The Bush Energy Speech
In the disconnected string of hopes and opinions that passes for a "major policy address" these days, the president yesterday rearticulated what the White House is calling an energy policy. The fundamental question" was, rhetorically, do we want to continue to grow more dependent on other nations for energy supplies? (Of course we don't). The thematic language was to increase domestic "production" and decrease consumption. And the tool of choice was technology. At that soundbite level, it was a fine speech. As it unfolded, however, it turned out to be almost entirely an inconsistent and flatly misleading mishmash of wishful thinking and deceptions.
The first recommendation was to go back in the nuclear electric power business. In fact, this is an excellent idea. Nuclear power is safe, almost pollution-free, and does not contribute to global warming . (Of course, since the administrationís faith-based doctrine is that the globe isn't warming, Bush should have been embarrassed to claim this as an advantage, but he did so anyway.)
In any case, his ideas of how to revive the nuclear power industry have almost nothing to do with the reasons it hasn't already revived.
Nuclear power is high-centered on two and possibly three rocks, any one of which will keep the wheels spinning in the air. The first is the cost of plants that meet reasonable standards for safety, meaning both design and construction. The Energy Department recently predicted that after the first three or four new plants of a type, nuclear power is cost-competitive with fossil fuel electricity, but the costs of those first plants, especially as the US nuclear construction enterprise has to be rebuilt from scratch, are so great that that no utility expects to make a dime building one unless natural gas prices go through the roof or a serious carbon tax raises their fossil fuel costs dramatically, and regulatory uncertainty and delay is only a part of this cost.
The next hangup is waste disposal, a four-decade bleeding wound in the side of the nuclear industry that has just opened a few more stitches with the "fake data" email kerfuffle at Yucca Mountain. More generally, US policy for nuclear waste disposal has bounced back and forth between a demand for technology that assures safety no matter what, meaning absolutely secure non-retrievable placement deep in very stable geologic formations, and technology that assures that if anything goes wrong, it can be corrected, which means above-ground storage in so-called "dry-cask" containers we can get into if we need to, probably near existing nuclear plant sites. Until waste is actually placed somewhere, and with reasonable political consensus, no one will build a plant that makes more.
The third problem is the familiar NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) problem of finding a location to actually build something we agree we want but that no one wants nearby. It will be extremely difficult to persuade neighbors of a new nuke to accept it. Why it's so hard to replace coal plants (for example), which are 40 times as deadly per unit of electricity produced not counting the toxicity of their downwind pollution with nuclear remains a puzzle, almost certainly related to political leadership failures.
Bush had nothing to say about these problems with nuclear power.
He tipped his hat to wind power, a good non-polluting way to make some electricity but one with a lot of problems yet to resolve, including its appetite for money, birds, land, and views. The wind isn't a very dense source of energy, so we need a lot of big windmills to catch it. More NIMBY problems, and subsidy money we've already spent on tax cuts for the rich and in Iraq. At the margins, wind could be of some small help with energy.
As to his other recommendations, incoherence ruled the day. More oil refineries, for example, and lower gasoline prices. The first implies we plan to increase our use of oil, all of which (except the two-year blip we might slurp out of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) will have to be imported. The second assures that this will occur. It's only fair to note that the goal of reducing energy imports was several paragraphs earlier in the speech, so it was probably non-operative by this point.
The president really likes natural gas, though this too will be imported. Natural gas is the least greenhousey fossil fuel, and relatively safe if delivered continuously by pipeline, but when we have to import it, necessarily in liquefied form, it's an entirely different story. Flying a fully fueled 747 into a nuclear plant containment structure, for example, will not cause nuclear leakage nor more explosion than the plane itself, but flying a much smaller plane into an LNG tank would cause an historic catastrophe. We didn't hear that an LNG storage tank is probably the most attractive terrorist target there is.
Bush deserves credit for highlighting energy conservation, at least in general terms. But it would have been a lot more useful if he had proposed to stop giving big SUVs and pickups a pass on fuel efficiency, and if he had asked whether we need to have such enormous houses, built so far apart that people have to drive thousands of miles a year because walking, bicycles, and public transportation are impractical. It would have been especially useful if he hadn't asked for those lower gas prices. (Does the man know which way demand curves slope?).
When it comes to hydrogen, ethanol, and coal, his speech drifted from incoherence and irrelevance into plain mendacity. Hydrogen is really clean to burn and doesn't cause global warming, just a little water vapor. But it is not, and never will be, an energy source, because there's no such thing as a hydrogen mine. It has to be split off water (H2O) or natural gas molecules (CH4). Getting it from water requires more energy than is available from burning the hydrogen, and there is absolutely no way this can ever be different. Hydrogen from water is a way to store and transport energy, like a wire or a battery. It may or may not be a good way to do this, but to talk about it as some sort of alternative to petroleum, nuclear, coal, or wind is sowing ignorance.
Reforming natural gas into hydrogen takes a lot of energy in the first place, though at least it's not a complete loser. More importantly, though, it leaves a lot of carbon dioxide to be captured and put somewhere, something we are nowhere near being able to do at reasonable cost.
Ethanol is all green and fuzzy and natural and solar. It's made from sunlight by plants (typically corn) that capture its carbon from the air, so it has no greenhouse impact directly. But it's very expensive energy (would you like to run your car on vodka, which is half ethanol and half water and still about twenty bucks a gallon wholesale?) It requires about six times as much energy input as you get from the resulting fuel, and we do want to know where that energy comes from; if it's fossil fuel, weíre behind on global warming and energy independence, not ahead.. What ethanol is really good for is votes in farm states.
"Clean coal" is W-speak for the fuel with the absolute worst greenhouse impact, tidied up to make less of other pollutants (sulfur, mercury, etc.). Here the faith-based approach to science helps a lot: until the religious right tells Karl Rove that raising sea levels, killing coral reefs, melting the ice caps, and all the other effects of global warming are real, and that they aren't what God meant by having dominion over the earth, it doesn't matter, and we can burn lots and lots of coal. If we want to bet our grandchildren's planet against the nearly unanimous view of every living scientist, well and good, but here's that pesky incoherence again: if clean coal is OK, why should we bother with any other fuel? What was the rest of the speech about? We have hundreds of years' worth of it, and if global warming isn't in our religion, we can use it to make any intermediate fuel (like hydrogen from water) thatís convenient for us.
The energy policy of the Bush administration is to assure that its political base, namely the firms who know how to make money selling the fossil fuels we mostly use now, can go on doing so as long as possible. The political policy of the administration is to spend just enough nickels and dimes on real and fake alternatives to oil and coal to hide the policy. The implementation of these politics is an insult to citizens. And both the politics and the policy constitute an injury to future generations.
But what do I know? I'm still trapped in the old reality paradigm.