Hybrid Plug-ins 100MPG & Hydrogen Fuel, Cashmere Mafia v. Lipstick Jungle, AMA Medical Insurance Proposal

Hillary ClintonI am nothing short of amazed at all the news there is each week in the field of renewable energy. I would virtually have to start making this a daily column just to keep up with it all. On the other hand that would be thoroughly un-necessary because most of what is reported as “news” comes down to rather trivial matters of “announced” contracts which may or may not ever amount to anything of substance.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes a half a day of research just to find out if the “announcement” of a “BREAKTHROUGH” is justified, or just hype. One such instance was an item I came across this week claiming that a British firm, ITM Power, of Yorkshire, has achieved a “breakthrough” in converting renewable energy sources into hydrogen for use not only as a portable fuel, but to fuel households (in England at least) for both heating and cooking purposes. They did admit that your “gas cooker” (what we would call a “stove”)(or an oven and stove) would have to be “slightly modified” as would the Ford Focus dual fuel internal combustion engine. In addition, the operating principles of this system are based the assumption that you have a wind turbine on your roof, or that the roof is covered in solar panels to provide you with a source of renewable energy, otherwise the only great advantage of the system is that you could use off-peak electricity at lower costs to accomplish the conversion of ordinary water into hydrogen (and release extra oxygen into the atmosphere, or at least they didn’t mention trying to make use of the oxygen generated when splitting the water molecules).

Now if all of that negativity and intentional deflating description of the so-called “breakthrough” has led you to believe that I am no fan of this accomplishment, I should apologize for leading you down the garden path in this case. The real breakthrough of ITM Power is that they have come upon a method of constructing these electrolysers that reduces the cost from an industry average of some US$2000/kW, to something like US$163/kW.

Now if you want to consider that any 7th grade science student can electrolyze water with a $0.20 battery, $0.02 of wire and some electrodes, a US$163/kW might seem like no great bargain. On the other hand, a commercial grade product that can accomplish this benchtop demonstration in a safe and reliable manner, storing the hydrogen for transmission to “cooker” or the family Volvo, this could, indeed, be good news, worthy of the title.

If you have been reading my column for any time at all, you know how frustrated I get with the too little too late snail’s pace of progress in most places, which is why it puzzles me that I found it very encouraging news that Pacific Gas and Electric has contracted with a company called “Raser” to provide them with a pair of plug-in hybrid SUV’s for evaluation. Reportedly these vehicles would be able to achieve a net of 100 MPG by having a 40 mile range on a fully charged battery alone, and the story makes it sound like the onboard engine generates electricity (rather than powering the car directly) for another 400 miles from a (tiny?) tank of gas.

PG&E has already gone to great lengths to “Green” up their fleet of vehicles. They just purchased 250 new Compressed Natural Gas vehicles to bring their total of CNG and dual-fuel CNG to 1180 cars and trucks. They are also experimenting with a Ford Escape that they have converted to be a PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) and a Ford F550 heavy duty truck. I saw my first F550 at the car wash the other day (I know, I lead a sheltered life, but hey, I don’t get out much since I’ve been married) (27 years next month). This little monster was reported by the owner to be a highly reliable vehicle that had been used to pull 5th wheel style trailers across the continent frequently, though unfortunately he was not using biodiesel in the big V8 diesel engine. He asked about my mini-van, saying his wife was pushing him in that direction. I told me we liked the Pontiac, but our other car was a Ford product, the Mercury Mariner hybrid, and we have been pleased with that so far. He indicated he might consider a hybrid, so I suggested he look at the Saturn VUE hybrid which starting in 2008 was supposed to have electronic vehicle stabilization as a standard feature. The Mariner offered electronic stability control in all models EXCEPT the hybrid.

Speaking of choice in hybrid varieties, I don’t think it elicited a laugh, or even a chuckle from me, but I did appreciate the fact that Lexus now has a whole series of Hybrid model vehicles available, or rather, most precisely, a hybrid for each of their GS, LS and RX series or models. Their lame attempt at humor in their advertising campaign about the “h” disappearing from alphabets everywhere else because they now have to be used for the “h” in the model numbers of the Lexus hybrids is catchy, but falls short of actual humor. On the other hand, the fact that Lexus now offers a line of hybrid is no joke either, so credit where credit is due, this is a good thing.

