Unchecked righteousness

Charles Lane of the Washington Post comments on the electric car fiasco, discussing the multiple failures of government investments and the disappointing performance and sales of the vehicles. The occasion is the disastrous roadtrip in a Tesla described by John M. Broder in the New York Times.  What interests me is not electric cars but the category of error that Lane identifies:

I accept the president’s good intentions. He didn’t set out to rip off the public. Nor was the electric-car dream a Democrats-only delusion. Several Republican pols shared it, too.

Rather, the debacle is a case study in unchecked righteousness. The administration assumed the worthiness and urgency of its goals. Americans should want electric cars, and therefore they would, apparently.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, he of the Nobel Prize in physics, epitomized the regnant blend of sanctimony and technocratic hubris. He once told journalist Michael Grunwald that photosynthesis is “too damn inefficient,” and that DOE might help correct that particular error of evolution.

The department has recently backed away from the million-car target, in favor of reducing battery costs to $300 per kilowatt hour by 2015 (from $650 today). Even this seems dubious, given the APS symposium’s view that “only incremental improvements can be expected” in lithium-ion batteries.

Chu is on his way out but still dreaming. “For the engineers in the room or those who follow this, you might be saying to yourself, ‘What are they smoking?’ ” he remarked at the Washington Auto Show. “We’re not smoking anything. They are ambitious goals but they are achievable goals.”

I might add that Chu does not own a car.

via Charles Lane: Obama’s electric car mistake – The Washington Post.

What are other manifestations of “unchecked righteousness,” the jump from assuming that because people should do something, they will?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • William Johnston

    The Times article was pretty effectively rebutted by Tesla based on logging data from the car. Basically, it sounds like the test was more or less rigged, and the reviewer didn’t let the battery charge all the way.

  • fjsteve

    @ 1, where is that log data?

  • Julian Spiegler

    @1: Entirely besides the point. Read the Post article.

  • Tom Hering

    Broder’s article has already been refuted by two CNN reporters who made the same trip in a Tesla S.

    http://www.examiner.com/article/cnn-journalists-prove-john-broder-wrong-by-driving-tesla-model-s-over-same-route

    And as William Johnston points out @ 1, the data logs from Broder’s Tesla prove him to be an out-and-out liar. Perhaps Charles “slow lane” Lane needs to catch up on the latest news before editorializing. ;-)

  • fjsteve

    Read the CNN article, Tom. Their reporters tested a “similar trip”. Actually it was made in 10 degree warmer weather and in one day as opposed to two. In fact, the authors of the CNN story plainly stated their conditions were different You might also want to investigate why Tesla’s libel suit against Top Gear was dismissed. Apparently, weather and driving conditions are huge factors in fuel economy. Who knew?

  • SKPeterson

    Thread diversion alert. I’d prefer more clean diesel technology, myself since this discussion is now veering into automobile technology. Test drivers have reported that they have actually been able to exceed the EPA reported fuel mileage on VW TDI Passats (43 v. ~50 mpg) with a manual transmission and traveling at 60mph (mileage declined to ~45-47 mpg at 65-70 mph). The automatic transmission came in at about what the EPA said the stick should. I don’t know if this is just standard bureaucratic conservatism, or a deliberate conspiracy to deny the obvious merits or a fossil-fuel driven auto. ;)

    Anyhow, clean diesel technology may be the best intermediate direction for fuel use savings, while the technology for batteries improves (whether that improvement is incremental or dramatic it will not be soon). Further, developments in new materials such as carbon fiber, may allow for autos to be both stronger and lighter, and even more aerodynamic, leading to additional improvements in fuel economy. With some experimental models, VW has gotten diesels that have achieved 150+ mpg.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    People who drive electric cars SHOULD go to Lutheran Churches… but WILL they?

  • tODD

    As others have already noted, Tesla themselves pretty strongly rebutted Broder’s Times article.

    It’s not merely that he wrote a critical piece. It’s that, well, he seems to have at times both tried his hardest to operate the car contrary to common sense (i.e., only filling it up to 28% at a charging station before a 61-mile leg, even when the on-board computer told him the car’s range would therefore only be 32 miles), and, when the facts did not go his way, intentionally misrepresented the facts.

    And Broder is not alone. Earlier, Top Gear was found to have faked their critical review of the Tesla, as well — having literally written the script before they tested the car.

    Which, in keeping with the overall theme of this post, makes for an interesting observation: why is it that some people simply (pre-)assume that the electric car will not, cannot, work, and then make the jump from that assumption to ignoring the facts or making up ones that go along with their worldview?

    That is, Broder and Top Gear made the jump from assuming from assuming that because the car should fail, that, at least as far as their pieces go, they would. And when they didn’t, actually, they made it up anyhow, and said that they did.

  • Jon

    America will apologize to the Islamic world for what has so obviously and clearly been our rude, offensive behavior, and they should then like us.

  • Jon

    We will require all Americans, including the young and healthy, to buy into more expensive health care insurance in order to obtaain coverage for those poor and sicker people who can’t afford health care insurance themselves, and they should want to do that because its good for them and good for the less fortunate.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Perhaps the Tesla driver from the Times mangled the facts, but any car that requires an hour or so every 250 miles of driving to recharge is always going to be a niche market. Compare that with my minivan, which will go 400-600 miles between refueling, and refueling requires only ten minutes.

    The simple fact of the matter is that Professor Chu IS smoking something if he thinks that batteries will ever have the energy density of gasoline or diesel fuel. It’s a simple function of the fact that hydrogen weighs less than lithium, and vehicles that burn gasoline don’t need to carry the oxygen with them, which any battery must. Chu is simply trying to assert politics over physics, which is an interesting position for a physics professor.

