Bill threatens to de-fund public energy research in Minnesota

In times of tight government budgets, there's a temptation to lawmakers to leave the expensive job of scientific research to corporations. I understand that urge. I can sympathize with it. But I also think that it's perilously wrong-headed.

Privately-funded science—that is, usually, science done by corporations—is important. And it can't all be written off as inherently biased, either. The trouble, though, is that corporations have special concerns that influence what scientific research they undertake, and how they do it. In general, today, what they focus on is short-term stuff. They improve existing products. They figure out how to make nifty technology work in the real world.

What they don't do is long-term, big-picture science. This is the stuff that shapes our futures—and the futures of private corporations. If we abandon public funding for science, then we put all of that at risk.

Case in point: Since 2003, Minnesota has funded research on energy through the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment (IREE). The scientists involved with this program do low-profile, but extremely important work, developing technologies (and methods for using those technologies) that affect every level of our energy systems. Right now, they're involved in everything from developing portable systems that turn farm waste into biofuel, to figuring out better ways to help houses use less energy. They're even collecting the complicated economic and physics data that will help us better understand the full environmental impacts of different fuels, batteries, and other energy sources and technologies. In the course of writing Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I interviewed several of these scientists and learned a lot about the research they do. Some of their ideas won't pan out. Others will shape our energy future. But you don't know which is which until you put in the research effort—and this isn't the kind of research that private companies are willing to do.

Tomorrow, Minnesota state legislators in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee will vote on a bill called SF 2181. If it passes, the bill will de-fund the Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment. Instead, all state money for energy research will go to Xcel Energy, our local electric utility.

There's nothing wrong with Xcel. In fact, they've got a pretty good track record of investing in alternative energy generation and infrastructure changes that will make it easier to build a sustainable energy future. But they aren't going to do the kind of research that IREE does. And they aren't going to research energy issues that don't affect their business—electricity.

Our energy problems are bigger than that. Our research into potential solutions needs to be broader than Xcel should be expected to cover. And it needs to be more forward thinking, and financially risky, than Xcel can reasonably be expected to undertake. There's nothing wrong with funding research at Xcel. But there is something wrong with de-funding research at the University of Minnesota.

If you live in Minnesota, I urge you to contact the members of the Minnesota Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee TODAY. The vote is tomorrow, Thursday March 8. Let them know that public science is important work that can't be replaced by private science. In fact, we need both kinds of science happening, if we're going to meet the challenges of the future. A list of committee members—and their phone numbers—is after the jump.

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Woman recalls the hydroelectric power plant her father built in 1922

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.

What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today.

Last week, I spoke about some of this history, and its impact on our future, at the University of Minnesota. (You can watch a recording of that speech online.) Afterwards, Christopher Mayr, director of development at the U's Institute on the Environment, told me about the video I've posted here. In it, Doris Duborg Hughes, a lifelong Wisconsinite, talks about her father, farmer Rudolph Duborg, and the hydroelectric power plant he and his brother built on Wisconsin's Crawfish River in 1922.

This is a great story about Makers tinkering with "crazy" ideas at a time when very few people knew anything about electricity, and when getting electricity on a farm was a near impossibility. By the 1920s, some electric utilities were beginning to turn a profit ... but only in cities, where population density meant you could spread the cost of infrastructure over a lot of customers. Having electricity on the farm meant building the infrastructure yourself, something few people had the drive (and money) to manage.

Doris Hughes' earliest memories involve her family putting up the men who came to wire the farmhouse. She was a child when the system went in, and that's part of what I like about this story. It's very clearly coming through the filter of childhood. Because of that, we get details like Hughes remembering that she wasn't supposed to turn lights off in the house, during the day or at night, because she was told that doing so might break the system.

Also fascinating: Henry Ford sent men to inspect the Duborg hydroelectric plant, apparently as part of research into a manufacturing scheme very different from the factory system Ford is known for today. In the late 'teens and early '20s, Ford was convinced that he could harness water power to bring electricity to farms, then split the elements of automobile construction among a number of electrified farms in a geographic region. The result (he hoped): More employment in rural communities and an increase in living standards. You can learn a little more about this at the end of the video.

Video Link

Do we need to talk about climate change, in order to talk about energy?

