MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Dropped 30 Out of 31 Days in July

140731_EM_GasPump_1
UpperCut Images—Getty Images

The national average for gas prices experienced the largest drop in July in six years, according to AAA

The direction that gas prices have been heading in during peak vacation and road trip season should put smiles on the face of American motorists.

As of July 31, the AAA Fuel Gauge Report listed the national average for a gallon of regular at $3.517, roughly 3¢ less than a week ago, 16¢ less than one month ago, and 11¢ less than prices at the pump at this time last year. What’s more, AAA announced that gas prices fell in 30 out of 31 days in July, helping to bring about the biggest decline in prices at the pump in July in six years.

This is the first time ever recorded that gas prices have fallen so consistently in July, which is a month when gas prices are generally prone to soar. The highest national average ever posted remains July 2008, when prices spiked to a panic-inducing $4.11.

“Falling gas prices are nearly the opposite to what we usually see this time of year,” said AAA spokesman Avery Ash. So what explains the decline? “Refineries are running at full tilt and there is more than enough gasoline in the market, which has helped bring down prices despite multiple overseas conflicts.”

And what can we expect going forward? Well, gas prices have dropped in August in three of the last five years. But prior performance is no indication of what’ll happen in the future—just look at gas prices recently, which have fallen during a time period when they have skyrocketed in the past.

Even so, the experts at AAA anticipate that gas prices will continue on a downward path in the days and weeks ahead, provided there are no major hurricanes, refinery problems, or unforeseen international conflicts—any of which could send fuel costs up and up. For now at least, the idea that gas prices peaked for 2014 in early spring is still holding up.

TIME Germany

Germany Now Produces 28.5% of Energy from Renewables

Wind Turbines
Wind turbines stand on June 17, 2014 near Wernitz, Germany. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

The country’s Energiewende energy transition has crossed another milestone

Germany set a new record on green energy in the first half of 2014, by producing 28.5% of its energy entirely from renewable sources, according to a report released Tuesday by the energy trade association BDEW.

The industrial powerhouse of Europe, Germany is undergoing a massive shift in the way it produces energy as it attempts to become a country powered almost entirely by solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy sources. In the first half of 2014, wind generation in Germany increased 21.4% while solar grew by 27.3%.

The state-subsidized transition to renewables, known as Energiewende, has not been without high costs. Energy prices are among the highest in Europe and greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased in the near term as Germany’s post-Fukushima drawdown of nuclear power has led to an increase in the use of coal to make up for lost production.

TIME Opinion

I Don’t Love Lucy: The Bad Science in the Sci-Fi Thriller

Maybe if the screenwriters had used 20% of their brains...

You use a whole lot more than 10% of your brain—but a common fallacy that says otherwise is nonetheless the central premise of a new movie

Now there are three Lucys I have to keep straight: The 3.2 million year old Australopithecus unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974; the eponymous star of the inexplicably celebrated 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy; and, most recently, the lead character—played by Scarlett Johansson—of the new sci-fi thriller straightforwardly titled Lucy. Going by intellectual heft alone, I’ll pick the millions-year-old bones.

The premise of the movie, such as it is, is that Lucy, a drug mule living in Taiwan, is exposed to a bit of high-tech pharma that suddenly increases her brain power, giving her the ability to outwit entire police departments, travel through time and space, dematerialize at will and yada-yada-yada, cut to gunfights, special effects and a portentous message about, well, something or other.

The movie poster’s teaser line? “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”

Let’s forgive the poster its pronoun problem (the average person—as in just one of us—uses 10% of their brain capacity), because the science problem is so much more egregious. The 10% brainpower thing is part of a rich canon of widely believed and entirely untrue science dicta that include “Man is the only animal that kills its own kind” (tell that to the lion cubs that were just murdered by an alpha male trying to take over a pride) and “A goldfish can remember something for only seven seconds” (a premise that was tested…how? With a pop quiz?).

No one is entirely sure where the 10% brainpower canard got started, but it goes back at least a century and is one of the most popular entries in the equally popular book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. There is some speculation that the belief began with an idle quote by American philosopher William James who, in 1908, wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources,” an observation vague enough to mean almost anything—or nothing—at all.

Some people attribute it to an explanation Albert Einstein offered when asked to account for his own towering intellect—except that Einstein never said such a thing and even if he had it would not make it true. Still others cite the more scientifically defensible idea that there is a measure of plasticity in the brain, so that if the region that controls, say, the right arm, is damaged by, say, a stroke, it is sometimes possible for other parts of the brain to pick up the slack—a sort of neural rewiring that restores lost motion and function.

