Does Sustainability Mean Survival?

We had better find a better say to sustain ourselves because we can't last long as a society if we continue to depend on oil from the Middle East or big box store items from China.

The key for survival is developing a sustainable economy that uses food we grow for ourselves, materials provided locally and energy from renewable resources like the sun.

Bill McKibben

via A question of survival | Blue Ridge Muse

Letter from T. Boone Pickens to WSJ

Here’s a letter published in the Wall Street Journal from T. Boone Pickens. He is responding to a letter criticizing his plan from Mr. Jenkins.

Link: Letters – WSJ.com.

This Is My Plan for American Energy, What’s Yours?

I read Holman Jenkins’s "Boone Doggle" (Business World, Aug. 6) about my energy plan and I’m convinced that he hasn’t even read my plan. So for the benefit of Mr. Jenkins and his readers, I’ll go over it again.

There are two numbers everybody should keep in mind. The first is 70% — that’s how much of our oil comes from foreign nations.

The second is $700 billion — that’s how much of our money is sent overseas to pay for that oil every year.

Mr. Jenkins argues that this isn’t technically a "transfer of wealth." You can call it whatever you want, but common sense would call it a crisis. It’s hitting every part of the economy, and it’s only going to get worse because we consume 25% of the world’s oil, but we only have 3% of the oil reserves. For years we paid foreign nations to send us their oil and didn’t worry about it because it was cheap. But now it’s not and it matters a great deal.

We’ve had warnings before. Some of us remember the oil embargo of 1973. Back then we were importing less than 30% of our oil but it was still a crisis. And what did we learn? Today we’re importing nearly 70%. We all have — and I emphasize all — allowed our nation’s energy future to rest in the hands of foreign interests. And if we need to know how dangerous it is to rely on other countries for our energy, just look at what’s happening in Georgia. Yes, we buy some oil from our friends, but we also buy from some who aren’t so friendly.

We have to develop domestic energy alternatives and set ourselves on the road to self-sufficiency. Ultimately, that will mean using domestic renewable energy to generate electricity and power our vehicles. Unfortunately, clean, renewable fuels for transportation aren’t ready yet. So here’s my plan to break the foreign stranglehold.

It starts with wind. A Department of Energy study says we can generate 20% of our electricity from wind. I believe that with private investment and proven technology, we can generate 20% of our electricity from wind within 10 years — which happens to be the same amount we currently generate using America’s natural gas. Moving to wind power will allow us to conserve domestic natural gas for transportation. It’s cheaper, it’s cleaner, the technology is ready now and it’s abundant — America only has 20 billion barrels of oil and we’re trying to drill for a few billion more, but we already have the natural gas equivalent of 110 billion barrels in proven reserves and 170 billion more that are being accessed through new technology.

But most importantly, natural gas buys us one thing money can’t buy — time — the time to develop the renewable fuels that will finally end foreign oil’s stranglehold on the U.S.

That’s my plan — to harness domestic resources to reduce the impact of foreign oil and buy us time to perfect the next generation of clean renewables, allowing us to invest more of that $700 billion a year in our own destiny. I don’t expect everyone to agree with it, but I think it’s a good one.

My father used to tell me that a fool with a plan is better than a genius with no plan. So I ask, what’s Mr. Jenkins’s plan?

T. Boone Pickens
Dallas

Nuclear Power is NOT Energy Independence

Steve Christ describes why nuclear energy increases U.S. energy dependence. Do we prefer to be dependent on OPEC or Russia? He says that we currently import 92% of the uranium (43% of that is from Russia) for nuclear power.

Link: Investing in Uranium.

…one of the biggest misconceptions about nuclear power at the moment is this: It will end our energy dependence foreigners. The truth is it will not. That’s the dirty little secret most people don’t know about nuclear power in the United States these days.

You see, while everyone knows we have become virtual slaves to foreign crude, only a few know we also import 92% of the enriched uranium necessary to run our nuclear plants. That is even worse than our predicament with oil where 70% of our supply is now imported.

That’s why I call enriched uranium America’s "other" energy crisis. Because if nothing else changes we could conceivably exchange one set of shackles for another if we are aren’t careful.

And it will likely only get worse when a 20 year program with the Russians called Megatons to Megawatts runs its course in 2013 since almost 43% of what we use comes from dismantled Soviet warheads. After that supply runs dry, it is not inconceivable we could be completely on our own, unable to meet our own needs.

onThat’s a current danger that we can ill-afford and Washington knows it. Over time, those potential shortages will only be exacerbated as more and more nuclear plants here and abroad begin to come online and demand skyrockets.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 439 reactors operating globally, with 36 under construction. Moreover, there are also 93 new reactors on the drawing board, with another 219 proposed. 

And should all of the planned and proposed reactors be built, the world total will be more than 787, or almost a 79% increase over the current level—-the vast majority of which will be fueled with—you guessed it— enriched uranium.

