If one wanted, hypothetically, to win a world war, and studied the previous world wars to glean what relevant information might be revealed, one would be struck by the fact that America is a formidable foe, with tremendous natural resources. Americans habitually throw away enough food to feed another continent. Or a war effort. It would be advantageous to remove this fertile ground from the equasion. What if Rome had salted the fields before waging war on Carthage? Continue reading
What if I told you that all wars were waged over resources, that at the moment the most important resource in the world is oil, and that the war in the middle east and the trade war over the Alberta tar sands, seemingly different conflicts involving different parties, are actually the same war, waged by the same economic force and subject to the same economic necessities, one of which is within your control? Continue reading
The SolarCity solar panels took six weeks to schedule, two days to install, and it may be another two months before they’re finally turned on.
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Six weeks ago my family got back from a vacation and my wife called SolarCity to schedule the installation of solar panels on our roof. She and I expected it to be a week or two, but were surprised to find that SolarCity is busy enough in the Denver metro area that it would be six weeks before their installers could get to our roof. We weren’t exactly thrilled – we’d been hoping to get the system operational as fast as possible to start saving up energy credits for the winter, when we’ll generate less electricity and yet consume more.
We were quite happy to see the SolarCity installers when they showed up yesterday, and over the last two days my home went from having a bare roof to having a full set of solar panels. In addition, all they upgraded the electrical box and installed all the electrical systems required to support the system. While I spent most of that time at work, it was still cool to come home today to find out that they were done and that we were now waiting on Xcel Energy – the electricity supplier for most of Colorado – to come out and install the net meter.
It was less cool to find out that it could take Xcel as much as two months to get to us. Again, we’d really like to store up some electricity credits before winter. Unfortunately, I’m no longer convinced that’ll happen. It’s not like we were banking on it or needed it financially, it just would have been even nicer financially than having a solar on the roof will be regardless.
If you look at it from Xcel’s perspective, they have no incentive to come out and hook up the solar system any sooner than they absolutely have to. Sure, they’ll want to have it hooked up before the end of the year so they can claim the system for their renewable energy requirement, but they more they can delay it without breaking the law, the more money they make from my utility bills. Still, maybe we’ll be one of the lucky ones that get hooked up faster than that.
I’m not holding my breath.
Tesla expects to release their all-wheel drive, 7-passenger SUV/minivan crossover in Fall 2015. Others will follow, prices will fall, and going all-electric will soon be more viable.
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A week after we bought my all electric Nissan Leaf, my wife and I also purchased a brand new Nissan Pathfinder. We needed one vehicle capable of supporting a family road trip and with all-wheel or 4-wheel drive so we could use it as our primary skiing vehicle this winter. The Leaf isn’t capable of either at this point.
A few weeks ago my wife pointed out something that I hadn’t really thought about, but have since thought about a lot. Given how long we tend to keep our cars (10 years or so) and the pace of both development and deployment of all-electric vehicles, the Pathfinder may well be the last internal combustion engine vehicle we ever buy.
Pop quiz: where is just about the last place you would like to punch a deep hole in the earth’s crust?
Drat. The headline gave it away, didn’t it? Well, yes. I would think Yellowstone would come readily to mind. As it turns out, if we’re worried about triggering the eruption of a supervolcano, we’re probably worried too much. For that matter, it seems there must be plenty of places to drill that don’t even involve the Sisyphusian futility of trying to drill through earth so hot it just seals the well, else this wouldn’t even be an issue. Oil giants don’t get to hoard obscene wealth by squandering it stupidly. It’s the environment they squander, and that, rapaciously. Continue reading
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I was eating lunch with some coworkers recently when the topic of cars came up. As someone who has recently purchased a new car, I mentioned that I had bought an all electric Nissan Leaf, and that kicked off a 10-15 minute discussion of the particulars of charging, the economics of it, pollution, how quiet it is, why I bought it over a Volt or some other electric, expectations for bad weather driving, the confusion between a 100% electric vs. a hybrid, and so on. Continue reading
If poisoning is the answer, I don’t want to know the question.
