Comments by Joel Brown Subscribe

On Energy Policy Post-Election: A Chance to “Get Over It”

You are likely right, AE.  One problem common to both sides of the discussion is the demonization of the other.  When one actually gets to know members of either, one discovers that for the greater part they are all decent human beings with what they sincerely believe to be genuine motivations.  To be sure, there are some bad acters on either side, but they are the exception.  Demonization of those-who-disagree-with-me appears to be a national mental illness.  The salient question:  "Is it curable?"

November 26, 2012    View Comment    

On How Can the U.S. Substantially Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Paul, I'm completely on board with you in several areas and diametrically opposed on at least one important one.  Let's start with my agreements.

Ending our nuclear neurosis is certainly a list topper.  The French are somewhere north of 75% provision of electricity via nuclear plants, with plans to grow further in spite of recent events.  Key to that discussion is doing something about nuclear waste beyond the "Oh, let's just leave it laying around" strategy that we currently pursue.  The reprocessing of spent fuel rods could reduce residual waste volume by an order of magnitude and total required storage times by two or more orders.  Not to mention capturing part of the 90% wastage of fuel created by the current "process".  My understanding is that the present, most common design for reactors would need to be changed to make such reprocessing functional, but that is (well) beyond my nuclear expertise.

The big problem for any proposed nuclear build out is time:  it takes 5 - 8 years just to get a license renewed for a nuke these days.  Public, hence political resistace to new plants is profound and seemingly intractable.  Some of those goal deadlines will have come and gone before we can replace the almost-half of power production that is presently coal-fired.

Wind is great, but does have issues.  To begin with, it is useful neither for base-load nor for peaking service in power generation.  Most power analysts attribute zero capacity to wind because of its intermittent nature.  Here in the Pacific Northwest we are overbuilt in wind, causing some significant problems with reliability of the grid.  Wind should be pursued, but it is less a solution than many think.

Where I disagree with you most is in our use of natural gas, at least as a transitional fuel.  I'm surprised that you did not note that due to the current low price of NG and its displacement of coal in electric generation, we've rolled CO2 emission levels back to the early 90s.  Much more along that line could be achieved, most particularly if we'd stop burning coal and begin to convert it to hydrocarbon liquids.  The latter would not reduce carbon emissions, but it would contribute to national energy security.  Even more carbon savings could be produced by employing the relative abundance of NG to break oil's monopoly on transportation fuels.  Shifting to alcohols as a transition fuel from liquid hydrocarbons would result in significant carbon reductions relatively quickly.

Finally, you've touched on the actual source of the ground glass in any such cake mix:  China and its increasing use of coal for just about everything.  There's little the U.S. can do to offset that increase.  Except, perhaps, teaching them about hydraulic fracturing.

October 22, 2012    View Comment    

On Is Energy Independence Undesirable?

"Energy independence" is not so much undesirable as it is irrelevant.  Even if we buy zero barrels per day from the Middle East, an achievable end, we will likely continue to project power into the region in order to insure that global supply is not disrupted.  The price of crude here will be the global price unless controls on the price of domestic production are put into place.  That's the surest way to increase our reliance on imports.  Dr. Grossman is perfectly correct that legislation limiting our buying options can only damage our situation.

On the other hand, the market for natural gas is North American and BTU-based.  If we are so stupid as to allow domestic prices to rise to European, or even worse, Asian refined products and crude-based pricing by exporting more than our surplus, we are dumb indeed.  The only way to manage our exposure to the politics of the major oil producing regions (including Venezuela) is to follow Director Woolsey's advice to end the oil monopoly on transportation fuels.  Natural gas and its alcohol derivatives promise a means to that end.  Provided the ideologues stop yammering about "putting solar panels and a windmill on every roof" and come to grips with the fact that natural gas displacing coal for power generation has done more to reduce CO2 emissions than renewable energy sources and conservation combined.  It offers more of the same in transportation.  BTW, dcard88, there's never been a battery plant operated that doesn't have toxic waste in the form of heavy metals beneath its structures.

