Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mox Populi – Hubris and Plutonium Don’t Mix

Dave Rochlin -

The sight of Japan's Fukushima #3 nuclear reactor exploding is chilling (Youtube video available here.) When the remaining best-case scenario involves pumping seawater into a nuclear reactor and venting off the radioactive steam in a highly populated area, you have to wonder "how the hell did we get here?"'

Critics have long contended that Japan high level of seismic activity makes it a poor place for nuclear power, while nuclear proponents have been equally confident that it is safe. Judging from the island nation’s dependency on nuclear energy (roughly 1/3 of power generation), it seems clear that the optimists' arguments have (until now) carried the day.

The same confidence in the safety of Japan's nuclear plants led to the loading last fall of a new fuel type called MOX (mixed-oxide) into the core of the Fukushima #3 reactor. In contrast to the Uranium that powers most reactors, MOX is basically a Uranium cocktail spiked with Plutonium. Greenpeace reports that using MOX in a reactor is less safe because "plutonium is more reactive and this hotter fuel can cause increased localised melting of fuel in the reactor." A release or accident is also more severe, since plutonium is one of the nastiest and most toxic substances around, and MOX reactors have a lot more of it.

So what would have prompted officials to make an already risky proposition even riskier? The answer of course is that they don't (or at least didn’t) believe that the risk exists. Overconfidence leads to poor decision making.

Malcom Gladwell wrote a piece on this topic for the New Yorker in 2009, in which he said,

"As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance. The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn’t matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a high-stakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root."

With energy demand rising, and the risks of climate change growing, it may turn out that we need nuclear power as one option, as some prominent environmentalists have concluded. But here's an idea…rather than continuing to claim that nucelar power is safe, let's start with the assumption that it isn't, and make decisions accordingly. We need to start thinking about the unthinkable, rather than making unsubstantiatable safety claims.

As was said after the Exxon Valdez spill, and is being demonstrated again in Japan, even million to one shots come in every now and then.

Photo: CC license - some rights reserved by Official U.S. Navy Imagery

Friday, January 28, 2011

A more practical path to clean energy?

Dave Rochlin ~

While President Obama was in Washington speaking to the the joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, I had a chance to hear former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich speak before a similar sized but decidedly less "A list" crowd at St. Mary's College in California.

Both expressed concerns over the economy, oil dependence, and carbon, but have very different approaches to the issues. After pointing out that this is our "Sputnik moment", Obama channeled JFK, and suggested funding clean energy as one of the "Apollo projects of our time."

As he said "We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s."

Reich's approach on the other hand is based more on giving clean energy a boost by putting market forces to work - government regulation rather than government spending. He suggested a carbon tax, reflecting the many social costs of fossil fuels (and believe me, there are many.) The higher priced fossil fuels would create more demand for alternative energy, accellerating both investment and the scale neccessary to achieve the stretch goal the President set of 80% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

While the Apollo project did get a man on the moon - an unbelievable accomplishment even now - the cost and complexity of the program were enormous. The "brute force"/ big spending approach used by Nasa didn't lead to a long term practical or commercially viable space program. Ask about the results, and Nasa points to the many ancellary innovations resulting from the $25 Billion program (1970 dollars) , which include everything from programmable pacemakers to dustbusters. I like to think that those innovations would have come along without the Apollo program, and would have been funded by industry rather than tax payers. The space shuttle is also considered by many to be unsustainably expensive... another technological cul de sac.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk's private Space X startup is approaching space flight with a philosophy that "simplicity, low-cost, and reliability can go hand in hand." Similarly, the goal should not just be to throw money at clean energy, but to create technology paths that are commercially sound and cost effective.

Funding is also an issue. When JFK proposed to put a man on the moon, the US debt was 40% of annual GDP. With the figure hovering near 100% now, it's hard to imagine funding a new 'space race' in clean energy. In contrast, Reich's plan actually generates income. While the cost of the tax would be borne by the public, his idea would be to give back the income to lower income wage earners in the form of earned income tax credits, increasing income, expanding middlle class spending power, and pulling us out of the recession.

The President spoke of a future with high speed rail and electric cars criss crossing the country. But it's an exciting vision only if the public can afford to ride them.

Original photo CC license modified by ClimatePath. All rights reserved

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Prince of Whales?

Dave Rochlin -

The French revolution was about overthrowing the monarchy, and of course the American revolution rid the colonies of the imperialist policies of King George III. So can royalty start a revolution?

This Friday, NBC is airing a special called Harmony, which highlights the three decades of work by The Prince of Wales to combat climate change and find innovative solutions to the global environmental crisis, and shows how these values are expressed through the people and programs that he has supported.

