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About this blog: I am a native of Alameda County, grew up in Pleasanton and currently live in the house I grew up in that is more than 100 years old. I spent 39 years in the daily newspaper business and wrote a column for more than 25 years in add...  (More)

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A small sign of progress from the Energy Department

Uploaded: Dec 16, 2013
One small sign of rational thought emerged from the Department of Energy last month.
Because of the federal ethanol mandates passed by a bipartisan Congress in 2007 (imagine that—subsidies for Republican farmers that pleased some environmental groups because it wasn't fossil fuel) energy companies been required to blend increasing amounts of the fuel made from corn into gasoline mixtures. In a proposal released last month, the department proposed the requirement for next year be less than what it required for the past two years. It also, in a report in the Wall Street Journal, lowered the required amount of advanced biofuels.

Thanks to the boom in natural gas and oil production sparked by the improved fracking technology, the demand for biofuels has dropped substantially. In addition, the amount of the alternative fuels blended into gasoline, under the mandate, potentially could damage engines. The ethanol mix already has wrecked havoc with small engines in my family to the point that I am now buying ethanol-free fuel for $7 a quart or $28 a gallon—Thanks Uncle Sugar. It's far more economical to do that than repair equipment I only use occasionally.

It would be great to see Congress wise up and eliminate the mandates so the market can find its own equilibrium. Thinking environmentalists have consistently pointed out that producing ethanol from corn is a net negative for the environment, while other people have pointed out how the ethanol mandate has driven up prices for corn used to make food or feed livestock.

The embrace of electric vehicles, despite the abundance of natural gas and oil now being produced domestically, is part of the broader thrust to reduce emissions. That's driven the California Public Utilities Commission to require energy companies to invest in storage technologies so the electrical grid can be evened out. Relying on solar and wind just doesn't work—ask the folks in Germany where electrical rates have soared since Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the country would eliminate its nuclear power in favor of wind and solar. Energy companies are actually burning wood and coal in their power plants to ensure steady electrical power.

In California, two inconvenient facts have been ignored:
1. A study issued a couple of years ago found that to produce the electrical power necessary to meet the demands of an all-electric vehicle fleet and other mandates would require a new nuclear power plant every two years. Have you seen any—of course, if the state allows companies to aggressively pursue fracking in huge reserves, then clean-burning natural gas plants could fill that gap.
2. The state mandate in AB 32 coupled with the executive order by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requires the reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020, but does not mandate a number for 2050. A Lawrence Berkeley lab study showed that existing or newly emerging technologies should be enough to meet the 2020 goal, but hitting even 60 percent by 2050 would require huge changes—among them demolishing buildings or retrofitting them to high efficiency standards; vehicles all would be much more efficient and industrial processes would have to change dramatically as well as anything possible would be powered by electricity.

In other words, the economy, as we know it, must be overhauled entirely. This scientific study did not ask the economic question.

Politicians and regulators joust with climate windmills without paying any attention to the ramifications to the economy. You can see if with the air boards and the trash boards—goals are raised to increasingly aggressive level and common sense seems to be a missing element.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:24 am

I agree that the ethanol program was poorly conceived and should be eliminated. But so many of the other gratuitous and poorly researched points in this blog are simply nonsense that it's hard to know where to start. I'll pick one at random: "The embrace of electric vehicles, despite the abundance of natural gas and oil now being produced domestically, is part of the broader thrust to reduce emissions. That's driven the California Public Utilities Commission to require energy companies to invest in storage technologies so the electrical grid can be evened out."

Actually, electric vehicles already "even out" the electric grid, as most are charged at night. The problem with the grid is that demand is high during the day, low at night, requiring a supply adequate for the peak which is unused during the trough. That has resulted in a lot of odd things in the past, including the Helms plant built 40 years ago which burns electricity at night pumping water uphill and then lets it run back down during the day to power generators. Storage technology is needed to supply peak power to factories and malls during the middle of the day, not to charge batteries at night. While the number of electric vehicles is so small that it isn't making any significant impact now, ultimately the increased use would not adversely impact the "unevenness" of the grid; in fact, just the opposite.

Next: natural gas is only "clean" compared to coal; it is still a powerful pollutant and component of greenhouse gasses when burned, and fracking results in as-yet uncertain additional environmental damage (as well as requiring huge quantities of water, which is in short supply in California.) Residential solar is ideal because it works during the day (when demand is high) and is located at the site where it is used, eliminating the need to expand high capacity (and wasteful) high voltage power lines. The cost of different power sources is constantly changing. Web Link All power sources have their pros and cons, and none will supply all of our demand, but increasing the reliance on "truly" clean power sources - and increasing the efficiency of our usage so as to achieve more with less, such as using high efficiency light bulbs - is simply common sense.

Dramatic changes in industry and lifestyles happen whether we foresee them or not. Fewer young people drive, and drive fewer miles, than their parent's generation did. That's by choice - did you predict that? More and more products are ordered on-line and delivered by UPS and the like instead of by people driving to malls and big box stores - did you predict that? Things will be different in 2050 than they are today - whether you foresee those changes or not.

Policies designed to reward activity which is less harmful to the environment recognize that change - of one sort or another - is inevitable. On the other hand, knee-jerk sneering at wind, solar and other sources of energy such as is presented in this blog is missing that element of "common sense."


 +  Like this comment
Posted by mooseturd, a resident of Pleasanton Valley,
on Dec 17, 2013 at 6:51 pm

mooseturd is a registered user.

Everyone agrees. Burning food (ethanol) was a bad idea.

But Tim, You are way over your head on power issues. "Energy companies are actually burning wood and coal in their power plants to ensure steady electrical power." Fact. No more wood or coal is being burned than before Merkel's pronouncement abolishing nuclear. So far there is ZERO action on that score. It's really hard to burn wood or coal in a gas or nuclear plant. Come On. !!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by john, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Dec 17, 2013 at 7:58 pm

"...demands of an all-electric vehicle fleet"

We are many decades from that, and some states are building new nuclear power plants and many more will likely be built.

Web Link

If California doesn't build nuclear plants in California, power from states that do build nuclear plants can be bought be California.

As far as "every two years", Tim provides no link to such a study. The numbers sound wrong.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by shakawat, a resident of another community,
on Aug 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm

There is a really cool solar program in the states right now that allows folks to have a system installed for no out of pocket cost - home owners pay the solar company for the energy the system makes along the way. It's a good program to get for one's home because solar energy is cheaper and cleaner than regular utility energy.

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