Book Review – Power of the People

I will finish up my long-promised concluding post in the recent series on ethanol and oil imports. I have been traveling for ten days, and inadvertently left all of my graphics for that post on another computer. I am back home now, and will try to tidy it up and post it in the next few days.

On the long plane ride back to Hawaii, I read Power of the People: America’s New Electricity Choices. I picked this book up at the 2009 Solar Tour – Pikes Peak Region, which I visited on my trip to Colorado. My new job has me getting more involved in the electricity sector, and I thought this would be a book that would help push me up the learning curve. A short description of the book:

America is as addicted to electricity as it is to oil. Our electricity usage increases every year, yet we still use the same transmission grid that was constructed in the middle of the last century. The grid is stretched to the limit, creating the potential of future black-outs like the one that brought the Northeast to its knees in 2003. Meanwhile, some of our most abundant and affordable generating fuels have become major culprits in global warming.

Power of the People explores in a nontechnical, conversational way some of the clean, green, 21st-century technologies that are available and how and why we should plug them into our national grid. This important essay explores our failure as a country to adopt these “no regrets” technologies and policies as swiftly as the rest of the world, and why it matters for the future of every American.

The author, Carol Sue Tombari, works for the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). Despite trying, I can’t find out what her exact position or qualifications are. Here biography says:

Carol Sue Tombari has specialized in energy and environmental policy and programs for more than 25 years. She directed the State of Texas’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, served as natural resources advisor to the lieutenant governor, and helped found the National Association of State Energy Officials.

In addition, she was appointed to federal advisory posts by two Federal Secretaries of Energy, chairing a Congressional advisory committee on the subject of renewable energy joint ventures and serving on the U.S. Department of Energy’s (USDOE) State Energy Advisory Board. Tombari is employed at the USDOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where she works on local and rural economic development. Ultimately, it is her love for the next generation that continues to drive her work to protect the future of our planet and the lives of those yet to come.

While I found myself learning more about the sector, many things she said left me puzzled. For instance, she claimed that the U.S. uses more energy per GDP than anyone else in the world. This is exactly the opposite of Jeff Rubin’s claim in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Rubin claimed that countries like China use a lot more energy per GDP, which was the basis of his argument that carbon tariffs could work in favor of countries like the U.S., who are more energy efficient at producing GDP. In fact, if you look at the EIA data on energy usage per dollar of GDP, you can see that the U.S. is on the low end of the scale. According to the EIA data, China, compared to the U.S., uses about four times the amount of energy per dollar of GDP. (Thanks to reader Clee for that reference).

The book is pretty anti-nuclear, and makes the claim that renewables are “considerably more affordable” than nuclear power. She seems to rely on Amory Lovins and Tom Friedman for these sorts of claims. The book is pretty realistic about coal, however, concluding that we will be relying on coal for a good many years. She did claim, though, that there have been no major technological innovations in coal-fired central station power plants since the 1950’s. I don’t consider that accurate, as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) seems like a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of the usage of coal for power production. Several of these IGCC plants will be coming online in the U.S. over the next decade, and a number have already been built in China. (You can see some of the plants that have been completed or are in progress around the world here).

There were some things I found annoying about the book. For instance, it had no graphs. However, on a number of occasions the author said “picture a graph in which the Y axis represents one variable, and the X axis another variable.” Why not just show a graph? Or if for some reason you are limited to no graphics, find another way to make the point.

There were some calculations that just didn’t make sense to me. For instance, she once calculated the required size of a PV system to run a household in Phoenix “if PV cells were 100% efficient.” Why not just do the actual calculation with typical PV efficiencies? She also commented that NREL had done a calculation in which they concluded that “100 square miles that constitute the Nevada Test Site” covered in PV arrays could meet the needs of the entire U.S. (without addressing storage). I did a similar calculation in which I tentatively came up with an area of about 100 miles by 100 miles. So I wonder if she didn’t mean that the NREL calculation concluded that a 100 mile square (10,000 square miles) would suffice.

She also spent a good deal of time talking about how a terrorist could bring down the transportation system or the electrical grid. I don’t think those are the kinds of ideas we want to plant in people’s heads.

One thing that isn’t clear to me is just how utilities benefit from efficiency improvements of their customers. She spent some time discussing various utility programs to improve the efficiency of the end user so they don’t have to construct new power plants. But utilities make their money selling electricity, don’t they? If customers improve efficiency, they just means they are selling less electricity to that customer. But there is apparently something to this model that I don’t fully understand, because I know that utilities are always pushing for – and even subsidizing – these sorts of programs. In Hawaii, the utility will pay for part of a solar hot water installation. So how do they benefit? Perhaps the utilities are compensated by various governments for pushing these efficiency programs. Otherwise, it seems that as consumers become more efficient, the utilities would have to charge more money for the electricity.

One other thing that was discussed – but that has always puzzled me – is the economic multiplier theory. She gave one example about how the benefits of a local Midwestern project ended up contributing three times the income generation to the local economy. Now I can see how a multiplier should work in theory. Pay a guy $100 in salary, and then he pays his taxes and turns around and spends that $100 in the local economy. That merchant then pays his taxes and spends some of it in the local economy, such that the initial $100 supports more than $100 in taxes and spending. In practice, it seems like if it really worked that way, we would subsidize everything. Why would we want to get any autos from Japan? Subsidize U.S. consumers for 50% of the cost of a domestic car, and then let the local multiplier give back 3-4 times that amount to the local community. But in reality, I don’t quite think it works out that way.

In summary, while it seems like I found a lot to nit-pick in the book, I did find a lot of useful information in there. Even the things I found puzzling caused me to think and to do additional research, which was helpful. The author spends a lot of time laying out the present situation with respect to electricity, and talking about the changes that need to happen. The author is peak oil aware, citing Matt Simmons and Tom Whipple (among others) with respect to a projected future energy crunch. I think the anti-nuclear stance was misguided, and I think she overestimates the ability of renewables to fill in for growing demand and the phase-out of older coal-fired power plants. In my view, it is hard to imagine how we are going to get by without building more nukes in the next few decades.

