Trouble In Paradise

You may have read about the “power struggle” in Oahu, Hawaii where the number of photovoltaic solar collectors, combined with other renewables, is now generating 200 megawatts of energy that the antiquated electric grid cannot handle. Or so say those who own the power companies. They worry about sudden power surges that will endanger their equipment and the appliances their customers depend upon. The problem is one that may face the rest of the nation in the future if  more and more people buy into alternative energy and the power companies must upgrade their equipment. Those companies will, of course, pass the costs along to their customers: we know they will not let it affect their bottom line. As a recent story on Yahoo News tells us:

What’s happening in Hawaii is a sign of battles to come in the rest of the United States, solar industry and electric utility executives said. The conflict is the latest variation on what was a controversial issue this year in top solar markets California and Arizona. It was a hot topic at a solar industry conference last week: how to foster the growth of rooftop solar power while easing the concerns of regulated utilities that see its rise as a threat.

The problem in Oahu is considerably more intense than it is elsewhere in this country as 40% of the homeowners on that island have rooftop collectors — as contrasted with 1.4% in California, the state with the next highest proportion of collectors in the country. But the point is that the power companies on the mainland are getting nervous about the loss of income, including increasing payouts they will suffer as more and more people generate their own electricity and sell back to the power companies the electricity they cannot use themselves.

The problem, of course, is that the power companies have the political clout to get laws passed that assure their continued profits — as was the case in Oahu where new customers will have to pay a surcharge to the power companies in order to get permission to install solar collectors in the future. The problem may be very real in Oahu where so many folks have chosen to go the way of alternative energy, but it is a small problem on this continent where so few people have made the same choice. None the less, we can still brace ourselves for the coming battles as sensible people who choose to help to save the planet, and save their electrical costs at the same time, ward off the slings and arrows of the power companies that have very full quivers.

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Bad News, Good News

As I have done in the previous blogs, I want to pass along several bits and pieces of environmental news culled from the pages of the monthly Sierra magazine. I will begin with the bad news first, because there is always some of that, and end with the news that provides a glimmer of hope for the planet.

Under the heading of “so what else is new” we find that 55 percent of the Republicans in Congress still deny climate change — and those people are all heavily supported by Big Oil. In the House, there are 128 climate deniers out of the 233 Republicans; in the Senate there are 30 climate deniers out of the 46 Republicans. Those deniers in the House collect $231,000 in contributions from Big Oil (as contrasted with $69,000 for the non-deniers). In the Senate, the deniers collect $699,000 whereas the non-deniers collect $171,000. I suppose we should be grateful that there are some who collect contributions from Big Oil who are willing to admit the truth that stares them in the face. But the correlation between the amount of money from Big Oil and the denial of the truth about our planet is stunning when seen in such detail.

To continue with the bad news for the moment, I shall simply list some of the items Sierra tells us will bring us “Up To Speed” about what’s going on in the world the past couple of months.

Ecuador has abandoned its pledge not to drill for oil in remote Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rain forest.

Fracking is now linked to an increase in U.S. earthquakes — as is geothermal power production.

High fertility rates in Africa have led demographers to revise their estimates of peak world population upwards. They now expect there to be 11 billion people by the end of the century — up from 7.1 billion. (I find this particularly unsettling since, as I have said in the past, I consider the population explosion the fundamental problem facing humankind, and the root of most of our other problems.)

Tons of radioactive water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant have leaked into the Pacific Ocean.

And now for some Good News!

The United States has installed 10 gigawatts of solar capacity, though it still trails Germany, Italy, and China.

The White House has re-installed solar panels put in place by Jimmy Carter and removed by Ronald Reagan.

The World Bank has declared that it will sharply restrict funding for the new coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank has declined to fund a huge new coal plant in Vietnam on environmental grounds.

The Bureau of Land Management lease sale for 149 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin failed to garner a single bid!

So, just when we are about to tear out what little hair we have left, we see faint signs that all humans have not lost their minds. Just remember what Red Green says: “we’re all in this together.” And “Keep your stick on the ice”!

