The Great Dithering

Presidential debates do not determine actual policy, but they do set conversation agendas. After three debates this year, global climate change was not mentioned once. It's increasingly clear that the US political machine is incapable at this time to address the threats posed by climate change. Global climate change is not even on the conversation agenda.

Further, the US political elite have zero coherence on matters of an energy transition. Striking evidence of this fact is that typically celebrated capitalist entrepreneurialism, in the form of renewable, green energy technology companies, are openly ridiculed and lambasted by right-wing pundits and politicians. Yes, some of these companies received government loans and subsidies, and yes a few of them failed, but almost all US businesses benefit form direct and indirect subsidies (roads, highways, tax codes, etc).  

Global climate change is a dead policy issue in Washington, but the end around energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is also so politicized that no policy coherence seems possible. The nascent US wind turbine industry is poised to collapse if congress doesn't renew subsidies for the industry. Contrary to the ahistorical accounts from pundits and politicians, all energy transitions involved policy guided capitalism (see English industrial revolution, or US automobile, oil boom). 

Sadly, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is probably right, in 200 years our period will be known as the Great Dithering.

Energy Democracy

I won't give away David Roberts' punchline, read the article, but I'll start you with this:

Just as a cleaner electricity system would be preferable, so too would a more small-d democratic system, one that distributes economic and social power more widely.

A Choice

President Obama signed an Executive Order "Accelerating Investment in Industrial Energy Efficiency", which comes on the heals of new improved car fuel efficiency standars for 2025

Meanwhile, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned climate change into a punch line during his acceptance speech as the RNC:

Obama has been pretty good about promoting new energy sources, green tech, and efficiency, not so good on climate change however. Romney, on the other hand, represents old, dirty energy production. Gas, coal, oil. No eye for the future, whether new energy sources or climate change.

Think tank warns of turbulent outlook for US renewable energy industry

The recent rapid expansion of the US renewable energy sector could be thrown into reverse unless policy makers take urgent steps to reform subsidy regimes which have delivered a cycle of "boom and bust" that could yet result in a "clean tech crash".

The real problem for nascent markets: being crushed by the incumbent market. In this case, the fossil fuel industry, and all the subsidies, direct and indirect, that the incumbents receive from the government. 

Solar Rising

According to new reports by the solar industry (ok, that's problematic) the solar industry had a record year in 2011. Lori Zimmer, posting on Inhabit, writes, 

The study, released by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association showed that the solar industry pulled in $8.4 billion last year. Installation of photovoltaic panels continues to grow, with solar projects totaling 1,855 megawatts in 2011 alone, compared to just 887 megawatts the year before. These projects ranked the United States as the fourth largest solar market in the world, a jump that just a few years ago did not seem possible.

Why Open Science Failed After the Gulf Oil Spill

Great article by John Timmer over at Ars Technica on scientific uncertainty during an intensely political and costly crises.

One quibble, I don't think we can easily assume "Scientists, in general, just wanted the actual number" of oil being release into the Gulf, whereas all the other interests were political/economic. One can think of the intense and controversial period after Katrina in the engineering field, as engineers embedded in different institutions had conflicting results. The production of knowledge is always entangled with political, cultural, and economic relations. Scientist are not outside those relations.  

Do We Need to Talk About Climate Change, In Order to Talk About Energy?

I am looking forward to reading  provocative sounding new book Before the Lights Go Out. Koerth-Baker's short answer to the question above: no we do not; we do not have to agree on the "whys" in order to reach the same solutions. We'll see. The book comes out in April.

Not time to cut

Richard Harris at NPR reports that Congress might be planning to cut subsidies to the wind industry. 37,000 jobs could be lost and a nascent industry set back. 

When the tax credit last expired in 2003, wind farms took a big hit. But in those days, the wind turbines were largely imported. Now, the domestic manufacturing industry is growing rapidly. And that changes the politics.

and Gamesa VP says,

As the technology improves, wind becomes cheaper. Rosenberg says his company only needs four more years of tax credits, and it will be ready to compete without further federal help.

Heritage Foundation wants them ended,

We're $15 trillion in debt," says Nick Loris at The Heritage Foundation. "We have a robust energy market. And electricity demand and the demand to transport our vehicles back and forth is always going to be there. And I think that profit motive is incentive enough.

We're in debt, yes. But it is not time to cut clean energy subsidies. We need to find more ways to scale these projects and roll out new ones. At the moment, subsidies for producers and consumers help this goal. 

If you can't compete, sue

Via Matt Macari at The Verge, Honeywell International sues Nest Labs over the Nest Learning Thermostat, claiming patent infringements. Honeywell lists a number of patents it contends Nest violates. To me, they read like very very basic concepts related to UI and usability features, nothing extraordinary. How can other companies compete when they could be prohibited from using these features? Here is a sample:

U.S. Patent No. 7,634,504 - this patent was filed in 2006 (issued 2009) and covers displaying grammatically complete sentences while programming a thermostat.

U.S. Patent No. 7,142,948 - this patent was filed in 2004 (issued 2006) and covers a thermostat figuring out and displaying how long it will take to get to a specific setting, like temperature. The Nest definitely has this feature; it's a main selling point of the device.

U.S. Patent No. 6,975,958 - this patent was filed in 2003 (issued 2005) and covers a method of controlling an environmental control system from a remote to adjust the settings of the system.

