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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Energy Policy Head Knock

Crossposted to Grist

From the Huff Po:

David Roberts And Steve Everley Debate Our Energy Future

I'm posting on this because my comment at Grist blew up into a full-blown diatribe and now I have to do something with it.

I didn't watch the video. A podcast would have sufficed. A transcript would have been even better. I listened to it from the Huff Po site while multitasking. Funny thing about debates is that your guy always wins.

I will briefly critique Steve's remarks but most of this post is meant to make the argument for renewable energy a little more bulletproof.

And if you don't feel like watching the whole video or reading my take on it, fast forward 38 minutes, 18 seconds to see the lead-in to Steve getting his head handed to him at precisely 40 minutes, 50 seconds. He tries to counter the fact that China outspends us on renewable energy by claiming it's because they have control over all of the rare materials needed to build wind turbines and solar panels or something like that. Followed by something about how we would trade our dependence on foreign oil from terrorists for dependence on rare earth elements from China, as if we are not already wholly mutually dependent on trading partners all over the planet for just about everything.

Steve's entire argument hinges on the fact that fossil fuels are cheaper than renewables and will therefore help the economy to recover faster, which will allow us to afford a "cleaner" environment. Although he would not say it, Steve thinks global warming is a crock and therefore could care less about renewable energy--end of story. There isn't much argument there for me to critique. Picture a debate about what God looks like between an atheist and the Pope.

It also appears that he was instructed to repeat specific sound bites. He must have used the phrase "economic growth" literally a dozen times and the phrase "the elections sent a clear signal" half that much. He used a comparison of a forty-year old coal plant to a new one as an example of how economic growth can clean up the environment ...and all this time I thought it was government regulations that forced coal plants to clean up their emissions using the 1990 cap and trade legislation. Note that this market has since collapsed and the government is now working on new rules to keep the coal plants from reversing 20 years of progress in reducing acid rain.

Steve claimed that one signal we got from this election (there was no such signal) is that companies like GE ...should take the money they would normally use for lobbying and begin investing in products consumers want (at least, I think that is what he was trying to say).

Just yesterday I read that GE is going to buy 25,000 electric cars, starting with 12,000 Chevy Volts (never mind that they are not electric cars, but plug-in hybrids complete with some kind of planetary gear transmission from the engine to the wheels). So, is this a case of GE investing in products consumers "don't" want? And what does the oil and corn ethanol lobby think about GE horning in on their internal combustion engine liquid fuel dissipaters?

Just today I test drove a real electric car, the Nissan Leaf (no transmission). The tax credits for both of these cars are ginormous, as they should be. The electric utility had a booth there selling their green energy program. For an extra four dollars a month you can smack down the guy on the next bar stool who claims your Nissan Leaf uses coal for power. And if you really want to bury him, show him a picture of your solar panels

Clearly, the building of electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and appropriately designed and integrated nuclear power plants into a renewable grid would generate a lot of jobs.

While listening to the "video" at Huff Po I read the 114 comments.

"Clean energy girl" made a comment I agreed with. In reference to Dave's repeated use of the word believe:

"Please stop using words like "believe" to describe whether climate change is real. People who rely on "beliefs" are emotionally mainpulated by rghetoric and tlaking points. People who are informed have read that all of the scientists who are not industry funded are in agreement that humans burning fossil fuels = climate change that is detrimental to humans surviving well in the long term.

The word believe denotes it's is a view that is not based on being informed."

Climate skeptics often call global warming a religion, even though it is based entirely on science. Drop the phrase "I believe."

Another commenter, Sparky, provided a reality check and ray of hope:

"Politicians typically do the right things for the wrong reasons and sometimes accidentally!"

Dave's remark about our energy system being laced with rules and regulations and subsidies that stifle competition is legitimate. Although rapid progress has been made, there are still fifteen states that do not allow net metering for solar.

But in all honesty, those rules and subsidies are not what have "locked in fossil fuel incumbents" protecting them from competition and thereby suppressing the normal action of the free market (make coal, natural gas, and oil cheaper than wind, solar, and cellulosic ethanol). Cost has done that. Even with net metering and truly gargantuan tax breaks, meeting your energy needs with solar panels on your roof here in Seattle is vastly more expensive than hydro. And don't get me wrong. I think solar has to evolve into our main energy source.

Dave's insistence that fossil fuels are really more expensive than renewables dances on the edge of a conspiracy theory and because fossil fuels dominate energy use on every corner of the globe (except, ironically, in France where 75 percent of their electricity comes from nuclear) it is a global conspiracy theory--the worst kind!

The fossil fuel industry has more money and has therefore bought more politicians. Dave and Steve seem to agree on that but because Steve thinks global warming is a crock, he's not particularly concerned about it.

The fossil industry killed cap and trade but the debate participants seem to be conflating America's unique form of legal bribery with energy subsidy rates. Although related, they are not the same thing.

Later in the debate Dave mentions the external costs of fossil fuels that are not being paid. This is not news to the environmental community and a price on carbon was our first attempt to address part of it. Maybe we should frame subsidies to renewables as a way of making fossil fuels pay. That's exactly what the 1990 Clean Air Act did when it used cap and trade to control emissions. Somebody get on that idea.

External costs aside, remove all subsidies from all energy (renewable and fossil) and fossil fuels are still cheaper. In fact, in most cases, they are cheaper than renewables even if you let the renewables keep their subsidies. If that isn't true, why do we want a price on carbon? Reality sucks sometimes.

