Micro Fueler Is First Ethanol Kit for Brewing Backyard Biofuels on the Cheap

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Popular Mechanics bills the Micro Fueler from E-Fuel as “the first ethanol kit for brewing backyard biofuels on the cheap” — but it’s not a cheap way to produce fuel; it’s a cheap way to produce moonshine:

This morning, the E-Fuel Corporation, a Silicon Valley startup, introduced the first ethanol refinery system designed for home use. The Micro Fueler, a backyard fueling station, can create pure E100 ethanol from sugar feed stock. “It’s third-grade science,” says Thomas Quinn, founder and CEO of E-Fuel. “You just mix together water, sugar and yeast, and in a few hours, you start getting ethanol.” The $9995 Micro Fueler has a can fill its own 35-gallon tank in about a week by fermenting the sugar, water and yeast internally, then separating out the water through a membrane filter.

E-Fuel representatives claim that the initial cost of the machine can be offset by up to 50 percent by federal, state and local credits, and the cost of raw sugar can be brought down to $1 or below through a system of carbon trading coupons. The Micro Fueler can produce a gallon of ethanol from about 10 gallons of sugar.

Quinn dismisses many of the preconceptions about ethanol — lower gas mileage, long-term damage to automotive fuel systems and the need for a “flex-fuel” car — as just myths. Quinn claims that the E100 from the Micro Fueler can be mixed with ordinary gasoline, or even water to a 70/30 ratio — and still maintain a high-enough octane level to provide plenty of power for ordinary vehicles.

The Micro Fueler is for sale now, with deliveries expected by the fourth quarter. Obviously, there are a lot of unknown variables — fuel prices, sugar supply and distribution, and, of course, the machine’s basic reliability — that will determine the potential success or failure of the Micro Fueler. But Quinn, who has a background in the PC business, sees the personal nature of the Micro Fueler as its main selling point. “Ethanol is really the people’s fuel,” he says. “Anybody can make it.”

If you can convince the Feds that you really are producing fuel, then the licensing process isn’t too onerous. If, on the other hand, they suspect you’re dodging liquor taxes…

You see, the federal excise tax on distilled spirits is $13.50 per proof gallon, or gallon of 100-proof liquor — that’s $27.00 per gallon of pure ethanol.

Anyway, as the New York Times notes, sugar-based ethanol doesn’t look much cheaper than gas:

It takes 10 to 14 pounds of sugar to make a gallon of ethanol, and raw sugar sells in the United States for about 20 cents a pound, says Michael E. Salassi, a professor in the department of agricultural economics at Louisiana State University. But Mr. Quinn says that as of January this year, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, he can buy inedible sugar from Mexico for as little as 2.5 cents a pound, which puts the math in his favor. While this type of sugar has not been sold to consumers, E-Fuel says it is developing a distribution network for it.

The Clean Energy Scam

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

The Clean Energy Scam leads farmers to cut down rain forest for more soybean farms:

Propelled by mounting anxieties over soaring oil costs and climate change, biofuels have become the vanguard of the green-tech revolution, the trendy way for politicians and corporations to show they’re serious about finding alternative sources of energy and in the process slowing global warming. The U.S. quintupled its production of ethanol — ethyl alcohol, a fuel distilled from plant matter — in the past decade, and Washington has just mandated another fivefold increase in renewable fuels over the next decade. Europe has similarly aggressive biofuel mandates and subsidies, and Brazil’s filling stations no longer even offer plain gasoline. Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group. Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class.

But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it’s dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.

Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. The U.N.’s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency. Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City, and skyrocketing flour prices have destabilized Pakistan, which wasn’t exactly tranquil when flour was affordable.

Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.

First Algae Biodiesel Plant Goes Online

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

The First Algae Biodiesel Plant Goes Online — on April 1. Let’s hope it’s not an April Fool’s joke:

The facility, located in Rio Hondo Texas, will produce an estimated 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million lbs. of biomass per year off a series of saltwater ponds spanning 1,100 acres. Twenty of those acres will be reserved for the experimental production of a renewable JP8 jet-fuel.
Microalgae have garnered considerable attention, since acre-by-acre microalgae can produce 30-100 times the oil yield of soybeans on marginal land and in brackish water. The biomass left-over from oil-pressing can either be fed to cattle as a protein supplement, or fermented into ethanol.