A Third Alternative

In a recent blog I spoke of the delicate balance we must strike between the possible harm to wildlife and the environment and our development of alternative forms of energy. I suggested that despite the possible harm that might result from the development of solar and wind power, it is preferable to the continued reliance on oil and coal. I also suggested that the development of clean energy seems to be the “lesser of evils.” But, as Hannah Arendt reminds me, the lesser of evils is still evil. The problem with this type of reasoning is that it gives the appearance of providing moral support for a position that may not in fact be morally justifiable. It goes like this: A is preferable to B since A has the more acceptable consequences. But if A is still a bad thing, then we may say A is preferable only if there is not a third option, C which might be better than either A or B. In this case we simply assume that humans will continue to demand more and more energy and thus we will require more energy sources. But let’s check out that assumption.

Some years ago I led a conference at my university on the ethics of nuclear power usage, examining the pros and cons of the continued development of a “clean” source of energy that has built-in dangers — as we recently found out in Japan. A spokesman for the Texas Power and Light Company spoke while a nuclear chemist (who was also a medical doctor) spoke against nuclear power. At one point in the discussion the spokesman from Texas said that Americans shouldn’t have to alter their life style. And that’s the key. It’s not only a key to the nuclear power debate, but it is also the key to the delicate balance I am speaking about in this blog. The question is: why shouldn’t Americans alter their life-style?  We waste nearly 40% of the energy we burn, according to recent studies. Power plants waste an estimated 75% of the energy they use and all of us waste as much as 12% of the energy we use as “stand-by” energy because we don’t turn off appliances. And we keep our houses much warmer than we need to. With climate change continuing to raise the temperatures in this part of the world, we will use more and more energy to keep our houses cool in the Summer months as well.

But let’s just take the matter of the hot houses in the Winter. I recall a television commercial in which the actor left his home and with his telephone he reduced his thermostat in his empty home from 72 degrees to 68 degrees. And this was supposed to be exemplary behavior! But think about that: he is heating his house to 68 degrees while there is no one inside that house! It’s bad enough that he keeps the house at 72 degrees while he is inside, but leaving it at that setting while it is empty is irresponsible if not downright stupid. I live in Minnesota where it does get cold in the Winter and we set our thermostat at 62 degrees in the daytime and at 59 degrees at night. That’s why God invented sweaters (and blankets), my wife tells me. It took a bit of getting used to, but I wouldn’t want it any other way now. And I have seen films of Inuit people inside their igloos with naked babies where we are told the temperatures are in the low 50’s. It is really a question of getting used to a new “life-style.” And if our current life-style is wasteful, why shouldn’t we alter it?

We can do so if we choose to do so. With a serious attempt at conservation we could use less energy and we could also do a better job of protecting wildlife and the environment. I wonder how many of those folks in Martha’s Vineyard who want to protect Nantucket Sound set their thermostats down at night and when they are not at home? (I’m just sayin’). As long as there is a viable alternative, the lesser of evils is still evil, as Arendt says, and we could be doing better.

Delicate Balance

In the struggle to make inroads against Big Oil and Coal the renewable energy industry on occasion meets with obstacles from the unlikeliest sources. For example, an attempt to build an off-shore wind farm in the North Atlantic has met with considerable opposition from a group of wealthy individuals who have formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The grounds of their opposition are, surprisingly enough, a presumed concern for the environment and the wildlife that will be impacted by the wind generators. Now, we can debate the question of whether this group is really concerned about the environment and/or the wildlife — the wealthy seldom seem to be. It’s quite possible that they simply don’t want to look out of their picture windows from their ocean-side estates and see a plethora of whirling propellers. But that point is moot.

The fact remains there are serious and sober concerns on the part of a great many people about the consequences of placing wind generators or solar collectors in certain parts of the world. A thoughtful article by Tom Zeller in “The Blog” published by HuffPost recently attempted to spell out the problems. In the midst of a very thorough and balanced analysis, Zeller made the following remarks that seem to present the strongest case for continuing to develop alternative energy at the risk of endangering wildlife and even the environment:

“Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation’s thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power — not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate — some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.”

And that’s the issue: it is a question of trade-offs. The possible harm to the environment and to wildlife in the area of Nantucket must be balanced against the benefits, especially in light of the alternatives to renewable energy which have a terrible history of destruction to both wildlife and the environment, not to mention human health. It would appear to be the lesser of evils. But the issue will be settled in the courts and it will be most interesting to see how the judgment comes down, given the considerable weight the opponents to the wind farm in that region of the world can bring to bear.

