March 07, 2022

Stop Buying Russian Oil; No-Fly Zone

Two huge decisions for this week.

Oil

There is already a bipartisan bill in Congress to cut off US oil imports from Russia. Apparently fearing that Americans will blame him for even higher gas prices, Biden is so far not supporting this effort. This is not a time to be partisan or political. Biden should support an immediate American ban on Russian oil, gas, and refined products. Republicans should refrain from blaming him for the even higher prices which may follow. On the other hand, if Biden doesn’t support defunding the Russians in this way, he will and should get all the blame both for a lack of support for Ukraine and the higher oil prices which are coming anyway. People might even remember that it was just a few months ago when he was urging Russia to sell more oil – and increase our dependency. BTW, it will be very good for the US if Congress finally does something hard and takes responsibility for the consequences.

Secretary of State Blinken says what we must consult with our allies about cutting off Russian fuel imports to the US. That’s nonsense. If we don’t bid against Europeans for that fuel and absorb some of the pain of higher world oil prices, we help Europeans who won’t be able to cut off imports as quickly. We unlike Europeans, also profit from higher hydrocarbon prices since we are an exporting nation – thanks to fracking.

We also must do everything we can to replace Russian fuel on the world market. Our own oil and gas production is running well below the peaks of a few years ago. American rigs are standing up and drilling again but our government must facilitate, not discourage, further production. Banks should not be discouraged from lending to fossil fuel producers. Pipelines like XL must be finished and opened in months. We need liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to serve the new import terminals Europe is finally committing to building. None of this needs a government subsidy; high energy prices will finance it all if we get out of our own way. Even though it may take months for new American oil to reach the market, Russia will not be able to get financing to ramp up or even keep up its own production if it is clear that we will bring energy prices back down again.

Europe would have an awful time without Russian oil and gas right now. Much easier for us to cut the Russians off than it is for them. However, Russia may not give them any choice. What then? We must be ready to support them in any way we can with essential fuel. Longer term, Europe must tap its own oil and gas supplies even if the word “fracking” is unpopular in any language.

No Fly Zone

This one is much harder. However, the reasons that the US and the UK are giving for not imposing a no-fly zone are dangerous even if true: “It might mean war between NATO and Russia”. How can Lithuanians and other small NATO members be sure we won’t say the same thing if Russia attacks them? The only possible justification is that Russia hasn’t directly attacked NATO yet, although Putin has called the new sanctions an act of war.

I’m not certain we should impose a no-fly zone now – or that we shouldn’t. Joe Manchin as quoted in The Hill is right, however:

“To take anything off the table thinking we might not be able to use things because we've already taken it off the table is wrong.

“I will take nothing off the table. But I would be very clear that we're going to support the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian president and this government every way humanly possible.”

Why should we give Putin the freedom of knowing what we are not going to do?

The United States

The reaction to the part of the State of the Union address about Ukraine was resoundingly non-partisan. It was delivered well; it was received well. NATO has come together surprisingly quickly and effectively. A very recent Reuters poll shows Americans overwhelmingly willing to accept temporarily higher energy prices and even in support of a no-fly zone.

Our unity will be preserved by effective action; it will be wasted by ineffectual or partisan dithering. Our unity and willingness to act, to learn from the example of the brave Ukrainians, may be the last, best chance to avoid a choice between nuclear war and surrender.

See also:

Opinion: How to beat Putin, for real (Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post)

Brave Ukraine Can Unite a Fractured US

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

March 01, 2022

Brave Ukraine Can Unite a Fractured US

But only if we can break the habit of tearing each other apart.

Nothing is as inspiring as the brave Ukrainians fighting against Putin’s brutal invasion. The TV cameras show the expected stream of refugees escaping – mostly women and children, then pan over to the Ukrainian men going back to save their country. Each morning I wake up and quickly check my phone to see if that flag still waves over Kyiv. Like most people I assumed that a Russian blitzkrieg would immediately succeed. I hardly dare to hope. But I do.

Amazingly NATO has come together. Germany nixed Nord Stream 2, made concrete plans including LNG terminals for energy independence from Russia, and began budgeting the 2% of its GDP which is supposed to go to NATO – and released weapons for Ukraine. The sanctions declared by NATO – and others like Japan and even Switzerland – really have teeth. Turkey has indicated it will exercise its treaty rights to prevent some Russian warships from entering the Black Sea. Finland and Sweden are considering joining NATO as it has become clear why NATO protection is needed.