This is one thing that changed for me during the course of researching and writing Before the Lights Go Out, my upcoming book about the future of energy. I used to approach conversations about energy from a climate-centric perspective. First, I have to help people understand the science of climate change and get them past the misinformation and blatant lies surrounding that issue. THEN, we could talk about energy solutions.

But now I think that perspective is dead wrong.

Polls show that a majority of Americans want to change the way we make and use energy. What we disagree on is why that change needs to happen. The good news: We don't have to agree on the "whys" to reach the same solutions.

My book comes out April 10th, but you can read the introduction online now. It'll give you a better idea about why I think that climate change—important as it is—is not the only way to engage Americans on energy issues.

“Climate change is a lie.” The man leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “Climate change is a lie,” he said again. “It’s just something made up by environmentalists to scare us.”

I heard this story a few years after it actually happened, from Eileen Horn, one of the environmentalists who watched this man’s speech from the other side of a two-way mirror. At the time, Horn and her colleagues were about to launch a new nonprofit organization called the Climate and Energy Project (CEP), an environmental activism group based in the state of Kansas. The man was a participant in one of a series of focus groups that the CEP had put together in Wichita. The idea behind the focus groups: don’t be stupid. Too often, Horn told me, environmental activism started with what the activists thought the public believed. Focus groups were a nice way to get around the sloppy art of assumptions. Instead, the Climate and Energy Project could get a bunch of Kansans together in a room, lob some ideas at them, and watch how they respond. What did the intended audience already know, and what did they not know? What did the people of Kansas think about the future of energy?

It was a nice plan, but it wasn’t too enlightening at first. The participants talked about where they got their news—NPR and CNN on one side, Fox News and a handful of radio talk shows on the other. Opinions on climate change split right along the lines of favorite news sources. You will probably not be shocked to learn that the man who declared climate change a lie fell squarely on the Fox News side. Whether or not you disagree with him, his position was fairly predictable. You and I have met any number of people with the same background and ideas.

Yet Horn remembered that man, specifically, because he changed her outlook on the world. In a way, he changed her life. Not because of his position on climate change, but because of what she learned about him—and other people like him—as the focus group continued.

“No matter how the conversation started, whether they believed in climate change or not, the discussion always, eventually, turned to energy solutions,” she told me. “And when it did, it turned out that this guy drove a hybrid car and had changed all his lightbulbs out to CFLs.”

Read the rest at BeforeLightsOut.com. Just scroll down the page and you'll see the link.

Image: #431 Global warming get warmer houses, sweet, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mikaelmiettinen's photostream

"Putting the Fun Back in Infrastructure" - Maggie speaking in Vancouver

I'm going to be speaking on Monday, February 20th, at the meeting of the British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association, starting at 7:00 pm. My presentation will focus on the North American electric grid—where it came from, how it works today, and how it affects what we can and can't do in the future. I'll be talking about a lot of the big themes that I cover in my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Prospecting for wind

Before the Lights Go Out
is Maggie’s new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we’ll have to change them in the future.

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Two new nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia

Yesterday, the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of the first two nuclear reactors to be built in this country since 1978. They're both part of the same power plant complex, near Augusta, Georgia.

As David Biello points out in an excellent analysis of this news over at Scientific American, these reactors are not part of a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. That's simply not happening. But they represent some important shifts in technology. These reactors employ passive cooling systems. Basically, in the event of an emergency, you don't need to rely external pumps or generators to keep the reactor cores cool.

You'll recall, of course, that this was the key problem at Fukushima. The tsunami damaged the generators that powered the pumps, so when the reactors began to heat up, there was no way to get cooling water into them. In Georgia, the new reactors will, instead, rely on gravity. If one of these reactors gets too hot, a heat-sensitive valve will automatically open, releasing cooling water that's stored directly above the reactor core.

Obviously, this doesn't make the reactors fail-proof. If you support nuclear energy, you're going to see this (and the fact that the NRC approval is conditional on utility Southern Company demonstrating that they have learned from the lessons of Fukushima) as a step in the right direction. If you're absolutely against nuclear energy, you're going to be deeply disturbed by this project no matter what happens.

I sit somewhere in the middle. I'm uncomfortable with nuclear energy—as it currently exists—being presented as a long-term energy solution. It can't serve that role as long "bury it" is our only means of dealing with nuclear waste. And whether it's a good idea at all depends on how stringent regulatory oversight is willing to be.

