Category Archives: Energy

Do Not Miss Rachel Maddow’s New Book: Blowout

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Rachel Maddow is the Charles Darwin of Cable News.

Darwin’s most important unsung contribution to science (even more important than his monograph on earthworms) was to figure out how to most effectively put together multiple sources into a single argument — combining description, explanation, and theory — of a complex phenomenon in nature. His first major work, on coral reefs, brought together historical and anecdotal information, prior observation and theory from earlier researchers, his own direct observations of many kinds of reefs, quasi experimental work in the field, and a good measure of deductive thinking. It took a while for this standard to emerge, but eventually it did, and this approach was to become the normal way to write a PhD thesis or major monograph in science.

Take any major modern news theme. Deutsche Bank. Trump-Nato-Putin. Election tampering. Go to the standard news sources and you’ll find Chuck Todd following the path of “both sides have a point.” Fox News will be mixing conspiracy theory and right wing talking points. The most respected mainstream news anchors, Lester Holt, Christiane Amanpour, or Brian Williams perhaps, will be giving a fair airing of the facts but moving quickly from story to story. Dig deeper, and find Chris Hayes with sharp analysis, Joy Reid contextualizing stories with social justice, and Lawrence O’Donnell applying his well earned in the trenches biker wisdom.

But if you really want to Darwin the news, and sink your natural teeth and claws into a story, go to Maddow.

I’ve heard Rachel does not like being called “Doctor” (most of us PhD’s don’t) but she is an Oxford trained Doctor of politics. She also has a degree in public policy from Stanford, and is a Rhodes Scholar, having turned down the Marshall to accept it. In other words, she is both very well educated, and very smart.

In the Early Oughties, Maddow’s career evolved through a series of radio shows, panelist roles, substitute-roles, to eventually become the Rachel Maddow Show, in 2008. RMS (which also stands for root-mean-square, a mathematical concept that is not about roots and is more about curves than squares) almost instantly moved into state of great success, almost single handily pulling MSNBC materially upward as a high ratings cable network.

The point being this: If you want to really get a story, find out if the story is covered by Rachel Maddow where it got the RMS treatment, and sit down and absorb that. It might take several episodes, or there might be that one RMS segment that nails it once and for all. Depends on the story.

I consider Maddow to be the number one modern historian of modern news. If she had gotten her graduate training in history rather than politics and policy, the major living historians would have had a brilliant addition to their ranks. But everyone else, or at least, the thinking liberal left side of the spectrum of people, would have lost a regular supply of information and inspiration that, frankly, keeps a lot of us going these days.

You know that an elixir works magic when certain forces ban it. About a year and a half ago, I decided to alter my exercise routine at the gym so I could be on the tread mill during the Rachel Maddow Show, which I do not get at home since I don’t have that kind of cable (I watch the show next day on line, streaming). I was shocked to find out that MSNBC had been replaced with some dumb thing up on the monitor. I went to the “help desk” at the gym and asked about it.

“We took off all the news sites because it was driving people crazy, they were getting less rather than more healthy,” they said.

“Ok, but I see ABC and some business version of CBS is showing. You seem to have only gotten rid of MSNBC, is this some kind of right wing conspiracy?” I accused.

“Ah, well, we got rid of both MSNBC and FOX. It was a corporate decision. I know nothing about it. Would you like to sign up to have a trainer, we have a special this week…”

Anyway, I conjecture, and what I’m about to say is either deeply insightful or terribly offensive, but I’ll revise it as needed on receipt of further information, that Darwin and Maddow are also similar in another way.

Darwin first developed his amazing craft of explanation out of fear. See, it went like this. While out on the Voyage of the Beagle, and generally out of contact, he had corresponded about an early version of his theory of coral reef formation, growth, and maintenance. An outline of this theory had been read to the Royal Society without his knowing it. It is said that when he heard about this in a letter from his sister, he became very worried that his hero, Charles Lyell, would now lose respect for him and abandon him as a colleague. Or worse, whatever worse might be in Victorian England among the nerds of the day. You see, Lyell’s version of how reefs work was the standing science at the time, and Darwin’s view was heretically different. The fear this struck in the young, and in his own mind unqualified, researcher led, I think, to the nearly obsessive care he took in constructing his final arguments about reefs,and everything else he did after that, including taking decades to publish the Origin.