So at some point in the future, enriched uranium could be no different than oil—sold off in a tight market to the highest bidder. Sound familiar?

U.S. Energy Policy: Stay Addicted

Thomas L. Friedman describes missed opportunities for leadership on energy policy.

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – 9/11 and 4/11 – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com.

President Bush is well on his way to being remembered as the leader who wasted not one but two crises: 9/11 and 4/11. The average price of gasoline in the U.S. last week, according to the Energy Information Administration, was $4.11.

After 9/11, Mr. Bush had the chance to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on breaking our addiction to oil. Instead, he told us to go shopping. After gasoline prices hit $4.11 last week, he had the chance to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on clean energy. Instead, he told us to go drilling.

Neither shopping nor drilling is the solution to our problems.

What doesn’t the Bush crowd get? It’s this: We don’t have a “gasoline price problem.” We have an addiction problem. We are addicted to dirty fossil fuels, and this addiction is driving a whole set of toxic trends that are harming our nation and world in many different ways. It is intensifying global warming, creating runaway global demand for oil and gas, weakening our currency by shifting huge amounts of dollars abroad to pay for oil imports, widening “energy poverty” across Africa, destroying plants and animals at record rates and fostering ever-stronger petro-dictatorships in Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

When a person is addicted to crack cocaine, his problem is not that the price of crack is going up. His problem is what that crack addiction is doing to his whole body. The cure is not cheaper crack, which would only perpetuate the addiction and all the problems it is creating. The cure is to break the addiction.

Ditto for us. Our cure is not cheaper gasoline, but a clean energy system. And the key to building that is to keep the price of gasoline and coal — our crack — higher, not lower, so consumers are moved to break their addiction to these dirty fuels and inventors are moved to create clean alternatives.

This moment — $4.11 — represents Bush’s last chance for a legacy. It amazes me how inadequate his response has been. By hectoring the nation to simply drill for more oil, he has profoundly underestimated the challenges we face, misread the scale of the solutions required, underappreciated the American people’s willingness to sacrifice if presented with a real plan, and ignored the greatness that would accrue to our country if we led the world in clean power.

Talk about Energy Independence — But No Leadership

Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times provides some insight into how the U.S. became addicted to oil and how leaders avoid the tough love required to face the problem.

Link: Business Spectator – Oil’s slippery slope.

Mr McCain’s promise to eliminate American dependence on Middle Eastern oil is hardly original. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made similar pledges. President Bush himself swore to end America’s “addiction to oil” a couple of years ago. President Richard Nixon made similar promises after the first oil shock of the 1970s. The reality is that things are moving in the opposite direction. In 1973 the US imported 33 per cent of its oil; today it imports about 60 per cent and this figure could rise to 70 per cent by 2020. America’s transport system is still completely dependent on oil.

American politicians have, so far, responded to this problem with a mixture of wishful thinking and anger. The calls for “energy independence” are all but universal. Money has been poured into the production of biofuels, which has helped push up food prices. But no leading politician is yet prepared to say that Americans may have to adjust their lifestyles to a world of permanently higher fuel prices.

Last week Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican, issued a plaintive appeal for “more oil and lower prices”. The Democrats are pressing for the US attorney-general to bring price collusion charges against members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. But any such action significantly overrates America’s power over the world’s oil producers. Opec members could retaliate by selling some of their huge reserves of dollars – which would hit the dollar and US consumers very hard. The world’s main oil producers have no shortage of potential customers. More than 50 per cent of Saudi oil is now exported to Asia.

Competition for the world’s oil supplies is intensifying. Chinese oil consumption doubled between 1994 and 2003 and will have doubled again by 2010. China’s foray into Africa is largely driven by its own search for “energy security”. The International Energy Agency predicts that in 2010 China will become the world’s largest consumer of energy. The IEA also thinks that the world’s energy needs will be 50 per cent higher in 2030 than they are today – and that we are going to become more, not less, reliant on fossil fuels.

This seems all too plausible. At present there are about 10 cars in China for every 1,000 people; there are 480 cars per 1,000 people in the US. But by 2015, China could be the world’s largest market for new cars.

While western politicians routinely worry about globalisation, they have yet to focus on a more plausible threat. It is not the outsourcing of well-paid jobs; or the inflow of cheap goods: it is the globalisation of western patterns of consumption. If the Chinese and Indians eventually eat and drive like Americans and Europeans, the current inflation in fuel and food prices could be just the beginning. The environmental implications are also obvious – and alarming.

So although the search for energy security is now central to American foreign policy, as it is for both the European Union and the main Asian powers, in the long run there is no real foreign policy fix for the problem. A future dominated by conflict over scarce oil resources – or truckling to oil-rich dictators – is not attractive.

