Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hucksters for a solar panel derby

"Solar panels at lower-than-usual cost," trumpets the New York Times headline for an article from a Business staffer rarely known to let nasty details mess up a great story [1]. "Less than $1 a watt," he writes, when "a new coal plant costs about $2.1 a watt." Glory! It must be truly a new age.

Well. Maybe. One of these days. First you have to pay for the space, next mount and wire the panels, then invert the power to AC and adapt it to the electrical grid. That will more than double the price.

Finally you have to discount for capacity factor, the ratio of average AC power to peak DC power, at which "$1 a watt" was quoted. Most places outside Times Sq., the sun doesn't shine high in a cloudless sky all the time.

In the United States, practical capacity factors range from about 20 percent, for costly sun-tracking mounts in Arizona deserts, to about 10 percent, for cheaper stationary mounts in northern New England.

Once nasty details are factored in, costs for an average AC watt available to users are at least ten times costs for a peak DC watt from an unmounted panel.

Oh my. Now a solar power-plant costs at least five-fold what a coal-fired plant does, and maybe more than double that. Houston, we have a problem.

But hurry! Get yours now. Federal tax credits through December 31, 2007. Seems there was a dust-up between Pres. and Congress over an Energy Efficiency bill. So after that, gone with the wind (lost its credits, too).

Of course so-called "news" articles are often more views than news, when they are not just press releases and puff pieces. Staff are expected to follow local party lines. It's partly arrogance, but partly economics. The cookie-cutter views are cheaper than news, while puff pieces cost little and press releases hardly anything. No tedious, expensive research, background reviews, fact checks or rewrites; just type and go.

Party lines for 2007 were mostly that energy alternatives are a Good Thing, so items making them look Hard or Expensive would rarely make the cut. For example, several reporters for big newspapers who wrote about the 2007 energy efficiency bill [2] were well aware that games were played with the bill, that lies were told about its effects, and that many loopholes were left in it. Only one, John Donnelly writing for the Boston Globe December 15, explained some of the story when it mattered [3][4].

Kudos to Donnelly and his editor, but cautions for the rest of us. Arrogance and laziness in reporting means we turn to many sources to search out facts and will never simply trust any report.

[1] John Markoff, Start-up sells solar panels at lower-than-usual cost, New York Times, December 18, 2007, available at

[2] Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Public Law 110-140, introduced as H.R. 6 and other bills, enacted December 19, 2007. See for the tangle of legislative history and for the final text.

[3] John Donnelly, Energy bill targets fuel consumption climb, Boston Globe, December 15, 2007, available at See a typical follow-up: Martin LaMonica, New energy act gets green light, CNET News, December 19, 2007, available at -- one of many sure to explain the law once it is a done deal and no longer in play.

[4] Appearing two days after enactment of Public Law 110-140, a Los Angeles Times article explains one of the many games played with the bill: Janet Wilson, EPA chief is said to have ignored staff, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2007, available at,1,1021228.story.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

New fuel efficiency law begins with lies

At the end of November, 2007, the United States has been treated to a Congressional love-in. Supposedly there was unity, at least among Democrats, around a new law to improve fuel efficiency of motor vehicles. Here is a typical description, taken from a December 1, 2007, Associated Press story: "Automakers would be required to meet an industry-wide average of 35 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks, including sport utility vehicles, by 2020...." What does that really mean?

Earlier in the year many newspapers ran stories about revised government standards for measuring fuel efficiency, producing lower ratings for miles per gallon than before in the interest of truthful reporting. For example, Warren Brown wrote in the October 21, 2007, Washington Post, "Federal gas mileage estimates for 2008-model cars and trucks will be 12 to 30 percent lower than those for 2007 models."

Stories about a proposed new fuel efficiency law did not say how "35 miles per gallon" was to be measured. It makes a difference. Measured using current standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates average efficiency for all automobiles and light trucks combined, sold in the U.S. during 2006, was 20.1 miles per gallon [1]. Improving from 20.1 to 35.0 miles per gallon would mean a 74 percent increase in efficiency.

