Category Archives: energy future

Signs of the Times

I don’t know what to say about the fact that Kentucky’s Coal Museum is powered by solar panels but …. here it is, folks:

Tre’ Sexton said he was surprised when his company, Bluegrass Solar, was approached about the project. If there was one building in eastern Kentucky that wouldn’t have a solar-power system, you’d think it would be the coal museum, he said.

“Really the first time that I sat down and was talking about it with everybody, I was like…are you for real? They’re really going to go for this?” Sexton said. “I mean, that would be like showing up at a bank and they ask you if you’d mind taking some of this money out of the vault.”

But putting solar panels on top of the coal museum makes sense economically, Sexton said. Public attractions like this one can’t be profitable if they’re dealing with expensive electric bills every month. And people in eastern Kentucky are becoming more interested in alternative energy options.

There’s been a lot of discussion about coal and coal jobs lately, mostly because everyone always panders to coal states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania during election season. Both sides do it, and both sides are wrong. I mean, Republicans are the worst — Trump is famously making promises he can’t deliver, while Republicans are hanging sick retired miners out to dry. Democrats can be just as bad, though. Remember Alison Grimes, running for Kentucky Senate, criticizing President Obama on the loss of coal jobs? Her “concern” was such obvious bullshit, everyone knew it, and of course she got called on it.

Democrats and Republicans need to just stop this nonsense. These are not stupid people. They know their industry is dying. Stop promising to pull a Lazarus on a dying industry. It’s like it’s 1910 and politicians are promising to bring back wagons and farriers. I wonder how a politician of either party would fare if they came into coal country and said, “look, market forces have changed, coal has been replaced, let’s transition your economies to other industries with aggressive economic development and education programs.”

Would that get respect or a barrage of lying SuperPac ads? Probably the latter. That was basically Hillary Clinton’s message, and we all know how well that went over. Thing is, people just want to dream the impossible dream. Lie to me, please. Tell me that you can save my local coal mine, even if that one in Pennsylvania is shutting down. No, these people aren’t stupid, they’re desperate. Desperation is a hard emotion to address during a campaign.

But here we are. That the fucking Kentucky Coal Museum is being powered by solar panels because it’s more economical just says it all, doesn’t it? Coal has been dying for decades, and it’s not because of Obama or the EPA, it’s because of “market forces” and the damn numbers, folks. They don’t add up:

Coal mining jobs, meanwhile, have also fallen 70% since 1985, a loss of 120,000 jobs.

The coal industry has lost much of its customer base not because of regulations but because natural gas production has soared, pushing down the price of that cleaner source of electrical power.

In addition, falling costs for green energy, such as solar and wind power, have cut the demand for coal. So has a move by overseas markets, like China, to shift away from coal in an attempt to clean up badly polluted air.

Lots of people wonder why every election we pander to an industry that accounts for around the same number of employees as Whole Foods Markets:

It’s a good question. I have to say, this is an issue where both sides get it way wrong. I love the anti-fracking people on the left, you know, the ones who just couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s “pro-fracking” and that’s a dealbreaker. Well then, are you in favor of climate change? Are you pro-mountaintop removal mining? Because those are the choices right now. Coal is dying — has been dying, for decades — because natural gas is ascending, and we get natural gas from fracking. So pick your poison.

And yes, solar and wind are good options but we do not have the infrastructure to transition our entire economy to these sources overnight. Our grid can’t accommodate it right now. We need that “Apollo program for energy” that we’ve been promised, but it’s not happening yet. So it has to happen in bits and pieces. Like the Kentucky Coal Museum putting solar panels on its roof, or this coal operation in eastern Kentucky planning a solar farm on a reclaimed strip mine.

We pander to an industry that supplies fewer than 100,000 jobs because there’s a lot of history attached to it and it’s a cultural touchstone. Much of “coal country” is in a culturally rich part of the nation which has supplied America with its most beloved artists, music and literature.

I’m shocked that as much as we pander to this region, we haven’t offered any realistic plan to bail it out this time around. You know, like we did in the 1930s with the creation of TVA, or Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Maybe it’s a sign of our dysfunctional government that we just can’t do big things anymore.

Donald Trump can’t save the coal industry. Neither can Republicans. Nor can Democrats. Coal communities are going to have to find the answer within:

The old mind-set that the region needs a big jobs provider – like coal – is hard to break. Younger generations watch their parents endure unsteady employment and worry about their own prospects. Older generations can’t visualize a different way forward.

One mistake outsiders make, many here say, is thinking all this is actually about coal. It’s not. It’s more about the life coal provided. Where else could you earn $80,000 a year with a high school education or less?

“Embrace the change or be left behind,” says Jeff Combs of Hazard, Ky., standing outside a bed-and-breakfast on a hill overlooking the community’s nearly vacant downtown. “Be open-minded. Be open-minded to more.” Mr. Combs’s father, a former coal miner, implored him to avoid the mines. It was tough work, dangerous and unhealthy in the long term. Combs’s father was on disability in his 50s.

