Free Market Applied to Global Warming

A recent facebook debate (yes, I’m one of those people) about global warming got me thinking about how it applies to the free market.  Or, rather how does the free market apply to global warming.  I’ve always considered this topic to contain two completely different sub-topics warranting totally different debates: Is global warming man-made, and assuming it is, what do we do about it?  For the sake of this post, let’s just assume it is indeed man-made.  Everyone knows that the center of the theory is that carbon dioxide absorbs heat in the atmosphere, which leads to increased temperatures, which is also called the greenhouse effect, yada yada.  And supposedly, we humans have created so much carbon dioxide in the past few decades that now it’s a threat to humanity (even though 4 decades ago everyone was worried about global cooling, and even though cows release more greenhouse gases than all the cars of the world)  By the way, it’s carbon dioxide, NOT carbon!  Carbon is elemental.  It’s usually a solid.  It’s what forms when you burn a burger.  It is not what we exhale nor is it what plants produce.  Please stop calling it carbon, it’s carbon dioxide.  But I digress.

Assuming global warming is man-made, what is the correct way to approach this problem?  I’ve heard two different approaches: through the free market or through government coercion.  I would like to advocate for the first approach, that relying on the ingenuity, innovation, and desire for profit (am I allowed to say that word?) that results from the free market is the best way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere.

The free market responds to consumer demand.  Entrepreneurs create and companies produce based on what consumers want.  If enough people have a desire to curb CO2 emissions, companies begin to tailor toward such desire.  Would an environmentally-consious person order a coffee from a coffee-shop that sells cups from recycled paper or cups from non-recycled paper?  Or plastic?  I’m willing to bet that most coffee-shops that do indeed sell cups with recycled paper don’t really care about the environment; they are doing it to sell more coffee.  But does it really matter anyway?  How about oil refiners?  Some have started capturing CO2 from waste gas, sending the CO2 through pipelines, and selling it to oil producers who can use it in Enhanced Oil Recovery to recover more oil out of the ground.  I guarantee it’s profit they’re after, not environmentalism.  But again, does it matter?  The recent hydraulic fracturing revolution has made it more economical for power companies to switch from coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants.  This alone has reduced CO2 emissions more than all the solar panels and wind turbines currently in the world.  Finally, look at Toyota, who started the hybrid car craze to capitalize on people’s desire for more environmentally-friendly cars.  Toyota just wanted to sell more cars.

Another way the free market helps is by capitalizing on  consumer sentiment.  For example, an environmentally-consious person is more willing to purchase something from a company that uses renewable energy to produce its products than a company that does not.  When enough people want to buy from environmentally-friendly companies, more companies become environmentally-friendly.  Take Apple.  They recently built a massive solar farm to power their latest server bank.  Starbucks has implemented a “Climate Change Strategy” since 2004.  FedEx implemented a global warming plan to reduce emissions from FedEx vehicles and aircrafts by 20% by 2020.  I guarantee this is all a result of the desire for more profit, but that to me is just fine, and even admirable.  What’s wrong with reducing CO2 emissions through the means of the free market?

Just for kicks, I decided to estimate how much CO2 I have reduced by purchasing my 2013 VW Jetta TDI.  My estimate came out to be almost 4,000 lb/yr reduction in CO2 emissions.  According to the EPA, that’s equivalent to a single-family household using no electricity for 3 months.  Not bad, eh?  The dirty little secret, however, is that I had absolutely no inkling of a thought about global warming when I purchased the car.  All I was concerned about was how much money am I going to save in gas (which I calculated to be almost $800/yr).  Different motivation, but same result.

The alternative is government coercion.  Government forcing me to purchase a more efficient car, or forcing me to purchase renewable, more expensive energy, or taxing a company for every pound of CO2 released into the air.  Besides the obvious lack of freedom, government coercion almost always results in politicians and well-connected businessmen getting rich, leaving the rest of us to foot the bill.  Look at Solyndra, who got millions of tax-payer dollars then went bankrupt.  Or GE, who is nice and friendly with the whitehouse, and coincidentally didn’t have to pay any taxes in 2010.