86 thoughts on “Book Review – Power of the People”

  1. I gotta say, I don't think electricity is the problem. A new power plant costs a billion dollars or so. We just spent a trillion dollars in Iraq, and we may spend another $500 billion in AfPak.
    Indeed, new lights, more efficient HVAC systems, and smarter buildings promise to keep new electrical demand down.
    We now enjoy a glut of natural gas (can be used to fire power plants) and we can build nukes if we want.
    Seems like we are trying to invent problems when we look at out power systems. They work, and can be expanded at will.

    The vulnerability we face is in liquid fuel, or ways to power cars and trucks.

    In that arena, if a few thug oil states get ugly, we face shortages and price spikes. Remember the 1979 oil embargo? It has happened. We also spend gobs of money importing oil, and the multiplier effect would be real if that money was spent in the United States.

    But our power grid. Maybe some worries there, but then we have worries about a lot of things.

    Our dependence on imported oil strikes me as a much more serious concern.

    I actually went to school with Carol Sue Tombari, more than a few moons back. She has spent her life in the public sector, and probably means well.
    I hope there is a future for wind and solar, but I hope it is somewhat tested by the price mechanism. I also like the idea of mini-nukes, and do not think we should ever bow to terrorists in deciding how to power our future.

  2. Hi RR, I am curious what you think of Amory Lovins. Did you read his Winning the Oil Endgame? His main argument re nukes is that they are too costly and uncompetitive in a free market place (like your views on most ethanol?). And that is before you factor in security issues, toxic waste, liability insurance etc…

  3. I am curious what you think of Amory Lovins. Did you read his Winning the Oil Endgame?

    We have the book in the office, but I haven't read it yet. I do have a meeting with one of the co-authors of the book this week at my office.

    I agree with much of what Lovins says, but I don't believe Lovins is entirely objective in his assessments of nuclear power. I also don't think he has been properly held accountable for numerous incorrect predictions.

    Robert Bryce has taken some of his predictions apart:

    Amory Lovins: Guru or Fakir?

    There seems to be a pattern here among Lovins that includes cherry-picking data to support his viewpoint. A number of people have noted this:

    Amory Lovins rides again and speaks with a forked tongue

    Alexander DeVolpi versus Amory Lovins: Part II

    Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion – Final Thoughts

    In summary, I think there are a lot of questions around the credibility of many of his claims. I have also seen him claim things like "If we used cellulosic ethanol, we would save a lot of money on fuel." That is just patently false.


  4. “is the economic multiplier theory”

    Move to a rural county with a nuke plant if you are having trouble understanding the concept. Power plants create jobs and pay taxes. People who work at power plants pay taxes and are active in the community. They do not leave their CPR and first aid training at the gate.

    The problem with the multiplier theory is that somebody has to pay. Last year California's renewable energy mandate resulted in 500 MW of new capacity. The problem for California is that 430 MWe was built in other states. The jobs and property taxes are in other states.

  5. “Amory Lovins and Tom Friedman”

    Who have not experience at producing energy. This can be said for about just about everyone at NREL. Of course that is not their job. Spending tax dollars is the specialty of DOE. I did not find DOE a particularly helpful source of information when developing renewable energy projects.

    Here is the deal. Electricity is cheap and producing it has insignificant. Lovins and Friedman make a living by telling you how bad things are. I am not sure what RR likes about fear mongers who are always wrong.

    Having an adequate reserve margin is not a glut. The most expensive with the highest environmental impact is the MWh that is not available.

  6. Power plants create jobs and pay taxes. People who work at power plants pay taxes and are active in the community.

    And another good things about power plants is that those jobs stay here. No one has yet figured out how to build a power plant in India to light the bulbs in a California house.

    A massive infrastructure investment in building power plants in the U.S. would have several benefits — and that money would stay within our borders. It would supply jobs, prepare us for the future, and meet our energy addiction.

    America is as addicted to electricity as it is to oil.

    I'd argue that we are addicted to neither electricity nor oil. What we are addicted to is the profligate use of energy to make our lives easier — and arguably better. (Oil is just the easiest way to supply our energy fix.)

    It matters little whether that energy comes from oil, nuclear, geothermal, biomass, wind, or the tides. Just as long as the energy keeps flowing and increasing to meet our addiction.

  7. Isobutane can go toward making propane, right?

    You might get propane as a byproduct of a reaction involving isobutane, but I can't think of any reason anyone would use isobutane for the purpose of making something less valuable like propane. Now if you could turn propane into isobutane… Can you link to where you read this?


  8. I was just looking at isobutane on wiki, and noticed that that was one of the things you can do with isobutane. I got to thinking about they might have some on their hands after getting away from MTBE.

    Then I saw somewhere, TOD, I think, that Propane sales were up, significantly, and got to thinking about it. If it's a goofy idea I'll withdraw it. I know absolutely nothing about refining petroleum, etc. Just a thought.

  9. Robert,
    As I read more about shale gas technology, I believe it to be a potential "disruptive technology." It may prove to reduce reliance on coal plants and make nuclear plants unnecessary. It is my hope that America will use this boon to invest in cleaner technology and mitigate the effects of peak oil.
    I would love to see you write about these possibilities in your blog. What would a long glut in the natural gas markets do during a time of decreasing oil supplies? Could transportation switch fuels fast enough to avoid problems with BAU?


  10. …a potential "disruptive technology."

    That would be vast quantities of methane clathrates we are only now staring to explore.

  11. Natural gas is not a "disruptive technology." it is a relatively expensive fossil. Once NG is processed it is cleaner than home heating with wood or coal.

    NG is an excellent way of making electricity. CCGT ands SCGT can be built cheaply and quickly. Base load NG is about twice as expensive as nukes or coal plants. Ten years ago it was a different story. North America did have a glut of NG. The electricity generating industry took care of that by increasing NG share by 10%.