Is there a politician out there with the guts and fortitude to offer a little tough love? Who can say, point blank, times have changed and you have to change with them? Today’s jobs require education and skills, that’s just the reality. Gone are the days when you could drop out of high school and earn a good living in the mines. That’s over. Blaming treehuggers or liberals isn’t going to change that. But blaming others for things we feel powerless to change just feels so much better, doesn’t it?


Filed under energy conservation, energy future, environment, solar energy

Should We Nationalize The Grid?

This happened in Nashville yesterday:


A flotilla of kayakers paddled through downtown Nashville on the Cumberland River on Saturday, holding a banner reading: “Let’s move TVA beyond coal.”

It was a message from the Sierra Club, highlighting what it sees as a need for stronger federal standards to limit toxic water pollution from coal-fired power plants. Ultimately, the group is calling for the shuttering of Tennessee Valley Authority coal plants.

TVA’s coal plants have brought us tragedies like the Kingston coal ash spill, which as I observed at the time was merely an extreme example of a widespread problem. Tennessee is uniquely suited to solar and TVA could easily expand its popular Generation Partners program. Through this program, people like us who have solar panels on our residential rooftops sell our extra production to TVA at a slight premium. It’s small compared to other states — 12-cents a kWh, plus the retail rate (which fluctuates but right now is 9 cents a kWh) — but it helps to offset the enormous cost of installing these systems.

Instead of expanding its renewables, TVA has engaged in a bit of foot-dragging. This is not surprising to anyone with a brain; unless there’s some kind of cap-and-trade or carbon tax program put into play, utilities — even quasi-public ones like TVA — really don’t have an incentive to play nice with people like us, other than for the obvious PR value.

Sure, groups like the Sierra Club can remind everyone of the enormous costs of coal, and how alternatives like nuclear are not really economically viable, either. Last I checked, the Kingston mess cost TVA (and us ratepayers) $1 billion.

But while rooftop solar makes a lot of sense economically, it’s also the power industry’s biggest threat. There’s simply no reason why a power company would want to hand over power production to the people. We’re technically putting them out of business, one rooftop at a time. Instead of us buying power from them, we’re selling it to them. That kinda turns the power provider/customer relationship on its head.

And increasingly, the utilities are not happy about it.

Alarmed by what they say has become an existential threat to their business, utility companies are moving to roll back government incentives aimed at promoting solar energy and other renewable sources of power. At stake, the companies say, is nothing less than the future of the American electricity industry.

According to the Energy Information Administration, rooftop solar electricity — the economics of which often depend on government incentives and mandates — accounts for less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s power generation.

And yet, to hear executives tell it, such power sources could ultimately threaten traditional utilities’ ability to maintain the nation’s grid.

This is the age-old conundrum that goes back to the ’70s when President Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. If individual households can generate their own power, then what do we need big utilities for? It’s the “hard path”/”soft path” debate we’ve always had. Big solar farms or individual rooftops? Right now it’s a mixture of both but off on the sidelines, behemoth utilities are trying to push out the little guys: yes, we can have a few mom and pop rooftop operations, for the photo op, but not too many. Too many and suddenly nobody needs Duke Energy anymore.

And of course the issue has become even more pressing as our transportation gets electrified, and as technological advances make storage less of an issue. If TVA wants to dick around with us solar folks, screw ’em. We’ll go off the grid.

Ah, the grid. So, the utilities say, we maintain this grid, and you use it when you leave your solar-powered home, so suck it up. They may have a point, but the solution is simple: nationalize the grid.

Seriously, why the hell not? The power grid is a mess, a hodgepodge cobbled together with spit and a prayer. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the power grid in recent weeks and I’m definitely not an expert but it sure seems like we desperately need to make a big change, soon. And it seems like the country’s electrical grid, like things like highways and the armed forces, is something you want to be uniform and reliable and stable, without the fluctuations that come when you let “market forces” do the picking.

So far the only thing I’ve seen about nationalizing the power grid are on far-right tinfoil hat conspiracy websites. They seem to find the idea verrry scaaaary. But no one has told me why nationalizing the power grid is a bad idea, aside from a reflexive allergic reaction to the word “nationalize.” (For people who profess to love the nation so much, I don’t get that … but whatever!)

The energy sector is changing faster than anyone anticipated. I can foresee a day in, say, 15 years when individual homes and businesses are powered by rooftop solar, we all drive around on electric cars, and vehicle-to-building technology is as ordinary as apple pie. I know it’s hard for some folks to imagine that the authoritarian Big Daddy utility may be going the way of the dinosaur, but if their best argument against technological advancement is, “it will put us out of business,” well, my answer is: so what. Adapt or die.

