American Elephants

A Prize! A Prize! A Prize! by The Elephant's Child
March 10, 2012, 7:32 pm
Filed under: Capitalism, Economy, Energy | Tags: , ,

What do ordinary incandescent light bulbs have in common with regular gasoline? They are cheap, reliable and satisfactory sources of energy. You can add coal and natural gas to that equation.  What people want is the energy produced. If someone can come up with a better mousetrap, to use a familiar cliché, then people will eagerly buy the new product. That’s called the free market.  It works.

The free market does not work for the Obama administration. They have their own goals, quite separate from what the American people want. Of course they tell us that they have a noble ideology behind their goals; and if the rest of us don’t want to go along with their goals, they will just use the power of government to force us to. There are other names for that approach, and “free market” and “liberty” aren’t in it.

To gin up a little excitement for the process of indoctrination, the Department of Energy has offered an award  called the  “L Prize” — a $10 million prize for any manufacturer that could create a “green” but affordable light bulb. There was also a minor component that requited portions, at least, of the bulb would have to be made in the United States.

The winning bulb is soon to reach the stores.

The price is $50.

No, not for a pack of bulbs, for one.

“I don’t want to say it’s exorbitant, but if a customer is only looking at the price, they could come to that conclusion,” said Brad Paulsen, merchant for the light-bulb category at Home Depot, the largest U.S. seller of light bulbs. “This is a Cadillac product, and that’s why you have a premium on it.”

Uh huh. The “L Prize” bulb is more energy efficient. It runs on 10 watts instead of 12.5 watts. It is also, they claim,  brighter, renders colors better and lasts longer. These are not qualities high on my list. My list begins and ends with cheap, reliable and satisfactory. The prize guidelines did set a target retail price, including rebates from utilities, which was to be $22 in the first year, $15 in the second year and $8 in the third year. File that in the same folder with the requirement that 30% of our electricity must come from wind by 2020, and the mpg mandate. Governing is easy!  You just come up with a number that you like and order the proles to make it so.

Official say they are working with utilities to provide rebates for consumers. That could lower the price (yes, you just order the utilities to — make it so.)  There are cheaper LED bulbs, The Sighting Science Group, under the EcoSmart label offers one for $23.07. The bulbs are expected to last much longer, up to 30,000 hours  which they claim if you used it for eight hours a day, it might last for 10 years or more. “LED bulbs don’t burn out but wane over time.” And when does the waning begin, and how bad does it get?  The LED bulbs all have some kind of baffles or vanes around them to direct the light outwards, because they are very directional. A lighting engineer said a while back, and I can’t find the quote, that LED bulbs are just not anywhere near ready for prime time.

The Obamaites despise the free market, because it “isn’t fair.” They don’t like profit. They don’t like competition. They are sure that they know better.  It will just take us a little time to get used to their new “improved” world.

Adventures in Venture Capitalism by The Elephant's Child

Consumer Reports buys the automobiles it tests anonymously, so there can be no question that it was not just an ordinary car off the dealer’s lot; tests automobiles before they report on them, and the reputation of the magazine rests on their expertise in testing.

The Fisker Karma luxury car retails for over $100,000 (at that point do you still bargain to get it down from $103,000 to $102,000?) And as has been widely reported it ran for 180 miles and quit.  They had to come and take it away. Fisker dispatched two engineers to examine the car.

This is more bad news for a company that already had recalled some Karmas. They also changed their CEO and halted production over the past month as it seeks to renegotiate the terms of their $529 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. In November, A123 reduced its full-year revenue outlook after Fisker unexpectedly cut orders. Then in December, they recalled 239 Karmas due to a possible defect in batteries made by supplier A123 Systems that could cause a coolant fluid leak and electrical short-circuit. In January , Fisker halted sales for four days to fix a software malfunction that at times triggered warning lights while temporarily freezing navigation systems.

The car, everyone agrees, is absolutely gorgeous. The price tag is something else again, even with a government subsidy — and Obama wants to raise the subsidy from a $7,000 tax credit to $10,000 and perhaps change it from a tax credit to something more immediate.

Problems with new technologies can be expected, and they are all having them. The Tesla roadster turns into an immovable brick if the battery runs down. The Chevy Volt had some incidents of the battery catching on fire.  Federal safety officials opened an investigation last November into the safety of the battery pack. Nevertheless, the electric cars are remarkable examples of new technology.

It is beyond unfortunate that at a time when the economy is in the tank, with no real signs of recovery; when the auto bailout has been shown to be so full of fraud; when, although Obama brags that GM is now once again the world’s top car company, there are no signs of the stock recovering enough to pay the taxpayers back for the loans; with all that going on — the president decided that the federal government should become a venture capitalist to decide what technologies to support.

Real venture capitalists do very hard-nosed investigations of the real prospects of a company and look for proof that at some point the investment will actually pay off. The administration substituted hopes and rainbows for investigation, and after all, it’s just taxpayer money—there’s more where that comes from. Venture capitalists have some resounding successes, and those help pay for the mistakes —but it is their own money on the line along with their shareholders so they are pretty careful with it.

I do not pretend to be anything other than a real ignoramus when it comes to cars, but I have read the history of electric cars — they are hardly a new idea. And always, success was just around the corner, the next big thing, for over 100 years. One engineer whose comments I read, said that they had exhausted the periodic table of elements in battery technology, and a breakthrough would have to include something presently unknown to science or engineering. There’s a lot of technology that says as soon as we can figure out a solution to this very particular problem we will succeed, and it will happen, we’re working on it.  The problem of electric batteries, he said, was of a different nature — something unknown.