To the person who believes global warming is man-made, I say no problem. Embrace the free market to tackle that problem.  Demand more environmentally-friendly products.  Demand that companies be more environmentally-friendly.  Educate others so that demand increases.  If demand is there, companies will come.  Advocate for free market solutions, not government coercion.

How to Heat My Water

Whenever I boil pasta, I typically fill the pot with hot water from the sink before putting it on my electric stove. The other day I started pondering if this was the most efficient way of heating the water.  On one hand, I can preheat the water by using hot water from the sink, which saves energy by not requiring as much heat input from the stove.  But, this requires an additional heat input by requiring hot water.  On the other hand, I could forego preheating the water and just heat up cold water all on the stove.  The question really just becomes, does it require more energy to heat up water from the sink than it saves on the stove?  In other words, for the same rate of change of water temperature per unit mass, is it more efficient to heat using the hot water heater or the stove?  My guess is that the hot water heater is more efficient, IF it is a gas heater. Since I live in an apartment, I don’t really know.  But it is still an interesting question to ponder. By the way, these are the types of problems we face every day as chemical engineers… so much fun!

Why I have the best job in the world

I have a playground at my disposal every day.  I get to work with distillation towers 200 feet tall that separate molecules that differ by just a double bond.  I get to optimize compressors with over 250 times more horsepower than your car.  I get to monitor furnaces 2,000 degrees fahrenheit.  Pipes, some several feet in diameter, running every each way, control valves that can tell you their exact position, temperature transmitters that use electromagnetic waves to measure  temperature of a pipe, expanders that recover energy of expansion to then compress a gas, cold boxes that see temperatures less than -250 degrees fahrenheit.  This, plus more, is what I get to experience on a daily basis.  What’s even better is that I get to optimize it, automate it, and even design some of it.

I get to directly apply what I learned in school.  Pressure drops from flow in a pipe, estimating flow rates in a pipe, sizing control valves are pretty standard exercises.  Estimating the amount of condensation that forms in a steam line or what the resulting temperature is after two flows mix together. Conceptualizing what a molecule will do after entering a distillation column is always fun, and necessary.  Should we increase temperature, decrease reflux, reduce charge to the tower?   These are questions I ask myself on a daily basis.

One of my favorites–I get to automate processes in the plant.  This to me is where creativity can really shine because the possibilities are endless.  I get to design algorithms that will automatically control certain processes.  This makes it easier on operators because they don’t have as many handles they must manipulate at once.  Even better, I can design a control scheme that saves the company millions of dollars per year with absolutely no capital costs.  I get to tune controllers so that they control more accurately.  I get to trend real-time data and watch the process come alive.  I get to observe the fruits of my labor immediately.

I get to work with some of the friendliest people.  I get to work in an environment where people realize that impossible deadlines and late hours don’t necessarily yield greater productivity.  I can leave an hour early to make my sister’s birthday party or take a long lunch because it’s just been one of those days.  But at the same time, we work our tails off.  We get the job done.  And we’re damn good at our jobs.  What I like most… we work because we want to, because we have an innate desire to be productive and to learn and grow as engineers.

All this and more is why I have the best job in the world.

