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Book Finished!

2 Jul
potencial of renewables

potencial of renewables (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After three years, I am proud to say that I have finally finished writing a draft of reNEWable! It’s in the editor’s hands now. I’m sure there will be some edits, changes, revisions, etc. But for all intents and purposes it’s all there. Phew.

A few random thoughts:

When I began the book, in 2008, Obama had just been elected and there was a general feeling that, among other things, he would be a great champion of renewable energy. Now, four years later, that excitement has become somewhat tempered. Given the massive financial and military crises that Obama has had to deal with, it’s not surprising that energy has not dominated his agenda. Even the most die-hard renewable enthusiasts will agree that there have been more pressing matters at stake. Still, though, I understand how those who hoped that Obama would usher in a new age of investment in renewables are now disappointed.

Allow me, then, a few words of encouragement. Despite the years-long global recession, renewable energy technologies are still developing, and renewable businesses are still growing, at an impressive pace. In the past, when economic crises or wars and political upheavals intervened, whatever scarce interest there was in renewable energy would almost instantly evaporate, leaving handfuls of inventors and engineers more or less bereft. Now, though, despite everything, renewable energy is still moving forward. Solar panels have never been more efficient, cheaper, and widespread. New, giant wind farms are popping up all the time, while the small wind sector continues to grow. Even less advanced technologies like wave power and geothermal power are making strides, despite relatively little federal investment.

In short, renewable energy is in better shape than it ever has been. While the move toward renewables may be happening too slowly for some, we can take solace in the fact that movement is happening around the world.

Steaming Ahead

3 Nov
Coal, one of the fossil fuels.

Image via Wikipedia

Think of steam power and you might imagine big, black locomotives puffing white clouds as they chug across the tracks, or steam boats paddle-wheeling down the Mississippi, or maybe dark, dirty, coal-choked factories of the Industrial Age.

In other words, steam–and the coal furnaces that produced it–may seem like a relic of the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Especially in our new, post-industrial age of software and fiber-optic cables, it’s difficult to consider coal and steam as still relevant to how things work in our seemingly clean, computerized, wireless world.

And yet, of course, burning coal to produce steam is still the basis of nearly every contemporary technology. Using voice recognition software on your iPhone to schedule a teleconference meeting next Thursday may seem entirely removed from the age of coal, but firing up the phone and activating its microprocessors requires electricity–electricity produced by and large in power plants that burn coal to superheat water to create steam under sufficient pressure to spin giant turbines that produce electricity.

In other words, the base sources of energy haven’t really changed over the past few centuries. Power plants have become more efficient, and renewables like solar and wind are growing in scope and capacity, but for the most part, the great bulk of the electricity we consume nearly every minute of every day depends directly on coal/steam power.

This is not a secret, exactly. But I bet that if I were to poll random people in the street, 9 out of 10 would have only a vague sense of how electricity is made and where it comes from. And I bet they’d be shocked to learn that the vast majority of it comes from coal.

Invisible Energy

31 Oct
Coal mining Leseband

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because researching and actually writing the book has taken precedence. But I read something last night that reminded me why I’m writing this book in the first place, and felt compelled to blog about it.

For the past few years I’ve taught a magazine writing class at the Indiana University School of Journalism, and this semester I assigned a 2007 GQ article titled “Underworld,” written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. It’s a fantastic piece about the dark, hidden world of a working coal mine. Laskas spent months shadowing workers in a mine in eastern Ohio, spending many hours underground with a crew, seeing and experiencing things that most people hardly know exist.

What struck me most about the piece, and what I took to be the story’s main theme, was the strange and ironic invisibility of something so loud, visceral, and vital. Here’s how Laskas put it:

I live on top of a massive vein of medium-sulfur bituminous coal–the very famous Pittsburgh Number 8 Seam that extends from eastern Ohio to western Maryland, where coal has played a vital role in the economy and culture for over a century. The fact that it still does takes a lot of people by surprise. We still have coal mines? I got that question a lot when I told people that I was hanging out in a coal mine.

In this way, I was slightly ahead of the curve: I know coal mined existed. And not just in pockets of some America that never caught up, not as funky remnants of a bygone era, but as current places of work, day after day, guys with lunch buckets heading in and heading out, taking home sixty, seventy, eighty thousand dollars a year … The question I had doing in was almost ridiculous in nature: If coal is really this big, and all these people really exist, how is it that I know nothing about them?

Precisely. The short answer, of course, is that coal mining is invisible largely because it’s underground. Oil drilling, with its iconic derricks and offshore platforms, is more visible, if still mostly mysterious to people who don’t happen to live near an oil field. Even alternative technologies, like wind turbines and solar panels, are more visible than coal, even though as industries they’re miniscule compared to the coal business.

