Saturday, August 16, 2014

Secular stagnation and the steady-state

Krugman has just promoted a new ebook by Vox on "secular stagnation" that will prove interesting to serious scholars of ecological economics and other economics of climate change, particularly micro.

You can access it here.

The secular stagnation hypothesis is important not only because it helps us think through what will happen when population growth in the US finally peaks, as it is scheduled to do around 2050. It also informs a much older debate on steady-state thinking.

This is all a bit wonkish, but basically when it comes to economic policy to prevent climate change, or adapt to it, you have several choices.

"Strong" ecological economists like Herman Daly and his Huxlerian "bulldog" Brian Czech want us to move to a point where the global economy isn't growing, at least in terms of material throughput. This is one version of what has been called a "strong" sustainability rule. We would have to arrange matters very differently to provide access to psychologically satisfying and productive employment, as well as sustainable consumption, for all, in the absence of a purely free market in raw materials (and thus a more planned economy). Something like a "gross national happiness" calculus or "sustainable economic welfare" would have to take the place of current GDP-based policy. This is the economics I studied under Herman Daly in the 1990s, and the economics of the International Society for Ecological Economics. I think their approach is more scientific, but politically unreachable, and worry about the effects on individualism and human rights. One result, however, would be the aversion of climate disaster. That would be rather nice.

You might also opt for a "weaker" sustainability rule, whereby a nation might run down its natural capital, substituting human capital. I thought this was dangerously subjective, and so didn't properly address climate change, which after all is a material throughput problem that can't be solved by substitution. I also thought that this subjectivity would lead to endless international arguments. But at least it would be something.

A narrower approach, more palatable for the mainstream, is that of climate economics à la Nick Stern and other "precautionists" who would have us limit throughput in climate emissions (but not in other material flows), essentially as insurance against climate disaster (but not other ecological difficulties). The one percent of GDP Stern thought was necessary to avert disaster (albeit back in 2006 -- the sell-by date has expired on that one, I'm afraid) was, as he put it, an "insurance" premium that a responsible global "householder" would surely pay in order not to have to face climate collapse, even if that householder didn't have a perfectly certain climate prediction on which to base this expense. I thought Stern's ideas were "good enough" in the sense that they would get us where we needed to be in terms of GHG emissions, but were also conservative enough to win political support. I was willing to put off wider ecological economic reform for now, if only we could get emissions reductions at least on the table, politically speaking. Stern remains to my mind the best bet for a politically palatable climate economics.

Then you have my "Green Keynesianism." I doubt very much that anyone that considers themselves a serious climate economist thinks of this theory as a contender yet, but that may change.

The secular stagnation hypothesis feeds into this important climate economic policy debate in this way: If the economy is no longer growing, doesn't that actually begin to get us where we need to be with material throughput? Isn't this ecological economics through the back door?

A purely stagnant economy is not, I must admit, in a steady state of material throughput. But with deliberate policy it could get there much more easily than a growing economy can.

The fly in this rose-colored ointment (mixing my metaphors rather unforgivably) is that democracy continues to need growth to face down the planet's remaining dictatorships and brigands.

Wouldn't Vladimir Putin just love it if (as he masses his troops on the Ukrainian border and waits for a Hitlerian pretext) the west went into another recession? The sanctions would fly, but he could just turn to the already woefully under-informed Russian people and say, in effect, "Look at this basket case, the west. Why would we worry about sanctions? Why chain ourselves to this corpse."

While the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China would simply continue with their current policy of substituting internal for export-led growth, no doubt using the political power this gave to stave off democratic reform for yet another generation, watching happily as democracy in the west went into a death spiral, saying to its woefully under-represented people, in effect, "look at what democracy gets you. Aren't you better off with us?"

Oy vey and Ai Wei Wei.

So we'd better not have secular stagnation just yet, had we?


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What did you do this summer?

Term will start shortly, and students and colleagues will ask each other that question as we all begin to get to know one another again after the break.

For Aimee and I, the short answer is, we waited for our new baby girl to arrive, which should happen next week or thereabouts. Wish us good luck and god-speed.

But it was a teensy bit more complicated than that.

Part of waiting is preparing, mentally and otherwise. So this is what we did with my summer: we got our house, land and vehicles ready for the baby.

The Womerlippis live a self-reliant and sustainable lifestyle, so much of what we did is relevant to our work at Unity College. As the title of this blog implies, if we can't find a way to live as sustainably as possible, I doubt I have any business being a professor of sustainable energy.

My students probably agree. Most young people like their elders and mentors to be consistent. It makes us more believable.

(I also wrote what for me was an important academic product, my submission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Climate CoLab contest. But I've posted bulletins on that throughout the summer, so you can just scroll back and read it anytime you wish.)

Here are some photographs of our summer self-reliance and sustainability activities. They may not be exactly what you were thinking of, in terms of self-reliance and sustainability activities, but I promise they are. Read on for the full explanation.



