Friday, July 25, 2008

Plugging In Obama

As Barack Obama seems to be saying all the right things and drawing hundreds of thousands who can't vote for him in Europe, the U.S. is still in a muddle over energy policy. What energy policy, you say? Well, there's several of them.

* "Drill More and They Will Come." This is the Bush-Cheney-OPEC stance. Open up more oil fields everywhere and keep the spigot flowing. There's no incentive to cut back on consumption and no prices will come down because OPEC and state-owned oil producers have an incentive to keep prices controlled and artificially high. This is also known as the "don't worry, no pain" policy that is so 20th Century.

* "Plug cars in like rechargeable drills and we'll reduce our dependence on petroleum."The idea here is that plug-in hybrid cars that utilize huge battery packs, electric motors and small gas engines will reduce our reliance upon petroleum. It may, but both the technology and grid capacity are years away. It will do nothing for gas and oil prices now. There's already a $100,000 Tesla Roadster that essentially does this. Yet the car for the average commuter isn't here. There's another concern that nobody knows what plugging in millions of cars to the already strained and antiquated grid will do to the power supply. The grid needs tens of billions to update it and make it "smart" -- deliver power to where it's needed automatically -- but it's still prone to huge breakdowns. Besides, where would most of this power come from? About 40% of it comes from burning coal and creating greenhouse gases. The rest is from hydro, nukes and natural gas. Only hydro is really carbon-neutral and totally renewable, but it's only available in a small part of the country. The consultant JD Power sees about 1 million plug-ins on the market by 2013, although we clearly need them now.

* "The Manhattan/Apollo project." Depending on who's pushing this, this is the "big government will bankroll research and development" approach. While this is one part of the solution, private industry will most likely come up with low-cost, appropriate technologies first. That's not to say that we shouldn't get taxpayers behind this effort. The tax code needs to be re-structured to reward conservation, energy efficiency/technology, green building and creating jobs. The economics won't change until government employs the carrot-and-stick approach with massive tax credits. We should cancel the subsidy for home mortgage interest and shift it to energy r&d. I know this is radical, but it's necessary and will do more to lower homeownership costs over time. Natural gas, electricity and heating oil prices are at record highs and are unlikely to fall much in a deregulated environment. More people than ever before are applying for home-utility assistance. Here's where those redirected subsidies should go:

-- Research for all-electric cars, batteries and charging stations. We already have the technology in place for the first item, but we can't complete the puzzle without the other two. Batteries need to be lighter, store energy for longer periods and be even smarter to power the surges of driving. Recharging stations will build on the new battery technology to become less dependent upon the grid. Solar panels and wind turbines on homes can pump electrons into batteries by day and then release them for night recharging. After you expense this equipment (it should be a tax write-off), the power is free.

-- Fund carbon-capture and gasification technology. We have plenty of coal, as does China, Europe and Australia. What do you do with the carbon dioxide? You can scrub the other pollutants. We need a way of either converting the carbon or storing it.

-- Make solar cost-competitive with coal. The Google foundation is already funding this. This will make economic sense. How about tapping the solar wind or sunlight in outer space that shines 24/7?

-- Reprocess and store nuke waste safely and securely. Yucca Flats is not the answer. We need to eliminate the "toxic legacy" if nukes are to make long-term sense.

-- Make biofuels from waste, not corn and soybeans. You can make ethanol from grass clippings, ag waste and most other green refuse. The large-scale chemistry isn't there yet. We should be making ethanol from things people don't eat. There's no humane reason food prices have to rise because we're making fuel.

-- Create a mandated national building/development code. Just like standards for appliances in the National Energy Policy Act, we can do that with buildings to enforce tougher energy and resource consumption standards. This code should apply to all commercial-industrial buildings and homes. For retrofits, a generous schedule of tax breaks should be available.

-- Unite all of the consumer energy, conservation and environmental lobbies to get on the same page. There are hundreds of these groups and they need to speak with one voice to lobby not only Congress but state/county/local legislatures and private employers. There needs to be an AARP for consumer energy concerns. How about FREE (Federation for Renewable and Efficient Energy)?

-- Create jobs, export technology. We use to do this really well in the US. Now we're exporting jobs and creating useful technology like male-enhancement drugs and the latest skin-rejuvenation procedures. We need to get beyond our own vanity and indolence and do something. If we create jobs, we help the inner city to displace drug dealers and gangs. Instead of SUVs, we can build EUVs (electrical utility vehicles or cars that create their own energy). Instead of exporting our debt to pay for tax breaks and wars, we can export nanotechnology that will turn windows and roofs into solar collectors.

