Energy – A Better World is Possible

Right now – first quarter of 2014 – solar PV and wind together account for roughly 5% of all electricity, or 2% of all energy used in the United States.

Let’s suppose, just to see what is possible, that the United States had an energy policy focused on developing wind and solar, instead of the absurd “all of the above” lack of policy that actually exists. Yes, it would take a different president and a different congress backed up by a strong environmental movement, and we don’t have that – but let’s see what would be possible anyhow.

Let’s say it would take three years to double the amount of installed wind and solar. Faster is actually possible, but we can do the calculation based on a three-year doubling time. 15 years from now is 2029, and we would have 5 doubling times by then. Consequently, we could enter 2030 with 64% of all energy generated from wind and solar. We would be generating, just from these sources, 160% of the amount of electricity we currently generate from these, plus coal, nuclear, natural gas and hydropower.

Yes, things could change just that fast, if we had in place today the policies that would push us in that direction. By 2030, we could close every coal plant, every nuclear plant and every gas-fired generation plant – and we would still have enough electricity left over to take the burden of ground transportation off of petroleum. ‘

In 15 years, we would incidentally end open pit and mountaintop removal coal mining. We would incidentally end uranium mining. We would incidentally end fracking. We would incidentally take a giant bite out of our carbon emissions.

We would incidentally generate not just a lot of electricity, but a lot of jobs in construction and manufacturing. instead of a military-industrial complex, we could have an energy-industrial complex. And of course, nothing says we would need to stop in 2030.

It could be done – if only we had a president who would lead the way, instead of a president who tries to lead in every direction at once. It could be done if we had a congress that works on the policies to make it possible instead of one that works on obstruction. It could be done if we had a strong environmental movement that demands it be done, instead of the weak movement that does not.

It’s possible, but it will never happen if we do not make it happen. There are some technical barriers to overcome, but the political barriers are much more significant.

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Energy Policy Issues

Energy is a very important subject, and a complicated one. It’s not just that different pundits and different political parties advocate opposing and contradictory policies. Often, the exact same person will propose a set of policies that are work against each other. That goes beyond complication to confusion, sometimes deliberately created confusion. We could certainly use a few reliable standards that would allow us to distinguish feasible ideas from improbable or impossible fantasies.

Here’s one. Rising costs of energy cause decreasing energy use per capita and contraction of the real economy. It’s hard to argue with that. It’s just economics 101. In the United States, we saw it happen in the oil shocks of the 1970s and again in the extreme oil price spike of 2008. The immediate pain of rising energy costs falls mostly on poor people. When the prices stay high, the whole society, including businesses and governments, needs to adjust, whether the adjustments are painful or not.

Where this principle gets tricky to understand is in the question, “What is the cause of a price rise?” Sometimes it is manipulation of the world oil market bye producers or speculators or both. That is especially true when the price change is sharp and sudden, with no corresponding sudden change in the physical supply. But when there is a general price trend over decades, after the sudden changes up and down have averaged out, then we might suspect elements beyond the control of speculators.

At one time, it was imagined that electricity from nuclear power would be cheap, abundant, and greatly beneficial. After many decades of testing and development, nuclear power has proven to be both dangerous and expensive.

The meltdowns at Fermi 1, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are more than adequate to demonstrate the danger.

The nuclear power industry can exist only with massive subsidy from the government. The Price-Anderson act transfers liability for damages from the reactor owners to the federal government. No corporation would consider building a nuclear plant without government guaranteed loans to cover the construction cost. Detroit Edison expects to spend $15 billion, if they are able to build Fermi 3. $15 billion would buy $3,900 worth of solar panels for every household in Michigan. Which would be the better way to spend $15 billion in guaranteed loans?

Nuclear power is very much a dead end, although zombie reactors will still be causing problems for us decades after they are shut down. Spent fuel will be causing us problems at least for centuries.

Here’s another essential principle to keep in mind. Our industrial economy functions only with a continuous supply of the exact types of energy for which particular machines are designed. This is surprisingly easy to forget, if the discussion whirls off into and abstract discussion of “energy,” as though all types or sources of energy are exactly equivalent.

All are equivalent on an abstract level, but in the real world – if your car is designed to run on gasoline, then you need gasoline, not nuclear power or solar power or hydropower or coal or natural gas or diesel fuel. Your computer, phone and lights run on electricity. Plentiful gasoline in an electrical outage won’t help, unless you also have a gasoline-powered generator.