It’s kinda like our health insurance industry. What purpose do they serve any more? They aren’t pooling risk to lower cost, which was their reason for existence in the first place. All they do is skim profit off the top to buy an insurance company CEO a gigantic house. Sorry, but that’s kind of a sign that your business model is now rrelevant. If that’s the best case you can make, well, sorry, Charlie.

We aren’t there yet for power companies, not even close … but it appears the mere threat of such a thing has utilities shitting their pants. To which I say: adapt or die. Why should we keep you around just for nostaligia’s sake? Good lord, if the Tea Party and Americans For Prosperity had been around 100 years ago, they’d have been fearmongering about automobiles and telling us how great the horse and wagon is.

I dunno. We need to start getting shit done in this country. Has everyone forgotten about the time the Northeastern power grid failed? That 10th anniversary is right around the corner. That might be a good time for us to start talking about this stuff.


Filed under energy future, energy production, solar energy, TVA

TVA, Killing Us Softly

We need to have a little chat about the Tennessee Valley Authority, aka, TVA (and by the way, on a “you didn’t build that” note? If you live in the seven-state Tennessee Valley region — almost all Red States, let me add — you are enjoying cheap power made possible by every taxpayer in the US of A. If you’ve got a factory or a business? You didn’t build that. Think VW or Nissan would open a factory here if we didn’t have a ready and reliable supply of cheap power? Yeah, seems the free market fairies didn’t have any incentive to wave their magic wands over this part of the country and bring flood control and electricity to the hicks and hayseeds here. It took that Commie Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress to do that. So suck on that one, why don’t you. But I digress).

First of all, TVA is ending its Generation Partners Program at the end of September and replacing it with something less attractive. They’re touting a 20-year contract, but they’re only buying energy at a premium (retail rate plus x-cents per KwH) for 10 years, and that amount is less than what those of us currently in the program receive. So they’re locking you in for a longer contract and paying you less. I’m still unclear as to what happens after 10 years, if they’ll just pay the base rate or if they expect you to give them the energy you generate for free. Surely … not?

With that in mind, let’s look at some other facts.

1- TVA really, really needs to improve its alternative energy investment. Like, really. On my latest “Green Power Switch” newsletter (that’s where customers voluntarily buy blocks of renewable energy at a cost of $4 per unit each month. It helps pay for stuff like the Generation Partners program), it broke down by actual percent which renewables comprise that program. Solar is a paltry 8%, which considering the investment in solar in this state — and the potential in the entire TVA region — is ridiculous. The bulk, actually, is biomass biogas. I don’t even consider that a renewable, frankly.


It’s actually worse than that. I finally found a link to the 2011 & 2012 “product content”. It’s 8% solar, 44% wind, and 48% biogas for 2012; in 2011, it was 14% solar, 32% biomass (not biogas, don’t know the difference) and 54% wind. That’s a huge shift.

I called TVA’s Renewable Energy Information Call Center and didn’t get a satisfactory answer to my question regarding the difference between biomass and biogas (both seem to be from agricultural waste?), let alone any information as to why TVA’s is purchasing less wind and solar this year versus last. I had to be transferred to TVA (that’s not who I was calling?) to get my very logcial questions answered. After getting transferred to TVA, waiting on hold, confusing another poor sop in the customer service department, waiting on hold again, and getting transferred to another person I got … voicemail.

* sigh *

Customer service FAIL.

Y’know, way, way back in another lifetime I actually worked for TVA. One thing I can tell you is that managers are forced to waste spend just ooodles amount of time going to training seminars, customer service seminars, this workshop thing, that off-site training doo-hickey. It’s amazing anyone can get anything done. And yet, you call to get two little perfectly logical questions answered and it’s like I asked them to explain the physics of a fucking nuke plant.

If I get any answers, y’all will be the first to know.

2- Right now we’re still dealing with the toxic aftermath of TVA’s December 2008 Kingston Coal Ash Spill, which dumped 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry into the Tennessee, Clinch and Emory Rivers. That’s right, we’re still cleaning this mess up nearly four years later, and now it looks like we — oh and I do mean we, because that’s who’s paying for this, the ratepayers — will be out another $10 million for — get this — not to clean up the rest, oh no! But to “monitor” the ash and surrounding environment for 30 years. Yes because it’s just too fucking expensive to finish cleaning it up. I’m serious: they could spend up to $179 million cleaning up the “residual ash” (that’s on top of the $1.2 billion TVA estimated it would cost to clean up the bulk of the toxic mess). The rest, of course, got trucked to a landfill in the poor, predominantly African American Perry County, Alabama, where the people are so desperate for jobs they’ll happily pay the price of TVA’s dirty sins. Losses are always, always socialized by our poorest and most vulnerable. Shameful.

This is an untenable situation, not just for the people in Tennessee but for people far away who never used one kilowatt of the Kingston Fossil Plant’s energy. Seems like there could be a better way of generating electricity, one that doesn’t come with all of these social and financial costs. Oh, wait! There is! The program TVA is in the midst of killing.