Fossil fuel companies certainly compete amongst themselves. Natural gas competes with coal and heating oil for heat and power. Coal and natural gas compete with hydro (fully renewable) and nuclear (lowest GHG source). Natural gas competes with oil for transport (all of our recycling and garbage trucks run on it). If fossil fuels were more expensive than renewables they would be history already.

Steve agreed with Dave's comments about campaign finance (lobbyists skewing the market to favor their product) pointing out that all players do it, including the renewable energy players. When he mentioned "a product the government forces people to buy" he may have been thinking about corn ethanol, which ironically, is not only not renewable but should not be getting any subsidy in any case. Confusing, I know.

Rather than acknowledge that renewables actually do have a higher subsidization rate, and then explain why they should (except the really stupid ones like biofuels made from food), Dave first suggests that renewables do not have a higher rate (calling that fact an absurd red herring and an incredibly deceptive way of framing things) before properly explaining that subsidies for renewables should be higher. Subsidies per unit energy are much higher for renewables as they should be, if for no other reason than to try to compensate for fossil fuels (and confusingly corn ethanol's) very real external costs.

Dave lists the costs of wars as part of the external costs not covered by fossil fuels. This is the very backbone of corn ethanol's argument as well. We have all seen the "No War Required" biofuel bumper stickers. Certainly we can't argue that coal and natural gas, being primarily domestic sources, share that particular external cost, assuming it is real. But, assuming that external cost is real, it applies only to oil, imported oil ...from the Middle East.

Unfortunately, it's the one external cost that isn't real. Go to Google and count the number of known wars through human history. Now, on one hand show how many were over oil. Biofuels will not end warfare. My children may one day be funding a war to capture South American cane ethanol refineries.

Raise your hand if you think the United States should abandon attempts to stabilize the Middle East should we decide to buy the 10% we get from Saudi Arabia elsewhere. Take a look at what would happen to just one of our major trading partners if the Middle East were allowed to collapse into warfare and anarchy. We could kiss the Prius and Nissan Leaf goodbye.

Which should lead to the next question. Why do we have to buy any oil from the Middle East and what difference does it make if we don't?

Steve mentioned Google as an example of what entrepreneurs are capable of producing. Why he did, I don't know but it's a legitimate example.

Dave countered with the age-old, but wrong, urban legend that the internet was spawned by decades of government research. Never mind that Google is not a synonym of Internet.

The internet came about as a result of millions of entrepreneurs, some using one kind of government funding or another, some not, each contributing important pieces of the puzzle to be built upon by others. The government did not invent the internet. It's just a tad more complex than that.

The government also did not invent the airplane or the cell phone.

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  1. " Raise your hand if you think the United States should abandon attempts to stabilize the Middle East should we decide to buy the 10% we get from Saudi Arabia elsewhere. "

    I raise my hand, being a history buff.

    The current middle east (ME) map has been created by the British and French colonial Empires after WWI, from the scraps of the defeated Ottoman Empire. British and French bureaucrats created new countries out of thin air, not keeping local tribal and religious affiliation into account when redrawing Ottoman era border lines.

    That is why Iraq now consists of 3 different main tribes (Shiites, Sunni's and Kurds) who loathe each other well, instead of having been split into 3 separate countries (Shiiteland, sunniland and Kurdistan).

    The same logic applies all over the ME.

    The problems created after WWI were compounded by the USA after WWII, when they unilaterally decided to create Israel out of thin air, forcing the expulsion of a few millions Palestinians who had lived there for the past two thousand years.

    Today the USA is the ME cop, supporting crony regimes that pay lip service to Uncle Sam, while being loathed by their local populations, who view them as proxies of Uncle Sam. The locals have been brainwashed to hate all their neighbors, for religious or financial or historical reasons.

    Let's look at the financial picture of the USA : $13 000 Billion of government debt to be repaid, of which the majority is owned by the Chinese government. 45 million poor people in the USA, of which 12 million are now out of work. The manufacturing industry percentage has gone from 70% of the economy to now 20% of the economy, in a period of 35 years. The rest is services (read restaurant owners, software writing, wall street trading).

    Bottom line : Uncle Sam cannot financially afford play cop and to stay in the ME anymore, they just don't know it yet (50% of US federal tax income is spent on the US military, which is higher than at the peak of the USSR, which went down in the 1990's).

    The only ME solution is to redraw the existing border lines to keep religious and tribal affiliation into account. This will require war, given that a European Union scenario is out of the question there, since it took two world wars and 70 million dead to get the E.U. logic to apply in Europe's landscape.

    Bottom line : a major war will happen in the ME after the USA will stop playing cop because they cannot pay for it anymore, and oil supplies will be cut off. That is why it is imperative to invest in alternative supplies, while Uncle Sam still has a presence in the ME, until they cannot afford to pay for all this anymore.

    Algae fuel anyone ?

  2. You're saying the region is doomed to collapse into civil war and you may be right.

    But that also makes my point that biofuels won't end warfare. Maybe the bumper stickers should read,

    "Let The Middle East Conflagration Begin!" ; )

    They sure have a lot of sunshine they could export.

    Humanity will always need liquid hydrocarbons (fossil or bio versions) for lubricants, feedstock, and some fuel. But in general, the wholesale combustion of such a precious commodity in today's cars has to end.

    If Americans used the same amount of oil per capita as Brazilians, we would be net exporters of it.

    The Nissan Leaf is an amazing machine.


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