Coal Miner

I do not want to challenge 19 really smart professors, but I am skeptical of all the conclusions in the new report from the National Research Council, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.  The report, as titled, examined costs of energy, especially coal, that go unaccounted for in market prices.

The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs.  The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation.  The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

The report made significant conclusions about transportation, especially cars, according to GreenTech Media:

Overall, the transportation industry incurred $56 billion of mostly health-related damage in the United States in 2005. Driving cars typically contributed to less than a third of the hidden costs and translated into 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile traveled, the report said.

Gasoline has earned a foul reputation because the country’s reliance on foreign oil. But the heavy focus on domestically produced ethanol doesn’t necessary provide less damaging options, the report found.

Impact from corn ethanol production was similar or “slightly worse” than gasoline because turning corn into fuel takes more energy, the report said. Making ethanol from corn stover and other types of plants, on the other hand, inflicted less damage.

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars also aren’t as “green” as they appear. While these cars produce less or no emissions, they are run on power from fossil fuels, the report said. Manufacturing batteries and electric motors also takes up quite a lot of energy.

The report concluded that the non-climate damage caused by manufacturing and operating electric/hybrid cars was “somewhat higher” than other types of cars in 2005, and the same trend would continue in 2030.

Maybe it’s difficult, but how do you release a study like that without taking into account the effect on the environment or admitting the political difficulties of oil.  I’m not going to disagree that electric cars that essentially run on oil are problematic too.  However, electric cars, which are picking up steam from major manufacturers, have potential because they could run on renewable energy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean all oil-based cars are inherently wrong.

Electric cars are only part of a larger transit solution, but if we drive electric cars as we drive our current cars we will still have problems.  Our goals instead should always be as follows (in no particular order):

- Driving less, of any car.

- Taking public transportation, walking and cycling more.

- Owning cars for a longer time.  Fuel efficiency is only relevant if the energy to build a car is not used every 2-4 years.

- Driving fuel-efficient cars.

- Building environments and neighborhoods that emphasize these values.

I’m glad someone is taking account of energy use and not just mindlessly swooning over electric cars.  However, electric cars provide part of an answer in a transit and energy revolution and should not be dismissed just because they may run on coal energy now.  Real economists cannot look at just one sector and claim to have made a whole study, the politics and environmental effects of oil and coal and potential for new energy solutions must be taken into account as well.


A big part of sustainable transportation is not only decreasing usage or getting more people on communal and public means but also making all forms of transportation more energy efficient.  Energy efficiency can be measured by both how far a means can travel per unit of fuel as well as the effects of the fuel used on the environment.  In that spirit, here are two new means of energy that may one day be used to fuel vehicles on and off the electric grid.

The Navy has invested in 20,000 gallons (476 barrels of oil equivalency) of algae-based fuel.  The company, Solazyme, explains the process here.

Our unique, indirect photosynthesis bioproduction process uses microalgae to convert biomass directly into oil and other biomaterials, a process that can be performed in standard commercial fermentation facilities cleanly, quickly, and at low cost and large scale. Our renewable oil and bioproducts technology has manufactured thousands of gallons of oil and hundreds of tons of biomaterials that are tailored not only for biofuel production, but also as replacements for fossil petroleum and plant oils and compounds in a diverse range of products from oleochemicals to cosmetics and foods.

It somehow feels appropriate for the Navy to invest in algae.  However, I’m thrilled that the military is pushing such new technologies and funding their development.  First off, it is good for the alternative energy business.  Moreover, every soldier and citizen has a stake in this as the sooner we have viable alternative fuels the sooner we can stop fighting wars in the Middle East.  If Wikipedia is accurate, this is very exciting:

Among algal fuels’ attractive characteristics: they do not affect fresh water resources,[3] can be produced using ocean and wastewater, and are biodegradable and relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.[4][5][6] Algae cost more per unit mass yet can yield over 30 times more energy per unit area than other, second-generation biofuel crops.[citation needed] One biofuels company has claimed that algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two car garage than a football field of soybeans, because almost the entire algal organism can use sunlight to produce lipids, or oil.[7] The United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (40,000 km2).[8] This is less than 17 the area of corn harvested in the United States in 2000.[9][10]

The second story isn’t quit as exciting in terms of viability, but it definitely registers high on the weird scale.  A man in Nepal has created a solar panel that runs on human hair!  Apparently the melanin in hair is light sensitive and acts as a conductor.

He was originally inspired after reading a book by physicist Stephen Hawking, which discussed ways of creating static energy from hair.

‘I realised that Melanin was one of the factors in conversion of energy,’ he said.

Half a kilo of hair can be bought for only 16p in Nepal and lasts a few months, whereas a pack of batteries would cost 50p and last a few nights.

People can replace the hair easily themselves, says Milan, meaning his solar panels need little servicing.

On second thought, if it can save the Nepalese people scarce funds and resources, why the hell not?


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