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We've had a lot of talk about a "Manhattan Project" for energy.  But is that really the best way to handle shaking off our current regime of foreign oil in cars and fossil fuels in our power plants?  Maybe what we need are several smaller projects held together by an overall vision.  Think of it as a whole truck load of "Des Moines Projects" united in a common purpose: decreased pollution and a decreased need for oil.

We've already had an outstanding discussion on transportation, with lots of participation from the dKos community.  I'm hopeful that we can have just as free wheeling and spirited a talk on the subject of electrical generation.

And if you thought I was wordy when it came to transport, you ain't seen nothing yet.  Warning: Long post.  Print it out and read it in bed long.  Long enough that if you get through the whole thing, I'm awarding you an Associates Degree in Energy Policy from the Devil's Tower School of Moderately Useful Trivia.

The current situation
Because you have to start somewhere
Before you can plot out a path to a better energy picture, you need a good understanding of where we are.  On several posts, I've seen people make statements about how we can use solar to get out of foreign oil, or how most of our energy comes from natural gas.  Here's the primer on America's Energy Picture.  Feel free to make the high school filmstrip beep as you read along.

In 2001, the United States sucked up 3.7 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity.  Any number involving "trillion" is hard to fathom, and it doesn't get any easier when you pair it with something as mind-numbingly non-obvious as the "kilowatt hour."  

To make things a little more palatable, here's a list of numbers ranging from somewhat understandable, to impossibly huge.  Energy consumed by one 100 watt light bulb: 100 watts (is anyone surprised?).  Sunlight falling on one square meter: 100 watts.  An electric stove on high: 10,000 watts.  The average car traveling at 40mph: 10,000 watts.  The amount of sunlight falling on the roof of the average home in the US: 10,000 watts.  Total average US power consumption at any one moment, 100,000,000,000,000 watts.  Total solar energy falling on the US, 10 followed by two more zeros than the amount of power we're using.  Total power produced by the sun 10,000,000,0... oh the heck with it.  10 to the 27th watts.  

Did that help you understand how much we use?  No.  Me, neither.   Just understand that it's a lot.

Let's see how the US stacks up against the rest of the world.  In 2001, the whole world consumed 14.8 trillion kilowatt hours (if you don't mind, I'm going to start using kwh).  So the US made and used about a quarter of all the electricity on Earth.  Makes you start to see why, when people are putting together things like the Kyoto Accord, the United States comes in for special scrutiny.  Just for comparison, all of Central and South America cranked out about 800 kwh.  All of Africa about 450.  There are some other big dogs out there.  China did about 1.5 trillion.  Japan about a  trillion even.  Russia did about 0.850 trillion.  Canada about 0.500 trillion.  And in case you're looking for the little sippers from the energy cup, Montserrat tucked down 0.002 trillion kwh.

Now that you have a picture of how much juice we're drinking, here's what it's made of.  In 2001, the US made 72% of its electricity from burning fossil fuels.  The bulk of that was good old, dug out of the USA, coal.  The rest was natural gas with just a trace of oil.  When it comes to how we make electricity, oil could dry up tomorrow and it wouldn't make one whit of difference.  The rest of our energy picture fills out with nuclear at 20%, hydroelectric at 6%, and darned near every other form of energy (meaning, most of the stuff that isn't trying to turn the planet into another Venus) coming in at 2%.

When you compare us to the rest of the world, the mix is pretty standard.  Globally, 64% comes from burning various fossil trees and ancient bacterial burps (i.e. coal and natural gas), 17% from nuclear, 17% from hydro, and 2% from the rest.  Countries that are big oil producers tend to burn more oil.  Countries without tend to snack on coal.  The US is a little heavy on the fossil fuels, which you might expect, seeing that we're loaded down with coal, and a little light on rivers suitable for hydro.  I'm not sure I want to dam more rivers to change that balance.  I'd rather see if we can't get some energy moved into that category that currently ends up getting as much respect in world figures as the Professor and Mary Ann did in the Gilligan's Island credits.  That "the rest" includes solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal, and wave power.  I also want to see more work on the least sexy alternative: conservation.

If you want to see more detailed breakdowns of these numbers, check here for everything you'd want to know about world electrical production and consumption.

With the big numbers out of the way, it's time to dig into the details and see where we are with each of our energy sources.

Behold!  The rock that burns
America is the Saudi Arabia of coal.  Coal R Us.  Most people in the east are familiar with the major coal field that runs through the Appalachians and leads to such fun as towns with ever burning fires down below.  Then there's the high sulfur fields of the Illinoisan Basin that goes through Illinois (natch'), Indiana, and Western Kentucky. Those guys fuel the Midwest power plants that bring acid rain in the Northeast.  There are large fields in Arizona and New Mexico.  Oklahoma and Missouri.  Colorado and Utah.  Lignite reserves down along the Gulf.  Smaller fields scattered from the Atlantic Coast to Alaska.  And there's the new champ of coal production, the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.  

Not everything that's on the list of coal reserves is something we can really get to.  Some is too deep to be mined by any known technology.  Some is too thin, or even too thick (there are limits to recoverable seam thickness in an underground mine).  We also carry coal reserves in areas like the Karpowitz Plateau, an area that contains some of the cleanest burning, best quality coal found anywhere in the world.  Darn near perfect coal.  Only it happens to be under or near a couple of national parks.  I vote that we leave that coal in the ground.  Even so, we end up with a lot of coal.

The majority of electricity in the United States (52%) comes from coal.  You may hate it, but that's the way it is.  

Emissions from burning coal include: sulfur dioxide (SO2), the precursor of acid rain; Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), stand back, that's not laughing gas, and such fun particulate emissions as the mercury that heads straight for the canned tuna in your grocery store.  And that's only scratching the surface.  Let's not forget 80% of CO2.  Coal contains almost every trace element you can name, and several you never heard of.  Fun fact: burning coal releases more uranium into the atmosphere than processing and using uranium in nuclear plants.  But, look at this graph and you'll see that coal is actually getting a lot better when it comes to throwing crap into our air.  (Fun Fact: the graph is from the "Americans for Balanced Energy" site.  If you want to see how stupid the coal industry can be, you only have to read the info on this site, which will tell you that global warming is nothing to worry about and coal is as cuddly as the Snuggles teddy bear.  However, the graph comes from the government and appears to be unaltered.)

Part of the reason coal emissions are getting better is a change in the mix of what we burn.  Increasingly, Midwestern plants are burning coal form Powder River Basin mines.  This is because Powder River Basin coal is astoundingly cheap.  $5 will get you a ton and leave you with some change.  Compare that to $60, or even $100, for a ton of coal mined in the Appalachians.  Powder River Coal is much lower sulfur than Midwestern coal.  It has some weird trace elements, like selenium, but that stuff generally gets trapped at the plant.  And that brings us to the other reason coal is getting better: better technologies for trapping emissions and filtering out particulates.  

A modern coal burning power plant really is enormously less polluting than one built fifty years ago.  And there's one good reason for it we made them clean up their act.

The tool here was the Clean Air Act, which set limits on emissions, especially emissions of SO2.  That's the big reason people started turning to cleaner western coals and putting scrubbers on their smokestacks.  Don't think for a second that the industry would have cleaned up the game by themselves.  No matter what "balanced energy" and other organizations say, there's one reason and one reason only why coal is cleaner today.  Why coal mines are literally 100 times safer today.  Why reclamation is such a big part of the picture that surface mines spend more money reclaiming the land than they do mining the coal.  That's because we passed laws and made them do it.  Not one of these things was voluntary on their part.

During the first four years of our current mini-dark age, the Bush EPA pumped out regulations called "Clear Skies."  This is part of their larger "name everything the exact opposite of what it does" initiative.  Here's "Clear Skies" in a nutshell.  When the Clean Air Act was passed, older coal-powered plants begged for their lives.  They claimed that if they were to meet the requirements, it would cost them so much they would go out of business, and their customers would be either starved for electricity or faced with massive cost increases.  After some bargaining, congress and the power companies came to an agreement.  Older power plants were given an exemption from parts of the Clean Air Act so long as they did not increase capacity.  The assumption was that, as demand grew, power companies would be forced to replace the old plants with new ones subject to the Clean Air Act, and everyone would be happy.  Or they would expand capacity at the existing plants, which would bring that plant under the regulations of the act.  That's not how it worked out.  Many companies continued to nurse along these aging plants, supplementing their production with natural gas-powered "peaking" plants and sneaking in a few kilowatts of fresh production whenever the EPA wasn't looking. With Clear Skies, the Bush administration agreed to just stop keeping track of these guys and open the door to increasing production at the old plants.  So now the producers aren't cheating when they crank up the old furnace and don't have to worry about being caught.  Somehow, in Bush logic, this is supposed to make things better.

One more little set of coal factoids before we get to where we should set our policy objectives.  The Clean Air Act has had one very unintended effect.  It's nearly killed the mine workers union.  A decade ago, the United Mine Workers Association was the home to almost all coal miners.  But when the Clean Air Act put more emphasis on coal from the west, especially the Powder River Basin, companies saw the opportunity to shuck the union.  They set up new companies to operate non-union mines in the west, often offering initial benefits packages that were better than what the UMWA was getting in the east.  Then, with eastern mines shutting down and western mines picking up the slack, they began slotting more non-union operations into their eastern portfolio.  Now you'll find non-union operations in areas of Western Kentucky, Illinois, and West Virginia that have been UMWA strongholds for the better part of a century.  These new mines are weakening the union position, making miners more directly connected with the company, and breaking the strong ties between mine workers and the Democratic Party.

By now you're thinking "brother, I've seen your numbers and I've listened to you talk about the demon coal, but where is the revolution?"  Trust me, comrade.  I'm getting there.

So what is a Democrat to do about coal?  Where does the black rock come into our energy platform?

1)    Realize that coal is a big part of the picture and it's not going to fade overnight.  Barring the discovering of working cold fusion, it's going to be decades, if not centuries, before we stop burning coal.
2)    Get rid of Clear Skies and make the Clean Air Act applicable to all power plants, regardless of age.  Increase regulation to cover new pollutants as we better understand their effect.  Stop turning a blind eye to companies that break the law (which is almost all of them).
3)    Move to protect union workers.  Press coal companies on violations of regulations that allow organizing.  Push for strict enforcement of rules on safety, training, and retirement benefits so that miners know the Democrats are on their side.
4)    Make both "mountain top removal" and "valley fill" mining absolutely, and clearly illegal, with fines big enough to sink a battleship.  There are alternative ways to get at coal, and with the prices companies are getting these days, there is no excuse for taking the "but it was cheaper to tear up the whole mountain" approach.
5)    I know this one will be hard to swallow, but here it comes: support "Clean Coal Technology."  Now, I can hear the chants of "there's no such thing as clean coal" starting already.  True.  But there's cleaner coal.  There's carbon sequestration and fluidized bed reactions and near-zero-emissions technology ready to go into the next generation plants.  All of that will not only reduce the pollutants we already track, it will also cut down on CO2.  If we make this a religious thing and fight it just because it's coal and coal is evil, you might as well wrap a ribbon around West Virginia and hand it over for the next fifty years.  And Kentucky (which was as blue as you can get not that long ago).  And maybe Pennsylvania (though the production there is very limited these days).  And besides that, it's stupid.  When you figure out where we're going to get or save that fifty plus percent of our power now coming from coal, we can fight clean coal.  Until then, isn't it better to push for cleaner plants than allow the old dirty ones to keep operating?  Just because Republicans are supporting Clean Coal does not make it wrong to do so.  And no, I did not drink the Kool-Aid.  Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and on this issue, the bozos are right.

I confess that I am tainted.  I grew up in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, surrounded by acres of unreclaimed mines that looked like a slum section of the Moon.  My grandfathers both worked in underground mines where they were paid in company scrip.  My father-in-law was crushed in a mine accident that broke every rib, both legs, punctured his lungs, and left him on disability the rest of his life.  I've worked in surface mines and underground mines east and west.  I've seen the worst coal mining has to offer.  And I've seen mining today.  It's better.  It's safer.  It's cleaner.  Hate me if you want to, but we need coal.

And, damn it, coal miners should be so solidly in the Democratic camp that they never look at a Republican except to spit.  So there.

Natural Gas
Friendly global warming
Gas gets good press.  It's cleaner than coal.  Natural gas is principally methane, with some ethane, propane...  other things that end in "ane."  So burning it produces little of the godawful particulate matter you can get with coal.  There is still enough sulfur and other compounds that SO2 and NO2 can be a problem.  If you're going to burn something buried for the last few million years, burning natural gas seems like the best of a bad lot.

But the US is not quite as blessed with natural gas reserves as we are the black stuff.   In 2002, we consumed 22.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  That's a pretty amazing number.  So amazing that I had to sit down and calculate that it's enough natural gas to cover the country in a blanket of gas more than 4' thick (somebody check me, that doesn't sound possible).  Now, I have some bad news and some good news and some bad news on our gas consumption.  The bad news is the USGS puts our total reserves at 187 trillion cubic feet.  Which means that if we keep burning at the current rate (and actually, it's going up year over year), we'll have to turn off the gas for good in less than a decade.  The good news is that we discovered nearly as much new gas reserves last year as we used, so we stayed even.  In fact, we've made gas discoveries for a decade that have more than replaced consumption.  The other bad news is those new discoveries are declining, and we're eating into the reserves.

There are some potential massive new sources for natural gas.  In particular there is the weird and wonderful world of deep sea gas hydrates.  Gas hydrates are forms of hydrocarbons that occur in the temperature and pressure regimes of the deep ocean.  It's almost like blankets of colorful underwater snow, only this snow is actually hydrocarbons held in solid state by the cold and extreme high pressure.  Most gas hydrates are buried in sea floor sediments, but in some areas like the Gulf of Mexico, they boil up into exposed mounds, sheets, and dune fields.  Most of these gas hydrates contain methane.  Some of the hydrates can also contain Frank Hill's friend propane, and even stuff that, so help me, looks closed to refined gasoline.

The sea floor hydrates look like a possible source for vast amounts of natural gas.  Pull this stuff up to the surface, and it fizzes (okay, sublimates if you want to be picky) into gas.  There is lots of the stuff.  More energy is tied up in sea floor gas hydrates than all the oil, coal, and natural gas reserves in the world.  So if we can figure out how to harvest the sea snow, we're all set to continue our fossil fuel burning ways for centuries to come.  Or until we greenhouse ourselves to the point where lead starts to melt, whichever comes first.

Only mining sea floor hydrates may not be easy.  The first experimental plants to bubble this stuff into natural gas are just getting started, so it's not possible to say if it will account for significant production.  Plus, there are a handful of scientists who think mining gas hydrates might just, whoops, kill all life on the planet.  See, if we stir this muck too much, we might upset the pressure regime and cause it to start flashing into gas all on its own.  And if we make Gaia burp, the atmosphere we have afterwards might be lacking a little thing called oxygen.

Honestly, the doomsday by gas scenario seems kind of remote, though there is some geologic evidence that such a scenario might account for one of the great extinction events that happened way back in the pre-dinosaur past.  It's worth being cautious.  In any case, I'm leaving gas hydrates out of my calculations for now.

If we counted on only domestic natural gas production, we would likely be out of gas in 15-20 years, even allowing for new reserves.  Fortunately for those who like the even heat of a gas stove, Canada has major gas reserves and we pipe a lot across from them.  That's convenient, but it's not the best position to be in, even with a partner as friendly as the Canucks.  Canada has been plans to burn that gas in their own plants.  Gas may be cleaner than coal, but it's going to have to make a pretty quick exit from our electric power supply if we want to keep it around for any of the other things that make it darn handy.

Over the last two decades, most of the new power plants built in the United States have been natural gas plants.  Since we don't regulate CO2, natural gas plants are easy to fit under the Clean Air Act.  Gas plants are also a lot cheaper to build.  Plus, they come in more flexible sizes.  If you're building a small plant in a local market, chances are you're going to go with gas.

A big part of the explosion in gas plants has been "peaking" plants.  These are power plants that are not designed to work 24/365.  Instead, they count on coal (or nuclear, or whatever else is powering the local grid) to carry the burden day in and day out.  But should some mid-August afternoon arrive with 104 degree heat and everyone in the Greater Chicago Area kicks the air conditioner over to "Antarctic" at the same time, on comes the peaking plant to handle the increased load.  

With gas, our positions have to span the paradox that gas is the best we can do when burning a fossil fuel, but it's still a fossil fuel.  And it's also a fuel that could soon be on the "endangered resources" list.  So how do we approach gas as a source for electricity?

1)    We make it harder to get gas plants approved for "peaking."  By allowing these plants to prop up aging coal-fired plants, we're allowing companies to keep the older, high-pollution plants in operation.  If they had to increase their production by expanding full time production, they'd have to clean up the stinky old plants.
2)    We keep a close eye on gas hydrate experiments.  Odds of gas doomsday are about even with those of scientists who warned the first nuclear explosion could trigger a chain reaction and consume the planet.  But hey, I would have been scared by those guys, too.
3)    We press gas plants to use some of the same carbon sequestration techniques now being considered for coal.  Natural gas produces just as much CO2 per BTU as coal, and we need to be just as stringent in getting that CO2 under control.
4)    If your community hasn't already passed regulations outlawing outdoor gas lighting, get them to do so now.  Gas lighting is probably the most ineffective use of natural gas possible, producing less than one tenth of one lumen per watt of energy.  No matter how cheap gas is in your area, no matter what your electricity costs, I can promise you that you'd be better off burning a light bulb day and night than using gas for lighting.  Stick a fluorescent bulb out there, and you'll beat gas about 400:1 when it comes to light per energy consumed.

Natural gas is much more valuable than coal when it comes to cooking, heating, and local energy production.  Eventually, we want it out of the energy diet like every other fossil fuel.  In the short term, we should work to see that it fills those niches where it's most needed, and doesn't allow the power companies to prop up aging coal or nuclear plants while drawing down our reserves of gas.

America's primary source of three-eyed fish
This is the tough one.  You might think that coal and natural gas were tough, but when it comes to whether to be for or against something, nuclear is the hard one.

I know some of you are already preparing to burn me in cyber-effigy for even suggesting that nuclear might be less than purely dark side.  And for the most part, I'm ready to help you light that fire.  What else besides nuclear, and those Styrofoam containers from McDonald's, threatens to kill people for millenniums after we've all left the scene?   But when the ice shelves breaking free at the poles are starting to be measured in the size of states (hey, is that new one the size of Jersey, or only as big as Vermont?), you have to wonder if dealing with containment of nuclear wastes might not be preferable to seeing ocean levels rise up to the third floor at Macy's.