Startup Says It Can Make Ethanol for $1 a Gallon, and Without Corn

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Startup Says It Can Make Ethanol for $1 a Gallon, and Without Corn:

Coskata uses existing gasification technology to convert almost any organic material into synthesis gas, which is a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Rather than fermenting that gas or using thermo-chemical catalysts to produce ethanol, Coskata pumps it into a reactor containing bacteria that consume the gas and excrete ethanol. Richard Tobey, Coskata’s vice president of engineering, says the process yields 99.7 percent pure ethanol.

Gasification and bacterial conversion are common methods of producing ethanol, but biofuel experts said Coskata is the first to combine them. Doing so, they said, merges the feedstock flexibility of gasification with the relatively low cost of bacterial conversion.

Tobey said Coskata’s method generates more ethanol per ton of feedstock than corn-based ethanol and requires far less water, heat and pressure. Those cost savings allow it to turn, say, two bales of hay into five gallons of ethanol for less than $1 a gallon, the company said. Corn-based ethanol costs $1.40 a gallon to produce, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

The company plans to have its first commercial-scale plant producing up to 100,000 gallons of ethanol a year by 2011. Friedman and Greene said the timeline is realistic.

May Wu, an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, says Coskata’s ethanol produces 84 percent less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel even after accounting for the energy needed to produce and transport the feedstock. It also generates 7.7 times more energy than is required to produce it. Corn ethanol typically generates 1.3 times more energy than is used producing it.

Making ethanol is one thing, but there’s almost no infrastructure in place for distributing it. But the company’s method solves that problem because ethanol could be made locally from whatever feedstock is available, Tobey said.

“You’re not bound by location,” he said. “If you’re in Orange County, you can use municipal waste. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you can use wood waste. Florida has sugar. The Midwest has corn. Each region has been blessed with the ability to grow its own biomass.”

Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Excise Taxes

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

The various Federal Alcohol Excise Taxes aren’t exactly consistent:

Product Tax Tax per Package
Beer Barrel (31 gallons) 12 oz. can
Regular Rate $18 $0.05
Reduced Rate $7 on first 60,000 barrels for brewer who produces less than 2 million barrels. $18 per barrel after the first 60,000 barrels. $0.02
Wine Wine Gallon 750ml bottle
14% Alcohol or Less $1.071 $0.21
Over 14 to 21% $1.571 $0.31
Over 21 to 24% $3.151 $0.62
Naturally Sparkling $3.40 $0.67
Artificially Carbonated $3.301 $0.65
Hard Cider $0.2261 $0.04
(1 $0.90 credit, or for hard cider $0.056, may be available for the first 100,000 gallons removed by a small winery producing not more than 150,000 w.g. per year. Decreasing credit rates for a winery producing up to 250,000 w.g. per year.)
Distilled Spirits Proof Gallon * 750ml Bottle
All $13.50 less any credit for wine and flavor content. $2.14 (at 80 proof)
* A proof gallon is a gallon of liquid that is 100 proof, or 50% alcohol. The tax is adjusted, depending on the percentage of alcohol of the product.
Tobacco Products 1000 units Pack of 20
Small Cigarettes $19.50 $0.39
Large Cigarettes $40.95 $0.82
Small Cigars $1.828 $0.04
Tobacco Products 1000 units Each
Large Cigars 20.719% of sales price but not to exceed $48.75 $0.05 maximum
Tobacco Products 1 lb. 1 Ounce Tin or Pouch
Pipe Tobacco $1.0969 $0.07
Chewing Tobacco $0.195 $0.01
Snuff $0.585 $0.04
Roll-your-own Tobacco $1.0969 $0.07

Notice the odd categories for wine — especially carbonated — cider, etc. The tax on distilled spirits seems elegant by comparison to the rest. I wonder why tobacco companies don’t market more “small cigars” in place of cigarettes…

Alcohol laws of the United States by state

Monday, December 17th, 2007

The alcohol laws of the United States vary by state, of course, with some peculiar laws in some states.


