Tag: "alternative energy"

SOTU: President Obama’s Reckless Energy Policy

Last night, President Obama gave his final State of the Union (SOTU) address to the nation. He briefly discussed energy policy:

Seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history.  Here are the results.  In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.  On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal – in jobs that pay better than average.  We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy – something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support.  Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly sixty percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.

Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.

Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy.  Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future – especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels.  That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.  That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.

Seven years ago, President Obama said he would bankrupt the coal industry, he has come pretty close to doing just that. The American coal industry is on the verge of collapse, with around 50 companies out of business and stock prices of the big four companies have fallen as much as 99 percent! Most recently, the second largest coal company has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In addition to all the regulations placed on the coal industry by the Obama administration, natural gas has experienced a boom due to new discoveries and the advanced technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Natural gas recently passed coal as America’s top source of energy power.

Despite the President’s efforts and the natural gas boom, coal is still a major source of American energy power. While, renewable energy is only supplying 6 percent of our electric power.

Wind power and solar power are also not cheap, compared to energy options such as natural gas and coal. The savings that the President is referring to are the very high subsidies that both the federal government and some states have been giving to individuals for buying wind or solar. Also, I am sure he is adding in the possible savings over something like 20 or 50 years. Yet leaving out the very high initial installation and maintenance costs.

The President’s SOTU last night coverage a variety of topics, including the reckless energy policy over the past seven years. An energy policy that has unnecessarily put our coal industry on life support, at a high cost to taxpayers and energy consumers.

The Failure of U.S. Biofuels Program

Ending a relationship is never easy, even one with a proven history of broken promises, twisted logic, weak justifications and financial exploitation. Such is the bond between the American taxpayer and the domestic ethanol industry. In the beginning, statements of common goals sparked hopeful enthusiasm. Many eagerly supported the romantic notion of growing our way to energy independence and an American-led green-based movement towards world prosperity. But, alas, the thrill is gone, and the truth exposed. The once proud, almost pompous, biofuels sector is struggling for justification.

The affair began in 2007 with the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). Contained within the act is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) provisions that sets forth incentives for the development of biofuels such as plant-based ethanol and biodiesel. At the time, Bush had committed to the goal of ending American’s addiction to fossil fuel. The original promise was a reduced dependency on Middle Eastern oil, cleaner air, a boon to agriculture and reduced fuel costs for consumers.

Unfortunately, ethanol has failed to live up to its promised benefits. Recent low prices at the pump have exposed its life-support dependency on the government. Although direct subsidies have expired, ethanol producers continue to benefit from other financial incentives and federal mandates. A study by the NARC Consulting Group calls the program an economic death-spiral and discloses its many flaws. Yet, industry groups rally for maintaining, even increasing, RFS percentages in the face of mounting evidence of the program’s failure. Still, in a recent rule change proposal, the EPA published a plan to amend the mandates.

The statutory requirement to blend government-supported biofuels with free-market fuels is market manipulation. If the value of ethanol and other biofuels were legitimate, forced consumption, through the RFS, would not be necessary. Congress should end this failed relationship and costly experiment. Let the free market drive innovation and job development. Below, are but a few of the adverse effects of the RFS:

  • disruptive to agriculture markets
  • increases food costs
  • rife with fraud
  • lacks self-sustainability
  • burdens Taxpayers
  • environmental damage
  • violates free-market principles

Energy Benefits from Humidity

Outside of greenhouses, there are very few upsides to humidity. It wrecks your hair, fogs up your car windows ― and according to new research, may be able to power a variety of small gadgets.

Scientists at Columbia University have developed a device that harnesses the change in size of bacterial spores as they absorb and release moisture and converts that into electricity.

Albert Schenning, a materials scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology said:

This is one of the first experiments to show that humidity can be a source of fuel.

While the technology has so far only been used for fun experiments, like rotating a small, Ferris wheel-like device and power a toy car, they prove that a common inconvenience like humidity can be used to generate electricity.

So far, it seems that the technology will only be useful for power small devices that don’t require a lot of power, according to the scientists. But the new technology could provide a new source of very low cost energy.

U.S. 100 Percent Renewable Energy Plan Lacks Price Tag

Engineers from Stanford and U.C. Berkeley have developed a state-by-state plan to convert the United States to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The plan aims to:

Eliminate air pollution mortality, create jobs and stabilize energy prices.

The researchers behind the plan, referred to as “The Solutions Project,” examined the amount and source of energy consumed by the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors in each state. Though the plans calls for aggressive changes to infrastructure and energy consumption methods, Jacobson and Delucchi ― the engineers behind the project ― claim the conversion is technically and economically possible with technology that already exists.

Jacobson and Delucchi claim replacing all fuel usage with electricity through their plan would yield significant energy savings, reducing total end-use power demand by 39 percent by 2050.

Though a neat concept, the lack of a visible price tag is worrisome. The engineers admit that the up-front costs of conversion would be steep, but doesn’t seem to offer a comprehensive cost for the project, either by state or as a whole.