In the US it seems that everyone from Bernie Sanders and The Squad on the left to Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney, and even Kevin McCarthy supports the need to support Ukraine. That’s a very broad spectrum. Yeah, Trump thinks Putin is a “genius”; but we already know Trump isn’t fit to hold public office. Yes, the extreme left (and some on the right) says the whole blow-up is our fault because we allowed countries escaping the Soviet Union to join the NATO defensive alliance See a damning critique of the idiocy of the Democratic Socialists of America at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/a-letter-to-the-western-left-from-kyiv/.

But bitterness in America runs so deep that even normally sensible people are preoccupied with throwing fellow Ukrainian supporters out of the tent for their real or imagined past sins. @billkristol tweeted “It’s worth remembering now, as so many Republicans pin ‘Stand with Ukraine’ images to their profiles, how little most of them cared when Trump withheld military assistance from the country in 2019 as he pressured Zelensky to do his political dirty work.” thebulwark.com/shame-on-those…” I don’t think he really means to say that anyone who failed to denounce Trump shouldn’t be allowed to support Ukraine. A lesson we all should have taken (Putin, too) from this episode is that Zelensky is no pushover for bullies.

Do we want to say that Bernie Sanders, after a lifetime of being an apologist for Russia and leftwing dictators, shouldn’t now be allowed to support Ukraine? Hell, no. Welcome to the tent, Bernie. Does Obama have to apologize for sending socks (or was it gloves?) to Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea before he’s allowed to support Biden on Ukraine? Nope. All support welcome.

Before WWII there were a significant number of Americans (including Lindberg) who were pro-Hitler and an uncomfortable number of Nazis as well. Before Hitler invaded Russia, American communists (including my parents) were against the US getting involved in that war. After Pearl Harbor there were rumors Roosevelt had deliberately ignored intelligence that the attack was coming so the American public would support the war after the day that has lived in infamy. The great and strong and broad middle of America came together in support of that war. We must come together now no matter what we were wrong about in the past. Putin is counting on our not being able to do that; sowing disunion is a specialty of his.  

Our unity might just prevent another world war.

See also:

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

February 25, 2022

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

Christophe-dion-3KA1M16PuoE-unsplash
Artillery of the Energy War


We in the west unilaterally disarmed when we shut down our nuclear plants, discouraged fracking for oil and gas, stopped building pipeline, and – in Europe, at least – outsourced fossil-fueled energy supply to Russia. Bloated on revenue from oil at over $90 barrel and with Europe literally over an energy barrel, Putin has unleashed real war. BTW, his war is not very good for the environment as well as being a calamity for the Ukrainian people and a clear threat to the rest of us.

This is a war we must win. The only hope for winning without actual fighting – and this may be a vain hope – is to take wartime measures to defang Russia by relieving European dependency on Russia’s gas and oil and crushing the price of those commodities. We can do this but not by pursuing business as usual.

Germany, despite initial reluctance, has ruled out opening the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to their country – at least for now. Biden has said that we will release oil our strategic oil reserve. Some of the proposed sanctions will make it more difficult for Russia to finance its energy industry. These are good first steps but not nearly enough.

Germany must postpone the closing of its last three nuclear plants; this closing is now scheduled for the end of the year. Anywhere in the west including the US any scheduled nuke shutdowns which can safely be postponed must be postponed. This is a good green move, by the way; the alternative is burning more very dirty coal to keep the grid operating.

Here in the US we must stop our civil war on fossil fuel extraction. Our fossil fuel competes on the world market with fossil fuel from Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – not with green energy. We can drill responsibly – and must. How much do you think Putin worries about fugitive methane emissions from Russian wells? We crashed the world price for oil just a few years ago (pre-pandemic), brought it down below $40/barrel. We can do that again. Our natural gas coming by tanker is now crucial to keeping Europe from having to choose between freezing and absolute surrender.

By NEXT winter we must make sure we can ship twice as much natural gas to Europe. Yeah, I said NEXT winter. That means we immediately permit and build new pipelines to new LNG terminals from areas of the US – like the Marcellus – which have an over-supply of trapped gas. It also means we build and commission new LNG tankers immediately. The tankers are the warships of the energy war. They can and must be built now.

Lng tankerNavy of the Energy War

We now need to finish and open blocked oil pipelines like Keystone XL. Remember, they are an alternative to a hot war and dirty Russian oil; they are not instead of renewables but in addition to them.

