The Ergosphere
Wednesday, December 14, 2005


A number of authors over at dKos have produced an energy policy prescription for the USA.  Over a series of 20 individual sections, the authors try to address the various ills which are either plaguing us now, or will shortly.

That's the good news.  The bad news is that various parts of it are inaccurate and erroneous or just vague.  Overall it is much more confused than it should be.

Take this phrase:  "Innovation is an American birthright."  What's that supposed to mean?  Do the authors imply that there's some minimum standard of innovation that the public has a right to expect, along with universal health insurance?  They may have been reaching for a sound-bite, but I think they fell victim to the post-modernist notion that verbiage defines reality.  Words like that have no relationship to anything concrete, and don't belong in a policy analysis that's intended to gain support beyond their own set of like-minded followers.

Or this one:  "Energize America will reduce imported oil and gas by 20%."  What's the purpose of this:  supporting the currency, reducing emissions, foreign policy goals?  Why 20%?  Why not 15%, or 50%?  Was this number chosen based on what is feasible, or is it just marketing?  Without stating what good it does and whether and how it can be accomplished, there's no reason for people to get behind it.

Or this:

Energize America will provide 20% of electricity from renewable sources

America's reliance on imported oil threatens our national security and economic stability.  Foreign relations, homeland security and our economy are intertwined with energy policy.  America imports 60% of the oil it consumes, and U.S. demand continues to grow in the face of shrinking supply and rapidly growing global demand.

If you're like me and browse the EIA website regularly, you know that only a tiny fraction of US electricity (about 3%) is generated from oil.  What does electricity from renewable sources have to do with oil imports?  There's no obvious connection, and the authors decline to spell one out.

They betray an ignorance (or even denial) of economics:

The Carbon Reduction Act will formalize trading in CO2 certificates, and impose a gradually tightening regime of CO2 emissions standards.
Either this regime would cover all CO2 emissions (in which case it amounts to a carbon tax, where the tax is the market price of a certificate) or it exempts some uses (and leaves loopholes for greater emissions).  Worse, the whole certificate idea fails to reward early adopters; it may be possible to make reductions much earlier, but until the cap has fallen far enough to make the certificates valuable there's no financial savings.  There's also market risk; if a company makes an investment based on a certain cost of certificates and the cost is much higher or lower, they could suffer losses and have to cut back operations.  The "cap" mechanism does nothing to control emissions from international trading partners, so any significant expense would have the effect of driving production (and employment) overseas.  All things considered, this proposal is half-baked at best and should be replaced with a worldwide uniform tax on releases of fossil or long-term fixed (e.g. old-growth forests, peat bogs) carbon.

They can't get either their facts or arithmetic right:

This act implements a compounded one-cent per gallon federal gasoline tax, with the tax increasing one cent a month for 10 years....

In the first month, the tax would be only one cent, barely noticeable, but with gasoline consumption at 320 million gallons per day, that single cent would generate almost $10 million a month for energy research.

In truth, the US uses about 9 million barrels (~380 million gallons) of gasoline per day, or $3.8 million/day at 1¢/gallon.  Even at the claimed 320 mmgd figure revenue would be about $96 million/month, not $10 million.

What irks me is that these errors are present in a fourth draft of this piece.  Sloppiness like this should make everyone question whether the authors should be allowed near any kind of real policy-making authority.  My message to the Kossacks:  if you want to be taken seriously, CLEAN UP YOUR ACT!

only a tiny fraction of US electricity (about 3%) is generated from oil

This is a a bit of a red herring. The section heading you left out was "Increase Energy Diversity". I believe the discussion of imported oil is pertinent to that goal.

Chris Kulczycki, a diarist at Kos, who writes on energy, autos and heroic Poles of WWII agrees with you on the "American Birthright" remark.

The kossians are making an effort. Please weigh in more directly in the comments on the diary instead of from afar on this blog. I'm sure they'd appreciate your input.
Oh, they would, would they?  Their account creation doesn't seem to work, and they claim to have a 24-hour delay before they'll let me post anyway.  (Timely feedback?  What's that?)

I'm very unimpressed.
They've had database problems. The 24 hour delay I think is meant to deter "hit and run" trolls.