There’s this thing going around now called “rollin’ coal.” You’ve probably heard of it. On a small scale I don’t think it makes that much of a difference, but here’s what those folks think is funny…pouring out thick carcinogenic diesel exhaust at people they don’t like.
Not liking people I understand. Bumper stickers mocking people you don’t like I understand. Essentially fumigating them with poison because you don’t like them? That I don’t understand.
With great freedom comes great power. With great power comes great responsibility. One of those great responsibilities is to engage in civic life like civilized people. Freedoms abused should absolutely be restricted since the people abusing them are clearly not to be trusted with the power they were born into. What one does on their own land and behind their own doors is of no concern of society’s unless and until that behavior affects someone else in an infringing capacity. Continue reading
Tax credits and rebates, low cost of operation, and reduced air pollution all made the Leaf the better choice for my family.
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I know I’m going to get asked why I spent over 30k (before all the crazy tax rebates) on a car that only goes 80 miles. My father especially will ask at some point, and he’s already called it a “toy” car.
He’s not entirely wrong, either. I’m in my 40s now, and it’s actually quite a bit of fun to drive around in a car that can go from 0 to 60 in just a tad over 6 seconds. I’ve never had a car that has this kind of acceleration. Continue reading
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Actually, they really aren’t everywhere. The fact that I’m seeing electrics all over the place now is actually a simple psychological phenomenon related to familiarity. I own an electric car, and so I’m more in tune with what other electric cars look like, and so simply happen to notice them more.
I did drive by a nice red one on my way home from the dealership, however – the two twenty-something women in it were laughing and pointing at mine as I zipped by them. Continue reading
On June 7, one Colorado family took a leap into unfamiliar waters with both solar panels and a Nissan Leaf.
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Talk about diving into renewable energy head first. What the hell are we – I – doing? Continue reading
Our lust for energy is killing us, one story at a time.
by Bruce Lindwall
Our stories aren’t the same but they rhyme.
They came to the desert to get the uranium. Continue reading
Lord MacGregor’s silly Telegraph op-ed is little more than a recitation of energy industry talking points.
The worthies over at the House of Lords—some of them, anyway—have issued a report deploring the fact that fracking has made virtually no progress in the UK, and that it should be an “urgent national priority,” noting that exploratory drilling hasn’t even really begun.
This is a report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee—no, I didn’t know they had one either. Continue reading
Climate disruption is a result of human nature, and human nature isn’t going to change.
Here’s what I learned visiting St. Eustatius. The debate over global warming is a waste of time.
St. Eustatius is a tiny Caribbean Island. In its day, the place was a big deal, one of the world’s busiest trading ports with 3500 ships a year. It’s best known for being the first place to acknowledge U.S. sovereignty, but it also played a key role in the Revolution. Most of the guns used by the Continental Army came through Statia, as it’s now known. Continue reading
Ah, summertime—iced tea, the girls in their summer dresses, butterflies by day and lightning bugs at night, late summer evenings in moonlight, children staying up late, increased shipping in the polar seas…wait, what? Well, yes. For the fourth or fifth straight year, enough polar ice has melted so that the number of ships traversing the Northeast Passage—say, from the Bering Straits to around the northern tip of Norway, specifically from Kobe to Rotterdam—has increased. In fact, as of 30 July, some 270 vessels had received permits to make this trip. Specifically, 391 permit applications had been received by Russia’s NSR (Northern Sea Route) administration, and 52 of these were not approved. The difference in permitted approvals and the 270 is that not all ships will be doing the full route—quite a few stop off at various Russian ports. Not that there are all that many of them, but there are enough. This is up from 46 in 2012 doing the whole route, and just four in 2010.
Something transformational is happening here, at least for some. The NSR route shaves about ten days off of doing the traditional route through the Suez Canal. And it’s becoming more popular, obviously. China in particular has an interest here—its first ship just left for this route last week. Russia, which for centuries has had a foreign policy premised, in part, on a search for a permanent warm weather port, has an interest as well. Surprise, surprise, global warming is handing several ports to them at once. The fact that they’re not available year round yet doesn’t really matter—at the current rate of melting, that won’t be a problem in a couple of decades. The Russians can wait for this. Russia, of course, is a long-standing member of the Arctic Council—China only recently got observer status, but has made its polar intentions known. And that’s just one part of the world. On top of the other continent, an increasing number of ships are seeking to make the Northwest Passage a regular route—nearly 20 vessels in this case. Granted, it’s a more difficult route. But still, that’s nearly 20 more than there were a couple of years ago.
