Urban Farm Girl

A one-woman brainstorming session.

09 February, 2007

End of an Era

Hi. So I know that it's been forever since I last posted. And yeah, I've been busy. And yeah, I have tried in the meantime to write a post about hydrogen fuel cells. I am still trying to get that one together - the technology is much more complicated (physics - what?) than some of the other things I've written about here.

And, also, I feel a little bit like this blog has served the purpose that produced it last fall. I was bored. I wanted a reason to keep thinking and learning about energy and environmental issues. This sounds kind of hokey, but I also sort of wanted to put out a call to the universe to help me out - like, I'm putting this out there, universe! This is what I care about! This is where I am directing my energy, see? What do you think of that, universe? So I made the first move, through this blog, and the universe sort of did the rest.

It was through a conversation about the blog post on Nigeria, telecom and biodiesel that I ended up with a shot at my dream job. And now, somehow, I've got that job and I'm starting it on the 20th. I give a lot of credit to this little holler at the world's energy field for getting me here.

So, this isn't a normal post, and I'm warning you that I'm about to get philosophical and give some really vague advice that will probably make you angry some day. Don't keep your passion under your hat. The universe can't see it there. The Methodist God can't bless wine if the cork's still in the bottle and the universe won't know you care unless you put it out there. It's a different take on alternative energy, I guess, but it's all dominos. Do your thing - they'll tumble around you like they ought to.


14 November, 2006

A Gigantic Nuclear Furnace

During a discussion of my most recent post, a friend (I can't remember which one to credit, I'm sorry brilliant friends) suggested that solar power might be a reasonable alternative to biodiesel for running the Nigerian telecom stations. I agreed – it almost seemed too logical. I should have thought of it myself! Please note, MTN: my friends are brilliant!

A few years ago it seemed that solar power had gone to purgatory along with the electric car. Since the Pope abolished purgatory in December of 2005, however, it’s back! So what now?

Today, 95% of the world’s solar power is generated by flat plate silicon photovoltaics. These are what you occasionally see on tree-hugger’s roofs and your calculator. They just straight-up absorb sunlight over the whole surface of the cell and convert it to electricity. It’s all we've really had for quite awhile, since incentives for improving on them didn't really exist until that whole global warming thing came up. For a few reasons, they’re really not the best.

First, producing energy this way is expensive - estimated to cost between $0.22 and $0.44 per kilowatt hour (kWh). Natural gas, by contrast, costs $0.042 per kilowatt hour and subsidy-free wind is $0.05 per kWh. This is the wholesale price, though, and it’s not really a good comparison. Since solar energy is often made and used in the same spot, its cost ought to be compared to retail electricity prices. In 2005, the average retail price for electricity was $0.095 per kWh, for commercial it was $0.087 and industrial uses cost $0.057. Obviously not bridging the gap very much, there. It is especially interesting to note how inexpensive electricity currently is for industry, where the larger-scale solar set-ups I’ll discuss below might make the most sense.

What’s up with the cost? Flat photovoltaics are very material - intensive. Silicon is the active ingredient in the solar generation chemistry equation. And silicon is expensive. Computer manufacturers court it for semiconductor manufacturing and are willing to buy it lobster and steak (er, pay more for it) since they use a lot less, in a marginal sense. Since the entire surface of flat solar panels is designed to absorb and convert solar energy, a lot of silicon is needed. There is a lot of raw silicon-making material out there. But silicon refining capacity is short and it’s going to take awhile to catch up. Another issue with traditional solar cells is their efficiency - they convert on average only about 15% of the sun energy they absorb into electricity.

As my work in government has taught me, you can't come up with much savings by cutting out things that don't cost that much. So reducing or eliminating silicon from photovoltaic production has to be the way to go, though weight also must be given to the enemies you will make among silicon lobbyists. Is it worth it?
Gads of companies with visions of various currency symbols dancing in their heads must think so. They have scads of engineers challenging the silicon-heavy status quo. The Energy Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making and research organization, estimates that the U.S. solar energy sector alone has the potential to grow by $6.0 billion per year if the cost can be brought in line with other energy sources.