Also, some of the drafters may have links to their personal blogs in their comments. You can correspond with them directly that way.

I'd be happy to forward any e-mail addresses of the drafters to you while you work out the account creation problems.
If you want to, you can send them the URL of this item and select quotes.  I'm not sure it's worth any more of my time.
Very well. Will do.
Energize America is more than an engineering plan, it is also a marketing plan because to get something like this actually enacted requires being able to sell it.

We picked 20% in three categories because we think 20% is doable over the next 15-17 years. We discussed this extensively, with some of us wondering if we were not being aggressive enough or too aggressive.

Indeed, we discussed in detail every one of the 20 legislative items involved.

And with each draft of the plan, we've asked for advice, suggestions, additions, subtractions from whoever reads us. Originally, there were three of us focused on this in detail. Now there are 10, several of us with backgrounds in various energy fields.

We're happy to correct any mistakes, tweak anything that doesn't quite sound right, add other items or subtract some existing ones if someone can make a good case that:

* the item is doable by 2020.

* we can sell it to those who have to get it through Congress.

* it pushes forward our ultimate goals of getting off the imported oil teat, reducing carbon dioxide output and advancing use of renewable energy.

As far as YOUR contribution so far, to quote someone dear to your heart: I'm not impressed.
Geez.  I learned about the existence of this thing less than 48 hours ago, and you're ragging on me because I didn't clean up all its rough edges for you already?  You bozos won't even let me comment on your site until tomorrow, assuming that the mail I got actually means the process worked instead of being stalled due to "database errors".

As for your goals:
1.  It's far from obvious that a 20% cut in oil imports by 2020 would guarantee security.  If depletion causes supplies to tighten by even that much (and major oil fields typically decline more than 1.3%/year after peaking), 20% won't even be close.

2.  N. American natural gas has already peaked, and gas fields drop very fast compared to oil.  I read the whole thing and I didn't see a contingency plan for dealing with, say, a 50% decline in gas production by 2020.  Reducing imports, especially overseas imports, is likely to take a much bigger and more sophisticated response than anything I saw in your proposal.

3.  Your total renewable electricity proposal seems a bit timid.  The US is already getting more than 10% from renewables (mostly from hydro, wood and waste-to-energy).
4.  I'm all for cutting carbon emissions, but I didn't see any justification for the 20% number.  If that's not enough to accomplish the necessary ecological goal, you need to re-think.

5.  I didn't see anything related to practical ideas like renewing the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV).  Some 80-MPG full size cars would be good about now, no?
6.  I see lots of tax preferences and rebates, but the only tax I see to help pay for this is a very small levy on fuel.  A nickel a month for two years would have a much bigger effect by changing people's consciousness and habits, just like the post-Katrina shock did.

6.  I see nothing on domestic cogenerators, which have great near-term potential.

7.  The only regulatory relief I see is for net metering, which is limited to certain types of generation in many places.

8.  I don't see any legislative proposal for the necessary standards and other work needed to implement some of these things.  Take co-generating furnaces; how can you even manage the grid on a cold winter night when the furnaces are cranking out more power than the grid is using?  Dispatching and managing this stuff takes more than meters, it takes SCADA systems and plenty of ground work before they can be pressed into service.  Getting something standardized faster than the glacial pace of the industry (they've been working on this for 20 years now) is going to take a legislative push, and it's not listed in your 20 bullet points.

9.  I'll have to go over the legislative details and see if there aren't any gotchas, like short-term progress which winds up in a technological blind alley.

Seriously, your hearts are in the right place, but I would have expected a lot more explication of details and justifications for a fourth draft.  Basic factual errors should have been gone by the second.
You know you've listed a few things here that I think are helpful to the Kossack's efforts. Some of the things like gas and cogen I know are being discussed in the diary comment threads.

However it's probably all for naught. Calling them "bozos" because they're responding in kind IMO to your somewhat dismissive post is just going to keep you stranded here on your island. But if that's your preference, fine.

And who asked you to smooth off all the rough edges? Also, Kos is primarily a political site discussing controversial issues i.e. troll bait. The 24 hour rule is reasonable.

Attitude counts for a lot.
They're making technical and legislative proposals; they ought to have been ready for the hard questions by the second draft, and addressed them by the fourth.

