Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One More Take on Copenhagen:

Ernie Moniz Speaks on Energy

Earlier this month, Professor Ernest J. Moniz from MIT spoke to the MIT Club of Washington, DC on energy. Ernie is currently Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, Director of the Energy Initiative, and Director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has served on the faculty since 1973. His research focus is energy technology and policy, including a leadership role in MIT interdisciplinary technology and policy studies on the future of nuclear power, coal, nuclear fuel cycles, natural gas, and solar energy in a low-carbon world. He is well known in Washington circles, having served as Under Secretary of the Department of Energy from 1997 until January 2001 and, from 1995 to 1997, as Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President. At DOE, he had oversight of the science and energy programs, led a comprehensive review of nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship, and served as the Secretary’s special negotiator for Russian nuclear materials disposition programs.

I hesitated at first to comment on his talk because I have already posted several blogs on the Copenhagen conference. However, that remains an important topic to the nuclear community. Furthermore, Ernie had several other observations that may be of interest to readers.

I'll address his comments on the Copenhagen conference first. He said that he views Copenhagen as "largely a success." The Copenhagen Accord mentioned adaptation for the first time. It also addressed the responsibility of the more developed countries. Most of all, my impression was that he felt it was a positive development that agreement was finally reached by moving away from a negotiation of the entire body of over 190 countries. The final accord was struck by only 5 countries--the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. He sees the future of the negotiations moving toward the major economies.

These comments are similar in many respects to others I have been hearing. It will be a different dynamic, and a new way of doing things, so not everyone is completely optimistic about how things will ultimately play out. However, Ernie and others see the promise of having the major countries at the forefront.

In response to a question about what we might see by 2020, Ernie made the following "predictions": We will be seeing more of all energy-producing technologies in the future, as well as more efficiency. However, he cautioned that several areas, including nuclear power, are not likely to grow as much and as fast as some are hoping. He specifically said that there would be sequestration, but it would be limited, and that wind power will grow, but not as robustly as some project. With respect to nuclear power, he expects to see around 5 or 6 new nuclear power plants in the US by 2020. Worldwide, he saw much higher growth, of the order of 200 GW.

Ernie also made a number of observations on other energy issues that I found interesting. Key among them were:

• In the energy area, the main goal of innovation is cost reduction. This is different than the goal of innovation in other industries.

• In addition to technology innovation, the energy field needs policy and business model innovation. This is harder.

• The buildings, transportation, and electricity supply sectors are the key areas where carbon reductions can be sought.

• It is easier to remove carbon from the electricity sector than from transport.

• We need to begin to look at adaptation as well as mitigation.

• The investment in energy R&D as a percentage of the economy is very small. Percentage-wise, he said, the dog-food industry spends more!

While I can't promise not to discuss the Copenhagen Accord any further in the future, some may be relieved to know that I have now exhausted the material I currently have on file.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Energy Calculations:

Putting Energy Claims in Perspective

I approach this topic with a bit of trepidation, as I didn't do enough checking on some statements I reported a few weeks ago and discovered I had reported some misinformation. Nevertheless, I discovered an article the other day that was so interesting, I wanted to share it.

The article, entitled "Biofuels Aren't Really Green," comes from the IEEE Spectrum, a respected publication from a large and highly respected professional society, so I hope the information is reliable. The article takes a hard look at the resource requirements, especially for land and water, for various energy sources, and contrary to the current hype about biofuels, they don't look like good actors. A switch to 100% use of switchgrass for all our energy needs, electricity, transportation, and heating fuel, would require almost twice the landmass of the earth and a volume of water over 1-1/2 times the annual rainfall (assuming that the entire world in 2030 uses energy at today's US per capita energy assumption).

Now, we all know that these assumptions are pretty extreme. Still, it is instructive to me to look at some of the real limits of different energy sources. What makes the article really interesting is that it also provides land and water requirements--and carbon emissions--for some other mixes of energy resources. My only criticism is that it shows only those three parameters, and shows the calculations for only four scenarios (all switchgrass, all photovoltaics, a "balanced portfolio," and business as usual). Thus, other impacts, such as total cost, are not considered, nor is it possible to determine such things as whether they have factored in the storage and/or "smart grid" requirements for a scenario of 100% photovoltaics.