Beer containers may not exceed 16 ounces (0.47 l).


Only wine produced in-state may be sold in supermarkets.


Sale or distribution of alcohol higher than 153 proof is illegal.


Kansas prohibited all alcohol from 1881 to 1948, and continued to prohibit on-premises sales of alcohol from 1949 to 1987. Sunday sales only have been allowed since 2005. Today, 29 counties still do not permit the on-premises sale of alcohol. 59 counties require a business to receive at least 30% of revenue from food sales to allow on-premises sale of alcohol.


No “Happy Hours” or other limited time discounts on alcoholic beverages. No fixed price open bar/all-you-can-drink (except at private functions). Only 2 drinks can be sold to an individual at any one time for on-premises consumption.


State law renders public intoxication legal, and explicitly prohibits any local or state law from making it a public offence.

New York:

All liquor stores must be owned by a single owner, who owns that store and lives within a certain distance of it — in effect banning chain liquor stores from the state.


Restaurants and “Private Clubs” must buy from the State controlled store (no delivery) at retail prices. No alcohol served in restaurants without purchase of food. Only 3.2% beer available on tap.


Wisconsin permits the consumption of alcohol by minors, provided they are being supervised by parents/guardians.

Ethanol Production Consumes Six Units Of Energy To Produce Just One

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Ethanol Production Consumes Six Units Of Energy To Produce Just One:

Patzek’s ethanol critique began during a freshman seminar he taught in which he and his students calculated the energy balance of the biofuel. Taking into account the energy required to grow the corn and convert it into ethanol, they determined that burning the biofuel as a gasoline additive actually results in a net energy loss of 65 percent. Later, Patzek says he realized the loss is much more than that even.

“Limiting yourself to the energy balance, and within that balance, just the fossil fuel used, is just scraping the surface of the problem,” he says. “Corn is not ‘free energy.’”

Recently, Patzek published a fifty-page study on the subject in the journal Critical Reviews in Plant Science. This time, he factored in the myriad energy inputs required by industrial agriculture, from the amount of fuel used to produce fertilizers and corn seeds to the transportation and wastewater disposal costs. All told, he believes that the cumulative energy consumed in corn farming and ethanol production is six times greater than what the end product provides your car engine in terms of power.

Farmyard Stills Quench a Thirst for Local Spirits

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Farmyard Stills Quench a Thirst for Local Spirits:

“I talked to banks, told them I wanted to make vodka on my farm here, and they said, ‘Yeah, right you are,’” recalled Mr. Fox, whose company went on to become the first distillery in Kansas since Prohibition. “Well, I had a million dollars in sales last year.”

“I’m the seventh generation to be in alcohol,” he said proudly. “Just the first to do it legally.”

On the heels of the microbrewing boom, new microdistilleries are thriving from coast to coast. And some of the latest and quirkiest entrants to the industry are in places like Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Mr. Fox’s barn.

In trying to take advantage of generations of his family’s moonshining expertise, Mr. Fox, for instance, had no business plan, no employees and about $100 in his checking account. Only his timing was rich: the national demand for high-end spirits, especially vodka, has soared over the last several years, along with the general consumer craving for products with local flair.

Meanwhile, some of the states, increasingly aware of the power of agri-business to generate tourism and tax dollars, have gradually begun loosening some of the temperance-era laws that have lingered for decades, restricting who can distill what, and where.

With its abundance of grain and fruit, the Midwest stands poised to capitalize on the confluence of trends unlike any other region and could, in time, come to rival California, currently the leader in small-scale distilling, experts said.