But mainly coal is invisible because we don’t really want to know about it. When a mine collapses and miners are trapped or killed, suddenly the dirty business of gouging from the earth the stuff that makes our modern civilization possible is thrust in our faces. We collectively hope for the best and shake our heads about what a dangerous business coal mining is, and then once the crisis is over we promptly put the whole thing out of our minds and willfully forget, until the next disaster.

The irony, of course, is that coal is absolutely vital to just about everything we do, every day. In our day-to-day lives, plugged in as we are to our phones and computers and hundreds of other electrical devices (not to mention more mundane technologies like refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, and toasters), we’re much more dependent on coal than we are on oil (which we consume most directly as transportation fuel–although oil plays a much more pervasive role in our lives in every thing from the plastic bags we use to pack our kids lunches to the pills we take to combat high blood pressure). If you’re reading this on a computer (which I assume you are; it’s hard to imagine someone actually printing this out), you are quite literally participating in the burning of several pounds of coal. The fact that you never have to see, smell, breathe in, or taste this coal is part of the miracle of modern energy engineering. All we know, and barely understand, is that when we plug things in, they somehow work. The electricity that makes things work is odorless, invisible, mute. But on the other end, making that flow of electrons possible, is a great, fiery furnace within which burns an everlasting, coal-fed fireball.

Which brings me back to the point of the book, which is to make energy visible. It’s hard to take renewable technologies seriously if you don’t understand where they come from. And it’s impossible to know where they come from without knowing the story of energy writ large. Because energy was not always invisible. Not so long ago, when people had coal cellars, and before than when survival meant chopping wood and carrying water, energy was an all-too visible and pervasive part of people’s lives. Today we’re blessed with a modern system that tucks power plants away in remote regions. But we’re also cursed in being so far removed from our sources of energy that we’ve almost entirely forgotten and in many cases never knew what they are and how they work. Any society so ignorant of its most basic technological underpinnings is on shaky footing, primed for economic and ecological disaster.

Melodramatic? Maybe. But the prices of electricity and oil are volatile. The ice caps are not going to stop melting. The globe is changing bit by bit. It’s our job, our duty, to be aware, to take note and do our best to understand what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we need to do going forward.

Why We Need a National Renewable Energy Standard

11 Aug
PS20 and PS10

Image via Wikipedia

Over the past two years I’ve spent working on the book, the most frequent question I’ve gotten from friends, family, and the occasional curious blog reader goes something like this: “is renewable energy for real, or is it just another hippie fad.” It’s a legitimate question, because for many people, renewable energy is something they hear a lot about but don’t really see or experience in their lives. They may read about some big new solar project or controversy surrounding the Cape Wind project in the waters off Cape Cod, but the bulk of their electricity still comes from good (or not so good, depending on your perspective) old-fashioned coal-burning power plants. And the (increasingly expensive) gasoline they pump into their cars is still around 80% derived from imported oil. So it’s easy to assume that renewable energy is more pipe dream than reality, more a suite of niche technologies than a fully functioning apparatus ready to take on an displace fossil fuels.

But is this view right? Yes and no. If you go by the numbers alone, renewables constitute only a miniscule percentage of the world’s overall energy production (somewhere in the realm of 2%). Even the largest solar and wind farms don’t come close to producing the same amount of power as even a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because numbers only speak to the present moment and reveal nothing about the bigger picture. The history of renewable energy is replete with ingenious inventors, fantastic inventions, and hundreds of near misses, usually in the form of path-breaking technologies that were either ahead of their time or were plowed under by more entrenched and better-funded fossil fuel corporations. Undergirding the history of failure is a lack of widespread government support. Until very recently, renewable energy innovators have been mostly lone wolves, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs with big ideas but not quite enough cash or political clout to realize them fully.

But that’s changed significantly over the past few decades. Scanning recent energy headlines, I came across this one:

Army targets big renewable energy projects

The US military, the article reports, is investing heavily in large solar farms and other forms of renewable energy. The Army consumes huge amounts of energy and is always looking for ways to cut costs. Strategically, being able to produce energy on site at military bases is preferable to relying on fragile supply lines vulnerable to enemy attack. And so the Army is going to pour more than 7 billion dollars into developing its renewable energy infrastructure. This is remarkable not just for the large dollar amount but also because it marks a new and unprecedented shift in the history of renewable energy: namely, the embrace of renewable technologies by a large, state-supported institution.

The US Army is not the first or only example of this shift. Other countries, most notably Germany and Spain, have adopted strong renewable energy mandates that have pushed the development of wind and solar, especially, to new heights. China is forging ahead (some would say recklessly) at breakneck speed, building new solar and wind farms across the country.

