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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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.

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.