Are you still wondering what this has to do with Obama? I am submitting these ideas for use in his somewhat-weak energy platform. John McCain is also free to use my ideas. I know Ralph Nader is already on board. Aren't I generous?

Even if no candidate embraces my Plug-In Plan, send this to your Congressman and Senator.

I even have a motto: "Plug In, Power Up and Drop In!" (Instead of dropping out and doing nothing, drop your elected representative a line or visit them). Tell them the dailywombat is watching them!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gore's Victory Speech

How is it that a guy who says he's not running for anything can give a killer-diller speech that no other national candidate even approaches?

Such is the paradox for our nation, getting burned by our profligate energy consumption, overspending, overborrowing and Inspector Clouseau-like regulation of our financial institutions.

Al Gore, the most forward-thinking popularly elected candidate of recent times, nailed the energy agenda in a speech today. Let's switch to clean power in 10 years. It should be a pressing national priority. It can be done. It needs to be done.

Why can't Obama and McCain articulate this? What are they afraid of? Is Obama afraid of being audacious? Is McCain scared of the Bush-Cheney-Saudi cartel that has us hoodwinked into believing that drilling for more oil will solve our problems? The only guy who really gets it is Ralph Nader, who nobody is giving any airtime to as he assails corporate America, the leukemia of American politics.

Gore says "our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges — the economic, environmental and national security crises. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change.”

Bravo! Economy. Ecology. National Security. What's not to like about his argument?

The only thing missing from Gore's speech is maybe the reason why he didn't let loose his pit bulls in Florida to save the election from the forces of evil in Florida in 2000. He's being too nice. I think he still wants people to like and respect him. He wants a consensus.

What's missing from the Gore agenda is a political edginess that gets people out in front of their Congressmen. It gets them mobilized to identify and corner the trogdolytes in the Senate who are holding up energy credit and climate change legislation.

Where's the outrage? Where's the organized mob that will deluge the trolls who think that carbon-based economies are still the way to go? Of course, the oil, coal and gas industries want nothing to do with Gore.

You didn't see any progressive CEOs up on stage with him. But they know that few, if any, outside of Oregon, California, Wisconsin and Massachusetts are prepared to storm the barricades of conventional wisdom. Those who are fat and happy and still fill up their SUVs are the ones who need to be upset enough to hurl epithets at their elected representatives.

"To those who say 10 years is not enough time, I respectfully ask them to consider seriously what the world’s scientists are telling us about the risks we face if we don’t act in less than 10 years,” he said.

Al Gore laid down the green gauntlet a long time ago. Now it's time to put up or shut up.

How many people can he get in every Congressional district to get in the candidate for change? How does he alter the status quo? It was a fine speech, but it has to go beyond words. He's not running for office anymore and sainthood only goes to those who make supreme sacrifices.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Picking Apart the Pickens Energy Plan

T. Boone Pickens is a lot of things -- oilman, hedge fund investor, maybe even a truthteller. But energy policy visionary should not be on his resume.

Yesterday, T. Boone launched what he called "The Pickens Plan" for energy security. Most of it is based on building a lot of windmills and using more natural gas for fuel.

Let's start with his proposal to build more wind farms. On its face, it's a great idea. As his "wind map" shows, there's a constant zephyr blowing across the Great Plains from Canada to Texas all the time. If connected to the electrical grid, a lot of power could be fed into the system. Perhaps this would make plug-in cars feasible on a large scale. From there, T. Boone's vision is a little murky.

He favors natural gas as a way to provide fuel for cars. About a quarter of US electricity is produced by natural gas, but here's the catch: We're importing natural gas, which is being burned up so much by power plants both the price and demand is soaring.

Where's solar power in the Pickens plan? He doesn't give it any role. Unlike giant wind turbines, which have to be situated in wide, sparsely populated open spaces, solar can be installed anywhere. You can put solar cells on cars, garages, large office buildings, commercial warehouses, even windows. The technology is constantly improving and it is coming down in cost.

Better yet, solar energy is the one commodity that isn't traded on an exchange. Speculators can't run the price of it up or down. I won't say that it's free -- it's rather costly to convert it into electricity -- but the resource is easy to get at. No extraction or pipelines are required.

Using natural gas as a fuel replacement for gas and diesel sounds like a good idea at first. Yes, it's cleaner burning than oil, gasoline or coal. But it still produces carbon dioxide and it's still a commodity whose price will soar once people use more of it.

