Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Beauty may be only skin-deep, but stupid goes right to the bone.

As a sociologist, nay, as an observant human being, I have long grown accustomed to a simple truth: people like to look good. Of course, by that I do not mean that people like to look good physically, although there is certainly a great deal of attention given to physical appearance at all ages, but rather that they like to be well thought-of. It is, as my sainted girlfriend never tires of reminding me, a classic case of impression management. I am forced to agree.

All the same, I am sometimes struck by the paradoxical absurdity into which people often stumble in their mad quest to achieve a positive image. I speak, primarily, of two articles that reached my attention recently.

The first article, courtesy of the Washington Post reports on a new study conducted by Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley that finds that the production of environmentally-"friendly" fuels such as ethanol may require 30% more fossil energy than the biofuel itself provides. The explanation for this is virtually identical to the environmental argument against meat production, which is based on the thermodynamic fact that producing one pound of beef requires more than one pound of wheat. Similarly, refining relatively energy-poor corn into energy-rich ethanol, like turning calorie-poor wheat into calorie-rich beef, requires the expenditure of more energy than the end-product actually contains. What can I say? Entropy can be a bitch. These findings are being disputed, of course, as all science is disputed at one time or another, but the logic is straightforward, the implications are fairly clear, and the consequences are disturbing. The development, and growing popularity, of biofuels may ease our consciences, but it may do nothing to preserve the environment. Worse still it may actually hasten environmental degradation and worsen global warming by requiring the burning of additional fossil fuels. If this study is correct, it seems that getting cleaner will require that we become even dirtier than we were before.

As if that weren't enough, it seems that many of us are not really interested in getting cleaner so long as we can convincingly appear to be doing so without sacrificing anything. I refer here to an article in the New York Times that describes a new use for hybrid automobile technology: improving performance. Indeed, it appears that some of the new hybrids being produced only improve gas mileage by a paltry mile or two per gallon. Rather than using the advanced technology of hybrids to generate more fuel-efficient cars, auto makers are producing better performing vehicles with comparable gas mileages to traditional internal combustion engines. This, by itself, might just be an example of product demand, and I do have to commend the car makers for at least not increasing the emissions of these vehicles, but there is clearly another force at work here:

Mr. Buford, a telecommunications analyst at Kraft Foods who works in the Chicago area, said he decided on a hybrid because he wanted to "go green," although he added, "I wasn't willing to make any of the trade-offs normally associated with a hybrid." He said he liked the way that the electric motor on his new car kicked in early during acceleration, at a speed range in which the V-6 gasoline engine is relatively weak. And its emissions of smog-forming pollutants are low, he said. (The Environmental Protection Agency puts the hybrid and nonhybrid Accords in the same emissions category).

So, we have an individual who purchased a hybrid to "go green," but was only willing to do so when it involved no trade-offs. Indeed, as the esteemed Robert Heinlein loved to point out, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. In other words: you're going to have to make tradeoffs, all other things being equal. Yet, despite the fact that our brave hybrid owner has made no tradeoffs, and is not improving the environment to any noticeable degree, he still persists in arguing for his "green" status. He wishes to claim the desirable status of being environmentally friendly without surrendering the desirable status of being a man with a powerful car... or perhaps even without taking on the overall identity of an "environmentalist," which, after all, remains quite undesirable in many circles.

I think these two examples are instructive for a very simple reason: it demonstrates how one can be "green" more in form, than in content. More interestingly, this seems to hold true for both dedicated, and casual, environmentalists. Perhaps we can understand Mr. Buford's motivations, but what about proponents of biofuels that are (the fuels, not the proponents) actually less environmentally friendly than standard internal combustion (I.C.) engines? Certainly the technology was worth exploring, and there is likely room for further development, but biofuels suffer from the same problem as Mr. Buford's hybrid: you can't get something for nothing. Fossil fuels were concentrated by heat and pressure over millions of years; in other words, the energy necessary for their production was provided in small bits over a long period. We just aren't going to repeat the same trick in a short period without spending more energy.

Even if we leave the biofuel camp alone, recognizing that there may be some applications for the technology, how do we explain pushes for more "clean" electric cars? Even relatively cursory thought will lead one to the conclusion that electric cars are less environmentally friendly than I.C. powered vehicles.

Okay, some of you are sure to be howling at that one, so pay attention: electric cars use electrical energy stored in batteries to provide the motive force. So where does that energy come from? Right- the power grid. And the power grid gets its power from where? Right- power plants, which primarily burn fossil fuels. So, first off, electric cars still produce pollutants and deplete the fossil fuel supply. Secondly, however, let's consider a further problem: in power plants chemical energy in the fossil fuel is burned to generate heat. The heat is converted, first, to steam and, then, into mechanical energy (i.e. the steam drives a turbine). This mechanical energy is then converted into electrical energy (using a generator attached to the turbine). Now, as we all know since we remember our thermodynamics (right?) each transformation (chemical to heat to mechanical to electrical) involves a loss of energy. Some of the chemical energy heats the combustion chamber, rather than the water, and is lost, still more energy is lost to friction when the steam drives the turbine, etc. Further, since all electrically conductive materials have some amount of resistance, transmitting that electrical energy via the grid involves a further loss of energy, as does charging the car battery, and running the electric car. All of these losses accumulate into a significant reduction in the amount of work a given mass of fossil fuel can actually do.

Compare the preceding to the chain for an I.C. engine: chemical energy in the fuel is burned explosively, heating gas which expands and drives a piston. So the energy transforms from chemical to heat to mechanical. Even without the transmission/distribution issues with the power grid, we're shortened the chain, and reduced energy loss, considerably. Granted there are additional frictional effects in translating the piston's mechanical energy into forward motion, but these are more or less equivalent to similar problems in any sort of powered vehicle. There are, of course, much more sophisticated arguments on this point, and I'm simplifying because I'm a lazy bastard, but you get the point: pure electric cars require the consumption of larger quantities of energy than do I.C. vehicles. Sadly, since centralized power plants are somewhat less efficient burners of fuels than most car engines, I.C. vehicles generate proportionally fewer pollutants for the amount of fuel they use, though this does not control for the possible anti-pollution measures centralized power plants might take advantage of. This also doesn't speak to gas-electric hybrids which do not connect to the grid and of which I generally approve so long as the emphasis is on economy and not power.


Environmentalism is a good thing, but let's not forget that there must be a substance beneath the form if it is to do any good, and this goes for both environmentalists, and non-environmentalists. Just because something sounds good or sounds clean, it doesn't mean it is. And, let's be realistic, we very rarely get something for nothing. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. You probably can't get the same performance with more economy without making some sort of tradeoff, just like you probably can't get great taste that's really less filling.

Let's try to remember, even if only now and then, that appearances can be deceiving, but substance goes right to the bone.

UPDATE: For more on hybrid vehicles, economy, and environmentalism, go check out Tom Bozzo's interesting post on the subject.


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