Saying that people are talking about X in the comments is all well and good, but when the comment count is pushing 300 I have better things to do than scan them for all the stuff the committee hadn't gotten to, didn't think was important, or just missed.  I'm not part of that discussion for reasons you already know.
Each time a draft is written, some new things are added. So this notion of yours that everything ought to be totally worked out by now is a tad harsh. We didn't start out with any legislative proposals. Previously, we had 17. Now we have 20. Much of these changes are thanks to people who didn't view us as "bozos."

Some of your suggestions, like those on cogeneration and regulation, are excellent ones, although cogeneration has limitations like every other source. You should comment on this or e-mail details to one of us listed on the Fourth Draft. If you think our math is off, then demonstrate it. As far as things like SCADA standards, persuade us.

We are, however, caught between two purposes. We need a document that tells enough details but not too many so that those we want to persuade - neither engineers nor energy experts - don't glaze over. Some people have told us to take out more of the details and vastly simplify our treatise. We have tried to strike a happy medium.

Stepped-up conservation, one of the items in our proposal, could, according to some sources, save us 15-20 quadrillion BTUs that we would otherwise be consuming in 2020. That's not peanuts, and it could go far to helping cut carbon output.

If the amount of imported oil we're burning in 2020 is 20% less than it is today - that means 2.4 million daily barrels of oil less. If you can come up with a practical way to cut more, we're all ears. 80mpg cars are great, and working toward this goal is good, but you're not going to get everybody into one when GM is still saying 50 mpg hybrids aren't economical.

Incentivizing the ownership of cars that get 50%-100% better mileage can make a huge difference in consumption of petroleum, helpful to both the economy and the environment. This is a first step, not the final solution. When good fortune finally strikes the fuel-cell people or battery technology, and they are capable of making an economically priced no-fossil-fuels automobile, we can discuss a transition to those. For the moment, that's pointless.

If there's a 50% global decline in natural gas production by 2020 - which I personally doubt - or Chinese and Indian demand jacks up the price of NG, then what we'll see is considerable disruption in the U.S. economy, some must-do instead of voluntary conservation given the amount of peaking facilities now running on NG. What do you suggest for contingency?

Nearly doubling the amount of electricity from renewables in 15-17 years is hardly "timid." Remember that this means not just a doubling from the current baseline, but generating 20% of all electricity from renewables generated in 2020. There's definitely some additional electricity to be had from upgraded hydro turbines and run-of-the-river turbines, but most new renewable electricity is going to come from wind and PVs. If you know how to move faster on building wind turbines or think we can do more than 5 million solar roofs (totaling 10 GW), please explain how.

The Danes, who have the most aggressive renewables plan on the planet - and have been working on this since 1979 - hope to get 50% of their primary energy from renewables by 2030. But they're already at 22%.

A nickel rise per month in gasoline taxes sounds like a great idea in theory, but we think our one cent a month will run into heavy opposition as it is. As I said, this is not just an engineering problem - if it were, we wouldn't be needing this conversation, the solutions would already have been worked out. Energy is largely political issue, and our goal is to find a means to reverse direction. If that succeeds, then we can talk about going full-steam ahead in the new direction.

First things first.
UK wind capacity is doubling every two years and globally every three years. Megalomania, I think it's fair to say, is a virtue in this situation.
I look forward to your objective feedback on Energize America -- once you get off your soapbox, read through it carefully, and provide constructive comments. All inputs will be considered.

It is so easy to criticize any plan from afar. It is far more difficult to coalesce broad and much-needed policy & marketing objectives into a coherent and understandable document. I think we are getting quite close, but at this point we need specific, non-emotional feedback.

Believe me, the DailyKos was down temporarily the other day. This site is sometimes referred to as "crack for liberals", so spare me your conspiracy theory and log on and comment if you so chose. Your minor inconvenience was dwarfed by the temporary withdrawl faced by thousands of others.
(Still no hint that my account exists; I try to log in, and I get thrown right back to the "log in / create an account" screen on the main page.)

Doolittle:  Perhaps you missed where I corrected factual errors and some seriously wrong arithmetic in the original post.  Or is it your style to dismiss criticism regardless of its pertinence and accuracy?