  • Steve Bauer

    People should want to eat and exercise to maintain a healthy body weight, therefore they will do so.

  • DonS

    Centralized planning is a crock. Always has been. We have been wasting billions of taxpayer dollars since Jimmy Carter on alternative fuels and transportation modes, and have virtually nothing to show for it. When there is a market need, there will be a market solution.

  • DonS

    Subscribing.

  • Joe

    The real solution would be a clean diesel/electric hybrid. Electrics are great for acceleration (instant torque and all that) and diesel’s are great for constant speed driving (about 15 % more efficient than gasoline engines). The issue is space in the engine compartment. At present the clean technology is taking up all the room that could be used for the electric motor.

    btw – I saw my first natural gas pumps at a gas station in Wisconsin last weekend.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Tom defends Obama blindly. What a surprie…

  • Tom Hering

    Don @ 13, what would you call General Motors and Standard Oil working to rid the country of all its electric cars and trolley systems in the early 20th century? I guess it all depends on who does the central planning, eh? ;-)

  • Tom Hering

    J. Dean @ 16, did I irk you a little today? Good.

  • DonS

    Tom @ 17: Hmm. Nowhere did I specify “governmental” central planning in my comment @ 13. You read that in. Big business is as responsible for our current travails as big government. They partner to over-regulate, engage in government-funded boondoggles, and to shut out the small business from competition. Crony capitalism is a bad thing. Economic freedom and a deregulated environment, which allows inventive small business to compete fairly, without its hard-earned tax dollars being used to fund and subsidize big business disasters like electric vehicles, is the best antidote. And, ultimately, where our next generation transportation will come from.

  • Tom Hering
  • DonS

    Thank you, Tom @ 20. Despite our general political differences, we should be agreed that any governmental effort to subsidize big business should be roundly rebuffed. We need healthy small businesses to keep both big business and big government in check.

  • tODD

    Bubba said (@11):

    Professor Chu IS smoking something if he thinks that batteries will ever have the energy density of gasoline or diesel fuel. It’s a simple function of the fact that hydrogen weighs less than lithium, and vehicles that burn gasoline don’t need to carry the oxygen with them, which any battery must. Chu is simply trying to assert politics over physics, which is an interesting position for a physics professor.

    I’m sorry, but it sounds like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Are you suggesting that an element’s molar mass directly correlates with its energy density? Are you suggesting that gasoline is made up mainly of hydrogen (especially by mass)? Are you suggesting that cars with lithium-ion batteries must “carry the oxygen” with them, and that this oxygen is required for the battery to function?

    Feel free to explain yourself, but I don’t think you’re really in a position to be accusing other people of “asserting politics over physics”.

  • tODD

    Anyhow, isn’t every election a display of this “unchecked righteousness”? Every loser (in the electoral sense) sits around for a few days (or years) and says, “But there was no good reason for them to vote for the winner! He’s bad! I was supposed to win!” This is particularly true of Greens and Libertarians (not because their idealogies are more deluded, per se, but because it’s that much more obvious that they will lose). Still, remember all the Republicans telling us last year how Americans were tired of Obama?

  • tODD

    Picking on Bubba again (@11):

    Perhaps the Tesla driver from the Times mangled the facts, but any car that requires an hour or so every 250 miles of driving to recharge is always going to be a niche market. Compare that with my minivan, which will go 400-600 miles between refueling, and refueling requires only ten minutes.

    This really does seem symptomatic of the problem Veith describes, doesn’t it? “Sure, he may have gotten the facts wrong — whatever, facts schmacts — but the fact is that people shouldn’t want to drive electric cars, so they won’t.” Right?

    Maybe it’s just me. I have quite a few friends with electric cars, at least two of them Teslas. I’ve heard no complaints. And none of them live in dense areas, either. One Tesla is in Houston (the opposite of dense), and another is in a suburb of Portland. In fact, nearly all the electric cars I know of are in the suburbs (Houston is mostly one big suburb).

    Which tends to go against the whole theory, as Bubba puts it, that people need cars that go for hundreds of miles between refueling, and that refueling needs to take up mere minutes. That’s really important … if you’re doing the Cannonball Run, I guess. But most of us drive slightly less than 100 miles a day, and our cars sit idle for at least a few hours here and there.

    I’m not defending any wide-eyed proclamations of wide-scale success in the next year or two, but, again, I have been surprised by how many of my friends own such cars.

  • SKPeterson

    One thing overlooked in the Tesla furor is the relative cost of the electric vehicle over against a comparable conventional-fuel vehicle. As Joe @ 15 notes, an electric/clean diesel would be a fairly good target in the near term. I would note though that many of the clean diesels also have good torque, so I’m not sure how much of an improvement would exist there, but that is relatively minor. In fact, such a vehicle could use the high-torque electric for in-town driving and the high-torque diesel for highway driving. Also, the 15% is probably a minimal fuel savings. Using the VW Passat again (I was recently looking into these so that’s why I’m using it as an example), the gasoline 5-cylinder (yes, 5) has a range of ~575 miles on an 18.5 gallon tank, while the diesel version has a range (as tested by several reviewers as alluded to above) of ~870 miles, or about a 50% increase in total fuel economy. Given that diesel fuel is about 15% higher in terms of the per gallon price, the increased mileage range differential is still significant. This would be even more so if the driver is often driving on the highway and/or makes frequent long-distance trips. An additional question would be the fuel economy loss from the additional battery weight to the vehicle, but the problem is intriguing.

