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Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

I thought I knew.  I thought it was pretty clear during the campaign for President. We all knew where Barack Obama stood on a lot of issues – and he was very forceful, indeed eloquent, in stating his opinions.  It was clear that his philosophy was left of center. He was a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. Just look at health care.  It seems to me that he said time after time that he wanted all of us to have the same health care choices that members of Congress have. We would be able, under his administration, to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of health care plans – just like the fat cats we elect to Congress. And why not? Indeed.

The thing is that when push came to shove in Congress and the Republicans unanimously said, “Not only NO, but HELL NO”, Barack Obama chose to compromise. He made a deal. The result is that we have some sort of new health care plan that does do some things and may even provide some small additional benefit to each of us a few years from now.  But for most of us nothing has changed. So, I’m beginning to wonder – where is the idealism? Where is the fight? Or, could it be that Barack Obama isn’t a fighter at all? Perhaps he’s just a deal maker.

It’s not just health care.  It’s also energy.  Remember the campaign and the conventions? Remember the Republican Giuliani shouting, “Drill Baby, Drill!”  Remember Sarah Palin saying we need to do offshore drilling right now? Remember John McCain taking up the chant of “Drill Baby, Drill”?  Actually, they’re pretty quiet right now aren’t they? But that’s not my point.  Remember Barack Obama had this ideal about clean and green energy? Didn’t he? Am I just hallucinating here? Wasn’t he going to build a bunch of windmills and solar panels to create a new source of energy for America? Didn’t he make some kind of a deal with MIT to do research on clean, green energy? Wasn’t he against offshore drilling and nuclear power?

So, a few weeks ago – a couple of weeks before the BP catastrophe, didn’t President Obama say we need to do a lot more offshore drilling? Didn’t he? Am I just imagining this?  Where did that come from? Did I miss a news conference or something? Did MIT get back to him and say, “Forget about clean and green, just go for dirty and smelly?”

And now BP has screwed up the Gulf of Mexico for as long as most of us will live.  So what is President Obama doing? He is letting BP call the shots – even though he says he is in charge – BP is making all the decisions. So what about the opinions of his scientific advisors?  Does he really have more faith and trust in BP’s scientific expertise than that of his Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy? That ain’t right.  Something’s wrong here.

The question I have is simple – what does President Obama stand for?  Or could it be that we were all wrong in thinking he was some kind of pragmatic idealist. Maybe he’s just a political deal maker after all – just like 99.9% of the people in Washington.  Is that it?  If so, I think he will find that America didn’t vote for him to make deals – they voted for him because they thought he believed in his ideals and that he would fight for them on behalf of the American people. We thought we were on the same page with him – but he keeps turning the pages.

At least with George Bush you knew where he stood. He was a shoot from the hip wannabe cowboy.  A Yale transplant to Texas.  He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer – that was abundantly clear whenever he spoke. But you knew what you were getting when you voted for him: you’re-on-your-own-Republicanism. Don’t look to Washington for help when you need it ’cause it ain’t comin’.  Just ask the people of New Orleans. They know all about that.

But Obama was supposed to be different. But once again the people of New Orleans are suffering and our President is letting an oil company decide what to do about the worst oil spill in history. Is that leadership? Is that what we voted for? Of course not. Now, I’m not saying that John McCain or Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani would do any different – but that is my point.  Obama was supposed to be different. But in the end, Washington is letting us all down once again. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

You don’t find roses growing in a swamp, do you?

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A few days ago, President Obama gave a speech at MIT during which he reiterated the need to switch to green energy in order to preserve the environment.  He also said that the use of fossil fuels, particularly foreign oil, places the country in a precarious situation. If a foreign country cuts off our oil supply it could cause great hardship in the U.S.  He also said that a massive effort to create a green energy industry will be a significant stimulus for our economy. Speaking about the worldwide competition to create new sources of green energy he said, “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy.”  I’m not so sure of that.

As usual, isolationist Americans tend to be unaware of advances made in the rest of the world.  Ever since we won World War II we have had a tendency to view ourselves as the world leader in anything technological. It might then come as a surprise to many Americans that the call to action for the creation of green energy has been heard a long time ago in Europe – while Americans were happy to drive their gas guzzling SUVs and Hummers and heat their homes with fossil fuels and generate electricity with coal.  While Americans were comfortably cocooned in their homes watching football on their widescreen TVs, Denmark was busy building gigantic windmills for the generation of electricity. Today, Denmark is the world leader in wind-produced electricity, a result of a National plan developed in 1976.  They make some mighty large and mighty efficient windmills in Denmark. It’s not clear to me that even MIT can overtake the Danes anytime soon in this type of technology.  Do we really think we will be producing next generation windmills anytime soon and be selling them to the world?  The world already has significant wind generation capability.