A Bumpy Ride for Germany’s Green Energy

The aim of the German Energiewende (also known as Germany’s Energy Transition) is to decarbonize the energy supply by increasing access to renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. A key part of the Energiewende is the outright rejection of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels and the complete shutdown of nuclear facilities by 2022. The German government has also taken a stand against carbon capture and storage, calling it expensive and unsafe. The strategy focuses instead on wind, biomass (using landfill gas and agricultural waste products), hydropower, solar power, geothermal and ocean power.

So, how does Germany expect to transition to renewable energy so quickly?

  • Germany has been focusing on increasing wind power generation since the early 1990s. In 2014, onshore wind power provided 8.6 percent of the country’s power supply.
  • By 2020, Germany plans to triple the amount of energy produced by wind (both onshore and offshore).
  • Germany is aiming to have 6.5 gigawatts of installed offshore wind power by 2020.
  • Germany expects to increase citizen ownership of renewable sources, limiting the influence of large corporations, through the use of feed-in tariffs.
  • Increase “energy cooperatives” ― community-owned renewable projects, which have already garnered more than 1.2 billion euros in investment from more than 130,000 private citizens.

One of the most key impacts of Germany’s energy transition has been the democratization of energy resources. Turning traditional consumers into additional producers of energy has meant enacting generous support subsidies for renewables. This method seemed effective and by 2012 citizens and co-ops owned 47 percent of renewables, while energy suppliers controlled 12 percent and institutional and strategic investors owned 41 percent. In Freiburg, Germany, for example, citizens of the town of about 220,000 people funded a third of the investment cost for four turbines, with the rest coming from banks loans.

In 2014, the plan seemed to be on the right track and electricity from fossil fuels (including natural gas) hit a 35-year low. However, the German energy transition has hit a few bumpy spots along the way. Offshore wind has not taken off as it was supposed to and most Germans see it as a big business scheme. At the end of 2014, only 1 gigawatt of the total 6.5 gigawatts desired had been installed, with only 923 additional megawatts under construction.

The rush into renewables was also poorly timed and coincided with increased investments into traditional energy production by utility companies. The increased generation from both renewables and fossil-fuel power plants has overwhelmed demand causing prices to fall and hurt profits. Additionally, Germany had guaranteed above-market prices for newly installed renewable energy, to incentivize investment. The surge of renewables on the market are subsidized directly by a surcharge on customers, which increases in parallel with the addition of more renewable kilowatt hours. In the end, utilities have been forced to return to coal-powered plants due to the squeeze on profits.

Lauren Aragon is a research associate at the National Center for Policy Analysis

Hydrogen-fueled Cars?

Toyota is developing the first hydrogen fueled car to hit the market. Competing with other alternative fueled vehicles, the Toyota Mirai will be the first of its kind that will be mass marketed to the public. A direct rival/competitor to the electric cars, the hydrogen car compares to electric cars by price, range before refueling, refueling time and fueling stations around the United States.

2015 Toyota Mirai’s hydrogen fuel cell car, without the subsidies:

  • $57,500 a car.
  • 300 mile range.
  • Refuels in 5 minutes.
  • 12 hydrogen fuel stations around the U.S.

Electric cars, without the subsidies:

  • A $29,000 car would take 16 hours to recharge/refuel with a range of 84 miles.
  • The Tesla car costs $75,000 and take 5 hours to recharge/refuel and a range of 240 miles.
  • 9,533 electric recharge/refuel stations in the U.S.

Who will win, the hydrogen or the electric car, as the top choice of alternative fueled cars?

DOE Invests $75 Million to Create Fuel by Artificial Photosynthesis

The U.S. Department of Energy will invest $75 million in the quest to create liquid transportation fuels through artificial photosynthesis.

The funding will renew the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), an Energy Innovation Hub established in the beginning of 2010. The hub, which is modeled after “the strong scientific management approaches typified by the Manhattan Project,” is one of several Energy Innovation Hubs established by the Department of Energy.

According to Under Secretary for Science and Energy Lynn Orr:

Basic scientific research supported by the Department of Energy is crucial to providing the foundation for innovative technologies and later-stage research to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. JCAP’s work to produce fuels from sunlight and carbon dioxide holds the promise of a potentially revolutionary technology that would put America on the path to a low-carbon economy.

This commitment of new funding comes on the heels of an announcement from the Government Accountability Office stating that the department’s $28 billion loan program will cost taxpayers $2.21 billion over the lifetime of the loans. The cost skyrocketed by $500 million after several companies defaulted on their loan guarantees.

Oil and Gas v. Green Jobs

On February 24th, President Obama vetoed the Keystone Pipeline, citing that such a project is “not in the national interest” ― and instead the President has been a vocal proponent of creating green jobs in alternative energies. However, it is vital to analyze the quality and effect of these jobs. When comparing the jobs created by the oil and gas industry to the emerging green energy industry, what considerations should be made?

The first and most simple is salaries:

Oil Gas vs Green jobs

It doesn’t take a scientist to see that typically, members of the oil and gas industry are paid much more than their counterparts in green-collar jobs. It’s extremely important to note that above “Oil & Gas Financial Analyst,” jobs are no longer directly comparable, because they’re more specialized blue-collar jobs.