Let's check out one option - concentrator photovoltaics. They need just a little button of silicon because they are so brilliant. According to Parc Research, they can match the energy output of flats with only 1/1000th the amount of silicon. Mirrored lenses focus sunlight onto the little silicon spot, concentrating the energy intensity. A whole bunch of them are put together to make a functional receptor, like this one.

Rotation-ability is important so the lenses align with the sun correctly all day long.

Isn't that amazing? If you would like to steep your brain in yet more wonderment, just think: concentrator photovoltaics are approaching 30 to 40% efficiency. That's about double current levels. If each cell costs lots less due to reduced silicon use, yet can produce twice as much electricity from the same amount of sunshine...are we approaching some sort of market competitiveness? Parc puts the cost at half that of flat cell generation - so we're down to $0.11 to $0.22 per kWh: nearly competitive with residential costs, though the logistics don’t really work for most residential settings. Still, I do have a great idea for that old satellite dish on my uncle’s acreage…

Obviously, the cost is really not competitive with commercial or industrial rates in the U.S. Is it competitive with rates in Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, South America or Australia? Um.

Let’s just look at Nigeria for now. If you read “Bio-wondering” you know that a lot of electricity there is produced privately. A December 2002 World Bank report put the average cost of private production at $0.06 per kWh and public production at $0.159. Nigeria’s government might explore this technology for advantages in cost, continuity of service and provision to remote areas. Private entities at the high end of provision cost ($0.208 per kWh) might also check this out. Of course, the technology costs will probably be different in Nigeria than they are in the U.S., but how they would be different is difficult to say.

A case study: a project being built in Australia has utilized a $1 million government grant to install concentrator photovoltaic “dishes” in an area where 2,500 people are spread across 100,000 square kilometers. Similar to Nigeria, power in this area is currently generated with diesel fuel. The government estimates a savings of 160,000 liters, (about 42,000 gallons) of diesel per year. But electricity in Australia is cheap (less that $0.04 per kWh). They have a ton of “clean” coal and an enormously flexible energy market, where electricity is bought and sold by the minute depending on who’s producing it most cheaply. However, supplying remote areas is clearly an obstacle for the Australians as well. And a full million dollars was required to make solar energy happen for them. That’s an almost unaffordable leap for private industry to make, especially when compared to burning biodiesel with not so much as a modification to the same old diesel generators.

The new solar technology looks promising – concentrator photovoltaics aren’t all that’s out there – but the costs still appear prohibitive, even in the places it could be most beneficial. It’s unfortunate, but the cost of fossil fuel consumption is still too low, even with a global warming premium fast approaching, to make direct capture of the sun’s energy economical. But this is only the beginning. If I didn’t believe in engineers’ ability to go beyond what anyone thought was possible in the 1980s, I wouldn’t have married one.

17 October, 2006


I've had a hard time convincing myself to write this. I think it's fascinating. I really want to examine it. But I don't have much of a background in macroeconomics and when it comes to international econ I'm a zero. I know it's not simple in any sense. I tried to grill a friend who is a college professor specializing in ag policy about it, and he shook his head and told me the answer was a World Food Prize. I'll put it out there, though, try to stick to the available facts, not make too many assumptions, and maybe I can get some good insights from you-all.

Substantial telecommers Ericsson and MTN along with enormous mobile network trade group the GSM Association are piloting a biodiesel-powered mobile telecom base station in Lagos, Nigeria. Their plan is to buy locally-grown pumpkin seed, groundnuts (kind of like peanuts), palm oil, and jatropha and set up biodiesel processing operations local to their microwave transmission base stations to fuel the mobile network generators.

MTN is already sunk, pretty much up to its clavicles, into constructing itself a new market in Nigeria - and it's the number one provider of mobile services in the country. The company has borrowed $300 million to build the MTN Y'elloBahn - a digital network that, when completed, will allow your mother to call you almost anywhere in Nigeria during your Peace Corps stint. Thanks a lot, MTN! So far, only about 20% of the Nigerian population has cell phones, but growth in this "flat world" of ours is basically assured.

