Posts tagged with: energy

My commentary this week focuses on the how the rise in prices at the pump is impacting the poor. Currently, in many areas of the country a gallon of gas is now priced over $4. I also argue that we need a more coherent energy policy coming from leaders in Washington. Part of the argument against drilling in ANWR (Arctic Refuge) over a decade ago was that the oil wouldn’t hit the market for 10 years. That’s a very shortsighted way of thinking about meeting our energy needs. We need leaders in Washington to work for us not against us.

Perhaps now a forgotten event, former Senator Jesse Helms in 1982 waged a dramatic battle against a federal gasoline tax hike of five cents. The tax hike had bipartisan support, including the support of President Ronald Reagan. However, Helms fought virtually alone with only a small cadre of tax opponents. He eventually lost on the measure but as he was traveling back to North Carolina he stopped at a rural Hardees restaurant. Truckers recognized Helms and he was greeted with thunderous applause for his efforts. Helms stood up not just for business interests like the trucking industry, but the rural poor, who are hit hardest by increases in gas prices. The current federal tax on a gallon of unleaded gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and the mean state tax on a gallon is 26.6 cents. My commentary is printed below:

High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor

by Ray Nothstine

Religious leaders staging a fast over budget cuts on social spending have not offered to fast over higher gas prices, even though the impact on the poor is devastating. In fact, there is very little focus on the rise in energy costs, with political and religious leaders remaining largely silent. Yet, when they speak on the issue, they often do not have your best interests in mind.

At a recent visit to a wind turbine plant, President Obama responded to one questioner’s concern about rising prices by laughing and saying, “If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting 8 miles per gallon, you might want to think about a trade-in.” The president didn’t say which vehicle he was talking about. But a 2003 Hummer H2, rated among the worst for gas mileage, scores 10-14 miles per gallon.

But for most people a truck that is getting 8 miles per gallon is the one that delivers their food. This is true too for charitable food banks as delivery costs cut into the number of people they can feed. Food banks also depend on volunteer drivers to deliver meals to shut-ins.

Many individuals and families are already curtailing discretionary spending to save for gas. In turn, more money and jobs exit the U.S. economy for oil exporting countries.

The national average for a gallon of gas is currently $3.79. Some American cities are well over $4 per gallon. The price, up almost a $1 since last year at this time, has some experts forecasting $5 for Memorial Day.

While oil markets can be complex, free market alternatives offer better relief than heavily subsidized “green energies” propped up by government. A new study in the United Kingdom by Stuart Young Consulting and the John Muir Trust again pointed out what previous studies have found: Wind output is often less than anticipated and is an unreliable source of energy.

Likewise, electric cars are rejected by consumers shopping for fuel economy—even though they are subsidized with tax credits. Rachel Slobodien of the Heritage Foundation points out that people are instead buying more affordable super fuel economy cars with traditional engines that get upwards of 50 miles per gallon.

Some lawmakers from both parties in oil producing states are asking for more domestic drilling, more refineries, and uniform state standards on gasoline mixture requirements. All of these proposals will help lower prices and could add hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

President Obama has responded by saying an increase in domestic drilling “will help some.” He also signaled he may be willing to tap more of the Canadian oil sands, but at the same time, he wants to cut oil imports by one-third.

High prices at the pump can offer a moment to pause too and remember a spiritual truth. The price of gas not only draws attention to the Middle East, but it draws our attention back to the Garden of Eden that tradition places in that oil-rich region.

Oil itself is decayed vegetation and plankton that has seeped into the ground, forming over millions of years. At one time wildlife was abundant and forests were especially lush in the garden. In the creation story we are reminded that after the fall of man, we have to toil for resources (Genesis 3:19).

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

We know too well that leaders in Washington reflect the fall of man, but they are not working to lighten our burden right now. As the price of gas approaches $5 per gallon, perhaps its rise may help us to refocus on new ways to meet the needs of those who have the most to lose from rising fuel costs.

Last week President Obama gave an address outlining his new energy policy. In light of the tragic events in Japan, the speech was much anticipated especially considering the president’s prior commitment to nuclear energy.

As expected President Obama continued advocating for a greener energy policy while continuing to push for the country’s independence from oil. However, the President’s speech, an article by Reuters points out, was “short on details on how to curb U.S. energy demand.”

Furthermore, the President’s call for a path towards greener energy and energy independence will not be easy. The New York Times appropriately states, “The path to that independence — or at least an end to dependence on the Mideast — could well be dirty, expensive and politically explosive.”