What about solar power?  Surely the world needs that. True, but the world has been working on that for quite a long time – while we were driving our SUVs around town trying to find houses we could flip.  Germany is the world leader in solar technology and has been for quite a while. The Germans are currently building a 40 megawatt solar power plant for their own power generation needs. I doubt that the Germans will be one of our customers for solar power technology. Germany is the world leader in producing solar power.

OK, so what else is there? Nuclear? Whoa, hold yer horses, fella. What do you mean “nucular”?  That’s dangerous. Don’t you know they make bombs out of that stuff?  We Americans don’t want that! (Just disregard our stockpile of thousands of nuclear bombs.) Meanwhile, the French – actually not “meanwhile”, ever since the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973  the French decided that they would never again be held hostage to foreign oil.  So they built a bunch of nuclear power plants all over France.  France is the world leader in nuclear power plant technology, not the U.S. I don’t think they’ll be lining up to place any orders from the U.S. even if we do decide to resume nuclear power research.  The leading institution in the world for the future of nuclear energy, i.e. nuclear fusion, is called ITER. It’s in France.  Under the Bush administration the U.S. had all but dropped out of this research effort. Our country stopped paying its dues and had almost zeroed out all funding. Meanwhile the other six members of ITER: China, European Union, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia have made great strides toward the production of power from controlled nuclear fusion – a process that produces very little radioactive waste. Recently the U.S. chipped in a little money that helped to make back payments that the Bush administration failed to make. Even so, we are hardly on the cutting edge of nuclear science compared to the rest of the civilized world.

The fact that President Obama wants to spend a lot of money on energy projects in America is good news. It’s about time. But let’s not kid ourselves. The rest of the world is way ahead of us.  The Obama plan will undoubtedly create more jobs in the U.S.  for people who will be engaged in energy research. It is something we need to do.  It is also something the rest of the world realized they needed a long time ago.  It is unlikely that we will find a large foreign market for our energy technology, whether it is solar, wind, nuclear, or anything else in the near future.  We have too much catching up to do. Because of that, it is unlikely that launching a massive energy research and development project can be the near term solution for our economy. We won’t be exporting windmills to the Danes, solar panels to the Germans, or coals to Newcastle. They have enough, thank you.

The fundamental problem with our economy is not that we don’t do energy reserach, it is the outsourcing of people’s jobs by multinational companies.  We simply cannot go on having our multinational companies make everything in China and then sell it to us in Wal-Mart stores while we get the money to pay for all this stuff by playing economic bubble games and getting home equity loans.  Green energy research is good. It’s good for the scientists and engineers who need jobs. It’s good for the environment. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not going to be the solution for the much deeper problems of our pathetic economy.  The solution will only come by tackling head on the iniquities of multinational economics and the exportation of American jobs and manufacturing capabilities to foreign countries.

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It may come as a surprise to most people, but we don’t really have an energy crisis, and we don’t have an oil shortage either! During the past couple of days, CNN has been reporting on the discovery of vast oil reserves in North Dakota. It’s not really a discovery though, because the oil business has known about the North Dakota oil for a long time. However, the media only now are revealing to us that there is three times the amount of oil in North Dakota as there is in Texas!

I suppose a lot of people have forgotten about the announcement of the vast oil reserves discovered in the Gulf of Mexico a couple of years ago. That is an offshore place where our oil companies are already drilling. The estimates were that the oil under the Gulf waters is greater than all of the oil in Saudi Arabia. Did you hear, about a year ago, when it was announced that huge amounts of oil lie under the ocean off Ireland’s northwest coast? Once again the estimates were that there was more oil there than there is in Saudi Arabia. If you consider the vast amounts of oil in North Dakota, the Gulf, off the coast of Ireland, and other places it is pretty clear that we won’t be running out of oil tomorrow.

Recently, it was announced that Exxon Mobil reported the largest quarterly profit of any American company in U.S. history. Exxon Mobil drills for some of their oil, but not all of it. They also buy a lot of oil from Middle East sources and refine it so they can sell the resulting gasoline and other products. You might wonder why they don’t just drill for all their oil, especially if there is so much in North Dakota, under the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Ireland, and other places. The answer is really pretty simple. Exxon Mobil might be in the oil business but they are really in the moneymaking business, like any other profit making company. In some cases they can make more money buying oil from the Middle East and refining it than by drilling for crude itself.

