June 18, 2006

Coal is the Answer


On Meet the Press today with Tim Russert, he had on three oil company execs from Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, respectively. He tried telling them that the American people think they're evil, while they in turn poorly taught Economics 101 and the benefits of a free market economy to Mr. Russert, and then tried to create a public push for storming into Alaska with chainsaws.

Throughout this broadcast, there were countless commercials for learnaboutcoal.org, a link which although heavily advertised, has been down all day. These quick-hitting :15 commercials showed children talking about the benefits of coal power and how it's not as polluting as it once was, etc. But, one of the commercials starting raving about hydrogen power, which surprised me, and then they said, "the leftovers from coal production can be used to create hydrogen power."

Isn't this the equivalent of a pornography company saying they're going to recycle leftover magazines and make Bibles?

15 comments:

Jeff said...

Eric,

Great to see you've started this project. I'd love to guest blog sometime, if that is ever an option.

I didn't get a chance to watch Meet The Press, but I can only imagine the spin machine that was in full force, as you suggest.

The coal commercials sounds much like the recent adverts arguing against global warming, paid for an organization named the "Competitive Enterprise Institute." The ambiguously-named thinktank would have us believe that increased CO2 in the atmosphere is synonymous with "what we call...'life'" It just so happens the CEI received over $2M in funding from Exxon Mobil (shocking, I know).

Check out the hilarious spots here:
http://streams.cei.org/

Since my position is already pretty clear on environmental issues, I'll leave it at that. Again, glad to see such a project undertaken. Looking forward to the exchange of ideas.

-Jeff

Steve said...

Is the hydrogen thing that surprising? Hydrogen is the hot future fuel right now.

Essentially this also indicates a stumbling block for hydrogen (If someone understands the science better than I do, correct any mistakes I make here). It might be abundant, but it is not abundant in usable forms. So we need to use energy to create the form of hydrogen that can produce energy. Given the discussion that has led to the hydrogen alternative to begin with, I guess the key is finding a means to extract it that is:
1. renewable
2. environmentally clean itself
3. meets the goals of energy independence
4. cost effective
Does this means exist right now? If not, the question I guess is which of these goals do we find least essential. What mix of short-term and long-term thinking should drive energy research and ultimately production?

This whole subject makes me wish I didn't cop out and take a low-level chemistry course at a local technical college. Maybe if I'd taken a more rigorous chemistry course instead of a replay of my high school chemistry class I might be able to understand the science behind it better.

Sabai said...

Jeff,

I think that Steven Colbert must have gotten some production credits for those CEI spots. I can't believe those actually got released.

I remember seeing these wind farms on I-39 and thinking wow, they must be pretty profitable if a farmer is willing to give up usable farm space for this in order to put up giant fans. But, then I learned that all of these alternative energy trials are all federally subsidized. Do any of these technologies have a real immediate future? If so, wouldn't private companies be putting solar panels on their roofs and putting up giant fans in their parking lots?

Matt said...

Sabai,

I don't see the pornography comparison. Burning coal in a power plant can pollute so much less than, for instance a car, which doesn't have the room to install large filters and other technology to clean the exhaust. I'm not sure, but I get the feeling most of the enviromental problem is from greenhouse gases produced in cars and others things, not from powerplants.

I like to think of hydrogen as energy storage (like a battery) not an energy source. Like Steve said, you can't and don't want to use up the supply of hydrogen in the atmosphere. So you start with water, burn coal, turn a windmill, or use a solar panel to separate the hydrogen and oxygen, keep the hydrogen. The hydrogen is now in the energy storage phase. Then use it in your car which will turn it back into water.


Addressing the immediate future of wind and solar energy question: I think its too expensive right now to put up your own windmills and solar panels because volume is so low right now. We need some Big company to do it, get the volume of the components up, and get the prices down. Also the infrastructure takes time. Think about the interstate highway network. Our generation was born after it was completed, but I'm sure it took more than just a few years to pave millions of miles of road in the US. I think the infrastructure will slow this thing down the most.