And the U.S? While there’s plenty of renewable energy activity here, it’s more haphazard, happening in fits and starts. Despite the Army’s strong commitment to renewables, the country as a whole has not jumped on the green energy bandwagon. In short, while the Obama administration has laid out some very ambitious clean energy goals (80% of US energy produced by clean sourced by 2035), there’s no officially legislated mandate to back those goals and bring them to fruition. Individual states, most notably California, Colorado, and several others, have stepped in and taken the lead, but to truly push renewable energy forward, to help it transition from a bunch of still relatively niche technologies to a powerful player in the energy landscape that can butt heads with and eventually replace fossil fuels, the federal government is going to have to step up and make renewable energy a national priority.

Will this happen? Right now it seems unlikely. U.S. politics are so divisive on the issue of government spending that a massive national effort to advance renewable energy is remote in the short-term. But it’s exactly this sort of short-term thinking that has caused the U.S. to fall behind China, Germany, and other countries in taking the lead on clean energy. Despite the recent downgrade, the U.S. is still the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. Where the U.S. goes, the rest of the world follows (at least for now). If this country were to somehow band together in support of renewable energy, if there was a Panama Canal or moon landing-like effort to build up renewable energy technology and infrastructure, great things could happen.

 

Rolling the Dice: Remembering the Gas Crisis Board Game

2 May

Reading a recent op/ed in the New York Times comparing the current gasoline price hikes to the fuel crises of the 1970s, I came across mention of a dice-rolling board game from that time called “Gas Crisis.”  According to boardgamegeek.com (where I found the pic, by the way), players “drove” either gas guzzlers or smaller cars and needed $1000 to get around the board. Guzzlers threw three dice, smaller cars two (I think.) If you ran out of money before getting around the board, you lost. Game over.

In the midst of the current gas crisis (if it is in fact a “crisis”) it’s instructive to reflect back on the late 70s–a time when panic of a very real sort set in across the country. Several months ago I posted a blog piece about a McDonalds commercial exploiting the national mood to sell burgers. The Gas Crisis board game is another cultural artifact of that era and a small but striking example of just how deep of an impression that episode made on the national psyche. Just like Monopoly was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Gas Crisis was a product of a time when things seemed to have changed permanently for the worse. (Of course, Monopoly has had way more staying power than Gas Crisis–probably a testament to the fact that no matter the state of the economy, it’s fun to pretend to be a real estate mogul and run your competitors out of business.)

(The gas misadventures of the late 70s proved to be short lived; by the mid 80s, a glut in world oil markets brought prices crashing down, ushering in an era of new gas guzzling cars and of making fun of former President Jimmy Carter for worry so pubicly about American’s energy future.)

Now, as we navigate our own latest fuel crisis, many Americans are wondering if this is just another temporary setback soon to be swept away by newly discovered oil fields in the Arctic and elsewhere. Or will prices not only not go down but continue to climb until, heaven forbid, they reach European-like levels of $7 – 9 dollars a gallon and we’re forced to seriously consider other transportation options like high speed rail and electric vehicles. So far, at least, climbing gas prices haven’t inspired the same sense of panic and pervasive doom that took hold during the 70s. Gas may be more expensive, but it’s still plentiful (at least where I live). I haven’t seen or heard about gas lines or about vagabonds stealing gas from parked cars. Maybe we’re better equipped now, financially and intellectually, to handle fuel price hikes rationally and calmly.

But if the 70s gas crisis taught us anything, it’s that we’re fully capable of losing our minds as prices go up. If in fact gas prices get anywhere near $7/gallon, who knows what will happen? All bets are off. We might even see new commercials, games, and maybe even a movie or two, like a Mad Max reboot set in a world where $8 gas prices have set city against city and neighbor against neighbor in an all-out war to control fuel. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that in the real world.

Why the U.S. Needs a Renewable Energy Policy

10 Feb

Why the U.S. Needs a Comprehensive Energy Policy

In his 2011 State of the Union speech and in dozens of recent public appearances, President Obama has talked up clean energy setting a goal for the United States to produce a whopping 80 percent of its electricity from “clean energy sources” (including nuclear, natural gas, and “clean(er) coal”) by 2035. It’s an ambitious, welcome goal. But how realistic is it without a comprehensive energy policy pushing wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewables? I spoke with Bruce Bailey, CEO of the renewable energy consultancy firm AWS Truepower about the importance of a national energy policy

Why does the United States need a national energy policy favorable to renewables like wind and solar?