The electrical power situation in Nigeria is a policy issue unto itself. The country is currently in the process of both privatizing and setting up a framework for operation of its electricity grid. Many outside companies doing business in Nigeria generate power for operations without hooking into the national grid, which is woeful with power outages. According to Oyeronke Oyetunde (I have no idea how to say that, either), MTN's Regulatory Affairs Manager, telecoms in Nigeria produce 84% of their own power and get just 16% from the national grid. She claims that the need for companies to generate their own power adds 35% to the cost of constructing new base stations. I have been around lobbyists for too long to really believe her, but I'm sure there's some cost increase associated with installing a generator instead of running a line. And there are ongoing costs, of course. Last year, MTN spent $20 million on diesel fuel for its generators. A cost estimate I found for diesel fuel in Nigeria in February of 2005 had it at about $2.00 a gallon. It's not insignificant, but for a company with $2 billion in sales that same year, it doesn't seem like a whole lot. Lots of successful companies do like to squeeze out the odd million in savings here and there, though, and MTN's biodiesel proposal must make fiscal sense for them.

Their partner, Nigeria, is very excited about development. And, considering that growth in the economies of developing nations kicked the ass of growth in developed countries over the past 5 years (4.8% per year compared to 2%) it seems dreaming big is also trendy. A research report sponsored, dubiously, by Vodafone, but supported by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) found that between 1996 and 2003, developing countries gained 0.59 percentage points in economic growth for every 10 more mobile phones per 100 people. When the internet and communications settle in, the result can be Nigerians selling services to Germany, bringing in income from outside the country which can be spent and perpetuate itself locally, as I somewhat discussed in the local production piece. Only on a larger scale that I'm less certain about. But, so, good! Clearly the incentive is there for companies to invest in telecommunications in Nigeria. Investors seem to think it's a country on its way to full participation in the global economy.

But: you can't eat a mobile phone. You can eat pumpkins seeds and groundnuts and palm oil. You probably shouldn't eat a lot of jatropha. Just enough to cure the bellyache.

The three largest crops in Nigeria in 2003 were yams, cassava and groundnuts. The three largest crops Nigerians dined upon were sorghum, millet and cassava. They produced a lot of sorghum, millet and cassava all on their own, but in 2002, Nigeria imported 6.6 megatons of groundnuts. In 2003, they imported 160,000 megatons of palm oil. What is the end result of increasing demand for products that are already in short supply within Nigeria?

First, the price would almost certainly increase. Initially, imports would also have to increase as farmers caught up with the price signals. Then, land formerly used for some other purpose - probably growing a different crop - would be shifted into oilseed production. Chances are that the new oilseed fields would replace food fields rather than other oilseed fields. So local production of food would decrease, potentially increasing the need for food imports and potentially increasing the price of food.

Upon my initial inspection, this argument looks bug-infested when it comes to biodiesel in the U.S., though I need to look into it a lot more before coming to any real conclusions. One main reason is that the U.S., in 2003, was importing only 11% of its food - the two largest imports fruit and fish with olive and canola oils also ranking high. It was estimated in March of 2006 that Nigeria imports about 60% of the raw inputs for its food processing sector. Food imports total an estimated $2.5 billion while exports are a measly $400 million. Not the best ag trade balance for a country with a farming majority.

It seems that importing food is not a choice that Nigeria is making, but a necessity borne from a lack of John Deere equipment, water, diminishing soil quality and any number of other factors. So when MTN asserts that it is improving the well-being of Nigerians by using biodiesel to fuel its mobile network, I have extremely mixed feelings about it. Is it really helpful to increase the demand for already-scarce resources? What comes first - the mobile phone or 3 meals a day? This project prioritizes communications technology first, food security second. Is that okay?

I'm not being sarcastic; I really do want to know. This idea leaves me with lots more questions and no conclusions at all.

Is it, in terms of economics and political stability concerns, okay to rely upon a tech economy to lift up living standards so that a country can afford to import an increasing majority of its food?

The U.S. has always had a policy that food is a national security issue. We refuse to be held hostage with a corn cob to our heads. Food is power - without it, we die. It would be no less for Nigeria. But, really, is domestic food supply a national security issue?

What is the motivation of the group putting this deal together? They claim economic as well as environmental benefits. How are they fueling the biodiesel production facilities - perpetual motion machines? Will they be on the grid? Will they be fueled by biodiesel? Or lions?

