The “100 mpg prize” and other energy stories

Michael Giberson

Speed blogging a few stories:

“The ’100 mpg prize’: An idea whose time has passed?” by Ken Paulman

Earlier this week, California GOP Rep. Dan Lungren introduced a bill that would offer a $1 billion prize to the first automaker than can put 60,000 cars achieving 100 mpg on the road. Only requirement – the cars have to run on gasoline.

The bill is intended as an alternative to further government investment in electric and hybrid cars. And once you get past the irony that the party that excoriates “picking winners and losers” wants to predetermine what kind of fuel we’ll all be using in the future, it’s hard to argue with an effort to develop more efficient gasoline cars. After all, even by the rosiest of projections, the majority of cars on the road 20 years from now will still run on gas.

So can government bounties for innovation work?

Paulman takes a long at the 18th century history of The Longitude Prize. I wonder if the various X Prizes would be a better, since more recent, analog.

“Revolt Brews as Tepco Seeks Higher Rates” by Phred Dvorak and Mitsuru Obe in the Wall Street Journal. (Sub.)

TOKYO—Tokyo Electric Power Co. and other utilities are starting to see revolt by some of their biggest customers, as rising fuel costs and the shutdown of nuclear reactors push Japan’s already-steep electricity costs even higher.

A handful of companies, such as Tokyo Steel Co. and cosmetics maker Kose Corp., have said they are considering switching electricity providers if Tepco, Japan’s biggest utility, boosts corporate rates around 17% as proposed in January. Other customers have complained privately, Tepco said.

It is possible for large consumers to switch power providers in Japan, but complicated, and the tight supply market is making a switch even harder to arrange. I wonder if the challenges will push Japan toward a more regimented market or a more liberalized power market?

ALSO: Energy secretary backs natural gas exports at least for now, though the logic is a bit convoluted. (“The low price of natural gas is hurting domestic job growth” and “Exporting natural gas means wealth comes into the United States.” Okay, Mr. Secretary, so do you think the high price of oil is good for domestic job growth? Does importing oil mean wealth leaves the United States?

AND: Sierra Club took $26M from gas industry to fight coal-fired plants. So is this like one bootlegger funding a baptist campaign against the other bootleggers? The Sierra Club decided to stop taking the money in 2010 (mostly from Chesapeake Energy’s CEO Aubrey McClendon) after deciding it didn’t want money from fracked natural gas wealth.

FINALLY: Gasland‘s Josh Fox arrested at U.S. House hearing on fracking. Apparently his request to film was declined because his crew didn’t have Capitol media clearance, and he took his crew to the hearing anyway. The linked report says he knew there was a chance he’d be arrested, and it is likely the case that the arrest will be much more valuable to him than actually filming the hearing would have been. (Here is the House Science Committee subsequent statement on media coverage of the hearing; it mentions that the event was webcast and is now archived on the committee’s website. See link on this page. Unfortunately, all the fun happened before the meeting begun.)

Michael Webber’s “Energy at the Movies”

Michael Giberson

Michael Webber, mechanical engineer and Associate Director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, provides a look at society’s changing relationship to energy as revealed in movies (and the occasional TV clip) in “Energy at the Movies.” At just over an hour and forty minutes, it takes a little commitment to get through, but if you are at all interested in the topic, you will probably find it worth the time.

The SXSW film festival included an hour-long panel discussion of “Energy at the Movies.” I haven’t watched it yet, so don’t vouch for it personally. If you enjoy “Energy at the Movies,” then the panel discussion seems an obvious next step.

(HT to Melissa Lott at the Global Energy Matters blog.)

Netflix recommendations: Deep or random?

Michael Giberson

I know that Netflix’s recommendation engine has some serious computation behind it, and it often offers up interesting and useful suggestions. But occasionally it puzzles me, and I wonder if it is incredibly deep in its analysis or simply somewhat random.

