23 February 2009

Alternative Energy: Cut-throat Industry, Stimulus Beneficiary?

My previous entry delved into the debate surrounding the production of electricity by coal plants, highlighting some of the difficulties in shifting away from this method and advocating cleaner methods of energy production like solar and wind power. I also touched briefly on newly inaugurated President Obama’s possible move later this year to tax the coal industry in order to accelerate the U.S.’s transition to a greener economy. A corollary to this possibility is the question of how much the stimulus package Obama (see left) so vigorously promoted will assist the emerging clean energy industry-a question raised in a recent blog post by Kate Galbraith, a New York Times’ Green Inc. blog writer who previously worked as a correspondent for The Economist. Finding Galbraith’s post both insightful as well as relevant to the topic of my blog, I have taken time to read and comment upon it at the New York Times’ website, expressing my hope and excitement that the silver lining of the economy cloud may be the green industry’s potential to flourish. The other post I will consider here (originally published by The New American but cited by Eric Leech at TreeHugger) addresses safety issues of nuclear power, suggesting that nuclear plants are much safer and have a better record than solar or wind power in terms of accidents and deaths. I feel that this topic is an interesting one when considering the future of the energy economy, especially since new government funding means new lobbying for this assistance. These two posts have generated much discussion at their respective sites-the nuclear vs. solar/wind energy post especially so. In order to frame my comments to these posts, the reader may examine them at their original sites, to which I have linked. I have also copied them below to circumvent any technical difficulties.

"Will the Stimulus Help Wind and Solar?"

It is clear that Americans will prove to be rather polarized on an issue like renewable energy and its subsidization during the economic downturn (see: this post’s comments). This is a logical response, considering that an economy like the one the U.S. is experiencing is, by nature, frightening to both investors and individual consumers. For this reason, alternative energy’s needs as a fledgling industry may be at quite a disadvantage. Therefore, there are some facets of green energy’s investment climate (no pun intended) that I would like to address.

First, I would like to point out that those who are considering investments in the green energy industry are still most likely looking at a long term benefits picture despite the years of extreme growth that the industry experienced before the recession hit. The statements you have made regarding the stimulus package’s inability to produce an immediate rebound for companies like Renewable Energy Systems Americas are significant: I have serious doubts that any developments (short of every American suddenly feeling financially secure and spending vast amounts of their savings) in the near future will produce a macroeconomic miracle. Thus, it is important for any potential investor to realize the concrete benefits green energy industries are receiving through the stimulus package, yet not expect too much, if we have any hopes of giving companies like Mr. Kruse’s the capital they need to move forward with these technologies.

Second, and more succinctly, I would like to voice my optimism for the prospects of alternative energy in general. Jack Lesard raised an important point when he assured another commenter that coal is also subsidized; the notion that we are subsidizing an “expensive” industry is absurd, as our government does indeed have “Big Energy” in mind, and whether that means solar, wind, nuclear, or coal is pretty much irrelevant, considering that many of these industries are mixed. For many reasons, I feel that alternative energy gives America an opportunity to create jobs when they are desperately needed as well as allows us to secure a cleaner future for our children. I would appreciate any opinions you (or other posters) might have regarding alternative energy’s ability (or inability) to help the U.S. out of its economic rut.

"Wind vs. Nuclear Energy: Wind Power Deemed Far More Dangerous"

The article you have cited here seems to reek of interest group mentality-something you appear to have noticed as you dub those involved “spin-mysters.” I appreciate your bringing this article to the TreeHugger community so it may be discussed by an audience other than The New American’s.

It has been widely addressed in the comments prior to mine that the statistics gathered by the original article are skewed and inaccurate, and this is important to realize. As the first poster pointed out, The New American (see below right) is an affiliate of the John Birch Society, and following a few easy-to-find links informs us that this organization endorses continued development of coal power as well as increased harvesting in Alaska. Thus, as an affiliate of the John Birch Society, The New American is hardly looking to publish articles praising alternative energies like wind and solar. I am sure we could find alarming statistics about nuclear and coal power if we were to read a report done by an affiliate of Greenpeace, and in fact, I would welcome any such statistics you or those that have commented might be able to offer. The point, though, is that we must really consider these findings with a grain of salt.

