Tag Archive: energy

Nov 19 2014

Can the US political system deal with climate change?

The American “system” has been a bit tardy in its response to climate change. Experts tell us that the longer it takes to make needed changes, the more difficult it will be to make them.

As 350.org’s Bill McKibben puts it:

We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn’t care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.

Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets.  Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.

We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible — all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.

Unless you understand these distinctions you don’t understand climate change — and it’s not at all clear that President Obama understands them.

There are lots of reasons why the response of the system has been so slow. There is significant resistance in the system to the sort of changes that need to be made. That resistance has manifested itself in a number of ways, from President Obama using the spies at the NSA to kill global agreements on climate change to the bipartisan popularity of climate change denial in Congress, the media and the public relations industry, despite virtually indisputable scientific evidence.

Resistance is created by a variety of groups based on their perceived interests. Enormously wealthy, powerful corporations and individuals who want to preserve their profits from fossil fuels and related industries, people who rely on jobs created or enabled by fossil fuel industries, people who fear economic chaos and the loss of their comforts due to actions to stop climate change, and politicians whose fortunes depend upon the money and other resources of the fossil fuel industry are some huge sources of systemic inertia.

Jan 13 2014

Sunday Train: The Rumored Death of Peak Oil Was Greatly Exaggerated

From Earth Insight by Nafeez Ahmed, hostsed by the Gardian, Former BP geologist: peak oil is here and it will ‘break economies’:

Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 before retiring in 2008, said that official data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US Energy Information Administration (EIA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other sources, showed that conventional oil had most likely peaked around 2008.

Dr. Miller critiqued the official industry line that global reserves will last 53 years at current rates of consumption, pointing out that “peaking is the result of declining production rates, not declining reserves.” Despite new discoveries and increasing reliance on unconventional oil and gas, 37 countries are already post-peak, and global oil production is declining at about 4.1% per year, or 3.5 million barrels a day (b/d) per year:

“We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply… New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover – but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].”

Dec 23 2013

Sunday Train: Bringing This Oil Tanker to a Halt

Its been said that it takes miles for a fully-loaded super-tanker to come to a stop, because an ordinary stop takes 20 minutes, and even an emergency, or “crash”, stop takes 14 minutes. But that is less than the blink of an eye compared to the time it will take to bring the emissions of CO2 to a stop.

As Do the Math reminds us, in order to have some plausible chance (far short of certainty, by the way) of leaving global warming at under the 3.6°F that implies that the already ongoing climate catastrophe tips over into the super-catastrophe range, we need to keep additional CO2 emissions at under 565 gigatons. And we have computed reserves equivalent to 2,795 gigatons. So we must, by hook or by crook, find a way to refrain from consuming 80% of our CO2.

For the US, our main focus has to be on our energy emissions due to petroleum, coal, and natural gas, since 85.7% of our total CO2 emissions are due to energy production. As of 2011 41% of our emissions from energy production comes from petroleum emissions, 34% from coal, and 24% from natural gas. Of that 41% due to petroleum, 15% is from domestic petroleum production, and 26% from petroleum imports. So if the United States were to today achieve petroleum independence from carbon-neutral energy sources and energy savings, and totally replace coal combustion with carbon-neutral energy sources and energy savings, that would save 60% of the 86% of emissions from energy production, or 52% of the total. We would “only” have to cut the remaining energy-related emissions and the 14% from other sources by 60% to get to an equal proportional share of an 80% reduction.

However, the target we have to aim at is more ambitious than this. First, fossil fuels are non-renewable, and our timeline for the persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere is around a century. We don’t have a century’s worth of fossil fuels at the current rate of global consumption, so cutting back our consumption by 80% of the present rate is not enough.

And second, because of the time that it will take to switch to a low carbon emissions society, it is highly likely that by the time that a low carbon emissions society is within reach, we will have already emitted close to 565 gigatons.

This is why our target is no longer a “low net carbon emissions” society, but a “zero net carbon emissions” society, since we’ve likely already passed the “ordinary stop” stopping distance, and are coming up upon the “crash stop” stopping distance.

Sep 30 2013

Sunday Train: Unleashing the Political Power of Bio-Coal

One point that constantly comes up when the push to 100% sustainable, renewable power is raised is the problem that “renewable power sources cannot be relied on to deliver power 24/7”. This is a talking point pushed by the propagandists for Big Coal in particular, since the biggest challenge to their long term existence as an industry in the United States is the threat that we begin to get serious about tapping our abundant Wind Power resources on-shore in the Great Plains and Mountain West and off-shore on the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast. When the wind is blowing, it substantially undermines the market for fossil-fuel “Baseload Power” (see (The Myth of Baseload Power).