Meteor Blades wrote:

"We are, however, caught between two purposes. We need a document that tells enough details but not too many so that those we want to persuade - neither engineers nor energy experts - don't glaze over."

Then you're going to fail, because if the engineers and energy experts are telling the public that your scheme is half-baked at best, you're unlikely to get anywhere.

What you have there is a problem of organization.  The whys and hows of the matter are at least as important as the whats, and you shouldn't short-change them.  Quite the opposite; the question of how should be central to every element (if you can't do it, legislating it is pointless) and the question of why (why is this worth our money and effort?) is similarly essential.

The way you deal with the MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) phenomenon is to put the bare essentials of the res into an executive summary, roughly the length of your legislative agenda items.  You hint at the deeper matters there.  Then you put full details in appendices and cite them using footnotes (hyperlinks in on-line versions).  Appendices link to your supporting data.  Basically, nobody should ever have to take your word for anything; they should be able to go straight through to your appraisal and reasoning, and from there to the information you based it on.

This does three useful things:
1.  It pre-answers all the hard questions anyone might throw at you.
2.  It makes you do your thinking in advance instead of making errors and backpedaling.
3.  It keeps your own ideologues in check by making them do their homework.

Now, as for renewable electricity and the timidity of the 20% target:

I already showed you that 10% of all US electricity is renewable (with supporting data).  2004 US electric consumption averaged ~450 GW (about 0.9% above 2003), so if you assume 1%/year growth to 2020 you'll have average load of ~520 GW.  If the difference is made up completely by wind, you'll need 70 GW (average) of wind, or about 13%.

The US will install about 2.5 GW of wind in 2005; continued over the next 15 years, that would be another 37.5 GW of installed capacity or about 11.2 GW of average production at 30% capacity factor.  Getting to 70 GW average production requires a mere 6.25 times as much, or less than 3 doublings of the installation rate.  If you double the installation rate every 3 years (a modest goal) by 2020 you'll have 298 GW of capacity installed and average production of 89 GW.  Double every 2 years, and capacity additions by 2020 will be over a terawatt, being built out at 320 GW/year, and producing an average of ~330 GW.  If you started doubling every 2 years in 2006, you'd probably want to level out turbine production around 2016-2018.

I believe the current installations are of 1.5 MW turbines, so the US installation rate is about 1670 units/year.  A 5 MW unit is in testing in Germany, and 10 MW is believed to be the optimal size.  Installing 80 GW/year using 10 MW turbines requires a production rate of only 8000 units/year, a rather modest pace by many measures.  If you levelled production at 80 GW/year in 2016, you'd have total capacity of 587 GW in 2020, average production of 176 GW from wind alone and a total renewable fraction of 42% (34% from wind and 8% from the existing hydro, wood and waste plants).  Maybe 42% is too ambitious, but 20% is definitely too timid.

Natural gas is barely dealt with on your agenda; the only mentions made are in the bus fleet conversion proposal.  It should be very big, because it's already a huge headache for the coasts (where much of the electric generation is gas-fired), in the north where the price of gas for heating has soared, and in the fertilizer and chemical industries which are shutting down due to soaring costs.  You won't be able to run bus fleets on CNG if every cubic foot is needed to keep homes from freezing.  (One of the reasons any serious proposal needs huge amounts of wind power or other alternatives is because the 20% of US electricity that currently comes from natural gas needs to be replaced by something else.)

You might be able to use this as a farm support program.  First, cross ethanol off your list; the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) is less than 2 even by the most optimistic USDA calculations.  Farm wastes are another matter.  Most any plant stuff can be converted to "bio-oil" using "fast pyrolysis".  Bio-oil is dense and travels well; if farmers could sell their corn stalks, wheat and rice straw and other excess for bio-oil conversion we could get perhaps 150 million tons of bio-oil from corn byproducts alone; that's about 2 quads of bio-oil.  Some of that might be usable for gas-turbine fuel, providing a 100% renewable alternative to natural gas for peaking power.  Converted to electricity at 55%, that would yield about 333 billion kWh/year or about 38 GW average.  That by itself would get about 40% of the way toward eliminating the need for natural gas to make electricity.