Speaking of “credit”, yours had better be pretty good if you want one of the Lexus machines, the manufacturer’s base price for a GS 450h is US$54,900, and although the Active Power Stabilizer Suspension System (with run-flat tires) is an available option, it will add another $3300 to the price, add another US$2850 for their “Pre-Collision System (PCS) and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control” package and another US$1500 for the voice activated navigation system.

They also are working on their corporate citizenship by recommending ways for hybrid drivers to help economize with their new cars. From the Lexus website’s “Fuel Economy” page:

  1. 1. Plan ahead. Combine short trips in order to minimize cold starts.
  2. 2. Accelerate slowly.
  3. 3. Avoid heavy braking. Monitor traffic to minimize braking and coast whenever possible.
  4. 4. Avoid speeds in excess of 60 mph. Fuel economy suffers at speeds higher than 60 mph and drops significantly above 70 mph.
  5. 5. In slow-and-go traffic, accelerate to the desired speed, then lift off the accelerator pedal, allowing the vehicle to run more on electric power.
  6. 6. Ensure tires are at the recommended pressure.
  7. 7. Avoid carrying unnecessary loads. Extra weight reduces fuel economy.
  8. 8. Use the air conditioner and the defroster only when needed.
  9. 9. Use premium fuel to improve fuel economy and performance.

Frankly I have to wonder if this last one is not just something to pander to the “snob appeal” of the luxury car buyer market. Generally, premium fuel does not deliver any better gas mileage and most experts recommend against it unless the engine specifically requires it, because any performance increase is likely to be less than the proportional cost increase.

Lexus does list a number of the benefits to owning hybrid vehicles, including, “increased horsepower, lower emissions, smoother ride, reduced noise,” (one of my favorites, it’s just fun to drive down our street with the Mercury SUV making less noise than our neighbors’ electric golf carts), “longer battery life, and better fuel economy.”

I don’t approve the following message, but it isn’t my campaign. However you will note that the story has been very carefully crafted not to “hurt the party” (the Democratic Party, that is, of course), because it is accusing Senator Obama of being complicit in policies of the Bush administration, thus it is not exactly fodder for the Republican side, which has already launch anti-Obama media.

What I do like in recent developments in the campaign is the fact that Senator Obama and Senator McCain have been confrontative of each other. I think this is a far more constructive (so far) route for all concerned. I know that they claim “negative ads work”, but that doesn’t me I have to like to see them, and I don’t. Actually I found the above YouTube.com video clip in an excellent column in Newsweek online by Andrew Romano which is probably worth reading (certainly if you happen to read this column before next Tuesday and the results of the Wisconsin primary are not yet in).

Mr. Romano seems to think that there is a very strong possibility that Senator Clinton will pull out a “surprise” victory (on this point he agrees with CBS political analyst and Slate.com’s political columnist Jeff Greenfield) in Wisconsin, in part because Wisconsin closely matches Ohio where she is strongly favored because of the composition of the electorate there. Analysis from This Week with George Stephanopolous was of the opinion that Senator Hillary Clinton needs to win all three of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania to put the outcome of the leadership race to rest before the convention and even then she will need the majority of the so-called “super-delegates” to achieve the necessary majority. Greenfield says, as I have recently, that the “managed expectations game” that the Clinton campaign machine is working is a finely honed strategy that they execute very effectively, and that he expects: “Indeed, its potential for Hillary is so promising that it’s worth pondering whether the “on to Texas and Ohio!” battle cry of her campaign might be one huge head fake, designed to turn a strong Clinton showing—much less a victory—into one of those ‘Oh my God, what a shocker!’ reactions that changes the whole tenor of the political conversation.”

I would really like to see Senator Clinton’s campaign focus turn toward the matchup with the Republican candidate, and not risk damaging Democrats themselves any further with negative attacks.