Speaking of renewables, we need to rebuild our grid to carry renewable and non-renewable energy around the country and allow us to further electrify and take some of the pressure off fossil fuels. It is possible that some sub-species of chipmunks will have their habitat disturbed. Can you imagine the environmental impact statement for Putin’s war?

Europe can’t leave all the fracking to us. Tapping their own gas fields is now clearly necessary.

Longer term the US and Europe and Japan and Australia must license several standard models of small, safe nuclear plants and actually build them. We should set a moon-shot target of having the first new nuclear plant in decades online in the next two years. We must achieve this target. We also must finally open the nuclear waste facility in Yucca Flats. Two years doesn’t solve the immediate problem of Russian energy blackmail, but it reduces Russian energy prospects and financing available for them to continue to build out their oil and gas industry. Putin has left the Russian economy almost entirely dependent on oil and gas revenue. The Russian people must be shown that that dependency will lead in short order to financial ruin.

What we must not do is trade allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon for some short-term relief by having Iranian oil as a substitute for Russian supply. We don’t want to put both the energy weapons and nuclear weapons in more aggressive hands. We can and should tell Saudi Arabia to drop out of the oil cartel with Russia and start pumping if they expect any further help with Houthi rebels or Iran itself.

Human energy is required as well to win the energy war. This is an effort like building during WWII. Factories must retool; retraining must happen. It’s time to shake off the Covid fear and lethargy and get back to work. No sitting back and watching it play out on TV and twitter.

We handicapped ourselves with a premature retreat from nuclear energy and fossil fuels. The world is in immediate danger. Just as we did after the disaster of Pearl Harbor, we can emerge from weakness stronger than ever.

Can’t we?

This morning (2/25/22) at 11AM ET I’ll be on  WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre discussing Russia’s brutal invasion of the Ukraine. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.

See also:

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

A Moment of Clarity by #noahpinion

How to Beat Putin with Natural Gas by Kenneth C. Griffin and Niall Ferguson

February 23, 2022

Starlink’s zoomready Rating Is Going Down

The service is usable for teleconferencing but has annoying glitches. Lately quality seems to be deteriorating, at least here in central Vermont.

Zr2-16-22
zoomready is open-source shareware I wrote to measure the suitability of an internet connection for teleconferencing. As you can see above, Starlink had an average zoomready rating of 2.66 out of a possible 3.0 over the four measured days. The problem is NOT bandwidth, which has fluctuated but stayed above the minimums needed for good teleconferencing. The problems are failures (most of them short), latency, and jitter. Too often it takes too long for a packet to get from my machine to the internet and back (latency); the latency varies widely (jitter). Together subpar latency and jitter make for momentary freezes and poor audio during teleconferencing.

I am now fortunate in having both a Starlink dish and a fiber connection through Stowe Cable. I’ve stuck with Starlink on my machine; but Mary is connected through fiber. Note below how much better the results are when running zoomready  on her machine during an overlapping period of time.

Zrsc

There were no failures during the ten days we were monitoring and only a brief period when jitter and latency were subpar, so brief that the average zoomreadiness was 3.0 both for the last hour and for the whole monitoring period.

I’m disappointed in these results. Starlink has improved since I first installed it over a year ago but lately it seems to be getting worse here in central Vermont. This decline in service levels may be caused by more users sharing the service; it is still way, way better than traditional satellite which can’t be used for teleconferencing at all and better than most DSL. It can be used for teleconferencing – I use it that way; but there is a definite quality difference from fiber. The service may improve as more satellites are launched with satellite-to-satellite laser and other technical improvements are made.

In some rural areas the latest promises are that fiber is still five years out. Starlink, once you clear the waiting list, is an alternative today. Unless Starlink improves; its users will be at a substantial disadvantage as the teleconferencing environments of the future require both more bandwidth and lower latency.

If you run Windows and want to monitor the quality of your Internet connection, you can learn more about zoomready and download it free at http://freecheckip.com. It has no ads, does not use cookies, and doesn’t spy on you in any way.

See also:

Freecheckip.com – My New Website

When Zoom Freezes Over – Free Way to Find Out Why

https://blog.tomevslin.com/starlink/

February 15, 2022

Subsidizing Electric Cars Might Even Hurt the Environment

Electricity is NOT an energy source; it’s just a way to move energy from place to place! Obviously, before electricity can move a car, the electricity must be generated somehow.

