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Resolve of Americans and Renewable Energy: We Can Become Energy Independent and Achieve a Cleaner Environment!

September 14, 2010

We Did The Unbelievable Once, We Can Do It Again

There is no single cure-all to fix all of our energy problems, both short- and long-term. Many viable solutions may make an impact in years to come. Other solutions are not coming from the U.S. In the next 14 months there will be an avalanche of Sino made Electric Vehicles. America will be nothing more than a re-packager relying on foreign oil and products. We have the technology, but are so bogged down in political, regulatory, financial and self-serving rhetoric that what we can do is not being done. What an epitaph for America and future generations.

My outlook has always been positive in regards to the resolve of Americans and our ability to be leaders in renewable energy.  In the past, there was nothing that could stop us. But now, we may have dug a deep hole. The question arises whether we can pull ourselves out in time. Every day we export our dollars and create an ever growing trade deficit and national debt.  In the past,  we were able to do so much and make incredible marks on the world. But now it seems we are our worst enemy. From nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen, natural gas to biomass, solar and wind, what are we really achieving in a tangible way.  We now found ourselves followers not leaders. Sure we spun off cutting-edge-advancement in all these areas, only to lose our edge to other sovereign nations. U.S. is being infused with very inexpensive solar panels from China. As we all know, in the long run manufacturing and R&D go hand-in-hand. Lose manufacturing and sooner or later R&D migrates to the manufacturing site. Yes, in today’s global economy and highly linked world, the old methods of doing business may not apply, but in the long run 2 + 2 still equals 4 and the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

It seems that the Smartgrid is happening. In the short-term the Smart grid may be a source of additional revenue for the utility and only be a cost factor to the American consumer. Until all the potential benefits reach inside our homes. the benefits in reducing GHG emissions and our reliance on foreign and domestic petroleum will be realized later on.

Take hydrogen fuel cells which shaped our space program. There has been some significant technical breakthroughs in China – low pressure and temperature cells. Additionally, the price of Sino-made cells is so competitively priced, it’s difficult to envision any real competition by domestic fuel cell producers.  Even, Ballard is not a U.S. company.

We were the inventors and leaders in nuclear energy, now we can’t even decide on a new  reactor design. Westinghouse, which is owned by Toshiba, issued plans for an intended reactor design that should be faster to build and safer to run than previous models. This design was reject by the NRC for uncertainty as to whether it can withstand earthquakes and tornados. Though the reactor was designed to withstand the direct impact of a plane. I not sure who dropped the ball, but it is clear, adoption is somewhat delayed  (see – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/16/science/earth/16nuke.html).

As a 1978 evacuee of Three Mile Island and somewhat technically knowledgeable in nuclear energy, I understand the horrific ramification of a reactor failure and the need to take a technically conservative approach to approve any new designs. But the point is, reactor technology is not new and for some time we have used nuclear energy, even to  power aircraft carriers and submarines. Why, after so many years are we debating how to design a reactor – are the requirements truly a running target established by a federal agency that has failed us in so many ways and continues to do so. France with its approach of instituting a standard reactor design and its ability to handle nuclear waste,  has developed a successful nuclear industry with none of these problems or potential problems. Nuclear energy produces 90% of France’s electrical power production. France even exports their electrical energy to other countries.

Geothermal energy is another example of our lack of progress.  (it is understood that the DoE has recently issued several solicitations involving geothermal energy, i.e., Announcements May 27 and June 2). Quote Wikipedia, ” Geothermal power is cost effective, reliable, and environmentally friendly, but has historically been limited to areas near tectonic plate boundaries. Recent technological advances have dramatically expanded the range and size of viable resources, especially for applications such as home heating, opening a potential for widespread exploitation.”   To be further chagrined by our lack of progress in this area, it’s enlightening to read “A CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE FOR THE UNITED STATES: THE CASE OF GEOTHERMAL POWER, Testimony by the President of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, at a Senate Hearing Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, US Senate, Washington, 26 September 2007,” (see – http://forseti.is/media/files/testimony.pdf).

Another great example is compressed natural gas (CNG), which is an abundant domestic resource base (84% produced in the U.S. and 14% in Canada). EPA passed stringent emission standards that CNG can pass. But EPA’s certification process for use as a fuel in vehicles is both extremely costly ($250K – $300K) and time consuming (6 to 9 months). EPA certification is granted for only one particular engine platform. Any changes in engine design, catalytic converters, fuel injectors etc. will necessitate going through the approval process again. The certification is not extended to other engines platforms that have to go though the same qualification process. This is prohibitive to smaller companies providing engine conversion kits. Additionally, the market demand is currently so low that major vehicle manufacturers cannot make a solid business case to produce CNG vehicles. So for the most part, conversion to CNG is relegated to 3rd party companies that find it difficult at best to support the high cost and inadequate demand arising from the lack of infrastructure (fueling stations).  

