Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Energy Debate

The Energy debate is irrevocably intertwined with the global warming debate. I believe this is a mistake because the Energy debate is already a complex and often misunderstood issue. For simplicity sake, the main issue around global warming is the impact on the planet from the introduction of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. First, I will tackle the global warning issue to get it out of the way since it is the easier debate.

Here are some facts.

1.     The earth’s temperatures have fluctuated over time without humans help, sometimes radically due to solar, meteor and volcanic activity.
2.     Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have dramatically increased the unnatural amount of gases into the atmosphere that do have a proven impact global temperatures.
3.     Some well meaning climatologists lied and falsified data to make the impact look more severe than they could actually prove (see Climategate and the Hockey Stick Scandal), which had the effect of strengthening the position of people who oppose the human impact to global warming argument.
4.     Even if we eliminated all greenhouse gas creation in the United States (not possible but let’s say it is), we have no control over the two most populace nations, China and India, who are likely to mimic the West’s industrial revolution but on a radically larger scale since more people live in this two countries than all the rest of the world.

Many scientists and laymen have said there is not a Global Warming debate. That it is irrefutable. First of all, no scientist worth their salt would say this, but don’t be confused, I am not a “Denier”, so put down your torches and pitchforks. I do not need to be burned as a heretic and I am not stupid because I don’t passionately nod when one of the chosen speak.

My point with the facts isn’t whether or not man-made Global Warming is real or that it will cause harm to humans and other species. I agree that it will, the only question is how fast will it happen. Some scientists got caught lying because they couldn’t find the evidence that they needed to cause the change they wanted at the speed they wanted it. I understand their concerns. If they told us we had to worry about it but we had 50 years to fix the issue, we would ignore it for 50 years. These are smart people and they also know how irresponsible humans are when there is money involved. There really is a large mass of plastic in the ocean that is bigger than Texas. Do we give a shit? No we do not. Are we poisoning our planet? Do we give a shit? Only if it impacts our food or our water, and by “our” I mean mine versus yours. If your water catches on fire in West Virgnia due to fracking, but my water is not and I get my gas cheaper, then fuck you. That is the reality of how people view these issues, if they even bother to think about them. If it were otherwise, then no ones water would be catching on fire.

So they make it seem like it’s the end of the world today, and maybe it is. The problem is getting actionable data on such a complex issue. The way they make it sound, it’s already too late, which is self-defeating. But I would argue that while it isn’t too late to change the impact to our planet since it can always get worse, we will not make enough change to the entire planet from the United States.

The most recent data I could find for CO2 emissions was from 2010. China weighed in at 27% of global sources, while the US came in at 17%. A report from 2005 had both China and the US at 16%. That’s an increase for China of 9% over five years while the US inched up by only 1% over the same duration. India has been pretty steady at around 7%. The thing about India is that they are starting later than China, but there is every reason to believe that they will try to rival China not just in population (they will pass China in 2020), but also in quality of living. This will require energy. How many years before India passes the US in CO2 emissions? My bet is it will happen by 2025, even if the US stays at current levels, India will surpass us and China will be closer to 35%. Since it is a percentage of the whole, the US will go down in percentage even if our emissions stay level (and yes I realize that increasing by only 1% while China moved up by 9% means that the US increased it’s emissions more than that 1% implies).

Are you ready to go to war to prevent China and India from burning more coal? If you believe the planet is truly in peril from green house gases, you damned well better, because those two countries are increasing their release of these gases into the environment and will continue to do so even if the US could stop all of our output of the same gases. Unfortunately we share the same planet, so our good behavior will count for nothing. If you live in a coastal city, I would recommend shopping for land in what is commonly referred to as “Flyover Country”. The land is plentiful and cheaper and will not be submerged in eight feet of water within two decades. Either that or follow the Dutch and start building dikes now.

While we can’t control the rest of the world, we can try to address the environmental and economic issue within our territory and we should. The Energy debate is large and needs to be tackled in segments. The two main portions that are always combined into one argument are Transportation and Energy usage for homes and factories. While there is some cross over that must be considered, these are separate and complex issue.

