One blogger that truly engenders respect is the estimable Geoffrey Styles writing at the site EnergyOutlook. A lot of the time Mr. Styles works in policy and the political angles but, as an engineer, once in a while comes in with some of the best views, nicely explained, with stunningly common sense results.  Last week was the best one so far for Mr. Styles. If the Pulitzer Prize committee ever wakes up to bloggers, Mr. Styles has to be the leader.

On Monday August 24th Mr. Styles came up with his take on the cap & trade bill’s impact on refining.  We covered it here as well, but Styles’ take is more to the refiner’s point of view without the community or economic impact.  He also mentions the odd allowances going to the electrical generation sector, which manages to slip in under the environmentalist’s radar and come out nearly free of impact.  If either of us overlooked something, it’s that the allowance game would seriously screw up the electrical production system for decades to come.  The problem is that there isn’t an organized constituency to calculate the harm to consumers, development and efficiency.  One would think competing power generation sources would be on top of this, though.

Styles offers on Wednesday what might prove to be one of the shortest and most effective narrow field economics lessons yet seen. In Deficits, Dollars and the Price of Energy, Styles connects the dots that others and I use to follow commodities prices.  (That does not imply forecasting.)  Styles says, “A weaker dollar encourages producers to raise prices, or to consider pricing their output in a stronger, more stable currency. Meanwhile, non-US consumers experience stable or falling energy prices that encourage demand growth, which eventually leads to higher prices in all currencies. Either way, US consumers would see higher prices for petroleum products . . .” That effect also pushes food and feeds like corn and soybean products. This is an important observation; its great to see it said so concisely.

Moreover, the dollar has slipped about 12% over the past months.  For those Americans wondering about the reasons behind the $70+ oil of late, it’s the lack of confidence in the dollar that’s driving prices higher.  Some people realize that a significant share of their disposable income is now going for imported goods.  While not so instantaneous as the open oil market these products too will see sizable price jumps over the coming months.

Styles says most accurately, “[T]he most serious risk of higher oil prices in the near future might not be flagging (oil) production or surging (gasoline) demand but the further depreciation of the US dollar. The quickest route back to $4 gasoline could run through Washington, DC, rather than Riyadh, Saudi Arabia or Beijing, China and that might not be as helpful for renewable energy as its advocates might guess.”

I strongly urge a click over to read Styles’ piece. I only take exception to his comment suggesting that the U.S. Congress can be persuaded to straighten up its business.  I simply disagree, I have no confidence that the congressional majority can, will or even has any interest in the best practices of governing.  Special interests control the cap & trade bill, there isn’t anything that the health care bill worthy of discussion, they are both creatures of special interest influence.

Assuming the economy doesn’t blow up in American’s faces, Styles used Friday August 28th to dive into the problem in measuring the fuel efficiency of automobiles. Styles notes that ethanol, liquid petroleum gas, natural gas, and other fuels skew the old miles per gallon measure mandated from the 1970s.  With grid sourced electricity entering the energy mix it’s a field ripe for a reconstruction and Styles offers a meritorious answer.

Styles uses a link to the Wall Street Journal that covers adding electricity to the energy mix of transportation gives consumers inaccurate information about the financial and environmental costs of driving.  Just so.  GM’s recent announcement that its new Volt plug-in hybrid achieves 230 mpg in city driving leaves out the cost to charge up the battery set.  OK, on a gasoline basis on the prescribed test, the Volt is amazing, but it leaves a significant cost out.  Styles points out that using these kinds of numbers is misleading and in fact ignores some basic engineering realities.

Styles shows with real world numbers that the Nissan claims competing with the Volt are, to say the least, amazing.  It just leaves out the electricity generation again.  Factor in a reasonable load for the recharging and the Nissan claim is cut by more than half.  Not that the results aren’t very good, but recruiting people without full disclosure in many businesses is a crime.  For now it’s something people have to be aware of.  Those numbers about mpg when a grid charging is added in are at best misleading.

Styles offers that the MPGe calculation used for the Automotive X-Prize comparing all the energy delivered to the car in any form with how far the car went might be best. However, the MPGe calculation is quite complex and seems shaded for personal and marketing purposes. Styles would certainly prefer the inverted form of fuel economy–gallons per 100 miles to the current mpg.  Yet Styles and this author realize it’s hard to beat miles per dollar as a means of comparing how much it will cost the average driver to operate any of these new cars.  The problem then comes from the mix of energy sources and the local prices of the energy.  Establishing a measure that works nationally and reflects fast moving, localized prices isn’t going to be easy.

Maybe, although is seems early, Styles suggests, “[The EPA] ought to convene other government agencies, car and fuel companies, universities, and consumer groups for the purpose of developing a new and more helpful set of metrics that would tell consumers what they need to know about costs and consequences . . .” That’s a good idea, but in the meantime, using the cost per mile measure is a skill every driver needs to brush up on and get ready for some new factors and extended calculations.  It just might be a topic in need of a new “calculator” on a web site.  Meanwhile, it would be a very good idea to know one’s driving practices such a trip length, stops at home (for a recharge) and the other things that will factor in to figure the operating costs of a new car purchase.


1 Comment so far

  1. Matt on September 1, 2009 8:23 AM

    We all come out of school bright eyed with childish notions of how the world works. Then we get a job and run into the REAL WORLD. So, our ideas take transform into more reality based visions.

    Unfortunately, government is increasingly staffed by persons who never got their dose of real world. If you work non-profit or community organizing – you think problems are handled by more govt $ and more political power. Your visions are shaped by BIZARO WORLD.

    Living too long in govt also leads to BIZARO thinking, like when Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon both thought they could control energy prices by decree.

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