    Along with cheap NG went lots of jobs making thing like plastic and ammonia. It now cost more than $4/MMBTU to produce shale gas. Anyone who thinks NG can replace the 70% share of electricity produced by coal and nukes does not understand the scale of industrial development that will be needed.

    We do not have a glut of NG in North America. The increase demand for NG from producing electricity came at the expense of industrial decreases. It took increasing the rig count from 500 to 1500 when the economy was booming and building LNG terminals to keep up.

    Thanks to a mild summer and deep recession we now have an adequate supply of NG. My electricity rates are low because coal is the main source. I have an all electric house so others will have to comment on the cost of NH for heat.

  12. Halfway through your post, and you've convinced me not to read the book. The writer doesn't know the difference between 100 square miles and 100 miles square. I wouldn't trust anything in the book.

  13. "America is as addicted to electricity as it is to oil."

    Dumb, dumb, dumb. The lady obviously wants to go back to the days before energy "addiction" — when 1 woman in 7 died in childbirth, children had to work down mines out of necessity, and ordinary people faced periodic famines when the local crop failed and it was not possible to transport supplies from areas with surpluses.

    We are no more "addicted" to electricity than we are "addicted" to clean water. An addiction makes an individual's life worse, not better. Big Government (complete with its NREL) — now there's an addiction!

  14. utility programs to improve the efficiency of the end user so they don’t have to construct new power plants. But utilities make their money selling electricity, don’t they?

    New plants cost more money to build than the old plants did. It's cheaper to keep running the current (paid off) plants at 2 to 6 cents per KWH than to build new ones that will require selling the electricity at 7 to 11 cents/KWH to pay off the construction loans. See the pdf linked at the bottom of
    "Assuming a 50 percent debt/50 percent equity capital structure typical of a regulated electric company, and assuming the company is permitted to recover the cost of capital during construction (CWIP), NEI’s financial model shows the levelized cost of electricity from [a new nuclear] plant ranges from $74/MWh to $88/MWh – competitive with a gas-fired combined cycle plant burning gas at $8-10/mmBtu or an IGCC plant"

    I believe that means if natural gas stays below the $7-8/MMBTU range, as you suggested in your CNG post, then a new natural gas combined cycle plant would have a lower levelized cost of energy than a new utility-owned nuclear plant.

    Also, as you say, the utilities are sometimes compensated and sometimes required by various governments to push the efficiency programs.

  15. The US isn't anywhere close to using more energy per GDP than anyone else in the world. China does use more energy per GDP than the US.

    I knew I had seen that somewhere. Per the exchange-rate adjusted table, China uses 4 times the energy per dollar of GDP. That is consistent with Rubin's claims. I don't know where she came up with that claim.

    I will update the essay.

    Thanks, RR

  16. "But utilities make their money selling electricity, don’t they? If customers improve efficiency, they just means they are selling less electricity to that customer. But there is apparently something to this model that I don't fully understand, because I know that utilities are always pushing for – and even subsidizing – these sorts of programs."

    The keyword is decoupling. Look here for the answer:

  17. Robert, I think you should have commented on this, too : "Meanwhile, some of our most abundant and affordable generating fuels have become major culprits in global warming."

    We don't know that. In fact, new evidence coming up every day points either to the contrary, or to anthropic CO2's effect being minimal.

    It has come to the point where even the BBC has had to admit the science is far from settled on AGW :

  18. “I believe that means if natural gas stays below the $7-8/MMBTU range,”

    Wow, that takes a lot of faith. Just 10 years ago the ceiling on NG was $4/MMBTU. It has doubled along with the cost of generation since fuel is the largest cost for CCGT.

    Those nuke plants plants that are entering a 20 year design life extension are making electricity at less than 2 cent/kwh while replacement CCGT is greater than 10 cents/kwh.

    $80/MWh x 1000 MWe x 24h/d = $1.92M savings per day.

    Florida is one of the states that is allowing CWIP for nukes. The Florida PUC denied the last permit for a coal plant. That leaves NG and nukes. The Florida PUC has lots of experience with both. NG generation is a drain on the state's economy because the money leaves the state. Most of the dollars for high construction cost stay in state. In a few years, the nuke plant will be paid off. New nukes will have even lower operating costs and have a design like of 60 years.

  19. The US isn't anywhere close to using more energy per GDP than anyone else in the world. China does use more energy per GDP than the US.

    If your country makes alot of cement,steel,drywall,cars your GNP will use more energy per GNP. If your country has more fast food, healthcare,insurance,financial services you will most likely use less energy per GNP.

    Just because a country uses more energy per GNP does not been it's less efficent necessarily.

    I would think the average house hold uses less energy in China than the US

  20. Per the exchange-rate adjusted table, China uses 4 times the energy per dollar of GDP

    The PPP table is more meaningful, and shows China about 1.5x US levels. The US is higher than 1st world nations like France, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Japan, etc., but not as much as you'd expect considering their extreme rate and tax structures (that's why I continually say a $1/gal gas tax will have virtually zero impact on our oil import dependency).

    The US does rank very high in terms of energy per capita.

    But utilities make their money selling electricity, don’t they?

    Not really. Utilities are granted 10% return on equity, give or take. If they "invest" in customer efficiency and their PUC lets them add it to their rate base then their profits will increase just the same as if they invested the money in a new coal plant. Since customer efficiency programs generate better PR and no angry protesters storming the gates, you begin to see the appeal.

  21. Nebraska Corn Board study on E10-E85 efficiency mpg in FFVs. Good test procedures but only three study points. General conclusion is E10, E20 and E30 specific consumption are similar but E85 burns 10-15% more efficiently so MPG does not drop as much as expected.

  22. “you begin to see the appeal”

    No Actually!

    Utilities are in the business of providing reliable service. Part of this effort is looking 10 to 20 years down the road to determine what resources are needed. If it looks like a new power plant is needed, then the utility will develop a public relations campaign that includes a conservation program.

    A good friend on mine is a conservation officer at a PNW PUD. He tells me that conservation is a very unreliable source of new capacity.

    All the advocates of conservation do not know anything about it beyond reading a book. It is not something they actually practice as a personal ethic.