Who really benefits, and who pays in this scenario? You need an econometric model to see how it all falls out with the supplies and demands being all shifty-like. Do oilseed prices really increase? Do food prices really rise? Do the telecoms save money? Do more people end up with mobile access? Does more environment get destroyed, and carbon released, from clearing more land? Does the use of tractors go up?
I plead ignorance in my disclaimer and I'll say again, I'm ignorant about so many facets of Nigeria, telecommunications and groundnuts. The most I can hope for is that I haven't made any big errors or insulted anyone. I would love to have pointed out if there's something I'm missing. Or even if you have questions I've failed to ask here. Shoot.

25 September, 2006

"Local" is Greek for "Delicious"

I ran my first 5K race on Saturday in 28 minutes and 16 seconds. As a rookie, I felt great about my run. Saturday was also about the half-way point to a 10K I’m running in November and was a nice confirmation that I’m at least on some kind of decent track with my training.

My sister-in-law, Kristin, ran the race with me. She called a few hours after it was over, wondering if I wanted to go out and get the greasy lunch we had so painfully earned over the last 5 weeks. We hit the Waveland Café – vote Best Breakfast in the Des Moines CityView survey 5 years in a row. Previous breakfasting attempts had all ended with sad assessments of a line extending nearly to Omaha. But today we had seats at the counter within a few minutes. We read the menu for entertainment as we waited for our classic breakfast and turkey reuben.

It turns out the Waveland uses a local butcher for its meats, buys all its stuff locally. And why not? This is Iowa – there are animals fattening themselves incessantly and grain spewing forth all around us.

There is no reason to eat anything that’s traveled more than a few dozen miles. The menu also informed us that every dollar spent locally triggers $7.00 in additional local revenue. Our already delirious eating pleasure (it was good, people) was heightened even more by our $140 contribution to the local economy. Mmm – satisfying!

After our lunch, Kristin and I geeked out on the internet at my house for awhile, looking up information about charitable giving and the estate tax, discussing a future award-winning screenplay that she’s going to write, ruminating on the 2008 Presidential elections. It’s weird how life works like that, but my good friend Scott Bents (who also happens to be Masters student at Iowa State University AND a Biodiesel Coop partner) had emailed me an article about a study recently conducted at Iowa State University on the regional economic impacts of local ethanol plant ownership – there it was in my inbox!

The money we had just spent at the Waveland Café would likely be hitting the streets in a few hours as the waitress spent our tip on a six-pack of beer and some parmesan cheese. She would return home and pay her water bill, partially financing the NetFlix habit of a reclusive City employee. Does the money invested in ethanol plants multiply in the same way? That’s what the ISU researchers wanted to find out.

(Full disclosure: I have season tickets to ISU football. I am not an alumnus, but am married to one and I love the Cyclones. I try to be impartial when reviewing the work of their researchers. It’s easier when I connect them directly with running back Stevie Hicks. Go for the HOLE Stevie! Damn it!)

Right now, 27 ethanol plants are operating in Iowa, with 2 dozen more at some stage of the planning or implementation process. Completion of all these projects would increase ethanol production capacity from 1.3 billion gallons to 3.8 billion gallons per year. Each ethanol plant creates jobs directly, like any other manufacturing operation. The plant pays out wages to its workers and dividends to its investors. Farmers in the immediate area experience some increase in the price they get for corn or sorghum; transportation costs cause the premium to decrease as the corn plants get further from the ethanol plants. Eagerly approved subsidies at every level of government comprise the final piece of the cash infusion; current Federal subsidy is $0.51 per gallon of pure ethanol.

Economic benefits? Yes! But how, and to whom, does the bling accumulate? The answer is complicated; every time you change one variable the whole system shifts. I strained my eyes slowly over this dense work and was impressed with the questions they thought to ask: are the investors owner/operators or are they hands-off types? What are the chances that new income will stay in the area? Where in the world IS Carmen Sandiego? Assuming investors break down 50/50 between owners and lazy-butts and that Carmen Sandiego is probably at the Waveland Café, the results broke down like this:

(The graph looks funky because I am terrible at html. Get over it.)