So, to be blunt, I’m suggesting that Charles Darwin suffered from a sort of impostor syndrome that led him to become excellent, as a means of protecting himself and his science. And maybe something happened along these lines with the young, up and coming, Rachel Maddow who was almost certainly, as a female, a young scholar, a Liberal, and a lesbian, required to dance backward and in high heeled Birkenstocks in the early phases of her career, and likely, through much of her graduate education before that.

The result: The frequent generation of richly evolved narratives of current news, embedded in history, linked to parallel stories, details well sorted out and beautifully integrated. And that is what we get from, and love about, Rachel.

But then, every now and then, instead of a 25 minute segment about something on the Rachel Maddow Show, we get a book! Earlier, Drift. Now, Blowout.

Blowout is the Rachel Maddow treatment of the petroleum industry. That sentence right there should make you want to read this book. In ways I will not here enumerate, Blowout is both prescient and uncannily relevant to this week’s news (and by this week I mean last week, and probably next week.) Russia, the Ukraine, Rex Tillerson, Exxon, ExxonMobil, Chevron, nuclear bombs in civilian hands, freakin’ fracking, Putin, power, crude, crude politicians, corruption, regulation syphilatic African dictator, technology, power, Texas, Siberia, corruption, brilliant business people and, did I mention power? These are the things that make every chapter sing.

This is a book about how Big Petrol was subsidized into a state of power great enough to eat the very democracies (and other forms of government) that created it. This is the Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein story of our times.

In modern geopolitical terms, Blowout seems to explain everything. But it doesn’t, that will require two or three more books by Rachel Maddow. But for now, Blowout is the treatise that gives rich detail and extreme documentation to a theme with which you are already familiar, and already know is important. You will not be shocked to find that Big Oil is up to something. But every chapter, at several points in each said chapter, will shock you nonetheless, because the story is so rich that you can not possibly have grasped it before. Blowout, the book, will bury you.

Get it. Read it. Report back: Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth

Also by Rachel Maddow: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

If you are interested in following up on Darwin and coral reefs: Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral by David Dobbs.

And, of course, now in paperback, unrelated to the rest of this post but a must read: In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden


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A good reason to oppose development of nuclear power in the US

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… is the fact that you can trust the nuclear power industry about as far as you can throw an elephant.

If you can’t trust an entire industry to even look at you and not lie, then why do we trust them to do anything important?

For example, Ohio.

In Ohio, there has been a long term somewhat complicated fight over nuclear energy.

In a nutshell, and possibly oversimplified:

The Ohio nuclear power industry seeks major public funding to extend the lives of existing projects.

A bill is passed, HB6, which affords this bailout. The fight over that bill and similar initiatives fueled the development of a fairly impressive pro-nuclear lobbying effort which has spilled out into other states including Minnesota. The idea is that the nuclear industry wants states to pass bills supporting nuclear energy development, and/or remove restrictions or disincentives.

A citizens group, “Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts” is trying to get together a petition opposing the bill, asking for a statewide referendum abrogating it.

Now, there is a pro nuclear group claiming that the anti-nuclear effort is a Chinese Plot. Here is their over the top ad, showing now in Ohio, which is expected to be the beginning of a long and intense flood of rhetoric Ohio voters can expect between now and … well, whenever.

Just look at those poor frightened Ohioans being all plotted by the Red Chinese and stuff.

For the record, there is zero evidence that the Chinese are involved in any of this.

The actual opposition to HB6 “…includes consumer advocates, environmentalists, free market groups, health experts, and manufacturers”

Oh, the Chinese are involved. They have been funding the pro-nuclear side in this Ohio debate. Ironically.

Lots more detail here.