TVA Invested In Clean Coal & All I Got Was A Billion Gallons Of Coal Sludge In My Living Room

And don’t think you can breathe a sigh of relief if you don’t live near Kingston. TVA operates 11 coal-fired plants and in 2009, storage problems were found at every one of them.

3- The NRDC has ranked Tennessee the 11th-worst state in the nation for coal-based air pollution. And we’re not even the worst in the TVA region! (click on the image to enlarge):

Hey Kentucky! You’re Number One!

The breakdown of where TVA states rank in this list is as follows:

1- Kentucky
8- North Carolina
9- Georgia
11- Tennessee
12- Virginia
14- Alabama
15- Mississippi

Yay, Mississippi! You’re finally last on a list that you want to be last on! Of course, you really don’t want to be on this list at all! (We keed, Mississippi. We keed because we lurve.)

So wrap your head around this one: every single TVA state is in the top of the “toxic 20” for electricity generation-related air pollution. TVA, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Really.

So let’s connect dots 1, 2 & 3 here: TVA’s anemic renewables program is getting less attractive to participants. But the way TVA currently generates electricity is toxic, costly and unsafe to both humans and the environment (and need I point out how redundant that is, because anything toxic to the environment is by default also toxic to humans. We cannot unhook ourselves from our planetary life support system).

Okay, anyone think this makes sense? No? Good.

The good news is that TVA is a quasi-public organization. The board is set by Congress. You can write your congress critters and tell them you want the board to reflect more sensitivity to renewables and environmental safety. Also, if you live in or near Knoxville, maybe you can sign up to speak at their August 16 board meeting. Maybe they need some Occupying to nudge them in the right direction.

Tell ’em Southern Beale sent ya.


Filed under alternative energy, ash spill, energy future, energy production, environment, Tennessee, TVA

Living The Leaf Life, Update

In honor of Earth Day I thought I’d update folks on my Nissan Leaf experience. Short answer: yes I still love my car. No, I haven’t had any issues — not with range, nor with anything else.

The one question everyone always asks when I’m out and about is, “what kind of gas mileage do you get?” To which I always answer, “Zero.” Ha ha. People are still wrapping their heads around the idea of a non-internal combustion engine. And I get that; it’s a big change. The concept of a car without a tailpipe — which doesn’t require regular oil changes! — is a big effin’ deal, to paraphrase Joe Biden. You know what else the Leaf doesn’t do? Get hot. You come in from a long drive and the hood is pretty much cool to the touch.

The Leaf’s Carwings software tells me I average 7 miles per kWh. Based on that, we calculate I get the equivalent of 300 miles per gallon. That’s factoring in what NES charges for electricity on a $3.65/gallon gas price: since we have a solar array on our roof and are actually selling our power several months out of the year, it doesn’t quite work out that way for us. But you get the general idea.

And no, we haven’t seen any uptick in our electric bill; in fact, as I’ve mentioned before, because of home energy efficiency work we did last year like insulation and ductwork sealing, we’re actually using less electricity than last year, when we didn’t have an EV.

All of this has to be presented with a big caveat: I don’t drive a lot, mostly just in-town stuff. So, “your mileage may vary.”

Last week I saw this story in a local paper about the number of public charging stations which go unused. We see these stories a lot these days, and they annoy the hell out of me. Fer crying out loud, people: the Leaf has only been available in this state for, what, a year? Jesus. Give it a rest. This stuff takes time. Quit yer whining.

You know, I’m always hearing people say, “there’s an EV charger at such-and-such place and .. I never see anyone using it!” My response? So what! How many times do you see empty handicapped parking spaces? Or how about those parking spaces retailers reserve for expectant mothers? I see them at shopping malls and grocery stores all the time, and they’re always empty. No one bitches about those, do they?

These are things that retailers do to serve their customers (except for handicapped parking, which is required by law). If you’re going to be all “free hand of the market” about this stuff, then let a business owner do what they think serves their clientele. Don’t get your shorts in a knot because you think you know better. I’ve got a steaming cup of STFU with your name on it.

I mostly charge my car at home. Sometimes I charge when I’m out and about, but because I live in town, these public charging stations are not for me. They’re for Leaf owners I know who live out in Williamson County and come into town to do their business. These public chargers will be used as the number of EV owners increases.

And let me add, I’d use the ones down in Brentwood and Williamson County if I knew they were there. There really needs to be a better way of letting people know where these things are: some kind of standardized signage or something. Carwings is supposed to tell you where chargers are located but half the time they don’t show up on your console screen until you actually use one.

So far, the Leaf life is working out really well. Last time I crunched the numbers I calculated I spent $8 a month on transportation, versus the $100 or so I’d spend previously. The economics work, but also: it’s just a great little car.


Filed under Earth Day, electric car, energy future, environment

Food Or Fuel?

