During this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) interactive music and film festival in Austin, TX, an event was held to discuss Energy at the Movies. Hosted by Dr. Michael E. Webber of The University of Texas at Austin, this event focused on energy as it is portrayed in and influenced by the silver screen. After giving a lecture on this topic, Dr. Webber hosted a panel discussion with research scientist and author Sheril Kirshenbaum, film historian and UT film Professor Dr. Charles Ramirez-Berg, screenwriter and director Matthew Chapman, and producer Turk Pipkin. Yesterday, UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering released video of this discussion. If you’d like to check out the lecture that inspired this discussion, you can access the youtube video here.
Yesterday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (Republican – Ohio) said that ”we oughta be looking at” ending some federal oil and gas subsidies, stating that oil and gas companies should “pay their fair share in taxes.” The Republican leader’s seemingly casual commentary has caused waves in Washington and online, with former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (Democrat – California) tweeting that is was “nice to see @SpeakerBoehner open to ending billions in taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil.”
Today, in response to Speaker Boehner’s comments, President Obama released a letter calling for immediate action to repeal tax breaks and incentives for big oil and gas. Is this letter, the President urged current House and Senate leadership to:
…take immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
The President went on to discuss the burden of rising gas prices on Americans, and his support of Representative Boehner’s comments in support of evaluating the advisability of existing tax breaks. Citing his Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future (Released March 30, 2011), President Obama reiterated his belief that the United States must work toward cleaner, domestic sources of energy.
Speaker Boehner has already begun his quick retreat from yesterday’s statements – but, it appears to be too late to call a retreat as Democrats and the administration have already pounced on the controversial issue.
According to the last 8 Presidents of the United States, our nation’s dependence on foreign oil is concerning (at best) and threatens our long-term success (at worst?). Each of these Presidents has supported the reduction or elimination of our dependence on foreign oil sources, but none have succeeded. Today, in an article in Yale Environment 360, Professor Michael Graetz discusses the challenges in breaking a 40-year energy policy losing streak. Before the 1970s, the United States met its oil demand with domestic sources – think Texas Tea and Henry Hub oil spot prices - but, as demand has increased, domestic oil production rates have not been able to keep up. Today, we import approximately 3.5 billion barrels of oil each year. And, while the majority comes from Canada and Mexico, we still import 5 million barrels of oil from OPEC countries EVERY DAY. In the face of these staggering numbers, our current President has declared that we must reduce the amount of fuel that we import. On March 30, I wrote a piece about his 4 part plan to reduce US demand of foreign oil.
- Increase domestic oil production
- Implement new natural gas industry incentives
- Develop biofuel resources
- Reduce energy consumption with efficiency
In the thousands of pages of energy legislation and regulations enacted since energy policy came to the fore in the 1970s, Congress has never demanded that Americans pay a price that reflects the true price of the energy they consume. For nearly a decade following the oil embargo of 1973, Congress refused even to allow the price of gas at the pump to reflect the worldwide market price of oil. No one now contemplates requiring gasoline prices to include, for example, the costs of keeping oil moving safely from the Persian Gulf into our gas tanks, or insisting that our electricity prices reflect the costs of coal pollution or of nuclear power safety.
Featured on Scientific American this week is an article discussing how science and technology stopped last summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The piece, authored by Scientific American’s David Biello, provides a narrative of how scientific discussion and collaboration resulted in a solution to one of history’s largest environmental disasters.
The article discusses how high-tech solutions were discusses, discarded and improved upon until they could finally be used to stop the stream of oil gushing into the Gulf.
Forty-eight hours into an attempt to muscle a gusher of oil back into the deep-sea well from which it spewed, the flow of petroleum and gas refused to slow. Screen after screen in a special room at BP’s headquarters in Houston showed the oil gushing undiminished, silently witnessed underwater by remotely operated vehicles(ROVs).
The room—called the HIVE, for Highly Immersive Visualization Environment—was hardly the only place at BP buzzing with activity. Earlier, locked in the 10-meter-square “intervention room” on the third floor, scientist fought scientist in the battle over whether to proceed with an established way to plug the leak, the so-called “top kill” operation…
Texas State Senator Troy Fraser, a Republican from Horseshoe Bay, has proposed that the state create a new energy council under Senate Bill 15. According to a recent article by the Texas Tribune’s Kate Galbraithe, Senator Fraser’s proposal would create a Texas Energy Planning Council tasked with planning the state’s energy policy. In a hearing last week in the Texas Senate Natural Resource Committee, key language was removed that would have required the new council to identify the electricity fleets highest polluting power plants. This information would enable state planners to modify long-term strategic plans to decrease the environmental impact of the state’s power generation fleet.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) works at the heart of high-risk energy innovations. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-E was established in 2007 to promote and fund energy technology research and development. With an annual budget in the neighborhood of $400 million, this agency supports the development of technologies that result in reductions in imported fuels and energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions, while improving energy efficiency across all sectors.