As of right now, there are 104 commercial nuclear generating units licensed for operation in the United States.  69 of these are pressurized water reactors (PWRs).  35 are boiling water reactors (BWRs).  I'll spare you the bloody minutiae, and tell you that you can go here to see diagrams and details that explain about each type.  For those who are interested, Three Mile Island is of the pressurized water type.  Chernobyl is a type of reactor known as a light-water RBMK.  There are no such units in the United States.

You might have heard some of the "no nuclear plants have been built in the United States in blahdy-blah years" talk, but the picture is not quite as clear as you may think.  Not only have many old plants received extensions that allow them to continue operating well past the dates where they were supposed to go off line, but several units have been "uprated" to allow for greater production.  And there have even been some new operating units added at existing plants.  The last new nuclear unit was added as recently as May 1996 (at the Watt's Bar TVA plant in Tennessee).  The way the government regulates the industry has hidden much of the increase.  We're in the weird position of having official "generating capacity" at around 100 billion kilowatts, while actual production is around 120 billion kilowatts.  Between 1997 and 2004, the nuclear industry sneaked in a 20% increase in production.  Surprise!

Note that, while nuclear energy has had to go "into the closet" in the United States to eek out some stealth increases, much of the world continues to add nuclear capacity.   Europe (particularly France) and Asia (particularly Japan) have continued to add plants at a steady rate.  Many countries point to unavailability of local fossil fuel resources, impending shortages of oil, and worries over global warming as reasons to increase nuclear capacity.

Okay, pop quiz:  you're a rapidly expanding high-tech economy in South Asia with a population that's moving into the middle class and energy demands making a sharp jump as everybody gets on the "be like Mike" bandwagon.  What do you do?  If you answer this the way as the average president / junta boss / beloved dear undying leader, you get nuclear, that's what you do.

With nuclear, there are two concerns that make people sweat.  One is that nuclear waste will kill us all long term and make our planet into an uninhabitable desert occupied only by glowing mutants and radioactive McRib containers.  The other concern is that one of the plants will blow up and kill us all by next Tuesday.

Frankly, those are pretty damn big concerns.  I mean, natural gas may be bad, but a gas plant in Cleveland isn't going to go boom and poison dairy cattle across Western Europe.

Taking the "China Syndrome" problem first, the answer is almost the same as it was for coal: get rid of the old plants.  Older plants were built with all kinds of assumptions, many of them bad.  Many of these plants are designed around "active safety."  That is, if something in the plant becomes unstable, actions must be taken to shut down the disaster and put things back in, relatively, safe condition.   That kind of system works out 99 times out of a hundred.  Or even 999 times out of a thousand.  And then someone tries to insert tab B into Slot Q and you get TMI or Chernobyl.  

If we're to have nuclear plants, they have to be plants that are "passively safe."  Plants where even George W. Bush could be left at the controls and you'd still have a plant in the morning.  

A couple of different designs for passive plants were proposed more than twenty years ago.  Westinghouse continues to tinker with its AP600 design, but there are more interesting new ideas on the table.  The one that's getting the most attention is the Pebble-Bed Reactor.  This kind of reactor uses little balls with uranium at the middle instead of the fuel rods in a traditional plant.  It also differs in that the reactor is filled with helium gas to transfer heat instead of water or steam (making it suitable for the high temperature hydrogen production method mentioned today in the NYT).  There are several things to like about the pebble-bed reactors when you compare them to the ones we have today.  Because it's filled with helium, you can't have the superheated breakdowns possible where water flashes to steam, steam disassociates into hydrogen and oxygen, and things get real messy real fast.  Helium is inert, so it won't react with the container or the fuel and, in theory at least, cannot become radioactive.  The design of the Pebble-Bed means that, even if all the helium leaks away, or the reactor is subject to the W test, you can't go into an uncontrolled reaction.  The fuel mix in a Pebble-Bed reactor is also designed so that more fuel gets used in the reaction, leaving less fissionable waste and spent fuel.

A company in South Africa came up with the Pebble-Bed reactor nearly a decade ago, so it's not surprising that the first reactors of this design are scheduled to appear there.  So far, none of these reactors are scheduled for the US.  If we have to have new nuclear capacity, and that's a big "if," Pebble-Bed seems like the most reasonable way to go.

But before you can talk about adding reactors, you have to deal with that second problem mentioned way back at this top of this section: nuclear waste.  Where blowing up a plant is a nightmare scenario, waste is a certainty.  Run a nuclear plant, even a pebble-bed design, and you will get waste.  So what do we do about it?

One option is the one that got so much press in the last election cycle.  In this plan, we pack our spent fuel and assorted waste into rail cars, ship it across country by various routes, and store it away in Nevada's Yucca Mountain.  Uh, yeah.  The feasibility of this plan has been called into doubt at every stage.  The perpetration for shipment is hazardous.  Regular shipments of highly radioactive nuclear waste are subject to the normal chance of rail accident, and could be a dinner bell for terrorists.  Even if you get the waste to Yucca, there's no guarantee that it'll stay there.  For reasons ranging from geologic activity to human intervention, no site is truly secure.

Is that it then?  How can you possibly run an industry where the waste product is untouchable for, roughly, ever?  

What do those countries that depend heavily on nuclear do with stuff?  The French Plan is beloved of the Yucca Mountain supporters.  They ran a program with a couple of sites for storing low level waste.  Low level waste is not the fuel rods themselves, but all the associated items that pick up a warm glow just from being around the cheery nuclear fire.  It's the dosimeters worn by plant workers.  It's the disposable paper coveralls and rubber gloves.  Booties.  Pocket protectors.  A Pepsi can left in the wrong place.  It's anything left close enough to the reactor for long enough to knock a few neutrons out of place.  Anything that raises a click - and some things that don't, just to be on the safe side.  To tell the truth, the low level waste is not that awful (hey, ow, don't hit me so hard!).  Yes, it's radioactive.  Yes, I wouldn't want to decorate my house.  But it's not so radioactive that it's an eternal threat to mankind (not too comforting when you have to put it in those terms, is it?)  Most nuclear waste falls into this category.  Frankly, the best thing we can do with it is store it.  It what France does, it's what everybody does.  Rather than shipping someone's mildly irradiated sweat socks a thousand miles to be incarcerated in Nevada, it's probably better to have more regional storage facilities for this stuff.  But should low level waste, and low level only, end up going to Yucca, it's unlikely to result in any serious threat to national health.  (Not that being on hand for a local derailment would be any fun.)

In Japan, where Godzilla is looked on more as warning than campy comedy, they've got a program that tries to address the really nasty stuff.  The spent fuel rods, old containment vessels, etc.  The stuff considered highly radioactive waste.  The Japanese plan is two-fold.  You store the stuff on site for awhile until it drops a little of that "fresh from the oven" warmth.  Then it's mixed with liquid glass and (or at least, will be, once Japan gets past their own version of the Yucca Mountain controversy) buried in steel containers.  It's possible to imagine Really Bad Things happening.  It's Japan, can you say "earthquake?"  But this is the plan.

In fact, encasement in glass and geologic burial is the best plan anyone has been able to come up with.  And it's still a bad plan.  There are more exotic solutions, but personally I don't want to see radioactive waste being lofted into space, and I'm none too sure that those ocean trenches are going to take things down into the mantle any time soon.  Some people have talked about a massive research effort to develop a system that destroys nuclear waste cleanly.  And some people also believe in the tooth fairy.

If we continue to use nuclear power, long term storage is the devil we marry.

Some points for a nuclear plan:
1)    Power companies should not be allowed to extend these things forever, especially as they approach the limits of on site storage for spent fuel.  If we don't force these plants to close, we're going to be faced with our own little homegrown, two-pronged version of nuclear blackmail: look here, Mr. Government Man, I've got this nuclear waste and it has to go somewhere and if you make me close my little plant, why, folks around these parts will be plum out of that electricical.  We have to stop if before it gets to that point.  Power companies should be told in no uncertain terms that the plants have to be closed while they are still able to store their spent fuel on site.  Any company that tries to keep a plant operating on the assumption that the government will relent and allow high level waste to be shipped elsewhere needs a good knock to the head.
2)    Stop recertifying reactors which have passed their closure dates.
3)    Any new plants or units added must be of a passive design.  And excuse me but I don't want to be the guinea pig for a radically new design.  This is one area of technology where I'm perfectly willing to let someone else go first.

In eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Oak Ridge back when the museum there was the Museum of Atomic Energy instead of the Museum of Alternate Energy.  They had shells from Little Boy and Fat Man bombs.  They had pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  They had ferrets with club feet and other interesting (to 8th grade boys) mutations because their parents had been used to clean out the glass tubes in early enrichment facilities.  They had a machine that you could put in a dime, and it would come out irradiated enough to ruin photographic film.  You got to take the dime home as a souvenir.  They had a block of uranium so you could test its weight against a block of iron the same size.  

We made a tour of a working reactor on that trip.  I stood up on the open catwalk above the reactor pool, leaned over the railing, and marveled at how the water glowed from the Cherenkov Effect.  Yes, folks, people out of the distant past were that stupid.  I'm sure everything I was wearing that day would now be classed as low level waste.  Heck, I should probably be classed as low-level waste.  After reading this diary, many of you will likely agree.

Pip squeak
When it comes to oil an energy generation, there's very little to say because there's very little oil burned for this purpose.  What's left is a handful of small, old plants that haven't been switched over to some other fuel.  When it comes to oil and power, the platform can be summed up pretty easily.
1) Don't do that.

This dam is your dam
If you've ever been to one of the major hydroelectric dams, there's no way you leave unimpressed.  The scale of the engineering.  The incredible, larger than life effort.  The total ruination to ecosystems, drowning of thousands of acres, relocation of towns, and flooding of national treasures.  That kind of stuff just has to move you.

The great American dams were products of another time.  Hoover Dam went up in the height of the Great Depression.  Grand Coulee was another monster combination of public works and electrification that was built in the same period.  Following this period of massive dams, some only slightly smaller were built with the combined goal of generating power and providing recreational space.  

There are large power-generating dams scattered across the United States, with some serious players both east and west.  Grand Coulee in Washington cranks out by far the most juice at 6180 megawatts.  Chief Joseph, practically next door, gets 2450.  John Day down in Oregon is another one over 2000 megawatts.  Some eastern big boys are in Virginia, New York, and Michigan.  Tennessee, Colorado, Nevada, and California all have players in the top twenty.

These days, the United States doesn't seem to be considering adding much to the traditional hydroelectric capacity.  To be a good candidate for hydro, you need a river with enough change in elevation that you can build a dam without flooding half a state and still get both sufficient reservoir capacity.  In the United States, candidates are rare.  You could dam some western rivers, but if you do, you're playing with the politics of not only ecology, but water rights, which have become religious wars throughout much of the west.  In the east, there are some decent candidates in the Appalachians, but in much of the country, the question is not what new dams will go up, but which will come down.

Most controversial at the moment is the Glenn Canyon Dam, which filled the erstwhile canyon to produce Lake Powell.  If you're a citizen of Page, Arizona, you're probably dependent on the herds of Jet Ski riders and house boaters that come to prowl the flooded paths of Lake Powell.  If you're from anywhere else, you likely ache at the thought of the places that were flooded.  The Sierra Club and several other organizations have swung into gear, arguing to bring the dam down and restore Glenn Canyon.  With recent drought in the area drastically lowering the water levels in the lake and revealing some of the grandeur that's been drowned since the early 60's, momentum seems to be on the dam buster's side.  Personally, I'm looking forward to a stroll through the Cathedral in the Desert.

So if we're not going to add new dams, that means hydro is dead.  Right?

Not quite.  There are other systems being considered.  First, there's the completely submerged hydro turbine.  This kind of system is best thought of as a windmill that happens to run underwater.  It's been considered for use in wave and tidal systems (which we'll get to later), but with dams on the decline, it's a great candidate to get energy out of rivers without requiring that the river be turned into a lake.  Better yet, these turbines could be used in small streams or drainage canals.  Because water is 810 times denser than air (on average), there's a lot of energy in flowing water compared to wind.  It may turn out that tossing a water turbine in that ditch behind your house is a better, quieter, less obtrusive way to produce energy on a local basis than putting a windmill in your yard.

Another odd idea worth mentioning here, if only because it doesn't seem to fit anywhere else, is hydroelectric storage.  As you're probably aware, production on the electric grid doesn't really change to meet demand.  During the day, the grid struggles to keep up.  At night, there's usually considerable overcapacity.  If we could store the extra energy from the night, we could burn less fuel in the day, making the overall system more efficient.    One way to store that energy is to use the excess electricity at night to raise water to a higher elevation, then recapture energy during the day be releasing the water.  

The idea has already been tried in a few places.  One notable spot is Taum Sauk Mountain, Missouri.  You might have been to Taum Sauk if you're one of those people who try to visit the highest points in each state.  At 1,770 feet, it's the none-too-high highest spot for the show me state.  Only it's a little more exotic that the relatively innocuous height might suggest.  In the early 60's, Union Electric leveled the top of the mountain and put up a 4,350 acre reservoir on top.  If you're standing up there, it looks like the world's biggest rain barrel.  Then they bored a 20' tube down the center and out one side and mounted a whopping impeller turbine in the tube.  At night, the turbine takes electricity from the grid and pumps water from a reservoir at the foot of the mountain to the tank on top.   During the day, water falls down the tube, spins the turbine, and gives back some of the stored power.  It's engineering on a massive scale -- a huge storage battery.  Obviously, there are not a lot of sites you'd like to see capped with paired reservoirs, but there has been some consideration of other sites, especially paired with wind or solar power projects, as a way of evening out the energy production.

So what's our hydro future?

1)    Support the removal of Glenn Canyon Dam and the draining of Lake Powell.  I mean, did you look at those pictures of the place?  I've been to Page many times.  I know how dependent the town is on tourism.  But believe me; more people will come to see the restored canyon than will show up to putter around on a lake surrounded by desert.  This is one bit of electric production we can afford to lose.
2)    Support development of submerged turbine technology as an alternative to dams.  Submerged turbines have the potential to generate much more power than all the hydroelectric dams in the country.  They're flexible, scalable, and suitable to a lot more locations.  This tech is still early in the cycle, so there are several competing designs.  If I was handing out grants for energy research and development, submerged turbines would be near the top of my list.
3)    Consider hydro-storage systems as an augmentation to solar and wind systems.  By storing energy, systems that are irregular, like wind, or cyclical, like solar, can give more steady production.  But beware the ecological impact of these sites and make sure it's absolutely needed.

Pass the tanning butter, baby
Hey, are you relieved to be getting somewhere finally?  We've left the realm of the current mix and are finally -- finally starting to get to some sources that don't involve wrecking either our air or our water.  About time, huh?

Okay, here's another pop quiz: without looking, how many times more energy do we receive from the sun than we currently use.  It's 100x.  So, if we could harness 1% of all the energy falling everywhere in the country, or 100% of the energy falling on 1% of the country, we could do away with all other energy sources.  You've probably seen other numbers, but that's the best I can manage by averaging out solar radiation (there is a 4x difference between incident light in a St. Louis winter compared to a Phoenix spring) and the hours of daylight.  If anyone wants, I'll post my back-of-the-envelope calculations.

When it comes to figuring out the best way to tap solar power, there are almost too many possibilities to consider.  I'm going for direct photoelectric conversion.  In some ways, this seems best as it had essentially "no moving parts."  Light goes in, electricity comes out.  Of course, photovoltaic cells can contain rare earth elements and their manufacture can entail some nasty chemical processes.  And, naturally, there are many different kinds of these cells.  Nothing in solar is simple.  Amorphous silicon cells are common, but very poor at converting.  They'll probably never get much beyond the little cells in your pocket calculator.  There are Cadmium Telluride cells (see what I mean about rare elements?  When's the last time you saw a chunk of tellurium?).  These cells reach nearly 9% effectiveness in converting power on a commercial basis, and hit 16% in the lab.  Dendritic web cells promise near 30% conversion, but the current generation uses Gallium Arsenide as a semiconductor - talk about combining the worst of rare elements and noxious chemicals!    Integrated thin film has a lot of advantages, in that it's flexible and can manage 11-17% efficiency.  Unfortunately, you guessed it, this stuff depends on Copper Indium Diselenide.  Not much of that lying around.

The two best bets for big solar photoelectric are probably multicrystalline silica and discrete cell.  Discrete cell is based on technology not too different from that used in microprocessors.  Extremely thin wafers are sliced from lab-grown silica crystals.  Effectiveness can reach 24%, and large amounts of rare elements aren't required.  Multicrystalline is a newer technology using big blocks of silica.  It has managed 18% in the lab, and held on to 14% in small commercial products (like pads for recharging cell phones).  So far, multicrystalline has proven to be cheaper and more stable.

So, let's take a number in the middle.  20%.  That's better than any commercial product does today, but not quite as good as lab work suggests we could do.  It seems a reasonable compromise.  At 20% conversion, we'd have to cover 5% of the country in photo cells.  Sounds kind of possible doesn't it?  Only 5%?  Until you stop and realize that's about 180,000 square miles glazed over with silica tiles, and probably an equal area in supporting gear. Some might suggest we pick a few red states and start the factories, but covering this kind of space is not really feasible - nor is it very ecologically desirable.

Even if you were to build your super solar array, you'd have to build a power grid capable of getting the juice from your massive energy farm to the rest of the country.  Plus, since we can't convince the sun to shine all the time, you would need an equally massive storage system to hold power for the night.  The giant, all in one spot, type of solar installation is just not feasible.

A better use for photovoltaic is in disseminated power production.  You've already seen how solar can work to provide power to places that are off the grid (if not, look around the highway construction project nearest you and see how many signs are being powered by solar).  Siemens, a large manufacturer of solar panels, has shipped 130 megawatts worth of solar panels to date, and sees an increase of 10-15% annually.  That's just one company.