Last week My Conservative Friend™ was railing on about how they use sugar cane for fuel in South America and by God why isn’t America running its cars on American corn? I had to explain to him that actually we are, we do, and we have: and some of us don’t think it’s a good thing to turn our food into fuel. Not when people are going hungry, not when food prices are going up, not when Wall Street speculation on corn prices causes price spikes, and most of all not when corn fuels are so energy-intensive to produce that they don’t really solve our energy problems or the climate change problem.

He was completely unaware of the whole ethanol thing, how we now mix ethanol with gasoline. I couldn’t remember how much, but I did remember that it was a couple years ago that Congress mandated higher ethanol content in gasoline, and I remembered some people raising a big stink about it because ethanol can tear up some engines, especially things like lawnmowers. And I remember gas pumps have a big sticker on them indicating the percent of ethanol content in all gasoline. So how someone like My Conservative Friend™ can fill up his big gas-guzzling SUV with gas every week but not be aware that it’s mixed with ethanol is a little mind-boggling to me.

Over at Grist I saw this article which says 40% of all U.S. corn produced goes into our gas tanks. That’s a lot of corn, and I have to say, even I didn’t realize it was that high.

One of the things that frustrates me about our world today is that people are being increasingly asked to engage in the public discourse, yet they are not given the information they need to do so with any level of accuracy. It’s like the Powers That Be want people to be uninformed, but they also want people to be engaged. I guess it’s easier to manipulate an uninformed populace, and giving people politics instead of news and opinion instead of information is the modern-day “bread and circuses” which makes us feel like we are involved in our democracy without actually having control over anything.

I mean, seriously. How can we have a discussion about national energy policy when people don’t even know that American gasoline is mixed with corn ethanol? How can our opinions be valid when we aren’t even informed about what our government is currently doing?

Anyway, Grist calls corn ethanol “the boondoggle that won’t die,” and it’s hard to disagree:

What’s frustrating isn’t that the government is investing in alternative liquid fuels. It’s that, national security be damned, we’re barking up the wrong energy tree: All the data point to ethanol being a climate dead end. And it’s a dead end that’s eating our food. Yet the government finds ways to keep the money flowing towards ethanol. It’s truly the boondoggle that just won’t die.

There is an education gap that makes debating public policy issues so difficult. All the Republicans have to do is come up with some amygdala-triggering slogan: “Nuke The Ragheads!”, “Drill Here, Drill Now!” and “America Fuck Yeah!” None of these things educate people about the world as it is, policies that are currently in place, or the issues that these policies raise. But they do provide an emotional release.

The Left operates on the assumption that people already know what policies are in place, what issues they present, and let’s talk about what we need to do. And we get nowhere.


Filed under energy future, energy production, Energy Solutions, environment, gas prices

>Fuel Follies

>First we have this astonishing news:

The world may have no more than half a century of oil left at current rates of consumption, while surging demand from the developing world threatens to create “very significant price rises” before substitutes like biofuels can serve as viable alternatives, the British bank HSBC warns in a new report.

“We’re confident that there are around 50 years of oil left,” Karen Ward, the bank’s senior global economist, said in an interview on CNBC.

The bank, the world’s second largest in assets, further cautioned that growth trends in developing countries like China could put as many as one billion more cars on the road by midcentury. “That’s tremendous pressure on oil to power all those resources,” Ms. Ward said.

This is nothing new, indeed, back in January I wrote about this based on a New York Times Magazine article on offshore oil wildcatters. Basically, every last drop of oil on earth has been mapped. We know where it is — all of it. There will be no new oil discoveries. What the challenge is, and has been, is getting to it. The easy oil is gone — long gone — and what remains is either politically difficult to tap (because it’s in places Not America governed by people hostile to us) or technologically difficult to tap (because it’s miles under the ocean or trapped in sand and shale.)

But none of that matters. Even the stuff left in places Not America and the tiny bit that remains in America is not sufficient to fuel our nation, let alone the globe. So I don’t for the life of me understand why anyone thinks it makes sense to continue on our merry way gobbling gasoline like it grows on trees. I think if people really understood the folly of our ways they’d be ditching their gas guzzlers and demanding alternatives yesterday. We’re just delaying the inevitable.

So I’m not entirely encouraged to read this story from last week’s New York Times:

Start-Ups Work to Reinvent the Combustion Engine


As the first mass-produced electric cars hit the streets, Pinnacle is just one of several start-ups backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists aiming to reinvent the century-old internal combustion engine. The big promise: vast improvements in fuel economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost.

Nothing demonstrates capitalism’s failure as a driver of innovation more than venture capitalists backing start-ups reinventing the internal combustion engine. I mean, dudes: you’re like three decades too late.

It’s like a real-world example of what Doug at Balloon Juice was talking about yesterday:

They kid, but this illustrates (1) that our Galtian overlords aren’t inventing perpetual motion machines, they’re finding new ways to overcharge people for fruit and (2) that this is one market that’s not all that rational…

Capitalism has failed but in the age of Peak Oil, what will replace it? Thugocracy? Neo-Feudalism?


