Monday, June 29, 2009

Cap and trade

Some time Thursday or Friday I received an anxious e-mail from somebody at Environment Illinois urging me to call my congressman (woman in my case) to exhort them to vote for the new emissions bill. As it happens, my phone call was not needed because the The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) (aka the Waxman-Markey bill) was passed by a slender margin of 219 - 212. Onto the Senate it now trundles to what end we shall see. I doubt if my phone call would have had much impact as my congresswoman voted against it, and I doubt that my little voice would have swayed her. So, while she is all for earmarks for green fuel depots in Naperville (many thanks for that), Ms. Biggert is less persuaded by the proposed legislation for curbing carbon emissions on a national scale.

There are several questions, at least a couple being exactly what is a cap and trade system and will it have any effect? I have long been a bit mystified by the whole concept of cap and trade and how it could be preferable to a more direct approach such as simply setting limits and/or taxing emissions. As I understand it, there are annual targets of emissions established on a downward slope with the goal of achieving some ambitious reduction (17 % by 2020). Individual producers will be able to exceed the limits only by purchasing credits, which, in order for the system to function effectively, will be sold by those who have reduced their emissions below the established standards. Thus the cap and trade establishes economic incentives for industries to lower their carbon emissions. At the same time it accommodates those that can't or won't reduce their emissions, but a cost is imposed upon them.

There are already some free-market versions of the scheme floating about. For example, we have our very own Chicago Climate Exchange, which is a voluntary exchange operating a cap and trade system for greenhouse gases. According to their website, CCX emitting Members make a voluntary but legally binding commitment to meet annual GHG emission reduction targets. Those who reduce below the targets have surplus allowances to sell or bank; those who emit above the targets comply by purchasing contracts. The contracts are priced by the metric ton of CO2. The data show that the price has fluctuated wildly over the past few years (data begin in 2004) from a floor of about $1 a ton to a high of over $7 last summer. The bursting of the energy crisis bubble appears to have caused a similar deflation of the contract price. Good for polluters I guess. So why would anyone want to join an exchange like this? A review of the members reveals some interesting things. One brewery, New Belgium has signed up; beer drinking environmentalists should now flock to Fat Tire. There are just two coal mines, but quite a list of electric power producers. The longest list comprises participant members that represent "offset aggregators." They sport names like Carbon Green, LLC, Carbon Logic, LLC, Climate Bridge Ltd. and so on. I suppose these companies have all sprung up with the intent to make money on the regulation of emissions. If they invested last year at $7, then things are not looking good currently. On the free market, it is a polluter's world right now. And even then, there is no compunction to participate.

Critics have claimed that the cap and trade system will lead to an increase in energy prices. This of course is true if the sources of energy are carbon-based; and since some 80% of the current energy is carbon-based there is little likelihood of the sources changing to non-carbon sources any time soon. They say this is a bad thing for the economy and that prices will rise for consumers. Undoubtedly, yet that surely has to be the outcome if the objective of reducing emissions is to be accomplished at all. There are two alternatives: one, to replace all the carbon-based fuels by alternatives (or renewable carbon fuels); two, reduce consumption (drastically) of carbon fuels.

The critics further argue that the price increase will drive industries overseas to locations where energy is cheaper. It's a fair point, but industries have been becoming globalized for decades now for cost reasons, notably labor and materials.

The biggest question is whether or not the current legislation will be effective in reducing emissions. Many are skeptical. For one thing, the bill could not have passed without a host of compromises (the essence of politics being compromise - or quid pro quo). To that end, accommodations have been made for the coal industry. Since coal is both the most important fuel in electricity production and the most carbon-intense, there is little chance of significant progress unless there is a radical change in the coal business. While saying the right things by environmentalists, the new king of Camelot has not forgotten the lobbyists for the coal producers. Mattoon may again be the host for the once-and-Futuregen project for "clean coal." The talk is all about carbon sequestration and how it will revolutionize the coal industry, transforming it into an environmental friend. Even if it is technically successful, questions about cost and time required to implement on a national scale remain. I cannot believe it can be implemented without a massive price increase being incurred. How could it be otherwise? Oh, and wasn't there recent approval of that environmentally devastating coal mining technique that involves blowing the tops of the hills to expose the coal?

Meanwhile, I'll start hoarding CO2 credits.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Proton accelerator hits the brakes

Just checked in to the blog and was shocked to find last posting was two weeks ago. What has the idle bastard been doing I hear my dwindling readers asking; after all, it is the summer and we all know that academics do nothing over the summer. At least that is the impression I get from students as they depart the spring term with the farewell, "Have a great summer!" What, like I'm going to spend it idling on a beach somewhere? Au contraire of course: your (Super) Savvy Cyber Professor has, as is ever his wont, a plate filled to overflowing with summer assignments; working at Argonne, as I have the past three summers, is not one of them unfortunately. (Of course I am writing this while watching practice for the British Grand Prix (weather appears uncharacteristically summery there), Friday morning - but that is because of the decision taken by the higher powers to close the college from Friday through Sunday. No comment.)