So moving from 25% to 50% local ownership increases the regional economic impact by $7.5 million - 97.4%! Moving from 50% to 75% local ownership has a $7.8 million impact, 51.3%. I bet you can do the math for the one I have left out. It’s a lot. So, I guess, local ownership proves its mammoth awesomeness once again.

Before you start sending me hate mail about ethanol’s energy balance, farm subsidies and the food issue, just know that I’m not here to promote corn-based ethanol. Mostly, I just wanted to highlight one piece of what I think is the future of energy production: local ownership and control. From wind farms to solar power to, in farm country at least, grainy gas and diesel, there are clear possibilities for individuals to wrap at least one fist around the opaque energy industry – and to make solid, rural-living money doing it. And that gets me all excited. More local ownership discussions to come!

11 September, 2006


Wow...so I wrote this post yesterday and then, though the stupidity of the mouse click, lost it all in seconds. It ruined my day and my motivation. The internet is testing me. But it will not win. Again, I begin: Unfortunately, log-in issues left me with no computer over the past few weeks. My apologies for the delayed posting. The great news is that the lag gave my friend Andrew Friberg time to learn enough Swedish to watch a show about global dimming in that great language. And it just so happens that this topic makes a great follow-up to my diesel hybrids post. Thanks, Andrew!

In my last post, I hit on the new low-sulfur regs that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is implementing in just a few weeks. Sulfur-reduction efforts aren't just aimed at cars - the (in)famous Clear Skies initiative is also forcing power plants to scrape the sulfur off their hands. Sulfur is one unfortunate by-product of burning fossil fuels, and it's linked to lots of unfortunate problems like asthma, cancer and acid rain. Recently, another evil effect has been making the geeky science-show rounds: global dimming.

First documented in 1969, the global dimming s.o.p. is ensuring that less sunlight reaches the earth as sulfur emissions increase. Scientists in several different regions have measured it. Estimates of the dimming effect between 1950 and 1990 range from 2-3% per decade. Though varied across world regions, researchers found at least some reduction of sunlight in each example. Why is this happening?

It's not quite as simple as it may seem. When burning fossil fuels give off sulfur, it's mainly in an aerosol form, like fog or smoke or Aqua Net. Once they reach the atmosphere, the tiny sulfur particles themselves can act as sunlight reflectors, causing the light that strikes them to propel willy-nilly back into space without reaching the earth. They can also attract lots of tiny water droplets, forming unusually dense clouds that reflect more sunlight than normal clouds. There's also evidence that because the water droplets in these fatty clouds are so tiny, they have a harder time getting together to get their rain on, so the clouds may stick around longer than normal. Conversely, these mutant clouds also have greater heat-trapping qualities at night, when they have no sun with which to frolic.

The "yay" CNN headline is that recent studies have shown the effect decreasing since the early 1990s. The ":(" one is that even as we reduce our sulfur emissions, greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continue to rise. Carbon dioxide, water vapor and nitrous oxides, just to name a few, continue to trap increasing amounts of heat. Just for us!

But, it's kind of like a miracle, right? A pollutant that counteracts its own harmful effects? Could we GET any luckier? Hm. Yes. Yes we could. Clearly, it would be irresponsible to ignore the harmful effects of sulfur pollution. They are not small. The EPA estimates that the diesel fuel sulfur regualtions alone will prevent 8,300 premature deaths per year. Promoting the opposite is pretty untenable, as positions go.

Two additional reasons point to preposterousness: sulfur in the atmosphere has a short life, only hanging around for 2 to 3 weeks, while carbon dioxide, for example, is estimated to spend between 50 and 200 years up there. Secondly, since the cooling effects are regional in nature, not all parts of the world are affected evenly. Average global temperature has continued to rise even as global dimming has occurred.

Scientists predict that global dimming and it's reduction will probably lead to changes in regional weather patterns. As use of fossil fuels in the Southern hemisphere increases and sulfur emissions in the Northern decrease, the cooling will shift. But an overall cooling, the yin to global warming's yang, isn't going to happen.

So what IS going to happen? Some scientists, including Atsumu Ohmura of the World Radiation Monitoring Center, believe that as the cooling effect of global dimming decreases, global warming will increase much more dramatically than has been predicted by traditional climate models. Some claims assert warming of up to twice as much as previously thought.