Small, private distilleries are opening at a rate of about 10 to 20 a year. There are about 100 across the country. Some are attached to wineries, restaurants and breweries, or, increasingly, are located on farms. Though there is no precise definition for what the industry refers to as artisanal or craft distilleries, experts say they are distinguished from mass distillers by their small scale, their use of local and often organic ingredients, and the experimental quality of some of their products, like seasonal pumpkin-infused vodka.

As a result of their individuality and regional differences, the distillers offer spirits that run the gamut in terms of quality and taste. Some are one- or two-person backyard operations; others are state-of-the-art laboratories built at great expense.

Down on The Farm

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Michael Grunwald is Down on The Farm — or at least on the farm bill:

Agricultural policy is not sexy. You probably don’t know the intricacies of “loan deficiency payments” or “base acreage,” and you probably don’t care. This was once an agrarian nation, but now there’s a less than 1% chance that you’re a farmer, and if you are, you’re probably part time; the average farm family gets 82% of its income from nonfarm sources. We’re not a people of the soil anymore, and for most of us, our eyes glaze over when we see farm statistics like the ones in that last sentence.

But farms still cover most of our land, consume most of our water and produce most of our food. If you eat, drink or pay taxes — or care about the economy, the environment or our global reputation — U.S. agricultural policy is a big deal.

It’s also a horrible deal. It redistributes our taxes to millionaire farmers as well as to millionaire “farmers” like David Letterman, David Rockefeller and the owners of the Utah Jazz. It contributes to our obesity and illegal-immigration epidemics and to our water and energy shortages. It helps degrade rivers, deplete aquifers, eliminate grasslands, concentrate food-processing conglomerates and inundate our fast-food nation with high-fructose corn syrup. Our farm policy is supposed to save small farmers and small towns. Instead it fuels the expansion of industrial megafarms and the depopulation of rural America. It hurts Third World farmers, violates international trade deals and paralyzes our efforts to open foreign markets to the nonagricultural goods and services that make up the remaining 99% of our economy.

Ever since the 1980s, when a wave of foreclosures inspired those iconic Farm Aid concerts, the media’s sporadic reports from farm country have tended to focus on floods, droughts and other disasters. But the farm crisis is as over as Barbara Mandrell. Farm incomes are at an all-time high. The median farmer enjoys five times the net worth of the median nonfarmer household. Crop prices have soared–thanks largely to the Federal Government’s promotion of corn ethanol over more efficient renewable energies — and yet subsidies have as well.

Nevertheless, Congress is finalizing a $286 billion farm bill that will continue our basic farm policies, which means it will keep funneling money to farmers and pseudo farmers through a bewildering array of loans, price supports, subsidized insurance, disaster aid and money-for-nothing handouts that arrive when times are tough — or not tough. “What a joke,” grumbles Congressman Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who led a failed bipartisan reform effort in the House. “You’re eligible as long as you’re breathing.” Actually, that’s not quite true. Since the vast majority of the cash goes to five row crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice — more than 60% of our farmers receive no subsidies. And a recent Government Accountability Office report identified $1.1 billion of subsidies whose recipients were no longer breathing.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration started farm aid in response to the Dust Bowl and the Depression, calling it “a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.” But in Washington, the emergency has never ended.

Ethanol, schmethanol

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Everyone seems to think that ethanol is a good way to make cars greener. Everyone is wrong:

Sometimes you do things simply because you know how to. People have known how to make ethanol since the dawn of civilisation, if not before. Take some sugary liquid. Add yeast. Wait. They have also known for a thousand years how to get that ethanol out of the formerly sugary liquid and into a more or less pure form. You heat it up, catch the vapour that emanates, and cool that vapour down until it liquefies.

The result burns. And when Henry Ford was experimenting with car engines a century ago, he tried ethanol out as a fuel. But he rejected it — and for good reason. The amount of heat you get from burning a litre of ethanol is a third less than that from a litre of petrol. What is more, it absorbs water from the atmosphere. Unless it is mixed with some other fuel, such as petrol, the result is corrosion that can wreck an engine’s seals in a couple of years. So why is ethanol suddenly back in fashion? That is the question many biotechnologists in America have recently asked themselves.