Electricity sourcesAccording to the US Energy Administration Agency, in 2020 40% of US electricity was produced by burning natural gas, 19% from coal, 20% from nuclear, 13% from wind and solar,  7% from hydro, and 1% from petroleum. When we plug in our electric cars, we create a new demand. In the short-term, that new demand will almost always be met by burning more natural gas since you can’t tell the sun to shine brighter or the wind to blow harder. Coal and nuke plants don’t spool up quickly and there is only so much water available behind the dam. In practice electric cars are natural gas cars except not quite as efficient because of electrical transmission losses.

“Yeah, but…” say the proponents of subsidies for electric cars, “more solar and wind is being built so eventually those cars will be running on renewable energy.” Trouble is that by the time we get to eventually, this generation of electric cars and their lithium batteries will be somewhere in the waste stream. “Yeah, but…”, say the subsidy proponents, “at least 20% of the energy for these cars is coming from renewables.” But a new electric car doesn’t create a greater supply of renewable energy. If it happens to use electrons which came from a solar panel, something else won’t be able to use those electrons and they will almost certainly be replaced by more electricity generated from natural gas.

We electric ratepayers and taxpayers subsidize not only electric cars but also the generation of electricity from solar and wind. In order for an electric car to reduce emissions, we have to subsidize enough renewable energy to power the car. That means that the cost of using electric cars to reduce emissions is much higher than even the outrageous subsidies they already receive.  Looked at another way, these cars don’t reduce emissions at all because any renewable energy they use must be replaced by non-renewable energy. It’s double counting to add the emissions saved by replacing gasoline cars to the emissions saved by generating more renewable energy if that new energy is going into the cars. Yet subsides for electric cars remain one of the most popular proposals for reducing greenhouse gasses. They have long been part of Vermont’s plans for reducing greenhouse gasses.

I have both solar panels and a plug-in hybrid. I received subsidies for both; but I’m only reducing emissions once. If my “clean” electricity goes to power my car, then I’m not reducing the overall load on the grid. If my solar-generated electricity goes into the grid, then my car is running on non-solar electricity. Neither subsidy actually influenced my decision, which may be the case with many early adopters.

Electric cars are going to happen even without subsidies. From an engineering point of view the development of electronic controls means that electric cars increasingly have capabilities that combustion engines can’t match. There will be very little fossil fuel used to generate electricity if we regain our sanity with respect to nuclear energy. If we really build back better, we’ll also have an electric grid which is safely decentralized, efficient, and hardened so that we can afford to rely on it for much of our energy needs.

Our security and the grid will be endangered if electric car adoption outstrips the energy available to power them and the ability of the grid to transport that energy. We want to prepare for more electric cars by building a better grid and adding new supply including nuclear. But we don’t want to subsidize electric cars or force their premature adoption.

See also:

Undeserved (and Useless) Rebates I Got

February 09, 2022

Freecheckip.com – My New Website

Even free stuff needs to be sold or it won’t be used; that’s why freecheckip.com.

In retirement I can’t seem to stop programming. I have been doing it for 60 years; it put our kids through college and software has been an important component of the companies Mary and I started. These days I write open source shareware: code any one is free to use, modify, or include in their own products. Most of what I write is to help people monitor and hopefully improve their IP connection. We’ve all seen how important a good IP connection is during the just-ending (I hope) pandemic and good connections are a particular problem out here in the sticks.

Zr.1.10

zoomready monitoring starlink connection

zoomready, pictured above, is my most ambitious project so far and is one of the tools available at freecheckip.com. It can be used to continuously monitor the status of any IP connection. There are also some nerd tools for doing speed checks from Python (a cool programming language) and clients I collaborated on to report the status of Starlink connections around the world to starlinkstatus.space, a very helpful website shown below.

Starlinkstatuspage

map of North American starlink status

Some background on open source shareware

As nerds already know, there a huge amount of code in every programming language under the sun available on the web to learn from, to copy, or to us as the basis of new projects. Some people contribute because they believe all software should be free and are practicing what they preach. Others know they benefit in their own work by being able to build on what their predecessors  have done and feel a need to give back . Some (like me) just like to see their code used. Also, I’ve just found out, there is also a good business reason to write shareware; it’s an advertisement for what you can do. I am getting requests for paid custom versions of what I’m giving away. If I were still running a software company, I’m sure I’d be encouraging our programmers to post lots of shareware.