  23. With all due respect to Ms. Tombari, she doesn't know what she is talking about. No technological innovations for coal fired power plants? What about supercritical and ultra SC steam plants? Here is a short paper that describes the potential:
    Elsam Project

    One of our partners is building a 42% efficient SC pulverized coal plant. With some new and cheaper alloys coming out we could see conventional steam plants top the 50% efficiency mark.

    But I guess for anyone who relies on Amory Lovins and Tom Friedman for their energy analysis, these invonvenient advances in technology don't fit the politics.

    I've lately argued with environmentalists that if they REALLY cared about global warming they would be supporting new PC plants (and nuclear). Nearly all the new PC (pulverized coal) ones are SC and built next to an old sub-critical steam plant. Once built the new plants will ALWAYS dispatch ahead of the older plant because of efficiency. Opposing new coal just props up older, dirtier coal plants.

  24. RR,

    OT but here's a halfway interesting article by an oil "insider"

    This is an interesting analysis of future oil biz by a former ARAMCO petroleum engineer.

    A Lot of Money Equals 'A Little Oil'

    A brief quote from the article:


    "The way you have to look at long-term supply is as a function of several factors. There are the technical factors: reserves, decline rates, depletion. There are the economic factors: investment rates based on price, based on the outlook for profitability."

    "There are opportunity issues: access to exploration areas, access to depleted fields that maybe could benefit from enhanced recovery.

    And then there are the general geopolitical issues: can you get access to some areas; instability in Nigeria; Venezuelan domestic policy; Russian policies.

    So the long term is not strictly technical; it’s technical, political and economic."

    Of course all this has been discussed by yourself and a number of your bloggers, There is some interesting info, however, about the oil biz in Iraq.


  25. “ALWAYS dispatch ahead of the older plant because of efficiency.”

    The order in which power plants are dispatched is important to understanding the market. Low fuel cost like nukes and renewable energy are always dispatched first unless they have unless storage capacity is an issue like for hydro. As King suggest, the most efficient coal plants come on line next.

    For anybody serious about understand the electricity market, regular visits to PJM are a must:

    In the lower right corner of web page is a ticker for cost of buying power on the PJM.

    If you want to see what can happen when NG is being dispatched on a cold day (not today) follow

    According to a friend from NY State, things get interesting when electric space heating starts supplementing normal home heating.

    Tom arrows quiz question: Why are Ohio coal plants supplying snooty New Englanders electricity via PJM?

  26. How does one obtain a long list of political positions and appointments with no apparent prerequisite qualifications?

  27. “How does one obtain a long list of political positions and appointments with no apparent prerequisite qualifications?”

    Start with the California PUC.

  28. “Today, with more than 17,000 MW of supercritical generation, AEP own and/or operates North America's largest fleet of high efficiency supercritical coal units.”

    For folks in California who do not remember what clean air is like, come to AEP coal country. It is a bit of a commute to Nordstrom's however.

  29. But avoid Jefferson County, Ohio in AEP territory which ranks in the top 10% worst counties in the US for CO emissions, NOx emissions and SO2 emissions.

    Where the Sammis power plant and AEP's Cardinal coal plant accounted for 95% of the NOx emissions and 88% of the SO2 emissions in 1999, and are both rated among the Dirtiest/Worst Facilities in the US in 5 out of 6 air emissions categories.

  30. Seems that Sierra Club would rather keep old coal fired power and rejects the cleaner, ultramodern facilities.

    Oh? What old coal fired power plant is the Sierra Club trying to keep? Often when a new coal plant is built, it is to replace older less efficient plants with a new one that generates more MWs while not increasing air emissions, and the air permit requires that the older plant(s) be shut down once the new one is online. I didn't see that in this case, but maybe I don't know where to look.

  31. "yet we still use the same transmission grid that was constructed in the middle of the last century. "

    That makes me feel downright ancient.

  32. Oh? What old coal fired power plant is the Sierra Club trying to keep?

    None, but this is the practical effect of their protests. By opposing every new plant they make it virtually impossible for utilities to shut down older and less efficient plants.

    A good example is the Big Stone II plant in South Dakota. Sierra Club and the usual suspects are protesting the plant even though with the new pollution control equipment at BSII the COMBINED output of SOX, NOX, and other listed pollutants will be less than BSI operating on its own. BSII is 20% more efficient than BSI and will dispatch out AHEAD of BSI.

    Another example of environmental stupidity is the Kingsnorth plant in Kent. E.ON, the Germany utility, wanted to build a new, highly efficient, USC state-of-the-art pulverized coal plant and tear down the existing plant. Now they have cancelled those plans. So they will continue to operate the existing plant.

    It is a reverse cash-for-clunkers program. It would be like me going down to the Toyota lot with a sign urging people to NOT buy a Pious but instead keep your SUV because the Pious still burns gasoline and doesn't run on wind or moonbeams or whatever.

  33. OT. but worth noting:

    "Oil demand in developed countries — currently 54 percent of all oil demand — likely reached its all-time peak in 2005, according to a new research report by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. While world oil demand is now set to grow as the world economy moves from recession to recovery, the demand lost in 30 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is not likely to ever be regained, the report finds.
    "The economic downturn has been masking a larger trend in the oil demand of developed countries," said IHS CERA Chairman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Prize, Daniel Yergin. "The fact is that OECD oil demand has been falling since late 2005, well before the Great Recession began.""

    The Oil Era is ending, right before our eyes. Demand is going down–and we have yet to bring on CNG and PHEV cars and trucks. Or serious amounts of biofuels.

    Peak Oil=Peak Unimportance

  34. Clee, you are kidding right? Clee thinks JEFFERSON County Ohio has bad air quality. Clee is confusing emissions with air quality. Honest mistake because he selected a fear mongering ‘community right to know’ web site. I have used ‘community right to know’ web sites many times. There are good ones and fear mongering ones.