We’ve flagged this issue before. And it’s actually not as straightforward as the above implies—there’s still lots of ice, and therefore risk, in waters that are pretty far from anything like mainstream shipping routes, and where any environmental mishap (like a significant spill) is days away for any emergency cleanup operation. But still, a trend is a trend, and there’s no reason to think this will change. We certainly don’t expect the warming trend to reverse itself any time soon—certainly the shipping companies don’t, nor do the governments affected (except for the US, of course, where one of the two major political parties is still gripped by an insane global warming denialism.)
Because in addition to opening up a potentially valuable new trade route, melting arctic seas open up a lot more—mainly mineral resources in the sea bed, including lots and lots of oil and gas for development. If the statistics that industry analysts and reporters have any truth to them, we’re told that the Arctic alone (leaving aside the Antarctic) contains perhaps 30% of “the world’s undiscovered gas” and 13% of undiscovered oil. (“Undiscovered” simply means that gas and/or oil are expected to be there based on the known geology, but actual testing hasn’t been done to pinpoint the location.) And, in an often-repeated factoid, we are constantly being assured that Lloyd’s of London is estimating that investment in the Arctic “could reach $100 billion within ten years.”
Well, yes, this all seems like it might actually happen. But then there’s the methane issue, which could be significant—conceptually it’s an issue, but I suppose it depends on how development takes place. Sadly, experience tells us that it won’t proceed without some sort of large screw-up. We don’t really know how many oil spills or nuclear accidents have occurred in the past that are lost to memory and the Arctic seas. But with every environmental group paying close attention, you can be that any new screw-ups will receive at least some attention—just consider Shell’s disastrous and ultimately farcical attempts to do some test drilling in offshore Arctic waters in 2012. If the media coverage of the spills associated with the proposed Keystone Pipeline is anything to go by, there won’t be broad media coverage, but someone will at least be paying attention. And the numbers are potentially and wildly scary—as the authors of a recent paper in Nature pointed out, economic costs of methane released in Arctic areas could approach $60 trillion, yes, trillion—which would be about the size of the global economy in 2012. Is this alarmist? Probably, and hopefully. But still, methane hydrates are genuinely scary, as the authors point out:
As the amount of Arctic sea ice declines at an unprecedented rate, the thawing of offshore permafrost releases methane. A 50-gigatonne (Gt) reservoir of methane, stored in the form of hydrates, exists on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. It is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly. Higher methane concentrations in the atmosphere will accelerate global warming and hasten local changes in the Arctic, speeding up sea-ice retreat, reducing the reflection of solar energy and accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The ramifications will be felt far from the poles.
The methane pulse will bring forward by 15–35 years the average date at which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2°C above pre-industrial levels — to 2035 for the business-as-usual scenario and to 2040 for the low-emissions case (see ‘Arctic methane’). This will lead to an extra $60 trillion (net present value) of mean climate-change impacts for the scenario with no mitigation, or 15% of the mean total predicted cost of climate-change impacts (about $400 trillion). In the low-emissions case, the mean net present value of global climate-change impacts is $82 trillion without the methane release; with the pulse, an extra $37 trillion, or 45% is added….