Because without one, it’s nearly impossible to establish a long-term market for wind farms and solar farms and other renewable energy technologies. We’ve had short-term production tax credits, but they come and go. When a credit for wind energy is on the verge of expiring, for example, development in that sector stops until there’s confidence that the tax credits will be extended. The uncertainty discourages investment. Some states, like California early on and more recently Colorado and many others, have taken the lead by adopting far-reaching renewable energy mandates and tax incentives to encourage economic growth. But we still need a comprehensive federal policy to send the strongest possible signal that the United States is behind renewable energy and willing to push it.

Given the lack of a federal policy, how realistic is President Obama’s goal of producing 80 percent of electricity in the U.S. by 2035?

It’s hard to say, but a federal program would certainly help. Countries that do have a federal energy plan supporting renewables have seen double digit penetrations of wind, for example. Denmark generates around 20 percent of its electricity from wind. Germany is in double digits with wind and solar. And China is forging ahead with large scale wind and solar plants. Germany and Denmark are much smaller than the United States, of course, and there are other important differences in our political structure and culture. But there are examples out there of countries that have used a strong national policy to take the lead in renewable energy.

So why doesn’t the U.S. have a national energy policy that supports renewables?

Both parties support renewables, so there’s lots of common ground. But most of the legislation concerning renewable energy that’s been proposed has been attached to bigger picture issues like cap and trade, oil exploration in Alaska, and other controversial issues that tend to be show stoppers. Renewable energy is attached to those bills to make them seem more attractive and to get them passed, but the controversial stuff ends up derailing the attractive renewable energy proposals. And, of course, other issues like the economic crisis, health care, and immigration reform have gotten in the way. People want renewable energy, but they’re often confused by its upfront costs and uncertain about its true benefits.

What sort of renewable federal renewable energy policy would you like to see?

I’d like to see a policy that recognizes that renewable energy technologies need the same type of government support that our current power generating sources received during their early years. Many people don’t understand or have forgotten that, for the most part, our energy infrastructure was driven by federal mandates to build power plants and transmission lines. And oil companies have enjoyed generous government support for many decades. Now wind and solar come along needing the same government boost, but the game has changed. Today, the private sector builds and controls power generation. The trajectory has gone from the government investing in energy for the public good to agreeing that we need renewables but allowing the market to dictate how, if at all, they’re going to happen. So renewables are expected to struggle to gain a foothold without federal support by competing with coal, oil, and natural gas–industries that have received and continue to enjoy substantial federal incentives. It’s a very uneven playing field, and federal policy supporting renewable energy could do a lot to level it.

Who cares about energy?

21 Jan

I’m sitting in my studio/cell, as usual, working on the book, mired in one of those necessary periods where in order to write the next bit I have to do a lot of reading and thinking. Always good to learn more, but also frustrating because it seem unproductive, even thought it’s not.

During these times my mind often turns to big picture things, like who’s going to be interested in this book. This speaks to an even larger question: namely, who care about energy?

To a degree, everyone cares. Energy is universal, ubiquitous. We all use it and can’t live without it. But energy is so deeply engrained into the fabric of modern existence that, outside of those who don’t have access to modern types of energy (which describes many people, actually), we normally don’t think about it or care how it works or where it comes from. We only care that it’s available on demand at prices we can reasonably afford.

Now, this does not describe everyone. For hundreds of millions of people living in poor or developing countries, energy is a constant, in-your-face problem.  Too many unfortunate souls are all too aware of the importance of reliable power, due mainly to the fact that they lack it.

So I certainly don’t mean to complain about the easy access to reliable power enjoyed by those of us fortunate enough to live in industrialized and post-industrial countries. I don’t want to have to worry or think too hard about where my power comes from. I just want to flick on the light, power up my iPhone, and watch stuff on Hulu whenever I want, no questions asked.

But still, we’re at a moment when energy has become more visible for more people, for a variety of reasons. Climate change, national security, the recent BP oil spill — the list goes on. These things are in the air and seem to matter to an every wider group of people.

And yet it’s hard (for me, at least) to gauge just how wide that circle is, at to what extent the average person really wants to know more about how energy works and why it matters. I care about this in general, because I think it’s important, but also for professional reasons. I want people to buy and read my book, after all, and part of making that happen is figuring out how to let people know about it and get them excited.  Most of the people who read about energy and follow energy blogs and the like tend to be industry insiders and/or environmental types.  Most of what’s written about energy is either very technical or very business oriented. There’s almost nothing along the lines of what I’m doing, which is trying to provide some context and place renewable energy issues in a larger narrative and historical context. In a way, that’s good. I’m doing something new. But in a way it’s worrisome because I don’t want my readership to be limited to a small audience of techies and industry players.

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