  • SKPeterson

    Should have followed up on the Tesla cost from 25. At about $90K for the largest battery, it’s not really part of the electric cars for the masses vanguard is it? I think for that to have been or to be the case, the sweet spot would have been to have the car come in about $60K for the top end, and then ranging down to about $35 – 40K for the base. Then, then, it might have led the way by achieving some necessary economies of scale that would eventually lead to lower production costs and then on to further research and development.

  • fjsteve

    Interesting bedfellows. In reading a bit more about the discrepancies between the Broder article and Tesla’s own research, it looks like there has been quite a bit of back and forth and a lot of bloggers jumping in the mix. I don’t know who is ultimately to be believed, as I suspect there is a bit of spin on both sides, but one thing I did find interesting is that liberals are tending to side with the evil corporation here and conservatives are siding with the liberal media. I wonder how the lines would change if Tesla were, for example, a Big Pharma company.

  • fjsteve

    tODD,

    I have quite a few friends with electric cars, at least two of them Teslas. I’ve heard no complaints.

    Would you expect to hear complaints? Would they sound something like, “Hey, you know that car I spent far too much money on for mostly ideological reasons but also partly because I think it’s really cool? Well, it’s not really what it was built up to be.” Generalizing, of course, and possibly projecting, but it seems to me they would be more likely to say (to themselves alone), “Yes, I know I paid too much for this car and it doesn’t exactly get the kind of mileage that was advertised—hey, what care does?—but I’m doing the right thing for the environment and it really is cool… and doggonit, people like me!”

  • http://pekoponian.blogspot.com pekoponian

    tODD @23
    “remember all the Republicans telling us last year how Americans were tired of Obama?”
    I think a lot of Americans *are* tired of Obama. I also think the GOP ran a candidate that very few people *preferred* over Obama.

    Again, tODD @24
    I agree that electrics can be a good alternative in an urban or suburban environment, however on a road trip they lack range. That, combined with price, is what makes them impractical. How many of us can afford a $90K car for in town (or at all!) and then rent or buy another gas or diesel car for trips?

  • http://www.intrepidlutherans.com Douglas Lindee

    Responding to SKPeterson @6, 25 & 26 — I agree. I’ve been an owner of VW TDI since 2000, and won’t ever go back to gasoline, unless I want a sports car.

    I bought a VW Golf TDI in 2000, with a manual transmission. Cost? $15k. On the highway, on average, it got anywhere from 52-56mpg, depending on fuel quality and driving conditions. Only once in the early years did it drop below 50mpg — a really bad tank of fuel from a back-road gas station. Not only do I still own and drive the car, it is still my primary car. In fact, with 315k miles on it, it still gets around 45mpg; if I feather the accelerator on a road trip (~70mph), I can still get almost 700 miles out of a single 14.5 gallon tank of fuel. This engine is so overbuilt, that by all accounts, I’m good through at least 500k if I continue to take care of it. Diesel enginges, operating at lower RPM and lower temperatures, last a very long time. And performance? This 1.9 liter turbo diesel may only have 90hp, but it has as much torque as any high-output 4 cyl engine and as much as the average V6 daily driver (155 ft-lbs) — for a small but heavy car, it really moves out, even today. I continue to have high confidence in this diesel engine, and with only 315k miles on it, would take this car on a highway trip anywhere in the country. Many TDI owners have had this same experience with VW diesels, and are, like me, very enthusiastic about them (www.tdiclub.com). While my engine (A4 platform) is technically not the new “clean diesel” technology being marketed by VW, one of the selling points at that time was relatively clean emissions (per unit volume of fuel) compared to gasoline, and those emission/efficiency characteristics continue to improve.

    Regarding diesel vs electric, or even liquified natural gas, we already have the manufacturing platforms, distribution centers and logistics to bring diesel fuel to market — likewise for the diesel engines themselves — and we have long-had the education and trained technicians generally available for the maintenance of these vehicles. Diesel thecnology is not new, and is not a mystery. Thus, moving in this direction, consumers will not be burdened with development and re-education costs, nor the expense associated with “market testing” new and “creative” vehicle propulsion theories. And there is little cultural shift required in moving to diesel — people will still go to the gas station, still put fuel in the tank, etc. With the performance, longevity and low emissions of clean diesel, I’m convinced that is the immediate and mid-term solution. Alternatives, IMHO, and, I think, as demonstrated by recent attempts to foist them on Americans against their will, are far too primitive in their development to be considered viable in the wide-open market, and will remain relatively immature for some time.

    There. Now everyone should want to go to diesel. And they will. Unless they’re obstinate out-of-touch morons, who aren’t qualified to vote or own their own car. (Yes, this paragraph is sarcasm.)

    Just My Opinion.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Interesting how quickly people who are always talking about the economy, forget economics when it serves their purpose:

    Economies of scale. There.

    Electric cars area great idea, but that idea is not quite ready for the mass market yet. But they have come a long way. Furthermore, research on batteries is going strong. And while we have not run out of oil yet (not even close), we will eventually – but more to the point, cheap conventional sources will eventually be replaced by more costly sources, changing the economics of the game. But an increase in electric cars will be a fairly large drain on our power networks. Thus electricity production will have to increase. Wind and solar can help, but eventually, people will have to wake up to the fact that the answer is nuclear. Intelligent nuclear (ie heavy water, pebble bed etc…).

    I’m getting off topic, but it is related. So eventually, lithium and uranium producers might be as big, if not bigger, than oil producers. Lucky for you guys, the biggest Reserves, and the second biggest producer of Uranium is just north of the 49th. As to lithium – both Canada and the Us have significant reserves, but the biggest belong to Chile.

