Archive for March, 2012

Five Energy Stories Worth Reading Today (3/30/12)

Posted By Lowell F. on March 30th, 2012

Here are five recommended reads for today (3/30/12)

  1. According to Energy Boom: “After nearly a year and a half of research, scientists have definitively linked BP’s oil spill with the death of a once brightly coloured coral community in the Gulf of Mexico. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists report that oil spewing from the compromised Macondo well devastated an area of coral roughly half the size of a football field.”
  2. The Wall Street Journal reports, “The Obama administration and five states have reached an agreement to speed up approval of offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes, which have been delayed by cost concerns and public opposition.”
  3. According to ThinkProgress Green, “In a 51-47 vote, 43 Senate Republicans and four Democrats filibustered to protect $24 billion in tax breaks for Big Oil… The 47 senators voting against the bill have received $23,582,500 in career contributions from oil and gas. The 51 senators voting to repeal oil tax breaks have received $5,873,600.”
  4. Business Week reports, “Germany’s parliament approved record cuts in aid for solar power, aiming to reduce the annual pace of installations by half in the world’s biggest market for the industry.”
  5. David Roberts of Grist argues that the “Solyndra sideshow” has “turned up nothing,” other than “a policy difference being legislated through a witch hunt.”
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There Are Far Better Candidates for Solitary Confinement than Tim DeChristopher!

Posted By Lowell F. on March 29th, 2012

To put it mildly, this is bizarre.

“Have you ever read Franz Kafka’s The Trial?”

That is the first thing that Patrick Shea, a member of jailed climate activist Tim DeChristopher’s legal defense team, says to me when I call him this morning to ask him about reports that DeChristopher has been pulled out of his minimum security camp at Herlong federal prison in California and thrown into isolated confinement in an 8 x 10-foot cell. His latest crime?  Sending an email to a colleague with a “threat” to give back a $25,000 donation to his legal defense fund because DeChristopher, one of the most principled people I have ever encountered, discovered that his donor was exporting U.S. manufacturing jobs.

If you don’t know the backstory to DeChristopher’s imprisonment, you can read about it here. (Short version: He was sentenced to two years in prison last July for having nonviolently disrupted a federal auction of oil and gas leases in 2008.) This case was a sham before it took this latest turn.  If there were any justice in the world, DeChristopher would have been pardoned before he ever set foot in jail.  The fact that it is now possible he will serve out the rest of his sentence in a tiny cell with only one break a week to go outside is an outrage, and one that should have everyone who cares about justice and the abuse of political power in America marching in the streets.

In short, this is Alice in Wonderland time. That’s right: the guy who stood up for saving taxpayers money gets thrown in jail – now in solitary – while a bunch of oil-funded clowns in Congress stand in the way of cutting wasteful welfare checks to oil companies, yet are living it up on Capitol Hill. Personally, I think there are far better candidates for jail time than Tim DeChristopher!

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Media Matters: “Stu Varney Hated Oil Subsidies Before He Loved Them”

Posted By Lowell F. on March 29th, 2012

This is mildly amusing, that is if you have a dark, ironic sense of humor.

Fox News’ business commentator Stuart Varney scolded President Obama yesterday for saying that oil companies enjoy “subsidies” at the expense of taxpayers. We shouldn’t use the word “subsidies,” Varney said, because they’re actually tax breaks. He added: “Drilling deductions are an encouragementto drill. Take them away? Less encouragement. Less drilling”…


Less than a year ago, Varney not only called the oil tax breaks “subsidies,” he agreed we need to “get rid of them” and specifically rejected the notion that oil companies would be less inclined to drill without the tax preferences.

Got that? According to Fox News commentator Stuart Varney, oil tax breaks were subsidies less than a year ago, but somehow in the past 300+ days they’re not subsidies anymore. What changed since then, other than higher gasoline prices due to a recovering world economy and tension in the Middle East?  Maybe someone should ask Stuart Varney, because we’re stumped.

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Five Energy Stories Worth Reading Today (3/29/12)

Posted By Lowell F. on March 29th, 2012

Here are five recommended reads for today (3/29/12)

  1. According to Forbes, California is “Poised to Launch [a] Program Eliminating The Upfront Cost of Energy Efficiency and Solar Upgrades.”
  2. ThinkProgress Green writes: “In a stirring floor speech, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) called for support of Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) bill to eliminate $24 billion in “immoral” subsidies for big oil companies, whose executives are pulling in tens of millions of dollars a year on rising gasoline prices.”
  3. The Washington Post reports, “On Wednesday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a 594-page study suggesting that when it comes to weather observations since 1950, there has been a “change in some extremes,” which stem in part from global warming.”
  4. According to Reuters, “Proposed emission rules for new power plants unveiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 27 spell the gradual demise of coal-fired power generation and entrench the current cost advantage for natural gas.”
  5. The Guardian reports, “Fears are growing that a naked flame on the top of a leaking gas rig could spark a massive explosion and lead to a major pollution incident in the North Sea.”
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MIT Study on “Future of the Electric Grid” Highly Problematic

Posted By Lowell F. on March 29th, 2012

A recent study by MIT, entitled “The Future of the Electric Grid,” finds that “integrating more renewables into the US grid will be costly and have unintended consequences, including potential for increased carbon emissions.” We find that this study is highly problematic, for a number of important reasons.