After all, consider two scenarios, one in which a power source replaces half of the power from coal by replacing half the power, all of the time, and a second, in which a power source replaces all of the power, half the time. The second is a greater threat to coal-fired power, since it swings the advantage to natural-gas fired power. Natural-gas fired power is presently killing off coal-fired plant construction, and a sufficiently large and volatile supply of Windpower would make that permanent.

So of course Big Coal spreads the idea that all sustainable power is volatile and if its volatile, it can’t provide all of our power.

This present essay is not about answering that argument rationally. That was the topic of The Myth of Baseload Power. This present essay is about attacking the political foundations of Big Coal.

After all, propaganda about “Clean Coal” and spreading the myth that there is this special kind of power called Baseload power that sustainable energy has impact because of the political influence of Big Coal in Coal Country. And this is a particularly pernicious influence, since it runs on a cycle of:

  • Coal production provides export base employment in an area.
  • Coal production also diverts a majority of the value-added from production out of the production area;.
  • which helps assure that the Coal production areas are, on average, lower income economies than elsewhere in the country;
  • which undermines the area’s capability to diversify its economy, helping to assure that the jobs in Coal production are valued jobs in the local area, which increases local political support for “supporting” Big Coal;
  • And with a less diversified economy, there are fewer resources available to contest the political power and influence of Big Coal.
  • With its political power, Big Coal ensures that the rules in place continue to ensure that a majority of value-added is drained out of the production area

This essay is about undermining that political power at its base, by creating more jobs from a direct rival to coal production than Big Coal can offer. Once a better deal is made available, with more employment, more value-added circulating locally, and no destruction of people’s health through the hauling up of poisonous by-products from underground, the foundation on which Big Coal’s political power is based is in a position to fracture.

What is that direct rival to coal production? Bio-coal production.

Sep 29 2013

Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Yet another windy response to “What is Capitalism” by Annieli

I’ve been writing diaries here as a matter of praxis, that is, bringing theory and practice together as dialectically critical action, this is yet another attempt to make the somewhat odious task of understanding the core of marxist thought and applying it to coherent contemporary circumstance. This example shows the fundamental problem in taking an oppositional stance to capitalism as anti-capitalist thinking, how to discuss the alternatives as types of post-capitalism, and what comes afterward in terms of development. One first must understand the materialist approach to history and see capitalism’s place. Human development as cultural/social development laid upon nature’s development is always sets of uneven development even in terms of the prehistoric, knowing that many different versions of humanoids did at some moments live in parallel, some evolving to survive and others not, in a godless ecological struggle. Similarly uneven development exists for each of the historical stages of human social/economic development often described as Modes of production and the Five stages of history. Where it can get complicated is specifying the forces of production.

History can be described as divided into these stages

2.1 Primitive Communism

2.2 Slave Society

2.3 Feudalism

2.4 Capitalism

2.5 Socialism

2.6 Communism

We can still see echoes of more primitive relations even today in the informal economies of barter as forms of primitive communism and the indentured labor of some immigrant labor whether in this country or others. Enslavement exists in many forms in these uneven developments whether as actual human ownership in sex traffic or wage slavery as in globalized mass-market, corporately-owned consumer industries. Socialism or collective ownership of the means and forces of production has been achieved at various historical moments with varied success and failure and always exists as a non-totality in that other historical stages have and continue to exist in an uneven relationship and in various evolutionary forms.

This diary’s example will be of necessity a schematic version applied to the current situation of wind energy production in the United States signifying those uneven stages of historical development

The economy in which these modal stages are situated have three moments: production circulation consumption, which as a circuit reproduces itself. that is. each consuming moment induces a new, subsequent producing moment, much like the dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis producing a new thesis.

Writers who identify with historical materialism usually postulate that society has moved through a number of types or modes of production. That is, the character of the production relations is determined by the character of the productive forces; these could be the simple tools and instruments of early human existence, or the more developed machinery and technology of present age. The main modes of production Marx identified generally include primitive communism or tribal society (a prehistoric stage), ancient society, feudalism, and capitalism. In each of these social stages, people interact with nature and produce their living in different ways. Any surplus from that production is allotted in different ways. Ancient society was based on a ruling class of slave owners and a class of slaves; feudalism was based on landowners and serfs; and capitalism based on the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalist class privately owns the means of production, distribution and exchange (e.g., factories, mines, shops and banks) while the working class live by exchanging their socialized labour with the capitalist class for wages.

