I made this lariat. Awesome.
The Kinect dance-off
Patrick and his awesome godmother
Scrabble champions
Wind turbines outside Sweetwater, Texas; photo by Lori Greig via Flickr
I was startled by this article from Matt Ridley in The Spectator (UK), which argues that wind farms are obsolete and renewables are totally overrated because the world is full of plentiful, cheap, and clean natural gas. It’s been years since I’ve heard anyone in the United States make such a broad argument against wind power or such a boosterish one on behalf of natural gas, except for a handful of people in the oil and gas industry, but even then, they’re usually ecumenical about the portfolio. At the risk of boring American readers, let me offer a few thoughts.

Ridley's premise is that in recent years we have discovered vast new reserves of natural gas and developed technologies that will allow us to access them. Some of these reserves are even in Britain, a country that has increasingly relied on energy imports. In September, for example, a small outfit operating near Blackpool announced that it had discovered a shale play that could have 200 trillion cubic of natural gas—enough to meet Britain’s natural gas needs for the next 64 years, assuming constant demand. Given that natural gas is cheap, relatively clean, and more plentiful, apparently, than we thought, Ridley concludes that the government should stop its subsidies to “green” energy, which is still more expensive than gas, and, in his interpretation, actually less clean.

I agree with parts of this. Natural gas is certainly an important part of the energy portfolio, and the expansion of the extractable supply will profoundly impact the global energy markets. Yesterday, for example, Cheniere Energy and BG Group announced a deal that will see the United States exporting domestic liquefied natural gas for the first time. Natural gas has significant environmental benefits relative to coal, notably that it has a much smaller emission factor. Cheap energy is a public good, and Ridley is right to say that renewables are still relatively expensive; in addition can't rely on renewables for all of your generation.

But Ridley’s setting up a rather stark binary here, and I think he's exaggerating the benefits of gas and the drawbacks of wind. Natural gas combustion emits fewer GHGs than coal, according to most researchers (but not all) and it’s “much, much better than wood,” as he notes (talk about a low bar). It's nonetheless much more carbon-intensive than renewables. The new technologies he cites also have adverse impacts on water. Oil-and-gas people get very indignant when you suggest that fracking might contaminate the water supply. Last week I heard one argue that all those people who were lighting their tap water on fire in Pennsylvania could always have done that, it just never occurred to them to try to light their water before people started fracking in the area. Let's set aside the issue of whether aggressive natural gas extraction has made water more flammable. The bigger problem, I think, is that fracking wastes an incredible amount of freshwater. (Think about it: fracking means pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground with enough force to break up rock formations.) That may not be a top concern in Britain, but Ridley is trying to take a global perspective. He mentions a vulture who was killed by a wind turbine in Crete.

Beyond that, I’m not convinced that fracking or horizontal drilling are as safe as the industry would have us believe. Again, think about it: fracking, “hydraulic fracturing,” means pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground with enough force to break up rock formations. Just a couple of years ago the Minerals Management Service was putting out publications talking about how great it is that advanced deepwater drilling technology has opened up new areas of oil exploration. "Fool me—you can’t get fooled again," as they say. We should proceed with gas exploration, but we should proceed with perspective and a long time horizon.

As for the wind, from what I understand, Britain is wrestling with objections to wind farms that other states have moved past: that they are, for example, ugly, noisy, and dangerous to migratory birds.

The first two are NIMBYism, which doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but does point to the fact that the negative externalities of wind farms are quite localized, as is the opposition to them. Both the ugliness and noisiness objections are debatable. It’s noisy inside a wind turbine, but if you’re on the ground, they’re not noticeably louder than the kind of ambient noise you would hear from your yard.  And this is subjective, but I think the turbines are beautiful in their way. From various angles they look like birds, flowers, or toys, but their form describes their function with the easy eloquence of an ideogram. I love driving around west Texas and seeing a turbine towering over an oil derrick and a handful of cattle: agriculture and energy, tradition and progress, all of it insignificant under the eternal blue sky.

The turbines do clip the occasional bird, but wind farms are not a significant driver of bird mortality, and we do have endangered species protections in the United States that would keep wind farms out of particularly sensitive habitats. And the idea that our traditional energy efforts are better for wildlife is just coy; in the year after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, for example, the Fish & Wildlife Service collected more than 6000 oiled dead birds.

