Edison Had it Right: Save the Light Bulb!

“Edison created a time-tested light bulb that is still the best option for its price,” Brandston said. “Consumer choice is an all-American right. The government has created a light bulb cartel, has crammed the CFL down our throats and the citizens have no antitrust protection.”

That’s renowned light designer Howard Brandston speaking a little truth to the not-so-bright powers that be regarding the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). I despise the light bulb ban. CFLs are ugly and expensive, their light is poor, they make me not want to read, and they’ve required me to buy all new light fixtures. But these are minor complaints. Here are three absolutely true arguments against the incandescent light bulb ban, in descending order of my disgust:

First, the effort to ban the incandescent light bulb wasn’t all human goodwill and love of the environment. The ban was the result of a hardcore lobbying effort waged by those who stood to benefit. This included General Electric and other bulb manufacturers. Compared to incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs are more expensive and carry higher profit margins. And their benefits, like Mark Twain’s death, are greatly exaggerated.

Second, CFLs are not clean energy. They are dirty. They contain mercury, and although I’m sure all of us good people are following the EPA’s instructions (insert EPA joke here) to dispose of CFLs with a dedicated recycler, the truth is most CFLs end up in the landfill, where the mercury is just going to accumulate.

Third and finally, this ban is the small and meaningless, which I despise. A ban on light bulbs? Energy conservation has its value, but its place is at the level of the consumer. This is not a job for the federal government, which has bigger things to do. These energy standards, I’m afraid to say, are a waste of energy. They serve as a convenient excuse for lazy members of congress not to take the big, bold steps that need to happen. Of course, the number of pea-sized brains in congress would make a dinosaur blush. So we are left with bans on light bulbs, while our other environmental challenges (other challenges? says member of congress) are ignored.

Look, goodwill gestures have their place. It’s why you buy popcorn from the Boy Scouts, recycle your newspaper, or run a 5k to support a local charity when you already  run that far every other day for free. These things are all good thing for you to do. These are not things that need to be dictated to you by congress. I can take care of my own light bulbs, thank you, just like you can recycle your own glass. You and I can’t, however, do a lot to clean up a power plant’s mercury emissions, or prevent some mining company from blasting the top off a mountain. Yet it’s our habits, our choices, that draw the attention of congress.

You know, we pay for this government. But like the CFL bulb, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Hat tip Instapundit on the story linked at top.

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Ethanol Subsidy Needs to Go. Now.

Another black eye for the Environmental Protection Agency. The news out of Washington, D.C., is that our EPA has denied a request to waive ethanol mandates while the heartland recovers from a terrible drought, and consumers’ wallets seek relief from high food prices. Via the Detroit News (H/T Drudge Report):

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday rejected a request from eight governors and nearly 200 members of Congress to waive requirements for the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline, after last summer’s severe drought wilted much of the nation’s corn crop.

Later in the same article, Michal Rosenoer with Friends of the Earth offers his assessment of EPA’s decision:

“If the worst U.S. drought in more than 50 years and skyrocketing food prices are not enough to make EPA act, it falls to Congress to provide relief from our senseless federal support for corn ethanol,” [Rosenoer] said.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard is a broken policy — rather than giving us clean energy, it’s incentivizing biofuels like corn ethanol that are exacerbating our economic and environmental problems.

“Congress needs to cut corn ethanol from the RFS entirely to protect the economy and the environment from this destructive and dirty fuel.”

Michal Rosenoer is dead on. Washington does a lot of dumb things, but few things are as transparently stupid as the huge subsidy and fuel mandates for ethanol. If I may, I’d like to offer a few points of my own against ethanol:

(1) Ethanol is a waste of energy. Literally. Ethanol supporters can argue all they want, but the science is clear that ethanol is a net-energy loser, and therefore an environmental loser. This fantastic 2005 Slate article on ethanol highlights the relevant arguments (edited for length):

The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there’s a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—requires around 22,000 BTUs.

I can’t say it any clearer myself.

(2) Ethanol harms fuel economy. Because ethanol puts out less energy than gasoline, ethanol blends harm your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. What sense then is raising CAFE standards? Another environmental loss.