    Forty years ago (before CAA), it I wanted to pick a place besides LA that had bad air quality; I would draw a line from Youngstown and Pittsburg. Chicago to Gary Indiana was bad too because of lots of steel mills.

    Santa Clara County California was a nice place to live forty years ago. Clean air, good schools, low crime, affordable housing.

    So lets look at the data from Clee’s fear mongering ‘community right to know’ web site.

    For JEFFERSON County Ohio (place with coal plants)
    Percentage of days with unhealthful air quality for sensitive populations = 2
    Percentage of days with unhealthful air quality = 0 %
    Ozone 1-hour average concentration: 50-60%
    Person-days in exceedance of national air quality standard for ozone (8-hour) 30-40% of worst cities.

    For SANTA CLARA County (place without coal plants)
    Ozone 1-hour average concentration: 60-70%
    Person-days in exceedance of national air quality standard for ozone (8-hour): 90-100% of worst cities.

    For SACRAMENTO County (place without coal plants)
    Percentage of days with unhealthful air quality = 2%
    Ozone 1-hour average concentration: 70-80%
    Person-days in exceedance of national air quality standard for ozone (8-hour): 90-100% of worst cities.

    The first point here is that forty years after the CAA, most Americans enjoy clean air most of the time. The last time I saw air pollution was in Santa Clara County. It was so bad we checked in to a hotel because my wife is among the sensitive populations group. To be fair, the pollution was caused by forest fires.

    The second point is that AEP’s coal plants provide a huge benefit for a huge number of people. If I want to reduce pollution I would start by shutting down gas stations in California. Reducing gasoline use in California 50% would likely be huge benefit for a huge number of people.

  35. By your logic on technology, then we could say that electric cars and hybrids aren't really new because Edison and Ford worked on them nearly 100 years ago. Nothing new invented there.

    Solar, nope, invented in the 1950s. Wind – thousands of years old.

  36. Maury

    Did you look at the PJM?

    The US grid is very robust. Look at the places where large scale blackouts stopped. Lots of changes in the last 50 years.

    There are a few weak spots. Round up the usual suspects and you will find places like California and NY. It is not that utilities do not know where they are needed. The same folks that want renewable energy fight new transmission lines.

    There are also new standards for power plants to keep running through grid upsets. A new power plant will keep running at reduce power supplying house loads if the grid goes down. Then will make restoring the grid much faster than in the past. It is more of a matter of design philosophy than anything else. I wrote the technical guide for my company. Rather than allow a domino effect, you design to prevent it.

    In the good old days when large reserve margins existed, frequency deviations were not an issue.

  37. I would like to know if natural gas is not currently abundant in the US, why has my natural gas rate been lowered not once, but twice in the last year? Also, why have I seen CEO after CEO of different NG drilling companies on bloomberg, or such, saying we have an over-supply of natural gas which will keep prices down for the near future?

    I'm not trying to be rude, I'm genuinely curious. Thanks!

  38. Over on TOD, they have a post that there may be 500 billion barrels of crude in the Tupi region of Brazil. More than Saudi Arabia.Some say Uganda also has an enormous reserve. We know Venezuela has a trillion barrels in the Orinoco trench.
    The question–will anybody want that oil in 25 more years?

  39. In Germany, feed in tarrif:

    “Owners of solar panels receive as much 43 euro cents (64 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour of power they generate. That’s set to fall as solar equipment becomes cheaper. The normal consumer price per kilowatt-hour is about 20 euro cents.”

    In California (from Dow Jones but sorry no link):

    “California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation Sunday that will create a European-style above-market tariff, called a feed-in tariff, for small solar-panel generators.


    Some solar companies said the bill's pricing scheme would create a feed-in tariff of about 15 to 17 cents a kilowatt-hour, which they said wouldn't be high enough to spur significant investment.”

  40. OptimisticDoomer said…

    Could you be more specific when you say “my natural gas rate been lowered”?

    What was the rate 10 years ago and what is the rate now? What is the 20 year trend?

    My coal generated electricity has gone from 5 cents/kwh to 7 cents/kwh because of the cost of pollution controls. Someplace else NG generated electricity has gone from 15 cents/kwh to 12 cents/kwh because of decrease in NG. Who is better off?

    While NG is abundant, we do not have an oversupply we have an under demand. Much of the cause is the people put out of work by short terming thinking by ‘CEO after CEO’ in the NG industry. Damaging the US economy is okay as long as they make their short term profits.

    I am not trying to be rude when I wonder what ‘near future’ means for folks with an attention span of 15 minutes. In the electricity generating industry, decisions are made for 60 years.

    The ramifications of over capacity are small. The consequences of under supply are huge.

  41. Oooops……

    "At a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., Secretary Chu apparently stated that "if it were up to me, I would put every cent into electric cars." This statement, if it is being represented correctly, is a shift away from the Obama administration's policy on alternative fuels. The Department of Energy (DOE) has not commented on the alleged statement."

    Chu knows as a physicict that electro-magnetic induction if far more efficient than any of the schemes to preserve the internal combustion engine, including bio-fuels, CNG and and the other so-called fuels for the ICE such as CTL, Biomass to Liquids, etc.

    Once you get rid of the internal combustion engine, the air clears.


  42. Well, I can only say we have lived here for about 8 years and prices have held fairly steady during that time. Although they did seem to spike slightly in 2007, if memory serves me. The long trend i'm sure is up, but so is everything else. Isn't that what inflation does? I know i'm paying 3x more for bread now, but I see no shortage of breads.

    Let me make sure I understand your view point. You base natural gas supplies solely on the price mechanism? Is that correct? It is obvious natural gas drilling is more costly now than 20 years ago, but does that really correlate to the size of the plays?

    I do agree wholeheartedly with your last line.

  43. John-
    I think so too, about the air. I can see a dar=y when certain major cities ban ICEs. Los Angeles for one, Denver–cities with inversion layers or bad air.
    Who has the right to pollute air we breath? This is not a question the free market can answer, or even taxation.
    It is an exciting era. I can tell you, without ICEs, Los Angeles takes another giant step towards paradise…our air is already much cleaner than 20 years ago….