Solar can also go a long way toward providing the power to your house.  Don't like the look of the big clunky photo panels on your roof?  Companies like Uni-Solar are now offering photovoltaic shingles.  These look just like regular roofing shingles, only they produce electricity.  Go look.  Pretty damn cool, huh?  A system with only 50 shingles, covering an area of roof about 12x10, generates around 850 watts.  If you did in the whole roof of a 80x20 house, you'd be good for almost 10,000 watts.  I'm faced with replacing my roof soon, and I'm seriously considering going this way.  Of course, there are the usual trade offs.  First, it's dang pricey.  If I actually put in photo shingles for every shingle on my roof, it would cost me roughly the purchase price of the house.  And for that I'd barely get enough energy to provide all the heating, cooling, and lighting my home currently needs.  But it sure would be neat.  If I was in a somewhat milder climate, and if I got a little more sun, I could install one of these systems, add enough storage batteries, and start selling instead of buying.  That would be sweet.  Even where I am, a moderate solar shingle patch could make a serious dent in my electric bill.  

Photovoltaic is not the only way solar can help on a site by site basis.  Both passive and active solar heating can go a long way to reduce those heating and cooling needs - and those are the biggest parts of your home energy consumption.  These same technologies can also be extended to offices.  Check out this Mother Earth News article for how you can use a mix of solar technologies to completely eliminate your electric bill (warning, pdf file).

Between photoelectric and solar heating, there's a great chance to improve our use of solar power.  This is really one area that is already growing quickly, but could still use a kick.  A big chunk of funds and some regulatory help that would get the materials down to a reasonable cost would be an enormous help.  Of all the technologies, solar is the one I came to with the least expectations, and the one I left feeling best about.

If you're in too big a hurry to wait for our landslide victory in 2006, check out the DSIRE database to see all the federal and state programs that will already support putting renewable energy into your home or business.  And if you want to see where government and industry have already joined hands to push solar, check out the million solar roofs program, which aims to do just that by 2010.  Right now, there are federal programs available to commercial interests, but very little outside of the EEM (discussed below) available for residential.  That needs to change.

Where do we go on solar?
1)    We go big.  The potential of solar to lift a lot of homes and businesses right off the grid and contribute to the overall picture is real.  With the right investments, I'm willing to bet that by 2016 (the end of my "ten year plan" that we put in when we take back congress in two years), photovoltaic solar can amount to 5-10% of our electric mix, and solar heating technologies can further remove another 10% of the current energy demand.  That may not sound as sexy as spreading silicon over Oklahoma and Texas, then using them to power our iPods, but it's doable.  
2)    The government starts funding solar at a huge level.  Every new federal office building started after 2010 should be required to get 20% of its power needs from solar.  30% for buildings constructed after 2015.  A million solar roofs should be ten million, by extending the offers now available to commercial sites to residential.
3)    EMM mortgages, discussed below, should replace and enhance the solar tax breaks that were offered in the past.  Congressmen on the right like to harp on how the tax credits were there and almost no one took advantage of them.  But that's like putting in a tax credit for hydrogen cars this year, and then complaining that it went unused next year.  The credits were good for getting some startups in business, but only now are we finally getting the widespread available systems that make it really feasible to work solar into every house sold.  Anything we can do to encourage solar - especially solar that avoids the trap of toxic, rare elements - should be done.  Photovoltaic and solar heating really work.  Pass it on.

Dude, why does your car smell like freedom fries?
When we think about biofuels, the first thing that comes to mind is replacing the oil in our cars with biodiesel,  We covered that ground in the transportation talk, and it's important, but in this diary, I'm also chasing energy production from biomass.

Over the last four years, US energy from biomass has held steady at around 2 quadrillion Btu (thank the DOE for using a unit of energy so silly I'm not even going to the effort to convert it to something more reasonable.  Quadrillion.  Sheesh.)  It sounds like a big number, and it is, but it's a little deceptive.  Most of that value is simply people burning wood in their home stoves and fireplaces.  A wood stove and electric blower is how I heat my house, at least until I get my new solar roof in place.  When it comes to electricity, biomass currently contributes about 13% of the renewable electricity production in the US.  Which puts it at about 0.2% of the overall picture.  Don't expect much more.

Burning wood, and corn stubble, and garbage, and anything else you can get to burn, has its detractors.  They point out that this burning releases pollutants, which is true.  And that it releases CO2, which is sort of true, but not really comparable to burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 that's been locked out of the cycle for millions of years.

It's unlikely that biomass is going to rise up and become a major source of power in our electric plants, and truthfully, we probably don't want it to be.  Short of denuding the countryside of plant life, there's not enough juice locked away in biomass.  Here's the really scary numbers.  We'd have to chop down 22% of all land plants just to make the energy we use in one year.  And you can ask the citizens of Denver about the delights of wood stoves in areas where atmospheric circulation tends to stall.

Where biomass can help us most is probably in the area we mentioned first: transportation.  That means biodiesel.  It also means ethanol.

I know, ethanol has become a dirty word.  There have been some studies trumpeted in the media saying that it takes more energy to make ethanol than you get back.  And that ethanol takes up room that could be used for food crops.  Frankly, those studies are pretty damn dubious.  They make some very bad assumptions about what happens to the corn after the ethanol is made, about the environmental cost of corn production, about the availability of cropland, and about the real cost of making ethanol.  First of all, ethanol is used in cars.  It's not just energy production, it's energy storage.  Just like gasoline.  Just like batteries.  Just like hydrogen.  Just like biodiesel.  So even if it's less than 100% efficient, the real measure is its effectiveness for moving cars.  Further, most studies disagree with these conclusions and give ethanol a small net gain - even when you consider such things as energy used in pesticide production, fertilizer, transport to market, corn production, and conversion.  If you consider that most of the corn is actually left over after conversion and typically goes on to be used as either animal food or in processed foods, ethanol makes a sizable "win."  The best hydrogen system uses about 3.5x as much power as you can get back from the hydrogen.  The best even on the drawing board uses 2x.  Ethanol doesn't look so bad now, eh?

Ethanol has about 1/2 the energy per gallon as gasoline.  Which sounds bad, but the mix of ethanol and gas has other benefits.  In trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, my conclusion is that it costs about $1.20 to make a gallon of ethanol.  With gas prices over $2, that price is getting more reasonable than ever.  And don't think all the ethanol money is funding so-called red state welfare.  The biggest producers are Iowa and Illinois, states we need in our column.  Michigan and Minnesota are in the top five.  Ohio and Wisconsin in the top ten.  

Where do we go with biomass?
1)    Expect that biomass will remain an important, but small, part of our electrical generation picture.  Recapturing some of the energy from the garbage we produce is a good idea, but it's even better to stop making so much garbage.
2)    Biodiesel and ethanol will both become more important as vehicle fuels.  We should encourage programs that expand their development, and that look for economical, ecological, energy efficient ways to produce and distribute these fuels.

Can we hang 10?  As in 10% percent of our electrical demand?
Most wave energy is really just wind energy in another form, molecules of air stroking molecules of water over thousand of miles of ocean.  Of course, wind is just repackaged solar.  But if you set on the beach for a few hours, watching waves pound over, and over, and over at the shore, it's easy to see that the water has grabbed onto a lot of go.

So how to we get it back?  Some companies have already started to build wave power plants.  Wavegen has a plant parked on an island off the coast Scotland, which is rated at 500kw, and another in the works.  Scotland, by the way, already gets 12% of its electricity from the combination of waves, tides, and wind.  They expect that number to be 18% by 2010.  Darn thrifty of those Scots.

The tricky part of building a wave powered plant is making it able to get power from everyday, low energy waves.  Make the turbines light enough to work on 4' swells, and they may be too fragile for a 20' storm surge.  Make the plant big enough to generate power for a town, and you make take away that town's scenic coastline.  If you look at where the ones have been built in England, they're in fairly remote areas with fairly heavy surf.  Finding spots along the US coast for similar production may not be easy.

How much should we expect?
1)    Encourage placement of wave energy plants along northern parts of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, where the wave energy is highest and the seafloor profiles support the current designs.  
2)    Work on designs that can better take advantage of the shallow, sloping seafloor found along the Gulf and more southern coasts.
3)    Target deployment of commercial plants by 2015, with a goal of 2% electrical power from wave energy within a decade.

We got the breeze at our backs
This is one area where the US is actually keeping its finger in.  Other countries are carrying the ball on solar, tidal, and wave power.  Biodiesel is practically mainstream overseas.  But on wind, we are at least in the game.  And, unlike these other technologies, we actually have a home-grown wind industry that's making significant inroads outside our borders.  About half the business of US wind power manufacturers was in selling plants to consumers outside the US.  This is particularly true when looking at smaller wind turbines used in areas off grid, a part of the industry that's growing rapidly.  If the US can continue to gain market share in wind power, this is not only a big improvement in our power picture, it makes for a lot of jobs.

The size of wind turbines has grown fantastically over the last decade.  A 25-meter rotor was at the top end in 1990.  The newest towers are 90 meters tall and the blades reach 135 meters (440 feet) above the ground.  That is a big, big structure.  Many of these new towers are rated at more than 1 megawatt.  In favorable conditions, a tower that size could make more than 2.5 kwh a year - enough to supply 250 average homes.

That makes it sound pretty simple.  Put up a million towers, and America is running on wind power.  

Only that's, well first off it's a million towers.  I mean, wow.  And each one of those towers can be expected to cost about a million dollars.  So we're talking a plan that would run about a million million dollars - also known as a trillion bucks.  Sounds insurmountable, but divide it over a decade, and we're talking $100 billion a year.  Still massive, but that's less than we're spending on Iraq.  A ten year program that would move the bulk of our energy consumption to a non-polluting renewable power source for less than the annualized cost of the Fallujah Follies.  Does that sound so bad?

Of course, it's not likely.  Not every spot in the US is equally suitable for wind power.  To even work, these commercial scale towers need wind that averages 13mph.  And did you catch the size of those towers?  A structure the size of a forty story building is not going to be welcomed in every neighborhood.  They may non-polluting, but they're definitely not invisible, or silent.

However, even if we can't put wind everywhere, there's a lot the US which is suitable for wind power, especially along mountain ridges and in the plain states east of the Rockies.  Anyone who's ever spent time in Eastern Wyoming knows what they call 13mph winds - calm.  Another big possibility for wind power is offshore.  There are regular wind cycles associated with the shore line, and in many areas the offshore wind is enough to have almost constant production.  Pair these towers with the submerged water-powered turbines, and you could have a two in one device.

Practically everything you want to know about wind power, and almost every number I've used, comes from the good folks at the American Wind Energy Association.  Check them out, especially if you think you might have some local site with potential.

Which way does the Democratic wind blow?
1)    Gale force.  A plan to replace all our power needs with wind over a decade is unrealistic, but we can take one big whopper of a bite.  A $10 billion a year investment in wind power can put us on target to have 10% of our power coming from wind by 2016.  That's five times as much as we get from all renewable sources now.  Of all the technologies available to us, wind power is probably the most reliable and mature.
2)    You folks on the shore better get used to the idea of seeing some big white towers on the horizon.  When we're talking about cutting a massive amount of greenhouse gases, and making real strides in changing how we make power, we can't afford to be derailed by "not in my backyard" syndrome.

Originally posted to Devil's Tower on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 07:23 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Excellent (none)
    Recommended.  And it's not too long.  It's very well-researched.

    I'm going to read it a few more times - I'm still digesting.  I'll have a few things to say about nukular energy and the most fabulous waste it produces.

    •  Thanks (4.00)
      Thanks, Page.  And somehow, I might suspect from your name that you have an interest in the nuclear gig.

      Now I can go to bed happy.  At least one person read the thing before it slid into the entropy death which awaits all diaries.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 07:37:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Here is the solution (none)
        We can have all the energy we could ever need- cheap and CO2 friendly from here if wanted to. If we wait for the inevitable enery crisis, our economy may not be able to afford the estimated $150 billion start-up costs.

        David Criswell testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space over a year ago, and has been working on this for 30 years. The benefits of following his advice are widespread and mind-boggling. Peace and prosperity can be ours with the right people running our government.  

        Fact: No terrestrial options can provide the needed minimum of 2 kWe/person or at least 20 terawatts globally.

        Fact: Tapping this energy source does not require basic new technological developments.

        By 2050, the LSP System would allow all human societies to prosper while nurturing rather than consuming the biosphere.

        We could be rid of Middle East oil dependency in a decade or two if we put our minds to it. We don't have to have these economic, energy and ecological crises if we are proactive about them.

        Vision- optimism- hope-

  •  Tremendous Research! (none)
    Just skimming it took me a while. What an effort!

    This should be a magazine article in American Prospect.

    "George W. Bush is not only the worst president in American history, he is the worst man who has been President."--J. Miller

    by Yosef 52 on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 08:11:38 PM PST

  •  Finished? (none)
    Did all of the text get submitted?

    At the end of the text:

    One place in North Am

    It looks like you did a C&P perhaps from Notepad or something and it didn't all take.

    •  Hmm, something happened (none)
      I swear it was all there a moment ago.  And nope, while I started in notepad, I worked out the last three thousand or so words right here.  It was all there through the previews, and all there the first time I came in to check comments.

      So why is it chopped off now?  Hmmm.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 08:16:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  hmmm (none)
        I swear it was all there a moment ago.  And nope, while I started in notepad, I worked out the last three thousand or so words right here.  It was all there through the previews, and all there the first time I came in to check comments.

        So why is it chopped off now?  Hmmm.

        If you could come up with the rest of it, that would be pretty great.  I have this and the big transportation thread in my "To Read" list for when I have a little extra time to read it all.

  •  You neglected fusion (3.50)
    Not cold fusion. Hot fusion as in magnetically contained fusion. Progress has been steady all this time and the R&D is badly underfunded. The technology is fairly mature, though not quite ready for prime time. We are only spending about 800 million a year on it, IIRC.

    No reason to stick with burning coal if fusion comes on line. It also leaves no spent fuel, and cannot suffer a meltdown. The only radioacive leftover is the reactor itself, particularly the inner liner which will have to be replaced periodically (currently estimated at once every 10 years). The volume of material is nothing compared to conventional (fision) nuclear power.

    I'm sorry, but I can't take seriously any plan that does not even mention fusion research and development, while proposing we stick to coal for centuries. That's what the republicans are for.

    Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

    by M Aurelius on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 08:38:43 PM PST

    •  It was in there (none)
      In the part that got chopped away.  However, I didn't have anything particularly good to say about it.  Best I can reassemble, it went like this:

      The technology of the future
      And it always will be.  At least, that's the old joke.  There are promising developments in fusion, but there always seem to be promising developments in fusion.  In the ten year plan, we're not likely to get one drop of fusion power on line.  We should continue funding research, but be aware that fusion isn't absolutely clean.  While it lacks the highly radioactive fuel rods of fission plants, most forms of fusion can still toss off showers of particles, making the containment vessel into medium level radioactive waste.  I love the idea of fusion.  I see no hint that fusion will be practical in the next decade.

      On fusion, we should:
      1) Stay the course, hope for the best, and don't count on it.

      There was another big section to the plan on conservation, including a long section on LED lighting.  And no one would want to stick to coal for centuries. This is a ten year plan that proposes reducing coal by 12%.  

      You really expect to better that?

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 08:49:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, I do (none)
        You really expect to better that?

        I expect much more than a 10 year vision (though 10 year goals are fine). Why? Because the momentum involved is so titanic, 10 years is too short a horizon.

        Fusion research is simply underfunded. Way underfunded. No time to go into it in detail now though.

        Conservation: lots of simple things. Also no time. I'll get back to this thread tomorrow.

        Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

        by M Aurelius on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 08:59:15 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Sexy as it is (none)
          I'm not sure that fusion is needed to save us from fossil fuels.  Having seen all the terrific work being done in solar, wind, and hydro, I'm fairly convinced we can toss aside fossil fuels within the next thirty years even if we never manage to get commercial fusion.

          But I'm very much in favor of continuing research.  There's absolutely no sense in putting our energy eggs in one basket.

          TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

          by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 09:05:53 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Of course (none)
            There's absolutely no sense in putting our energy eggs in one basket.

            I'm not suggesting that we should. But we are spending billions subsidizing fossil fuels in all kinds of ways, while fusion and other technologies are being underfunded.

            Also, as much as I like wind and hydro vs. coal, they do have an environmental impact. Bird strkes are a problem with wind turbines, for instance. And hydro destroys local environments in all kinds of ways. Look at the impact of the Three Gorges dam in China.

            Solar has the lowest impact, but it requires storage for nighttime or cloudy days.

            Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

            by M Aurelius on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 06:43:54 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Besides... (none)
            Stay the course, hope for the best, and don't count on it.

            That's just wrong. Stay the course is like doing nothing. It needs a serious push.

            Somehow, you've adopted the attitude towards fusion that a typical oil lobbyist would: let's not fund it, it won't work.

            Well, of course it won't work if we don't fund it.

            My idea is simple: I would ask for a fusion-powered aircraft carrier. Get the Navy on board with visons of ships powered by the sea itself.

            You'd be surprised how quickly the spigots open then, and the technical issues are resolved. With money comes intensity, continuity, and the best people. We spend more money on the military per day than we do for fusion all year.

            Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

            by M Aurelius on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 06:50:52 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I don't really disagree (none)
              Except to say that an oil industry lobbyist has no interest in fusion, as oil and fusion do not compete.

              I just fail to see what makes fusion -- which at it's best is a technologically intensive source -- better than solar, or wind, or submerged hydro (I would not, and did not, recommend more traditional hydro).

              Maybe it's just my age.  I see too much in the fusion lingo today that reminds me of the push for fission plants half a century ago.  Electricity was going to be non-polluting and so cheap we wouldn't even need meters.  I can't help but suspect fusion is not a panacea.

              TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

              by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 08:33:33 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Oh yes they do! (none)
                Except to say that an oil industry lobbyist has no interest in fusion, as oil and fusion do not compete.

                But they do. Directly, and indirectly. Directly as follows: home heating oil is a big part of the energy picture. You left it out because it's not used to generate electricity, but heat.

                But electricity can be used for heating.

                Indirectly, electricity can be used to generate fuels such as hydrogen, which can power cars, ships, and aircraft, or it could charge cars diretly if coupled with better batteries. Low-cost, low impact electricity generation has multiple consequences well downstream from the generating business itself.

                I just fail to see what makes fusion -- which at it's best is a technologically intensive source -- better than solar, or wind, or submerged hydro (I would not, and did not, recommend more traditional hydro).

                The main advantage is that it's an "always on" technology. It should be part of a diversified portfolio of solutions, but it can play a key role. Hydro is affected by drought, solar is highly seasonal. In winter it only works 1/3 of the day, and even then not very well if it's cloudy. Wind power is great, unless no wind is blowing.

                If you concentrate these sources in geographically ideal places (particularly tempting with solar), then you need a big transmision infrastructure which has significant cost and environmental impact.