Over a long period of time, of course, our society adjusts to the specific types and quantities of energy that are available. 150 years ago, there were no automobiles. 150 years from now, there may once again be no automobiles, except as curiosities in museums and the collections of a few rich people, about equivalent to the current status of sundials. That’s an interesting subject for historians and science-fiction writers, but not so much for the day-to-day policies needed to make our real economy operate.

Burning fossil fuels directly supply about 85% of the energy to our economy. For a comprehensive picture of what energy sources deliver energy to different parts of the economy, see https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/index.html. Transportation, heating, farming and communication all depend, in greater or lesser degree, on fossil fuels. For both creation and delivery, hydropower, biofuel and nuclear power also depend on fossil fuels.

Extracting, processing and burning fossil fuels produces excess carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions. These have caused climate change/global warming/ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide and methane together account for roughly 90% of warming. Methane in the atmosphere has a half-life of roughly a decade, because it reacts with ozone to become carbon dioxide. It will take centuries after excess emissions have stopped for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to return to the normal range of 240-280 parts per million. Thus, climate warming and acidification will continue for centuries. It gets worse the longer we continue burning fuels and creating emissions.

Fossil fuels do additional and enduring localized damage to the environment. There is chemical pollution of drinking water, volatile organic compounds in the air, sudden sinkholes in areas where mining has happened, and the destruction of entire mountains by coal mining. Extraction of bitumen from tar sands has created industrial wastelands at the mines and processing plants, poisoning downstream with a variety of toxics, spills and fires whether transported by rail or pipeline and petroleum coke waste at the refineries that turn it into liquid fuels.

Why do we now have development of tar sands syncrude and deep water drilling and fracking for gas and oil when we used to have simple drilling for oil? In a word, depletion. In particular, relatively clean and easy to tap reservoirs have been depleting since the day they were first tapped. There are people who argue with this idea, but they are people who somehow do not understand that the earth is spherical, and therefore finite. Thus the oil, coal and gas deposits which are only a fraction of the earth’s crust are also obviously finite.

Depletion is no theory. It is just a fact of life in older oil regions, from the corner of Pennsylvania where Col. Drake supervised drilling the United States’ first oil well to Alaska’s North Slope to Britain’s North Sea. At least with the older, easy oil reservoirs, depletion rates meant that a well might produce profitably for several decades. The newer sort of fracked wells have such high depletion rates that they will produce profitably for only a few years. Google “fracking red queen syndrome” for a more detailed explanation.

Depletion of fossil fuels leads to increased extraction from difficult and expensive deposits. This means that the average net energy of each gallon, cubic foot or ton of fuel produced decreases over time. “Net energy” is an easy concept to understand, because it is exactly parallel to “net profit.” Both expenses and gross returns for an enterprise can be measured in dollars. Returns minus expenses equals net profit. For a fossil fuel energy source, the energy expended in extracting, processing and delivering the fuel can be measured in terms of energy consumed, equivalent to expenses. The energy in the fuel can also be measured, most accurately in a calorimeter. Fuel energy minus consumed energy equals net energy.

It is easy to understand, but not so easy to measure. Mainly, no set of energy accounting equivalent to the precisely defined system of bookeeping for money has so far been devised. That sort of energy bookeeping has not been thought necessary while more cheap energy seemed always abundant. The repeated disappointments of depleted wells and played-out mines are slowly changing that perception.

Professor Charles Hall, at the State University of New York, has been a leader in developing energy bookeeping. in conjunction with numerous others, he has contributed to developing the big picture of the “net energy cliff,” which I found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Net_energy_cliff.gif.

800px-Net_energy_cliff

(click on chart to view full size.)

What this says is that tar sands and oil shales and biofuels simply do not have enough net energy to support modern industrial societies. Conventional oil, gas and coal do, but these are depleting or in many regions already depleted.

According to this diagram, wind and solar power do have enough net energy to run an industrial civilization. However, if they are going to do so, we had better get about the business of developing them, because they are currently supplying only a small fraction of the energy we use.

In summary: The fossil fuels humanity has used extensively for the last several centuries have numerous bad unintended consequences. The sooner we shrink the emitting economy and develop the wind and solar-powered society, the better off we will be.

This short essay leaves unanswered the questions of how we should best organize politically and personally to accomplish the necessary energy transformation, but it helps to have a clear goal.

Does “Raise Michigan” Benefit Minimum Wage Workers?

There is an initiative petition to put a proposed law on the ballot in Michigan, approved as to form February 19, 2014, and currently being circulated. From the Michigan SOS website: “Purpose: Petition proposes to amend the Minimum Wage Law of 1964 to increase the minimum wage. Contact: Raise Michigan, P.O. Box 1502, Royal Oak, Michigan 48068.”