Not so in the Mojave desert, however, where Bright Source has already begun to develop the country’s largest solar facility. The issue here is the danger to the desert tortoise and it has already cost Bright Source $56 million to try (not altogether successfully)  to protect the animal through relocation. This has not satisfied many critics who want clean energy but are unwilling to put any creature at risk in the process. Again, it is a delicate balance and one that humans have not shown themselves adept at managing in the past. As a species we seem to prefer intellectual extremes to the middle and would rather lean left or right rather than to balance upright.

But it is encouraging that steps to produce clean energy are being taken slowly and with every possible attempt to do as little damage as possible to the environment and to wildlife. Clearly, some damage is inevitable — though they seem to rotate at a snail’s speed, the tips of the giant wind generators, for example, travel at 100 MPH and there aren’t many birds that can avoid being clipped by one of those blades from time to time. But, given our increasing demand for energy, how much damage is acceptable — especially in light of the certainty of damage to both wildlife and the environment from such things as oil spills and the discharge from burning coal? That is the question.

Green Jobs

The current Sierra magazine has some interesting and encouraging information that should allow us to bury the myth about how pursuing clean energy will cost the country jobs and how we should continue to support dirty energy “where the jobs are.” Bollocks! Let me quote a part of the brief article directly. (If you want detailed information about the study referred to you can go to this link: rael.berkley.edu/greenjobs.)

“For years the dirty energy industry has warned of massive job losses if the nation switches to clean energy. It’s dead wrong. Max Wei, Shana Patadia, and Daniel Kammen of the University of California at Berkley reviewed 15 recent studies of the job-creation potential of various energy sources and found that renewables generate more jobs per unit of energy delivered than do fossil fuels.”

The article then gives a chart showing the comparisons between the clean energy industries and the dirty energy industries that is quite striking. It reveals that the clean energy industries create 62.74 jobs per megawatt of energy produced as contrasted with the dirty energy industry that only produce 25.7 jobs per megawatt. The contrast is remarkable; clean energy is led by the solar photovoltaic industry which produces 32.71 jobs per megawatt — more than the dirty energy industry taken all together. The jobs in both categories are in construction, manufacturing, installation, and maintenance.

The “clean” energy industries include not only solar photovoltaic but “concentrating solar,” wind, and geothermal. The “dirty” energy industries studied include nuclear, coal, and natural gas. It should be noted that the latter three industries are currently being touted by politicians and the industry itself as “cleaner” than ever because coal has become “clean,” which is not strictly true; nuclear is touted as clean because it doesn’t produce heat — while it produces toxic waste that cannot be disposed of safely and always poses the threat of a meltdown; and natural gas is regarded as clean despite the fact that it is now obtained by “fracking,” a process that uses thousands of gallons of precious water which becomes contaminated and cannot be purified and reused afterwards. So, despite the attempts to pull the wool over out eyes, the word “dirty” is indeed appropriate when applied to these industries.

The fact that the Republicans are nearly united in their opposition to clean energy can only be accounted for by the fact that Big Oil makes such huge profits they can afford to dole out the big bucks to curry political favors, whereas the clean energy industry does not. But I do think that despite the likes of the Koch brothers and their friends clean energy will become the main source of energy in the future in this country and one must wonder when the oil and gas companies will climb aboard. Surely they see the handwriting on the wall?

In any event, let us have a moment of silence in memory of another dead myth. After that moment has passed we can spend another moment wishing like hell that the Congress will get its act together sooner rather than later and throw its support behind a collection of industries that have this sort of job potential. Talk about helping the economy — and the earth at the same time!

Mitt’s Energy Plan

Mitt Romney recently revealed the energy plan he would pursue if elected President. From an environmental standpoint it is a disaster, which is no surprise. After all this is the man who just raised $7 million in one day from Big Oil. Bearing in mind that this plan was revealed in a speech by a politician running for public office, we can take it with a grain of salt. None the less it reveals his mindset at present.

