Friday, March 18, 2011

Energy Options

Similar to Professor McAllister's approach to nuclear energy in the classroom, I typically tell students in my energy and environmental law classes that there is no silver bullet in energy and that a range of fuel sources is necessary to satisfy the world's ever expanding demand for energy.  As the tragedy in Japan unfolds, a host of "energy portfolio" questions will continue to emerge.  Should nuclear energy continue to supply about nine percent of America's primary energy needs (and approximately twenty percent of U.S. electricity production, as Professor Davies observes below)?  What are the alternatives?  How dangerous are fossil fuels as compared to nuclear energy? 

No matter the answer to these difficult questions, it is still clear that there is no silver bullet.  If we move away from nuclear, the alternatives also pose substantial concerns.  This week, for example, the EPA highlighted the dangers of coal in proposing national standards on toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants (in response to a court order).  In announcing the standards, Administrator Jackson emphasized the devastating health effects of coal, such as asthma and nervous system damage in the young.  The EPA estimates that the health and economic benefits from these new standards will be $140 billion annually and that the standards will prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks annually.

Natural gas, which is often touted as the clean alternative to coal, other fossil fuels, and nuclear, also has risks, as highlighted in my last post.  In addition to concerns about chemicals and radioactivity levels in wastewater from hydraulically fractured wells, explosions of natural gas pipelines -- some deadly, and others not -- in Minneapolis, Allentown, and San Bruno remind us that no energy option is perfect. 

To end on a point of optimism, however, it is encouraging to see the continued, albeit slow, expansion of renewable energy in the United States. As the Energy Information Administration observes, "Wind power has been the fastest-growing source of new electric power generation for several years," and U.S. shipments of photovoltaic cells and modules skyrocketed in 2009.  Like any other energy source, renewables will not solve all of our problems, but they are a highly promising energy option. Building from the observations about energy planning in the post by Professor Davies below and Professor McAllister's points about energy efficiency, let's hope that as Americans mourn Japan's tragedy and reflect on our own energy options, we will be creative in contemplating an improved global energy future.

-Hannah Wiseman

March 18, 2011 in Air Quality, Energy | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fukushima, Chernobyl, and U.S.

While the people of Japan continue to deal with the devastation of the massive earthquake and tsunami last week, the tragedy there has reignited the debate over nuclear power worldwide.  As the Washington Post reports, in the wake of the growing nuclear emergency in Japan, Germany announced that it will shut down seven of its older plants for safety inspections, and Switzerland declared a freeze on new nuclear construction.

At the same time, U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials assured Congress of the safety of the domestic nuclear fleet, as did leaders in France of theirs.

Nuclear energy inevitably elicits strong responses from both sides of the aisle.  Whether it is Yucca Mountain or the Skull Valley Goshutes' suggestion to store waste on their reservation, rhetoric is rarely scarce when it comes to atomic power.

There is no question that the people of Japan deserve all the world can offer in this time of dire need, but isn't there a much deeper question here about energy policy than the immediate nuclear debate that Fukushima has elicited? 

It is one thing to invoke Chernobyl as a symbol for why nuclear energy should face a swift end -- or to assert that Fukushima "should not carry weight" in the global debate over nuclear power.

It is another entirely to ask what is at the heart of our modern energy dilemma.

That is the question we should be asking.  At a minimum, as Professor McAllister rightly noted earlier this week, it is a question about our energy consumption, and our failure to heed efficiency as a goal with the same vigor that our energy policy gives it lip service.

Even more fundamentally, however, it is a question about energy planning.  Nuclear plants provide roughly 20 percent of the United States' current electrical production.  In France, that figure is closer to 80 percent.  Turning that train around cannot happen overnight.

It could, however, happen over a longer period of time -- if we want it to. 

Fukushima is not Chernobyl.  But however bad the crisis in Japan ends up being, it should now be as clear as ever that when it comes to energy, we face hard choices. 

These choices are not necessarily dichotomies.  We can solve climate change, and nuclear power may be part of that solution -- or it might not, or it might be only for awhile.  Natural gas certainly will play a role.  Carbon capture and sequestration holds promise, if we are willing to pay the higher prices and energy penalties the technology entails.  Renewables are always there.  The number of possible resource mixes, in short, for energy production is virtually limitless.

The question, then, is not:  "Whether nuclear power?"

The question is:  "What do we want our energy future to be?"  And, correspondingly:  "Will we plan for that future, or will we leave it to chance?"

So far, the United States largely has coursed one path.  The question Fukushima poses to us is whether we are willing to chart another.

As Amory Lovins reminded nearly a decade ago, "Our energy future is...choice -- not fate."