Nor will development be inexpensive. Americans, and much of the world, have gotten so used to the idea of energy being cheap that they now seem to feel it’s an inalienable right. We see this here in the UK as well—every time the cost of gas bills go up, there are cries that the government should “do something” to reduce them. But that’s not the way it should work—we’re in energy trouble, especially in the US, largely because we’ve been lulled into thinking it’s ok to not pay the full cost of energy. Instead we defer the cost of the externalities, and pretend that they don’t exist. Shale gas may be the exception, but let’s reserve judgment there for a couple of more years. About the only thing we know about those “undiscovered” reserves that the Arctic may contain is that getting the oil and gas out of there is a daunting task, and one that will cost money. Shell has spent $4.5 billion over seven years to develop its Arctic drilling infrastructure, and it still doesn’t work. And China is certainly interested in drilling as well. What their track record is on oil development I can’t say, so I suppose I should cut CNOOC and other Chinese oil companies some slack on the grounds that they haven’t screwed up yet. Strangely enough, I’m not prepared to do that.
So once again we face some questions about the massive experiment we are conducting on Planet Earth—mainly, do we want to go there? Well, that’s not exactly the question any more—we seem to be going there regardless. Next year we’ll probably see a doubling yet again of the number of ships crossing the Arctic. And I suppose that someone will derive some economic benefit from the fact that whatever it is they’re shipping from Kobe to Rotterdam will get there ten days earlier. Still, it may be a trend, but it’s not one I would want to encourage.
The above stamp, of the icebreaker “Lenin,” is one of a set of four icebreaker stamps issued by Russia in 2009. Of course, I don’t think anything is named after Lenin any more. The ship was commissioned in 1959, de-commissioned in 1989, and is now a floating museum. It was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship.
We’ve got four unlucky contenders for this week’s most deserved expression of schadenfreude. Three are heavy hitters, but honestly I don’t think their problems are nearly big enough yet.
The winner is actually a solid case of someone getting their due in an epic fashion.
This week’s runners-up:
Unfortunately, this is just a case of the Department of State following up with an inquiry. I see nothing to indicate that they will drop ERM and start over in hopes of receiving a less tainted assessment. Even so, I’m happy any time TransCanada runs into another obstacle.
As with TransCanada, I’m delighted any time McConnell even stands a chance of taking some lumps. In this case, I can’t imagine McConnell actually has any trouble personally with Benton’s “holding my nose” comment. That doesn’t keep me from snickering, though.
This one is another near miss with too many maybes for me to dance a jig. I’d settle for nearly any reason to see him out office. Jail would be just fine.
Didn’t anybody actually get what was coming to them, though? Just once, didn’t the iron fist of come-uppance smack a deserving soul all toward our greater amusement? Why, yes. At least this one time.
Does a burglar need a beating? Maybe. Maybe no. What about a knife-wielding burglar that attacks an old man? Absolutely! And who better to bust open that can of whoop-ass than the old man himself? Icing on the cake: I’m sure McCalium’s new buddies will give hm lots of reminders of that awesome time he got his ass beat for breaking into the wrong damned house. Here’s to you, Mr. Iron Fist, and your demonstration of how to stand your ground.
Shikha Dalmia at Reason.com had a few things to say about liberals and their penchant for ignoring inconvenient evidence in an article entitled, “The Myth of the Scientific Liberal.” Since part of the subject matter involves climate disruption, I’m sure Brian Angliss would ordinarily have much of weight and merit to contribute, but alas, time is short and even Superman can only save one world at a time. So I’ll be pinch-hitting, if only to shine a little light on Reason’s oxymoronic dereliction of integrity.
From Dalmia’s unfortunate lapse of reason:
For two decades, progressives have castigated those questioning global warming as “deniers.”
But the Economist, once firmly in the alarmist camp, recently acknowledged that global temperatures have remained stagnant for 15 years even as greenhouse-gas emissions have soared.
This may be because existing models have overestimated the planet’s sensitivity. Or because the heat generated is sinking to the ocean bottom. Or because of something else completely.
How should a scientifically inclined liberal react to this trend? By inhaling deeply and backing off on economy-busting mitigation measures till science offers clearer answers.
For starters, I’d like to share a little tradition I picked up from Wikipedia: 
Why? Well, good lucking finding that reference in The Economist. If you have better luck with the search, by all means please share a link. A domain-restricted Google search for stagnant, further limited to results from the last year since Dalmia claims the acknowledgment is recent, turned up nothing useful. A search of The Economist for articles on climate
change disruption actually turned up a piece far more favorable to the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate disruption. The closest thing I could find was a page of comments by one Mogumbo Gono, who, from what I can tell, isn’t actually affiliated with The Economist. Just who is Mogumbo Gono? Your guess is perhaps better than mine. My guess is just some person, at best, one that has registered to comment at a lot of websites, e.g., The Blaze. Make of it what you will.