His plan involves opening federal lands to oil and gas exploration — leaving drilling permission to local states (thereby reducing considerably the effectiveness of the E.P.A.); it will allow drilling for oil off the East Coast of Virginia and the Carolinas; it will promote the Keystone Oil Pipeline, which Mitt has pledged to complete if he “has to build it with [his] own hands.” As a recent article in the Washington Post put it:

Getting there, Romney argues, will require three big things. First, the United States will need to open up more federal lands and waters to oil and gas drilling. President Obama, he says, has been far too sluggish on this front. Second, the federal government will need to give states more power to approve permits, in order to speed up the rate of drilling. And third, Romney would focus on building pipelines like Keystone XL and partnerships with Canada and Mexico to take fuller advantage of those countries’ oil resources. (Remember, Romney is promising “North American energy independence,” not U.S. energy independence.)

The plan, which touts “energy independence” for North America makes no mention of clean energy. In fact, it would eliminate subsidies for wind and solar energy, thereby discouraging alternate energy development. And there is no talk whatever of such cutting-edge projects as research into nuclear fusion or harnessing energy from the ocean tides. Mitt’s plan is all about “jobs.” He claims that his plan would create 3.6 million jobs. Here we go again.

To begin with, this plan commits the fallacy of bifurcation: either we create jobs or we save the planet, we can’t do both. Bollocks! We can do both. As I noted in a recent blog, The Union of Concerned Scientists has proposed  “a national renewable-electricity standard that ensured that utilities obtained at least 25 percent of their power from wind, solar, and bioenergy by 2025,” insisting that this would “create 297,000 new jobs, $13.5 billion in income to rural landowners, and $15.3 billion in new local tax revenues.”

But more importantly it is generally agreed that the 3.6 million jobs promised by this politician is an inflated figure. The actual number of jobs would be much lower. Further, jobs created during an oil boom are temporary and are almost always created at the cost of jobs elsewhere: people leave lower paying jobs to take the high-paying, albeit temporary, oil jobs. So the word “create” is being used in a very creative way here.

The truly disturbing thing about this plan is that it is completely out of tune with the times. For one thing, as the Bloomberg News reported recently, the U.S. is closer to energy independence at present than Romney would allow.

The U.S. is now closer to energy independence than anyone who waited in 1970s gas lines could have imagined. As Bloomberg News reports, oil imports fell to about 45 percent of U.S. demand last year and are expected to fall to about 42 percent this year, down from a peak of 60 percent in 2005. More than 80 percent of the country’s demand for power is now met by domestic sources. . .

Furthermore, this plan focuses on “jobs” and “energy independence” at the expense of the planet at a time when we should be concentrating on ways to protect the earth from further deterioration at the hands of greedy humans — while we might at the same time actually be creating jobs in the clean energy industry. Thus it would appear as I suggested in an earlier blog, this election is not about choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Despite the fact that Barack Obama has been somewhat disappointing, he has not mounted an attack on the environment and he has not targeted social programs that benefit the poor. We do have a real choice.

Rebuttal!

I recently (June 7th) posted a blog titled “Repercussions” dealing with the fact, as I supposed then, that the energy companies would be forced to raise the costs of energy to the poorer customers who cannot afford solar panels if the wealthier (and more socially aware) customers continue to go solar. It seemed reasonable to me at the time (it was based on a New York Times article, after all!), and I simply hoped aloud that the energy companies would have enough sense to realize that they should climb aboard the clean energy bandwagon and become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem. But it turns out I bought a line of rhetoric the energy companies themselves are spewing and I want to clear up the mess.

In an article online recently David Sirota deals directly with the claim summarized above:

Also misleading is the implicit notion that Big Energy would somehow be forced to jack up rates in order to recover the small amount of revenue allegedly lost to solar panel owners. A perusal of the profit margins of the fossil fuel and electric utility sector shows how absurd that idea is. These are the opposite of destitute industries subsisting on razor-thin margins; they have plenty of profit cushion to absorb an infinitesimal loss of revenue from solar panels. That means when they raise rates, they are protecting those eye-popping margins, not being forced into anything by any economic circumstance.

In a word, the energy companies will claim that they need to raise costs to poorer customers in order to try to justify future increases and create an atmosphere of doubt and confusion — as was the case in my blog. I daresay there may be higher costs to non-solar customers on their way but they are not necessary: they will be an attempt on the part of the power companies to profit from the situation and to weaken the clean energy industry. I should have known. Given the terrible track record of the large corporations when it comes to assaulting the environment and their fixation on increasing profits no matter what, it should have been obvious that their claim that rates will necessarily have to rise if people keep going solar is the little boy crying “wolf.” There is no wolf: there is simple greed and it is not new; we have grown used to it.