President Obama continues to voice his support for alternative fuels and green energy. He argued for energy from wind, solar, natural gas, biofuels, natural gas, and nuclear. However, as I have argued in the past, these alternative fuels have costly subsidies, unintended consequences, are not cost effective, and have proven to be largely inefficient (I address the unintended consequences of ethanol here, here, and here and the unintended consequences with wind turbines here).

The president is calling for more government regulation. He gave a glimpse of a new energy standard he is going to pursue this summer, “This summer, we’re going to propose the first-ever fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks. And this fall, we’ll announce the next round of fuel standards for cars that build on what we’ve already done” he said. In an economy that is looking to rebound from a recession, businesses do not need another costly government mandate forcing them to change their transportation fleet. Instead, the President should rely on the market. Businesses will upgrade their transportation fleet naturally through the market when it is efficient and more cost effective for them to utilize heavy-duty trucks that are more fuel efficient.

The president also stated that we need to look to other countries, such as Brazil, for oil. However, an article published by Real Clear Markets is very critical of the President’s pursuit of Brazilian oil:

Now, with a seven-year offshore drilling ban in effect off of both coasts, on Alaska’s continental shelf and in much of the Gulf of Mexico – and a de facto moratorium covering the rest – Obama tells the Brazilians:

“We want to help you with the technology and support to develop these oil reserves safely. And when you’re ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers.”

Obama wants to develop Brazilian offshore oil to help the Brazilian economy create jobs for Brazilian workers while Americans are left unemployed in the face of skyrocketing energy prices by an administration that despises fossil fuels as a threat to the environment and wants to increase our dependency on foreign oil.

Furthermore President Obama’s talk of expediting drilling permits is not wholly accurate. The Obama Administration has not been friendly to offshore domestic drilling since the BP disaster last year. As the above quoted article from Real Clear Markets explains, there has been a seven-year offshore drilling ban on Alaska’s continental shelf and in much of the Gulf of Mexico. That has not changed under the Obama Administration. The Heritage Foundation pointed out in February:

Putting aside calls from some who want to increase domestic exploration to areas in Alaska and elsewhere, President Obama has completely shut down the existing oil drilling infrastructure in the U.S. At least 103 permits are awaiting review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The federal government has not approved a single new exploratory drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico since Obama “lifted” his deepwater drilling moratorium in October 2010. Obama also reversed an earlier decision by his administration to open access to coastal waters for exploration, instead placing a seven-year ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and Eastern Gulf of Mexico as part of the government’s 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf Program.

As expected the president’s energy speech is not receiving much praise from the oil industry. Obama claimed that the oil industry is sitting on leases instead of using these for oil production. Ken Cohen, Exxon Mobile Corp.’s vice president of public and government affairs addressed the President’s claims and reflected on his speech in a Wall Street Journal article:

Said Mr. Cohen: “90% of the words sound relatively right in line with what you’d hear us say,” in terms of enhanced use of natural gas, increasing energy efficiency, more research and development and more domestic production. But the speech didn’t address policies that Mr. Cohen said are hampering oil development, such as opening areas that are off limits to the industry, and insisted on uneconomic mandates for renewable fuel. Moreover, the mention that oil companies are hoarding unexploited leases is off the mark, he said.

“The notion that there’s some economic incentive to sit on a lease is wrong,” Mr. Cohen said, particularly when oil prices are above $100 a barrel.

Despite the recent tragic events of Japan’s nuclear power disaster, it was relieving to see the president not call a halt to nuclear energy. While it will most likely take time for nuclear energy to rebound from the catastrophic events, the president looked at the situation pragmatically by continuing to voice support for nuclear energy while requesting a Nuclear Regulator Commission safety review to make sure all existing nuclear energy facilities are safe.

Despite the criticism, it is still important to keep in mind that we are all stewards of the Earth and need to take care of the planet God has given us. We do not get a replacement and we must see that future generations have a planet they can live in without problems created by our generation. The President’s call to not waste energy should be applauded, and advice we should all heed. However, as the United States continues to define its energy policy it is also equally important to keep in mind we are called to not just be environmental stewards, but also financial stewards. Our energy policy should be for the well-being of the planet but also economically feasible without being burdened with costly subsidies and unintended consequence.

Full text from President Obama’s speech can be found here.

The American Enterprise Institute also provides and insightful critique on the President’s speech which can be found here.

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, March 14, 2011
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With the terrible human toll from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami catastrophe only now being comprehended, and the grave follow on crisis at the country’s nuclear power plants unfolding by the hour, the anti-nuclear power crowd has already begun issuing statements such as the one Greenpeace put out saying that “nuclear power cannot ever be safe.”