A single, solitary reference would go far to substantiating Dalmia’s claim.
Secondly, Dalmia might want to look up cherry-picking.
Thirdly, Dalmia might want to look up single-study syndrome.
Perhaps the question isn’t, “Why do liberals hate science?” Maybe it should be, “Why does Reason hate rationality?”
Granted, I’m perhaps a rank amateur when it comes to critical thinking, but isn’t there something absurd about re-branding reason with this kind of nonsense? What other errors can you spot in Dalmia’s exercise in logical fallacy?
Thanks to Sam (in comments), we now have a link to the Economist article in question, “A Sensitive Matter.” I apologize for my earlier sloppiness in not catching it. Sure enough, insofar as this may well be the article referenced by Dalmia, the first graf reads:
OVER the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750. And yet, as James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, observes, “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.”
This might just solve the  quandary. Of course, it does nothing to dispel my dismay at the presence of no less than two serious logical fallacies (cherry-picking and single-source syndrome) in Dalmia’s piece, especially since they serve to make the case that it’s the liberals who are intellectually dishonest on the issue.
But it gets so much better than this! As I understand it, Dr. Hansen is held in high esteem for his extensive work in climate science (thank you once again, Brian, for making such a wealth of information readily available). So when his words appear in what might be a truncated quotation out of context, I can’t resist the siren call of Google. Surely, if this is a verbatim quote I should be able to find something that will ease my perplexity. Neither Google nor Dr. Hansen disappoint.
Lo and behold, in Despite Rising Carbon Emissions – Global Mean Temperatures Have Been Flat, by Phil Covington at TriplePundit, we find:
In fact, the quote above which appeared in The Economist is actually incomplete. Hansen’s report actually says, “The five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade, which we interpret as a combination of natural variability and a slowdown in the growth rate of net climate forcing.”
Then, after a brief explanation of climate forcing, Covington continues:
The Hansen report concludes that despite the slowdown in climate forcing effects, background global warming is continuing. The report says the 5-year running mean global temperatures may largely be a consequence of the first half of the past decade having predominantly El Niño (warming) conditions, while the second half had predominantly La Niña (cooling) conditions. The report also notes we have been in a period of a prolonged solar minimum – in turn having a cooling effect.
In addition, and this is important, the report points out that even though an observed flattening of temperatures has occurred, the “standstill” temperature is nonetheless at a much higher level than existed at any year in the prior decade except for 1998 (a strong El Niño year). Bottom line; the planet is still hotter.
It is therefore dangerous and incorrect to conclude that recent flattening of surface temperatures means climate change is over. Furthermore, the short period of observed temperature flattening is hardly a significant time scale in order to signify a change in trend. The University of Reading study (mentioned previously), shows actual temperatures are clearly trending in an upward direction since 1950 when their data begins. [emphasis added]
What’s the tally now? Dalmia at Reason engages in argument from authority by relying on the credibility of The Economist to make her point. By failing to adequately cite, she also, unintentionally or otherwise, obscured the failings of the source. Then it turns out that The Economist starts out strong with a misrepresentation of Hansen’s analysis, which Dalmia either failed to catch or just failed to pass along for consideration. Whatever other flaws or merits The Economist exhibits, what remains is that Reason can’t seem to be trusted to reason when it comes to politically inconvenient facts.
If Reason’s credibility can be so easily brought into question on this one issue, on exactly what can they be trusted as a resource?
A German-made 900kWh PowerWind56 wind turbine dominates the summit of Mount Institute in Hawley, Mass. It provides, says a ski industry website, 100 percent of the electricity needs of Berkshire East. That’s the ski area, formerly known as Thunder Mountain, at which I learned to ski. From the valley floor, the brilliant white blades seem to lazily rotate at up to 28 revolutions per minute. But that’s visually misleading: When the wind blows sufficiently atop the 1,538-foot peak, the tips of the 91-foot blades slash through the air at 175 mph.
