Posts Tagged ‘The Intersection’

The Fracking Debate – The “Truth” about Gasland and water contamination

May 25, 2011 1 comment

One of the major concerns with regards to hydraulic fracturing is the potential for fracking fluids – specifically, the chemicals in them – to contaminate drinking water. The YouTube video titled “My Water’s on Fire Tonight” outlined this concern:

But there’s more in the water than just H2O
Toxic chemicals help to make the fluid flow
With names like benzene and formaldehyde
You better keep ‘em far away from the water supply

The drillers say the fissures are a mile below
The groundwater pumped into American homes
But don’t tell it to the residents of Sublette Wy-O
That water’s fracked…. We’re talking Benzene…

It is believed that there have been thousands of cases of groundwater contamination in the United States due to this fracking process. But, there is some debate on the validity of these claims. On May 13, Jamie L. Vernon, PhD wrote a post about the pro- and anti-fracking debate for Discover Magazine’s blog, The Intersection where he brought to light doubts surrounding claims of groundwater contamination. In his opinion:

…this is a hilarious production designed to draw attention to the fracking debate.  To be clear, my biggest concerns are not centered on the hydraulic fracturing fluid per se.  I feel the recent PNAS paper highlighted the much more worrisome problem of methane gas leakage.  In fact, the PNAS paper stated that there was no evidence of contamination of drinking water with deep saline brine or fracking fluids.

To be clear, this PNAS paper does not say that water contamination is not a potential problem with the fracking process. Instead, it indicates that recent claims of groundwater contamination in the United States might have been overstated.

Regardless of the validity of the water contamination claims, this concerns has captured American’s attention. Some of this success could be rooted in the success of the “Gasland”  documentary by Josh Fox. This movie focuses on the use of hydraulic fracturing to unlock natural gas stored in shale (rock) underground, and the potential negative environmental impacts of using this technology. But, it’s main anti-fracking argument centers on the potential for fracking to contaminate drinking water supplies, painting a highly negative picture for viewers.

Unsurprisingly, this documentary has received negative press and backlash from organizations including the organization called America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), a pro-natural gas association that promotes the use of natural gas in the United States.  In response to the Gasland documentary, ANGA supported the released of a short video – titled “The Truth About Gasland” – that puts a call out for “open, factual and fair dialogue” surrounding the development of the nation’s natural gas resources. In this video, the creators state that “the film “Gasland,” whatever the intentions of the filmmaker, has contributed to a dialogue based more on fear than facts. While it is a dramatic movie, ‘Gasland’ is a deeply flawed documentary that gets several important facts wrong. Learn more at


Inaugural UT Energy Forum

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Check out my guest post today on Discover’s blog, The Intersection (blogging home to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum). My post is about the Inaugural UT Energy Forum, hosted on UT’s campus earlier this month. I attended and spoke about the smart grid in a 7-minute TED-style talk.


Smart (and Stupid) Metering

August 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Last week, Chris Mooney – co-author of Discover Magazine’s blog The Intersection – wrote a blog post about how electricity use is metered in his new apartment building. It’s a great example of our mixed incentives structure, which in many cases actually discourages conservation and efficiency.

So I’ve recently moved to Washington, D.C., and into a newish building. And I’ve been getting a utility bill with a rather large number being charged (on the order of $ 75 per month) for something called “HVAC,” or, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

My inquiries into what this charge is for, and whether I can do anything to avoid it, speak volumes about the inefficiencies of our current energy system.

Turns out HVAC is calculated in the following way. There’s a total HVAC value for the building, and then an algorithm is used to apportion a supposedly fair fraction of the bill to each resident. The algorithm centrally takes into account  1) square footage of your apartment unit; 2) number of occupants. All of this is carried out by a sub-metering company, which then sends you the bill.

Let me acknowledge at the outset that I have no idea why things are set up this way–whether it is the choice of my building, or of some utility, or some other possibility. So I’m not laying blame. But I am interpreting the consequences of the arrangement–because as far as I can tell, the consequences are that there is absolutely no incentive for anybody in the building to save energy.

In fact, the incentive is probably the opposite–to blast cold air all the time. After all, you’re not really paying for it–your neighbors are.

In my case, I have a unit that gets no direct sunlight, so that even in this hot DC summer, the temperature remains about 75 degrees on average. Mostly, that’s fine with me, and I rarely use A/C. Furthermore, I travel a lot, and I turn everything off before I leave. So there will be a week or more at a time when there is no air conditioning at all being used in the apartment.

Up until now, then, I’ve been acting as a conscientious energy saver–a perfect little tree hugger. Up until now, I knew nothing about this HVAC business, or that my greenish behavior would have little to no effect on a key component of my energy bill.

But now that I do know, the question becomes, why be green? Heck, I’m tempted to start cranking the A/C. Everybody else in the building is, apparently. I’m no economist, but doesn’t this sound a bit like the tragedy of the commons scenario?

In fairness, I probably get a little bit of cooling from the A/C use of the other apartments, even if my A/C remains turned off. That’s probably worth taking into account. And maybe I’ll want more HVAC in the winter than I do in the summer, due to my lack of sunlight (though I doubt it).

Still, I don’t think these considerations outweigh the fundamental inefficiency and perverse incentives of this situation.