To conclude my comment, I will offer my own opinion on the matter. It appears to me that, just like any other emerging market, the alternative energy industry will be characterized by different companies (solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal) competing for investors and government subsidies, and these companies will undoubtedly publish negative findings about other sources in order to secure these benefits for themselves (and I thought we had just left the election behind). However, if there is anything that I have learned about the future of alternative energy, it is that it cannot be perfectly focused. If we are going to devote ourselves to a cleaner future, we must realize the risks and deficiencies of each source, whether these manifest themselves as a nuclear meltdown or simple noise pollution. Thus, it is my opinion that we need not make the alternative energy industry a zero-sum game; every new source has its benefits and its drawbacks and we must produce a comprehensive plan for it to work.

18 February 2009

Kicking Our Coal Habit: America's Clean Energy Hurdle

While the notion that global warming is caused or at least accelerated by human actions was initially greeted by skepticism, the politicization and popularization of the issue by individuals like Al Gore has led to what may be considered a general acceptance that something must be done to slow down the process. As a result, transnational interest groups and domestic lobbyists have been pressuring governments to fund research for and encourage the development of alternative energy sources in order to minimize the impact humans have on the environment. Surely, any doubts that efficiency has reached the forefront of American concerns can be quelled by a sampling of current automobile commercials, as the majority of them highlight any upgrades in the miles-per-gallon statistics of their models. The discussion on renewable energy is not limited to the elimination of gasoline usage in cars, however, and it is important to explore other realms as well. A case in point was portrayed in a recent New York Times article that examines one of the American energy program’s biggest problems: the use of coal as a source of electricity. The article opens with and spends a large amount of time detailing the story of James Rogers, the chief executive of Charlotte, North Carolina based Duke Energy, who repeatedly finds himself the victim of environmental protests. This is not a surprising fact, however, considering the evidence the article provides: when combining several of Duke's solar energy endeavors with some of its wind power projects we see the production of 124 megawatts of electricity, while just one of its new coal plants will produce 800 megawatts. At first glance, this statistic may cause some to believe that coal energy is more efficient and thus should not be phased out of use. True enough, coal energy is traditionally very cheap to produce and the article’s appropriate title asks, “Is America ready to quit coal?” This is an important question to ask and it is my opinion that America is indeed up to the task.

The movement away from coal power will most likely heat up as the Obama administration settles in. For now, though, allow me to consider the difficulties and benefits of migrating to cleaner sources of energy. The New York Times article presents several reasons to support both sides of the debate and serves as a good jumping off point for a more thorough examination of the evidence. On the coal producers’ team are those who point out that some states depend more heavily on this type of power than others, and say that these states will therefore feel more of an economic burden. Their tendency to use coal is due to these plants' cheapness and easy construction, which gives them an obvious advantage over alternative energy plants that must be built in conjunction with one another to produce the same amount of electricity. This inherent difficulty is compounded by the economic difficulties being confronted in America—it is hard for citizens to find themselves in a position to pay more for electricity when they are trying to cut costs and balance their accounts. In fact, the commodity has become so expensive for some consumers that there has been an increase in the sale of coal furnaces (see above left) used to heat homes—an alternative to buying electricity from utility companies. Still others believe that the changeover to clean energy will not be as easy as its proponents say, complaining that the many types available will not be as reliable, which is not a new argument by any stretch of the imagination: one of the classic critiques of the alternative energy industry is that solar panels cannot produce power during bad weather, likewise with wind turbines where it is not windy. Thus, the argument concludes, any attempt to rely solely on methods such as these will result in failure. Additionally, the Times article explains that new infrastructure could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and investment in emerging technologies will require even more funding. In the end, many coal producers find themselves holding out for “clean coal,” and a campaign to pursue this idea has been launched alongside a commercial supporting coal’s image.