    My last question though: Why are so many on the right apparently opposed to electric vehicles IN PRINCIPLE?

  • tODD

    SK (@26), really? You’re complaining that a self-described sports car isn’t priced enough “for the masses”? Neither is the SRT Viper, I suppose.

    Also, laptop computers used to be really expensive when they first came out. For some reason, the price has come down significantly since then.

    FJ (@28), yes, of course, all my friends are idealogically-driven idiots who are only about saving face. I can tell that you know many of them. … Actually, most of the people I know with electric cars are engineers or otherwise technologically inclined. They tend to be, I’ve noted, more objective than the average person. I’ve certainly heard them describe some of the issues with home solar power, for instance.

    Anyhow, it is worth noting that, here in Portland at least, at least 1/3 of our electricity comes from renewable sources, mostly hydropower (contrary to the point made in Charles Lane’s article).

  • DonS

    Klasie @ 31: I can’t speak for all people “on the right”, but as a self-confessed person of the right, my objection to electric vehicles is not to the vehicles at all. I rather like them, though we are not presently in a position to have one in our modest vehicle fleet because of their niche abilities. However, I do object to government policy to essentially force them down the consumer’s (and more accurately, taxpayer’s) throat by subsidizing them to the tune of billions of dollars through direct funding of Fortune 500 corporations and huge tax credits for purchasing them. That is a misuse of taxpayer dollars, flowing not to the needy but rather to the elite (check out the demographics on ownership of these vehicles), and funded by borrowing in the name of our children and grandchildren. It’s an absurd “investment”, at this point in time, when fossil fuels are still abundant and relatively cheap and the touted environmental advantages of these vehicles are vastly overstated, given the energy intensity of the production of both the vehicles and especially the batteries and the fact that most of our electrical power is still fossil fuel-generated. And clearly, battery technology, especially lithium battery technology with its serious safety concerns, is not ready for widespread electric vehicle application.

    Electric vehicles were (relatively) widespread at the beginning of the 20th century, but were abandoned because of inferior performance for most transportation needs. Nothing’s really changed.

    As you said, though, safe nuclear power is ultimately the solution to our electrical generation needs. On that we can certainly agree.

  • sg

    ” Americans should want electric cars, and therefore they would, apparently.”

    As a smart alecky teen I used to tell my mother that should and is are not related whenever she used should in similar fashion. It took a lot of wind from my sails when I realized David Hume had beat me to it by hundreds of years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is–ought_problem

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    tODD, yes, it’s true that the primary drivers of chemical energy are the orbitals, specifically the s and p orbitals of the element. So yes, if you weigh your energy source down with a lot of extra protons and neutrons, you have an inherent weight disadvantage vs. hydrogen-based fuels. And yes, 2/3 or more of the atoms in gasoline are hydrogen, so the “mean weight” of the reagent is less than that of lithium (calculate it yourself). Moreover, a battery by its very nature does carry all reagents–guaranteed to be heavier than lithium (look it up on the periodic table)–while a gasoline powered car does not need to carry the 4/5 of the weight in oxygen used for burning gasoline.

    So yes, any battery powered vehicle like the Tesla has a huge weight disadvantage–over half a ton–when compared with similar compact luxury sedans. It also gets about the same mileage–if you correct for electrical generation efficiency (typically 30% or so), 90 mpg-e becomes 30 mpg in a hurry.

    I guess if you’re keen on spending an extra twenty or thirty grand (or more) on a heavy coal-burning vehicle with half the range of ordinary vehicles, be my guest, but please don’t ask for a subsidy for it.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    DonS – I understand. But it appears that a person can make some folks foam at the mouth on cue, the moment you say “electric car”. Just like you can induce Bror to have a blood pressure problem as soon as you confuse Sweden with Switzerland :)

  • DonS

    Klasie @ 36: Yep — it is probably the case that, because of our knee-jerk reaction to top-down government mandates and subsidies, the mention of “electric car” can cause some of us to salivate automatically at times. :-)

  • sg

    “My last question though: Why are so many on the right apparently opposed to electric vehicles IN PRINCIPLE?”

    Same nonsense. Look, just because someone on the opposing team says that people on the right are against something doesn’t make it so. People on the right are not opposed to electric cars on principle. That is just goofy. They are probably just opposed to coal powered cars subsidized by the gov’t. I personally know people on the right, like my husband, who own hybrids. Electric only cars, as tODD notes, are new and expensive like lots of other stuff once was. So, they will be niche for awhile, and as they improve and the price comes down, they will likely get more popular. I think their main handicap is that they aren’t cool. They aren’t stylish or exciting. Maybe an enterprising engineer will find a way to make them with a more appealing aesthetic.

  • sg

    a person can make some folks foam at the mouth on cue, the moment you say “electric car”.

    Meh, they are really probably just reacting to the whole backstory. They see it as a sort of scam. Certain folks getting special treatment at the expense of taxpayers, again. They tire of the self righteousness. It isn’t the cars, rather the insufferable attitude of the promoters.

  • Jon

    “They aren’t stylish or exciting. Maybe an enterprising engineer will find a way to make them with a more appealing aesthetic.”

    And they can’t haul 6 passengers, 1,000lb of gear and a 4,000 lb travel trailer.

  • tODD

    Pekoponian (@29), you are aware, aren’t you, that the Tesla is not your average electric car. It is designed as and marketed as a sports car. Complaining about its $90,000 price tag makes no more sense than complaining about the cost of an Audi R8. There are cheaper electric cars out there.