I do think it would be sound business for the energy companies to stop crying “wolf” and to get on board the solar and wind energy bandwagon. If Warren Buffett has enough confidence in the clean energy business to invest a good deal of his money, it would make sense for the energy companies to simply buy into the industry and become partners instead of trying to compete by means of deceit and deception — as when David K. Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute announced publicly, “Low-income customers can’t put on solar panels – let’s be blunt. So why should a low-income customer have their rates go up for the benefit of someone who puts on a solar panel and wants to be credited the retail rate?” Sirota has a rejoinder:

. . . the utilities’ argument is first and foremost undermined by the reality of the consumer market for solar power. The fact is, many solar integrators are now offering  zero-dollars-down lease packages for homes to go solar — packages that save ratepayers money over the long haul and eliminate a major income barrier to going solar. Yes, it’s certainly true that one typically has to own a home (and thus a roof) to go solar, and that therefore home ownership unto itself is an income threshold. However, the blanket statement that “low income customers can’t put on solar panels” is, to say the least, misleading.

Deceit and deception seem to be matters of course for large corporations these days — anything in the name of profit.  But I will continue to hope that eventually some (at least) of the large companies will realize that ethics and business can be conjoined and need not be forever at loggerheads.

Repercussions

As readers of my blog will have noted, I am a staunch supporter of clean energy. In fact, I selected a number of “heroes” on the basis of their contributions to saving the planet and have strong feelings about the unfettered greed that is Big Oil and giant corporations generally. But a New York Times article recently raised an interesting issue that is worth reflection. As the solar industry grows and prospers those who cannot afford solar energy are paying a price. Those who are able to install solar collectors on their homes and businesses are now able to sell some of the energy back to the power companies. But this cuts into the profits of the power companies who are starting to complain — and pass their losses along to the remaining customers. As the article says, focusing on a particular solar customer,

Mr. Burman says the credit system, known as net metering, is a “very nice benefit” for him. But it’s not such a good deal for his utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.

As he and tens of thousands of other residential and commercial customers switch to solar in California, the utilities not only lose valuable customers that help support the costs of the power grid but also have to pay them for the power they generate. Ultimately, the utilities say, the combination will lead to higher rate increases for everyone left on the traditional electric system.

In a word, as those at the top end benefit, those on the bottom suffer. It’s an old story and a sad one. There are a number of things that can be said about the problem, however,  starting with the obvious point that the situation is temporary and eventually, if we hang in there, the benefits will be passed along to all. Renewable energy is a benefit not only to customers, but to everyone on this planet. But the notion that some should make sacrifices now to benefit all later on is suspect — especially when a few benefit immediately and many of those who cannot afford solar panels are made to pay increased energy prices. It’s a certainty that the energy companies aren’t going to take a loss!

Of course, a great many people will claim they cannot afford to install solar panels though they simply have different priorities. Higher energy costs will provide an incentive for those people to do the right thing. But there are many who really cannot afford the conversion and those are the people who are being hurt by the move to solar and wind. There is, of course, a solution.

As things now stand, Big Oil gets anywhere from $10 billion to $52 billion a year in subsidies from the U.S. government (estimates vary).  I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t really matter. Suppose those subsidies, or even a part of them, were transferred to the clean energy industry!  Unfortunately, as we all know, those in Congress who might vote to change these subsidies are in the pockets of the oil and gas industries and aren’t about to change their thinking. In fact, President Obama failed recently to cut $4 billion from the subsidies. But if those in Congress somehow could be prevailed upon to do so, those subsidies might be shifted to the clean energy industry to allow companies like Pacific Gas and Electric to maintain current costs to customers with low incomes while the solar industry gets a toe-hold and is able to bring its costs down to levels affordable by all. In other words, the subsidies that now benefit Big Oil could actually benefit the country as a whole. The power companies could cut their losses by buying into clean energy (hey, we’re imagining here!).

Wouldn’t that be something? A government that works for us instead of them! Do I think such a thing will ever happen? Of course not. But I can dream, can’t I?