But none of that remotely justifies the 10% silliness. The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs. At birth, babies actually have up to 50% more neural connections among the billions of brain cells than adults do, but in the first few years of life (and, to a lesser extent, on through sexual maturity) a process of pruning takes place, with many of those synaptic links being broken and the ones that remain growing stronger. That makes the brain less diffuse and more efficient—which is exactly the way any good central processing unit should operate. It also allows it to use up fewer calories, which is critical.

“We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

Added Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, “The thing that’s really astonishing might not be that we lose so many connections, but that the brain’s plasticity and growth are able to continue for as long as they do.”

OK, so the Lucy screenwriters aren’t psychologists or directors of cognitive studies institutes. But they do have the same 100 billion neurons everybody else’s brains have. Here’s hoping they take a few billion of them out for an invigorating run before they write their next sci-fi script.

MONEY Autos

7 Cars That Save on Gas in a Way You Won’t Believe

2013 Ford Fusion
Ford began offering auto stop-start technology as an option with the 2013 Fusion. Ford—Wieck

New research shows that funky, futuristic auto stop-start technology is a proven money saver on gas. It's available right now only in a tiny fraction of cars, but that's going to change soon.

Over the years, one urban fuel-efficiency myth has been pervasive—that you’ll save gas by letting your car idle rather than shutting the engine off when, say, waiting at the curb for someone running into a store. Popular Mechanics, AAA, and others have busted this myth, pointing out that a vehicle gets negative miles per gallon while idle. The consensus advice now is that if you car is stopped for more than a minute, the smart move is to turn the engine off.

The arrival of auto stop-start, a technology most often seen in hybrids, does this work for you, and not only if you’re idle for minute or more. As the name suggests, the tech shuts off the vehicle’s engine automatically when the car comes to a stop—at a red light, say—and then starts it again in the jiffy when the driver takes a foot off the brake pedal.

The technology has slowly been spreading beyond hybrids to a few vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines, and new research from AAA indicates that this is a good thing. After testing several cars with the feature, researchers concluded that the tech is a no-brainer that saves drivers 5% to 7% on gas costs annually. A blurb from the press release explains a little more about what this means to us all:

“Up to seven percent improved fuel economy can mean a $215 annual fuel savings for Southern California consumers,” says Steve Mazor, the chief automotive engineer of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. “It also reduces the main greenhouse gas emitted from cars (CO2) by 5 to 7 percent in city driving.”

Navigant Research predicts that by 2022, 55 million cars sold annually will have stop-start technology, up from 8.8 million last year. Adoption is ahead of the curve in Europe, where gas prices are astronomical compared to much of the world: Roughly 45% of cars built in Europe already come with start-stop systems.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the stop-start feature remains an anomaly; only about 500,000 new cars sold in the U.S. in 2013 had the technology. Estimates call for that figure to shoot up to 7 million by 2022. But there’s no need to wait. The vehicles below already offer stop-start as an option or a standard feature in the U.S.:

BMW: Several BMWs have auto start-stop technology, but not all drivers are fans. “The stop-start system is just awful,” one Automotive News columnist wrote of his 2012 328i, describing the herky-jerky feeling of stepping off the brake and automatically restarting the engine as “balky” and “uncomfortable.” Drivers do have the option to turn the start-stop feature off if it’s proving to be too annoying.

Chevrolet Impala: The automaker has made stop-start technology standard on the 2015 Impala.

Chevrolet Malibu: Starting with the 2014 model year, Chevy made stop-start standard on the Malibu, which the automaker says has helped it boost fuel efficiency by 14% with city driving.

Ford Fusion: A couple of years ago, Ford introduced a stop-start system as a $295 option for the first time in the U.S. on a non-hybrid model. At the time, the automaker estimated that drivers would save $1,100 in gasoline costs over five years of driving by upgrading to stop-start. The 2015 Fusion is estimated to get an extra 3 mpg over the base model.

Ford F-150: Buyers who go for the 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine on the 2015 version of Ford’s best-selling pickup get a special auto stop-start feature that’s a little different than others out there. Like other systems, this one automatically shuts off the engine as a fuel saver when the vehicle is stopped, but not when the vehicle is towing something or when it’s in four-wheel drive. Without that feature, the tech could prove frustrating for pickup drivers who are hauling something in the rear or are inching along stop-and-go on bumpy or muddy terrain. During all other driving situations, “The engine restarts in milliseconds when the brake is released,” Ford promises.

Porsche: Among the Porsche models that come with auto start-stop, the new Panamera’s system is special in that the engine not only shuts off when the vehicle is at a full stop—but it also shuts off when the car is slowing down approaching a traffic light. While the engine goes quiet, climate control, audio systems, and other interior features remain powered by the battery. And if the battery doesn’t have enough juice for all the auxiliary equipment, the engine will simply turn back on.

