Fuel Tax

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has come out with a pre-Budget report. I’ve lost track of the details of how budgets work now, but basically he announces some things now, then does a bigger announcement in April (that’s the one that usually contains tax changes).

One of the things he’s announced is a rise of 1.25 pence per litre on petrol. This is the first increase in 3 years, partly because of the general rise in oil prices, but also due to a civilized revolt by car owners. As this is about the largest ‘green’ tax in the country, that means that green taxes overall have dropped compared to 2003. That, it seems clear, is a bad thing. All taxes act as a punishment, whatever their other virtues, and currently we get much more of our revenue by punishing work, savings or even spending than we do by punishing things we actually want to punish.

Personally I’d like to remove all taxes from driving except for those on fuel. Too much of the cost of using cars is hidden by the large fixed cost of owning them, so a trip that might actually cost £100 including its share of those costs appears to only cost £25 of petrol. If the costs were placed on individual acts of consumption it would prompt people to think more carefully about every trip, without necessarily costing drivers as a whole any more than the current system.

Another in the long list of things I’ll sort out when someone makes me Emperor.

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Strong Hybrid

Someone has made a ‘strong hybrid’ Mini, that is a car with an internal combustion engine that is used solely to generate electricity, and is not mechanically connected to the wheels at all. There are a number of benefits to this approach:

  • The engine can be run within an efficient range – having an engine that can rev from a few hundred rpm up to several thousand inevitably compromises the efficiency of the engine. Separating the engine from any direct power need means it can run within a tight rpm band. This is inherently more efficient, and also allows secondary efficiencies (you don’t need to use much energy on balancing the engine, for example).
  • You can size the engine for greater efficiency – if you have a reasonable amount of energy storage onboard you don’t need an engine that can create 200bhp on demand. Instead you pick one that very efficiently does 20hp (in this case) and just run it continuously.
  • Mechanical losses in the transmission, diffs etc. are greatly reduced. Naturally some of this is counterbalanced by the inefficiencies of the conversion to electricity, but the other benefits mentioned here come for ‘free’.
  • It’s inherently a modular design. If someone comes up with a better energy storage system than the battery, you plug that in. The same goes for the conventional engine, and even the in-wheel motors.
  • You get to run electric-only when needed. If you’re heading into a polluted city, or even just a long tunnel, you can switch the conventional engine off and run solely on the battery, reducing local pollution when it’s needed most.

All of that, and I’ve not mentioned that you can run on electricity from the grid that has huge potential for being more environmentally friendly than a oil-burning engine.

Unfortunately I suspect this might cost a little more than a Prius for now, but there’s no reason why this couldn’t be a serious option very soon, and would provide a useful platform for the developments such as fuel cells that many people are touting.

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Solar Wi-Fi

My old city of St Louis Park was implementing a city-wide Wi-Fi network when I left. I hadn’t realized that they’re planning to power much of the network using 400 photovoltaic panels. It’s great to see a city providing infrastructure like this, and doing it in an economical and environmentally responsible way.

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Confusion of Terms

There’s a story on the BBC website and radio today about a plan to charge residents of Richmond (a suburb of London) for parking spaces according to the carbon emissions of their vehicles. I’m unsure about this as an idea generally – I’m a big fan of green taxes, I’m just not sure this is a good one – but the coverage contains a basic mistake that I’ve seen repeated several times since I got back to the UK.

A Lib Dem council in London wants owners of gas-guzzling vehicles to pay more to park outside their homes.

Richmond residents with high-emission cars could pay £750 a year, compared with £200 now, but the greenest cars would be exempt.

Whether a car ‘guzzles’ gas or not isn’t an isolated fact. A car’s pollution isn’t defined by how much it uses per mile, but how much it uses per day. A Hummer driven a mile per day guzzles less gas than a Prius driven 10 miles per day. Charging people based on their potential for pollution does less to discourage pollution than charges based on their actual pollution, and mischaracterizing this does us no favours.

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