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Energy – It Just Doesn’t Add Up

brian-boeheimI’m close to turning 50 years old and I’m having energy déjà vu. Over the winter, fears of oil shortages put prices through the roof and energy production is being blamed for the climatic changes around the world.

For those who don’t remember, in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was predicted that oil wouldn’t last until the end of the 20th Century, and that CO2 emissions were going to put us into the next ice age. Let’s not forget all of the warnings to turn off lights when you leave a room and to keep your thermostats at 68 or below in the winter. My question is: “Why is it always about the consumer?”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Don’t get me wrong, some good came out of the hysterical outcry of the 1970s to clean up our planet. With the horrific examples of pollution gone wild, like the Love Canal chemical dumping and Lake Erie catching on fire, it became easy for people to step back and realize something needed to be done.

The youth of the 1970s embraced the idea of a cleaner America, and it has led us to cleaner water, cleaner air, and cleaner streets than any time in our country’s industrialized history.

Moving to the “bad,” political leaders and corporations have been taking advantage of our desire to do the “right thing” ever since.

Recently, we’ve been regulated into using mercury laden fluorescent lights, which unquestionably has a negative impact on the environment. Why are we focusing on the consumer, instead of focusing on changing regulations on production that would allow for massive improvement in power plant efficiencies? We are told to reduce our consumption of electricity, but wouldn’t it make more sense for us to produce our own power to create a net savings?

Here are some truths: 1) the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions is farm animals, not cars or power plants; 2) only 5 percent of nuclear waste is used nuclear material, while the rest is protective clothing, tools, and parts; 3) only one third of the energy put into a power plant comes out as electricity, the rest is wasted; 4) 5-10 percent of the electricity produced is lost on the way to the consumer; 5) our electricity demand will double by 2030.

Common Sense

There is one problem that needs to be solved: “How do we responsibly produce enough electricity to satisfy a technologically advancing society?” Believe it or not, the answer is simpler than you might think.

First, we need to change the regulations that have the power industry hamstrung. Currently, utilities have their rates set to earn a revenue stream that provides them with a constant 10-13 percent rate of return based on operating costs. Increases or decreases of the operating costs of electricity production are passed directly through to the consumers. The idea was to prevent utilities from charging monopoly rates for their commodity.

The dilemma is that any revenue created in an attempt to make a plant more energy efficient or productive would have to go 100 percent to the customers. If the plant developed a system for recovering heat, normally lost during production, and distributed it as a very low cost way for local home owners to heat their homes, the utility stockholders couldn’t benefit one cent.

Or, what if energy production could be made more efficient through replacing a more expensive cooling tower with new less expensive technology? Again, this would cost the stockholders by forcing them to incur the capital expenditure, but since their operating cost would go down it would negatively impact their revenue and in turn their total return.

This regulatory process puts a huge roadblock in the way of investing in power plant efficiencies and actually supports the building of expensive, inefficient plants.

Second, it is time we ignore the self-serving and erroneous cries that nuclear power is dangerous. Not only could we produce more clean power, but it would provide an economic stimulus by providing jobs for half a million people over for the next 20 years.

It’s also time to provide a power grid that is national and not just regional. We need to be able to send wind power from the plains of the Midwest to Chicago, Denver, Dallas, and St. Louis. Until we have a high voltage, intelligent, power grid, we’ll be at risk of bumping our heads on the ever increasing electrical needs of Americans.

Third, and finally, we need to do some out of the box thinking. We have received our power from the “power company” our entire lives. This has blinded us from the obvious. No matter how many power plants we build, and how sophisticated our grid becomes, transporting electricity is a very inefficient and costly methodology for bringing power into the home.

We need to focus our attention on providing micro-power technology which will allow all individual homes and businesses the ability to cost effectively utilize a combination of solar, wind, and natural gas to make them energy self-sufficient.

Imagine your business with a set of 24-inch fan blades and thin film solar panels installed on the roof. This passive energy would be supplemented with a natural gas furnace and generator which could not only heat the building, but also provide it with electricity. This combination would provide uninterrupted power that could potentially cost 20-30 percent less, while providing an alternate solution to the near impossible task of doubling our national electrical output by 2030. Now that’s a legacy this generation could be proud to leave behind.

Brian Boeheim is author of the new book, “Political Common Sense For America: Energy – It Just Doesn’t Add Up.”

Brian Boeheim
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6 thoughts on “Energy – It Just Doesn’t Add Up

  1. Please lay back on the “hysterical” adjectives and focus more on some cogent analysis of the energy issue. Anyone who is actually interested in reading a detailed and thoughtful analysis of today’s energy crisis should read David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air”. Which you can download for free at http://www.withouthotair.com/

    While it appears the above author is well intentioned (in his effort to sell his book), it is vital that anyone who writes on this issue have the science and facts in some semblance of order to provide reasonable political advice.

    As a brief example of how Mr. Boeheim fails this test, he states that we have been “regulated into using mercury laden fluorescent lights, which unquestionably has a negative impact on the environment” is both misleading and simply untrue. The basic flaw is this, since we get 50% of our electricity in the US from coal (and burning coal releases mercury) and incandescent bulbs are much more inefficient than CFLs, then the mercury from using an incandescent bulb over the entire life cycle is greater than that from the CFL even though the CFL actually contains mercury. The environmental impacts of a lightbulb, just like a car, are centered in the use phase rather than the manufacture or disposal phase of product.