(3) It’s all political. If Iowa did not have 6 votes in the Electoral College, the ethanol subsidy would not exist. The farm lobby would either split on the subsidy (corn for/livestock against), or oppose it as it is so narrowly focused. Party politicians support the subsidy because you can’t win the presidency without Iowa. Hell, you can barely win your party’s nomination without Iowa.

(4) Ethanol is starving people. Not only are we converting an important food crop to fuel, the subsidy and artificial demand created by government ethanol requirements results in additional acreage being converted from food crops, like wheat and soybeans, to corn for ethanol.

I could go on. Really. But let’s end with this: Ethanol fails every environmental, agricultural, and geopolitical (it doesn’t make a dent in our reliance on foreign oil) test to which it is put. It is a $6 billion a year waste of good money. The only test ethanol passes is the political test. Well, maybe it’s time to start flunking the test-takers.

Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.

A Stupid Move on Solar

That title is pretty uncharitable on my part. Jillian Kay Melchior is even more uncharitable, but she sums up my feelings pretty well upon news that the Obama Administration is slapping tariffs on imported Chinese solar panels:

The federal government last week approved a hypocritical trade measure that not only undermines the president’s environmental goals but also increases costs for U.S. consumers.

Most Chinese solar panels will now be subject to tariffs of about 24 to 36 percent, the U.S. International Trade Commission unanimously decided this week. They were responding to an anti-dumping suit filed by German-owned solar-panel manufacturer SolarWorld, alongside six American manufacturers, many of whom opted to remain anonymous.

These panel manufacturers have every reason to be secretive. In protecting their own products from cheaper Chinese panels “dumped” into the U.S. market, they’re screwing over other segments of the U.S. solar industry, including solar-panel installers and companies that use panels as an input for electronic products and will now have to cope with higher prices caused by the tariffs.

Moreover, the tariffs undermine the president’s green agenda. If the U.S. really wants to increase its reliance on alternative energy, as Obama has so often claimed, the uncompetitive domestic solar market could use all the cost-cutting help Beijing can provide.

An unfortunate but not unexpected outcome of last week’s election. There has been a lot of grumbling in the circles President Obama travels about the Chinese dumping cheap solar panels. I had guessed it was only a matter of time before we hit back. I view these trade/protectionist policies as both intellectually silly and economically harmful. Given all the subsidies we’re dumping onto our own solar industries – often with little to show for it – I can’t wrap my mind around punishing the Chinese for doing the same. Especially when the Chinese are providing a product we need at a price we can actually afford.

To be all fair and balanced, here’s Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) complaint in favor of hitting the Chinese. After all, I’m not an expert in global trade. My concern lies in moving the U.S. toward a solar future, and so far, I’m not real impressed with what’s coming out of Washington, D.C. If the Chinese are subsidizing their solar manufacturers to our benefit, well, let’s accept that and see what we need to do domestically to make our manufacturers competitive with the Chinese. Let’s not, of all things, start a trade war that results in escalating prices for solar panels. That’s definitely a move in the wrong direction.

The United States is the New Saudia Arabia

From Bloomberg News:

A new report by the International Energy Association says the U.S. will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017, overtaking current leaders Saudi Arabia and Russia. U.S. energy policies initiated by the George W. Bush administration and implemented by President Barack Obama have moved the U.S. toward energy independence and away from Middle East energy sources. U.S. oil production has risen rapidly since 2008 and oil imports are at their lowest level in two decades.

The IEA also says the U.S. could become self-sufficient in energy by 2035 and a net exporter of natural gas by 2020. The Obama administration’s push to develop and grow domestic natural gas capabilities has led to a natural gas drilling boom. Production has jumped 15% in four years but the glut in natural gas supplies have also caused the price of natural gas to plummet. According to the White House, the U.S. holds a 100-year supply of natural gas and domestic production is at an all-time high. The Daily Ticker’s Aaron Task and Henry Blodget both agree that the explosion in domestic energy production could alter the geopolitical landscape and U.S. labor market.