In order to apply this to wind power, the task is to project those stages as simply as possible. Wind is basic yet necessarily tied to other natural factors of production in terms of marine or terrestrial environment. It appears greater in various locations yet even those quantities are not consistent even seasonally and as a natural resource are difficult to capitalize upon. More problematic is its availability as seemingly costless, yet also impossible to accumulate in any surplus in its natural form, hence its designation as a common-pool resource. If you put up a windmill you are being a primitive communist until the height or appearance interferes with your neighbors. As you derive power whether as grinding mill, water pump, or electrical generator, you accumulate various types of materially transformed surplus. Its subsequent transformation into “wind capital” comes in the means by which power is produced and its relation to the entire productive circuit. In the mercantile or feudal case of grinding grain or pumping water it comes from being one part of producing other goods, whereas as under capitalism it can be not only an industrialized farm but as in the case of mineral exploitation, speculative contracts auctioned off among capitalists over a very long cycle of manufacturing, siting, and operating. These are of necessity coexisting uneven developments whether you have a single subsistence farm windmill in the Southern Hemisphere or a massive industrial wind farm fueling a national energy grid in the Northern Hemisphere. As has been mentioned here and elsewhere in DK, alternative capital accumulating organizations with a public/social purpose, whether organized cooperatively or collectively continue to emerge with varying success to resist the hegemony of capitalist energy corporations. Just as the development of the Cape Wind turbine farm off the shore of Massachusetts is less about the capital and labor needed for construction or the deconstruction of class narratives about environmental hazard or aesthetic blight, than the fictive capital embodied in auctioned speculative leases and their relation to the corporate energy oligopoly of the New England electricity grid. Unevenness occurs in the scale of such endeavors since the NIMBY-ness of small scale backyard wind turbines ranges from the quaint reproduction of historical windmills to the pathological fear of eyesores, noise, and dead birds.

Aug 12 2013

Sunday Train: The Myth of Baseload Power

cross-posted from the Sunday Train origin station Voices on the Square

In Baseload power is a myth: even intermittent renewables will work, Mark Diesendorf, Asst. Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales (Australia), writes:

The old myth was based on the incorrect assumption that base-load demand can only be supplied by base-load power stations; for example, coal in Australia and nuclear in France. However, the mix of renewable energy technologies in our computer model, which has no base-load power stations, easily supplies base-load demand. Our optimal mix comprises wind 50-60%; solar PV 15-20%; concentrated solar thermal with 15 hours of thermal storage 15-20%; and the small remainder supplied by existing hydro and gas turbines burning renewable gases or liquids. (Contrary to some claims, concentrated solar with thermal storage does not behave as base-load in winter; however, that doesn’t matter.)

Anyone who engages in online discussion on issues involving renewable energy for any length of time will encounter the myth that renewable energy is unreliable in supplying base-load demand. This myth is pushed into the discussion with substantial financial investment, directly and indirectly, by vested interests in continued reliance on the Global Suicide Pact power sources of coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Writing from Australia, Mark Diesendorf flags the use of the Murdoch press empire in propagating this myth. Here in the United States, the myth is promoted by both Big Coal and Big Oil funded propaganda mills ~ including those libertarian “think tanks” that argue against the government getting involved in defending our economy from the prospect of collapse in the face of climate chaos …

… because the “free market”, together with billions of dollars of government subsidies for fossil fuel industry and tens or hundreds of billions of unfunded third party costs of fossil fuel consumption, will surely choose best.

Sep 10 2012

Frackonomics, or, Why we can’t have anything nice

I was recently asked by a friend to contribute to a sort of compact reference on fracking (you can see the product here). As I was working on the section on the economics of fracking, it struck me that what is wrong with the economics of fracking is what is wrong with our whole energy economy; the incentives are set up to create a perverse outcome.