The obvious answer is that, being derived from plants, ethanol is “green”. The carbon dioxide produced by burning it was recently in the atmosphere. Putting that CO2 back into the air can therefore have no adverse effect on the climate. But although that is true, the real reason ethanol has become the preferred green substitute for petrol is that people know how to make it — that, and the subsidies now available to America’s maize farmers to produce the necessary feedstock. Yet such things do not stop ethanol from being a lousy fuel. To solve that, the biotechnologists argue, you need to make a better fuel that is equally green. Which is what they are trying to do.

Read the article for the technical details of which molecules are under consideration.

Biodiesel Boom heading toward Wall Street

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

With a push from government subsidies, there’s a Biodiesel Boom heading toward Wall Street:

It’s not hard to see why. Biodiesel is 30 percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline, which in turn is 30 percent more efficient than ethanol. And while most ethanol produced in the United States comes from a single feedstock — corn — biodiesel has many sources: the oil of seed plants, such as soy and canola, french-fry grease and animal fat. That means the market can weather a price increase in any one raw material. Solazyme, a South San Francisco biotech firm, has even started making biodiesel from genetically modified algae.

Better yet, biodiesel can be manufactured in large quantities today — unlike fuels such as hydrogen. Total production shot up from 25 million gallons in 2004 to 250 million last year. Nearly 100 new plants are now under construction; even Chevron has joined in, cutting the ribbon on a 20-million-gallon plant in Galveston, Texas, in May.

The biggest player in the biodiesel market is Renewable Energy Group, an offshoot of a 3,000-member Iowa farm cooperative. REG accounts for 27 percent of U.S. biodiesel production and, thanks to its relationship with the soy growers, says it can increase its total capacity to 340 million gallons by the end of 2008. The company sells branded SoyPower fuel through a nationwide network of stations, some operated by grocery giant Safeway. REG should be the first biodiesel company to hit Wall Street, having filed for an IPO in July. But REG won’t be the last: Also mulling a stock offering is Seattle-based Imperium Renewables, founded three years ago by former commercial-jet pilot John Plaza. Imperium operates the largest U.S. biodiesel plant and plans to cut a production deal with Washington’s canola farmers.

For all that production capacity, biodiesel is still an infant industry — it currently accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the total U.S. diesel-fuel market. So there will likely be plenty more REGs and Imperiums. “It’s such an entrepreneurial success story,” says Jenna Higgins, communications director at the National Biodiesel Board, a trade association. “Most of the companies out there are small businesses. There really aren’t any traditional paths to success.”

Take Philadelphia-based Fry-o-Diesel, founded by Yale business graduate Nadia Adawi. The startup has a patent pending on a process it developed to make fuel from trap grease, which restaurants currently pay to have hauled off. An estimated 495 million gallons of trap grease gets trashed every year. “We’re working with something that’s essentially a pollutant,” Adawi says. “But it makes a great fuel.” She is currently talking to investors and hopes to build a 3-million-gallon plant in 2008.

Adawi is in good company. The past few months have seen plenty of major corporations rush to hop on the biodiesel bandwagon. Oil giant ConocoPhillips has inked a deal with Tyson Foods to make diesel out of animal fats. In July, U.S. Steel announced that it will use a 10 percent mix of biodiesel at its plant in Gary, Ind. And Berkeley-based Clif Bar has started subsidizing employees who drive biodiesel cars.

Drivers test paying by mile instead of gas tax

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Drivers test paying by mile instead of gas tax:

Beginning early next year, drivers in six states will begin testing a new way to pay for roads and transit: Commuters will be charged for the miles they drive rather than paying taxes on gasoline purchased.

Researchers from the University of Iowa Public Policy Center will install computers and satellite equipment in the vehicles of 2,700 volunteers — 450 each from Austin, Baltimore, Boise, San Diego, eastern Iowa and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina.