In a similar vein, an article called "Bioelectricity Promises More "Miles Per Acre" than Ethanol," published in the Carnegie Institution of Sciences newsletter, calculates the miles per acre for an electric vehicle deriving its electricity from a power plant using biomass versus the miles per acre for a vehicle running on ethanol. Bioelectricity beats ethanol by nearly a factor of two (15,000 miles per acre versus 8,000 miles per acre). This article doesn't address the land and water use for bioelectricity versus nuclear power or other electric power sources.

Despite the lack of completeness in each case, overall, I think these articles are a good start and an interesting way to look at things. I was particularly excited to see that the IEEE Spectrum article provides a "calculator" that allow readers to enter their own sets of assumptions and see what happens. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to get the calculator to work. I would be interested to hear from readers if they are able to get the calculator working, and if so, what their experiences are in using it. In particular, I'd be interested to know how the results of their calculations stack up with other available projections of the impacts of different energy technologies and different mixes of technologies. If the projections are reasonably accurate, I think the tool can be a powerful way to help educate the general public that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Technologies that seem to be natural and benign may have inordinate land or water requirements, while others that at first blush seem less natural and benign may actually have a smaller environmental footprint.

It will be interesting to see more of this type of analysis emerge.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

More on Copenhagen:

An Insider's View

Although I have promised not to turn this into a greenhouse gas reduction blog, I've attended a couple of "post-Copenhagen" events in Washington, DC recently that bear coverage. One was a briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). This briefing followed hard on the heels of the release of the report I discussed in my last blog. However, this briefing (which you can hear in its entirety through the link below) was from a very different perspective, that of Jonathan Pershing, US Deputy Envoy for Climate Change.

In his position, Dr. Pershing serves as the Department of State's senior climate negotiator and Head of Delegation at official meetings of UN climate change conferences. He has been involved with climate change discussions and negotiations starting with the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio, and including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. As such, he has a high-level and long-term view of these activities.

Among Dr. Pershing's points at the CSIS briefing were the following:

• It was obvious months before the conference that they would not get a binding treaty. The next best outcome possible would be a political agreement that would allow things to move forward in the future. He feels they did achieve that. He acknowledges that the process was chaotic and the agreement was achieved at the nth minute and by the skin of their teeth, but he views the outcome as the best they expected.

• This agreement is the first one that recognizes the importance of and need for adaptation. Dr. Pershing regards this as an important breakthrough, and one that will allow a range of needed actions to be implemented in the future.

• This is the first agreement that will have "statements of commitment" from developing countries. He views this as a "breaking down of the walls between developed and developing countries." Developing countries need to commit to actions. The agreement also asks for the development of measurement, reporting and verification for these actions.

• He seems to take issue with criticisms of China as being the "spoiler" of the meeting. He points out that China was one of the key participants of the agreement that was hammered out. Rather, he points to a small handful countries (including Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba) that blocked consensus on the agreement because they wanted to use this agreement as a way to redistribute wealth. As a result of their objections, the agreement was not "adopted." Instead, in the language of international diplomacy, the decision was only to "take note" of the agreement.

• He acknowledges that a serious weakness of the UN system is the requirement for consensus. It is difficult to get 190 countries with widely disparate interests to agree on anything. In that, he seemed to agree with the conclusions of the paper I reported on previously. However, he stopped short of predicting whether and how the process might change in the future. He does think that starting with a smaller group, as was done this time, then getting buy-in of a larger number of countries could be promising. He did not try to predict which small group of countries might take that role--i.e., whether it could be an existing group, like the G20 or an ad-hoc group, such as happened at this conference. But he concluded that the UN was the only venue in which global buy-in could be achieved, so he seemed to anticipate there would be some continuing role for the UN.

• It has been widely observed that the European Union was not a member of the select group that ended up hammering out the agreement. He did not address directly why they were excluded from that table, but he did comment that he thought it was the EU that was the real stimulus for the whole meeting. They were the first to implement a carbon market. As he saw it, since more countries were involved this time, the role of the EU appears smaller.

• As for the US, he noted that our next step will be to "enshrine" our target. He noted that this time, we will use the Congress to get this target. We did not do so last time, and in the end, that was our undoing.