On Thursday, the agency’s director Arun Majumdar announced that a new technology will be tested on the nation’s electric grid. It is believed that the first company to be tested in this grid environment will be an advanced compressed air energy storage (CAES) technology. This technology could efficiently store energy in the form of compressed air, which can be stored and later released – creating a type of air battery that can be used on the gigawatt (power plant) scale.
One week ago, Congress narrowly avoided a federal government shutdown with an 11th-hour budget compromise to the tune of $38 billion in budget cuts. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was spared the most extensive fo the proposed budget cuts, its funding was still significantly reduced. In Texas, these cuts will result in a $55 million reduction in federal funding support for clean water projects in the state.
According to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), there are currently more than $700 million worth of drinking water projects currently on the board in Texas. Most of these 160+ projects will be delayed with this cut in funding for the next fiscal year.
In an 11th-hour push last night, Washington’s legislators found a budget compromise to the tune of $38 billion in cuts and prevented thousands of federal workers from being sent home without pay. In an apparent win for environmentalists, this newest budget compromise does not include the Republican party’s proposed provisions to limit environmental regulations and their enforcement by the EPA. This could help to ensure the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.
According to the NY Times:
Democrats said that under the agreement, the budget measure would not include provisions sought by Republicans to limit environmental regulations and torestrict financing for Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions.
In the short-term, this also keeps EPA workers in their offices, allowing them to continue work on permit requests from energy companies across the nation. If Congress has not been able to reach an agreement, most federal employees would have faced an indefinite unpaid furlough starting Friday at midnight. At the Environmental Protection Agency, this furlough would have affected 90% of EPA employees, keeping them from work until Congress passed a new budget (or intermediate plan).
Advocates of solar power are urging passage of a bill that would add a dollar per month to homeowners’ electric bills to fund solar projects.
The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on the bill late last night. Its sponsor, state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, told the committee that solar was a good complement for Texas’ existing energy resources, and that its costs had dropped dramatically in recent years.
“Texas should be a leader in building the domestic solar industry,” he said. Solar installations could make use of the new transmission lines being built to aid wind power, he said.
Texas, although the national leader in wind power, lags far behind many states, and especially California, in solar.
Opponents of the bill warned of the still-high cost of solar. Ryan Brannan, a policy analyst with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that the bill could end up costing the state’s taxpayers about $240 million — not including administrative fees.
“If California is leading the way in this, we’ll let them have it and we’ll keep taking their citizens and their business,” he said.
The Texas Association of Manufacturers also opposes the bill due to costs.
The bill would add a $1 per month charge to home electric bills. It would also add $5 per month to the bill for a company meter, and $50 a month for each industrial meter (some manufacturers will have multiple meters, so the bill establishes a limit of $250 a month for a “single industrial account”). This was not even a “rounding error” for manufacturers, Darby said. Individuals and small companies will be able to opt out of the fee.
An array of solar companies showed up to praise the bill, which is seen as the greatest hope of the solar industry, which came close to getting an incentive bill passed last session but ultimately fell short.
Not all lawmakers were present, given the late hour. The committee chairman, Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, expressed some concerns on the costs of the bill. “I don’t really want to explain to my mother why she’s got another dollar on her bill,” he said. Some of the solar companies reiterated that costs have dropped significantly.
State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston — whose background is in natural gas — challenged the Texas Public Policy Foundation, saying, “Don’t we create jobs by doing this too?” The bill, he said, could help Texas to “become an energy independent state.”
Representatives of Wal-Mart and the Texas Association of Builders expressed support for the bill.
The program would last five years, after which time, its backers say, solar costs could well reach grid parity.
In the Senate, solar bills under consideration include one by State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, which would create a solar rebate program.
Driving an electric vehicle has environmental upsides including zero tailpipe emissions and a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to most of the vehicles you see on the road today. But, it also comes with the downside of a limited driving radius – leading to “range anxiety,” which can prevent many would-be electric vehicle owners from taking the plunge. However, a new approach to filling up the “tank” – via battery swapping – could put this anxiety to rest.
The new Nissan Leaf can get up to 110 miles per charge, according to online Leaf enthusiasts (the EPA vouches for 100 of those miles per charge). But, this number drops significantly if you like your air conditioning or radio. Even at the peak, this driving radius would be too small for a trip from Austin to Houston (at 163 miles), much less a family adventure to the Grand Canyon. The optional 50kW DC fast charging port could allow you to recharge to 80% in about 30 minutes, assuming you can find a place to plug-in. But, that’s still a 30+ minute stop for every hour or so of driving.
One option to extend this driving range is to forget about charging your battery – but, instead, swap it for a new one. The theory is pretty straightforward – just like filling your take with gas at a filling station, electric vehicle drivers can drive up to a battery swap station and replace their “empty” battery with a “full” one.
Now, this option still runs into the chicken-and-the-egg problem faced by natural gas vehicles today. Without extensive investment in swap stations throughout the US, there will not be enough swapping stations to get drivers from point A to point B. But, it might be viable in the shorter term with strategic investments in specific areas of the United States.
[Thanks to @AmoebaMike for mentioning this article to me via twitter @mclott]