The first sustainability problems I dealt with were vehicular. The Womerlippis run a number of vehicles, different ones for different purposes, most of which do only a few thousand miles a year and are expected to last a long time, fifteen years or more. We can never get compatible college work schedules, so each of us needs our own car, and it's even helpful if we each have a four-wheel drive vehicle for the winter. Although generally whenever there's a snowstorm that would require such vehicles, we can band together for a day with some inconvenience, mostly to animals that then do not get tended on time, or one or the other of us is often found waiting for a few hours before the other completes their classes or meetings. Sometimes one or the other of us is even caught out without a four wheel drive vehicle, stranded at school or home. Rather than run expensive new SUVs that can do everything but get bad gas mileage, we run cheaper-to-operate sedans when the weather is fine and keep older four wheel drive vehicles for when it isn't. This is cheaper, and (if you do the math) uses less fuel, than having one vehicle that can do everything but is not that great on gas mileage.

Our old Ford Escort wagon was my daily good weather driver, running to and from college and on other small errands. Despite my best efforts over several years, it had finally rusted out. Likewise our old Nissan Frontier farm truck, which doubled as Aimee's four-wheel drive vehicle for the winter, had gone feet-up. I had accidentally burned up the transmission last summer because of a catastrophic transmission oil leak that went undetected too long, and it was too rusty to put in a new transmission.

The Nissan was a particularly great loss. It had been retrofitted with a custom flat bed that could carry up to forty bales of hay or half a ton of local building lumber, as well as a great towing hitch that could be used for our livestock trailer. Yet both would now likely fail inspection, and neither could be cost-effectively repaired, so they went to the scrapyard for recycling.


It would be important for our farm and other operations that we replaced all their functionalities. The Escort was bought very cheaply, for only $1,200 (from Mr. Woods, UC statistics professor!), was simple and cheap to maintain, and got great gas mileage as a daily driver, while the truck was very versatile. Although we considered a hybrid, the prices are still too high, considering that the improvement in gas mileage over a small compact is only about five mpg. We looked at a Prius that was $7,200, but had 140,000 miles. We instead managed instead to get a 50,000 miler Toyota Matrix on offer at the dealership that gets slightly better mileage than the Escort, only slightly worse than the Prius. We also got a high miler replacement Nissan Frontier for $5,000 from one of the wholesale vehicle yards. It came with some problems most of which I was able to repair. The total cost was around $9,000 including the repairs and a set of tires. I thought this was a little too much, but it's done now, and will last a long time if I take care of it. This 2003 truck, four years newer than our old 1999 one, has four doors and a full back seat and so is even more versatile, yet gets around the same gas mileage thanks to improved engine controls. It came with a cap, which is nice to keep cargo dry, and so we got a twelve-foot flatbed trailer for hay and building supplies.

Both new vehicles are much safer than the old one, for the baby's sake.


We kept Aimee's beloved old Camry for me to drive daily. It gets slightly worse mileage than the Escort did, but I drive fewer miles than Aimee, who used to drive it, so this cancels out. Likewise, I still have my forty-three year old Land Rover four wheel drive vehicle for winter use and for SAR, which, since it's on its third or fourth lifetime, vehicularly speaking, gets the best life cycle energy efficiency of all our vehicles.

Up to twenty percent of a vehicle's lifecycle energy is consumed in production, so if a vehicle can last longer than the average lifetime, its overall energy efficiency is increased greatly. The Land Rover will likely outlive its owner, so it really doesn't matter how much gas it uses at this point. It's well ahead of any modern vehicle, even getting only twenty miles a gallon. Even so, I don't drive it much, and am looking out for an overdrive that will get the mileage up to about twenty-six miles a gallon. (Better yet.)


I maintain all our vehicles and it was with this and lifecycle efficiency in mind that I decided to put in an automotive lift this year. Apart from the need to do mechanical work, the lift would also help with rust-proofing. Rust is the enemy of lifecycle efficiency in Maine. We've lost a lot of otherwise well-performing vehicles to rust at this point, all long before their engines wore out, and I am always looking for ways to stem the losses. 


The lift cost only $750 secondhand. About $600 of concrete was required for the pad it sits on, although someone less concerned about exceeding safe working loads could have saved about one-third of that. I like to be safe. The requirement from the company was for four inches of 3,500 PSI-rated concrete. I used six or seven. I've already used it for numerous vehicle repairs and for rust-proofing the Camry and the Land Rover (seen above). It will pay for itself in saved maintenance expenses in less than a year. I haven't calculated how long it will take to pay off the emissions embedded in the concrete, but they are substantial. One estimate places them at 170 to 500 lbs of CO2 per yard of concrete, depending on the clinker content of the original cement and the energy source used to make it. Using the larger number, my five-yard pad currently cost 2,500 lbs of CO2, but it will reabsorb some of that as it continues to cure over the years. That's about only the equivalent of 132 gallons of gasoline, so the chances are that the payback will be short.
3

The other big project this year was to finish ongoing home insulation and extension jobs.