Case in point:

Suggested: American Experience: Into the Deep

American Experience: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World
Because you enjoyed:

It Might Get Loud


The Last Picture Show


So let’s get this straight, because I enjoyed a documentary about rock guitarists from different generations, and a classic Kurwasowa movie about a masterless samurai, and a black-and-white period piece about growing up in a small town in Texas, the artificial genius of Netflix thinks I’d enjoy a riveting documentary on the history of whaling in the United States?

Well, actually, it does sound kind of interesting …

Also, if they have any films about a rock-and-roll samurai sushi chef coming to a small town in Texas, I’d want to see that too.

You think the kids are alright? Well look at this tiny blue pin on my shirt and think again

Michael Giberson

From the press release:

NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Mark Ruffalo and other Oscar nominees will wear a blue water droplet pin during Sunday night’s Academy Awards as a way of asking Americans to be stewards of our treasured water supply, which is currently in jeopardy due to extreme drilling and includes natural gas hydro-fracking. The pin is an initiative of, a new campaign calling attention to the impacts on drinking water caused by increasingly extreme methods used to extract fossil fuels.’s Oscar initiative follows a recent day in D.C. where Mark Ruffalo and “GASLAND” Director, Josh Fox, met with Congressional members about the issue. “Gasland”, a documentary about natural gas hydro-fracking, is also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary this year. Ruffalo, who’s nominated for Best-Supporting Actor for “The Kids Are Alright”, and other Oscar celebrities, will be wearing their water droplet pins at the Awards gala and other festivities to help raise awareness for the issue. The pin is two-fold in meaning – it represents our prized natural water resources and is also a tear for what’s happened as a result of it not being protected.

I haven’t be able to find an image of the pin online, the website at “” wasn’t available when I tried it, but in my imagination a small blue water droplet pin looks a lot like a small blue natural gas flame pin. For me, the pins will have a four-fold meaning: (1) our prized natural water resources, (2) a tear for what’s happened to it, (3) our prized natural gas resources, and (4) a tear for those people with higher energy bills or limited access to heating because of restrictions on resource development.

But I can’t imagine actually watching the Oscar ceremony live, so the pins will have to wait until I read the news online the next morning before they have the four-fold meaning to me.

The Gasland documentary, up for an Oscar in the documentary category, has been the subject of a lot of complaints by industry (more or less summed up as “it’s a pack of lies”) and spirited defense by its director (more or less summed up as “no it isn’t”). Mike Soraghan of Greenwire examined the industry complaints and the filmmaker’s claims to see where the truth is. His conclusion: “The filmmaker and industry have each made errors and have spun some facts to their outer limits.”

To me it looks like a fair examination of the issues (but industry and filmmaker probably wouldn’t agree).

The issue of “fictionalization” arises in both the documentary and Best Picture category. Many of the movies nominated for Best Picture are based on real events, but are fictionalized to various degrees: The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and 127 Hours. Questions always arise in such cases about how far the filmmaker can to in bending fact in order to tell a compelling story.

(A local theater is showing five of the ten Best Picture nominees today: The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, True Grit, and Black Swan. I’m not sure I can sit through 10+ hours of film in one day, but I’m going to give it a try. Well, almost. I’ve seen True Grit already, so I’ll be able to take a dinner break.)


Netflix streaming

Michael Giberson

I like to watch good movies, and particularly for someone who now lives outside a major metropolitan area, Netflix has been unbelievably useful.  Netflix really has been amazing. Return one disk by mail and get another a day or two later. Incredible selection.

Recently Netflix raised the price on their DVD/Blu-ray rental packages which lead us to switch to the online streaming-only option to save a few bucks.  Really, however, for all practical purposes we’d already switched.

Today I’m mailing back “The Hurt Locker,” the last of the physical disks we received from Netflix, which we’ve had around for nearly six weeks without watching it. In the meantime we’ve viewed about 20 movies via streaming. In fact, I was going to watch it last night before sending it back, but wound up watching the German comedy “Soul Kitchen” instead.