The oil in North Dakota is a good example of how this works. It’s about two miles underground, so it isn’t exactly the low-hanging fruit the oil companies would like to pick. It’s expensive to drill that deep. Same with the Gulf of Mexico and the Irish coast. However, with oil now at $120 a barrel it suddenly makes economic sense to drill in North Dakota, and the place is booming. It won’t be too long before we are flooded with North Dakota oil, but don’t expect price of gasoline to go down. It doesn’t work that way.

So, how long will these “newly discovered” reserves last? A pretty long time I would guess. Of course it will keep costing more, and it will keep polluting the atmosphere when we burn it, but we aren’t going to run out of oil in your lifetime. The real question is how long do we want to keep living this way? Isn’t there a better, cleaner, cheaper, more reliable form of energy that we could use? The answer to that is yes, but don’t tell the oil companies. We have heard a lot of people talk about getting alternative energy from the wind and sun and other less well-known sources, like ocean waves or ocean tidal power. These are the so-called green energy sources. However, don’t be fooled, by the green label. I would call this environmental energy. Remember reading about the law of conservation of energy in high school physics? As far as I know, no one is looking at the environmental impact of these “green” energy devices that could extract truly massive amounts of energy out of the natural environment and convert it into electricity. What will the long-term effect be on the environment? Is anybody asking that question?

One form of energy that a lot of people are very concerned about is nuclear energy. It sort of has a bad name, doesn’t it? It sounds something like “nuclear bomb”, and that’s pretty scary. Then there are the radiation leaks that occurred at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. That was pretty scary too. Despite the fears and doubts of many Americans, nuclear fission reactors are used extensively throughout the world today and they now have a remarkable safety record. France gets about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. In the U.S. there are currently 104 operating nuclear reactors. Looking towards the future, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing nine license applications for new nuclear power plants and there are another twenty-four nuclear power plants that have been proposed in the U.S. This brings to thirty-three the number of possible nuclear power plants that could be built in the next ten to twenty years. (Are these the thirty nuclear plants you refer to, Johnny, when you say you want to build them before 2030? Come on Johnny, that’s not really a government program. That’s just current nuclear industry plans.)

The principal problem with nuclear fission power plants that does require some concern is radioactive waste. All fission plants generate nuclear waste products that have dangerous levels of radiation. These waste products remain dangerous for 100 years after they are removed from the plant, and they need secure, safe, storage. This seems to be the primary problem with nuclear fission power plants these days, but it needs to be taken seriously. There is another potential form of nuclear power plant that doesn’t have this problem: nuclear fusion.

Before the turn of the century, the U.S. had a major research program dedicated to developing nuclear fusion power. The U.S. effort envisioned the use of high-energy lasers to confine the fusion reaction; however, the experiments were not as productive as hoped. Meanwhile, the Russians were exploring the use of high field magnets to confine fusion reactions. It turns out that the Russians had some success using magnets they called tokamaks. Today the world’s leading effort to develop nuclear fusion reactors is conducted in France at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). It uses tokamak technology. From its inception, ITER has been funded by a consortium of the world’s major nuclear technology countries including the European Union, Russia, China, India, and the United States. However, recently the U.S. elected to reset its ITER funding to zero dollars. “Zero?” Yep, zero. We’re not playing anymore. Meanwhile, China immediately increased its funding for ITER by 10% to make up for the loss of U.S. funding, and work goes on at ITER unabated, without us. Our government didn’t stop with cutting funding for ITER. U.S. government funding for nuclear physics research in general at all of our research facilities has seen breathtakingly massive cuts this year. The European Union is now the clear world leader in nuclear physics research.

How have we come to this state of affairs? How have we gone from being the world leader in physics research to being a bystander relegated to the fringes of scientific inquiry? Why doesn’t our government have a coherent energy plan for our country? Why are we always saying we want to be energy independent, but we take no steps to attain energy independence? The answers are unavoidable: our government has no interest in developing nuclear energy. Our government has no interest in becoming energy independent. Our government is a government of big business, by big business, and for big business, and the purpose of big business is to maximize profits for its owners, not to take care of the people of this country.

The time has come for our government to once again have an independent sense of vision and destiny. We need to have an energy policy based upon real knowledge of our country’s energy reserves and requirements and the advice of our best, independent, scientists and physicists. We need a government that will no longer be led by big business and their interests. We need a government that will provide independent leadership and set a rational, well thought out course for permanent energy self-sufficiency. It’s your choice this November. Choose wisely.

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