Archive for March, 2010

Offshore Drilling vs. the economic sweet spot?

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Today, President Obama announced his proposal to open over 167 million acres of ocean to offshore drilling.

The President’s plan would end the 20-year moratorium on drilling along most of the eastern seaboard and the eastern gulf coast. It would also open up offshore drilling areas in Alaska, notably excluding Bristol Bay to preserve its fishing industry.

The response to the President’s announcement was mixed:

  • In Alaska, local newspapers praised this move by the President, calling it “both aggressive and pragmatic”
  • In Maryland, bloggers were concerned, siting negative impacts of offshore drilling on tourism in their state.
  • The Heritage Foundation took a page from the FoxNews book today by being supportive of the President’s announcement and at the same time critical of President Obama’s decision-making process.
  • Greenpeace is ticked-off

In his announcement, President Obama references a strategic purpose for this increase in offshore drilling. But, he then rapidly adds that drilling cannot realistically satisfy out long-term energy needs. Which leads to the question…What is the President’s plan? If it’s a drive toward energy independence and clean energy, how does this decision help in the drive toward a sustainable energy future?

While I wish that our country could use clean and domestic resources for its energy needs, reality is that over 95% of our transportation sector is fueled using oil – and we don’t have enough blue barrels coming out of the ground each day to meet this demand. Today, two-thirds of our oil consumption is used for transportation and two-thirds of our oil supply is imported from other countries – hundreds of billions of dollars a year. These are daunting numbers. These volumes cannot be replaced by domestic supplies of fuel in the near-term. I agree with the President – we need a long-term strategic plan.

Today, the NY Times ran a piece on the economic sweet spot that oil prices now find themselves in. The ~$80 per barrel price on light, sweet Texas crude (oil)  that we’ve maintained in recent history has found a precious balancing point between alternative fuel RD&D and traditional fuel use. The price is just high enough to allow for reliable research funding, but is low enough to avoid widespread negative economic impacts.

Will increased offshore drilling be an effective step on the path to energy sustainability and independence? Or will new wells push the price of oil out of the economic sweet spot, unsettling the balance between traditional fuel production and alternative (cleaner) fuel RD&D?

Categories: Energy Policy

Increasing the efficiency of our food (and energy) supply

March 31, 2010 2 comments

Food and energy are linked. Undeniably. No matter your point of view.

Bold statements?

Lets look at the evidence – we used energy to produce food and food to produce energy. Energy drives our tractors and irrigates our fields. We need food to live. But today’s food produces not only the energy needed by our muscles but also the fuel we use in our cars.

Without energy, our food would be produced using high levels of man power for low yields per hour input (lots of farm hands, not many acres). Instead, a small crew of people can oversee thousands of acres that are commonly seeded with genetically modified organisms (which also took energy to create). But, with these advances have come several significant problems including the negative environmental effects of energy (and fossil fuel) intensive farming techniques and how to continue increasing yield in the face of a decreasing fossil fuel supply.

Amanda Cuellar, author of the op-ed titled Food and Energy: The Future of U.S. Agriculture is optimistic about our ability to address these concerns. Ms. Cuellar discusses that the high yields and variety we enjoy in our agricultural sector are the product of decades of increasingly energy and fossil fuel intensive farming techniques. As environmental and supply concerns increase, we must increase the efficiency of our agricultural practices. Fortunately, we already have the required techniques and technologies achieve greater efficiency in our food supply chain.

To read Ms. Cuellar’s op-ed, visit the Baines Report website.

Austin’s Energy Future – taking the reins

March 27, 2010 1 comment

Last night I joined 400 other Austinites in Welch Hall at the University of Texas for the 65th Hot Science Cool Talks event. The topic for the evening was the Pecan Street Project and how the technology being used at Pecan Street will allow people to meet their energy needs in smarter and more innovative ways.

In other cities it might seem strange that we were willing to spend Friday night learning about a highly technical and complex topic like distributed generation in a smart grid system. But in Austin, it’s not as surprising – according to one of last night’s panelists, Dr. Michael Webber, Austin has a large population of people who care about the environment, recognize its connection to energy and are willing to put their time and money behind green movements.

The Austinite mindset has resulted in per capita electricity use rates in our city that are 20% lower than the Texas average. The widespread understanding and concern regarding of how our choices impact others has manifested in our support of Green Choice Programs and the Austin Clean Energy Incubator. Combining this community will with the academic and industrial resources found in Austin, it is not a surprise that the Pecan Street Project, Mueller Development, and Domain are all located in Austin – 3 communities specifically designed with sustainability and efficiency in mind. We believe in the ideas that these projects embody: environmental stewardship, sustainable development and the power of a healthy community spirit.