About eight miles northwest of the Berkshire East wind turbine lie the remnants of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station. That’s New England’s first commercial nuclear power plant, constructed in 1960 for less than $50 million. During the years I reported on the utility industry in the Northeast, I toured the 185-megawatt plant many times. It served electricity customers for 31 years until it was shut down (“decommissioned” is the industry’s preferred argot) in February 1992 because of embrittlement — the result of three decades’ bombardment by sub-atomic neurons of its 8-inch-thick steel shell that houses the reactor’s core.
Neither Berkshire East’s wind turbine nor Yankee Rowe represent full cost acceptance by their respective industries. Both represent generous government subsidy, albeit on different scales. Both impose external costs, some economically intangible yet psychologically tangible, beyond their physical structures. Both suffer from an American governmental myopia that has failed to produce a coherent energy policy since World War II. And both technologies cost utility ratepayers or taxpayers a boatload of money.
Saving a ski area
Berkshire East has a financially challenged past. It is a family business bought by Roy Schaefer nearly four decades ago — a span in which nearly half of American ski areas folded, largely due to rising energy costs. Mount Institute is a minor peak among the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Snowfall there varies unpredictably from year to year, and mild temperatures do not always permit consistent snowmaking. Move the mountain 100 miles north into Vermont, raise it another 500 feet, and Berkshire East would make a ton of money.
The $3 million wind turbine project has stabilized the ski area’s finances. This one turbine for this one business has been a fiscal lifeline.
But this turbine is not the product of an efficient market for energy that fully covers its costs. In 2008, Massachusetts enacted the Green Jobs Act. That act created the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. In 2009, Gov. Deval Patrick signed another bill that transferred the state’s Renewable Energy Trust Fund, created by the Legislature in 1998, to MassCEC. That fund’s money comes from the ratepayers of investor-owned utilities that have elected to participate in the trust fund. According to MassCEC, ratepayers statewide on average paid 29 cents a month to the trust fund.
MassCEC contributed $440,000 to the Berkshire East turbine project. That money “paid for the turbine’s feasibility study, some design … as well as construction.” Hats off to the Schaefers for getting utility ratepayers who do not benefit directly from this project to pay for part of that turbine project.
Wind energy externalities?
Wind turbines generally present external costs not borne by their owners. Externalities are “costs … not included in consumer utility or gas bills, nor are they paid for by the companies that produce or sell the energy.” For example, do turbines such as Berkshire East’s kill thousands of birds and bats as critics claim? If so, that’s a negative external cost. (It should not be overlooked that externalities can be both positive or negative.)
A fossil-fuel plant, for example, has such external costs:
These include human health problems caused by air pollution from the burning of coal and oil; damage to land from coal mining and to miners from black lung disease; environmental degradation caused by global warming, acid rain, and water pollution; and national security costs, such as protecting foreign sources of oil.
Machines powered by wind avoid many of these external costs but incur their own:
The most commonly discussed impacts on people are acoustic noise and visual intrusion. Visual intrusion of the turbines along with ancillary systems in the landscape and noise are considered as amenity impacts of the technology. Other impacts include indirect pollution from the production of components and construction of the turbine; the collision of birds in flight with turbines and bird behavioral disturbance from blade avoidance …
Is wind energy ‘effective’?
As a source of energy sufficiency, a single turbine tied to one objective — save a ski area — works, albeit with a taxpayer- or ratepayer-provided subsidy. As an industry, it is fair to ask whether wind power has failed to reach a tipping point in the reliable production of energy. In 2011, consumption of wind-generated energy amounted to 1.2 percent of the nation’s total energy consumption, according to Energy Information Administration data.
Is production of wind energy increasing? Yes. According to EIA, U.S. generation of wind power has increased from about 3,000 megawatts in 1997 to about 120,000 MW in 2011.
