Ralph Sierra: ‘We’re really holding car manufacturers’ feet to the fire – giving them 12 years to increase gas mileage 7.5 MPG! Gee, do you think they can do it?’

☞ One could cry thinking of the short-sightedness of Detroit’s executives over the last three decades and what it’s cost our country generally and their shareholders specifically.

Even assuming there would have been no way to market ‘fuel economy’ more successfully anywhere in the world (why limit our sales to the U.S.?) – and why do we accept that assumption? – surely they could have known after the oil shock of 1973 that someday fuel efficiency would rule. How hard would it have been to lead the world in this research and technology, keeping ever-better versions of it on the shelf until that day came? Were Toyota and Honda in 1973 or 1983 or even 1993 so much larger and richer than GM and Ford that they could afford this investment but we couldn’t?

And while we’re crying, what does it say about our democracy that we couldn’t do the obvious, way back in 1973 or 1983 or even 1993?

Namely: impose a dime-a-year increase in the gas tax, every cent of which used to lower the income tax . . . thereby to tax things we wanted to discourage (oil consumption, pollution) and cut taxes on the things we wanted to encourage (work and investment).

The tax could have been announced in 1973 but not kicked in for five years to give people time to adjust. And it could have been voluntary. All people would have had to do to avoid it: buy more fuel efficient vehicles. If they chose not to, they’d pay more for gas but get the income tax cut.

So there I was, 33 years ago, terrified, interviewing the Secretary of the Treasury in his gigantic office, asking him what he thought of that idea.

‘Withering’ would not begin to describe the contempt in his voice when he said, even then, ‘Well, of course we should do that.’ Yes, well? ‘But it’s not politically feasible.’ The voters just won’t got for it. (Even the tiny 4.3-cent hike Clinton/Gore tacked on was met with howls – it could cost a family $30 each year! Confiscatory! Family-wrecking!)

And so here we are.

But if we had somehow found the will and the wisdom to take this path in the mid-Seventies, we’d have marginally increased returns from work and investment, while providing a clear market-driven signal to consumers and manufacturers to pay more attention to fuel efficiency. Our cars would get twice the mileage they do today . . . we’d be burning that much less fuel into the air . . . that many fewer billions of dollars a week into thin air. Our balance of trade deficit would be much less bad. We’d be a stronger, richer, healthier nation.

Onward and upward, but it’s hard not to think back and imagine what could have been.


A frighteningly bright acquaintance, Lindsay Leveen, puts out an email each Thursday he calls Thermo Thursday. It’s always titled, ‘Thank God It’s Thursday,’ except that in place of God he always has some other G – in this week’s case, ‘Grande.’

Thermo Thursday TGIT – Thank Grande It’s Thursday

We are not talking about the Rio Grande but the mid-size coffee serving at Starbucks. Yes Starbucks has Short, Tall, Grande and Venti sizes for their coffee and lattes. (Here.) The Grande is a 16 oz size. (Here.)

. . . I was recently in the local Starbuck when I overheard the patron in front of me ask for a 140 degree latte. Being a thermo expert I of course had to ask the Barista what this meant. The barista replied that the milk in the 140 degree is warmed less than the normal 160 degrees. Of course my mind started doing mental arithmetic as to how much energy Starbucks could save if all patrons became green and asked for the 140 degree grande non fat latte with one Splenda and no foam single cupped. Yes there are over 15,000 Starbucks stores and Starbucks has yearly revenues of nearly ten billion dollars. They must sell something like 3 billion grande equivalent drinks a year. Twenty degrees difference on a drink that weighs a pound using a specific heat of 1.0 means 60 billion BTUs could be saved. Each of the Starbuck espresso machines is powered by electricity. There are 3412 BTUs in a kilowatt hour. The added warmth of the drinks therefore equals 19.096 million kilowatt hours. The average heat rate of a coal fired power plant, the most common form of power plant in the world is about 10,000 BTU per kilowatt hour. This means about 1.25 pounds of coal needs to be burned to generate a kilowatt hour, so the 19 million kilowatt hours required 23.870 million pounds of coal. Coal is about 50% carbon the rest is ash and moisture with a little hydrogen. Therefore 11,935,000 pounds of carbon are emitted each year to increase the temperature of the grande cups of Starbucks from 140 degrees to 160 degrees. This is almost 6,000 tons of carbon. Expressed as carbon dioxide we have to multiply the amount of carbon by 3.67 and we have that Starbucks is emitting and additional 21,881 tons a year of carbon dioxide simply because the average patron did not request the 140 degree grande non fat latte with one Splenda and no foam single cupped option. This is about the same amount of carbon dioxide that 4,000 cars emit in a year. Of course just driving to Starbucks to get the 140 degree grande non fat latte with one Splenda and no foam single cupped drink causes an untold amount of carbon emissions.

☞ Lindsay is famous for this kind of hard-nosed calculation. Check out his website for more. Hydrogen cars? ‘A total hoax,’ he says. ‘The overall efficiency of producing, compressing, and using the hydrogen in a fuel cell is 46.9%. This is not much greater than the 40% efficiency of the Prius hybrid and well below the efficiency of a diesel hybrid. Researchers at MIT have reported that diesel with hybrid is more green than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.’


You haven’t watched it yet? I totally get how busy you are. But you want some quality family time this weekend? Watch it with them. There’ll always be another football game. Enjoy.


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