    Also, honestly, who buys a car solely on the basis of what it can do on a long-range road trip? Do you seriously ignore the common case when you make big decisions like this? That’s like buying a house with twice as many bedrooms as you have family members “because what if we might have a lot of guests one week a year?” Maybe you take road trips of hundreds of miles every weekend, I don’t know, but I find these kinds of arguments less than compelling.

  • tODD

    DonS said (@33):

    I do object to government policy to essentially force them down the consumer’s (and more accurately, taxpayer’s) throat by subsidizing them to the tune of billions of dollars …

    Well, thank goodness that the government does not force oil consumption down our throats with subsidies of billions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry!

    I mean, it’s not like, between 2002 and 2008, our government subsidized fossil fuels to the tune of $72 billion, while renewable sources only received $29 billion. Because surely all the right-wingers now complaining about electric cars (or solar power) would’ve said something about that. Right? Surely they would’ve been complaining more than twice as much about the fossil fuel subsidies!

    And it’s not like any large military expenses have ever undertaken with an eye towards fossil fuels. No! That would outrage all these fiscal conservatives! But surely you’re all aware of our imminent invasion of Chile in order to protect our access to lithium (though, nominally, it will be about some threat Chile poses to its neighbors or maybe us).

    Yup, if only the government would be laissez-faire with respect to electric cars and solar power like it has been to the fossil fuel industry. If only.

  • DonS

    Hmm, tODD. I looked at the Wikipedia article you cited, but it’s not real clear how the figure of $72 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels was derived. What counts as a subsidy? And more importantly, what counts as a subsidy that is not also applied to other like-situated producers (i.e. are they counting ordinary business deductions taken by oil producers as “subsidies”?). In any event, I will be glad to forego all subsidies to both the fossil fuel and alternative fuel industries — I’ve got no problem with everyone paying their own way. I know for a fact that I don’t get a $7500 tax credit for buying a gasoline-powered car, in any event.

    One thing from the article you should note:

    A 2010 study by Global Subsidies Initiative compared global relative subsidies of different energy sources. Results show that fossil fuels receive 0.8 US cents per kWh of energy they produce (although it should be noted that the estimate of fossil fuel subsidies applies only to consumer subsidies and only within non-OECD countries), nuclear energy receives 1.7 cents / kWh, renewable energy (excluding hydroelectricity) receives 5.0 cents / kWh and biofuels receive 5.1 cents / kWh in subsidies.[13]

    So, regardless of how the respective subsidies are calculated, the subsidies for renewable energy (about 5 cents per kWh) are over 6 times those for fossil fuels (about 0.8 cents per kWh). Note also that fossil fuel subsidies, to the extent they exist, benefit almost everyone, as almost everyone uses fossil fuels in some way, whereas those for alternative fuels inordinately benefit a relative few people/entities, mostly well to do.

  • sg

    between 2002 and 2008, our government subsidized fossil fuels to the tune of $72 billion, while renewable sources only received $29 billion.

    Okay, but how much tax revenue is generated from sales of fossil fuels? The tax on gas is fairly high and so is consumption. So, that means the government gets far far more that it somehow subsidizes. On the other side, how much tax revenue is the government getting from renewable sources? From another angle, what is the subsidy per watt? The amount of fossil fuel energy used compared to renewable is probably more that the about 7 to 3 ratio cited in the wiki article.

    The United States federal excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon (cpg) and 24.4 cents per gallon (cpg) for diesel fuel. On average, as of April 2012, state and local taxes add 31.1 cents to gasoline and 30.2 cents to diesel for a total US average fuel tax of 49.5 cents (cpg) per gallon for gas and 54.6 cents per gallon (cpg) for diesel.

  • tODD

    DonS (@43):

    In any event, I will be glad to forego all subsidies to both the fossil fuel and alternative fuel industries — I’ve got no problem with everyone paying their own way.

    And yet, as often happens with right-wingers, you had to be prompted to say something about fossil-fuel subsidies, whereas your critical comments about subsidies for alternative fuels were voluntary and free-flowing.

    I also note you’re kind of ignoring the whole war thing, as if we in no way picked our recent battles on the basis of oil production, and therefore none of the human or military capital should be considered a kind of subsidy.

    Note also that fossil fuel subsidies, to the extent they exist, benefit almost everyone, as almost everyone uses fossil fuels in some way…

    Not exactly the sort of argument that one would expect from a self-proclaimed foe of government subsidies. After all, nearly every form of candy made in the US uses corn byproducts, so corn subsidies — “to the extent that they exist”, of course — are more justified than subsidies of other crops, because corn is so widely used. (Hint: ask yourself, “But why is corn so popular in the first place? Is it because corn is the best source of sweetener available?” Then apply that line of thinking to your argument above. Thanks.)

    I appreciate your fighting for the little man — certainly no one has gotten rich from the fossil fuel industry — but it occurs to me that, when gasoline-powered cars started out, they might not have been all that cheap, either. Even the Model T (generally considered the first affordable automobile), after a year of production, rang in north of $21,000 in 2012 dollars. A 2013 Nissan Leaf will run you $28,800 before any credits.

    Also, studies on global energy subsidies aren’t going to be terribly relevant in this conversation, are they? Because, you know, Europe and Asia (maybe a few other continents, too).