Prince Charlie? Who Knew?

As he says in the book on which the film is based:

"This is a call to revolution. The earth is under threat. It cannot cope with all that we demand of it. It is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen. Revolution is a strong word and I use it deliberately. The many environmental and social problems that now loom large on our horizon cannot be solves by carrying on with the very approach that has caused them."

I had a chance to hear the filmmakers on a conference call this week, and they mentioned that the prince supported this film in order "to speak out and collaborate" on the issues of sustainability that have been important to him. Perhaps Lancelot was right in lamenting "the land without a king"?

It sounds like Prince Charles' intention are...well... noble, and I look forward to hearing his message. But to quote some other even more famous brits:

- You say you want a revolution....Well, you know we all want to change the world.
- You say you got a real solution ...Well, you know we'd all love to see the plan.

Harmony has its broadcast premiere at 10 PM/ET on Friday, November 19th on NBC. Prior to the premiere, “Dateline” will air an exclusive interview of Prince Charles speaking with Brian Williams at 9 PM/ET.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Americans Flunk Climate Test

Dave Rochlin -

According to a new Yale study, most Americans are aware of climate change, but have no idea why it is happening. The Yale team claims that only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B grade, while 52% would get an F. The grading was done by a school where grade inflation is an issue, and Dubya carried a C+ average, so these numbers are even worse than they sound.

The study found a generally poor level of understanding of such issues as how much greenhouse gas concentrations have increased in the last 100 years (a lot), the impact of livestock on global warming (quite large), and how long greenhouse gasses stay in the atmosphere (a very long time.) The last item is particularly alarming, since our near term inability to reverse the impact of emissions is what drives the urgency to take action now. Slowing climate change is more like stopping an aircraft carrier than turning a speedboat.

But most concerning is that most in the survey admitted that they don’t know all that much about the issue. The Yale team reports that only 1 in 10 say that they are “very well informed” about climate change, and 75 percent say they would like to know more. What exactly are people waiting for? The truth is out there.

I suppose one could argue that as long as scientists are on top of the issue, we’ll all be informed at the depth we need to, in order to make collectively prudent decisions. But I have started reading Naomi Oreskes new book (The Merchants of Doubt), which documents how frequently (and easily) science is undercut by manipulating popular opinion. It only takes a few influential deniers to mislead the public.

Perhaps instead of “no child left behind” we need a policy of “no planet left behind?”

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Originally posted at Photo:
Some rights reserved by hans.gerwitz

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The fight for the future starts in California.

By Dave Rochlin - ClimatePath

When California passed AB32, the landmark greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction bill in 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger said;

"Using market-based incentives, we will reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. That's a 25 percent reduction. And by 2050, we will reduce emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels. We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it's too late."

But the opposition apparently borrowed another quote from the governator:

"I'll be back."

And back they are, with a coal and oil interest backed ballot initiative which seeks to overturn AB32 before most of the more significant pieces of it take effect. The fight reflects the two sides of the debate on what to do about global warming.

On one side are the folks who believe we must act, and who are also happy to assert that by taking action, we will create thousands of new green and 'clean tech' jobs, while reshaping our economy around energy conservation, clean technology, and renewable energy production. Not surprisingly Silicon Valley is firmly behind AB 32, and against efforts to repeal it. California imports a significant amount of electricity, and sources almost all if its coal, natural gas, and oil from outside the state. The prospect of breaking this dependency and reducing emissions through the use of technology represents a pretty exciting future, and many feel that the state will become more competitive as a result.

As Schwarzenegger also said;

"Some have challenged whether AB 32 is good for businesses. I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals.

But on the other side are those who claim we should not act, and that the initiative will cost the state jobs while reducing GDP by as much as $100 Billion dollars over the next ten years. This case is being pressed by a consortium of oil refiners, truckers, and coal interests, who like things just the way they are. If California stands alone and energy costs rise in the state, this could be the future, as businesses move operations out of the state, and consumers seek out cheaper products and services from elsewhere, even if they have a higher embedded carbon footprint.

So if AB32 stands, apparently there are two very different possible futures in the Golden State. One in which the rest of the country scrambles to keep up with a new energy paradigm that makes California an economic engine, or one in which the burden of taking responsibility for emissions simply adds cost. Not coincidentally, this is the same debate that's going on in Washington over national climate legislation.