Ironically, apart from being paid less than other jobs in oil and gas, every single blue-collar job in the green energy sector required an undergraduate degree (except for “Wind Turbine Service Technician,” which only required work experience or specialized certifications). From a purely financial point of view, it’s a significant investment with a lower return. Oil and gas lend greater support to unskilled, blue-collar workers. What is this higher pay in oil and gas attributed to? Is the oil and gas industry simply more lucrative? Conventional wisdom may lend itself to this idea, but there is also another component in the equation.

Industry reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) seem to point to a high risk premium that is implicitly included in the pay for oil and gas workers. The Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses by BLS shows that workers in the oil, gas and mining industry have a probability of nonfatal injuries that can be as high as 36 percent, particularly in smaller companies. This statistic, translates into a higher than average probability of injury, disability, chronic illness and death for workers within the sector. Employees in the oil and gas industry also report lower levels of job satisfaction. From a quantitative perspective, the decision to be for or against nonrenewable energy is clear. From a qualitative perspective, we should at least give this question pause.

Apple Ventures into Solar Power

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook threw his weight behind solar energy with an $850 million deal to buy power from First Solar, the biggest developer of solar farms in the U.S. This new pledge puts Apple on the same page as other big businesses, including Google, Microsoft and Amazon, who have also bought into solar power in a big way.

With this new purchase, Apple will get 130 megawatts of solar power, enough to power “60,000 California homes.” This new purchase isn’t Apple’s first foray into solar energy; Apple already has two 20 Mw plants in North Carolina, two more in development, and currently powers all of its data centers on renewable energy.

Though Cook stresses his belief in climate change, he emphasizes that Apple’s investment in solar is a good business deal.

Apple isn’t investing in solar as a gift to humanity. It’s doing it because it’s a good business deal, “We expect to have very significant savings,” Cook stressed at the Goldman Sachs conference. The $850 million agreement is expect to supply enough electricity to power “all of Apple’s California stores, offices, headquarters and a data center.”

With the price of solar dropping quicker than that of wind, Apple’s big deal could be “a milestone on the road to cheap, unsubsidized power from the sun.”

Evolving Energy Infrastructure — Energy Battles Looming at Home

The electrical utilities industry is one that has always been regarded by economists as unique, with its most defining aspect being competition. There is little to none. However, economists have always argued that this is only a rational byproduct of the infrastructure associated with transporting energy. A perfectly competitive market is saturated with companies, and with hundreds or even thousands of different energy companies, the power lines and facilities required to generate electricity would be astronomically inefficient. For this reason, infrastructure in this field has been widely shielded from the pressures brought by rival businesses and increasingly demanding customers.

The free market could be on the verge of changing these norms. It all begins with introducing an adversarial element to the electrical utilities sector.

Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University and the director of research at Duke’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization begins the topic of evolving energy at its root: Many forms of energy are outdated or considered too dangerous. President Obama’s recent energy accords in India is an example of this, with Wadhwa stating,

This is hardly a victory for the United States or for India. It no longer makes sense for any country to install a technology that can create a catastrophe such as Chernobyl or Fukushima — especially when far better alternatives are available.

Furthermore, Wadhwa points out that nuclear facilities and growth in the nuclear energy sector has been stagnant compared to coal, natural gas and renewables, a claim largely supported by the Energy Information Administration’s statistics on U.S. energy consumption.

The president should not be prescribing medicine [to electrical consumption] that he would not take himself.

Historical Electricity Generation

In a 2014 report, “Energy 2020: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as Disruptors Multiply,” Citigroup claims that coal has suffered a serious double threat with the resurgence of natural gas during America’s shale revolution, and most surprisingly the projected ― not current ― falling costs of solar energy.

Indeed, natural gas and renewables such as solar are also the only two major methods of energy production which have consistently expanded at a positive rate for many years. Oil has historically been rarely used by electrical utility companies, and hydroelectric energy ― which does account for significant amounts of energy in the U.S. ― has largely been stagnant in meeting our rising demand for energy.

Historical Electricity Generation by Source

The growing popularity of renewables such as solar and wind has been a phenomenon that has been observed mainly in Europe. In a separate article, “The Coming Era of Unlimited ― and Free ― Clean Energy,” Wadhwa explains many countries in Europe have reached grid parity, a state in which installing electrical grids powered by wind and photovoltaics have matched energy prices from conventional electrical power plants. Were such a phenomenon to begin in the United States, it would be horrible news for coal, which is already hobbling along, largely due to the higher costs imposed by environmental regulations.

Solar and wind’s capacity for powering microgrids — grids which operate in the local vicinity in which their consumers reside — could also put pressure on the entire infrastructure that American energy needs have relied on for years. America’s energy infrastructure is also vastly outdated — with the best example of such being the Northeast’s chronically faltering electrical grid. The lack of innovation and improvement is mainly due to the lack of competition in the sector. Though solar and wind energy is still years away from being able to match domestic prices, advances in microgrid popularity which would be enabled by Citi’s projected foreign investment in the two energies could introduce choice to the energy sector, effectively lowering prices and helping America in its quest to be energy independent.