  • sg

    According to the wiki article cited by tODD,

    The three largest fossil fuel subsidies were:
    Foreign tax credit ($15.3 billion)
    Credit for production of non-conventional fuels ($14.1 billion)
    Oil and Gas exploration and development expensing ($7.1 billion)

    The three largest renewable fuel subsidies were:
    Alcohol Credit for Fuel Excise Tax ($11.6 billion)
    Renewable Electricity Production Credit ($5.2 billion)
    Corn-Based Ethanol ($5.0 billion)

    Okay, those fossil fuel subsidies are just usual deductions that any business could take. The first obviously, the second may even be a subsidy for fuels that aren’t even fossil fuels but just developed by a company that also produces fossil fuels. The third is the deduction you take when you lose money drilling non-productive wells. Any business can take these kinds of deductions. The subsidies that the renewable source producers are getting are just especially for them. So, how much tax revenue is generated from sales of renewables? Is it greater than the subsidies? We know that fossil fuels have generated much more that $72 billion in revenue over those seven years.

  • tODD

    Bubba (@35), thanks, that is a slightly more clear comment than your first.

    While it’s likely true that “2/3 or more of the atoms in gasoline are hydrogen” (or at least I can’t be bothered to do the averages for the 25% of gas that is aromatics, and other things that would take that number down), and therefore an average “atom of gasoline” (which doesn’t exist, but averaged over atoms of carbon and hydrogen) would weigh less than an average atom of lithium (4.7 to 7, respectively), that analysis still doesn’t tell us anything about energy density.

    Gasoline has a density of around 720 kg/m^3. Best I can tell, electrochemical-grade lithium cobalt oxide has a density of around 2700 kg/m^3. But even that only tells us about the (mass) density of the materials, and nothing about the energy provided.

    No, when you consider actual energy density, gasoline has around 36 MJ/L. Right now, lithium-ion batteries can get up to 2.2 MJ/L. So it’s true, lithium-ion doesn’t seem all that great. But you seem to be focused solely on lithium-ion, as if that’s all that electric cars will ever use.

    What about zinc-air batteries? Yup, that “-air” part does tend to contradict your claim that “a battery by its very nature does carry all reagents”. And hey, whaddya know, right now they already get up to 35 MJ/L — or the same as gasoline! I’m not saying that zinc-air batteries are currently available for automotive use, but still, their existence at all does sort of bely all your claims here about batteries, notably about energy density.

  • http://www.breakpoint.org Gina

    I LOVE the phrase “unchecked righteousness.” It says so much.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    tODD; since lithium is the lightest metal, it goes to figure that, as long as one needs an ionic material in a battery, it will be the lightest–at least among those that are rechargeable. You might tweak the design to get marginal improvements, but as long as batteries need metal plates, you’re pretty much stuck with the lightest metals you can get.

    (lithium also has the nasty problem of not having the thermal mass needed for cooling a battery–lithium ion batteries are leaders in recent electronics recalls)

    Zinc-air? Well, here’s wiki on it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zinc%E2%80%93air_battery It’s a dead end because the specific power is only 100w/kG. Getting 185kW for that Tesla roadster? Better build the next version on the F350 chassis, because the batteries will weigh nearly two tons. You could balance it with ultracapacitors, but to get the 50kW or so needed for sustained highway speeds, you’re still talking half a ton of batteries and a similar amount of ultracapacitors. Not good from the standpoint of either cost or weight.

    Plus, the article says they’re not rechargeable. So instead of a charging stop every 200 miles, you’d have an overhaul every 500 miles to replace the battery pack. Suffice it to say that that’s not exactly going to make a car competitive with the Yugo, let alone the Camry or Mustang.

    In short, unless there are huge improvements in the chemistry of batteries, it’s a dead end, and the fact that government has been putting billions into this dead end does not speak well of those doing so, especially those with Nobel Prizes. Their “righteousness” is getting in the way of them realizing they’re throwing billions down the toilet.

    As a EE, I should love hybrids and electrics for obvious reasons like “employment,” but the fact of the matter is that it’s a dead end. Let it die, please, before it bankrupts us.

  • sg


    In short, unless there are huge improvements in the chemistry of batteries, it’s a dead end, and the fact that government has been putting billions into this dead end does not speak well of those doing so, especially those with Nobel Prizes. Their “righteousness” is getting in the way of them realizing they’re throwing billions down the toilet.

    This reminds me of an article I read years ago in Invention and Technology magazine about the invention of the catalytic converter. Basically the gov’t mandated emissions standards that of course no one could meet with the technology available. So, some guys figured out how to do it. It was just dumb luck that the politicians mandated something that actually could be done even though they had absolutely no idea how. It is the same line of reasoning as, “Well, if we can go to the moon, then we can ________.” It is another category of error, but people go for it. Like they honestly believe the if you can dream it, you can achieve it. Of course that isn’t true, but it is modern folk mythology.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 45: awesome “right wingers” crack. I love argumentation based on labels. It’s so edifying.

    You pretty much ignored everything I had to say, otherwise. To recap, and as sg has amplified in later comments, I don’t really think there are any significant government subsidies for fossil fuels, other than the ordinary tax deductions and credits available to all commercial enterprise. I know for a fact that you get no tax credits for buying conventional vehicles, and there are no government-guaranteed loans for oil companies, as there are for alternative fuel ventures, such as Solyndra or Fisker. Additionally, fossil fuels are heavily taxed at every level of production and distribution, as sg also points out. I pointed out in my comment that, even taking the numbers of an alternative fuels proponent as gospel, concerning the relative subsidies to each type of industry, there is no comparison, on a per kWh basis. I also said that, because I am consistent in my views, I would be more than happy to eliminate any governmental subsidies to any industry. You have read enough of my comments over the years to know full well that is a position I consistently hold.

    But then, there’s this:

    I also note you’re kind of ignoring the whole war thing, as if we in no way picked our recent battles on the basis of oil production, and therefore none of the human or military capital should be considered a kind of subsidy.