The open source part, the fact that you can actually see the code the programmer wrote, is important. For one thing, I’d be reluctant to just install something from somebody I don’t know on my computer unless I at least had an opportunity to look inside and see what it actually does. If I were thinking of hiring shareware writers, I’d certainly look at the quality of the code they write. Making the source code public also make it much, much easier for people to build on what you’ve done and to help you find your bugs.

Please take a look at freecheckip.com and see if there’s something there that might be useful to you. I am very grateful to all those whose open source I’ve built on and learned from: thank you.

See also:

Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location

How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House

February 01, 2022

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

Drill, baby drill is a peaceful (and environmentally sound) response.

The threat to peace

At over $80/barrel for oil, Russia and Iran are awash in profits; today’s price is $88. They can afford guns and butter. We see the results on the borders of Ukraine and in increased attacks by Houthi rebels on the UAE. At $40/barrel, both countries have all they can do to stifle internal rebellion against autocracy, kleptocracy, and general mismanagement.

Responding to Russian aggression in concert with NATO is difficult because Europe obtains 40% of its natural gas from Russia. This heating season began there with low supplies because more than a usual amount of gas had been burned to supplement unusually low yield from wind and solar used to generate electricity. Russia has refused to sell enough additional gas to Europe to refill the reserves, which keeps Europe particularly vulnerable to any threat from Russia to reduce the flow and does not leave Europe in a position to reduce Russian import revenue. Our European allies have asked the US to help them find more gas; but we are limited both by self-imposed restrictions on our supply and the prior refusal by some counties – especially Germany and France – to allow LNG import facilities to be built.

Germany made itself particularly vulnerable when Andrea Merkle over-reacted to Fukushima with a hasty shutdown of Germany’s nuclear capacity for generating electricity.  Realizing that this created a need for natural gas, Germany contracted with Russia for supplies through a new gas line between the two countries, Nord Stream 2. Significantly Nord Stream 2 bypasses Ukraine through which much Russian gas reaches Europe today. The US has opposed Nord Stream 2 for security reasons, but Biden backed off on opposition early in his term in a bid to improve German-American relations. The pipeline is essentially finished but Germany has not yet given final approval for its operation. Meanwhile, Germany has had to increase coal use and is suffering from soaring electric rates because of high natural gas prices.

The threat to the environment

The incoming Biden administration has moved quickly to make oil and natural gas more expensive by canceling pipelines and refusing to issue drilling permits. As higher oil prices showed up at the pump, Biden was in the ridiculous situation of begging OPEC and Russia to increase production. His intent was to save the environment by reducing the use of fossil fuels. The affect was simply to increase production and the profitability of production is places like Russia, where there are no effective environmental restrictions on dirty drilling and leaky pipes while reducing production here where we can enforce good practices.

With natural gas prices up and supply down, Europe has been burning more coal. Coal emits at least 50% more CO2 per unit of energy than oil and 100% more than natural gas. Far from saving the environment, actions taken to reduce US production have INCREASED greenhouse gas emissions and strengthened our adversaries.

So now what do we do?

Franky the US hasn’t had a good record of carrying through on its threats nor of convincing Europe to take strong joint action.  It’s unlikely that threats of any kind, especially threats of yet more economic sanctions, will deter Putin as long as he has the upper hand. We should take the steps below now – regardless of what Putin does – to reduce the advantage that high energy prices and tight supplies give Russia (and Iran).

  1. Drive oil prices and Russian oil revenue down immediately by increasing sales from the US strategic oil reserve. We needed those reserves when OPEC could cut us off; they can’t do that anymore. There is enough petroleum in the reserve to add 10% per day to the amount we are producing for almost two years. It won’t take that long to bring oil prices down.
  2. Don’t get in the way of increased US production of oil and gas. Fortunately, we have a private sector which has already responded to high oil and gas prices by increasing production. We have demonstrated that we are the world’s swing producer; we can make oil and gas prices crash. We should do so.
  3. Don’t let the major US oil and gas producers push regulation which shuts down their smaller competitors. Left to themselves, the majors are just fine with high oil prices because their value is the value of the wells and reserves they already own. It takes aggressive small producers to keep them honest.
  4. Do, however, regulate fugitive gas emissions from oil well drilling and gas pipelines. Use infrastructure money to rebuild leaky municipal gas systems; someday those pipes will carry clean hydrogen.
  5. Continue building pipelines to ocean ports so American energy can reach the world market and drive world fuel prices down again. Remember that most of this fuel will replace other fossil fuel from places which are not nearly as scrupulous environmentally as we can be.
  6. Tell our European allies that we have their back for long-term gas supplies and that we support their new emphasis on nuclear power to reduce the need for fossil fuels – and drive energy prices down. But tell Germany that they can’t have it both ways. No Nord Stream 2 if we are their supplier of last resort.

