We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
A wise man once said you always double down when you are dealt eleven in Blackjack. Well, Deepwater Wind is pursuing economies of scale, and has effectively doubled down, increasing its proposed wind park from 100 to 200 turbines, lowering the cost of wind generated to 16 cents/kw. I detailed the long and complicated process of this development, here, here, and here; this study details the great potential of Atlantic offshore wind. Suffice it to say, this expansion bodes well for the approval and completion of the large-scale wind farm. Save the Bay’s Jonathan Stone, director of the largest and most prestigious environmental group in Rhode Island, supports the move. Rhode Island taxpayers will like the lower rates. This is a win-win.
As the last two years of the Obama Administration have made clear, crafting effective policy is complicated, difficult, and divisive; the proverbial comparison of the process of crafting laws with that of making sausage still rings true. However, the challenges which our President confronted in the first two years of his Administration, health care reform chief among them, pale in comparison to ‘Mount Sustainability,’ as Interface, Inc. CEO Ray Anderson likes to call the change required to make our consumption patterns, and more broadly, our lifestyles, sustainable. Sustainability is not an academic exercise; as the throughput of resources in our economies continues to grow, as those resources become more scarce, and as the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to provide services like fresh water and carbon sinks diminishes, we are confronted with a huge challenge: in a world of inequality, how do we craft policy that will help to move us onto a path of sustainability?
In the United States today, environmentally friendly choices are framed as the “Green” thing to do. However, Americans like to frame these decisions around choice; each individual is free to make their own choice, to live their own lives as they see it. As a result, sustainably-minded businessmen and policymakers provide information to consumers, and empower them to make their own decisions. Companies like Seventh Generation make the case that their products are the better choice because they use less toxic chemicals, or use recycled materials. The growth of these types of products, and the efforts of multi-national companies to begin to “Green” their products is undoubtedly a good start. However, when it comes to toxic chemicals and the harm that they have on human lives, there is much disagreement. It becomes difficult for the consumer to know what the responsible decision is, for their family’s health, for their community’s watershed, for their planet. We don’t fully understand the impact of certain carcinogens, or products like cellular phones, on long-term human health. As Barry Schwartz writes, too much choice can confuse consumers, and make them feel unsatisfied:
“So whereas a life without any freedom of choice would not be worth living, and whereas giving people choices enhances their freedom and their welfare to some degree, it appears not to be the case that more choice means more freedom and more welfare. Indeed, a point may be reached at which choice tyrannizes people rather than liberating them. And we may be at that point. The significant implication of this news, both for individuals andfor policy makers, is that even if wealth is a proxy for freedom of choice, it does not follow that wealth is a proxy for well-being.If well-being is what we ultimately care about in setting social policy, we will have to look elsewhere. And if we cant assume that we can make people better off just by giving them more to choose from, we can no longer avoid addressing difficult questions about what enhances human welfare by throwing options at people and letting them find their own answers.”
Schwartz argues for a kind of “libertarian paternalism,” whereby consumers would face simple choices, with information about the impact and benefit of each decision. Clear and common-sized information about the impacts of our economy and our consumption on resources is certainly needed. For example, water and fossil fuel use could be provided for each product sold on the marketplace, in a standardized, visible format. Communities should mandate home energy inspections which provide consumers with a clear indication of the costs of their resource use, where resources are being wasted, and how investments in insulation and more efficient systems could help consumers save money over time. States and cities should publicly finance installation of renewable energy systems, so that the long term cost and benefit of those systems can be passed onto a new homeowner when a house is sold.
Efficiency is not enough, though. As resources become more scarce, there will be economic pressure on consumers to reduce their consumption. People will eventually have to live closer to their workplace, and to live more simply. Today, when many Americans still believe that exponential growth is a guaranteed right, it is difficult to get them to make decisions and investments for the long term. The challenge to policy makers is to change that paradigm. It is not enough to simply be more efficient, we need to maximize the benefit we get from the resources we have. Consumers need to realize that the choices they make today will impact the way we live in the coming decades, and the world that their grandchildren will inherit.
On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read. McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:
“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”
McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability. I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear. While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet. He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza. McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:
“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine. Windmills will sprout across the prairies. It will be exciting. But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match. We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”
McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust. McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:
“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project. The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”
At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government. The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.
McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food. “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I). McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition. Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.
Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner. Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change). The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face. The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives. One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to. Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future. However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.
Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences. Eaarth is out now. Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.
For one day, Rhode Island entered the national political spotlight. President Obama was on his way into town to raise money for David Cicilline, the Providence Mayor who is running for Rhode Island’s First Congressional District. Frank Caprio, the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate who once shopped his candidacy to the Republican Party, is angry at the President for not endorsing him over rival Independent Candidate Linc Chafee. Of course, the President decided not to give an endorsement out of respect to Chafee, his friend from the Senate. Chafee endorsed the President in 2008, and a skeptic might call this quid pro quo.
So Caprio, in either a political calculation or a fit of rage, decided to go out on talk shows and tell the President he could take his endorsement and shove it. His strategy will backfire, much like the national Republican strategy will backfire. Caprio could have respectfully stated that the endorsement was not important, that the President must make his own decision, and Caprio would have appeared the mature leader. Instead, Caprio pulled out typical Rhode Island shenanigans by calling the non-endorsement “political.” Of course its political!