Even if you build a whole refueling infrastructure for natural gas cars, you still have to deal with supply and demand issues. And the last time I checked, most natural gas was used for heating. Do you want to see higher home heating bills? They are already up between 40% and 60% from last year and we haven't even hit the prime hurricane season.

I love the idea of a clean-burning car. I even called up my local Honda dealer to see if I could buy a natural-gas hybrid. Only a handful of them are available in California. If you could get one anywhere else, you'd need a network of natural gas filling stations or a refueling port installed in your home for $1,000 or so.

Pickens also emphasizes that private investment can create his energy network. Why is he letting government off the hook? Could it have something to do with two oilmen running Washington (and the country) into the ground?

If this plain-talking Texan wants to talk turkey, he should start flapping his wings at a White House that blocked every official mention of climate change, thwarted environmental protection, blocked progressive energy policy and spat in the face of energy security.

Congress is also to blame. The Senate has been sitting on a House-Passed package of energy incentives for months. A few backward souls are blocking this landmark bill. Why? Are they afraid Americans would start producing energy on their own on the roos of their own homes or in their own backyards? That's the kind of change Pickens should be talking about.

If government is in the energy security question, then building standards requiring energy efficiency come into play. (Pickens says nothing about conservation, really). Why can't every new building (home, office, factory) make its own power?

Ok, I agree that sending $7 trillion overseas for energy is too much. I'd rather see that money spend on health care for everyone. But Pickens way of solving the problem is wrong headed. We need a comprehensive, integrated solution that combines alternative energy with efficiency and conservation. Everybody has to be on board or it won't work. Being a Texas oilman gives you a narrow view of the world. You can't see the whole truth through an oil pipeline, though.

Here's his plan:

America is addicted to foreign oil.

It's an addiction that threatens our economy, our environment and our national security. It touches every part of our daily lives and ties our hands as a nation and a people.

The addiction has worsened for decades and now it's reached a point of crisis.

In 1970, we imported 24% of our oil.
Today it's nearly 70% and growing.

As imports grow and world prices rise, the amount of money we send to foreign nations every year is soaring. At current oil prices, we will send $700 billion dollars out of the country this year alone — that's four times the annual cost of the Iraq war.

Projected over the next 10 years the cost will be $10 trillion — it will be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.

America uses a lot of oil. Every day 85 million barrels of oil are produced around the world. And 21 million of those are used here in the United States.

That's 25% of the world's oil demand. Used by just 4% of the world's population.

Can't we just produce more oil?

World oil production peaked in 2005. Despite growing demand and an unprecedented increase in prices, oil production has fallen over the last three years. Oil is getting more expensive to produce, harder to find and there just isn't enough of it to keep up with demand.

The simple truth is that cheap and easy oil is gone.

What's the good news?

The United States is the Saudi Arabia of wind power.

Studies from around the world show that the Great Plains states are home to the greatest wind energy potential in the world — by far.

The Department of Energy reports that 20% of America's electricity can come from wind. North Dakota alone has the potential to provide power for more than a quarter of the country.

Today's wind turbines stand up to 410 feet tall, with blades that stretch 148 feet in length. The blades collect the wind's kinetic energy. In one year, a 3-megawatt wind turbine produces as much energy as 12,000 barrels of imported oil.

Wind power currently accounts for 48 billion kWh of electricity a year in the United States — enough to serve more than 4.5 million households. That is still only about 1% of current demand, but the potential of wind is much greater.

A 2005 Stanford University study found that there is enough wind power worldwide to satisfy global demand 7 times over — even if only 20% of wind power could be captured.

Building wind facilities in the corridor that stretches from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota could produce 20% of the electricity for the United States at a cost of $1 trillion. It would take another $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns.

That's a lot of money, but it's a one-time cost. And compared to the $700 billion we spend on foreign oil every year, it's a bargain.

An economic revival for rural America.

Developing wind power is an investment in rural America.

To witness the economic promise of wind energy, look no further than Sweetwater, Texas.

Sweetwater was typical of many small towns in middle-America. With a shortage of good jobs, the youth of Sweetwater were leaving in search of greater opportunities. And the town's population dropped from 12,000 to under 10,000.

When a large wind power facility was built outside of town, Sweetwater experienced a revival. New economic opportunity brought the town back to life and the population has grown back up to 12,000.

In the Texas panhandle, just north of Sweetwater, is the town of Pampa, where T. Boone Pickens' Mesa Power is currently building the largest wind farm in the world.

