CitizenMetz

Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the month “January, 2015”

DEMAND FOR OIL CAN DECREASE DESPITE LOW GAS PRICES

gas nooseOil companies’ share prices tumbling.  Fracking and oil exploration projects cancelled.   Environmentalist dreams? No, these are today’s headlines caused by falling oil prices.

But what about the demand side?  Will low gas prices cause consumers to use more gas and emit more carbon?    While the supply-and-demand curves of economics textbooks and some survey evidence suggest that they will, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that gasoline demand and usage must increase if gas prices remain low.  For example, bus ridership in King County, Washington is up, despite service cuts and gas prices well below last year’s. Nissan Leaf sales in December 2014 were up nearly 20% over a year earlier.

A fundamental challenge for climate activists is to find a way to continually depress gasoline demand in the face of low prices.   Reducing gasoline demand in a low-price environment represents a different challenge from the one climate activists thought they would be fighting.  For most of the past decade, high carbon prices caused by carbon taxes and/or “peak oil” were viewed as the key motivators for consumers to embrace renewable fuels.  Now, with gas prices around $2 a gallon, carbon taxes politically infeasible, and vast new supplies of fracked oil depressing prices, a new non-price-based strategy is required.

Price is only one of many motivators of consumer decisions. For example, Apple smartphones are both the most costly and the best-selling phones in the market, because Apple’s products represent the person that many of us want to be and the lifestyle we want to have—clean, elegant, and powerful.

The same logic can be brought to bear with respect to gasoline cars and gasoline usage.

As evidence of global warming becomes more pervasive, the use of gasoline becomes more morally questionable and undesirable.   Pope Francis recently said that “man has slapped nature in the face” by causing climate change.  If Francis’ statement can somehow be personalized and internalized—such that we feel each of us are personally giving an unkind “slap in the face” to nature when we buy gasoline-powered cars and use gasoline, then consumers will embrace alternatives.  If climate activists do our job well, the clean, elegant, and powerful person will not want a gas-powered car or to be seen pumping gas.

Translating the moral argument into a consumer argument against the purchase of gasoline-powered cars and gasoline is feasible, but it will require a different moral approach and vocabulary than we presently use.   We need to move away from an analysis of the relative costs of conventional versus green technologies, and instead emphasize an approach to consumer choice based on our personal values.

While a values-based argument to consumers relating to energy choices must be made with subtlety and care, it must nonetheless be made, even if consumer and industry sensibilities are ruffled.  Unnecessary burning of carbon is, as the Pope says, a slap against nature, and such violence should not be condoned or ignored.  This is particularly so as new technologies, such as the long-range electric car, become widely available over the next several years, making the unnecessary burning of carbon all the more indefensible.

There are many forms that a values-based consumer-oriented campaign against gasoline can take.   One nice example is an emerging campaign to put climate-warning stickers on gas pumps.  Messages against gasoline purchase can be spread through social media, places of worship, and ballot measures.  Theater and other arts can undermine our deep psychological dependence on oil.   The main thrust of these campaigns is to confront consumers and convince them that filling their gas tank is antithetical to their own values and unnecessary.

Low gasoline prices are in many respects a consequence of our success in limiting demand for oil. The more success we have in limiting energy demand, the lower we should expect those prices to go.    We need to find new pathways to the consumer’s sense of self and values, and then work with those values to power the transition away from fossil fuels.

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Imaging CO2: An interview with laser imager Vic Miller

laser car imaging

No one has yet captured an image of the CO2 spewing from car tailpipes.  As discussed in my last post, such video images could revolutionize how we think about the copious carbon pollution (20 lbs. of CO2/gallon) we emit when we drive.

To better understand how and when we might expect to get images of CO2 tailpipe emissions, I interviewed Vic Miller, an engineering post-doc at Stanford University, and an expert in laser imaging of gases. Vic is working on a technique to image CO2 from a tailpipe (among other projects).  His team’s laser-enhanced video of a match strike was recently featured in the New York Times.

Vic Miller

Vic Miller

Q. Why has CO2 imaging been so elusive?  What are the principal technical obstacles?

A.   CO2 is an infrared active molecule, meaning it absorbs (and emits) light in the infrared (IR).  And so I’m pretty sure qualitative measurements or images of CO2 emissions can be made with currently available off-the-shelf infrared cameras that are sensitive in the mid-infrared.  The tricky part is being quantitative – or getting an actual measurement of CO2 concentration with well-characterized uncertainty bounds.  This is what the NASA OCO-2 satellite does – it’s a quantitate instrument for measuring CO2 concentration.  The challenges lie in CO2 spectroscopy (i.e., understanding how CO2 absorbs light in the infrared, and what other species also absorb in the infrared and how they could interfere with CO2 spectroscopy) – and there are engineering challenges with making good measurements (is the signal on your detector actually what you think it is?).

Q.  What are the promising new techniques/technology for imaging?

A.  New infrared light sources (e.g., lasers) and infrared detectors are constantly being improved – these new pieces will provide access to better wavelengths (i.e., wavelengths that provide a more sensitive measurement with less interference) for CO2 detection.

Q.  Is it possible to measure it with non-visual means to model how CO2 would move out of a tailpipe?

A.  CO2 measurements can be made relatively cheaply with a capnograph.  CO2 measurements are readily made in medicine to monitor patients’ respiratory health (and other conditions) – the same thing could be done near a tailpipe. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) could be used to model and observe tailpipe emissions.

Q. When do you think the new imaging techniques might be ready for providing car tailpipe images?

A.  We might be able to have a short little paper out in maybe a year – would like to do it in 6 months, but we probably won’t finish it that quickly.

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