Archive for January, 2011

Five Energy Articles We’re Reading Today (1/31/11)

Posted By Lowell F. on January 31st, 2011

Here are five recommended reads for today (1/31/11).

  1. Huffington Post Green reports that Chevron “plans to get out of the coal industry by the end of the year.” The reason: “the company determined that new coal technologies were developing too slowly to make staying in the industry a good strategy.”
  2. NRDC Switchboard discusses energy subsidies, solar deployment, clean energy manufacturing, and feed-in-tariffs. The article notes that “SunRun’s recent report on solar permitting challenges is a great example of how an obsession with subsidies can obscure other, still difficult, “non-cost” barriers to rapid and large-scale deployment of energy technologies in the short-term.”
  3. Bloomberg reports, “General Electric Co. announced its largest wind-power deal in Europe, landing a 10-year deal to install wind turbines at eight wind farms across Spain.”
  4. According to a Dow Jones report, “European countries must double spending on renewable energy if they want to meet a target of increasing renewables share in the energy mix to 20% by 2020, after the European Union fell short of an indicative goal set for 2010, the European Commission said Monday.”
  5. Solar Feeds has “10 Reasons Why Colorado Is A Cleatech Leader.”  These include, “government involvement,” “business startup help,” “municipality participation,” “research and development,” and “university leadership,”
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Oil and Ethanol Fueling Middle East Revolutions?

Posted By Lowell F. on January 31st, 2011

This Sunday morning, National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast a story about how the ongoing unrest in Egypt – and other countries in the Middle East – is being driven non just by chronic corruption and mismanagement, but also by rising food prices. As NPR reported:

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says its global food price index is at a record high, above even where it stood during the last food crisis three years ago. In early 2008, rising prices caused riots in dozens of countries — several of which are now seeing uprisings once again.


Rising prices are “leading to riots, demonstrations and political instability,” New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini said during a panel discussion. “It’s really something that can topple regimes, as we have seen in the Middle East.”

What’s causing food prices to rise? There are multiple factors, of course, but probably the two most important ones, according to NPR, are higher oil prices and increased use of corn for ethanol.

For its part, oil is used in producing, processing, and transporting food to market. As this Energy Bulletin article explains, “Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are now dependent upon this finite resource, which is nearing its depletion phase.”  So, when oil prices rise — as they have in recent months, from around $35 per barrel in December 2008 to nearly $90 per barrel in December 2010 – so does the price of food.  This affects poor people in countries such as Egypt tremendously, especially given that many of these people live on just a few dollars a day. We saw this same phenomenon in Mexico’s “tortilla riots” in 2007, when rising international corn prices, spurred by demand for the grain-based fuel ethanol…led to expensive tortillas” and to “angry protests by consumers.” We also see the same forces around the world, according to the U.N. World Food Program, which points out that “[r]isks of global instability are rising as governments cut subsidies that help the poor cope with surging food and fuel costs to ease budget crunches.

With regard to using corn to produce ethanol for fuel, the net result is to take huge amounts of food off the market, reducing the supply and thereby causing the price to rise.  According to an article in the Sunday Des Moines Register, “influential voices continue to question the use of corn to make ethanol.” That includes the Wall Street Journal, which “last week described as ‘immoral’ the renewal of the 46-cent-per-gallon tax subsidy for ethanol,” even as “federal regulators a week ago approved expanding the blend ratio of ethanol in unleaded gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent.”

The Des Moines Register article also reported from the annual world economic conference in Davos, Switzerland, where “Hamza al-Kholi, the chairman and chief executive of Saudi Alkholi Group, a holding company investing in industrials and real estate, noted the riots in Tunisia and Egypt,” commenting that “[t]his protest won’t end in North Africa. It will spread in many countries because of high unemployment and increasing food prices.” Also in Davos:

The chairman of Swiss-based Nestle, Peter Brabeck, warned those at Davos of a rise in food prices in coming months. He called it “madness” to use corn for fuel and hit on U.S. ethanol production by suggesting “no food for fuel” was an answer to the food inflation problem.

The Davos delegates could not ignore street riots in Tunisia and Egypt that were touched off by high food prices. Separately, Algeria shook the wheat markets last week with a massive purchase aimed at staving off shortages.

So, there you have it: a world in which major political instability, including in strategically vital countries like Egypt – which, coincidentally, is also a significant world transit center for oil shipments from the Persian Gulf – are triggered by escalating food prices, which in turn are caused to a large extent by rising oil prices and increased demand for corn-based ethanol.  All of which raises the question: Would food prices be rising if the world were powered by clean, renewable energy — wind, solar, energy efficiency, etc. – instead of oil and corn-based ethanol?  And, in the meantime, are oil and corn-based ethanol helping to fuel Middle East revolutions? Something to ponder as the situation in Egypt continues to unfold.

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Five Energy Articles We’re Reading Today (1/28/11)

Posted By Lowell F. on January 28th, 2011

Here are five recommended reads for today (1/28/11).

