Link roundup: direct charitable giving, energy efficiency, and TSA opt-outs

I was just trying to help — This American Life and Planet Money recently did an episode about a charity that gives money directly to people.  I haven’t actually had a chance to listen yet, but am looking forward to it and will hopefully post more about it once I do.

Why bad environmentalism is such an easy sell — A recent Freakonomics episode that I did listen to.  It was mostly useful as a reminder that evaluating environmental impact can be more difficult than you think; e.g., increasing the amount of development in cities (which are relatively energy efficient due to factors like shared transit, short distances to travel to get resources, etc.) may be better for the environment than more rural development.  Also, if everyone switched to more fuel efficient cars, and the cost of fuel to travel a given distance goes down, that could potentially cause people to drive a lot more.  The conversation was generally more speculative than data-driven (and Freakonomics has been sloppy about some of their claims in the past), but it made me want to dig into the work of Ed Glaeser — the Harvard economics professor interviewed here — and related work in more detail.

CHARTS: US carbon emissions are dropping:  Historically, I’ve mostly blogged here about quantifying the effects of individual choices we make in our lives.  But it’s great to get more systemic evidence that our individual actions can add up.   Among the factors that have made a significant impact are household energy reduction and more fuel efficient vehicles.  More people and businesses have been using renewable energy, too. Of course, it’s not all that clear-cut: the biggest factor is the increase in use of natural gas in place of coal — a change which is thanks mostly to fracking.  This American Life and many others have covered some of the potential worries surrounding fracking.  Still, it’s heartening to see some large scale good news, which reduced carbon emissions are.

Scanning the scanners — millimeter wave vs. X-ray TSA scanners: A good comparison of the types of TSA body scanners currently in use.  I’ve been meaning to post for some time about whether opting out of TSA body scans does anything to change the system.  There are personal reasons in terms of personal safety and privacy — and a lack of outside auditing — to consider opting out of scans for at least the X-ray machines (arguably there may be privacy concerns for both).  And there is evidence that the machines are not nearly as effective as one would hope, both missing actual weapons and having high rates of false alarms.

But if one of your primary objectives in opting out is registering a complaint with the government and encouraging systemic changes, is opting out at all effective?  I suspect it probably isn’t very effective, but I don’t have any evidence yet.  I’ll continue to look for evidence as to how effective this and other methods of TSA protest are.   In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who currently opt-out about why they do so, especially if they opt out of the millimeter wave machines.

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fuel efficiency of electric vs. gas cars

I’ve been considering whether to buy an electric car as my next vehicle.  I found this detailed analysis at Do The Math really interesting and useful.  Key points:

On the surface, electric cars are a lot more efficient than gas-powered cars.

The MPG equivalent of [the Volt, Leaf, and Tesla energy consumption] is approximately 80, 110, and 170, respectively. All are much better deals than gasoline cars deliver, primarily because the electrical drive system is far more efficient than the typical 20% gasoline engine.

However, when charging a car like the Leaf, the source of the electricity is important.

Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.

On the other hand, this doesn’t automatically translate to “don’t buy electric”:

I’m not saying that transitioning to electric or hybrid cars is not a good idea. I think it’s animperative, if we want maintain a car culture, given that fossil fuel supplies are going to decline eventually, starting with oil. Obviously, if your power comes from hydroelectric, solar, wind, or even nuclear, you don’t have the same concerns. Also, emissions controls (for things other than CO2) are vastly better for fossil-fuel power plants than for automobiles, so electric cars are less polluting. But if your priority is either reduced resource consumption or climate change and CO2 reduction, let’s focus on getting electricity from carbon-free sources before transforming our fleet of cars to electric—or at least accomplish the two in tandem.

I’ll post more if I find more good resources comparing environmental impact of different car types.  And I suspect I’ll also be sharing more from Do The Math — it looks like my kind of blog.

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duct tape to the rescue!

This news item brings together two of my favorite topics: effectivism and duct tape!  A guy modded his car by adding a boat tail made of duct tape (and cardboard) and increased his MPG by 15%.  That’s impressive!  (Hat tip to Dan Garcia for bringing this to my attention.)

I have been known to make backpacks out of duct tape, and to repair cars with it as well.  But this is the first I’ve heard of actually improving a car’s fuel efficiency!  Truly, this is a great material.

I don’t see myself (or most of your readers) probably going out and constructing this kind of boat tail car-mod any time soon.  But if you are interested in reading about all sorts of different mods you can make to your car, and the resulting improvements in fuel efficiency, you should check out Ecomodder.  They not only profile impressive projects like the duct tape boat tail, but they have a handy list of recommended ecomods,  rated by impact, cost, and mechanical know-how required to implement.  Some of them involve removing existing parts (e.g., roof racks) or installing off-the-shelf gauges, rather than constructing complex (if awesome) new car parts.  :)  Happy modding!

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