It’s easy to find supporters who tout global wind energy production of electricity as a rapidly rising percentage of all global electricity. Six years ago, Greenpeace posted an estimate that a third of the world’s population — that’s more than 2 billion people — could be served by wind energy. (Greenpeace estimates are often overly fueled by fervent optimism — or pessimism, depending on the issue.)
An industry group — the Global Wind Energy Council — touts the presumed success of wind energy in several ways, especially in terms of installed capacity. But wind power succeeds or fails on total kilowatt-hours produced.
Wind energy’s ‘issues’
But thus far, two key issues remain. Wind energy produced as a percentage of all U.S. electricity generated — about 2.3 percent — lags behind other sources.
The other issue is taxpayer or ratepayer subsidy. A federal tax credit that makes wind energy competitive is set to expire Dec. 31. That’s worth $1 billion to the wind energy industry. Arguably, it helps keep the industry fiscally afloat.
Development of wind energy technologies, indeed, most alternative energy technologies (solar, geothermal, etc.), has been aided by government support. Purchase of wind energy technologies has been aided by tax credits.
But the wind energy industry in the United States has been buffeted by competition. The booming shale gas industry has driven down the price of natural gas. Wind power, even with a taxpayer subsidy, has difficulty competing on price — even if it can compete on greenhouse-gas emissions. The tax credit is under attack in Congress, and wind energy component manufacturers have been shedding jobs. Nearly 40,000 wind energy jobs have vanished as the energy retrenches in the face of an almost certain loss of the tax credit.
Government has long played a necessary role in nurturing new technologies. The logic? A little seed money may provide economic and social dividends in the long run — new jobs, higher incomes, and increased revenues for the Treasury. Enticing investors when risks of success are difficult to estimate is an appropriate reason for government to offer subsidies to new technological enterprises.
But how long should government underwrite the costs of externalities that an industry cannot cover with its own revenues? Has the wind power industry simply failed to produce quantifiably satisfactory results (and who defines that standard?) or otherwise failed to demonstrate it can stand alone without subsidies? A reading of congressional tea leaves suggests the industry has run out of time to politically and economically validate its technologies. It should have matured by now, critics argue. And a mature industry should have no need of tax breaks or other subsidies, right?
If that’s the case for ending subsidies for wind energy, why isn’t it also the case for ending the same for nuclear power?
Subsidies for the nukes
The nuclear-power industry in the United States is a mature industry. Electricity has been generated commercially by nuclear plants since the mid-1950s as a product of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. That’s well more than half a century for industry maturation. Yet the commercial nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of the electricity Americans consume, does not cover all its external costs. The Union of Concerned Scientists in 2011 identified “more than 30 subsidies [that] have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. Added together, these subsidies often have exceeded the average market price of the power produced.”
Nuclear power’s most visible and contentious issue may be its inability to deal with more than a half century’s production of radioactive waste. The Nuclear Energy Institute, which bills itself as the “policy organization for the nuclear technologies industry,” says nuclear power is No. 1 in the United States in “emission-free electricity.” It is not: It emits tons of spent fuel, and the cost of finding ways to dispose of it is in large measure borne by the federal government — the taxpayers.
In October the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended exemptions that allow Yankee Rowe — which has not generated electricity (or revenue) for more than two decades — to continue to store more than 500 spent fuel rod assemblies on site. That’s just one nuclear facility. Consider the radioactive impact from 104 reactors at 65 nuclear plants (and nuclear-powered naval vessels) with no method to permanently deal with spent nuclear fuel.
In 2005, Sen. Pete Domenici, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, told a hearing:
Each year, American commercial reactors continue to produce 2,000 more metric tons of spent fuel. Right now, more than 55,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste is now stored at more than 121 sites in 39 states. Even now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits nuclear plant owners to re-rack spent fuel rod pools to allow increased storage of spent fuel rods.
The continuing cost of such temporary storage, and the nearly $100 billion needed for “research, construction and operation of the geologic repository over a 150 year period” at Yucca Mountain, is a subsidy for the nuclear industry.