                I understand your skepticism. But bear in mind fision propaganda was part of a broader effort to make the bomb and the atomic age socially acceptable. It was a byproduct of a weapons program. Lots of technology is complicated; look at the Internet. That does not mean it's a bad thing.

                Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

                by M Aurelius on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:23:15 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

          •  A problem here: (none)
            " Having seen all the terrific work being done in solar, wind, and hydro, I'm fairly convinced we can toss aside fossil fuels within the next thirty years even if we never manage to get commercial fusion."

            As long as the turds are in power, their oil cronies will never allow the alt energy sources to really take hold.

      •  ITER - Nuclear Fusion Project (none)
        The six nations planning to build the world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor ended their latest meeting with no agreement on a site for the facility.

        BBC news - Science

        One kilogram of fusion fuel would produce the same amount of energy as 10,000,000 kg of fossil fuel. What is more, fusion, although it does produce radioactive waste, does not generate the quantities of long-term high-level radiotoxic waste that burdens nuclear fission.

        It's a competitive world where Human Rights gets trumped by oil rights

    •  The alternative energy priesthood (none)
      This is a fantastic diary in layperson language.  It is, therefore, inevitable that it will draw the ire of various clerics from different sects of the alternative energy priesthood.

      When I worked briefly on breaking the Yucca Mountain coalition in the mid 1990s by replacing the nuclear storage construction funding with a package of alternative energy pilot programs (which would therefore have fractured the part of the pro-Yucca coalition based on local economic interest), I took extensive petty abuse from people who were (or claimed to be) allies to the cause (e.g., "to cite X approach to solar energy as a possible example in talking point 5 is to banish the far more promising Y approach -- which could potentially yield .02136638 more KWH per unit cost -- to oblivion, therefore consigning human-kind to inevitable extinction!").  This took a bigger toll on me, personally, than confronting the opposition.

      How can we convince our allies in this and other policy realms (very often brilliant, principled people) to more often look at 1) the bigger picture and 2) policy approaches that would represent substantial progress while building momentum toward more -- even if they are not the WHOLE enchilada in one bite?

      A lot of these fights are inch-by-inch battles where the people on the front lines (in my mind this includes the nonprofit alternative energy lobbies in DC and various state capitals, who helped me out in my little project, assuming they still exist) grow weary from all the arrows in the back.  Next thing you know, you have 300% turnover in key policy and advocacy jobs -- which only helps those inches turn into feet and accumulate into miles.

      This is a fractal example of the larger phenomenon that I believe partially accounts for our recent leadership vacuum on the left...

      •  No ire... (none)
        It is, therefore, inevitable that it will draw the ire of various clerics from different sects of the alternative energy priesthood.

        I belong to no priesthood. I noted that an an energy solution had been neglected. I like solar, wind, conservation, transportation infrastructure and all kinds of things.

        I have noted that Devilstower seems to stick to well-known technologies. In his transportation proposals he treated monorails as a joke. I'm not a monorail priest either, but it's an alternative worth exploring.

        If you look at our current policy, where we spend tens of billions on oil and gas subsidies, where large loopholes exist for oil companies that import oil (for instance by having the Saudis charge them "income tax" rather than royalties, which lets them deduct the "taxes" here at home), you can quickly see that there are huge funds which should be redirected to all kinds of energy initiatives. Energy is a huge business and resources are not scarce. They are simply being used for the wrong things, not to mention the war.

        Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

        by M Aurelius on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:32:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Exotic Tech (none)
          It's not that I set out to use only well known technologies, it's that I set out to make a plan for the next decade.  By doing so, I purposely excluded many technologies of which I was aware, but which I didn't feel like could make a meaningful impact in that timeframe.

          Yes, setting such a short timeline doesn't make for the best possible planning, but I'm trying hard not to let the pefect become the enemy of the good.  In fact, thank of that as my theme song.  I want something that is a) better than what we have and b) offers political points we can use to win.  A good technology in hand is better for what I'm after than two great technologies on the drawing board.

          TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

          by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:51:53 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Frankly... (none)
            I'm trying hard not to let the pefect become the enemy of the good

            Frankly, given the money and people involved, the way to do any of this is to take power, then act quietly and swiftly during some major distraction or crisis, and this forcefully using the power of the executive to its very limits.

            Any frontal assault will be ground down by $100 million media campaigns and lobbying efforts of all kinds.

            Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

            by M Aurelius on Mon Nov 29, 2004 at 07:36:21 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent (none)
    Fine summation of now and the immediate future and what we need to consider for energy policy.


    A note on Lake powell/Glen Canyon Dam: The rainfall studies done in the planning stages for this dam sampled the wettest period ever known for the watershed. The watershed has never provided as much water for impoundment as those studies predicted. The "lake" has always been low and provided problems with this dam.

  •  typo? (none)
    The energy from sunlight falling on a square meter at the equator is 1000 watts, not 100.

    Wonderful diary!

    We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. -- Garrison Keillor

    by Evan on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 09:18:11 PM PST

    •  and now having read it again in more detail (none)
      ... I have to mention a few things.

      First, you talked a whole lot about the supply side while barely considering the demand side at all.  By far the cheapest way to produce energy is not to consume it.

      Second, I'm beginning to think the above error re watts-per-square-meter at the equator was not a typo but just a plain old mistake, because your figures on solar energy are way off in several places.  180,000 square miles to power America with solar?  Knock off at least one zero, man--I've been studying this stuff a long time, and even with the most pessimistic figures I can come up with, I can't make it come out to more than 10,000 square miles--2500 seems more likely.  (Phoenix Arizona is, what, 1600?)  We'd need to cover a whole lot of land with solar panels, no question, but a lot less than we currently cover with pavement.

      (Lots of valuable analysis on these and other energy issues can be found at the Rocky Mountain Institute,

      We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. -- Garrison Keillor

      by Evan on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 09:43:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's worse than a typo (none)
        Because in my notes I clearly have 1350 watts / m2.  But then I have some other calculations where I've used 100.

        I'm not sure why I made the swap, or if was pure error from the start.  Likely the later, but I'll have to sleep a little before I'm fit to dig it out.

        Thanks for catching the mistake.

        TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

        by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 10:28:27 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Wait, here it is (none)
          In notes that claim to be from a copy of Scientific American.

          Solar intensity in Earth orbit: 1350 watts /m2.
          Solar intensity at equator, noon, optimal conditions: 950 watts / m2.
          Solar intensity US year round avg. : 200 watts / m2

          I suspect I took the 200 number and divided in two to represent daylight hours.  Though that's not what I wrote above in any case.

          Do those numbers look badly off?

          TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

          by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 10:35:44 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I suspect (none)
            ...that the 200 watt figure already includes daylight hours.  And it's not exactly useful for other reasons.  I'll try to dig up the NREL solar intensity data and mail it to you, if you're interested.

            Generally the rule of thumb is that peak insolation under a clear sky is 1kW/m^2.  When they calculate insolation for a given site, season or panel tilt angle, they report it in "peak sun hours", which means:  Over the course of a day, a panel receives X watts of energy; how many hours would it take at the nominal 1kW/m^2 to deliver the same amount of energy?  The answer is the PSH for the site.  So if you're getting sunlight for ten hours a day, have a 1m^2 panel, and are measuring an average solar intensity of 500 watts, then your site gets 5 peak sun hours per day.  (Which is not an unusual figure in the contiguous US, and it does indeed work out to about 200 watts averaged over a 24 hour day.)

            As you noted, peak sun hours are very different in Phoenix and Seattle--which means solar power is a better investment in Phoenix than Seattle, and if we tried to replace our electricity infrastructure  entirely with PV (which is all sorts of unlikely, but just as a thought experiment), we'd obviously put the generating capacity in the southwest rather than spreading it all over the country.  Which is why I said the 200 watt figure wasn't all that useful for our purposes.

            What seems far more probable to me is that, if we decided to use renewable resources in a big way, we'd be distributing the generation in the places where we get the most bang for the buck:  Solar in the southwest, wind in the midwest, hydro in the mountains, etc.  So in the places where we'd actually put the panels, we could count on something more like 300 average watts of insolation.

            Based on that assumption, I get about 800MW per square mile; at 15%-efficient conversion, that's 120MW, and to meet the US's ~350GW demand (DOE estimate) you'd need a bit less than 3000 square miles.

            (Of course that would be a stupid way to do it; solar should just be a piece of the puzzle rather than the be-all-end-all of energy policy.  My point is just that there's a whole lot of energy out there to harvest.)

            We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. -- Garrison Keillor

            by Evan on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 08:08:04 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Its all solar (none)
              With the exception of nuklear power all of the earth's power comes from the sun.

              As such we should move towards 100% renewable power through solar biomass, wind and solar electric.

              The long term sustainable power limit is set.  We either get our usage under the limit before non-renewables run out or we hit a very hard wall when they do.

  •  Daylight Savings Time (none)
    I also want to see more work on the least sexy alternative: conservation.

    One place to start on this one is -- dump Daylight Savings Time! Most people suffer from the misapprehension that we switch to DST to save energy, but actually, it causes us to use more energy in the summertime.

    Whence the source of the misapprehension? In WWII, the country used DST to save energy, and at the time, it did. A large fraction of the electricity used was for lighting. Setting the clocks back caused people to come indoors later and go to bed earlier, ergo, less time for the lights to be on in the evenings.

    Howerver, 60 years later, something important has happened that fundamentally changes the calculation, and what happened is air conditioning. Today, air conditioning is a huge component of electricity usage. Important point: The pattern of usage is different for home and commercial use. Most workplaces are air conditioned 24/7 during the hot months, but most people turn their home air conditioners off (or at least set the thermostat to a higher temp) when they leave for work and then turn it back on (or down) when they come home. Unless they're made of money and can afford to pay to cool an empty house all day.

    Daylight savings means that the average person is turning their AC off for an extra hour in the morning--when temperatures are coolest, and then turning it back on an hour earlier in the late afternoon when temperatures are highest. In my area (central Texas) temperatures are highest between 4-5pm and don't come down much until after 7pm.

    So with DST time, we've decreased our electricity usage by an hour at the coolest time of the day, but increased it by an hour at the hottest time of the day. When do the brownouts occur? When are those gas "peaking" plants most needed? Between 5-7pm, when people are getting home from work and turning on their ACs.

    Add to that--most people now have AC (at least a window unit if not central air) even in the cooler parts of the country. And the demographic shift to the South and West in the past few decades means that millions more people live in hot climates where AC usage is near universal for 5-6 months/year. Staying on standard time would save energy since people would be home an hour longer in the morning (even in Texas, I usually turn the AC off in the mornings) and postponing that peak usage when most people get off work until we are an hour closer to the time when the temperatures begin to drop outside.

    We have DST because we enjoy that extra hour of daylight after work in the summers, but let's be honest about that. SUV owners enjoy their gas-guzzlers. If we're serious about energy independence and the fate of the planet, we have to let DST go.

    •  You make an interesting point (none)
      Can you cite any studies or reports which substantiate your statements about the energy impact of abandoning DST?  I've been surprised plenty of times by theories which looked good on paper, but yielded significantly less benefit than projected when implemented in the real world.

      Personally, I'd be perfectly OK with it, because (a) I hate losing an hour of sleep in the springtime, and (b) as a parent with small children I don't get an extra hour of sleep in the fall anyway, because the little beasts don't honor DST -- they get up when they're done sleeping.

      The downside of dropping DST would be a fairly massive expense (billions of dollars) to reconfigure all US-based and US-centric computer systems to remove DST logic.  Think about this as a re-run of the Y2K efforts, and you'd be on the right track.


      Bull Moose Progressive
      Supporter of self-defense rights for responsible citizens

      by AlphaGeek on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 12:53:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Might not be as hard as you think (none)
        For personal computers, it would be a snap. You just include a new set of time zone definitions in the next OS upgrade. For some systems, you don't even have to do that. Many have a box you can check that says in effect "This location observes Daylight Savings Time" or Summer Time or whatever it's called in that part of the world. Uncheck that box and you're good to go.

        I don't know what it would cost to revamp industrial and mainframe systems, but it doesn't sound nearly as involved as Y2K, and the people who did the Y2K conversions are presumably still around and could adapt to the new technology.

        Keep in mind that there are many parts of the world that do not observe Daylight Savings Time (Arizona, for instance) so the procedure to turn it on and off is already built into most things that need it -- VCRs, for example.

        Personally, I'm in favor of dumping Daylight Savings Time. I've never been a big fan of it.

        Isn't it ironic that the 51% of the electorate who voted for a chimpanzee includes everyone in the US who doesn't believe in evolution?

        by Our Man In Redmond on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 09:00:50 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  It would be entirely trivial (none)
        Remember, there are places that do not observe DST: Arizona, Hawaii, parts of Indiana.

        Some of the really old operating systems don't auutomatically adjust for DST anyway.

        No, data is not the plural of anecdote

        by MarkInSanFran on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 12:48:43 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Can you cite . . . (none)
        Unfortunately, no, and not for lack of trying to find them. I think they have simply not been done. I started looking into this about 4-5 years, wondering if DST really was an energy saver, as I'd always been told.

        Attempts to get some data were frustrating. Almost all sources referred vaguely to "government studies in the 1970's" without real citation. I finally tracked it down to the Dept of Transportation, but couldn't find a copy of the study

        In response to your question, I went looking again and found testimony at a 2001 congressional hearing which was looking into the feasibility of implementing year-round DST and/or double daylight saving time (DDST) as a way of dealing with the CA electricity crisis. Linda Lawson, Acting Dep Asst Sec, DOT testified:

        "Let me now briefly summarize the technical findings regarding daylight saving time benefits. The studies are over twenty-five years old and have not been updated. . . . Our 1975 study concluded that daylight saving time might result in electricity savings of 1 percent in March and April, equivalent to roughly 100,000 barrels of oil daily over the two months. These savings were calculated from Federal Power Commission data for only four daylight saving time transitions--in the winter, spring and fall of the 1974-1975 experiment. Due to the limited data sample, the findings were judged ''probable'', rather than conclusive. Theoretical studies of home heating fuel consumption identified small savings due to daylight saving time. No potential increases in travel demand and gasoline use due to daylight savings time were identified at that time. The lack of actual data precluded an estimation of net daylight saving time energy savings."

        So, the study is old, it was only looking at March and April, (so the focus was on lighting and heating usage, not AC), and it had a "limited data sample."

        There was a  CA study in 2001 (Report 400-01-013) that showed some energy savings from DST, but again they were primarily looking at lighting usage. At least this study did discuss the impact of shifting residential AC usage from morning to afternoon, but I find the basis for the "savings" somewhat dubious, ". . . people use less electricity on a hot early evening at home or out and about than they would in their workplaces. As places of work shut down, lights go off and thermostats request less cooling in the buildings. Meanwhile, not all the people leaving the buildings have air conditioning at home." (This is definitely not the situation in Texas. Very few people do not have AC here. Even low income people usually have AC, although they may have less-efficient window units rather than central air.)

        And Linda Lawson from the DOT points out, "The recent California Energy Commission study on DST found that DDST in the summertime would likely result in a 0.2 percent reduction in electricity use and a 0.5 percent reduction in peak demand, although the report noted that there was a 25 percent likelihood that DDST would lead to increased electricity use."

        The graphs included in their study show some energy savings and shifts of peak usage for winter daylight savings time, but little improvement for summer DST--and I don't think they gave sufficient weight to after-work residential AC usage for their summer numbers.

        I posted my original comment with more certainty than perhaps I should have, but I was hoping to get people to consider that DST may not be such a great way to conserve energy. This seems to be a classic example of the CW being based on very little ("government studies done in the 70's" that were a) not looking at summer DST, b)  were based on very limited data, and c) are outdated). Better studies based on current usage patterns definitely need to be done.

        Hope I'm forgiven for the long comment, but well, a) you asked, and b) it is attached to "the longest diary ever." And an excellent (if long) diary it is. Thanks, Devilstower.

        •  DST follow-up (none)

          Thanks for taking the time to post a well-researched and balanced follow-up.  You get bonus points from me for including citations which did not favor the case for abolishing DST; such discipline is rare indeed among the many posts here.

          While I'm not qualified to comment on the energy impact of abolishing or enhancing DST, I feel confident in asserting that it would be costly to change.  If those costs were outweighed by the energy-conservation benefits, then it would certainly be worth discussing.

          Ultimately, I think it would take a federal study on the energy impact of DST to get any movement on this.  It seems unlikely to me that this will happen before we hit the next big energy crunch, simply because there are other initiatives which would seem to present a higher payoff and hence will be pursued first.


          Bull Moose Progressive
          Supporter of self-defense rights for responsible citizens

          by AlphaGeek on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 10:22:44 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  You're right (none)
            It won't happen soon or easily. I think the fact that many people enjoy the extra daylight after work will be the biggest barrier. But I'd like people to start thinking about this for two reasons:

            I think we should be pursuing all avenues of energy conservation simultaneously. A little here and a little there can add up.

            And it just bugs me when people continue to embrace "everybody knows" conventional wisdom, when there's no real evidence to support it.

            Thanks for the positive feedback.

        •  . . . and it's a liberal PLOT! (none)
          This afternoon I was reading Ch 6 of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" where Frank describes the plen-T-plaint (i.e. everything that annoys you or you don't like is attributed to those liberals who do this stuff . . . well, just b/c we liberals enjoy making other people miserable, evidently).

          Then returned to looking for sources to answer Alpha Geek's question and found this:

          Daylight Savings Times is one of those ongoing liberal myths--"time shuffling" protects the environment. In the view of the ecoalarmist, "time shuffling" conserves the world's natural resources. It doesn't. But, you and I both know that nobody can tell a liberal anything.


    •  Great idea but bad politically (none)
      It's this kind of tinkering with people's traditions and ways of life that turn people away from us Democrats.
  •  Wow. (none)
    That's one amazing diary.  I'm going to have to read it in installments.  But I was especially interested in your views on nuclear energy.

    I think I read that they've done tests on the rail shipments and that the containers it would be shipped in can survive any kind of high-speed crash.  I think the terrorist fear is also overrated -- terrorists could attack any nuclear facility at any time, which is one of the arguments in favour of moving the stuff to Yucca.  Also, the federally commissioned reports on the Yucca site say that storage would be risk-free from shifting plates and water levels for 10,000 years right now.

    Nuclear energy is such a huge topic.  I wish I knew more about it.  It's not something you can be "for" or "against" without being something of an expert because the implications are so big.

