April 10, 2006

Shaping an Energy Policy for Global Warming

In January's State of the Union speech, George W Bush declared that Americans were addicted to oil and he had a plan for ending that addiction. Unfortunately, President Bush's proposals do almost nothing to cure the addiction. Rather, they are designed to set America on the wrong path for energy independence in the future. Bush's energy policy is heavily focused on non-renewable technologies such as subsiding the coal and nuclear industries and drilling in the Artic Wilderness and off our coasts in order to meet America's future energy needs. Nevertheless, there is some very good news on the energy front which can address America's future energy needs.

The effectiveness of America's energy policy is directly connected to our national security and our ability to deal with problems due to global warming. As Bush conceded, we Americans are too dependent on foreign oil and when the world is as volatile as it is, our dependence on oil puts us doubly at risk. Unfortunately, much of the world's oil reserves are found in the Middle East and, today, the political climate in the Middle East is getting worse, not better. Before the war, Iraq was producing 2 million bpd (barrows per day). By the end of 2005, Iraq production was down to 1.4 million bpd, and the growing insurgency threatens even that output. Add to this, the recent threat to the Saudi Arabia's large oil facility which threatened to affect two-thirds of the Saudi oil production and you can see that the world is greatly exposed from its reliance on oil and the volatility of our times.

All this comes at a time when the global economy is consuming more oil than ever, particularly in the booming economies of China and India. Most knowledgeable observers believe that the world has passed the point of Peak Oil -- the point when the world will have consumed over 50% of the oil reserves available (therefore we won't see more capacity come on line to make up for the market demand) and the oil left to tap will be increasingly more expensive to extract. This means oil will assuredly get more expensive because more people are competing for a dwindling capacity.

President Bush is right; we are addicted to oil. We cannot drill ourselves out of our addiction, so we must find alternatives. Here's what President Bush proposed:

"So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy."

Finding a way to reduce our dependence on foreign energy is clearly a worthwhile goal. But, Bush's priorities are defined by his budget; and his energy policy prescriptions are wrong for the country and for our future both in effectiveness and in priorities. Under Bush's budget, the majority of the funding goes to nuclear energy, with a 10 to 1 margin promoting coal technology over wind technology, and almost nothing to increase our energy efficiency. For example, programs that encourage greater efficiency, such as the EnergyStar credits program for consumers when they purchase low-energy appliances, have been zeroed out of this year's budget.

Perhaps you are asking, why shouldn't we be promoting nuclear energy? The problem is two-fold: nuclear energy is a remarkably poor solution when thinking about the requirements for having a cheap and reliable source of power and also when considering our energy security needs.

When we look at our preparedness for handling national emergencies, one of the major problems we have is a very brittle energy infrastructure. The founder of Rocky Mountain Institute (a non-profit organization dedicated to finding efficient use of energy resources), Amory Lovins, pointed out in RMI's Spring 2006 newsletter that one of the most important aspects to deal with when thinking about national security is the resilience of our energy infrastructure. The August 2003 energy blackout experienced throughout the upper northeast was an explicit example of the problem with a large, centralized energy grid that is incapable of responding to a failure on the grid. In fact, the systems that were the most affected by that outage were the nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants do not like abrupt shutdowns and are very slow to bring back online after a shutdown. When that blackout happened, the nuclear plants took 5 days to get back to half power and over 8 days to get up to 90% output. This hardly makes them a flexible and dependable element in a robust power grid.

Furthermore, nuclear power stations are particularly dependent on water for cooling. In summer 2003, Europe was struck with the worst heat wave in its recorded history. A number of nuclear power stations had to be shut down because river levels fell so much they could no longer cool the plants. But that was precisely when the need for energy was greatest. We know that global warming will only make this problem worse.

RMI's Lovins noted that Katrina exposed another critical point of failure in our energy infrastructure. Because the giant pipeline systems delivering most of the eastern states' petroleum products were built on top of systems which need electric power to operate, the entire eastern seaboard struggled to keep emergency power generators going. We need to make our energy systems less dependent on technology -- more decoupled and less centralized -- in order to provide the energy infrastructure we need for the future.

Furthermore, despite the wishes of the proponents of nuclear energy, the market has decided that nuclear power is not worth the effort. For over 50 years, the US government has tried to make nuclear energy the market winner by providing the industry vast subsidies. Amory Lovins wrote in RMI's Fall 2005 newsletter:

The nuclear enterprise has been soundly beaten by its decentralized competitors, even though the competitors received 24 times smaller US federal subsides per kWh in FY 1984 … and were often blocked from fairly connecting to the grid.

And he goes on to say there have been enormous savings in energy efficiencies than what the nuclear industry has provided which are shaping today’s market. How much, we can’t tell because we don't have a way to measure energy not used because of improved efficiency.

Even so, nuclear proponents continue to promote nuclear power as the answer to our future energy needs. The latest energy bill signed by Bush provided some astonishing incentives for the nuclear industry including 80 percent loan guarantees, $2 billion of public insurance against legal or regulatory delays, an additional 1.8 cent/kWh in operating subsidies, payment for late acceptance for hazardous waste, capping liability for mishaps, free offsite security and another $1.3 billion tax break for decommissioning funds. Under that bill all risk is absorbed by tax payers and the promoters don't even have to invest much of their own money. But as Lovins shows, even with all this largess, the market is far from interested in building new nuclear power stations because it is more risky, more expensive and vastly less attractive than other technologies.

So what is the answer? It is a combination of renewable energy and greater efficiency. That upstart energy technology, wind power, has been doing very well lately. In 2005, wind energy capacity expanded by 35% in the United States making the US the leading supplier and consumer of wind energy in the world, bringing online an additional 2,500 MW. Currently wind energy gets a subsidy of 1.9 cents per kWh for the first 10 years of production resulting in a fixed cost of about 3-5 cents per kWh for at least 15 years. With the increase in natural gas prices, energy produced in a gas-powered plant now costs at least 7 cents per kWh, which means wind energy is more competitive than gas even without a subsidy. And unlike nuclear power, once a wind farm is set up, the ongoing costs for fuel is zero and the maintenance to keep it running is negligible. And remember that problem of having to make our energy infrastructure more resilient? Wind energy is highly decentralized and highly localized so it also is a better match for our national security requirements as well. And it has zero pollutants.

So what can we do to prepare for the future? We can work with organizations like the Alliance to Save Energy to demand that funding for important programs like the Energy Star and Building Code Assistance program for consumers and the Federal Energy Management program used to save energy (and US tax dollars) in federal buildings be restored because these programs are worth their weight in gold and should not be zeroed out so we can subsidize nuclear power which even the market thinks is a loser. We can buy energy efficient lights and appliances. For more ideas, look at the Alliance to Save Energy's website to see what recommendations they make for your state. (Here's the guide for Nebraska.) And buy green energy from your local power company – in Colorado, those who signed up for green energy are seeing their energy costs go down this winter while others are paying more.

We can build demand for better solutions that are not only more efficient but also less polluting. The best news is these solutions will not only make our nation stronger, cost less in the long run, but also reduce greenhouse gases that cause global warming. What more can we ask?

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the March 2006 issue.]

I also want to compliment Jerome a Paris for his excellent series of articles on energy he has published on Daily Kos. Here's a very good one covering the convergence of energy, global warming and peak oil.

Posted by Mary at April 10, 2006 11:37 PM | Energy | Technorati links |