These reasons, however, do not convince me that coal is the way of the future. Soon after the release of the clean coal commercial, activist groups joined the fight with their own commercials, and campaigns like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s and This is Reality (see below) debunk the myth that coal can ever be clean. The attack on the reliability of alternative energy is unfounded as well, as strategies pairing energy storage with limited natural gas power conquer this concern. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can continue using fundamentally unclean methods of energy production when there is much opportunity in the field of green technology. A report by the Worldwatch Institute, for example, explains that over 400,000 people are employed by the wind power industry alone, and that governments around the world are using the transition to green energy as a way to create jobs. Surely, Obama’s intention to encourage employment opportunities in order to stem the economic downturn can be supplemented by the beginning of such an effort, and the Times article seems to point to his support of discontinuing coal power production by referencing the possibility of additional fees for these plants later this year. It is true that many alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy will require additional funding well into the future, but donations like one made by Google point to the willingness of American companies to fund this type of research. Additionally, any semblance of clean coal, which so far has been accomplished through a “capture and store” method, could double the price of the electricity produced. If we are attempting to clean up our emissions, why should we waste our time building more coal plants that will never truly produce clean energy? Not only are we denying ourselves plenty of new jobs and more electricity, but with the production of alternative energy plants we would be buying the unquantifiable commodity of a cleaner atmosphere for the future. We must not believe the clean coal commercials funded by executives at the head of companies responsible for one-third of America’s emissions, and instead of installing coal furnaces at home we should continue to think of more creative ways to prepare our homes for energy’s future. It is in America's best interest to prepare for the move away from coal.

09 February 2009

Alternative Energy: A Discovery of the Web's Resources

As a new participant in the blogosphere, and as a scholar interested in environmental issues, I hope to create a blog that will contain information relevant to the field of alternative energy. With this in mind and as a responsible blogger, I felt it necessary to provide a set of links for visitors to explore so they may conduct further research in this field. To facilitate my search for these resources, I used web directories like USA.gov and the Internet Public Library as well as blog search engines like the one at Technorati. The results may be perused via the linkroll (see right), which lists a number of sites that I feel are valuable when considering the environment and/or alternative energy. Some of the links, like the BBC's Green Room, are news sites that publish articles about the environment and alternative energy in general, while others point to particular environmental NGOs or specific alternative energy programs. There are also a few blogs in the linkroll, such as TreeHugger (see below) - a popular green blog that offers advice on "how to go green" in everyday life as well as a plethora of green topics to browse through. To ensure the quality of these links, I followed the guidelines provided by the Webby Awards and the IMSA for websites and blogs, respectively. Thus, the websites I selected meet or exceed the Webby Awards' standards for content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, interactivity, authority, and overall experience. The World Energy Council, for example, is an informative website for those wishing to research international efforts to promote sustainable energy. Its effective organization and provision of official WEC documents give it a functional and helpful interface; it even provides documents in three additional languages. An examination of TreeHugger will show that the blogs in the linkroll follow the IMSA guidelines. TreeHugger's affiliation with Discovery Communications makes its authors credible, while its addition of "over 30 posts each day" ensures that it is current and active. Its visual design alone is stunning, and the ability to jump to the next post so that it fits the user's screen perfectly makes TreeHugger all the more enjoyable to read. The IMSA guidelines' concern about a blog's influence is also satiated by the fact that TreeHugger has over 60,000 subscribers and undoubtedly many more casual viewers. Additionally, the blog covers a wide range of topics in its postings, from green artwork to garbage-powered garbage trucks. In sum, I have applied the standards referenced in this post to each item in the linkroll, and though I hope that visitors to The Windmill will find my postings informative and interesting, I also feel that the links I have included will provide additional helpful resources for those wishing to look further into alternative energy.
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