Dr. Pershing is obviously in a position where he has to put the best spin possible on the outcome of this meeting. As such, I know some I spoke to disagreed with some of his statements. Nevertheless, his statements provided useful perspectives into some of the background for the outcome of the meeting and some pragmatic insights into what might happen in the future.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Whither Global Carbon Reduction Negotiations--One View

I do not mean to turn this blog into a greenhouse gas reduction blog, but since all energy alternatives are being analyzed these days from the perspective of their ability to help reduce carbon emissions, it is important to keep abreast of developments in this area. It appears that analyses of the outcome of the recent Copenhagen conference and the implications for the future are just beginning to emerge, so in the interests of sharing what I am learning, I wanted to provide my readers with the first cogent discussion of the issues that has come my way.

Today, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a report called A Post-Copenhagen Pathway. The report is by Sarah O. Ladislaw, a Senior Fellow in the CSIS Energy and National Security Program. The CSIS is a well-respected Washington institution. Founded during the Cold War, it is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts research and analysis to develop policy options for decisionmakers. Their strategic studies and policy analyses have been used by US government agencies, international organizations, and others.

Of greatest interest is that the report essentially says that the UN process for such negotiations may broken, and it postulates some other options that may be attempted in the future. This conclusion echoes other comments I have been hearing on the outcome of this Conference, and as I learn more, I will try to share it. This particular report stops short of saying the UN process is dead, but it indicates that the final agreement crafted by a small group of countries (the United States, China, Brazil, South Africa and India) was the only thing that salvaged the Copenhagen conference, and it discusses other small groups of countries--particularly, the G20 and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change (MEF)--that might be able to move the dialogue forward more effectively in the future.

This document does not discuss particular strategies or technologies, so anyone wanting to see a discussion of how nuclear energy might be handled in the future will not find that here. However, for those in the nuclear field who would like to understand more about what is happening on the political front with respect to global greenhouse gas reduction agreements, this is a good read.


Friday, January 8, 2010

NIMBY Revisited:

Response to a Reader Comment

Rod Adams makes a good point in his comment about a statement in my last December posting. I was reacting to the proposed legislation that would restrict the development of renewable energy technologies in the Mojave Desert. I agree with Rod that I did make an overly broad statement. Furthermore, he is right that there is value to maintaining some unspoiled landscapes, and he is right that remotely sited power plants require more transmission lines--and transmission losses--than power plants sited near population centers.

However, I made my statements because I did not see the legislation as being aimed at reducing transmission costs and losses. Rather, I saw it as a NIMBY type reaction--in this case, Not in My Recreation Area (NIMRA). And although I fully agree with Rod that underground nuclear power plants take up far less space than solar plants, have far less visual impact on the environment, and can be sited closer to areas of demand, I somehow doubt that those supporting this legislation would embrace nuclear plants as an alternative to degrading the desert. The truth is that they don't want either.

I was reacting to a narrower concern--my growing frustration with a population, or at least a significant percentage of the population, that doesn't seem to recognize that modern society requires infrastructure that has to go someplace. I don't see anyone who wants to give up the comforts and conveniences we have come to enjoy. Oh, they pay lip service to being more energy efficient, but not to the extent it will remove the demand for more infrastructure over time--power plants, factories, mines, waste disposal sites (of all types), etc.

And I am frustrated particularly with those who dismiss the role of nuclear energy because they believe that renewable energy is "the" answer, never realizing that renewable energy has its own set of drawbacks, not the least of which is that it has far greater land requirements than nuclear power does.

So when it comes to trying to put anything--and in particular, all these solar and wind farms--somewhere, we end up with a contradictory list that looks a lot like NOPE (Not on Planet Earth). Let's see:

• We shouldn't put things in suburban neighborhoods because that's where most people live;
• We shouldn't put things in deserts, because we want to preserve the pristine areas that remain;
• We shouldn't put things in scenic areas, because that will disturb our views;
• We shouldn't put things in economically disadvantaged areas because of historical injustices;
• We shouldn't put things where the wealthy live, because they have the clout to fight it;
• We shouldn't put things in rural areas, because they're not the ones who benefit most.