October 15, 2012    View Comment    

On Are Energy Politics the Enemy of Good Policy?

I'm totally on board, Rajat.  The vast majority of economists, Republican and Democrat, agree that a carbon tax is the way to go, as it allows the market to enforce control of the emission of CO2.  Unfortunatly, the coal lobby is a natural antagonist to the idea and quite powerful, esp. within Republican circles.

October 12, 2012    View Comment    

On Nuclear Fission Energy – Best of the Above


A couple of points.  The first is that I've been advocating "all of the above" as an energy policy for several years.  That's not because I'm either thoughtless or lazy, but because it was a reasonably succinct way to simultaneously resist the two dominant schools of thought at the time a) it must be market driven (i.e., cheap) and b) it must be green (i.e., renewable).  And I do admit to imposing some qualifications on the word "all".  Burning coal is not a good idea, nor has it ever been.  OTOH, throwing away that large an energy asset isn't a good idea, either.  Using cheap natural gas to convert it to hydrocarbon liquids, thereby backing out imports, may well be an excellent idea.

My primary motivation in adopting "all of the above" as a mantra has been to drive out the ubiquitous tactic of presenting to the public unbalanced screeds for one energy source or against another.  Which brings us to  the present column.  Understand that I am much in favor of expanding nuclear power in the U.S.  We appear to have a "nuclear neurosis" that generates fear well beyond risk.  However, you have disingenuously ducked the bigggest issue associated with the topic, the disposal of nuclear waste in general and spent fuel rods in particular.  Right now, the non-system we have for dealing with the problem - let's just leave it lying around wherever it occurs - may well be the single largest security threat in the country.  There are ways of solving this problem, but it MUST be solved and you know it.  So why didn't you speak to it?

Joel Brown, The Energy Centrist

September 21, 2012    View Comment    

On Russia’s plan to dominate energy markets

Rod, kudos for any of several points.  Without doubt the Russians "own" the Eurozone when it comes to energy.  One wonders if the Russians' Cold War fame for manipulation of public sentiment in other countries is now being applied to the energy arena.

The recent energy choices made by Europeans are mind-boggling.  You notice that the French, now nearing 75% nuclear-powered electric supply, are keeping mum on the nuclear issue.  They have bought into the hydraulic fracturing bogeyman, leaving very large natural gas deposits untapped all over Western Europe.  Eastern Europeans aren't quite so easily buffaloed.

Hopefully we can conquer our Nuclear Neurosis here in the States.  That remains to be seen, but these days a lot of Greens have realized how much better nukes are for base load than burning coal.  What do you think about the desirability of reprocessing spent fuel?

Now if we could just get some movement toward a coherent policy. 

Joel Brown, Energy Centrist

September 17, 2012    View Comment    

On What is (Obama vs. Romney) Energy Independence?

Both parties recognize the popularity of the "All of the above" phrase" and each claims ownership of it in its respective platform.  The irony is that surely a genuine "All of the above" policy would include the good ideas from both.  Unfortunately, we are unlikely to get any thing resembling such a combination in the current manifestation of the two party system.

September 9, 2012    View Comment    

On Manage climate risks with this framework – whether you’re a believer or not

Thanks for the posting, Jim.  Jay Gulledge has a profound insight in his brief commentary.  Global warming is occurring, whether it is caused by burning hydrocarbons, flatulent cows or natural processes.  Corporate managers who, like it or not, will have the biggest impact on the subject just can't relate to the messianic rants of those who tell them that they must turn on a dime.  They are no more capable of receiving such messages than they are of actually making such a turn.  Gulledge's risk management terminology, while not motivating to true believers, is a language the corpmeisters can understand.