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Koch Brothers vs. Farmers

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It is a known fact that organizations like the Center of the American Experiment, organizations funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers or the Bradley Foundation (of “The Bell Curve” fame) organize anti clean energy activism, often using fake citizens showing up at city or county council meetings, to tamp down efforts to produce non-Carbon releasing electricity. And, in rural Minnesota’s Carver County, this is hurting farmers. Continue reading Koch Brothers vs. Farmers


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Pipelines: Just say no

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Two pieces of news about pipelines.

From MPR: MN court says PUC didn’t weigh oil spill impact in Line 3 pipeline decision

In a victory for Line 3 oil pipeline opponents, the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday reversed the state Public Utilities Commission’s approval of the Line 3 replacement project’s environmental review, saying it didn’t adequately address the potential impact of a spill in the Lake Superior watershed.

Last June, the PUC approved Enbridge Energy’s plan to replace its aging Line 3 oil pipeline, which has been transporting oil across northern Minnesota from Alberta, Canada, since the 1960s.

From Politico: Trump administration seeks criminal crackdown on pipeline protests

The Trump administration is joining calls to treat some pipeline protests as a federal crime, mirroring state legislative efforts that have spread in the wake of high-profile demonstrations around the country.

Bring it on, suckas. Even a conservative federal judge has read the constitution.


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Books On The Energy Transition

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Be informed, have a look.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken.

This is a great resource for understanding the diverse strategies available to decarbonize. There is a flaw, and I think it is a fairly significant one. Drawdown ranks the different strategies, so you can see what (seemingly) should be done first. But the ranking is highly susceptible to how the data are organized. For example, on shore vs. off shore wind, if combined, would probably rise to the top of the heap, but separately, are merely in the top several. Also, these things change quickly over time in part because we do some of these things, inevitably moving them lower in ranking. So don’t take the ranking too seriously.

Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal.

I mention this book because I hope it can help the free market doe what it never actually does. The energy business is not, never was, and can’t really be a free market, so expecting market forces to do much useful is roughly the same as expecting the actual second coming of the messiah. Won’t happen. This book is not an ode to those market forces, though, but rather, a third stab (I think), and a thoughtful one, at a complex problem.

Related, of interest: Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by McKenzie Funk. “Funk visits the front lines of the melt, the drought, and the deluge to make a human accounting of the booming business of global warming. By letting climate change continue unchecked, we are choosing to adapt to a warming world. Containing the resulting surge will be big business; some will benefit, but much of the planet will suffer. McKenzie Funk has investigated both sides, and what he has found will shock us all. ”

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy by Hal Harvey, Rovbbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman. ” A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well.”


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Confessions Of A Rogue Nuclear Regulator: Review

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As the Midwest experiences unprecedented flooding, authorities assure us that a handful of nuclear power plants in the area will remain at full power and are not in danger. Flooding would be a disaster for a nuclear plant, as it could shut down cooling systems. In a very stormy situation, power to a nuclear plant, necessary to keep cooling systems going while the plant is experiencing an emergency shut down, could be interrupted, and flooding could then damage local petrolium based generators designed to keep the cooling pumps going.

Or course, it is impossible to imagine a nuclear power plant being built in such a way, or in such a place, or maintained in such a way, that mere flooding from excessive rain and a few dam or levy breaks, could threaten it. The nuclear plants are not built by idiots, and the regulatory agencies are very good at overseeing the whole process.

Rubble from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, with flooding of the plant and shutting down of cooling systems. The plant was built on the sea well below the elevation of the highest known tsunamis, so this disaster was presumably fully anticipated.

… um … ok, well, to continue…

Dr. Greg Jaczko served on US Representative Ed Markey’s staff as a science fellow, and taught Georgetown University. He served as Senatory Harry Reid’s science advisor, and in other roles for the US Senate. He became a commisioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) early in January 20905, andwas appointed by President Obama, in 2009, to chair that body.

His philosophy as a regulator has been transparency and public participation. He worked to improve security regulations for nuclear plants, and oversaw the initiative to make these plants airplane strike resistant. He is most well known for taking the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster into account when considering further development in American nuclear energy. He took a role in stopping plans for the development of the Yucca Mountain repository. He is responsible for stopping plans for the Southern Co to build new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia.