    By the idea of community...we are all enriched and ennobled. -- Michael Dukakis

    by tlaura on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 09:34:46 PM PST

    •  True about crash tests (none)
      Thick steel casks are used to transport spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste and they have been tested by dropping them from the air on huge spikes, throwing them down into rivers, dousing them with jet fuel and igniting them.  They have passed all those tests.  Trucks are carefully monitored at all times so that at any given second they can be tracked.

      The safety record is the best of any industry in the US.

  •  Part 2 (4.00)
    Here's the piece that didn't make it into the diary.  I patched this together from the first generation notes, so don't be surprised if it has considerable typos and still a few chunks missing.  Sorry to leave such a mess.

    It has its highs and lows
    Tidal power isn't a newcomer.  The French built a big plant in 1966.  Unfortunately, that plant is still the largest one in the world.

    Basically, the scheme is to block off a river estuary with a special kind of dam called a "barrage."  Power is generated when high tide pushes water up the river basin, and again when the water comes flowing back out at low tide.  An effective station can also gain some amount of power from the normal flow of the river.  

    One place in North America that already has tidal power is "the world's most livable town," and one of my favorite places, Annapolis - Port Royal in Nova Scotia.  These folks have the advantage of being perched on the Bay of Fundy, which has the largest tides in the world (often more than 20' difference between high and low tide).  Few places offer an environment so well-suited to tidal power production.  The Canadian government is considering more tidal production for towns along the Bay of Fundy, and studying larger plants that could provide power for much of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
    England is another place with some good tidal sites.  There have been plans for a huge barrage in England that would stretch along the coast of Wales.  It could have over 200 turbines, and provide over 8,000 Megawatts of power. It would take 7 years to build, and provide 7% of the energy needs for England and Wales.
    There may be a number of benefits, including protecting a large stretch of coastline against damage from high storm tides, and providing a ready-made road bridge along the barrage. However, the drastic changes to the currents in the estuary could have huge effects on the ecosystem.  Even so, England is planning on charging ahead.  They want to get their tidal power up to 10% in a decade.

    The US lacks its own Bay of Fundy, but if the ecological studies work out, we could consider tidal plants along some of our own river estuaries.  There are also some tidal plants on the design table that wouldn't require the big barrage dams.  Feasibility of these being scaled up to commercial designs is uncertain.  The location of good tidal power sites is also poorly in line with population, so they could require new lines to transport power.

    The Democratic response?

    1)    Keep studying.  Not very satisfying, but we need to understand how a barrage system affects an estuary before we start wholesale deployment of tidal systems.

    2)    Support research on tidal systems that do not require barrage dams.  One big possibility is Off Shore Turbines.  Essentially the same system discussed under the hydro power section, this type of generator could get energy from any water movement - waves, tides, or undersea currents.  I likey these.

    It's good enough for the world's oldest democracy
    If you've never stuck your nose in a volcano, here's some news - the inside of the Earth is hot.  The center of our planet still hangs onto some of the heat of its creation, plus there's a lot of nuclear stuff bubbling along down there (sorry if that sounds scary), keeping the Earth all gooey inside.  Geothermal, like solar, offers an almost unlimited source of power.  If we can tap it.

    Three different kinds of geothermal generators have been built: dry steam, hot water "flash", and "binary" plants.  The biggest of the first kind is right here in the US, at the geyser field 90 miles north of San Francisco, and it's been making power since 1960.   By many measures, it's the most cost effective alternate energy production site anywhere in the world.  A "flash" plant counts on higher temperatures, up to 700 degrees F.  Plants of this design are now being built in Iceland.  Where you can't get hot enough for the flash plants, you can still build a "binary" plant, which uses a heat exchanger and some liquid (like alcohol) with a lower boiling point than water.  There is a possibility that these sites could be built away from geologic hot spots, if we can make deep drilling cost effective.

    Where there is geothermal activity near surface, nothing beats this energy source.  The plants are dead simple to build.  Iceland, which is perched on the terrifically active Mid-Atlantic Ridge and rife with volcanic activity of all kinds, is planning to be the first nation in the world to move to completely renewable energy sources by building a new generation of geothermal plants augmented with hydro power.  Already, they get 89% of their home heating from geothermal stations pumping water through the ground.

    Building a geothermal plant in areas where there's no volcanic activity is trickier, and a lot more expensive.  We're not likely to use geothermal to generate electricity throughout much of the US without a couple of design and/or material science breakthroughs.

    That doesn't mean we can't take one good step.

    1) Support the purchase of geothermal heat pumps, which can take advantage of the difference between the surface temperatures and the temperature of the ground at depth to reduce heating and cooling costs.  They're available at a store near you, and they make sense.

    The technology of the future
    And it always will be.  At least, that's the old joke.  There are promising developments in fusion, but there always seem to be promising developments in fusion.  In the ten year plan, we're not likely to get one drop of fusion power on line.  We should continue funding research, but be aware that fusion isn't absolutely clean.  While it lacks the highly radioactive fuel rods of fission plants, most forms of fusion can still toss off showers of particles, turning the containment vessel into medium level nuclear waste.  I like fusion, and expect it to be a part of the picture one day.  Just not in the next ten years.

    1) Stay the course, hope for the best, and don't count on it.

    The Case for Conservation
    Being frugal is more fun than you think
    You can't have a discussion on energy without pointing out the obvious - a lot of our energy is wasted.  Oil, of course, is wasted in giganto SUVs designed haul a regiment's worth of gear along the treacherous terrain between home and the mall.  But that's not our primary concern today.  Instead, let's look at the two primary uses of electricity in the home: heating and lighting.

    I'll admit that getting through this stuff can involve some arcane language and some (no doubt intentionally) confusing terms.  For example, if you're dealing with a traditional furnace, you may see its effectiveness expressed as "Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE)."  Check out central air, and it's "Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER)."  Room air conditioners are rated on "Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER)," and no, I don't know why there's no "seasonal" in a room air conditioning rating but is for central air.  Finally, if you have a new-fangled heat pump (it's a pumpin' in the winter and a pumpin' in the summer), you get "Heating Seasonal Performance Factor."  There now.  That's all straight.  Now we can compare and contrast heating and cooling systems with absolutely no chance of telling which one is better!  Soldier on, because I really don't have a lot to say when it comes to heating.  If you want to get heat from the grid, get a geothermal heat pump.

    A geothermal pump works by exchanging energy with the ground.  The ground, beyond the first few feet, stays at the average temperature of the area.  In my neck of the woods, that 54 degrees F.  So when there is 20 degree air outside, I can warm it by making it associate with the 54 degree air before pulling it into the house.  And when it's 100 and oh-my-god-it's-St. Louis-in-the-summer outside, I can cool that air.  A closed loop geothermal system goes one better by adding a resevoir.  With a system like this, you can actually beat 100% effeciency, strange as that sounds (at least, using the government calculations).  Even a gas heater, which is a much more direct conversion of chemical energy into heat, doesn't match up.  These things are expensive, but they will save you energy, and considerable cash, over time.  

    If you have an existing oil furnace, consider moving that furnace to biodiesel.  

    EEM and EMM
    No, this is not a term for yet another form of heat pump and it's not a way to light your home with squadrons of captured fireflies.  It's not even a technology at all.  An EEM is an "energy-efficient mortgage" (hey, and I'll bet you thought talking about heat pumps was already boring, now we're talking mortgages).  It's a system that the government and mortgage lenders have worked out in which they will extend you more money than you could normally get on a mortgage, so long as you use the extra cash to better weatherize your new digs.  They try to estimate the amount of money you'll save on utility bills and will give you cash up to that difference.  So if your mortgage is $1000 a month, and you're paying $200 a month in utilities, an EEM might increase your mortgage to $1050 while lowering your utilities to $150.  This may not seem like it's saving you anything, but remember: your mortgage cost is fixed, the price of energy is not.  In the long haul, the EEM is a very good idea.  (And for those of you on the coasts wondering at my low mortgage numbers, remember that I'm in St. Louis.  If you want to sweat through a season of 95 degrees and 95% humidity, followed by a season composed of equal parts slush and ice storms, you too can have low housing costs).

    There's nothing really revolutionary about an EEM.  If you're buying a house today it would be smart to get one.  But where the EEM falls short is that won't fund what we really want - technologies that will make you more independent of the grid.  All that cool make juice at home stuff.  So, as part of our energy revolution, we need to support the EMM, the "Energy Management Mortgage."  This would allow for adding solar panels, home energy storage systems, even the hydrogen production or battery charging station for your vehicle.  And it would bring them all under the tax benefits you get for your mortgage.  Not all of this is new.  Some of the tax benefits for solar have been bounced around the system.  But the EMM would make it easier to get the funds and make the tax benefits all but automatic.

    LED Lighting
    Is there a diode in your future?
    While about 60% of all the energy used in the home goes to keeping the temperature regulated, about 20% is expended in the form of plain old light.  And most of that energy is just plain old wasted.

    Speaking of old, LED (Light Emitting Diode) is old tech.  LEDs were the glowing orange letters in the first calculators, and the light up numbers that turned early digital watches into two-handed devices.  What's new about LED is color.  Just within the last few years, scientists (especially LED uber-genius, Shuji Nakamura, who left Japan for the UC Santa Barbara and is the inventor of the best blue, green, and white LEDs) have worked out how to get the full visible spectrum from LEDs, which opens them to many new areas.  If you've been to the store for a flashlight in the last couple of years, you've probably noticed LED flashlights starting to replace the normal variety.  You might have seen that LEDs are now replacing most of the red and green lights in traffic signals (but often not the yellow, which I'll leave as a puzzle for the reader).  There are four good reasons for this: LEDs are durable, they're extremely long lasting, they come in tiny sizes using little electricity, and they can get generate more than 2x as many lumens per watt as a regular incandescent bulb.  However, there are also some reasons that LED lighting may not be the energy savior that many people have claimed.

    Here are more numbers, but this time we're entering the realm of lumens.  Lumens measure the amount of light given off.  A regular incandescent light can generate 5-18 lumens per watt.  So an ordinary 60 watt bulb puts out something on the order of 600 lumens (check the end of your light bulb some time, they usually have this stamped on them).  White LED (WLED) can do much better.  They range from 25-50 lumens per watt.  So, great, we replace every light bulb in our house with WLED and get 4x the light for electricity expended.  With lighting accounting for about 20% of electricity use, we just cut our use by 15%.  Start the parades!  But hold on, it's more complicated than that.  

    First off, there are other, more familiar, technologies that do just as well.  Good old fluorescent bulbs - those things buzzing overhead in the office or available in several weird shapes to replace your bulbs at home - can do even better in the light/juice ratio.  Compact fluorescent ranges from 30-79 lumens/watt.  In practice, both fluorescent and WLED beat incandescent by about the same 4x ratio.  

    Secondly, WLEDs are expensive.  This may sound odd when you see them popped into anything from flashlights to kid's toys.  But if you try to duplicate a regular light bulb with LED, you can run into some serious numbers.  Take a browse over to and you'll see several LED bulbs that you can use in existing lamps.  A bulb equivalent to a 15watt incandescent will run you $85.  Want to go up to a 30 watt?  That's $165.  A sixty watt?  Not even available.  I don't know about you, but at this kind of price, the bulbs better run for free.

    With bad prices and fluorescent not only just as good, but available for way less, why should LEDs be part of our energy future?  Consider those other three reasons specified above.  An LED light is extremely durable.  Shake it.  Drop it.  It'll survive.  A fluorescent bulb is actually a pretty complicated device, and both fluorescent and incandescent bulbs are a whole lot more fragile than LED.  There's also that duration thing.  A "long life" incandescent bulb is good for about 1,000 hours - though it doesn't seem that way when you're getting out the ladder to change some inconvenient light.  A fluorescent does much better, topping out at around 15,000 hours.  Which is why, if you haven't done so already, you should replace every single incandescent bulb in your house with compact fluorescent.  It'll save energy, and the bulb cost will easily be paid off by the 15x longer life.  But the life span on LED lights starts at 50,000 hours and newer ones may exceed 200,000 hours (that's better than 22 years if you left it on 24 hours a day).  When you start getting lights that work that long, you worry more about your lifespan than the bulb's.  

    Even such toughness and duration doesn't justify rushing out to replace your room lighting at $165 per bulb.  But there's a big reason why LED lights are a better idea than they seem at first, why they can save massive amounts of power, and why they can bring us closer to the idea of a self-sustaining, clean-running home.  Only to get there, we're going to have to break habits that are 500,000 years old.

    A half million years is about how long it's been since H. sapiens and H. erectus started lighting up the savannah and cave with fire.  I don't have good numbers for wood fires, but a kerosene lantern produces light at a rate of about 0.03 lumens / watt, so you can pat yourself on the back.  Even the worst incandescent bulb is orders of magnitude better than a fire when it comes to making light.  Score one for the post-cavemen.  However, there's one factor that fires, gas lamps, incandescents, and fluorescents all have in common: they're agnostic about orientation.  They spit their photons in all directions.  A naked light bulb is just as interested in spreading illumination on the cobwebs on the ceiling as it is in scattering photons across the book in your lap.  You can use a reflective hood to change that, but the effectiveness is limited.

    Basically, from way back before the Neanderthals, we've been illuminating all the corners of our cave, and gathering around light sources that throw out circles of light.  Good if you're trying to make sure a dingo isn't sneaking up on your baby, incredibly wasteful if you're just trying to complete the Times Sunday crossword.

    LED lights are directional.  Most produce their light in a 30 degree cone, which is what makes them so good for flashlights.  And LED lights come in itty-bitty sizes.  The combination of these two makes it possible to do some really amazing things if you limit your light down to making it possible to read, and making it safe to find your way around after dark.  If you want a terrific consumer example of how these two things work together, take a look at a LED 'shakelight'.  Put one of these babies in the cupboard for emergencies, and you'll never curse your lack of a D cell again.

    As a major example of just how amazing LEDs can be, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Light Up The World organization.  Light Up the World has been running programs for remote areas where electricity isn't always reliable, or even available.  In many of these areas, lighting after dark still means gas lamps.  In some places, it still means wood fires.  Light Up the World provides kits in which solar panels drive WLED lighting.  Because LEDs can be very small, some of these lights are very small - 1/2 a watt or less.  Which makes them perfect partners for solar.  A single small solar panel connected to a storage battery and matched to a couple of LED lights can provide lighting for the whole house.  With a total energy use of about one watt.  You read that right.  Lighting for a house: one watt.  Of course, that's not lighting for the house in way we think of it.  It's an area with a light bright enough to read by, and lights that allow you to get around the house.  It's not a golden glow thrown across the countryside.  If used more generally, LED lighting could cut global electricity use for lighting in half.  It could cut overall electricity use by 10%.  That's 1,100 Billion kilowatt hours / year.  It would also save huge amounts of construction needed to build plants and run additional electric lines.

    Good for the rural parts of the world where people can now read a book after dark.  Good for the air, which is spared the growth in greenhouse gases.  But is it good for the US?

    To be effective in the US, we have to change our thoughts about what lighting means.  In areas like Sri Lanka, where Light Up the World has been a tremendous success, LED lighting has replaced, well, dark.  When that's your alternative, an area where you can read at night, where you kids can study and you can sit and talk - that's tremendous.

    But to sell that idea in the US, where we're used to every inch of every room being saturated by light... that's a tough sell.  If we can make that sale, we'll benefit the US tremendously.  Because we're not talking about cutting lighting use in half, we're talking about changing the way we use lighting.  A typical three bedroom home in the US is equipped with around 1,200 watts of lighting.  It's not all on at the same time, of course, but if I look around my house right now, I'm burning about 150 watts on light.  And that's on fluorescent light.  If we can make the adjustment, and I'm talking about the psychological adjustment as well as the technological adjustment, we can essentially drop our lighting costs to a value so small, it will disappear from your month budget and from the electrical grid.

    I'm hopeful that LED lighting, more widespread use of fluorescents, changes in habits, and better lighting design can add up to a 50% reduction in what we currently use for lighting.  And that's a lot, really.  That's a 10% reduction in the national electrical budget.  That's almost half of the energy it would take if we moved our cars off of oil and onto the grid.  That's a huge win.

    So, finally, here are the political steps to take on this subject:  

    1) tax incandescent bulbs out of existence.
    That's it.  That's all I've got.  Stop selling 99-cent bulbs that gobble electricity and last about as long as it takes to screw them in.  If you want to use the money to subsidize fluorescents and LED, that's cool.  But really, the prices on both are falling quickly, and as demand increases, I expect to see these (and some other possible technologies.  Can I hear a retro-disco whoop for low energy neon lighting?) compete to soak up the lighting market.

    Maybe you want to save the old AC outlets for times when you've having a party, or just feeling a need to drive back the dark.  But when you're negotiating that mortgage, put in enough for LED lights driven by solar shingles (to be discussed later), and you'll always have light, even when the grid is suffering the next, inevitable failure.

    In Closing
    I will essplain. No, there is no time - I will sum up
    The terrible thing, the really awful thing, is that I've only scratched the surface, touched some high points, hit a few key words.  It's just that if I made it any longer, no one would read it (for all I know, no one is going to read it anyway).  I think I may have already crossed the boundary for the longest diary ever.  I beg your forgiveness for being so wordy, but this is an area that fascinates me.  In fact, its an area that I've worked in most of my life.

    Going way back to the beginning, here's what we look like today: coal-fired plants accounted for 52% of generation, nuclear 21%, natural gas 15%, hydroelectricity 7%, oil 3%, renewables (except for hydro) 2%.  To put it mildly - ick.

    Here's a goal for the end of our 2016 period: coal 40%, nuclear 20%, renewables 20%, natural gas 10%, hydro 10%, oil 0%.  At the same time as the mix is changing, the overall production is targeted to grow by 25%, principally to accommodate moving our vehicles off of oil and onto the grid.  Conservation, along with changes in our lighting, heating, and cooling technologies is going to mean about 15% of the energy in our homes goes away, making more room for all those cars.

    Does that still look like ick?  No, seeing 50% of our production on fossil fuels and another 20% from nuclear doesn't exactly make me happy.  But this is a huge increase in the use of renewable energy.  Coal is down by 12%, natural gas by 5%.  Oil is out of the picture.  I could stand on the mountaintop and shout "100% renewable in a decade," and maybe it would get a lot of "amens," but I don't really believe if can be done (barring miracles.  If some 90% effective photo conversion technology, or something on the order of cold fusion, becomes available, all bets are off).  And while coal remains a big part of the mix, the overall pollution decreases from strict enforcement of regulations and replacement of old plants.