As I mentioned earlier, our dependence on oil is often spoken of in the same breath as solar, as if solar could reduce our dependence on oil. This is not the case. Our dependence on oil is due to our transportation needs and we may never get to a practical solar powered car but currently no one is even suggesting that as an alternative. The only logical link would be to have solar chargers to support electric cars, but that is also not currently viable based on the power needed to charge a car overnight and the fact that most charging would be needed at night.

Solar usages within the grid are being discussed to offset the use of coal. We don’t import coal from the Middle East.  We have plenty of coal. Likewise, the pipelines and usage of oil sands have nothing to do with the grid and powering your house and factories.

So let’s take on the grid first and come back to transportation.

The reason coal is still being used for 50% of all the power in the US, is that it is the second cheapest fuel. The cheapest fuel is Nuclear. Nuclear does not release any greenhouse gases into the environment, but there is an environment impact to using Nuclear. The fact the most people never hear is that while there will always be some waste, it can be safely stored. The other piece is the very realistic fear of a radioactive release or a plant going “critical” like in the Ukraine or more recently, Japan. The facts are that there are radically safer plant designs that we can’t install because of the anti nuclear lobbies. What we have are plants that were built in the 70’s with 50’s and 60’s technology. We have learned a lot since then and can build a plant that can be completely drained of water and not have it go “critical”.

But people are afraid of Nuclear, so we are trapped with the old unsafe plants. Crazy huh? We can’t just turn them off because we need the power they produce. We can’t shut down them and the coal or we would have to shut down America.

What else can we use? Natural Gas may be a fossil fuel, but it burns clean and new plants do not contribute to Global Warming. Getting the Natural Gas does cause other environmental harm as previously discussed, so it is not perfect, nor will it last forever.

Coal is dirty but cheap and plentiful so that’s why 50% of our plants burn it.

We do have wind turbines and we need to build more, but wind can’t be relied on as what is called “Base load”. Base load means it has to be there all the time or we need to get used to rolling blackouts while we wait for the wind to blow.

We also have some solar plants. The problem with large scale solar is location. I doubt Arizona would agree to make the entire state one large solar farm. We have no idea what impact to the atmosphere, the weather or the planet there would be having so such a large reflective area that by it’s nature leaks additional heat into the surrounding areas, but let’s pretend there would be no harm and Arizona and or Nevada are all for it. Transmitting the power from there to the rest of the United States is possible, but dramatically expensive and also not without environmental impact. Not to mention that energy is only gained during daylight hours. If we had solar only from a central location “where the sun is”, what do we do about our power needs at night? Batteries? Do we assume we only use half the power generated during the day and the rest can be stored in batteries for over night use?

The creation and disposal of batteries causes a huge environmental impact due to the toxicity of the materials involved and we currently don’t have enough raw materials to even create that many solar panels let alone batteries to power the entire country. It’s a fantasy that if ever pursued could possibly create new and interesting ways to kill us all besides increased temperatures. There is also some bad news for both batteries and solar manufacturing. Precious and rare metals are used in the manufacturing process and while it might sound obvious that rare metals are…rare, when I hear people debate the need for dramatic increase in the use of solar, they fail to consider that it is not even currently possible. It is possible on a smaller scale for now, but we need additional research and development to come up with new designs that don’t rely on rare earth elements, or our quest for solar power will be short lived.

So far that’s about it for the Grid. I realize that the talking heads make it sounds like a slam-dunk simple problem to solve, but I assure you it is not. Does this mean I think it’s hopeless? No, I don’t, but we need to quit allowing all of the special interest groups so much power in this debate and focus on what is best for the largest special interest group, the American people.

What we need is a realistic but aggressive new Energy Policy. As far as the Grid goes, there are two parts, supply and demand. I’ve discussed supply from a fuel perspective but we need to focus on reducing demand.

We are currently building houses the same way we have for the last hundred years, with small exceptions. Yes we have increased the required insulation rating and that is a good step, but houses are by their design, energy hogs that leak. A house can use natural gas for heat, which confuses the issue even further but the biggest impact across the US is electric consumption. We need to start building houses that take advantage of all sources of heating, cooling and electric generation and they need to be mandated. We have working models already that use geothermic (every house no matter where it is located could benefit from this if we just required foundations to be built with geothermic in mind). We’ve always had solar panels, but now we have solar shingles and solar windows. Even if solar generation by using windows isn’t practical on a large scale, we can certainly reduce the amount of heat windows produce in the summer which then require AC to cool off and take advantage of the limited sun we get in the winter to aid heating.