It is never necessary to use the phrase "Anthropogenic Global Warming" (AGW).  It is sufficient to note that we live in a closed box known as the biosphere.  The box has physical, chemical and biological methods for reconditioning itself.  It restores elemental balances in the air (photosynthesis), reduces local and regional water vapor and particulate concentrations (weather) and with a little help from plate tectonics, moves waste products into the abyssal deeps (water running downhill).  That "air conditioning" necessarily has a finite capacity.  It has become obvious that we are straining its capacity at least regionally.  If you don't believe that fact, go breath the air in the East Coast Sprawl (Boston to Washington DC), the Hinds-Galveston-Brazoria Tri-Counties region of Greater Houston, the Los Angeles Basin, Mexico City, Beijing, etc. etc. 

With world population forecast to increase 30+% by 2050 and energy usage to increase by an even greater percentage, the potential for exceeding the biosphere's reconditioning capacity outright is quite real.  As such an event will have egregious consequences, it's an abdication of fiduciary responsibility for senior corporate managers to fail to prepare for it and resist a speedier onset at every possibility.  They need to be made aware of that fact.

August 21, 2012    View Comment    

On Superseding Fracking Fiction

Thank you for this posting, Mark.  As the comments from mk1313 and Soldude point out, actual data from a regulatory body like Michigan's DEQ have zero impact on pure, undiluted attitude.  So here's some backup info for them, although it seems unlikely they will follow up:  having made up their minds, further facts aren't required.

I was Shell's Engineering Manager for Michigan back in the early 90s.  We were heavily involved in the Pinnacle Reef trend, which cuts diagonally across the northern portion of the main body of the state, it's most scenic area.  The MI geology is such that the shallow strata containing fresh water acquifers is a large, clay-lined bowl.  Those strata are very porous and permeable.  If something nasty is spilled, it spreads down and out in a big way. Because of that fact and because there are many, many outdoorsmen and -women there with deeply held conservationist beliefs, the Michigan DEQ is and has been for decades very tough on the oil & gas industry.  They like the economic activity, but insist that it be done right.  Further, they can be quite punishing to bad-acters.

One of the country's first successful shale gas plays is in that part of Michigan, the Antrim shale.  While Shell was not widely involved in the play, the independant sector was very active.  Necessarily, every Antrim well is/was hydraulically fractured.  The MI DEQ knows what it is talking about.  In addition to having regulated fraccing for 50 years, the last two decades have seen high volume employment of the technique.  Stating that the invasion of fresh water sands is "caused by improper well construction, not hydraulic fracturing", is precisely to the point.  Build a good well and the migration of fluids is not an issue.  What's being indicted here is a proven industrial procedure, dangerous if done badly (think Union Carbide and Bhopal, India), of great benefit when done correctly.  We should stop indicting the procedure and start indicting those who do it badly.

mk and The Dude are perfect illustrations of your opening quote, Mark.  Guys, the MI DEQ is a public organization.  You can go to their website and get this info straight from the source.  Or you can continue to be ignorant no-nothings and rant on as truely ideological bozos.  The choice is yours.

August 20, 2012    View Comment    

On Will a Natural Monopoly Protect Electric Utilities?

Christine, these are interesting issues.  However, there is a reason that it has been difficult to move away from regulatory compacts with local monopoly power utilities.  It is the cost of reliability.  The three North American grids have a fantatic track record in keeping the power on a very high percentage of the time.  Only a few areas - Western Europe, the British Isles, Australia, Japan, some of the Asian Tigers and perhaps the PRC - can match the feat. 

In operational practice this means that there is a class of generating units that can not yield a positive return on investment unless they are subsidized well beyond their sales of power.  They don't run much, they just hang around ready to run on demand for a very limited amount of time.  Regulated monopoly service could deal with that fact.  In trying to engineer a solution, the drafters of California's catastrophically failed deregulation attempt created rules that Enron and others used to game the system and extract billions from consumers.  

The cost of reliability during load peaks is a problem that just won't go away.  Regards, Joel 

June 15, 2012    View Comment