However, under former measurement standards the average efficiency for all automobiles and light trucks combined, sold in the U.S. during 2006, was 25.3 miles per gallon [2]. Improving from 25.3 to 35.0 miles per gallon would mean only a 38 percent increase in efficiency. Since some news stories about the proposed new law have spoken of a "40 percent" improvement, it is clear that an obsolete and dishonest approach to rating fuel efficiency is being revived for the benefit of a new law.

From 1975 to 1981, following enactment of the original fuel efficiency law, manufacturers increased average efficiency from 13.1 to 20.5 miles per gallon, as estimated by EPA [3] using current measurement standards. That represented a 56 percent improvement achieved in six years. Since 1981 there has been no more sustained improvement. Average fuel efficiency for 2006 was less than the level achieved 25 years before. What happened?

As a 2006 EPA report [4] shows, major gains in fuel efficiency from 1975 through 1981 came from reducing average vehicle weight, falling from about 4050 to 3200 pounds. After 1981 manufacturers continued to improve potential fuel efficiency, but instead of making that efficiency available to reduce fuel use, on average they used it to boost vehicle weight and performance. From 1981 to 2005 average weight grew from about 3200 to 4100 pounds, and average time of accelerate to 60 miles per hour shrank from about 14.4 to 9.8 seconds.

Fuel use tends to track vehicle weight. The drop in average weight from 1975 to 1981 was enough to provide about 27 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, near half what was achieved during those years. If the subsequent regrowth in vehicle weight from 1981 to 2005 were to be reversed, that factor alone would provide most of the 38 percent improvement that the proposed new law would apparently require, leaving only about a 10 percent improvement needed from technology over a dozen years.

The 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act (Public Law 94-163) sought a bold rate of progress. Within 10 years average fuel efficiencies for cars and for light trucks were to reach 27.5 and 20.7 miles per gallon. At the time, light trucks represented about 20 percent of light vehicle sales, so a combined efficiency of 26.1 miles per gallon could be expected, doubling the average efficiency now estimated by EPA for 1975. The goal was equivalent to a cumulative improvement of 7.2 percent per year.

Fuel efficiency goals of the 1975 law were subverted by two major means. Although it was soon recognized that government efficiency ratings were almost always higher than practical experiences, political pressure joined with bureaucratic inertia to freeze the system, and the measurement standards did not change for over 30 years. By 1985 manufacturers had also begun to promote light trucks used as though they were cars, relaxing efficiency requirements and increasing profits. Average efficiency peaked in 1987, well short of goals, and has since dropped below the 1981 level.

The proposed new fuel efficiency law is a timid step toward renewed progress. It is equivalent to a cumulative efficiency improvement of 2.8 percent per year. However, if manufacturers were again to reduce vehicle weight as they did before, down to 1981 levels, then only 0.8 percent per year improvement would be needed from technology.

Progress in 1975 was achieved after the threat of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, triggering the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and during the term of the country's only unelected President, who had pardoned crimes of his predecessor but still hoped to win a term of his own. Today's threats are global warming and worldwide demands for oil, raising the price of gasoline. Is that enough?

A more responsible approach than the recently reported proposal could aim for 35 miles per gallon using the current standards for measuring fuel efficiency. That would be equivalent to a cumulative improvement of 4.7 percent per year, less than the cumulative 7.7 percent per year rate achieved between 1975 and 1981 but sustained for twice as long a period. Some improvement can again be won by shrinking vehicle weight, but a substantial part must also come from technology.

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 through 2007, Appendix A, Table A-2, Light-Duty Vehicle Adjusted Fuel Economy, Cars and [Light] Trucks, Composite 3-year Moving Average, 2006, available at

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 through 2007, Appendix A, Table A-1, Comparison of Laboratory 55/45 MPG, Both [Cars and Light Trucks], Revised Estimate, 2006, available at

[3] Robert M. Heavenrich, Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2006, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Report EPA420-R-06-011, July, 2006, Table 1, Cars and [Light] Trucks, Adjusted 55/45 MPG, 1975 through 1981, available at

[4] Robert M. Heavenrich, Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2006, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Report EPA420-R-06-011, July, 2006, Weight and Performance (chart, p. v), available at