  1. A new report by Synapse Energy Economics for the Civil Society Institute finds that the health costs of coal-fired power generation are enormous. For instance, according to the report, “Between 8,000 and 34,000 premature deaths from inhaling fine particulate matter from coal combustion, at a cost to society of $64 to $272 billion — up to four times as expensive as the cost of electricity from coal.”
  2. Climate Progress writes about Koch Industries’ continued efforts to “advance [its] pollutocrat agenda,” and specifically about a high-level strategy meeting being held this weekend and organized by the Koch brothers.
  3. EnergyBiz quotes Edison Electric Institute President Thomas Kuhn as calling for a “cleaner, more modern energy fleet by 2021.” According to Kuhn, “Transforming energy generation in America…”will be expensive but it won’t have a major effect on ratepayers.”
  4. ExxonMobil has issued its long-term outlook to 2030. According to the oil giant, “Modern renewable fuels – wind, solar and biofuels – will expand significantly” in coming decades.  In addition, ExxonMobil calculates that by 2025, the average U.S. cost of wind power will be “more economically attractive as CO2 costs rise.” In fact, a scenario with a $60 per ton CO2 price has wind power as the least expensive power generation option in the United States by 2025. Without a price on CO2, wind power is projected to be less expensive than nuclear power and far less expensive than coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, and just slightly more expensive than coal and natural gas without CCS.
  5. Bloomberg quotes UN Framework Convention on Climate Change chief Christian Figueres that China is “committed to winning the green economy race” and is “going to leave all of us in the dust.”
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Five Energy Articles We’re Reading Today (1/27/11)

Posted By Lowell F. on January 27th, 2011

Here are five recommended reads for today (1/27/11).

  1. Huffington Post Green reports that “Dispersants injected deep in the Gulf of Mexico to counter an oil gusher last spring seemed to keep some oil from fouling the water’s surface, but the chemicals lingered underwater, raising concerns about long-term problems, a new study found.”
  2. At the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) blog, there’s video of AWEA CEO Denise Bode fighting off three Fox Business guys who obviously haven’t received the memo on dirty energy welfare. According to Bode, “what we want is a level playing field.” Bode adds, “we’re cost competitive now,” but we are “competing with a fossil fuel industry that has had subsidies for 80 years.”
  3. Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones asks, “Is Energy Really “Non-Partisan”? According to Sheppard, as much as she wishes this were true, “I haven’t seen much to indicate that this is the case.”
  4. ProPublica writes about new research by the U.S. Environmental Protection indicating that when all lifecycle emissions from are included, natural gas “may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.”
  5. According to New Scientist, energy efficiency “could cut world energy use over 70 per cent.” This includes relatively simple, low-cost items like “triple-glazing windows and installing 300-millimetre-thick cavity wall insulation, using saucepan lids when cooking on the stove top, eliminating hot-water tanks and reducing the set temperature of washing machines and dishwashers.”
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Where Did President Obama Get His 40% “Clean Energy” Number From?

Posted By Lowell F. on January 27th, 2011

In his State of the Union speech earlier this week, President Obama said: “by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.” The White House’s detailed fact sheet on this point adds that, “Currently, 40 percent of our electricity comes from clean energy sources,” and that President Obama is calling for that figure to double by 2035.

Sounds great, but where did President Obama get the 40% “clean energy” figure for current U.S. electricity production? I mean, heck, I worked at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) for 17 years crunching numbers, and even I’m completely confused. Let’s review.

For electricity generation, EIA’s stats for 2009 are here.

Coal: 1,764,486 million KWh (44.6% of total U.S. electricity generation)
Natural Gas: 930,378 million KWh (23.5%)
Nuclear: 798,745 million KWh (20.2%)
Hydro: 272,131 million KWh (6.9%)
Wind: 70,761 million KWh (1.8%)
Petroleum: 38,827 million KWh (1.0%)
Wood: 36,243 million KWh (0.9%)
Waste: 18,093 million KWh (0.5%)
Geothermal: 15,210 million KWh (0.4%)
“Other gases”: 10,698 million KWh (0.3%)
Solar/PV: 808 million KWh (0.02%)
TOTAL: 3,953,111 million KWh

So…how do we get to 40% “clean energy” from these numbers? Hydro, wind, wood, waste, geothermal and solar/photovoltaics add up to about 10.5%. Add in nuclear – highly debatable whether it counts as “clean energy” – and we get to about 31%. We’re still not to 40%. So, adding in natural gas (23.5%) gets us to about 55% — way over 40%. But of course, natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel, certainly not “clean energy” by almost anyone’s standards. But even if you count natural gas, you still don’t get the 40% figure President Obama cited; instead, you get 55%. So, what’s going on here? Got me, I’m baffled. Any ideas?

P.S. And no, “clean coal” doesn’t count as “clean energy” either. If that’s the case, then everything counts as “clean energy” and the term loses all meaning.

UPDATE: The only thing I can guess here is that the White House is counting “clean coal and efficient natural gas” as part of their “clean energy” 40% number. The only problem is, there isn’t any “clean coal” right now, and does anyone have a clue what “efficient natural gas” means exactly?

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