  44. Ohay Ben'

    I lived out there in the early 60's and went to High School at "Surf's Up" SAMOHI in Santa Monica. The air on certain days was unbearable.

    CNG cars would further help or electrics, even bio-fuels. I think eventually we will end up driving electric cars. I'm not as Hebrew Prophet, so I'm not flat out predicting that, but I think it;s quite possible.

    It will no happen over-night but a comple transition to CNG cars would also take some time,

    The oil companies will, of course, fight like hell for their beloved ICE and to keep refining gasoline from crude. It's going to get "messy".


  45. John-
    GM is already bringing a PHEV, and so are all other automakers. Big Oil doesn't really care. They can make plenty of money in a shrinking market–we are talking generations of good profits on shrinking volume.
    Listen the air in Sanat Monica was good–try growing up in Pasadena in the 1950s. The air literally killed yard plants, and nearby spinach farms. In Altadena, you couldn't see the foothills, and half-mile away. People cried in the afternoons.
    People who don;t like regualtions never lived through that period. And we were lucky–a Denora never happened.

  46. OptimisticDoomer

    You really did not answer my question, what is the rate you pay for NG. It should be on your bill.

    Here is an example. Ten years ago, I worked for a large producer of electricity and natural gas. We were marketing 20 year contracts for NG including delivering it to industrial customers. The local pipeline was becoming constrained and we were working on expanding capacity.

    As it turns out, a few years later I was doing work for one of the industrial customers who had made a sweet deal NG. While other jobs were lost in the area that depended on cheap natural gas, that facility is expanding.

    The point here is that the amount you pay for energy may depend on foresight and good management. Then on the other hand, the amount you pay for energy may depend on a pack of idiots (very likely if you live in California).

    So if your rates are low, they can only go up. If your rates are high, they might come down.

    “You base natural gas supplies solely on the price mechanism? Is that correct?”

    No! Lots of factors. Gathering and process facilities, pipelines and so forth. I also think there are large amounts of NG that are off limits for political reasons that could developed at lower cost. That is more of an opinion than anything else.

  47. The oil companies will, of course, fight like hell for their beloved ICE and to keep refining gasoline from crude. It's going to get "messy".
    Oh yeah? How is that?

    Is the monster Big Oil going to leap from under the bed at night, to force the kids to drink gasoline? Will they donate cars to people? Take over the government's loans to GM and Chrysler? The only way we taxpayers will ever get repaid, but I digress…

    And what would that accomplish? Keep OPEC rich? Keep Big Oil in his happy polygamous marriage with Nigeria, Hugo Chavez, Russia etc. etc. Yeah! They'll fight for that!

    Or may they'll get innovative and find alternate "green" feedstocks for their liquid fuel products…

  48. Kit, we are paying $9.58 per DTH if i'm reading my bill right. I only have bills as far back as 2007 & back then we were paying $9.25, so I guess you are right. Rebates now because we are overpaying.

    Supposedly our state already has one of the lowest rates in the country, but I haven't researched that, so I'm just going by what the local news has said.

    I'd be curious to know your opinion on the new shale plays.. a bunch of hype, or??

  49. "People who don;t like regualtions never lived through that period."

    Does LA still have that purple haze hanging over it Benny? I lived in Long Beach for a couple of years in the mid-80's. Had a persistent sore throat the whole time. Other than breathing,I loved the atmosphere….LOL.

  50. As far as I find the Stephen Chu 'statement' about putting everything in electric cars is something heard from a brother who's wife got it from her hairdresser etc—

    Portland OR – in the early 70's you could not see Mt Hood on a clear day in the summer. By the late 70's you could see it every day. Due to regulations and good enforcement.

    I can remember flying across the US and around the world when you didn't constantly see the brown haze. It is worse over India and Asia but you can't escape the mess.

    Just to keep from making the mess worse is one big effort and badly needed.

    I always enjoy the 'big oil will stop electric cars' or 'who killed the electric car'! About like the 100 mpg carb and many other old wives tales.

  51. Russ,

    Yes, I think Chu's statement may have been said at a cocktail party, if it is indeed accurate. I don't think it was said as a policy statement from the Obama administration.

    Yes, good old Oregon. I was living there when Mount St. Helens went off. As a matter of fact I was driving down I-5 from Seattle to Portland when the thing blew. Amazing.

    Wyden like many Oregon politicians is beholden to the "Greens". Like most politicians he says things he thinks will give him political traction.

    I agree that we need to clean up the brown haze. I only saw the Santa Catalina Mountains twice in the year and a half I lived in L.A.

    As far as the oil companies go, I'm sure they would love to return to the heyday of American oil when we were net exporters of oil and the sources were domestic.

    On the other hand I find it hard to believe that the oil companies are waiting with breathless anticipation for the day when the internal combustion engine (that runs on oil) will be replaced by the electric motor.


  52. That's why I think big oil will move into deep geothermal John. All those cars need energy,whether it's electric or liquid. Exxon has a 38,000 ft. deep well in Russia. The oil is offshore,but it was drilled from onshore. Oil is over 400 degrees when a well goes below 30,000 ft. If Exxon uses an injection well to enhance recovery at this site,they'll have a deep geothermal resource at their disposal once the oil's gone. Big oil can make a seamless transition to deep geothermal when they feel the time is right.

  53. Maury.

    Yes. yes .yes. I simply cannot understand why the oil companies have not become more involved in Geo-thermal.

    The basic tech is oil biz stuff and the oil companies have most of the drilling patents.

    Why not ?

    Complete mystery to me. Money is money. Greenbacks are greenbacks. I have no idea why the oil companies don't do this.

    Apparently the margins are still better for crude where volatility rules and the spot price can make you rich.

    Perhaps that's better than grinding out electricity at a set rate on long term contracts. (20-30 years)

    The oil companies have been doing hydrofrac for years. When the geothermal people "caused an earth-quake" in Switzerland it was a big deal. Hell, the oil companies have been accused for years for doing exactly the same thing – causing earth-quakes.