We also have the ability to put small but effective wind turbines on property where it makes sense. Making sense means having more than ¼ city lot and being in a part of the country where the amount of wind justified the cost of building the turbine.

There are many examples of homes that make more energy that they use and sell back to utilities. If this design were mandated over a reasonable time, say ten years, then all new construction and any exterior remodels could require the new design. Many states already reimburse people who add these features post construction, but the cost is dramatically reduced when it is factored into the original construction. We need to increase the Federal incentives for people to retrofit their homes to reduce demand.

Next, let’s discuss Transportation.

We do have an addiction to oil, but there is no 12-step program. Trucks and SUVs rarely get better than 25 MPG on the highway and do worse in the city, yet despite constant complaints about high gas prices in the US (yes I realize we get it cheap compared to everywhere else it the world), the number of trucks and SUVs seems to be increasing. Sure there are a few token hybrids out there and some very stingy diesel options as well, but most of the vehicles still drink regular gasoline.

Transportation is responsible for 28% of the greenhouse gases introduced into the atmosphere in the US. As I mentioned before, even if we got this number to zero, we have no control over the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but it can’t be our only reason. The larger reason is that we are too dependent on foreign oil, both economically and strategically. If it is possible to come up with an alternate fuel source for vehicles that we can create domestically, we will be better off while polluting the planet less.

Many of these challenges are the same as the manufacturing of batteries and solar. We simply don’t have the raw materials to build any of the most viable alternatives, which are hybrid and electric vehicles. Additionally, I will remind you if the poisons that are released into the environment during the manufacturing process and disposal for these technologies. I’m sure some of you are thinking about Ethanol from biomass like corn and other sources. Instead of a lengthy debate on the topic, let me ask you one question. If Ethanol were such a viable option, why does the government subsidize it so heavily? And why, if it is such a great option do you see few gas stations in the US that offer it beyond Minnesota and Iowa?

Again, research and development into alternative fuel sources needs to be explored, but the scope for such research needs to be restricted in order to ensure that whatever solution is proposed is workable with readily available materials, minimal environmental impact and that it not require government subsidies to make it financially viable. In the meantime, we need to ramp up MGP levels to ensure that we need less fuel to cover the same distances and make sure oil company special interests don’t retard the aggressive approach we need to become oil free, which is possible within the next twenty years.

To Summarize:

1.     The doom and gloom tactics by Global Warming groups is not only counterproductive but also irrelevant since the only people listening are in the US. It’s not that China and India are necessarily Global Warning deniers as much as they just don’t give a shit. They will drive their country forward to reach their rightful place as world powers and the easiest and cheapest fuels for that transformation are fossil fuels.
2.     The Energy debate is currently scoped wrong and includes arguments for supply and demand that cross-streams between electrical production for home and industrial usage and transportation. If you ever hear someone start by bemoaning our dependence on oil and finish their sentence by looking up at the sun and claiming solar power will fix all our energy problems, kick them in the junk.
3.     We need a new Energy Policy that focuses more on reducing demand and less on converting the supply chain. Yes we need to attempt to make coal emissions cleaner, but the best way to reduce coal emissions is to reduce the demand for electricity in the first place by making homes energy neutral and if possible energy negative. This will require different solutions for different climactic regions. Solar in Arizona will generate more electricity that it does in Minnesota, but the cooling needs are far greater, so we are not just talking about alternative generation at the house level, but also about the design of the homes themselves.
4.     We need to invest in all forms of alternative energy, but we need the most focus on usable models for homes and alternatives for transportation. Passenger cars are the highest CO2 contributor with SUVs as second only because there are many more passenger cars. We also can’t ignore the fact that most material is shipped across the US by long haul trucks that burn diesel. We should consider not just more development of public transportation within cities, but intercontinental transportation by rail, preferably powered off the grid and not by diesel or gas.
5.     People that currently live on the coasts should invest in land throughout the Midwest. I hear there are a lot of houses available in Detroit.