    Let's take one last look into the renewable energy technologies are in our Energy Revolution Mix:

    Wind - nearly one half of this renewable energy will be from wind, meaning tens of thousands of new ground-based towers along with off-shore batteries.  

    Solar - photovoltaic solar should make about 1/3 of this power, and that percentage will go up over time as the cost of the technology goes down.  Extend this another decade, and I'd put solar at the head of the pack.

    Hydro - some existing dams go away, but hydro power expands through the use of submerged turbines, often in combination with offshore wind farms

    Wave - wave plants make up a small part of the mix.  Expect to see these plants in small towns around Maine, Oregon, and Washington.

    Tidal - tidal "barrage" makes up a small fraction of the mix, unless reports on European experiments show that this can be done without wrecking marine estuaries.

    Geothermal - continues to be about 1% of the overall mix, and about 5% of our renewable energy pie.

    Okay people, form up, single line.  Graduation starts right away, so sign up and get your diploma.

    •  But What If You Hate (none)
      fluorescent lighting, as I do? Most demoralizing, eye-straining, ugly light there is, IMHO.

      "George W. Bush is not only the worst president in American history, he is the worst man who has been President."--J. Miller

      by Yosef 52 on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 10:08:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's a problem, all right (none)
        I think I'm blessed with "slow eyes" (or slow eye, since only one of them works in the first place) as fluorescent lights and computer screens set to low hz never seem to bother me.  

        If you do have problems with fluorescent, then wait for the prices of WLED to go down.  It doesn't flicker, and it's extremely white.  People generally think of sunlight as yellow, since that's the color of the sun, but if you've ever gone caving and come out after hours in the dark, you can see that sunlight is much more blue-white when compared to the quite yellowish incandescents.  WLED is much closer to the sunlight spectrum.

        TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

        by Mark Sumner on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 10:25:36 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Had to replace the tubes in the kitchen (none)
        Recently. There were full spectrum tubes for about $12 each, but I found a two-pack of I believe "Natural White" which is about the same color temperature as Arctic sunlight. I don't know about you, but after having CFLs in my house for the past 12 years or so, incandescents look pale and yellowy.
        Try a few halogens to balance out the color, I believe they're still about 2x as efficient as incandescents.

        No more faith-based electronic voting machines:

        by doug r on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 11:17:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Might I suggest... (none)
        There are flourescent systems that are better than others.  Electronic ballasts using high frequency, and tubes with special phosphors for better color rendition, can make a BIG difference in the "comfort factor" of flourescent lighting.
      •  Of course (none)
        the lights they use in your workplace are eye-straining and demoralizing.  That's what work is all about.

        I'm gradually switching (as my old light bulbs burn out) to higher-quality fluorescent lights that look, IMO, slightly better than incandescent bulbs (but there's really not much of a difference).  They use about 30 Watts and are at least as bright as 75 Watt bulbs.

      •  Not any more (none)
        I use modern electronic ballasts and warm-white compact fluorescents (also with built-in electronic ballasts) which have slower phospors.

        I don't like "daylight" fluerescents for home use because they are too cool and they give the house an office feel.

        Flicker is no longer a problem, and I'm the type who can't stand 60Hz flicker.

        These things will give you about four times their power in incadecent terms: 20W is like 80, on average. It feels more like 100W when they are new, but they lose brigthness with time and probably quit when you are getting the equivalent of 70W, many years later.

        There are different quality grades of compact fluorescents: get the 6,000 or 8,000 (or above) hour rating. They don't just last longer, they are better. The cheap ones with unrecognizable brands can be OK, but you should stay away from them till you know what a good one looks like.

        Let us rid ourselves of the fiction that low oil prices are somehow good for the United States.

        by M Aurelius on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:06:39 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Very Nice! (none)
      I think I may keep this around for a while.  Two immediate comments, I think I would push nuclear a little harder although just for the immediate future, primarily because as badly as we have done dealing with nuclear waste, we're doing a much worse job with CO2.  Also, and I know that probably going to get flamed for saying this, permanently getting rid of nuclear waste might not be the best idea.  What if we want some of those radionuclides later.  For example Cobalt 60 has a number of uses especially in medicine, and then there's the issue of radiothermal generators which have also have a number of uses, heck, modern smoke detectors rely on a small amount of Americium as an alpha emitter.  I used to think that permanent disposal was the best solution, but now I think we'd be better off looking at something a little more accessible, not that we want it to be easy, just not impossible.  Both Yucca and to a lesser extent WIPP do have the advantage that we could get at it if we needed to.

      The other comment I wanted to make is that at least for the Western U.S., there are very few good damsites still available, admittedly we could still find places if we wanted to do something horrifying like NAWAMPA, but as a practical matter fewer dams would be an improvement.  Also to amplify your criticism of Glen Canyon Dam, its worth pointing out that the Colorado River Compact assumes an annual flow of 16 million acre feet in the Colorado River basin and water is parceled out under that.  The problem is that the actual average annual flow for the last 70 years has been only 14 million acre feet, and for the last five years it has been under 10, so we have a lot less water than they thought we did.  To make matters worse Lake Powell(behind Glen Canyon Dam) loses 1.5 million acre feet of water a year to evaporation (at full pool), that's almost 10% of the water they thought they had in the system to begin with, 3X what Mexico is allocated!  The fact that it drowned some of the most amazing scenery on the planet just adds insult to injury.

    •  great research (none)
      Here's what I see as our main priorities in no particular order, and a comment.

      1. Conservation
      2. Manhattan-project 1: experimentation with alternatives in select areas/ applications (including nuclear fission)
      3. Manhattan-project 1: Carbon sequestration or some other technology for dealing with CO2/ Global warming

      Comment:   I  don't really see the case for burning coal over oil when it comes to the big picture: which is CO2.  However, I think we need to be realistic as well as visionary.  

      So, on the visionary track, we'd all like to see a world run on air, wind and solar power.  Hopefully we're gettting closer as the price of fuel increase, and there's more of a push for technological breakthroughs.  CO2 emissions ought to be taxed to pay for a better future.

      In the meantime, we also need to plan for the future under the assumption that internationally all of the cheap oil and a lot of coal will be consumed in the next 50 to 100 years or so. China is going to burn all of it's coal. And Saudi Arabia's cheap oil will be gone fairly soon, whether we import a drop or not.

      This means we need to take the lead in developing the best technologies, and right now that mean carbon sequestration.  

      "For these things, too, and for a multitude of others like them, we have only just begun to fight." --FDR

      by markymarx on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 11:52:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The Bay of Fundy (none)
      The US lacks its own Bay of Fundy

      But we have a DeLay the Fundie!

      This was such a great diary, and an excellent companion to the Transportation Revolution, which I forwarded to a number of eco-minded friends.  Please keep up your contributions, Devilstower.

    •  about fluorescent lighting (none)
      The one problem with fluorescent bulbs you forgot to mention is they contain mercury, and often find their way into landfills adding to the toxic mix contaminating ground water.

      As for the question below regarding hating fl. lighting, the newer lighting has more variation in color rendition (temperature) and provide a better quality of light than the older type that gets the bad rap for turning people green.  

  •  Highly recomended reading (none)
    Many thanks for this outstanding compilation of data and analysis.

    I believe the immediate future of renewable fuels is fairly heavily dependent upon the production of jobs linked to these fledgling industries. It's already in the initial phase, particularly in relation to solar powered heating of individual single-family housing units; however, a direct correlation will exist between the speed with which these technologies produce more jobs and the amount of pump-priming applied by the federal government.  

    Once we can effectively factor this variable into the equation with an expected degree of reliability, we'll be better able to solidify the sales pitch required in order to move forward in these areas.  

  •  Good job! (none)
    Well-written, scientifically accurate.  Easily the best article by a one-eyed former coal miner I've ever read.

    I did see one error that you might want to correct, in the Wind section:

    Many of these new towers are rated at more than 1 megawatt.  In favorable conditions, a tower that size could make more than 2.5 kwh a year - enough to supply 250 average homes.

    I think you meant 2.5GWh per year, which would put net yield at 28.5% of theoretical capacity.  Sounds about right for a wind turbine when you factor in scheduled downtime, underspeed and overspeed conditions.

    This is not an amateur-level survey of energy technologies.  If I may ask, what's your relationship with the energy industry, other than being a former coal miner?  :)


    PS: I read the article and the appendix.  When's the final exam?  I eat this stuff up.  <grin>

    Bull Moose Progressive
    Supporter of self-defense rights for responsible citizens

    by AlphaGeek on Sat Nov 27, 2004 at 11:37:36 PM PST

  •  Biomass > electric (none)
    All biomass is not equal.

    For automotive use, you need high energy density, Ethanol production and biodiesel both work from seed, the greatest energy concentration in the plant, but only a small fraction of the produced mass.

    Electric generation does not have as much of a density constraint, if the biofuel is not shipped great distances before conversion to electric. Electric from byproducts such as corn stalks and wheat straw is viable when there's no higher value market. Gassification, rather than direct combustion seems the cleanest and thus most efficient way to use this type of fuel.

    As a pure energy play, generation stations should service farm operations no more than 20 miles away, else the energy yield is lost in transport. Fortunately, there's an installed base of appropriately sized facilities thru much of the farm belt, the County seat coal plants of the 1930s, now kept mothballed as last line of defence backups. Cost of retrofitting these to biomass is much less than building new stations.

    Taking plants thru a full growing cycle to seed takes a lot more from the soil in terms of minerals than a stalk crop. While the loop can be closed, minus runoff, if the animals fed from the mash component are run in the same fields, that's not common practice. A pure energy crop would be grown for stalk only, with leaves returned to the soil to restore nitrogen, thus using far less cash and energy inputs than corn>energy scheams.

    We're also not far from affordable fuel cells running methanol, a much easier on the farm conversion for low density biomass than hydrogen or ethanol.

    The linked study you call "scary numbers" appears to have a major flaw.

    "Dukes multiplied that by 45 percent - the proportion of carbon in plant material - to calculate that fossil fuel consumption in 1997 equaled the energy in 7.1 trillion kilograms of carbon in plant matter."

     There's more harvestable energy in the hydrogen component of ligno-cellulosic fuels than in the carbon.

    •  Biomass rocks (none)
      and it sure beats burying the plants deep underground and waiting a few million years until they turn into coal!

      No, data is not the plural of anecdote

      by MarkInSanFran on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 01:55:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Fuel cells (none)
      I was pretty sure they had already developed methanol fuel cells. I think they're going to start using them to power laptop computers and such very soon, if they haven't already. Let's see here...

      Yeah, here we go. Apparently development isn't proceeding quite as rapidly as they hoped when I first heard about this a year and a half ago. This is a BBC article from mid '03 that says Toshiba plans to have a laptop fuel cell out early '04. Didn't happen. Then this article, from last month, shows a prototype, which is "a very long way from commercialisation." But they're definitely making progress.

      I had reached the conclusion years ago that methanol from dedicated energy crops like switchgrass had huge potential to be a big part of our energy solution, while simultaneously saving the farm economy. Too late for that second part, but....

  •  It may be long (none)
    but I loved (and read) every word. I appreciate the work that went into this. Thank you.
  •  Fantastic diary! (none)
    A fun read on an important and complex subject.

    Three thoughts:

    1. Natural gas (CH4) combustion produces about half the CO2 per BTU as does coal combustion, not the same amount. Has to do with natural gas having the highest number of hydrogen atoms per carbom atom of any hydrocarbon (4 H/C), with combustion of the hydrogen itself producing no CO2 (just H2O). Gasoline is about half way (2 H/C) between natural gas and coal (1 H/C) in CO2 emissions. The emission factors are roughly:

    fuel            tons C/TJ

    CH4                 14
    Diesel/gasoline  19
    Coal                26

    This means that running cars on natural gas is much better from a greenhouse gas perspective than running on gasoline. And running cars on coal would be worse than on gasoline :~)

    1. A ten-year plan is an excellent start, if for no other reason than it's long enough to make a significant change while short enough for people to wrap their brains around. However we have to take a longer view and develop a plan (probably periodically adjusted as new technologies are developed) that encompases the next 50 years. And therefore:

    2. Don't give up on fusion. We will be utilizing a combination of different energy sources for a long time, and the possibility of fusion is one reason that I don't fell so bad about the use of coal and nuclear in the interim. And as much as I would like it, population is not going to stop increasing. I did some fusion work back in the 80's (before Reagan decided we didn't need such things) and progress is being made continuously. The Joint European Torus reached near theoretical breakeven and the new International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor will produce a true burning plasma lasting at least 500 seconds (then you restart it). Doesn't sound very long but it's an eternity compared to the 50 milliseconds that we got back at Livermore.

    Again, good work!

    No, data is not the plural of anecdote

    by MarkInSanFran on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 01:52:05 AM PST

    •  Dang, I plain missed it (none)
      I looked at the CO2 numbers I saw from the energy department, back tracked along the percentages, and it came out fairly even.  I suspect I took a wrong turn somewhere.  Your numbers are completely convincing.  

      However, I'm not sure it changes anything except cementing the idea that we need to get all three items out of the energy mix as fast as possible.  


      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 06:34:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Has anyone mentioned... (none)
    cold fusion? Is it too "out there"? I think there's promise in it.
  •  You forgot the most important soucre (none)
    Demand Reduction

    Used to be called "conservation."  Do we really need to use all of the enrgy that we do?

    I was able to reduce my gasoline consumption by 30% simply by taking a new job closer to home in a location that allowed me to ride transit to work.

    Technology-forcing standards that reduce energy use for various powered evices are good.  Also encouraging the use of unpowered devices and activities through use of positive and negative incentives:

    hand rake vs. using a leaf blower,
    reel lawn mower vs. power mower
    self-powered recrwation (hiking, canoeing, X-country skiing, etc.) vs. motorhead sports (ATV's, jet-skis, snowmobiles.)
    hand-powered egg-beater vs. electric mixer

    As for motor fuel, I'm a fan of ethanol, but not as a gasoline blend.  It's a nuisance for refiners, and ethanol-gasoline blends have to be carefully managed to prevent evaporative emissions.  Better to fiddle with the car and have it burn pure ethanol.

    However, we still need more engineering research and development to improve the ethanol production process -- (1) to reduce the use of corn as an ethanol feedstock and brew the ethanol from "biomass" (e.g. trash, leaf clippings, specially grown 'energy crops' that requires less fertilization and cultivation than corn), and (2)figure out ways to make the distillation step more sustainable.  Apparently, many of the ethanol plants doe this by burning coal!

    And it wouldn't bother me if the resulting ethanol was much more expensive than gasoline.  That would simply add a positive feedback loop that would encourage demand reduction.  However, it would require a massive gasoline tax in order to make the more expensive ethanol competitive.

    Unfortunately, all of this is hard to sell to the electorate.  The American people appear to have a sense of entitlement with regard to the consumption of energy and material goods, and unless some genius arises who can sell us on the idea that our life will be better with less, nothing will happen until disaster stares us in the face.

    Local Stores, local schools, local work

    by Menachem Mavet on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 03:58:17 AM PST

    •  The terrible thing is (none)
      We probably had the opportunity to make all of the above.  If, on 9/12, a president not in the pocket of big oil had come out and delivered a "we have to make sacrifices" speech, touting everything you mention, I believe we could have siezed the moment and made real progress.  The whole attitude of the country would have changed.  And we might have also had a real sense of togetherness through shared sacrifice.

      Instead, we got the fly, spend, consume signal, which only made everything, and I mean everything, worse.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 06:31:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  This is always my complaint ... (4.00)
      ...when the energy issue arises. Devilstower addresses it in his "supplementary" comment, but let me make a couple more remarks:

      Starting in the late 1970s, when I was working at the Solar Energy Research Institute in the public outreach division, Amory and Hunter Lovins started pushing mega-conservation. Since then, a lot of their (and other people's) ideas have been adopted, or half-adopted, with many businesses and some residences installing lighting that turns off when somebody is out of the room for a period of time, compact fluorescents, air conditioning and heater motors that are more efficient and building practices that are more energy conservative.

      This conservation has already saved huge amounts of energy that the "experts" claimed in 1980 that we would be consuming by now, but are not.

      But, as the Lovinses note today, we've only done perhaps one-third of what could be done in conservation, due in part to idiocies like Ronzo's comment that conservationists wanted us to "freeze to death in the dark." Of course, now we have Dick Cheney, whose view is that "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." As if anybody were saying conservation was the ONLY thing we should do.

      Of course, in the developing world - much of Africa, say - conservation won't be terribly effective because many people operate without electricity or liquid fuels entirely. Their only source of energy are fires from dung or gathered wood, highly inefficient sources. These folks need off the grid sources of energy worse than anybody if they are to improve their lives.

      The best energy policy - as Devilstower so cogently points out - is one which doesn't focus all our attention on one or two alternative sources, but on a plethora of them. If there's one thing that gets my goat, it's those well-intentioned folks who says things like: Biodiesel is THE solution! Or: New nukes are THE solution! Or: wind power is THE solution! Or hydrogen is THE solution! No one source is THE solution. No one policy will take us from the fossil fuel age into the alternative fuel age.

      We don't inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. - David Brower

      by Meteor Blades on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 09:52:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Conservation (none)
        Was never meant to be a supplement.  In fact, it was the climax of the piece before the limits forced me to chop the thing in half (and hey, don't you have some pull with this site?)  

        You're right in that there is a whole ocean of effective conservation techniques worthy of discussion, and I've selected a teaspoon.  Of coure, it was that way with every topic.  I admit to cherry-picking those ideas in each area that most appealed to me and ignoring lots of ideas that had more real value.  There is no doubt more to be gained in conservation than we'll get out of tidal, wave, and fusion energy combined -- at least for the next decade.

        So how to we effectively package it to make it a political winner?

        I met Amory Lovins once, years ago, while writing an article, and made a pilgrimidge to the home / office / workshop / pocket paradise.  That interview, along with one I did of Burt Rutan, made me insanely jealous.  Here were people who were actually accomplishing things, while I was only part of the problem.

        Things haven't changed much.

        TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

        by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 05:17:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent Diary!! (none)
    Other than the few minor errors already addressed, I think the biggest one I found was "Frank Hill" instead of "Hank"...