So much has been written in the papers and elsewhere the past few weeks that really demands a response, and I have been slightly frustrated at my lack of productivity. Around about the time I saw the article about the Green Fuels earmark, there was another one concerning Northern Illinois' beleaguered proton therapy center. It appears that the economy has impacted the funding for its construction. It was about a year ago that we were having meetings with Northern and Argonne about developing the workforce to man the accelerators that were about to sprout like mushrooms in the DuPage landscape. The cynic in me surmised that the whole exercise was motivated by Argonne's bid to land the huge Rare Isotope facility (FRIB), and that the "educational" interest was designed to flesh out their proposal. It's a familiar role for the community college professor: that of being added to other institutions' proposals to enable them to land large grants, from which a few crumbs are handed down. (What is rare about the undergraduate research NSF grant that I'm involved with is that the roles have been reversed: the primary institutions are the community colleges, while the partner 4-year institutions are subordinate.)

Not surprisingly, when the FRIB project sadly went to its (probably rightful) home at Michigan State, the dialog ceased; not a single meeting involving the parties has been held since, despite the fact that the educational needs were supposedly far exceeding those of the FRIB.

As an ironical footnote, it appears that the other proton therapy center being built by Central DuPage Hospital, close enough to the NIU version that the evanescent fields of the beams will actually overlap, may be finished first. In a rather churlish move, and one rather counter to the spirit of championing technology and boosting demand for education, NIU had lobbied aggressively against the CDH project on the grounds that a second unit in such close proximity was unnecessary.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Of green fuels and earmarks

I was distracted by an article in the Tribune last week about some corruption-tinged lemon of an expensive plant in Chicagoland that was supposedly designed to convert human waste into fertilizer. Now the community that ordered it are hoping that the test runs fail so they can get out of the contract (with a former community official of course). I originally missed a much more important article about a proposed "green fuels" depot in Naperville with which the SSCP has more than a passing interest. One of my loyal readers (perhaps the only loyal reader) later alerted me to it. You can read it here if you so desire

In short, a small but energetic company in Naperville called Packer Engineering, which lies in the shadow of the (former) Amoco Research Center (where of course the SSCP once plied his trade) has developed a fledgling technology for converting yard waste (leaves, cornstalks and the like) into "syngas" - a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Instead of the old-fashioned approach of lighting a big bonfire and converting leaves into less than useful carbon dioxide (bad) and water, or finding some place to dump them all so they can quietly rot, this approach actually inputs chemical energy into the waste which can later be extracted in a number of useful ways. The products could be burnt and converted into electricity; the hydrogen could be separated and used to power fuel-cell cars; the syngas could be converted into alcohol fuels for use in conventional engines. At least one enlightened member of the Naperville City Council thinks it would be a cool thing for the city to be associated with and so the idea of a "green fuels depot" in Naperville was born. Throw Argonne National Lab and its transportation research and COD and education into the mix and that is what we have.

One slight problem remaining is actually paying for it. Despite the vast oceans of wealth (debt?) sloshing around the vulgar excesses of Naperville's bespoke subdivisions, it is unlikely that the citizens would be entirely happy about $12MM of their money being used to finance this experiment, even though it would represent a massive assuaging of their collective green guilt. And that is where the earmark comes in. Congresswoman Biggert has requested a nearly $5MM earmark to fund this project. Some months ago your loyal scribe spent a morning engaging in some low-level lobbying at her office in Willowbrook. Earmarks are those things that normally get one all riled up at the waste of public money in pet projects; bills slide through the system laden with welters of earmarks for often irrelevant special interests. So, should we be praising the congresswoman for the financial support of what is a really cool project, or getting upset at the use of public funds to do it? After all, every NSF grant is an application of taxpayers' money. Is an earmark different from writing a proposal to NSF?

Monday, June 1, 2009

University of Clout

It's been a rough couple of weeks or so for the president of the flagship university of this state, B. Joseph White. First there was the business of the bonuses paid to staff who had worked on UIUC's less-than-stellar performing Global Campus, an online entity that was expected to attract thousands of eager students from all over the place. As it turns out, only a few hundred ever signed up. That is interesting in of itself, because there is a perception I think that online is the way to go to boost enrollment by reaching a wider audience at minimal cost to the institution because facilities are not required to house these additional students. At the COD, for example, there appears to be only one way forward. Online. The online course appears to be the educational analog of a community's opening a casino to raise revenues. It seems to be the first option regardless of whether or not it is the best option, or even a good option. Forget about the question of whether the quality of the educational "product" compares (presupposing that it can even be measured reliably) with the traditional delivery. The first question is whether or not students really want this approach. Aside from exceptions such as folks trudging around Afghanistan, I'm thinking that most do not.

More embarrassing for the president has been the pounding lately handed out by the Tribune in one article after another regarding special admissions deals for students with clout. With offspring currently at Illinois' jewel in the educational crown and maybe another on the way, I was more than a little interested in this story. Of course, why should we be surprised. I mentioned it to Alan and even he, a mere youth unsullied by the ravages of time, displayed alarming cynicism by responding that it probably happens everywhere. He is regrettably probably right, which of course does not make it right. Armed with mountains of documents detailing the admissions favors doled out on behalf of students with the right connections, the university could hardly deny it. However, the president made a revoltingly dissembling response to the revelations on Friday.

Dulcie observed in her usual acerbic fashion that it simply proves that the whole college experience is nothing more than joining a club so it can be added to the resume. Why would people who don't warrant it on merit, and who are unlikely to succeed academically, want to go there at all? Because the only thing that matters is that they can stamp their passport and later wave it in front of prospective employers. University should be a whole lot more than that.