Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is energy independence a reality?

Energy independence is a hot topic these days. Conversations about alternative energy are commonplace, as are beliefs that technological innovation will ultimately save the day when it comes to reliance on oil, and in particular, foreign oil. Texas billionaire, T. Boone Pickens, has put up significant amounts of his own money touting his belief that wind and natural gas is how we wean ourselves from the vestiges of foreign petroleum. Additionally, the recent presidential horserace was rife with politicians weighing in on the need for America to become independent of foreign oil, and the geopolitical ramifications of said dependence.

Good books and good writing often finds a way to cut through the commonplace, and takes us to places away from the chattering masses. Robert Bryce, in his latest book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence," does just that. Taking the position that energy independence is a myth at best, and that ethanol, wind, and even solar, can’t provide for our ever-increasing needs for electricity and other accoutrements making our American way of life possible, Bryce isn’t afraid to swim against the popular current of information that oversimplifies the issue.

Bryce is no Johnny-come-lately to energy, as his first two books, Pipe Dreams, and Cronies laid the foundation for this one. Sadly, there aren’t enough writers like Bryce selling books today that dare to tell the emperor that he’s not wearing any clothes.

The concept of energy independence isn’t a new one. Then President Nixon vowed that America would be energy independent in six years. This was in 1974, during his January State of the Union address. A year later, with Nixon departed in disgrace, his replacement, President Ford, claimed it could be done in decade. Jimmy Carter warned that the world’s oil supply would run out in a decade. This was back in 1977.

The introduction to the book, called “The Persistent Delusion,” lists a who’s who of American’s across a variety of spectrums of public life, from policymakers, to actors like Robert Redford, as well as media types, who’ve used the rhetoric of “energy independence,” to the point that it’s a cultural belief on the part of most Americans, even though few know what this really means.

From the book,

“The appeal of this vision of energy autarky has grown dramatically since the terrorist attacks of September 11. That can be seen through an analysis of news stories that contain the phrase “energy independence.” In 2000, the Factiva news database had just 449 stories containing that phrase. In 2001, there were 1,118 stories. By 2006, that number had soared to 8,069.”

Obviously, journalists like the topic and are writing about it, even though they may lack any substantive evidence to support their efforts. In their parlance, all foreign oil is bad.

This is particularly true of Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, and author of several books, including what became the bible for most business people two years ago, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, at least it was a book that they loved to make reference to.

Bryce doesn’t like Friedman too much, at least his ideas and concepts on energy. First, he takes him to task for supporting the oil-causes-terrorism theory, which is also the position held by groups like The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and their Set America Free manifesto that propagates that idea. Along with Friedman, they believe America’s best weapon against terrorism is to decrease U.S. dependency on foreign oil—if it was only that simple.

Second, Bryce exhibits a healthy amount of skepticism towards the promotion of policies oriented towards wind that Friedman supports. Similar to Pickens, Friedman holds the belief that building a national electricity grid from the Dakotas to Texas to harness the power of the wind where it’s produced and transporting it via large transmission lines to the population centers where it’s most needed (according to Friedman, urban areas like his own NYC), will dramatically reduce our need to import foreign oil. Next, according to Friedman, the wind power can then be used to power electric cars. He posits that all of this will mean dramatic reductions in CO2 emissions.

The issue that Bryce has with wind is its unreliability—the wind only blows at certain times. He makes the point that wind advocates regularly talk about megawatts, which details generating capacity. Bryce makes the point that kilowatts are the key measurement that should be focused on, as when that is analyzed, we see that the comparison to other sources of electricity production—nuclear and coal-fired power plants—illustrates that scale shows that wind may not be the savior that Friedman, Pickens, and some in Maine think that it may be.

Going on to make strong points about how few Americans understand the rules of the energy game, and the science behind it, Bryce makes the case that they become pawns in the game, easily duped by politicians, environmental advocates, and others that stand to gain from wind’s development.

Bryce saves his greatest scorn for ethanol, calling it a scam in chapter 12.

I recall during the early days of the 2008 presidential race, President-elect Obama was trekking across the Midwest with a fleet of ethanol-powered cars. I’m sure this was around the time of the Iowa caucus, if my memory serves me right.

Bryce makes the case that the passion that many have for ethanol borders on “religious fervor,” and that those that hold a belief in its efficacy also consider it to be “morally better than oil.” This kind of advocacy is dangerous, in my opinion, and Bryce certainly makes the case that this is so, and that it leads bad policies, like Maine’s current 10 percent ethanol mix in our gasoline, which leads to a significant decrease in vehicle fuel efficiency. If you track your gas mileage, like I do, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Spending a good portion of the book showing why independence is impossible, and that the issue is really, interdependence, Bryce’s book is a worthwhile read for anyone who cares to cut through the fog of myths and get to the crux of the issues about energy. A definite must read, in my opinion.

For those who view book reading with trepidation, particularly nonfiction, Gusher of Lies is a very readable book. Excluding footnotes and the appendix, GoL checks in at less than 300 pages, which isn’t bad for the amount of usable information that you’ll take away from spending time with the book. I read it in a weekend, and Bryce does a good job of breaking the book up into bite-sized bits, as many of the 22 chapters are less than 10 pages each, which allow you to read portions here and there and not lose the main thread, which is a real plus.

It was released earlier this year, so I’m hoping that politicians and policymakers put it on their reading list for early 2009.

In closing, I want to make a couple of points on my own, particularly as they apply to workforce issues.

There has been quite a bit of talk and discussion about green jobs and developing an economy tied to alternative energy. I’ve put up several posts here, myself. I am as big a champion of this as anyone. Having said that, I think it’s important to separate the myths between what’s real and attainable, particularly for a rural state like Maine, and the “pie in the sky” kind of talk that politicians and some policymakers are known for—much sound and fury, signifying nothing. The latter is not anything I’m interested in.

On that point, I think our workforce board in Central/Western Maine is pursing this matter systematically, beginning slow, building upon an evidential approach. I hope to have more to report on this in 2009, as I think there is legitimate potential for opportunities tied to efficiency, and boosting occupations that are linked to skilled trades.


JohnO said...

Skeptics also said that man could never fly, the sound barrier could not be broken and that mankind would never reach the moon. In retrospect, would you favor not attempting those endeavors as well?

DC Palmer said...

Bryce has some good points, especially concerning the difficulty of conservation. Bryce's point is that efficiency leads to even higher consumption as people become wealthier. While America cannot cut itself off from the world, that is no reason to cancel deploying wind and solar to reduce our over-dependence on foreign energy. There is a lot more we can and should do. Pickens Plan has some excellent ideas, especially converting trucks to run on natural gas. That part is fairly easy and will save us from exporting so many of our dollars. Repower America has some terrific ideas as well.

Anonymous said...

As stated in the article, many write about it but few understand it. We will run out of oil foreign or not. In the mean time as demand rises it will become very expensive. Whether previous Presidents were right about the timing is's going to happen. Crank it all up....Wind...Solar...Nuclear..Bio-fuels. Whatever we can. NOW!!!!