At 4,000 megawatts — the equivalent combined output of four large coal-fire plants — the production of the completed Pampa facility will double the wind energy output of the United States.

In addition to creating new construction and maintenance jobs, thousands of Americans will be employed to manufacture the turbines and blades. These are high skill jobs that pay on a scale comparable to aerospace jobs.

Plus, wind turbines don't interfere with farming and grazing, so they don't threaten food production or existing local economies.

A cheap new replacement for foreign oil.

The Honda Civic GX Natural Gas Vehicle is the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle in the world according to the EPA.

Natural gas and bio-fuels are the only domestic energy sources used for transportation.


Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available today.

According to the California Energy Commission, critical greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas are 23% lower than diesel and 30% lower than gasoline.

Natural gas vehicles (NGV) are already available and combine top performance with low emissions. The natural gas Honda Civic GX is rated as the cleanest production vehicle in the world.

According to NGVAmerica, there are more than 7 million NGVs in use worldwide, but only 150,000 of those are in the United States.

The EPA estimates that vehicles on the road account for 60% of carbon monoxide pollution and around one-third of hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States. As federal and state emissions laws become more stringent, many requirements will be unattainable with conventionally fueled vehicles.

Since natural gas is significantly cleaner than petroleum, NGVs are increasing in popularity. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently announced that 16,800 old diesel trucks will be replaced, and half of the new vehicles will run on alternatives such as natural gas.


Natural gas is significantly less expensive than gasoline or diesel. In places like Utah and Oklahoma, prices are less than $1 a gallon. To see fueling stations and costs in your area, check out


Natural gas is our country's second largest energy resource and a vital component of our energy supply. 98% of the natural gas used in the United States is from North America. But 70% of our oil is purchased from foreign nations.

Natural gas is one of the cleanest, safest and most useful forms of energy — residentially, commercially and industrially. The natural gas industry has existed in the United States for over 100 years and continues to grow.

Domestic natural gas reserves are twice that of petroleum. And new discoveries of natural gas and ongoing development of renewable biogas are continually adding to existing reserves.

While it is a cheap, effective and versatile fuel, less than 1% of natural gas is currently used for transportation.

The Mechanics

We currently use natural gas to produce 22% of our electricity. Harnessing the power of wind to generate electricity will give us the flexibility to shift natural gas away from electricity generation and put it to use as a transportation fuel — reducing our dependence on foreign oil by more than one-third.

How do we get it done?

The Pickens Plan is a bridge to the future — a blueprint to reduce foreign oil dependence by harnessing domestic energy alternatives, and buy us time to develop even greater new technologies.

Building new wind generation facilities and better utilizing our natural gas resources can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports in 10 years. But it will take leadership.

On January 20th, 2009, a new President will take office.

We're organizing behind the Pickens Plan now to ensure our voices will be heard by the next administration.

Together we can raise a call for change and set a new course for America's energy future in the first hundred days of the new presidency — breaking the hammerlock of foreign oil and building a new domestic energy future for America with a focus on sustainability.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Wall-e is Right

Wall-e goes so far beyond the usual robot-with-a soul film that it transcends the medium.

It's social satire and commentary at the same time. A quirky little trash compactor, Wall-e loves old musicals, collects lots of spare parts and fills his days piling junk into skyscraper-high mountains. The earth at this point is virtually uninhabitable, save for his best friend (a cockroach) and one plant.

But wait, it gets grimmer. Once a scouting robot named Eve comes to search the earth for life, he falls in love with a seemingly unattainable beauty with disappearing arms and a nasty temper. She can fly, blow up ships and is rather testy. Nevertheless, Wall-e is smitten and follows her to the end of the universe.

They end up in a cruise ship where the passengers are so obese that they have lost the ability to walk. Fed by junk food supplied by the evil corporation that has sold them an unhealthy lifestyle for every waking hour, the corporation keeps them fat and stupid. Sound familiar? At this point, the satire became commentary.

It's only when Wall-e and Eve enter this space that they start to re-discover their humanity.

There are some musical homages to "2001: A Space Odyssey" and even "Hello, Dolly" enroute to an outright revolt against mindless consumerism and waste. It's a surprisingly moving film that sends its message along with charm and visual impact.

Director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar crew have shown us how little, lonely robots can nudge indolent couch potatoes into fighting for their humanity. This movie will have impact long after we cease to be amazed at computer animation, robotics or even space ships. As such, it's the best movie of this summer.