Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

A version of this appears on the National Journal Energy Insiders blog.

Our energy infrastructure leaves consumers exposed to volatile, fossil-fuel linked prices under centralized utility and oil company control. We need an energy consumer “Bill of Rights” that gives households the tools they need to generate more of their energy from onsite renewables, afford energy efficiency retrofits, and have improved access to mass transit in their communities. Record US oil production can’t lower retail gasoline prices, and today’s inexpensive natural gas won’t last long. But entrenched industries are fighting so-called “disruptive” technologies like rooftop solar, and instead seek to maintain the status quo. But the status quo is no longer affordable, both from an economic and a climate perspective.

Let’s start with oil: it’s a globally priced commodity driven more by Chinese demand than domestic production. That’s why record US oil production has failed to deliver cheaper gasoline to motorists.  Oil production efficiencies and fracking’s technology improvements aren’t translated into lower prices because consumers are charged for the price of the commodity, and Wall Street traders’ strategies price oil with irrelevance for efficiency. As a result, drilling and fracking technological efficiencies are pocketed by oil drillers, as gasoline and oil prices have actually increased for consumers during the oil boom. Contrast this phenomenon with the iPhone, microchips or solar panels, where technology efficiency gains are translated into ever-lower prices for consumers (and where renewable energy features zero fuel commodity costs). Solar PV costs are plummeting, from $3.80/watt in 2008 to $0.86/watt in mid-2012. And of course there’s all of the wasted water of fossil fuel production. The equity prices of fracking companies benefit from the fracking boom—consumers don’t.

Natural gas is problematic too. It’s imprudent policy to assume that gas will remain cheap, or even affordable for that matter. While we most likely have a few more years of moderately-priced natural gas, we will see a return to the Bad Old Days of natural gas price volatility as soon as emerging and proposed infrastructure changes accelerate. Natural gas’ emissions benefits are no match for zero-emission competitors, but today’s cheap gas prices are luring crucial support away from the long-term renewables solution.

In the power sector, decisions are being made based on today’s low prices that commit significant parts of our electricity infrastructure to gas for the next generation. This will come at the expense of renewables, which, unlike natural gas, will only have a plummeting future cost curve. It would be one thing if the oil & natural gas boom was producing affordable, clean and safe energy. It’s not and it can’t. The more money we spend to build oil and natural gas infrastructure is less money we have to invest in the true technological revolution that will actually deliver for consumers: renewables and efficiency.

Some utilities, with management styles enshrined with state utility commissions, lack the acumen to efficiently respond to changing market dynamics. They remain beholden to outdated supply chains that led them to believe that they must continue to stick with coal, economics be damned. Maximizing investment in a decentralized electricity structure has to be a significant part of policy going forward. Indeed, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff promoted the idea of replacing centralized, baseload generation with small-scale, distributed renewable energy in an April 2009 interview.

A progressive price on carbon, with money directed to households, coupled with limits on greenhouse gas emissions are needed to transition to a sustainable energy economy that puts consumers first. The Obama Administration has begun the process at the EPA, and when the Administration calculated the social cost of carbon at $38 per metric ton for 2015 as part of a rulemaking on microwave oven efficiency standards.

An Energy Consumer Bill of Rights—complete with a progressive carbon price, limits on greenhouse gas emissions, billions of dollars in annual funding for a consumer-centric sustainable energy infrastructure and the establishment of an Office of Consumer Adovcate are all needed to move us away from centrally controlled fossil fuel system to the Solar Rooftop Revolution.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

On Friday I appeared on Fox Business to discuss the initiative by 8 states to coordinate on electric vehicle infrastructure. The government has a long history of transportation infrastructure investment, and there’s no question consumers will benefit from a transportation fuel divorced from expensive and polluting oil. Electric cars help diversify our fuel mix, and must play a prominent role if we’re to address climate change and make transportation more affordable.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

              Last night I appeared on Fox Business to discuss the future of energy storage and batteries. The United States has fallen desperately behind in production and innovation in the industry, with Japan, Korea & China controlling 92% of global market share and the US only 2%. Batteries serve as the foundation of our energy system, essential not only for putting the “mobile” in mobile phones, but serving as a key energy production service in automobiles, aviation, medical devices, and as balance for intermittent renewable energy. The problem has been that there’s no “Moore’s Law” for battery technology: Intel’s founder correctly predicted in 1965 that microchip capacity will double every 24 months, which explains why my Motorola smartphone possesses more computing power than the warehouse-sized mainframes that sent a man to the moon in 1969. We’ve had battery technology for 2,000 years, but energy storage innovations are failing to keep up with the technology it’s designed to power. That’s why public investment in R&D and battery-affiliated infrastructure is essential. Now, the future of batteries in cars may not be 100% battery powered but rather an electric drive train fueled by hydrogen passing through a fuel cell. But batteries will be essential as part of the Rooftop Revolution, allowing households to generate free electricity from the sun, powering batteries during the day that can kick on after sunset to provide power all night.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

I spent Columbus Day speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Opinion Journalists, the folks who write the opinion pages of newspapers. I was joined by Andy Rosenberg with the Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dave Gallo with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Cory Dean of the New York Times and Jim Ludes, Executive Director of the Pell Center for International Relations & Public Policy. My presentation, which you can read here, discusses how electric power plants use 41% of America’s fresh water. That’s because 88% of our electricity is generated by super-thirsty nuclear and fossil fuel power plants. With looming water shortages in North America over the next generation, we need to become smarter about our water consumption—and that means getting away from centralized nuclear, coal and natural gas power plants and moving towards rooftop solar and energy efficiency. My presentation also outlines the extensive water use of the oil & gas sector, particualry fracking.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

The impact of the government shutdown varies from agency to agency: 52 percent of workers at the Department of Health and Human Services are furloughed, for instance, while at the Environmental Protection Agency, 94 percent are at home, off the job.

The shutdown is highlighting the importance of health, safety, environmental and consumer regulations. They help ensure we have clean air and water, safe food and toys, workplaces free of hazards and so much more. Even die-hard anti-government politicians are realizing that safeguards are popular with the public. That’s why, for instance, the GOP tried to pass a measure that would put food inspectors back to work.

What happens when you take worker safety inspectors off the beat? When environmental regulators aren’t able to do their work?

Here’s some of the best reporting from the past couple days on the impacts of the shutdown:

•    Bloomberg: Furloughed Inspectors Leave Gaps in Safety Oversight
The partial shutdown of the U.S. government has sidelined thousands of inspectors who monitor everything from air and water pollution to safety hazards at factories and the condition of nursing homes.

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