His time as commissioner and head of the NRC is not without controversy. There are complaints about his management style, and women who worked with him claim to have been treated in a more demeaning manner than their male counterparts. Jaczko’s response to these complains has been to cite a conspiracy by pro-nuclear forces against him, because of his lack of blind support for the industry. This position, that the pro-nukers have unfairly treated Jaczko, is supported by a number of third party individuals. He was asked to resign before the end of his term, but claims that this was a strategy of Senator Reid’s, to have control over who the next appointee would be.

I have no fully formed opinion on this, but I suspect that a pro-regulation regulator in Washington is essentially pre-doomed, because most of the regulatory agencies have been taken over by the industries they regulate.

Anyway, Jaczko wrote a book, and it is a rollicking, interesting, disturbing, and important read. Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator is the Jaczko story told by Jaczko.

If Jaczko is legit, if the points he is pushing are valid, then we should expect pushback from surrogates supportive of the nuclear industry in response to the book. That of course happened. I have no intention of getting into an internet fight with the greenwashers, but if you scan for reviews of Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator, you’ll find greenish pro nukers writing negative ones in widely read outlets. At the same time, the book is “liked” in the reviews by both independent thinking science reviewers and the usual anti-nuclear activists.

The book is an engaging and fast read, important, and you should judge for yourself.


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Renewable energy in the time of Polar Vortex

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A polar vortex event like we experienced last week does not make the sunshine weaker, nor does it reduce the strength of the wind. In fact, very cold weather can be associated with very sunny conditions, and in Minnesota a long dreary cool but not frigid cloudy period ended with the arrival of a much sunnier but very cold Arctic air mass. And,the movement of great masses of air is what pushes those windmill blades around. Continue reading Renewable energy in the time of Polar Vortex


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Vermont could lead the way. But it doesn’t.

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Vermont. The state where everyone lives in a yurt and drinks organic maple syrup. Bernie Sanders is their Senator and I’m pretty sure the Dalai Lama lives there. Or, at least, the yurts are lined with Llama fur.

You’d think that Vermont could get its act together to reduce greenhouse gasses more than most other states, but in fact, that has not happened, and it is probably important to know why.

Vermont had implemented one of the more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction plans, but it turns out, the state’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone up by about 16%. Like this following figure from this report shows:

Figure 1. Vermont Historic GHG Emissions Estimates and Future Emissions Reduction Goals.

From the Boston Globe:

“It wasn’t just disappointing and ironic, it was surprising,” said Sandra Levine, a senior attorney based in Vermont for the Conservation Law Foundation. “Many thought we were at least moving in the right direction. But we weren’t just missing the target, we were moving backward.”

The main reasons greenhouse gas emissions went up is because people, for the most part, did everything backwards. They did not buy electric cars, and they did buy bigger gas guzzling cars. They figured that as long as gas was cheap and easy to get, who cares about the planet?

Also, “Much of the blame falls on the aging pickup trucks, the state’s most commonly registered vehicles, which many residents often drive alone. The state also has a disproportionate number of tourists who clog its mountain roads on their way to ski resorts or leaf peeping.” (Boston Globe).

So much for the yurt people saving us all.


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Can you convert a regular bus into an electric bus?

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Of course you can, and they did it in Boulder. From the Boulder News,

What’s 30-feet long, bright orange and runs on electricity? Boulder’s newest old bus, the first in its fleet to go fossil fuel-free, courtesy of a Front Range company specializing in conversions that are both cheaper and faster than buying brand new.

Via Mobility Services, which operates the HOP line for the city of Boulder, commissioned and paid for Bus No. 15 to be stripped of its non-functional diesel engine and outfitted with an electric power train. Lightning Systems of Loveland performed the retrofit; Longmont’s UQM Technologies provided the electric motor The process cost $260,000 and took roughly four months.

The bus plugs in overnight; one charge powers a full day’s route.

Everybody needs to do this now.