    In an earlier life I was an engineer and Certified Energy Manager.  IMHO, the biggest and best impact we can have (not that we don't need to be working on the others) is conservation.  As a society, we waste so much it's just ridiculous.  That's why I don't complain about the rapidly rising cost of oil.  In fact, if we would attach the costs of "protecting" oil reserves (wars ain't cheap, folks, in $ or blood or political capital) to what we pay at the pump, instead of subsidizing it, the natural force for conservation would be helpful, IMHO.  For some reason, Repubs tend to think that market forces are the answer to every problem EXCEPT energy.

    Thank-you for the very informative presentation.

  •  constructive criticism (none)
    You give US consumption of "energy" in Kilowatts, and other countries' in Kw hours.  Those are different units.  Kw are a measure of power, Kwh is a measure of energy.  They are not the same thing.  I can't find a really good explanation of the difference right now, but maybe this will help.
    •  I hate to nitpick, but (none)
      it's kWh, or kiloWatthours...
      •  Nits and nits (none)
        Both are valid citicisms.  

        The first is really an expression of my laziness.  When it came to so many sets of numbers, after awhile, I got tired of doing all the conversions.  I'll try to get it together for an update.

        As to the kWh vs kwh, I mean no slight to Mr. Watt, but the dictionary had it both ways and Word keeps smushing the W into w.  Blame it on Bill Gates.

        TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

        by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 06:26:41 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  As for explanation, let me try: (none)
      A 100 Watt bulb draws or uses 0.1 kW.  This is power, or "demand".  If you operate this bulb for 10 hours, it will consume 1 kWh of energy.  On today's market, depending on where you live (and when you use it, possibly) that will cost around 7 - 10 cents, roughly.

      Energy is how much you use, power is how fast you're using it.

  •  Checking your math (none)
    I decided to check your math on how much natural gas we use. I started with an area for the US of 5,984,685 mi^2 obtained from Wikipedia's United States page. I then multiplied this number by 5280 * 5280 to obtain the total number of square feet in the United States, which works out to 166,843,442,304,000 ft^2, or in round terms 166 trillion square feet. So if we use 22.5 trillion ft^3 of natural gas in this country in a year, that works out to a depth of about 1/7 of a foot, or just over an inch and a half.

    Not as impressive as four feet, but more believable and still an amazing amount. And I'd still keep my shoes on when I go outside if I were you. Even at an inch and a half it could still get in between your toes.

    Isn't it ironic that the 51% of the electorate who voted for a chimpanzee includes everyone in the US who doesn't believe in evolution?

    by Our Man In Redmond on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:58:20 AM PST

  •  Interesting read (none)
    Interesting read.  A couple questions (that must be answerable, but for which I would not personally know where to begin) and thoughts to add:


    • The agenda is pretty long and no plan survives the political process intact.  If we could only do three or four of these things, which ones would represent the best combination of cost-effectiveness, pollution reduction, and technical feasibility?  Because this would probably vary by region, which elements of the agenda are better advanced at the federal level and which at the local level?  Which would only work if advanced at both levels?

    • The other paramount variable is mentioned a few comments above: where would the employment impacts and opportunities be?  I'm skeptical of ethanol (I don't buy that the full environmental impacts are included in the breakeven calculations), but impressed by the bipartisan pork-barrel politics that have put it on the map.  Some of these initiatives also more likely bring along lots of sustainable local jobs (e.g., solar shingles) vs. factory jobs in one region vs. one-time construction jobs.  This part of the calculus, patiently explained to tons of targeted elected politicians and natural allies, would also be essential to advance the agenda.

    • Does planting shade trees make the radar screen in terms of savings?

    • Bush has advanced a fuel cell plan that I assume is bogus (I understand Joseph Romm wrote a book recently demolishing most of the assumptions).  My guess is the Bush plan is 99% patronage-based.  Who's getting this largesse (and therefore must be vanquished for better ideas and budget allocations to prevail)?


    • I think we could promote this agenda as part of a responsible national security agenda and connect with a lot of people.

    • The set of initiatives around rooftop or backyard generation are particularly promising.  They have several clear, useful externalities: A) they simultaneously focus people installing the systems on conservation, B) they create local job opportunities, and C) when executed well, they create good local advertising that might inspire others to follow suit.

    • After we get rid of the Glenn Canyon Damn, maybe we could reclaim Hetch Hetchi(sp?)!  (This is the reservoir north of Yosemite that provides drinking water to SF.)  This is another place that seems to get more beautiful, in retrospect, with each passing month.

    I personally despair at the thought of dumping another 100,000 person-years of organizing into reclaiming access to some lovely rock formations (how much prettier than Bryce Canyon?  25%?)while broader Bushco policies threaten to turn the planet into a kiln.  Prioritization does matter.

    If we're trying to mobilize people who can ONLY get excited about environmental issues, we'd be better off focusing on ANWAR, which has the added benefit of focusing people on the inadequacy of the other side's proposals.

    •  A couple replies (none)
      1. At one point during the campaign, Kerry began advancing an "energy independence as national security issue" theme, which I thought was brilliant. Of course, that lasted for like a week and then they decided to do something else. (I realize this is not the place to discuss KE04's lack of message discipline, but just wanted to point out that they did think of this.)

      And I still think it's brilliant. This will be a crucial part of the overall sales pitch for a real sustainable energy policy.

      2. Hetch Hetchy restoration is fully back on the radar screen, for a number of reasons. The Chron even did a story about it in the Sunday edition not that long ago. You can read more about it at our Sierra Club SF energy website here.

      You are quite right that while draining dams is wonderful, it's not an issue that has a lot of political heft. But that doesn't mean that people houldn't work to do it, if that's what really motivates them. It takes all kinds. Don't despair about the "100,000 person-years" (unless they're yours).

    •  Policy (none)
      You're very right to press this point, Minerva.  It's taking all the technology wonkishness and turning it into a coherent, salable political strategy that is the real hurdle.

      Best I can phrase it at the moment:

       - Less oil from overseas
       - More jobs in America
       - Cleaner air for everyone

      o Increase incentives for hybrid vehicles to reduce oil demand.  Provide even bigger incentives for a new generation of hybrids which are essentially electric cars with supplementary gas engines for extended range.  This Electric/Gas hybrid takes the first big step to moving cars off oil and onto the grid, a step that can be completed with full electric cars running either off batteries or hydrogen.  In any plan, that's the most important step if we really want to end the insane cost of oil in terms of dollars, ecology, and blood.  A program that starts out with big incentives, even "hybrid rebates," to get people into these vehicles, then ends with an escalating gas tax to push holdouts over the line is one way to go.  You could even use the tax revenues to repay the money spent on the incentives.

      o Make every step possible to get Solar into the general mix of power production.  There are at least three technologies here that look good, including direct photo conversion.  Any of the three is better than anything we're using now.  Really, when you start looking into it, solar seems right at the "why didn't we always use more of this?" tipping point.  A little nudge now can mean a big change later.

      o Promote expansion of windmills into suitable areas -- including offshore.

      Though it's hard to pin down a single technology as the driving force behind the policy, I think the goals can be summed up in a way that makes it palatable as a political bullet point.  

      In one decade, we will eliminate the need for foreign oil in the energy budget of the United States so that no president need ever again compromise our positions on democracy and human rights over access to oil, so that our foreign policy need never again be warped over access to oil, so that no child of the United States need ever again lay down his or her life to ensure our access to oil.  At the same time, we will transform our system of energy production into something that leaves the earth, air, and water cleaner for ourselves and our children, while generating new technologies and thousands of new jobs, right here in the United States.

      I've seen it phrased better (heck, I've done better), but that's pretty close.

      As for Bush's fuel cell plan, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea.  But I think some care was taken in choosing technology that would require a couple of engineering breakthroughs and a complete redesign of our energy distribution network.  In other words, the oil companies got "competition" that can't possibly show up to the dance for a couple of decades.  The car makers get to make some spiffy "prototypes."  Everyone puts on a good show, and keeps doing what they're doing.  Other technologies, including electric/gas hybrid (instead of the gas/electric hybrids on the market) and straight electric, can be produced with existing tech and don't require a new hydrogen pump at the 7/11 (which is a big R contributor, so you shouldn't be pumping your gas there in the first place).

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 05:07:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Bush's Fuel Cell Plan (none)
        If I'm not mistaken, the easiest way to extract hydrogen for fuel cells is from fossil fuels.  This is not competition to the oil business at all, merely another customer.  Do we need another source of hydrogen to make this a more effective alternative?

        Correct me if I'm wrong.

        •  Not any more (none)
          Check this out

           Researchers at a government nuclear laboratory and a ceramics company in Salt Lake City say they have found a way to produce pure hydrogen with far less energy than other methods, raising the possibility of using nuclear power to indirectly wean the transportation system from its dependence on oil.

          Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. - Sir Winston Churchill

          by DreamOfPeace on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:31:00 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Correct (none)
          Most industrial hydrogen is produced using steam reforming, which takes natural gas and heat energy as the primary inputs.  For more details on steam reforming, see this site.

          Most people think that our current supplies of hydrogen come from electrolysis of water, largely because that's how they saw it done in science class.  This is unfortunate, and educating the public on where the H2 is going to come from is a key part of having a rational debate regarding the so-called "hydrogen economy".


          Bull Moose Progressive
          Supporter of self-defense rights for responsible citizens

          by AlphaGeek on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 10:27:47 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Nuclear fuel (none)
    One point about nuclear that I've heard before, don't know where, is that there really isn't that much fuel available.

    Apparently, if we really ramped up on building nuclear power plants we'd run out of fuel in less than 10 years.

    Peak uranium, peak oil, what's the difference?

    Jesus used to be a liberal ... but apparently not so much anymore.

    by permanentE on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 09:37:18 AM PST

    •  Enough uranium & thorium for 500 years (none)
      ...and that's without reprocessing spent fuel.  Right now, without reprocessing, we are burning about 5% of the uranium in our fuel.

      Uranium is a very common element in the earth's crust.  If we somehow managed to use it all up, we could turn to thorium.

      However, it's likely that, if we continue to develop technology at the present rate, we will arrive at nuclear fusion as an energy source before the global depletion of uranium.

      Water depletion is a serious problem. One energy source in the US that is facing a crisis is hydroelectric.  Droughts in the West and the Southeast have lowered dam levels.  As the global temperature rises, we may have to rely more and more on Canada for hydro.

      We need to look at all sources of energy that can ensure human health and environmental health, and we need to try to overcome prejudice and look at actual facts regarding risk and environmental costs.  

      The enthusiasm for wind and solar as cure-alls resembles the enthusiasm in the 1950s for nuclear power.  Proponents unrealistically promised electricity "too cheap to meter" and other nonsense.  I am for wind and solar, but we have to consider their environmental impact. Wind turbines and solar panels produce habitat destruction and require gigantic footprints, as do hydroelectric dams.  

      Unrealistic plans about alternative energy sources may result, paradoxically,in fostering an increase in coal-fired plants--just as unrealistic ideas about nuclear plants fostered a public rejection of them in favor of more coal-fired plants. They are going to increase anyway, and that is definitely bad news.

  •  Perspective on nuke waste (4.00)
    Thanks for this roundup of data.  Very good to work toward creating a big picture of energy consumption versus risk.

    In 50 years of operation, there has never been a single death in the US or Europe attributable to radioactivity from a nuclear power plant. There has never been a death to a nuclear submariner or sailor on a nuclear aircraft carrier attributable to radioactivity.  This is because of a culture of safety not observed in the rest of the power industry.  No other energy resource can make this claim.  Just think of the annual deaths from coal-mining and coal combustion.  From the latter alone in the US:  32,000 deaths per year.

    All the high level nuclear waste from commercial power plants as well as military and medical facilities that has been generated since the Manhattan Project could fit in a single football field several meters deep.  

    The annual worldwide production of nuclear waste from approximately 430 nuclear plants is 3,000 cubic feet.

    The amount of fossil fuel waste, very bad for the health, with carcinogenic and mutagenic effects, that the world generates daily is colossal and far exceeds the volume of nuclear waste.

    Chemical waste also dwarfs nuclear waste and much of it, unlike nuclear, never decays.

    Nuclear materials, including waste, are transported around the nation all the time and there have been no deadly accidents in 60 years as a result of the radioactivity.  Every year there are transportation accidents involving chemicals, like chlorine, that kill people.

  •  Excellent overview (none)
    Thanks so much for an excellent overview.  I love it when someone tries to explain the big picture.  I'm sure there are many things that got left out, nevertheless I appreciate the attempt.

    I have copied the diary into a document that I will share with a local energy sustainability committee here in Minnesota.  We are working on a practical effort to reduce energy consumption in moderate sized businesses.  Our regional energy utility offers rebates to such businesses that retrofit their lighting systems from the old magnetic ballast systems using incandescents to electric ballast systems using flourescents.

    One other thing that we are interested in exploring is capturing methane from landfills.  Given the fact that methane is a greenhouse gas, seems like this is a worthwhile area to explore.  Does anyone have the big picture sense as to the viability of methane recovery from landfills and coal mines?  I understand the Bush administration has an initiative in this area.  Read more at the CASMGS site.  

    According to information posted at an Illinois EPA website:  "According to the U.S. EPA, there are currently 120 energy recovery projects across the country. These projects capture methane in one of four ways: conversion to electricity through combustion engine and turbines; injection into natural gas pipelines; direct use in industrial processes and greenhouses; and compression for vehicle fuel. These processes are complicated, but the bottom line is that they reuse the landfill gas that would normally be emitted into the air we breathe."

    Again, I appreciate other readers who have a broader perspective on how this kind of thing fits into the overall alternative energy picture.

    •  Coal Bed Methane (none)
      There has been an explosion in methane production from coal, especially in the Powder River Basin (there's that place again!).  At first glance, this seems like a good thing, but my personal experience has shown it to be an ungodly terror.

      First off, the regulations are completely out of whack.  If you're a rancher and someone owns oil and gas rights to your land, you have to expect that, one day, someone might come in and do a little exploration, maybe park a well or two on your ranch.  It could be smelly, a little messy, but you go on.

      With coal bed methane, we could be talking a dozen wells.  A hundred.  Three hundred.  All on a single ranch.  And because the process of producing coal bed methane involves dewatering the coal (often a major aquifer in the region), each of these wells can be accompanied by pumps.  The thing can look like a geyser field.  Worse, the water contains lots of salt and trace elements.  Right now, that water is being pumped out of the ground essentially unregulated.  Rivers of salt water are flowing across Wyoming, wrecking farms, and ultimately destroying the streams they drain into.

      If you're a rancher and someone starts coal bed methane production on your ranch -- welcome to Hell.

      In some states, Illinois for example, the state has ruled that the coal bed methane belongs to whoever owns the coal rights, and has to meet those standards.  In Wyoming, the court has ruled that it goes with oil and gas rights, and meets those standards.  Clearly, the regulations on oil and gas poduction are completely unequipped to deal with this mess.

      I want to like coal bed methane, I really do.  There's a lot of coal in the Powder River Basin that could never be recovered through mining.  It seems reasonable that we should be able to at least get the gas out of it.  But boy, so far the effort has just been a horror.  

      I'm glad you reminded me, because putting some regulations on this industry should be a part of any energy plan.

      The State of Wyoming has suggested that ranchers might want to raise shrimp in the salt water produced from the coal.  I'll let you know how that works out.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 10:45:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Do you think (none)
        the bulk of the methane recovery projects are from coal mines?  How much methane could be recovered from landfills?  What technologies would be used to recover methane from landfills?
      •  Silver lining dept. (none)
        I don't know if it's the case in Wyoming, but in some other states ranchers are joining environmentalists to try to stop this wholesale destruction caused by coal-bed methane extraction.

        This is also going on in our national forests, which we, the taxpayers, own.

        Coal mining also releases methane into the atmosphere.

      •  devils tower- (none)
        I'm assuming based on your knowledge of the issues in the Powder River Basin and your screen name, you are from NE Wyo?  The discussion of methane gas and the excess water created from the process remindes me of one of the issues regarding nuclear that you didn't address.

        I grew up in southern Johnson County, and in elementary school in the early eighties one of our class field trips was to the local uranium mine.  Except it wasn't really a "mine" so much as a field, with injection wells that pumped water in and extracted uranium with the water and then it was separated out in settlement ponds.  I know this process was used elsewhere  - remember Shirley Basin?  On one of my recent trips home I flew over and could see the remnants of the glowing green pools on the rangeland below.

        What to do with the waste is just one part of the problem.  The damage done in the extraction is another problem.

        •  Only a visitor to WY (none)
          I'm not a real Wyomingite, but I've spent many months there off and on -- chiefly helping in create all the current mess by exploring for fossil fuels.  I was an exploration geologist for better than a decade, and WY was my most frequent stomping ground.

          With lots of time in Gillette, I made dozens of trips up to Devil's Tower, and became fascinated enough with the place that it featured prominently in a book I wrote.  The marketing department eventually changed the name of the book itself to Devil's Tower, and I've been packing it around as a screen name ever since.

          Solution / extraction has been used for several metals.  In uranium, I think it was used to remove uranium salts, so ordinary water will do.  With other metals, strong acids, solvents, and even cyanide compounds have been used.  Makes those uranium extraction sites seem almost benign, doesn't it?

          TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

          by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 07:06:14 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Two Cents From an Bond Attorney (none)
    1.  In my opinion, we've got to re-open up tax exempt financing for the type of projects necessary to change our energy policy.  That means once again allowing power companies to be able to issue tax exempt debt for pollution control facilities in addition to those facilities currently considered "solid waste facilities".  

    Now, we have to be careful the availability for exemption isn't too broad so that a new plant which creates a new source of pollution isn't somehow considered a "pollution control facility" but I strongly believe that we need to provide energy companies with a carrot to do the right thing in addition to a stick for doing the wrong thing.

    2.  This is a well thought out commentary and what should be clear to anyone reading this is that we need to be pursuing multiple approaches simultaneously.  I think automobile makers will be the first to realize that multiple simultaneous approaches are necessary.  Right now Jeep has a Biodiesel-powered Liberty and other manufactures have hybrids.  The next step is combination hybrid-biodiesel cars which will be a huge improvement from what is on the road right now.

    •  Good points (none)
      That's really the hard part of this thing.  Almost all of these technologies look like they're ready to exit the lab and enter the grid.  What's needed is the part of the equation that attracts less attention, but really makes it go -- the funding.   Setting up the proper incentives is what good policy is all about, and positive incentives in the form of tax credits are much to be preferred to penalizing older tech.

      Oh, except for incandescent light bulbs.  I'm all in favor of taxing those things out of existance.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 04:33:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  A great discussion - some addtl nuke and solar pts (none)
    WRT nuclear waste we need to also account for that produced in the refining of ore to fuel and any reprocessing of spent fuel.