-Lincoln Davies

March 17, 2011 in Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Governance/Management, Law, Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Junk Politics

Currently the United States House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee is considering legislation that would strip the EPA of its power to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.  Earlier this week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to that proposal.  Regardless of how Congress decided to deal with the EPA’s regulation under the Clean Air Act, Waxman wanted to put Congress on record in accepting the scientific finding that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”  The Committee voted down the amendment by a vote of 20-31.  No Republicans on the Committee voted for the amendment.

While it seems there are many reasons to worry about the EPA regulating greenhouse gases, particularly through the Clean Air Act, the Committee’s rejection of climate science is disturbing.  While certainly, there is a lot of disagreement among Americans about the science behind climate change, there is little dispute among scientists.  With its vote, the Committee not only parted ways with the EPA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but also with the National Academies of Science, the InterAcademy Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, just to name a few among many.

Certainly, the Committee’s vote did not go unchallenged (see the video posted below as an example).  Still, while there is a lot of banter in politics about junk science, it seems the larger problem is junk politics.

 -- Brigham Daniels


March 16, 2011 in Climate Change, Legislation, US | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Learning from Another Worst-Case Scenario

In my climate change class, I have become accustomed to saying that “nuclear energy has to be on the table” as an alternative source of energy.  It has been an easy thing to say as it appeals to the political conservatives I have in the room and generally appears reasonable to others in light of the grave risks of climate change that we discuss in class.  Now I ask myself, how does Japan change things?  Do I still espouse the view that nuclear energy should be among the energy alternatives that we seriously consider and likely pursue? 

One thought that I am having is that, as we make energy policies, our decision-making processes must identify and analyze worst case scenarios.  As we learned with the BP oil spew (I can’t call it a spill when it wasn’t) and now this, worst case scenarios really can happen.  Also, the events in Japan are changing my thinking about the human health and environmental risks of nuclear energy.  I must have drunk some of the industry’s Kool-Aid on the safety of nuclear plants because I had become accustomed to thinking that the most significant risks were in waste disposal. 

Also, like the BP oil spew, this tragedy brings me back to the pressing need to reduce our energy use.  Energy efficiency is not only the SAFEST energy source, but also the most abundant, cleanest, cheapest, and fastest.  For a primer on energy efficiency policy, I recommend viewing “Clean, Cheap, Plentiful: Energy Efficiency” a video produced in late 2010 by International Rivers.  Consider this statement made in the video by Dr. Art Rosenfeld, who has been called the father of energy efficiency:

"If we had kept up the rate at which… electricity was growing in 1973, 5% a year…[then today] every eight miles between the Mexican border and San Francisco, there would be a nuclear power plant. Now obviously that didn’t happen. In fact, there are 2 instead of 400."

Now that should motivate some energy efficiency, shouldn't it?

- Lesley McAllister

March 15, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Scalpel or a Sledgehammer? Preserving Environmental Protection in a Down Economy

A recent slate of reports have highlighted Congressional efforts to curb spending on environmental matters in order to prevent further deterioration of the economy.  A House subcommittee recently voted to block EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, asserting that such authority would drive up energy costs and ship jobs overseas.  Leadership in the House recently proposed cutting $1.2 billion (21 percent) out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellite program budget - a program used for hurricane and weather tracking.  NOAA head Jane Lubchenco recently stated that this action would cause NOAA to "inevitably have a gap" in storm tracking and warning capacity. Paper and chemical industries have called on Congress to assess the cost of regulatory oversight, claiming that duplicative and burdensome regulation should be eliminated to avoid a loss of competitive advantage and preserve jobs in those industries. Congress has even taken aim at light bulbs, calling for a repeal of legislation mandating the use of more efficient bulbs. These are just a few of the many legislative proposals coming out of Congress that cut funding for environmental protection (for others, see "Losing the Future: House Republican Budget Cuts Would Strangle Innovation"). 

Current levels of Congressional spending are unprecedented and unsustainable.  For environmentalists, who focus on sustainability of natural resources, it would seem quite consistent to express similar concern over the sustainability of the economic system that gives us the luxury to protect the environment in the first instance.  Yet when high government spending and economic downturn overlap, difficult choices arise over which environmental protections to maintain.  Spending on environmental protection may very well be duplicative and inefficient in some cases, such as when special interests procure wasteful subsidies - money that would be better allocated elsewhere. And often the parties complaining about environmental protection expenditures actually add to those expenditures, by increasing administrative costs through continual judicial challenges to environmental regulations. Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that an economic downturn allows the evisceration of appropriately allocated environmental protection resources under the guise of legitimate concerns over government spending. So, how can we use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer?  How can we preserve legitimate environmental protection interests while recognizing the need to move toward an economic policy that acts in a more fiscally responsible manner? Is it too much spending or rather too much inefficient spending? Where do environmental priorities rank when deciding where to tighten the belt?

- Blake Hudson

March 14, 2011 in Economics, Governance/Management, Sustainability, US | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)