Read the whole story over at The Verge.

"Scotland Guns for 100% Renewable by 2020"

United States: "Let's builds a giant oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for international export, and continue to drill in precarious locations (deep-water horizon). Let's demonize the clean energy industry and cut all government support."

Scotland: "Let's get to 100% renewables by 2020."

2020 is only eight years from now. That's not the distant future.


Obama and the Urban Agenda

Greg Hanscom on Grist:

The thumbnail version is this: Under President Obama, key federal agencies have begun to shift away from subsidizing suburban sprawl and toward reviving cities and creating dense, walkable, transit-friendly communities. Obama has put smart-growthers and new urbanists in key positions, begun to realign government agencies to prioritize sustainability, and launched partnerships and initiatives that one Bush administration veteran calls “mind blowing” — in a good way. Even Obama’s allies agree, however, that serious reform may have to wait for a second term. If there is one.

There is more than meets the eye to Smart Growth. Ending subsidies for suburban sprawl is good but we need to think comprehensively: both the so-called central city and the so-call suburbs need to be revived. We can't allow the central city to become the green playground for the affluent and young professionals, while the suburbs slip into social and environmental neglect. If this happens, it will end up just the reverse of what happened after World War II when affluent whites moved out of the central city, into the suburbs, and left a wake of crisis behind in city after city. The sustainable modern metropolis will have a re-imagined and revitalized center and suburb. 

Apple's New Headquarters Will Have the Largest Solar Roof in US

Seth Weintraub:

Today’s updated Apple Headquarters Spaceship campus plans include a roof made almost entirely out of solar cells, according to details released today. With a building as large as Apple’s, that puts it in the top corporate solar installations in the world and the biggest in the US.  The current title holder is the 4.26 MW system in Edison New Jersey and another being built by ToysRus in sunny NJ is rated 5.38W

Clearly, this won’t be enough power to power all of operations, but as Steve Jobs mentioned in his case to the Cupertino City council, Apple will be able to generate a lot of its own power and will run from an on-site power facility.

(Via The Loop)

On the Impracticality of the Cheeseburger

Waldo Jaquith:

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

Great quote. Good article describing his quest to make his own cheeseburger from scratch, all of it from scratch.


Boondoggle or Cutting Edge?

California's high-speed rail project set to go amidst harsh criticism that it will end up a boondoggle, a giant waste of money. Is this the kind of politics that built extensive high-speed rail in Europe, Japan, and now China? 

Adam Nagourney:

But for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation.

Sign of the times for the US: crumbling 19th and 20th century infrastructure. Not good, and little evidence that we can make these projects work. 

Environmental historian Richard White:

What they are hoping is that this will be to high-speed rail what Vietnam was to foreign policy: that once you’re in there, you have to get in deeper. The most logical outcome to me is we are going to have a white elephant in the San Joaquin Valley.

Renewables: Growing Fast but Still a Rounding Error

Great article by David Roberts on GRIST. Roberts breaks down the National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2010 Renewable Energy Data Book. Great graphics to go with his report. 

Non-hydro renewables remain a small part of the U.S. energy story. More to the point, the sexy renewables -- solar, wind, and geothermal -- are a rounding error. Of the total energy consumed in the U.S. in 2010, solar was 0.1 percent and wind was 0.9 percent. Even with biomass, hydropower, and nuclear thrown in, low-carbon energy amounts to just 17 percent of energy consumed in the U.S.

And yet!

Seen from another angle, growth in renewables has been crazy-fast. From 2000 to 2010 in the U.S., non-hydro renewables have grown at a compounded annual average of almost 14 percent, even faster recently.

NREL: 2010 Renewable Energy Data Book

You can find the original report here.

Windwashing or energy revolution?


WindMade is the first global consumer label
identifying organisations and products that use wind power
in their operations or production

We need an energy revolution not a new branding campaign that replicates Fair Trade Coffee by adding value to a product in a niche market. We are not trying to make renewable energy the Fair Trade Coffee of energy production (value added niche market); we're trying to make it the coffee that hundreds of millions of people drink everyday.

Like the organic label and the Fair Trade label this looks likely to only further product differentiation rather than changing the relationship of mass market production/consumption of energy.

"When capital becomes labour"

Interesting article discussing long-term unemployment and its relationship to technicological labor. Computers, the internet, and machines are increasingly displacing some forms of labor, thus making some jobs obsolete. 

i.e., new forms of relative surplus-value. 

Also, see this interview on Techcrunch

Scaling up

Solyndra might be making the headlines (on page A10 by now) but the overlooked larger story: the solar industry is booming.

There are a few emerging conversations:

1. Should the government be subsidizing the industry?

2. Can US solar manufacturers compete with Chinese ones?

3. Can the US link production and consumption of solar technology, or will we import cheaper Chinese panels for construction of mega solar facilities for domestic consumption?

4. Should we focus on large-scale solar "plants" or should we take Germany's lead (and Jeremy Rifkin's) and push for lateral power, small scale deployment on homes, neighborhoods, and businesses and scale that way?

These centralized, large-scale projects tend to favor the big established corporations, which has the potential to undermine any sort of democratization of energy production, and replicate the energy hierarchies we've known for centuries. The billions in subsidies will go to the big guys, same as with coal and oil.

Lateral deployment seems the way to go.