Showing posts with label oil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label oil. Show all posts

Friday, November 2, 2012

Energy Production and Paper Cups:

Measuring the Impacts

I was traveling through Harrisonburg, Virginia a couple of weeks ago and stopped for lunch with my husband at a local barbecue joint.  I ordered a glass of iced tea with my meal.  When the iced tea came, I saw some text on the side of it.  Now, I have always been a voracious reader, and I can't tell you how many times I've sat at the breakfast table and read cereal boxes and the like, so although I just expected advertising or something, I simply had to read the text curling around the cup.

The iced tea was in a foam cup, and the text explained that paper cups produce 148% more waste by weight than foam cups.  Sounds good, right?  Except that the last time I checked, landfill is limited by volume, not by weight, and paper cups are thinner than foam cups.  Furthermore, paper is biodegradable, and foam generally is not. 

Admittedly, advances are being made in foam products, and some are biodegradable, but the cup didn't boast of being biodegradable.  I can't be absolutely sure, but after touting its weight advantages, I would have to believe it would have broadcast its biodegradability as well--if it were biodegradable.  But it didn't.

So what does this have to do with energy production?  Too often, I have seen promoters of various energy sources treat their products the same way--picking out the positives without presenting the whole picture.  Thus, we hear about how much wind or solar capacity has been built, but we aren't told that the fraction of power supplied by these sources is much smaller than the built capacity.  We also hear about how solar or wind or nuclear energy produce no greenhouse gases, but we aren't always told that each of these produces some other forms of waste.  We hear that natural gas or "clean coal" is cleaner than oil or regular coal and is produced domestically, but we don't hear how they compare to nuclear or solar or wind power, and we don't hear that very little of our electricity is generated from oil-fired plants. 

I could go on.  But this is no different from all the other things we use in our daily lives--paper versus plastic bags, genetically-modifed versus non-GM crops, electric cars versus gasoline-powered cars.  And foam cups versus paper cups.

The point, as always, is that every source of energy has multiple dimensions, some very positive, some negative--and some that can potentially be overcome with further technology development.  Yes, this makes it complex and problematical to compare sources.  Yes, it means that there is no one perfect source that we should rely on completely.

The "right" energy solution, and the "right" solution for almost everything else we use, is likely to involve a mix of options, and is likely to create continual pressure to reduce the downsides of each of these technologies.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fuel from the Middle East:

A Sense of Deja Vu

For those of us old enough to remember the oil embargo of the early 1970s, the various flare-ups in the Middle East over the past year have a familiar ring. The reasons are a little different, but the results are the same--the flow of oil may be at risk. The oil embargo of the early 1970s resulted in long gas lines. So far, the political unrest in the Middle East and the threats and counter-threats between Iran and West have "only" resulted in unstable prices at the gas pump.

Europe is beginning to feel its vulnerability. They have a double threat--dependence on oil from the Middle East and on gas from Russia. The good news is that they have started to take some actions to protect themselves. The European Union is developing a plan to put in place a joint energy market by 2014.

This isn't a done deal yet, and it won't do everything. Interconnecting the European energy supply (electricity grids and gas pipelines) will certainly help the European countries share their resources better, but it won't create new sources of energy. In the current economy, the cost of this venture is likely to be a big issue. And the role of nuclear power, as always, remains controversial. Still, if Europe is successful in getting this started, and if it is accompanied by a European initiative to build more nuclear power plants and other sources of supply that help free them from dependence on other parts of the world, then this initiative is a promising one.

What happens in Europe is not inconsequential. Collectively, the EU is the world's largest regional energy market, serving some 500 million people.

The United States and other countries may not face the same need Europe does to interconnect the grids and pipelines of multiple independent countries, but the rest of the world surely shares the need to assure a supply of energy that is not at risk of disruption from forces outside their control, be they wars, revolts, terrorism, piracy, embargoes, or economic blackmail.

The question is, will this latest crisis galvanize the needed action? Or, will the current problem dissipate, and will we resume business as usual until the next crisis strikes?