    A paper by the Rocky Mountain Institute explains the debate in detail with useful references to a variety of papers from the DOE, the EPA and academic institutions. http://www.rmi.org/images/PDFs/Climate/C08-02_CFL_LCA.pdf

    The answer to this question is not “simpler than you think” and requires some calculation, analysis and research (inside the box thinking) before you begin to tell people who don’t live in windy or sunny areas to make inefficient investments. Before you tell people what does or doesn’t actually add up, you might want to do the math yourself.

    To the folks at environmental leader – the site is great but keep the standards for submissions high.

  2. Gotta love misrepresentation brought by an ignorant press.

    First off: one scientist in the ’70s asked if there could be an ice age, and suggested further study. Newsweek and others jumped on the story and presented it as fact, instead of saying that it was a question being asked. Further study, as recommended by the scientist, showed that not only would there not be an ice age, but that there would be considerable warming. We are in the early stages of that warming now. There has been consistent consensus, and consistent evidence of warming ever since. The only current “studies” indicating that warming might not happen have been funded by the very industries that stand to profit most if we do not address warming (coal and oil). Those industry funded “studies” comprise less than 1% of the scientific opinion on the subject. The other 99%, conducted by scientists not on the payroll of those companies, point in one direction: we are warming.

    The only questions remaining about warming are related to how rapidly, how the damage will manifest itself, and how, if at all, we can mitigate the damage.

    Secondly, there was a similar misrepresentation of the oil crisis. The scientific community was NOT claiming that we would run out of oil by now, but that the oil supply would peak and begin to decline. This has happened. The US supply peaked in the 1970s (which is why folks suddenly realized oil was not infinite), and little of the world’s oil now comes from the US. Other countries’ supplies peaked at different points in time – with the last remaining known major fields apparently peaking sometime in mid 2005. “Peak” and “End” are two different words. The peak is simply the point at which half of the oil has been extracted from a field, and more input (think “higher pressure”) is required to extract the remaining oil. As the amount of oil in a field declines, the amount of energy expended to push the remaining oil out increases, reducing the overall yield from the field. This means oil will become more expensive, since it costs more to extract it. Over time – usually a long time, a field will eventually run dry, and on the way to that stage, it becomes increasingly expensive to extract the oil that remains – thus the oil from that field becomes increasingly expensive over time.

    News in the ’70s misinterpreted this as “OMG! We’re running out of oil! Panic!” instead of the more accurate: “Hmmm… oil is going to cost more as it becomes more expensive to pump it out of the ground, maybe we should plan for that.”

    Both phenomena are real, and the scientists have been correct. The poor science training of reporters combined with the sensationalist tendencies of publishers did us all a disservice by misrepresenting the reality on these important issues.

    Modern journalists who rely on industry talking points, which were derived from the misrepresentations of poorly-educated press in the 1970s, instead of doing original sourcing using the actual studies, are doing a further disservice, by encouraging short-term thinking (it’s not a crisis, yet) over long term thinking (let’s keep it from becoming a crisis).

  3. My main gripe is that forecasts of electricity demand should never be listed as “truths.” There is absolutely no way of knowing how much electricity we’ll be using and most forecasters have been wrong. Is it likely that we’ll use more electricity in 20 years than now? Sure. But is that a sure thing? Absolutely not.

    Of course, if we reject the determinism implied by forecasts like that, we’ll actually have to take responsibility for building the kind of society that we want.

  4. Stuart, clearly you’ve bought all the CFL PR-arguments hook, line and sinker. Please try to get some perspective here. Switching high quality bulbs to poorer quality CFLs, will at best save perhaps 0.15% of total U.S. energy use. http://greenerlights.blogspot.com/2009/06/us-energy-statistics.html Even if half of that comes from coal, which seems more effective to you: chasing light bulbs or using cleaner energy to power the remaining 99.85% of U.S. energy use?

  5. As the author of the above article, I would like to address a few of the comments. First, my attempt was not to use hysterical commentary in my article. I believe I was pointing out that far too many people have used hysteria and emotion to further their point of view on this matter. Flourescent light bulbs are definitley a long term problem. Otherwise, why would they have a special disposal process for them. Why not just throw them in landfills?
    Second, all of the calculations in the world can’t change the fact that almost every popular scientist got it wrong in the late ’60s and ’70s. None of them are willing to admit it now. During the snow and ice storms of the late ’70s all you heard was how we had brought this upon ourselves with our crazy oil consumption and pollution. The ice age was coming!! And the reality, as with most things is that in order to get attention, and federal grants, they overstated the issue. The reality is much more mundane. I get that it isn’t popular to question Al Gore and his followers, but even the EPA has produced (and suppressed) reports suggesting global warming is over stated. Just because it’s a minority opinion doesn’t make it wrong.
    Third, I’m surprised that an alternative opinion would challenge you so much. I believe the biggest problem we face around our Energy, and Planetary Health, concerns is that there is no room for more than one point of view. If everytime someone has an alternative theory you just shout them down with insults, who will be left to question your hypothesis? See when I went to school, science was about forming a hypothesis and then attempting to prove it wrong. If you couldn’t then you you had yourself a Theorem. This method of taking a few pieces of data that supports a hypothesis and immediately calling it a fact isn’t science.
    Finally, if we continue to rely on regional energy sources we will be limiting our potential. Just like the days of Main Frame computing, it was hard to see past it, but look at what we have accomplished by distributing the computing power out to the edge of the network. I just wonder if we can’t create some of that magic in the world of energy production and at the same time solve many of the emissions and pollution problems in the process?
    My 2 cents!

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