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Don’t Act, Don’t Excel

December 21, 2010

Sometimes it’s easier to be critical than constructive. Criticism usually gets nowhere, tends to build walls and stop progress. This was the failure of the antiwar protestors of the late ‘60s. We wanted to tear-down, without having a plan to build-up. Now some 50 years later, hopefully wisdom prevails over nihilism. Better to merge the two to provide some level of constructive criticism.

OK, so what is this discussion all about? Simply stated, it’s about our government and its sworn duties to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. Respectfully, the government has a social contract with the citizens of the United States. Thereby, the movement provides these guarantees to us, and we support the dictates of their policies. It seems lately that the government has been somewhat remiss in upholding their end of this agreement, particularly in energy polices and directions.  The preamble of the Constitution states:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Regardless of what some members of the world may think, for the most part our leaders have done well to provide these guarantees. Our government leaders seem to be more in love with the ballot box then America and the American citizen. Besides U.S.’s alarming slippage in our world ranking in secondary education, America has been faced with another enemy that has been with us for so long that it’s beginning to be commonplace. That is our need to achieve energy security and ensure that our environment is healthy and productive. Please note that this discussion is not about climate change, global warming, the rising sea level or the eradication of irreplaceable species. It’s about keeping our dollars in the U.S. and utilizing domestic resources and renewable energy.

Don’t forget we are paying for both sides of the war by helping to finance the enemy, while at the same time bearing the tremendous cost of the war to support their petro-oligarchs. Don’t forget that we are a debtor nation that is losing its financial, technical and manufacturing prowess.  It’s about us, humanity and our future, that we keep our dollars in the USA by getting off petroleum and utilize clean, abundant, and domestically-produced energy sources.  Only through these actions can we ensure our children’s children will have any measure of opportunity, which is rapidly drifting away. When we look to our government for direction, the leadership landscape looks barren. Where are those in Washington that have a vision beyond the ballot box and manifest the courage to push the oil lobby aside and champion a meaningful energy policy that will finally end our reliance on foreign oil through adoption of domestically available cleaner alternatives?  J’accuse the U.S. Government of failure to promote the general Welfare.

It seems there have been more discussions in Congress and the Executive branch on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” then on developing a cohesive short- and long-term strategy to combat our energy crisis. Our government has taken the easy path of “Don’t Act, Don’t Excel.” Sure on the 11th hour, 59th minute and 15th second, our government was able to sneak through legislation allowing a one year extension of the 1603 Treasury Grant Program. This program allows renewable energy to effectively compete against a fossil fuel industry, which is heavily subsidized by the federal government. This act helps to level the playing field for the renewable energy industry.

Keep in mind that this legislation was slated to be enacted by July of 2009. Had it not been for the urgency in passing the tax bill, it would be safe to say that 1603 would not have been ratified. In this business where approval cycles for utility-scale renewable energy power generation plants can take several years, a one year extension is really nothing to really cheer about.  In the scheme of things, while passage of the 1603 extension is great news to a struggling industry, it also mirrors how far afield the Government is in its responsibility to the citizens of U.S.

Sure we passed and doled out billions of dollars for renewable energy through the ARRA. It is more likely that the recently reported decline in U.S. demand for gasoline is due to economic factors and social consciousness rather than soon to be realized higher fuel economy standards, higher biofuel content, and leadership from Government and industry officials. Whether happenstance, solid planning or a reflection of our times, the decline in oil consumption is terrific and long awaited news!

Nevertheless, what’s missing is a laser focused comprehensive energy package that stays the course regardless of who’s in power; Democrat or Republican. Adoption of renewable energy throughout the economy has historically been a hit and miss strategy of taking one step forward and two steps back. The fact is that only about 4% of electric power generation in the U.S. is through renewables (not including hydroelectric) and that the transportation industry, which is second only to electric power generation in energy demand, consumes petroleum for 95% of its energy needs. By a 2010 standard, the former is still way too low and the latter is still way too high. In 2010, the U.S. imported about 11.8 million barrels of crude oil per day for net export of $12,200.00 per second; about a third of trillion dollars per year. Rather high to say the least, especially when domestically available resources are commercially available.