Insuring the nukes
Nuclear power plants, in terms of accidents, are (presumably) low-risk, high-consequence facilities. (Just consider Japan’s recent experience and the nightmare of insurance obligations). Thus insurance costs are high. So the federal government, since 1957, has indemnified the industry against insurance payouts above a certain amount. That is a subsidy valued at between $237 million and $3.5 billion a year. Over the decades, the liability limit for commercial nuclear plants has reached about $12 billion. After that, it’s up to Congress to cover additional liability.
During the nuclear industry’s nascency following World War II, such a subsidy was necessary. Investors and utilities could not be expected to undertake the enormous and then-unquantified risks associated with the private, commercial production of energy with nuclear technology. But after six decades of commercial nuclear power generation, why is the taxpayer still on the hook for that insurance liability? (And don’t just lean on the old saw that electricity rates would skyrocket.)
More nukes — and more subsidies in the future?
Federal financial subsidy of the nuclear industry is substantial.
[T]he government remains more involved in commercial nuclear power than in any other industry in the USA. … The US government, through its own national research laboratories and projects at university and industry facilities, is the main source of funding for advanced reactor and fuel cycle research. It also promises to provide incentives for building new plants through loan guarantees and tax credits, although owners have to raise their own capital. [emphasis added]
No nuclear plants have been constructed in the United States since 1996. The Obama administration, seeking to jump-start the use of new, modular reactor technology for a new generation of nuclear plants, has provided more than $8 billion in new federal loan guarantees to build two nuclear reactors in Georgia. That is a subsidy.
If Congress intends to end subsidies for alternative energy technologies on the basis of industry maturation without viable production, who defines viable? Is it percentage of all electricity generated? How is that standard articulated? And by whom?
To what extent, if any, will federal regulators and Congress factor in the role of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in assessing what types of electricity generation to subsidize? These subsidies cannot be viewed solely through an economic lens. Cooling off an overheated planet remains a moral imperative for critics of fossil fuel generation. They see alternative energy technologies, such as wind power, as an ethical response to global warming.
Nuclear presumably avoids that carbon-dioxide externality — but the continued generation of nuclear waste without secure, permanent storage remains that industry’s subsidized Achilles heel.
Fifty-five thousand tons of spent fuel rods, with no permanent home in sight, suggest nuclear subsidies will continue. But before Congress, presumably with White House “cooperation,” ends any energy subsidy, perhaps they’ll take time out from their internecine bickering to actually produce a coherent national energy policy that reflects all available technologies and considers the viability of energy technologies in light of fossil fuel emissions decimating the global climate.
Meanwhile, the lights will stay on at Berkshire East, thanks to its subsidized turbine. And Yankee Rowe will continue to monitor and keep secure its dry casks of radioactive waste — thanks to ratepayer or taxpayer subsidy.
• Berkshire East’s 900kWh wind turbine
• The Yankee Rowe nuclear plant prior to decommissioning
• Brazos Wind Farm in the plains of West Texas
• spent fuel pool at the shut-down Caorso Nuclear Power Plant
• Yucca Mountain main tunnel shaft
A few weeks ago, my friend Katie Della Terza, who writes an eco-friendly lifestyle blog called Shades of Green, asked me to write a blog entry on why progressive and environmentally-conscious voters should vote for Barack Obama this election, and why people should concern themselves with environmental issues this year.
To be honest, there weren’t that many people talking about the environment and our effect on it until Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast this week. In political terms, talking about climate change doesn’t win votes – and it usually gets swept under the rug in favor of more voter-friendly campaign ideas. Every debate series since Jimmy Carter’s election has had a question about the environment, and climate change – until this election cycle.
In his book “Private Empire,” author Steve Coll relates a telling remark that reflects how Lee Raymond, then ExxonMobil CEO, viewed his company’s relationship with America. He was asked whether ExxonMobil would build more refineries inside the United States to help insulate the nation against gasoline shortages.
Raymond: “Why would I do that?”
An oil industry executive: “Because the United States needs it … for security.”
Raymond: “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”
Yet ExxonMobil invests heavily in American politics. U.S. tax law, however, prevents the electorate from knowing the exact nature of that investment — how much money, given to whom or what, and with what intent. That should change, but Congress adamantly stands in the way of such disclosure. Continue reading