At the same time, though, we are dependent on steady, ever-increasing supplies of electricity. Right now, we get 20% of that electricity from nuclear reactors, most of which are reaching the end of their functional lives. The question of what will replace them is a serious one. There are steps we can take to reduce our energy consumption. We can, and should be, adding more wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable resources to our electric generation mix. But there are some very good reasons why we can't, right now, shut down all the coal, all the nuclear, and all the natural gas power plants. All three of those sources of generation come with big safety and health problems. But we are going to continue to use one or more of them for decades to come. Renewables should be our long-term solution. In the short-term, though, we have some nasty and subjective decisions to make about what risks we're willing to live with. I'm not enthusiastic about nuclear. But a new nuclear power plant, in my mind, is better than a new coal power plant. The trouble with making these kind of decisions, though, is that there's lots of room for reasonable people to disagree.

Paved with good intentions: When energy efficiency backfires

Right now, I'm reading The Conundrum by David Owen. It's a really interesting book about some of the unintended consequences of the way we approach sustainability and environmentalism.

I'm going to post a full review soon, once I get all the way through it, but so far Owen is making a couple of key points: One that I agree with, and one I think he's oversimplifying a bit. I agree with this: You can't shop your way out of climate change. The tendency to turn environmentalism into a set of luxury lifestyle choices is a huge problem—doing nothing to solve our energy issues and perpetuating an idea that sustainability is "for" some people and not for others.

Owen also talks a lot about the rebound effect (or, as it's sometimes called, Jevons Paradox)—a very real problem that affects our ability to reduce emissions caused by energy use. Basically, it works like this: when you reduce energy use through energy efficiency, you get the same amount of work for less energy investment. That's good. But saving energy also saves money. That saved money often ends up spent in ways that consume energy. In the end, some measure of the energy you thought you saved through energy efficiency ends up not actually being saved. It just got consumed in another place. The result is good for the economy, but maybe not so good for the climate, depending on how the energy in question was produced.

So far, Owen seems to be taking the position that the rebound effect will always negate all the environmental benefits of energy efficiency programs. From the research I did while working on Before the Lights Go Out , my upcoming book on the future of energy, that's probably not correct. Like I say, I'm not done with Owen's book yet, so I'll let you know what he has to say on this issue in more detail later. But I wanted to bring it up now as an excuse to link to an in-depth FAQ on the rebound effect that I co-authored with Karen Turner, an economist who is one of the few people actually studying how the rebound effect works in the real world.

A lot of the statements made about the rebound effect are based on "common sense" logic and computer models that don't necessarily portray consumer behavior in a realistic way. People like Turner, who do empirical research on the subject, present a more nuanced view.

This FAQ—which is basically a transcript of my first interview with Turner, done 2010—will help you understand why rebound happens, why it's not strictly a bad thing, and what (if anything) we can do to make energy efficiency a useful tool in the fight against climate change.

Read The Rebound Effect: Some Questions Answered

Shameless plug: My book, Before the Lights Go Out , comes out April 10th!

Image: Efficient, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from trekkyandy's photostream

Hey, electric cars don't totally suck: A realistic sort-of rebuttal

 

 

As a Midwesterner and someone who has been paying a lot of attention to energy issues, I read Joel Johnson’s recent Jalopnik essay with interest.

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The future of energy and the future of risk

I got to have another great conversation with synthetic biologist and blogger Christina Agapakis on Bloggingheads.tv's Science Saturday. Christina and I chatted about some of the issues that came up at an energy conference I spoke at recently, examined the possibility of using synthetic biology to create fuel, and talked about how we navigate the often-confusing questions of technology and risk.

The future of energy: Where will we be in 2030?

I'm spending today at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?"—a Future Tense conference on the future of energy. I'm live Tweeting, and you can actually watch the whole conference live stream online. Tune in at 4:10 Eastern, when I'll be speaking about why our short-term energy future is likely to be a little boring (and why that's okay).

Maggie in DC, talking about the future of energy

I'll be speaking next Wednesday, the 19th, in Washington DC, as part of a one-day conference on the future of energy. What Will Turn Us On in 2030? is part of Future Tense, a series of events sponsored by Slate.com, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation. It's free, and open to public if you register. Can't make it in person? You can catch me, along with some great thinkers like Craig Venter, Time magazine's Bryan Walsh, and Scientific American's David Biello, on the live stream. My talk will be based on some of the ideas I've spent the last two years researching and writing about in my book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, which will be published in April.