However, the highly-degreed dudes over at Real Climate vigorously, and seemingly without exception, disagree with assessments of global dimming as the new Paris Hilton of climatology and seem to place it more at an American Idol third-runner-up level of importance. It won't destroy everything in its path, but may go on to make a failing solo album and have an affair that ruins a few marriages.

This assertion stems from a horribly technical bit of information known as "error." It's what you see at the end of any political poll - nothing that has uncertainty when measured can be certain. This is even more the case when you're trying to predict the future. Fortunately, wise folks have come up with a way to precisely measure how wrong they probably are. Nice. And the blogging climate scientists referenced above believe that the global dimming effect falls easily within the margin of error of global warming models. In other words, the effect of this one varied and wacky phenomenon is not big enough to make them more wrong than they probably already are.

So don't panic! Don't hang up your reversible anti-pollution cloak and don't stop gathering up the sulfur you've left lying around the living room for 3 weeks. Just count yourself 0.05% more educated about things related to science. And keep working on fighting global warming in your own little way. And go Cyclones!

30 August, 2006

I'm still here!

I bet you think that I've quit because I've run out of things to write about - but that is a lie! I have had a great time with this little piece of work so far and I will be back. It's just that life has not allowed me much time for this lately. And I have to say that it's not looking good for the next few weeks, either. I'm leaving for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota for 4 days and then will be in San Diego for a work conference for 4 more days. So I will try to get some typing in while in San Diego, but I can't promise that I'd rather be indoors than out while I'm there. I know, it's not the best start for this newbie, but I do promise to be back, so keep checking in (please?).


18 August, 2006


In 2005, transportation accounted for 28 percent of energy consumption in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). It came in just behind industry, at 32 percent, and ahead of residential and commercial (22 and 18 percent respectively). We expend about 28 QUADRILLION British thermal units of energy per year on transportation. Wow! That is something I feel completely unable to connect to any sort of reference point. It is astonishing that those quadrillions are only a fraction of U.S. energy consumption. But they are an important fraction and a place where there is space for some innovative reduction.

There is something sort of exciting going on in the transportation market right now in the U.S. I'm not talking about the introduction of the Hummer H7 Hybrid. I am talking about the utlra-low-sulfer diesel fuel requirement that will take effect on October 15 of this year. What does this mean?

1). The main benefit of the low-sulfer fuel is that it allows diesels to be outfitted with pollution-reducing technologies like particulate matter filters and oxidation catalysts. Basically, less soot and garbage spewing from the tailpipe. Fewer obnoxious fumes. Good times.

2). The diesel car market in the U.S. can grow significantly. They are already using "clean" diesel in Europe, where diesel car sales are expected to surpass gasoline this year. Making this kind of diesel available at U.S. pumps means that the Euros will need to make very few modifications to sell them over here. Check out some of the new models here and here.

3). You won't be able to buy a new diesel Volkswagen in the 2006 or 2007 model years and some other manufacturers are likely to take the year off as well. Most are taking these two years to refine their designs for the 2008 model year.

4). My fondest dream - the introduction of the diesel hybrid - may finally become a reality.

Right now, driving a diesel can be somewhat of a moral trade-off situation. Do I care more about air pollution or global warming? When I bought my Beetle TDI, I chose global warming. Diesel fuel just has a lot more concentrated energy in it than gasoline, resulting in amazing mileage - anywhere from 40 to 50 miles per gallon. Right now I'm avoiding the moral dilemma during the summer by using 99% biodiesel and getting significant reductions in pollution along with decent milage. Mileage is reduced a little with biodiesel, closer to 35 or 40 mpg. Still pretty fabulous compared to the majority of U.S. cars. But nobody's figured out the magic ingredient that will allow one to use it over the course of a Midwestern winter without it turning to butter. Diesels are talked about quite a lot as an alternative to a hybrid. But what about combining these technologies for a super-mileage vehicle?

