Posts tagged with: energy

In today’s Acton Commentary, I examine the overtures President Obama has been making lately to usher in “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” I call for in part a “level playing field” for nuclear energy, which includes neither direct subsidy from the government nor bureaucratic obfuscation. The key to the latter point is to avoid the kind of breathless concern over the countries involved in the manufacture of the components for elements of the stations.

The playing field now is rather complex, of course, given the comprehensive system of tax breaks, incentives, and other subsidies that makeup today’s energy policy. In making this call I echo to some extent the complaint of Ralph Nader, although I’m much more sanguine about the ability of nuclear power to compete in a “free market” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Planet Gore’s Chris Horner calls Obama’s recent moves on nuclear energy contradictory and “flat-out dishonest.” Horner links to a couple of other important pieces that outline some of the economic distress potentially caused by clean energy legislation, as well as the official announcement of new guaranteed funds for nuclear power projects.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) points toward complicating factors beyond the availability of federal funds. I address the concern of regulatory “bottlenecks” in the commentary piece, but I pass by the concerns over nuclear waste disposal.

Apart from recycling possibilities, which is of course a special concern for fissile material, how might we be able to safely dispose of the waste from this “new generation” of nuclear power plants? I’m talking here about the 4% or so that can’t be productively repurposed.

For a long time I’ve thought that an extraterrestrial solution might be ideal, given the political problems surrounding terrestrial storage (as in the case of Yucca Mountain), although in practice finding the technology to safely accomplish some kind of outer space disposal is more difficult. Space elevators might work. Storing material on the moon afterward might be an option, although in lieu of a lunar solution perhaps a solar solution might work. Although volcanoes aren’t hot enough to break down radioactive material, the sun would be.

So maybe we could develop and apply the technology to shoot nuclear waste into space on a trajectory that would draw it into the sun, or failing that, into a path that would not run back into us on the way around or interfere with future intra-system travel. Why not use “a cannon for shooting things into space” to dispose of nuclear waste?

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill


Any disposal site or method, especially one that included the transport of material into space, would need to be virtually immune from the kind of attack that destroys The Machine in the film Contact.

Selected related items:

More background links from a PowerBlog reader:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 12, 2010

When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

Saleem H. Ali, a ‘pro-consumption environmentalist’ at the University of Vermont “argues that sometimes a nation has to extract a nonrenewable resource like oil, or tricky-to-recycle metals and gems, in order to leapfrog from dire poverty to a more diversified economy.”

“Money from oil wealth can be used to invest in other sectors. And that in turn can yield sustainable development,” Ali says.

Awhile back I sketched very briefly a view of the theological purpose of fossil fuels. On this view, “fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.”

This meshes nicely with the Cornwall Declaration’s statement that “A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement. The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”

Energy has been a hot topic not just in the United States but throughout the world.  From cap-and-trade legislation to the talks that occurred at the G8 Summit, energy is making headlines everywhere.  Caritas in Veritate also addresses the issue of energy; however, it is in a different light from that which is occurring in the politics.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict calls for us to be more conscious of our use of energy, and for larger, more developed countries to not hoard all of the energy.  Furthermore, Pope Benedict calls for the international community to be more conscious of its use of non-renewable energy and to begin to regulate the use of non-renewable.  His concern is that poor countries will not be able to gain access to energy resources, especially non-renewable energy.

The United States is the largest energy producer, but it is also the largest energy consumer.  In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, in 2006 the United States produced 71.054 quadrillion Btu and consumed 99.889 quadrillion Btu.  These figures point out a large difference between the amount of energy produced and consumed by the United States.  At face value these figures make the United States look like an over-consumer of energy and that the Pope’s message on energy would strike an enormous note with the United States.

However, looking beyond these numbers and what they consist of, the United States is not the mass over-consumer that these numbers make it look like.  In 2006, the United States issued 89,823 patents (more patents were issued by the United States alone than the by the rest of the countries combined).  The number of patents issued in the United States can be correlated into the manufacturing that occurs in the United States.  Since the United States issued 89,823 patents in 2006 it can be expected that a large number of new products were manufactured in the United States or developed in the United States and manufactured abroad.  As a result, in order to manufacture and develop this large amount of new products, in addition to the manufacturing that was already occurring, the United States used a large amount of energy.

The Energy Information Administration also keeps records on the amount of energy used by manufacturers in the United States.  Of the 99.889 quadrillion Btu consumed by the United States in 2006, 21,046 trillion Btu was consumed by manufactures in the United States.  Since the United States manufactures a large number of goods it is able to export these goods across the world.  According to the United States Census, 1,451,685 goods and services were exported by the United States in 2006.  Compared to 2005, this number was actually up by 12.7 percent.