    Really? You’re counting wars as a subsidy for fossil fuels, specifically oil? Yeah, I am ignoring that, and rightly so. First of all, oil became the lifeblood of our economy not because of government subsidy or encouragement, but because it is a superior source of energy. To the extent that we fight wars because of oil, we do so because the alternative is economic ruin. That is not a subsidy, but rather a defense of our economy and way of life. I don’t think wind or solar farms will ever hold such a place in our economy that wars will be fought over them, that’s for sure.

    Of course, if we fully exploited our immense resources here at home, and within the borders of our friendly neighbor to the north, we would have far less need to defend our supplies of fossil fuels overseas. So, in a very significant way, it is our contentious and fanatical environmental lobby which contributes to our loss of lives and treasure in the Middle East.

    They’re coming after your hydroelectric dams too, you know. You may someday get to pay California prices for electricity.

  • tODD

    SG said (@46):

    Okay, those fossil fuel subsidies are just usual deductions that any business could take.

    Yes, of course. As long as that “any business” drills for oil/gas or produces “non-conventional” forms of fossil fuels, for the most part. But “any business”? Please.

    The first obviously, the second may even be a subsidy for fuels that aren’t even fossil fuels but just developed by a company that also produces fossil fuels.

    You give me great confidence in your research on the topic when you say “the second may…”. Did you look? Did you even try?

    Those $14 billion for “non-conventional fuels”? That’s a tax credit from IRC Sec. 45K, which gives $3 per “barrel-of-oil equivalent of qualified fuels”. And those “nonconventional fuels”? Drum roll, please:

    The term ”qualified fuels” means (A) oil produced from shale and tar sands, (B) gas produced from (i) geopressured brine, Devonian shale, coal seams, or a tight formation, or (ii) biomass, and (C) liquid, gaseous, or solid synthetic fuels produced from coal (including lignite), including such fuels when used as feedstocks.

    In practice, this credit has mainly just gone to coal producers. Because, you know, coal is nonconventional. And “any business” might produce it!

    Also, those $7 billion in “oil and gas exploration and development expensing”? Why, “any business” could incur those! Except, yeah, not. Because that comes from a rule in IRC Sec. 617 that specifically excempts “oil or gas” from the general rule about having to deduct drilling costs over a project’s lifetime. In short, only those businesses drilling for “oil or gas” get to take the full deduction up front — which, unless you’re stupid with money, is a nice savings over the usual rule.

    So, yeah, tell me more about how “any business” could get at those tens of billions of dollars.

  • tODD

    And that Wikipedia list doesn’t even include the direct subsidies (estimated at $12 billion over 10 years by the Joint Committe on Taxation) on “oil and gas wells” found in IRC Sec. 613. But, you know, “any business” could qualify for those … as long as they drill for oil and/or gas.

  • tODD

    Also, DonS (@51), this was a particularly valiant effort:

    To the extent that we fight wars because of oil, we do so because the alternative is economic ruin. That is not a subsidy, but rather a defense of our economy and way of life.

    Heh. “But we had to spend money (and people) fighting that war! Or else gas would be too expensive, and we’d have to change our way of life, and then They would have won!” I guess it doesn’t count as a government expense in your mind if you can first claim that our way of life demands it, or it’s popular (as you did earlier in this thread).

    You’ve basically described a system in which Big Oil has been made “too big too fail” — and with your blessing, no less. We can’t let things get to the point where oil gets too expensive, I hear you say, because then market forces would actually prod us to explore different energy sources (altering our American way of life), so it’s okay if the government spends vast sums of money (and maybe a few people) to keep prices where they “ought to be”. But that’s not a subsidy. Or government intervention in the market. Oh no. Because we need it.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    tODD; thanks for the links. Personally, I’m thinking it would be great to cut out all alternative energy subsidies–returning something like $40 billion/year to the Treasury for actually useful things. Let’s stop pouring money into mature technologies like fossil fuels and dead ends like electric vehicles and windmills and see whether there are some research efforts that could really land some game-changing technologies.

    Regarding sg’s note, however, I think you’re clearly in the wrong. The major areas of oil and gas exploration are where “fracking” is involved, and that produces the highest flow in the first few years. So if we have a principle that depreciation should be incurred along with revenue–and this does, yes, apply to all businesses–then the depreciation should be incurred in the first couple of years, not over 27 like on the rental home I used to own.

    If you get rid of an appropriate depreciation schedule, what you’ve done is limit oil exploration to the large established firms that are driling a bunch of these wells every year. Didn’t Democrats used to be suspicious of big business and market hegemony? Because decelerating the depreciation schedule would certainly benefit the big players at the expense of new entrants and….drivers.

  • http://pekoponian.blogspot.com pekoponian

    tODD @41- When I buy a vehicle, my criteria are: Does it seat seven? Can I buy it outright? and Will it get me places without the need for constant refueling, including the odd road trip? I want a single vehicle to do all those things because I am not going to spend a huge amount on cars (or even a car). When an electric people carrier comes out that lasts long enough and is practical for my family, I will happily buy one used. In the mean time, they remain a niche item for families smaller than mine. You’re right. I had never bothered researching electric car prices, so for the sake of this discussion, I looked some up. You’re also right that there are electrics cheapr than the Telsa, but they seat two to four people. Not functional for most families. Maybe, maybe a cheap electric as a commuter car, IF you’re in the position to afford brand new cars, but for a family vehicle, electrics still don’t work.