Ram 1500: The 2013 model year Ram truck offered start-stop technology as an option, the first in the pickup category to do so. “This new system is just one of the advances that allow the 2013 RAM 1500 to offer up to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency than previous models,” the automaker stated.

TIME Environment

Only 1/3 of Americans ‘Willing’ to Change Behavior for Environment

As Michael Grunwald noted in his piece on TIME’s recent energy poll, Americans lag far behind other nations in their willingness to help the environment. Here, only 33% of Americans say they “strongly agree” they would modify their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint, compared to 43% of people from other countries.

Americans Take Less Responsibility For Clean Energy

 

For more stories on the New Energy Reality, click here.

TIME energy

Obama Approves Sonic Cannons to Map Atlantic for Offshore Oil and Gas

Offshore drilling in the Atlantic is up for debate
The Atlantic offshore territory has been off limits to U.S. oil drilling, but that could change Brasil2 via Getty Images

Over environmental objections, the Obama Administration moves forward with exploration that could yield new domestic oil and gas sources

The Obama administration reopened part of the Eastern seaboard Friday to offshore oil and gas exploration, promising to boost job creation in the energy sector while at the same time fueling the fears of environmental groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath the coast from Florida to Maine. The recent decision allows exploration from Florida to Delaware and could create thousands of new jobs supporting expanded energy infrastructure along the East Coast.

“Offshore energy exploration and production in the Atlantic could bring new jobs and higher revenues to states and local communities, while adding to our country’s capabilities as an energy superpower,” American Petroleum Institute upstream director Erik Milito said in a statement.

Environmentalists worry about damage to shorelines, and to the tourist industry. They also worry about the safety of ocean wildlife. The exploration will initially be conducted via seismic surveys that use sonic cannons to locate oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.

“We’re definitely concerned,” Hamilton Davis, energy and climate change director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, told TIME. “The exploration activities lead in the direction of actual development of oil and gas, and from our perspective as a coastal organization that worries about our environmental ecological landscape as well as our [tourism] economy, the oil and gas industry certainly doesn’t seem to fit into that equation. Just the impacts from exploration activities on marine wildlife I think would give most people pause… You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of animals that will be negatively impacted as a consequence of these activities.”

BOEM said it approved the seismic surveys with the environment in mind. “After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said Acting BOEM Director Walter D. Cruickshank in a statement.

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, but many constituents and elected officials in the newly opened East Coast territory have expressed their concerns about the testing and eventual drilling. Congressional officials from Florida, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, signed a letter to President Obama opposing the decision.

“Expanding unnecessary drilling offshore simply puts too much at risk. Florida has more coastline than any other state in the continental United States and its beaches and marine resources support the local economy across the state,” the letter states.

The area to be mapped is in federal waters, not under the jurisdiction of state law. Energy companies will apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

 

TIME energy

White House Tightens Oil Train Safety Regulations

Oil Trains Accidents
a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Montana on Nov. 6, 2013. Matthew Brown—AP

After a spate of train derailments, the Obama administration issued new rules on an increasingly popular way to move crude in the U.S.

Updated at 3:53 p.m.

Freight trains that haul an increasingly large amount of oil across the United States will have to improve safety mechanisms under new regulations proposed by the Obama administration Wednesday.

The new rules include lower speed limits, new brake requirements, tougher regulations on the sturdiness of oil tank construction and a plan for phasing out some older oil tank cars.

As a result of the rapid increase in oil production in North America in recent years, a growing volume of crude is being moved from well-head to refinery via freight trains—an increase of 423 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the Department of Transportation. In tandem with that sharp uptick, there has been a spate of train accidents involving spilled crude oil, up from none in 2010 to five in 2013 and five by February this year, before a train carrying crude derailed in April in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, temporarily setting on fire to a river that passes by the town’s population of 77,000.

The fact that train accidents overall have been in sharp decline in the last decade speaks to the tremendous increase in the amount of crude oil being moved around the country by rail.

Environmentalist groups have been pushing for tighter safety rules on freight trains carrying crude oil, which often pass through or near residential communities. A particularly devastating train accident last year in a town in Quebec left more than 40 dead and dozens of buildings destroyed.

Among the initiatives the DOT proposed Wednesday is a plan to address concerns that crude oil drilled out of the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota, today one of the most productive oil fields in the world, is a particularly dangerous form of crude. “It has become general public knowledge that Bakken crude is proving particularly explosive,” said Anthony Swift, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In its response to the DOT proposal, the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, rejected the notion that Bakken crude is especially dangerous. “The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,” said API President Jack Gerard.

