Beyond Pathetic

I am partial to energy producers. The major advances America made in the rights of women and minorities in the last century were, for the most part, made after The Electrical Revolution of 1932-46, in which energy was finally extended to even the most isolated corners of America. Confederate apologists often say that the Civil War was about the South’s “way of life”. The Southern plantation lifestyle featured a few enjoying the countless hours of free work, or energy, performed by slaves. Today, most everyone in America has dozens, or even hundreds, of Energy Slaves working for them full time. We are all Plantation Aristocrats.

Today’s customary availability of energy is the necessary force behind historically high standards of living in established nations. Personally, I have made it a priority to live close enough to my job to be able to bike there and to live in a neighborhood where I can walk to most destinations. I often consume one tank of gas (approximately 12 gallons) per month. But I also know that gasoline is an highly efficient source of energy and that its scarcity would have a cascading negative impact on my lifestyle. Efforts to “Green” gasoline need to recognize that one cannot replace it without replacing its benefits. Solving this conundrum should be the primary motivating force for government and entrepreneurs, but in the meantime, I respect the people that do the actual work of delivering the energy we need today.

Our polity has an unfortunate habit of lumping vehicular energy (gasoline) in with the electron energy that powers our homes and businesses. Absent a change to mostly Plug-In Electric Vehicles (PEVs), a new wind farm will do nothing to directly “ween us off foreign oil”. Our laws and customs treat the two kinds of energy differently, too. In the American West electrons are mostly delivered by Peoples or Public Utility Districts (PUDs) that are owned directly by the ratepayers, or else by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs). The IOUs, however, generally still need the permission of a governmental Utility Commission to raise their electricity rates. Whether your electrons are delivered by a private or socialized source your electricity provider must prove that it is charging rates that are necessary to continue to deliver the energy effectively, not to enrich itself. (Ironically, most of the socialized energy is delivered in rural — read conservative — areas whereas IOU energy is concentrated in urban — read liberal — areas as PUDs were largely formed because it was not cost-effective for early for-profit utilities to deliver energy to sparsely populated rural areas. So they didn’t. But I digress.)

Vehicular energy is different. In America, it is a commodity that is sold for profit to enrich investors. Of course, the market for oil is global and, unlike electron energy, America does not have the supply to provide for itself. Still, imagine if BP, or another oil company, chose to operate like a utility: it would garner enough oil to provide for its share of the market, it would sell additional oil to other markets at a profit, and then would use a substantial portion of that profit to lower the price of the gasoline that it sold in its market. In other words, it would treat its gasoline like a public good that provides wealth for the nation by facilitating commerce and pleasure, rather than a means to enrich itself.

The quest for riches has had the effect of creating the technological phenomenon that was the Deepwater Horizon and its supporting infrastructure. Deepwater featured a drill that could drill sideways, a boat that used satellite technology to steady itself against open ocean waves, and unmanned submarines. Given this brilliance, it is surprising that BP is not capable of plugging the oil geyser. The expected cost of a catastrophic failure, however remote, were evidently determined to not be as great as the benefits of obtaining more far flung oil. Risk Analysis Fail!

The blame game in front of the Congress today was Beyond Pathetic. To be clear, as the entity that wanted that oil, BP is responsible for the acts of its contractors unless those contractors are criminally fraudulent. To put it another way, none of the actors responsible for the accident would have been there absent BPs desire to extrude the crude.

The Deepwater Horizon tragedy illustrates that other jaw of a purely for profit modis opperandi for energy extraction and delivery. The western utility model, in which energy is delivered for the good of the people that consume it, would have placed a higher premium on safe and ecologically defensible energy generation. When BP is done cleaning up for this mess and paying for it (and assuredly they will be paying for it, directly, and indirectly) then perhaps they and their oily colleagues can rethink the purpose of their business and get to the task of using their coin to delivering efficient vehicular energy in a means that doesn’t choke the planet or destroy one of its bays or Gulfs or coastlines every 25 years. If they don’t begin to see their role in delivering energy as a public good then, watch out! Utilities and their PEVs might take their business!

Live Earth – More Simplistic Non-Solutions

Most environmental politics descend into absolutism faster than a rainbow sorbet cone melts on an ozone alert day in August, so I had better defend the title of this post quickly.

I am referring specifically to a brief think piece grafted in between the music in 7/7/07’s mega-concert. This interlude featured a line worker at a coal mine asserting that the world needs less coal and more wind energy.

I agree, but the implication here is that wind energy can easily replace coal, or natural gas, or nuclear energy if only we would build enough turbines to do so.

At best wind farms will generate energy approximately one-third of the time. To “firm” that energy for regular use some other form of energy has to be there the other two-thirds of the time. Here is an elemental explanation: A utility has 100 MWs of wind energy in its portfolio. Predictive models indicate that the wind farm will not produce any electricity for hour 0800; therefore, the utility needs to garner that energy in some other way which will be either peakable thermal (coal, nuclear, gas) or hydro. For hour 0900 the 100 MWs of wind will be on line, so 100 MWs of thermal energy will not be necessary.

In other words, wind does not replace thermal energy, it displaces it. While this is worthwhile, it also means that wind energy is reliant (outside of the Northwest) on thermal energy. Most utilities have the thermal capacity to integrate some wind but as demand increases and the MWs of wind in its portfolio increases it will be necessary to actually build additional thermal power plants to keep the wind online. Yes, at a certain point more wind = more thermal energy.

This dichotomy is especially important on peak energy days in the summer. Heat and humidity, the languid still air that leads to high energy demand is, unfortunately, exactly the weather that does not lead to the wind blowing — that is one of the reasons it feels so damn hot. Since the most polluting of resources will be mecessary to meet this highest of peak energy demands this situation does offer a very direct and slogan-ready way for a concrned citizen to aid the environment: Turn Off Your Air Conditioner on the Hottest Day of the Year!