As it happens, since the wind farms have been built in west Texas—over the past ten years Texas became America’s leading wind producer, with a bit more than a quarter of the country’s installed capacity—the complaints about how ugly and noisy the turbines are have largely dissipated. I think it’s partly because people realize they’re not that obnoxious and partly because they realize the benefits. Wind farms are capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, but they do create some jobs, and some of the capital goes to local landowners who agree to have turbines on their property.

My argument here isn't that wind power is awesome and natural gas is catastrophic. Just the more basic point that every energy source has its advantages and disadvantages. Some of the advantages and disadvantages are more salient than others. Part of Ridley's gripe with renewables, for example, is that he thinks UK politicians are exaggerating the job creation benefits. I agree that's an annoying political habit (they do it in the United States also); energy policy is not a jobs program and no fuel source should be justified strictly on those terms.

With that said, your beliefs about which goals are most important, and which externalities most problematic, will to some extent be informed by context. Fair enough. I think wind power was a good investment for Texas, for various reasons, and I can see how it might be less so for Britain. But Ridley's article is framing this as a stark choice, and I think it's a false one. There are opportunity costs to "green subsidies" and public investments should be considered carefully. But fossil fuels and renewables aren't mutually exclusive; there's no need to describe them that way.
_One of the first things I noticed when I arrived at this year’s Solar Power International, in Dallas, was a quartet of women about my age dressed in orange-and-white satin flight attendant style costumes. Then I ran into a (male) friend on the floor of the trade show and he mentioned, unprompted, how lopsided the gender ratio was. Another exhibitor, glancing over as a young woman in a tight T-shirt and push-up bra stood next to a solar panel, in front of a knot of middle-aged men, was dismissive: “Solar sluts.” Later that evening, in Fort Worth, I compared notes with another woman who had been at SPI, and she noted that the previous evening she had been torn over whether to attend the regular party or the party with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

It's not sexist that the solar industry is largely made up of men--that’s characteristic of the energy and high-tech sectors more generally--and I didn't feel uncomfortable during my brief visit. However, it doesn’t follow that the lowest-common-denominator marketing is inevitable. I’m thinking of, for example, the Freescale Technology Forum in San Antonio this summer. There was a similar gender imbalance, but not nearly so much sex on sale. Rather, the memorable parts of the Freescale forum were the innovative products, from the useful (smart plugs) to the oddball (the crash-activated motorcycle airbag vest).

I mentioned this all to my friend Kate Galbraith, the energy & environment reporter for the Texas Tribune. She points to a couple of analyses of the issue. In 2009, for example, the New York Times reported on an effort to market solar to "mainstream consumers," i.e., by sexing it up. Becky Stuart, writing at PV Magazine earlier this month, took issue with some of the "more brazen" advertising tactics in the industry. And Theo Romeo, writing about SPI at Clean Energy Authority, has a similar argument: "The fact is that solar prides itself on being different than other industries. We're forward-thinking; oil and coal is yesterday's idea. But if solar is, in fact, the modern solution, why are we still using old school marketing tricks?"

I would make a variation on that argument. Insofar as the solar industry promotes itself partly on the basis of its positive externalities--and lobbies for special favors (government subsidies, incentives, and protections)--it has an extra reason to make sure the externalities are actually positive. And as a business matter, they should be trying to boost interest among women. What they are selling is, at least in some cases, a consumer product, and women make up a big share of the market. The "booth babes" are business as usual; in this respect solar is no worse than most industries. But that doesn't mean they're an asset to the cause.
_With Mitt Romney in the hunt to become America's first Mormon president, the question of whether Mormons are Christians is a sideline political inquiry this year. It shouldn't be, of course, given that there isn't a religious test for office in the United States. But it's an interesting analytical question, and I take a look at Democracy in America. I think that Mormons are Christians. I don't see what they would be if not Christian.

Maybe they'll evolve in a different direction, as Christianity evolved from Judaism, but they could also evolve in a more "traditional" direction. One of the ironies of anti-Mormon sentiment is that, as is often the case, the hostility tends to calcify and codify the difference rather than creating the space for reconciliation.
Over at Modeled Behavior, Karl Smith wonders why most potential parents "don’t think much about the moral concerns surrounding creating new people." He and his wife settled on the pro-natalist position, obviously--from what I see on Facebook, their baby boy is adorable--but he nonetheless gives parents a talking-to:

If your reasons for creating life were selfish – and mine certainly were – then you need to acknowledge that every day. The fiction that you somehow did your child a favor for which they owe you is vicious and cruel.