Filed under energy future, peak oil

>“The Terrible Disconnect”

>Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a sobering article on the coming end of oil. Actually, it’s supposed to be a profile on the modern day deepwater “wildcatters,” the optimistic geophysicists who have mapped all the oil in the globe and get to spend $100 million drilling an exploratory well miles and miles beneath the ocean floor to find if their guesstimate is correct.

But it’s hard to see the glass half-full after reading stuff like this:

The possibility of a boom commands particular attention now, because the industry’s faith in a limitless future has begun to diminish. The International Energy Agency — which had until recently been optimistic about oil — concluded last fall that the world has very likely already passed its peak oil production.

“The deepwater was one of the last big exploration plays on the planet,” says Gerald Kepes, a partner and head of upstream and gas at PFC Energy, a consulting firm. “We’re now looking at the second half of the global deepwater play. You can see the end of it, maybe 25 years from now.”

This should be sobering news to everyone who still thinks opening ANWR to oil drilling will make a hill of beans worth of difference to anyone. There are 650 billion barrels of oil left in the world that we can actually pull out of the ground. We know where it is. Some of it is in war-torn areas like Angola, some of it is off-limits to us in places like Russia. Most of it is so far under the ocean floor that it’s extremely dangerous and expensive to tap. The Deepwater Horizon accident of 2010 gave a lot of folks their first clue how hard it is to drill far below the sea floor.

This is nothing new, nor is this the first time I’ve written about it. But it’s not something we’re talking about. And there’s a huge disconnect among the American people who hear stories about massive oil finds off the coast of Brazil and think, “see? We don’t have anything to worry about!” What they don’t realize is that these wildcatting geophysicists have known about that Brazillian oilfield, it’s been mapped out for years. The news is not that we found it, the news is that they were able to tap it without blowing the oil platforms to kingdom come. Again: we already know how much oil is left in the world and we know where it is.

Even our optimistic wildcatter is a little frustrated at how uninformed the general public is:

“It’s frustrating to me,” Farnsworth told me. “It’s never going to change, but the general public always thinks, I should be able to get a gallon of gasoline, and it should be damn cheap, and whether I choose to drive a 10-mile-per-gallon car or a 40-mile-per-gallon car should have no impact on that price. We know how hard it is to explore for oil, and we know how hard it is to get it out of the deep water. And there’s been this incredible disconnect, which might have been lessened by the spill, between what people think it takes to get gasoline in their car and what we do.”

Americans need a wake-up call, but unfortunately politics has colored how we talk about oil in this country, and we have some incredibly irresponsible people who want to see their party in power who are not being honest with the American people about this stuff. If you know there are only 650 billion barrels of oil left in the entire world and you know that we know where it is and the issue isn’t finding it but figuring out how to get at it, wouldn’t you start cutting your use? Finding alternative energy sources? Instead of telling people we need to “drill here drill now, dagnabbit!” — which we are already doing — wouldn’t you be telling people, “we’re running out let’s find out how we can switch to something else and conserve what we’ve got left”?

In fact, power players like Newt Gingrich notwithstanding, that is in fact what we are doing. Yesterday’s article made reference to a TED talk by geophysicist Richard Sears, former vice president for exploration and deepwater technical evaluation at Shell Oil, and now a visiting scientist at MIT. “Planning For The End Of Oil” is a quick talk, and I highly recommend you watch it here:

According to this, our use of carbon-based fuels is steadily declining, and has been for decades. Not just since the current economic downturn, but since 1985. This was fascinating to me. Despite what political partisans on the right are saying about how we can drill our way out of this mess (we can’t), the global economy is steadily transitioning away from oil. Oil is playing a less significant role every year.

In fact, says Sears, we have been “de-carbonizing our energy systems” for generations.

This is a very hopeful message to me because it tells me despite the rhetoric, we can and will innovate. I love it when Sears says “the Stone Age ended not because we ran out of stones.” The human experience is one of constant innovation and change, it’s in our very DNA. We cannot drill our way out of Peak Oil but we can innovate and, indeed, that is exactly what we have been doing.

Pastor John Shuck has been talking about Peak Oil over at Shuck and Jive, most recently in his What is Peak Oil and Why Should the Church Care? post. I agree with Shuck that we need to do more to educate the public, to remove that “terrible disconnect” that Farnsworth referred to between what consumers think about our energy supply and what reality tells us.

But that said I have a huge beef with a big contingent of the Peak Oil crowd. I know a lot of these folks, many are good friends of mine, but I see them spreading a message of fear that shuts people down and weakens the message. I know people who have bought farmland off in the country and are preparing for the coming Peak Oil Apocalypse by hoarding seeds and planting fruit trees. Their vision of the future is one of fear and food shortages as all transportation comes to a grinding halt.