The only plausible routes to “energy security” lie at home in the US – in the development of new technologies and in a change of lifestyles. Americans may have to drive their cars less. But it will be a brave presidential candidate who says that.

More Reasons for Energy Independence

Our addiction to oil funds authoritarian governments, who fund terrorists. When these two forces, authoritarian governments and terrorists, gain economic power from the increasing price of oil, political freedom around the globe declines.

We are spending trillions to fight terrorists in Iraq. These expenditures have done nothing to ease our addiction to oil or increase our energy independence. Our leaders insist that the American lifestyle is not negotiable, but it appears that the oil producing countries have more power over the American lifestyle than our elected leaders. I wish it wasn’t so.

Below are some excerpts from an article on these issues in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman. It is not good news.

Link: The Democratic Recession – New York Times.

The term “democratic recession” was coined by Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, in his new book “The Spirit of Democracy.” Freedom House, which tracks democratic trends and elections around the globe, noted that 2007 was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the cold war. Almost four times as many states — 38 — declined in their freedom scores as improved — 10.

As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.

“There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” explains Diamond. “Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria are the poster children” for this trend, where leaders grab the oil tap to ensconce themselves in power.

But while oil is critical in blunting the democratic wave, it is not the only factor. The decline of U.S. influence and moral authority has also taken a toll. The Bush democracy-building effort in Iraq has been so botched, both by us and Iraqis, that America’s ability and willingness to promote democracy elsewhere has been damaged. The torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay also have not helped. “There has been an enormous squandering of American soft power, and hard power, in recent years,” said Diamond, who worked in Iraq as a democracy specialist.

The bad guys know it and are taking advantage.

But we also need to do everything possible to develop alternatives to oil to weaken the petro-dictators. That’s another reason the John McCain-Hillary Clinton proposal to lift the federal gasoline tax for the summer — so Americans can drive more and keep the price of gasoline up — is not a harmless little giveaway. It’s not the end of civilization, either.

It’s just another little nail in the coffin of democracy around the world.

U.S. Energy Policy Favors Oil

Thomas L. Friedman at the New York Times describes the political mess that constitutes U.S. energy policy (excerpts below). While I have some reservations about subsidies for alternative energy, I don’t think that subsidies for traditional energy (oil and gas) should be extended. Apparently the oil lobby and their fat wallets are more important in Washington than energy independence.

Link: Dumb as We Wanna Be – New York Times.

Few Americans know it, but for almost a year now, Congress has been bickering over whether and how to renew the investment tax credit to stimulate investment in solar energy and the production tax credit to encourage investment in wind energy. The bickering has been so poisonous that when Congress passed the 2007 energy bill last December, it failed to extend any stimulus for wind and solar energy production. Oil and gas kept all their credits, but those for wind and solar have been left to expire this December. I am not making this up. At a time when we should be throwing everything into clean power innovation, we are squabbling over pennies.

These credits are critical because they ensure that if oil prices slip back down again — which often happens — investments in wind and solar would still be profitable. That’s how you launch a new energy technology and help it achieve scale, so it can compete without subsidies.

The Democrats wanted the wind and solar credits to be paid for by taking away tax credits from the oil industry. President Bush said he would veto that. Neither side would back down, and Mr. Bush — showing not one iota of leadership — refused to get all the adults together in a room and work out a compromise. Stalemate. Meanwhile, Germany has a 20-year solar incentive program; Japan 12 years. Ours, at best, run two years.

While all the presidential candidates were railing about lost manufacturing jobs in Ohio, no one noticed that America’s premier solar company, First Solar, from Toledo, Ohio, was opening its newest factory in the former East Germany — 540 high-paying engineering jobs — because Germany has created a booming solar market and America has not.

Scientific American’s Solar Grand Plan

Scientific American describes how the U.S. can become energy independent. Excerpts below.

In the 1970s I remember futurists predicting that every home would have a computer by the year 2000. The pessimists pointed out, with very rational arguments based on the past, that a computer in the home was a ridiculous idea.

I hope there are leaders in the U.S. who are not obligated to oil companies that can adopt a transition to solar vision. We need a new strategy.

Link: A Solar Grand Plan: Scientific American

The U.S. needs a bold plan to free itself from fossil fuels. Our analysis convinces us that a massive switch to solar power is the logical answer.

Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006.

To convert the country to solar power, huge tracts of land would have to be covered with photovoltaic panels and solar heating troughs. A direct-current (DC) transmission backbone would also have to be erected to send that energy efficiently across the nation.

The technology is ready.

US Solar Map

Graphic - Key Concepts

  • A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.
  • A vast area of photovoltaic cells would have to be erected in the Southwest. Excess daytime energy would be stored as compressed air in underground caverns to be tapped during nighttime hours.
  • Large solar concentrator power plants would be built as well.
  • A new direct-current power transmission backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.
  • But $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.