I really enjoy it when analytical people talk about things that are more often glazed with sentiment ("Does my son have human rights. If so are they different than mine.") and it's a provocative question. You occasionally see people up the question of whether procreation is good on the basis of its environmental or demographic externalities, and such inquiries may be of growing interest. The United Nations has tipped October 31st as "7 Billion Day", which is a good Halloween scare if you take a Malthusian view of things or if you're troubled by Derek Parfit's "repugnant conclusion".  But as the quoted bit suggests, Karl is looking at this with regard to the new people themselves: on what basis may we impose life on other people? It may be unanswerable, if the ability to be imposed upon is contingent on existing in the first place, and I would suspect that few parents are inclined to interrogate themselves this way. Actually, is it fair to argue that pregnant women have a normative responsibility to avoid potentially troubling data points or arguments on the basis that anxiety affects fetal development? If I'm ever pregnant that's how I plan to defend myself while eating sushi and skydiving.
Over at GOOD, three general suggestions for ways to promote the growth of clean power by developing the markets.
The above video, about an elephant and a dog who are best friends, isn't new, but a Facebook friend posted it earlier today and I think it's worth sending around again. And speaking of elephants, my friend Graeme sends along a new song by Alex Shoumatoff, who wrote Vanity Fair's August piece about poaching in Africa, "Agony and Ivory." In this follow-up morning raga, Mr Shoumatoff offers a musical version of the message.

As I was listening my houseguest, Elisa, walked by and told me that she recently read a really depressing article about tuna, in her view "the elephants of the sea." Here is the EDF's guide to eating our tuna friends: the "eco-best" option is yellowfin from the U.S. Atlantic, "caught by troll/pole." (TROLLS?) And here's a nice photo of an Asian elephant with hay on his head, by Arran_Edmonstone on Flickr.
I'm lucky these next two months because one of my best friends is staying with me here in Texas. She's been living in Spain since we graduated from college and, as with any traveler, it's interesting to see what she tips as the outlying aspects of life in Texas. Yesterday we went to the Whole Foods and the H-E-B (a Texas-based supermarket chain). On her shopping list was a small jar of light mayonnaise. This is what we ended up with.
That's a 22-ounce squeeze bottle. Elephant added for visual reference. There were several dozen mayonnaise options in the aisle, but this was the smallest jar of the light variety.

As anyone who's spent much time in American supermarkets will be aware, this kind of supersizing is hardly unusual. It seems to have evolved in response to two common features of American grocery shopping: people drive to the stores and they have the kitchen real estate to store things. And it has its advantages: if you do go through a consumable quickly, then buying the big jar gives you a better value per ounce and less packaging waste.

However, the sheer amount of American food waste--perhaps a quarter or a third of the country's consumable food --suggests the illogic of this approach. After more than a century of shrinking, the size of the average American household is growing again, partly because people are consolidating due to the recession. Still, it's very few of us who live with a clutch of hungry farmhands. And regardless of how big our cars or our refrigerators are, most of us go to the grocery store routinely to buy perishable products like fruit and vegetables. Some decisions are based on cost per unit, but others aren't and shouldn't be. If you only need a few units of a product it's better (and, often, less expensive) to buy what you need than to get the big jar and bin most of it, which is certainly what will happen to this mayonnaise.

I think there is a market for "right-sized" groceries, for this and other reasons--notably health, which is why we've seen a lot of companies come out with portion-controlled servings (100-calorie snacks, 8-ounce sodas). Interestingly, some companies are also downsizing for their own reasons, on the premise that if you reduce the content but not the packaging they can save money on supplies while still charging the same amount for the product. I'd rather they shrink the packaging too. Some customers will care--the woman cited in the New York Times story at the link has nine children--but some won't notice, and some might even prefer it.
They'll regret their argument that second-generation Americans shouldn't run for office when they realize it means they'll never enjoy the leadership and vision I would bring to the office of Travis County dogcatcher. More on the birthers borking themselves, at Democracy in America.