The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

02 January 2008

Energy and environment in the new millenium

One of our newer geobloggers, Callan Bentley, posted recently about his new Toyota Prius. Energy use is a pretty hot topic in all of my classes, as it relates to discussions of fossil fuels and peak oil and to climate change. For what its worth, here’s my first 18 months worth of Prius ownership (I picked it up on the June solstice in 2006):

I used about 250 fewer gallons of gasoline in my first year of ownership, compared to the mileage I got in my Nissan pick-up (my average mpg over the last four years for the pick-up was 20.5). That said, on my Death Valley field trip last October we used more gas (34 students, two instructors, four Ford vans) in 3 days than my Prius used for the first year. Of course a geology field trip is infinitely more justifiable than my daily commute…

I’m personally convinced that the kind of changes we need to be making as a culture are going to require some fundamental changes in our attitudes about the energy we use. While we are encouraged to switch to more energy efficient light bulbs we are paying a couple dollars/liter to drink tap water that has been forced, at huge energy expense, through a reverse osmosis system before being recharged with the calcium and magnesium removed by the RO and then packed into PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles that, per kilogram of plastic, consume about 6.5 kg of oil and release 4 kg of greenhouse gases. Or, if you prefer bottled spring water you can (usually) skip the RO process and spend the energy shipping the water from France or Fiji

One of my resolutions this year is to start commuting by bus a couple of days a week (I’ll keep you updated on how this works out…). It’s 45 minutes to an hour of additional inconvenience per day, but a partial acknowledgment that the use of the automobile for regular commuting is one of the conveniences we need to give up.

But I’ve never believed that the solutions to our problems lie in individual choices. The environment is the commons, after all. The more people use public transportation, or buy cars that get high mileage, the better. But decisions to expand public transportation, or to require that passenger cars get better gas mileage, are made collectively. The free market doesn’t respond to consumer needs, it attempts to manufacture consumer desires (see water, bottled).

I’m going to write more about this in the next few months. If we are indeed successful in lobbying for a presidential science debate this year I can’t imagine energy and environment not being the most important topics.


BrianR said...

"I’m personally convinced that the kind of changes we need to be making as a culture are going to require some fundamental changes in our attitudes about the energy we use."

I whole-heartedly agree. It seems the generations younger than the Baby Boomers get this a little better. I think the value of individual choices is in both the actual impact (which may be small) as well as the culture-changing aspects (which may be significant).

People are also going to have to stop ignoring the details, complexities, and realities of where/how we get our energy. Everybody needs to become broadly literate in the science, engineering, economics, politics, etc. of energy.

I'm putting together a similar database for our Nissan Versa...not as good as the Prius, but better than a lot of other choices. Any ideas why the average mpg seems to slightly rise over time?

jrepka said...


The average has risen as my driving habits have improved. My first few tanks were mostly below 45, so it's been slowly rising ever since.

There's nothing that'll make you think twice about how you accelerate from a stop than seeing your instantaneous mileage drop below 10. Over the last year I've learned a lot about coasting, anticipating light changes, and driving on hills.

I didn't mention this in the op, but I think that first and easiest requirement for new cars should be a dashboard read-out of instantaneous and cumulative mpg.

A student was asking me about my car a couple of months ago and one of his first questions was how good it was for passing on the freeway. I had to tell him that passing other cars was kind of the antithesis of the point, but that's the standard formula for these questions: "what kind of alternative energies/systems will allow me to continue to behave exactly the same way I always have?"

Chuck said...

I know exactly what your student needs...

Chuck said...

Here's how a revhead can have third-world CO2 emissions and still have fun:

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