Predictably, reports Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph, “battle lines” are being drawn:

On Saturday, some 50,000 anti-nuclear protesters formed a 27-mile human chain from Germany’s Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant to the city of Stuttgart to protest against its government’s plans to extend the life of the country’s reactors. Green politicians in pro-nuclear France urged an end to its dependence on the atom, and Ed Markey, a leading Democratic US Congressman, called for a moratorium on building new reactors in seismically active areas.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel, after holding a meeting of the German cabinet on the issue, reaffirmed her confidence in the safety of nuclear power. The leader of Silvio Berlusconi’s party said that Italy would stick with plans to build new reactors. And a spokesman for US Senator Lisa Murkowski said it would be “poor form for anyone to criticise the nuclear industry, or pronounce the end of nuclear power, because of a natural disaster that has been a national tragedy for the Japanese people”.

Poor form, indeed. Now we have an example of an unseemly statement on nuclear power at the worst possible time from a religious leader.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Orthodox hierarch based in Istanbul, Turkey, today called for nations to stop using nuclear power and to adopt “green” energy technologies:

… with regard to the explosion of the nuclear reactor and the aftermath of a nuclear adversity, there is indeed a response that we are called to make. With all due respect to the science and technology of nuclear energy and for the sake of the survival of the human race, we counter-propose the safer green forms of energy, which both moderately preserve our natural resources and mindfully serve our human needs.

Our Creator granted us the gifts of the sun, wind, water and ocean, all of which may safely and sufficiently provide energy. Ecologically-friendly science and technology has discovered ways and means of producing sustainable forms of energy for our ecosystem. Therefore, we ask: Why do we persist in adopting such dangerous sources of energy? Are we so arrogant as to compete with and exploit nature? Yet, we know that nature invariably seeks revenge.

This is magical thinking about very practical policy questions and complex technology overlaid with a spiritual gloss. (more…)

Kenneth P. Green, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), recently examined green energy in Europe in an essay titled, “The Myth of Green Energy Jobs: The European Experience.” Green thoroughly analyzes the green industry in Europe while seeking to discover the reasons behind its current downward spiral. As readers discover, this is largely due to the green industry being unsustainable while heavily relying on government intervention and subsidies.

Green uses the failing green industry in Europe to forewarn the United States that its policies, if continued, will bring the same unfruitful results. If the green industry is going to succeed it should not be a government supported industry, as Green states:

…governments do not “create” jobs; the willingness of entrepreneurs to invest their capital, paired with consumer demand for goods and services, does that.

All the government can do is subsidize some industries while jacking up costs for others. In the green case, it is destroying jobs in the conventional energy sector—and most likely other industrial sectors—through taxes and subsidies to new green companies that will use taxpayer dollars to undercut the competition. The subsidized jobs “created” are, by definition, less efficient uses of capital than market-created jobs. That means they are less economically productive than the jobs they displace and contribute less to economic growth. Finally, the good produced by government-favored jobs is inherently a non-economic good that has to be maintained indefinitely, often without an economic revenue model, as in the case of roads, rail systems, mass transit, and probably windmills, solar-power installations, and other green technologies.

Spain, according to Green, destroys an average of 2.2 jobs for every green job created, and since 2000, it has spent 571,138 Euros on each green job which includes subsidies of more than 1 million Euros per job in the wind industry. Italy also is experiencing problems. If Italy spent the same amount of capital in the general economy as it does in the green sector, then that same amount of capital that creates one job in the green industry would create 4.8 to 6.9 jobs for the general economy.

Green further explains a feed-in law instituted in Germany which requires utilities to purchase different kinds of renewable energy at different rates. The feed-in law requires utilities to buy solar power at a rate of 59 cents per kilowatt-hour when normal conventional electricity costs between 3 and 10 cents, and feed-in subsidies for wind power were 300 percent higher than conventional electricity costs. The implementation of wind and solar power did not even save German citizens money in energy rates because the household energy rates actually rose by 7.5 percent.

Denmark is also experiencing its fair share of problems. According the CEPOS, a Danish think tank that issued a report in 2009:

[the] CEPOS study found that rather than generating 20 percent of its energy from wind, “Denmark generates the equivalent of 19 percent of its electricity demand with wind turbines, but wind power contributes far less than 19 percent of the nation’s electricity demand. The claim that Denmark derives 20 percent of its electricity from wind overstates matters. Being highly intermittent, wind power has recently (2006) met as little as 5 percent of Denmark’s annual electricity consumption with an average over the last five years of 9.7 percent.”