Because the environmental costs of fracking (and pretty much all extractive energy industries) are externalized, or perhaps “socialized” would be an easier term here, and the profits are privatized, the appearance of a very profitable industry is based upon false economic information.  The creation of these incentives to extract fossil energy with little regard to the environmental consequences (and sometimes even common sense) has vested enormous economic power in the hands of people who use that money to purchase political power.  They then perpetuate those same incentives over the objections of those who for years, Cassandra-like, point out that their continued activity is rendering our environment inhospitable to human life.  As an article in the Independent from 2006 “Disappearing world: Global warming claims tropical island,” chronicles:

Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island, in India’s part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.

As the seas continue to swell, they will swallow whole island nations, from the Maldives to the Marshall Islands, inundate vast areas of countries from Bangladesh to Egypt, and submerge parts of scores of coastal cities.

Jun 11 2012

Sunday Train: Putting Steel into the Amtrak Long Distance Backbone

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Express HSR is sexy. Indeed, its sexy enough that when Big Oil propagandizes against it, they have to paint it as too expensive or something that America is too incompetent to handle, since the idea of sitting in an actually comfortable rail seat, watching a movie on a laptop or snacking on a sandwich while flying along at two to three times highway speeds, “just like in France or Japan or Spain”, that’s too appealing to convince a big majority of people that it would be anything but nice to have. So they have to con people into thinking of it as an unrealistic pipe dream that the US can do what Spain has been doing for a decade, France for three decades, and Japan for half a century.

Rapid Rail is not as sexy as Express HSR, but at least it is as fast as driving for most drivers on most corridors, and appreciably faster than driving on the corridor with the “best bones”, like either Cleveland / Columbus or Davenport / Des Moines / Iowa wold be at 110mph top passenger speed. And it is much cheaper than Express HSR, with lots of potential corridors that local residents will start lobbying for once the first of the Rapid Passenger Rail services come into service.

But conventional long haul rail? Surely plodding along at 50mph to as slow as 30mph on heavy freight rail corridors is an obsolete holdover from an earlier time?

Well, no. Conventional long haul rail has a 21st century role to play, if the United States should declare Economic Independence and start working to regain the economic freedom that we surrendered to the Big Oil and the oil exporting regions in the 70’s and 80’s.

And so, in this evening’s Sunday Train, we look at the “PRIIA Section 210” plans that Amtrak has developed for the five weakest of its fifteen long distance corridors: the California Zephyr, the Capitol Limited, the Cardinal, the Sunset Limited, and the Texas Eagle.

Jun 04 2012

Sunday Train: Steel Interstates & An America That Can Do Big Things

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Steel Interstate (noun): A Network of Electrified Heavy and Rapid Rail corridors that will allow the United States to remain a sovereign national economy.

Integrated into the Steel Interstates are Electricity Superhighways to connect Renewable Energy Resource areas to each other, to substantially increase the stability of the available Renewable Energy Supply, and to Energy Consumers, to ensure that no rich Renewable Electricity Resource goes untapped for lack of access to a electricity markets.

This is something that the United States should do. Depending on the twists and turns of international energy markets in the coming decades, it may be something the United States must do, to remain a coherent national economy.

If the efforts of Big Oil and Big Coal are successful, it is the kind of thing that America will not be able to do.

Yet, I believe it is something that the United States actually can do.

May 27 2012

Sunday Train: Sustainable Steam Train? / SF Muni – HSR Disconnect? / A Geary Aerobus?

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

This week’s Sunday Train is a trio of shorter topics. The first is a research development project to develop a modern steam train to run on biocoal. The target is a sustainable steam train that, as a headline grabber, will attempt to run at 130mph and break the world steam train speed record. There’s much to like about this research development project … but I am going to argue that biocoal to operate trains is not it.

Second, SF’s MUNI transport agency is one of the ten agencies slated to split $760m in Prop1a(2008) bond funds improvements to systems interconnecting with the planned High Speed Rail system. The balance of the $950m goes to the three existing Amtrak California intercity rail services, the Capitol Corridor, the San Joaquin, and the Surfliner.

Odd thing is, the proposal that SF MUNI is setting forward doesn’t actually connect to the proposed HSR system? What’s up with that, after the break.

And third, a speculative look at an alternative technology that SF MUNI might deploy that money on, that actually would connect with the HSR system at the Transbay Terminal, as well as connecting to BART, the MUNI light rail network, the existing (and proposed alternative) Caltrain terminus at 4th and King, and provide express transit service along Geary Blvd.

So instead of the traditional long trip, Sunday Train for Memorial Day Weekend has three short exursions. Join us for one, two, or all three, after the break.

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