  • sg

    I’m gonna have to go with tODD on the wars thing. I have no problem with retaliation against those that gave safe haven to terrorists. Fly over, bomb them into submission/humiliation/eradication whatever, but these long boots on the ground engagements are insane and expensive. Rebuilding and nation building, stupid with a capital S. Total waste of money. Is it a subsidy as tODD says, eh, maybe, but the price alone deters me whether or not it is a subsidy. Heck, we don’t get much oil from there anyway. We get most from Canada and Mexico. If the other nations of the world don’t want sky high oil prices after we bomb the crap out of them for attacking us, then the rest of the world can go figure it out. I am fine with sky high fuel prices because we are already too wasteful of energy.

  • DonS

    As to the subsidies issue, tODD, on the one hand we are talking about direct subsidies to alternative energy approaches that the government has arbitrarily decided are particularly worthy (or because their benefactors donated to the Obama campaign — take your pick). These subsidies include refundable tax credits to end purchasers of alternatively-fueled vehicles (up to $7,500), guaranteed loans and grants to manufacturers of alternative vehicles, batteries, wind farms, solar farms, solar panel manufacturers, etc., and government mandates designed to ensure a customer base for the products. These mandates include such things as minimum vehicle fleet composition requirements, mandates on utilities to use alternative fuels to generate a minimum percentage of electricity production, car pool lane access for alternative-fueled vehicles, etc.

    On the other hand, to “prove” that there are similar subsidies for oil and gas production, you point to some arcane IRS codes showing accelerated depreciation schedules for certain types of drilling and the like. And wars. To start with depreciation, you should know that there are separate codes for just about every kind of business activity. So just pointing to one section which allows accelerated depreciation for certain types of drilling doesn’t mean there isn’t another section allowing accelerated depreciation for other types of drilling, or other producing activities. That’s why we have hundreds of thousands of pages of IRS code — there are separate codes for every activity. And almost all businesses have had relaxed depreciation allowances for the past several years — it’s part of the economic stimulus package.

    Now, here’s the thing. Accelerated depreciation is not a “subsidy”, at least not in the sense of the subsidies I identified above. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be a concept of depreciation at all. When a business spends money to produce product, it should be able to deduct those expenditures from its gross receipts. Immediately. But, the government doesn’t want that to happen, because then it doesn’t get the tax revenue it thinks it needs. So, it greatly complicates the tax code by making all of these arcane depreciation schedules, particularized for each industry, and requiring the businesses in those various industries to deduct the expenditures they made all at once bit by bit over many years. In essence, the government is forcing them to pre-pay taxes on cash flow the businesses have not yet realized.

    So, something we could clearly agree on is eliminating ALL subsidies to ALL businesses, in part by doing away with depreciation schedules entirely, and permitting businesses to fully deduct expenses when they are incurred. That would be fair, and simple, though it would put a host of accountants out of work, and allow business people to understand their tax returns a lot better.

    As for wars, sg has joined your camp on the notion that wars are subsidies. Well, if you’re going to turn the definition of “subsidy” on its head to that extent, then the word really has little meaning, doesn’t it? Our government makes the decision to be involved in the Middle East for a host of reasons. Certainly the fact that a substantial oil supply is there is a major factor, but not the only one. Israel’s protection is another major one. In any event, that “subsidy” is largely to the benefit of Middle Eastern oil sheiks, not oil producers. Moreover, as I said above, we can ameliorate the need to protect overseas oil supplies by developing our abundant supplies in this country and continent. For example, we could approve and build the Keystone oil pipeline.

  • sg

    we can ameliorate the need to protect overseas oil supplies by developing our abundant supplies in this country and continent.

    Yeah, who cares if the world runs out in a hundred years because I personally will be dead, so I won’t care. Seriously, we need to conserve every drop because we haven’t figured out what we are going to do when it is gone. I plan to have great great great grandkids and I would like them to have a livable life.

  • DonS

    sg @ 59: I am not saying that we don’t eventually have to move to new energy sources. But it needs to happen naturally, the way we moved into oil and gas in the first place, rather than by bureaucratic mandate. We’ve tried the mandate and subsidy approach since the 1970′s, and it has gotten us essentially noplace. Interestingly, however, our proven oil reserves have expanded significantly since the 1970′s, during which decade it was predicated that oil would run out — right about now. We have more proven oil supply now than we have ever had in our entire history. So, we have plenty of time to move into the next energy era.

    In the meantime, the idea of exploiting our domestic reserves so we don’t have to import from dangerous areas is just smart.

    And, particularly as Christians and as stewards, we should conserve as much as we possibly can. Personally, $4/gallon gasoline is a great incentive to conservation. Market forces do work.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Don, gotta quibble with you a bit. The spending on the DOE and “alternative energy sources” has gotten us somewhere; specifically somewhere around half a trillion dollars deeper in debt. :^)

    But no new energy sources that can exist without subsidies.

  • DonS

    Yep! You got me there, BB @ 61!

  • Julian

    Dr. Veith says “What interests me is not electric cars…” and as it often happens on blogs, everyone else just wants to talk about electric cars. My personal opinion is don’t mess with electrical engineers. Back to the topic at hand, though. This blog could be a study in unchecked righteousness, for example. Dr. Veith may have thought that a study of unchecked righteousness might be a nobler topic than the rigorous number-crunching and theorizing that a debate over electric cars would bring. He may have even thought that as the moderator of this blog, He has the right to set the topic, and and the audience should stay on topic! Dr. Veith, like many bloggers, may have assumed that because his audience is primarily comprised of regular blogonistas, that they would understand obey the rules of engagement before commenting, i.e, that they would stay on topic. If these epeculations happened to be true, this might be a case of unchecked righteousness, as defined by Dr. Veith’s closing question.


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