I just don’t buy it. And I don’t think you can educate people about the reality of peak oil when you’re spreading a doom and gloom message about how our future looks like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or “Mad Max.” In fact, I think that’s counterproductive. When you have one side saying, “ZOMG we’re all gonna die we’re dooooomed,” and another side saying, “all we need to do is drill in ANWR and build some more refineries,” which side are you going to gravitate towards?

I see a terrible disconnect on both sides of the argument. But in the middle is the reality of geophysicists like Richard Sears and Jim Farnsworth, people who know how much oil is left and exactly where it is, and how expensive it is to reach. People need to understand we have reached the limits of what is available but there are vast new energy resources out there of the non-carbon variety that we have just begun to tap. And we started on that path decades ago, long before Al Gore had a slide show or the Bush Cheney Oil Wars or any of that.

People need to understand the reality of our energy situation. They need educating. And they need a positive message, not one of fear.


Filed under energy future, peak oil

>Gas Prices: Historical Perspective

>(Note: I’ve updated this post to use a better chart going back 6 years and also showing the price of crude oil).

Some folks on the intertubes are wondering why people aren’t blaming President Obama for rising gas prices the way they did President Bush. I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but perhaps the reason there isn’t more outrage about rising gas prices is because, well, we’ve been here before:

Note gas prices have actually been more stable during Obama’s term, and have yet to reach some of the peak prices that they did under Bush (and note the chart only goes back to 2005). Now, I’m not giving Obama the credit for this — the sucky economy and drop in manufacturing has done more to reduce demand than anything else, hence the more stable gas prices (note gas prices took a nosedive along with the economic crash at the end of Bush’s term). But there it is.

Gas prices are a lot like that metaphor about the frog in the boiling pan of water: throw a frog in boiling water and he’ll jump out; slowly warm the water to boiling with him in it, and you’re eating boiled frog legs for dinner. I remember being so outraged when gas exceeded $2 a gallon for the first time! Now it’s like, “Meh. Been there, done that.”

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what affects gas prices, oil prices, etc. People tend to think of gasoline in terms of simple “supply-and-demand” economics but this is only partially true … in addition to which, Newt Gingrich-types pushing “drill here, drill now, pay less” talking points tend to conveniently overlook a key component of the supply cycle, which is the refineries. Oil companies have been getting out of the refining business for years because the profit margins have shrunk.

Every time gas prices tick upwards Sitemeter tells me people are furiously Googling “why are gas prices going up?” For that answer, read my previous posts here (2009), here (May 2009 again) and here (2010). They all pretty much say the same thing: gasoline is not just a supply and demand business. The price of oil and gasoline is affected by a lot of things — world events, the value of the dollar, refinery capacity, and yes, demand such as summer travel.

So here’s an actual conversation that was had recently between a liberal and a conservative about gas prices. The liberal mentioned that refineries are cutting capacity to maintain high prices. The conservative said that the U.S. government should build its own refineries if the private ones refused to refine enough to keep prices low.

Chew on that one for a second. Apparently nationalizing certain industries is fine with conservatives as long as it keeps gas prices low. I mean, I just wanted to bust out laughing when I heard that one. Actually, I did.

Anyway, I’ve long been of the belief that we need gas prices to be as high as they are in, say, Europe. Why the hell not? Using less oil and gasoline is in our national interest. It keeps us out of hostile regions of the world, is better for our health and environment, can spur domestic job growth as we manufacture the infrastructure necessary to transition to the new energy economy.

Want to piss off a Yemeni terrorist? Conserve energy. Ride the bus. Support solar and wind energy. Get off the oil tit.

And don’t tell me we can’t, I’m sick of hearing this shit. America was able to completely transition its industrial and manufacturing base away from civilian goods to armaments and war materiel to take on World War II. We can do this.

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Filed under energy future, gas prices

>The New Spiritual Work

>Pastor John Shuck has posted another of his amazing sermons. One of these days Mr. Beale and I will make the long trek to Elizabethton (perhaps in my new all-electric vehicle) to hear him preach.

Here’s a taste, but do go and read the whole thing:

As a globalized industrial society we are going to be letting go of a way of living that extracts and exploits and destroys our home. At some point we will let it go. It is happening now. We will be relating to Earth and to one another in a new way. We are needing to learn to live with Earth rather than against it. It will be better for us if we are pro-active and conscious about it, rather than just letting it happen.


Those of us with conscience, those of us who see the need for systemic change have our work cut out for us. All of us need to be involved in peace and sustainability movements at many different levels based on our own sense of what we want to do and can do.

Whether we are taking on mountain top removal mining, or supporting local food growers, finding ways to help ourselves and others reduce consumption, or learning and teaching about what life will be like post-peak oil, now is the time to see this work as spiritual work.

Growing a garden is a subversive, spiritual act.

Not everyone can do that.

Not everything is for everyone.

We find our own way.