    Pebble bed reactors look great (relatively speaking).  Why isn't the US pursing them more vigorously?  In addition to the South African efforts the Germans have had a working PB research reactor for decades.  Meanwhile, the DOE is researching the SSTAR portable breeder reactor design (shudder).

    Sandia and SES are claiming 30% efficiency in converting solar to electricity using a solar-dish/sterling engine power plant that on a 100 mile x 100 mile farm could provide enough energy for the entire country.  Granted this doesn't address night time usage but it would address daytime A/C and office lighting with the necessary grid improvements to ship the electricity around.

    •  Source of nuclear fuel (none)

      "WRT nuclear waste we need to also account for that produced in the refining of ore to fuel and any reprocessing of spent fuel."

      These days the source of nuclear fuel is former nuclear weapons.  There's not much going on in the US in terms of refining of ore.  Reprocessing of spent fuel actually reduces the quantity of waste.  The same uranium is used again and again in a reactor.

      Reactor technology to produce hydrogen as well as supply electricity to the grid can reprocess spent fuel as well.  


  •  Can't see BUSH read this stuff containing nukular (none)
    words. Oil is simpler, that's what my buddies speak about so we set policy for another 4 years, thanks to Cheney and his energy WhizKids at the table. Looking back on the foreign policy of the US since the fall of Soviet rule, you see the contours of regions with oil assets and economic importance.

    Read my diary on arms-for-oil policy:  Stop Bush Oil Scam

    It's a competitive world where Human Rights gets trumped by oil rights

  •  Great diary... (none)
    But I still say ethanol is a boondoggle, at least as it's being done now. The current subsidy is essentially just a giant handout to ADM, which doesn't need the help.

    That's not to say that growing energy crops is a bad idea in general. You mention that ethanol from corn represents a poor energy return. I admit that I had not considered the "storage" argument before, and it's a good one. But it doesn't change the fundamental fact that making ethanol from corn is a poor use of resources. This article discusses the energy return from various crops. Corn comes in at 1.2:1 (at least its positive). But switchgrass is 4.4:1, and it will grow almost everywhere, with extremely minimal inputs. I would love to see a big R&D push on this front. Some guy named John Edwards had a plan to do exactly that. Highlights:

    Senator Edwards' proposal would create a national competition to set up four biorefineries that transform biomass into ethanol for commercial sale. These would involve partnerships between manufacturers, farmers, and state and federal governments.

    By 2010, the biorefineries proposed by Edwards would:

        * Bring millions of gallons of biomass ethanol to market.
        * Reduce foreign oil consumption by millions of barrels.
        * Substantially cut smog, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution caused by the burning of agricultural waste.
        * Create thousands of manufacturing jobs in rural America.
        * Provide profitable new uses for farmers' land and crop waste.

    •  Switchgrass (none)
      That is one terrific find.  I'm seriously looking for a way out of my hole in fossil fuel land -- which was part of what inspired me to write this thing in the first place.  Switchgrass looks like something that's poised to take off.

      Now to ponder how to make it happen.  I sure wish Edwards, and Kerry, had made more noise about this.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 04:29:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  while you're looking... (none)
        check out jerusalem artichokes as well.

        I'm a big ethanol booster, even if it comes from corn (for reasons I've been meaning to write a diary about for a long time and I should probably just get around to it already), but I absolutely agree that corn isn't the best of all possible energy crops.

        We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. -- Garrison Keillor

        by Evan on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 06:07:56 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  A few things you missed... (none)

    Passive heating and photovoltaics are not only not the only way to go, they're really far from the best way to go. I just saw a great article in EE Times:

    Sun catchers tuned to crank out the juice

    This system is steerable mirrors heating a working fluid which powers Stirling cycle engines to turn generators. The big deal here is we use all the solar photons all the way down to the infrared. There's a lot of area under the solar blackbody curve at wavelengths longer than 600nm that is wasted by PV cells.

    The bottom line here is that this system competes in cost even with heavily subsidized coal-fired systems at $0.05-0.06/kwh.

    And as for the intensity issue:

    Eventually, according to DOE estimates, an 11-square-mile farm of Stirling solar dishes could generate as much electricity as the Hoover Dam, and a 100 x 100-mile farm could supply all the daytime needs for electricity in the United States.

    I'm a physics guy and I used to be pretty sceptical of solar, but there is actually an awful lot of it. Just think of it as a self-regulating fusion reactor at known safe distance.


    You missed two important biomass sources. The first one is switchgrass. The studies I've seen put switchgrass at 2.2 times as efficient as ethanol from corn. The switchgrass can be mixed with conventional coal for power plants or processed into a diesel-like oil for transportation needs.

    (there's more but I'm out of space, tell me if you want more)

    •  I'm with you (none)
      Actually, this was another one of those things I wanted to get to, but well... I was already past novelette length and heading for novella.  I'm amazed anyone made it through the thing to start with.

      Yeah, the variety and quality of solar technology really surprised me.  Upstream, I know it looks like I'm throwing a damper on fusion, but it's not because I have anything against the technology.  It's because all the varieties of solar looked so damned feasible, that I'm ready to jump in tomorrow.  (If anyone knows of a solar startup looking for a new enterprise architect, this ol' fossil fuel boy is ready to get out of the moving dirt business and into bottling sunlight.)

      The switchgrass is something I knew absolutely nothing about, but it really does look impressive.  That's the biggest reason I post these things, not to inform someone else, but because people pitch in and I learn so much.  Thanks.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 04:26:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Australia (none)
      is building its first commercially viable thermal solar system (as you described) right now. It's being run out of one of our universities in NSW. Some are predicting that solar thermal will be the grid supplier for Australia in 20 year's time. Given that serious power-plan style installations will take up many square kilometres, and also there's that pesky issue of water on the most arid inhabited continent, I have some concerns.

      However if every Australian household ran off a combination of personal photovoltaic / wind/hydro power combos (more than feasible), the grid demand would be moderated.

      We'll see.

      Excellent diary Devilstower. Kudos.

  •  great diary (none)
      thanks devilstower, for the hard research, and even more importantly for the playful delivery. it makes it all so much more digestible for us right-brainers.

      i too was disappointed kerry did not go in for the kill on this issue with gwb, especially at the debates, as it cuts both ways. positively because it plays right into the feelgood notion of 'can-do' america, a nation full of genius backyard tinkerers dying to add their discoveries to the mix, unfortunately dominated and repressed by the oil companies.
      it cuts negatively because of cheney's secret cabal and bush's unsavory connections in the middle east, both legitimate targets for public outrage that i was mildly surprised he didn't milk for more attention.

      the other time i'd fume was when gwb in one of the debates accused kerry of having been ineffectual through 20 years of the senate.

      excuse me!!! since when is busting bcci and ollie's gang  ineffectual? in fact added to his post-vietnam testimony it told me much more about him than his campaign speeches ever did.

      to stand there and let bush trash his service like that....i

      tell you what though, when it comes down to strategy, late surprises, steely stamina and prosecutorial skills, he's mightily well equipped to take his rightful role as president when the rigged voting news gets fully out, AND  to bring those neocon megalomaniacs to full and sober justice, in front of an international human rights nuremberg-style tribunal.
      it has a certain karmic poetry, don't you think, especially after the administration's holier-than-thou posturing on the situation in ukraine.

    watching bbc on that situation today brought me to tears.

    seems like i don't cry so much for tragedies any more....tapped out i guess.

    no, what really starts the waterworks these days, and i wish it were more often, is HOPE.

    the kind of hope i feel when i think of what humankind will do once we start having the same dimension of respect and epiphany for deep ecology as we presently expend on religion.

    prayer for human intelligence as divine intervention!

    see my other posts for more heartfelt expositions of why i think energy is THE way forward for dems, both as stick to beat greedy corrupt repugs and as carrot for a revitalized, VALUES-based bootstrap, eco-rooted employment drive, with immediate cessation of all subsidies, back-door sweetheart deals and special embedded, ever-so-cozy hanky-panky between energy and government.

  •  I Read Your Dissertation (none)
    Dear Devil's Tower,

    I read your two posts about electricity and transportation completely.  I have had longstanding interest in energy since the Energy Crisis era of the 1970s, and have worked in energy policy as an analyst or activist for the last 27 years.  I admire anyone who makes an honest attempt to assess the situation and make positive recommendations.    I disagree with certain ideas or points of fact and hope you view these as constructive.  

    Natural Gas: You neglect to point out that natural gas is also used for baseload due to the increased efficiencies of combined cycle plants.  You also do not discuss Canada's gas depletion or the huge rise of LNG imports the natural gas industry is now planning on.

    Coal: I agree that Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plants are amazingly clean compared to their dinosaur ancestors.  But carbon sequestration is, at best, a hopeful theory.  There are only two places in the world where it has been attempted.  No one knows if geologic deposits will permanently hold the gas.  

    I also believe that many attempts at reclaiming land after mining are ineffective or laughable.

    Regarding your comment that it is impractical to think coal will go away soon, I fear you might be right.  Despite sea ice melting, carbon limitations are simply not taken seriously by the U.S., China, and much of the world.  It should be an emergency.   And by the time people see this, it may be too late.

    Nuclear Power: Low-level waste is not just used protective clothing and the like.   For a bone chilling description of what is laughably defined as low-level waste, see:

    Also, you left out the huge concern of national security.  From my own review, I have found that security at nuke plants wanting, and now with the terrorism threat as a veil, the industry is not required to report security deficiencies because then the presumed terrorists would find out about them.  When I recently called the plant in my backyard (South Texas Nuclear Plant) to ask how they would respond to an air attack similar to the tragedy on 9/11, they refused to answer (national security, you know).  This is a disingenuous way to cover up incompetence.

    Solar: Your estimate of the land requirements seem very high to me.  My own numbers (extrapolated from Paul Maycock's figures) show that you could theoretically run the U.S. on land the size of Connecticut.  Given that there is enough building square footage in the U.S. to cover New Jersey, I see more potential.

    But you neglected to discuss Concentrating Solar Power, which in the short term may be more feasible, for cost reductions and require less investment for economies of scale.  There are several plants in Kramer Junction, CA, that have been operating since the late 1980s.  

    You also neglected to discuss the ways and means.  There is no coordinated effort to create the economies of scale to bring the cost of renewables down.  We haven't had a champion in the White House since Carter.  Even if Kerry had been elected, he might not have stayed a second term.  As such, the federal "angel" funding would have been withdrawn with results probably incomplete.  We need a coalition of utilities, governments, and foundations that will stay there for the long term.  The DSIREUSA database you referenced shows what disparate utilities and governments are doing ON THEIR OWN.  Huge difference!

    A massive, coordinated solar purchase by 20 states will be many times more effective than 20 separate efforts.

    Storage: Compressed Air Energy Storage is the most inexpensive WIDELY-APPLICABLE technology.  It can be done in many locations, not just a few hydropower sites.  It requires some type of heat for a booster, typically natural gas, though I believe under some circumstance hydrogen created with renewable energy could be used.  

    My Website, ,  has a discussion of this.)  Go to the story on Environmental Business, Part 3, Wind Power.

    Biofuels: I think you miss the point about Energy Return on Energy Invested.  Whether it is slightly below 1 or above 1 does not compare it to oil, which until recently had a ratio anywhere from 8 to 1 to as high as over 100 to 1.  The point is the yield of alcohol  is marginal AT BEST.  And you let out the most salient opportunity for maximum yield and Energy Return, cellulosic biomass, which uses enzymes rather than energy for initial fermentation.  (It is not yet commercial.)  The group Energy Future Coalition in DC has been a big proponent of this.  

    A paper by Lynd, et. Al., "Bioenergy : Background, Potential, and Policy (A policy briefing prepared for the Center for Strategic and International Studies)" points out that this technology combined with increases in fuel efficiency can actually make a significant dent in energy independence.  (Assuming commercial transition of course.)

    Wind: You did mean 2.5 million kwh, not 2.5 kwh, didn't you?  And I don't think most turbines currently installed in the U.S. are actually built here.  I think they are imported.  I hope this changes.

    My figures from the Defense Dept. is that Iraq cost $48 billion for the first year, not counting the widow's pensions, disabilities, reconstruction, etc.

    Geothermal: Geo heatpumps are a good idea.  What about tax incentives to promote them?  Do these already exist, or is this something Dems can champion?  I makes more sense than giving more tax subsidies to the oil business (the lowest taxed of all major U.S. industries).

    Conservation: I worked in Austin's (TX) energy conservation office for 6 years. The City of Austin has been acclaimed a national leader in its efforts.  

    But I am also a critic of its effectiveness.  In one sense, it has succeeded amazingly.  But in a study I did, between 1972 (the year before the Energy Crisis) and 1997, Austin's energy use per capita INCREASED by 33% despite conservation incentives, building codes, and higher prices.  Why?  A combination of larger houses with fewer people in them, more air conditioning, more gadgets, more industrialization, and many more poorly built apartments that used wasteful all-electric heat.  Conservation mitigated the damage, but that is not enough.

    Regarding LEDs, you left off the best part.  The Democrats did have a plan to develop them in our version of the 2002 Energy bill: a $500 million, 10-year "SEMATECH consortium" to develop LEDs to a level where they could compete with conventional lighting.  Imagine, a product we didn't have to import..that could actually create local jobs.

    Take these suggestions and integrate them where you can.  Good Luck in your efforts.

    Paul Robbins
    Austin, TX  

    •  I read your reply (none)

      I really appreciate the detailed and thoughtful reply.  As I said elsewhere, a big reason I post these things is so I can have them picked apart by the knowledgeable, diversified dKos family.  I think I learn far more reading the replies than anyone gets out of my post.

      On your points:

      Natural gas: I certainly didn't mean to imply that all natural gas was used in peaking production, though I did focus on it, because I view that type of plant as a prop allowing decrepit coal plants to stay on line.  If there was a sufficient reserve base, I'd be happy to see coal production replaced by gas.

      Coal: Yes, carbon sequestration is something to be hoped for, not a guarantee.  When it comes to reclamation, I've seen it done spectacularly well, and godawfully poor.  Oddly, the large surface mines in the West and Midwest do the best.  I know a mine in the west where the company keeps a greenhouse of 'weeds' so that they can get the exact species mix after mining, and another that has a Native American 'medicine man' on hand to make sure they properly handle the sacred plants.  I've seen them replace a stream bed layer by layer so well that within a year, even persnickety fish like rainbow darters were back.  On the other hand, I grew up amid pre-law lands, so I know the desert these folks would leave in a lot of areas if the law didn't press them.  And I've seen mountain top removal and contour strip in the Appalachians.  There is no way to fix this after the fact, we have to stop it before it happens.

      Solar: reworking my numbers gives me about 90,000 square miles of 'scattered' coverage, using the 200 watts average impact over the United States.  If we did a 'solar farm' in the best area, I still get 36,000 square miles.  A lot smaller than I said the first time, but bigger than Connecticut (5,500 square miles).  That's working with 950 watts and 20% conversion.  And hey, I probably still screwed the math.  (I'm a geologist and a writer.  If I could do math, I'd be an engineer.)

      Wind: yep, slipped a number.  And we are importing most of the big towers, but we're producing almost all of our own little stuff -- even exporting it.  I'm hopeful that our manufacturers can extend into the larger stuff.

      Biofuels: This is an area where I obviously still have a lot to learn.  Just about every post on biomass has hit some area that I completely missed.

      LEDs: Damn.  I didn't know about that program.  It's a shame.  Even if the effectiveness is about the same as fluorescent, they have such obvious advantages in other areas.  Maybe after 2006?

      Fighting the McMansion syndrome to make gains in conservation may be the toughest part of the whole picture.  How do we pitch saving energy as a program that makes jobs, saves money, shoots bad guys, and changes the baby's diaper?  Hey, maybe we can just tell them that gay people waste energy!  Sorry to be so flippant.  This is an important one, and I can't find the marketing angle.

      Thanks again.

      TwoTaboos -- Politics and Religion.

      by Mark Sumner on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 08:17:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I still think you've made a mistake re solar... (none)
        I just tried it again another way:  Figuring 300 average watts per square meter in the desert southwest (i.e., 7 peak sun hours per day over an average year) and 15% conversion efficiency, I get 120,000 kilowatts per square mile.

        The US currently generates 3.9 trillion kWh per year (CIA factbook).  There are 8760 hours in a year, so that's an average generating capacity of 445 million kilowatts.

        445,000,000 divided by 120,000 equals 3708 square miles.  (Nothing to sneeze at!  But not 36,000.)  I've tried lots of ways, but I just can't make the numbers come out as big as yours.

        We Democrats are deciduous. We fade, lose heart, become torpid, languish, then the sap rises again, and we are passionate. -- Garrison Keillor

        by Evan on Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 11:14:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Energy storage... (none)
    Thank you for this lengthy piece.  
    Despite the considerable efforts you've gone to, suggest that the discussion of renewables is only half-complete; without some cost-effective, large-scale energy storage options, renewables can only ever make up a relatively small part of your generation capacity.  And, frankly, the rest of the world needs the US to do more than tinker at the edges of its greenhouse emissions; it needs it to make big cuts.

    There are some energy-storage technologies out there, but they are either pretty limited in scope, very expensive, immature, or still fantasy.  Pumped hydro has been mentioned; its scope is somewhat limited (more dams required) and it's only about 50% efficient.  There is compressed air, but that's mainly useful as an adjunct to a gas turbine, requires the existance of the right geological formations, and would have its own inefficiences.  Conventional batteries aren't price-competitive, and are a pretty mature technology.

    Beyond that, using hydrogen as an energy storage medium is pretty inefficient; IIRC at the moment you need to put more than three times as much electricity in as you get out.  So, however much Ballard Power Systems goes on about "hydricity", it's just not practical to electrolyse hydrogen from water using renewable energy.  There's Redox Flow Batteries, which the Japanese are researching heavily.  There's kinetic energy storage, which has seen limited applications.  There's even more exotic techniques; using the weird properties of superconductors (magic materials that, amongst other things, carry electrical current with zero resistance) is one of them.

    In any case, storage technology is just as important as generation technology if renewables are going to replace a large fraction of fossil fuels, and just as complex a technical challenge.    However, it's a topic that renewable energy advocates seem relatively uninterested in talking about.  Why is that?

  •  nuclear power (none)
    A recent study by two Dutch scientists concludes that nuclear power is not a solution to global warming.  From the introduction: "The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much CO2-emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within three years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly."

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