Yield of corn stover is about 2.5 excess tons/acre on average.  If you encouraged farmers to grow switchgrass or hybrid Miscanthus on erodible or marginal land, they might get 10 tons/acre for a crop that only has to be cut once a year and needs no tillage.  Promoting that as a combined energy/farm initiative might be seriously good.

You want more ideas?  Read the rest of this blog.  I've been analyzing stuff for the last two years and I intended it to be useful to anyone willing to use their brain.  It can always use more pairs of eyes and sharp pencils.
While, like all of the other 'co-authors, I could gripe over the tone / tenor of your comments, you also add substance into the discussion that I/we value.

FYI -- The $10 million / month was both corrected and then missed as multiple drafts passed around. A 'correction' was amid the 300+ comments that you did not have the chance to read.

Further FYI -- Daily Kos works with, typically, significant substance in its commentary. Energize America is being built both independent of that environment and then drafts are thrown into DailyKos for comments / thoughts / contributions. Your comments and the discussion here is (mainly) in line with that.

Now, I tend to agree that this could be far more aggressive. As far as US Government policy, however, this would be a massive shift in the course of the Ship of State. This is an attempt to put together a package of concepts and legislative proposals that could provide the core for a serious discussion and, then, action about how to move the United States in a better direction re Energy Policy.

By the way, re renewables, the 'easy' renewables are already done in the electrical production -- e.g., hydropower. While there is more there to capture, the new parts of the renewable portfolio (wind, sun, tidal, etc) are far smaller shares of the current electrical production than Hydro.

In any event, thank you for contributing to our discussion with your thoughts (and passion).
Engineer-Poet, the problem you're having getting to comment on Daily Kos is beyond my authority to fix.

Click on the "Contact Us" link under ABOUT on the right hand side of the page and explain the difficulty. I am sure somebody will fix it for you quickly.

Meteor Blades (named after the original Bowie knife?):  Done.

Monsieur Besieged:  Sorry about that.  My crusty tendencies tend to come to the fore when people get careless with the facts.  This comes from bitter experience; someone who doesn't give a damn about what's possible or true isn't usually going to listen to reason of any type unless it comes attached to a sledgehammer, and they can be between impossible and downright dangerous until they finally get a clue.

It's kind of like dealing with a mule:  first, you've got to get their attention.
Apology more than accepted ... I'm pretty thick skinned. And, I did very much mean it when I posted that we appreciate your comments / thoughts / expertise.

By the way, one of the issues is trying to figure out what is a program environment that could actually make it through the American political process in the coming few years. While, for example, I am reasonably good about 'conservation' and taking actions to reduce power use (such as, if I work late, walking the halls of my office to turn off computers & lights in others' offices -- can typically cut several thousand watts with a few minutes effort, thus maybe 10kwh for each minute's work ... such as choosing where I live and work based (in part) on commute distances and lowering mileage of car use (walk to grocery store)), I do not believe that we can have a policy that relies on getting all Americans to act the same way. While "conservation" is important and, if all Americans actually acted on it, could do a major share of the lifting required to change, a policy focused on "conservation" will not have enough of an impact for serious change. (Even though, of course, Bush could have created major drive for conservation if he had called for it in Sept 01 as part of the nation's response to 9/11.)

Believe you've been invited to communicate / engage with the group via other paths. Looking forward to the interactions.
dKos technical support isn't doing squat.

One thing you may not quite grasp is that America as a whole, if not your particular side of it, does have a certain amount of agreement with the war against Islamic fundamentalism.  If you asked the people to help fight that war via economic measures to cut oil consumption (something the Bush administration can't bring itself to say, let alone do) you might find much more agreement than you think.

As for other proposals.... half-baked, a dozen tabs-worth of raw data, trying to consolidate it into something solid.
BBB, there are large gains in efficiency to be made in other sectors besides residential, such as the industrial. It uses 1/3 of the energy used in the country. Trying to get individuals to change habits is small potatoes compared to the potential of streamlining industrial processes. Many companies are cutting yearly energy costs in half because of voluntary conservation measures.

Another idea to decrease oil use is to look into alternative ingredients for plastics. I'm not that familiar with the topic, but a good place to start would be at Metaefficient and look through their archives.

Hmmmm... I guess I'll wander over there and take a look too.
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