As part of the ARRA of 2009 (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), the U.S. Government should have set aside let’s say, $15 billion for the design, build, financing and operations of Natural Gas Fueling Stations for vehicles.  That amount of dollars could provide about 10,000 reasonably sized refueling stations nationwide at a cost of $1.5 million each (on the high side of the cost for a natural gas fueling station). If you take the 50 biggest cities in the U.S. from Albuquerque, NM to Wichita, KS, this would have provided on the average 200 Natural Gas Fueling Stations per city. Call them “Uncle Sam’s” Station, but the point is that those stations would, without exception, provide a significant stimulus for private and public vehicle and fleet owners to convert their diesel or petroleum combustion engine over to natural gas, which burns cleaner in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, jobs would be created from civil engineers, architects  and city planners to general contractors, construction workers and daily employees to operate and maintain the stations. Natural gas could be as low as $1.10, at the pump, at today’s commodity price of about $3.57 MMBtu. Even at a relatively high price of $6.00 MMBtu for natural gas, at the pump price may only be about $1.80 on the high side.  An obvious savings for the vehicle owners.

To underscore the above statements, the table below reflects the number of CNG vehicles currently circulating in leading countries. It is surprising that the US and Canada, which are major producers of natural gas are near the bottom of the list. Guess we know something the other countries have not yet discovered.

Sources: Gas Vehicles Report, May 2008, www.iangv.org/tools-resources/statistics.html

Most other renewable energy platforms find themselves in the same predicament in the U.S. Maybe off-shore wind will be successful in U.S. Also, though ethanol may not be a good long-term solution,  next time you fill up your car,  just read the label on the gas pump – “This fuel may contain up to 10% ethanol.” Italy just passed a resolution that at the pump petroleum “must contain 3% ethanol.”

In today’s global market,  it seems we Americans have relegated ourselves to be a fanatic consumer but a rather slow and uncompetitive producer. I direct you to an October 1, 2007 article in BusinessWeek titled “Big Oil’s Big Stall on Ethanol,” to get a hint of reasons for possible delays in adopting wide spread use of renewable energy (see – http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_40/b4052052.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_businessweek+exclusives). The examples go on and on. It is recognized that the DoE and the government seem to be getting their act together. In view of the tight money markets, private industry is financially strapped and struggling to move forward in an environment highly constrained by the complex web or regulations and. However,  while Nero fiddles, Rome burns, and the rest of the world marches on.

In closing, I believe we can succeed, we just need the willingness, conviction and courage to do so. Without exception, we have the talent, creativity, expertise and ability to win this fight for energy security and a cleaner environment. Not for the world but for ourselves. Furthermore, for our children and future generation’s well being and security, we must move now, the clock ticks on.

Like the Little Engine, We Can Overcome a Seemingly Impossible Task.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 3:38 PM

    Spending government money on R&D is one thing–that’s traditionally been a good role for government programs. I’m concerned about pouring a lot of money into massive deployment of solutions before they’ve proved themselves to be economically. We’re in a tough situation–though I hesitate to say it’s a crisis, yet–and we can’t afford to waste money on huge boondoggles. I think ethanol is such a boondoggle. So would hydrogen, too, if it were heavily subsidized by the government. As for nuclear, it’s already been subsidized for a long time, and seems to have mostly gone through its learning period. Whether new reactor designs will ever be more competitive without another massive influx of government money is a big subject of debate right now.

    Overall, I’d say: Try out a lot of things on a small scale, but be careful what you scale up. There will not be a single silver bullet that takes care of the problems, but it won’t be a collection dominated by a hundred different, bit players, either. It will most likely be a few dominant approaches, but different from the ones we have now.

  2. September 14, 2010 3:51 PM

    Why do I keep getting asked to subscribe to this stuff, every time a new discussion is started? Why isn’t once enough?

  3. Paul Weinberger permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:14 PM

    Barry, I don’t use LinkedIn (or much of any blogs, chatrooms, social networks,…) very much, but I’ve been attracted to a few of your writings. We may not agree on everything (who does?), but you seem to be a creative & rational thinker. Here’s a sampling of an old thought-piece which captures my energy perspective… http://tinyurl.com/26mhdek. Any of it sound familiar?
    Regards,
    Paul Weinberger
    Technology Management

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