My guess is that the impact of AB32 will be closer to neutral, and certainly somewhere in between these two extremes: On one hand, energy costs will rise, which will hurt businesses and consumers. But California will use less, create energy jobs, and keep more money in the state. And in the long term, the state will be protected from energy price shocks. One thing is certain: The big losers in all of these scenarios are those whose business models continue to be built around the demand for fossil fuel. And that's why they are putting up money to overturn AB32.

The economic consequences of meaningful and comprehensive emissions legislation won't be known for some time, and Californians are being asked to take a leap of faith. An uncertain future is pretty scary, but scarier still is a failure to take action on curbing our addiction to fossil fuels and the consequences of that addiction.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Originally posted on care2. Photo: CC license - Flickr. Some rights reserved by tibchris

Friday, July 23, 2010

Does Google know something about energy that the rest of us don't?

Dave Rochlin -

Google announced a large wind energy deal this week that reveals a lot about where they think energy markets are headed. Other big energy consumers should take notice.

Rather than simply buying renewable energy credits (RECs) and adding some solar panels to show their commitment to green, Google’s energy subsidiary signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with NextEra Energy. Google will begin buying 114 megawatts of electricity from an Iowa wind farm later this summer. Now of course Google doesn’t consume much of their energy anywhere near Iowa, but they can (and intend to) sell this energy on wholesale markets, and simultaneously buy energy where they do use it.

By buying the wind energy directly, Google has created a giant hedge against both rising energy prices and the future cost of compliance with emissions reduction mandates – either voluntary or mandatory. RECs are a way to separate out the actual energy from the credit for low emissions, and this direct investment locks in their costs for both.

Why would they want to do this? Aside from their intention on greening their operations, they believe it makes good business sense.

On the energy side, world demand keeps increasing. China recently overtook the US in total energy use according to the International Energy Agency, and India is poised to become a large importer of coal to meet their growing demand. While there is much debate about whether and when we’ll start to deplete fossil fuel reserves, it’s clear that higher demand and higher costs associated with the extracting future reserves (think of BP drilling a mile underwater for oil) will send energy prices upwards. And demand-wise, plug-in electric cars could undo some of the other energy savings that are slowing electricity use in the U.S.

On the renewables side, while the cost of solar, wind and other ‘clean’ sources will continue to fall and capacity continue to increase, a climate bill in the US could create a shortfall, sending the price of ‘clean energy’ (or at least the REC piece) up. With the senate climate bill stalled, and both carbon offset and REC markets showing weak demand, this may seem hard to imagine today. But in a few years, it could be quite a different story.

A group called NERA Economic Consulting has partnered with a very cool startup called Crowdcast to try and predict how this will all play out. They use ‘the wisdom of crowds' to come up with a consensus forecast, which Crowdcast claims is typically more reliable than individual expertise. Half 'the crowd' thinks we’ll have a senate bill by June of 2012, that it will require a 17% reduction in emissions, and that the price per ton of carbon credits (which can be used to make up for missed reduction targets) will rise above $10.

Google will be immune to both overall energy and emissions targets, and in fact might be in a position to sell their excess green energy for quite a tidy profit. My bet is that by 2020, Google will be – as usual – laughing all the way to the bank.

As they say “Through the long term purchase of renewable energy at a predetermined price, we’re partially protecting ourselves against future increases in power prices. This is a case where buying green makes business sense.”

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Photo: CC License via Flickr: Yodel Anecdotal

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Unquenchable thirst: The many things we do with oil.

Dave Rochlin -

With BP's broken underwater well still leaking oil into the gulf at an alarming rate, there are many calls to reduce our dependence on oil of all kinds.

Animator Mark Fiore recently did a wonderful video highlighting the bizarre notion of using "dinosaur squeezings" to power cars.

But oil is used in a lot more than our gas tanks. Petroleum is in many other products, and we use it for many of our processes. We also rely on it to grow, cook, eat, and even enhance our food. This second video, featuring eco-man and badger girl (which I made with the cool web tool xtranormal), highlights this.

I'm no Mark Fiore, but you get the point, I hope. A fairly exhaustive web list of many of the everyday goods that come from oil is available here, courtesy of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association. The list covers everything from ballet tights to venetian blinds. It certainly is food for thought. The list isn't 1001 items long, but easily could be.

The website also quotes Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.N. Ambassador for the United States.

"Oil is a product that arouses so much passion. A lot of people have a passionate fear, or distaste, or downright hatred almost for oil. There is no other product that so many people need so badly, yet so many people believe should be produced entirely without profits."

As long as we need it "so badly", there isn't much chance we are going to stop drilling for oil off our shores. While there is a lot of talk about alternative energy, it seems that we also need to reconsider the role of oil as an input for all the other things we consume.

Photo copyright TommL at