While the United States uses a large amount of energy it is able to manufacture goods that are exported to other countries through trade.  As a result, countries that do not have the technology, finances, or capital to increase their energy usage to manufacture more goods benefit from the United States.  The United States, who can afford to purchase energy to manufacture goods and services, can send its goods and services to the poor countries that do not use a large amount of energy and do not have the means to manufacture the goods that can be produced in the United States.  The trade the United States engages in encourages poor countries to develop so they can export even more of their goods to the United States.

However, just because the United States is able to provide goods and services to countries that do not have the means to produce such commodities, does not mean the United States is exempt from conserving energy.  We are all called for to be stewards of  Earth.  As Pope Benedict states in Caritas in Veritate, “At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it.”  As Christians, we still need to be consciousness of our use of energy to make sure our children will be given an Earth that has the same resources we are blessed to have.  Furthermore, we also need to be conscious of the condition of the poor and not exploit energy and natural resources.  Simply because we, as citizens of the United States, have the financial means that allow us to utilize and have access to energy and natural resources does not mean the same benefits are procured by those less fortunate.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Skyrocketing energy costs have, among other effects, led to interesting political maneuvering. Specifically, the question of expanding of domestic energy resources (e.g., offshore drilling) has become live for this first time in decades. For that to happen in the current Congress, of course, requires that there be at least a certain measure of bipartisan consensus. As Michael Franc explains on NRO today, there have indeed been a few Democratic defections to the pro-drilling side. These Democrats are caught between the popularity of expanded oil and gas exploration on one side and, on the other, both the traditional Democratic allegiance to the enviornmental lobby as well as the unyielding stance of the Party’s leadership.

Lifting restrictions on drilling will assist the market in creating additional supply, even as demand has already been affected by rising prices. It is important that environmental concerns not be tossed to the wind in a rush to relieve the strain on American pocketbooks, but that seems unlikely in the current political environment. In fact, the negative environmental impact of drilling in places like ANWR has always appeared questionable. It seems more likely that opposition to offshore and other drilling was fueled by NIMBY sentiment rather than demonstrably significant environmental damage.

There is the argument that offshore drilling will have little impact on prices, at least or especially in the near future. It is important that the potential for such sources be assessed realistically and not exaggerated, but the “10 years from now” objection is not compelling. If it’s a good thing to do, then we should start. Not doing so simply pushes the horizon ten years further down the road.

By no means can I claim the ability to weigh accurately the costs and benefits of expanding domestic energy exploration. That’s why it’s important to let the price mechanism operate freely and let the market respond in turn. If lifting drilling restrictions moves us in that direction, then I favor it.

Following up on my commentary “Washington’s Unpopular War on Energy,” Alaska Governor Sarah Palin talks about her own frustration with Washington energy policies in an interview with Investor’s Business Daily. Governor Palin is of course in favor of drilling for more oil in Alaska, and she believes development can be done in a safe and clean manner. She also believes increasing the domestic supply of oil will have a positive affect on oil prices for Americans. The interview is a solid discourse on the ongoing theme of Congressional inaction in regards to an energy policy. Also, it is a reminder of an unpopular Congress completely ducking a policy that is now widely supported in the country. Governor Palin declares:

There are billions of barrels of oil underneath the ground up there on the North Slope including ANWR. In Alaska alone we can supply seven years of complete crude-oil independence, and eight years’ supply of natural gas for Americans with ANWR (and) other areas of Alaska that we want to allow for development.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, July 30, 2007

Last week I linked to this R&L item, “The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story.” And two weeks ago, I discussed the relationship between environmental stewardship and economics.

You may recall that the first story featured in Acton’s Call of the Entrepreneur documentary is that of Brad Morgan, a Michigan dairy farmer. Faced with huge costs to dispose of cow refuse, Morgan’s entrepreneurial vision took hold: “His innovative solution to manure disposal, turning it into high quality compost for a variety of purposes, led to the formation of Morgan Composting in 1996, and more than ten years later the business is still going strong.”

Two news items sparked my curiosity as I opened my Sunday paper this week related to these themes of narrative and stewardship. One of the strengths of good stories is their perennial applicability. Narratives that speak to the human condition in a fundamental way will always be relevant, even if the particulars change. With that, I pass on these news items.

First, in “Turkey manure isn’t waste, it’s poultry power,” Ken Kolker and Susie Fair of the Grand Rapids Press write, “The biggest dairy farms in Michigan generate more sewage than the city of Lansing.