Not every movie is on Netflix, and not every movie on Netflix is available via streaming, but since my Netflix instant queue is up above 100 it hardly seems to matter. It’s “kids with the keys to the candy store” overwhelmingly good. In fact, if it weren’t for the HBO Series Treme, I’d pull the plug on our HBO subscription.

I meant to do some serious damage to the instant queue during the break between semesters, but despite viewing several good movies the queue is longer than ever. Tyler Cowan’s post this morning, “Important 2010 movies that weren’t released in most of the USA,” added three more.  Seems like no matter how much candy you eat, there is still more candy to eat!

For the holiday season I’ve rated the following movies “Really Liked It”: Soul Kitchen, Shutter Island, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Life and Debt, Ip Man, and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Rated “Liked It” were: I am Trying to Break Your Heart, Flame and Citron, Let the Right One In and Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love.


Best “Investigation/Price Gouging/Showdown/Violence” Romance Movie

Michael Giberson

According to the Internet Movie Data Base, just one movie shows up when you search on keywords  “Investigation/Price Gouging/Showdown/Violence” in the Romance genre: The Boss of Big Town. It is a 1942 film in which, “A criminal plot to control produce and dairy products during the wartime emergency is foiled by an courageous undercover city market official.”

Haven’t seen it – and haven’t been searching IMDb for investigation-price gouging-showdown-violence romance films either, the link just showed up in search results.  But the search result led me to wonder what other films have been tagged “price gouging.”

The answer: five total. In addition to The Boss of Big Town, IMDb lists:

  • Falling Down (1993, “An unemployed defense worker frustrated with the various flaws he sees in society, begins to psychotically and violently lash out against them.”)
  • Bend of the River (1952, “Two men with questionable pasts, Glyn McLyntock and his friend Cole, lead a wagon-train load of homesteaders from Missouri to the Oregon territory.”)
  • Pack Train (1953, “Baddies McLain and Riker charge settlers what the traffic will bear for supplies. When Autry attempts to help out, the outlaws go after him.”)
  • Wagon Train (1940, “Pecos businessman Matt Gardner is buying up freighters, or wagon trains of food supplies, at cheap prices through intimidation.”)

Five TV episodes are also tagged “price gouging” in the IMDb, four of which are from The Simpsons.

Onions and motion picture box office receipts

Michael Giberson

Felix Salmon had an op-ed in New York Times on Hollywood’s opposition to the trading of future’s contracts based on box office receipts.  Salmon said:

In the 1950s, onion growers were often shocked at the low prices they were getting. Casting around for a villain to blame, they alighted on derivatives traders, and they persuaded Congress to ban any futures trading in onions.

Today onions are the only commodity for which futures trading is banned. Not coincidentally, onion prices remain extremely volatile: they doubled in 2008, and then fell by 25 percent in 2009.

Today, no one is silly enough to ask a member of Congress to simply outlaw futures trading in a certain type of contract — no one, that is, except Hollywood film producers. Under the proposed financial-reform legislation making its way through the Senate, the bit of the 1958 bill saying “except onions” would be amended to read “except onions and motion picture box office receipts.”

Looking back at 2008-2009 commodity prices, we see a number of other goods for which prices were extremely volatile, some of which were traded on futures market.  (Consider natural gas prices, which began 2008 at $7.80 per mmbtu, rose to over $13.50 mid-year, then tumbled as low as $2.51 in September 2009.)  So Salmon’s brief nod to data on volatility leaves much out.  Fortunately, the onion futures trading ban has been much studied, and analysis pretty strongly comes to the conclusion that the onion futures trading ban has increased spot price volatility.

But Salmon’s observation is more to the point that advocates of bans in futures trading don’t always get what they want, even if, as Salmon said, it isn’t very clear why most of Hollywood seems opposed to the markets.

LINK to recent related KP posts.

HT Chris Masse.