Now multiply my experience by the number of people living in buildings employing a similar sub-metering scenario (I have no idea how many there are, but somebody out there does). My guess is that you will end up with a very large inefficiency and dysfunctionality in our energy economy–a lot of waste, and a lot of discouragement of energy conserving behavior.

Smart metering, anyone?

It’s not about the politics

Oil Slick in the Gulf of Mexico

The oil slick that has rolled onto the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama does not care about politics. It does not care that Congressmen in Washington are working on an energy and climate bill. It does not care about the press conferences or the evening news reel. The rate at which this slick grows is not impacted by politics – the tradeoffs don’t change because of a great speech by our President or BP officials. As one Boston.Com reader put it, we need to  “stop blaming the Republicans or the Democrats!…It’s time for ALL of us to care! Politics has nothing to do with this mess.”

Our oil consumption has tradeoffs and this oil slick is a perfect example of the risks we’ve accepted when we drive our cars, eat fruit driven to us from California, or buy water bottles made from petroleum-based plastics.. We drive our cars, which requires oil that comes from reserves in sensitive regions all over the world. Oil spills happen, even when we are careful. This time the disaster is something not just seen on the news, but felt by Americans. Maybe the silver lining in all of this is that our representatives in Washington will use the momentum created by this disaster (I would say catastrophe) to find intelligent technological and political solutions to our unsustainable energy economy.

Some incredible pictures of wildlife caught in the oil slick can be found here.

Also check out Sheril Kirshenbaum’s commentary on the oil slick on her blog, The Intersection.

Longhorns, Long Wires, and Big Ideas in Green Energy

Check out the guest post I wrote for Discover Magazine’s blog, The Intersection.

As the nation moves toward a green energy future, it has found a leader in Texas. While Washington debates federal clean energy policies, the Lone Star State has taken up the reins in the renewable energy sphere. Should we be surprised that this iconic leader in our nation’s energy history is now uniquely positioned to lead us into our energy future?

As a University of Texas at Austin graduate student and a woman with deep hill countryroots I’m well acquainted with the state’s reputation as the home of big oil and gas. This image has been cultivated over the years through scenes with James Dean (Jett Rink) inGiant and Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing) inDallas. Truth-be-told, much of the economic development in the past 100 years in Texas can trace its roots back to 1901 whenSpindletop came gushing in and the real-world Jetts and J.R.s found their strides.

Today, Texas is the nation’s leader in total energy consumption, using about 12 percent of the country’s total energy. If Texas was a nation, it would rank seventh in the world for carbon dioxide emissions – just ahead of Canada and a smidgeon behind Germany. Texas boasts some of the largest petroleum refineries in the United States and the Houston area, including its aptly namedEnergy Corridor, is home to many oil and gas giants including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP America, and Exxon Mobil. The Lone Star State is undeniably a principal in the traditional energy industry and at the same time is uniquely positioning itself to be the nation’s leader in the green energy movement, particularly green electricity.

Texas is not only rich in oil and gas reservoirs (good ole Texas Tea), but also has expansive renewable energy resources including solar and wind. Over the past decade, the state has cultivated its wind power industry with a set of progressive policies including a statewide renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that have driven Texas to be the nation’s leader in wind power. To date, almost 10 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity have been installed within the state’s borders – enough to power almost 3 million homes. On February 28, 2010 Texas hit another impressive benchmark when it supplied a jaw-dropping 22% of its total electricity demand using wind energy. In doing so, it demonstrated the state’s ability to be a model for adding renewable electricity to the grid throughout the nation.

Why Texas? What makes Texas unique?

I’d like to offer up what I believe is the main reason – Texas’s electricity grid.

In the continental United States, there are three grids (East, West and Texas) that serve as electricity pipelines to move electricity from power plants to our homes and businesses. The self-contained Texas grid (operated by ERCOT) is unique. It allows for regulation of transmission on a state basis, as intrastate activities are not overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions (affectionately called FERC).  This means that, if Texans want to test the limits on how much renewable energy they put on the grid or see how a renewable energy technology performs in a grid system, they can do so without Washington’s approval. In other words, Texas is like a 100+ million acre test lab that the entire nation can benefit from.

A shining example of this is seen in the state’s capital. In Austin’s Mueller Development, the Pecan Street Project has taken on the role of America’s clean energy laboratory.  This laboratory spans over 711 acres and is home to approximately 10,000 residents that live in 4,600 single-family, condo, or apartment homes. Twenty-five percent of these homes are reserved for families that qualify for affordable housing programs. Also on the site are Dell Children’s Hospital, a Home Depot, and a town center full of cafes and shops. Not exactly your traditional Bunsen burner and vent hood, but rather a huge outdoor dynamic laboratory for real time feedback and data collection.

The Pecan Street Project is bringing together scientists (engineers, geologists, and chemists), politicians (from rural Republicans to urban Democrats), and Texas residents from all walks of life to see what we can achieve. This community, inspired by the smart grid concept, will test theories and technologies like advanced energy storage, real-time pricing, and an array of efficiency projects that not only target energy, but will also work to decrease water demand in the community. And the best part of this project is that the lessons we learn from this community will be shared with the rest of the nation.

Texas has a rich energy history and appears to have equally high prospects for its energy future. Because of its unique position – with rich resources and independence in its grid – it is able to pursue exciting opportunities in the energy arena that the nation (and the world) will benefit from in the future.