I'm not being sarcastic or dismissive. I happen to be sympathetic to most of these desires for restrictions. To a degree. I believe we have to be careful of our impacts on different environments and populations. But I also believe we have to make some compromises in all these areas to have the benefits of sufficient clean energy. I believe that we have to have a mix of ALL technologies. I believe we have to put some in some undeveloped or scenic areas--so we have to be able to make some rational decisions about how to preserve some of this area while using other parts of it. I believe we have to put some where rich people live, some where poor people live, some in urban or suburban areas, some in rural areas--so we have to make some fair decisions to share the impacts.

And, of course, underlying all these, I agree with Rod that choosing technologies with smaller impacts on the land would give us a huge head start in sorting out these other problems. But, given the evidence, I wonder if we can do it.

In any event, in order not to end on a note of despair, I propose NIMRA as well as three more acronyms that occurred to me as I was writing this. To my knowledge, these are all brand new ones:

NIMRA: Not in my recreation area
NIRUA: Not in remote, undeveloped areas
NIRPY: Not in rich people's yards
NIEDA: Not in economically disadvantaged areas


Nuclear Politics:

Nuclear Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

Politics has always spawned unlikely alliances, but the nuclear provisions of the current energy legislation seem more than ever to be making that old saw about politics making strange bedfellow seem very true. A recent New York Times article on the legislation points to some of the marriages being forged in the language of the bill. Advocates of nuclear loan guarantees are aligning with cap-and-trade supporters to each get what they want. On the state level, too, the prospects of jobs and tax revenues have some governors taking a fresh interest in having new nuclear plants built within their boundaries.

These things present an opportunity for the nuclear industry--while they are hot. The concern here is that some of these opportunities are fleeting. Even as some are forging deals that include would increase the loan guarantees in the current legislation, others are lining up to try to fight these provisions. Others warn that the energy legislation may be a possible victim of the acrimonious health care debate, and that the compromises needed to get the bill passed are going to be too hard for some to swallow.

Clearly, even though the eventual outcome isn't clear--and may turn on unrelated things entirely, those in the nuclear community needs to make their voices heard on the issues in the energy bill while it is still an active issue.


Monday, January 4, 2010

New Book on Energy:

A New Take on Energy Policy

Some months ago, I met with John Hofmeister, a former Shell executive who was in the process of writing a book on energy policy. I recently received a message from him saying the book was with the publisher. It has the provocative title: "Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider."

The publication date is May 25, 2010. The book can be pre-ordered through Amazon. (See sidebar)

According to John: "I've held nothing back. The book tackles the industry, the special interests and our government. It demonstrates the ineffective policies of the past forty years and points out the flaws in current policies, decries the misinformation and disinformation that's kept us from knowing what we need to know, and offers permanent solutions to guarantee affordability and availability of energy in sustainable ways forever without making promises that can't be kept. It's going to attract a lot of attention and stir considerable controversy in front of next year's elections, at about the same time that we're all suffering from higher gas and electricity prices. We'll keep you posted on the publication date."

John is also the CEO and founder of Citizens for Affordable Energy, a group committed to "educating citizens and government officials about pragmatic, non-partisan affordable energy solutions, environmental protection, energy alternatives, efficiency, infrastructure, public policy, competitiveness, social cohesion, and quality of life."

Although I have not yet seen the book, I spoke to him about 6 months ago while he was writing it, and his views seemed balanced and rational. We discussed the nuclear option and some of what I saw ahead, and he seemed to believe, as I do, that we needed to promote a mix of energy technologies for the future.

I contacted John to ask him how his coverage of nuclear power turned out. He said that at the end of the book, "I describe a future where we have standardized on sizes and designs, simplified permitting, established liability reforms, have doubled the nuclear fleet to over 200 plants by 2060 and suggest it should double again. My described future energy system beyond 2060 and into the 22nd century relies primarily on nuclear and (much advanced) solar for the vast electricity requirements of the future. I also bring up the need for education of the grassroots regarding nuclear and criticize public officials who slander nuclear for political purposes."

He also sent me a Table of Contents. I won't list all his chapters, but some of the more interesting ones are:

• There is an shortage, but there is no shortage of energy
• Inconvenient or not, the truth is that climate change is not the issue
• Beware the reckless right and ludicrous left
• Forget the free market

Again, I haven't read the book, but he's certainly captured my attention. I anticipate a buzz when this book is published, and thought some of you might be interested.