I’ve said this before, like a thousand gazillion times, but this idea that we all have to live in tents and churn our own butter to save the world is not just unrealistic, it’s not accurate. On top of which, it’s intellectually dishonest, since it’s the favorite argument of right wingers whose true agenda is to make sure we don’t change anything at all! So no, you people who think it’s so cute to point fingers at Al Gore’s electric bill, your argument amounts to nothing.

We can’t all do everything but we can each of us do something. It’s just as simple as that. If you want to ride around on a bicycle and live as a freegan in a zero-emmissions tent, that is great! Good for you. But the rest of the world is not going to join you in that endeavor. That is reality. And the thing is, they don’t need to. A tremendous impact could be had if everyone just did one thing. And it’s not going to be the same thing for everyone. Not everyone can plant a garden, but I bet everyone can close the blinds on their windows in the summer to keep the heat out. Or turn the thermostat down (or up, depending on the season). You get my drift here.

If you’re a legislator, you can start by initiating policies that encourage green technologies, such as this one. As Pastor Shuck says:

As Americans, we consume 18-20 million barrels of oil each day.

We extract 6-8 million barrels.

We need to import 10-14 million barrels.


We are five percent of the population and we consume 25% of the world’s oil.

You don’t keep up that level of disparity without massive bullying. I don’t say that to intentionally offend. I’m just calling it as I see it. That is why we spend more on our military than the next 20 or so nations combined.

We all have a part to play in changing that. The empire is going to be overturned, whether you take part in it or not — some day the dead dinosaurs will have fueled their last generator and it will no longer be cost effective to devote our military to protecting the oil empire. My sense is that day is coming sooner than anyone expected.

On Sunday Tom Friedman wrote:

In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.

Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.

Friedman is right that our national priorities are supremely messed up. We’d prefer to fight wars and spend our grandchildren’s future on a massive military build-up in the Middle East to protect our access to oil. This is incredibly stupid, and the joke’s on us, since we financed all of this with the Chinese credit card. What fools we are. China has played a massive game of “gotcha” with America, letting us go off to sink our treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan and — next up, Iran! — while they are quietly getting off the oil tit.

But Friedman is wrong, because change is happening — even (and most tellingly) in places where you’d think it doesn’t need to.

So we still have time to change our ways. And we are. Everyone can do something. One thing.

Whether you’re a suburban housewife deciding what to feed the family for dinner or city councilman or United States Senator or a book author, everyone can do one thing.

And that is all it’s going to take.


Filed under energy future, environment, peace, religion

>That Can’t-Do Spirit

>This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read:

This immediately begs the question, if America isn’t doing so well in non-green industrial development in an ever more competitive globalized world, why would we think that it will be any better for green industry? Why isn’t that going to move to China too?

The very simple answer is that … it is! To the point where it’s ringing alarm bells here at home. The point is, green energy development is the new Holy Grail. Right now, it’s a modern-day (clean) version of the Texas oil boom of 100 years ago. It’s the California Gold Rush of energy. You want to sit back and just cede ground to the Chinese because they’re already making our cheap T-shirts and television sets? Seriously?

This pisses me off enormously because we in Tennessee have seen a great deal of green energy manufacturing: the Sharp solar plant in Memphis, the new Hemlock Semiconductor facility in Clarksville, Nissan’s Leaf built right here in Smyrna, the Wacker Chemie polysilicon plant in Cleveland … there are probably others but those come to mind. Plus all of the other stuff, the roofers and electricians who install solar panels, etc. And I haven’t even thought about wind turbines and the rest. So you compare this to the shuttering of the last incandescent bulb factory in the United States which employed a mere 200 people and I’m going to say: bullshit. That’s some fancy selective logic there, dude. As your own link states, the reason CFLs are manufactured in China is because of cheap labor, not an act of Congress:

Consisting of glass tubes twisted into a spiral, they require more hand labor, which is cheaper there. So though they were first developed by American engineers in the 1970s, none of the major brands make CFLs in the United States.

Remember children, it always comes back to cheap labor.

And BTW, the GOP is trying to turn this lightbulb thing into a major issue, which MoJo has already debunked. It’s sad to see people like Aaron Renn and Andrew Sullivan take the bait. Regardless, Renn concludes:

But in the meantime, I’d suggest cooling the rhetoric that green industry is somehow going to save our economy from the mess we’re in, because in the short term at least it’s probably only going to dig the hole deeper.

Really? Who says? You? That’s completely crazy. The short term is our window of opportunity! This is our generation’s race to the moon, you moron! This is our Manhattan Project, our Apollo Project! This is our shot at getting back in the game, at having a future at being more than just the world’s arms dealer and global couch potato.

Where does Renn get off? Can you imagine if John F. Kennedy had said to forget about landing a man on the moon before the decade’s out since the Russians already got it going with that Sputnik thing?

I’ve said it before oh, like a thousand times, but I’ll say it again: the green train has left the station. We don’t want to be left behind on this one, but that’s exactly what will happen if we listen to idiots like this.


Filed under energy future, Tennessee