Denmark currently has the highest electricity prices in the European Union, but while Danes are paying such high prices, one would imagine that there is a cost benefit factor occurring, such as great environmental benefits and a lower carbon footprint.  However, Green explains that the greenhouse gas reduction benefits are actually slim to none: “The wind power consumed in Denmark does displace some fossil-fuel emissions, but at some cost: $124 per ton, nearly six times, the price on the European Trading System.”

With large inefficiencies and high costs in subsidies being paid in Europe, Green warns American policy makers not to follow in Europe’s footsteps. So the question is what should the U.S. Government do? The answer, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is nothing.

In an editorial recently published the Las Vegas Review-Journal examines the costs of subsidies and support dollars per megawatt hour the U.S. spent in 2008. According to the Energy Information Administration, oil and natural gas received 25 cents per megawatt-hour, coal received 44 cents, Hydroelectric received 67 cents, nuclear power received $1.59, wind power received $23.37, solar power received $24.34 and refined coal received $29.81. The editorial also published comments from John Rowe, CEO of Chicago based Exelon which is the nation’s biggest nuclear power producer. In the editorial Rowe articulates a resonating message to President Obama and Congress concerning green energy policy:

…in trying to boost “clean” energy — wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas — Congress and the states have enacted or proposed bills that would burden consumers, cripple markets and increase federal debt but do little to clean up the air.

In a speech to the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Rowe said his message to lawmakers is simple: “I’m asking that Congress do nothing.”

Mr. Rowe said utilities across the country are turning to “cheap” natural gas to generate electricity and do not need a clean energy standard proposed by President Obama.

After taking a look yesterday at economic consequences of rising food prices along with the affects ethanol may have on the rising food prices, a moral perspective must also be taken into account.

As I stated in my previous blog post, the World Bank says rising food prices have pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty in developing countries since June of 2010, and are having an adverse effect on people around the globe.  The increase in demand and expanded use of crops have caused global stockpiles to erode.  Stockpiles are important to help ensure a steady flow of food, especially during traumatic times such as large food shortages.  Even the corn stocks of United States, the world’s largest corn producer, amount to 5 percent of annual use which is far below the 13.6 percent average that they have been kept at over the last 15 years.

We are also called to be stewards of the Earth and this not only means not abusing the one planet we are given, but also ensuring that we leave a planet in good condition for future generations.  However, recent studies have called into question whether ethanol is actually better for the environment.  A study conducted by the University of Minnesota demonstrates that corn ethanol is actually more harmful than gasoline to the environment.  Furthermore, a recent article from Forbes also articulates that ethanol gasoline lets out more harmful toxins than regular gasoline.  There are even suggestions that ethanol uses more energy per gallon to produce it than the energy contained the actual gallon of ethanol.

In 2007, Ray Nothstine’s commentary Big Corn’ and Unitended Consequences pointed out some of the effects of rising food prices and the environmental implications of ethanol production.

Ethanol is expensive to produce, has contributed to a rise in gasoline prices, and has its own pollution problems. It requires a lot of fertilizer, fresh water, and productive farm land. And, because of corrosive properties that make pipeline transportation problematic, it takes a lot of trucks to haul it.

While the policies behind increased ethanol production may have been intended to promote good environmental stewardship, the actual results may show a higher negative environmental impact than other fuel sources.

If ethanol is causing the problems recent studies have indicated, then is the ethanol subsidy and the government mandate to continue the increase use of ethanol sound policy?  Continued funding for the ethanol subsidy and a mandate to increase the use of ethanol, when it may not be accomplishing its originally intended goals, might be cause to reevaluate ethanol’s future.  With food prices on the rise, and the demand for wider uses for crops across the globe also rising, the United States continues to fund the current ethanol policy, which may become counter intuitive to its original goals. The United States currently dedicates 40 percent of the amount of corn it produces each year to ethanol, and so you wonder if we are actually working at cross purposes to sound stewardship, and if so, it may be time to look towards a more morally sound solution.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I discuss whether the Environmental Protection Agency’s planned regulation of carbon emissions can be justified from a Christian perspective.  The EPA has found that carbon emissions endanger “public health and welfare,” and it is on track to begin regulating vehicle and power plant emissions.

Environmentalists claim that policies targeting carbon emissions, such as EPA regulation or a cap-and-trade program, will stimulate the economy by creating green jobs.  Unfortunately, this is not the case – the government does not have the ability to create jobs.

Rather than stimulating the American economy, full regulation of carbon emissions will damage it severely.  Essentially, a cap or a regulatory burden on carbon emissions would create energy scarcity, making it just as expensive to purchase energy from fossil fuels as it is to purchase energy from “renewable” sources.  The supply of efficient energy would drop in order to encourage production and consumption of inefficient energy, and prices would skyrocket as a result.