This is gigantic news for two reasons. First, if the U.S. can reduce or eliminate its dependent on imports of foreign oil, and become an exporter of natural gas, our trade deficit would shrink dramatically. Petroleum imports drive our imbalance of trade, accounting for 50 to 60 percent of the ~$500 billion annual trade deficit.

Second, the resulting geopolitical shift will profoundly affect international politics. Much of our engagement in the Middle East is driven by oil. The same is true about our our problems with Venezuela. If we are no longer (as) reliant on these often hostile regimes for petroleum, we will be able to deescalate our relationships with these nations.

Of course, every silver cloud has a black lining. As noted in the Bloomberg story, cheap natural gas will reduce market-driven incentives for development of renewables, including solar and wind. Natural gas is an incredibly important bridge fuel to move the U.S. away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources. But that bridge will collapse pretty quickly if natural gas remains so cheap. The market will demand even greater levels of subsidy for solar and wind if they are to compete with cheap domestic natural gas.

Becoming an energy independent nation will have profound beneficial outcomes, many of which we likely don’t yet understand (what will happen politically within Middle Eastern nations when their only source of wealth loses its value?). The problem now becomes one of managing this new-found national wealth in a way that doesn’t impede our transition toward a clean energy future.

The Latest Entry in the Wind Farm Wars

It was only a few weeks ago that Simon Chapman called shenanigans on all the noise about wind turbines making people ill. Well not so fast Simon.

Wind farm noise causes “clear and significant” damage to  people’s sleep and mental health, according to the first full peer-reviewed scientific study of the problem.

Contra Mr. Chapman’s claim that anti-wind farm activists were the source of all the imaginary wind turbine-induced maladies, the authors of this new science say their findings “show [a] clear relationships between wind farms and “important clinical indicators of health, including sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and mental health”.”

We all know this won’t be the last entry in the wind farm wars. For now, I’m not taking sides. I’ll just try my best to keep you updated on where the fight stands.

 

 

What Hath Obama Wrought? (A eulogy for solar power)

In February 2009, a newly sworn in President Obama and a democratic-party-packed congress approved an $831 billion economic stimulus program – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – to respond to the recession. A prominent feature of the stimulus bill was a planned infusion of $90 billion into the green energy sector. This $90 billion, in the form of tax credits, direct loans, and other incentives went to support clean energy technology, energy conservation, mass transit projects, and other programs. Of course, the most well-known part of this green stimulus was the government loan program for solar power and electric vehicle industries. President Obama was directing a green energy industrial policy with the goal of giving the United States a clean energy future.

We now know that his attempt at green industrial policy has failed.

Was it ineptitude? Poor planning? Pressure to spend the money that led to sloppy investment decisions? Was the failure an outright example of government graft and cronyism? Is it possible, given the complexities of modern industrial nations, that government simply isn’t capable of directing national economic policy of this magnitude?

Whatever the cause, it is the consequence, specifically for residential solar power, that I fear. I believe we are at a crossroads, a tipping point, for solar power in the United States. Prices for photovoltaics are dropping rapidly, and the pace of rooftop solar installations is gaining steam. Distributed solar capacity is expected to double from 3,536 megawatts in 2011 to 7,000 megawatts by the end of this year. I’m also following stories like this one pointing out that simply removing government red tape could dramatically reduce residential solar installation costs. Soon the price per kilowatt hour between solar and coal may reach parity, which many believe is the tipping point at which widespread adoption of residential solar will occur.

But will we get to this tipping point, given the inevitable political backlash against government-funded energy investment? Amongst our political class, who now is willing to support more spending for solar? I’ll go so far as to say that given the present political environment, the current 30% federal tax credit for residential solar is at real risk of expiring in 2016, if it is even allowed to last that long.

For solar supporters, casting blame does no good. I reckon the voters will hold Obama responsible at the polls. But win or lose, President Obama’s ability to pursue his green energy agenda is irredeemably compromised. Our best option now is to change the debate: we need to move beyond the failed stimulus approach and offer new ideas and new policies for achieving our solar goals. In death, we offer eulogies to praise the recently passed. Let us hope that the eulogy we may find ourselves offering is for the failed policies of one president, and not for our within-reach solar future.