Take this with a grain of salt, but I heard that 100 square miles of photovoltaics (solar cells) could power the whole US, thats 10 mi. x 10 mi. Thats about the size of Peoria. I thought that was interesting.

Sabai said...

I appreciate you explaining hydrogen power as a battery equivalent, 'cause I honestly thought you'd pour it in your gas tank like a standard petroleum fuel.

If all of these venture capitalists were willing to throw their money (tons of it) after bad during the dot-com bust in the '90s, why wouldn't they be willing to throw their money after photovolaic energy if there is that much of a future in it? Or perhaps they are?

Matt said...

Who are these venture capitalists? Cause I have never known one. They are probably scarce cause they all go broke.

Arcane Rest said...

I just think that the best way to get rid of these high energy costs is to raise them so high that the poor cannot afford gas. They would have to choose between food for their family or gas for their car. Hopefully the right decision will be made and the people will go with public transportation. By doing so, there will be more gas available. After awhile, maybe a year, people will fear a rise in supply sell their furture market shares at a low cost driving gas prices down. Which means I will be driving for $1 per gallon.

I guess, it would be cruel to all the poor people of the nation, or will it?

Jeff said...

Arcane Rest,

Though I see where you're coming from, I think your solution is the wrong way to go about handling the energy problem.

I wrote not long ago about this very topic (see the link at the end of this comment). Essentially, I agree with you that the price of gas should actually be higher, thus discouraging people from driving. But the taxation or negative incentives should be minimized on the poor, and should really target the people who purchase luxury autos that get 13 mpg.

People who drive these types of vehicles clearly have expendable income, as there are alternatives in every model of car to consume less gas and in the process, save money. They could be driving something that gets better mileage if they wanted (and as a nice little ancillory benefit, reduce national demand). The working poor, on the other hand, as you state, often face a horrible choice between putting food on the table and getting to their job. It should be clear to anyone with a conscience that those who waste their money for a status symbol (the regrettable Hummer, for example) should be overwhelmingly taxed for the burden they place on all of us by their choice.

Legislation needs to be drafted that not only legally requires automakers to manufacture cars with a higher energy standard (and doesn't permit the loopholes that exist now for companies to offset their worst models with efficient hybrids), but also that heavily taxes the wealthy who voluntarily contribute to the problem.

That's a more sensible solution.

(The link to my post on the subject: http://jeffphilips.blogspot.com/2006/04/solution-to-high-gas-prices-use-on.html).

Steve said...

Roughly eight years ago, I ran a high school debate case arguing that funding large-scale research and development was key to renewable energy use becoming widespread in its various forms. Even then, projecting with fully funded R&D, the estimates were talking more 2015.

Hopefully, if the money is put into the research, the renewable revolution is coming. It's just a matter of developing the technology to the point where it is cost-effective. The only other options are government mandates and/or even larger subsidies.

Until then, well, my Toyota Corolla gets decent mileage.

Sabai said...
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Sabai said...

Isn't there a way for technology to be developed without the fed being the ones to pay for it?

Steve said...

Ideally, yeah, the research would be done by the companies who would eventually reap the profits.

I guess basically it circles back around to what the oil company officials were talking about in the initial post. Are free market forces, on their own, enough to shape a sustainable future. Or at what level of need does the government have to step in and do some prodding.

Jeff said...

I think the government should step in and help innovate this market, and as its established get out of the way.

Let's remind ourselves that it was government innovation and investment that started the railways and the internet. I think the renewable energy market is much the same, and the private sector won't innovate until it's more profitable. This is an issue I feel strongly that it's too important to wait on.

Sabai said...
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Sabai said...

I always heard the railways story as a good example of government waste. There were two railroad companies trying to build a route across the West. One sponsored by the Feds, one private. The Federal railway created this wacked out course that weaved, because the workers were getting paid per mile of track. The private company wanted to get it done as cheaply as possible because it was literally their money, and once it was done, they would get exclusive trading rights, etc.

Federal spending pays a lot of people whose goal is not to get the job done, but to stay on the job.