Barack Obama himself admitted, as a presidential candidate, that rising energy prices form a crucial component of emissions regulation.

It’s not just energy prices that will rise.  Prices for virtually all other goods and services will rise as well, because it takes energy to produce them.  It takes energy to get a vegetable from a farmer’s field to your kitchen table.  It takes energy to plant the vegetable, cultivate it, harvest it, transport it, keep it fresh, sell it in a lighted grocery store, drive it from the grocery store to the house, and cook it.

If energy expenses increase at every stage of the vegetable’s journey, what will happen to the price of the vegetable?  It will rise.  And rising prices will have the worst impact on the poor.  Before Christians jump on the bandwagon of carbon politics, they would do well to think through not just the good intentions of climate policy, but the real-world consequences.

Read “In the ‘Green’ Economy, the Poor Pay More” on the Acton website.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, June 17, 2010
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Ryan T. Anderson, editor of Public Discourse, weighs in on BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico:

What we’re seeing is an animus directed toward modern technology and industry, an unmodulated suspicion of the private sector’s motives, an unexamined belief that markets have failed, all coupled with an uncritical (and nearly unthinking) faith that, in the final analysis, only government and extensive regulation will save us from ourselves and protect Mother Nature.

But the history of environmental progress tells a different story. And the lessons of this story ought not to be obscured by this tragic event. First, governmental attempts to protect the environment often have been inefficient, ineffective, and even counterproductive. Second, economic growth—and the affordable energy and market economies that allows for such growth—is largely responsible for the environmental gains we have witnessed over the past decades. And third, property rights and the market itself—not the supposedly angelic intentions and intelligence of government officials—best protect the environment.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and perhaps the best-known governmental misstep—still in full force—when it comes to environmental policy is the Endangered Species Act. Signed into law in 1973, the act was meant to protect species on the verge of extinction as “a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The law has had some good effects, but in certain respects the remedy was worse than the disease. Instead of bringing economic growth and development into harmony with concern for and conservation of endangered species, the act gave some an economic incentive to kill and destroy the habitats of the very animals it sought to protect.

“Shoot, shovel, and shut-up” best captures the attitude of some ranchers, farmers, harvesters, and other land-owners who stand to lose all access to their land should an endangered animal be discovered on it. If an endangered species is discovered on private property, governmental officials can tell the owners what they may and may not do with the land—imposing criminal sanctions if they fail to comply. This can greatly decrease the value of the land, but the government does not offer any economic recompense.

As a result, land-owners know that if they spot an endangered animal they should get rid of their problem by getting rid of the animal before the government finds out—“shoot, shovel, and shut-up.” This same logic also provides the incentive for land-owners to manage their properties in such a way (by clearing undergrowth, limiting the size of forests, etc.) so as to prevent them from providing habitat for endangered species.

Imagine how many more endangered species would be discovered and protected if there were an economic incentive to doing so. What if conservation groups paid land-owners to purchase the properties where these species were discovered? Barring that, what if the government compensated land-owners, thus implementing a policy that makes sense by providing the proper economic incentives. No one suggests getting rid of the Endangered Species Act, only reforming it to make use of market-based solutions.

Read “The Gulf Oil Spill and Eco-nomics” on Public Discourse.

Channeling his inner Ralph Nader, John Stossel calls shenanigans on the GOP talking points touting the viability of nuclear power.

As I noted in the context of a recent commentary on Obama’s promise of a new generation of nuclear reactors, Ralph Nader has asked a prescient question: “If these nuclear power plants are so efficient, so safe, why can’t they be built with unguaranteed private risk capital?”

Stossel similarly says, “I like the idea of nuclear energy too, but if ‘America is on the cusp’ of a revival, then taxpayers shouldn’t have to offer billions in guarantees! In a free country, when something is a good idea, it happens. Private capital makes it happen, without government force.”

Stossel raises and dismisses the disposal issue, which I examine at some length here.

In the end, I agree with Nader and Stossel on this point. But as I’ve said I’m a bit more sanguine about the chances of nuclear to compete on a level playing field. The problem is determining how well it can do without guarantees or subsidies when so many other forms of energy are on the receiving end of government largesse. It’s not right to ask nuclear power to go unsubsidized when its competitors don’t have such limitations.

For a look at the playing field from 1999-2007, see this summary paper, “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets 2007″ (PDF). Historically nuclear power has been handicapped relative to the incentives given to other forms, including fossil fuels. Add to that the extra regulatory burden, and you can see why there’s been so little movement in building new power plants in the last thirty years.

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
Friday, February 12, 2010
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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.”