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If I can’t have my flying car, can I please have my flying battery?

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MIT Technology review has a fascinating writeup on efforts to build electric planes. In my view, these efforts are at the same time shooting too low (the result would be the equivalent of flying short buses, at most) and possibly doable (which is good).

Have you ever noticed how much electricity weighs? Here is an experiment you can do. Get two identical alkaline batteries (small ones, like AA size), one totally discharged and the other fully charged.

Now, hold one in each hand and see if you can tell which one is heavier. Is the charged up one heavier?

No, of course not. Electricity stored as potential energy in a battery actually weighs nothing. This is an interesting idea. Airplane fuel does weigh something, but electricity itself does not. If only we could create a battery that weights almost nothing to carry all that weight-free electricity!

OK, now, while you are still holding the batteries, try something else. Do this quickly, because you don’t want anyone asking you “why are you holding these batteries” right now, because you’d have to say, “I’m trying to see how much electricity weighs,” and that is kind of a stupid question.

Hold the batteries over a hard surface that you don’t mind dropping a battery on. Maybe ten inches to a foot above the surface. Hold them upright. Now, drop them on the surface and see how they act.

The “full” battery, the one with the charge, will normally bounce better than the “empty” one.

This proves that something interesting is going on inside the battery. What? I don’t know, but I suspect it is at least tangentially related to the science behind the aforementioned MIT Technology Review write up: Top battery scientists have a plan to electrify flight and slash airline emissions. Go read it, it is very interesting.

After reading this, I had this thought: Have a relatively small battery i an aircraft that does not use the same exact technology as the long distance battery, and is good at ONLY rapid output of a lot of power, and is replaced and recycled after every flight. Ideally, the plane would actually drop the battery once it is done using it. Neighbors of airports may object.


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CO2 from Coal in the US: Good News

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Carbon dioxide emissions from US power generation have declined by over a quarter since 2005, according to a recent report from the US government. The largest part of this reduction is from reduced demand, with switching around among fossil fuels that are less vs more dirty and adding non carbon sources combine to make about the same difference. Like this:

From the US Department of Energy

The following graph shows the total generation and the total CO2 output of the US electricity generation system, comparing 2007 and 2017. Solar and wind don’t show up in 2005, but are a nice little chuck in 2017 (progress but too slow). Combined, non-carbon (still with nuclear as the largest part) went from 28% to 38% at the expense of fossil fuels. Within fossil fuel, there was a husge shift from coal towards natural gas. What we need to do now is to stop switching to methane, and start switching only to wind and solar. Right now.

From the US Department of Energy

Source


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Methane: There ought to be a law

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Regulators in Minnesota made the bone headed decision to approve the building of a new natural gas plant on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border near Duluth. They are idiots. There is no calculation that requires or even strongly suggests that this is a good idea. It has already been determined that this plant is not necessary. This is just the petroleum industry getting its way. I call for an investigation of the three (out of five) individuals who voted for this lame brained scheme. I want to know what stocks they own, and I want to see their bank records for the last, and next, five years.

Meanwhile, I call on Legislators in Minnesota to pass a law stating that we can not add any more fossil fuel sources into our energy mix, in utilities within or overlapping with the state of Minnesota. We need that bill passed during the next legislative session, to stop this plant and similar ideas in the fiture.

The building of this particular natural gas plant is not inevitable. It still has to be approved on the Wisconsin side of the border. From NPR:

If Wisconsin regulators approve the plan, the new power plant would produce at least 525 megawatts of electricity. Minnesota Power and its ratepayers would be on the hook for half the $700 million cost.

Minnesota Power covers roughly a third of the state, mostly in the northeastern quadrant of Minnesota, from Little Falls in the south to International Falls in the north and over to Duluth and up to Canada. Its customers include large taconite mines and power plants.

PUC regulators heard final arguments in the case earlier this month. Commissioners also decided Monday that the plan did not need to undergo additional environmental analysis, a decision that paved the way for its approval vote.

Methane is not a bridge fuel. It is a fossil fuel, and a greenhouse gas.


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