Stay Tuned

Well, I’m back.  For the 3rd or 4th time now.  I enjoy writing too much to stay away forever, so lives on.  I’ve been racking my brain over the past couple of weeks to think of something at least remotely unique, and a few days ago I came up with the idea to write about all thoughts engineering.  Engineering?  Um, Sam, no one cares.  No, don’t worry, I’m not going to start posting thermodynamic theory or how to calculate pressure drop in a pipe, but I’d certainly love to share my thoughts on how driving and process control are related or my unequivocal hatred toward traffic lights (or at least the people who desiged them).  A few years ago, a friend and I were debating about the importance of taking a physics class in high school, future engineer or not.  He was not of the technical nature, so what side he was arguing is pretty clear.  He asked me for examples of how physics could help you in your every-day life.  I remember thinking for a few seconds, and unable to come up with anything, I told him that there were plenty but that I couldn’t think of any at the moment.  I actually remember being disappointed in myself that night because of my weak response.  See, I knew I had at least half a dozen oh-my-gosh-physics thoughts swarm through my mind just that week.  Yeah, nevermind world hunger or the ever-increasing national debt, physics is what keeps me up at night.  Well, that and traffic lights. But often I’ll just be driving, and those thoughts will randomly hit me.  The problem is that I forget most of them the next day, some in a matter of minutes, so if I don’t get them onto paper, or in this case hard drive space, they’re lost forever.  But not anymore.  I think that story summarizes pretty well what I’d like to achieve with this new blog.  So please, if you’re looking for something unique or something to make you drowsy right before bed, stay tuned.  This blog could probably serve either purpose.

My Daily Commute to Work

I have a real problem with my commute to work.  There’s something not right.  When I get into the car to drive to work, I’ve been up since 5:30 A.M., which for me is like waking up with an abnormally sized bag of lead (yes, a bag) on top of your head.  It’s dark, now dreadfully cold, and all I want to do is have a smooth, uncharacteristically dull drive to work.  My 1 unequivocally large cup of coffee will prevent me from falling asleep behind the wheel, and my trance music I’m blasting in the car will somehow enthuse me enough to make the walk from the parking lot to my office.  Now, that’s not asking very much, and it’s quite simple.  Yet, 10 minutes of my commute has passed, and I always feel like something is wrong.  See, it goes like this.  10 minutes in I’ve only travelled 3 miles… if I’m lucky.  For the first 2.8 miles, I’m trying desperately to get to the freeway.  Well, in those 2.8 miles, there are exactly 7 traffic lights.  5 of them service MiTCSs (minor-traffic cross streets), 1 services a MaTCS (major-traffic cross street), and 1 services a feeder road.  Yet, I get stopped at every…single…one.  The speed limit for the first half mile is 40 mph, then the remaining 2.3 miles is 50 mph.  If I average 45 mph like I should, I would arrive at the freeway in approximately 3.73 minutes, or 3 minutes and 43.8 seconds.  Yet, the stretch takes 10 minutes.  I’ve always wondered what the person looks like who programs these traffic lights.  Probably some middle-aged guy, bald, with some math degree who thinks he’s the shit.  Seriously,  what goes on in their head as they’re configuring these lights?  Sometimes I think they synchronize the lights for red, not green.  I mean, we’re not just talking about “Oh hey, that light in the near distance seems to be red, I better slow down.”  We’re talking “That light in the near distance is green, time to speed up before it turns red… CRAP!”  Now ordinarily, I don’t really get this frustrated at things this trivial (okay, yes I do), but this just screams out to me in sheer, undeniable stupidity.  Here’s how it should work:  Light A turns green while Lights B, C, and D are still red.  After appropriate amount of time, Light B turns green while Lights C and D are still red.  After appropriate amount of time… okay, you get it, this is not rocket science.  Here’s how it actually works:  Light A turns green while Light B is green and Lights C and D are still red.  After appropriate amount of time, Light B turns red, Light C turns green, and Light D remains red.  After appropriate amount of time, Light C turns red while Light D remains red.  You get the picture.  The most painful thing is that while all of this is going on, you can see the light a mere 50 yards ahead of you turning green while you are helplessly waiting for your light to turn green.  Now, I can deal with 1 traffic light being unsynchronized because, I’ll admit, not every single light can be green, especially if the cross street is busier than yours.  I could even learn to tolerate 2.  But 7??  All of them.  Grand total.  100%.  It’s truly the most intolerable thing in my life.  I’d rather watch Obama give a hundred speeches (yes, I went there) than drive through one series of unsynchronized traffic lights.  It isn’t right that 9% of the total distance of my commute takes 26% of the time of my commute.  10 minutes to travel 2.8 miles and then 25 minutes to travel another 27.2 miles.  That isn’t right.  Ugh.