All the above will be much more effective than sanctions-as-usual. And will protect the environment from coal and dirty drilling as well.

 

January 24, 2022

Building Affordable Housing is NOT a Good Way to Get More Affordable Housing

We don’t build used cars.

Was you first car a new one? Not unless you were very lucky. Mine was a ‘55 Chevvy bought in ’64 to get to my summer job. Its headlights were held on by duct tape. Did you leave your parent’s home for a brand-new house or freshly built apartment? Probably not. I moved into an aging “efficiency” with a hot plate for a stove; but it was better than living with my parents and close to my job.

In 1955 my car was new and someone bought it who could afford it. They or some successor sold it me as they stepped up into a new, new car. My dreary efficiency apartment was carved out of a larger apartment in a building which must once have been new. Somebody moved out of it and that made room for me to move in.

Vermont has two housing problems:

1) a homeless population, some of whom can’t afford to live anywhere (and some suffering from other problems which make them unable to care for themselves);

2) a lack of housing which health and day care workers, construction, and trade people – the people we depend on – can afford to live in.

There is a flood of federal money (debt we’ll have to pay some day as federal taxpayers). Both Governor Scott and the legislature want to spend a lot of that money on our housing problems. As much as homelessness is an acute problem and a misery for too many people, building low-income housing will not solve either housing problem. However, we can use relatively little money and a lot of flexibility to both create housing for the workers we want to attract and retain and to provide affordable housing for some of those now on the street.

New housing is not affordable to the homeless any more than a new car was affordable to me when I began to work. A work-around has been to subsidize either the cost of building the housing and/or to provide subsidies to low-income tenants in new buildings. Either way, we can only provide low-income housing until the subsides run out. Moreover, there is almost always local resistance to low-income housing from those who fear that its proximity will drive down the value of their own houses and perhaps make their neighborhood less safe as well. The low-income housing either doesn’t get built or is even more expensive requiring larger subsidies because of the long delay.

Suppose that we make it possible for more “market-rate” housing to be built, housing which people can afford to rent or buy without subsidy. Some of that housing will go to newcomers to Vermont (whom we need); the rest will go to working Vermonters who will move up from where they used to live and leave vacancies behind. In a phenomenon called “chaining”, other people will move up into the older housing which is now vacant and someone else with less money or less needs will move up to fill those vacancies. Eventually (two or three years according to some studies) the least expensive houses and apartments which were left behind become affordable to those who currently can’t afford any place at all. These vacancies – the used cars of the housing market – are in existing neighborhoods, not clustered in subsidized ghettos. No local opposition can stop them from being built because they are already there. It’s in the interest of neighborhoods NOT to have vacancies.

If we enable market-rate housing to be built with private money, the increase in available low-income housing is no longer tied to the subsidies available to build or rent it. Since there is high demand for housing in Vermont, housing will get build with private dollars in Vermont and that new housing will benefit both working Vermonters and the homeless.

So why isn’t private housing – other than McMansions – being built to meet the demand? The simple answers are exclusionary zoning and over-regulation. Many Vermont towns require large lots – 10 or even 25 acres – per house. (I live in such a zone in Stowe). Act 250 makes it much more expensive regulatorily to build a cluster of homes than to build a few very expensive houses on large lots. We subsidize leaving unproductive land in farming rather than let any of it spoil the view by having houses on it. Vermont villages often forbid buildings more than two stories high downtown. Other areas are zoned single family, no sharing allowed. The rich protect their view without the inconvenience of buying adjoining property and working families aren’t allowed to build. We are pro-housing in theory but anti-development in practice. New middle-income housing has nowhere to go.

As described in VT Digger, Fairlee, VT is making innovative changes to its zoning both to provide for growth and to preserve open spaces. Buildings in downtown will be allowed to grow to three stories, which makes an enormous difference in rental economics – two stories above the shops and restaurants instead of one. Holders of large woodlots will be able sell development rights to those with smaller lots. Income from those sales makes it more economical to keep the trees growing while the purchasers of the development rights will be able to build more densely on small lots.