TIME trade

It’s Time for Europe to Get Tough With Russia

European Union Foreign Ministers Meet On Ukraine Crisis
Flags of the European Union seen in front of the headquarters of the European Commission on March 03, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Michael Gottschalk—Photothek/Getty Images

Europe has a history of coming together in good times but not in bad. Think about the creation of the Eurozone, and the launch of the single currency, juxtaposed with the piecemeal policy reaction over the last few years to the Eurozone financial crisis. This tendency has been on tragic display recently, with the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet that carried numerous European passengers. This event should have strengthened European resolve to put more and tougher sanctions on Russia. Instead, it’s led to half-hearted measures doled out on a country-by-country basis. France is even going ahead with big deal to supply warships to Russia.

The key issue, of course, is that Europe is in very deep with the Russians economically, much deeper than the U.S. Or China, for that matter; The recent Russia-China gas deal was small potatoes compared to the business that the Europeans do. Europeans get about 30 percent of their gas from Russia, and are dependent on other natural resources, like oil and minerals, from Russia too. Indeed, the Netherlands, which lost more people than any European country in the crash, took in the largest share of those exports from Russia last year. They aren’t alone—German banks and multinationals do lots of business with Russia, and countries like the UK are a big destination for oligarchs looking to stash cash outside their home country.

That’s why it’s so crucial that European foreign ministers come together at their meeting over the Ukraine situation and Russian sanctions in Brussels. Until they are on board with more serious sanctions, particularly in the energy sector, it’s unlikely that the current rounds are going to make a serious dent in the Russian economy, which, as a recently Capital Economics report pointed out, still has a strong international investment position.

The bottom line is that Europe needs a much smarter and less Russia-centric energy strategy. As I’ve explained before, that’s a need that’s unlikely to filled by the gas rich US anytime soon. Rather it’s something that will have to be driven internally within Europe. It’s an opportunity not only for Europe to become more secure, but to prove to the rest of the world that it can work together and live up to the promise of the EU itself—in both good times and bad.

TIME energy

New Poll Shows Americans Won’t Give Up Their Cars

Stuck in Traffic
Cars stuck in traffic. Maureen Sullivan—Getty Images

Our car-crazy culture lags behind global competitors in using public transportation

Gas prices are high, roads are clogged and driving alone is worse for the planet. But Americans still prefer to commute in their air-conditioned cocoons.

A new global survey conducted for TIME on attitudes toward energy reveals that Americans are more reluctant than international counterparts to ditch their cars for public transportation.

Only 16% of Americans prefer using public transportation to get to work, compared with 41% of respondents overall in the poll, which compared U.S. attitudes toward energy and conservation with those in Brazil, Germany, India, South Korea and Turkey. Just 8% of U.S. respondents said they always take public transit instead of a personal vehicle, sharply below the overall total of 27%.

Americans’ reluctance to ditch their cars may be a symptom of their overall disinclination to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. One in three U.S. respondents said they were willing to change their behavior in their name of conservation, 10 percentage points below the overall average and ahead of only South Korea.

Or it may stem from our long-running love affair with the automobile. A full 79% of respondents from the U.S. said they rely on their car for transportation, about double the overall average of 39%. (Germans were the second biggest gearheads, with 47% relying on cars to get around.) Just 9% of Americans said they lean most heavily on trains, metro systems or public buses.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

TIME energy

Poll: Men and Women Think Differently About Energy

Energy Power Lines
Getty Images

A new global survey for TIME shows how attitudes toward conservation may be guided by gender

More women than men worldwide say energy conservation is a “very important” issue, while men report greater personal concern about global warming, according to the results of a new global energy survey conducted for TIME.

The survey polled online respondents in six countries—the U.S., Germany, India, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea—on their attitudes toward energy. It revealed that conservation habits and perspectives about energy challenges differ along gender lines, and not always in the ways you might expect.

Nearly 70% of women said energy conservation was a vital issue, compared with less than 50% of men. At the same, 65% of males reported that global warming was a very important issue to them, far outpacing the 37% of females who said the same.

The survey suggests that women are more leery of nuclear power (by a 48% to 40% margin), slightly more convinced the earth is warming (60% to 56%) and more likely to report high degrees of concern over rising sea levels, pollution and gas prices. By a couple of percentage points, women also took a more favorable stand on the oil-and-gas industry’s role in the issue.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to say that rich nations should take the lead in the fight to reduce emissions (50% to 46%), and more likely to lay blame for the global warming crisis at the feet of the United States (45% to 38%), which has long held the ignominious title of the world’s largest carbon emitter.

The sexes were also split in their assessment of their home country’s role in the climate crisis. Sixty-three percent of women say their nation is part of the problem, compared with 54% of men. Men were more likely to say their country was part of the solution, by a 46% to 37% margin.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

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