    Complete mystery to me.


  54. They just recently started drilling below 30,000 ft. John. I doubt any wells at that depth have been depleted yet. Most are offshore,and few are likely to be deep geothermal candidates. Those that are will need more than a single injection and production hole to produce significant quantities of electricity. In the meantime,technology is advancing rapidly. 150 degree water can turn turbines today. New fluids are being tested that can retain more heat for longer periods. You can bet big oil is watching and waiting for the right time. Btw,40,000 ft. seems to be the limit for oil reservoirs. At that depth,hydrocarbons are cooked off. So,it's not like oil companies can keep finding oil indefinitely. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel now.

  55. OptimisticDoomer

    Thanks for the information. The last time I has NG in my house cost were so low as not to worry about it. If you heat your home with NG could you share what the cost is for home heating? I have an all electric house with a mild winter climate. I would estimate heating cost are $400/year using an efficient heat pump.

    “shale plays.. a bunch of hype, or”

    It is real, no hype. I no longer work for a company that develops NG so I do not have any inside information. NG electricity generation was the future so my old company sold off all the engineers that did other stuff than NG. Now my old company is buying services from present company. Being sold like a baseball player was depressing at the time but getting to play in the big leagues makes up for it.

    If you want to know the cost of fuel to make electricity, down load the Energy Markets Report at

    The last page provides a nice graph of Fuel Cost to Electric Utilities.

  56. Maury-
    The air a lot cleaner. It is common to see 50 miles now in winter.
    The next step, I hope, is the PHEV or BEV. Though it would nettle me, I hope the next step is the elimination of the ICE from the Southland basin. Hard to justify using the air as a sewer.

  57. Speaking of Mount Hood. This web cam provides a nice picture:

    At least when the weather is nice. Rain fall is about 9”/year so it is nice most of the time. Just east, is the Boardman coal power plant. The loons 200 miles west in Portland think it is the coal plant that causes haze not all the cars in Portland. How come environmentalist are so ignorant of the environment?

    For those who like to sail or windsurf, this is God’s country. Remember when Kerry was going to fly his wife plane across country, dress in purple spandex and demonstrate his environmentalism by windsurfing.

    Picture the egotist who does not understand putting 10 intercity boy scouts on a small sail boat might have been an image of a less self indulged politician.

    I did learned sail in Newport, RI thanks to my rich uncle. Same one Rufus had.

  58. Benny, electric vehicles are definitely the future. A PHEV can get twice the fuel efficiency of internal combustion even if it's never plugged in. The onboard generator always operates at peak efficiency. That has me wondering how long before we see EV's with lead acid batteries and gas generators,with no plug in capability. That would do away with high battery costs and provide 75 or 80MPG. In theory at least.

  59. If you heat your home with NG could you share what the cost is for home heating?

    We heat with gas & our hot water heater is also gas. Our gas bill is extremely low in the summer months, usually <$20. It starts creeping up in November & usually peaks in January or February at around $200. We do equal pays though, so we pay roughly $80 each month.

    We made a serious effort this past year to lower our heating bill by adding extra insulation to our attic. We are also lucky in the sense that all our large windows are south facing so we can do some passive solar heating. Hopefully it will all pay off.

    Thanks for the information. That pdf was especially informative. I'm disheartened to see the planned nuclear column at 0!

  60. Maury, Ben………

    Ultra-Battery Sets New Standard For Hybrid Electric Vehicles

    ScienceDaily (Jan. 22, 2008) —

    "The odometer of a low emission hybrid electric test vehicle recently reached 100,000 miles as the car circled a track in the UK using the power of an advanced CSIRO battery system.

    The Ultra-Battery combines a super-capacitor and a lead acid battery in a single unit, creating a hybrid car battery that lasts longer, costs less and is more powerful than current technologies used in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs)."

    The ultra-cap lead-acid combo excedes NiMh in efficiency and over-all cost efficiency…

    Wow …………

    We are not even talking about PHEV's here but about a less expensive battery system for standard hybrids such as the Toyota and Ford parallel (shared drive-train) hybrids.

    Battery advances are happening rapidly as demand for them increases.


  61. Very interesting John. I guess the capacitor keeps the battery from being drained. Lead acid batteries will last as long as anything if they can maintain an 80% charge.

  62. Hi Kit P, The average annual rainfall in Portland is more like 43 inches – not 9 inches – that number is for east of the Cascade mountains. It only rains about 6 months out of the year! Mid June through December is nice.

    Last I knew, the weather in Oregon went from west to east – with Boardman being well east of Portland plus across the mountains I am not sure that is the major cause of Portland pollution. I am not a green type either.

    I spent my time in the same canoe club as you it sounds like – some 40 years back.

  63. Very interesting John. I guess the capacitor keeps the battery from being drained. Lead acid batteries will last as long as anything if they can maintain an 80% charge.


    I think the Ultra-Cap can instantaneously absorb energy "spikes" from the regenerative braking system then distribute them to the battery over time.

    Don't have any specs but I think the ultra-cap is acting as a buffer and not a storage device. The re-gen braking energy is distributed slowly as the ultra cap discharges into the battery between acceleration and braking cycles.


  64. I am a layman, so it is very difficult for me to know what is real and what is hype in the battery world. Still, serious industry people think that batteries will double in performance in the next 10 years. and maybe quadruple.
    My back-of-the-envelope calculations are that if batteries do double in performace, and gasoline gets expensive, then we will see a heavy consumer migration to PHEVs, or even BEVs.
    I just don't know if oil will get expensive in the next 30 years. What if Venezuela opens up the Orinoco trench, or the Tupi in Brazil realy has 500 billion barrels (they say so), or Iran, Iraq and Libya all settle down? We culd have another generation or two of cheap oil–and maybe a couple after that, if all goes well.

    People can switch to CNG also.

    Still, it makes sense for certain cities to mandate PHEVs, for economic reasons. Los Angeles today likely would not have all the expensive homes and high-tech businesses we do if we had not controlled smog.
    And even cleaner and quieter future will attract more residents and wealth.
    It is just good business for Los Angeles to move to PHEVs.