The specific language of the petition is complex, with references to which state laws would be amended and so on. You can find the whole text at the SOS website. (See http://www.michigan.gov/documents/sos/Petition_Language_2013_410796_7.pdf.)

The gist of it is that the minimum hourly wage rate shall be: beginning January 1, 2015, $8.10; beginning January 1, 2016, $9.10; beginning January 1, 2017, $10.10; and, every October beginning in October, 2017, the minimum wage shall be increased by the rate of inflation.

The long-term position of GPMI is that the minimum wage should be a living wage. I agree with this position. Since the Clinton administration changed welfare into workfare, everyone applying for welfare has been “encouraged” to get a job, even if this is a mininmu-wage job. If everyone is expected to live on their wages, then it make sense that there should be a job available for everyone able to work, and the wages of that job should be a living wage.

One problem is, there aren’t nearly enough jobs available. Another problem is, the current minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage. It’s common knowledge that many people working at Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and similar companies need food stamps to get by. (See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-13/how-mcdonald-s-and-wal-mart-became-welfare-queens.html.) That’s also true of veterans and the families of soldiers. (See http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/dick-cheney-vets-food-stamps.)

That leaves open the question of what, exactly, constitutes a “living wage.” The general idea is, a wage that allows a family to live just above the poverty line. When you look closely at the question, you soon see that this varies a bit throughout the country.

The Massachussets Institute of Technology has an on-line calculator (http://livingwage.mit.edu/)to show what is a living wage in a given location. According to their explanation, “Our tool is designed to provide a minimum estimate of the cost of living for low wage families. The estimates do not reflect a middle class standard of living.” They find actual costs for rent, food, child care, etc. in given locations, and work out from that what the minimum wage should be.

For Wayne County, Mi, it shows (Feb. 25, 2014):
1 adult – $9.01; 1 adult + 1 child – $18.77; 2 adults + 1 child – $17.08
For Grand Rapids, Mi, it shows (Feb. 25, 2014):
1 adult – $8.99; 1 adult + 1 child – $18.42; 2 adults + 1 child – $16.72
For Marquette, Mi, it shows (Feb. 25, 2014):
1 adult – $7.50; 1 adult + 1 child – $17.22; 2 adults + 1 child – $15.52

This is based on the idea of one adult in the family working, and making a wage sufficient to support the family. It shows that the expenses for a single parent raising one child are a little higher than for a couple raising one child. I presume this is because a single parent has to pay for child care, while a couple has one parent working and one able to watch the child.

It’s certainly possible to argue with specific numbers. Maybe a different method would be better in some respect or other. that does not mean the numbers from MIT are worthless.

It seems clear enough to me that it’s very difficult to come up with one number for a living wage that actually suits the variety of situations of actual people. if we are going to come up with a single number, then it should at least be adequate to allow a single parent with one child to provide a minimum standard of living for that minimal family. The MIT calculator says that for the state of Michigan as a whole, it’s $18.83.

Michigan is actually one of the cheaper locations. In Los Angeles, Chicago, New York (the Bronx) and Miami, the comparable figure is in the range of $20-$25. Anyone can go to the calculator (again, http://livingwage.mit.edu/) and check your location plus other states and/or other cities.

Having some idea of what it takes to constitute a living wage gives us a basis for evaluating the “Raise Michigan” petition. It’s clear that the dollar amounts specified in the petition are far below a living wage now, and they will be for the foreseeable future. If this petition is successful, then Michigan will be locked into a minimum wage that is not even close to a living wage for a long time to come.

In other words, If the petition gets on the ballot and is voted down, the minimum wage will stay at its current miserably low setting. If it passes, the minimum wage will be adjusted to a slightly higher but still miserably low setting. In either case, no fundamental change will take place.

Adjusting the minimum wage to keep it well inside the range of poverty wages doesn’t create any kind of prosperity or even relief for people working at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. It just allows them to get by with less in the way of food stamps. It doesn’t even address the lack of jobs. It doesn’t address those who can’t work and are receiving below poverty SSI benefits.

Accordingly, I will not circulate the petition and I will not sign the petition. It is, as far as I am concerned, an attempt to make marginal adjustments in wages to persuade people that “something” is being done, but without doing anything to change the fact that people working for minimum wage are forced to live in poverty.

Not everyone in the Green Party of Michigan agrees with this position. We are for raising the minimum wage, and some see this as a step in the right direction, even if it is inadequate. I see it as an attempt to head off the degree of change that is needed.

