Business & Technology

Pause for effect

Iconic Ford SUV plant to be idled for summer

Photo: Dean Souglass Ford will close its Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne for nine weeks -- four weeks longer than previously announced -- starting on June 23. Birthplace to Lincoln Navigators and Ford Expeditions, the MTP has come in for hard times due to the plummeting market for SUVs. Since January, Expedition sales are down 31 percent; Navigators, 22 percent. Once bread and butter for American automakers, SUVs have fallen victim to $4-a-gallon gasoline. To the lay observer, the temporary MTP closure is just another symptom of the shift away from SUVs, but it actually signifies a whole lot more for American automakers: At the height of the SUV boom in the late '90s, the MTP was the most profitable factory, in any industry, anywhere in the world. Keith Bradsher, Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times from 1996 to 2001, wrote in his book High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV:

Coal credit?

NYC comptroller urges scrutiny of tax-free bonds for coal-fired power plants

It hasn't made big news yet outside of specialty publications such as Bond Buyer. But a call this week by New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson could cast a new cloud over a half-dozen or more planned new coal-fired electric power plants. Thompson called on the U.S. Treasury Department to investigate the practice of using tax-free bonds to finance new coal plants. In the letter, online at www.comptroller.nyc.gov, Thompson pointed to recent research which found that coal plants were poor candidates for federal financing and problematic for investors. There are at least a half-dozen planned new power plants that would rely on tax-exempt bonds. The Treasury Department has announced it would take a hard look at use of such bonds for sports arenas. You'd think they ought to take an even harder look at old-fashioned coal plants.

The politics of clean energy

Considering recycled energy will politically facilitate a national clean energy plan

There is a tendency to frame the politics of clean energy as a debate between the enlightened, forward thinkers on the coasts and the paleolithic environment-hating coal barons in the Southeast and Midwest. It makes a good sound bite, but confuses the ends and the means. Yes, there are strong vested interests in the coal belt and the rust belt that consistently resist GHG caps and clean energy policy. But so long as we frame the clean energy conversation as a wealth transfer from dirty states to clean states, our success will remain contingent upon our ability to get senators, representatives, and voters in those states to act against their near-term economic self interest. Three maps below clarify the problem, and suggest a solution.

It's not about the fuel

The case for fuel-agnostic efficiency

Those of us who care about energy and environmental policy have a bad habit: the lazy but rhetorically convenient tendency to refer to energy issues as if they were fuel issues. From solar to coal to uranium, we have developed a shorthand that uses these words to describe a whole fuel-chain, from raw fuel extraction/recovery to end-use consumption. But the language is dangerous. What matters is efficiency -- true, fuel-agnostic efficiency, applied equally to every possible fuel-chain we know. Not because efficiency is an alternative to any given fuel, but because any other energy policy is ultimately unsustainable, in every sense of the word.

Oil industry turns to PR offensive to diffuse anger over record prices

Faced with angry consumers incensed at high oil and gasoline prices, oil companies in the U.S. and Europe have turned to well-funded PR campaigns in an attempt to shift their image from profit-hungry oil-mongers to responsible innovators fulfilling their duty as energy providers. ExxonMobil has led the most recent effort to sway the public; on June 1, Exxon released a barrage of TV and print ads, peppering the airwaves and major newspapers with a message of innovation and utility. Meanwhile, car manufacturers have been eager to paint themselves as being equally innovative and oh-so-close to divorcing petroleum altogether. General Motors …

A kind word

Will wonders never cease: not only sane economist, but author of a textbook!

Upon occasion, I've been accused of having, shall we say, an uncharitable attitude towards the self-styled "science" of economics. I firmly believe that not all economists are Dungeons and Dragons geeks in suits or political sycophants whose only talent is covering their guesswork with a fog of intentionally obscure jargon. It's just the 98 percent who give the rest a bad name. However, when one stumbles on one of the rest, it's worth noting. I'm greatly enjoying The Political Economy of World Energy: an introductory textbook by Ferdinand E. Banks. Professor Banks is like vodka: sharp, clear, and delivers a strong kick. He has his flaws -- he has a serious jones for nuclear power stations, greatly underestimating their capital costs, and is quite a bit too optimistic about hydrogen as a fuel. But he freely admits his limitations, and his writing is so good that you can forgive him his mistakes. Here is an excerpt from his brief introductory survey of world energy. I chose this excerpt because it's not only fun but because he makes a number of important points about how we tend to think about energy and economics. Enjoy:

When a bleach company cries 'sustainable'

The Clorox Co. leverages sustainability for growth

More green biz reporting from the Sustainable Brands ’08 Conference. Even the Clorox Company, with $4.8 billion in sales last year, has set out to get a piece of the proverbial green apple pie that the conscious American consumer is becoming. Recognizing that sustainable products are no longer a wee e-niche market, Bill Morrissey, VP of Environmental Sustainability at Clorox, described the company’s extensive research on what motivates a consumer’s interest in the environment. From these efforts, four key areas emerged: Personal protection – What’s going in me/on me/around me (and my family)? Cost — I save $$ by reusing/reducing …

The price isn't right

Nuclear power is expensive

In mid-2007, a Keystone Center nuclear report (PDF), funded in part by the nuclear industry estimated capital costs for nuclear of $3600 to $4000/kW including interest. The report notes, "the power isn't cheap: 8.3 to 11.1 cents per kilo-watt hour." In December 2007, retail electricity prices in this country averaged 8.9 cents per kwh. Mid-2007 has already become the good old days for affordable nuclear power. Jim Harding, who was on the Keystone Center panel and was responsible for its economic analysis, e-mailed me in May that his current "reasonable estimate for levelized cost range ... is 12 to 17 cents per kilowatt hour lifetime, and 1.7 times that number [20 to 29 cents per kilowatt-hour] in first year of commercial operation." At the end of August, 2007 Tulsa World reported that American Electric Power Co. CEO Michael Morris was not planning to build any new nuclear power plants. He was quoted as saying, "I'm not convinced we'll see a new nuclear station before probably the 2020 timeline," citing "realistic" costs of about $4,000 per kilowatt. So much for being a near-term, cost-effective solution to our climate problem. But if $4,000 per kilowatt was starting to price nuclear out of the marketplace, imagine what prices 50 percent to 100 percent higher will do.

Wal-Mart truck fleet on track to meet fuel-efficiency goals

Wal-Mart has improved the fuel efficiency of its 7,000-truck fleet by 20 percent since Oct. 2005 and is on track to meet its goal of a 25 percent improvement by the end of 2008, a Wal-Mart executive said Friday. Having already downsized its diesel tanks and started rolling on more efficient tires, the company also hopes to introduce hybrids into its fleet and perhaps devise a scheme to keep refrigeration running while the engine is off. “With gas at $4 a gallon, we’re keenly working on reducing costs,” says Matt Kistler, senior vice president of sustainability at the retail behemoth. …

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