Many years ago I began retrofitting super-insulation and air-sealing into this old farmhouse, which was built in 1900. I had only one wall left to take care of. Then last year, with the baby in mind, Aimee asked for an extension with a new bedroom and bathroom, primarily so her family might come to visit. Previously we lacked any spare bedroom, and to make a nursery meant one of us giving up our den.

I interrupted the insulation job for the summer of 2013, built the extension (using passive solar design ideas), attaching it to the remaining uninsulated wall, and then finalized the super-insulation on what remained.


Here's the inside of the new extension, ready for the baby. The six hundred extra square feet cost less than $20,000, using mostly local materials. It is almost completely air-tight and situated to get the sun in winter. As a result it will use very little additional heat energy. Overall the house may even use less than before, because we can now close some doors on some of our least efficient rooms.



Here's the extension from the outside showing the new deck, which can be used used for drying clothes, saving Aimee a long walk to what used to be her clothesline, and probably therefore saving some electricity, and there are now grape vines planted to run across a trellis above head height, to provide shade in summer.


Here's the work station I used to spray the siding for the new extension and the old house. This siding went over the additional foam board insulation and house wrap that I used to improve the energy efficiency of both buildings. The siding isn't a local product, unfortunately. The foam board came from a Thorndike Amishman who has a business selling recycled and second quality insulation material.

Other summer sustainability activities included running our small farm and growing food. This is a regular operation. We keep hens, sheep, pigs, and a large kitchen garden, the scraps and weeds from which can go to hens, sheep or pigs, depending on what kinds of scraps or weeds they are, and the manure from hens, sheep or pigs going to the kitchen garden. It's a closed loop system, with everything done more or less locally, except for the purchase of some commercially bagged grain because of the need to feed sheep a selenium supplement.


Here's a Golden Laced Wyandotte hen announcing that she has contributed another egg to the farm sustainability operation. For which we say thank-you.


Here are the sheep, two of this year's meat lambs, doing some helpful weed-whacking. No feeder pigs this year, with the baby on the way. It was too much extra work at the end of the summer, when the pigs would be big and hard to handle but the baby nearly due. We will likely have some again next year.


Here is some of the produce we put up, in this case Aimee's fresh homemade pesto. Yum.


And here is the kitchen garden in full late summer harvest mode. You can go out any day and pick all the potatoes, peas, beans, salad, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage and broccoli you could possibly want to eat. Much of what we produce gets saved for the winter using canning, freezing, or root-cellaring technique.

So that's what this particular Professor of Sustainable Energy and his Associate Professor of Biology wife did with their summer break. I think it's definitely sustainable.

What did you do?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

ReVision is hiring again

http://www.revisionenergy.com/solar-jobs-maine-new-hampshire.php

BTW, for all the people who have difficulty understanding how renewable energy and finance go together well, read their ad for an "investor relations manager."

If you can't figure out how it works, write me and I'll explain.

(It's a brave new world we are living in.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Climate CoLab "Global Plan" contest enters judging phase

The MIT Climate CoLab "Global Plan" contest's first phase, proposal preparation, is over and the second phase, where the judges select the semi-finalists, has begun.

Here are the published aims of the contest:

"This contest seeks an overall plan for the world as a whole. A key aspect of the contest is that authors are invited to create integrated proposals, which can incorporate proposals from both prior and currently active Climate CoLab contests. Proposals in this contest will be evaluated in large part on how well they bring together proposals from other contests to articulate a broad, coherent vision of what the world as a whole should do. Authors can also access the EnROADS simulator developed by Climate Interactive or model runs from Stanford’s Energy Modeling Forum that project the future environmental and economic outcomes of proposed actions."
Here's my own submission, Green Keynesianism and Climate Free Trade Areas

It's been an interesting experience entering the contest. Disappointing too, at times, especially in the last few days, when "throwaway" proposals proliferated. About twenty-five additional proposals, almost all of them very weak intellectually, were posted to the site just in the last couple of weeks.

Most of the new proposals, and a large portion of the old, require what I call "magical thinking", in that they will never be adopted because they are politically or economically unworkable, or both. Some even contravened the Laws of Thermodynamics.

As critical thinking exercises go, most third-year Unity students can do better than this.

But there were some interesting submissions, a handful.

I don't envy the judges their task, sorting the wheat from the chaff.



CAT turns 40

An excellent Guardian article today:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/01/turning-a-slate-quarry-green-40-years-of-centre-for-alternative-technology

Remembering our 2010 Spring Break field trip there:

http://ucsustainability2.blogspot.com/

Monday, July 28, 2014