With livestock farms getting bigger than ever, all that manure poses a growing threat to the environment, sometimes running off into streams and lakes.”

The piece doesn’t mention Morgan Composting, but it’s clear that Moran’s entrepreneurial vision and practice of stewardship is being duplicated by other farmers facing the problem of waste disposal:

Turkey farmer Harley Sietsema plans next year to start building a turkey-litter-to-electricity plant in Howard City — the state’s first poultry power operation.

A similar plant opened recently on Scenic View Dairy farm in Fennville — manure from cows is heated and churned in enormous tanks, producing methane that powers generators.

A manure-to-electricity plant is expected to open in about a month at den Dulk Dairy in Ravenna.

The 1.2 million turkeys on Sietsema’s farms in Ottawa and Muskegon counties produce 10,000 to 12,000 tons of poultry litter a year.

Three tons of litter — which also contains bedding materials such as sunflower hulls, wood chips and alfalfa stems — is equal in energy production to a ton of coal, but it does not produce polluting carbon dioxide.

Slow-burning litter will heat a boiler, producing steam that drives a generator.

Sietsema plans to use the power to run his farms, saving him $300,000 a year.

And then there’s this piece from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Garbage in, profit out”:

Waste Management Inc., heeding the proverb that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, is spending $3.5 million to poke holes and run pipes to help the Spruce Ridge landfill expel gases that soon will run three electrical generators.

The project is part of a $350 million investment to be made by Waste Management over the next five years to turn 60 landfills across the country into sites for creating renewable energy.

These projects are examples of searches for alternative sources of energy, specifically from biomass, that results from the reduction or recycling of waste products.

These stories just reiterate the connection between sound economics and stewardship of the earth. Or, in the words of the Cornwall Declaration (PDF), “We aspire to a world in which advancements in agriculture, industry, and commerce not only minimize pollution and transform most waste products into efficiently used resources but also improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.”

Ray Nothstine’s Acton commentary on the the ethanol boom and its impact on the poor was published today in the Christian Science Monitor as, “The unintended consequences of the ethanol quick fix.” His timely article was also picked up by a slew of other newspapers and Web sites, including the Bakersfield Californian, the Fresno Bee and the Atlantic City Press.

Over at the Becker-Posner blog, the gentlemen consider the question, “Do National Security and Environmental Energy Policies Conflict?” (a topic also discussed here.)

Becker predicts, “Driven by environmental and security concerns, more extensive government intervention in the supply and demand for energy are to be expected during the next few years in all economically important countries. Policies that meet both these concerns are feasible, and clearly would have greater political support than the many approaches that advance one of these goals at the expense of the other.”

Posner observes the difference between a gasoline and a carbon tax, noting that the former would “have a direct effect in reducing demand for oil, thus reducing, as Becker points out, the oil revenues of oil-producing nations.”

But for a policy that addresses both national security and environmental concerns, “a gasoline tax would be inferior to a carbon tax from the standpoint of limiting global warming, because producers of oil, refiners of gasoline, and producers of cars and other products that burn fossil fuels would have no incentive to adopt processes that would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per barrel of oil, gallon of gasoline, etc. A carbon tax would create such an incentive and would also have a strong indirect negative effect on the demand for fossil fuels.”

There’s a lot more to these posts worth mulling over.

“If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” That’s a good rule, I think.

The Care of Creation blog is noting, however, that “people who work longer hours use more energy and generally contribute more to the decline of the ecological quality of life on planet earth.”

The basis for the claim is a report that comes from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and “finds that if all countries worked as many hours per week as U.S. workers do, the world would consume 15 to 30 percent more energy by 2050 than it would by following Europe’s model.”

As I’ve asserted before, calculations that simply take into account the outputs of various environmentally-relevant factors, like GHGs, without also noting the relevant economic variables, are highly flawed.

So perhaps per capita American workers do work longer hours and therefore use more energy than their European counterparts. But do the American workers also contribute more to their respective country’s GNP than do Europeans? I’m betting they do…and it shouldn’t be surprising that all these factors correlate, because of the energy-dependent nature of the economy in the 21st century. But as recent trends suggest, perhaps even that doesn’t mean that economies must increase GHG emissions to grow.

Who gets more bang for their energy buck? The EU’s share of gross world product (GWP) is roughly 20%. Estimates put the EU’s population right around 490 million. The US’s share of GWP is larger than the EU’s, somewhere between 20% and 30%, but accomplishes that with a fraction of the population, numbering barely above 300 million.

So, work less and “save” the planet, but also contribute less to the global economy. That’s a formula for disaster.

For another take on how you can do nothing and save the planet, see the May 21 edition of the Joy of Tech comic.