Archive | September 2015

Will clean diesels survive the VW scandal?

Several years ago, I blogged about so-called “clean” diesels. I concluded that they were cleaner than previous diesels, but even so emitted too many fine particles. Though HVO seems fairly safe, other bio-based diesel fuel often emits too much nitric oxide. In short, the simple and reliable diesel engine has to be made much more complicated to meet emission standards.

As an alternative to building gasoline-electric hybrids, German automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen embraced that complexity, and some of their diesel models even won green vehicle awards. In addition to German diesels, American drivers can usually buy diesel versions of full size pickup trucks, Chevrolet and Jeep offer diesel passenger vehicles, and Mazda was thinking about bringing their SkyActiv diesels to the US.

But it has now been revealed that Volkswagen installed what is called a defeat device in their software that would make their diesel engines run cleaner during an emissions test, but then allow them to run dirtier and cheaper at all other times. In what has to be a criminal conspiracy, VW group is now exposed to tens of billions of dollars of penalties and their stock has plummeted. Current owners of VW and some Audi TDI diesels back to 2009 are facing recalls and sales of 2015 and 2016 models are on hold. Other manufacturers will face increased scrutiny.

Even though I have come to see the widespread use of automobiles as an environmental hazard, I’ve generally been a fan of German car design, so this rankles me more than the GM or Toyota design failures.

Now stepping back, can we believe that burning fossil fuels in cars or smokestacks can really be made clean?


Later in life, newsman Edwin Newman wrote Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, which were largely about straightforward language but also delved into news tropes. I didn’t know much about Newman, but I loved those books. In the first, he complained that news anchors tended to repeat certain phrases long after they had lost their original punch. Referring to how newsmen handled Salvator Allende, he wrote:

“You would have thought Marxist President was the position Allende had run for and been elected to, …”

One of those TV news tropes was the Strongman. On the evening news, Manuel Noriega was always, “Panamanian Strongman” Manuel Noriega.

“So what is to become of Panamanian Strongman? He could go the way of Right-Wing Laotian Strongman Phoumi Nosavan, who turned out to be Right-Wing Laotian Weakman Phoumi Nosavan.”

We like to laugh at these small countries with their tinpot dictators, but I think we have one running for US President right now. People are so discouraged by the failures of career politicians to change anything, that Donald Trump appears to me more and more like a strongman-in-the-making. In the near future some BBC anchor may be speaking weightily about American Strongman Donald J Trump – the J to distinguish him from that other Donald Trump. (US news will be required to refer to him as, “our great and humble leader.”)

How strong? Well, I have already heard or read many people comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler (which violates Godwin’s Law), but I don’t think Trump is nearly as psychotic as der Fuhrer – just arrogant and self-centered. I do think he could be another Benito Mussolini, who would probably have been an unremarkable strongman if not for his alliance with Nazi Germany.

(Update 20151210: Josh Marshall compares Trump to Mussolini at TPM)

All of that depends on whether Trump can get the support of the oligarchy. Strongmen need strong backers. So far Trump may have scared off hedge fund managers, anyone that depends on cheap immigrant labor, and the military-industrial war machine, but there are other oligarchs that may be willing to see him in the White House.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, will never be a strongman, nor will Uncle Joe Biden. If Hillary Clinton gets in they might have to come up with a new trope (StrongWoman? IronWoman?), but she’s doing so badly right now that I’m not too worried about it.


As I’ve blogged before, one of the old Lil Abner strips featured plans for a car that ran directly off of smog, which was Al Capp’s excuse to draw nervous fat cat oil executives. That was fiction. In 2008, the New York Times reported that two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory had a plan, Green Freedom, to remove smog from the air and turn it into fuel. Their plan was all based on existing technology, but was a net energy loser requiring a huge factory powered by a dedicated nuclear powerplant to be remotely feasible. That might as well have been fiction.

Now, Tailpipe to Tank, a feature article in Science Magazine reports on a solar reactor that could use the energy in sunlight to change carbon dioxide and water into hydrogen and carbon monoxide – which can be the basis for liquid hydrocarbon fuels, which they call, Sungas.

It is only one of the solar fuel technologies taking shape in labs around the world. They embody a dream: the prospect of one day bypassing fossil fuels and generating our transportation fuels from sunlight, air, and water—and in the process ridding the atmosphere of some of the CO2 that our fossil fuel addiction has dumped into it.

These schemes are no threat to the oil industry yet. In Licht’s device, parts of the reactor run at temperatures approaching 1000°C, high enough to require specialized materials to hold the components. Other researchers are pursuing an alternative approach, developing catalysts that could carry out the same chemical reactions at or near room temperature, using electricity from sunlight or other renewables to power the chemical knitting process.

Sungas would be costly, too, one favorable estimate being $2.61 per gallon – a penny more per gallon than predicted for the Los Alamos scheme. The low temperature reaction works best with gold as the catalyst, but less expensive materials could be made to work. The current challenge is that with low demand, crude oil has dropped to about $50 per barrel, so alternative fuels – even from tar sands – just cost too much to justify seed money.

Optimists in the science community believe that society will always need liquid fuels no matter the price. At Science Blogs, Greg Laden writes:

This and other methods of making a sun, water, and air based liquid fuel would at least initially be expensive. But who cares? If we convert most of our energy to motion machinery to electric, we won’t need that much, and the remaining uses will be relatively specialized. So what if a hospital has to pay $10.00 a gallon to have a thousand gallons of fuel for use as a backup source of energy to run generators during emergencies? That would be a tiny fraction of the cost of running a hospital. A tiny fraction of a fraction.