  65. “I'm disheartened to see the planned nuclear column at 0!”


    At this time, 30+ reactors are in the planning stage but none will come on line in the next five years. It is beginning to look like it will take longer to get a permit from the NRC than to actually build a plant.

    Watts Bar II us under construction and TVA is investigating restarting construction on two others. Three factories to manufacture heavy components and prefabricated modular units in the US are under construction too.

  66. Ben,

    It's really simple actually. One of the big "bitch, bitch, bitch" items concerning electric cars has been that electric cars take too long to charge up.

    Capacitors can absorb re-charge energy faster than batteries.

    Since batteries are kinda slow, the addition of a capacitor helps. It smooths the re-charge thing out because you can't just "hammer" batteries with huge amounts of energy instantaneously,

    The internal resistance of the Batteries causes them to "fry" like the lap-top batteries that caught fire.


  67. Russ, you are correct except for your assumption about the camera location.

    “Camera looks to the West toward the Dalles. Brought to you by the U.S. Forest Service.”

    I started grade school near Seattle which has more sunny days in February than Sacramento. Understanding weather patters is a little bit important for operating power plants and predicting day ahead demand..

    I am sure that the 'green types' know that the Boardman coal plant is not causing haze but no one says propaganda has to be accurate. OMG haze! I was stationed in Long Beach in 1971. That was not haze. At the time I was standing watch in the engine room on a WWII era destroyer, hot bunking, and on water hours. Twelve guys who could not take living in a room the size of my son's bedroom.

    Pollution is relative but if you are worried about haze and ghg I am think you are having trouble understanding that is what the natural world is all about.

  68. "Yes. yes .yes. I simply cannot understand why the oil companies have not become more involved in Geo-thermal."

    Human beings are strange! Rufus with his ethanol. Benny with his CNG. Maury with his deep geothermal. We see something we wish were so — and in out minds it becomes so. Then the hard fact that it is not so in the real world becomes something for us to puzzle over. Oil executives must be stupid, or something. Man, the opportunity is so obvious!

    Maury's particular bee in the bonnet about deep geothermal has been asked & answered so many times already — sort of like ethanol.

    Chevron, an oil company, is one of the world's largest geothermal providers. They use the only economic source of geothermal heat — those few locations where Mother Nature has brought very hot water close to the surface.

    Deep genothermal is entirely different. It faces completely different problems, some of which are technical (can be solved by engineering someday) and some of which are "Laws of Physics" kinds of things (we're stuck).

    Maury would know this if he opened his mind to new information. And you too might learn that those evil oil exectives are not turning their backs on a good opportunity out of stupidity or ignorance.

  69. Kit P-

    Forgive an uninformed question: Why doesn't the nuke industry develop plans for one plant, get it approved, and then replicate that plant nationwide?
    Is the NRC so obstructive, they won't say, "Yes, this is a good plant design, replicate at will?"

  70. Doctor K.

    Look. what I said about geo-thermal is not a slam against the oil companies. Not at all…

    I was simply wondering (out loud) why the oil companies haven't pursued geothermal.

    It's not a big issue with me,

    It just seemed like a logical question.


  71. John,

    The oil and geothermal industries don't have as much in common as you might think. The obvious similarity is in drilling, obtaining the necessary rights, and geological skills. But there are a lot of differences too.

    Finding oil reserves is all about working with sedimentary models; locating traps; predicting reservoir presence, extent, and quality; and risking the presence of hydrocarbon source rock and oil expulsion and migration. Geothermal is more about finding hot (and not too deep) places in the earth's crust. Generally speaking, hydrocarbons and geothermal energy don't get along well: if it's hot enough to generate steam at relatively shallow depths, it's probably too hot for oil to be present (it will cook into gas and likely escape). So there tends to be a lack of geographical overlap between oil and geothermal development, and therefore lack of common expertise in such things as local geology and applicable mineral rights or subsurface water regulations.

    It's also very different in terms of what's done after the well has been drilled. Here I mean the well completion technology, and the conversion of a raw resource to a product that can be sold.

    Then there's the issue of profitability. When it comes to capital budgeting, I think most oil companies would look at geothermal as R&D, and in terms of cash flow such a project is likely to be small relative to other projects in a company's portfolio.

    So unless a company already has the expertise and/or acreage, such a venture really is a step into new territory. Chevron's geothermal operation in California came (I assume) as part of the Unocal takeover. I don't know how Unocal got into it originally (I do know they had it at least as far back as the mid 1970's), but I wouldn't be surprised if they bought an ongoing operation, as opposed to grass roots development.

  72. “Why doesn't the nuke industry develop plans for one plant, get it approved, and then replicate that plant nationwide?”

    Because the US is not France. One designer, one customer, no choice.

    Whey is there not one auto maker? Clearly GM should give up to Ford or or vise versa. Clearly Chevron should give up to Shell.

    First, the nuke industry is not one company. After TMI, the industry learned to share experience. Being world class is good when the industry is judged by the worst performer.

    Second, there was no demand for new nukes in the US. The US enjoys world leadership but no longer has domination which resulted in the French and Japanese buying/partnering with US companies.

    Then something unexpected happened. The Chinese economy grew so fast that they could not longer flood the world coal market with cheap slave labor coal. Suddenly, coal was no longer cheaper than nukes in the US. Now there is demand for nukes in the US. There is demand in China, India, South Africa, you name it. However, if you can not get your design certified in the US the world market may be smaller.

    So now there are 4 companies with designs being certified by the NRC. The NRC is not obstructing anything that I can tell, it just takes time. Then each company can replicate the design as many times as customer want.

    So the basic problem was that nobody saw China coming.

  73. RR, thanks for responding to my question about Amory Lovins. I did read the links you quoted. I just came across this "… a 2003 MIT study found new U.S. nuclear plants couldn’t compete with new coal- or gas-fired plants. Over the next five years, nuclear construction costs about tripled." Lovins in Grist.

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