We are not, as an organization, set up to direct, compel or even expect our members to agree with any “party line” on a particular issue. We just don’t work that way. That’s what it means to have a democratically decentralized organization. We agree on the basic values of Grassroots democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom and non-violence. We don’t always agree on exactly how best to express those values in a given situation.

We do remain committed to reasonable discussion of our differences as well as our areas of agreement. That might lead to some interesting comments below.

Art Myatt

Road Salt is the Little Shiva

Road salt is the destroyer of roads, and it does not stop with roads. It destroys bridges, parking structures and any other paved surfaces to which cars and trucks carry it. That includes your driveway and the floor of your garage, if you drive on salted streets before parking your car or truck at home.

It also destroys the cars and trucks that drive through it. Road salt corrodes wheels, brakes, electrical wiring, sheet metal and more. It is particularly rough on aluminum and mild steel wherever paint and “rustproofing” fails.

When spring comes, or just a midwinter thaw with rain, it washes off the roads and vehicles. The runoff increases salinity in soils near the road, in ground water and in surface water. Farm fields near salted roads are fringed with soil that supports only “salt tolerant” plants, not crops or native plants. Lakes that have taken years of salty runoff fail to “turn over” in the spring or fall, and the lake bottoms, deprived of oxygen, become dead zones.

Sure, road salt keeps traffic moving on the day it’s applied, and makes the road safer to drive for several days following. The short-term benefit does exist. In the months and years to follow, longer-term damage shows up. Road salt degrades both the built environment and the natural environment.

Let’s be clear about what constitutes “road salt.” Sodium chloride, almost the only ingredient for table salt or sea salt, is the most common type of salt used. It may be applied to the roads as rock salt or as a very concentrated brine.

Calcium chloride and magnesium chloride are sometimes called alternatives to road salt, but chemically, they are also defined as salts.

The sodium ion in sodium chloride is particularly hard on woody plants. However, the chloride ion, which is common to all the above salts, contributes to the corrosion of concrete and reinforcing steel, no matter which salt it comes from. While sodium chloride penetrates concrete more easily, it seems that calcium and magnesium chloride corrode vehicle parts more rapidly. It is not clear that there is any overall advantage for any of the chloride salts, except that sodium chloride is cheaper by the ton.

Michigan uses about 2 million tons of road salt annually. This varies, of course, from year to year depending on the weather, but it is a reasonable round figure.

Some people look at this in purely financial terms. “USEPA estimates that every $50 ton of road salt causes approx. $750 in damage to concrete, bridges and vehicles.” (From http://www.iappo.org/pdf/IAPPO07_RoadSalt.pdf.) Xianming Shi, Ph.D. with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, pegged the hidden costs of a ton of road salt at $469. Using these figures, $100 million spent on road salt in Michigan results in something like $1 billion – $1.5 billion in damages annually, and that does not count the damage to soil, water and wildlife.

I think it is clear that we should value the long-term protection of our local environment over the short-term (and short-sighted) policy of keeping traffic moving in all sorts of weather. In this case, it means working to minimize the use of road salt (whether sodium, calcium or magnesium chloride), educating legislators and the public about the long-term costs of road salt, and working toward the possibility of getting along without it altogether.

A variety of organic de-icers in liquid form are effective, and are chemically much safer for the roads and for the natural environment than salt. Most are made from agricultural by-products such as corn stalks or brewery waste. They are considerably more expensive than salt, and the amount that can be produced without growing crops especially for the purpose is limited. However, they could work with a policy of de-icing only critical intersections and bridges (no chemical corrosion to worry about) and relying on plowing and sand for the rest.

This would not keep all traffic moving at all times. The public would have to accept that there are some weather conditions in which cars and trucks are not a good means of transportation.

We could also reduce the problem by reducing traffic. In the long term, we should be building a robust public transportation system so use of private automobiles is not necessary, winter or summer. We should be building communities in which homes and workplaces and schools and shopping are mostly in walking or biking distance, communities knit together with light rail and bus routes. Heavy rail and water travel could handle much of the necessary long-distance transportation with radically greater energy efficiency than cars and trucks and planes.

Of course, that’s already our long-term program, isn’t it? If we can come close to making it a reality, then banning road salt permanently is easy.

Art Myatt

See also:
http://ecowatch.com/2013/12/26/road-salt-contaminates-waterways-year-round/
and
http://grist.org/article/need-to-de-ice-a-road-might-want-to-pass-on-the-salt/