Over the next two years, the drivers will get sample monthly bills for the number of miles they’ve driven. They can compare what they now pay in gasoline taxes with what they would have paid in per-mile fees.

“We want to assess the public’s attitudes and acceptance toward a system like this,” says Jon Kuhl, principal investigator on the $16.5 million Road User Charge Study and chairman of the University of Iowa Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The nation is reassessing the way it pays for roads and transit. Since 1956, the Highway Trust Fund, financed by the federal tax on gasoline, has been a primary source of money for highway projects. But the National Governors Association and other groups and planners involved in road building have concluded that this method, supplemented by state gasoline taxes, no longer is adequate.

Americans are driving cars that get better mileage, and more are driving vehicles that use fuels taxed at lower rates than gasoline, such as ethanol, or making their own fuel and not being taxed. That means gas tax revenue isn’t growing nearly as fast as the number of miles driven.

In addition, the costs of road construction materials have skyrocketed because of heavy demand from India and China. Congress and many state legislatures are reluctant to increase gas taxes, especially at a time of high prices at the pump. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased since 1993; 24 states have not raised their gas taxes since 1997, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

That has made a mileage fee more attractive to some agencies. The University of Iowa study is funded by the Federal Highway Administration and 15 state departments of transportation.

Oregon this year finished a year-long experiment that tested a “virtual tollway” system that could eventually replace the state gas tax with a road-user fee. Volunteers drove vehicles equipped with state-installed Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and odometers that kept track of the miles they drove. When they gassed up, the drivers paid for their gas as well as 1.2 cents for each mile driven since their last fill-up; they did not pay the 24-cents-a-gallon state gas tax.

Federal, state, and local governments don’t want to increase gas taxes, because they know an increase will be unpopular — so that want to institute a new tax, install GPS units in every car, and track everyone’s movements? Does that seem more politically feasible?

If the government is already mandating fuel-efficiency standards and subsidizing hybrid-electric cars, why would it want to reduce gasoline taxes?

And why would you institute a static 1.2-cents-per-mile tax when the whole point of a “virtual tollway” system is dynamic pricing based on traffic? Driving down a road with no one else on it doesn’t cost anyone anything — except for the pollution that comes from burning gasoline, which won’t be taxed under such a system.

Let the Sun Shine In

Monday, August 20th, 2007

In Let the Sun Shine In, Greg Blonger notes that “too much energy is wasted by converting it”:

Sometimes the best solutions to the energy crisis are the simplest, and often they’re right in front of our eyes. Consider the use of solar power to light a home. Even the most advanced photovoltaic solar panels convert just 20% of the available sunlight to electricity. The resulting direct current (DC) then must undergo conversion to alternating current (AC), losing another 20%. If that AC goes on to light an incandescent bulb, which is only 5% efficient, you end up using a fraction of 1% of the original sunlight as room light. (Even switching to compact florescent bulbs, which are 15% efficient, makes little difference in overall energy efficiency.) But if you were to simply leave sunlight as light—via proper skylights, window orientation, and louvers—nearly 80% of the light ends up as illumination.

Or take the multiple conversions required to produce alternative biofuels. The efficiency of converting sunlight into plants such as corn and switch grass and then into ethanol or biodiesel is one-tenth of 1%, or less. Algae looks like it will perform slightly better, but at these rates, why bother? The best way to convert plants to energy, frankly, is to eat them.
We could begin by siting new buildings for optimal exposure to sunlight and properly designing them to best capture daylight via skylights and windows. Though still a rarity in the U.S., such design practice has become much more common in Europe. With proper insulation, such structures also require very little energy to heat.

Similarly, we could install heat exchangers—simple, low tech devices that operate with 90% efficiency—much more widely. Office building architects, for example, increasingly use heat exchangers to help separate sources of heat and cold, thus eliminating double heating and cooling. Banks of server computers, now routinely walled off from office space, use heat exchangers to transfer the hot air they generate out of the building during summer and into the building during winter. Less-expensive versions for the home can do the same for refrigerators or stoves (why use electric energy to cool food when the outside temperature is 30 degrees Fahrenheit?) and hot water generated for showers (why lose all that heat down the drain?).