So what can the average American do? Well we can’t storm the Bastille. All we can do is get our voices heard for once and for all. Not sure if the Picken’s plan has been helpful or not. In his own words, T Boone Pickens said at a meeting several months ago in Dallas; “if I had to do it today, I would not.” This was in reference to his expenditure of $82 million on the program. Maybe he seemed to represent too much self-interest and not taken seriously as a true spokesman for the American people.

If our future means anything, it is then up to you, me and all Americans to do put an end to our political follies and trivialities. We must take a strong personal stance and speak up; inundate our representatives’ with emails and letters and make our voices heard. In sharp contrast to the awe inspiring but failed Peace Marches on Washington, we can amass on Capitol Hill and show in number our collective concern for the need “now” for dedicated Action and Excellence. Hey, if so many come out, it may be possible to push a little on the walls of Washington.

I don’t have all the answers, but something finally needs to give. Time marches on!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    December 26, 2010 6:43 PM

    I must say that I find Barry Stevens’ writings to be on target. What we really need is a multi-pronged effort to implement all renewable energy sources that make any economic sense. In the mean time, the Marcellus and other shale formations coming to market in abundance because of technological advances are not the only answer for our best energy future. However, if developed responsibly are capable of going a long way in helping achieve energy independence! (Remember ENERGY INDEPENDENCE?)

    Bio-methane, bio-gasification, heat reclamation, solar, wind, can all make major contributions. Geothermal heat pumps are wonderful for any one that has space for the underground (deep works too) piping grid. In the meantime, natural gas can be abundantly produced. T Boone Pickens is right in asserting that we charge headlong into use of methane as a transportation fuel. In five years we could be close to energy independence if tax breaks were used to stimulate energy sources, both renewable and conventional. Cleanly, sensibly and economically would be a good mantra.

  2. December 27, 2010 8:33 AM

    This article discusses the issues with transitioning the transportation industry’s fuel from foreign oil to domestic compressed and liquefied natural gas (CNG and LNG).

    When considering a direction in clean energy, five basic requirements must be satisfied in order to ensure a low-risk and a rapid return on investment. These criteria include:
    • Environmentally Clean or Cleaner
    • Commercially Available,
    • Domestic Resource Base,
    • Positive and Immediate Impact on Domestic Economy
    • Affordability

    While there is a vast array of technologies that claim to support these goals, few technologies can actually meet these requirements, today. Claims for commercially viable alternative energy solutions are in the distant future. For the most part, they are constrained by perception, economic, regulatory, technical, reliability and durability issues. Outside of government investments and incentives, in today’s risk-adverse world, the likelihood to secure the necessary funds to develop and commercialize a technically sound clean energy solution is a difficult and remote opportunity.

    In terms of what renewable energy technologies make the most sense, it must be understood that in the U.S., electric power generation, transportation and industry are the big three contributors of greenhouse-gas emissions with each generating 2.4, 2.0 and 1.4 billion metric tons in 2007, respectfully. Of the total energy consumed in the U.S., 40% comes from petroleum products, 23% from coal and 22% from natural gas. Nuclear power (8%), biomass (3%), hydro-electric (3%) and geothermal, solar/PV and wind (1%) plays a minor but conceivable growing role. The Energy Information Administration sites use of natural gas in the U.S. economy includes industrial (35%), electric generation (29%), residential (20%), commercial (13%) and transportation (3%). Additionally, a comprehensive study released on July 4, 2008 by the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF) and Navigant Consulting, Inc. (NYSE:NCI) indicates the United States has 2,247 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves, which is enough to last more than 100 years.

    With about 250 million registered vehicles in the U.S., the transportation sector offers a tremendous opportunity to reap the benefits of renewable sources of energy. Diversification of America’s transportation fuel portfolio includes a short list consisting of all-electric, hybrid PHEV, bio-diesel (B100) and blends, ethanol, propane, and hydrogen. While these choices have some environmental and economic benefits for light duty-vehicles (up to 8,500 GVW), natural gas for vehicles is the logical energy choice due to its proven technology, commercial availability and compatibility with internal combustion engines. In combination with the existing base of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, this results in tremendous economic benefits for fleet operators that convert their vehicles to use natural gas. Additionally, electric and hybrid alternatives are not available or a good choice due to performance limitations for medium-duty (up to 14,000 GVW), medium-heavy-duty (up to 26,000 GVW) and heavy-duty vehicles (over 26,000 GVW). Finally, bio-diesel and blends may not meet the air quality standards mandated by the EPA.