Before we get to our criticisms, here’s an excerpt from an analysis of this study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

[The MIT study] take[s] a near-term, incremental approach and look at the impact of variability on the power plants present on the system today in the context of the system as it is currently operated [instead of taking]… a long-term, system-wide view of the grid and…the full range of flexibility options to accommodate a large quantity of renewable electricity from variable sources…What the authors only mention briefly is that there are a host of other sources of flexibility that we can deploy as the share of renewables increases…The problem is that focusing on near term, incremental impacts of variable resources could incorrectly lead one to believe that while integration of variable generation brings with it discrete integration costs, integrating conventional units somehow does not.

NRDC’s criticisms are important, and we fully agree with them.  In addition, we read through the MIT study ourselves and found other problems, both of omission and commission, we believe are worth highlighting.

One issue that should certainly be noted is that the advisory committee members behind this report include numerous fossil fuel representatives, such as former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston. Among other things, Johnston helped pass “the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, a measure which has spurred a dramatic increase in deep water oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico,” and after his retirement from the U.S. Senate, served on the board of Chevron and as a lobbyist for the oil industry.

In addition to Johnston, the advisory board for this study includes: 1) a representative from Dominion Resources, which generates almost none of its electricity from renewable sources, and about half from coal; 2) a representative from American Electric Power, which generates two thirds of its electricity from coal; and 3) a representative from the Electric Power Research Institute, which has clearly had a less-than-positive view of clean energy in the past.

Not that it isn’t hypothetically possible for a panel led by fossil industry ringers to produce a fair, balanced report, but unfortunately, we don’t believe that this is one of those cases. A few other problems with this report include:

  • A failure to discuss the environmental costs of fossil fuels (e.g., a recent Harvard study indicated that the true cost of coal in the United States is around $500 billion per year, if you take into account “the multiple human health and environmental impacts of coal from mining to transport to combustion in coal power plants, and the waste stream that accompanies it.”)
  • A mention of subsidies only for clean energy, not for fossil fuels, even though fossil fuels historically have received many times more subsidies than solar, wind, etc.
  • No discussion whatsoever of the national security, economic, or health costs of fossil fuel reliance, even though these are enormous.
  • An explicit assumption that there will not be a carbon-constrained world, despite report after report indicating a pressing need for limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • A clearly biased/negative view of distributed generation, which is contrary to what many others believe.

With regard to the overall thrust of the MIT study, energy guru Amory Lovins‘ excellent article (A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge), in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, is well worth quoting from:

Skeptics of solar and wind power warn of their fluctuating output. But the grid can cope. Just as it routinely backs up nonworking coal fired and nuclear plants with working ones, it can back up becalmed wind turbines or darkened solar cells with flexible generators (renewable or not) in other places or of other kinds, or with systems that voluntarily modulate demand. Even with little or no bulk power storage, diversified, forecastable, and integrated renewables can prove highly reliable.

Such integration into a larger, more diverse grid is how in 2010 Denmark had the capacity to produce 36 percent of its electricity from renewables, including 26 percent from wind (in an average wind year), and how four German states were 43–52 percent wind-powered. But U.S. and European studies have shown how whole continents could make 80 percent or more of their power renewably by operating existing assets differently within smarter grids, in markets that clear faster and serve larger areas.

Clearly, Amory Lovins does not take the pessimistic, narrow, non-visionary view of the MIT study. To the contrary, Lovins points to real-world success stories for integrating renewables efficiently and securely into national power grids. How did the authors of the MIT study miss what is so clearly visible to Amory Lovins and many others?

In general, we believe it’s fair to say that the MIT study emphasizes many of the supposed negatives of distributed power and of moving towards a clean energy-powered economy, but fails to mention almost any of the positives of doing so, let alone many of the negatives of fossil fuels to the economy, national security, and environment.  For whatever reason(s), the MIT study fails to look at the long-term potential of clean energy,  given what’s actually happening in the real world (e.g., rapidly falling prices for clean energy, massive amounts of capital flowing into cleantech, tremendous growth in generating capacity), and in general takes a pinched, pessimistic view of what is actually a burgeoning, exciting industry into which investment is pouring (what do the MIT authors know that Warren Buffett does not?).

The conclusion of all this? If you only look at the good sides of one industry (fossil fuels) and the “challenges” of the other (clean energy), and if you fail to think beyond the narrow paradigm you’re boxed into, then it’s not a big surprise that you end up with the Don BlankenshipRex TillersonAubrey McClendon worldview.  Perhaps it’s time for MIT to get the fossil folks off the panel and start over on this one.

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