The abundant resources and collective will in support of innovative solutions to the energy and environment puzzle make the Austin Technopolis ideally suited to stride to the front of the clean energy movement. The Pecan Street Project is another shining example of our city taking the reins to be a leader in the energy and environment movement.

Thank you to the Environmental Science Initiative at UT Austin for organizing this event.

For a GREAT video on the Pecan Street Project, check out this video

100 days? How about 1,000?

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Current Deputy Secretary of State and former Dean to the LBJ School, Dr. Jim Steinberg joined students at UT’s LBJ School for a brownbag lunch yesterday. It was great to see him in the halls of LBJ again. In our lunch meeting, Dr. Steinberg talked briefly about his work at the Department of State and more generally about the President’s agenda before answering questions from students.  He focused on aspects of the President’s international agenda: non-proliferation (North Korea and Iran), energy (domestic legislation and global impacts) and re-engaging with the international community. From Dr. Steinberg’s comments it is clear that the Administration, the President, and Dr. Steinberg are not focused on the next 100 days, but instead the next 1,000 – striving to ensure a great legacy and increasingly positive future outlook for this great country.

Climate change is a prime example of this focus on a steady progression to good policy as opposed to mad rushing to a mediocre one. Dr. Steinberg stated unequivocally that we need to pass strong domestic climate change legislation if we want to successfully engage the international community in climate and energy discussions. How do we develop and pass these policies? By not letting the “best be the enemy of the good” and inhibit the good from becoming policy. To me, this means that in the push for cap and trade we have to be willing to compromise on carbon credit allocations and offsets. All sides must compromise to achieve the fundamental goal – leading the United States toward a more sustainable economy and the Administration to a highly regarded place in the history books.

Categories: Energy Policy

Fundamentals – electricity from fossil fuels

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Climate and energy policy debates focus on phrases like cap and trade, allowances trading, and international offsets. The discussions and debate have been consumed by economics and nuclear energy controversies and has lost sight of the fundamentals.

The Fundamentals: Electricity from fossil fuels has negative impacts on our ecosystem and our health.

Historically, the United States has chosen to generate its electricity in big centralized power plants and then move this electricity long distances to our homes. When we turn on the light switch, the electricity we’re using may literally have traveled over a hundred miles to get to us. More than 70% of this electricity comes from fossil fuels – coal (50%), natural gas (18%), and petroleum (3%).

These fossil fuels are burned to make heat that is used to boil water to make steam. This steam is used to turn a turbine and this motion in turn generates electricity. This electricity is transmitted to our houses over big wires to power our refrigerator, air conditioner, and lights.

This process for generating electricity also releases (literally) tons of pollutants that had previously been trapped underground. These pollutants include greenhouse gases and particulate matter (think about soot) that decrease air quality but putting lots of gross stuff into it that should be trapped in the ground. Health problems due to reduced air and water quality increase. Our ecosystem (the earth) becomes increasingly damaged. This is a problem – one with global implications – and one that almost assuredly requires a combination of policy and technology to solve.

Healthcare versus Energy?

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I follow energy policy topics like I look for sales on flights to Australia and Latin America – with almost frightening frequency and enthusiasm.

During the past year, in my quest to learn all that I can about energy policy under the Obama administration and with the Democratic majority, I have heard the phrase “next up after healthcare” countless times. Even President Obama has given the nod to a big climate push “after healthcare

I’m straight-up tired about hearing about after healthcare. In my ideal world, energy and climate legislation would be on the top of the agenda. The simple reason – because it impacts EVERYTHING – including healthcare.

But OK – I can wait.

Guess I didn’t have to wait too long because today is almost that day… that first day after healthcare. Today the House of Representatives passed a reconciled healthcare bill, sending ti on its way to President Obama’s desk.  Woohoo! I thought, we’re almost there!

But then I read the ending statement on tonight’s NY Times headliner

“Republicans said they would use the outcome to bludgeon Democrats in this year’s Congressional elections. The White House is planning an intensive effort to convince people of the bill’s benefits. But if Democrats suffer substantial losses in November, Mr. Obama could be stymied on other issues, including his efforts to pass major energy and immigration bills.”

Does this mean, even after we’ve put healthcare to bed, it’s healthcare versus energy again?

Categories: Energy Policy

Innovating to zero emissions with Bill Gates

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I watched another great TED talk this morning, this time with Bill Gates. The topic was innovating to zero carbon dioxide emissions and it was presented with a clarity and calm optimism that I enjoyed. In fine engineering style, Mr. Gates included a simple (and extremely powerful) equation:

Categories: Environment