Burlington is also looking at how to make more space available for housing development. According to VT Digger:

“Some of those zoning changes would put a large swath of the South End under mixed-use zoning guidelines, meaning it could be developed for apartments and houses. As part of Thursday’s announcement, the city released an agreement with neighborhood stakeholders endorsing the concept of an ‘Enterprise-Innovation District’ that would transform empty spaces and parking lots into housing.”

Even though we have a tsunami of federal dollars available, we won’t solve Vermont’s two housing problems by building subsidized housing. We don’t want to build used cars. We do want to allow (not subsidize) the building of market-rate residences in order to make housing available up and down the income spectrum. We can’t be both pro-housing and anti-development.

See also:  Failing Dairy Farms Are an Opportunity to Grow Back Better

January 18, 2022

Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

That means converting to direct current.

There’s no argument that our electric grid needs to be rebuilt. Some of it, like the transmission lines that sparked the California fires, is dangerously past its use by date. Much of it, like the lines radiating out from the site of the former Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, are in the wrong place. The design is centralized as a relic of the days before advanced electronics and communications made decentralization a more resilient and cheaper option. Almost all of it carries alternating current (AC) as result of an argument Nicholas Tesla won over Thomas Edison a century ago. Most important, the grid is not ready for the loads we will put on it as we continue to electrify. It is also not reliable enough to be the sole source of energy for transportation and heating.

Times have changed. All the electronics in our houses use direct (DC) and not alternating current; that’s why they are plugged into our AC outlets through the ubiquitous converter bricks. Almost all energy efficient appliances use direct drive motors and convert AC to DC internally. LED light bulbs are better with DC. Water heaters don’t care.

ACDC

The illustration above is from a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) The report estimates that at least 10% of the energy coming into a house is lost in conversion from AC to DC. The number is much higher if a storage battery or an electric car is also being charged. The number gets higher each time a rechargeable tool replaces a gasoline-powered predecessor.

All solar panels generate direct current. All batteries are charged with direct current. But, if you have solar panels and battery backup today, the output from the solar panels is converted to AC by an expensive piece of equipment and at a significant energy loss; then, at the battery, the AC is converted back to the DC the battery needs by another expensive piece of equipment and more energy is squandered. These inefficient systems exist today because the transition from AC to DC had been unplanned; that’s no one’s fault.

But now we have a chance to build back better with the money already appropriated in the 1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Fortunately we have time. The last great stimulus bill in the Obama administration was a jobs bill. We had to put people to work right now right now even though we didn’t have constructive “shovel ready” jobs for them. Unemployment was very high. That was then and this is now. We have a shortage of people to do what we were doing before the pandemic. We can plan and design and then really build back better while we’re training the workforce we’ll need.

These are some of the rules we need:

  1. Any new transmission line and any line which is substantially rebuilt with the federal money must be DC. There will be a transitional cost of equipment to convert to AC where local sub-transmission or distribution is still AC. Think of these convertors as scaffolding for building back better. After all grids are DC, we won’t need them anymore.
  2. Any new distribution line and any distribution which is substantially redone with the federal money must be DC. Again there is a transition cost to convert to AC at houses which still need that.
  3. Building codes should be amended (a local and state job) to permit and encourage DC and hybrid houses as in the diagram below (also from ACEEE).

Hybrid

Once the distribution system is switched to DC, the inverter at the entrance to the house is no longer needed.

  1. After a transition period no grant money or subsidy of any kind should go to equipment for converting from DC to AC as part of solar or wind turbine installations or from AC to DC for battery installations.
  2. Give consideration to going underground for new and rebuilt parts of the grids for reliability reasons (and to prevent forest fires). There are less problems in burying DC lines than AC lines.
  3. Take advantage of the rebuilding of highways to bury electrical (and broadband) conduits as well as drainage.

America and Americans will have a huge advantage if we are the first major country to go all DC. Our energy costs will be lower as will emissions from generating electricity. Electricity will be more economical and reliable enough to replace much fossil fuel. The money’s already been appropriated.  We can build back BETTER.

January 13, 2022

Vermont Can Exceed 2025 Carbon Reduction Goal Just by Planting Trees

Why would the legislature consider anything else?