Way back in 2005 General Motors worked with DaimlerChrysler on a diesel hybrid concept car called the Opel Astra - a sedan that got about 59 mpg. Volkswagon's diesel-electric prototype, engineered around that same time period, achieved 118 miles per gallon. Mercedes, Ford, Nissan and PSA Peugeot Citroen have also struggled to design a doable diesel-hybrid concept car. I'm sure that list isn't exhaustive, but the interest of major auto makers indicates that it's an idea with market merit.

Unfortunately, current costs for these cars are keeping them stuck in the concept stage. Some estimates put them at $8,000 to $10,000 above a conventional diesel. Conventional diesel cars already cost about 10% more than gasoline cars, so herein lies the problem. If you're dealing with a high-cost item, like a transit bus, then it's a smaller increase as a percentage of the price. Hence, the technology has already hit the road, so to speak, in that market. But adding $8,000 to a $30,000 vehicle, just for example, is a 27% price increase. That hurts. It's almost un-American, if you ask me.

But just to be reasonable about this, let's do some calculations. My VW New Beetle TDI gets 45 mpg (my estimate) with conventional diesel. If mileage for a diesel hybrid was in the middle of the two examples above, I could expect 90 mpg. That's doubling my efficiency. Diesel is at a nationwide average of $3.03 per gallon this week. Assuming 30,000 miles driven in one year, you'd save about $1,000 in fuel costs per year. If the hybrid costs $8,000 more upfront, that's 8 long years to make up your initial investment, compared to a conventional diesel.

What about compared to a gasoline vehicle? Gas is at $2.97 this week. A New Beetle with a gasoline engine gets an average of 26.5 mpg according to the VW website. Assuming also 30,000 miles on this car, a diesel hybrid would save you $2,350 per year in fuel costs. It pays off in a much shorter 3.4 years. But is it worth it? I'm curious. This calls for one final comparison:

A brand new VW New Beetle with a gas engine is listed at $17,180. A new VW New Beetle TDI is $18,900. The website specs say the TDI gets an average of 40.5 mpg, which seems low, but we'll go with it. All other assumptions as above, you save $1,100 per year and recoup your extra cost in 1.6 years and don't have to worry about ever replacing an expensive battery pack. From a consumer's standpoint, this is by far a better deal with a benefit that keeps on giving. If you drive your car for 10 years, you've saved $11,000 in fuel. And that's assuming prices remain around $3.00 per gallon, which seems highly unlikely. At $4.00 per gallon, your 10-year savings would be closer to $16,000.

However, this whole question is about a whole lot more than you and me and our Gucci knock-off purses/wallets. There are those bigger moral questions I mentioned above - what about global warming? And what about air pollution? And, you know, what about when all the oil is almost gone? I'm personally really disinterested in World War III (the Oil War) if one can believe we haven't yet gone there.

A 2003 MIT study found that investing with a vengeance in diesel hybrid technology could result, by 2020, in a class of cars twice as efficient and half as polluting as today's gasoline hybrids. The same study found that hydrogen - emphasized by the current administration as the answer - could not achieve these same results over this time period.

I am not complaining without a resolution. Here is one last, I promise the last, calculation. At $4.00 per gallon, a diesel hybrid would save $3,200 per year in fuel costs over a conventional gasoline engine- erasing the $10,000 premium ($2,000 extra for diesel and $8,000 for the hybrid) in a little over 3 years of driving. Increasing the gas tax could get us there. A subsidy similar to what we've seen for gasoline hybrids wouldn't hurt either. Or, for a more labor-intensive approach, we could take an in-depth look at the ways current U.S. government policies distort the oil market through tax breaks and subsidies and make changes where necessary.

Demand drives the market and manufacturers will bring these cars online if there is enough interest. That intesest won't arise until fuel prices reach a certain level. It seems to me to be a moral imperative to allow the market to move, or to drive it if necessary, in the direction of sustainability. MIT tells us that diesel hybrids are the fastest way there.

I'm sure the opinion above would not get me invited to a White House dinner. There are macroeconomic arguments to be made in the short run. But weigh these against the possibility of losing polar bears and coral reefs in our generation, against the toll of war, and against doing nothing. How does that make the world look, 50 years from now? How does it look if you choose the change? A temporary increase in energy prices does not the downfall of a society make. And 50 years from now, I believe our grandchildren would certainly be thanking us for the sacrifice we made, for them.