The President came into office with the intent of trying to mend the political divide, to nurture compromise and cooperation. The Republicans, from day one, decided to abstain from the problems of the day, and refused to compromise. They offered their blueprint, and claimed that if Democrats did not adopt it entirely, it was not bipartisanship. Lincoln Chafee is one of a dying breed – an honest to God centrist. He is willing to compromise and build coalitions. We need many more men like Chafee and President Obama. Republican Gubernatorial Candidate John Robitaille likes to criticize the “old politics” but his Republican Party is just as adept at playing them. Robitaille tells audiences what they want to hear, and talks in platitudes – Robitaille even hides his views on climate science.
The Republicans are unable to work effectively with Democrats to deal with the serious problems of our day. They have already shown that they are not ready to get down to the serious work of dealing with long term entitlement reform, climate change, and building a 21st Century economy in clean energy. Caprio has not shown the maturity or leadership qualities that our next Governor will need to deal with the serious challenges we face. Michael Bloomberg and President Obama are right about Chafee. He is the best choice for Governor of Rhode Island.
via On Politics
Nuclear power was never an emotional issue for me. Personally, I know the general theory of nuclear reactions, and have friends in the Nuclear Navy, an institution I always respected and valued. I grew up near Harrisburg, PA, where the Three Mile Island Reaction #2 melted down. So, you could say I was aware of both nuclear power’s advantages and dangers.
Nuclear power is, as always, in the news. Last year Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant in Vernon, VT, discovered an underground leak of tritium, a low-level byproduct of nuclear plants. Tritium did not get into drinking water or the Connecticut River, but it was close. I go to school near the plant, and when I heard about the tritium leaks, I did not understand what tritium was, but assumed that it was bad. However, when I looked over some of the critical data being used by environmentalists to oppose the extension of the plant license beyond 2012, I could not make heads or tails of it. It looked bad. Entergy Corp., based in Louisiana, did not seem to be running the 38-year-old plant in a safe manner.
Recently I read environmentalist icon Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist’s Manifesto, and I was struck by his unflinching support of Nuclear power. Brand is best known as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was designed to market goods and tools to counter-cultural, back-to-the land people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Brand’s new book begins with an update: “We are gods and we HAVE to get used to it.” Nuclear power is one of the tools that he prescribes to battle the big problem of our day, anthropogenic-induced global warming. Brand says of nuclear power, like other technologies that environmentalists often fear, that “those who know the most fear the least.”
Well, despite my background, I felt that I had a lot to learn about nuclear power. Brand recommended a book by journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. My trimester break, which ends Friday, seemed the perfect opportunity to take Brand’s challenge. Cravens is a novelist and a journalist, and she tells the story of nuclear power in a very clear and persuasive manner. She grew up in Albuquerque, near the home of the atomic bomb. In the 1980s she was an anti-nuclear protestor, and helped prevent a Long Island nuclear plant from opening. However, she met a man that helped change her mind about nuclear power.
Cravens follows Rip Anderson around the world of nuclear power. Anderson is a scientist with Sandia National Laboratories, and an environmentalist. He is a world-renowned nuclear safety expert, so impressive that the Soviet government selected him to head a team of scientists examining Chernobyl after the meltdown there. The book follows the journey of nuclear power, from old uranium mines in New Mexico, to working plants in the Carolinas, to the Yucca Mountain National Repository and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). I encourage everyone to read this book.
Like many environmentalists I am an advocate of alternative energy like wind, solar, and hydropower. However, only nuclear power can replace coal, because only nuclear can provide reliable baseload. In fact, compared to nuclear power, coal is much more dangerous. You wouldn’t think it, but coal, which provides over half of our electricity in the United States, exposes people to more low-level radiation than a nuclear plant; a 1000-megawatt coal plant freely disperses 27 metric tons each year, in fact. On top of that, coal plants are the leading polluter of mercury. Coal plants are not regulated like nuclear plants are, and that is why I would much rather live near a nuclear plant than a coal plant.
Cravens debunks misconceptions about radiation, waste, terrorism and safety. It was heartening to know that after living through the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the design of the plant made up for poorly trained operators and prevented any harm to Pennsylvanians. Next generation nuclear plants also offer great technological advantages that will help to make nuclear power even more safe and efficient.
Much controversy in nuclear power revolves around a hypothesis known as Linear Non Threshold (LNT). It is the assumption that the known health effects from high doses of radiation “may also be occurring at the same rate – or perhaps even a higher rate, in the low-dose realm.” In other words, this hypothesis states that radiation affects humans in a linear fashion, to the lowest possible dose. However, of a recent survey of 1,737 Department of Energy scientists, only 36% subscribe to this hypothesis. The majority believes that below a certain threshold, radiation does not affect the body. However, LNT underlies regulations about the management of nuclear plants and nuclear waste facilities. Low-dose radiation studies, which Anderson and many others in the industry advocate, may occur soon. Those studies will tell us a lot about the future of nuclear energy.
Just learning about all the naturally occurring background radiation gave me a lot of perspective. Now, when I look over the information about the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee, it no longer gives me pause. Sure, Vermont Yankee is an aging plant, and Entergy Corp. could have been more forthcoming with information about the plant, but that does not mean that a coal plant would be preferable to Vermont Yankee. This book deserves your attention.