Even if you can’t avoid mulitiple conversions entirely, there are ways to minimize the number of conversions. For example, we could also find more opportunities to break the DC/AC conversion cycle. Refrigerators and other appliances that operate on DC are becoming available and, with the certain arrival of economical LED lighting, which operates on DC, direct DC solar-power-to-DC-end-use shortly will become much more practical.

Alcohol Labeling

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

NPR notes that Alcohol Labeling is about to change:

Alcohol beverages are about to get a makeover. The Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau has proposed a ruling that will require the alcohol industry to include detailed product information on the label — the amount of protein, sugar, calories and, of course, alcohol per serving.

Prohibition politics

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

In Prohibition politics, Donald J. Boudreaux notes that the popular understanding of how Prohibition ended — that the public recognized its futility, and politicians then repealed it — is a myth:

But contrary to popular belief, the 1920s witnessed virtually no sympathy for ending Prohibition. Neither citizens nor politicians concluded from the obvious failure of Prohibition that it should end.

As historian Norman Clark reports:

“Before 1930 few people called for outright repeal of the (18th) Amendment. No amendment had ever been repealed, and it was clear that few Americans were moved to political action yet by the partial successes or failures of the Eighteenth. … The repeal movement, which since the early 1920s had been a sullen and hopeless expression of minority discontent, astounded even its most dedicated supporters when it suddenly gained political momentum.”

What happened in 1930 that suddenly gave the repeal movement political muscle? The answer is the Great Depression and the ravages that it inflicted on federal income-tax revenues.

Prior to the creation in 1913 of the national income tax, about a third of Uncle Sam’s annual revenue came from liquor taxes. (The bulk of Uncle Sam’s revenues came from customs duties.) Not so after 1913. Especially after the income tax surprised politicians during World War I with its incredible ability to rake in tax revenue, the importance of liquor taxation fell precipitously.

By 1920, the income tax supplied two-thirds of Uncle Sam’s revenues and nine times more revenue than was then supplied by liquor taxes and customs duties combined. In research that I did with University of Michigan law professor Adam Pritchard, we found that bulging income-tax revenues made it possible for Congress finally to give in to the decades-old movement for alcohol prohibition.

Before the income tax, Congress effectively ignored such calls because to prohibit alcohol sales then would have hit Congress hard in the place it guards most zealously: its purse. But once a new and much more intoxicating source of revenue was discovered, the cost to politicians of pandering to the puritans and other anti-liquor lobbies dramatically fell.

Prohibition was launched.

Despite pleas throughout the 1920s by journalist H.L. Mencken and a tiny handful of other sensible people to end Prohibition, Congress gave no hint that it would repeal this folly. Prohibition appeared to be here to stay — until income-tax revenues nose-dived in the early 1930s.

From 1930 to 1931, income-tax revenues fell by 15 percent.

In 1932 they fell another 37 percent; 1932 income-tax revenues were 46 percent lower than just two years earlier. And by 1933 they were fully 60 percent lower than in 1930.

With no end of the Depression in sight, Washington got anxious for a substitute source of revenue.

That source was liquor sales.

Jouett Shouse, president of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, was a powerful figure in the Democratic Party that had just nominated Franklin Roosevelt as its candidate for the White House. Shouse emphasized that ending Prohibition would boost government revenue.

And a House leader of Congress’ successful attempt to propose the Prohibition-ending 21st Amendment said in 1934 that “if (anti-prohibitionists) had not had the opportunity of using that argument, that repeal meant needed revenue for our government, we would not have had repeal for at least 10 years.”

There’s no doubt that widespread understanding of Prohibition’s futility and of its ugly, unintended side-effects made it easier for Congress to repeal the 18th Amendment. But these public sentiments were insufficient, by themselves, to end the war on alcohol.

Ending it required a gargantuan revenue shock — to the U.S. Treasury.

So don’t expect drug prohibition to end anytime soon.