
  • States are not required to participate in the state/federal unemployment insurance program.  But unless states implement a conforming program, the full federal UI tax is collected.  Broadly speaking, if Colorado were to cancel its program, most employers would face an increase in their total UI tax bill.  If the new state implements a UI program, it will have to have a software system that meets federal Dept. of Labor audit standards, and those are somewhat pricy.  If as a state you choose to participate in Medicaid, software that meets federal requirements is even more pricy.
  • The new state would include Colorado's portion of the Republican River, so would presumably be subject to the terms of the current Republican River Compact with Nebraska and Kansas.  From time to time, Colorado farmers overdraw Republican River waters and the state gets sued [1].  The new state will also be responsible for deliveries of South Platte River water to Nebraska (with a no-doubt fascinating legal battle as the new state and Colorado settle who owes how much).  Court proceedings and the penalties in water fights can get expensive — especially if you're drawing from a much smaller total budget.
  • Which leads to the final point I want to make: all of these counties' average household income is lower than the average for Colorado overall (Weld County has the highest, but is still about 8% below the state average).  As a result, because of the way certain state budget formulas work, most of them are receiving transfers for funding schools, roads, and social services from the richer counties.  A question that I would ask the seven smaller counties in particular: "Do you really believe that Weld County (whose commissioners seem to be the 'brains' behind this), which is poorer than Colorado as a whole, is going to maintain your school subsidies at the level they are today?"
Still, I'm generally of the opinion that politicians ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes.  Actually, my time with the JBC convinced me that they'll go ahead and make those mistakes any way no matter how much good advice they get.  So, go for it, Weld County and companions!  I can hardly wait to see your first state budget — I'm betting on big cuts in services and increases in taxes.  And I really want to hear how you tell your citizens, "We're smaller and poorer now, so we can't afford as many nice things."

[1] An interesting question: if your hope is that the oil and gas drillers are going to drill and fracture lots of wells, where's the water going to come from?  The North Dakota government estimates that drilling in the Bakkan Shale formations will eventually require seven billion gallons of water per year for drilling and ongoing operations.  Given all of the constraints on water supplies in northeast Colorado, it seems likely that they'll have to put a lot of farmers out of business in order to free up the water.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Oil Drum

Earlier this week I removed The Oil Drum from my blogroll.  It wasn't an easy decision to make.  I've been a member there for approaching eight years.  It was a significant part of my re-approaching energy policy issues after a long time away from them.  In those early days, TOD posted and discussed — at least IMO — pieces representing an interesting variety of ways to look at the causes and consequences of a peak in liquid fuel production.  The comment threads were valuable, in the sense that people's reasoning on the subjects was criticized or supported intelligently.  It was very much a "bring facts and numbers to support your theory" sort of place.

That mindset, over a broad set of related topics, no longer seems to exist.  David Summers (writing under the pseudonym Heading Out) still writes interesting technical pieces, but those also appear on his Bit Tooth Energy site.  Gail Tverberg writes an occasional interesting piece, although the message that the global credit-based financial system cannot survive without perpetual energy-driven growth gets old as a steady diet.  As with David's pieces, Gail's are available elsewhere (at Our Finite World).  Stuart Staniford has gone on to his own blog, Early Warning, with TOD picking up one of his essays occasionally.  Jeffrey Brown and Steven Kopits often leave comments at Jim Hamilton's Econbrowser.  Alan Drake leaves useful comments about rail transport, but infrequently.  The four-times-weekly news aggregation Drumbeat pieces are useful; the follow-on discussion in the comments, not nearly so much as they used to be.  As a consequence of the changes, I no longer feel comfortable recommending the site.

The TOD editorial staff has made one choice that I regard as a significant tactical mistake: at least in the Drumbeat aggregation and discussion, they've let global climate change in.  I'm not belittling the threat of a warming climate, nor asserting that the two issues aren't related.  I'll concede the point that drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would precipitate exactly the kind of cliff effect that was common in Peak Oil scenarios a decade ago — if we shut off the petroleum taps over the course of a very few years, Bad Things would definitely happen.  As in, a billion or two people would die relatively soon thereafter.  So far, those scenarios have not materialized.  The consensus now seems to be that we'll experience a "bumpy plateau" in production, followed by a decline, driven by the fact that the world economy appears able to tolerate higher crude oil prices than previously believed.

That leads me to what I believe is one of the underlying difficulties about maintaining a web site dedicated to the issue: our energy problems (and I admit that I worry more about electricity than I do liquid fuels) are long-term slow-motion problems.  I often find myself going back to The Limits to Growth.  Published in 1972, we are just now reaching the really interesting part of the forecasts.  At that kind of pace, it's hard to keep finding new things to say.  The seemingly obvious direction to take — mitigation — is hard to do because there are many possibilities.  Abandon modern technology.  Abandon things that can't be electrified and pour huge amounts of money into nuclear generators.  Localize production.  Regionalize production.  Stockpile firearms and ammunition to (a) defend what you've got or (b) take what you need when things fall apart.  And on, and on [1].  And writing here, I'm as guilty as anyone at going off-topic: really, Mike, college football conspiracy theories?

Nevertheless, the deed is done, and seems unlikely to get undone any time soon.  Now what I'd really like to find is a site that's TOD the way it used to be, but focused on electricity.

[1] Note to self: write a series of connected posts that lay out my scenario for how I think things should go.  It's a book-sized project that I'm making (very) slow progress on.  Alienate lots of people.