But it remains to be seen whether electric vehicles will prosper without massive government subsidies, and without motion vehicles, there may not be a sophisticated enough culture to produce and need expensive liquid fuels.

Update 20150918: At the Scienceblogs link above, in the comments, Laden makes the truly stunning argument that EROI – energy return on investment – is, “a red herring and not of much interest.” In a later comment:

In principle it is of interest. There are two or three problems

One is that in so many cases, especially when it comes to clean alternatives that are not even in production, the number is pretty much irrelevant to what would actually happen if we went into production.

Another problem is that it is just about energy and ignores other costs and benefits. These are often far more important.

Another (when comparing across totally different energy source types, as was bandied about above) is that if I need a liquid and you’re talking to me about the difference between a solid and a liquid, I don’t need to know that. I needed the liquid.

Similarly, there are simply certain pathways that we want to use no matter what. I might want to have no imports of petroleum into a region where there is nothing native. Comparing petroleum to non petroleum sources would be irrelevant. There may be something about storage under specific conditions that matters a lot more to me than EROI.

The real problem is the fetishizing of EROI. If something has a bad EROI then it has to dance backwards and in high heels, even if it is really a preferred energy source for a gazillion other reasons.

It is like Godwin’s law. Eventually the conversation will go off track because of EROI even if it shouldn’t.

So it is of interest, but of interest does not equal “the main thing.”

Biking in the Time of Collapse

Back in 1979 or so, I was shopping for a road bike. I spent a lot of time making up my mind before settling on a Puch Brigadier, and the bike store owner was glad to see it. He said, “With these gas prices rising, I see a lot of guys rushing in here, and all they know is that they want a good bike.”

Over at The Archdruid Report, the catabolic collapse exponent John Michael Greer is serially writing and posting another didactic story to illustrate one possible future scenario for parts of North America. Greer already wrote one speculative view of the future online: Star’s Reach, a novel which I followed online, and which is now available in book form. He has also solicited and published speculative short stories by his readers, which are available in collections After Oil 1, 2 and 3. I read some of the stories submitted for After Oil, and am following Lifeline, another online story by one of the authors.

Two chapters into Retrotopia, as our main character, named Carr, rides a train through one of the regional nations that have replaced the US, he sees a few automobiles, but mostly people walking or taking public transit. Lifeline, on the other hand, features some surprisingly fast electric bikes that get the characters into and out of trouble. I hadn’t actually thought about the absence of bikes in Retrotopia, but several readers wondered in the comments why Mr Carr hadn’t seen anyone riding bicycles. Greer responded that bike advocates make him grumpy:

[[[… have you ever noticed that when I describe any kind of green future, nobody asks that about any other technology? It’s just the bicyclists who are guaranteed to post, asking, “Where are the bikes?” I sometimes wonder if bicyclists are insecure or something.]]]

Actually a lot of TADR commenters ask about maintaining various electrical appliances and the internet, too. Those comments also rankle Mr Greer.

[[[… in my experience bicycles appeal powerfully to a minority of adults and not so much to the rest of us. I don’t doubt there are bikes wheeling down the roads in at least some parts of the Lakeland Republic, but the incessant attempts by bikophile readers to insist that bicycles ought to be all over all my imagined futures have made me a bit grumpy on the subject. Do you recall the people who insisted that I absolutely, positively had to put bicycles into Star’s Reach?

… when we still lived in Seattle, my wife worked in a neighborhood through which a lot of bicyclists rode. She was constantly being harassed and, in no small number of cases, almost struck by bicyclists who were infuriated that she would cross at the crosswalk, with the light, when they wanted to blow on through. I had similar experiences, …]]]

So. Are post-collapse bicycles simply a convenient plot device like the transporters in Star Trek? Greer, of course, is entitled to arrange his future any way he wants, but there have been a lot of sweeping statements from both pro and anti-bike camps that bear examination.

Many in the collapse community seem to feel that the spandex-clad, recreational riders are arrogant today, and will be toast in the future, but I suspect it will be more complicated. It may happen that sports car and road bike enthusiasts will endure in wealthy enclaves, while in other areas it will be too dangerous to travel without an armed escort, whether by car, bike or foot. It is already risky to ride alone in some parts of Baltimore, and it may well occur that bikes fall out of favor during a period of insurrection. On the other hand, bikes are often tools of insurrection.

Some claim that bikes will disappear once roads are no longer maintained. I can see that rougher roads will be hard on narrow-tire road bikes, but before mountain bikes were that common, my brothers and I rode three-speed Raleighs and single-speed, banana-seat bikes on the dirt sidepaths of the C&O canal. There are fat-tire bikes that will handle very rough terrain, if you can keep them in replacement parts. Others feel that rubber or machined metal parts will no longer be available. That may be true, but in Retrotopia, there seem to be parts for diesel trains and some cars. Still others feel that wooden bikes could fill the void.

One reasonably-stated objection to future bikes is that people living in diminished situations will simply not have the time or inclination to travel very far. Maybe, but looking at third world countries, bikes are very much in evidence. It may be that people in reduced circumstance have to travel into and out of the enclaves of the wealthy. It may happen that climate changes make seasonal travel a necessity.

We won’t know for sure until we get there.