    Corn based ethanol and biofuels suffered a setback as a result of last year’s market dynamics and arcane reports such as that by Lester Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute. Ethanol production is market driven and requires that corn be competitively priced. As the price of corn increased, the cost advantage for biofuels diminished, leaving nascent companies to defer or cancel operations. Much of the public outcry for corn based biofuel emanated from an intangible concern for the reallocation of a universal feedstock to fuel-stock. In reality, the upward pressure in corn prices was as much a function of rising fuel and transportation costs as the combined effect of skyrocketing global demand and production shortages from dry weather conditions. Needless to say, the use of corn as a biofuel became uneconomical and unpopular. Though on the horizon there is a vast array of elegant and promising biomass and cellulosic ethanol technologies, which down the road can satisfy the ever increasing demand of the transportation industry.

    However, natural gas lacks many of these problems and is an extremely viable candidate to supplement America’s reliance on foreign liquid fuel. In the U.S., 64% of the petroleum used is from a foreign source versus natural gas which is 97% North American based. Overall natural gas is clean, affordable and abundant in the U.S. It can save dollars, is renewable, has a lower carbon footprint than liquid petroleum, is clean with near zero emissions and reduces greenhouse gas emission, is a domestic resource and is a bridge to ultimately cleaner energy sources such as hydrogen. Today and within the conceivable future, natural gas is a commercially and economically viable alternative fuel for the large and relatively untapped transportation market, which uses less than 3.0% of all natural gas produced in the U.S. and accounts for less than 0.5% of all fuels.

    Natural gas is an inherently clean fuel since it is mostly methane having one carbon atom per four hydrogen atoms or 60% by weight carbon (diesel – C14H30 is 74% carbon; gasoline – C8H18 is 73% carbon: Propane – C3H8 is 70% carbon, by weight). Also, natural gas has less NOx, soot and greenhouse gases than petroleum fuels. Safety wise, natural gas is lighter than air, dissipates when released, has a high ignition temperature of 1000 – 1100F, has a limited range of air/fuel combustion ratio of 5 – 15%, does not leak into ground water and is governed with proven fuel tank, vehicle and station codes. Converting one refuse truck from diesel to natural gas is the equivalent of taking as many as 325 cars off the road in terms of pollution reduction.

    Air quality issues are gaining added political traction as health toll and economic impact is tallied. A large percent of the population lives in what is considered non-compliant areas and by 2010, 320 counties in the U.S. are likely to be deemed non-complaint. Fleet operators are feeling the impact of EPA’s 2004, 2007 and 2010 requirements. Due to these regulations, 2004 diesel powered vehicles suffered a 3 – 6% decrease in fuel economy with further declines anticipated in 2008. In addition, complex exhaust after-treatment technologies are expensive and maintenance intensive. Finally achieving the 2010 NOx reduction to 0.20 g/hp-hr presents an unresolved dilemma.

    Light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles can be converted to natural gas using proven 4th generation technology. Only one factory-ready sedan is sold – the Honda Civic GX – so vehicles have to be retrofitted for CNG fuel. As in any emerging technology, first generation systems needed improvement and not all 3rd party installers were created equal. Early issues facing CNG fleet managers concerned durability, reliability, cold starting and performance. But newer systems have addressed them.

    With the market wide open for use of compressed natural gas (CNG) as a fuel for vehicles, the main constraint hampering expansion is the availability of refueling stations due to their high up-front capital cost. CNG stations cost about $400 thousand each for small CNG time-fill stations generating less than 6,000 dge per month and $800 thousand each for mid size, stations generating less than 20,000 dge per month to $1.5 million each for large stations generating up to than 20,000 dge per month and $2.5 million each for high capacity stations generating up to 80,000 dge per month. This impediment can be overcome on the short-term basis by expanding the conversion of vehicles to CNG and cost sharing between local fleet owners. Long-term, expanded use into the public sector, improved reliability of key systems and innovative compressor designs can help to reduce station costs.

    The compass points towards a tremendous opportunity for broad market adoption of natural as a vehicular fuel. Today, natural gas can rescue our bleeding budgets and bulging trade deficits. No technological advances are needed, only enlightenment. It just requires what Lee Iacocca pleads for in his latest book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? — the leadership, courage and common sense to move forward.

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