The facts

 “There are up to 536,000 acres of opportunity in Vermont to restore forest cover for climate mitigation. Reforesting these areas with approximately 291 million trees could capture 1.65 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to removing 355,000 cars from the road.” [sic. The funny spelling mean that these are metric tons – 1000Kg each]. This quote is from Reforestation Hub, a website run by the Nature Conservancy.

At most we have to reduce 1.28 million tons  to meet the 2025 goal in the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) passed by the Vermont legislature over Gov. Scott’s veto last year. Vermont is required to reduce Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the equivalent of 7.38 metric tons by 2025. The  Greenhouses Gas Emissions Inventory from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation  says that we were at 8.66 metric tons in 2017 (last year with hard data) and declining. In other words, we only must plant 77% of the acres identified by Reforestation Hub to get there.

Vermont dairy farmers own most of this land. 427,000 acres are identified as pasture; but it looks from the maps like this includes hay and cornfields used to grow feed for cattle. Their businesses are suffering from over-capacity and the poor economics of producing liquid milk in Vermont as opposed to the Midwest.

According to Vermont Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, the State of Vermont spent $285 million between 2010 and 2019 on programs to support dairy farming. During that period the number of dairy farms declined from 1015 to 636. Some of the decline is due to consolidation but most is simply farms going out of business. Moreover dairy farming is the most significant source of phosphorous runoff damaging our lakes and costing a small fortune to clean up. Farmers point out that they cannot afford the changes in farming practices necessary to prevent the runoff.

Buying land and reforesting it is often the most cost-effective way to reduce GHG emissions when measured on a tons of reduction per dollar basis. The 2018 UN IPCC Report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of CO2 removed from the atmosphere compared both to other ways of removing CO2 and to strategies for reducing emissions. We get four times as much annual reduction per dollar spent on trees than per dollar spent on solar panels (details here) even if we assume a high cost of $4000/acre for acquisition, remediation, and planting. Both heat pumps and subsidies for electric cars are much more expensive paths to GHG reduction than reforestation (details here).

What is the legislature likely to do?

The Climate Council, a group created by GWSA, has presented a set of proposals to the legislature.  Almost all the proposals are for reducing emissions in the usual expensive ways: solar panels, subsidies for heat pumps and electric cars (a particularly inequitable way to distribute money), joining a non-existent multi-state compact to impose a carbon tax and various ways of raising the cost of fossil fuel to Vermonters. The report does, to its credit, have a small section on reforestation but only tiptoes, literally, around the edge of the potential of reforestation by recommending more trees around the edge of fields. The Council recognizes that diary cows are a significant source of GHG themselves as well as other pollution and recommends various expensive ways to reduce methane emissions per cow; but doesn’t suggest simply buying-out uneconomic herds.

The legislature will allocate as much money as it can to various emission-reduction subsidies because their focus is on reducing emissions rather than on reducing the GHG in the atmosphere. When they run out of money – that’ll take a while because there is a lot of federal money available, they will shift costs to consumers with various mandates and indirect penalties for fossil fuel use. They will continue to listen to the army of lobbyists from the renewable-industrial complex. Some of what they plan will vetoed by Governor Scott; but his vetoes may be overridden and/or he will be forced to accept some unwise expenditures in order to keep the overall cost to Vermonters down.

There still won’t be enough money to meet the 2025 goal; but the GWSA has an ugly provision which allows anyone to sue the government if goals aren’t met. No telling what mischief and end runs on democracy this will allow unless it’s judged unconstitutional (which it may well be) or repealed.

What should the legislature do?

  1. Recognize that removing a ton of GHG is just as valuable to the environment as avoiding a ton of emissions. Most states recognize that but Vermont doesn’t.
  2. Realize that the decline of dairy farming is an opportunity for reforestation and that buying out failing farms is a farmer-friendly thing to do.
  3. Compare each proposed reduction strategy to the alternative of reforestation purely on the basis of how many tons of GHG will be reduced per dollar spent.
  4. Spend first on the most-effective strategy – which will usually be reforestation in the next five years.
  5. Allocate money that would have gone to ineffectual farm bailouts and less-effective ways to reduce lake pollution to farm buyouts and forestation.

We will best meet our environmental goals by good use of Vermont land. Reforestation Hub shows the size of the opportunity. It’s time to change crops, as Vermont has often done in the past, and turn some farms to forests.

See also:

Failing Dairy Farms Are an Opportunity to Grow Back Better

Trees v. Solar Panels

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

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