So what Obama has to show for the massive investment are some very good-looking cars that are way too expensive for most people. They say the Fisker Karma has 400 cars sold.

On the other hand, there is the Chevy Volt. Climatologist Patrick Michaels knows a thing or two about CO2 emissions. He claims that it should be called the Chevy Vote — to remind voters of the funding invested by the Obama administration and how very, very wrong it has all been. Buying votes in a state vital to the president’s reelection, subsidizing “rich” taxpayers, corporate cronyism and coercion. GM says there are 3,600 unsold Volts. The Wall Street Journal and Autoweek say there are 6,300.

Roll On, Columbia, Roll On. by The Elephant's Child

The mighty Columbia, great river of the West, storied in song and legend, drains an area the size of Texas, and each year it passes 60 cubic miles of water down to the Pacific Ocean. Even its tributaries are legendary: the Snake, the Clearwater, the Salmon and the Willamette are just the big ones. The 31 dams on the river are some of the world’s largest.

In a darkened, ultra-secure room on the fifth floor of an unassuming office tower in Portland, Ore., Bob Neal sits before a panel of ten computer screens and plays Moses. It’s 8:45 in the morning on a sunny late-August day and electricity demand is rising as office workers across the West switch on their computers. Neal points to a dense blue-and-white display whose flickering numbers show power output at each of 31 dams in the Columbia basin. With a few keystrokes he orders the Grand Coulee Dam, the continent’s largest power plant, to ramp up its output by 870 megawatts in the next hour—an increase enough to light 15 million light bulbs at 60 watts apiece.

240 miles away, the Grand Coulee’s 24 giant turbines ease open, sending a surge of water toward the Pacific Ocean. Just below the dam, the river quadruples in volume and rises by 13 feet over a period of nine hours. By 2 P.M., one and a half million gallons of water— enough to flood a football field three feet deep—moves through the dam’s turbines every second.

The Columbia is a river of colossal proportions: it’s the most voluminous in the West, draining an area the size of Texas and each year passing 60 cubic miles of water to the Pacific Ocean. The 14 structures that harness it are equally formidable: a dam is likely to be the largest manmade object, the most exuberant feat of engineering that you’ll ever see, and the Columbia’s are among the world’s biggest. But as large as the dams are, their margins are minuscule and operating them takes unerring foresight and subtle management: let too much water fill reservoirs and a rainstorm might flood Portland; keep the reservoirs too empty and you’ll parch farmers. Send too much water over a dam’s spillway and you’ll suffocate fish with dissolved gases; send too much through its turbines and you’ll overload the electrical grid.

Imagine what Mr. Neal must manage: early risers turn on the lights, cities come to life, office buildings light up, computers turn on, and the demand for electricity grows.  This article from Forbes magazine is a fascinating exploration of the great power system of the Northwest. Take the time to read it all, if you can, and click on the maps and graphs to enlarge them. There is just a wealth of information there, all fascinating.

The water that must be managed drains from the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains — the continental divide, all the lesser mountains in between and all the winter storms, mountain snowpack, spring melt and spring rains. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of government involved. In recent years layers of government have added more complications.

The states, inspired by a combination of federal government, environmentalists, neighboring states and their own legislatures have required state utilities to buy increasing amounts of “renewable energy” from “clean energy” sources. Renewable energy doesn’t get any more “renewable” that the energy produced by the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia river, which has been renewing its annual flow of water for many centuries, but I am calling attention to something that should be obvious, but apparently isn’t.

The Bonneville power system must also cope with varying groups of environmentalists who are concerned about the welfare of the fish, the Indian tribes who have historical fishing rights, the wild rivers people who don’t like dams, before you even concern yourself with the politicians.

In the Spring, when runoff is high, snow melt is high and there’s lots of rain, there is usually a lot of wind as well. Turns out this is the time of year when there is the most wind, and all the wind farms are actually producing “clean energy.” Just when Bonneville really doesn’t need a bunch of intermittent wind from the Columbia Basin’s wind farms.

Wind farms in the Pacific Northwest — built with government subsidies, maintained with tax credits for every megawatt produced — are now being paid to shut down. The federal agency charged with managing the region’s electricity grid says there is an oversupply of renewable power at certain times of the year. Last year the BPA had the same problem during the late spring and early summer. Demand could not keep up with the oversupply, so BPA shut down the wind farms for nearly 200 hours over 38 days.

The wind farms really don’t like that. So Bonneville is offering to compensate the wind companies for half their lost revenue.  The bill could reach as high as $50 million a year. Guess who gets to pay for that. The ratepayers. We also get sweet little notes in our power bills, asking us to “contribute” just a little more the help make the Northwest truly green with green energy.

Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment of the Washington Policy Center, and author of Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment, said:

We require taxpayers to subsidize the production of renewable energy, and now we want ratepayers to pay renewable energy companies when they lose money? That’s a ridiculous system that keeps piling more and more money into a system that’s unsustainable.

Exactly. People — those taxpayers and ratepayers who are tired of seeing their power bills go up as the news tells us constantly of the boom in energy; who are tired of seeing one green “investment” after another go bankrupt, as their officers award themselves big bonuses on the way out,  are capable of putting two and two together and finding something fickle in the wayward wind.

State governments, not being as smart, haven’t figured it out yet, and still have their fantasy mandates of increasing amounts of power from renewables that will never happen.  The federal government, sure that clean wind and solar energy will wean us of our “addiction” to foreign oil, can’t get it through their heads that you can’t put wind or sunshine in your gas tank.

Another day in the eternal  life of the Mighty Columbia River — roll on. Columbia, roll on.

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