This falls into the realm of politics too. I meant to get on with the entertainment news but this got me steamed, so the entertainment side will have to wait ’til the steam pressure goes down. Reason for steam: The AMA has a Health Insurance proposal for you to consider.

In the proposal linked above, the AMA shows us that what we need (according to the good doctors) is a tax credit for individuals to buy their own health insurance. Having worked at H&R Block for several tax seasons in the past, I can assure you that most Americans don’t have a tax burden sufficient to be able to use a tax credit of the size the AMA is proposing (their example shows a tax credit to a family [presumably 4 persons]) of US$7500. If the government were to make it a “refundable credit” (the “earned income credit” which is currently available to low income tax “payers” [and I use the term “payers” loosely, because these are people who file income taxes in order to receive this federal income subsidy] to try to extend this benefit to low income families, I assure you that it would not go, in the majority of cases, to purchase health insurance. They might use it to pay off last year’s hospital maternity bill that wasn’t covered by insurance they didn’t have last year, but more likely it would go to purchase a better used car than the rusty old hulk they are driving now, or to buy some “personal watercraft”, or ATV or two. Purchasing health insurance is just not seen as a “necessary” investment of substantial portion of income by most low income wage earners.

The AMA’s magic formula is shown in an example of a US$50,000 household versus a US$150,000 household, where the latter gets NO tax credit, while both families are expected to have employer provided health care insurance that amounts to about US$10,000 per year as a precursor to this example, in which the employer pays 75% of that US$10,000 premium. Now, at no time to my hands leave my sleeves during this “magic” transformation, but the employer provided premiums continue to be paid by the employer, but are now counted as employee salary. (From what well of the milk of human kindness the AMA believes these blessings flow, I don’t know, but it seems like a highly unlikely scenario.) However unlikely, they continue now to show that the US$7500 that was formerly subsidized by the employer for both employees is now substituted for by the corresponding US$7500 tax credit against the US$50,000 family’s now US$57,500 taxable income, thus having transformed healthcare costs for the lesser income family from 18% to just 4% while the upper income family’s healthcare costs rise from only 5% to just 6% overall.

Let’s get reasonable, please. “For profit” organizations providing healthcare insurance are in the business for the benefit of the shareholders, not for the benefit of the policy holders. That’s why we see instances like the recently highly publicized one in which a girl with significant medical difficulties was being denied a liver transplant by the insurance company until the day she died, at which time, due to public pressure they reversed their decision. It doesn’t have to be “single payer” healthcare (as in one monolithic federal health insurance system), but it certainly needs to be a national plan of NOT-FOR-PROFIT. Single payer does have tremendous economies of administrative overhead and costs, plus the advantage that individual health care providers don’t have to maintain elaborate accounting and billing systems that address the demands of every separate insurance provider. I know of a local clinic here in Phoenix that offers a 40% to 60% discount for “self-pay” because of how much cheaper it is to deal with a cash client than insurance claims.

I am rapidly running out of time for today, so I will just mention that two shows cut from the same cloth have caught our attention, Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle. Lipstick Jungle was rather a disappointment in the debut episode last week, but this week they redeemed themselves. That is fortunate for Lipstick’s cast, because they benefit from being born from the brain of HBO’s now defunct Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell. The stars of Litpstick Jungle are the still beautiful Brooke Shields, Kim Raver, veteran of several seasons of Third Watch and 24, and a truly sparkling Lindsay Price. Cashmere Mafia is quirkier, and easier to like at first glance, especially the always charming Lucy Liu (formerly of Ally McBeal series, and the Quentin Tarantino film series Kill Bill), Frances O’Connor, and Miranda Otto, and Bonnie Sommerville. In the pilot episode Sommerville’s character is suddenly smitten with another woman, a turn of events she finds both intriguing and unexpected. Neither show is aimed to steal fans from the wrestling or bass fishing channel, but with such a range of choices of beautiful women, they just might end up attracting a few glassy stares from mesmerized males.

Love,

Stafford “Doc” Williamson

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